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    The Swerve around P: Literary Theory after Interpretation

    Jeffrey T. Nealon
    Pennsylvania State University

    © 2007 Jeffrey T. Nealon.
    All rights reserved.

    I. Literature

  1. On a recent trip to the library to find an essay that a visiting speaker was going to talk about, something odd (and a bit embarrassing) happened to me. I got the call number for the volume, and bee-lined directly to the library's "P" shelves (the Library of Congress designation for language, literature and literary criticism/theory). But I found that the whole section had been moved--there were students working on laptops in the corner where literary criticism and theory used to be. I eventually found the volume I was looking for, along with some old friends like my own first book (a proud alum of PS 228, Class of '93), relocated in the 5th floor stacks. I later asked the humanities librarian, when I saw him at the talk: "Hey, when did the 'P' section get moved to the 5th floor?" "2002," he answered, a bit incredulously. I could see him wondering: this guy makes his living as an English professor, but he hasn't been in the literary criticism section for years?
  2. It struck me as puzzling as well. When I was in grad school--not that long ago--just about everything I needed to know was in the P section. I knew those shelves like the back of my hand. But I guess it is true that, in Library of Congress terms, for my work in recent years it's been all B's, H's, and J's (Philosophy, Social Science, and Politics), hardly any P's--both in terms of the theory and criticism that I read, and in terms of the work that I publish. At first I thought that this was simply an anomaly of my research agendas; but an overwhelming number of colleagues I've since talked to about this experience have similar tales of the swerve around P. Others of course have different preferred Library of Congress designations for their research: the vast D through F shelves for the department historians, Q and R for science studies, more H and J for the queer theorists and cultural studies people, as well as a healthy smattering of G and T (geography and technology). And even those whose work remains firmly on the language and literature shelves admit that much of what goes into their books on literature requires research from other places: history, sociology, social science, not to mention the unclassifiable archival research that informs so much of the work on the P shelves. In short, even the scholarship on the language and literature shelves isn't "literary" in quite the same way it was even a decade ago. There's plenty of superb "theory" and "criticism" being produced in and around English departments, but the adjective "literary" seems oddly out of place when it comes to describing it--inapplicable as much to the work of historians ("don't call us literary historians," a colleague warns) as to theorists (editors at Rowman and Littlefield quickly wrenched the word "literary" out of the title of my co-authored textbook, The Theory Toolbox--marketing death, they said).
  3. This swerve around P is probably something that most people reading this will recognize, in one way or another. And rather than coming before you to celebrate or denounce the demise of the "literary," I'd like to think about how and why this situation came about, and how it may or may not be related to another story that's making the rounds in literature departments, the so-called "death of theory." To anticipate, I'll suggest that research in and around language and literature is no longer "literary" most obviously in the sense that it's no longer primarily concerned with producing interpretations of existing or emerging literary artifacts. This--let's call it for now "anti-hermeneutic"--thrust is additionally the transversal line that connects the decline of the literary to the demise of "big theory." As Jane Tompkins had pointed out in the heyday of theory, specifically in her 1980 collection Reader-Response Criticism, even as theorists fought seemingly life-and-death battles against new critical formalism, in the end those battles had the paradoxical effect of intensifying a crucial tenet of formalism: namely, what Tompkins calls "the triumph of interpretation" (219). Whether Wallace Stevens was all about organic unity or whether he was all about undecidability, either way it was interpretation all the way down.
  4. Of course, there's a semantic confusion involved when one argues that literary theory was and is beholden to interpretation, insofar as big theory in North American literature departments got off the ground in the 1970s precisely through its critique of new critical notions of literary meaning. The attempt or desire to go "Beyond Interpretation," as Jonathan Culler names it in a 1976 essay, was part and parcel of the attempt to go beyond New Criticism. As Paul de Man writes, for example, with criticism's departure from the universe of new critical reading, "the entire question of meaning can be bracketed, thus freeing the critical discourse from the debilitating burden of paraphrase" (28)--from any mimetic or thematic notion of meaning--and thereby allowing new horizons of interpretive possibilities. Which is to say that literary theory of the 1970s and 80s hardly abandons the project of interpretation wholesale--J. Hillis Miller famously insisted that "'deconstruction' is . . . simply interpretation as such" (230)--but the era of literary theory crucially shifts interpretation's emphasis from the "what" of meaning (new criticism's "debilitating burden of paraphrase") to the "how" of meaning, the strangely "enabling" task of infinite interpretation. In retrospect, it seems clear that the era of poststructuralism was characterized by a decisive intensification of attention to the process (rather than the product) of interpretation. This interpretive mutation from what to how comprised "the triumph of theory."
