Printer Friendly

Michael Riffaterre and the unfinished project of structuralism.

Habermas read the first version of his essay "Modernity--an Unfinished Project in September 1980. This was his official discourse of thanks when receiving the Adorno Prize in Frankfurt. Ironically, Derrida received the same prize recently, in fact twenty-one years later, to be precise in September 2001, a distinction that seems however to clash with Habermas's sense of priorities. I say "ironically", because the impetus behind Habermas's first piece was a critique of the "then" irresistible success of French "neo-Structuralism." Twenty one years should be the right time to come of age, especially when the movement at issue is called "neo-Structuralism," a term that German critics tend to prefer to the Anglo-Saxon coining of "post-Structuralism," in short a dangerous movement in which, for Habermas, Derrida figures among the main suspects.

My general thesis is that we can apply Habermas's phrase not to the whole project of rationality deriving from the Enlightenment and its aborted or distorted project of rationalization in progress, but to what appears now, in retrospect, as France's main philosophical movement in the last century with the possible exception of Existentialism, although I would be ready to argue that Existentialism has been more "a fashion, a morality, a passion"--to quote Baudelaire on the transient half needed to make modernity modern--than a proper philosophy; I mean structuralism.

In order to make my claim, I need Riffaterre's work in all its depth, variety and cogency; indeed, from Essais de Stylistique structurale (1973) to Fictional Truth (1990) via La Production du texte (1979) one can describe Riffaterre as one of the most steadfast advocates of a style of thinking that has been too often reduced to bureaucratic scientism underpinned by a misguided fascination with linguistics. It is my contention that this broad mode of approaching texts and society has not died out in the seventies. I will try to show that Structuralism should be reappraised and presented in a more global context uniting various discourses, from anthropology to semiotics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, linguistics, history, that all come under the heading of the "human sciences"--in fact, the whole spectrum of what Giambattista Vico had in mind when he spoke of a "New Science" defined as the science of man's arts in contradistinction with Cartesian truths and certainties. I will also suggest that the evolution of Riffaterre's positions proves that he has remained faithful to this "unfinished project" of an expanded and revised structuralism that knew how to dialectize structures, codes and systems dynamically by taking into account a history of mentalities and the whole array of phenomenological interactions with the reader, finally by acknowledging the fundamental role played by the Unconscious.

The "Soldiers of Baltimore," or how Structuralism arrived to the U.S.

1966 marked a high tide in the dissemination of Structuralism in France with the publication of two books that surprisingly turned out to be best-sellers, Lacan's Ecrits and Foucault's The Order of Things, following hard after the success of Althusser's For Marx a year earlier. I will focus on the conference of the same year, when French theory was launched in America under the name of Structuralism, in order to highlight Riffaterre's role as a mediator between two traditions, and describe a unique moment of condensation and translation.

The Baltimore meeting of October 1966 in which Barthes, Lacan, Derrida, Goldmann, Vernant and Todorov were active participants, was organized from the French side by Jean Hyppolite. The two successive volumes published from these proceedings commemorate this debt by dedicating the contents to Hyppolite as "scholar, teacher and friend of scholars." (1) In his presentation, Hyppolite sketches the problematic he had developed in Logic and Existence, showing how Hegel's legacy was double, on the one hand an analysis of ordinary language starting from a phenomenology of perception, and on the other hand an investigation of the structure and architecture of all languages with the Logic. (2) One can see why Hyppolite is the linchpin or the cornerstone of the whole gathering: not only does he mediate between Derrida and Lacan because of personal ties, but he talks to the issues discussed by American presenters like Richard Macksey who in his opening address quotes at length Wittgenstein and Pierce, and relates to the main concern coming from the structuralist camp, namely the need to round an architecture of discourses on some stable epistemological basis. Finally, he opens philosophical discourse to literary criticism when he compares the Phenomenology of Spirit with Dante's Divine Comedy, Cervantes's Don Quixote or Balzac's Human Comedy. (3)

