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This review appeared in Volume 3 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
Literature as Discourse: Textual Strategies in English and History. By Robert Hodge. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP 1990. 248 pp. ISBN: 0-8018-4056-2
Robert Hodge's study is based on the currently oft-repeated premise that the field of English studies finds itself at a moment of crisis, not yet at the revolutionary stage, but more or less ripe for a paradigm shift. Rather than wasting time either lamenting or celebrating this state of affairs, as do so many of his colleagues in the popular press, he briskly proceeds to remedy the situtation. The task he sets himself is nothing less than to provide the needed new paradigm, a project as laudable in intent as it is ambitious in scope. Carefully avoiding any unnecessary ruffling of critical feathers he tries conscientiously to steer a middle course between what he defines as traditionalism and progressivism, safeguarding the lessons learnt from timeworn practices while judiciously weighing the pros and cons of the new. In the end, many useful insights and suggestions are offered, but the promised new paradigm turns out to be a synthesis of selected aspects of a number of familiar ones. His own analysis of Heathcliff's role in Wuthering Heights may serve as a statement of purpose as both "fuse very old forms with emerging forms in a radically new mix" (57), which is, it seems, what figures of transformation do. And in both cases, I would suggest one may argue about just how radical the mix is.
The root of the problem with English, Hodge implies, is to be found in its separation from History, a diagnosis that immediately reveals his allegiance to a socially and historically responsible criticism. His dream of the future envisages a breaking down of the barrier between the two disciplines, so that English would become a branch of History, of which it is "conceptually" part in a mutually beneficial arrangement. Rather than the happy marriage conjured up by this view, however, the goal is to make such "institutional re-arrangements irrelevant" (234). The title is a bit misleading, however; there is a lot more of "English" than "History" in the book, and the author is clearly more comfortable discussing texts usually labelled literary or popular rather than those classified as historical.
His argument for the need to combine the two fields becomes most convincing when he shows how the same literary text can be fruitfully read both as a historical document and an aesthetic artifact through a juxtaposition of two readings of Wuthering Heights. Historians should include literature as part of their archival research in order to fully understand their discipline, he concludes, and literary critics need a better understanding of history. As the title indicates, this bridging is best operated by way of the concept of "discourse". The reliance on Foucault is evident and hardly surprising, and throughout the book one senses the concern with the struggle for contol of knowledge among what Hodge terms "logonomic systems" (12). Added to the Foucauldian base is what the author sees as lacking, the perspective of a historical materialism and the necessary practical tools to bridge the gap between theory and practice. The relationship between title and subtitle is, however, revealing. While "discourse" leads one to think about socially constructed codes and conventions and ideologically conscious versions of sociocriticism, "textual strategies" seem at first sight to lead in an opposite direction, towards formalism. This rhetorical sleight of hand may be a clever ploy by the marketing department of Johns Hopkins University Press to avoid alienating any potential reader. One suspects, however (to use a very Hodgean modality), that it may be a subtle way of skirting the one word that imposes itself at the centre of attention as one begins to read the book. In fact, the word "discourse" does not appear very frequently; instead it soon becomes evident that, because of its concern with the processes of production of meaning, the most valuable ally in Hodges' ambitious enterprise is semiotics. Hodge proposes "social semiotics" as the best approach to the study of the production of meaning in its social and historical context which is, or should be, the object of both English and History. The textual strategies of various types of discourse reveal how meaning is produced within various "logonomic regimes," and this in turn gives rise to different genres or relations of production and consumption of texts. Semiotics thus allows for the decked convergence between what are usually seen as fundamentally opposed directions of traditional criticism, formalism and sociocriticism.
