Critical InquiryCampus Report

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Nov 10, 2013 (3 years and 9 months ago)


In June of 2006, a law student named Laura Ventura criticized Anne Stevens and Jay
Williams’ “The Footnote, in Theory,” an article aiming to tell “the story of theory’s reception in
the American academy” (219) by tabulating citations in
Critical Inquiry

Her complaints were
consonant with the ideology of the venue in which she aired them, the conservative
. Her article, “Academics Footnote Liberals Exclusively,” contains all the nuance its title
suggests. Deconstruction, Ventura declares, “
is a method for discrediting historical theorists
such as Aristotle and Plato for the sole purpose of promoting Derrida’s belief”; C.S. Lewis “was
most likely left off the list because of his strong Christian beliefs and influences”; Thomas
Jefferson and M
ark Twain “were not included because of their patriotism to a country that the
cited authors despised.” While critical in the colloquial sense, her response assumes every
citation took the breezy form of the one Stevens and Williams criticize themselves,
in which “a
known theorist” submitted an essay containing the footnote “See Jacques Derrida” (221).
That is to say, Ventura assumes all acts of citation entail a tacit acceptance of the ideological
beliefs of the thinker being cited. Any citation of

Mark Twain demonstrates, to her mind, a
patriotism similar to the one she attributes to him. Twain, one imagines, would remain a patriot
even if the article cited was his infamous anti
imperial tract “To the Person Sitting Darkness,”
even if the passage
quoted was:

And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We
can have a special one

our States do it: we can have just our usual flag,
with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skill and

The absurdity of Ventura’s response

her patent ignorance of deconstructive thought, her
inability to understand the difference between primary (Twain) and secondary (Jefferson)

underscores the problem with the way those outside the humanities critici
ze work done
within it. This is especially true during a time of disproportionate access. Anyone with an
internet connection can log onto and read Ventura’s article, but access to
the Stevens and Williams would cost that same perso
n $42. The price a


would have to pay to fact
check Ventura almost guarantees none will. Instead, the quality of
“The Footnote, in Theory” will be judged by an article written by someone not merely
unqualified to judge its merits, but

one who is ideologically predisposed to declare it without

The problem, however, is not primarily of qualifications or ideological disposition but, as
Lindsay Waters’ “The Lure of the List” attests, one of venue. Writing in
The Chronicle of
r Education
, Waters uses Stevens and Williams’ article as an occasion to criticize “the
human cost of such list making…the learned duplicat[ing] unthinkingly the worst behavior of
society as a whole.” His evidence, such that it is, consists of rejoinders
that address, without
correcting, the limitations of Stevens and Williams’ methodology. “You humanists,” he scolds,
“should have looked into the literature on the methodology of lists, which the social scientists
who pioneered making them have reflected u
pon…the way the numbers fall out in
’s ranking
seems to reveal of what [the sociologist, Robert] Merton called the ‘Matthew Effect,’ where
fames becomes its own promotion.” The casual, condescending quality of his dismissal does
not embody the very stan
dards it claims to uphold. He attacks them for what, to his mind,
“seems” like a relevant principle without even attempting to establish the veracity of his
suggestion himself. Of course, a study of the sort Waters proposes would not belong in
’s “Review” section: it would be too long, too detailed, contain too many charts,
graphs and footnotes to be placed there. For a long time,
Critical Inquiry
’s own “Critical
Responses” section would have been the appropriate venue to write a serious, su
stained riposte
to “The Footnote,” but with a few exceptions

Christopher Newfield’s response to John
Guillory’s “The Sokal Affair and the History of Criticism” and Peter Havholm and Philip
Sandifer’s response to Jerome Christensen’s “Corporate Authorship”
among them

Responses” has disappeared from the pages of
Critical Inquiry
. This disappearance, I will
argue, diminishes the quality of the work appearing between its covers (writing with the
knowledge of inevitable challenge having a salutary ef
fect on a work) and cedes the place of
criticism to an unsympathetic public unwilling to acquire the expertise required to produce
substantive critique. A new forum for serious critique must be found to revivify the culture of
argument abandoned in favor
of artificial comity.

