The Magazine

The Word Is Out

The textbook that teaches life is a text.

Feb 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 23 • By JAMES SEATON
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And even though few if any are ready to defend that thesis as a literal statement of fact--indeed, the line taken by defenders usually rules out any appeal to factual claims of any kind--the fame of Jacques Derrida and the attraction of deconstruction surely derive, in some part, from the feeling of many (but by no means all) proponents that they are engaged in a radical enterprise at odds with bourgeois common sense, and perhaps even allied somehow to revolutionary politics.

But there is also another, less obvious, source of attraction to the notion that "there is nothing outside the text." Today Americans--and, perhaps, young people in particular--are concerned about identity and seem often to be searching for some sort of definite and secure identity. If religion offers one answer to this search--that we each possess an immortal soul--advertising offers another. Advertising tells us that everything we eat or wear, any game we play and, naturally, anything we buy, is a sign that tells other people something about ourselves.

We proclaim our social status, our sexual prowess and availability, our moral and political convictions--we all wear our hearts on our sleeves, if we are to believe the commercials and advertising all around us. A philosophy that tells us that we are all texts waiting to be read is, indeed, in tune with the times. Learning the skills associated with this philosophy holds out the promise that we may become adept at sending out the particular messages we wish others to read, and also adept at reading between the lines of the messages we receive.

The suspicion remains that those (like the leading textualist Stanley Fish) who reject "the premise that any discourse must be measured against a stable and independent reality," still count the cash the clerk gives them back when they use a $20 bill to make a $10.37 purchase. Philosophic conviction has little effect on practice.

Does that matter? Perhaps not. Lionel Trilling's 1970 observation that "it is characteristic of the intellectual life of our culture that it fosters a form of assent which does not involve actual credence" seems, if anything, more pertinent than ever. Yet there are occasions when belief becomes important, and on some of the most significant of these, believing in the world as text provides little or no assistance. A belief in oneself as spirit or soul at least can provide some reassurance and offer some support in the face of illness and death. It is not clear that the philosophy of textualism can do as much.

The late Susan Sontag was once willing, like many other advanced thinkers, to think of cancer as a text revealing that one was guilt-ridden, uptight, repressed--in a word, bourgeois. It was with this notion in mind that she once declared that "the white race is the cancer of human history." The experience of actually having cancer led Sontag to the conclusion that some things, like cancer, like disease of any kind, should not be thought of as metaphors.

The purpose of her book Illness as Metaphor, she explained, was to encourage others "to regard cancer as if it were just a disease--a very serious one, but just a disease. Not a curse, not a punishment, not an embarrassment." Without "meaning." Sontag's desire to regard cancer as without "meaning" would seem to be difficult to achieve in a world where there is nothing outside the text, or even one in which there is no "outside-text."

Textualism has a special appeal for college professors that it does not have for college freshmen. Trilling called attention in the 1950s to the characteristic "demand" of some intellectuals "for life as pure spirit," a demand that in its extremism would discount or deny what Trilling called "the actuality of the conditioned, the literality of matter, the peculiar authenticity and authority of the merely denotative."

Textualism seems to promise that literary critics can extend their expertise far beyond poems, plays, and novels, and even beyond films and television programs, to anything at all. Since everything is a text, and critics are the best readers of texts, it is literary critics who are best equipped to understand any phenomena whatsoever. Textualism provides a rationale that allows critics to comment on scientific theories without going to the trouble of boning up on physics or chemistry, just as it seems to license them to comment authoritatively on politics without making any particular study of history or economics.