The Division of Literature: Or, the University in Deconstruction.
In Peggy Kamuf's reading of present difficulties facing the teaching of literature and theory in American universities, fault lines are traced back to the institution of literature as a component of the public education system in France in the late eighteenth century. She suggests that the division between the historicality of literature and the literariness of literature was there at the start, and literature has always fitted uncomfortably into the modern scientific university. I found the introduction dense, and self-consciously over-theorized, very much 'after-Derrida'. It wanders off down too many by-ways, exploring so many contradictions and divisions, all grist to the deconstructive mill. This theme of division runs through the book, suggesting boundaries across which tensions continue to mount. One rather obvious division is that between literature and writing in general, another is that which circumscribes the canon, and another, the division between our (American) literature and foreign (French) theory. Then, there are the divisions that history makes: the divisions of literature into periods, the division of historical approaches to literature from poetics and formalist approaches. The one division that readers might think all the fuss was about, that between teaching literature and teaching literary theory, is not addressed directly, although there is one chapter on 'the university in deconstruction', which explores the division between the university and 'the public' (through the agency of journalism). In this chapter, Kamuf gives a robust defence of the teaching and practice of deconstruction in American universities, although it is in terms unlikely to persuade those of us not long ago converted.
The rest of 'Division One', the first section of the book, is a detailed account of the history of the French institution of literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the relations between history and literature. Although not a complete history, this piece is a valuable introduction to a modern history of literature as 'public education'. An interesting line is developed by contrasting the work of Henri Gregoire and Jean-Francois La Harpe, who are concerned with relations between language and Revolution, with later Hegelian thinkers, Hippolyte Taine and Gustave Lanson. This is followed by a chapter on Charles Peguy, who, thinking about modernity, opposes the historicism of Lanson and the scientism of Taine, turning the idea of linear succession on its head, by suggesting that the only continuity in history may be the succession of erroneous thinking about continuity.
'Division Two' contains an essay about Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man, which is asked to illustrate an 'impasse' in literary history. This seems a tenuous link to the rest of the book, but never mind, it is a very intelligent piece of what we used to call literary criticism. Melville's least popular fiction is, suggests Kamuf, applying for 'credit' with the promise of 'interest' in futurity rather than in posterity. This close reading of Melville's novel, like Derrida's essay, Given Time, which is an account of Baudelaire's poem, 'Counterfeit Money', explores relations between money and future time, with lines (writing) between now, and then, and the future.
<ADD> PAUL SMETHURST UNIVERSITY OF HONG KONG </ADD>
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1999|
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