What was at stake was the possibility of unifying methods in a single field of discourse encompassing all social signifying practices. Peter Caws was one of the participants who had the courage to note, in one of the conference's discussions, that he was disappointed to hear so many "metaphysical" presentations instead of the "methodological" clarifications he was expecting: (4) he referred there to a return of the old debate as to whether language created man or man created language. His worry now appears as one of the pervasive symptoms of these times, the wish to bracket off foundational speculation and reach to hardcore methods, whether they apply to myth, literature, language or society. My main thesis is that the "unfinished discourse" of Structuralism bears the same relation to Hegel as the "unfinished discourse" of modernity bears to Kant. Thus in many cases, it is fascinating to see how the repression of Hegelian concepts in structuralist developments was to return as a Freudian repressed, and this very return marks for instance the influential discussion of Paul de Man with Riffaterre. De Man who praises the "technicality" of Riffaterre's precise semiological language nevertheless takes him to task for a simplification of Hegelian concepts. (5)

Before describing briefly the 1966 conference itself, it may be useful to note the surprising chiasmic reversal between the first and the second title: the decision to use the subtitle as a title not only demotes the philosophical problematic consisting in the articulation between two plurals--"the Languages of Criticism" and the "Sciences of Man"--but promotes a more political or sociological debate, the singular of a "Structuralist Controversy." The new preface written in 1971 spells out what was palpable in 1966, although not clearly perceived by the American public, the lack of a firm agreement between most French theoreticians about the most fundamental issues. In 1971, it was urgent to recall that Structuralism had been questioned or abandoned by some of its practitioners. The new Preface thus quotes Deleuze who takes Foucault as example to point out to some commonalities of thought that would nevertheless bypass superficial divergences or swift mood swings: "A cold and concerted destruction of the subject, a lively distaste for notions of origins, lost origins, recovered origins, a dismantling of unifying pseudo-syntheses of consciousness, a denunciation of all the mystifications of history performed in the name of the progress of consciousness and the unfolding of reason ..." (6) Foucault had been notoriously absent from the 1966 conference, although quoted here and there, since his genealogical project could still appear as structuralist in The Order of Things, at least in the concluding remarks presenting the "human sciences" as obsessed with the notion of structure and structuration--if only with the aim of showing how "man" was less a subject than a vanishing object in these "sciences."

In 1971, however, it was impossible to miss the structures publicized by The Archaeology of Knowledge two years earlier; there Foucault acknowledged that he had unduly stressed discursive synchronicity at the expense of human agency, reducing the "structuralist controversy" to the level of mediatic hype in his unique style: "So I did not want to carry the structuralist enterprise beyond its legitimate limits. And you must admit that I never once used the word "structure" in The Order of Things. But let us leave our polemics about "structuralism"; they hardly survive in areas now deserted by serious workers; this particular controversy, which might have been so fruitful, is now acted out only by mimes and tumblers." (7) The 1971 Preface of the conference proceedings explains the onset of a general dissatisfaction with a model heretofore considered universal, the epistemological paradigm provided by structural linguistics. Two factors not necessarily linked, the "declining methodological importance of linguistics" and "the paradoxical displacement of the role which Hegel had previously occupied" (8) are adduced by Macksey and Donato to account for the transformation. Hyppolite's untimely demise seemed to sound the death knell of all Hegelian syntheses, almost immediately replaced by a Nietzscheism quite visible in Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze.

In fact, even if one finds indeed a knee-jerk anti-Hegelianism in Foucault and Deleuze, the impact of Derrida's meditation on language and death hot only takes up the legacy of Blanchot but rewrites the Hegelian hesitation between consciousness and logics pointed out by Hyppolite in different terms while choosing as fertile ground for endless meditations Heidegger's proto-structuralism evinced at least by Sein und Zeit in the hermeneutics of rime and intentionality, both of which are pointedly defined as "structures." Moreover, if one examines the proceedings of the 1966 Baltimore conference as objectively as possible, one can see that the most revealing tensions and faultlines do not follow the broad ideological division already mentioned between "methodological" (i.e. taking linguistics as the first and only science) and "metaphysical" (or post-Hegelian) discourses. In fact, the science brought to the fore from the start was mathematics much more than linguistics or a generalized semiology seen as global theory of signs. This was due to the impact of the historian Charles Moraze's presentation which focused on the "differences between mathematical and literary invention." (9) In a brilliant anticipation of the Sokal debate of the nineties, Lacan was quick to take his cue: Moraze's introduction of "the root of minus one" (10) described as a completely irrational symbol nevertheless provided an adequate solution to specific problems. Returning to the need for arbitrary symbols invented in moments of crisis or of passionate decision, Lacan poses the question of the distinction between the subject and the living individual: "What is the order of passions around which this event will or will not occur, whatever it may be, this algorithm, invention of a new sign or of a new algorithm or a different organization of some logical systems?" (11) What Lacan and most theoreticians invited to the conference insist upon is less the universality of semiotics understood as the science of all signs than the logical construction of signifying systems in which we are caught as agents, a system out of which the function and meaning of subjectivity can be calculated in an original fashion.

