Monday, March 01, 2010

Bruns, Gerald. Review of Leslie White, RADICAL INDECISION. NDPR (March 2010).

Hill, Leslie. Radical Indecision: Barthes, Blanchot, Derrida, and the Future of Criticism. Notre Dame: U. of Notre Dame P, 2010. As a rule literary criticism is not a thing of any philosophical interest, at least not in English-speaking contexts. It is true that occasionally philosophers in the analytic tradition have written about literature, but only under the pretext of doing moral philosophy, meanwhile adhering faithfully to Aristotle's principle that literature means narrative conceived as a form of cognition (mimesis) and rational deliberation (plot). Lexis, sometimes translated as "diction," is not part of the definition of literature. Donald Davidson once broke ranks by writing about James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, arguing that one can learn to read the Wake, despite its Babel-like confusion of tongues, much the way an anthropologist can get the hang of the discursive practices of an alien culture. Davidson's assumption that the language of Finnegans Wake is still chiefly a form of mediation leaves much unsaid, but his pragmatic approach to what is singular and irreducible in linguistic experience could just as well be applied to any refractory modernist artwork (one of Duchamp's Readymades, for example), where the idea is not so much to understand something as it is to respond to the kind of aporia that T. W. Adorno describes in his Aesthetic Theory:
The better an artwork is understood, the more it is unpuzzled on one level, the more obscure its constitutive enigmaticalness [konstitutiv Rätselhaftes] becomes. It [the Rätselcharakter of the work] only emerges demonstratively in the profoundest experience of art. If a work opens itself completely, it reveals itself as a question and demands reflection; then the work vanishes into the distance, only to return to those who thought they understood it, overwhelming them for a second time with the question, "What is it?"
Leslie Hill is a literary critic, not a philosopher, but as a Professor of French Studies at Warwick University in England he is situated at an interesting, if possibly fatal, crossroads: on the one side is a venerable British tradition that thinks of criticism in terms of the elucidation and evaluation -- which is to say the elevation -- of literary monuments (F. R. Leavis); on the other there is recent French intellectual culture, where the boundaries between philosophy and literature are often indeterminate, meaning particularly that the writing of both philosophy and criticism is nothing if not "modernist" in its embrace of nondiscursive forms of language, a practice reflected in Hill's own elliptical prose, with its recurrent play of chiasmus and oxymoron ("the readability of any text is made both possible and impossible only by the impenetrable shadow of the unreadable" [336]). One recalls Jürgen Habermas's objection to the way Derrida and his American followers in literary studies leveled "the genre distinction between philosophy and literature," and his argument that the task of criticism is to translate "the experiential content of the work of art into normal [i.e. communicative] language." Hill will have none of Habermas. His book consists of three extensive monographs on Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, and Jacques Derrida, and, although he nowhere refers to Adorno, his aim is to show how their engagement with literature converts what we think of as criticism into something like the aporetic experience (what Hill calls "radical indecision") that occupies such a definitive place in Adorno's aesthetics. This conversion is not just a break with the past; it opens criticism to a time that, as Derrida would say, is "still to come," a time marked by interruption, reserve, and interminability. One thinks of John Cage's line that defined the impasse that avant-garde or experimental art spent the better part of the last century expanding in multiple directions: "I have nothing to say, and I am saying it." The work of art is no longer an object to be housed in a museum or repertoire; it is an event to be lived through as a kind of limit-experience in which we confront, in Maurice Blanchot's elusive conception, "a meaning for the meaning of words that, while determining that meaning, also surrounds this determination with an ambiguous indeterminacy that wavers between yes and no.". . . Read the whole review here:

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