The fact that semiotics is presented as part of the "new" and progressive rather than the "old" and traditional may seem indisputable to those readers who belong to the primary target audience -- practitioners of "English" and "History" -- but it seems rather surprising to anyone trained in the cognate disciplines of comparative literature, culture studies or French, for instance, where semiotics has long been one of the major paradigms. Or it may be that Hodge's idea of what most people think of as "semiotics" is a hermetic practice inherently inimical to any kind of social grounding and that the fusion of the two in the "social semiotics" he recommends is therefore indeed a new idea. But instead of a radically innovative paradigm we get to witness the return of something that was perhaps not so much rejected by the Anglo Saxon tradition as it was misunderstood. Hodge's rediscovery of semiotics as the way to a comprehensive study of social and cultural practices is symptomatic of its itinerary within the larger field of the humanities. From having been, if not the ruling paradigm at least one of the major ones, in the study of literature in departments of French and comparative literature, it was adopted into more "marginal" areas of cultural studies -- one thinks of the work of Stephen Heath (1981) Christian Metz (1974,1982) and Peter Wollen (1969) on film, Judith Williamson (1978) on advertising, Charles Jencks (1977) on architecture, or Louis Marin (1984) on culturally textual space, for instance -- and is now, after its sojourn in what traditional English departments regard as the academic "underground" belatedly finding its way into their hallowed halls. Because of this background, this newfound respectability inevitably brings with it a widening of the definition of Literary Studies from the narrow field of "high literature" to the totality of cultural practices. Hodge's claims to newness are thus more a consequence of the context within which his discussion is placed than of the nature of his proposed reading strategies per se. It is against an institution still dominated by Anglo-Saxon practical criticism, whether defined as Leavisite or as New Critical, that he writes. It seems a bit unfair to pretend as Hodge does (if only implicitly) that the institution of English has remained basically untouched by structuralism and, worse, by poststructuralism. The popularity of deconstruction in many English departments in North America is downplayed, perhaps as is relevant to the project, but its debt to both structuralism and semiotics is surely worth mentioning. Hodge restricts himself to defining poststructuralism -- in a way that reveals the parameters of his definition of "semiotics" -- as a continuation of New Criticism which "opened up a line of semiotic analysis" (50). The crisis that Hodge talks about may not be in question, but his identification of it is a struggle for supremacy between a tradition which disregards the workings of social and ideological factors in the production of literature on the one hand and an emerging theory of literature as part of a larger complex of social practices inevitably embroiled in ideology on the other seems a bit outdated. Few current critical schools would quarrel with the idea, here presented as contentious, that style and form have social and not simply aesthetic value, or that the aesthetic cannot be separated from the social.
The return of semiotics within the "new" field of discourse theory may be a consequence of a growing impatience with the abstract nature of much recent literary theory and Hodge's book is a good antidote for those standing for concreteness and 'hands on' criticism. Craftsmanship is a word that comes to mind as one peruses Hodge's careful analyses of texts from the most varied cultures and media, which seem informed by a solid background in the New Criticism he disdains. While he attacks the English tradition of "practical criticism," what he proposes is in fact no less practical. The difference between the earlier versions and his own lies mainly in the substitution of the old value judgments with a self-conscious attention to the play of ideology and social convention in constructing those values.
The author thus sets out to forge a synthesis between the hitherto too separate ideas of "text" on the one hand, and the social production of meaning, on the other. In his own terms the aim is to develop "textual strategies for the study of literature as discourse" (viii), i.e. to combine close textual analysis with the practices of discourse theory which look at meaning production as socially, hence ideologically, constructed. "The new object is no longer the meaning(s) of literary texts as such, but the processes by which meaning is produced and renegotiated and calculated around literary and other texts which perform analogous functions in contemporary culture"(l8). This hardly looks like the sharp break with current critical practice that Hodge claims it to be; it simply emphasizes the self-consciousness that has been part of the critical enterprise in most self-suspecting English departments for the last two decades. It is curious that while pointing to the semiotic implications of New Criticism, Hodge fails to mention the influential discussions of The Meaning of Meaning by Ogden and Richards (1923) for instance. Even within the framework of cultural and communication studies which is the author's speciality, the object of this book does not appear much different from that of earlier analyses of cultural practices, beginning with Barthes's Mythologies (1972) and continuing through such works as Eco's Travels in Hyperreality (1986) and the various writings of Jean Baudrillard (e.g.1981). It is thus neither the object nor the tools that are new in Hodge's endeavour; rather it is the eclectic combination of the two. Particularly interesting is Hodge's communion of semiotics and pragmatics, a domain of discourse theory for which he relies on the writings of linguistic theorists like Michael Halliday (1976, 1978). There is also an obvious influence from the sociolinguistics of the likes of William Labov (1972).