The calculable or incalculable nature of the subject in his or her relation to texts ands social systems of signs remains therefore the crucial divide in the Blatimore discussions. Lacan for instance quotes at one point Derrida's query to him the previous day. Derrida asked: "Why do you call this the subject, this unconscious? What does the subject have to do with it?" (12) Then in a quirky and freewheeling improvisation, Lacan proceeds to narrate an anecdote so as to illustrate his view of subjective agency. To finish writing his presentation, he needed his table moved to another part of his hotel room and asked the bellman to do it; to which the bellman indignantly replied that this was a job for the housekeeper. When housekeepers came and performed the task, they paid no heed to Lacan, being only mindful of their hierarchical superiors. This showed to him that he would have been deluded to believe that in this set of actions, he was involved as a subject who presents a simple request and is obeyed. The experience showed on the contrary that a number of communication misfires and infelicities were necessary, forcing Lacan to immerse himself into the hotel's regulations, hierarchies and power grid, getting bogged down in a Kafkaian universe including the Law and its institutions reaching back to the big Other. Facing the complex deployment of such a structure, Lacan felt entitled to dispel any illusion of a subject's direct agency on things and the real world and show on the contrary how the subject was a function of the lack implied by a disorder no sooner created than negated. What remained of subjectivity would just be his superfluous impatience in the whole affair. (13)

Lacan's presentation parades its impenetrability from the very labyrinthine title: "Of Structure as an Inmixing of Otherness Prerequisite to Any Subject Whatever." Lacan admits that, having worked for fifteen years on these problems, he cannot convey all his findings at once. (14) He prefers providing forceful images that all allegorize his immediate surroundings. For instance, the view from his hotel at dawn, with blinking neon-signs and heavy traffic, serves as a useful reminder that we live in a man-made chaos controlled by proliferating signs in which subjectivity finds itself at a loss: "The best image to sum up the unconscious is Baltimore in the early morning." (15) Besides numerous allusions to Frege and Russell's logical theories, many central tenets of Lacan's doctrine are reiterated and glossed: he explains that his tag of an unconscious "structured as a language" boils down to a tautology since "structured" and "as a language" are fundamentally synonymous. (16) More cryptically, Lacan adds that all a signifier can do is represent a subject not for another subject but for another signifier. (17) This I take as a structuralist motto that also underpins Riffaterre's critique of the referential illusion, a point to which I will return. "A signifier represents a subject for another signifier" thus means that language mediates obliquely between non-transparent subjects and should never bother about one to one correspondences with objects in the real world.

Despite a recurrent use of the term "signifier," when Rosolato expands Lacan's concepts in a following presentation, he insists upon the linguistic theory not of Saussure but of Benveniste. This allows him to move from Jakobsonian "shifters" to an opposition between "the subject of the enunciation" and the "subject of the enounced." Like Rosolato and Tzvetan Todorov who negotiated skillful transitions from Bakthin to Benveniste and the Russian Formalists, Roland Barthes also quotes Benveniste rather liberally. All three agree that a crucial task for linguistics is to describe the formal apparatus of enunciation, that is the set of coded devices allowing a person to say "I" or write "I." These terms had been already introduced in Lacan's Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis in 1964. There is thus a general agreement between Lacan, Rosolato and Barthes to restrict subjectivity to the simple function of being able to say "I." The linguistic theory to which they all refer hinges around the question of enunciation, that is the systemic determinations by which persons, tenses and voices are expressed in language. The speaking subject will be made and unmade in this linguistic hole through he or she emerges the time of a statement before fading away. This development was largely ignored by most Anglo-Saxon commentators who still tend today to rehash Saussure's basic definitions and oppositions (often limited to three, synchrony/diachrony, langue/parole and signifier/signified) as if these alone provided a universal key for the understanding of Lacan, Derrida and Barthes in the late sixties. The image of structuralism that was presented in 1966 to the American public was clearly more complex, sophisticated and diverse in its epistemologies and strategies than what has often been said, and its linguistics was not reduced to linguisterie as Lacan coined it, but implied an awareness of enunciation, subjectivity and different modes of scientificity. It explains how reactions to the subjective "idealism" of the theory of enunciation would lead De Man and Derrida to a more radical equation of language with writing and death.

