In the past fifty years or so, the language of literary criticism has become increasingly and unnecessarily complex. I have read that it needs to be so because the ideas that it discusses are so novel and complicated that they require a new and highly specialised language. Yet complicated ideas are not new, and the extremes literary critics have gone to convolute even simple ideas seem well beside the point. In the introduction to The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, the editors describe three methods of reading. I present the example below first, though it is the last in the introduction, because it is the simplest:

And Paul de Man instead pictures reading as a mode of exegisis wherein the reader’s rewriting or restaging of the text replaces the original with interpretative allegory: reading for him unavoidably becomes “misreading”.

Though from this sentence we get a clear picture of de Man’s theory, that each reader constructs his own version of the text as he reads it, we are also confronted with some startling, even bizarre, word choices. Why are we given “as a mode of exegesis”, for example? Very simply, “exegesis” means “exposition”, or “description or explanation”. “A mode of exegesis” would, therefore, essentially mean “an interpretation”. Why isn’t the simpler form used? Because if you inserted it into the sentence, it wouldn’t make sense. There’s no need to introduce the idea of exegesis, because we are already talking about critical reading, which is the same thing. “A mode”, in this sentence, is purely superfluous, as whatever follows “Paul de Man instead pictures reading” is necessarily going to be one man’s idea of reading. “Wherein the reader’s” is also superfluous, made necessary only by the addition of “a mode of exegesis”. Eliminating those two phrases, we get:

And Paul de Man instead pictures reading as a rewriting or restaging of the text, replacing the original with interpretative allegory: reading for him unavoidably becomes “misreading”.

Not only is the necessary idea communicated, it is communicated in a way that is more direct and less likely to confuse or mislead the reader, whoever that reader may be.


The other two descriptions of reading seem to me only useful as entries in a bibliography. They transmit little useful information other than the names of two critics who may have written important works on reading.

Friedrich Schleiermacher draws a detailed account of interpretation both as historically informed grammatical explication and as psychological identification with the author. His view contrasts with the perspective of Fredric Jameson, who advocates ideology critique of social contradictions, class antagonisms, and historical stages of social development manifested in texts.

I understand that the above contains a lot of nonsense. Don’t worry. We will go slowly. The first major miscommunication seems to be the idea of “grammatical explication”. What on earth could that be? The word “explication” is not in my dictionary, which may be too plainspoken for this enterprise. The word seems to come from “explore” or “explain”, and a quick search on Google seems to confirm this. So we have grammatical explanation, or the explanation of grammar. We are not told how grammar is explained or interpreted: only that it is considered. Perhaps Schliermacher counts the proportion of semi-colons used to commas and uses this magical number to reveal something important about the author, or maybe he connects periods with his pen and constructs elaborate labyrinths on each page. I’m sure that I am wrong, but there is no way of knowing because no useful information is given. We could investigate how Schleiermacher’s “grammatical explication” is particularly “historically informed”, but it’s pointless to discuss the historical legacy of nothing.


“Psychological identification” also seems to me curious. Does Schleiermacher see himself in every author, or does he, almost like a kidnapped victim developing Stockholm syndrome, come to intimately understand, and maybe even love, each author as he reads their book? There’s no real way of telling. Or, what is more likely, maybe Schleiermacher uses texts to identify the psychological traits of their authors. That might be so–but how does he do this, and what are his motives? Without this crucial information we are left with a phrase that is so ephemeral that it means nothing unless one has actually read Schleiermacher; it is the very definition of vacuousness. Cutting the text down accordingly, Fredrich Schleiermacher’s sentence-and-a-half now looks like this:

Freidrich Schleiermacher’s view contrasts with

It’s possible you see where this is going.

Fredric Jameson “advocates ideology critique of social contradictions, class antagonisms, and historical stages of social development manifested in texts.” Let’s start with “social contradictions”. What could those be? I have no idea. A search on google suggests that a social contradiction is “two forces pulling in opposite directions”. So, to make this example sensible, let’s say “creationism” and “darwinism” are an example of a social contradiction, because they are two forces pulling in opposite directions. How is saying that they are a social contradiction more useful than simply saying they are opposed to one another? What is gained by saying that they are a “social contradiction”? Is the idea of “social contradiction” just a way of saying that two competing ideas exist in society? Why do we need a specialised shorthand for that?

