Richard Freadman and Seamus Miller have written an invaluable book Re-Thinking Theory: A critique of contemporary literary theory and an alternative account (Cambridge University Press, 1992). They have addressed a set of theories, collectively known as deconstructionism or postmodernism, which are vehicles for a set of doctrines that they have termed "constructivist anti-humanism". These are:
1. The denial of truth in reference.
2. The repudiation of the individual subject.
3. The dissolution of substantive moral and aesthetic evaluation.
The new theory sets itself against the old 'humanism' which is said to lack rigour, self-awareness and methodological sophistication. Further, for reasons that are never explained, humanists are supposed to be committed to a conception of the self as atomistic and unconditioned, and to a conservative ideology that props up the status quo (capitalism).
It is clear that the authors have impeccably progressive tendencies and their objections to constructivist anti-humanism are entirely conscientious and are not a concession to the forces of repression and reaction.
They conclude the book with an exposition and a defence of theory and criticism along lines that are at once humanistic, illuminating and rigorous. They pursue a number of commitments that run counter to the 'theory' paradigm: "One, that theory properly understood is not particular to constructivist anti-humanist thought; two, that substantive conceptions of the individual subject are indispensable, both in respect of literature and of politics; three, that language both literary and other, can give us access to significant features of a reality that is not itself a linguistic construct; four, that discourses of value, both aesthetic and moral, are indispensable; and, five, that the category 'literature' remains solid and valuable".
SUMMARY OF THE MAJOR ARGUMENTS IN THE BOOK
1. Literary theory in the eighties: Caroline Belsey's Critical Practice
2. Two paradigms of literary theory
3. Literary theory and the problem of ethics
4. Althusserian Marxism: Text Production Theory
5. Derridean poststructuralism: (post-) Saussurian linguistic constructivism
6. Foucauldian poststructuralism: Discourse Power Theory
7. The powers and limits of literary theory
The authors selected Caroline Belsey's book for detailed examination because it provides a good example of several of the popular doctrines and "it attempts a now-familiar act of oppositional intellectual synthesis in which apparently disparate orders of theory and theorising are enlisted in the formulation of a new analytic or interpretive critical procedure". The key elements for Belsey are Saussurean linguistic theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Althusserian Marxism. A characteristic feature of the genre is way that the exposition is aggressively politicised from the Marxist left. The authors note the uncritical acceptance of aspects of Marxist theory that have been substantively discredited elsewhere, a characteristic that is typical of much literary theory, and they note "the frequent failure of those urging the Marxist case in literary theory to register, let alone to air, some crucial areas of reservation about it".
Another striking characteristic of Belsey's book is her claim that Western thought has been subjected to a Copernican Revolution by (pre-eminently) Freud, Marx and Saussure. She offers herself as a chronicler and prophet of this revolution against an old regime that is characterised by "fixity, conservatism, a fetishistic preoccupation with individual selves, an evaluative and referential aesthetic and a naive belief in the determinate status of linguistic signification".
The deconstruction of Belsey proceeds under four headings: history, language, self, and the text and critical practice.
(1) Under the heading of history (the history of ideas) the authors demonstrate that Belsey's notion of 'empiricist-idealism' is incoherent in the light of a historically informed understanding of the empiricist and idealist traditions, and in no way justifies her contention that the complex of empiricist-idealism in some way provides an expression of industrial capitalism or an ideological prop for it.
(2) Moving on to language, Belsey deploys Saussure's claim that "language is not a nomenclature, a way of naming things that already exist, but a system of differences with no positive terms". The authors point out that the simple nomenclature model of language decried by Belsey has been long laid to rest by developments that owe nothing to Saussure, including some, descending from Frege, which are referential and others (associated with Wittgenstein) that are not.
The authors dissect three claims that underpin Belsey's theory of language:
1. That language is a self-enclosed system.
2. That language is principally an expression of ideology.
3. That any word, or sentence, or text, has an indeterminate number of possible meanings.
The authors demonstrate that these three claims are radically defective and the arguments that Belsey advances in their defence are feeble and internally inconsistent. The task of the writer or the critic is complicated by a great deal of ambiguity in Belsey's use of words, as though this is legitimated by her own theory of language. As to the indeterminate meaning of texts, this applies to some extent to individual words or phrases but the doctrine does not do justice to the way that the range of possible meanings of texts is narrowed by the context. For example the shout "Fire" has very different but fairly unambiguous meanings in the context of a firing squad and a Fire Station.
