Friday, 5 August 2016

Belsey on 'New theories arriving from Paris by the planeload' :-)

Dear II MA Students, 

This is in continuation of the discussions we had in class on Terence Hawkes and Catherine Belsey.

Well, Catherine Belsey’s Preface to the Second Edition is quite a compelling 'read of sorts'! I've reproduced below, excerpted passages from the Preface she has written to her wonderful book Critical Practice and a few 'passage-excerpts' from Chapter 1 as an appetiser :-)

Just read through these excerpts to see her awesome felicity of expression, and how she convinces her reader to partake of her vibrant thoughts on Criticism and Theory, in such an endearing way.

Now here we go…

Writing the first edition of Critical Practice was a learning experience for me. New theories were arriving from Paris by the planeload, giving rise to heated debate. They seemed to change everything we thought about culture in general, but there was only one way to find out what difference they made to the practice of reading in particular.

At that time the principal influences were Roland Barthes, whose scintillating S/Z represented my first encounter with post-Saussurean criticism, and Louis Althusser, who made clear that the educational institution was a place where cultural values were both inculcated and contested. Jacques Lacan was there, at least in the first instance, as an influence on Althusser. Michel Foucault was beginning to be there too, but not pre-eminently as a commentator on fiction or the literary institution. We did not yet know that his term, ‘discourse’, would come in English to mean everything cultural, and nothing in particular. Jacques Derrida had not at that time made much impact in the UK: I was under the impression that, in contrast to the Marxism of Althusser and Pierre Macherey, Derridean deconstruction was predominantly formalist. I could hardly have been more wrong: the logic of deconstruction has the effect of dismantling the founding assumptions of Western philosophy in its entirety.

Times have changed, and Critical Practice needs updating to take account of what we know now. Knowledge is like that: our current understanding will, no doubt, be superseded in its turn. To keep that temporal relativity in view, I have not tried to eliminate all elements of the period flavour of the first edition. But I have erased what would now mislead readers, and I have added a chapter on the critical implications of deconstruction, without seeing any reason to set it against the politics of Althusser and Macherey. Hasn’t Derrida himself acknowledged the contribution of revolutionary political analysis in Specters of Marx?
Post-Saussurean work on language has challenged the whole concept of realism; Roland Barthes has specifically proclaimed the death of the author; and Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser and Jacques Derrida have all from various positions questioned the humanist assumption that the individual mind or inner being is the source of meaning and truth. In this context, the notion of a text which tells a (or the) truth, as perceived by an individual subject (the author), whose insights are the source of the text’s single and authoritative meaning, is not only untenable, but literally unthinkable, because the problematic which supported it, the framework of assumptions and knowledges, ways of thinking, probing and analysing that it was based on, no longer stands.

But there is no practice without theory, however much that theory is suppressed, unformulated or perceived as ‘obvious’. What we do when we read, however natural it seems, presupposes a whole theoretical vocabulary, even if unspoken, which defines certain relationships between meaning and the world, meaning and people, and finally people themselves and their place in the world.

Partly as a consequence of this theory, the language used by its practitioners is usually far from transparent. The effect of this is to alert the reader to the opacity of language, and to avoid the ‘tyranny of lucidity’, the impression that what is being said must be true simply because it is clear and familiar. The modes of address of postSaussurean writers like Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, though different from each other in important ways, share this property of difficulty, and not simply from a perverse desire to be obscure. To challenge familiar assumptions and familiar values in a vocabulary which, in order to be easily readable, is compelled to reproduce these assumptions and values, is an impossibility. New concepts, new theories, necessitate new, unfamiliar and therefore initially difficult terms. For instance, I shall introduce the word ideology in a way which may be unfamiliar, associating it with common sense rather than with a set of doctrines or a coherent system of beliefs. My use of the term, derived from Althusser, assumes that ideology is not an optional extra, deliberately adopted by self-conscious individuals (‘Conservative party ideology’, for instance), but the very condition of our experience of the world, unconscious precisely in that it is unquestioned, taken for granted. Ideology, in Althusser’s use of the term, works in conjunction with political practice and economic practice to constitute the social formation, a term designed to promote a more complex and radical analysis than the familiar term, ‘society’, which often evokes either a single homogeneous mass or, alternatively, a loosely connected group of autonomous individuals, and thus offers no challenge to the assumptions of common sense. Ideology is inscribed in language in the sense that it is literally written or spoken in it. Rather than a separate element which exists independently in some free-floating realm of ‘ideas’ and is subsequently embodied in words, ideology is a way of thinking, speaking, experiencing. These usages will, I hope, become clear and familiar in the course of what follows.

In this book I shall try to make the new theories as accessible as possible, without recuperating them for common sense by transcribing them back into the language of every day. The undertaking is in a sense contradictory: to explain is inevitably to reduce the unfamiliarity and so to reduce the extent of the challenge of the post-Saussurean position. On the other hand, I hope that it may prove to be a useful enterprise if it facilitates the reading of the principal theorists themselves.

contd... [but then, these are, as i said earlier, just excerpts] ;-)


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