I needed this rapid recapitulation of the 1966 reception to situate Riffaterre's own critical discussion of the French structuralists. In 1966, Riffaterre catches Levi-Strauss and Jakobson red-handed in the act of practicing a category-mistake: in the famously exhaustive but partial analysis of Baudelaire's sonnet "Les Chats"--an article published in 1962 that looked like a manifesto of high structuralism applied to literary criticism--the authors believe that one can deduce from the use of "feminine rhymes" a statement as to gender and conclude to a feminization of the emblematic animal. In a similar manner, Riffaterre attacked the "Tel Quelians" for their wild use of semiological models.

"Debacles": Tel Quel, Valery and Surrealism.

Thus as a true "structuralist," Riffaterre is not a mere "formalist" even though he advocates a formal method as in "Pour une approche formelle de l'histoire litteraire" (18) (PT, 89-109). A good debunking of some of the methodological excesses evinced by certain formalist practices of the avant-garde was thus produced in the crucial year of 1966 when Riffaterre demonstrated then how untenable or far-fetched the formalism of Tel Quel could be.

Riffaterre took the example of Ricardou's analysis of Poe's "Gold Bug" tale and pointed out how the word "huguenot" was misread as a sign of election, as the main character's ability to detect and decipher cryptograms. Riffaterre then demonstrated how this interpretation was based upon Baudelaire's translation and would not make sense in an American context in which "Protestant" is the norm and not the exception. More generally, he denounced the tendency among the Telquelians to take all the signifying elements as functioning equivalently, thus missing key differences between signifiers; for instance, in a typical case of over-interpretation, Ricardou believes that the signifer "gold" is hidden in the letters of "Golconda," a reason adduced for not using "Eldorado" (in spite of its recurring in a famous poem, as Riffaterre recalls). (19) Similarly, the name of Clairwill in Sade's Story of Juliette is glossed as "clear will" or "vile clarity" by Sollers and Ricardou respectively. Riffaterre has no difficulty in showing how arbitrary these assignations are, and request a more commonsensical context. Yet one can distinguish in Riffaterre's critical review an acknowledgment of methodological divergences (as when he reproaches Barthes for having made hasty generalizations about Tacitus's style which are nevertheless based upon observable stylistic features) from real surprise at seeing the precise tools perfected by the Russian formalists or Bathkin poorly used, exploited at random to justify fanciful associations.

The Tel Quelians would probably have answered impatiently, since what mattered for them at the rime was not to offer a more refined system of explication de texte but to unveil the workings of textuality in which they saw a revolutionary process subverting the dominant ideologies ordering our current perception of the self, the world and God. The combination of Saussure, read by Derrida, of Marx, read by Althusser and of Freud, read by Lacan, provided a new version of cultural epistemology culminating in the "science of texts." By discreetly but cunningly presenting irrefutable objections to an alleged scientific method of reading, Riffaterre provided one of the most devastating critiques of the inflated scientism and its broader political applications. However, it is no surprise to see Paul de Man react strongly to these strictures, not of course to defend Ricardou's hazardous associations but in order to point out philosophical difficulties. In de Man's words, Riffaterre's refusal to read "gold" in "Golconda"--thus dismissing most of Saussure's paragrams or hypograms at one stroke--was based upon an assimilation of "phenomenal intuition" to "semantic cognition" in the name of a stress on the reader's role. (20) He adds: "In the case of Riffaterre, whose references are literary rather than philosophical, the interplay could be said to occur between, for instance, the aesthetic formalism of Paul Valery and the semiotic irreverence of the Surrealists." (21)

