"Forgetting is a highly erotic experience"

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Over the last couple of days, I read Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem The Triumph of Life, and Paul de Man's essay "Shelley Disfigured", which is presented as a close reading of that poem. The essay quotes extensively from the poem, but its analysis struck me as telling us more about de Man than about Shelley:

Forgetting is a highly erotic experience: it is like glimmering light because it cannot be decided whether it reveals or hides; it is like desire because, like the wolf pursuing the deer, it does violence to what sustains it; it is like a trance or a dream because it is asleep to the very extent that it is conscious and awake, and dead to the extent that it is alive. 

Whether Shelly's or de Man's, these are ideas evoked by highly inferential connections among aspects of the poem's content. Which is fine, except that I was looking for "an examination of the structure of language prior to the meaning it produces".

What provoked this quixotic and ultimately unsuccessful mission?

Last week, Peter Brooks' review of Evelyn Barish's new biography of de Man sparked my curiosity about de Man's essay "The Return to Philology"; and a sentence in that essay puzzled me even more ("What would a 'return to philology' be a return to?", 4/19/2014):

 [I]n practice, the turn to theory occurred as a return to philology, to an examination of the structure of language prior to the meaning it produces.

I was puzzled because I could recall nothing in de Man's "turn to theory" resembling an "examination of the structure of language prior to the meaning it produces".

Omri Ceren suggested that I was trying too hard to find meaning a simple attempt "to hijack the ethos of philology for whatever handwaving he's engaged in" ("Playing philologist at summer camp", 4/20/2014). But William Flesch offered an eloquent if qualified defense of de Man's work as more than mere posturing, pointing "to Nietzsche-as-philologist, and to Nietzsche's philosophical ideas about figurative language". And in response to my request for "one of his works that gives a sense of de Man's value as a literary critic", William kindly provided a half a dozen suggestions, starting with "Shelley disfigured".

In fairness to William, he didn't promise that I'd find any analysis of linguistic structure, just "a great (and intentionally provocative) essay". But still, I was hopeful. And therefore I was disappointed, because there's nothing in de Man's essay about the the structure of Shelley's language — nothing about the poem's phonology, morphology, syntax, rhythm, meter, spelling, punctuation, or whatever. Nothing even about its lexical choices.

The essay does contain some abstract ruminations about structure and content:

The light generates its own shape by means of a mirror, a surface that articulates it without setting up a clear separation that differentiates inside from outside as self is differentiated from other. The self that comes into being in the moment of reflection is, in spatial terms, optical symmetry as the ground of structure, optical repetition as the structural principle that engenders entities as shapes. "Shape all light" is referentially meaningless since light, the necessary condition for shape, is itself, like water, without shape, and acquires shape only when split in the illusion of a doubleness which is not that of self and other.

 To the extent that I can make sense of this, it seems to be transparently false, since (for example) light is clearly not "the necessary condition for shape".

De Man's thoughts about speech and language involve similarly questionable assertions. Thus

 The transition from "gliding" to "trampling" passes, in the action that is being narrated, through the intermediate relay of "measure". The term actively reintroduces music which, after having been stressed in the previous scene (ll. 354-55), is at first only present by analogy in this phase of the action (ll. 359-74). Measure is articulated sound, that is to say language. Language rather than music, in the traditional sense of harmony and melody. 

This is, by the way, misleading as a description of Shelley's poem. The word music appears explicitly in line 369, right in the middle of the "phase of the action" (ll. 359-74) where de Man says that music is "only present by analogy". This music arises in a simile, but the simile is a pretty direct description of the unfolding action. And a song comes out directly in line 375, two lines before the word measure, which doesn't come along until line 377:

367   'As one enamoured is upborne in dream
368   O'er lily-paven lakes, mid silver mist,
369   To wondrous music, so this shape might seem

370   'Partly to tread the waves with feet which kissed
371   The dancing foam; partly to glide along
372   The air which roughened the moist amethyst,

373   'Or the faint morning beams that fell among
374   The trees, or the soft shadows of the trees;
375   And her feet, ever to the ceaseless song

376   'Of leaves, and winds, and waves, and birds, and bees,
377   And falling drops, moved in a measure new
378   Yet sweet,

The only other instance of measure in the poem is back in line 141:

138   The wild dance maddens in the van, and those
139   Who lead it—fleet as shadows on the green,
140   Outspeed the chariot, and without repose

141   Mix with each other in tempestuous measure
142   To savage music, wilder as it grows,

So it would be more accurate to say that music reintroduces measure, rather than the other way around.

