ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 25

 - The End of Theory?; Neo-Pragmatism


In this lecture, Professor Paul Fry takes on Knapp and Michaels’s influential article, “Against Theory.” The historical context of the piece is given and key aspects of the theorists’ critical orientations, specifically their neo-pragmatism, are defined. A lengthy discussion of the relationships between, on the one hand, intention and meaning and, on the other hand, language and speech follows with reference to Saussure, deconstruction, and Russian formalism. Knapp and Michaels’s use of Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” to explore the limits of meaning and intention is examined in depth. Ultimately, the case is made, using issues subject to dispute in Knapp and Michaels, that theory is a useful and necessary tool in literary studies.

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Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 25 - The End of Theory?; Neo-Pragmatism

Chapter 1. Knapp and Michaels in Context [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: Well, I’d like to welcome the prospective students. I won’t say the word “Yalie” prematurely, but of course I hope you all come. I wish I had a chance to provide a little context for what I’m going to say today, but maybe you’ll scramble into some sense of things as we go along. This lecture concerns an essay written to immediate widespread acclaim and controversy by two young, at the time quite uninfluential and untenured scholars trying to make their way in the world. They certainly succeeded with this essay, which was published in Critical Inquiry, then certainly the leading organ for the dissemination of innovative theoretical ideas, and they were, generally speaking, gratified by the results. Almost immediately the editors of Critical Inquiry decided to publish, together with “Against Theory,” in book form a series of responses to “Against Theory,” all of them sort of polite, carefully thought-through responses which made a very interesting thin book, which is still available. I think it’s still in print and well worth having if you take an interest in the controversies that the article generated, and of course, I’m hoping in the time remaining to get you to take an interest in them.

Knapp and Michaels were then, still are, what’s called “neo-pragmatists,” which is to say they are influenced most immediately by an important book written in the 1970s by the philosopher Richard Rorty called Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature; but Rorty was writing in a tradition that goes back through the important work of John Dewey in the 1930s and ’40s, and before then not only to the great philosophical interventions of William James, Henry James’s brother, but also a theory of signs by Charles Sanders Peirce, a theory which at the time didn’t generate too much recognition or controversy. It was taken up by the so-called Cambridge School of literary critics headed by I. A. Richards. He and C. K. Ogden wrote some reflections on Peirce’s semiotics, but today with pragmatism, neo-pragmatism–a fairly important strain in academic theoretical and literary thinking–Peirce’s semiotics is in a way receiving more attention, in a way also challenging the hegemony in the field of literary theory of Saussure’s semiotics. This sense of the sign as something different from what Saussure said it was is going to be the underlying theme of the second and central part of this lecture.

Nineteen eighty-two was probably the high-water mark both of the fascination and the frustration with literary theory in this country. It was a hot-button topic–we’ve gone into this before–in ways that it is not really today, so that our interest in literary theory is at least in part historical, one might want to say. In 1982, though, where you stood on these matters just made all the difference, and it was in that atmosphere that Knapp and Michaels’s “Against Theory” was published.

Now as I say, they were neo-pragmatists, and what that means basically is that one knows things, which is the same thing as to say that one believes things, such that one acts in the world unhesitatingly as an agent. Everything that matters in being human has to do with one’s powers of agency, but there are no actual foundations in what we can know objectively for our beliefs and actions. In other words, it’s a position which is called anti-foundational or anti-foundationalist but not a position that, as such a position might imply, somehow entails nihilism or a kind of crippling radical skepticism. On the contrary, it’s a position that insists that we just do what we do, that we are always doing, thinking, believing, and saying something; that we are always exerting an influence as social beings in our surroundings, and that the only thing that needn’t concern us about our powers of agency is that perhaps we don’t really have a full, adequate objective account of how and why it is that we do and say and believe and influence things in the way that we do. That position is essentially the position taken up in Knapp and Michaels.