One thing that connects Riffaterre with the practitioners of Tel Quel, at least in the first decade of the review's existence, is that all could acknowledge, equally but differently, that they are Paul Valery's heir. As Riffaterre has pointed out, Valery appears as an exception in French culture in that he was the only French poet who defended the idea of literary theory in the first half of the twentieth century. With his obstinacy in denying authorial intention (he would repeat that his poetry had only the meaning provided by his readers) and his insistence upon the reflexive element in literature, he provides an apt model for Riffaterre's stylistics while sketching a consistent poetological project. Valery occupied the chair of Poetics at the College de France from 1937 to his death in 1945. In his inaugural speech Valery justified the study of poetics whose object would be "the positive phenomenon of production and consumption in the realm of intellectual works" (22) an object that could not be encompassed by literary history alone. Valery's motto was the following: "Literature is, and cannot be anything but the extension and application of certain properties of language," (23) a principle which also underpinned Russian formalism and American New Criticism. To launch a "theory of literature" investigating "effects that can be called properly literary" without spurning the study of manuscripts, Valery gave the name of "Poetics." (24)

True to this program, all the entries Valery's Tel Quel that pertain to literature insist upon the technical aspect of the craft: "What a shame to write without knowing what language, verb, metaphors, idea shifts, tone shifts are; without knowing the structure of the work's duration or the conditions of its closure; knowing barely why and not even how! Blushing to be the Pythoness." (25) Valery reopens a fruitful dialogue with Aristotle which had been lost in French culture since Classicism--with the exception of a neo-thomism briefly fashionable with Jacques Maritain but whose impact was very limited. Valery stresses that the etymology of Poetic implies any kind of creative activity, including practical activities, scientific inventions and, in the case of poetry, various drafts and revisions. If today's critique genetique can claire Valery as main genitor, this is not the way followed by Riffaterre who has followed the sinuous path of the avant-garde in poetry (but unlike Sollers and his friends, always keeping a critical distance).

This is why Riffaterre does not quote Valery directly but through Breton's and Eluard's inversions. Valery's aphorism reappears in an inverted form in the first pages of La Production du texte: "Le poeme doit etre une debacle de l'intellect. Il ne peut etre autre chose." (PT, 8) Here, Riffaterre quotes Breton and Eluard who simply take the statements of "Litterature" one by one and inverse their meaning--just as Lautreamont did with classical moral maxims in his Poesies. Thus, where Valery had written: "Un poeme doit etre une fete de l'intellect" (26) we find here the opposite idea: poetry cannot and should not be intellectualized. In Breton's and Eluard's mischievous parody, the passage previously quoted on the shame that attaches itself to not knowing the rhetorical constituents of a text turns into its exact opposite: "Quelle fierte d'ecrire, sans savoir ce que sont langage, verbe, comparaisons, changements d'idees, de ton; ni concevoir la structure de la duree de l'aeuvre, ni les conditions de la fin; pas du tout le pourquoi, pas du tout le comment! Verdir, bleuir, blanchir d'etre le perroquet ..." The comic exaggeration in the three verbs connoting shame and envy where there was only one leads us to the parodic "parroting" dreaded by all instructors, especially by those who teach "theory." What nevertheless remains unaffected is the concept of structure; it resists even this anti-formalist reversal--which may be why Riffaterre quotes it--what matters is simply to reach a text's singularity by all the means available.

