Literary Theory An Introduction - Terry Eagleton 2008


Saussure, as the reader will remember, argues that meaning in language is just a matter of difference. ’Cat’ is ’cat’ because it is not ’cap’ or ’bat’. But how far is one to press this process of difference? ’Cat’ is also what it is because it is not ’cad’ or ’mat’, and ’mat’ is what it is because it is not ’map’ or ’hat’. Where is one supposed to stop? It would seem that this process of difference in language can be traced round infinitely: but if this is so, what has become of Saussure’s idea that language forms a closed, stable system? If every sign is what it is because it is not all the other signs, every sign would seem to be made up of a potentially infinite tissue of differences. Defining a sign would therefore appear to be a more tricky business than one might have thought. Saussure’s langue suggests a delimited structure of meaning; but where in language do you draw the line?

Another way of putting Saussure’s point about the differential nature of meaning is to say that meaning is always the result of a division or ’articulation’ of signs. The signifier ’boat’ gives us the concept or signified ’boat’ because it divides itself from the signifier ’moat’. The signified, that is to say, is the product of the difference between two signifiers. But it is also the product of the difference between a lot of other signifiers: ’coat’, ’boar’, ’bolt’ and so on. This questions Saussure’s view of the sign as a neat symmetrical unity between one signifier and one signified. For the signified ’boat’ is really the product of a complex interaction of signifiers, which has no obvious endpoint. Meaning is the spin-off of a potentially endless play of signifiers, rather than a concept tied firmly to the tail of a particular signifier. The signifier does not yield us up a signified directly, as a mirror yields up an image: there is no harmonious one-to-one set of correspondences between the level of the signifiers and the level of the signifieds in language. To complicate matters even further, there is no fixed distinction between signifiers and signifieds either. If you want to know the meaning (or signified) of a signifier, you can look it up in the dictionary; but all you will find will be yet more signifiers, whose signifieds you can in turn look up, and so on. The process we are discussing is not only in theory infinite but somehow circular: signifiers keep transforming into signifieds and vice versa, and you will never arrive at a final signified which is not a signifier in itself. If structuralism divided the sign from the referent, this kind of thinking - often known as ’post-structuralism’ - goes a step further: it divides the signifier from the signified.

Another way of putting what we have just said is that meaning is not immediately present in a sign. Since the meaning of a sign is a matter of what the sign is not, its meaning is always in some sense absent from it too. Meaning, if you like, is scattered or dispersed along the whole chain of signifiers: it cannot be easily nailed down, it is never fully present in any one sign alone, but is rather a kind of constant flickering of presence and absence together. Reading a text is more like tracing this process of constant flickering than it is like counting the beads on a necklace. There is also another sense in which we can never quite close our fists over meaning, which arises from the fact that language is a temporal process. When I read a sentence, the meaning of it is always somehow suspended, something deferred or still to come: one signifier relays me to another, and that to another, earlier meanings are modified by later ones, and although the sentence may come to an end the process of language itself does not. There is always more meaning where that came from. I do not grasp the sense of the sentence just by mechanically piling one word on the other: for the words to compose some relatively coherent meaning at all, each one of them must, so to speak, contain the trace of the ones which have gone before, and hold itself open to the trace of those which are coming after. Each sign in the chain of meaning is somehow scored over or traced through with all the others, to form a complex tissue which is never exhaustible; and to this extent no sign is ever ’pure’ or ’fully meaningful’. At the same time as this is happening, I can detect in each sign, even if only unconsciously, traces of the other words which it has excluded in order to be itself. ’Cat’ is what it is only by fending off ’cap’ and ’bat’, but these other possible signs, because they are actually constitutive of its identity, still somehow inhere within it.

Meaning, we might say, is thus never identical with itself. It is the result of a process of division or articulation, of signs being themselves only because they are not some other sign. It is also something suspended, held over, still to come. Another sense in which meaning is never identical with itself is that signs must always be repeatable or reproducible. We would not call a ’sign’ a mark which only occurred once. The fact that a sign can be reproduced is therefore part of its identity; but it is also what divides its identity, because it can always be reproduced in a different context which changes its meaning. It is difficult to know what a sign ’originally’ means, what its ’original’ context was: we simply encounter it in many different situations, and although it must maintain a certain consistency across those situations in order to be an identifiable sign at all, because its context is always different it is never absolutely the same, never quite identical with itself. ’Cat’ may mean a furry four-legged creature, a malicious person, a knotted whip, an American, a horizontal beam for raising a ship’s anchor, a six-legged tripod, a short tapered stick, and so on. But even when it just means a furry four-legged animal, this meaning will never quite stay the same from context to context: the signified will be altered by the various chains of signifiers in which it is entangled.

The implication of all this is that language is a much less stable affair than the classical structuralists had considered. Instead of being a well-defined, clearly demarcated structure containing symmetrical units of signifiers and signifieds, it now begins to look much more like a sprawling limitless web where there is a constant interchange and circulation of elements, where none of the elements is absolutely definable and where everything is caught up and traced through by everything else. If this is so, then it strikes a serious blow at certain traditional theories of meaning. For such theories, it was the function of signs to reflect inward experiences or objects in the real world, to ’make present’ one’s thoughts and feelings or to describe how reality was. We have already seen some of the problems with this idea of ’representation’ in our previous discussion of structuralism, but now even more difficulties emerge. For on the theory I have just outlined, nothing is ever fully present in signs: it is an illusion for me to believe that I can ever be fully present to you in what I say or write, because to use signs at all entails that my meaning is always somehow dispersed, divided and never quite at one with itself. Not only my meaning, indeed, but me-, since language is something I am made out of, rather than merely a convenient tool I use, the whole idea that I am a stable, unified entity must also be a fiction. Not only can I never be fully present to you, but I can never be fully present to myself either. I still need to use signs when I look into my mind or search my soul, and this means that I will never experience any ’full communion’ with myself. It is not that I can have a pure, unblemished meaning, intention or experience which then gets distorted and refracted by the flawed medium of

language: because language is the very air I breathe, I can never have a pure, unblemished meaning or experience at all.