(3) As to the self, Belsey offers what the authors call "virulent anti-humanism": the notion that the self is not in any sense given, but is (apparently) a form of pure potentiality, a somewhat diffuse concept that is based on at least two central claims (a) there is no such thing as 'human nature' and (b) we must reject essentialist models of the self in favour of transformative ones in order to sweep out the old (pre-Copernican) bogeys of empiricist-idealism, humanism and capitalism. After some close analysis of these claims the authors conclude that the humanist project does not depend on static or essentialist concepts of human nature, so the targets attacked by Belsey are essentially straw dummies or caricatures.
"We suggest that her project (and others like it) is fundamentally misguided in that by eliminating a substantivist discourse of the self it empties its political position of a subject. If selves possess no qualities, limits, needs or particular potentialities, to what end is an emancipative politics addressing itself?"
(4) Freadman and Miller note that the traditional model of critical practice posits four entities - world, creator, text and reader – but the new theorists are inclined to dispense with the creator and possibly the world, leaving the text as a plurality of meanings. This demands a special kind of reader:
"...a kind of super-reader, and this reader - rather than a character or an author - emerges as the protagonist of post-bourgeoise, post-humanist, post-modernist literature and literary theory".
Chapter 2 is a warm-up for the more arduous terrain that lies ahead. It provides a comparison of two contrasting views of literary theory and it indicates the need for an alternative to both the atheoretical position adopted by F R Leavis and the very different stance of the New Theorists.
Leavis is an excellent example of the derided "humanism" of yesteryear because his criticism was relentless moralistic and he explicitly rejected literary theory. The authors point out that to some extent he misconstrued both his own position and his practice. He was very much in the grip of theory but was not prepared to be explicit about it, despite a clear and pointed challenge from Wellek. In addition he was a bad example of a moralistic critic because his moralism was expressed in terms that were partly archaic (harking back to a pre-industrial Golden Age that never existed) and partly couched in terms that were never adequately explained - 'life', 'experience', 'complexity', 'moral seriousness'. Incidentally Wellek's challenge came in an article that demonstrates the synergy of theoretical sophistication, close reading of texts and scholarly rigor. Leavis was very much a man at work, fully engaged with texts, but there is a touch of irony in the fact that this tireless student of literature (especially great literature) had a prose style that rivals the modern theorists in tormented complexity. Apparently Leavis wrote pretty much as he spoke and his texts need to be "heard" with the appropriate emphases and punctuation in the delivery.
Terry Eagleton is a mirror image of Leavis, being very much model of the thoroughly Modern (Marxist) Theorist. As such he rejects the Leavis view that texts are resistant to theoretical analysis, quite the reverse, he argues that texts are essentially constituted by theory (the critics theory). Freadman and Miller contrast this view (and that of Leavis) with their own stance which allows for both the independent status of texts and the validity of theorising about them.
Chapter 3. Literary theory and the problem of ethics.
The authors note the "disturbing and regrettable" achievement of the new theorists in eliminating the explicit consideration of ethical issues from the discussion of literature. (One could go further and consider the parallel process in political economy, under the influence of Marxism, and in sections of philosophy under the influence of the logical positivists). They suggest that even the occasional discussion of ethics by theorists such as Paul de Man is so virulently anti-humanistic "as to constitute not a commitment to the ethical but rather a dissolution of it". This could be described as "the treason of the intellectuals, revisited".
They vigorously contest the widespread view in literary and cultural studies that ethical discourse is intellectually and politically outmoded. Their rejoinder comes in three parts. (1) In this chapter they provide a critique of the Marxist, structuralist and poststructuralist approach to ethics. (2) In the following chapter they consider some additional claims of Marxism. (3) In chapter 7 they provide their own positive account of the place of ethical concerns in the critical interpretation of literature.
In this summary of their arguments I will focus on Marxism. I will not pursue the structuralist and poststructuralist approaches to ethics because there is no place for ethical considerations after they have, to their satisfaction, disposed of the real world and the individual subjects in it. The arguments that are employed to eliminate the world and its inhabitants are examined and found wanting by Freadman and Miller in later chapters.
