Postmodernism and Heteroglossia, Part Two



Hybridity and Pluralism

In her 1966 essay, “Word, Dialogue and Novel,” Julia Kristeva (1941-) privileged the term “Text,” insisting that the subject is composed of discourses, created by a signifying system. The “Text” is a dynamic activity, rather than an object, an intersection of textual surfaces, rather than a point where meaning is fixed. Like Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), Kristeva understood the politically subversive nature of celebrating intertextuality and realized that there was a deeply serious side to the challenge 0f the carnivalesque. Influenced by Kristeva, Roland Barthes (1915-1960) took up the idea that intertexuality was linked to a flouting of authority and referred to intertextuality as cryptographe (cryptogram) in which the reader is perversely split and re-split through codes, or when the text is composed of quotations that are not the actual quotes of other authors. These cryptograms are silenced quotations without quotation marks, using cultural codes which are references to recognized stereotypes, myths, received wisdom, shared assumptions, collective thinking and so on. Any authorial notion of mastery over a supposedly unique “work of art” is a fiction, convenient for those in authority, and, even the “I” or the voice of authority, the subject, is a mere social construction.

Given that reading and writing is the function of a network of citations, the rejection by Barthes of the “author” is also a rejection of author/ity and is therefore a political and revolutionary rejection of centralized control. With his theories of Deconstruction, the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) also rejected the notion of the independent author or unique authorship, understanding the “activity ” (to borrow a term from Barthes) of writing to be a kind of rewriting or an explicit interpretation of or commentary on the works of earlier writers. A reader cannot read without knowledge of a literary tradition of reading and writing, and a writer cannot write without access to his or her heritage. To write, to make art, any artist must use numerous quotations of already readable texts that can be quoted and quotable or readable. To be readable the writing must both draw from and attain the condition of iterability or the ability to be re-read, re-written or to be “grafted,” as Derrida would say, as re-expressions into other texts. As Barthes said, “..a text is an intertext,” an outcome that produced what he termed “a tissue” of quotations or citations. Kristeva, in her turn, defined a “text” as a “permutation of texts,” an intertextuality: “in the space of any given text, several utterances take from other texts, intersect and neutralize one another.”

However, in order to stress how different intertextuality is from previous methodologies of critical analysis, it is important to stress that although there always has to be a language existing before and after and around texts that allows the text to be uttered, but these multiple Intertexts are not sources of influence upon the writer. To posit an “influence” would be to assume a point of origin and to assume origin would be to assume some form of “originality.” But the entire point of Intertextuality is that there is no traceable source and that to attempt to track back upon an author’s path is to free fall into an abyss that has no end. Literature and visual art is nothing but a general field or open territory of anonymous formulae or literary conventions or visual codes whose origin cannot be located and which have already been written. All written and visual utterances and expressions must both import or utilize and, in the process, naturalize, or make familiar through repetition, the speech acts of others. The viewer must work within the resulting tensions among the numerous texts, seek collaborations among numerous artists, and undertake negotiations with the results. The idea is that the text is comparable to a dialogue between the reader and writer: words are neither neutral nor original but are already used and secondhand and saturated with other meanings, leftover and already contaminated and impregnated with their opposites. Meanings can be palimpsests, overlaying one another, transparent slices that one can see through, a past that is still present at odds with that which is on the surface.

Clearly, these Post-Structuralist interpretations of writing and reading and making art were closely related to the visual strategies that Postmodern artists and architects were beginning to employ as early as the 1960s and came into vogue during the 1980s. The literary critic, Jonathan Culler, called the formalist methodology “a bizarre fiction.” “At its most basic,” Culler said in The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, “..the lesson of contemporary European criticism is this: the New Criticism’s dream of a self-contained encounter between the innocent reader and autonomous text is a bizarre fiction.” To read, Culler explained, is to read in relation to other texts, and, indeed reading like looking can occur only in relation to preexisting codes that are products of these texts. As “objects of the culture,” the works are required to participate in a variety of systems and must emerge from these networks of meanings. As Derrida put it, the intertextual codes are déjà-la, or already there. The origins are lost, for codification cannot originate or be originated; any code is already encoded in a prior code and these contributions of previous texts to the code makes signification possible, and now signification is redefined as a stacking up as it were of these preexisting codes. Because they have already been appropriated, free floating quotations are already anonymous and always untraceable, being already read, already seen, and refer to the sum of accumulated collective knowledge that makes it possible for texts to have reiterable meaning.