One way in which I might persuade myself that this is possible is by listening to my own voice when I speak, rather than writing my thoughts down on paper. For in the act of speaking I seem to ’coincide’ with myself in a way quite different from what happens when I write. My spoken words seem immediately present to my consciousness, and my voice becomes their intimate, spontaneous medium. In writing, by contrast, my meanings threaten to escape from my control: I commit my thoughts to the impersonal medium of print, and since a printed text has a durable, material existence it can always be circulated, reproduced, cited, used in ways which I did not foresee or intend. Writing seems to rob me of my being: it is a second-hand mode of communication, a pallid, mechanical transcript of speech, and so always at one remove from my consciousness. It is for this reason that the Western philosophical tradition, all the way from Plato to Levi-Strauss, has consistently vilified writing as a mere lifeless, alienated form of expression, and consistently celebrated the living voice. Behind this prejudice lies a particular view of’man’: man is able spontaneously to create and express his own meanings, to be in full possession of himself, and to dominate language as a transparent medium of his inmost being. What this theory fails to see is that the ’living voice’ is in fact quite as material as print; and that since spoken signs, like written ones, work only by a process of difference and division, speaking could be just as much said to be a form of writing as writing is said to be a second-hand form of speaking.

Just as Western philosophy has been ’phonocentric’, centred on the ’living voice’ and deeply suspicious of script, so also it has been in a broader sense iogocentric’, committed to a belief in some ultimate ’word’, presence, essence, truth or reality which will act as the foundation of all bur thought, language and experience. It has yearned for the sign which will give meaning to all others - the ’transcendental signifier’ - and for the anchoring, unquestionable meaning to which all our signs can be seen to point (the ’transcendental signified’). A great number of candidates for this role - God, the Idea, the World Spirit, the Self, substance, matter and so on - have thrust themselves forward from time to time. Since each of these concepts hopes to found our whole system of thought and language, it must itself be beyond that system, untainted by its play of linguistic differences. It cannot be implicated in the very languages which it attempts to order and anchor: it must be somehow anterior to these discourses, must have existed before they did. It must be a meaning, but not like any other meaning just a product of a play of difference. It must figure rather as the meaning of meanings, the lynchpin or fulcrum of a whole thought-system, the sign around which all others revolve and which all others obediently reflect.

That any such transcendental meaning is a fiction - though perhaps a necessary fiction - is one consequence of the theory of language I have outlined. There is no concept which is not embroiled in an open-ended play of signification, shot through with the traces and fragments of other ideas. It is just that, out of this play of signifiers, certain meanings are elevated by social ideologies to a privileged position, or made the centres around which other meanings are forced to turn. Consider, in our own society, Freedom, the Family, Democracy, Independence, Authority, Order and so on. Sometimes such meanings are seen as the origin of all the others, the source from which they flow; but this, as we have seen, is a curious way of thinking, because for this meaning ever to have been possible other signs must already have existed. It is difficult to think of an origin without wanting to go back beyond it. At other times such meanings may be seen not as the origin but as the goal, towards which all other meanings are or should be steadily marching. ’Teleology’, thinking of life, language and history in terms of its orientation to a telos or end, is a way of ordering and ranking meanings in a hierarchy of significance, creating a pecking order among them in the light of an ultimate purpose. But any such theory of history or language as a simple linear evolution misses the web-like complexity of signs which I have been describing, the back and forth, present and absent, forward and sideways movement of language in its actual processes. It is that weblike complexity, indeed, which post-structuralism designates by the word ’text’.

Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher whose views I have been expounding over the last few pages, labels as ’metaphysical’ any such thoughtsystem which depends on an unassailable foundation, a first principle or unimpeachable ground upon which a whole hierarchy of meanings may be constructed. It is not that he believes that we can merely rid ourselves of the urge to forge such first principles, for such an impulse is deeply embedded in our history, and cannot - at least as yet - be eradicated or ignored. Derrida would see his own work as inescapably ’contaminated’ by such metaphysical thought, much as he strives to give it the slip. But if you examine such first principles closely, you can see that they may always be ’deconstructed’: they can be shown to be products of a particular system of meaning, rather than what props it up from the outside. First principles of this kind are commonly defined by what they exclude: they are part of the sort of ’binary opposition’ beloved of structuralism. Thus, for male-dominated society, man is the founding principle and woman the excluded opposite of this; and as long as such a distinction is tightly held in place the whole system can function effectively. ’Deconstruction’ is the name given to the critical operation by which such oppositions can be partly undermined, or by which they can be shown partly to undermine each other in the process of textual meaning. Woman is the opposite, the ’other’ of man: she is non-man, defective man, assigned a chiefly negative value in relation to the male first principle. But equally man is what he is only by virtue of ceaselessly shutting out this other or opposite, defining himself in antithesis to it, and his whole identity is therefore caught up and put at risk in the very gesture by which he seeks to assert his unique, autonomous existence. Woman is not just an other in the sense of something beyond his ken, but an other intimately related to him as the image of what he is not, and therefore as an essential reminder of what he is. Man therefore needs this other even as he spurns it, is constrained to give a positive identity to what he regards as no-thing. Not only is his own being parasitically dependent upon the woman, and upon the act of excluding and subordinating her, but one reason why such exclusion is necessary is because she may not be quite so other after all. Perhaps she stands as a sign of something in man himself which he needs to repress, expel beyond his own being, relegate to a securely alien region beyond his own definitive limits. Perhaps what is outside is also somehow inside, what is alien also intimate - so that man needs to police the absolute frontier between the two realms as vigilantly as he does just because it may always be transgressed, has always been transgressed already, and is much less absolute than it appears.

