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Faulkner's Subject: A Cosmos No One Owns.

By Philip Weinstein. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. xiv, 181 pp.

Philip Weinstein's Faulkner's Subject is a most splendid failure -- a failure in its design, but splendid in the range of questions it raises and the number of illuminating readings it offers. His study follows the lead of critics such as Gwin, Moreland, and Snead in the growing field of ideological analysis of Faulkner's fiction. Weinstein brings to bear his considerable reading in French feminism, psychoanalysis, and poststructuralism primarily on The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses. His central concern throughout is with the production of subjectivity in Faulkner's major fiction. Weinstein attempts to map the ideological terrain underlying the social scripts of identity that produce individuals who experience themselves as discrete, complete, and autonomous. The study raises questions such as "How do Faulkner's characters operate as though they were free when in fact their actions are determined by their cultural position?" and "What social/institutional pressures, for example, account for the perceptions of the Southern white woman or of the African-American male in the rural South?" Weinstein is particularly interested in moments when Faulkner's characters (and sometimes Faulkner and Faulkner critics) are forced to confront ruptures in what they take to be social orthodoxy, especially when the center that does not hold turns out to be themselves.

Additionally, Weinstein considers the ways in which Faulkner's representation of and participation in these cultural scripts of identity change between 1929 and 1942 so that the earlier "Modernist aesthetic of shock ... yields to a more traditional one of recognition" (p. 6). To pursue these ends, Weinstein models his study on Faulkner's favorite novel, The Sound and the Fury: "I propose, Faulkner-fashion, to treat these four novels as he came to the Compson materials: by approaching them as a group) four different times and with four different sets of questions" (p. 4). The different questions revolve around four types of cultural determinations that serve as his chapter titles: "Gender," "Race," "Subjectivity," and "Culture." (This configuration may well prompt the question: "But what about class?") Weinstein argues that this Sound and the Fury-inspired structure produces a positively marked dialogism rather than totalization and synthesis, but this claim is largely rhetorical and serves to cover over the fact that different portions of the study were written at different times and reveal different theoretical concerns. Significant portions of each chapter are Weinstein's contributions to four Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conferences: Faulkner and Women (1985), Faulkner and Race (1986), Faulkner and the Craft of Fiction (1987) and Faulkner and the Short Story (1990). (As conference presentations this work is acknowledged, but, oddly enough, not the previous publication of the essays by the University Press of Mississippi.) If revision is "scandalous" in Derrida's sense, as Weinstein reminds us, so too is the claim that one avoids authority by a refusal to revise, for if there is a legacy from deconstruction it is that the act of writing unavoidably involves one in the will to power.

Dialogism is Weinstein's goal, but the essays at several key junctures do not highlight their differences. The first section of "Gender," which comes to the rather unsurprising conclusion that Faulkner's representation of women often participates in Western culture's objectification of women, does not really stand up to the stronger second section, which sympathetically reads Mrs Compson through Kristeva's semiotic. In this first chapter, Weinstein appropriately works with the now familiar feminist distinction between biological sex and culturally constructed gender, yet the subtitles of the chapter's two sections, "Meditations on the Other: Faulkner's Rendering of Women" and "If I Could Say Mother': Constructing the Unsayable About Faulknerian Maternity," point to a problem. One is left in this chapter with the rather unfortunate implication that "gender" is something that only happens to women. In his chapter on culture, however, Weinstein talks about the "syndrome" in Faulkner's fiction, "the male lust for virginity," an "ordeal of self-focusing [that] is insistently punitive, as if for Faulkner the entry into male selfhood were inseparable from aggression against the body' (pp. 124-125). This later discussion makes clear that Weinstein understands that scripts of gender mark men as well. Still, more nuanced treatments of gender issues can be found in studies that more openly acknowledge Faulkner's figuration of homosexuality. For example, Frann Michel's "William Faulkner as Lesbian Author" (Faulkner Journal, 4, nos. 1-2 [1989], 5-20) reads the way Faulkner uses lesbianism as a way of figuring male homoeroticism in Mosquitoes. Both Weinstein's reluctance to address the homoerotic and his exclusive focus on the most canonical Faulkner novels suggest a residual conservatism that belies his poststructuralist theory.

My sense of Weinstein's chapter "Race" parallels my response to "Gender"; that is, his most insightful comments occur not in the chapter so titled but elsewhere. While "Race" seems overly concerned with identifying moments in Faulkner's fiction where his representations of African-Americans is or is not stereotyped, Weinstein's later conclusions in "Culture" regarding miscegenation in Go Down, Moses plumb a greater depth. "For miscegenation ... remains at once the central abuse Go Down, Moses must atone for, the crossing it can never legitimize, the desire it keeps recording" (p. 149). Faulkner emerges in this discussion as "a writer whose compassion is carefully apportioned, whose discursive world has undergone a decisive binary mapping" (p. 150). In short, despite brave attempts to think through his culture's racism, Faulkner cannot totally escape that racism.

