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© 1992 by Princeton University Press


Explanation, the philosophic act I mean to consider in this book, is a uniquely human action. To explain is inseparable from being conscious of what we are, what we do, and the environment in which we live. Explaining is not simply the same thing as being conscious, but it is impossible to be conscious and follow Oscar Wilde's advice: "Never explain." Everyone explains—all the time. If we did not, it would be impossible to maintain our very sense of self. We work unconsciously and continually in order to explain to ourselves who we are, how we got to our present state, and how it is that we are the same person that we were when we were five years old, or two months old or five minutes old, despite the pervasive and evident differences.

Explanation accounts for apparently static phenomena by seeing them as the results of actions and events. When I call explanation a philosophic act, I do not mean to restrict it to philosophers; it belongs to the core of human mental activity. It is too important to be left to the philosophers because it is so fundamental to what it means to be human. Explanation is a philosophic act when it is formal and conscious, but even then it is not always or even usually restricted to philosophers. It belongs to philosophy in the sense that the most fundamental subjects belong to philosophy: action, knowledge, being.

Since explanation is a fundamental human activity, it should come as no surprise that writers of imaginative literature explain, but I am not thinking here about explanation within literary texts. The narrator of Pride and Prejudice explains why Charlotte Lucas schemed to get Mr. Collins to propose marriage to her although she thought he was a fool and found his society irksome. Macbeth explains why he wants to kill Banquo. This is not, however, the sort of thing I am concerned with when I refer to philosophic acts in literature. I am thinking of the writer's act, and I will argue that literary texts are the acts of the individuals who wrote them.

I do not deny that it may sound a little odd to call a text an action performed by its writer, although we are comfortable calling a speech an action performed by its speaker. If my conception of texts as acts seems odd, it is owing, in large measure, to an impressive body of contemporary critical theory in which texts are seen in ways that separate them not merely from speech but also from an individual writer's action. These theories are sophisticated because they violate a presumed relationship, derived from common experience, between a text and a writer. The traditional concept of this relationship is derived from no theory of literature or texts; it is a commonplace model that belongs to everyone in our culture. We are used to seeing people do things and ordinarily take them to be agents rather than instruments. A great deal of literary theory for most of the past fifty years has encouraged us to think that this traditional conception of writers as agents is naive. Agency has come to be situated in language, in the subconscious, in the culture, and in other places remote from individual writers. I have taken the traditionally presumed relationship between writers and texts with full seriousness—not out of piety, nor because I am unfamiliar with recent critical theory but because of the traditional concept's irreplaceable power to give full scope to the original ideas of great writers. These ideas are not normally found in their texts but are rather their conceptions of what a text might be and how it might be used to address an issue, answer a question, solve a problem, in short, do something. Consider this reflection by Chinua Achebe.

I did not know I was going to be a writer because I had no notion that such beings existed until relatively late. The folk stories my mother and elder sister told us had the immemorial quality of the sky and the forests and the rivers. Later at school I got to know that the European stories we read were written by Europeans—the same fellows who made all the other marvellous things like the motor-car. We didn't come into it at all. We made nothing that wasn't primitive and heathenish.

The nationalist movement after the Second World War brought about a mental revolution which began to reconcile us to ourselves. We saw suddenly that we had a story to tell. . . .

Although I did not consciously set about it in that way my first book, Things Fall Apart was an act of atonement with my past, the homage of a prodigal son.

The concept of literature I propose, traditional and theoretically unsophisticated as it is, allows us to take such statements seriously. Alternative concepts—when they rest on sophisticated theories of agency—render these statements, if not completely meaningless, irrelevant to the interpretation or understanding of literary texts since their claims are impossible. Sophisticated theories have a way of placing artificial constraints on the sophistication of writers, making their most original ideas disappear. This is the price of their sophistication. Though the concept of literature I propose here no doubt has its own price to pay, it allows us to look at something that more sophisticated concepts of literature miss, something conventional in our lives: texts are actions performed by writers.