The reversals of a structure that is fundamentally self-referential seem to confirm Riffaterre's main intuition that literature does not need the outside world to make sense. Indeed, in his readings, whenever some specialized knowledge about objects, facts or people "out there" is brought to bear on a textual reading, it is adduced with an extreme diffidence, as a barely tolerable concession. For instance, in "Poetique du Neologisme," Riffaterre presents the word "inodore" as a true neologism in a line by Gautier: "Egrene sur ton front le pavot inodore" (quoted PT, 71). He adds: "Le pavot, il est vrai, n'a pas de parfum, mais ceci releve du referent. Sur le plan des signifiants, inodore est une variante de pales couleurs ..." (PT, 71) Can this anti-referential zeal be construed as part of the effort to understand textual production as partly baffling intelligence? This "debacle de l'intellect" called forth by the Surrealists cannot fail to bring us by devious routes to another historical debacle--that of France's complete and abject defeat at the hands of the Prussian army in 1871. To test his theory, Riffaterre performs the trick of replacing the names listed in Zola's evocation of Sedan in the Debacle. The list he concocts in PT p. 26 has Hagetmau, Montfort, Ombres-aux-Bois, Coudures, Pontens-les-Forges, Mugron, AEyreluy, La Chapelle and Saint-Cricq. It proves just as "realist" as the original villages figuring in Zola's text and, we may assume, on the map of France: Donchery, Briancourt, Marancourt, Vrignes-aux-Bois, Douzy, Sarignan, Rubecourt, Pouru-aux-Bois, Franchezal, Villers-Cernay and Saint-Monges. They all connote "Frenchness" and old fashioned rusticity, in short they are all names of small French villages. But the series inserted by Riffaterre comes from the South-West, les Landes to be precise, while the famous collapse of the French army took place in the North, close to the Belgian border. I note too that Riffaterre cunningly chose the village of Hagetmau to start his own rewriting, a shrewd choice since the name calls up "Hagenau," a city that sends us to the North-East of France and would be pronounced differently in the South than in the North. If I happen to call up teenager memories of having cycled with friends in the flat roads shaded by pine-trees typical of les Landes, and having passed Hagetmau, will my critical anamnesis make me ascend to the position of an "archi-reader" (I might be able to catch the geographical sleight-of-hand), or will I just betray my tenacious belief in the referential illusion?

This would open up a long philosophical discussion and I will limit myself to another memory, a previous discussion on the phrase "coq de roche" in a Breton poem. Riffaterre had asserted that the term was invented by Breton in a poem and in an ekhphrastric evocation of Yves Tanguy's paintings. The discussion took place in May 1991, at the Centre Pompidou during a conference on Andre Breton and painting, when the topic was Surrealist ekphrasis. As is well-known, Breton liked Tanguy's dream-like landscapes of regression bathed in a strangely amniotic light. This is how he evokes the color suffusing these oneiric landscapes whose originality lies in suggesting the color of ghosts: "(Tanguy's) genius lies in having made himself master of their spectral essence. [...] To succeed in this enterprise, Tanguy has wagered with supreme confidence on the poetic accident of colour, to such an extent, indeed, that one could, I think, decompose his light into nasturtium, cock-of-the-rock, poplar leaf, well-chain, cut sodium, slate, jellyfish and cinnamon." (27) The exact signifiers are "capucine, coq de roche, feuille de peuplier, chaine de puits, sodium coupe, ardoise, meduse et cannelle." In this variation on the prismatic decomposition of light, the ghostly colors retain a precise hue; most are directly taken from pastel color-books. Thus "coq de roche" is a color between ochre, melon and faded pink. Breton loved the term and he literalizes it in the opening line of "Tout Paradis n'est pas perdu" in Clair de Terre (1923). In the English translation of Zavatsky and Rogow, this becomes: "Weathercocks turn into crystal (Les coqs de roche passent dans le cristal)/They protect the dew with blows from their crests." (28)

Following one of Clair de Terre's most rigorous isotopies, that of the prism, the whole poem deploys the tints of a color prism from the pink suggested by "rosee" to the blue of "les tempes bleues et dures" via the undefinable metallic yellow phosphorescence of sand ("le sable n'est plus qu'une horloge phosphorescente/ qui dit minuit"). What matters is not just to point out that this is a "real" color (who will agree on the exact hue, even given the whole spectrum of pastel tints?) but to take into account the structuring role of the pastel nomenclature--clearly as much a semantic as a visual treasure that triggered endless visual ecstasies and verbal associations for Breton.