Chapter 2. Stanley Fish [00:05:37]

Now you saw it last time already in the essay of Stanley Fish–Stanley Fish, who takes it that we are largely produced by the interpretive community to which we belong. You’ll recall his understanding of this community as that which constitutes our values–in other words, there’s nothing intrinsic to ourselves, nothing unique in our own modes of perception, but rather only the ways in which our educational circumstances bring us to believe and understand things. This, too, is a neo-pragmatist position.

Now you notice that in the third part of the Knapp and Michaels essay, they engage in a kind of polite disagreement with Fish. There is an underlying, very broad agreement with him, but remember in the third part of the essay they’re talking about the synonymity, the identity, of knowledge and belief, and they point to a particular passage in one of Fish’s arguments where he kind of slips into the idea that, on the one hand, you have knowledge and then, on the other hand, you have, in relation to that, belief. They say, “No, no, no, no. You can’t separate knowledge and belief,” and just on those grounds they disagree with Fish. Fish writes one of the responses in the book that’s then subsequently published concerning “Against Theory,” but it’s a completely friendly controversy about a transitory and superficial matter. As a matter of fact, while I’m going to pay a lot of attention to the first two arguments–there are basically three arguments in this essay–I’m going to pay very little attention to the third argument in which Fish is challenged about the relationship between knowledge and belief, in part at least because it’s an argument that belongs to philosophy. It is the cornerstone of Rorty’s argument in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and perhaps not so immediately relevant to the kinds of things that we think about in doing literary theory.

So to turn then to what they actually do say in relation to this movement that I’m talking about, you notice for example that in tone, their work is very similar to that of Stanley Fish. It’s a kind of a downright, no-nonsense, let’s-get-on-with-it kind of tone that, after reading Derrida and other writers of that kind, you’re perhaps not quite ready for. In a way it’s bracing. It must be kind of a relief to get this sort of no-nonsense attitude toward these issues after all the tacking and veering that we’re likely to have experienced in earlier writers. In a way, the tone comes with the territory. You take these views and in a way, the tone seems to follow from it, because what they’re saying in effect is, You just do what you do. You think what you think. As a literary interpreter, you’re bound to have some opinion about what you’re looking at, so just get on with it. Express that opinion, that’s your job of work. On this view and in this tone, the only way you can go wrong is to grope around for some theoretical justification for what you’re doing. It’s just fine that you’re doing it. Don’t worry about it. Get on with it, but don’t think, according to the argument of Knapp and Michaels, that you can hope to find anything like an underlying or broad theoretical justification for what you’re doing. Obviously, that rather challenging and provocative notion is something that lends itself readily to the sort of no-nonsense tone that I’m talking about.

Chapter 3. Knapp and Michaels’s Three Arguments [00:09:46]

So turning then to their argument, they argue that people become entangled with issues of theory, all of which in their view should be avoided, when they do two–well, three but, as I say, we’re going to set “knowledge and belief” aside–when they make three fundamental mistakes. The first is to suppose that there is a difference between meaning and intention: in other words, for example, that to know a meaning you have to be able to invoke an intention, on the one hand, or in the absence of an intention, we cannot possibly speak of a meaning, on the other hand. That’s their first argument: people become embroiled in theory when they make one of those two mistakes. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

The second argument is their insistence that there is no such thing as a difference between language and speech: in other words, the Saussurian idea that we have language somehow or another virtually present in our heads as a lexicon and a set of rules of grammar and syntax, that language or langue produces speech, what I say from sentence to sentence, or parole–this notion is simply false because there is no difference between language and speech. That’s their second premise.

Now before I launch into those arguments, let me say one more thing about their attitude toward theory. Let me call your attention to the very first paragraph, which in your copy center packet is on page 079. This is the very first paragraph of “Against Theory,” where interestingly they exempt certain ways of thinking about literature, certainly quasi-scientific ways of thinking about literature, from their charge against theory. They say:

The term [“theory”] is sometimes applied to literary subjects with no direct bearing on the interpretation of individual works, such as narratology, stylistics, and prosody. Despite their generality, however, these subjects seem to us essentially empirical, and our arguments against theory will not apply to them.