Deconstruction, that is to say, has grasped the point that the binary oppositions with which classical structuralism tends to work represent a way of seeing typical of ideologies. Ideologies like to draw rigid boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not, between self and non-self, truth and falsity, sense and nonsense, reason and madness, central and marginal, surface and depth. Such metaphysical thinking, as I have said, cannot be simply eluded: we cannot catapult ourselves beyond this binary habit of thought into an ultra-metaphysical realm. But by a certain way of operating upon texts - whether ’literary’ or ’philosophical’ - we may begin to unravel these oppositions a little, demonstrate how one term of an antithesis secretly inheres within the other. Structuralism was generally satisfied if it could carve up a text into binary oppositions (high/low, light/dark, Nature/ Culture and so on) and expose the logic of their working. Deconstruction tries to show how such oppositions, in order to hold themselves in place, are sometimes betrayed into inverting or collapsing themselves, or need to banish to the text’s margins certain niggling details which can be made to

return and plague them. Derrida’s own typical habit of reading is to seize on some apparently peripheral fragment in the work - a footnote, a recurrent minor term or image, a casual allusion - and work it tenaciously through to the point where it threatens to dismantle the oppositions which govern the text as a whole. The tactic of deconstructive criticism, that is to say, is to show how texts come to embarrass their own ruling systems of logic; and deconstruction shows this by fastening on the ’symptomatic’ points, the aporia or impasses of meaning, where texts get into trouble, come unstuck, offer to contradict themselves.

This is not just an empirical observation about certain kinds of writing: it is a universal proposition about the nature of writing itself. For if the theory of signification with which I began this chapter is at all valid, then there is something in writing itself which finally evades all systems and logics. There is a continual flickering, spilling and defusing of meaning - what Derrida calls ’dissemination’ - which cannot be easily contained with the categories of the text’s structure, or within the categories of a conventional critical approach to it. Writing, like any process of language, works by difference; but difference is not itself a concept, is not something that can be thought. A text may ’show’ us something about the nature of meaning and signification which it is not able to formulate as a proposition. All language, for Derrida, displays this ’surplus’ over exact meaning, is always threatening to outrun and escape the sense which tries to contain it. ’Literary’ discourse is the place where this is most evident, but it is also true of all other writing; deconstruction rejects the literary/non-literary opposition as any absolute distinction. The advent of the concept of writing, then, is a challenge to the very idea of structure: for a structure always presumes a centre, a fixed principle, a hierarchy of meanings and a solid foundation, and it is just these notions which the endless differing and deferring of writing throws into question. We have moved, in other words, from the era of structuralism to the reign of post-structuralism, a style of thought which embraces the deconstructive operations of Derrida, the work of the French historian Michel Foucault, the writings of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and of the feminist philosopher and critic Julia Kristeva. I have not discussed Foucault’s work explicitly in this book; but my Conclusion would have been impossible without it, as its influence there is pervasive.

A way of charting that development is to look briefly at the work of the French critic Roland Barthes. In early works such as Mythologies (1957), On Racine (1963), Elements of Semiology (1964) and Systeme de la mode (1967), Barthes is a ’high’ structuralist, analysing the signifying systems of fashion, striptease, Racinian tragedy and steak and chips with effortless brio. An important essay of 1966, ’Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative’, is in the Jakobsonian and Levi-Straussian mode, breaking down the structure of narrative into distinct units, functions and ’indices’ (indicators of character psychology, ’atmosphere’ and so on). Though such units follow each other sequentially in narrative itself, the task of the critic is to subsume them into an atemporal frame of explanation. Even at this relatively early point, however, Barthes’s structuralism is tempered by other theories - hints of phenomenology in Michelet par lui-meme (1954), of psychoanalysis in On Racine - and qualified above all by his literary style. The chic, playful, neologistic prose style of Barthes signifies a kind of ’excess’ of writing over the rigours of structuralist enquiry: it is an area of freedom where he can sport, partially released from the tyranny of meaning. His work Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1971) is an interesting blend of the earlier structuralism and the later erotic play, seeing in Sade’s writing a ceaseless systematic permutation of erotic positions.

Language is Barthes’s theme from beginning to end, and in particular the Saussurean insight that the sign is always a matter of historical and cultural convention. The ’healthy’ sign, for Barthes, is one which draws attention to its own arbitrariness - which does not try to palm itself off as ’natural’ but which, in the very moment of conveying a meaning, communicates something of its own relative, artificial status as well. The impulse behind this belief in the earlier work is a political one: signs which pass themselves off as natural, which offer themselves as the only conceivable way of viewing the world, are by that token authoritarian and ideological. It is one of the functions of ideology to ’naturalize’ social reality, to make it seem as innocent and unchangeable as Nature itself. Ideology seeks to convert culture into Nature, and the ’natural’ sign is one of its weapons. Saluting a flag, or agreeing that Western democracy represents the true meaning of the word ’freedom’, become the most obvious, spontaneous responses in the world. Ideology, in this sense, is a kind of contemporary mythology, a realm which has purged itself of ambiguity and alternative possibility.

In Barthes’s view, there is a literary ideology which corresponds to this ’natural attitude’, and its name is realism. Realist literature tends to conceal the socially relative or constructed nature of language: it helps to confirm the prejudice that there is a form of ’ordinary’ language which is somehow natural. This natural language gives us reality ’as it is’: it does not - like Romanticism or Symbolism - distort it into subjective shapes, but represents the world to us as God himself might know it. The sign is not seen as a changeable entity determined by the rules of a particular changeable sign system: it is seen rather as a translucent window on to the object, or on to the mind. It is quite neutral and colourless in itself: its only job is to represent something else, become the vehicle of a meaning conceived quite independently of itself, and it must interfere with what it mediates as little as possible. In the ideology of realism or representation, words are felt to link up with their thoughts or objects in essentially right and uncontrovertible ways: the word becomes the only proper way of viewing this object or expressing this thought.