One of the Marxist lines of argument against ethics starts with the assertion that ethical discourse is simply a symptom of class conflict or of "class society" and such talk will not be required after the revolution and the advent of true socialism. There will be no social conflict in the class-free society and ethical discourse will stand revealed as specific to "class society". Hence "Marxist discourse should assist the recognition of the specificity of moral discourse to 'class society' by refusing to engage in moral discourse".
In place of moral discourse the Marxists deploy the notion of ideology. F&M point out that the result of the abolition of ethics this would be "a society without any ethical order and without moral agents...a society of people bereft of any sense of right and wrong...a community of psychopaths" (p 69).
The authors note that the Marxist constructivist critiques of bourgeoise society "whilst rhetorically denying the ethical and moral agent, are in fact employing notions of these very things in order to describe, evaluate and deplore the repressive nature of society as they find it. They are themselves moral and cannot do without moral categories and judgements". This is the profound and debilitating contradiction in Marxist and constructivist ‘ethical’ theory.
Chapter 4. Althusserian Marxism: Text Production Theory
The authors note the remarkable impact of Marxism on Anglo-American literary studies since the mid 1960s.
"What is striking about the manner of Marxisms importation into literary studies is the relatively uncontested ease with which it has been accomplished. Few of the books that have helped to popularize literary or cultural Marxism have presented its doctrines as being in any fundamental way problematic".
They suggest that the pressure to embrace Marxism is markedly more prevalent in literary studies than in other disciplines, although I would have thought that Sociology and History have been equally susceptible. They attribute this to naivete rather than sophistication because literary scholars have not seriously pursued any of the searching questions that need to be asked about the credibility and power of Marxist theories.
They identify seven areas that need to be probed.
1. The teleology of history, in view of the Fall of the Wall and cognate failures of Marx's predictions that were apparent long before.
2. Class, especially the underestimation of other aspects of social structure that are important.
3. Science. It has become increasingly difficult to reconcile the methods or the results of Marxism with those of the natural sciences.
4. Humanism and anti-humanism.
5. Ideology. Strong notions of ideology - "total ideology" - do not account for criticism of capitalism and resistance to the status quo. Weak forms of ideology only entail the existence of social conditioning which is not an original concept with Marxism.
6. Base and superstructure. Marx and Engels made allowance for some superstructural phenomena, including literature, to have a degree of autonomy from the material base in order or to avoid the trap of determinism. However it has not proved possible to give an account of autonomy without compromising the materialist enterprise. The result, as in most aspects of Marxist theory, has been massive debate with little to show as a result.
7. Praxis and normative values. Much of the appeal of Marxism can be attributed to values of freedom, equality and creative realisation of the individual that are supposed to be realised under socialism however it is also asserted that Marxism is a mode of historical transformation which completely repudiates bourgeoise values, especially the realisation of the individual. The authors describe this latter tendency as the Marxist 'dissolution of ethics'.
The authors then turn their attention to Text Production Theory, the special Marxist account of the production of literary works. They claim that this theory has persisted from early Marxism to the later variants associated with Jameson and the Frankfurt School.
"In essence, Text Production Theory proposes that the writing and reading of literary texts is not just analogous to, but an activity of the same order as, the production and consumption of commodities. Thus, the writer is construed as a producer, the text as commodity and the reader as consumer. Three further claims are central. One, that the 'raw materials' upon which the writer-as-producer works are ideology; two, that the process of literary production are both determined by, and to be understood as elements of, modes of economic production; and three, that because its materials, modes of production and so on are 'ideological' the text cannot provide access to reality".
The authors then undertake a detailed analysis of the concepts of ideology and text-as-product.
They note that the concept of an ideology is fundamental to all versions of Text Production Theory but the concept is unstable and unclear. They make some distinctions in an effort to clear the ground and they suggest that the notion of an ideology, to do any useful work in literary or cultural studies, needs to involve systematically connected and shared sets of beliefs and claims. At the same time they reject some of the claims that are made on behalf of language in shaping or determining these shared sets of beliefs, pointing out, among other more complex arguments, that there can be English and French Marxists (speaking different languages).
They conclude that there are non-political as well as political ideologies, although such a distinction is generally foreign to Marxist literary theory, resulting in an unhelpful conflation of the strictly political and the non-political.