Well, now this is a little surprising because for one thing, in this course, which is presumably devoted to theory, we’ve talked about some of these things–especially about narratology: stylistics–which is the science of style and how one can approach style syntactically, statistically and in the variety of ways in which that’s done–and poetics, which is general ideas about what constitutes a poem, or a text written in some other genre. All of these, for example, must remind us very much of the Russian formalists. Narratology, as we studied it, is largely derived from structuralism, indeed also from certain ideas of Freud, and all of this sounds suspiciously like theory.

What point are they making about it? Well, simply, the point that those ways of thinking about literature, which they exempt from their diatribe against theory. are the ways that they call “empirical,” ways of thinking about literature that are based on observation–and that, of course, would certainly, it seems to me, apply to the Russian formalists or at least to what the Russian formalists think they’re doing–ways that are empirical in the sense that they observe data, they build up a kind of database, and they generalize from what they have observed. They begin, in other words, with the object in question and then draw conclusions from it. So empirical approaches to literature, the simple observation of data from which one can generalize–they exempt these from the general charge against literary theory.

Turning then to the idea that intention and meaning just must be the same thing, and then subsequently the idea that language and speech just must be the same thing: in the background I’d like you to be thinking about some of the implications of this sentence [points to board: “I can know the meaning of a word, but can I know the intention of a word?”] by Stanley Cavell which was written in another one of the responses to this essay that was published in the book, Against Theory. I don’t want to reflect on it now, but it seems to me a strikingly vivid way of posing a challenge to the Knapp and Michaels position which in a variety of ways, if only by implication, we’ll be touching on.

So what do Knapp and Michaels do in order to convince us?–and I’m going to be going a long way with them here, indeed almost all the way, even though I’m going to be taking a sharp turning toward the end of the road which, I hope, saves theory. After all, it’s scarcely conscionable to stand here twenty-six times in front of you for an hour each and then finally to confess at the end that the thing we have been talking about should be banished from our vocabulary. [laughter] Needless to say, it’s incumbent on me to save our subject matter. I will, but you’re going to have to wait a while because, as I say, I am going to be going a long way down the road with Knapp and Michaels.

Chapter 4. Intention and Meaning: Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” [00:15:54]

Knapp and Michaels say in effect, Well, you know what? The thing about the way in which we approach any text, any utterance, any instance of language floating before us, is just to take for granted that it has an intention. As theorists and critics, we worry away at the question of how we can know intention, and all of this is a dangerous mistake because the fact is, in everyday practice any piece of language we encounter we just assume to have an intention.

All right. So they give us an example in which this assumption is tested and makes us realize what’s at stake in supposing that we know the meaning of something. Ordinarily, we just spontaneously say, “I know what that means,” or if we don’t know what it means, we say, “It must mean something even though I don’t know what it means.” That’s our normal approach to a piece of language. Then they say, Suppose you’re walking on the beach and you come across four lines–“lines” is already a dangerous thing to say–four scratches in the sand that look an awful lot like the first stanza of Wordsworth’s ‘A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal’:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears.
She seem’d a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

There it is on the beach just right in front of us; and we say, Oh, well, somebody’s come along, some Wordsworth lover has come along here and scratched these lines in the sand, so that the intention of the text is unquestioned. Wordsworth wrote it. Somebody now wants to remind us of what a wonderful stanza it is, and there it is. Of course, it’s very difficult to know what it means, but at least I can ascribe meaning to it because, no doubt, it’s an intended thing.

But then what happens? A huge wave comes along and leaves on the beach underneath the first stanza the other stanza, and this of course is highly problematic. There it is:

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

Now we are really puzzled. Maybe, as Knapp and Michaels say, the sea is a kind of a pantheistic being that likes to write poetry–so the sea wrote it. Maybe, they say later on, there are little men in a submarine who look at their handiwork and say, “Gee, that was great. Let’s try that again.” In other words, we can infer all sorts of authors for the stanza, but it’s much more likely that instead of saying that the sea writes poetry, or instead of saying there are little sort of homunculi in submarines writing poetry–instead of saying that, it’s much more likely that we’ll say, “This is an amazing coincidence, truly amazing, but it’s just a coincidence. What else could it be?”