The realist or representational sign, then, is for Barthes essentially unhealthy. It effaces its own status as a sign, in order to foster the illusion that we are perceiving reality without its intervention. The sign as ’reflection’, ’expression’ or ’representation’ denies the productive character of language: it suppresses the fact that we only have a ’world’ at all because we have language to signify it, and that what we count as ’real’ is bound up with what alterable structures of signification we live within. Barthes’s ’double’ sign - the sign which gestures to its own material existence at the same time as it conveys a meaning - is the grandchild of the ’estranged’ language of the Formalists and Czech structuralists, of the Jakobsonian ’poetic’ word which flaunts its own palpable linguistic being. I say ’grandchild’ rather than ’child’, because the more direct offspring of the Formalists were the socialist artists of the German Weimar Republic - Bertolt Brecht among them - who employed such ’estrangement effects’ to political ends. In their hands, the estranging devices of Shklovsky and Jakobson became more than verbal functions: they became poetic, cinematic and theatrical instruments for ’denaturalizing’ and ’defamiliarizing’ political society, showing just how deeply questionable what everyone took for granted as ’obvious’ actually was. These artists were also the inheritors of the Bolshevik Futurists and other Russian avant-gardistes, of Mayakovsky, the ’Left Front in Art’ and the cultural revolutionists of the Soviet 1920s. Barthes has an enthusiastic essay on Brecht’s theatre in his Critical Essays (1964), and was an early champion of that theatre in France.

The early structuralist Barthes still trusts to the possibility of a ’science’ of literature, though this, as he comments, could only be a science of’forms’ rather than of’contents’. Such a scientific criticism would in some sense aim to know its object ’as it really was’; but does this not run counter to Barthes’s hostility to the neutral sign? The critic, after all, has to use language too, in order to analyse the literary text, and there is no reason to believe that this language will escape the strictures which Barthes has made about representational discourse in general. What is the relation between the discourse of criticism and the discourse of the literary text? For the structuralist, criticism is a form of ’metalanguage’ - a language about another language - which rises above its object to a point from which it can peer down and disinterestedly examine it. But as Barthes recognizes in Systeme de la mode, there can be no ultimate metalanguage: another critic can always come along and take your criticism as his object of study, and so on in an infinite regress. In his Critical Essays, Barthes speaks of criticism as ’covering the text] as completely as possible by its own language’; in Critique et verite (1966), critical discourse is seen as a ’second language’ which ’floats above the primary language of the work’. The same essay begins to characterize literary language itself in what are now recognizably post-structuralist terms: it is a language ’without bottom’, something like a ’pure ambiguity’ supported by an ’empty meaning’. If this is so, then it is doubtful that the methods of classical structuralism can cope with it at all.

The ’work of the break’ is Barthes’s astonishing study of Balzac’s story Sarrasine, S/Z (1970). The literary work is now no longer treated as a stable object or delimited structure, and the language of the critic has disowned all pretensions to scientific objectivity. The most intriguing texts for criticism are not those which can be read, but those which are ’writable’ (scriptible) - texts which encourage the critic to carve them up, transpose them into different discourses, produce his or her semi-arbitrary play of meaning athwart the work itself. The reader or critic shifts from the role of consumer to that of producer. It is not exactly as though ’anything goes’ in interpretation, for Barthes is careful to remark that the work cannot be got to mean anything at all; but literature is now less an object to which criticism must conform than a free space in which it can sport. The ’writable’ text, usually a modernist one, has no determinate meaning, no settled signifieds, but is plural and diffuse, an inexhaustible tissue or galaxy of signifiers, a seamless weave of codes and fragments of codes, through which the critic may cut his own errant path. There are no beginnings and no ends, no sequences which cannot be reversed, no hierarchy of textual ’levels’ to tell you what is more or less significant. All literary texts are woven out of other literary texts, not in the conventional sense that they bear the traces of ’influence’ but in the more radical sense that every word, phrase or segment is a reworking of other writings which precede or surround the individual work. There is no such thing as literary ’originality’, no such thing as the ’first’ literary work: all literature is ’intertextual’. A specific piece of writing thus has no clearly defined boundaries: it spills over constantly into the works clustered around it, generating a hundred different perspectives which dwindle to vanishing point. The work cannot be sprung shut, rendered determinate, by an appeal to the author, for the ’death of the author’ is a slogan that modem criticism is now confidently able to proclaim.1 The biography of the author is, after all, merely another text, which need not be ascribed any special privilege: this text too can be deconstructed. It is language which speaks in literature, in all its swarming ’polysemic’ plurality, not the author himself. If there is any place where this seething multiplicity of the text is momentarily focused, it is not the author but the reader.

