Armistice in the Recent Battle of the Books: Paul De Man, Claudio Guillen, and History

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Some Distinctions

In the past few years, studies of English literature have undergone great changes in the English-reading world, changes differing somewhat in pace and direction in (for example) North America and Great Britain, in Australia, India, and Japan. Changes in literary studies are not identical with changes in literature. Nothing in English studies, however, compares with the shift from oral to scriptive literature or from the classical to modern in Japan and Korea. The recent (ca. century-old) teaching of vernacular literature, coeducation, and introduction of computer concordances has drastically altered literary study and its interpretation - changing its users while affecting its authors but little. Other changes affect both literature and its study, albeit differently: the burning of the library at Alexandria, inventions at various places and times of the codex and of printing, recovery of the Boswell and Reizei papers, etc.

The changes addressed in this account are those of literary study, particularly those denying or affirming "history," a word which, cried out in the crowded theater of the critics, no longer is assumed to endanger public safety or to violate the pure of theoretic mind with obscenity. Quite the contrary. We are now being reassured that various people who had assumed that thoughts of history would not violate their immaculacy were greatly concerned with the matter. The change has been a wonder, and one is tempted to say we have witnessed a defining moment.

Defining moments (Kuhnian paradigm shifts) are as rare, however, in literary as in other studies. Moreover, however old-fangled it seemed judged by Parisian fashions in the summer of theory's content, historical study really was the mainstream of practice. So let us reduce the claim for change from a defining to a symbolic moment - a time when things seem to have changed, a decisive point to have been reached, and the terms of operation to be altered. And in the spirit of Clio, let us consider this symbolic moment by setting its occurrence after an earlier one.

The earlier moment may be assigned the name of Noam Chomsky. At least, one of us feels that the syntactic sage marked a major shift in the convictions of intellectuals in the USA: to the assumption that a general theory of some large subject was both possible and desirable. It matters little that philosophically trained linguists may think Montague grammar superior to Chomsky's account. It matters even less that we paid for our discovery at that moment with some years of remarkably silly writing about surface and deep structures in literature. The fact is that we changed. Most of us relinquished our Anglo-Saxon suspicion of explicit theory, taking on a more European interest in it. In itself, the "Chomsky premise" was neither historical nor antihistorical. If we asked what led to Chomsky (is he or is he not a Cartesian?), what alternatives there had been and were to his conception, then it was one thing.

If all depended on a purely structural coexistence of the deep and the surface, then it was another. Saussure, we came to learn, propounded a strictly synchronic semiotics of language; and, as "the linguistic turn" continued, critical thinking began to shift radically from a then advance guard of phenomenology to varieties of Structuralism (proto-, plain, and post-). Then came an obituary of the author. Never mind that the funeral oration was pronounced by a prolific, signing author. Never mind that critics increasingly required the author figure to convict of their own unoriginal sin. Never mind that people were repeating things they failed to understand. Never mind the facile illogicality of the three-word determination on which so much depended: Language is indeterminate. But unite these with kindred trivialities and you have reason for change sufficient for another symbolic moment.

The Chomsky premise became an axiom assumed rather than remembered in celebration of "the death of the author," who - and this is rather a curiosity - was held (at least when male) to be felonious. …