Knapp and Michaels’s point, which was the same point that you might make about a parrot saying, “My boss is a jerk,” for example–you know the parrot doesn’t mean that. The parrot is just making words. Somebody else meant it, maybe, but that’s just words for the parrot, okay? Or monkeys at typewriters writing Shakespeare. We are told that given eternity, this is a task that could be accomplished, always supposing somebody were there to whisk away the sheets whenever they wrote a word [laughs] and finally put it back together. All of these things are possibilities, but we suddenly realize that those texts, “My boss is a jerk” and “A slumber did my spirit seal,” written by chance by whatever it is–and already there is a sort of an intentionality entailed in the idea of writing “by” something–but just left by chance, we suddenly realize, according to Knapp and Michaels, that in that case those words are only like language. They are not actually language because nobody wrote them; nothing wrote them; no entity or being from God on down wrote them. They are just there by chance. Therefore, even though they look like language, we suddenly realize that it would be foolish to suppose that they have meaning. There is a poem that exactly resembles this bunch of marks that we see in front of us, and that poem has meaning, but this bunch of marks does not have meaning.

Now I think probably most of us–and that’s why I think in a way Knapp and Michaels could have chosen a better example–I think probably most of us would resist the idea that we can’t interpret the bunch of marks. They’re identical to language. We feel free to interpret them. After all, nobody knows what the poem means anyway! It’s been the subject of critical controversy for decades. That’s one of the reasons Knapp and Michaels choose it, and so okay, there it is on the beach. I’ll have my stab at it. It must mean something, so here goes. And so we resist that.

That’s why I gave you this other example, because it seems to me that in a way, the other example is more compelling than that of Knapp and Michaels. [Points to handout.] Now you see these two ladies looking up at the tree. The upper–what do you call them? What do you call it when the branches are sawed off and eventually there’s a kind of a scar formed?

Student: A burl.

Professor Paul Fry: Burl? The upper burl certainly looks an awful lot like Jesus, [laughter] and when this appeared in Milford about fifteen years ago, not just these two ladies but hundreds and hundreds of people visited the site. Now they, of course, believed that that was on the tree because God put it there. Therefore, it had meaning. We knew what it was. It was a representation of the face of Jesus, and the feeling that one could know what it was, interpret it, and take it to be an actual representation of something was therefore unquestioned. As we would all agree, you accept the premise: God wrote it or I should say put it there. He’s been known to do the same thing with toasted cheese sandwiches and tacos, and it happens, right? You accept that premise and you’re all set. But suppose you say, “No, no, no, no. God didn’t write that. God didn’t put that there. It’s just an accident.” Wouldn’t you then say, “Oh, therefore it has no meaning, it’s not a representation of anything, it just looks like something”?

In other words, in this case–however you feel about “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal”– in this case you would accept Knapp and Michaels’s argument. You would say, “It really does depend on the inference of an intention. If I infer no intention, I ascribe no meaning. If I infer an intention, I ascribe meaning.” So Knapp and Michaels are simply making the same argument about “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” and I think it’s a very strong argument. Once you realize–or once, I should say, you accept the idea–that meaning just is intention and think about it etymologically–when I say “I mean,” that precisely means “I intend,” right? It doesn’t quite work that way in all languages, but it certainly works that way in English, and it’s worth remembering to mean is “to intend” –it makes a lot of sense to say that a meaning just is an intention and that it’s perhaps against the grain of common sense to factor them apart, to say, “Well, I can see this sentence and I have a certain notion what it might mean, but I still don’t know what the author intended to say,” which is forbidden from the standpoint of Knapp and Michaels. Of course, you know what the author intended to say. You’ve just ascribed meaning to the sentence.