The selection from the Norton Anthology seems to suggest that you can critique the ideology of social contradictions “manifested in texts”, and that this is something Jameson believes we do–or should do–as we read. I don’t see how such a critique is possible, or what it would entail. Is it the critique of the author’s use of opposing forces? Or is it the critique of opposing forces casually invoked by the author…? Or, only because the previous two examples don’t really make sense, is it neither? The same goes for “class antagonisms” and “historical stages of social development”. There doesn’t seem to me anything inherently ideological about those ideas, although social development and issues of class are important when discussing ideology. But in the particular, they don’t really mean anything more than “social contradiction” does, and to investigate them further seems to me needless. I’m sure they mean something–but, like in the case with Schleiermacher–they are unintelligible unless you have read Jameson. As we’re quoting from an introduction to literary criticism, and not from an afterward to a book comparing Schleiermacher and Jameson’s approaches to reading, we will cut accordingly. Jameson’s sentence becomes:

Fredric Jameson’s.

Putting everything we’ve done together, we get:

Freidrich Schleiermacher’s view contrasts with Fredric Jameson’s. And Paul de Man pictures reading as a rewriting or restaging of the text, replacing the original with interpretative allegory: reading for him unavoidably becomes “misreading”.

One intelligible idea, two erratic and undefined allusions. I wish I could say that the passage I have quoted from the introduction to the anthology was spectacular: it wasn’t. I chose it at random and believe it to be indicative of the whole.



  1. There is little denying the intellectual pretensions of scholarship. They show themselves in all kinds of texts, theory, math, biology, everywhere at the university, cocktail parties, etc.

    What should be focused on is specifically whether something definite and useful is lost in the process of ‘clarification’ to which you allude and seem to place all of your cards. Is the apparent pretentiousness or complexity of the text ever justified? As you can see, theory believes it is– it isn’t interested in the enterprise of ‘clarification’ or ‘simplification’, because such ideas move against its originary spirit of critique, contradiction, the subject/object problem, etc. If there are schools of literary analysis that give primacy to simplicity and reduction, you sure as hell won’t find them in this book. You’ll only find arguments that claim literature isn’t math, and that you can’t chisle a sentence down to tautology.

    In the same way, I reject your dubious, almost comical characterization of ‘social contradiction’ as ‘two competing ideas that exist in society’. For a method so scrupulously inclined to reduce, I’m baffled at the broad categories you use to make your case. Smaller articles serve the purpose better. The pronoun “I”, for instance, refers to its speaker, and thus distinguishes itself as the token mode of subjectivity in the English language. But “I” also refers to itself as a word, objectively. In this sense it isn’t clear whether “I” is ever really referring to subject or object. Yet in society this problem is easily cleared up since we all agree “I” refers (exclusively?) to the subject.

    This is a long winded way of reminding that contradiction always implies not only structural discord, but ideology and oppression. Reduction/simplicity/clarity/identity = oppression when it appears to dissolve its dialectical, oppositional base. The same goes for the realm of politics, etc. Contradiction is the reality of non-identity perceived under the mask of identity, to the end game of indeterminacy.

  2. “As you can see, theory believes it is– it isn’t interested in the enterprise of ‘clarification’ or ’simplification’, because such ideas move against its originary spirit of critique, contradiction, the subject/object problem, etc.”

    I’m not interested in a broad theory of clarification; what I’m interested in is halting the practice of making texts needlessly complex. I know that there are many ways you could write any sentence, and that all have distinct successes and drawbacks. What I hoped to try and illustrate here–and what I may not have–is that the academic shorthand often used by these critics is unintelligible and actually detrimental to their purposes: which is, one would suppose, introducing students to different ideas in critical theory.

    My favourite writer is Borges, someone who makes frequent arcane allusions and who celebrates the vague and the abstract. And yet I can understand him perfectly, even when he is describing something difficult. Shouldn’t that be the goal of critical discussion? To discuss difficult concepts as easily as possible? The only benefit that seems, to me, to come from using such a vague language is that the enemies of your theories will only be able to attack formless ghosts.

    I agree that what I’ve written about social contradiction is a joke, but if it is a joke that’s because I couldn’t find a satisfactory explanation of its meaning. Your example seems dubious. I agree that “I” refers to the speaker and to itself, as a word object. But most words can be approached in this way. That concept could be interesting to explore, but how is it called “social contradiction”? I don’t see anything inherently societal, or even contradictory, in that concept, except that you did briefly invoke society. The “I” may have a double meaning, but it’s not a contradiction. “I” the word and “I” the subject are not opposed to each other.

    Furthermore, what “ideology’ is present in the idea of “social contradiction” that we might readily see, from that brief sentence, that we would need to critique? If my exploration of the text seems cursory, that’s because the information I was given was cursory! You seem to know what they are talking about, and yet what you are writing doesn’t seem to be a very apt defense, because you say nothing specific, and I feel like the only reason you understand is because you’ve been taught to operate within the confines this very vague and specialised language. I don’t necessarily want to do that to myself.