But to the current point, it's triply false to say that "Measure is articulated sound, that is to say language. Language rather than music, in the traditional sense of harmony and melody."

Shelley is using measure in the OED's sense

15.a. a. A dance, esp. a grave or stately one; often in to tread a measure .

A "measure", in this sense, is not "articulated sound". "Articulated sound" is not "language" (nor is language articulated sound). And meter and rhythm — what "measure" must mean in music —  are just as central to traditional ideas of music as melody is — and more central than harmony, which is largely an innovation in Western music that has no real counterpart in many other traditions.

Part of what de Man seems to have in mind is the idea that rhythmic repetition, or its metrical organization, is somehow not a normal part of music, but is imported from speech. And he adds some complex (and even less well-supported) ideas about the relationship between "measure" and other aspects of linguistic form and meaning. This is more explicit in his commentary on the poem's next segment:

379 'Up from the lake a shape of golden dew
380 Between two rocks, athwart the rising moon,
381 Dances i'the wind, where never eagle flew;

382 'And still her feet, no less than the sweet tune
383 To which they moved, seemed as they moved to blot
384 The thoughts of him who gazed on them; and soon

385 'All that was, seemed as if it had been not;
386 And all the gazer's mind was strewn beneath
387 Her feet like embers; and she, thought by thought,

388 'Trampled its sparks into the dust of death;

De Man writes about this:

The "tread" of this dancer, which needs a ground to the extent that it carries the weight of gravity, is no longer melodious, but reduces music to the mere measure of repeated articulations. It singles out from music the accentual or tonal punctuation which is also present in spoken diction. The scene could be said to narrate the birth of music out of the spirit of language, since the determining property is an articulation distinctive of verbal sound prior to its signifying function. The thematization of language in The Triumph of Life occurs at this point, when "measure" separates from the phenomenal aspects of signification as a specular representation, and stresses instead the literal and material aspects of language. In the dramatic action of the narrative, measure disrupts the symmetry of cognition as representation (the figure of the rainbow, of the eye and of the sun). But since measure is any principle of linguistic organization, not only as rhyme and meter but as any syntactical or grammatical scansion, one can read "feet" not just as the poetic meter that is so conspicuously evident in the terza rima of the poem, but as any principle of signification. Yet is is precisely these "feet" which extinguish and bury the poetic and philosophical light.

These are pretty poses. An impressive display of philosophical vogueing. But as an account of speech, music, meter, meaning, and their relationships, this incoherent dream-collage of conceptual fragments is truly "asleep to the very extent that it is conscious and awake, and dead to the extent that it is alive".



  1. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 4:59 am

    A lot of Theory seems to consist of "making wild analogies (visual ones or wordplay) all the while pretending that causal reasoning doesn't exist". For those who enjoy making visual connections (such as many poets) or playing with words (such as many poets who aren't visual but prefer jest, verbal banter, and rhyme) and who are also weak in the causal reasoning department, Theory might be a fun activity. For them, those analogies may seem like insight, even though we know there is none.

    "Theory as poetry"? I'm serious.

    To someone who is fond of certain French philosophers I once mentioned that many consider them controversial. (I didn't want be blunt. I didn't want to say outright that I find them lacking in the department of logic and insight. I didn't want to say that a number of people consider them to be frauds.) He replied that he enjoys the "flow" of their prose. "Theory as a meditative activity for those into dreaming along a stream of visual (or other) associations"?