Now mind you, you may be wrong, but that isn’t to say that your being wrong hinges on knowing what the author intended. In a certain sense, Knapp and Michaels agree perfectly well with the New Critics and with Foucault or whoever it might be and say, “Well, you can never know what an author intended.” But that’s not the point. The meaning of the sentence in itself entails intention. If it weren’t a sentence spoken intentionally by an agent, human or otherwise, it wouldn’t have meaning because it wouldn’t be language. In a certain sense this, then, can carry us to our second argument because, having established in their own minds satisfactorily that for any text the meaning of the text must justbe its intention–in other words, to be understood as language at all, to repeat myself once again, and to be understood as language at all, an intention needs to be inferred. The argument here is that we ought to be able to recognize, supposing we succeed in not inferring an intention, that what we are looking at is actually not language; it’s just a simulacrum of language, an effective copy of language like, for example, the speech of a parrot or the words produced by monkeys on typewriters and so on. We should not from such simulacra of words infer not only intention but meaning as well. It is meaningless to speak of marks that are not signs as language.

Chapter 5. The Discovery of Language in Speech [00:27:04]

Bringing us to the notion of “sign”: for C. S. Peirce, who actually discriminated among hundreds of different kinds of signs, all signs are active–that is to say, they have an agency, they have a purpose, they have a function. Peirce, in other words, does not understand them in the way that Saussure does as being differential. He understands that too, but for him the central point about a sign is the agency of the sign.

Now the implication of this is clear, and it’s the implication that Knapp and Michaels draw on in this argument. Their claim is that there is no distinction to be made between language and speech. Now let’s just pause over their argument. I would think the fact that as we think about that–especially since we have been exposed to Saussure and, I hope, have come to accept the idea that language is a virtual synchronic entity laid out in space, and speech is an actual diachronic performance derived from language laid out in time–since we have absorbed that and since we just have this sort of spontaneous belief, if we’re students of literary theory, that there is a distinction between language and speech: what do we do when we come face to face with this claim of Knapp and Michaels’s?

Now I think that they make their most effective case in a footnote. This is the last footnote I’ll be calling your attention to this semester, and it’s, like all footnotes, perhaps the most telling thing in the essay. It appears on page 084 in the copy center packet, footnote number twelve. I’m not going to read the whole thing. I’m just going to read a single sentence at the top their page twenty-one, footnote twelve, in which they say, “… [A] dictionary is an index of frequent usages in particular speech acts–not a matrix of abstract, pre-intentional possibilities.” Think about that. Language, we suppose, is, in addition to being a set of grammatical and syntactical rules, also a set of definitions made available for speech acts. That is the assumption that a course in literary theory provides for us.

Knapp and Michaels are denying that in this footnote. They are saying that dictionary definitions are just a sum total, as it were, of words in action, that any definition is of a word which is already a speech act. You go through all eighteen definitions of a word. They’re all of them embedded in sentences, speech acts, and can be taken out of sentences and still understood in their agency as performed. Any word in a dictionary, in other words, according to Knapp and Michaels, is a word performed, and the record fossilized, as it were, in the dictionary is a record not of meaning per sebut of performance, of the way in which the word works in speech, in history. A dictionary is nothing other than a composite or a sum total of speech acts. To distinguish, therefore, between language as something which is pre-action and speech as the implementation of language is a mistake. Language, even in the sense that it’s always there before us, is nevertheless always active. It is a record of those actions that have taken place before our own actions as speakers. There’s no difference between me acting through speech and language preexisting as something which is not action. It’s all continuous as an ever-deepening, broadening, and self-complicating record of action, or speech action.