In the table of contents from the September, 1982 issue of
Critical Inquiry

is a snapshot
of committed debate:

“The Politics of Theories of Interpretation,”

pp. 235

E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

“Is There a Politics of Interpretation?”

pp. 248

Walter Benn Michaels

“The Politics of Interpretation,”

pp. 259

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

This special issue is devoted to “the politics of interpretation,” and in that sense, the titular
dialogue reproduced above comes as no surprise. W
.J.T. Mitchell’s editorial introduction
confirms the impression created by these three articles: the issue “is the product of arguments
among the editors, writers, and readers of
Critical Inquiry
about the ideological and ethical
implications of various cr
itical strategies and reflects fundamental disputes about the way in
which a ‘politics of interpretation’ ought to be conceived” (iii). Born of arguments between
editors, writers and readers, this issue of
Critical Inquiry

captures a particular moment in
disciplinary history, one in which key figures in the field debated each other openly before the
entire profession. The rhetorical burden of doing so precluded them from engaging in the cheap
polemics Waters employed in his response to Stevens and William
s. The reputation of
as, in Waters’ own words, “the best journal for emerging ides in the humanities for a
generation” prevented them from producing anything akin to Waters’ bad faith methodological
criticism. The “fine contentiousness w
hich prevailed” did so because the editors, writers and
readers participated in a forum in which counterargument was expected and anticipated.
Despite bemoaning the fact that Walter Benjamin’s works are cited “nonargumentatively, which
[he] thinks is a ni
ce way of saying [Benjamin’s] ideas are just window dressing, not engaged
with,” Waters does not attempt to substantiate what amounts to a hunch because, in
Chronicle Review
, he has no professional obligation to do so.

In its early years,
Critical I
’s “Critical Responses” section provided a forum in
which professional obligation demanded one read generously and respond thoroughly. The
exchanges were largely civil, sometimes overly so, as with Frank Kermode’s response to Denis
Donoghue: “Like a
ll sensible men I feel that to be read carefully by Denis Donoghue is a
privilege rather than an ordeal; but although I am clearly to blame insofar as I allowed him to
misunderstand me, I can’t at all admit that he has damaged the argument I was trying to
(699). Even when uncivil, however, they remain playful and scholarly, as when Walter Davis
anticipates Stanley Fish’s response to criticism: “He’ll pounce on some out of the way statement
in your essay and cleverly use it to obscure the issues, i
ncorporate every good point you’ve
made, and then leave you in the embarrassing position of either already unwittingly agreeing
with him or committed to an impossible position you never took” (706). What passes for
decorum in these passages is an enabling

fiction of collegiality, one which promotes a productive
mode of scholarly interaction. This fiction lost its allure in the decades of Culture War, as what
had been enabling became an exercise in bad faith. A person could expect latitude enough to
herself with, but no more; and many scholars chose to decline the offered noose in favor of
establishing a forum of their own in which their core assumptions would not be challenged.

The institutionalization of sub
disciplines within sub
disciplines coi
ncided with the
marked decline in the investment required to print and distribute a journal. The introduction of
PageMaker and other first generation “desktop publishing” software in the 1980s allowed anyone
with a modicum of technological literacy to est
ablish a journal catering to their particular
concerns. In the decade’s first half,
appeared for the new historicists; in the
American Literary History

for the American historicists. This exponential increase in the
number of jour
nals of record closely chronicles the discipline’s balkanization. A wider range of
writers, thinkers and movements could be addressed certainly; and previously marginalized
disciplines now had the space required to expand their investigations, an impo
rtant fact
considering the increasing price of tenure. Lost in the shuffling and reshuffling was the
profound effect it was having on wider, more theoretical conversations within the discipline at
large. This is not to say that the new disciplinary units

should have subordinated themselves to
the interests of their long
established brethren, only that in isolation from both this wider
conversation and each other, each sub
discipline began, in time, to resemble not a sub
but a new discipline alt
ogether. As this “interdisciplinary” ethos took hold, each journal
adopted a different set of extra
disciplinary theories, leading to an awkward situation in which,
for example, the process by which a person of Asian American descent acquired a subject
sition differed widely than the one by which a person of Arab American descent did. This is
not a problem in and of itself

different historical and cultural situations will engender different
modes of being in a culture

but inasmuch as each discipline is
describing some axial
arrangement of biological development and acculturation, some form of intra
communication would enrich the discourse native to each.