When post-structuralists speak of ’writing’ or ’textuality’, it is usually these particular senses of writing and text that they have in mind. The movement from structuralism to post-structuralism is in part, as Barthes himself has phrased it, a movement from ’work’ to ’text’.2 It is a shift from seeing the poem or novel as a closed entity, equipped with definite meanings which it is the critic’s task to decipher, to seeing it as irreducibly plural, an endless play of signifiers which can never be finally nailed down to a single centre, essence or meaning. This obviously makes for a radical difference in the practice of criticism itself, as S/Z makes clear. Barthes’s method in the book is to divide the Balzac story into a number of small units or iexies’, and to apply to them five codes: the ’proiaretic’ (or narrative) code, a ’hermeneutic’ code concerned with the tale’s unfolding enigmas, a ’cultural’ code which examines the stock of social knowledge on which the work draws, a ’semic’ code dealing with the connotations of persons, places and objects, and a ’symbolic’ code charting the sexual and psychoanalytical relations set up in the text. None of this so far may seem to diverge much from standard structuralist practice. But the division of the text into units is more or less arbitrary; the five codes are simply five selected from an indefinite possible number; they are ranked in no sort of hierarchy, but applied, sometimes three to the same lexie, in a pluralist way; and they refrain from finally ’totalizing’ the work into any kind of coherent sense. Rather, they demonstrate its dispersal and fragmentation. The text, Barthes argues, is less a ’structure’ than an open-ended process of ’structuration’, and it is criticism which does this structurating. Balzac’s novella appears to be a realist work, not at all obviously amenable to the kind of semiotic violence which Barthes wreaks upon it: his critical account does not ’re-create’ its object, but drastically rewrites and reorganizes it out of all conventional recognition. What is thereby revealed, however, is a dimension of the work which has hitherto remained unnoticed. Sarrasine is exposed as a ’limit text’ for literary realism, a work in which its ruling assumptions are shown to be secretly in trouble: the narrative revolves upon a frustrated act of narrating, sexual castration, the mysterious sources of capitalist wealth, and a profound confusion of fixed sexual roles. In a coup de grace, Barthes is able to claim that the very ’contents’ of the novella are related to his own method of analysis: the story concerns a crisis in literary representation, sexual relations and economic exchange. In all of these instances, the bourgeois ideology of the sign as ’representational’ is beginning to be called into question; and in this sense, by a certain interpretative violence and bravura, Balzac’s narrative can be read as peering beyond its own historical moment in the early nineteenth century to Barthes’s own modernist period.

It is, in fact, the literary movement of modernism which brought structuralist and post-structuralist criticism to birth in the first place. Some of the later works of Barthes and Derrida are modernist literary texts in themselves, experimental, enigmatic and richly ambiguous. There is no clear division for post-structuralism between ’criticism’ and ’creation’: both modes are subsumed into ’writing’ as such. Structuralism began to happen when language became an obsessive preoccupation of intellectuals; and this happened in turn because in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, language in Western Europe was felt to be in the throes of deep crisis. How was one to write, in an industrial society where discourse had become degraded to a mere instrument of science, commerce, advertising and bureaucracy? What audience was one to write for in any case, given the saturation of the reading public by a ’mass’, profit-hungry, anodyne culture? Could a literary work be at once an artefact and a commodity on the open market? Could we any longer share the confident rationalist or empiricist trust of the mid-nineteenth-century middle class that language did indeed hook itself on to the world? How was writing possible without the existence of a framework of collective belief shared with one’s audience, and how, in the ideological turmoil of the twentieth century, could such a shared framework possibly be reinvented?

It was questions such as these, rooted in the real historical conditions of modern writing, which ’foregrounded’ the problem of language so dramatically. The Formalist, Futurist and structuralist preoccupation with the estrangement and renewal of the word, with restoring to an alienated language the richness of which it had been robbed, were all in their different ways responses to this same historical dilemma. But it was also possible to set up language itself as an alternative to the social problems which plagued you - to renounce, gloomily or triumphantly, the traditional notion that one wrote about something for somebody, and to make language itself one’s cherished object. In his masterly early essay Writing Degree Zero (1953), Barthes maps something of the historical development by which writing for the French nineteenth-century Symbolist poets becomes an ’intransitive’ act: not writing for a particular purpose on a specific topic, as in the age of ’classical’ literature, but writing as an end and a passion in itself. If objects and events in the real world are experienced as lifeless and alienated, if history seems to have lost direction and lapsed into chaos, it is always possible to put all of this ’in brackets’, ’suspend the referent’ and take words as your object instead. Writing turns in on itself in a profound act of narcissism, but always troubled and overshadowed by the social guilt of its own uselessness. Unavoidably complicit with those who have reduced it to an unwanted commodity, it nevertheless strains to free itself from the contamination of social meaning, either by pressing towards the purity of silence, as with the Symbolists, or by seeking an austere neutrality, a ’degree zero of writing’ which would hope to appear innocent but which is in reality, as Hemingway exemplifies, just as much a literary style as any other. There is no doubt that the ’guilt’ of which Barthes speaks is the guilt of the institution of Literature itself - an institution which, as he comments, testifies to the division of languages and the division of classes. To write in a ’literary’ way, in modern society, is inevitably to collude with such divisiveness.

Structuralism is best seen as both symptom of and reaction to the social and linguistic crisis I have outlined. It flees from history to language - an ironic action, since as Barthes sees few moves could be more historically significant. But in holding history and the referent at bay, it also seeks to restore a sense of the ’unnaturalness’ of the signs by which men and women live, and so open up a radical awareness of their historical mutability. In this way it may rejoin the very history which it began by abandoning. Whether it does so or not, however, depends on whether the referent is suspended provisionally, or for good and all. With the advent of post-structuralism, what seemed reactionary about structuralism was not this refusal of history, but nothing less than the very concept of structure itself. For the Barthes of The Pleasure of the Text (1973), all theory, ideology, determinate meaning, social commitment have become, it appears, inherently terroristic, and ’writing’ is the answer to them all. Writing, or reading-as-writing, is the last uncolonized enclave in which the intellectual can play, savouring the sumptuousness of the signifier in heady disregard of whatever might be going on in the Elysee palace or the Renault factories. In writing, the tyranny of structural meaning could be momentarily ruptured and dislocated by a free play of language; and the writing/reading subject could be released from the straitjacket of a single identity into an ecstatically diffused self. The text, Barthes announces, ’is […] that uninhibited person who shows his behind to the Political Father’. We have come a long way from Matthew Arnold.