Now this is a very interesting idea and I think, again, it’s an idea that one might well go a long way with. I think it should be said in defense of Saussure, by the way, that in a certain way he anticipates this position. Remember I told you that although for purposes of learning, to understand structuralism and its aftermath we only distinguish between language and speech, langue and parole, but in Saussure there’s actually a third category, a sort of intermediate category, which he calls langage. Langage is actually the sum total of all known speech acts. If you could codify or quantify everything that’s ever been said or written, that would be langage. You can see how it’s different from langue, which needn’t necessarily ever have been said at all. I’ll be coming back to that in a minute. Langage, in other words, is “empirical,” as Knapp and Michaels would say. It is something that, had we enough information, we could actually codify into a vast database. It would be the sum of all speech acts, and that actually, what Saussure calls langage, would be not unlike what Knapp and Michaels mean by language. Saussure is aware that you can think of the sum of speech acts in the way that Knapp and Michaels do, but he still holds out for this other category, this notion of langue as the code from which speech acts are derived, as a thing apart.

Now I think, as I say, this is a persuasive position, because after all, as long as we suppose that language exists for communication, that it is interactive–as long as we accept, as we have accepted from Bakhtin and others during the course of the course–the idea that language is social, that all of its deployments are interactive, derived from the speech acts of others, appropriated for oneself as one’s own set of speech acts, and influential on yet other people as a speech act–as long as we accept this, we say to ourselves, “Yeah, it makes a lot of sense to think of language as inseparable from speech, to think of language simply as the sum of all agencies so that no meaningful distinction between that sum of agencies and the individual agency of a speech act needs to be made.” Notice though–and here, by the way, is where I’m going to make my turn and save theory, so sharpen your pencils!–notice that I began that last riff by saying “as long as we suppose language exists for communication.”

Now we do suppose language exists for communication. What else could it exist for? What do we do with language except to communicate? You could say, “Well, we write doodles. We make meaningless marks in the sand.” There are all kinds of things that maybe we do with language, but let’s face it: we don’t, right? If I do, in fact, make marks in the sand amounting to “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” it’s because I love Wordsworth, as by the way I do, and I wish to communicate that love to the rest of the world. It’s a speech act. Come on, I’m not just making marks. If I wanted to make marks, I’d do something rather more mark-like [gesticulates]. Well, so [laughter] in any case, we certainly inhabit a life world in which it is almost inconceivable for anyone to come along and tell us, “Language is not for the purpose of communication.” In other words, Knapp and Michaels seem to be completely right. What else is it for? That’s what we use it for. We have refined it to a fare-thee-well as an efficient, flexible, sometimes even eloquent medium of communication. That’s what language is for, that’s what it exists for. As I’m saying, if we accept this idea–which seems simply to carry the day, because who could think anything else?–if we accept this idea, then there’s a very strong case for Knapp and Michaels being right. Really there’s no significant or important difference between language and speech.

Chapter 6. The Impracticality of Theory [00:36:47]

But now suppose we approach the question from a–I don’t say from an empirical point of view [laughs] but from a speculative anthropological point of view. Suppose we approach it with some rather commonsense remarks. Now we say language is for communication; the purpose of language is for communication. We say that. Especially if we think of the whole history of mankind, does that mean that the purpose of fire is for cooking? Or to bring it a little bit closer to home, does it mean that the purpose of the prehensile thumb is for grasping? Does it mean that the purpose of a cave, a hole in the rock, is for dwelling? No. In those cases, adaptation is what makes fire a good thing to cook with, the prehensile thumb a good thing to grasp with, and a cave a good thing to take shelter in, but they all in their various ways are just there. Plainly, all of them have other, well, not “purposes,” because a purpose is, when you think about it, only something that we can impose on something; but they certainly are not there in any sense for us to do the thing that it turns out we’ve decided it’s a good idea to do with it. Fire burns us but we can cook with it, and so on.

Now in the case of language, we have to suppose as a matter of fact that language, as it were, appeared among us in the same way that the prehensile thumb did. Of course we “discovered its use,” but that’s a funny way to put it. It might be more circumspect to say that we discovered it had a use for us which was to communicate, and so once we were able to put this–whatever it was, this weird capacity to make differential sounds–once we put this weird capacity to make differential sounds to work, henceforth for us and for our purposes language was there to communicate. Of course we made an enormous success of it, or a tower of Babel of it, whichever you prefer to think, but in any case we have it, and it has developed among us as a means of a medium of communication.