The idea that a novel can be an act of atonement, a moral act, is an unusual one among contemporary novelists and a sophisticated one. The act of atonement—once we recognize its existence—is an aspect of the whole text conceived of as an individual's action, not something embedded in the text as one of its parts. If we conceive of Achebe as the author—not merely the writer—of Things Fall Apart, then the act of representation, common to so many writers of imaginative literature, has a special character in this text because the whole text is an act of atonement. I want to call explanation a philosophic act in part because it too can give a distinctive character to the whole of a representation considered as an individual's action. The philosophic act of explanation as such is disinterested. In practice, however, great writers who explain are frequently also great rhetoricians engaged in acts of persuasion as well as great artists engaged in acts of representation. Texts that are the record of such complex action require analysis so that their elements can be seen clearly enough to be identified.

Such analysis, however, cannot be meaningful without reconsidering the power and scope of our commonplace concepts of agency, intention, and purpose. These concepts have been cast aside by many specialized theories of literature whose self-conscious theoretical sophistication has become a kind of mask for critical technology: a way of suppressing or eliding the plain fact of authorial agency and the specific historicity of an individual writer's project.

These specialized theories have made individual human agency and the human projects of individual writers disappear in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons, none of which I mean to examine in much detail. I merely want to draw attention to something they have in common. They have reversed the commonplace concept that individual writers write texts. For them, the concept of individual human agency is an illusion or a sign of naïveté against which they have defined their own sophistication. In the specialized theories, it is the text that writes the "author." The "author" is a secondary phenomenon that requires analysis because what commonplace concepts take as an elementary fact—what I have called the plain fact of authorial agency—sophisticated theoretical analysis takes to be a complex secondary product of language. This product is sometimes seen in a theoretically sustained historical context as little more than a meeting place of institutions and power, primary agents that produces both the author and the text.

In order to reconsider the scope and force of the commonplace concepts that so many specialized theories have discarded, I have made a sharp distinction between concepts of literature and interpretation that are grounded in specialized and self-conscious theory, and concepts of literature and interpretation that are corollaries of commonplace concepts and may therefore be considered pre-theoretical or naive. I have considered all sorts of theoretically informed approaches to literary criticism that resituate agency to impersonal or suprapersonal sites where an individual writer's plans, projects, and purposes are meaningless or irrelevant as essentially the same, not in their internal logic or in their theoretical or political motivation, but in their consequences.

All theoretically informed concepts of literature that resituate agency somewhere other than in an individual writer are particularly blind to original ideas in original writers; such theoretically sophisticated concepts will assimilate what is original to something that is much more common because these concepts of literature have incorporated at the outset a kind of conversion program that flags both "original ideas" and "original writers" as a form of, usually politically motivated and reactionary, illusion. Achebe's concept of his writing Things Fall Apart as "an act of atonement with [his] past, the homage of a prodigal son" will not survive the denial of agency to an individual writer; it will ordinarily make it impossible to consider such a claim seriously or at all.

Because I want to clear a space for specifically practical engagements with literary texts, my discussion of concepts such as intention and purpose, as they relate to the more specialized concepts of interpretation and of literature itself, may sound at times like a polemic against most of the prominent theoretical criticism of the past fifty years. Polemic always runs the risk of being unfair, and mine may seem to be particularly so not because it distorts the positions of theories that make my practice impossible—it is the most common response of any object of polemic to claim that the polemic has distorted its object's views—but because it does not engage in a systematic analysis of them at all. Now and then I may seem to have personified the whole complex of critical theory as "Derrida" without having taken the trouble to separate the distinctive elements of Jacques Derrida's considerable and idiosyncratic project from the distinctive elements of other theoretical critics, some of whom are not even named.

I define my position against critical theorists, especially those like Derrida, Paul de Man, Hillis Miller, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, who are the core thinkers of what has become practically a new orthodoxy in some of the more prominent literature departments in American graduate schools. My energies are not, however, taken up with analyses of their positions; they are, in the main, devoted to characterizing my own position. To analyze their positions as theories would force me to defend my own practice on theoretical grounds and would simply take me farther and farther away from putting that practice in the foreground as I want to do. The theories against which I define my practice, after all, declare that practice to be impossible, so they are the most inevitable of antagonists. In my view the most effective argument against them is not an analysis of their details and motives, but a comparison between the consequences the theories have for particular texts and the consequences my practice has for particular texts.

