Postmodernism and the Meaning of Art

RE-DEFINING ART AS TEXT in the POSTMODERN ERA

Postmodernism promises endless creative play in contrast to Modernism, which, according to Roland Barthes (1916-1980), was a fraudulent attempt to find the universal in every solution. For Barthes, Structuralism, or the method of reading a text through the process of seeking its structure or boundaries, was an “activity,” and with this essential insight, he opened the way for the interactivity of Post-Structuralism. All meanings in literature are plural, and the ultimate (non)conclusion is (never)completed by the audience and/or the reader. The “work” is no longer a “work,” but is a “text.” The measure of a text’s success is not its finality but the amount of “production,” or activity, the text brings to the viewer. To read is to discover how the text was written; to view is to see how the painting was painted. One places oneself within the production (the process), not the product, and the audience is freed from presumptions of received or pre given meaning and can enter into the rite of creation itself.

In contrast to Modernism’s aristocratic/autocratic taste for authority, Postmodernism privileges change–better defined as choice–over necessity or singularity, and randomness over preconceived order. In contrast to the presumed “depths” of Modernism, in Postmodernism there is only surface. In contrast to the search for meaning that defined Modernist methodologies, in Postmodernism, there is nothing to be uncovered, no hidden world to discover, no seeking of purpose, just play, and the randomness of a work in process compared to the finished state of Modernist works. Postmodernism preferred metonymy above metaphor’s identification with one object or another. With the operation of metonymy, a play of associations and referrals and substitutions, each element can remain itself (as in allegory). Postmodern surface replaced Modernist depth, because the surface is where the activity of art making takes place between the artist and the spectator.

Postmodernism began to separate itself from Modernism about the same time Structuralism gave way to Poststructuralism in America, in the late sixties and the early seventies. Being preoccupied with the end of Abstract Expressionism and the beginning of Conceptual art, the art world of fine arts in America was introduced rather late to this significant philosophical shift. The break between the dominant tradition of Formalist purism and a hybrid stance that (re)examined the older philosophical systems was paralleled by activities in the art world and the philosophical world. The new generation of the art world that Joseph Kosuth (1945-) wrote about in his essay, “Art after Art Philosophy” (1969) was extricating itself from the hegemony of formalism and “taste,” exemplified by Clement Greenberg’s generation of art criticism. In America, it was the art critics and art historians who defined art or decided what could and would not be deemed “art and the generation that the Marxist art historian, Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996), belonged to, the fifties, was a time in which the art world was very concerned with questions of “Style” (1953) or pure appearance. As Schapiro wrote,

To the historian of art, style is an essential object of investigation. He studies its inner correspondences, its life-history, and the problems of its formation and change. He, too, uses style as a criterion of the date and place of origin of works, and as a means of tracing relationships between schools of art. But the style is, above all, a system of forms with a quality and a meaningful expression through which the personality of the artist and the broad outlook of a group are visible. It is also a vehicle of expression within the group, communicating and fixing certain values of religious, social, and moral life through the emotional suggestiveness of forms. It is, besides, a common ground against which innovations and the individuality of particular works maybe measured.

These two articles, “Art after Art Philosophy” and “Style,” were considered groundbreaking in their time and, written some twenty years apart, establish an important position for the next stage of the art world. Their divergent stance towards art is mirrored by the difference between early and late Barthes: one assumes a definition of “art” and the other critiques that assumption. Kosuth began his book by separating himself from Formalism:

It is necessary to separate aesthetics from art because aesthetics deals with opinions on perception of the world in general. In the past one of the two prongs of art’s function was its value as decoration. So any branch of philosophy which dealt with “beauty” and thus, taste, was inevitably duty bond to discuss art as well. Out of this “habit” grew the notion that there was a conceptual connection between art and aesthetics, which is not true. The idea drastically conflicted with artistic considerations before recent times, not only because the morphological characteristics of art perpetuated the continuity of this error, but also because the apparent other “functions” of art..used art to cover up art.

Schapiro’s essay, “Style,” was a summation of previous art historical attempts to distinguish art of one period from another, an exercise in connoisseurship inspired by Hegelian concepts of thesis and antithesis (compare and contrast) applied to a developmental model in which art evolved and devolved. The only difference between Schapiro and his contemporary, Clement Greenberg, was that Schapiro felt that style emerged from a historical context. For Kosuth, style was synonymous with taste with formalism and, like Marcel Duchamp, he sought to free art from materialism and to reinstate art as concept, free of physicality. But for Schapiro, art always has a purpose, if only to indicate a dominate mode of thinking of a particular society at a certain time. With this art historian who seemed to write with Heinrich Wölfflin’s “period eye” in mind, art is a manifestation of a culture, but he ended on a note of uncertainty—how to discuss art within culture from a Marxist perspective?

Writing just a few years later, in a series of monthly or bimonthly columns in Lettres Nouvelles between 1954 and 1955 culminating in the essay, “Myth Today,” Roland Barthes began to extricate himself from the strictures of Modernism. Barthes has a general audience and not being a traditional art historian he was free to embrace the vernacular as the site of his discussion of (popular) culture from a Marxist perspective. The collection of observations upon post-war politics in France was gathered together in one volume, Mythologies, which was translated in 1970 and produced in a new and unabridged edition in 2012. But Barthes also came to the point in his career where he realized that it was not the role of art to be in the service of society in the “reflective” fashion of vulgar or simple minded Marxism. He left “vulgar” Marxism behind, along with politically based art making, for what he called écriture blanche, or white writing. White writing, according to Barthes, was uninflected with politics (ideology), but, due to its lack of dependence upon codes and conventions,the neutrality of écriture blanche could intervene upon the reader’s expectations of received meanings.

If white writing is writing about writing, then the art world equivalent of white writing would be Minimal Art’s non-referential objects, uninflected by art world codes and gallery conventions. Barthes searched for a clean and clear language that could smash meaning: the “semioclasm,” perhaps best reached by the Minimalists insistence of a kind of “bracketed” form of perception of their “specific objects,” recommended by Edmund Husserl. Likewise, Joseph Kosuth spoke of a “blank” slate for art and returned to the Kantian notion of the a priori, noting that art was an analytic statement, containing its own definition. But Kosuth took Kant apart, discarding Greenberg’s use of Kantian notions of “art for art’s sake,” but returning to the philosopher’s first Critique on Pure Reason. In so doing, Kosuth placed art in a different place, in the site of language as a statement that contains its own definition. In following Marcel Duchamp, the artist moved away from object-based art that lent itself to a personal response based upon critical “taste.” In releasing art from “objecthood” and “taste,” Kosuth walked through the doors opened by Neo-Dada artists, Rauschenberg and Johns, and made the case that it is the art world that establishes “art.” Thinking along the same lines as Arthur Danto and George Dickey, Kosuth came to the conclusion that art was not a transcendent absolute. “Art” is an institutional entity.