That reference to the Political Father is not fortuitous. The Pleasure of the Text was published five years after a social eruption which rocked France’s political fathers to their roots. In 1968 the student movement had swept across Europe, striking against the authoritarianism of the educational institutions and in France briefly threatening the capitalist state itself. For a dramatic moment, that state teetered on the brink of ruin: its police and army fought in the streets with students who were struggling to forge solidarity with the working class. Unable to provide a coherent political leadership, plunged into a confused melee of socialism, anarchism and infantile behind-baring, the student movement was rolled back and dissipated; betrayed by their supine Stalinist leaders, the working-class movement was unable to assume power. Charles de Gaulle returned from a hasty exile, and the French state regrouped its forces in the name of patriotism, law and order.

Post-structuralism was a product of that blend of euphoria and disillusionment, liberation and dissipation, carnival and catastrophe, which was 1968. Unable to break the structures of state power, post-structuralism found it possible instead to subvert the structures of language. Nobody, at least, was likely to beat you over the head for doing so. The student movement was flushed off the streets and driven underground into discourse. Its enemies, as for the later Barthes, became coherent belief-systems of any kind - in particular all forms of political theory and organization which sought to analyse, and act upon, the structures of society as a whole. For it was precisely such politics which seemed to have failed: the system had proved too powerful for them, and the ’total’ critique offered of it by a heavily Stalinized Marxism had been exposed as part of the problem, not as the solution. All such total systematic thought was now suspect as terroristic: conceptual meaning itself, as opposed to libidinal gesture and anarchist spontaneity, was feared as repressive. Reading for the later Barthes is not cognition but erotic play. The only forms of political action now felt to be acceptable were of a local, diffused, strategic kind: work with prisoners and other marginalized social groups, particular projects in culture and education. The women’s movement, hostile to the classical forms of left-wing organization, developed libertarian, ’decentred’ alternatives and in some quarters rejected systematic theory as male. For many post-structuralists, the worst error was to believe that such local projects and particular engagements should be brought together within an overall understanding of the working of monopoly capitalism, which could only be as oppressively ’total’ as the very system it opposed. Power was everywhere, a fluid, quicksilver force which seeped through every pore of society, but it did not have a centre any more than did the literary text. The ’system as a whole’ could not be combatted, because there was in fact no ’system as a whole’. You could thus intervene in social and political life at any point you liked, as Barthes could chop S/Z into an arbitrary play of codes. It was not entirely clear how one knew that there was no system as a whole, if general concepts were taboo; nor was it clear that such a viewpoint was as viable in other parts of the world as it was in Paris. In the so-called Third World, men and women sought to liberate their countries from the political and economic dominance of Europe and the USA under the guidance of some general grasp of the logic of imperialism. They were seeking to do so in Vietnam at the time of the European student movements, and despite their ’general theories’ were to prove a few years later rather more successful than the Parisian students had been. Back in Europe, however, such theories were rapidly becoming passe. Just as the older forms of ’total’ politics had dogmatically proclaimed that more local concerns were of merely passing relevance, so the new politics of the fragments was also prone to dogmatize that any more global engagement was a dangerous illusion.

Such a position, as I have argued, was born of a specific political defeat and disillusion. The ’total structure’ which it identified as the enemy was an historically particular one: the armed, repressive state of late monopoly capitalism, and the Stalinist politics which pretended to confront it but were deeply complicit with its rule. Long before the emergence of poststructuralism, generations of socialists had been fighting both of these monoliths. But they had overlooked the possibility that the erotic frissons of reading, or even work confined to those labelled criminally insane, were an adequate solution, and so had the guerrilla fighters of Guatemala.

In one of its developments, post-structuralism became a convenient way of evading such political questions altogether. The work of Derrida and others had cast grave doubt upon the classical notions of truth, reality, meaning and knowledge, all of which could be exposed as resting on a naively representational theory of language. If meaning, the signified, was a passing product of words or signifiers, always shifting and unstable, part-present and part-absent, how could there be any determinate truth or meaning at all? If reality was constructed by our discourse rather than reflected by it, how could we ever know reality itself, rather than merely knowing our own discourse? Was all talk just talk about our talk? Did it make sense to claim that one interpretation of reality, history or the literary text was ’better’ than another? Hermeneutics had devoted itself to sympathetically understanding the meaning of the past; but was there really any past to be known at all, other than as a mere function of present discourse?

Whether all this was or was not what the founding fathers of poststructuralism actually held, such scepticism rapidly became a fashionable style in Left academic circles. To employ words like ’truth’, ’certainty’ and the ’real’ was in some quarters to be instantly denounced as a metaphysician. If you demurred at the dogma that we could never know anything at all, then this was because you clung nostalgically to notions of absolute truth, and to a megalomaniac conviction that you, along with some of the smarter natural scientists, could see reality ’just as it was’. The fact that nowadays one encounters extremely few believers in such doctrines, not least among philosophers of science, did not seem to deter the sceptics. The model of science frequently derided by post-structuralism is usually a positivist one - some version of the nineteenth-century rationalistic claim to a transcendental, value-free knowledge of’the facts’. This model is actually a straw target. It does not exhaust the term ’science’, and nothing is to be gained by this caricature of scientific self-reflection. To say that there are no absolute grounds for the use of such words as truth, certainty, reality and so on is not to say that these words lack meaning or are ineffectual. Whoever thought such absolute grounds existed, and what would they look like if they did?