Perhaps the best theoretical move on Weinstein's part occurs during his consideration of Faulkner's white male subject. Weinstein distances himself from Fredric Jameson's eliding of the issue of the subject and turns instead to Paul Smith's work in order to discuss Joe Christmas and Ike McCaslin. Jameson, a leading Marxist critic, has seen increasingly the invasive structures of culture colonizing our perceptual space so completely that any way out of a totalizing capitalist system becomes well nigh unthinkable. Paul Smith in his book Discerning the Subject tries to think about subjectivity in a double way -- both a subject subjected to cultural determinations and yet a subject able to be an active, critical social agent. As Weinstein succinctly summarizes later, "subjective wholeness may be a fiction but agency is not" (p. 153); in other words, people do act and their actions produce changes in the social order. Still, there is a tension throughout his study between Faulkner as a modernist writer and the postmodern theory Weinstein employs. Weinstein proclaims that |the age of literary heroism has ended' (p. 164). By this he means that today few literary critics believe that the study of a canonical author such as Faulkner should assume that the author's world view is inherently superior and that his works should be studied exclusively on their own terms for what they say. If subjectivity is always divided and produced, so too is that of the novelist. Still, a number of residual traces of that literary heroism-reinscriptions of Faulknees genius -- are sprinkled throughout Weinstein's pages. At times this heroism occurs precisely at those moments when Weinstein sees Faulkner anticipating poststructuralist positions. Thus Weinstein's Faulkner's "most experimental early work seems ... analogous to Kristeva's |semiotic': a use of language that gets behind the crisp and repressed male structures of the Symbolic, and that is seeking (in its gaps and incoherences) to make its way back to the mother" (p. 40). Or if Lacan claims "I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think," hasn't Faulkner already capped that with Quentin's "thinking I was I was not who was not was not who"? (p. 92). Nevertheless, such moments where Weinstein wishes to portray the artist in advance of the theory are easy to overlook given his understanding of what he calls the ideology of modernism, in which he sees a novel such as The Sound and the Fury fully participating. Weinstein's point is a good one: the ideology of modernism is precisely the illusion of ideology transcended, the sense one may have of touching ground with nature unmediated in reading the Benjy section of The Sound and the Fury. If anything, the oscillation between his celebration of Faulkner's modernist achievement and his tough-minded sense of the limitations of Faulkner's thinking about gender and race (in which the novelist neither simply reproduces nor magically transcends his culture's racism and sexism) suggest that Weinstein's imagination is more dialectical than dialogical.

One final concern. A liberal dose of liberal white-male guilt at times fairly oozes from the pages of Weinstein's study. I fully understand the need to make problematic both the "I" who speaks and the rhetorical "we" that is always already positioned and interested (and not neutral as the New Critics assumed); however, might there not be some other rhetorical gesture besides self-abasement for the construction of a just criticism for a less unjust future? A repeated hue and cry that says, in effect, |I'm not a bad man' starts to sound uncomfortably close to Quentin Compson's claim not to hate the South. This peccadillo aside, Faulkner's Subject is a work of considerable scholarship; the footnotes often contain the dialogue that is elsewhere missing -- everything from cogent summaries of theoretical points to mini-reviews of recent work on Faulkner. Weinstein's book is thoroughly knowledgeable about previous work on Faulkner, although in passing one might note that he need not have been indebted to a University of Virginia history professor for an explanation of "Agnes Mabel Becky" since the condoms in The Sound and the Fury already have been noted in Calvin Brown's Glossary of Faulkner's South (Yale University Press, 1976).

I began by calling Faulkner's Subject a splendid failure, and perhaps only students of Faulkner will understand that this is high praise indeed. If I have focused at times on the negative it is because I sympathize deeply with Weinstein's sense of purpose. His study will be indispensable for further ideological analyses. But it is his design that repeatedly, to me, gets in the way. The book simply is not as easy to use as it would be if it addressed each of the four Faulkner novels sequentially. But beyond ease of consumption, there is a more important reason for thinking this alternative might be better. It would allow Weinstein to show more precisely where the scripts of gender map those of race and where the production of the white Southern male subject at times converges, in odd and contradictory ways, with the former two social scripts.
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Author:Duvall, John N.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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