Therefore I do believe that things acquire a different perspective when we acknowledge that here is a color we might see on a wall (as I did once in Toulouse, at least according to the term used by the owner of the restaurant I was sitting in) and not just the product of an imaginary synaesthesia. Surrealism is indeed a good starting point for a reappraisal of the vexed problem of literary reference, at least because it has been treated with such force by Breton in Nadja whose urban photographs send us to the real world while highlighting its resistance to deixis. A text like Nadja criticizes the descriptive genre and replaces it by simple illustrations of people, objects, places, in so many photographic renderings that both point to the world out there (although it has now partly vanished or is significantly transformed, if we just think of Paris) and to the irreducible literariness of a text that contains more than these deictic gestures.

When the Real Returns: Riffaterre's Textual Unconscious

A good summary of the debate opposing those who would deny any referential function to literature (a camp that would include Derrida and Riffaterre) and those who plan to make room for some reference is provided by Habermas when he takes the example of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, the famous novelization of a real life collective slaughter. It would not help to say that this is not "literature" but either straight "documentary" or "non-fiction writing" that would require a specific place next to Capote's other "real" novels. Habermas's position is prudent on the whole and he refrains from the temptation of a purely differential reading that would compare, say, newspapers cuttings and Capote's elaborate dramatization:
   The world-disclosive function of language does hot gain
   independence over against the expressive, regulative, and
   informative functions. By contrast, in Truman Capote's literary
   elaboration of a notorious and carefully researched incident,
   precisely this may be the case. That is to say, what grounds the
   primacy and the structuring force of the poetic function is not the
   deviation of a fictional representation from the documentary report
   of an incident, but the exemplary elaboration that takes the case
   out of its context and makes it the occasion for an innovative,
   world-disclosive, and eye-opening representation in which the
   rhetorical means of representation depart from communicative
   routines and take a life of their own. (29)

I have quoted Habermas because he seems relatively close to some basic tenets of Riffaterre--he believes in interpretive communities and upholds the division between a purely communicative aspect of language and a literary function--without rejecting the referential function. In fact, given his insistence on the independence of fiction from any "verification" of the textual truth, one might say that Riffaterre appears at times almost Lacanian. He is a crypto-Lacanian at least in his treatment of a truth structured like a fiction. What Lacan rethinks after Heidegger's critique of the equation between truth and adequation of things and thoughts finds a similar basis in Riffaterre's semiotics. Besides, like Lacan, Riffaterre discards the possibility of reference. We may remember how Lacan decided to open his Ecrits with the seminar on "The purloined letter" by Poe despite the chronology. This exemplary reading deals with a language disconnected from any meaning linked with reality. It demonstrates that the letter is not only a message but also an object which cannot be reduced to its content since, in Poe's tale, it operates without ever being given to read, thus without ever revealing its true content. It is enough that the letter exists for one to know that order, political as well as sexual order, the order represented by the royal couple caught up in a close circuit of power and prestige, is threatened. Lacan's commentary on Poe is homogeneous with his other approaches to literature: a series of symbols, once put in motion, always entails constraints that produce an order finally underpinned by a Law in total independence from any reference and even meaning.

To systematize the comparison, one can note that For Lacan, reality is a construction projected by the ego, a necessary fiction protecting against the dissociation of a speaking subject split by desire, while for Riffaterre, reality is an ineluctable hallucination, a shimmering mirage offered by texts, a mirage whose validity is entirely encompassed within the autotelic system of literary signs. For Lacan, reality is a compendium of doxic discourses, social categories, current mythologies, ideological values and sexual mystification. For Riffaterre, reality can be substituted by the "reality effect" as soon as we deal with literature. This type of reality is in fact undistinguishable from a verbal mythology, of network of signs underpinned by commonly shared ideas about verisimilitude. As Paul de Man had already pointed out in the passage I have quoted in The Resistance to Theory, for Riffaterre it can only be hallucination that provides a bridge between literary signifiers and what may or may not take place in the "real world." Yet Riffaterre has not produced something like Lacan's concept of the Real--a Real defined as that which cannot be symbolized in order to account for such hallucination.

