The Hubris of Reading
IT USED to be that one had two options as a literary scholar: write the life history of an author, or sum up the meaning of her book. In either case, one's criticisms were considered marginal footnotes to the original works of "the canon."
In the irreverent era of Deconstruction, however, one has the book searched as a text for ideological weapons, the author pronounced DOA, and "meaning" transformed into a convenient black hole for the free play of personal metaphors. The game of literariness is no longer played according to what you read, but to how you raise the questions.
A World of Difference
by Barbara Johnson
Johns Hopkins University Press; 225 pp.; $24.50.
Barbara Johnson, professor of romance and comparative literatures, exemplifies the trend toward critical self-consciousness in her latest work, A World of Difference, confessing at one point:
It was not clear to me what I, a white deconstructor, was doing talking about Zora Neale Hurston, a black novelist and anthropologist, or to whom I was talking... Was I talking to white critics, black critics, or myself?
Is Johnson guilty of tokenism in going out of her way to include a Black woman writer among her discussions of Wordsworth and Moliere? Is her strategy one of disarming critics who might otherwise accuse her of "slumming"? Does she propose to set a professional example for all other "white critics," or merely provoke them out of their "whiteness"?
While Johnson's long-running commitment to bringing scholarly attention to Afro-American literature is well noted, these "are not merely rhetorical questions." Nor are they, ultimately, un-constructive starting points for Johnson. A World of Difference, a collection of essays gathered from Johnson's work in literary theory during the past decade, relentlessly questions the role of literary interpretation, academic establishments and the critic in the "real world." Always, the essays remain aware of how contradictions in language remain one step ahead of our assumptions about these categories: "Suddenly it became clear to me that `the real world' was constantly being put in quotation marks, always being defined as where `we' are not."
JOHNSON'S PREMISE that a poem, a Supreme Court ruling, and a "CIA manual on psychological operations in guerilla warfare" can all be reduced to rhetoric emphasizes--as does critical legal studies, as she points out--the process of textual interpretation.
Her reflection upon Nietzschean critic and philosopher Paul de Man's tendency to regard "subjectivity itself as a rhetorical effect rather than a cause" observes that we become what we choose to read through the filtering composite "differences" of our individual experience. Johnson proposes that the politically correct reading lies in that which "encounters and propagates the surprise of otherness." The search for this "otherness" becomes the goal of interpretation:
How can the study of suppressed, disseminated or marginalized messages within texts equip us to intervene against oppression and injustice in the world?
Johnson's awareness of pedagogy as an ideological tool is not surprising, considering she began her career as literary wunderkind at "the Yale School" of criticism during the '70s, under mentors such as Derrida and de Man. She attacks former teachers and colleagues at the rival institution, with the exception of Derrida and de Man, for their blindness to sexist biases.
In "Gender Theory and the Yale School," she cites by name established figures such as J. Hillis Miller, Harold Bloom, and Geoffrey Hartmann for their complacent refusal to consider the significance of gender for contemporary hermeneutics--the fatal blindspot, she observes, in their theories.
Johnson's effort in the first section to demystify deconstruction, both its imported and home-grown varieties, raises the issue of its paradoxical success at institutions such as Harvard and Yale. Given the movement's inherently anti-Establishment impulses and commitment to the subversion of institutions, how does one explain, for example, its appearance last year in the cover story of The New York Times Magazine, with a full-page, color photo of Derrida?
JOHNSON'S OWN feminist revisions of deconstructionism, meanwhile, take up where deMan left off in trying to rethink the implications of literary history for hermeneutics. Nowhere is this radical project illustrated better than in the humorous and ingenious, "My Monster/My Self", in which Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is read as an autobiographical confession of maternal rejection. The literary monster is analyzed as product of "a single parent household," the unwanted brainchild of a mad (pro)creator, who in childhood was abandoned by her own mother.
In these interpretive schemes, biological assumptions of gender are overcome by examining the sexes as socialized functions, so that "it is not true that literature contains no examples of male pregnancy," just as it is equally untrue that all women want to have babies. Moreover, the theoretical wordplay is reoriented, so that one now discusses literary themes in terms of matricide and womb-envy, that is, in terms of the woman's experience.
The powerful final essay, "Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion" asks:
Is there any inherent connection between figurative language and questions of life and death, of who will wield and who will receive violence in a given human society?
The analysis of power relations between men and women, between mother and child--as they are sedimented in grammars of address--and of the rhetorical assumptions of personhood contained within poems and Constitutional amendments offers no answer to the ongoing abortion dilemma among feminists. Rather, Johnson warns how the complex issues too easily become locked into the rhetorical limits of dead-end polemics. Her refusal to intervene between pro-life and pro-choice factions, and wish upon them "a single voice," offers intellectual self-questioning as an alternative to political violence.
The reader is offered no conclusion other than an ethics of "undecidability." Instead, one keeps alive the complexities of the issue in the understanding that the real crime is killing debate.