  5. However, as theory triumphed over content- and theme-oriented criticism (as reading or interpretation became unmoored from older, new critical or structuralist versions of meaning), it's important to recall that "meaning" nevertheless remained the privileged site of poststructuralist critical endeavor; in fact literary "meaning," far from remaining a thematic unity hidden away within a rarified realm of dusty books, becomes in the poststructuralist theory era the slippery lure for "readings" of all kinds, the hermeneutic gesture exploded throughout the literary and social field. Despite the overt and constant critique of univocal meaning within literary theory (or more likely because of this critique's ubiquity), the hermetic or insular notion of univocal meaning remains the structuring other buried within poststructuralist celebrations of interpretation's open-endedness, a kind of shadow passenger who must always be kept at bay by interpretation. Interpretation, in short, becomes the enemy of univocal meaning in the theory era--but that old-fashioned sense of meaning still thereby remains a central concern, if only as that which is to be warded off by the critical act. (What, one might wonder, are the tasks or results of poststructuralist reading if they are not first and foremost gestures towards interpretation as an interminable enterprise?) As Culler writes in his 2006 defense of theory as poetics, The Literary in Theory, "One could say that literary studies in the American academy, precisely because of its commitment to the priority of interpretation as the goal of literary study, was quick to posit a 'poststructuralism' based on the impossibility or inappropriateness of the systematic projects of structuralism, so that interpretation, albeit of different kinds, might remain the task of literary studies" (10-11).
  6. This decisive mutation from the what of hermeneutics to the how--in shorthand, from revealing meaning to performing readings--doesn't simply abandon the structural position of "meaning" in the hermeneutic enterprise. Far from fading into the background, the interpretive act here swallows up everything: even death (as de Man provocatively insisted) becomes a displaced name for a linguistic predicament. Meaning is reborn, even as it arrives stillborn in each and every reading. Interrupted, reading-as-interpretation nevertheless continues--and it lives on even more strongly in its new-found assurance that the text will never be totalized. Meaning remains the impossible lure, the absent center, the lack or excess that continues to drive the critical enterprise. Textual undecidability of this variety has been very good to literary criticism. Instead of producing the nihilism and critical irrelevance that many traditionalists feared, the jettisoning of meaning-as-content was in retrospect absolutely necessary in order for poststructuralist hermeneutics to succeed. Open-ended interpretation was the practice that launched a thousand successful tenure cases (including mine). In the era of big theory, the stakes among competing methodologies were high, but they remained interpretive stakes.
  7. Indeed, we need to recall that the MLA "theory wars" were characterized not so much by disputes between interpreters of literature and those who held that there was some other thing or set of things that critics should be doing in and around the literary; rather, the theory wars were largely internecine battles among interpretive camps or methods. Perhaps the most striking thing about some of the larger methodological claims from the "big theory" era is the way they feel now like clunky advertising campaigns or the remnants of a marketing war in which various methodologies jockey for market share, often deploying slogans that would seem to us now to be hilariously "totalizing"--something like your local bar's claim to have "the best hot wings in the universe!" Perhaps the most infamous of these claims comes about in the aftermath of de Man's reading of Proustian metaphor and metonymy in 1973's "Semiology and Rhetoric": "The whole of literature," de Man writes, "would respond in similar fashion, although the techniques and patterns would have to vary considerably, of course, from author to author. But there is absolutely no reason why analyses of the kind suggested here for Proust would not be applicable, with proper modifications of technique, to Milton or to Dante or to Hölderlin. This in fact will be the task of literary criticism in the coming years" (32). From the vantage point of the present, it's a little hard to believe that the "task of literary criticism in the coming years" could have been so earnestly and seriously (or perhaps winkingly and ironically?) presented as the application of one method among others.
  8. Indeed, it's hard to imagine someone today arguing that we should dedicate ourselves to the task of re-reading the canon according to the protocols of a particular interpretive approach (Geneva School phenomenology, Butler's gender performativity, Foucaultian biopower, or Shlovsky's Russian Formalism), but such claims were in fact ubiquitous in the era of big theory. Recall Fredric Jameson from The Political Unconscious (1981): "My position here is that only Marxism offers a philosophically coherent and ideologically compelling resolution to the dilemma of historicism . . . . Only Marxism can give us an adequate account of the essential mystery of the cultural past" (19). Jameson thematizes his entire project in this book as the articulation of a "properly Marxist hermeneutic" (23), responding to the "demand for the construction of some new and more adequate, immanent or antitranscendent hermeneutic model" (23). One could go on multiplying these kinds of claims from the big theory era, recalling for example that the subtitle of Henry Louis Gates's The Signifying Monkey (1988) is nothing less comprehensive than "A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism," or recalling the claims made for certain kinds of interpreters--resisting or otherwise--in reader-response criticism.
  9. My point here is not to underline the hubris of the North American theory era, but to suggest that the big claims of big theory were underwritten by a disciplinary apparatus in and around literature departments that was completely beholden to interpretation (especially in terms of research publication). Whether it was deconstruction, Marxism, African-American criticism, or almost anything else, the era of big theory was an era of interpretative models that fought for the status as the most powerful and universally applicable one--the "winner" being the critical method that could succeed in festooning the pages of the most journals with its inventive new readings of texts. As Josue Harari writes in his hugely successful 1979 anthology Textual Strategies, "method has become a strategy" (72). As Harari continues describing his anthology of strategic interpretive methods, "I have presented the various critical struggles at play among contemporary theorists. It remains to inscribe these strategies in a more global framework, to put them in a ring of criticism, as it were, and to determine how the rounds are to be scored" (68-9). And back in the day, scoring those rounds amounted to judging which was the most persuasive "new" interpretation of a given text. The era of big theory constituted a decisive intensification, rather than a reversal or abandonment, of literary meaning and its discontents.