Just as Kosuth fought against conventional definitions of art as a beautiful object, Roland Barthes, in his examination of literature, also was concerned with “style” as a middle ground for the prose writer who was trying to invoke something else, reaching beyond mere “realism.” The bête noir for Barthes was “realism,” a literary practice he saw as being composed of ideological codes that served to reinforce the very social system the writer was purporting to investigate. His struggle as a critic was to not only actively intervene as a critic and to expose the iconological underpinnings of literary practice, but he also struggled to re-imagine a new way to write. Barthes turned his back on “horizontal” writing, that is, writing that logically led to a conclusion and looked instead to a highly stylized écriture, writing with no purpose other than jouissance, for the writer and the reader. For Barthes, the structurality of Structuralism–the straight line from beginning to end–and its belief in style as depth was a form of ideology. He understood that realism was a form of style that reinforced the dominant belief systems, and the attempts on the part of Barthes to break the spell of good writing with neutral writing or self-conscious writing were also attempts to call attention to Formalism as an ideology of authority.

These decades between the 1950s and 1970s were the grounds for struggle upon which a series of transitional critics wrested Postmodernism out of Modernism. As will be discussed in future posts, it was Jacques Derrida who fired the final warning shot across the bow of Structuralism/Modernism in 1966 with his talk, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” which interrogated the structural theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Derrida warned,

The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center. The concept of centered structure—although it represents coherence itself, the condition of the epistémé as philosophy or science—is contradictorily coherent. And, as always, coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire.

Intertextuality is linked to Deconstruction and the techniques of Deconstruction involve a kind of reading that fundamentally undermined unified or finalized meaning. Most famously practiced by Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction read text as pure productivity, a literary offering without essence or fixed meaning, an utterance that could not be unique only a re-writing of the already written. However, the text was also a singularity in that it is always repeatable and iterable–resayable. Freed from Modernist formalism, the postmodern text was seen as a “performance” by the writer, advertising the ability to collect, containing a record of other texts, or an act that re-en-acts. To “deconstruct” a text is to draw out its conflicting contained logics and to show that the text never means what it says or never says what it means. Borrowing from the Modernist practice of “close reading,” or analysis of a supposedly bounded “work of art,” Deconstruction inverted and reinterpreted close reading by making this form of exposition to a reading against the grain of the overt meanings and intentions of the text.

Laying the text bare to a new kind of Postmodernist scrutiny, Deconstruction is a form of activist reading, a search through the multiple texts, locating the “unconscious” of philosophy in signs and symptoms of the text’s repressed rhetorical and figural and metaphorical tradition that contain a surplus of meaning that spills over in its own excesses. Writing disseminates a surplus of meanings, like a sower tossing seeds into the air, allowing them to randomly fall and take root. Derrida claimed that language itself is always subject to dislocating forces at work which throw meaning in other directions. He followed Kant’s interrogation of the grounds of the possibility of meaning itself, and Deconstruction follows a mode of argument in which epistemological problems of knowledge, meaning, and representation are raised once again and redeployed to define Postmodernism. These questions–the grounds of knowledge, how meaning “works,” and how representation constructs the subject are the main issues of Postmodernism.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Michel Foucault: “What is an Author?”

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)

PART FOUR

What is an Author? (1969)

To read Michel Foucault, is to feel the grounds of one’s belief systems shift underneath one’s feet. For Foucault, as for Roland Barthes (1916-1980), the notion of the author must come into question. Although Foucault was not a literary theorist, he, like Barthes, was a theorist of history, and “What is an Author?” echoed many of the thoughts of Barthes on the subject of authorship. Over a decade earlier, in Writing Degree Zero (1953), Barthes laid out how the “Author” came into being during a certain historical period and discussed how the term “author” was privileged due to the concept of what Foucault would call “individuation.” The notion of the author as a proper name produced “the author function” that became characteristic of certain kinds of discourses, such as fiction, and not others, such as letter writing. The system that produced the author function is a system of ownership and, by the end of the 18th century, the author was placed at the center of a system of property. Given at the Societé Francais de philosophie on 22 February 1969, this talk was published in 1969 in Bulletin de la Société française de Philosophie.

Foucault turned the concept of “author” inside out by examining the text points to the author and not, as is assumed, vice versa. He began by quoting Samuel Beckett, who wrote, “What matter who’s speaking, someone said, what matter who’s speaking?” The question connoted an “indifference,” Foucault noted, towards writing that had become an “immanent rule” that precluded expression. Like Barthes, Foucault was acting against Structuralism or a formal reading of a literary work and was opposed to the concept of expression, a holdover of Romantic thinking. Foucault understood writing to be “freed” from the need to “express” and was able to represent only itself. Writing was identified with its own unfolded exteriorly—an interplay of signs arranged to the nature of signifiers. As Foucault wrote,

Writing unfolds like a game (jeu) that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses its limits. In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears.

Like Barthes, Foucault used drastic language to get his point across. Writing, he stated, is linked to sacrifice: Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer’s very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer.

“Writing” for Foucault was like “Text” for Barthes and thus, writing possesses the “right to kill” the author, to be the author’s murderer. Writing cancels out signs of particular individuality so that, ironically, the sign of the writer is the singularity of absence. The writer has the role of the dead person involved in a game of writing. But, as Foucault warned,

It is not enough, however, to repeat the empty affirmation that the author has disappeared. For the same reason, it is not enough to keep repeating that God and man have died a common death. Instead, we must locate the space left empty by the author’s disappearance, follow the distribution of gaps and breaches, and watch for the openings this disappearance uncovers.

Foucault pointed to exceptions to his assertion that the author is an ideological construct and made note of transdiscursive writers, such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud and Ann Radcliffe, all of whom established paradigms or what Foucault called “discursive instaurations.” These are rare figures in the field of writing who created a genre that spawned writing in their particular area. Like Ann Radcliffe, who created the Gothic Novel which inspired a genre that continues to this day, like Karl Marx whose followers created Marxist theory, these individuals started discourses and disappeared into the discourse. That being said, Foucault considered it dangerous to reduce either non-fiction or fiction to the notion of the “author.” Most authors are fictive and Foucault reverted to his familiar stance of defining the “author” in terms of what it was not:

The author allows a limitation of the cancerous and dangerous proliferation of significations within a world where one is thrifty not only with one’s sources and riches, but also with one’s discourses and their significations. The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning. As a result we must entirely reverse the traditional idea of the author..the author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition and recomposition of fiction.

“Literary” discourses were opposed to “truth” discourses, that is, discourses linked to a culturally affirmed “truth” in the sense that a literary discourse was a “fiction.” The distinction between truth and fiction necessitated an author to avoid the kind of appropriation that overtook the discourses of the sciences. In other words, the “author function” was obliterated in the sciences so that anonymity (disinterest) guaranteed “truth” but accelerated in fiction in order to guarantee sales. Foucault made his point, not to cement the idea of the “author” as an owner of ideas, but to destabilize the idea of establishing a bounded and constrained field, for in all of the cases set forward by Foucault, the discourse exceeded the writers–Marxism, Freudian thinking and Romanticism.