Considering the pragmatic aspect of Hodge's enterprise, it is surprising that some of the presuppositions underlying the discussion remain somewhat unclear. Thus, for instance, Hodge distinguishes between "semiosic" and "mimetic" aspects of texts in a way that seems to imply that the two can be studied in isolation. The relationship between them, he claims, is modified through the use of "modality," one of the most interesting concepts that he adopts from the Greimasian school of narrative semantics. "Modality," he explains, "is the end product of a series of semiotic acts, so that a reading of modality is a reading of the semiotic process. Benveniste's (1971) concept of enunciation (74) hence further reinforcing its belonging to semiotics rather than mimesis. Yet he begins by identifying modality as pertaining to the mimetic dimension of gene (22). In spite of the occasional confusion, however the discussion of modality remains one of the most interesting aspects of the proposed new paradigm and it is, of more, particularly pertinent to the discourse of literary criticism itself. To paraphrase Greimas, one might argue that the aim of the literary critic is no different from that of the realist novelist in that if is ruled by the modality of "make believe", the attempt to convince the reader of the mimetic validity of one's statements, i.e. their ability to describe that which is "real". In that respect it shares its own modality with the discourse of historiography, the difference being, Hodge implies, that while the former is aware of this fact, the latter is not. It is gratifying to see such attention paid to the level of "pronunciation," an aspect of discourse particularly neglected in English studies in spite of its obvious relevance to the current debate on subjectivity. Hodge here seems to assume that historians read "mimetically," paying scant attention to the current debate on subjectivity in historiography, represented by such writers as Dominick LaCapra 0983) and Louis Mink (1987).
Hodge's discussion focuses on three crucial aspects of discourse -- style, transformation, and modality -- which bring to mind the work of linguists as varied as Greimas and Chomsky. It is refreshing although, no doubt, shocking to many professors in English departments to see transformational grammar used as a model for explaining genre changes, for instance. Yet Hodge's use of semiotics is not without problems; for the uninitiated reader the text seems sometimes unnecessarily dense and its terminology unduly complicated. It is not clear, for instance, why the term "semiosic" is preferred over the generally accepted "semiotic" (the reason is given as a desire to avoid confusion with "semiotics" as a term denoting the discipline and its object but the two terms seem to be used in a way that blurs any distinctions).Such hypercorrection becomes a deterrent rather than an aid to reading, and the same can be said for the introduction of a number of terms that, while carefully -- albeit at times not completely consistently -- defined, do little to help the absorption of the text. It is not always easy to keep track of the distinction between "domains," "logonomic systems" and "logonomic regimes," for instance. It could be argued that to some extent Hodge's scrupulous striving for precision defeats its own purpose; an anti-theorist study of the author's own use of modality might accuse him of indulging in what he himself, with a term borrowed from Halliday, calls "anti-language" -- the discourse of exclusion which aims at solidarity rather than communication among grouped members. While exact terminology is both useful and necessary for any claim to rigour, the coinage of new terms and the plethora of consequent definitions may subject the author to allegations of using the modality of 'persuasion by erudition.' And what do we call the modality that insists on referring to William Blake as "Blake" while alternating between " Brontë" and " Emily, " "Woolf " and "Virginia"?