  10. While it's taken a quarter-century, contemporary criticism at this point seems to have fully heeded Tompkins's 1980 call for research to swerve away from interpretation and reconnect to what she calls "a long history of critical thought in which the specification of meaning is not a central concern" (201): a criticism based not so narrowly on the interior or formal relations among discourse and meaning, but focused instead on "the relations of discourse and power" (226). Tompkins's "break with formalism" (226) seems plausible enough as a description of recent history in literary criticism and theory (when was the last time you heard a junior job candidate do an actual close reading of a poem?), and one could at this point begin multiplying anti-hermeneutic references: critical theories invested in Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Gumbrecht, the later Jameson, Irigaray, Franco Moretti's sociology of literary forms, or Bourdieu's work on cultural capital; virtually the whole of fields like cultural studies, rhetoric, science studies, globalization studies, and a strongly resurgent (in fact, hegemonically dominant) "old" historicism in literary studies. One could add the decidedly other-than-hermeneutic thrust of artistic formations like the "unreadable" postmodern novel, almost all contemporary American poetry (both the so-called workshop tradition--which relies largely on communicating subjective affect rather than semantic meaning--and more experimental traditions), contemporary painting, performance art, and so on.
  11. While something like Tompkins's account of recent American literary critical history seems plausible enough to me (tracing a path from the hegemony of research questions concerning textual interpretation or meaning to the reign of questions about literature's inscription in history, discourse, power, or the everyday), I'd like to supplement or combine it here with a wholly different account of the swerve around the literary, Alain Badiou's in Manifesto for Philosophy. I'd like to do so not only because of the interest of Badiou's account of continental philosophy's current state, but also because hybridizing Tompkins's account with Badiou's may actually help to re-situate or re-imagine a future for the literary. In short, it seems to me that on Tompkins's account (and others like it), the literary remains the marker for a kind of stale, apolitical formalism obsessed with questions of interpretive meaning and little else; if one accepts this rendering of recent critical history, it's hard to be concerned about the passing of the literary, and/or equally hard to imagine any productive research future for the adjective "literary" in "literary criticism and theory."
  12. The question of meaning is, and I think will remain, the bread and butter of classroom practice in literature departments; in particular, the undergraduate theory class will continue to function as an invaluable introduction to interpretive protocols for some time to come. For faculty research, however, I think it's a different story: while research surrounding the mechanics and production of meaning (and/or its flipside undecidability) experienced a boom during the big theory years, it's almost impossible only a few years later to imagine a publishing future that consists of new interpretations of Pynchon, Renaissance tragedies, or Melville. Contra much of the reactionary hope invested in the passing of "big theory" ("Finally, now we can go back to reading and appreciating literature, without all this jargon!"), the decisive conceptual difference separating the present from the era of big theory is not so much a loss of status for theoretical discourses (just look at any university press catalog and you'll be quickly disabused of that notion), but the waning of literary interpretation itself as a viable research (which is to say, publishing) agenda.
  13. In the end, it is the taken-for-grantedness of literary interpretation's centrality, rather than a wholesale disciplinary rejection of something called theory, that separates our present from the era of big theory. And if there's no "next big thing" coming down the theory pike, it's precisely because such a notion of "next big thing" (like feminism, deconstruction, or new historicism in their day) has tended to mean the arrival of a new interpretive paradigm. There's no new interpretive paradigm on the horizon not so much because of the exhaustion of theory itself (there are many under-explored interpretive models or theorists) but because the work of interpretation is no longer the primary research work of literature departments. There will be no Blanchot revolution, televised or otherwise.
  14. To put the same problem somewhat differently, in the era of big literary theory there was a certain unease at the perceived increasing distance between classroom practice and research publication--producing close readings in classrooms, deconstructing them in journals. But in the present context, that perceived "gap" seems like a positive continuity, because back in the day, at least it was the same general operation--interpretation--at work both in the Introduction to Literature class and in PMLA. But if the work that we're publishing these days is increasingly driven by questions that seem foreign to interpretive classroom practice, that should give us pause--if for no other reason than to consider how the future of our discipline might be related to the practices that dominated its recent past. It is, in the end, precisely in the name of re-imagining a future for the "literary" that I turn to Badiou's account of its demise in recent philosophy.
  15. II. Philosophy