  2. AntC said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 5:49 am

    Reading those passages from De Man (or similar material from Derrida, for that matter), I can't help but feel the author(s) are not native speakers of English. It reads more like a translation.

    (And one of the comments in the Return thread about De Man's use of Philology noted that Nietzsche held a chair thereof.)

    I get a similar queasy feeling reading Deutsche Grammophon sleeve notes (which are usually offered in 3 or 4 European languages). You can tell pretty quickly just from reading the English which language was the original.

    I plain think that de Man's command of English (particularly Romantic poets' English) was limited.

    Perhaps if we translated back to De Man's original thought in Flemish (or French/German), then found a more competent translator to English, we'd get better sense out of it?

    I'm sceptical: deconstructionism always seemed to me an easy out for those not prepared to do the hard yards — in any discipline.

    Declaration of interest: I hold no academic position in any discipline, not unlike the astute lad who called out the Emperor's New Clothes.

  3. AntC said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 6:04 am

    Oops, my remark about Nietsche and Philology didn't come out right [**].

    I meant to suggest that De Man used Philology in the sense that Nietsche held the Chair of; which might be different to its Anglo sense(s).

    [**] wish I could edit these comments.

    [(myl) This is a plausible suggestion but I don't think it's true — as discussed here, the lecture notes for Nietzsche's Philology course at Basel in 1892-93 seem quite close to the type of thing that circa-1900 Anglo Philology texts also feature.]

  4. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 6:26 am


    Interpretive classical music sleeve notes can be tough-going in any language, including the source language :-) The more modern the piece, the more eccentric the language.

    Talking about weirdo language use in the domain of classical music, look for opera plot summaries, as they are found in program booklets, textbooks, and even Wikipedia. I don't have time to give examples, but more than once in a while you'll have a noun or verb (either a rare one or one used with an archaic meaning) for which you have to read the sentence like 5 times to figure out whether it means φ or ¬φ and whether person X is with or against person Y. (These plot descriptions tend to be very dense.) I suppose whichever poor musicology student is roped into producing these just plagiarizes from an older source, which is why these jumbles of anachronistic prose live on.

  5. richardelguru said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 6:38 am

    "Why provoked " ???

    [(myl) Should have been "What provoked", of course, and so it reads now. I started to write something like "Why did I undertake…", decided to change it to "What provoked…", and didn't make all of the change.]

  6. William Flesch said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 8:35 am

    I think I agree (pretty) completely with what you say about de Man's philosophical vogueing. The thing is, though, that using the lit-theoretical jargon of the time — he didn't quarrel with his tools — he really deepened our understanding of that poem. Of its seriousness and achievement.

    I guess I want to say that unlike what you guys do, great literary criticism is almost inevitably fragmentary. It shows one things (plural) one hadn't seen before (not a single thing, though). In de Man's case, what one saw was often only the possibilityof understanding, that one (that I) would then work on. Which puts him three or four cuts below truly great critics like Empson or Bloom, but still.

    It's also a problem for de Man that if it's true that what he was good at was producing or provoking fragmentary insights this is a truth he'd have been extremely ambivalent about at best. He wanted a global theory of fragmentary insight: that theory being that all real insights are enabled by perspectives unusually blind to what would refute those insights. But his global theory is a mess of vagueing as well as vogueing, and what remains valuable in his work are those insights, not the theory that they, supposedly, support or are supported by. I guess what I want to say is that those of us who think we learned something from de Man without regarding ourselves as Jurassic Park deconstructionists don't embrace a theory, and perhaps not even a method, but do cherish the insights he sparked, which have been brighter and more long-lasting than most.

    I completely agree that his suggestive obscurities were also part of the way he managed his own charisma (Barish may exaggerate how much he did that, but he sure did it a lot). For you, the obscurities outweigh the suggestiveness: for me it is — it has been — the other way around: they brought me to see things in Shelley that I am sure are true (after another thirty years of studying Shelley) that I wouldn't have seen without having read that essay.