The alternative is to embrace a kind of institutional thoughtlessness in which certain
foundational ideas are denuded of their original theoretical entailments. One prominent
example of this process is the status of Laura Mulvey’s concept of “the gaze” in

film studies.
The first sentence of her most frequently cited article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,”
clearly states its purview: “This paper intends to use psychoanalysis to discover where and how
the fascination of film is reinforced by pre
isting patterns of fascination already at work within
the individual subject and the social formations that have moulded him” (6). Twenty years later,
David Roberts summarizes her initial exposition of the male gaze in “Visual Pleasure” as having
two func

The first is narcissistic: male spectators gaze at the male subject they
aspire to resemble. The second is voyeuristic: the same spectators gaze at
the female performers they desire to possess and subject. (237)

In the thirty years between Mulve
y’s article and Roberts’, her psychoanalytic framework has
become invisible, so much so that Roberts can claim that “however [her] ideas are challenged or
inflected, they say something important” (237). The means by which they do so

the authority
of psych
oanalytic accounts of human consciousness and social interaction

exist now only
subterraneously. What had been a decidedly Lacanian argument in which film, abetted by the
gaze and its imagined mastery, functions like the mirror stage, deceiving the viewer

believing there is no underlying symbolic structure, becomes a truism whose assumptions need
not be addressed so long as the results of its application “say something important.” Such a
subsumption has consequences both for the theory being subsumed

and the work to which it is
applied. As Todd McGowan notes, the emphasis on the gaze in film studies has pushed the
third element of the Lacanian triad, the Real, past the vanishing point, a “crucial omission,
because the Real provides the key to underst
anding the radical role that the gaze plays within
filmic experience” (28). Doing justice neither to the object under examination nor the
examining theory, the routinization of “the gaze” in film studies speaks to the intellectual deficit
caused by profes
sional isolation. This is not an indictment of film studies as a discipline

the editors of the
(1996) anthology note, “film studies is at a historical juncture
which might be described as the waning of Theory” (1)

merely one example of a ci
ethos some film scholars share with many in the humanities.

This ethos originates in the anthologies born of the vigorous debates in the 1970s and
1980s. As Jeffrey Williams puts it, their publication “indicates an establishment or

of theory as accepted practice [and] gives a direct look at one significant way in
which theory is canonized and propagated: via pedagogy” (283
284). The anthologies of the
late 1980s

Hazard Adam and Leroy’s Searle’s
Critical Theory since 1965
(1987), Da
Modern Criticism and Theory

(1988) and David Richter’s
The Critical Tradition

(1989), to name a few

authorized a particular version of the critical past in order to empower a
particular vision of the critical present. In the heyday of theory,
the works codified in these
anthologies belonged to or were borrowed from other disciplines. At the present moment

it the age of the theory anthology

these works represent the disciplinary limits of literary
theory. Mulvey’s initial formulation of t
he “gaze” continues to hold sway via the inclusion of
“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in all the major anthologies. Despite having been
superseded in Mulvey’s own body of work

and despite the criticisms leveled by McGowan and

it stills “says

something important” to literary scholars, if only because it already has.
What happened in the late 1980s, then, was the ossification of a particular moment in literary
history. As Edward Said wrote of the first edition of Hazard Adam’s
Critical Theory


(1971), an anthology is

a history of critical mediations, which is another way of saying that it is a
history of critics gaining identity by endowing certain linguistic objects
with significance for the critic, and after that, for critics and

other readers.
The critical identity is the presentational device for certain, formally
determined matters in language. (336

The “critical identity” shaped in 1971 would be the identity revised by the anthologists of the late

“There alway
s remains in criticism,” Adams concludes the “General Introduction,” “an
element of the personal vision…this is to say that criticism and critical theory are to some extent
arts, too” (1971: 10). Despite the equivocal phrasing (“an element of,” “to some e
Adams clearly situates “criticism” or “theory” within the Romantic tradition. It is not
surprising, then, that he borrows the four basic critical orientations from M.H. Abram’s
Mirror and the Lamp

