Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Defending Theory or, The Death of Frank Kermode

At this late date, what's loosely referred to in the press as "theory" should need no defense. And yet the death of Frank Kermode, at least as reported by the NY Times, has brought out the grumbling resentniks of the Old Guard, still sore about how liberal humanism and the so-called "freedom of the reader," as Verlyn Klinkenborg put it today in the Op-Ed page, have acquired a kind of asterisk, a spot of shame, which is of course nothing more than the taxonomic structure they already possessed.

Kermode had a healthy disregard for the "deformed prose," as he called it, of many second-rate theorists striving to emulate the first generation of mostly French masters. But it's odd, to say the least, that someone who revered Eliot and Joyce, for instance, two of the major exemplars of modernist difficulty, would take such an issue with a similar evolution in the complexity of critical writing.

This complexity, which necessarily produces awkward or convoluted writing, is a sign of language thinking in a new way, of moving from interpretation to decoding, from the hermeneutic to the semiotic, as Paul de Man puts it in "Resistance to Theory." This turn to language requires a new form. But, as de Man notes, the resistance to theory, which persists, will always persist, is a resistance to "the use of language about language." It removes language from its unmarked center as an unquestioned arbiter of meaning and sees it as a contingent, culturally constructed phenomenon.

The Times obit carries the headline "wrote with style." The implication is that style is always the marker of clarity and concision, that it is transparent, that it carries meaning across from writer to reader without the need to question the mode of conveyance. But true style is predicated on difficulty. It is the force of originality bending language, doing violence to it, re-inventing and exploiting its full resources. It as much as about endarkenment as enlightenment.

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