    The posturing of the essay belies the serene nihilism that he's trying to put across. But he praises Shelley for the right things — for being a real thinker, which a century of critics of Shelley had denied. That was really important. De Man accurately saw Shelley as a far more considerable poet (his useful word is "rigorous") than almost anyone was willing to concede. And he turned out to be right about that.

    (I guess this means something that I want to stress, and have written about elsewhere: de Man, far from embracing the idea that literature was whatever a reader thought it was — an idea that some people have seen as his legacy — claimed that the greatest literary works resisted the self-satisfied reductions of cultural and political critique. That de Man was self-satisfied himself doesn't lessen or reduce the importance of that anti-reductive lesson. [See what I did there?])

    Anyhow, I'm glad you read the poem. Because The Triumph of Life is as great as they come.

    [(myl) I certainly enjoyed reading the poem, which was not among the bits of Shelley that I had encountered before. And I also enjoyed reading de Man's essay, as long as I thought of it as something like a Laurie Anderson performance piece without the music.]

  7. Harold said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 9:13 am

    Thank you for this. It gives a sense of why people found de Man's criticism so seductive. It appears that what snuck in through the back door was not rigorous analysis, but subjective impressionism — "dreaming along a stream of visual associations" — or riffing. It can be like the Delphic oracle, one can project into it whatever one wants.

  8. Bill Benzon said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 9:23 am

    "The essay quotes extensively from the poem, but its analysis struck me as telling us more about de Man than about Shelley."

    That's the sort of thing that started the turn toward (what became) Theory back in the 60s. Critics began wondering whether or not their readings were more about themselves than the text they were analyzing. But self-consciousness alone doesn't solve the problem.

    Reuven Tsur has a book about "Kubla Khan" (The Road to "Kubla Khan" may be the title) where he devotes a long chapter to reviewing the literature on the poem. He concludes the most of the "close readings" of the poem are not about the poem at all, but about things the critics associate with something that's in the poem.

    Writing about literature is difficult. Criticizing what critics do is easier than doing better oneself.

  9. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 9:41 am

    The idea of "rigor" in de Man's work was always confusing to me. In one essay he famously contrasts "grammar" with "rhetoric," but by grammar he seems to mean something like literal meaning, so that a grammatical reading would be taking a rhetorical question, for example, as a real request for information. This is a super-famous essay that we all read and puzzled over back in the day; it was supposed to be a model for how to do literary criticism.

  10. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 9:46 am

    Does anyone else see this stuff as reminiscent of talmudic scholarship? Taking one line or word and reading it 'against' its obvious meaning, in order to glean some wider truth / say something cute.

    An example I came across recently:

    In the morning prayers is the line Ribon kol hama‘asim, habocher b'shirei zimrah. This fairly clearly (at least as far as I understand it) means something like 'master of all deeds, who chooses melodious songs'.

    But Ze'ev Wolf of Zhitomir suggests that shir ('song') could also be pronounced sh'yar, 'leftover'. The sh'yarim, or shirayim, were the crumbs left over from a rabbi's plate, prized and fought over by his students. So Ze'ev Wolf is suggesting that the phrase means 'remnants/leftovers/crumbs of song'.

    Rabbis Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen interpret his point like this: "What remains when the music stops?…The silence of the walk to the car after a symphony concert is now silent in a new way. The air is redolent with the remnants of music. Some things simply cannot be uttered. And this is what God chooses: these remnants of song."

    So we end up with a rather nice conceit, a pretty edifice which might or might not have a poetic value in itself, despite being built on an abyss of free association masquerading as forensic logic.

  11. William Flesch said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 9:53 am

    Yeah, I don't think de Man was rigorous himself. Just pretended to be. But he gave cachet to the idea, as a term of praise, and it's a good term of praise to apply to Shelley. (Though he's also pushing it, for his own reasons, towards the idea of rigor mortis. But that's not the interesting part.)

    I do think that there's a family resemblance between deconstructive reading and Talmudic scholarship. Partly by way of Derrida's teacher Emmanuel Levinas.

    As so often, I agree with Bill Benzon.

  12. un malpaso said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 10:00 am

    Wouldn't forgetting be more like, say, the wolf stopping his pursuit of the deer because he saw a squirrel and got distracted?