(1953): the mimetic, the pragmatic, the expre
ssive, and the objective.
Following Abrams, Adams associates each orientation with a particular period: the mimetic with
antiquity; the pragmatic with the Middle Ages and Renaissance; the expressive with the
Romantic; and the objective with the twentieth
century. This historical trajectory is not
accidental. By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, critics had become interested in phenomenological
criticism as a means of transcending Abrams’ four orientations and becoming “a new form of
Romantic expressivisim or

impressionism” (1971: 7). This new generation of critics
synthesized the Romantic ideal of personal vision and the New Critical idea of the literary object.
“Criticism progresses in curious ways,” Adam argues, “but it progresses” (1971: 10). Closing
itical Theory since Plato

with Murray Krieger’s 1966 essay on “The Existential Basis of
Contextual Criticism” allows Adams to mark not only the moment, but the intellectual
environment required for Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, Play” to become perhaps the se
minal event
in late twentieth century literary criticism.

The “New New Critics,” as Edward Said called the deconstructionists, tend to be
“quietistic, their concerns and closures…generally textual ones, the issues that engage
them…very restricted” (“Inte
rview,” 35). Said intends the charge of quietism against the Yale

Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, Paul de Man and Harold Bloom

less as an
indictment than as a way to describe what he elsewhere calls “the Romantic myth” of the
“secret sympathy
” of their critical mode with its object, literature (“What is Beyond Formalism?”
938). Notwithstanding their disavowal of New Critical coherence, the “New New Critics”
attended to the literary object with a similar renunciation of its connection to the l
arger world.
They transform the text into a point of departure, their criticism into something which sits beside,
or rests within, the literary text. Inheritors of Abrams’ expressive

objective traditions, the
next generation of critics would enliven
the critical discourse by imagining themselves
intellectual and artistic equals to those whose work they studied. Writing in 1978, Fredric
Jameson approves of “this displacement of traditional criticism and traditional philosophy by
what has come to be kn
own as theory” because it allows “the critic himself a wider latitude for
the exercise of personal themes and the free play of private idiosyncrasies” (508, 509).

Such latitude has, in the past, led to the emergence of “virtuoso readers”

among whom
he nu
mbers Kenneth Burke, William Empson, Northrop Frye, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin
and Viktor Shklovsky

who produce “bodies of criticism in which the practice of peculiar and
sometimes eccentric textual interpretations is at one with the projection of a p
nonsystematized theoretical resonance” (508). Unlike doctrinaire critics who “misguidedly but
compulsively [submit their] materials to a rage for patterns and symmetries and the mirage of a
system,” Jameson’s virtuoso readers construct a per
sonal, idiosyncratic literary theory from
a variety of sources, not content “simply to ‘apply’ various philosophical systems to literature in
an occasional way” (509). They forge unique, but internally consistent, critical identities: their
readings are o
verdetermined neither by a single theoretical commitment nor by the particularities
of a given work of literature. Jameson imagines these critics tempering their identities in the
refining fires of sustained, engaged debate. They evince both Hegelian ser

aggressive commitment to the consequences of their premises

and a keen eye for the
particularities of the literary work before them. This is, in effect, a call for a “toolbox” approach
to literary criticism, but one which subtly counters the s
tereotype of the postmodern thinker who
applies whatever theory best fits the circumstances presented by the text before him.

If the literary text itself is considered an object of suspect philosophical coherence, the
“toolbox” approach popularized by Fouc
ault would be an appropriate analytic mode:

All my books, be it
Madness and Society

or this one here [
Discipline and
], are

if you like

little toolboxes. If people want to open them,
and use this or that sentence, this or that idea or analysis as a
or wrench to short
circuit, dismantle, or explode the systems of power,
including perhaps those systems from which these books of mine have

all right, all the better. (16)

The difference in context here is significant: Foucault speaks
to the pragmatic power of a
philosophical pluralism, whereas the literary critic who embraces his notion of “little toolboxes”
does so both more generally (including all the works in the theoretical toolbox writ large) and
more specifically (applying it to

literary texts, or through them to loci of systemic power).
Since the object to be apprehended is not the world itself, but an envisioned one, a simulacrum
based upon a particular individual’s understanding of the world, the eclecticism of the toolbox
proach may best account for the necessary incoherence of the literary text. Still, it would lack
the cohesive vision, the internal consistency demanded by Jameson of the virtuoso.