In separating the author from his or her body of work, Foucault shifted literature into discourse, so that individual works become part of a larger body of texts. As Foucault wrote,

Perhaps it is time to study discourses not only in terms of their expressive value or formal transformations but according to their modes of existence. The modes of circulation, valorization, attribution, and appropriation of discourses vary with each culture and are modified within each.The manner in which they are articulated according to social relationships can be more readily understood, I believe, in the activity of the author function and in its modifications than in the themes or concepts that discourses set in motion.

Foucault’s attack on the author is much more powerful than that of Barthes. Barthes kept within the boundaries of literary theory in his essay “The Death of the Author” and merely wanted to activate the reader. Foucault, however, seemed to view the author as being implicated in a system of thought that was mired in personification and personalization that got in the way of the preferred object of study: the discourse. Foucault wrote that the author was an “ideological” figure that is linked to a cult of personality:

The question then becomes: How can one reduce the great peril, the great danger with which fiction threatens our world? The answer is: One can reduce it with the author. The author allows a limitation of the cancerous and dangerous proliferation of significations within a world where one is thrifty not only with one’s resources and riches but also with one’s discourses and their significations. The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning. As a result, we must entirely reverse the traditional idea of the author. We are accustomed, as we have seen earlier, to saying that the author is the genial creator of a work in which he deposits, with infinite wealth and generosity, an inexhaustible world of significations. We are used to thinking that the author is so different from all other men, and so transcendent with regard to all languages that, as soon as he speaks, meaning begins to proliferate, to proliferate indefinitely.

The question was why had the author become an “ideological figure?” Foucault answered that in conceiving of the author as the source of meaning, meaning is confined to the author’s intention. This artificial containment is why both Foucault and Barthes were both suspicious of the exercise of “close reading.” “Close reading” and the mystification of the author as a creator, closes off what “we fear,” something Foucault called “the proliferation of meaning.” The author has therefore the function as a regulator of meaning and this function as an element (not as someone) that controls meaning is closely linked to the control of distribution and profits. In the end Foucault imagined that in the future the author function and/or the author him or herself would disappear in a proliferating discourse. But as was usual in Foucault’s writings, the actual mechanisms of such a change are never explained. He merely ended his essay by stating,

All discourses, whatever their status, form, value, and whatever the treatment to which they will be subjected, would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest sell did he express in his discourse? Instead, there would be other questions, like these: What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions? And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?

To women and people of color, who have been denied the privilege of writing, “who” writes makes a difference. Foucault must be compared to his female counterparts who were asserting not only the possible uniqueness of écriture féminine but who were also attempting to subvert a male-made language. Although Foucault, like Barthes, was writing against the social constraints against meaning, his last sentence would be taken out of context and used to obliterate the writing of the Other and to elide the fact that the canon of writers and artists still consisted of the white male. Foucault, like most of the men of his era, did not spend much time considering women or emphasizing with people of color. In reading the text of the Other/Woman, Foucault would dispense with interpretation. Interpretation sets up a play against the original text and leads to infinite regression. For Foucault, it was always too late to recover an “original meaning” and a stable “context” for “everything is already interpretation.” However, it is important to know “who is writing” in order to interpret a statement in the context of gender and race. Without this contextual tool, critique becomes difficult and Foucault, as did his colleagues, carefully neutered critique and rendered social criticism mute, coincidentally or not, at the time of a struggle for the rights of women and people of color.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Michel Foucault and Archaeology

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)

PART TWO

The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969)

Like many French intellectuals, Michel Foucault witnessed the now-legendary days of May, 1968 in which the students and later the proletariat or working class rose up against the forces of law and order, against oppressive institutions and against post-war materialistic society itself. During a dramatic month, French society itself seemed to be hanging in the balance, caught between total breakdown and a break away into a new future. Foucault held a prestigious chair in history at the Collège de France and was part of a network of patronage within a system that was rapidly becoming more institutionalized. The old free-wheeling ways of academic freedom and intellectual development among café convocations came to an end with the wave of post-War rise of the university system. Foucault remained, nevertheless, a freewheeling individual, moving back and forth from between Paris and Berkeley where he enjoyed the pleasures of the bathhouses of San Francisco. His life was marked by a suicide attempt, a nervous breakdown, and a police file when he was accused of theft as a student. He was institutionalized and eventually died of AIDS, a disease that was acknowledge in France and denied in America.

Foucault witnessed one of the great events of 20th century French intellectual life, May 1968 and saw its results: the incarceration of intellectual thought in the university. The revolutionaries were caught up in a revolution for which there was no plan of action and without direction the explosive situation fizzled into the status quo. Charles de Gaulle and his minions regained control and observers, such as Foucault, noted the cooperation of the media with the government in conveying approved information. Knowledge, Foucault realized, was intertwined with power and the spectacle of the exercise of power during the month of May changed his approach to history. The grand ideals could not longer be legitimized and the Enlightenment categories failed to come in close contact with reality. The events of May 1968 or “soiyant huitard” created a political opening for transgressive writing. As a result of his experiences as witness to a failed revolution, Foucault took up transgressive writing to disrupt the notion of language as a set of representations, which mirror the world. He re-looked at the familiar, at the social institutions that (de)form our lives in order to put the audience through the ordeal of de-familiarization. Foucault had long been concerned with how various aspects of culture evolved, but his mature work rejected traditional ways of writing history and became something he called “archaeology.”

The archaeological approach to the past was part of Foucault’s attempt to find a way out of the Marxist explanation of historical forces. For the post-war generation of disillusioned French scholars, the other fortress that needed to be taken was that of Marxism. The failure of Marxist theory and the extent of its limitations became glaringly clear during the events of May 1968. Disillusioned intellectuals emerged from the wreckage of Marxism with an undiminished need for a tool to critique society and Foucault and Barthes were part of that shift in that they understood that the Marxist mode of production had become irrelevant. It was the Mode of Information, as Mark Poster termed it in his (now outdated) 1990 book, The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Content, that became the key element in social control.

Roland Barthes (1916-1980) was well aware of the role the ordinary discourses, such as mass media, of everyday life played in shaping the public mindset and how these semiotic mechanisms were deployed to to control group thinking. The old form of Marxism had placed the locus of exploitation and alienation in the workplace, but by the late 20th century, it was becoming increasingly clear that oppression was dissipated and existed at many levels, from the family to knowledge itself. Of course oppression had always existed in these sites, but the resulting alienation of women in the family, for example, had always existed but once intellectual attention shifted from class to a more precise view of a complex social world, the old Base-Superstructure model was inadequate.

