James Wood re: Terry Eagleton

"One way of looking at theory is to see it as the inevitable culmination not of Marx, but of Freud. One of the decisive changes that theory effected was to introduce the idea that texts do not know themselves. It is the critic's business to reveal their repressed anxieties and incoherences. There are no moments of pure innocence anymore. The deconstructionist will use these moments of undecidability, these "aporias," to demonstrate how the text unconsciously undermines itself. The feminist, the cultural materialist, and the New Historicist will see such fractures as the text's unwilling revelation of political anxiety. Hiddenness is what has changed, after Freud: that which is hidden for Freud and Derrida is hidden only at the cost of that which does the hiding; its absence marks the concealment. English criticism knew this about humans--the "unconscious" was hardly Freud's discovery, and De Quincey uttered the striking thought that "there is no such thing as forgetting"--but not about texts. Pater, in his essay on style, writes that we know the great artist by "the tact of his omission," by what he leaves out. But after Freud we will always itchingly suspect that omission is really repression. We know that the omissions are there if we can only find them.

Of course, critics have always read texts against themselves. But one of theory's innovations has been to show that in some sense texts read themselves against themselves. Works of literature are rarely as coherent as they want to be and are often tellingly self-divided at significant moments of anxiety. A criticism that learns to attend to this kind of self-division will probably be more energetically involved than most pre-theoretical criticism has been with the entanglements of content and form.

But these changes have also had considerable negative influence. The hunt for how a text betrays itself has too often been prosecutorial--and prosecuted, one feels, by people who do not love literature. Once criticism becomes a matter of searching for symptoms, it is relieved of the burden of evaluation, of deciding what is good and what is not. All symptoms are interesting, after all, whether in Middlemarch or on MTV. It is in this sense that deconstruction menaces literature, and this is why writers are correct to feel uneasy in its presence. Whereas a New Critic believed that we struggle, as readers, through incoherence toward a desirable, if often thwarted, formal coherence, a final coherence that the writer has intended, planned, superbly shaped, modern theory reverses this flow, moving backward from its presumption that works of literature are covering up their own incoherences, whatever the writer's good intentions are, and that they must be accordingly unmasked. The humanist was interested in good intentions; the theorist is interested in bad symptoms. The humanist gave innocence the benefit of the doubt; the theorist doubts innocence. To this extent, contemporary writers, however adept they have become at speaking the languages of theory and postmodernism, are closer to the old-fashioned humanist than to the cultural theorist, and doubtless always will be: writers have a great deal invested in the innocence of literary intention."

{ James Wood, "Textual Harrassment," The New Republic, June 7 & 14 2004 }

No comments: