The matter is still further complicated by the fact that such scrutiny defines, in effect, the act of criticism itself. Even in its most naive form, that of evaluation, the critical act is concerned with confirmity to hte origin or specificy: when we say of art that it is good or bad, we are in fact judging a certain degree of conformity to an original intent called artistic. We imply that bad art is barely art at all; good art, on the contrary, comes close to our preconceived and implicit notion of what art ought to be. For that reason, the notion of crisis and that of criticsm are very closely linked, so much so that one could state that all true criticism occurs in the mode of crisis. To speak of a crisis of criticism is then, to some degree, redundant. In periods that are not periods of crisis, or in individuals bent on avoiding crisis at all costs, there can be all inds of approaches to literature: historical, philological, psychological, etc, but there can be no criticism. For such periods or individuals will never put the act of writing into question by relating it to its specific intent.... literary studies cannot possibly refuse to take cognizance of its existence. It would be as if historians refused to acknowledge the existence of wars because they interfere with the serenity that is indispensable to an orderly pursuit of their discipline.
The trend in Continental criticism, whether it derives its language from sociology, psychoanalysis, ethnology, linguistics, or even from certain from of philosophy, can be quickly summarized: it represents a methodologically motivated attack on the notion that a literary or poetic consciousness is in any way a privileged consciousness, whose use of language can pretend to escape, to some degree, from the duplicit, the confusion, the untruth that we take for granted in the everyday use of language. We know that our entire social language is an intricate system of rhetorical devices designed to escape from the direct expression of the desires that are, in the fullest sense of the term, unnameable, not because they are ethically shameful, but because unmediated expression is a philosophical impossibility. And we know that the individual who chose to ignore this fundamental convention would be slated either for crucifixion, if he were aware, or, if he were naive, destined to the total ridicule accorded such heroes as Candide and alll other foools in fiction or in life. The contemporary contribution to this age-old problem comes by way of a rephrasing of the problem that develops when a consciousness gets involved in interpreting another consciousness, the basic pattern from which there can be no escape in the social sicences (if there is to be such a thing.) Levi-Strauss, for instance, starts out from the need to protect anthropologists engaged in the so-called "primitive" society from the error made by earlier positivistic anthropologists when they projected upon this society assumptions that remained nonconsciously determined by the inhibitions and shortcomings of their own social situation.
Prior to making any valid statement about a distance society, the observing subject must be as cear as possible about his attitude towards his own. He will soon discover, however, that the only way in which he can accomplish this self-demystification is by a (comparative) study of his own social self as it engages in the observation of others, and by becoming aware of the pattern of distortions that this situation necessarily implies.
The observation and interpretation of others is always means of leading to the observation of the self: true anthropological knowledge (in the ethnological as well as in the philosophical, Kantian sense of the term) can only become worthy of being called knowledge when this alternating process of mutual interpretation between the two subjects has run its course. Numerous complications arise, because the observing subject is no more constant than the observed, and each time the observer actually succeeds in interpreting his subject he changes it, and changes it all the more as his interpretation comes closer to the truth. But every change of the observed subject requires a subsequent change in the observer, and the oscillating process seems to be endless. Worse, as the oscillation gains in intensity, and in truth, it bcomes less and less clear who is in fact doing the observing and who is being observed. Both parties tend to fuse int oa single subject as the original distance between them disappears. The gravity of htis development will once be clear if I allow myself to shift, for a brief moment, from the anthropological to the psychoanalytic or political model. In the case of a genuine analysis of the psyche, it means that it would no longer be clear who is analyzing and who is being analyized; consequently the highly embarrassing question arises, who should be paying whom....
The need to safeguard reasons from what might become a dangerous vertige, a dizziness of the mind caught in the infinite regression, prompts a return to a more rational methodology. The fallacy of a finite and single interpretation derives from the postulate of a privileged observer; this leads, in turn, to the endless oscillation of an intersubjective demystification.
As an escape from this predicament, one can propose a radical relativism that operates from the most empirically specific to the most loftily general level of human behavior. There are no longer any standpoints that can a prior be considered privileged, no structure that functions validly as a model for other structures, no postulate of ontological hiearchy that can serve as an organizing principle from which particular structures derive in the manner in which a deity can be said to engender man and the world. All structures are, in a sense, equally fallacious and are therefore called myths. But no myth ever has sufficient coherence not to flow back into neighboring myths or even has an identity strong enough to stand out by itself without an arbitrary act of interpretation that defines it. The relative unity of traditional myths always depends on the existence of a privileged point of view to which the method itself denies any status of authenticity. "Contrary to philosophical reflection, which claims to return to the source," writes Claude Levi Strauss in Le Crue et le cuit, "the reflective activities involed in the structural study of myths deal with light rays that issue from a virtual focal point..." The method aims at preventing this virtual focus from being made in a real source of light. The analogy with optics is perhaps misleading, for in literature everything hinges on the existential status of the focal point; and the problem is more complex when it involves the disappearance of the self as a constitutive subject.
These remarks have made the transition from anthropology to the field of language and, finally, of literature. In the act of anthropological intersubjective interpretation, a fundamental discrepancy always prevents the observer from coinciding fully with the consciousness he is observing
. The same discrepancy exists in the everyday language, in the impossibility of making the actual expression concide with what has to be expressed, of making the actual sign coincide with what it signifies. It is the distinctive privilege of language to be able to hide meaning behind a misleading sign, as when we hide rage or hatred behind a smile. But it is the distinctive curse of all language, as soon as any kind of interpersonal relation is involed ,that is forced to act this way. The simplest of wishes cannot express itself without hiding behind a screen of language that constitutes a world of intricate intersubjective relationships, all of them potentially inauthentic. In the everyday language of communication, there is no a priori privileged position of sign over meaning or of meaning over sign; the act of interpretation will always again have to establish this relation for the particular case at hand.
The interpretation of everyday language is a Sisyphean task, a task without end and without progress, for the other is alwyas free to make what he wants differ from what he says he wants.
The methodology of structural anthropology and that of post-Saussuriean linguistics thus share the common problem of a built-in discrepancy within the intersubjective relationship. As Levi-Strauss, in order to protect the rationality of his science, has to come to the conclusion of a myth without an author, so linguists have to conceive of a meta-language without speaker in order to remain rational.
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AT the moment that they claim to do away with literature, literature is everywhere, what they call anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis is nothing but literature reappearing, like the Hydra's head, in the very spot where it had supposedly been suppressed.
The human mind wil go through amazing feats of distortion to avoid facing "the nothingness of human matters." I norder not to see that the failures lies in the nature of things, one chooses to locate it in the individual "romantic" subject, and thus retreats behind a historical scheme which, apocalyptic as it may sound, is basically reassuring and bland.
Levi-Strauss has to give up the notion of subject to safeguard reason. The subject, he said, in fact, is a "foyer virtuel," a mere hypothesis posited by the scientists to give consistency to the behavior of entities. The metaphor in his statement that "the reflective activities of the structuralists deal with light that issues from a virtual focal point ..." stems from the elementary laws of optical refraction. The image is all the more striking since it plays on the confusion between the imaginary loci of the physicist and the fictional entities that occur in literary language...From this point on, a philosophical anthropology would be inconceivable without the consideration of literature as a primary source of knowledge.