  16. While Badiou's work is becoming well-known in North America--the Chronicle of Higher Education recently tagged him as a potential "next big thing" in the theory world, surely the kiss of death (see Byrne)--a brief discussion of some of his thought is relevant in this context. Against the thematics of the twilight of philosophy, and against all messianisms, Badiou calls for thinking's revitalization, primarily through an emphasis on what he calls a "positive," non-sacramental relation to infinity--a relation that, for Badiou, is on display most forcefully in the axiomatic thrust of mathematics. In returning to what he sees as the Greek origins of philosophy--he goes so far as to call his thinking a "Platonism of the multiple" (Manifesto 103)--Badiou locates four "conditions of philosophy": "the matheme, the poem, political invention, and love" (35). Western philosophy is said to have begun in Greece with these four topics (science, literature, politics, desire), and for Badiou "the lack of a single one gives rise to [philosophy's] dissipation" (35), which isn't to say its end. Philosophical thinking is in danger whenever it becomes tied too closely and exclusively to one of its four-fold conditions. The danger, for Badiou, is "handing over the whole of thought to one generic procedure . . . . I call this type of situation a suture. Philosophy is placed in suspension every time it presents itself as being sutured to one of its conditions" (61). So, for example, Marxism has often been too sutured to the political condition--here Badiou even implicates his own earlier Maoism (76)--while analytic philosophy has on the whole sutured itself too closely to the scientism of the matheme. "Philosophy," in its simplest definition, is for Badiou "de-suturation" (67), the interruption of an exclusive thought-suture to either politics, science, love, or the literary. Hence, Badiou calls his a "subtractive" thinking, one that subtracts itself from constrictive sutures, to reconnect with the multiple.
  17. The most totalizing suture of recent philosophical times, Badiou writes polemically, is not the political or the scientific-mathematical, or even privatized "love," but the poetic, the literary suture. As he insists, today "it so happens that the main stake, the supreme difficulty, is to de-suture philosophy from its poetic condition" (67). Badiou rather cannily chooses Heidegger as his main foil in this argument. Even Heidegger's staunchest proponents would agree that the literary is in fact the ground of his thinking; he has relatively little compelling to say about politics, mathematics, or love for that matter--or, more precisely, anything compelling that he might have to say about those topics would have to run through the poetic, as this suture is the ontological ground of the space of possibility in Heidegger's thinking. Anything that emerges does so in Heidegger through the structure of the literary opening, that privileged path to the meaning of Being.
  18. Of course, my two exemplary accounts of the literary's demise (Tompkins's and Badiou's) do not map seamlessly onto one another, for a whole host of disciplinary, historical, and geographical reasons. Most obviously, one might point out that the lion's share of American literary theory (or most continental philosophy, for that matter) isn't or never was so Heideggerian as Badiou's account would seem to suggest. However, much of the "big theory" era in literature departments did, I think, share the bond that both Badiou and Tompkins point out: the questions of "meaning" or interpretation as the ultimate horizon of inquiry. This hermeneutic thrust was prominently on display in virtually all big theory in literature departments, even in the polemically new historicist work of people like the boundary 2 New Americanists, as well as in much of the early new historicist work in English literature (think here of a great book like Jonathan Dollimore's Radical Tragedy, which deploys its historical materialist mix of religion, ideology, and power primarily to produce startling new readings of Renaissance tragedies). Likewise, however anti-Heideggerian much Tel Quel thinking may have been, it did nonetheless protect the horizon of hermeneutics (the literary suture) as the royal road to larger philosophical and cultural questions. Like Tompkins's call for literary criticism to reconnect to a non-hermeneutic tradition, then, Badiou's critique of the poetic suture in philosophy is less a spring-green avant gardism (calling for a radical new direction in thought), than it is an attempt to return critique to a series of other questions, ones not treated well within the poetic idiom. As Badiou writes, "Descartes, Leibnitz, Kant or Hegel might have been mathematicians, historians, or physicists; if there is one thing they were not, it was poets" (70).
  19. Contrary to Tompkins's diagnosis of literary criticism circa 1980, however, Badiou doesn't treat the poetic suture of neo-Heideggerian thought primarily as an ideological swerve away from the real or from crucial questions of its day--politics, power, gender, etc. For Badiou, the poetic suture is not primarily the offspring of a false or deluded consciousness concerning the centrality of literature: "there really was an age of poets" (70)--Badiou dates it from Hölderlin to Celan, 1770--1970--when the central problems of philosophy were worked out most forcefully and concisely in poetic texts. Literary works for a long time presented us with our most crucial philosophical enigmas: "the most open approach to the question of being," "the space of compossibility least caught up in the brutal sutures" of political coercion, "the enigma of time" (70), and of course the undulations of love and desire. Badiou, in other words, hardly seeks to dismiss the power of the poetic suture in philosophy: "Heidegger's thinking has owed its persuasive power to having been the only one to pick up what was at stake in the poem, namely the destitution of object fetishism, the opposition of truth and knowledge, and lastly the essential disorientation of our epoch" (74). On Badiou's account the literary became central to a whole era of thought not primarily because of the ideological investments of its proponents (the general claim that's not too far below the surface of Tompkins's critique of formalist fetishizing of the poem), but precisely because the literary spoke most forcefully and succinctly to a whole set of crucial questions (political and otherwise): literature's critique of object and commodity fetishism (the poem's anti-instrumental resistance to appropriation), poetry's singular epistemological force (the impossibility of assigning it an "objective" meaning), and the literary's testimony to the existential disorientation of the era. These were all crucial philosophical questions that could be accessed in their most intense manifestations primarily through the literary or hermeneutic suture--through the question of meaning and its discontents.
  20. Badiou's concern is less to debunk the prestige, ideology, or inherent interest of the literary relation to philosophy, but to explore or emphasize what we might call the "cost" of a primary suture onto the literary--how it recasts or downplays thinking's relations to what Badiou sees as its other properly philosophical themes (the political, love, and the mathematical - scientific). If, as Badiou insists, "ultimately, being qua being is nothing but the multiple as such" ("Being by Numbers," n.p.), then the literary suture can do little more than endlessly demonstrate or gesture toward this multiplicity, in what Badiou suggests is a primarily theological register. Poetry, he insists, functions largely as the "local maintenance of the sacred" (Manifesto 57), as repository of hidden meaning or the marker for infinite possibility. Badiou, on the other hand, takes his primary task to be the "secularization of infinity," which is why for Badiou the mathematical language of set theory becomes a privileged one. It drains infinity or the multiple of its Barthesian "jouissance": "that's the price of a deromanticization of infinity," he writes. Quite simply, "Mathematics secularizes infinity in the clearest way, by formalizing it" ("Being by Numbers"). The project for Badiou is less guaranteeing the openness of infinity (which was the primary job of the literary during the age of the poem), than it is mobilizing said infinity (the job that characterizes politics, science, love).