Not that a singularity of vision necessarily deserves plaudits. Failure to

employ any sort
of toolbox approach will greatly distort the text. One such failure can be found in Per Serritslev
Peterson’s searching, but ultimately unsatisfying article, “Jack London’s Medusa of Truth.”
Peterson attempts to distill a philosophical e
ssence from the work of a man whose thought is best
characterized as a series of flirtations with different, mutually exclusive philosophical systems.
Dubbed “the boy socialist” by
Oakland Times

in 1897, by the time he died in 1916, London had
acquired an
d discarded most of the day’s trendy philosophies: Spencerian social evolution, the
Nietzschean superman, the atavism of Nordau and, in his last years, Jungian psychoanalysis.
According to Peterson, however

London as philosopher 1) was a Nietzschean dial
ectician who mastered
and negotiated the juxtaposition of conflicting ideas, perspectives, and
values in life (the Medusa
Maya dichotomy being a crucial case in point);
and who consequently, 2) possessed philosophical authenticity and
integrity, or what Ni
etzsche terms intellectual conscience.

His counterintuitive effort to impose order on London’s unsystematic, uncommitted thought is
admirable, but in the case of

London, misguided. The cost of doing creating a coherent
philosophy for London is his philosophical complexity (or, less charitably, confusion). The
compelling incoherence of his thought expelled, London’s works lose what little claim to
literariness th
ey have. The mental tumult of his characters and narrators

their development
from naïve youths into philosophically sophisticated (if only incoherently) adults

is the reason
behind continued interest in his work. His powerful narratives of development in
to philosophic
eclecticism are the source of his literary appeal, a source from which Peterson’s argument so
distances London’s work as to render it nearly unrecognizable. Gone from Peterson’s account is
all but the Nietzschean strain

powerful in its own
right, but by no means the dominant one in
the cacophony of London’s thought. Peterson is all Hegelian seriousness, no theoretical

This is not to say the other extreme less fraught. Failure to employ any Hegelian
seriousness exaggerate the
philosophical incoherence native (in varying amounts) to all works of
literature. Consider a reading, common enough, in which an approving citation of the
Foucauldian subject as a discursive formation in one paragraph is followed by an approving
of Althusserian interpellation in the next. If this analysis is undertaken with an eye to
the text

that is, if the author of the work being examined employs what seems to be a
Foucauldian model of subject formation in one place and an Althusserian in anot

then the
incoherence is an artifact of description and belongs to the text itself. More common, however,
is the analysis which appeals to Foucault and Althusser as authorities outside the text; whose
works, together, constitute a truth about how subje
cts in the world are formed. The text
functions not as an example of the confusion and complexity of the literary, but as an
instantiation of a larger theoretical confusion. In this case, the critic should confront the
contradictions attendant upon his o
r her notion of the subject. For Althusser, a Marxist notion
of ideology entailing the existence of subjects is required for interpellation to occur. In the
Althusserian theater, when the policeman “hails,” there is, first, the subjectivity of the
man; second, an implicit subject, one receptive to the hail of ideological apparatus the
policeman represents. But as Foucault famously said about the role of ideology in his own

what troubles me with these analyses which prioritize ideology is

there is always presupposed a human subject on the lines of the model
provided by classical philosophy, endowed with a consciousness which
power is then thought to seize upon. (58)

Without a substantial explanation as to why Foucauldian and Althusse
rian subjects are both
present in an account of a novel, a critic betrays a theory of the world

both the one in which he
or she lives and the one in which they imagine the texts function

which falters under the weight
of its contradictory assumptions.