    Maybe my brain's French post-structuralism module is on the fritz.

  13. Dave O said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 10:00 am

    Ugh, "close reading," inventing needles to go searching for in empty haystacks.

  14. JW Mason said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 10:10 am

    I think most sympathetic but critical observers of "Theory" end up deciding it should be thought of as some kind of creative art or performance, not as scholarship. Which of course doesn't mean you can't learn important things about the world from it, just as you can from novels, movies, poems, etc. I like this piece from N+1:

    "TERRY EAGLETON ONCE pointed out that the French theorists preserved the modernist tradition in literature when fiction writers did not. Verbose, allusive, experimental, but always to a purpose—declaring that certain thoughts could only be had in certain kinds of words—yes, that was theory. But the more significant thing is that theory took over the thinking function of fiction as well as the stylistic: it treated social theory in the way the novel always had, more for liberatory power than strict fidelity to scholarship, and offered wild suspicion as the route to personal enlightenment. It did the novelistic job of a whole period: it produced the works, at once literary and intellectual, that came to terms with the immediate aftermath of the Sixties."

  15. Harold said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 10:21 am

    My thanks were directed at Mark Leiberman. I do agree with William Flesch's evaluation of Shelley as a poet and thinker, however.

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 10:34 am

    So if de Man's writing proved as a historical matter to be the bit of seemingly-worthless sand without which the pearl of Prof. Flesch's subsequent scholarship would not now exist, how should we evaluate it on its own merits? There's sort of a functional approach where anything that leads to something useful (by whatever causal chain, plausible or implausible) is by definition itself useful, or perhaps a more ironic alternative that just notes that causation in human affairs works in funny ways. (One could also look for examples in other disciplines where seeming bogosity had some positive side-effects – suppose for example that the process of proving Piltdown Man a hoax led to the discovery of new insights/methods that later researchers were able to use in their own work. I expect it's not uncommon in the hard sciences or maybe even math for conjectures that seem initially plausible but ultimately prove false to lead to worthwhile discoveries during the process of trying to prove or disprove them, but I don't know that that's an analogy on point.)

  17. William Flesch said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 11:11 am

    I think it's all sand, but some glitters.

    And suddenly my brain became as sand
    Where the first wave had more than half erased
    The track of deer on desert Labrador,
    Whilst the fierce wolf from which they fled amazed
    Leaves his stamp visibly upon the shore.

    @Un malpaso: In TL it's Rousseau who forgets under the Circean tutelage of the Shape All Light. He's in love with her as the wolf is not with the deer or the deer with the wolf, but de Man's citation of the wolf's dependency on what it destroys is meant, as he insisted about most of his reading again and again as allegory, where the emblem is not "organically" derived from what it's an emblem of.

    @Harold: I'm not sure if you're taking a swipe at me by being clear that your thanks are not directed at me. I didn't think they were. If you are taking a swipe at me, I'm not sure why you are.

    @Dave O: Clever, but great literature isn't a bunch of empty haystacks; plenty of needles there, and some samurai swords as well.

  18. Rod Johnson said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 11:14 am

    Like Mark, I can make nothing of this text, but I think we should stop talking about Theory as if it's just one thing. The giants of Theory are a very heterogeneous bunch. Lyotard is very different from Foucault, Derrida is very different from Deleuze, Baudrillard is very different from Ricoeur, etc., and yet they are all tarred with the "theory" brush in one way or another, I guess by virtue of being French and roughly contemporary.

    I think Stephan Stiller's comment about theory as poetry is very apt (some theory, anyway–I don't think you could usefully take that approach with Foucault, for instance). I've read Deleuze and often come away feeling like I've understood almost nothing, and yet the world looks different to me in some hard to express way. And I've had much the same experience reading John Ashbery. I suppose someone might the same claim about sudoku, though. *shrug*

  19. zbs said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 11:35 am

    Rod Johnson's comment somehow reminded of this five-year-old blog post by Jonathan Mayhew (which might serve as a sort of elaboration on his comment upthread).