Additional sources of confusion appear as they consider the application of Marxist ideology to literary theory. For example, they note the tendency to shift between two conceptions of ideology (1) an account that resembles that provided by the authors, in which ideology consists of systematically connected beliefs about the world (2) a set of social practices - activities, actions, modes of conduct. The notion of truth applies to the first but not to the second so if discourse shifts from one to the other without signalling the distinction, then confusion will arise regarding the possibility of the ideas in question being true or false.
Another problem arises in connection with language, specifically whether it is in the base, determining the superstructure of ideas, or whether it is a part of the superstructure and so determined by the material base. The authors note that Althusser, Gramski and Williams have attempted to develop complicated theories of interaction to explain the relation between base and superstructure. In literary studies Eagleton and Macherey have been especially influenced by Althusser. Further examination of Eagleton's account of Text Production Theory reveals both complexity and confusion, some of which he shares with Marxist theories in general and some of
which are specific to his own account. The authors note that some of these problems are in a sense to his credit because they reflect his attempt to avoid crude and deterministic formulations about the relation between Modes of Production and ideology on one side and texts and authors on the other. However the overwhelming impression conveyed by the Freadman and Miller account is one of confusion and complexity developed to little effect.
The same picture emerges from their critical appraisal of the cardinal notion of Text Production Theory, the "text as product". The central claim of this theory is that the text is literally a product, a commodity produced by the action of productive forces working on raw materials. Obviously it is possible to sketch the process of literary production and consumption in this manner, but it could also be sketched using an organic analogy or perhaps a computer simulation model. The questions have to be asked, whether the model is internally consistent when it is fully developed and whether it is helpful to illuminate issues in the discussion and evaluation of literature. As to the first question, it appears that the theory suffers from a generous quantity of internal problems.
The authors then turn to the critical practice that follows from Text Production Theory, using Terry Eagleton's book Criticism and Ideology as a reference point. It seems that Eagleton is keen to capture the image of scientific rigor for his critical practice, while at the same time claiming that literature has even more to offer than science in some ways because it is "the most revealing mode of experiential access to ideology that we possess" page 106).
Freadman and Miller find that Eagleton's analysis of George Eliot's fiction is instructive because Eagleton's "commodity production" theory cannot avoid a reductive devaluation of Eliot's achievement and they correctly regard this as a major failing. They also identify a number of internal problems with the commodity production theory and the way that it handles (or rather fails to handle) ideological differences between different texts. There is also a nagging problem with the status of the "real" that is supposed to be present or presented in ideologically correct texts. And there is the problem of justifying the correct ideological reading. The authors point out that "His prioritising his own utopian perspective is of course supposed to be justified on the grounds of its unique 'scientific' status. But this in the end is an unargued belief".
Chapter 5 Derridean poststructuralism: (post-) Saussurean linguistic constructivism
The authors do not attempt to provide an exhaustive account of Derrida's theories, just those that support constructivist anti-humanism. This is a long chapter (50 pages) and the argument proceeds through three phases, first addressing the thrust of Derrida's thought; second, his views on language and its capacity for reference; third, a case study of deconstructive critical practice..
Derrida claims that the history of western thought suffers from a peculiar set of metaphysical assumptions that he has unveiled and deconstructed. He describes the leading features of the western tradition as follows:
1. There is a commitment to sets of paired concepts - mind/body, matter/form, essence/accident.
2. These concepts stand in opposition to each other, and one is prioritised, for example, mind over body.
3. This ranking or hierarchy is a matter of power and is an inherently political phenomenon.
4. There is a commitment to logocentrism which presupposes (a) the existence of some reality that requires explanation and (b) the project to search for foundational categories to explain reality.
5. All of these diverse categories are subsumed under the super-category of 'presence'.
6. The notion of presence (in Derrida's account of the western tradition) is associated with the ranking of speech above writing. There is the implication that language is transparent and speech (with the speaker's meaning present in consciousness) becomes the paradigm for the conception of language in general. This complex of assumptions is labelled 'phonocentrism' and Derrida postulates a radically different notion (derived from the deconstruction of the speech/writing opposition) - according to which language is non-transparent, non-representational, constructive, indeterminate, metaphoric and not separable from non-linguistic reality.
7. Derrida proposes a discursive mode that he calls deconstruction that is designed to disclose and dismantle the alleged phonocentric or logocentric tradition to show the way to an alternative intellectual and cultural mode.