he absence of Hegelian seriousness from this hypothetical example is a byproduct of
theory’s codification, in the form of anthologies, during the last years of the 1980s. Previously,
these essays were encountered in the wild. They were still provocative,

certainly, but as objects
of debate instead of reverence. The ceaseless discussion about theory (broadly defined) in the
period between its arrival in 1966 and its consolidation in the late 1980s trained a generation of
literary scholars to see fine poin
ts of distinction between competing theoretical models. The
generation of scholars following the advent of theory anthologies possessed a book

and imposing

containing a series of models applicable to literary texts. A “theoretical
approach” defi
ned thus might employ one or more of these theories in an effort to make sense of
a text, but in so doing these theories ceased to be discrete entities. They became,
en masse
theoretical. Preauthorized, different texts from the theoretical canon could b
e applied with no
regard for any internal contradictions such applications would entail. An argument could be
Foucauldian one moment, Althusserian the next if it produced a new or interesting reading. The
necessary conflicts between Foucauldian and Althu
sserian thought could be tabled for the time
being, if not forever, as the discipline incorporated this homogeneous version of theory into the
warp and woof of scholarship. Theory stopped being debated the very moment it became most
widely disseminated.

If the critic constructed by Adams’ anthology had been Romantic in character, and if the
participants in the fierce debates in the back pages of
Critical Inquiry
throughout the ‘70s and
‘80s had been Romantics, then theory in the age of the anthology cou
ld be said to recapitulate the
Victorian response to the excess and overstimulation of their Romantic forbears. If these
theoretical Romantics had been guilty of their own form of Byronic egotism, the new Victorians
would turn attention away from themselv
es and back toward the texts they study. The rise of
historicism witnessed by the past two decades can be seen as a discipline
wide attempt to refocus
attention on the literary text as the impetus of scholarly production. Marking this moment in his
Presidential Address to the MLA

“The Triumph of Theory, the Resistance to Reading,
and the Question of the Material Base”

J. Hillis Miller describes “the shift from language to
history” as having been “so sudden, so widespread, so spontaneous, as hardly to

be explicable by
any single cause” (“Presidential Address,” 283). One cause, he continues, is “the impatience to
get on with it, that is, not to get lost in the indefinite delays of methodological debates” (283).
There is no more need to debate these Ro
mantic theoretical formations because they have been
tamed, by time and anthology, into something palatable to a new generation largely comprised of
historicist scholars. The incorporation of this vitiated form of theory into the professional
mainstream h
as made it increasingly difficult for virtuoso critics to emerge because the entire
process of professionalizaton

beginning with the teaching of theory, via anthology, to graduate
students and extending to the kind of deep historical research currently req
uired for publication,
as well as the absence of a forum in which sustained theoretical debates can be held

the development of Hegelian seriousness. Such is the price of what Miller calls the “universal
triumph of theory” (284).

Instructive her
e is the difference between a critic like Miller, whose thought was forged
early in the theory debates, and one like Homi Bhabha, whose thought developed after its
“universal triumph.” Miller began his career during the height of New Criticism, but was
fluenced early by the phenomenological work of Geneva School, in particular, Georges Poulet.
His early books

Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels

The Disappearance of God:
Five Nineteenth
Century Writers

Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth
Century Writers

Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire


are motivated by the notion that “criticism is
primordially consciousness of the consciousness of another, the transportation of the mental
universe of an author into the interior space o
f the critic’s mind” (“The Geneva School,” 307).
Early reviews frequently cite the tenaciousness with which Miller follows his theoretical guide
line. In his glowing review of
Charles Dickens
, Bradford A. Booth relates that “whatever one
may think of Mil
ler’s method,” because he is “content to pursue rigorously his own inquiry,” he
was able to write “one of the most important Dickens studies of our time” (71). That his
mindedness would drive him to elucidate the “viable identity” at the “hidden ce
nter” of
Dickens’ world

the very terms his later deconstructive thought would challenge

indicates his
commitment to Hegelian seriousness (
Charles Dickens
, 333).

