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Excerpts from Ray Carney's review of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.

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In this era of budgetary belt-tightening and university press downsizing, The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism is a surprisingly ambitious undertaking. Many years in the planning and execution, drawing on the financial support of two major institutions (the Johns Hopkins Press and the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism at the University of Western Ontario), the advice of scores of academics, and the writing of two hundred and one scholars, it aspires to be nothing less than an overview of all of literary criticism in all cultures and times (with an understandable emphasis on the developments of the present century). The result is a massive, double-columned Yellow Pages of lit crit. If it falls alphabetically between Abrams and Zola, historically between Plato and postmodernism, intellectually between Aristotle and feminism, or geographically between Japanese Theory and Criticism and Caribbean, you'll find it here.

One of the problems with a work from many hands, however, is the inevitable unevenness of the result. While some of the entries are superb (Richard Macksey on Longinus; Richard Shusterman on John Dewey and Richard Rorty; Martin Kreiswirth on Henry James), many are merely pedestrian (J. Douglas Kneale on Wordsworth), and a few downright embarrassing (Vicki Mahaffey on Modernist Theory and Criticism). While some of the contributors bracingly point out the strengths as well as the problem areas within their subjects, too many others function merely as cheerleaders (Jean-Michel Rabate on Derrida and Barthes) or as nags (Walter Kalaidjian's grousing about Susan Sontag's insufficient attention to "the representation of gender, race, and class").

Furthermore, a work created by committee is almost guaranteed to be subjected to the by now all too familiar compromises of contemporary academic consensus building: token Affirmative Action gestures to include as many representatives of sexual, social, and cultural fringe groups and minorities as possible; obligatory coverage of "name" academics (in this case, Canadian and American ones) who themselves serve as advisors and consultants and whose good will needs to be secured for the project to go forward; and a general over-emphasis on trendy movements, issues, and figures at the expense of the more enduring, more tried-and-true. As much as on Entertainment Tonight, what's hot forces out what's not. The Johns Hopkins Guide tells a reader as much about who's in and who's out on North American college campuses (and who's on the A-list and who's not at editorial board meetings) as it does about what will still matter in fifty or a hundred years. That explains some of the more eccentric editorial choices: the fact that space is devoted to extended, individual articles on Australian Theory and Criticism, M.H. Abrams, W.H. Auden, Canadian Theory and Criticism, Film Theory, Margaret Fuller, RenÈ Girard, Thomas Kuhn, Lesbian Theory and Criticism, J. Hillis Miller, Charles Sanders Peirce, Adrienne Rich, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Madame de Stael, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and Mary Wollstonecraft, but that there are no entries on Louis Althusser, Leo Bersani, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas De Quincy, Denis Donaghue, Terry Eagleton, Max Horkheimer, William James, Randall Jarrell, Frank Kermode, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Richard Poirier, Pragmatism, A.W. Schlegel, F.C.S. Schiller, John Searle, George Bernard Shaw, or Constantin Stanislavski. Who says academics aren't fashion conscious?

But these are quibbles. A tendentious, rebarbative, or slipshod entry, an advisory board vote-buying inclusion or exclusion the more or the less doesn't ultimately matter. What is most disturbing about The Johns Hopkins Guide is not its superficial eccentricity and unevenness, but, at a deeper level, its frightening uniformity. Approximately half of the volume is devoted to twentieth-century critics and critical theories, and in entry after entry (with only the fewest of exceptions) there is a near unanimity of critical values, assumptions, and methods. Notwithstanding the lip-service paid to "diversity," "otherness," and "heterogeneity," and the unending genuflections in the direction of resisting "hegemonic" and "dominant" forms of discourse, it is clear that almost everyone (both those written about and those doing the writing) worships at the same church. The God of this congregation is named Marx; its saints are Nietzsche, Freud, and Saussure; its high priests are Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault; its ceremonies are called Marxism, structuralism, hermeneutics, deconstruction, and cultural studies; and its sacred words are ideology, gender, class, and race.

The conception of art that runs through the various articles is depressingly consistent. "Texts" are treated as being more or less direct emanations of the social "contexts" that surround them. The critic's job consists of explicating the work's historical, ideological, and sociological origins and consequences. Literary criticism, in effect, becomes indistinguishable from the body of exegetical practices we call the social sciences. (Practically speaking, it's not surprising that English Department enrollments should decline under this dispensation, since their duties can just as well be performed by departments of history, sociology, economics, political science, psychology, and gender studies--as in some of our universities they obviously are being performed.)