  21. This, unfortunately, is also where Badiou's account begins to become unhelpful for rethinking a genealogy of recent developments in the history of literary criticism and/or philosophy, as his mathematical impulse is driven in large part by an attempt not to connect thinking to this or that transversal field, but to insist on philosophy's (absolute) autonomy as that discourse dedicated to the ahistorical "truth" best represented by mathematics: "I propose to tear philosophy away from this genealogical imperative" (Manifesto 115), he writes. "To forget history--this at first means to make decisions of thinking without returning to a supposed historical sense prescribed by these decisions. It is a question of breaking with historicism to enter, as someone like Descartes or Spinoza did, into an autonomous legitimating of discourse. Philosophy must take on axioms of thinking and draw consequences from them" (115). For Badiou, this ahistorical thrust must break with poetic suture, precisely because the poetic comprises (as its inherent strength) a thinking "vis-à-vis," always in relation to the object or the world (rather than the ahistorical truth) as the bearer of the multiple.
  22. Unfashionable as it surely is, Badiou's Platonism of the multiple is just that, fidelity to a "truth without object" (Manifesto 93): "The task of such a thinking is to produce a concept of the subject such that it is supported by no mention of the object, a subject, if I might say, without vis-à-vis. This locus has a bad reputation, for it invokes Bishop Berkeley's absolute idealism. As you have realized, it is, yet, to the task of occupying it that I am devoted" (93). As much as I appreciate (and to a large extent agree with) his sizing up of the "cost" of thinking's primary suture onto the literary, this absolutist notion of the "subject" and ahistorical "fidelity" (to the originary "truth-procedure" or the founding "event" of truth) is where I get off the Badiou boat, desperately seeking again the literary bateau ivre. Badiou's thinking here seems to put us all somewhere in the vicinity of the quarter deck of the Pequod, consistently menaced by a kind of dictatorial subjective decisionism masquerading (as it so often does) as absolute fidelity to the ahistorical truth. As Badiou writes, "there is no ethical imperative other than 'Continue!,' 'Continue in your fidelity!'" ("Being by Numbers")--perhaps one could translate it as "Keep on Truckin"? As the outline of a potential ethics, this notion of single-minded fidelity toward an ahistorical "truth without object" for me summons up the words of a great literary figure who himself most rigorously refused the world of relation (the vis-à-vis): "I would prefer not to."
  23. Badiou's North American popularity, such as it is, may come from his sledgehammer critique of liberalism: in an American political world where the moniker "leftist" is virtually synonymous with "flip-flopper," Badiou's self-founding subject and Maoist political "fidelity" solve some of the problems that traditional liberalism creates for politics. If nothing else, Maoism is good for things like knowing what the truth is, or the only correct way to find it; tenacious commitment and fidelity to the cause; knowing which side you're on (an intensified version of Schmitt's friend/enemy distinction comprises virtually the whole field of Badiou's "prescriptive politics").[1] It also offers a virtual guarantee that what you're doing at any given point can be called "authentic resistance" (insofar as someone in the truth is by definition fighting the good fight against the enemy). Despite the guard rails that Badiou consistently throws up against a purely subjective decisionism (e.g., that truth procedures must be "generic," thereby open to all), one might argue that his thought remains not so much haunted as it is grounded by a decisionism or voluntarism.
  24. The "plus" side of Badiou's Maoism is, ironically, that it looks like a pretty good description of Bush Administration practices (the war on terror is "without vis-à-vis" indeed!); but at the end of the day, one person's universal and ahistorical "truth-procedure" is--a thousand references to Plato, Leo Strauss, Hayek, or the Koran notwithstanding--inexorably another person's doxa. This conceptual slippage (between the individual and the group, the universal and the particular, absolute truth and mere opinion) is, of course, the central problem around which liberalism configures itself; but as tempting or satisfying as it might be to jettison the inherent slipperiness of political events in the name of an absolute subjective and group commitment, this comes only at the cost of intensifying the fundamental problems of liberalism (and, indeed, the central problems of the contemporary economic and political world): fidelity toward those who share my commitment, and little but suspicion for all the others. What we might call the "Badiou cocktail"--as Daniel Bensaid suggests, a potent mix of "theoretical elitism and practical moralism" (101)--hardly offers much of a hangover cure from liberal political theory's failures and historical disasters. While there are myriad problems with contemporary liberalism (or even more so neo-liberalism), the most pressing among them is hardly that liberalism displays too little moralism, decisionism, or elitism. So why be interested in Badiou's account at all? Or what can it offer us over and above something like Tompkins's swerve around the literary?
  25. It seems to me that Badiou offers a way to think the literary again as one of a series of other crucial topics (love, science, politics, etc.), without literature's having to carry the burden of being the privileged or necessary approach to those other questions. I think that Badiou is right when he suggests that literary interpretation has been the primary suture of our recent past, and that this suture has proven costly or ineffective when it's exported wholesale into other fields of inquiry. Politics, science, and love (one might add here most art forms in general) are hardly realms where "meaning" of a literary kind makes much difference, and it can be a bit of a "disaster" (Badiou's word) to confuse political or mathematical questions with questions of literary interpretation. But, and this seems to be the most serious problem with Badiou's account, such an over-reliance on the literary suture can hardly be rectified by absolutizing the mathematical or scientific suture: that "solution" seems to intensify the problem by insisting again on the autonomy of one suture over the others. (Indeed, the problem may be insisting that there are only four sutures, when in fact it seems that, mathematically speaking, there would have to be "n" sutures, an infinite number, just as there are "n" friends and "n" enemies within the political realm.[2] But in some ways Badiou remains right on target. We do at this point need to desacrilize the interpretive, but without handing over the whole operation to Badiou's solutions: the matheme, the self-grounding subject, the ahistorical truth, a prescriptive "with us or against us" politics. This kind of hesitation or critique undoubtedly makes me a Badiouean enemy, a liberal accomodationist. So be it. I think Foucault critiques the friend/enemy distinction best: "Who fights against whom? We all fight each other. And there is always within each of us something that fights something else . . . . [at the level of] individuals, or even sub-individuals" (Power 208).[3]
  26. III. Literature and Philosophy

