The World, the Text, and the Critic
For those engaged in questions of critical theory, an interdisciplinary cultural activity whose dominant feature has been the assimilation and adaptation of advanced Continental (especially French) methods such as semiology, discourse analysis, deconstruction, new psychoanalytic theory, the problematics of écriture féminine, and the aesthetics of reception, the 1980’s have, so far, been a time for taking stock in order to determine future directions. Books such as Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice (1980), Michael Ryan’s Marxism and Deconstruction: A Critical Articulation (1982), and Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) have, in varying degrees, championed a kind of synthesis of advanced critical positions both for the purpose of producing new criticism and in order to reinvigorate undergraduate education in the humanities. These authors and others avoid the trap of total allegiance to any one critical method, mindful perhaps of the perception common to many literary academic traditionalists that each new theoretical perspective offers itself as an all-encompassing, total approach. The best theorists themselves have likewise been suspicious of theoretical claims to self-sufficiency. Leading examples in this country of critical theorists who are nevertheless “critical” of the excessive claims of theory or of its partisans are Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, and Frank Lentricchia. Most of their recent writings, of which Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) and Lentricchia’s After the New Criticism (1980) are outstanding examples, range widely over changing theoretical landscapes without taking up permanent residence at any one site. Throughout the journey, the serious limitations of each method of interpretation are sketched out, even while the advantages are acknowledged.
To these examples, one must now add the present book by Said. Let the word “book” be allowed, for this transcends the status of collection or anthology in some important ways. Said has reworked some of the essays substantially, and unity of tone and theme is established throughout. What separates The World, the Text, and the Critic from the examples noted above is Said’s move beyond a critical examination of specific theoretical positions toward an interrogation of “theory” itself and of the needlessly hermetic, mystifying function it can perform. This is not to say that Said joins the chorus of humanist traditionalists who condemn theory as an exotic aberration alien to the conserving cultural enterprise of the academy. Rather, Said demonstrates, in essay after essay, the tendency of theory to lure the critic (and for purposes of this book’s readership, which deserves to be broad, “reader” will be an equivalent term for “critic”) away from the world, where texts, after all, are produced, and into the ethereal realms of “textuality,” or what earlier generations of critics and aesthetes would call “Literature” or even “Art.”
The word “text” in Said’s title is of course the one that triggers predictable responses of recognition in today’s academic climate, and its prominence on the book’s cover might lead one to expect essays bristling with poststructuralist jargon. Said, however, is one of those rare critics who, while clearly in command of the most advanced theoretical systems and styles, nevertheless possesses the enviable ability to pose arguments of critical import without lapsing into an obscurantist style. This is not merely the result of Said’s fierce independence or iconoclasm, for, even though he reveals profound sympathy for aspects of Marxist criticism, as developed by Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukács, Lucien Goldmann, Raymond Williams, and Pierre Macherey, he shuns the role of disciple. In “Traveling Theory,” one of the book’s most concentrated, careful essays, he summarizes the positions taken by Lukács in his lengthy essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” the heart of the groundbreaking Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (1923; History and Class Consciousness, 1971), bringing fresh insights to Lukács, who has more often been discussed in the light of his later work on realism and the novel. Said is able to do justice to his subject in language very much his own and insists on calling the reader’s attention to the crucial importance for Lukács’ early work of its having been produced in postwar Budapest. Again, the inscription of texts unfolds in the world, or in a world.
Thus, the word “world” is the key word in Said’s title, and he will insist repeatedly on the obligation of the critic to acknowledge the historical, political, and social contingencies that form the matrix within which the text is situated at the moment of its production. This is as true of the classics of the world’s established canons as it is of minor works, a point of view in marked contrast with the new critical opinion that the “great” works are those that lift themselves up beyond the conditions of their creation (never “production”) and are catapulted into a timeless category called “Literature.” This same conviction makes possible the new readings which Said is able to bring to such canonical figures as Jonathan Swift and Joseph Conrad, where the political tendencies of these authors are limned carefully enough not to preclude taking into consideration the differing political uses to which their texts are capable of being submitted. For example, Said is able to argue that “Tory anarchy” is a better label for Swift’s politics than mere Toryism and misanthropy.
None of this is to say that Said, in considering specific authors and texts, necessarily sidetracks or abandons theory in order to savor the contextual stuff of literary history. Instead, he calls for the effort to maintain a delicate balance, arguing that literature needs “to be studied in a more situated, circumstantial, but no less theoretically self-conscious way.” This approach Said seems himself to realize less in treating Swift or Conrad than in situating the work of...
(The entire section is 2533 words.)