Fifteen years later, he would repudiate the very assumptions on which his
influenced c
riticism had been based: “A novel must pretend to be some kind of language
validated by it one
one correspondence to psychological or historical reality” (“Narrative and
History,” 456). Much like a novel, the critic must now

to achieve the prim
commingling of consciousness Miller championed while under Poulet’s influence. Where once
the narrator of a Dickens novel provided a window into the “hidden center” of Dickens’
worldview, Miller now believes “there is no center of meaning or inform
ing power” (“The Still
Heart,” 298). His transformation from the phenomenology of Poulet to the deconstructive
thought of Derrida is perhaps best captured in his 1971 essay on “Georges Poulet’s Criticism of
Identification,” a combination of two earlier ar
ticles, “The Literary Criticism of Georges Poulet”
(1963) and “Geneva or Paris: The Recent Works of George Poulet” (1970). In “Criticism of
Identification,” Miller deconstructs Poulet’s work, demonstrating how it challenges its own
assumptions and asserti
ng that Poulet is, if not aware of, at least anticipates criticisms of the
metaphysics of presence.

Attempting to reconcile the various traditions to which one feels indebted was an
unspoken, unofficial, but professional requirement of the time. Failure

to do so could lead to the
publication (in prestigious journals) of articles in which other scholars would question the
methodology subtending one’s argument. Critics today no longer fear their methodology will
be scrutinized at all, much less in the dis
cipline’s flagship journals. They are free to borrow
from different traditions in the service of producing “interesting” readings. Nowhere is the
abuse of this freedom more apparent than in the work of Homi Bhabha, who, as much as any
currently prominent

thinker, embodies the spirit of the age of the theory anthology. Almost
every page in
The Location of Culture
(1994) yields citations appealing to anthologized

such as “as Lacan reminds us” or “the work of Said will not let us forget” (90)

hich cite thinkers whose work is predicated on mutually exclusive assumptions. Tellingly, his
introduction in
The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism
(2001) bears this out:

Although “the wit and wisdom of Jacques Derrida” (as he calls it in
essay) is fundamental to his work, Bhabha draws on a wide array
of twentieth
century theorists throughout “The Commitment to

Building on the influential concept of nations set forth by
Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities (1983), Bhabha stre
how nationality is narratively produced, rather than arising from an
intrinsic essence.

From Mikhail Bakhtin, he takes the concept of dialogue
to stress that colonialism is not a one
way street but entails an interaction
between colonizer and coloniz

Regarding identity, he draws on Frantz
Fanon’s psychoanalytic model of colonialism and Jacque Lacan’s
concepts of “mimicry” and the split subject, arguing that there is always
an “excess” in the cultural imitation that the colonial subject is forced t
produce. (2377

For Bhabha, a Lacanian subject constructed via Fanonian colonial identification engages in
Bakhtinian dialogue under an Andersonian model of the nation. What he has produced

what, I argue, the current, anthology
driven pedagogy

abets in the production of

is a
philosophically incoherent panoply, in which “panoply” retains its strong sense of being a
“complete suit of armor” with “connotations of brightness and splendor.” This panoply is too
eccentric to manifest a Jamesonian “ra
ge for pattern and symmetry and the mirage of the

To the extent that it is systematic, it is meaninglessly so: Bhabha has borrowed
too injudiciously from too many mutually incompatible philosophical systems for his work to
possess even the m
irage of a meta

Those who wish to challenge its legitimacy run into
problems because, as Thomas Nagel writes of contemporary theory generally, “there is no direct
way to refute a fogbank” (544).

Bhabha’s fogbank obscures more than his own philosop
hical incoherence, however. It
hides what is increasingly the incoherence of ostensibly historicist projects. As the Goethean
epigraph to Miller’s Presidential Address reminds us, “
Alles Faktische schon Theorie ist
” (“all
fact is already theory”). Two d
ecades later, the “triumph of theory” is so complete as to render
its influence on all projects

even the most doggedly historicist

almost invisible. Absent the
obligation to consider methodology with Hegelian seriousness, theory in the age of the antholog
has embraced a naïve eclecticism, one which informs works with no pretensions to theoretical
inquiry, much less sophistication. In fine, theory’s “triumph” created two strands of
“theoretical” work, both philosophically incoherent: the first consists of

the Bhabhian theorizing,
in which mechanisms from distinct systems are collected and applied according to personal
criteria with little regard for their place in a larger logic; the second, of ostensibly non
works which nevertheless share Bhab
ha’s disregard for the larger stakes of the arguments he
plunders. Traceable in contemporary historicism’s ancestry is a series of theoretical denuding,
from Stephen Greenblatt’s strongly Foucauldian “cultural poetics” to the weakly Foucauldian
(but stron
gly homological) “new historicism” to the
de rigueur