The spectrum of cultural items analyzed by Hodge is fully impressive, spanning from the poetry of Richard Lovelace and John Donne to the legends of Australian aborigines, Bob Dylan's ballads and comic strips. This eclecticism seems to corroborate the universal claims made for the reading strategies proposed, yet at the same time it gives rise to some suspicion; it is useful to have at one's disposal such a vast store from which to pick and choose to prove a point. The wide range of examples sometimes gets in the way of clarity and tends to obscure the synthesis which Hodge strives for. At the same time it must be said that, rather than sacrificing qualify to quantity, Hodge is extremely conscientious in doing justice to the individual texts and he carefully resists the temptation to reduce difference to sameness in the name of paradigmatic clarity. It is perhaps precisely because of this scrupulous attention to detail that the overall design of the promised paradigm is difficult to discern. While the eclecticism extends to the critical writings attacked -- or, less often, emulated -- their scope is nowhere near as broadranging. It could be argued that, while quietly critcizing and counteracting the Eurocentrism of both "English" and "History" in Western academe as well as bridging the "great divide" between "high art" and "popular culture," Hodge's own discussion leaves itself open to similar attacks with regard to the critical approaches studied. There are few mentions of critical movements originating outside the Western mainstream. Even those that are implicitly hailed as progressive or radical remain fairly safely within, or in the immediate neighbourhood of the canon, although the individual critics he takes on are frequently unknown to the non-specialist in the particular area in question, whether it be Donne studies or pop music. The structure of the book is in line with its encyclopedic nature; in the place of end-notes each chapter concludes with a summary of "Sources and Contexts" which contains much valuable information for anyone wishing to pursue any particular aspect of the preceding discussion. Here too the author's erudition is evident. While the bibliography is ambitious and impressive it still seems not to include all the sources; there is a strong allusive feeling about the whole book. One hears echoes from many sides, the most insistent of which seem to come from the more formalist pole of the discourse theory spectrum. In the background one senses a line of descent from the Russian formalists through high structuralists like the Lévi-Struass of Structural Anthropology (1963) to the latterday linguists and semioticians already mentioned.
The text is plagued by typographical errors, an unfortunate fact which does little to facilitate an already demanding reading experience. Unless, of course, one prefers to think of the reference to Wimsatt and Beardsley's (1954) "international fallacy" (50) as a Freudian slip revealing the fallacy which threatens Hodge's own text; while attempting to respect differences among the many disparate texts brought together and the "reception regimes" which govern their generic classification, it at the same time assumes that reading practices remain fundamentally universal. It should be added, in fairness, that Hodge is particularly sensitive to the problematics of translation, a subject only recently emerging from the doldrums of Eurocentric literary criticism and frequently overlooked in theories of discourse.
The text's goal to fuse the two disciplines we currently know as English and History without negating the differences between the various kinds of discursive strategies that govern one and the other amounts in the end to a plea for a sharing of already established practices rather than a clearcut new paradigm. In a seeming paradox, Hodge emphasies that in order to further the aims of History, English must abandon its rigid devotion to both literary history -- the study of "periods" and "turning points" -- and literary criticism -- the study of "revolutions" in aesthetic values -- and, without forsaking the canon or the works of the past, devote more of its energies to studies of the present. Only by studying what is available at the present moment can English lay claim to the precision and truth-value -- the "high" modality which Hodge revealingly strives for -- which, the author implies, should be the object of historical studies. This view indicates that it is the task of English, in the new sense of the study of textual strategies and the discursive regimes that produce them, to assist History by teaching its practitioners how to read for such things as modality, for instance. The focus on the present implies, of course, that the semiotic conditions that constitute our own time and place are accessible not only to study but to verification, so that, in the final analysis, mimesis serves as the proof to semiotics. It is because of their training -- or what should be their training -- in the vicissitudes of modality, style and transformation that literary critics would make valuable allies of historians, Hodge seems to say. The most intriguing suggestions presented concern the fusion of the Foucaldian insights into the relationship between knowledge and power with the practical tools of linguistics and semiotics, which any critical approach that subscribes to the idea of language and communication as a social and political force can no longer do without.
If the exact nature of the proposed new paradigm remains elusive in the end, this may, of course, be a consequence of a failure of reading, but it may also be a symptom of the difficulty of grasping the synthesis behind the plethora of critical insights and the erudite display of knowledge. It takes considerable effort to assimilate and piece together the many ideas that are presented; this is not an easy read. Rather it is one of those books that (like Walt Whitman, a figure who seems almost conspicuously absent from the encyclopedic corpus) contains multitudes and yet leaves the reader at a loss as to how to summarize it. It is perhaps better to disregard the pretensions to paradigmatic status and read Hodge's book for what it undoubtedly is: a storehouse of nuggets scattered in at times unnecessarily murky waters.
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Williamson, Judith.(1978) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Boyars.
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Wollen, Peter.(1969) Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana UP.Sylvia Soderlind teaches in the English department at Oueen's University. She is a graduate of the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto and the author of Margin/Alias: Language and Colonization in Canadian and Québecois Fiction. She has also published a number of articles on Canadian, Québecois and American literatures and literary theory. Her current research is in the area of the postmodern allegory.