Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives
This review appeared in Volume 5 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory. By Irena R. Makaryk, ed. Toronto: U Toronto P, 1993. 656 pp. $39.95 ISBN 0-8020-6860-X.
Critical Terms for Literary Study. By Frank Lentrischia and Thomas McLaughlin, ed. Chicago: U Chicago P,1990.369 pp. ISBN 0-226-47262-7.
Rena Makaryk's hefty volume is a testament to the impact of current literary theory. Over 650 oversized pages (7' x 10")` in length, it contains entries on some 60 "approaches", 140 "scholars" and 130 "terms". The editor's introduction indicates that a somewhat slimmer volume had originally been planned; but the growth of theory seems to be unstoppable. The result is, among other things, a very unwieldy object, difficult to hold and read. But then that's the point, isn't it: no one actually reads theory, they merely use it. Of course the book is conceived as a reference tool, to sit on a library shelf or a graduate student carrel. It will provide a most useful guide to a wide variety of critical terms and start the confused graduate student off in the right direction.
Despite its length, the book has its own emphases and absences. It is particularly good on some areas too often neglected: Russian formalism, the Prague school, and others largely unknown, such as the "Croatian Philological Society", one of the 48 key critical approaches, or the Nitra School or Polish Structuralism. Despite this wealth of information, other fields remain untouched. There is no entry for "gender" under terms, although Elaine Showalter ranks as one of the crucial scholars. (Similarly, there is no entry for race, although Houston Baker and Henry Louis Gates are among the scholars.) There are three entries for feminist criticism, Anglo-American, French, and Quebec, the last field being considered by the editor one of the "lesserknown" theories. Never did the distinct society seem so distinct, even (or especially) when seen from accross the Ottawa River. Nicole Brossard is included in the Quebec feminism entry, but her influence on, and collaboration with, Canadian writers such as Daphne Marlatt goes unmentioned. Although the majority of contributors to the volume are Canadian, there are virtually no Quebecois authors. Presumably a Quebecois critic would have avoided the embarrassing over-simplifications of this account: "once Liberal Jean Lesage came to power in 1960, the period known as the Revolution tranquille, or the Quiet Revolution, began, and women's situation improved", as if there had been no Refus global, no work by women political activists, no change except from above.
Although lesbian issues are raised in the feminism entries, there is no entry for lesbian or gay studies. Even the most important gay theorists are treated as if they had no sexuality. Stephen Bonnycastle's account of Roland Barthes places Le plaisir du texte in his second, structuralist period, and says of jouissance simply that Barthes "took a festive attitude toward ideas and contrasts such as these". There is no mention of the importance of jouissance for French feminists; indeed there is no entry on jouissance. Bonnycastle states that in his third period Barthes "laid great emphasis on the physical experience of the body and on sexuality", but he offers nothing more specific. Fragments d'un discours amoureux is not in his bibliography. In the Foucault entry, Michael Clark observes that his La Volonté de savoir, the first volume of the History of Sexuality, "explored the disciplinary structure of the private sphere", but offers no example of Foucault's writing on sexuality, his impact on gay critics (such as Leo Bersani or D.A. Miller), or his establishment of a theory of social construction that has been crucial to arguments over gender and sexuality. Social construction receives no entry, in fact, although the other half of the binary, essentialism, does. The essentialism entry is particularly bad, however, restricting itself to "recent feminist concern", with no attention to the function of the term in gay or African-American theory. The bibliography does not even mention Diana Fuss's crucial Essentially Speaking. A student interested in these issues will find no help here.
The entry on Paul de Man by Dan Latimer is indicative of the volume's predilection for deconstruction. Latimer begins by locating de Man as a "democratic" writer opposed to Hitlerism. In the second paragraph we learn that de Man "continued to review books" for Le Soir, "Belgium's largest newspaper" (his writings in Flemish are ignored) after the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Although there have been "charges of collaboration and anti-Semitism", "in fact" (Latimer's phrase, my emphasis) de Man's tactic is "cooperative disrespect", with Derrida as the source for this "fact". The account is shameful, in a volume apparently designed as a reference tool. A responsible account should give some sense of a real debate over de Man's writings and particularly his concealment of his past and of the crisis engendered by the publication of these texts after his death. While knowledge of de Man's cooperation with the fascists may not be directly relevant to an understanding of his Allegories of Reading, it did lead to a crisis of confidence in what was increasingly seen as a convenient erasure of politics and meaning. It is indeed that sense of political engagement that is generally lacking from this volume. There are occasional exceptions: one is the fine entry on Gramsci by Richard Cavell, who points out that for Gramsci "the working (or subaltern) class need no longer be theorized as the sole agent of revolution; subalternity was seen to exist elsewhere (for example, among women, people of colour and gays)". But Cavell's discussion of the "subaltern" reminds us of another striking absence from the book: there is no entry on Gayatri Spivack. Indeed, non-Western critics are striking in their absence. Some of them are outlined, very rapidly, in the entry on Post-colonial theory. There is no entry on Fanon, or Achebe, or Ngugi.
An index would make the volume much more useful. The publishers undoubtedly felt that encyclopedias don't need indexes, but they have included cross-references. But it would be useful to be able to locate Cavell's entry by looking under "subaltern" --more useful than, for example, a typical cross-reference in the Forster entry, speaking of the Clark Lectures as "the best-known of all such series in the field of English "literature". That entry on "literature", by the way, does not include any reference to Eagleton's important "What is Literature?", the introduction to his Literary Theory, although the entry on Eagleton himself does deal with the question. But how would you find it if you didn't already know of Eagleton's work?
