Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Jacques Rancière, _Mute Speech: literature, critical theory, politics_

MY THIRD GO of the summer at getting a bit more current in critical theory, and the best yet.  This is an absolutely stunning, staggering book, the smartest book I've read on literature in...I don't know, a long time.  It examines the break between (neo-)classical literature and romanticism (a parting of the ways that has already gotten some definitive treatments; old schooler that I am, I'm fond of Octavio Paz's Children of the Mire, Lionel Trilling's Sincerity and Authenticity,  and M. H. Abrams's The Mirror and the Lamp), then analyzes how romanticism's aspirations played out dialectically in 19th century French literature.

I suspect that one reason I began reading less critical theory is that such a great deal of it comes from philosophy, or the social sciences, or some marshy terrain in between, like psychoanalysis, and I never feel like I'm playing on my home field, so to speak. The crit-theo folks that meant the most to me--Benjamin, Barthes, Sedgwick, Jameson--started from literature, so I tuned in on their wavelength much more delightedly. Foucault, Adorno, Irigaray...bit more effortful, for me, though certainly worthwhile.

(Speaking of Jameson, what Rancière does here with Le Curé de Village is the most stimulating reading of a fair-to-middling work by Balzac since Jameson had at La Vieille Fille in The Political Unconscious.)

Rancière's primary academic field is philosophy, apparently, but the book proceeds from the German Romantics to Balzac, Flaubert, Mallarmé, and Proust, with brief discussion of Hugo, Artaud, Valéry... after Zizek and Agamben, this was like coming home.

Which makes me wonder what kind of audience there is for this book among American crit-theory types. In my experience, they tend to get most excited about gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity--anything but literature, almost--and would prefer reading an analysis of women's gymnastics, or Iranian cinema, or Victorian legislation against prostitution, or Oprah's final season, or just about anything to reading one of Á la recherche de temps perdus.

So, looking at our cover from Columbia University Press: a young woman's face dominates, cropped right at the philtrum, so what draws the eye is her wide, plump, lusciously-lipsticked lips. Placed as a bar across those lips is the book's subtitle: "Literature, Critical Theory, Politics." Turns out, though, that the book's subtitle in French (it was published in 1998) was "An Essay on the Contradictions of Literature."  Not too sexy, huh? Not as sexy as "literature, critical theory, and politics," to be sure, to say nothing of a pair of yummy lips.

The introduction, by Gabriel Rockhill, begins by describing the big cannonball splash made by Foucault's Les mot et les choses in 1966, and goes on to say La parole muette probably ought to have made such a splash, even though it did not, since it "offers one of the most acute critical reworkings of Foucault's historiographical methodology[...]." Sigh. I guess that's how you sell a brilliant reimagining of western literary history in the USA nowadays (the English translation was published last year): politics, lips, and Foucault.

This has gone on rather too long already. I'll have to get to the book's argument next time.

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