  27. While I subscribe fully to neither of the general accounts that I sketch above, it seems to me that Badiou's philosophical account of the literary's demise, hybridized with Tompkins's literary-critical one, offers us some provocative ways to think through the future of the literary and its possible future relations to philosophy. First, while these two accounts diverge in significant ways, they both suggest that the hegemony of the "literary" in recent theory is in fact better understood as the hegemony of "meaning" (and its flipside, undecidability); likewise, both accounts agree that hermeneutics doesn't and shouldn't saturate the category of the "literary." The first time around, in the era of big theory, the disciplinary relationship between literature and philosophy was pretty clear: literary studies needed interpretive paradigms, which it found in philosophy; and philosophy needed some real-world application, a place to show examples of what it could do, and it found this oftentimes in literature. Either way, the relation between philosophy and literature in the era of big theory was almost wholly a narrow hermeneutic one, having to do with the mechanics, production and (im)possibility of meaning.
  28. Against this narrowly interpretive sense of literature, I suggest that the literary can, in a more robust sense, comprise a thinking "vis-à-vis without meaning." While this probably sounds a little odd--what's literature without the question of meaning?--it always seemed equally strange to me that literary studies found itself so completely territorialized on this question of meaning, when virtually no other art form or art criticism is as obsessed by it. "What does it mean?" seems like the wrong question to ask, for example, about music or sculpture, not to mention performance art or post-impressionist painting. And it's always seemed to me likewise a puzzling (and, finally, zero-sum) question to put to Joyce's texts or to Shakespeare's.
  29. Indeed, the strength of literature, contra Badiou, lies in its constitution of a strong--infinitely molecular--brand of thinking the vis-à-vis, of thinking about and through the world of infinite relation. The mistake or Achilles heel of the literary suture, though, was that in the era of big literary theory, this inherently positive, multiple, machinic, and molecular thinking was overthrown by questions of "meaning"--which is to say, questions about the neo-theological play of presence and absence. Such a hermeneutic thinking of the multiple is always and necessarily tied to the lack or absence of a kind of neo-objectivist one (multiple interpretations being thought in hermeneutics primarily through a founding absence, the flown god or the death of the author). The "presence" of this thing called meaning is always already made possible by the chiasmic "absence" of some thing or things (the spectral materiality of the signifier, the haunting of other interpretations, the originary dispensation of being, etc). As its primary Achilles Heel, the hermeneutic suture commits you to showing first and foremost what literature can't do (it can't mean univocally), rather than what it can do (a thousand other things). Such hermeneutic literary theory is inexorably a thinking based on lack. Find the gaps, fissures, or absences, and there you'll find either a secret trace of lost or impossible plenitude (the hidden subtext of meaning), or a hollowing out of the text so as to render it multiply undecidable. And, as much as it pains me to say this, it is those strictly-speaking interpretive questions (that painstaking tracing of the chiasmic reversals of presence and absence of meaning in a text) that are at this point dead ends in literary research. Don't believe it? Try deconstructing the hell out of an Emily Dickinson poem, and send the results to PMLA--see what happens.
  30. By way of a caveat or disclaimer, it seems to me that the future of the literary is not at all a matter of finding ways simply to abandon the theoretical discussion of literature that was inaugurated by new criticism and intensified in the era of big theory. To my mind, that'd be a huge mistake because, after all, new critical interpretation was the thing that took the backyard conversation that was "literature" and made it into a research profession, for better or worse. My provocation here, if I have one at all, is simply asking theoreticians to rethink the possible sets of relation among literature and philosophy, other than in the key of interpretation. This is a call that has already been well heeded by our literature department colleagues: historicists, environmental critics, public intellectuals, and myriad others are producing vital and interesting work in and around literature, outside the mechanics of meaning. However, the department theorist--mon semblable, mon frère et soeur--seems these days to be mired in a kind of funk, too many of us driven by a sense that our heyday has passed, leaving us stuck with a hard drive full of Heideggerian readings of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (I actually have such an essay, should anyone care to read it), or bereft of journals interested in our inventive uses of Agamben to interpret The Scarlet Letter.