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Foucault Pins

Once it was clear that it was clear that history had no goal and once it was clear that history was enmeshed in language, the question ceased to be what happened? but how did it became possible to make certain statements at a certain time? The answer did not lie in the historical context, for the search for “origins” had changed over the course of the century. Thanks to Structuralism, it was understood that there was no origin in the singular. There was no one point in time, such as in Greek tragedy, when a human event occurred, like Oedipus killing his father, that could be seen as one event that was preceded by other events and that led to subsequent events. There could only be a certain historical period when a certain social practice manifested itself out of, not one event, but many events. What was significant was not that the practice emerged but that at some point of time it became possible to speak of this condition. Therefore there was no origin, only discourse.

Nothing can come into being, except through language, and discourse is language. Therefore, all objects must necssarily be discursive or formed out of language. “Archaeology” is the treatment of the human sciences as an object of discourse or a discourse-object, without regard to their presumed external “value.” The discourse object is neither true nor untrue; it is an object to be studied from a stance of neutrality as to truth or meaning. In other words, the archaeologist studies not so much the object itself, but how the object was constructed out of discourse. The mechanics of discursive formation, as it were, and how the discourse was created had to be studied without being concerned about what “truth” content the discourse might or might not contain. This was an intellectual move that re-directed the way in which historians treat documents, meaning that if what was analyzed was the mechanisms of creating a discursive object, then the intellectual would be “disengaged” and critique would be re-located to mechanics and away from effects. The subsequent disempowerment of critique would be remedied in Foucault’s later work and The Archaeology of Knowledge should be understood as the second in a series of steps to rethink “history.”

Just as The Order of Things sought, on one hand, to make the past strange while creating a “history of the present,” on the other hand, The Archaeology of Knowledge distances the discursive object, distances it in order to make it strange–to alienate the concept or “serious discourse” from the observer. Although these two books can be seen as a sequence, first, establishing the end of the self dissolved in a new episteme and then second, examining the consequences of the disappearance of the active human agent which is a non-humanistic version of history. Between the two volumes, traditional history was severely challenged by Foucault, who said,

The document, then, is no longer for history and inert material through which it tries to reconstitute what men have done or said, the events of which only the trace remains; history is now trying to define within the documentary material itself unities, totalities, series, relations. History must be detached from the image that satisfied it for so long..history is that which transforms documents in to monuments..history aspires to the condition of archaeology to the intrinsic description of the monument.

This shift in perspective or point of view, from taking monuments and turning them into documents to turning documents into monuments would mean that, for example, instead of using records of slavery to tell the story of slavery in the South one would examine the documents themselves to see how and under what conditions these documents “describe” slavery.

The monumentalizing of documents or the archaeological effect had important consequences: the surface effect which replaces continuity with distinct elements that now need to be organized in a series to find the appropriate relations. The result of focusing on elements, discontinuity is made obvious and the discontinuity itself or the gaps becomes the object of study. With the end of continuity, the idea of total history also disappears and something Foucault called “general history” emerges. This general history is quite at odds with the expected mode of document reading. Foucault went to great length (literally many pages) to explain what he was not doing: he would not “interpret” the contents nor attempt to deduce the intention of the writer. Instead, as with Structuralism, the author disappears so that the discourse can be foregrounded. As Foucault wrote, “We must grasp the statement in the exact specificity of its occurrences; determine its conditions of existence, fix at least its limits, establish its correlations with other statements that may be connected with it, and show what other forms of statement it excludes.”

Foucault’s concept of discursive formations was perhaps his most fruitful contribution to the humanities. His former professor Georges Canguilhem (1904-1995) felt that Foucault’s archaeological methods constituted an historical a priori for knowledge or the precondition for knowledge. Knowledge is a metaphysical emanation of a “truth,” but the result of a series of statements (enounce or systematic statement) that may not be continuous but are related and eventually form a “discourse” over time, and that discourse becomes “knowledge.” Many scholars adopted Foucault’s ideas. Canadian scholar Ian Hacking became part of a Foucauldrian group of scholars in many areas who used Foucault’s ideas that knowledge was a construction of discourses and that these discourses which shape the world, arbitrarily through the language, construct society. In his 2006 essay “Making up People” in the London Review of Books, Hacking examined the emergence of various types of psychological “disorders” through discursive formations.

In Rules of Art (1992), Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was another scholar who profited from using Foucauldrian methods in the study of the avant-garde in Paris during the 1830s. One scholar, Hacking, is interested in how discourses form people; the other scholar, Bourdieu, was concerned with how discourse formed cultural attitudes. One of the better known examples of a study of a discourse was Edward Said’s (1935-2003) Orientalism (1978), in which the author asserted that the “Orient” was a Western or Occidental discourse formed for the purposes of dominating the East. Said was the most overtly “structuralist” of these authors and violated Foucault’s strictures against Structuralism by setting up a formal opposition between the “East” and the “West.”

Foucault expended a great deal of space in setting up how and under what linguistic–not social or cultural–circumstances a discourse would be formed. He began with the “enunciative function” in which statements are made and related to one another. The “author,” Foucault cautioned “is not identical with with the subject of the statement,”a point he made over and over. The guide must be whether or not a sentence is a proposition or not and he pointed out that a sentence should not be analyzed in isolation. The sentence becomes a statement only when it is part of an associated field. As Foucault stated, “There is no statement that does not presuppose others; there is no statement that is not surrounded by a field of coexistences, effects of series and succession, a distribution of functions of roles.” The subsequent “objects” as Foucault called them are placed in “a domain of coordination and coexistence” where they are placed in a space “in which they are used and repeated.” This space is, for Foucault, is “the operational field of the enunciative function.”

The next stage is the organizations of these statements into a “discourse,” which Foucault described as “a group of verbal performances,” “a group of acts of formulations, a series of sentences or propositions.” “A discourse,” Foucault stated, “is constituted by a group of sequences of signs,” which demonstrate “assigned particular modalities of existence.”He further described the function of this series as a “discursive formation..the principle of dispersion and redistribution of statements that “belong to a single system of formation.” Foucault described “that whole mass of texts that belong to a single discursive formation” as the historical a priori, a term he employed in order to shake off the old fashioned notion of a “history of ideas.” Foucault was concerned with “positivity” or what we would also call productivity that produced discursive formations, which are objects and not ephemeral “ideas.” But then Foucault has to determine the “rules” that create a discourse, but he sidesteps once again and formulates, not rules, but the “archive” or “that which determines that all things said do not accumulated endlessly in an amorphous mass..” The archive “defines at the outset the system of enunciabiltiy” and “the system of functioning.”

The archive is closely linked to “archaeology” and Foucault laid out his steps carefully leading up to describing his method. Given that the archive exists at the level of what he called “practice,” that practice enabled “statements both to survive and to undergo regular modifications, the archive “forms the general horizon to which the description of discursive formations,” which Foucault explained must be uncovered in a search called “archaeology.” Archaeology “designates the general theme of a description that questions the already-said at the level of its existence: of the enunciative function that operates within it, of the discursive formation, and the general archive system to which it belongs. Archaeology describes discourses as practices specified in the element of the archive.”