In spite of his anti-referential stance facing letters and literature, Lacan never avoided taking the Real into consideration. Moreover he seems impervious to the important distinction drawn by Riffaterre between the normal use of language in which reference obtains and the literary use of language in which it is disqualified. One might argue that in fact Lacan generalizes his analysis of poetic language governed by metaphor and metonymy to everyday language, at least in so far as it has been worked through by the unconscious and produced as a narrative of the subject's life in a psychoanalytic session. If we look then for what would be the site of a missing theory of the Real in Riffaterre's approach, one might conclude that he might be less Lacanian than Freudian. In that sense, the truth of his own text will have to be provided less in its explicit statements than its half-said implications, in its hidden presuppositions or even in its extremely rare but always felicitous parapraxes. To illustrate this idea, I will just mention one parapraxis that I round revealing. On page 5 of Fictional Truth, we find this development about lexical actualization:
   These actualizations form what I call a descriptive system. Because
   actualization is always possible, a sememe can be seen as an
   inchoate or future text, and a story as an expanded sememe in which
   a temporal dimension has been added to spatial syntagms.
   Furthermore, any element of the descriptive system has a metonymic
   relationship with the nuclear world. (FT, 5)

If I stop here, I can be entitled to understand something like: "... in some cases, the description contained in lexical actualization will function as a metonymy of reality which then creates a world of its own." But if I continue reading, I reach a different perspective:
   This works to the extent that, on the one hand, the nuclear word
   can at any time generate a story simply by transforming its
   implicit semes into words and letting them be organized by
   narrative structures, and, on the other hand, the story can be
   organized by the inner grammar of the sememe. In such cases,
   verisimilitude takes over motivation, because each word of that
   story will expatiate on or repeat the nuclear word that begets it,
   for each such word is also a metonym of that nucleus. The
   derivation will fulfill expectations and conform top the
   readership's consensus about things because it transforms into an
   explicit text a meaning already implicit in the generating word.
   Any agreement between the narrative model and the sememic model
   will produce a double motivation and therefore an ironclad
   verisimilitude. (FT, 5)

In fact, what I had been tempted to read as a possible typo ("nuclear world" for "nuclear word") was merely an application of the pervasive sylleptic logic of Freudian overdetermination: as we know from our dreams, any word contains a sememe and the opposite meanings of the sememe, each word contains a story, an then another story negating it, and then another story saying something totally incompatible, and then another story, another story again and then, perhaps, the world.

University of Pennsylvania

(1.) The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy, edited by Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1970) and The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man edited by Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1972).

(2.) The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, p. 168.

(3.) Ibid., p. 158.

(4.) Ibid., p. 314.

(5.) See Paul de Man, "Hypogram and Inscription," in The Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986) p. 41-43.

(6.) Quoted in The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, "The Space Between--1971," p. x.

(7.) Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, tr. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1972) p. 200-201.

(8.) The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, "The Space Between--1971", p. x-xi.

(9.) The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, p. 29.

(10.) Ibid., p. 29.

(11.) Ibid., p. 43-44.

(12.) Ibid., p. 121.

(13.) Ibid., p. 122.

(14.) Ibid., p. 121.

(15.) Ibid., p. 189.

(16.) Ibid., p. 188.

(17.) Ibid., p. 194.

(18.) Michael Riffaterre, La Production du texte (Paris: Seuil, 1979) p. 89-109. Hereafter, PT and page number.

(19.) See Michael Riffaterre, "Le Formalisme francais," in Essais de Stylistique Structurale (Paris: Flammarion, 1971) p. 277. For a detailed and technical refutation, see p. 269-284.

(20.) The Resistance to Theory, p. 34.

(21.) Ibid., p. 35.

(22.) Paul Valery, "L'Enseignement de la Poetique au College de France", in OEuvres I, 1965, p. 1438.

(23.) Ibid., p. 1440.

(24.) Ibid., p. 1441.

(25.) AEuvres II, p. 550.

(26.) Paul Valery, AEvres II, p. 546.

(27.) Andre Breton, Surrealism and Painting translated by S. W. Taylor (New York: Harper and Row, 1972) p. 179.

(28.) Andre Breton, Earthlight, translated by B. Zavatsky and Z. Rogow, (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1993), p. 62.

(29.) Jurgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, translated by Frederick G. Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass.: M. I. T. Press, 1987) p. 203
COPYRIGHT 2002 Columbia University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Rabate, Jean-Michel
Publication:The Romanic Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2002
Previous Article:Michael Riffaterre et la lecture hermeneutique de la poesie francaise.
Next Article:La significativite litteraire.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters