Beyond Essentialism (1)

By Jang, Gyung-ryul | Studies in the Humanities, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Beyond Essentialism (1)

Jang, Gyung-ryul, Studies in the Humanities

I am not inclined to grant self-knowledge any kind of immunity from criticism by others, including criticisms which depend on offering rival explanations.--Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History


Criticism, in a wider sense of the word, refers to any activity in which one situates oneself in face of crisis and thereby modifies one's own self or position. Note, in this regard, that the words, "criticism" and "crisis," are etymologically of the same Greek origin. Hence, what is ultimately at stake while we are coping with any given situation would be, as Rene Wellek says, "a self-criticism, an introspection, an examination of one's feelings" (129). The same would be applied to literary criticism, one of the most significant human critical activities. More to the point, even in the case of literary criticism, what matters after all is the act of self-criticism or introspection which critics should undergo in face of crisis. Thus, as Paul de Man argues in Blindness and Insight, though literary criticism assumes the role of "observation and interpretation of others," it should be "always also a means of leading to the observation of the self" (9). For this reason, we would above all ask the following ques tion d la de Man with regard to literary criticism: "Is criticism indeed engaged in scrutinizing itself to the point of reflecting on its own origin?" (BI, 8).

Modern literary critics or theorists, however, are notoriously slow in scrutinizing their ideas or theories to the point of reflecting on their own origin. I believe what we would call essentialism or the essentialist turn of mind is to blame for it. By essentialism or the essentialist turn of mind, we simply mean a theoretical tendency which is, as defined in Webster's Third New International Dictionary, "subscribing to the idea that metaphysical essences really subsist and are intuitively accessible." Indeed, modern criticism may well be characterized by an essentialist tendency to pursue what is believed to be objective or authentic meaning. We might even say that, wherever there is an attempt at critical understanding of a given literary text, there is also a blind flight toward the dream of critical objectivity. And at one center of controversy was the American New Critics, whose theoretics of intuition led them to argue that one could be possibly free from any personal, social, or historical experience that might blur one's s vision, and that they could possibly get access to the objective meaning that language could possibly convey. They were naive in the sense that they believed that the objectivist dream would come true if we could limit our concern to the purely linguistic level of literary works.

Various attempts have been made to overcome such naivete. One classical example of such an attempt would be de Man's: by assuming the disparity between sign and meaning, de Man appeared as if he could overcome essentialism. More to the point, de Man thought that he could avoid the New Critical fate by positing the theory of language based on the concept of temporal difference, and by advancing the notion of temporality which keeps man off forever from the a-temporal, stable world of linguistic objectivity. And yet, by "assum[ing] the privileged position of a writer in possession of truth," as Frank Lentricchia points out (293), or by unconsciously committing himself to the Derridean pursuit of "the original inscription" traceable in language, he tried in vain to overcome the New Critical illusion of critical objectivity. Here I would note the following argument by Derrida: "Although metaphysical metaphor has turned every meaning upside down, although it has also effaced piles of physical treatises, one ought always to be able to reconstitute the original inscription and restore the palimpsest" (10).

I note also, as a case in point, de Man's reading of Wordsworth and Rousseau in 'The Rhetoric of Temporality": he acts as if his own language were unconditionally privileged, and thus immune to whatever problems are caused by the temporality of language. …

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