Foucault ended his book on archaeology by expressing his doubts on the concept of the “author,” an issue that he would take up quickly. The author is not exactly eliminated but must be understood as the agent of a series of statements that in their turn must be properly placed within a discourse. The author is part of a larger practice and is subsumed under the task of examining the rules that allowed the discourse to form. Foucault also expressly distanced himself from Structuralism. Although throughout the book, he used linguistic and semiotic language, discussing sentences, statements and so on, Foucault’s intention was to denounce the Formalism of Structuralism. What he was trying to do was to move away from the major project of Structuralism which was the reading of specific documents and analyzing them through a “close reading” or a Formal analysis. Far from examining the “structure” of the discursive formation, Foucault examined the “practices” or the dynamics of how discourses were formed over time and the mechanisms of their placement (the rules that allowed them to exist) in the archive. Archaeology sought to redirect the gaze of the historian away from the “history of ideas” to the ways in which certain speech acts were gathered together into a specific practice.

Foucault’s position needs to be understood in relation to what he is “not” writing about. Reading Foucault always involves wading through many sentences that state what he is not doing in order to find a sentence that states what he is doing. The negative sentences will outnumber the positive sentences. Foucault’s rather backwards approach–that of backing into his position–is necessary because he must clear away the rubble of past methodologies. What Foucault is not doing is traditional history. “History” is not a natural phenomenon but a cultural construct. We all have a “past”, but the “past” is simply a random un-patterned cacophony of non-events and non-incidents until this jumble of moments is taken up by a historian and is constructed into something called “history.”

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Roland Barthes: Structuralism

ROLAND BARTHES

PART THREE

Towards Structuralism

The goal of all structuralist activity, whether reflexive or poetic, is to reconstruct an object so as to manifest the rules of its functioning.

In 1980, Edith Kurzweil published a still-indespensible book, The Age of Structuralism: From Lévi-Strauss to Foucault in which her introduction to the 1996 edition, she wrote of the problems she encountered when she undertook the task of introducing Structuralism to American readers. As has been pointed out repeatedly in numerous posts on this website, the post-war intellectual scene among the university professors in Paris was constantly on the move, always changing, composed of numerous perspectives from a number of disciplines, and reacting to declining positions, such as Existentialism and Marxism, and responding to political events. All of the so-called “Postmodern” theorists in France, from Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, and so on, evolved over the post-war decades, but when their ideas reached American shores, they were, as Kurzweil pointed out, lumped together incorrectly and largely misunderstood and misinterpreted.

I knew that the Parisians foster a sort of intellectual establishment as do the English, that their milieus encourage the formation of a broad stratum of soi-disant intellectuals and that such an ambiance is lacking in the United States..Why is it, I asked myself that American academics, for the most part, spend so much time speaking to colleagues in their own disciplines whereas the French have so much to say to people from other fields of endeavor, and are familiar with work that may be quiet remote from their own?

A possible answer to Kurzweil’s question could be the way in which American universities are divided into segments that are isolated from each other both physically and institutionally and extend this separation by publishing in specialized journals. In addition, American culture has not produced the “public intellectual” and ideas are confined to the narrow world of the Ivory Tower where they become largely irrelevant. Given this habit of segregation, it is predictable that American universities would slice and dice French theory and in the process distort the ideas and mislabel the theories all in the name of territory. Like all of his colleagues, Roland Barthes crossed professional and intellectual territories, mixing semiotics from linguistics, structuralism from anthropology, Freudian theory from Lacan’s seminars with a late Marxist critique of post-war culture, all the while acting as a literary critic.

The early work of Barthes provide ample clues as to future directions. In Writing Degree Zero (1953), he linked style to the body and in Mythologies opened the way for post-Structuralism by noting that myths can be emptied and filled with any available content and thus, once the signifiers were changed, were open to a change in meaning. As Kurzweil pointed out, this individual evolution would be disrupted by the haphazard publication of the works of Parisian intellectuals into English and this non-chronological presentation was further complicated by the insider nature of the writings themselves. The authors not only referred to a long French tradition of philosophy and literature but also to each other as they would fold refutations and debate into larger projects. When Roland Barthes shifted from semiology to structuralism, he was acknowledging what he, as an analyst of writing, the limitations of semiotics. And he did so under the impact of the anthropological shift towards structuralism under the influence of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009). Structuralism allowed Barthes to examine writing as culture, as being embedded in society. Indeed he replaced a rather passive “method” for a more active examination of literature in which the reader intervened in the text.

RB_Maroc_coll_Roland_Barthes_IMEC

Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

The Activity of Structuralism (1963)

L’activité structuraliste was written for Les Lettres Nouvelles in 1963, and reprinted in his collection of Essais Critiques (1964). The essay Barthes wrote in 1963 was translated into English twice, first by Stephen Bann for Form in 1966 as “The Activity of Structuralism,” and second by Richard Howard, as “The Structuralist Activity” in 1972. The Bann version cut off the introduction which began by stating,

What is structuralism? Not a school, nor even a movement (at least, not yet), for most of the authors ordinarily labelled with this word are unaware of being united by any solidarity of doctrine or commitment. Nor is it a vocabulary. What is structuralism? Not a school, nor even a movement (at least, not yet), for most of the authors ordinarily labelled with this word are unaware of being united by any solidarity of doctrine or commitment. Nor is it a vocabulary.

English translations, however complete or incomplete, doubly dislocated the essay from its intellectual roots. Ten years earlier, Barthes had written “Myth Today” under the influence of Bertold Brecht (1898-1956) and the traces of Brechtian thought run through the essay. The desire of Barthes to make received wisdom–social myths–“strange” again came directly from Brecht’s “Epic Theater,” which discussed Verfremdungseffekte or in English the “alienation effect” or as Brecht shortened it, V-effekt. Brecht used formalism as a tool to analyze Nazi texts which, through his careful reading, reveal their ugly ideology. That language was never neutral or innocent and this was a lesson learned and repeated many times by Barthes.

It is with this inspiration that Barthes adapted a more rigid and non-political brand of Formalism to a more flexible and more critical way of reading texts through a Structuralist approach, which could be open to a social critique. In pointing to a later direction, Barthes expressed doubts about a “metalanguage” and said,

But since structuralism is neither a school nor a movement, there is no reason to reduce it a priori, even in a problematical way, to the activity of philosophers; it would be better to try and find its broadest description (if not its definition) on another level than that of reflexive language.

Roland Barthes described Structuralism as an “activity,” emphasizing its ongoing and generative nature, and, in doing so, questioned the enclosure of traditional Modernist Structuralism: “..structuralism is essentially an activity, i.e., the controlled succession of a certain number of mental operations..” He described Structuralism as “neither school nor movement” but an activity which controlled a succession of a certain number of mental operations. The real is decomposed and recomposed and the object is reconstructed according to the rules of a functioning simulacrum. As Barthes explained,

The goal of all structuralist activity, whether reflexive or poetic, is to reconstruct an “object” in such a way as to manifest thereby the rules of functioning (the “functions”) of this object. Structure is therefore actually a simulacrum of the object, but a directed, interested simulacrum, since the imitated object makes something appear which remained invisible, or if one prefers, unintelligible in the natural object.