The Writer Writing, then, is neither a technical nor a theoretical argument. Even in the Aristophanic fantasy in my final chapter, I am not attempting to show that Hillis Miller's position is absurd, merely trying to demonstrate how limited its scope is even for those, like Miller himself, whose own critical practice it defines.

For readers who have kept current with the critical wars of the recent past, it will be clear that Jacques Derrida's concept of language is not mine, that Michel Foucault's concept of history is not mine, that the critical projects of Roland Barthes, Hillis Miller and Paul de Man are projects that I cannot take seriously in practice; if I did, I should have to abandon the practical engagement with individual writer's actions that defines my own concept of interpretation.

It will also be clear that my position has some broad affinities with the work of such critics as Gerald Graff, John M. Ellis, Steven Knapp, Walter Benn Michaels, and M. H. Abrams, but while I share their general conceptual framework, my project is distinct from theirs. I do not question the value of their role in the recent debates about "theory," but inasmuch as they have engaged the theorists on theoretical grounds, they have been required to offer something like full-blown theoretical defenses of their own positions. I do not say that this has been a mistake although, as a rhetorical strategy, it has not been more than a limited success. I should like to suggest that they have not engaged the theorists on the most favorable ground because the general conceptual framework they have argued for isn't at heart a theoretical one at all. It is a practical one.

I think that my differences with the theorists—and perhaps theirs as well—are not best presented as an argument that opposes one theory to another but as the juxtaposition of the consequences of one concept of theory and the consequences of one form of practical engagement with texts. My "argument" against theory, so to speak, is my detailed engagement with two highly original texts considered as practical actions, in the sense that Achebe's claim to be engaged in an act of atonement as the writer of Things Fall Apart is a practical action.

My procedure, now becoming distinctly unusual among contemporary literary scholars from the best clubs, is less unusual in other disciplines where practical acts of writers writing are still commonly engaged. Both the reasons for practical engagement with specific cases and the usual suspicions about the usefulness of such engagement are incisively discussed in an essay called "Local Knowledge: Fact and Law in Comparative Perspective" in Local Knowledge, a collection of essays by the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who also discusses the value of commonplace concepts in "Common Sense as a Cultural System" in the same collection. In his more recent Works and Lives, in which he considers four anthropologists as writers, I am pleased to note that he finds the sophisticated concepts of Foucault and Barthes to be approximately as useful as I do myself.

I have heard the work of Abrams, Graff and the others described as "neo-conservative," and, from certain vantage points, that may be an accurate description, and one that could be applied to my own project. But I would not want any reader to think that I am engaged in a battle of ancients and moderns, as if individual agency and the historicity of an individual writer's project are concepts that have only a kind of museum value—as if they were once, in a simpler age, taken to be central concepts in humanistic inquiry and today remain merely as vestigial debris in the queer mixture of old rubbish that operates as "common sense" in an illusory world that "common sense" itself generates.

In at least one area of contemporary theory, feminist theory, these concepts are as much an issue as they are for someone like Bernard Shaw precisely because so much feminist theory is an advocacy form of theory, just as Shaw's drama is an advocacy form of drama. In current feminist theory, it is as plain as it is to the so-called neo-conservatives that suprapersonal agency is unsatisfactory in any project that clearly belongs to individuals trying to affect existing conventions. The aim of such projects is, after all, action of a broadly moral, social, and political kind. What would be the point of advocacy in theory or in drama if human agency and the projects of individual writers were illusory or irrelevant? The issue of agency that I address is an issue for feminists such as Judith Butler and Denise Riley as much as it is for Abrams and Graff.

