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Saturday, 19 August 2006


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I think you're simplifying your history of theory here, Scott. A couple of comments:

First, the American New Criticism had already been divested of its agrarian political trappings, long before deconstruction hit North America. Certainly, by the time you get to Austin Warren and Rene Wellek's Theory of Literature, there is no echo of I'll Take My Stand. New Criticism had instead become a routinized disciplinary paradigm, mostly used in undergraduate teaching. Graff provides a pretty good account of all this in Professing Literature.

Second, the New Criticism didn't dominate either graduate education or scholarly research in the 1960s, when myth critics like Northrop Frye were all the rage, alongside a variety of other approaches.

Third, and maybe most seriously, the Yale deconstructionists came to Derrida via phenomenology, right? I.e., they were already invested in a philosophical approach to literature, rather than boiler-plate text explication, and Derrida helped formulate questions they were grappling with.


Excellent post, Scott. I do agree with Stephen, though, about the problems with forcing New Criticism to bear the cross of southern agrarianism, whose relationship to NC as actually practiced in universities and colleges and in writing is extremely complex.

I for one learned what I think was a variation on it, but it was one built (I think) on a highly ideosyncratic foundation. The pedagogical theorization of an English 101 course decades at my college, Wittgenstein, Eliot, modernist poetry, Randall Jarrell. Weird! I know! But extremely effective.

Perhaps, you'd say it wasn't New Criticism at all. And maybe you're right. But it sure feels like it - and, to this day, I am accused of / lauded for being a latter-day New Critic in my work.

All of which is to say that Stephen's right about the ambiguous relationship between canonical theorizations of New Criticism and practical applications of it, or something like it, in the classroom. I rather think that the latter was more central to something like the emergence of theory than the former. I.e. no one had both Grammatology and Cleanth Brooks open on the desk at the same time. Or, um, at least I didn't... And it makes me feel as though others didn't either, or at least that this was possible.

And further, think about the other branches. For instance, Jameson's Political Unconscious, which seems to me to hoist new criticism into marxism, foregoing derrida and the like altogether.

How would it change your history here to see Derrideanism as one of many evolutionary steps out of NC?

Sorry if this is incoherent - very tired.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Well, yeah, I'm oversimplifying it. I was a first-year at the time, thinking first-year thoughts and making first-year generalizations. If I were writing this about now, I'd mention Frye and Poulet. I'd also be more careful to differentiate between Hillis and the average English professor of the time. (I didn't do so because, well, I think people look askance at my praise of Hillis, like it's perfunctory, done to enhance my credibility.) That said, I'm not sure Hillis came to Derrida through Poulet, and he was certainly a New Critic prior to his encounter with him, which is my larger point. (And one, all these years later, I'll still defend.)

Also, I'd take issue with the notion that New Criticism didn't function as a boogeyman in the early '70s. I've read enough of CI at the time to know that the Yale Derrideans treated it as such. So sure, it may not have been instrumental--although, again, despite Frye and his ilk, I still think that's arguable--but it was certainly rhetorically effective, and the distancing Miller did is, well, a matter of historical record. For whatever reason, the Yale Derrideans went to great lengths to distance what they did from "close reading," and they did so, ironically, in a language which smacked of structuralist scientific pretentions. I don't claim to know the who, the what, the where and the why (yet), but I'm certain of the that.

In other words, there was no echo of I'll Take My Stand, but there were abundant intimations that the defense of English as it was studied entailed such a commitment, right?


But, yes, what is very valuable about your idea, as far as my biography goes, is the possibility that the progression isn't from NC to Derrida to close reading / political contextualization and political drive but rather NC straight to the politics, with the label Derridean added on extraneously, after the fact. Did reading Derrida just confirm what I already knew, or was about to learn to do? I certainly don't refer back to him all that often today, I must admit.

Scott Eric Kaufman

CR, we missed each other in the ether. First, don't agree with Stephen, as he's Canadian, and thus--wait, crap, you're Canadian too, aren't you? Of all the people to gang up on me ...

... but seriously, you're right that the relation of New Criticism to Southern Agrarianism is fraught, but I do think--and maybe this is me reading too much into it--that the ideals the New Critics championed were, in fact, anti-technocratic, anti-bureaucratic, and anti-scientific. (Esp. anti-social-scientific.) So even though as it was practiced it wasn't pro-Agrarian, it still perpetuated a set of values consonant with them. (And also, as I said, the boogeyman theory. While I may not be correct intellectually, the rhetorical point still stands, maybe.)

But I'll respond more fully tomorrow, as I'm tired and need to think these things through.

Super-quick thought on this passage:

"In a conversation elsewhere about the relation of thinkers to their adjectives, I mentioned a crack Derrida made about feeling 'insufficiently Derridean.' Possessive pronouns aside, his legacy would not be his, nor would it relate to the body of his thought."