One advantage of the dogma that we are the prisoners of our own discourse, unable to advance reasonably certain truth-claims because such claims are merely relative to our language, is that it allows you to drive a coach and horses through everybody else’s beliefs while not saddling you with the inconvenience of having to adopt any yourself. It is, in effect, an invulnerable position, and the fact that it is also purely empty is simply the price one has to pay for this. The view that the most significant aspect of any piece of language is that it does not know what it is talking about smacks of a jaded resignation to the impossibility of truth which is by no means unrelated to post-1968 historical disillusion. But it also frees you at a stroke from having to assume a position on important issues, since what you say of such things will be no more than a passing product of the signifier and so in no sense to be taken as ’true’ or ’serious’. A further benefit of this stance is that it is mischievously radical in respect of everyone else’s opinions, able to unmask the most solemn declarations as mere dishevelled plays of signs, while utterly conservative in every other way. Since it commits you to affirming nothing, it is as injurious as blank ammunition.

Deconstruction in the Anglo-American world has tended on the whole to take this path. Of the so-called Yale school of deconstruction - Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman and in some respects Harold Bloom - de Man’s criticism in particular is devoted to demonstrating that literary language constantly undermines its own meaning. Indeed de Man discovers in this operation nothing less than a new way of defining the ’essence’ of literature itself. All language, as de Man rightly perceives, is ineradicably metaphorical, working by tropes and figures; it is a mistake to believe that any language is literally literal. Philosophy, law, political theory work by metaphor just as poems do, and so are just as fictional. Since metaphors are essentially ’groundless’, mere substitutions of one set of signs for another, language tends to betray its own Active and arbitrary nature at just those points where it is offering to be most intensively persuasive. ’Literature’ is that realm in which this ambiguity is most evident - in which the reader finds herself suspended between a ’literal’ and a figurative meaning, unable to choose between the two, and thus cast dizzyingly into a bottomless linguistic abyss by a text which has become ’unreadable’. Literary works, however, are in a sense less deluded than other forms of discourse, because they implicitly acknowledge their own rhetorical status - the fact that what they say is different from what they do, that all their claims to knowledge work through figurative structures which render them ambiguous and indeterminate. They are, one might say, ironic in nature. Other forms of writing are just as figurative and ambiguous, but pass themselves off as unquestionable truth. For de Man, as for his colleague Hillis Miller, literature does not need to be deconstructed by the critic: it can be shown to deconstruct itself, and moreover is actually ’about’ this very operation.

The textual ambiguities of the Yale critics differ from the poetic ambivalences of New Criticism. Reading is not a matter of fusing two different but determinate meanings, as it was for the New Critics: it is a matter of being caught on the hop between two meanings which can be neither reconciled nor refused. Literary criticism thus becomes an ironic, uneasy business, an unsettling venture into the inner void of the text which lays bare the illusoriness of meaning, the impossibility of truth and the deceitful guiles of all discourse. In another sense, however, such Anglo-American deconstruction is no more than the return of the old New Critical formalism. Indeed it returns in intensified form, because whereas for New Criticism the poem did in some indirect way discourse about extra-poetic reality, literature for the deconstructionists testifies to the impossibility of language’s ever doing more than talk about its own failure, like some barroom bore. Literature is the ruin of all reference, the cemetery of communication.3 New Criticism saw the literary text as a blessed suspension of doctrinal belief in an increasingly ideological world; deconstruction sees social reality less as oppressively determinate than as yet more shimmering webs of undecidability stretching to the horizon. Literature is not content, as with New Criticism, to offer a cloistered alternative to material history: it now reaches out and colonizes that history, rewriting it in its own image, viewing famines, revolutions, soccer matches and sherry trifle as yet more undecidable ’text’. Since prudent men and women are not prone to take action in situations whose significance is not reasonably clear, this viewpoint is not without its implications for one’s style of social and political life. Yet since literature is the privileged paradigm of all such indeterminacy, the New Critical retreat into the literary text can be reproduced at the same time as criticism reaches out a revenging hand over the world and strikes it empty of meaning. Whereas for earlier literary theories it was experience which was elusive, evanescent, richly ambiguous, now it is language. The terms have altered; much of the world-view has remained remarkably unchanged.

But it is not, as with Bakhtin, language as ’discourse’; Jacques Derrida’s work is strikingly indifferent to such concerns. It is largely because of this that the doctrinal obsession with ’undecidability’ arises. Meaning may well be ultimately undecidable if we view language contemplatively, as a chain of signifiers on a page; it becomes ’decidable’, and words like ’truth’, ’reality’, ’knowledge’ and ’certainty’ have something of their force restored to them, when we think of language rather as something we do, as indissociably interwoven with our practical forms of life. It is not of course that language then becomes fixed and luminous: on the contrary, it becomes even more fraught and conflictual than the most ’deconstructed’ literary text. It is just that we are then able to see, in a practical rather than academicist way, what would count as deciding, determining, persuading, certainty, being truthful, falsifying and the rest - and see, moreover, what beyond language itself is involved in such definitions. Anglo-American deconstruction largely ignores this real sphere of struggle, and continues to churn out its closed critical texts. Such texts are closed precisely because they are empty: there is little to be done with them beyond admiring the relentlessness with which all positive particles of textual meaning have been dissolved away. Such dissolution is an imperative in the academic game of deconstruction: for you can be sure that if your own critical account of someone else’s critical account of a text has left the tiniest grains of ’positive’ meaning within its folds, somebody else will come along and deconstruct you in turn. Such deconstruction is a power-game, a mirror-image of orthodox academic competition. It is just that now, in a religious twist to the old ideology, victory is achieved by kenosis or self-emptying: the winner is the one who has managed to get rid of all his cards and sit with empty hands.