The issue is neither conservative nor avant-garde; it is not the property of a faction, a party, a cult, or a gender. Individual human agency is not, like the pikeman after the invention of the bayonet, obsolete and a matter of interest merely to erudite antiquarians or entrenched power élites. It cannot be obsolete as long as individuals attempt to do things and experience the impact of their own strategies against established convention and received ideas. It is fundamental to human self-consciousness to regard agency as an individual human attribute. We should find it impossible to retain self-consciousness if we were to regard individual human beings as no more than temporary intersections of impersonal powers embodied in institutions—as if these institutions are not themselves human inventions, other people's successful projects, subject to revision by anyone sufficiently tenacious and intelligent to revise them.

Just as I have accepted a traditional view of the relationship between writer and text, I have also assumed a particular conception of the humanities. It is neither novel nor idiosyncratic, but since it is no longer commonplace either, I think its explicit articulation is warranted.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the humanities stood for a decisive revision of prevailing views about what it means to be human. At that time the humanities were enveloped by a sense of discovery; poetry and rhetoric, painting and music seemed to be at the very center of philosophic and scientific inquiry.

In contemporary discourse—especially as represented in textbooks and required college courses—this sense of discovery has disappeared. The humanities mean certain discrete subject matters: philosophy, art history, literature, music. Since a great deal of stress is put on taxonomy and definition—Is this column Ionic, Doric or Corinthian? Is this music baroque, classical or romantic?—these subjects can seem far from the excitement of discovery, far from the center of contemporary inquiry into what it means to be human. Certain of the biological sciences and the contemporary study of language and human cognition seem to have taken over that role.

The difference between genetics or cognitive linguistics on the one hand, and the degenerate concept of the humanities that I see in textbooks on the other is the difference between an inquiry that expects to make discoveries and the placing of inert material into a schema. There is all the difference in the world between asking a question such as How do human beings acquire language? and asking a question such as Why is Caravaggio a baroque painter? or How does Macbeth fulfill the function of tragedy?

These questions are different at a fundamental level. When we are able to answer the question about the acquisition of language, we will know something more about language, to be sure, but we will also know something more about human cognition and therefore about what it means to be human. We cannot imagine that language is somehow autonomous from human beings and can be studied without taking human beings into account. That would be as if we were to attempt to study dancing while dispensing with dancers, as if laws of dance could somehow exist without reference to the possibilities of the motion of the human body.

The other questions—Why is Caravaggio a baroque painter? and How does Macbeth fulfill the function of tragedy?—each in a somewhat different way, have separated an activity from human beings. They suggest that a culture or a style is the agent of painting; that a form is the agent of a play. If we answer these questions, we manage to treat Caravaggio's paintings and Macbeth apart from their human authors, apart from human possibilities, apart from human action. We know, perhaps, something more about abstractions called "Baroque painting," and "tragedy;" we know nothing more about what it means to be human. My own approach to my materials places an insistent stress on the conception of the humanities as activities peculiar to human beings, activities that involve desire, intelligence, invention, imagination, and discovery. In short, human experience. These activities are fluid and capable of almost infinite nuance. The products of these activities are marked by human consciousness—that is, they are products of human agents aware of themselves as agents. Can anyone pretend to know the "field" when it is conceived in this way?

The interpretation of imaginative literature, so conceived, tells us something about the possibilities of literature. I do not recall any textbook suggesting that a novel might be an act of remorse, might be a way for a prodigal son to recognize the value of an African culture he once despised because he thought it was inferior to the culture of the Europeans who destroyed it. To see Things Fall Apart in this way requires us to consider it as the action of an individual writer affected in a distinctive way by a particular set of circumstances.

I will want to maintain that much of the the greatest modern literature deserves to be considered in just this way: representations meant as actions by their writers—actions that are marked by an individual perception of a situation and an individual response to it. The great writers have mastered common techniques; they may share marks of style; they may share conceptions of subject matter, but it is how they deploy these common achievements and conceptions and to what purpose that give what they have written their vital interest as human documents. The pre-eminent subject matter of the humanities, on this view, cannot be techniques, styles, conceptions of subject matter, or even artifacts regarded as autonomous things, but rather human activities. We can catalogue techniques, marks of style, conceptions of subject matter, but the purposes, convictions, and authority that belong to individual human beings and reveal our own human possibilities must always be discovered. Discovery of this kind is the product of a reader's practical engagement with particular texts seen as the actions of their writers.

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