  3. I understand you don’t want criticism to be math, but it seems to me that your way it is math, but a broken math. I can identify no real idea in that last paragraph of yours. Words are thrown around like numbers in an equation, except that the words used aren’t even numbers because they have no values, there are no rules as to their use and they are used interchangeably.

  4. If it’s not clear how the reduction of “I” to a subjective pronoun is a social designation that necessarily contradicts the true wholeness of “I” as a concept and unit of speech, I fear we’re never going to see eye to I on these points.

    If the sentence

    I ate a book

    fails to show how “I” the word and “I” the subject are dramatically opposed to each other, how both generate drastically different scenarios and meanings, and yet how both still function, then I’m at a real loss in demonstrating structural contradiction. But if you’ll grant that this sentence is more complicated than led on, I can’t fathom how you could ever declare that reading Borges you understand him ‘perfectly’. This not so subtle admission of mastery and conquest is complicit with exactly the kind of oppression I’m talking about.

    Put another way, when you make the nice point that the objective of criticism should be to discuss difficult concepts as easily as possible, you fail to distinguish your notion of simplicity from an absolute notion, and instead classify them as one and the same. So again you promote a logic that proposes a regime by which we can all judge these concepts. Who created this idea of simplicity to which you subscribe and identify? Why are you so at ease with it? In what ways is it forcibly limiting this discussion?

    Of course, it is always easy to reverse some of these points back onto me. But then, I would never deny as much, and such a rebuke does little to mute what I’m saying. In fact, I believe it rather confirms it.

  5. I’m sorry that my definition of simplicity is lacking. It is, and I’m not necessarily sure I could describe it adequately in these blog comments. I think it’s somewhere between Strunk/White and George Orwell’s essay “politics and the english language”. I will try my hardest, anyway.

    What I’ve written above, and in here, will be expanded at some point in the future, and I hope to have a much more comprehensive explanation for you then. That being said, saying that I want concepts to be discussed “simply”, or “as easily as possible”, without providing a theory as explanation doesn’t invalidate my argument. This isn’t math. Sentences do not always have to rest on proofs or justifications. You know what “simply” means, and by correlating that definition with the reduction of the texts above, I think you can come to an approximation of what I mean.

    Yes, I understand “I ate a book” has multiple meanings. I didn’t think that was in question. But most sentences have multiple meanings, or shades of meanings. You can interpret any statement in a variety of ways and according to a large and growing criteria. Of course! “My” Borges may not be the same as “your” Borges. Are you suggesting that a new language, redundant and filled with specialised jargon is more capable of handling a discussion of these multiple meanings? Or that a highly specialised language is necessarily more resistant to misinterpretation? I don’t believe either is true, and in the latter case in may even be the opposite, as we’ve seen from my comical butchering of the text from the anthology. So why do we need to use a language that is so convoluted? Do you have a satisfactory explanation?

    Last night, when I wrote this post, I tried multiple times to add an addendum, which for whatever reason did not want to save. That addendum went something like this:

    “An introduction that is only useful if you have already read the topics it is introducing you to, and that deliberately seems to confuse meaning with specialised, redundant language doesn’t seem to me to be very useful at all.”

    It was something like that, anyway. The original was more punchy. Essentially I want criticism to do what good criticism does: explore the text and relationships to the text in as clear a way as possible. I believe that in presenting ideas clearly (and what I mean by clearly is “not deliberately obtuse”) there is less room for error and more information is exchanged. Something that surprised me in my two years away from U of T is that I actually ended up reading a large amount of criticism, that it’s become one of my favourite subjects, in fact. I think the reason for this is because I have focused less on the haughty texts of postmodernism, and more on the explorations of critics from years past or who are presenting their ideas to a larger audience (such as in Harper’s). There is something incredibly vital, enriching, and inspiring about reading these works, something that is lost when the english language, well-equipped to handle almost any topic, is replaced with a new language that resembles it but is awkward and made up of concrete blocks.

    I believe this quote from Noam Chomsky on postmodernism is pertinent:

    “There are lots of things I don’t understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest — write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of “theory” that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won’t spell it out.”

  6. More about the Borges comment, and the “I”–

    Though we might read different Borges’s, because he uses clear language there is a framework there for intelligent discussion and disagreement. It seems almost like you would prefer language to be so fluid that a statement like “I ate the book” means, at all times, everything in the world–so that language becomes an unnecessary tapestry (the more convoluted, the more beautiful?) which is no longer in the business of transmitting ideas or images… and only in the business of creating meaningless interpretations?

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