The Reality Principle

Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society.
by Gerald Graff.
University of Chicago Press. 260 pp. $15.00.

To anyone unfamiliar with the present depressive state of academic affairs in general, and with the current “deconstructionist” theory of literary criticism in particular, the stand taken by Gerald Graff in what he calls, in his very first sentence, “an argumentative book” must surely seem a curious irrelevance. For Graff, who is chairman of the English department at Northwestern University, here sets out to defend the simple and self-evident truth that literature refers to reality. It is a comment on the times that it should be so unusual—and therefore so necessary—for someone to mount such a defense.

Literature Against Itself in fact comes as a welcome relief from the self-reflexive and self-indulgent extremism of recent literary criticism. It is bad enough, says Graff, that literature in our society is devalued by the forces of mass consumption and mass culture; but now the forces of mind, which have the responsibility to value and revalue literature, conspire perversely to invalidate it as well. “As if our society had not rendered literature unimportant enough already,” Graff writes, “literary intellectuals have collaborated in insuring its ineffectuality.” They have done this, according to Graff, by their insistence that literature is a strictly conventional system of language with a certain internal coherence but no external correspondence, and by their denial that literature appeals to and makes true-or-false statements about the reality to which it refers.

“Refers” is the key word. That literature does refer to the world, that words do refer to things, may seem so obvious as to be utterly banal—but not to enthusiasts of deconstructionist literary criticism. From the assumption that literature, as a system of language, inevitably entails an arbitrary mediation of reality, the deconstructionists—the term is associated with such French figures as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, and in this country with critics like Harold Bloom, Stanley E. Fish, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and others—reach the conclusion that literature does not necessarily correspond or even refer indirectly to reality. The implications that follow from this, as Graff shows, extend far beyond literature and literary criticism. For if literature does not refer to reality, then reality itself does not necessarily exist as an objective entity, independent of prejudice or ideology. If reality exists only as a subjective construct, then “reality” is not a fact but a fiction. One “reality” is neither more right nor more wrong than another. Separate “realities” are merely a matter of opinion or preference. At this point, the connections between the supersophisticated new wave in literary criticism and some of the more banal and solipsistic tenets of the counterculture of the 1960’s begin to become apparent.

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In Literature Against Itself Graff exposes the fallacy that lies at the bottom of deconstructionism—none of its conclusions about literature and/or reality follows logically from the initial premise about the mediatory function of language—and attacks the irresponsibility of those critics who have refused to recognize and honor the reality principle in literature. The greatest service that literary intellectuals and humanists could perform at the moment, Graff says, “would be to shore up the sense of reality, to preserve the distinction between the real and the fictive,” and actively to resist the relativistic indiscrimination of the new critical sensibility, which, if it had its way, would reduce reality itself to a mere linguistic (or literary) fiction.

The deconstructionists render literature invalid or ineffectual by default; they deprive literature of the relevance it ought, by all rights, to have, and they reduce criticism from a serious and influential discipline to a frivolous and inconsequential—and quite expendable—exercise. Why, then, have they captured the English departments of so many universities and become so dominant on the academic landscape? Graff offers an economic explanation. He says that sheer quantity of output, not quality, is the way to tenure and promotion in the university today. For English departments to insist on a real standard of excellence in literary criticism “would be comparable to the American economy’s returning to the gold standard: the effect would be the immediate collapse of the system”—the academic system depending as it does on mass production (publish-or-perish). Hence the urgency to produce new (not stricter) methods of literary criticism, which produce different (not truer) interpretations, which produce more (not better) publications. According to Graff, the de-construction of texts is make-work, a mere game that critics now play when the “explication of many authors and works seems to have reached the point of saturation.”

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Literature Against Itself is an admirable first try at rectifying the predicament. As good as the effort is, however, it is inadequate. Contentious in tone and controversial in intent, the book is oddly deficient in systematic analysis. What is needed now is not just an indictment of the deconstructionists’ excesses but a rigorously philosophical discussion of their errors of reason, fact, and value, and a vigorously programmatic recommendation for the future course of literary criticism. Graff’s book ought at least to be supplemented with Graham Martin’s 1975 study, Language, Truth, and Poetry, which addresses itself to the same issues but is phrased in more formally disputatious terms. And it ought to be followed by an aggressive and energetic debate about the issues it so ably raises.

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