But by whatever mutancy language arose, supposing this to be the case–and I’m not making an argument that has anything to do with “intelligent design” one way or another–supposing that by whatever mutancy language appeared, then, of course, the next day there were an avalanche: then it might well be the case that this species consisting of all of us sitting in this room and I guess a few other people, [laughs] that this species might be mute. It might be communicating perhaps with incredible eloquence, perhaps even with literary genius, by means of signs or–who knows? Or for that matter it might have taken a detour in its development such that communication was not anything one could identify as specifically human. All sentient beings communicate, but it’s possible that this particular species could have taken a turn in its development after which communication was much as it is among mice or ants or whatever.

All of this is possible, you see, when we think about language–a property that we have and manipulate and communicate with–anthropologically. It comes into being in such a way that it is, I would think, scarcely relevant to say that its purpose is for communication. It comes into being simply as an attribute, a property, something we happen to have, something someone happens to have for which a use is then discovered, as for fire, for the prehensile thumb and for the cave. The relationship between the cave and the house, it seems to me, is a particularly interesting way of thinking about the relationship between language as a set of differentials and language as speech.

Notice something about the signs of language–and here of course we also invoke Saussure. Saussure lays every stress on the idea that language is made up of differential and arbitrary signs. In other words, Saussure denies that there is such a thing in language as a natural sign. The Russian formalists do this as well. Both Saussure and the Russian formalists warn us against believing that onomatopoetic devices–for example, “peep, peep, peep”–devices like that, are actually natural signs, that they are derived, in other words, from the thing in the world that they seem through their sound to represent. Saussure reminds us that these are accidents of etymological history which can also be understood in adaptive terms. Onomatopoeia exists in language because it’s good for communication and it’s fun to communicate with, but it doesn’t enter language as a natural sign. It only passes through moments–in the evolution of a given word–it only passes through moments in which the relationship between the sound and the thing represented seems to be natural.

This is a matter upon which great stress is laid both in Saussure and in the Russian formalists. When you read these passages in which such stress is laid on it you may have thought: well, that’s overkill. Who cares about onomatopoeia? Well, it anchors the entire idea about language, which is precisely that it is something other than speech. When we speak, we not only endeavor to communicate; we endeavor to refer. In other words, we take language and we try to make it, as the philosophers say, hook on to the natural world. We take a set of signs, a code which is not in itself natural, which is arbitrary, and through the sheer force of will, we make those signs as best we can hook on to the natural, to the actual world. In doing so, we reinforce the idea that language is for communication--whereas my argument is language isn’t for communication; speech is.

When we speak, that is–entirely and exclusively and without any other motive–for communication, except for one thing that the Russian formalists in particular took note of. There are funny things going on in our speech–alliteration, unnecessary or uneconomical forms of repetition–weird things going on in our speech which don’t seem to have the purpose of communication. As a matter of fact, they actually seem to impede communication. When I really start messing language up–for example, in Lewis Carroll’s “ ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / did gyre and gimble in the wabe”–I am impeding communication because I am laying stress on elements of rhythm, pattern, and sound recurrence which cannot be said to have any direct bearing on communication.

This, of course, is what we’ve studied recurrently and, I have to say, empirically [laughs] because these are all empirical facts about language, as the Russian formalists insisted. What we have studied recurrently is the way in which language rears its ugly head in speech, the way in which, in other words, language won’t be repressed as mere communication, the way in which speech entails elements that keep bubbling up to the surface and asserting themselves, which oddly enough really can’t be said to conduce to communication. Those things, those elements that bubble up to the surface, are nothing other than evidence of the presence of language, precisely in the way that in Freud the Freudian slip–the fact that I can’t get through a sentence without making some kind of blunder, very often an embarrassing blunder–is understood as the bubbling up into the conscious effort to speak of that which speech can’t control, of that which Freud calls “the unconscious” and which, by the way, we would have no idea of the existence of if it weren’t for the Freudian slip. In other words, as Freud said in the first handout that I gave you at the beginning of the semester, we infer the unconscious from the behavior of consciousness because, given the erratic nature of the behavior of consciousness, it seems necessary to do so.

