by Perry Meisel
Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers. The revolution in criticism is over. Departments of literature are no longer in disarray. In the late 1970's and early 80's, of course, there was a lot of blood on the tracks, the price an earlier generation had to pay for today's intellectual abundance and sometimes perplexing freedoms. The old boys, particularly the biographers, took very badly to anything with a French name or an ''-ology'' attached to it. You had to watch your flank. But by the mid-80's, you could say ''Jacques Derrida'' or ''Harold Bloom'' at dinner and your colleagues didn't get heartburn; they got hip. They hired the onetime offenders.
In fact, literary study in America has never been in better shape. Enriched by a variety of European methodologies since the early 70's, it has grown into a vast, synthetic enterprise characterized by powerful continuities rather than by disjunctions. Feminism, deconstruction, ''reader-response,'' ''New Historicism,'' ''postcolonialism'' – all share similar ends and similar ways of getting there in a momentous collaboration.
The story begins in Paris, with the publication of Roland Barthes's essay ''The Death of the Author'' in 1968. A witty, Wildean performer, Barthes wasn't really dumb enough to believe that there weren't people writing the books that carried their names (Woolf, Shakespeare, Kathy Acker). He meant that writers labor unconsciously, and that larger forces shape them and their work. Michel Foucault's 1969 essay ''What Is an Author?'' took Barthes's structuralist argument a step farther by showing how whole periods of history are given their imaginative space through certain key texts that define those periods and their assumptions.
But the French influence shouldn't be overestimated. American criticism has its own history. It's an open secret within the ranks that even before structuralism, deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis had become the fashion, three books of enormous influence, all of them written in the 70's, had already paved the way: Stanley Fish's Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) and Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence (1973). The terrain they map out is actually a common one, despite what you may hear around the Fiji cooler or at Starbucks.
Fish's book, a collection of essays in the reader-response mode, does what Barthes's essay does, although in a more systematic way. Fish's famous question is a dramatic instance of the American realization that there are obstacles to ''objective'' vision in the act of reading itself. The reader reads, or misreads, with his or her standards and assumptions, usually without even knowing it. Nor does the reader go it alone. He or she is always a member of what Fish calls an ''interpretive community,'' which governs one's very place in the world.
The implications of Fish's method are ontological as well as political. What inhibits the self also enables it. The paradox is a deconstructive one. Fish's description of the reader of Paradise Lost in his 1967 book, Surprised by Sin, is a good example. Eve's ''wanton . . . tresses'' and ''coy submission'' are wholly inappropriate in the Garden of Eden. Nobody could have been ''coy'' or ''wanton'' then. And yet the irony is just the point: Like the poet, but unlike Adam and Eve, the reader is impure, postlapsarian. Neither he nor Milton has any other way of imagining the situation.
If Fish empowered the reader, Edward Said empowered ''the other'' – the marginalized, the oppressed – with Orientalism, the father text, if I may be a little ironic, of postcolonialism. The reach of Orientalism has been vast, and it has, well, colonized and consolidated a whole new field of study. The interests of postcolonial studies are nonetheless familiar, especially its view of the self. Adding psychoanalysis to Said's perspective, the critic Homi Bhabha has shown that, like Fish's reader, the ''colonial subject,'' or self, is ''constructed'' – in this case, through a series of psychological ''identifications'' supplied by the slick hand of political oppression, whose ideology is often more effective than its rifle butts. The politically oppressed are a traumatic version of an interpretive community, a captive audience, so to speak.
Feminism and African-American criticism took the same lead even earlier. Both study oppression where it really lives – in the secret languages of the heart. Long before ''theory,'' W. E. B. Du Bois's notion of African-American ''double-consciousness'' – this sense,'' as he described it in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), ''of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others'' – had required critics like Robert Stepto and Houston Baker Jr. to formulate a model of the self as split at its very origin.
Like colonial identity, gender is also governed by a split introduced into the child's very being, this time as a consequence of its inevitable ambivalence toward its parents, who both nourish the child and frustrate and disappoint it. As Juliet Mitchell was among the first to point out for English readers in Psychoanalysis and Feminism in 1974, the family isn't just a private affair, but a microcosm of the larger social forces that divide the self in the act of creating it.
We already have a name for this notion of the self in the brooding Anglophone poetic tradition, a tradition that is also political, even to the point of beheading a king more than a century before the French. This name is Romanticism, and its principal critical exponent since T. S. Eliot tried to obscure its real nature has been Harold Bloom. Bloom renames Romanticism ''the anxiety of influence'' and locates its beginnings with Milton, secretary to Cromwell as well as the visionary seer of Paradise Lost. Dr. Johnson later feared Milton because, as Johnson put it, he was a church of one. But the Romantic ''one'' is really a split self, too – a self that is divided, like Milton's Satan, at its origin, part the spitting image of a prior authority, part the self-creating desperado seeking freedom from its determinations. Like ''the death of the author'' or ''is there a text in this class?,'' ''the anxiety of influence'' is a trope for how the presumable originality or uniqueness of a given author is really the byproduct of the repression of prior authors – their ''misreading'' – who both serve and compromise the later writer in a murderous intrigue. Like Milton's Satan, we are all colonial subjects seeking to overcome the anxiety of influence of the interpretive communities that enable us.
If a synthetic academic criticism has so many tools at its disposal, why isn't everybody happy? In part, rivalries are simply inevitable, and some critics persist in denying the obvious continuities. Foucault's immediate American child, the New Historicism, lost some of its respectability in 1997 when Stephen Greenblatt, one of its inventors, refused to engage Suzanne Gearhart's challenge to talk about Foucault's complex and repressed relation to Freud. There is some irony in this, since New Historicists are supposed to be groovy and politically correct.
The desire to stake out new territory is particularly obvious in Anne McClintock's Imperial Leather (1995), as synthetic a work of scholarship as you will find, and yet one that aspires to an originality that's impossible now that the battle it fights has already been won. McClintock's conclusions are unassailable, and therefore no longer avant-garde. She combines Lacanian feminism with postcolonialism and Foucauldian close reading to show how, in the metaphors of Victorian novels as well as those of Victorian science, imperialism ''sexualized,'' as she puts it, the objects of its conquests, both human and geographical. That's what made dominion so attractive.
Ironically, a generation of critics who believe that the artist is neither independent nor solemn is having a hard time applying the same wisdom to itself. Many critics make routine conceptualizations difficult because they wish to purvey a culture of the expert rather than celebrate a climate of common sense and clarity. You could even say that the only problem with postrevolutionary critics is that they don't know a good thing when they see it.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, May 28, 2000