  20. Nick H said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 12:29 pm

    Light may not be the "necessary condition for shape," but I think at least light's presence is the necessary condition for our perception of shape, right?

    [(myl) No, we can perceive shape with our sense of touch as well.]

    Also, when De Man says that light and water have no shape, I think he means that groups of photons and groups of water molecules have no rigid shape, which is also true, I think. He sort of loses me at the very end of the sentence, but I think he's saying something about how the idea of "light" is similar to the reality of it. Maybe that light, the physical phenomenon, must be observed to exist in some sense, just like the idea of light can only exist where/when there are people to think about it? I don't know – I'm grasping at straws.

  21. Bill W said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

    Wasn't Wilamowitz, not Nietsche, the zealot for traditional philology and Nietzsche maybe more like De Man?


  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

    Part of my reaction to Rod Johnson's list was "wait, Ricoeur doesn't really deserve to be lumped in with those other guys," which I suppose just confirms his point.

  23. Harold said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

    The internet is not good for some things. I truly did not intend a swipe at William Flesch, not consciously anyway, and I am sorry for my maladroit way of putting things. The juxtaposition was unfortunate.

    I really did appreciate Mark Lieberman's analysis – and also William Flesch's honesty in his comments about it, come to think of it.

    I also do think there is a definite role for appreciation (whatever one wants to call it) in pedagogy. And it is extremely difficult to do that sort of thing well (i.e., without embarrassing gushing), which is why most people are probably well advised not to attempt it.

    This: "People who liked deconstruction, I suspect, were seduced by the possibility of having it both ways, having the professional expertise of the close reader and the existential freedom of the textual anarchist." from Jonathan Mayhew in the link given above by zbs@11:35, rings very true.

  24. Nick H said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 1:34 pm

    good point!

  25. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 4:19 pm

    @ J W Mason –

    I think Eagleton's connection of deconstruction with Modernism is very astute. When I was studying Derrida as a grad student, I had a realisation that the book – maybe the only book – that his theories really described well was Finnegan's Wake. Virtually every Derridean concept is intrinsic to FW's project. Differance, play, the trace, logocentrism, the overdetermination of language, all that.

    Joyce even deliberately made it a 'boundless' text, not just in its publishing history, which makes it hard to assign an authorised version, but in the composition itself. For instance, when he was losing his sight much of the manuscript was spoken aloud and transcribed by Beckett and others. At one point there was knock at the door, Joyce said 'come in', and Beckett accidentally transcribed the 'come in'. He told Joyce and erased it, but Joyce insisted he leave it in. This sort of fluidity between the novel and the world was commonplace in the composition – for Joyce there really was apparently 'nothing outside the text'.

    It seemed to me, at the time anyway, that Derrida had found his theory in that book and then, with typical humility, generalised it to every text ever written.

  26. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 5:07 pm


    I'll add that many contemporaries, who grew up with Theory and po-mo art ("art" as understood in the widest sense), deliberately produce content intended to be experienced in a personal way. They may not intend for there to be any intrinsic meaning in their art.

    I'm honest about this not being my thing. I also think that even for their artistic output a psychological reading which would get at their personal experience during art production is in principle possible, even if normally not undertaken and not feasible. But I acknowledge that there's a market with supply and demand. I suppose to each their own; as long as they don't pester me for not having the same taste as they do (this can be a real problem) and as long as they don't badger me for not believing in a knowledge gain (see next paragraph), I'm fine with that.