The Lentricchia and McLaughlin volume is strikingly different. While there is no entry of "literature", the index points the reader to several useful discussions, particularly in Lee Patterson's entry on Literary History. Patterson points out that by separating literature from other forms of writing, literary historians "erected a barrier that prevented it from being situated within a total historical account." It goes without saying that "theory", by which is meant hegemonic deconstruction, has repeated this exclusion. Critical Terms is a book one can well imagine reading, or at least dipping into. Published in a comfortable and attractive format, it is already widely used in courses, where a literary text can be paired with one of the reflective essays to illustrate how literary theory actually works. And, unlike the Makaryk encyclopedia, there is no obvious agenda.
The editors have chosen to assign each term to a well-known critic. The result is a volume of 22 fascinating essays that engage with a problem from their own critical perspective. As the introduction points out, the editors wanted to avoid the "capsule summaries" approach and instead ask their contributors to "do theory". Of course this approach supposes that theory is indeed something that one does, and many of the authors even -- o heresy! -- propose readings of particular texts. One particularly interesting example of how this can work out in practice may be found in Barbara Johnson's essay on Writing. Here is an ordinary word that has come to serve as the centre of a critical debate. Johnson sketches in very nicely the origins of the contemporary debate, by looking at Barthes, Saussure, Lacan, and Derrida. She then turns to a poem by 17th century American Edward Taylor, Meditation 6, an unlikely setting for the kind of deconstructive work she performs. Her reading of the Taylor poem may convince some readers that deconstruction has done little to alter the methods of critical analysis, even if it has completely altered the metaphysical framework. In place of a sense of Puritan inadequacy, in which one can never deserve salvation, she concludes her discussion by remarking that Taylor cannot "write himself into a submissiveness great enough to overtake the face that it is he, not God, who writes. His conceit will never succeed in erasing the 'conceit' of writing itself". For Johnston, such a reading with its exposure of the blank spaces and conflicts (unlike the precarious balances of the New Critics) can lead to the study of "the politics of language", to which she pays tribute through an analysis of the role of writing in Frederick Douglass. Whatever one's critical take on Johnson's position, there can be no doubt of the excitement and interest generated by watching a skilled critic perform, against which the potted plants of the Makaryk volume pale.
The Lentricchia and McLaughlin volume does not take us into uncharted territory. All of the terms are familiar even to undergraduates. What is novel about it is its applied quality -- theory put to work, as it were. There is one very unfortunate limitation: all of the authors are Americans and a disproportionate number of the literary examples studied are also American. Myra Jehien's very interesting essay on Gender is devoted almost entirely to an account of Huckleberry Finn. The choice is a good one, especially since this is not a text one might immediately associate with questions of gender, but it does leave the non-Americanist at a bit of a disadvantage. Jehlen's account of the importance of gender is excellent. As she puts it simply, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a man's book about a boy" (although one could of course also say that it is a white man's book about a black) She does not see gender as simply a cover for feminism; instead she argues that "speaking of gender does not mean speaking only of women" but rather acknowledges the cultural constitution of "the sexed nature of -both women and men". An essay such s this would make perfect collateral reading in an American literature course or a gender studies course, since it would enable students to move back and forth between the theoretical perspective and a familiar literary text. The entry on Ethnicity by Werner Sollors is also Americanocentric: its base text is A Connecticut Yankee (Twain is decidedly popular). Here that emphasis may be particularly justified, since Ethnicity seems to be a peculiarly American concept (Sollors points out that the term was revived during World War II as a way of avoiding the term "race" as used by the Nazis). Sollors's essay does go beyond the Twain text in important ways, especially through his consideration of the development of the idea of the Volk. Although he hints at the relationship between ethnicity and nationalism, the idea is unfortunately not much developed.
Two essays make use of Wordsworth's "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal" in the context of somewhat different arguments. I take it as a sign of some editorial carelessness that the lines quoted in the two essays have a number of discrepancies (although it may be that the editors wanted to underline, in the essay on Determinacy/lndeterminacy, another, textual, form of indeterminacy). Hillis Miller's reading, in the entry on Narrative, follows the example of Paul de Man. For Miller the "blank space" between the two stanzas is the space of Lucy's death "outside of language". The story of the poem "dramatizes the terrifying possibility that figures of speech may have a tendency to realize themselves by a kind of linguistic magic". Language is illusory, but it goes on, is the deconstructive conclusion. Gerald Graff makes use of the same text to look at deconstructive reading practices, sensibly reminding his reader that although some things about the poem may be indeterminate (what is Wordworth's response to the death?) others are determinate (a death has occurred and the speaker has been moved by it). Graff's quarrel with deconstruction comes down in part to his distinction between an indeterminacy that is an inevitable part of language, hence of any text, and one that is based on "an explicit preoccupation of the text". Graff's final comment is a telling one, after a careful discussion of the deconstructive preference for indeterminacy: "It is noteworthy that critics who insist on the indeterminacy of literature are usually just as sure of their interpretations, and write in just as confident a fashion, as critics who believe in determinate meanings and correct interpretations." I can imagine a very lively and exciting class in which the students were asked to read these two essays. The barbs would certainly fly, but no one would be able to avoid intervening, to avoid recognizing the need for a thought-out, and applied, literary theory. Critical Terms for Literary Study is a rich, valuable tool for teaching. What one would not really get, though, even from the two essays on Indeterminacy, is an historicised account of the concept; for that one would find the Makaryk volume useful, particularly in its discussion of Ingarden and Iser, as well as Stanley Fish's critique of any possibility of subjective reading. The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory will be the beginning of many a critical project, even if it cannot perform its criticism but simply cite it.
Robert K. Martin is the author of The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry and Hero, Captain, Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville. He is the editor of The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life After the Life. He is currently working on a work entitled Hawthorne and the Invention of Heterosexuality. He is Professor of English at the University of Montreal.