By precisely the same token, we can and, I think we should say, we do infer language as something else from the composite or sum total of speech acts. We infer language from the erratic behavior of speech because it seems there is no other way to account for the erratic behavior of speech. That sense of language, which I’m going to be talking a lot more about on Thursday, sort of bubbling up and from below in speech, and proving its existence as something other than a composite record of all speeches, is what suggests to us that Knapp and Michaels are not quite right in saying there is really no difference between language and speech; that if there is a difference between language and speech, as I am claiming, and if the difference between language and speech is much as we have been taught to think of it by Saussure and his successors down through deconstruction–if there is such a difference, then guess what? We have literary theory back in the fold, alive and well, and we no longer have to say that it should be jettisoned from our thinking about literature. We have a real use for literary theory.

But that’s exactly where Knapp and Michaels, supposing they were here and I’d convinced them–by the way, I know them both. You can’t convince them of anything, but that’s not unusual. You probably can’t convince me of anything either–suppose we had them here and I had succeeded in convincing them. They would say, “Well, okay, but isn’t it a pity? Because you have proved better than we did that literary theory has no purpose. Why on earth should we worry about all this bubbling up of stuff that has nothing to do with communication? After all, we’re here to communicate, aren’t we? We’ve begun by saying that our life world consists precisely in the deployment of language for communication, and here is this person saying there is this stuff bubbling up, which makes communication difficult. What use is that?” Knapp and Michaels might say. You see, they are pragmatists, aren’t they? They are pragmatists, or they are concerned with practicality. Their interest, their reason for being interested in meaning and interpretation, is a practical reason entirely entailed in the understanding of communication and the furtherance of communication; whereas theory, which I have saved, I nevertheless seem to have saved at a pretty considerable cost because I have suggested that theory itself is completely impractical. I have suggested it, and we’re going to get back to that next time. That’s what the Thursday lecture is going to be about.

In the meantime you say to yourself, “Okay, fine. We’ve got theory, but we have also been shown that you can’t really do anything with it, and so it might just as well suit us to suppose that Knapp and Michaels are right and to proceed as though theory could be jettisoned.” One last quick point, going back to the distinction between meaning and intention: notice the two-pronged argument. On the one hand, there are people like E. D. Hirsch who believe that you can invoke an author’s intention in order to pin down a meaning–on the one hand, you have people like that and, on the other hand, you have people doing deconstruction who say that because there is no inferable intention, texts themselves have no meaning. But that’s not quite right, because that’s not really what deconstruction says. Deconstruction doesn’t say texts have no meaning. Deconstruction doesn’t even say that you can’t know what the meaning of a text is, exactly. What deconstruction says is that you can’t rope off meaning in a text. Texts have too much meaning. Texts explode with meaning. You can’t corral the way in which texts produce meaning. You can’t corral it by inferring an intention. You can’t corral it by taking a particular interpretive path. Meaning just explodes in texts.

That’s not at all the same thing as to say, according to the claim of Knapp and Michaels, that in deconstructive thinking texts have no meaning–a very, very different proposition altogether. I think it might suggest to you that the relationship between intention and meaning isn’t really what’s at stake in deconstruction. A text is intended, or you can say, “Well, it may be intended, no doubt it’s intended”–all sorts of ways of putting it, but is that really the point? The text is the text on my view, and the text, just as I say, fairly bristles with meaning, that being precisely the point. You can’t rein it in. That’s not really the flip side–as Knapp and Michaels would want to make you think–that’s not really the flip side of the idea of the followers of Hirsch that in order to know a meaning, you have to be able to infer an authorial intention. There is nosymmetry there and, as I say, I’m not sure that deconstruction, whatever its claims, whatever its perfections and imperfections–I am not sure that really deconstruction has the question of intention in relation to meaning very much at heart one way or another.

Sorry to have kept you. We’ll see you Thursday.

[end of transcript]

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