historicism of the present
moment, in which “discourse” (meant generally) frequently appears, homologies almost never.
This is an oversimplification, certainly, but one legitimized by the notorious refu
sal of
identifying “new historicists” to articulate the theoretical bases of their work. Even if H.
Aram Vesser is correct in saying that by 1994 “meta
critical essays [have built] up like Chinese
lacquer around every NH twist and angle” (7), he is w
rong to suggest that meta
critical lacquer
alone represents an adequate response to the charge of being theoretically unsophisticated. As
recently as 2005, Catherine Gallagher argued:

It is reasonable to expect theory in Victorian studies to refer to the
ories of
historical interdisciplinarity. But in literature departments, where a high
percentage of us reside, we have not, in fact, spent time developing such
theories. In this setting, interdisciplinarity, tethered to some “historical”
term, has had an a
mbivalent relation to the enterprise that goes under the
name “theory.” (252

Gallagher’s powerful appeal to revivify moribund conversations about the relation of history to
literature by “broaden[ing] our repertoire to include some small
‘t’ theories
” is not without its
merits (258). Unless there is critical vigilance, however, there is no guarantee that the inclusion
of more “small
‘t’ theories” will represent an improvement over the current state of affairs. If
we, as a discipline, are to promote
the development of more Jamesonian virtuosos, the desire to
introduce new theoretical models into the fold most be coupled with a commitment to what
W.J.T. Mitchell, writing at the height of
Critical Inquiry
’s influence, called “dialectical
pluralism” (613

Dialectical pluralism, Mitchell argued in 1982, was the editorial ideology of
. He defined it as “
the weeding out of error, the elimination of trivial or marginal
contentions, and the clarification of fundamental and irreducible differences…the kind of
communication which clarifies exactly what is at stake in any critical conflict” (614). A

to sustained debate in the face of incommensurable positions may not, as Mitchell
noted, convince any of the participants of the inadequacy of their positions. But it will compel
them to refine their arguments, to find a means of communicating to those i
n other fields

closer to home, other specializations

the importance of a given set of claims. In a discipline in
which shared assumptions are few and far between; in which every article cannot be prefaced by
an account of its foundational premises; an
d in which those assumptions and premises can
coexist in any of a million conceivable permutations; in this situation, debates concerning the
theoretical incompatibility of particular assumptions and premises should be encouraged.
Stemming the creep of na
ïve eclecticism should be of the utmost concern, but doing so would
require a forum in which an aggressive commitment to strong beliefs, weakly held, could be

Undergraduate and graduate introductions to literary theory are too indebted to the
provided by the anthology to function in this manner. Representatives from different
approaches are read and digested, but time and the inherent difficulty of the material foreclose
the possibility of putting them into dialogue. Still, calls for su
ch engagement

such as this one
by Vijay Prashad

are aired regularly:

The most common instantiation of Ethnic Studies is that of a holding
company of programs: American Indian Studies, Asian American Studies,
Black Studies, Latino and Chicano Studies. Thes
e programs generally
have little to do with each other, either institutionally or epistemologically.
They work independently, and preserve their institutional identity for
funding reasons as well as to draw in students who want these canalized
programs to
deliver packaged identity lessons. One way out of this
balkanized situation is in a type of Comparative Ethnic Studies. (170)

But as Prashad suggests, institutional boundaries hinder the free flow of ideas; so, too, does the
fact that his call for “polycu
lturalism” is made in the pages of the
Journal of Asian American
. With its masthead advertising a journal that “explores all aspects of Asian American
experience,” it is unlikely that it will address all possible polycultural permutations. This i
s not
to indict it for what it cannot do, however, so much as point to the problematic intersection of
institution and medium. Specialist journals with limited charters are not likely to have global
effects; professional journals with generalist charters
) are similarly inadequate, as
they are unable to account for the interdisciplinary character of theoretical works. A new

one which shares the commitment to debate once embodied by
Critical Inquiry

cessary if we hope to see a new generation of Jamesonian virtuosos emerge.

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