Before summarising Freadman and Miller's critique of Derrida, it is important to note a criticism that they do not offer, namely that Derrida and the deconstructionists scrupulously refrain from providing citations or extracts of text from the western cannon to back up the claims that are made about it. By any reasonable standard of scholarship this would rule the whole shooting match out of court and if this school of thought had not assumed such prominence in the academies it could conceivably be dismissed as sophisticated hoax, a weird curiosity, perhaps the work of an ingenious lunatic. Freadman and Miller almost say as much, when they report (p 119) that the very conception of the enterprise seems incoherent. "There is, then, we believe a simple and disabling contradiction at the heart of the enterprise, and the attempt to rename the contradiction 'paradox' does not remove the contradiction".
They note that the discursive style of the deconstructionists is notoriously anarchic and this is supposed to be justified by Derrida's sense of 'play'.
"But it must be emphasised that Derrida is not all 'play'; that, on the contrary, he is very much devoted to the rational advocacy of certain views. In this he of course partakes, as he inevitably must, of the very discursive practices that he purports to deplore and displace. What is unusual about Derrida, however, is the particular blend of play and elusive argumentation that characterises all of his texts. This blend has done much for his reputation among literary readers who find a combining of stylistic exotica with apparent conceptual rigour congenial; and it ahs also done much to ease the passage of ideas which are problematical but sufficiently cloaked in rhetorical cleverness to seem irrefutable...Derrida's famous 'slipperiness' in this respect is often taken for evidence for his contention that language in general is slippery and its meanings indeterminate. But this is again to confuse questions of style with questions of substance. Clearly, if language is inherently and radically indeterminate, neither Derrida nor anyone else need bother trying to communicate anything. If, on the other hand, Derrida (and others) can communicate something determinate through language, it suggests both the falsity of his claims about meaning, and the necessity of more lucid exposition than he offers" (121).
Freadman and Miller then proceed to Derrida's theory of language, including his account of indeterminacies, metaphor and the way that language 'creates' reality.
It seems that Derrida's book Of Grammatology undertook a deconstruction of Saussure's theory of language and it is this deconstruction that has provided the conceptual basis for poststructuralism. The key concept of Saussure that Derrida claimed to refute was the notion that the meaning of any linguistic utterance is in principle available ('present') to any member of the relevant linguistic community. F&M identify three main elements in Derrida's theory:
1. The meaning of linguistic utterances is in principle indeterminate.
2. Language is essentially metaphoric, so the distinction between the literal and the metaphoric is spurious.
3. Language does not represent, but in some sense 'constructs' the world.
The indeterminacy of words or texts. This was touched in chapter 2 and the commonsense solution to the problem is to provide more context, for example to differentiate the meaning of "Fire" in the context of a firing squad or a Fire Station. Here F&M address Derrida's account by locating some assumptions that he appears to make, followed by examination of their credibility and the logic of the consequences that follow from them. They note that this is no easy task and those who have read Derrida with wrinkled brow will understand what they mean. They conclude that the problem of indeterminacy is over-rated because it can be overcome by providing context to the extent that is required. Perhaps one of the unspoken assumptions that props up the doctrine of indeterminacy is the idea that speech mostly happens in the form of short, cryptic utterances, like the theatre of the absurd. This assumption is not realistic under most circumstances, although the ambiguity of isolated utterances can be hilariously demonstrated by the game of Chinese whispers. Traditional academic discourse and rational processes of debate are thickly hedged with conventions that are designed to clarify communication, for people who really want to be understood. As F&M pointed out somewhere, if Derrida and his colleagues really think that communication is not possible in principle, why do they bother to talk at all, and to write all those books?
Metaphor. Similar considerations apply to Derrida's claim that there are no markers to signal whether speech is supposed to be interpreted literally or otherwise.. Under most realistic situations there are markers and it strains credibility to argue that this is a pervasive problem in communication. Obviously in cross-cultural communication the markers can be misread. Similarly in texts with a measure of complexity and depth some training may be required to recognise the markers, hence the need for scholarly criticism and courses in literature.
Language 'creates' reality. This belief is propagated by ignoring the simple distinction between the picture or representation of something (say an external object) that is created by means of language, and the more complex object that is being depicted (in some selected aspects) by the picture or representation.