There are at least two things wrong with this picture. First, it treats experience as if it could exist without individuals. It imagines it to be something in the air, something undergone by a group. It forgets that all experience is experienced by a particular person at one particular place, time, and state of awareness, and is therefore utterly personal and distinctive. Second, it similarly treats expression as if it were a general cultural product. It overlooks the absolute singularity of all important literary and artistic texts. It ignores the fact that a work of art is something momentarily wrestled into existence--personally, precariously, irreplaceably. In a word, the structuralists, the formalists, the Marxists, the gender theorists, and the cultural studies types treat experience and expression as if they were impersonal, generic, and representative--as if a culture produced them the way it produces other commodities--cars or TV commercials--by means of a set of general rules and generalized practices disconnected from the eccentricity and specificity of individual feelings and visions.

In this respect, the Marxist bemoaners of "capitalistic commodification" are themselves practitioners of techniques of "artistic commodification." They depersonalize and despiritualize the work of art as thoroughly as John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford depersonalized and despiritualized the work of nineteenth-century craftsmen. But if there is one thing that literature (and indeed all art) shows us, it is that the most important experiences and most valuable expressions are absolutely personal and distinctive or they are nothing. Their uniqueness makes for their preciousness. They do not come off an assembly line.

Ideological critics ignore the power of authors (and readers) to swerve away from--to creatively inflect--the structures of knowledge and understanding into which they are born. Under the ideological, "new historical," or cultural studies approaches, Shakespeare's writing is reduced to being a manifestation of Elizabethan structurings of power and knowledge, when in fact the wonder and importance of his work begin where such explanations of it end. Of course, some aspects of any work of art are socially and politically conditioned; but to the extent that it is a vital and important expression, it leaves these general determinants behind. Rembrandt's work will not be confined by seventeenth-century social, cultural, or ideological "understandings." The slippery, sliding clauses of Henry James' work register movements of imagination that are independent of his family background and social upbringing--and in fact subversive of them. These works go beyond the social and ideological forms and structures that inform them. But that "beyond" is precisely where the analyses in The Johns Hopkins Guide are unable or unwilling to go. The volume offers a truly ingenious series of attempts to account for literary events by means of impersonal, systematic, theoretical, and cultural explanations, but what is brought home to a reader over and over again is how the most interesting aspects of each of the literary works and artists dealt with slip through each successive interpretive net. The mystery, the eccentricity, the distinctiveness, the mercurial mystery of individual consciousness eludes the systematizations. That is why the cumulative effect of the volume is so depressing and mind-numbing. In the end, all the theory seems irrelevant, unrelated to the strange, moving, wonderful experience of reading. Amid all of the clever acts of contextualization, almost none of the articles comes within ten miles of what it actually feels like to write or read a particular poem, novel, play, or story. You have to put the book down and pick up "Michael" or "The Altar of the Dead" to remind yourself why literary criticism exists in the first place.

What is almost completely lost sight of is that literature is essentially a different way of knowing from the forms of knowing that philosophy, history, sociology, and cultural studies offer. Indeed, it might be argued that literature figures what will never be known in those ways. Sociological, historical, and philosophical knowledge is direct, clear, and abstract. It offers general truths and insights independent of personal points of view, sensory particularities, and emotional inflections. Literary knowledge, in contrast, exists always and only in particular spaces, times, and bodies. It is not final or ultimate, but emergent and shifting--continuously adjusted and revised. It bristles with prickly sensory particularity. It is humanized and bent by voice tones and emotional overtones. It exists only in specific, local, unrepeatable forms: in the obliquities of particular words and the convolutions of specific syntactic shapes.

In fact, it might be argued that literary knowledge is not knowledge at all in the sociological, historical, or philosophical sense of the word--but something more like experience (since reading a novel is more like having an unusually complex and stimulating life experience than like encountering an argument in a sociology or philosophy text). While sociology, history, and philosophy bring clear and definite ideas into existence, literature seems devoted to the cultivation of what might be called unclear, uncertain, unresolved ideas. Literature frustrates the search for simple or general forms of understanding. It destabilizes definite meanings. When meaning does occur in literature, more often than not it is meaning pitted against meaning, new meaning moving away from old meaning. The meanings that emerge are entirely different from ideological and social forms of understanding because they are not static but on the move. They are temporal; they don't stand still. They slip and slide as we work though the text, constantly being revised, re-adjusted, changing.