I would say similarly about Marx (his feeling 'insufficiently Marxist'); Plato; Kafka, perhaps; Darwin, especially; and others I'll think of in bed. Perhaps every significant author--not necessarily one of genius--must unconsciously make that sacrifice Derrida touched on in "Signature Event Context": The very act of writing subtracts the writer from his or her work; the writing, in the author's eyes, is absolutely an alien thing, an other of sorts, born from the author's disappearance, his or her loss of authority.

Bravo to your post! Looking forward to more and ones before. I feel you're heading the Foucauldian direction.

Luther Blissett

I think we have to distinguish between New Criticism as pedagogy and New Criticism as methodology for published literary criticism.

I believe it was Catherine Gallagher who wrote about the dominance of New Criticism over English studies curricula and pedagogy. It offered a research method, a canon, an overall disciplinary sense of purpose, a set of research questions -- Gallagher calls it the dominant paradigm insofar as it gave English Departments a stable rationale. This isn't to say that myth critics didn't have some power -- especially at the level of publishing. But New Criticism revolutionized college level literary studies.


Oddly enough, I read a long exchange between John Holbo and someone else on the Valve which was about a very similar topic; I found it during lazy internet research on Wittgenstein and Heidegger.

(Wittgenstein: "the logical positivists are so stupid, why does nobody understand!")

Anyway - my thoughts: Jesus was not a Christian, but it's important to recognise the integrity of Christians efforts to be like him....


I think you're right, Scott, that the New Critical animus towards the sciences and social sciences survived the eclipse of agrarianism - although this animus was arguably part of literary criticism since the nineteenth century. What interests me (as you know, from my first chapter) is the way that they usually combined that anti-scientific animus with a scientistic rhetoric that tried to claim a kind of scientific rigor for close reading, especially in essays like John Crowe Ransom's "Criticism, Inc." This scientistic rhetoric is not entirely different from some of the claims surrounding French structuralism and post-structuralism. So maybe the link between New Criticism and Deconstruction is not so much that one directly led into the other, but rather that both, at different times, fulfilled similar disciplinary needs - i.e., the need for a critical "program" capable of allowing literary studies to methodologically compete with the sciences while at the same time proclaiming its difference from them.


Theory began to matter less. The history of theory began to matter more.

The question is: do you still see yourself as not "doing Theory"? Can you inquire into the history of Theory (which must be rather short if it began with the introduction of Derrida into American literature departments) without also doing Theory? If we get rid of the narrow point - "doing Theory" as a practice done by American (or English language?) literature scholars of a certain sort - the problem becomes the relation between history and thought as practice on the Continent, particularly in France. Most philosophical or theoretical texts were, largely, engagements with "the past" in some sense - Derrida's readings, Deleuze's commentaries, Foucault's studies - but, also, the prior French Hegelianism. Why can't you - or, rather, isn't that the only way? - do "the history of Theory" and "do Theory" at the same time?

Roger Mexico

Two things:

Correct my if I'm wrong but close reading isn't entirely of American/New Critical provenance, is it? I mean, the French had been doing "explication de texte" for decades before Brooks et. al. And also, if I remember right, early on Derrida even taught one of those let's-take-a-close-look-at-Racine courses that all French children are subjected to. So I don't think it's as simple as saying that Derrida was concerned with European structuralism whereas his American readers understood his stuff in the context of New Critical close reading. Certainly, Derrida himself is concerned with close reading too, albeit not as explicitly as he is with structuralism. I don't know where I'm going with this exactly but it's something to consider...

Another thing: I wonder if instead of writing "Derrideans" we really ought to be writing "de Manians." Even though no one likes to talk about de Man anymore since the revelation of the collaborationist articles, I get the impression that his work was really more important than Derrida's in terms of creating an institutional foothold for "deconstructionist" thinking. After all, it was de Man, not Derrida, who had students -- people who were and are still very active in the field: Spivak, Barbara Johnson, Cynthia Chase, Frances Ferguson, etc. I'm always surprised to find how many teachers I've had who, if they didn't work directly with de Man, at least had him on a committee or took one of his classes; he really was a presence in the field in a way that Derrida -- guest lectureships and speaking engagements aside -- wasn't.

Interestingly enough, de Man is also probably the most New Critical of the Yale Deconstructionists. He has an article somewhere where he talks about how important it was to work under Reuben Bower at Harvard. And even though he was critical of Empson, he still works like a New Critic, i.e., he does those almost painfully meticulous readings on specific passages in the text. What you get with de Man, I think, is the bridge between the older, New Critical method of doing things and the more overtly synthetic (or philosophical, if you will) style that Derrida ushered in.