Moving on to the critical practice that follows from taking up Derrida's ideas, they note that he does not claim to contribute to literary theory, he regards himself as a theorist of language at large. Consequently it is a somewhat imaginative feat to create an ideal image of deconstruction's concept of text and critical practice but the main lines of the approach are fairly clear. Deconstructive critics will find that the meanings of the text under scrutiny are indeterminate; the language is radically metaphoric; the text is non-referential etc. The critics will then proceed to find all these characteristics in the text without allowing themselves to be distracted by the apparent affective and referential aspects of the text. Nor will they be interested in aesthetics or ethics "the greatness of art need no more concern them than the rightness of acts" (p 138).
For detailed analysis the authors selected a reading of the last five books of Wordsworth's Prelude by Gayatri Spivak, a Marxist, feminist and deconstructionist who translated Of Grammatology. Their analysis is fairly detailed and they find three major faults; first internal incoherence; second, her reading misrepresents the text by imposes meanings on it instead of finding them; and third, they find a number of problematic notions that arise from deploying some of Derrida's more suspect theories.
They preface their analysis with the comment that they have no objection to feminist commitments in general or presumably to the detection of misogyny, sexist bias, and cultural residues of an anti-feminist nature that the text might depict or reflect. However even from a feminist perspective Spivak's reading is a disappointment.
"We suggest that although Spivak's spectacular multi-disciplinary bombardment of The Prelude has the effect of blowing and throwing the whole thing open to question, the resultant spectacle does more to cloud than to assist her endeavour. This is because her deconstructive discussion, whilst trying to displace the binary oppositions it finds, to effect some fruitful renegotiations of categories, is in fact beset by contradictions which ultimately defuse its political force" (164).
This is an example of the rich irony of avant garde feminist theory, like avant garde left-wing theorising at large, which is supposed to be dedicated to the liberation of the downtrodden and wretched of the earth but is couched in jargon that is only accessible (if such a term is appropriate) to an intellectual elite.
Chapter 6 Foucauldian poststructuralism: discourse power theory
The authors recall the structure of the book and its critique of constructivist anti-humanism. Chapter 4 considered ideology, chapter 5 examined signification, this chapter turns to discourse theory which comes from a complex mixture of history, historiography and cultural studies associated with the work of Michel Foucault.
They note that it is common in literary studies to read that (a) everything is discourse, (b) anything discursive in nature is fictive or without foundation and (c) therefore everything is fictive and without foundation. "In literary studies this catch-all syllogism has been almost as counterproductive and misleading as the incoherent notions of ideology and signification that we have discussed above".
Discourse theory joins the anti-humanistic assault in three ways; first by supporting the notion that discourse can only be about itself and has no purchase on an outside world; second by reducing the status of the individual to a "function" of the rules of discourse; and thirdly, by dismissing evaluative matters as a (relativistic) function of this or that discourse.
The authors allow that Foucault's exposition of discourse theory has two positives, first, there is some concept of the world (though extremely attenuated); and second, Foucault undertook substantive historical studies, though they may be too generous in this instance because it is likely that Foucault's reputation as a historian is somewhat inflated, like the alleged philosophical acumen of the new theorists. F&M also approve of his emphasis on the pervasiveness of power relationships between social institutions and other cultural forms, including literature.
The authors briefly examine the relationship between discourse and knowledge, concluding that there is pervasive ambiguity in discourse theory regarding the nature of reality and the possibility of making statements about it which do not merely reflect the power relations of some groups or interests.
Moving on to discourse and power, it seems that Foucault employs the notion of power in the all-pervasive way that Althusserians deploy the concept of ideology. "The result of this undifferentiated and ubiquitous conception is that the notion of power loses all explanatory force since on this account there is nothing that is not power" (p 173). The authors give credit to Foucault's insight into the the impersonal and coercive forms of normalisation that tend to function in human groups but they insist that not all conformity is undesirable, instancing the practice of driving on the appropriate side of the road. By the same token, innumerable rules and conventions that regulate social life are mutually beneficial and cannot be usefully analysed in terms of power relations.
However the discourse theorists "have become fixated upon the sui generis notion of impersonal social power; a notion so amorphous and all encompassing that it obscures precisely those questions that need to be asked if a proper understanding of social processes is to be obtained" (178).