  31. But enough mourning for Big Theory.[4] So much does, in fact, depend on "a red wheelbarrow / glazed with rain water / beside the white chickens"--so much more than meaning depends on the sense of irreducibly multiple relation that is this thing called literature. And as Badiou suggests, at this point in the history of the literary, a release from the hermeneutic suture may in fact be what poetry "wants": its primary job should, perhaps, no longer be to provide exemplary fodder for interpretive methods or to offer examples of philosophical truths. I can already feel a kind of query or invitation from the reader: "Yes, I've had it with bland historicist job talks concerning novels written by pirates, or tracking what Frederick Douglass did on the weekend, and would love to think theoretically about the literary again. How about an example of the kind of reading you're talking about--using, say, Heart of Darkness as a sample text? Show us what your paradigm can do--take it out for a test drive on Conrad." No dice. That whole sense of offering an example reading or a critical template is, as I've argued above, itself a relic of the "big theory" era that I'm asking theorists to consider fleeing. I'm not interested in founding a new interpretive school here, nor in prescribing hot topics for critique. I'm simply insisting that, despite claims to the contrary, the literary--and with it literary theory--is or should be alive and well, but only if we abandon our nostalgia for the primary suture of the interpretive itself, and turn literature and literary theory back to the multiplicity of uses and questions that characterize our engagements with other forms of expression--to reinvigorate the myriad transversal theoretical connections among literature and philosophy, outside the interpretive suture. It's already happening in a widespread way: just look at the table of contents for any recent "good" journal and you'll see plenty of theoretically-inflected work, but very little of it begins or ends with the question of literary "meaning."
  32. Maybe in fact the current state of affairs--the swerve around P--commits theorists to revisit the critique of "interpretation" that got literary theory off the ground in the first place, and to locate there a series of roads less traveled. I think here of moments like Michel Foucault's call, at the beginning of 1969's Archaeology of Knowledge, not to treat historical monuments and archives as documents (delving ever more into the question of the past's "meaning"), but to treat documents and archives as monuments, to remain at the descriptive level of the document itself rather than attempting to ventriloquize archives or render texts "meaningful" through an interpretive method of some kind (see pp. 6-7). Or one could recall Deleuze and Guattari's provocations in A Thousand Plateaus, where "the triumph of theory" goes by the much less grandiose name "interpretosis . . . humankind's fundamental neurosis" (114). Their symptomology of this malady goes like this: "every sign refers to another sign, and only to another sign, ad infinitum . . . . The world begins to signify before anyone knows what it signifies; the signifier is given without being known. Your wife looked at you with a funny expression. And this morning the mailman handed you a letter from the IRS and crossed his fingers. Then you stepped in a pile of dog shit. You saw two sticks positioned on the sidewalk like the hands of a watch. They were whispering behind your back when you arrived at the office. It doesn't matter what it means, it's still signifying. The sign that refers to other signs is struck with a strange impotence and uncertainty, but mighty is the signifier that constitutes the chain" (112). There remains, in Deleuze and Guattari's world, much interesting that can be said about stepping in a pile of dog shit or being summoned by the IRS; but what those events mean--inside or outside the context of a novel--is hardly the only place to begin or end a theoretical inquiry. In the search for lines of flight, one could even return to Culler's "Beyond Interpretation," and its proleptic response to those who still today yearn for the "next big thing" in literary theory: "there are many tasks that confront contemporary criticism, many things that we need if we are to advance our understanding of literature, but if there is one thing we do not need it is more interpretations of literary works" (246). In fact, Culler's 1976 diagnosis of "The Prospects of Contemporary Criticism" seems a fitting (if largely unheard) caveat for the decades of literary theory that would follow: "the principle of interpretation is so strong an unexamined postulate of American criticism that it subsumes and neutralizes even the most forceful and intelligent acts of revolt" (253).
  33. I fear that many of us in the theory world--people in literature departments who "do theory" for a living--have been slow to engage fully with changing research practices in literature departments. Nobody in music theory, architecture theory, or art theory ever really asks what the work of Beethoven, Brunelleschi, or Jackson Pollock means. These days, maybe that question doesn't make much sense for literary theorists either.
  34. Department of English
    Pennsylvania State University