If Anglo-American deconstruction would seem to signal the latest stage of a liberal scepticism familiar in the modern histories of both societies, the story in Europe is somewhat more complex. As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, as the carnivalesque memories of 1968 faded and world capitalism stumbled into economic crisis, some of the French post-structuralists originally associated with the avant-garde literary journal Tel Quel moved from a militant Maoism to a strident anti-Communism. Post-structuralism in France has been able with a good conscience to praise the Iranian mullahs, celebrate the USA as the one remaining oasis of freedom and pluralism in a regimented world, and recommend various brands of portentous mysticism as the solution to human ills. If Saussure could have foreseen what he started he might well have stuck to the genitive case in Sanskrit.

Like all stories, however, the narrative of post-structuralism has another side. If the American deconstructionists considered that their textual enterprise was faithful to the spirit of Jacques Derrida, one of those who did not was Jacques Derrida. Certain American uses of deconstruction, Derrida has observed, work to ensure ’an institutional closure’ which serves the dominant political and economic interests of American society.4 Derrida is clearly out to do more than develop new techniques of reading: deconstruction is for him an ultimately political practice, an attempt to dismantle the logic by which a particular system of thought, and behind that a whole system of political structures and social institutions, maintains its force. He is not seeking, absurdly, to deny the existence of relatively determinate truths, meanings, identities, intentions, historical continuities; he is seeking rather to see such things as the effects of a wider and deeper history - of language, of the unconscious, of social institutions and practices. That his own work has been grossly unhistorical, politically evasive and in practice oblivious to language as ’discourse’ is not to be denied: no neat binary opposition can be drawn up between an ’authentic’ Derrida and the abuses of his acolytes. But the widespread opinion that deconstruction denies the existence of anything but discourse, or affirms a realm of pure difference in which all meaning and identity dissolves, is a travesty of Derrida’s own work and of the most productive work which has followed from it.

Nor will it do to dismiss post-structuralism as a simple anarchism or hedonism, much in evidence though such motifs have been. Post-structuralism was right to upbraid the orthodox Left politics of its time with having failed: in the late 1960s and early 1970s, new political forms began to emerge before which the traditional Left stood mesmerized and indecisive. Its immediate response was either to belittle them, or to try to absorb them as subordinate parts of its own programme. But the new political presence which would respond to neither tactic was the resurgent women’s movement of Europe and the United States. The women’s movement rejected the narrowly economic focus of much classical Marxist thought, a focus which was clearly incapable of explaining the particular conditions of women as an oppressed social group, or of contributing significantly to their transformation. For though the oppression of women is indeed a material reality, a matter of motherhood, domestic labour, job discrimination and unequal wages, it cannot be reduced to these factors: it is also a question of sexual ideology, of the ways men and women image themselves and each other in male-dominated society, of perceptions and behaviour which range from the brutally explicit to the deeply unconscious. Any politics which failed to place such issues at the heart of its theory and practice was likely to find itself consigned to the dustheap of history. Because sexism and gender roles are questions which engage the deepest personal dimensions of human life, a politics which was blind to the experience of the human subject was crippled from the outset. The movement from structuralism to post-structuralism was in part a response to these political demands. Of course it is untrue that the women’s movement has a monopoly of ’experience’, as is sometimes implied: what else has socialism been but the bitter hopes and desires of many millions of men and women over the generations, who lived and sometimes died in the name of something rather more than a ’doctrine of the totality’ or the primacy of the economic? Nor is it adequate to identify the personal and political: that the personal is political is profoundly true, but there is an important sense in which the personal is also personal and the political political. Political struggle cannot be reduced to the personal, or vice versa. The women’s movement rightly rejected certain rigid organizational forms and certain ’over-totalizing’ political theories; but in doing so it often enough advanced the personal, the spontaneous and the experiential as though these provided an adequate political strategy, rejected ’theory’ in ways almost indistinguishable from commonplace anti-intellectualism, and in some of its sectors seemed as indifferent to the sufferings of anybody but women, and to the question of their political resolution, as some Marxists had seemed indifferent to the oppression of anybody but the working class.

There are other relations between feminism and post-structuralism. For of all the binary oppositions which post-structuralism sought to undo, the hierarchical opposition between men and women was perhaps the most virulent. Certainly it seemed the most perdurable: there was no time in history at which a good half of the human race had not been banished and subjected as a defective being, an alien inferior. This staggering fact could not of course be put right by a new theoretical technique; but it became possible to see how, though historically speaking the conflict between men and women could not have been more real, the ideology of this antagonism involved a metaphysical illusion. If it was held in place by the material and psychical benefits which accrued to men from it, it was also held in place by a complex structure of fear, desire, aggression, masochism and anxiety which urgently needed to be examined. Feminism was not an isolatable issue, a particular ’campaign’ alongside other political projects, but a dimension which informed and interrogated every facet of personal, social and political life. The message of the women’s movement, as interpreted by some of those outside it, is not just that women should have equality of power and status with men; it is a questioning of all such power and status. It is not that the world will be better off with more female participation in it; it is that without the ’feminization’ of human history, the world is unlikely to survive.

With post-structuralism, we have brought the story of modern literary theory up to the present time. Within post-structuralism as a ’whole’, real conflicts and differences exist whose future history cannot be predicted. There are forms of post-structuralism which represent a hedonist withdrawal from history, a cult of ambiguity or irresponsible anarchism; there are other forms, as with the formidably rich researches of the French historian Michel Foucault, which while not without their severe problems point in a more positive direction. There are modes of ’radical’ feminism which emphasize plurality, difference and sexual separatism; there are also forms of socialist feminism which, while refusing to view the women’s struggle as a mere element or sub-sector of a movement which might then dominate and engulf it, hold that the liberation of other oppressed groups and classes in society is not only a moral and political imperative in itself, but a necessary (though by no means sufficient) condition for the emancipation of women.

We have travelled, at any rate, from Saussure’s difference between signs to the oldest difference in the world; and it is this which we can now explore further.