The authors next proceed to review alternative directions in discourse theory and literary studies, namely Habermas and the New Historicism. Habermas has established himself as the leading figure in the Critical Theory School associated with the Frankfort School and F&M have little to say about him beyond raising doubts about the coherence of his project. They move on to examine Stephen Greenblatt and the new historicist theory, giving the impression that Greenblatt is a highly scholarly, sensitive and interesting reader who is impeded more than he is assisted by his theoretical commitments.
Chapter 7. The Powers and Limitations of Literary Theory
In this long chapter (66 pp) Freadman and Miller set out their positive views on theory and literary criticism, having identified and criticised the efforts of constructivist rationalism, especially the three leading doctrines; the denial of reference and objective truth; the repudiation of the individual subject; and the dissolution of moral and aesthetic discourse.
To clear the ground, they reject the view that exponents of traditional humanism in literary studies cannot espouse emancipatory politics. They also dispute the notion that humanism is at odds with literary theory, just provided that the theory is robust and helpful, unlike the wave of New Theories.
The elements of their "third conception" of literary theory are: Literary theory, Text, author, reader, Truth in literature, Reading for the ethical. Under the sub-heading 'literary theory' they first defend the distinction between a theory and its object. They could have taken another step to mention the notion of language and meta-language to clarify the various levels of discourse about theories and objects.
They then specify some basic requirements for theory using the concrete example of tennis coaching: the theory should consist of principles with wide application (as opposed to simplistic maxims like 'attack the ball'); the principles should form a coherently connected structure; and they would need to stand up to testing to demonstrate their effectiveness compared with alternative or rival principles.
There would need to be some criteria to differentiate literary from non-literary texts (allowing for marginal cases such as a traffic regulations written in verse) and there will need to be some (at least preliminary) definitions of notions which are central to theorising in this area – these will include such things as text, context, structure, content and meaning.
The next step is to explore the various activities that might be conducted in literary-theoretical studies and they make a broad distinction between descriptive, explanatory and normative theories. A potent cause of confusion among the new theorists is the blurring of these categories, or the denial that they can be separated, even for analytical purposes.
The authors note the remarkable phenomenon that has emerged in literary studies in the last three decades, where the rhetoric of the new theorists clearly rules old-time evaluation out of court but at the same time they offer normative theories of interpretation with vigorous, even vicious, disrecommendation of alternative approaches. The mind boggles at the likely effect of this on students and it would be interesting to find whether it is the most gifted or the others who suffer most under the new regime.
Freadman and Miller advocate numerous activities in literary scholarship, in the three categories of description, explanation and evaluation. "Our position, needless to say, is that we believe in the need for a normative theory of interpretation...It is however important to note that ...we do not see this as the sole obligation of literary theory" (205). They also explain that they are not committed to the idea that theories can provide complete accounts of objects. This could be read as a concession to Leavis (who as a part of his case against theory insisted that texts, at least great texts, would defeat theory) and to the deconstructionists, however it is not a concession that damages their argument in favour of theory (contra Leavis) and against the anarchy of deconstructionism. It is simply a concession to what has been called "the essential incompleteness of science", meaning that there is no good reason to think that there is an "end of the road" of theoretical progress in the physical sciences. Similarly there is no reason to think that there will ever be an "end of the road" of literary criticism and exegesis. However the 'incompleteness' theory does not stand against the possibility of forming critical preferences among rival theories that are available at the time.
Text, author, reader. In this section the authors scout a number of issues that arise in relation to linguistic meaning, literary meaning and the relationship between the author’s intentions and the meaning of the text. They also note some of the complex (but not impenetrable) aspects of reception by readers including the role of conventions in constituting a hermeneutic community, the importance of the extra-textural context and the devices that are used to specify the intra-textual context.
Truth in literature. In view of the confusion created by the new theorists (and perhaps by some of the more doctrinaire or simple-minded schools of realism) it is necessary to clarify the distinction between fiction and literature. There is a useful summary of a dispute between Rorty ( something of a fellow-traveller with the new theorists) and Searle, who the authors find helpful in explicating the nature of fictional discourse.
Reading for the ethical. The final pages of the book consist of a detailed critique of Saul Bellow's humanistic novel Mr Semmler's Planet to illustrate the principles that are expounded in the first section of the chapter.