Thumbed through my copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again yesterday and ended up re-reading David Foster Wallace’s essay “Greatly Exaggerated,” ostensibly a review of H.L. Hix’s book Morte d’Author: An Autopsy, considers the literary fall-out after Roland Barthes declared the “death of the author.” Anyway, I thought Wallace’s description of poststructuralism was worth sharing–
The deconstructionists (“deconstructionist” and “poststructuralist” mean the same thing, by the way: “poststructuralist” is what you call a deconstructionist who doesn’t want to be called a deconstructionist) . . . see the debate over the ownership of meaning as a skirmish in a larger war in Western philosophy over the idea that presence and unity are ontologically prior to expression. There’s been this longstanding deluded presumption, they think, that if there is an utterance then there must exist a unified, efficacious presence that causes and owns that utterance. The poststructuralists attack what they see as a post-Platonic prejudice in favor of presence over absence and speech over writing. We tend to trust speech over writing because of the immediacy of the speaker: he’s right there, and we can grab him by the lapels and look into his face and figure out just exactly what one single thing he means. But the reason why poststructuralists are in the literary theory business at all is that they see writing, not speech, as more faithful to the metaphysics of true expression. For Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault, writing is a better animal than speech because it is iterable; it is iterable because it is abstract; and it is abstract because it is a function not of presence but of absence: the reader’s absent when the writer’s writing, and the writer’s absent when the reader’s reading.
For a deconstructionist, then, a writer’s circumstances and intentions are indeed a part of the “context” of a text, but context imposes no real cinctures on the text’s meaning, because meaning in language requires a cultivation of absence rather than presence, involves not the imposition but the erasure of consciousness. This is so because these guys–Derrida following Heidegger and Barthes Mallarme and Foucault God knows who–see literary language as a not a tool but an environment. A writer does not wield language; he is subsumed in it. Language speaks us; writing writes; etc.
Hey you. Yeah, you. Were you the guy that borrowed my copy of John Barth’s Chimera and never had enough human compassion/decency to return it? No? Not you? Never mind. I picked up another copy last weekend specifically for the diagram above (I also wanted to re-read “Perseid.”) Now that I look at it again, I’m not sure that it’s so much enlightening as it is mystifying. In any case, it’s an intriguing bit of navel gazing. Fun stuff.
Michael Holquist’s Dialogism, a highly approachable introduction to the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin, is the most enjoyable book of literary theory I’ve wrapped my head around in quite a while. Bakhtin’s dialogism is–and I’m drastically paraphrasing here–a way of interpreting texts in terms of the way that they “speak” to other texts. In Bakhtinian dialogism, language exists in an endless play of call and response, of modulation and echo of all language that has come before and all language that is to come after. Written in short, concise bursts of information, Holquist’s Dialogism illuminates Bakhtin’s complex ideas; additionally, Holquist reads Bakhtin against heavyweights like Roman Jakobson, Kant, Saussure, and, uh, Albert Einstein. Most useful and enlightening of all are Holquist’s own dialogical readings, particularly his reading of Shelley’s Frankenstein. Dialogism is an essential introduction to an important philosopher, and, more importantly, a pretty good read.