This simulacrum is the intellect added to the object, the fabrication of the world to render it intelligible. This “activity” is a mediating act of imitation. The new category of object is functional and is composed of a fabrication of meanings and this fabrication, or the act of fabrication within a structure, is more important than the meanings themselves. What Barthes was stating is that writing is about writing, not about the writer, which is located the (not) writer in the system of writing in which the author is embedded. Barthes did close reading–that is, he examined the system of language not what was expressed in the words: what made meaning possible? the structure. He was interested in the “plural” qualities of codes, without seeking a unified structure to the writing, such as theme or narrative or closure, all of which circumscribe meaning. He asked instead how each detail worked, what codes it related to in order to discover its functions. Structuralism, with Barthes, shifted to discourse: meaning as source and effect of codes and conventions. As one reads this essay, one can discern traces of Lévi-Strauss in his “activity:”

The structuralist activity involves two typical operations: dissection and arrangement. To dissect the first object, the one which is given to the simulacrum activity, is to find in it certain mobile fragments whose differential situation engenders a certain meaning; the fragment has no meaning in itself, but it is nonetheless such that the slightest variation wrought in its configuration produces a change in the whole..

Some translations take the French word agencement, the word Barthes used and translate it as “articulation,” which causes a distortion of meaning. In my opinion, “arrangement” has to be the preferred translation, because Barthes was examining codes or small units and determining how they might be “arranged” in a structure that allows the analyst to decode the meanings. Both Lévi-Strauss and Barthes followed Ferdinand de Saussure in building charts and creating clusters of terms, but the rigidity of the structure deployed by Lévi-Strauss becomes more flexible under Barthes who belonged to the second stage of Structuralism and was situated somewhere between the careful structure or charts of Lévi-Strauss and the deconstruction of the text by Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). As Barthes said,

Once the units are posited, structural man must discover in them or establish for them certain rules of association: this is the activity of arrangement (articulation), which succeeds the summoning activity. The syntax of the arts and of discourse is, as we know, extremely varied; but what we discover in every work of structural enterprise is the submission to regular constraints whose formalism, improperly indicted, is much less important than their stability..

In the background of this argument that gently shoves aside the maker in favor of the reader is the post-war rejection of Descartes and Enlightenment philosophy, an old philosophical system that put the subject in the center. Structuralism replaced the independent transcendent consciousness with language which determined the subject. Therefore, according to Barthes, the “moral goal” of the reader is “not the decipherment of a work’s meaning but the reconstruction of the rules and constraints of that meaning’s elaboration..” The word “moral” in an interesting one, suggesting the French tradition of the engaged intellectual who simultaneously disengages from what the words say to how the structure made it possible to utter them.

“To Write: an Intransitive Verb?” (1966)

Three years after defining Structuralism as an “activity,” Barthes became a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. A fish out of water at this unlikely setting, he was joined by many of his colleagues at the now famous international symposium, entitled ‘The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” at the Johns Hopkins Center, between October 18 and the 21 in 1966. On this occasion, he presented “To Write: an Intransitive Verb?” In one brief passage, Barthes links “writerly” and “readerly” to the French terms: lisible and scriptible. The readerly ( lisible) text is a classical work: it is the Novel, his old nemesis. In place of the passive reader, Barthes posited the active reader who reanimated a text through a performative act of intervention into the text. That said, a glimmer of future problems could be discerned. In this talk, Barthes mentioned “the new union between literature and linguistics” or “semio-criticism.” At this point, Barthes still believed in what he termed “a single unified science of culture.”

Interestingly, Barthes referred to Lévi-Strauss by explaining his term “homology” or the structure of similarities, but this symposium will also be the occasion where Jacques Derrida decimated the very idea of the structure. Indeed, this very paper, given by Barthes, sought to place a middle term between reading and writing–the reader as the writer–which actually puts great stress on the very structure he is describing. This symposium was a key moment in literary theory, ushering out Structuralism and introducing Derrida’s Deconstruction. But at the time the import of the juxtaposition of Barthes’ talk and Derrida’s “Structure, Sign and Play.” Indeed, Barthes, without being aware of it was already involved in deconstructive analysis. For years he had struggled with his penchant for binaries, which, he found, always forced him to insert a third term. As Barthes related,

To write is traditionally an active verb..to write is becoming a middle verb..in the middle voice of to write, the distance between script or and language diminishes asymptomatically, such as romantic writings, which are active, for in them, the agent is not interior but anterior to the process of writing..

As his writings make clear, Derrida’s attack on Structuralism had an impact on Barthes. The dichotomy between reading and writing with the middle term–now a familiar device on the part of Barthes–was also present in his 1973 analysis of S/Z where he began by explaining “writing:” “Our evaluation can be linked only to a practice, and this practice is that of writing. On the one hand, there is what it is possible to write, and on the other what it is no longer possible to write: what is within the practice of the writer and what has left it..” It is here in this book that Barthes establishes yet another binary: the writerly and the readerly. He continued, What evaluation finds is precisely this value: what can be written (rewritten) today: “..the writerly. Why is the writerly our value? Because the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.” Returning to an argument he made almost twenty years ago against “classical literature,” Barthes pointed out that the reader of the products of the “literary institution” which divides the writer from the reader is rendered intransitive when “reading is nothing more than a referendum.”Barthes recommended “manhandling” the text as a way of “interpreting it.” The opposite of the writerly text is the readerly text or the “classic” text.

S/Z (1973)

Structuralism destroyed the fiction of the individual and the myth of the literary “creator” but retained the fiction of logocentricism, or the metaphysics of presence. Barthes and those who followed him were faced with the task of completing Structuralism, a task which ultimately led to the disclosure of inherent contradictions which in turn led to deconstructionism. Barthes wrote frequently of the plural meanings embedded in texts which, through the presence of connotation, lend themselves to the plural because of the active presence of the activated reader. As Barthes wrote in S/Z,

The writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinities play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersect, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages. the writerly is the novelistic without the novel, poetry without the poem, the essay without the dissertation, writing without style, production without product, structuration without structure. But the readerly texts? they are produces 9and not productions), they make up the enormous mass of our literature.

In his active and productive reading of S/Z, Barthes found the trope of castration, the central motif of the story, to be the equivalent of a plural reading–always incomplete. The text is fragmented by a number of “voices” at work in the codes that construct the narrative. The meaning of this short story by Honoré Balzac is thus destabilized from within. Stable meaning also depended upon supposed conscious and intentional sources of meaning. The journey Barthes took in intervening between the unchanging text and the passive reader resulted in a slow rethinking of Structuralism. Once these multiple fictions and assumptions are revealed, the result or the next step for Roland Barthes was The Death of the Author, written in 1968, which ended the practice of the authoritarian readings emanating from a singular source of interpretation (a critic). The singularity, in turn, was dependent upon the author’s biography or perceived “intent,” an example of circular reasoning that sets up one interpretation at the expense of others. As Barthes asserted in his essay was not so much the “death” of the author, but the “birth” of the reader. But these “births” and “deaths” also bring the work of art itself under investigation, a task Barthes would take up in 1971 in From Work to Text.