    Talk Back




    1. As Hallward writes, Badiou's "problem with Schmitt's concept of the political, in other words, is that it is not prescriptive enough. Politics divides, but not between friends and enemies (via the mediation of the state). Politics divides the adherents of a prescription against its opponents" (774). That's right, the official political theorist of the Third Reich was too soft--"not prescriptive enough"-- in his thinking of the friend/enemy distinction.

    2. Infinity, at the end of the Badiouean day, is akin to the il y a of Levinas, the given multiplicity of the world that we have to "evade" if we are to be ethical subjects (see Nealon 53-72). For his part, Badiou writes that "Most of the time, the great majority of us live outside ethics. We live in the living multiplicity of the situation" ("Being by Numbers"). For Badiou, as for Levinas, infinity or multiplicity is something that has to be escaped rather than deployed otherwise (a la Deleuze) or mapped (à la Foucault): "The set of a situation's various bodies of knowledge I call 'the encyclopedia' of the situation. Insofar as it refers only to itself, however, the situation is organically without truth" ("Being by Numbers"). All claims to radicality notwithstanding, this is the profoundly conservative heart of Badiou's thought: Truth either has to be autonomous and absolute, or there's nothing but the chaos of the bad infinite. That sentiment is, it seems to me, the driver not of philosophy, but of philosophy's (eternal?) enemy, dogmatism.

    Unlike Levinas's, Badiou's ethics is (literally) not for everyone. In "Being by Numbers," Badiou is asked by an interviewer about the ethics of the ordinary person, who doesn't care much for universal "truth": "But can one seriously confide and confine ethics to mathematicians, political activists, lovers, and artists? Is the ordinary person, by definition, excluded from the ethical field?" He responds not in a Foucaultian way (with the sense that we are all hailed by literal encyclopedias of truth-procedures), but with this: "Why should we think that ethics convokes us all? The idea of ethics' universal convocation supposes the assignment of universality. I maintain that the only immanent universality is found in the truth procedure. We are seized by the really ethical dimension only inside a truth procedure. Does this mean that the encounter of ethical situations or propositions is restricted to the actors of a truth procedure? I understand that this point is debatable" ("Being by Numbers"). It's "debatable" whether most people are capable of ethics or truth? That really is Platonism for a new age.

    It seems equally clear that Badiouian "events," those drivers of change in the historical and political world, are exceedingly rare and addressed narrowly to certain quite unique individuals--people like Badiou, one would assume, who are long on smarts and short on modesty: "Actually, I would submit that my system is the most rigorously materialist in ambition that we've seen since Lucretius" ("Being by Numbers").

    3. Badiou is, of course, no fan of Foucault, though given sentiments like the following, it's hard to imagine he's read Foucault closely: "Foucault is a theoretician of encyclopedias. He was never really interested in the question of knowing whether, within situations, anything existed that might deserve to be called a 'truth.' With his usual corrosiveness, he would say that he didn't have to deal with this kind of thing. He wasn't interested in the protocol of either the appearance or the disappearance of a given epistemic organization" ("Being By Numbers"). Foucault was of course obsessed by nothing other than the appearance and disappearance of epistemic organizations (sovereign power, social power, discipline, biopower), which he called "ways of speaking the truth." Though of course the only "truth" worth the name in Badiou is ahistorical and subjective, and here Foucault can be "corrosive" indeed: "Truth is a thing of this world: it is induced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power . . . . The problem is not changing people's consciousness--or what's in their heads--but the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth" (Power 131, 133).

    4. Maybe literary theorists need to heed something like Badiou's call to philosophers: "Philosophy has not known until quite recently how to think in level terms with Capital, since it has left that field open, to its most intimate point, to vain nostalgia for the sacred, to obsession with Presence, to the obscure dominance of the poem, to doubt about its own legitimacy . . . . The true question remains: what has happened to philosophy for it to refuse with a shudder the liberty and strength a desacralizing epoch offered it?" (Manifesto 58-9).

    Works Cited

    Badiou, Alain. "Being by Numbers: Interview with Lauren Sedofsky." ArtForum (Oct. 1994). Accessed online 15 April 2006 <>.

    ---. Manifesto for Philosophy. Trans. Norman Madarasz. Albany: SUNY P, 1999.

    Bensaid, Daniel. "Alain Badiou and the Miracle of the Event." Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy. Ed. Peter Hallward. London: Continuum, 2004.

    Byrne, Richard. "Being M. Badiou: The French Philosopher Brings His Ideas to America, Creating a Buzz." Chronicle of Higher Education. 24 March 2006. Accessed online 25 March 2006.

    Culler, Jonathan. "Beyond Interpretation: The Prospects of Contemporary Criticism." Comparative Literature 28.3 (1976): 244-56.

    ---. The Literary in Theory. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2006.

    Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Volume 2. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

    de Man, Paul. "Semiology and Rhetoric." Diacritics 3.3 (1973): 27-33.

    Dollimore, Jonathan. Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

    Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. AM Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

    ---. Power/Knowledge. Ed. Colin Gordon. Trans. Colin Gordon et al. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

    Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.

    Hallward, Peter. "The Politics of Prescription." SAQ 104.4 (2005): 769-89.

    Harari, Josue. Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979.

    Hillis Miller, J. "The Critic as Host." Deconstruction and Criticism. Ed. Harold Bloom, et al. New York: Seabury, 1979. 217-54.

    Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

    Nealon, Jeffrey T. Alterity Politics: Ethics and Performative Subjectivity. Durham: Duke UP, 1998.

    Tompkins, Jane, ed. Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

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