Adam Kotsko

Isn't something like the New Criticism still the model for curriculum, at least for composition and lit survey courses? I was not educated in a mainstream institution, but I get the impression that "close reading" is basically what students are taught to do for their assignments, at least in the general ed level and the early stages of the English major.

This assumption might stem from the fact that I was trained in something like the New Criticism starting in high school and never really deviated from it -- except that I once claimed I was doing "deconstruction" for the sake of fulfilling a course assignment, but in my own mind I was still just doing a New Critical reading. I can't imagine what could possibly replace it for pedagogical purposes.


Adam, I'm not an English major, so my personal experience may not be representative, but I've found that most classes - unless specifically oriented toward something like queer lit or postcolonial lit - focus on something resembling New Criticism and "close reading." I don't think this necessarily reflects the influence of New Criticism as much as it does the laziness of people unwilling to look outside the text.


What's the difference between "close reading" and good, old fashioned "exegesis"? I suppose one difference is that "close reading" doesn't imply writing, while "exegesis" does, but still. How could you read any way other than "closely"?

Scott Eric Kaufman

[I'm commenting backwards, today]


What's the difference between "close reading" and good, old fashioned "exegesis"? I suppose one difference is that "close reading" doesn't imply writing, while "exegesis" does, but still. How could you read any way other than "closely"?

The difference is the artificial constraints imposed by I.A. Richards in Practical Criticism. Derrida read Rousseau carefully, no doubt; but he did not remove the Rousseau's name from the passages before analyzing them. A "close-reading," properly accomplished, is immanent; the author's identity is unnecessary, because if it's not in the text, it's not in the text. The appeal to the author, or history, or any context outside the text is evidence of the lack of coherence in the work before you. So one way to answer your question would be to say:

"Close-reading" is a literary technique. More to the point, it can't be applied to philosophical texts. That's exegesis. One thing that drops from these conversations is that, for a while, New Critics considered any prose at all insufficiently literary and, therefore, unworthy of analysis. Pace Stephen above--and, considering the three books Brooks wrote on Faulkner--other critical methods didn't accept that point; but it's still an important distinction to make.

[I'm actually hard at work, right now, so I won't get to all these immediately. But I promise, I'm not ignoring anyone, just managing my time.]

Scott Eric Kaufman

Bryan and Adam,

The reasons Luther and Stephen mentioned above account for the continued dominance of New Critical methodology, if not it's actual practice by working scholars. It's an extremely effective pedagogy; thing is, as I mention before, in classes on the novel it resembles, superficially, exegesis. Only it isn't: passages of novels are ripped from context, analyzed as if they were coherent, autotelic objects, complete in themselves and reflective of some larger idea. What I said above--and this is an argument Stephen and I have had before, I think--is that I think there's an essential connection between the goals of that exercise and the anti-technocratic, anti-technology, pro-agrarian ideology from which it sprang.

Poems are like beautiful baubles in our menagerie which we take out, admire for their inability to be appropriated by scientistic discourse or the evil, Northern, technocratic New Dealers. The irony, as Stephen and Luther point out, is that they created a mechanical exercise, easily replicated in classrooms across the country, which purports to fight all things mechanical. Now, maybe it's an effective irony, in that you treat the study of literature like an assembly line--that is, one which creates both mass-produced objet d'arte and a work-force of unalienated laborers, but I don't buy it.

[More later.]


I agree with Roger Mexico that close reading, in and of itself, is not something invented by the New Critics. There are plenty of 19th-century close readings, not only in France but in the works of English authors like Matthew Arnold. What is most striking about the New Critics as a body is their insistence on anti-factual, intra-textual readings, and their association of close reading with this exclusionary method. (Scott, your two most recent comments basically address this, and you are right to see it as a politically confused project.)

Therefore, just because students are still taught to perform close readings does not mean that they are being trained in the New Criticism. In my own experience, many teachers provide biographical and historical contexts for assigned readings, and encourage interested students to do further research on what is "outside" the text. There is not necessarily a dogmatic insistence on the text's sanctity.

Scott, I think you've made an excellent point when you write that English professors used Derrida to distance themselves from the agrarian, anti-industrialist politics of the New Critics. However, I'm not convinced that, in doing so, they irresponsibly applied Derrida's name to developments outside the body of his thought.

For example, J. Hillis Miller recently gave a lecture at Irvine in which he rejected Raymond Williams's notion of beneficent agrarian communities. Hillis's objection was based on the idea that Williams's text romanticized an agrarian community that in all likelihood never existed outside of The Country and the City. This is familiar from Derrida's account of the supplement in Rousseau's Confessions: "But it happens that [supplementarity] describes the chain itself, the being-chain of a textual chain, the structure of substitution, the articulation of desire and of language [...] the indefinite process of supplementarity has always already infiltrated presence" (Of Grammatology 163). Hillis's description of Williams's agrarian project is a description of a substitution of desire and of language for a thing-in-itself whose superior "presence" is purely imaginary.