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Harold Bloom: A Map of Misreading

HAROLD BLOOM AND THE MODERNIST TRADITION

Literary Criticism and Close Reading

Although Harold Bloom (1930-), from the perspective of the 21st century seems like a historical figure, he was a liminal figure caught between Modernism and Postmodernism. It is one of the ironies of Bloom’s career that he fought titanic battles with waning New Criticism, won that battle by tossing together a salad of new theories landing on the shores of the Ivy Leagues, only to be confronted with even newer theories that would rise up and scorn him. Through it all Bloom persevered, writing forty books, all of which center upon the importance of the author as creator. To understand the implications of Bloom’s position in the world of criticism, it is an awkward one–in between New Criticism which swept the poet away in favor of the poem and Postmodern theory which posited the author as “dead” or a mere fulcrum of references.

New Criticism was a new and methodical way of reading in a more precise manner, called “close.” A “close reading” of the text is based on the understanding that a text is unified and that it means exactly what it says. The author and the historical context of the author, his or her biography or intentions were irrelevant. New Criticism was the founding method of literary in the sense that it focused on making distinctions between modes of criticism at a time when new ways of writing, from James Joyce to Virginia Woolfe to Ernest Hemingway, demanded new ways of analysis. The fact that writing was more self involved, backgrounding narrative in favor of exploring the textures of the language itself. It seemed sensible to René Wellek (1903-1995) to focus on literature as literature and his seminal Theory of Literature, published in 1946 establish a foundation for formalist criticism. It is important to remember that the formalist art critic, Clement Greenberg, was part of the literary community and like Wellek published in the Partisan Review.

In summing up René Wellek’s approach to New Criticism, Sarah Lawall’s 1988 essay, “René Wellek and Modern Literary Criticism,” sound eerily like something one would write of Greenberg:

His insistence on the study of “literature itself,” as the culmination of a broad critical historical, theoretical and multilingual inquiry, reversed the status of prevailing extra-literary schemes of interpretation: no longer did they exhaust a work’s significance, or function as its only source of value. Wellek’s own set of values–his claim that each discipline must establish its proper object of study, and that literary study must focus on the autonomous category of art: his affirmation that no critical perspective is neutral; and his rejection of critical relativism even though he sees literature as an integral part of cultural history–has been part of our literary debates for four decades.

Wellek was one of the mid-century critics who articulated this new position, coming in the wake of I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot and Cleanth Brooks. New Criticism eliminated the author’s intention as being irrelevant to the outcome or effect of the book, but the efficacy of literature does not rest upon the way the text made the writer feel. By marking off these two “fallacies”–the intentional fallacy and the affective fallacy–are irrelevant. The focus should be the text itself which is then subjected to a close reading by the literary critic. Texts possess intrinsic meanings that owe nothing to the writer and must be read as a structure composed of words which are knitted together into a unified whole. The result of close reading is a seamless and consistent organic work of art that can be analyzed in a near-scientific manner. New Criticism would be conflated with the prevailing 20th century idea of “art for art’s sake,” but it proponents denied that history was totally precluded from consideration but, in fact, formalist criticism considered form to be content.

Bloom’s A Map of Misreading (1975)

Against this background, Harold Bloom, an outsider, reanimated the author as a Romantic hero. Like Walter Benjamin reviving the reviled Baroque, Bloom reasserted the importance of Romanticism and Romantic poetry an art form long on the critical wane. In imagining a curious mixture of the writer as a Byronic rebel and as a Biblical prophet who fought to bring a poem into being, Bloom recast literature as a record of a struggle between the “son” and his literary “father.” Although Bloom is often seen as the anti-thesis to Postmodern theories of all stripes–and indeed he also saw himself as the opposite of Jacques Derrida. In his 1986 article on Bloom, the writer for The New York Times Magazine, Colin Campbell, quoted Bloom heaping scorn on his colleagues at Yale:

”You cannot go anywhere,” he cries, ”without running into various covens and sects and various new orthodoxies of a self-righteous kind. There are the purple-haired semioticians; there are the deconstructionists; there are those who have abolished anything like a coherent discourse, for whom every text is an aberration..To try to find out what’s going on at Yale now is beyond my power.” But Campbell continued, Bloom is not finished. He speaks of ”punk ideologies,” of ”vicious feminism,” of new modes of ”stifling doctrine” and of “new Stalinisms.” He describes one young member of the English department as ”an out-and-out Marxist agitator” and ”a horse’s ass,’‘ and he says some leftist notions of bourgeois art have grown so crude as to be unrecognizable. ”It’s almost the poet-as-slumlord theory. They have their colleagues terrified. ”There is no method except yourself,” says Bloom, ”and this is what they refuse to learn.” Ideologists of every description hate the self, he says. ”They all deny that there can be such a thing as an individual.”

It is over thirty years since this article and in the 21st century, it is difficult to read Bloom without a frisson of irritation when confronted with his male-based patriarchal theoretical position–he refers to the young male poet as an “ephebe.” However, it is important to remember that this was a man who missed all the Civil Rights movements and it is possible to re-read his theories from the perspective of production. If art makers are cultural producers then what are the materials they utilize to make art? Despite his protestations to the contrary, Bloom’s work is every bit as Postmodern as that of his colleagues: it is performative and self-conscious, riddled with constructs derived from Greek and Latin, but if the reader manages to clear away the name droppings there are some interesting insights about the psychology of creation. In reviewing the book in “The Poet as Oedipus” of 1975, the late Edward Said stated,

Bloom is the most rare of critics. He has what seems to be a totally detailed command of English poetry and its scholarship, as well as an intimate acquaintance with the major avant-garde critical theories of the last quarter century. (He is De Vane Professor of the Humanities at Yale.) Yet for Bloom this gigantic apparatus, to which he has assimilated Freudian theory and the Kabbalistic doctrines of Isaac Luria, a 16th-century Jewish mystic, is no mere scholarly baggage. Since it is the essence of Bloom’s vision that every poem is the result of a critical act, by which another, earlier poem is deliberately misread, and hence re-written, it follows also that Bloom’s sense of the poems he has read is intensely combative, constantly experienced, actively felt.