    A significant problem seems to be arrogance on part of the artist, though. In contemporary art you have your good share of scammers (though, again, there's a market, with vendors and customers), but not everyone acknowledges the very real differences in art experience. If a vendor claims their output means a specific thing while it can really only be said for themself that it does, it's either ignorance or arrogance at work. There must be a match between intention of the vendor and interpretive assumption of the customer:

    If the vendor intends a certain approach V and the customer uses approach C, all is well if they match. If the customer doesn't care about V and says "I get my own meaning out of it! Art is whatever it means to the observer!" (there definitely are such people), then that person is wrong (he or she is factually wrong about a lot of vendors at least), but I don't mind leaving them their own way of art appreciation; it's their right, after all. (I suppose if one's imagination works in certain ways, such random appreciative activity may help with creativity. Or meditation, if one is into that.) If the customer cares but V is hard to discern, we have a problem, and either the vendor is naive in believing it's easy/possible to discern or the customer is naive in believing it's easy/possible to discern. If the vendor is not dishonest, he still might not care, while the customer cares, not realizing that V=whatever.

  27. Rod Johnson said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 5:18 pm

    J.W.: I agree, Ricoeur was kind of a ringer there, and I paused at that point, precisely because he was concerned with analytic rigor and creating systems, unlike the caricature of the "theory" people. But he still shared a lot of the preoccupation with many of the touchstones of "theory": the text, Heidegger, Nietszche, Freud, Marx, semiology, the "hermeneutics of suspicion." Not so different from Foucault on one side and, say, Bourdieu on the other. And Derrida was his assistant for a while! So there's a lineage there, and some continuities. The point is that there's no clear line between academically respectable work and the kind of "theory" that people routinely disdain.

  28. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 5:50 pm

    Rod Johnson: Ouch! I had somehow mislaid from conscious recollection the entire existence of the word "semiology" but just seeing it on the screen brought back all sorts of sensations and associations with earlier periods in my life, much like inadvertently seeing a bottle of that one particular brand of liquor you'd sworn you'd never touch again after getting really sick on it that one time as a teenager.

  29. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 10:06 pm

    I forgot about that blog post from 5 years ago. I think the idea I had was solid.

  30. Douglas Bagnall said,

    April 26, 2014 @ 2:46 am

    I am reminded of McKenzie Wark's How to Beat Writer's Block, which lists a number of methods for sampling from the space of possible literature, by way of inspiration or departure point. Supposing the domain of literary theory is a large and multidimensional in itself, it might also be useful to jump in at random places and see where that gets you. Unfortunately, despite various (usually unsympathetic) attempts, this kind of thing can't be done by software. Language models lack sustained focus. We therefore depend on opportunist charlatans to produce hypotheses (such as this comment) that are superficially novel and powerful but whose relationship to reality is perhaps no better than random. Finding insight amongst the pomposity and nonsense unblocks serious thoughtful people like William Flesch, just as all those word games unblock Wark's authors, only in this case we have intergenerational division of labour.

  31. Rod Johnson said,

    April 26, 2014 @ 9:01 am

    That Wark piece is excellent, thank you.

  32. Mr Punch said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

    It seems to me that the incomprehensibility of de Man's statement arises from a non-standard use of the term "philology." In literary studies, philology refers to an approach that emphasizes historical context and the development of language – an attention to the origin (and authenticity) of texts that also prevailed in historical studies through the 19th and into the 20th centuries. This was succeeded by a critical approach associated (in English) with, among others, Eliot and the Leavises – and of course the New Critics, who championed close reading. I take de Man to mean that he is re-introducing an element of objective analysis to what had become a solipsistic critical enterprise.

    [(myl) But if that's what he meant, why is what he wrote that "the turn to theory occurred as a return to philology, to an examination of the structure of language prior to the meaning it produces"?]

  33. Tracy W said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 9:48 am

    Forgetting is a highly erotic experience

    I suspect this says something about the quality of de Man's other erotic experiences. (With apologies to Libby Purvis).

  34. Rod Johnson said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 9:07 am

    Nothing like a cheap shot to remind one that, no matter how thoughtful and interesting this discussion has been, at the end of the day, it's still on the internet.

  35. Tyler Schnoebelen said,

    May 6, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

    Ian Watt's 1960 essay on the first paragraph in James' "The Ambassadors" is a close reading that I think does do really interesting stuff with the text. I put a summary in the first part of this blog post on "readability" (which I wrote because I was irritated by a Washington Post article on brains/reading): http://idibon.com/readability-social-media-literature/

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