Thus the academic skepticism and negativity that you attack so admirably>here could be as much Derridean as New Critical, based on the Derridean claim that language is a formal process of desire and not the articulation of a real or possible presence or state. Its targets are everywhere: Marxism, capitalism, utopianism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, androcentrism, and so on. There are real bonds of kinship between de Man's skepticism about metaphor, and Walter Benn Michael's skepticism about ethnic identity.

However, the fact that this skepticism is indiscriminate does not make it apolitical. I would argue, while regretting the need to generalize, that academics in the United States tend to support identity politics and civil liberties, while rejecting Marxist ideals of class struggle and revolution. In this, too, Derrida is especially involved: the characters in his texts (such as Levinas in the essay on "Violence and Metaphysics") are oppressed by texts and discourses, not by poverty. Differance remains a classic formulation of the value of freedom of expression, and diversity of expression, when it is taken in a political sense. A powerful ideological alliance exists between Derrida's notion of differance and Foucault's aesthetics of practice; between Derrida's notion of phallologocentrism and Foucault's history of discipline. There are (obviously) enormous differences between the two thinkers, but the commonalities are not especially far-fetched, and have had a huge impact on the academy's politics.

I do think de Man is a different animal from Derrida, because he never took on the variety of positive projects that Derrida eventually did; in de Man's case his skepticism was so extreme that his philosophy approaches the unearthliness of the "ontological" in Heidegger's Being and Time. Both men participated in some of the same political movements with admirable zeal, a fact which is perhaps not irrelevant to the paradoxes in their work.

Still, there is a version of Derrida that has become increasingly prevalent, in which he dances like a sublime Puck above the heads of his followers, entirely blameless for their positions and writings because of a qualitative difference between himself and the academic rabble. In my opinion, where a legacy can be easily discerned, this myth makes claims about Derrida's importance confusing, and offers a shoddy kind of misdirection in response to critiques of his work.

It is my belief that a politically committed historicism would want to wrestle with Derrida the philosopher, and delineate points of agreement and difference, even as it found itself caught up in the historical significance of Derrida the philosophical event. It would not want to isolate Derrida from his followers, especially since doing so raises the specter of the qualitative difference of "genius," a notion that (it seems to me) ought to make a historian very uncomfortable.


Forgottenboy, that was a very nice comment.

One thing. Miller's talk, the way you've described it, sounds like a rather severe abridgement of Williams's book. The nostalgia is there, to be sure. But equal and opposite is the drive to recognize that the evisceration of the country way of life didn't just recently take place, with the "industrial revolution," but rather was always already happening. The infringement of the commons is a process that has been occurring more or less forever (or, at least, as far back as the literary record permits us RW to look....)


That's very true, CR. Williams is aware that the "country" has always been, in England, a place of imaginary refuge and an illegitimate focal point for nationalist sentiment. I think Williams does a great job distinguishing between these pastoral myths, and the mixed blessings of an actual childhood in Wales.

"Abridgement" is the right word. Hillis did focus on one particular feature of Williams's text; still, that feature is an important one. I like to see Williams draw fire of this kind; it's a testament to the provocative power of his ideal.


The discussion I mentioned earlier is here - see especially the comments section. Anyone interested in the above might also be interested in this:

I didn't mean to imply Derrida was Jesus (chap-legacy relationship being my issue).

While on the subject (as I am), the parallels are most definitely there. Check this out: Jacques Derrida and Jesus Christ were both Jewish, Jacques Derrida and Jesus Christ both died on a Friday (Oct 8, 2004 for JD, Good Friday, some time around 1 BC/AD 1 for Jesus), Jacques Derrida and Jesus Christ both had names beginning with 'J'!

Needless to say I have already started writing 'The Derrida Riddle', a work of 'faction' (wink, wink) which uncovers the amazing truth, hidden from you by the Catholic Church, Yale University and J. Edgar Hoover,.......)

It begins: 'Theorist Jacques Derrida staggered out of his own lecture. "Another brilliant one", he thought to himself; "You de man".

This made him giddy, so much so he simply had to say it aloud.

"You de man!", he whispered, this time thrusting his hips in the general direction of the auditorium door and placing his hands behind his head.

He was very excited now.

"YOU DE MAN!" he shouted, repeating the thrusting motion with yet more vigour. Exhausted, he collapsed in a contrived position which will later on prove to be very important.......

And that's as far as I've got.

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