In A Map of Misreading, Bloom continued his habit of creating his own linguistic terms to explain his concept of passing on the poetic tradition. His tropes became “anxiety” and “misreading” and, in his second book of the series, many of his terms came from the Kabbala. He explained “misprision”–a deliberate misunderstanding–as a “swerve” away from the predecessor by the new poet who completes the parent poem by retaining its terms and its fragments but means these terms in another sense. The Kabbala speaks of the “breaking of the vessels” as part of the primal process of Creation and Bloom uses the concept of vessel and breaking and emptying to describe the labor of literature. The new poet empties out him/(herself) humbly and “empties out” the precursor as well, an act that opens up the essential power of the earlier poem and functions as a return of the dead. Said explained how the views of Bloom challenged the status quo position on the role of the artist:

The ground of literature is the text, just as its father–the mixed metaphor is inescapable, and encouraged by every writer who ever wrote–is the author. This is the very citadel of literary orthodoxy. Only a great writer will challenge that fortress of certainty. He will see that a father is himself a son; he will also see that his own work must be protected not only from writers who will come after it, but also from the powerful authors that precede him, who remind him by their strength of their prior authority and his filial secondariness.

Such a vision immediately plays havoc with the stability of texts and authors, indeed with the whole order of culture. The past becomes an active intervention in the present; the future is preposterously made just a figure of the past in the present. No text can be complete because on the one hand it is an attempt to struggle free of earlier texts impinging on it and, on the other, it is preparing itself to savage texts not yet written by authors not yet born. Every writer and every text is not–cannot be–itself, does not have a rock-bottom Aristotelian identity. Instead of texts and authors, there are wills struggling to overcome other wills, there are patricides and infanticides whose paradox is that poetry is, if not the manifest result of such violence, then the constantly impressive evidence.

The ancestral poet is dead but still embarrassingly potent and present, but, as Kierkegaard said, “He who is willing to work must give birth to his own father.” Strong poets do not read poetry; strong poets can read only themselves. In comparison to weak poets who remain enslaved to the traditional system, who are creatively inhibited by obsessive reasoning and comparing their works to those of their precursors, strong poets are involved in acts of creative “correction” and deliberate misinterpretation. In his typically Baroque and deliberately dramatic writing style, Bloom declaimed,

<Only a poet challenges a poet as a poet, and so only a poet makes a poet. To the poet-in-a-poet, a poem is always the other man, the precursor, and so a poem is always a person, always the father of one’s Second Birth. To live, the poet must misinterpret the father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is the re-writing of the father. But who, what is the poetic father? The voice of the other, of the daimon, is always speaking in one; the voice that cannot die because already it has survived death–the dead poet lives in one.

Bloom wrote of “agon” in his books. On one level agon, which is a Greek concept, seems to refer simply to a contest but the origin of this “contest” is a dialogue in Greek theater between the protagonist and the antagonist. Agon originated specifically in literature as a verbal contest, a struggle of wit and language. Later, especially during Roman times, agon becomes firmly attached to competitive games, such as chariot races, and becomes linked to the idea of victory and winning. In using this term of antagonism, Bloom precluded more benign concepts to describe creativity, such as “homage” or “collaboration.” The artist strives, in a very Modernist fashion, to overthrow the past and to assert his genius. Genius is strong, but the age of the genius is weak and the strong poet runs the risk of drowning in the act of becoming a good reader of earlier poets. As Bloom explained in Kabbalah and Criticism (1975),

Strong poets must be mis-read; there are no generous errors to be made in apprehending them, any more than their own errors of reading are ever generous. Every poet caricatures tradition and every strong poet is then necessarily mis-read by the tradition that he fosters. The strongest of poets are so severely mis-read that the generally accepted, broad interpretations o their work actually tend to be the exact opposites of what the poems truly are.

This danger of encountering the genius of the stronger poet arouses anxiety for the challenger, as the whole being of the poet must be unique in order for the poet to survive. Bloom writing as if he is aware of Postmodern idea of the bricoleur stated that the strong poet usurps and appropriates that which is strong and available within the language. And Bloom writes as if he has begun to incorporate the idea of intertextuality when he notes that the great poem can refer only to other great poems and emanates from the intricate balance of psychic warfare. The good poet steals, leaps and located his/herself in the freedom that is discontinuity.

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Harold Bloom (1930-)

But Bloom also remained true to the structured meaning of literature when he asserted that literature is a text, stating that poems are not things: poems are words that refer only to other words and any poem is an inter-poem and reading is only inter-reading. Although Bloom sounds rather like a holdover from New Criticism, he is also a critic who is aware of his own theoretical time when he asserted that a poem is never written but rewritten because every poem is belated–a very Postmodern stance. Art is necessarily an after-ing, every artist a latecomer who lives under the shadow of art. The artist must usurp and seize textual authority in an act of imposition and a declaration of property. Poetry is thus an aspiring to strength that is necessarily competitive and obsessive. However, Bloom was no Postmodernist, despite his traces and flirtations with the tropes of Postmodernist theories, for he was always concerned with self-actualizaiton through an act of will, through an assertion of self-consciousness. In other words, self-representation is achieved only through “trespass” or an act of invasion into the territory of another artist, who then becomes the “father.”

In a purely Freudian fashion, as if the sons are collectively assaulting the father, Bloom asserts that the strong poet must invent him/herself through a strong new poem that is a sin of transgression against origins. The poet obtains freedom, that is, obtains a meaning of his/her own, achieved against an a priori fullness of meaning–tradition which leads the new strong poet to a territory of his own. This freedom of meaning can be arrived at only through combat–a reading encounter by a strong poet who loves his/her own poetry, and must live it, in order to get it written and to open up a poetic space or a terrain captured from another poet. In asserting that poetry can come only out of a lineage of poetry, Bloom seemed to be rejecting the possibility of a poetic revolution, such as that of Stéphane Mallarmé. Indeed, his list of “strong poets” is somewhat limited to the Romantic poets of the 18th century and those of the early 20th century. By asserting the primacy of existing tradition and, incidentally, upholding a canon of “strong poets,” Bloom was able to save history and tradition, genius and originality from the historicism and eclecticism, and the appropriation and borrowing of Postmodernism.

As a Jewish writer, Bloom appears to think in an almost Biblical construct of “begets”, establishing a patriarchal lineage of sons wrestling with their dead fathers for poetic or artistic territory. The question remains whether or not Bloom’s concept of Agon can be un-colored and un-gendered and re-made into a general account of how artists come to terms with the past and find their own creative ground through psychological suffering and self-protection that forces them onto new territories. He continues the formalism of Structuralism by reading poetry out of historical context and continues the Structuralism of Structuralism by creating another figurative metaphor: a field of conflict, and continues the teleological imperatives of Modernism as art begets art within a closed world, combining works of art, psychologies and histories.

But Bloom, as is recalled, worked with the radical Yale deconstructionists, Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida. There are aspects of his work that seem to reconcile the Postmodern denial of originality and its assertion of belatedness with the Modernist need to explain and to celebrate “genius.” But in the final analysis, Postmodernism is about the gaps, while Modernism is about continuity and the continuous rupture with the past. Bloom sees the tradition of “art” as being a conflicted hand-off, Agon, between fathers and sons. Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault would have very different views about how art is made.

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