Taking their cue from Bakhtin and inspired by the uprising of the spring of 1968, the French writers and philosophers were invested in taking an anti-authorian position in regards to traditional literary traditions, while the American artists were attempting to break away from their Modernist predecessors and the critical authority of cultural leaders. Clearly, double-coding, a term popularized by Charles Jencks, is a visual counterpart to Intertextuality, but much of architecture’s intertextuality is, in fact, not visible or immediately understandable to the casual visitor,and yet is nevertheless present. Unlike Intertextuality in literature which is deeply embedded within the surface text itself, intertextuality in the visual arts depended upon a near scholarly knowledge of the history of art and of critical theory. The late architect, Charles Moore (1925-1993), utilized an entire history of Western architectural vocabularies for his Piazza d’Italia (1978) in New Orleans. The satirical façade, like a stage set, is a jumble of misaligned parts, assembled from the ruins of history into a deconstruction of stylistic chronology. If multiple texts must exist in order to write, then multiple works of art must be known in order for the work to exist, either for the artist or for the viewer.

While both Barthes and Kristeva were concerned about establishing a new epistemology or foundation for literature and of the visual arts, the more familiar definition of Postmodernism was formed out of the world of architecture by the architectural critic, Charles Jencks, who, unlike his art historical counterparts, was faced with postmodern tendencies as early as the 1960s. For Jencks, Postmodernism evolved out of art and architecture of the sixties, once again, paralleling similar approaches in the world of philosophy–postmodernism was a mere rethinking of Modernism. Jenks would agree with Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1996) that Postmodernism is less of a break and more of a continuation of a particular kind of Modernism. In other words, it is important to understand that Modernism was a period of time and that during this period of time, certain art critics and certain art historians (authority figures) decided to speak only of some art and fell silent on other forms of art making. Postmodernism became a “return” as artists and architects returned to that which had been “repressed” in Modernism: the hybrid (the impure) and the vernacular (popular culture). The architect, Robert Venturi’s books, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning From Las Vegas, written during the sixties, were the equivalents of Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans of 1962 as manifestos that celebrated popular culture.

Jencks, like most of the theorists of the Postmodern, understood that one of the leading characteristics of Postmodernism is the global and international culture of expansionary capitalism that makes any dominate style impossible. Note that, in the visual arts, Postmodernism finally found fertile ground in American academics during the short-lived art boom of the 1980s. Postmodernism as a theory enabled the art world to encompass the capitalist expansion of the art world beyond the narrow borders of New York City. Jencks characterized Postmodern art to be eclectic, due to what he called an embarrass de richesses, or a surplus of unrestricted ability to browse among historical periods or the freedom to “choose and combine traditions selectively—an “election,” as he would have it. The result is “a striking synthesis of traditions,” a “smorgasbord,” “inventive combinations,” and a “confused parody” that come out of a culture of pluralism, which recognizes no dominant style or movement. Despite the fact that, in their day, the best works of Postmodernism are, according to Jencks, “doubly-coded and ironic” producing a “hybrid (non) style” that opposes “an exclusive dogma of taste,” Postmodern architecture quickly became dated and stranded on the sands of its own excess of choice.

A simple contrarian movement or reaction, Postmodernism attempted to move always towards greater pluralism in contrast to the narrow elitism of Modernism, but as evidenced by its own erudition, the movement never believed that gaps between high and low or between different communities could be bridged into one universal culture. It is doubtful that visitors to Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center (1989) in Columbus, Ohio grasped his verbal visual punning exercises with the Jeffersonian grid and an abandoned armory. Resisting this notion of “control” but relying upon complex theory, Postmodernism deployed juxtaposition of motives, as seen in the Wexner Center, acknowledging multiple legitimacies, from the history of Ohio to the theory of Deconstruction. The literary and philosophical counterpart of Jencks’s “double-coding” would be “intertextuality”. This “double-voiced discourse” constitutes the fundamental agenda of the post-modern movement. According to Jencks “Double a strategy of affirming and denying the existing power structures (by) inscribing differing tastes and opposite forms of discourse.” In other words heteroglossia; in other words, intertextuality; in other words, plurality and the play of many voices.

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

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Harold Bloom: A Map of Misreading


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.


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.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

[email protected]