I intend nothing terribly profound with the preceding observations. I am simply summarizing a few of the most basic qualities of literary experience. Yet, as astonishing as it may sound, one can read from cover to cover in The Johns Hopkins Guide and find almost no acknowledgment of these obvious realities. (Off the top of my head, I can't remember a single reference in the entire volume to voice, tone, sensory events, sound effects, emotions, the eccentricity of style, the uniqueness of authorial performances, the obliquities of syntax, or the time it takes to read a poem or a novel.) The overwhelming majority of the twentieth-century critics featured in the entries (and the critics writing them) treat literature as if there were no difference between its ways of knowing and historical, philosophical, or political ways of knowing. In effect, these critics deny literary works the opportunity to offer forms of knowledge different from their own personally preferred sociological ones. They treat literature (and the act of explicating it) as if a text could simply be translated into a series of historical or ideological generalizations--but fail to realize that, in that translation, almost everything that makes it literature is lost.

Now, one of the critical positions that figures prominently in The Johns Hopkins Guide, the Derridean deconstructive stance, is an apparent exception to these comments, since Derrida and his followers obviously have a more complex view of language than most ideological critics do. Deconstructionists understand that language is less like a transparent piece of glass though which underpinning historical, social, or political structures may be viewed, than it is like a lens that inevitably distorts, colors, and filters what it transmits. But where the Derridean position and the ideological and social readings join hands is embodying what Paul Ricoeur called the hermeneutics of suspicion. As different as they may be in other respects, the Marxists and the Derrideans, the feminists and the formalists, the new historians and the structuralists are all engaged in a fundamentally debunking project. They want to unmask the text, to demystify, to demythologize it. (With a utopianism touchingly American in its naivetÈ, many of them seem to hope to break mankind free of literature's spells and seductions by revealing language's deceits.) The important point is that they are all skeptics, and their skepticism commits them to a strategy of unremitting textual resistance. They hold themselves outside of the text and fight its emotional blandishments. They resist its intellectual designs by executing their own counterdesigns upon it. They must master it to prevent being mastered by it.

Ricoeur had a name for the alternative position. He called it the hermeneutics of faith, taking his metaphor from the great tradition of biblical study and exegesis. In this tradition, rather than debunking the text and resisting its language by imposing the critic's language upon it, the critic allows the text its own unique and alien way of speaking, and, as hard as it may be, attempts to bring himself, through demanding intellectual and emotional discipline, into relationship with it. As the biblical resonances suggest, the hermeneutics of faith asks far more of the critic than the hermeneutics of suspicion does. The critic in quest of alien revelation cannot hold himself safely above or outside the text, superior to it, but must dive into it and make himself vulnerable to it, entering into an intimate encounter with a difficult and potentially disorienting experience. He must attempt the impossible: as much as he can, emptying himself out and giving up his own ways of understanding in order to allow the text to inhabit him and teach him entirely different forms of knowing. He must expose himself to the true otherness of genuinely foreign points of view and unfamiliar ways of seeing and feeling. He must risk becoming temporarily or permanently lost in a wilderness of unformulated experience.

All of that obviously requires of the critic not only personal humility, but specific practical skills--namely, the capacity to negotiate an incredibly complex verbal experience without taking refuge in inherited emotional or cognitive formulas of response--that are far from common even among "traditional" English Department faculty. It is always easier to be a scoffer, a debunker, a skeptic, than to open oneself to unfamiliar insights. It is always easier to resist an experience, to hold oneself above it, than to put one's certainties at risk by deeply yielding oneself to it. There are twentieth-century critics who practice the hermeneutics of faith, but for obvious reasons they do not get as much attention as the other sort of critics. They are not system builders. They are not generalizers. Their work does not make self-aggrandizing claims about literature's complicity with repressive systems of race, class, and gender. They do not offer comforting, utopian prospects of escape from those systems through projects of literary and critical cleansing. What they do offer, in fact, is not what most people want: an unending course of work, conducted through arduous acts of sustained attention, without the promise of grandiose ideological insights and sociological generalizations at the end of the road. The faithful critic does not demystify texts, but reveals their unfathomable mysteries. He or she does not show us the limitations of works of art, but returns us to an appreciation of the inexplicable wonder and boundless complexity of artistic consciousness. For all of these reasons, the discipline these critics practice is not now in fashion, never has been, and probably never will be. You will not find many of their names or more than a passing appreciation of their achievements in this volume.

--Excerpted from "A Yellow Pages of Criticism" (a review of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Edited by Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth), Partisan Review, Volume 62, number 1 (Winter 1995), pages 138-143.

To read more about fads and fashions in academic criticism, click on "Multicultural Unawareness" in the Carney on Culture section, the essays "Sargent and Criticism" and "Eakins and Criticism" in the Paintings section, "Day of Wrath: A Parable for Critics" in the Carl Dreyer section, "Capra and Criticism" in the Frank Capra section, and all of the other pieces in this section.

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To obtain the complete text as well as the complete texts of many pieces that are not included on the web site, click here.