Jacques Derrida has in recent years made himself one of the most influential figures in literary criticism on American college campuses. The movement he has inspired, alternately known as “deconstruction” or “poststructuralism,” asserts that all language is metaphorical and that there is nothing outside the literary text. Following Derrida’s lead, Joseph G. Kronick challenges the traditional concepts of literary history and study and focuses on metaphor to create an alternative understanding of tradition and history. The “American poetics of history” he propounds is the personal and metaphorical creation of the group of American writers he examines. History in these terms is “a troping of the tropes that constitute history.” History, argues Kronick, is simply a “question of intertextuality, or reading and writing.” In other words, “nature and the past do not exist outside of language: history is generated by metaphors or representation. ” We must recognize “the irreducible metaphoricity of any notion of origins or centers.”
If this notion of history as literary play strikes you as peculiar or even perverse, you are still clinging to traditional humanistic assumptions that language can have determinate meaning and refer to things outside the realm of language itself. I confess to being a victim of such retrograde assumptions, and reading the chapters in this book on Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman— writers to whose lives and works I have devoted considerable study—is like entering a pale, surrealistic world of abstraction in which these writers are barely recognizable.
Making frequent use of Derrida, Paul de Man, Harold Bloom, J. Hillis Miller, and other contemporary literary theorists, Kronick portrays Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Henry Adams, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens as deconstructionists and then deconstructs them. The book is an encyclopedia of the jargon terms of poststructuralism and a showpiece of the kind of incomprehensible sentences that radical theorists delight in. Here is his thesis statement from the introduction: “A poetics of history shifts the ground of historical studies from epistomology to tropology, the rhetorical interplay that poses history as a problematic of reading wherein temporal relations are generated by a linguistic process of exchange.” At this point he is just easing us into the idiom. Later we must cope with sentences like this: “Introjection promises a synthesis of preservation and negation that it cannot fulfill; at this juncture, incorporation, a ‘fantasmic’ and ‘unmediated’ process, intervenes.” Or try: “Reading, or the struggle of reappropriation and exclusion (introjection), is facilitated by forgetfulness. Forgetting frees us to reappropriate what we have rejected. And forgetting is a preserving and negating par excellence.” Still looking for more? “The economic topos of a primordial gnosis passed from father to son in chronological succession cannot control the entropic force of writing, which can never overcome the chaos of its indeterminable history.” When to this idiom Kronick adds a sprinkling of Freudianism, we get statements like this about Thoreau’s first book: “But by writing, he gains the mastery of the pen, which we might call a phallus, and in rewriting history, he inscribes his own origin. The master of the pen/phallus becomes his own father.”
How appalling it is that a writer who uses language in these ways insists that there is no reality outside of language. “Reality,” he says, “earns its name by being written in a book, for only when the event is documented can we recognize it as truth.” Elsewhere he informs us that “the position one has relative to the universe is determined by language.” And language cannot refer to things or events in a real world because “the thing language communicates is always language itself” Consequently “the poet is no longer the namer of nature, man, and spirit; instead, he is a reader of texts, at once the assembler and the dissembler of fragments.”
The irony in all this, of course, is that the claim that language is everything in reality trivializes language and literary study. Kronick’s book is symptomatic of what is happening to literary study in our universities. In graduate programs and conferences of literature professors, poststructuralism is the fashionable approach and, for some, a new orthodoxy. It serves to widen the gap between criticism and the educated reader and between the humanities and the general public.
[American Poetics of History: From Emerson to the Moderns, by Joseph G. Kronick; Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press]
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