Poirier’s book is marked by certain traits of its moment. In fact, many of the topics that outrage him should have seemed passe. The academic fascination with deconstruction had faded under the attack of anti-theory movements, the deaths of Barthes, de Man, and Foucault–with their various relations to deconstruction. New movements emerged–postcolonial studies; Jamesonian tones echoing Postmodernism and The Political Unconscious (can we forget the voices of certain white male self-declared anti-imperialists? or the repetition of allegoresis?); strong developments in race and gender studies; the displacement of literary by cultural studies (of various sorts); and the developing state pressures against ‘radical’ critics typified by assaults on Said and others.
What saddens me about the book, which is best as a defense of literature, are the errors Poirier makes in defining his own enemies. Had those mistaken and outdated polemics not motivated a substantial part of the writing, the book might have stood up longer. For better or worse, it came into existence in the middle of a neo-pragmatist wave with which it was uncomfortable. Poirier sometimes invokes and sometimes criticizes Rorty. In the 1970s at Columbia, in the University Seminar in Literary Theory, then chaired by Edward Said, Rorty gave a talk against Derrida’s “White Mythologies” essay, which had appeared in English translation in 1974 (did Rorty read French?). I have remembered always only my sense that Rorty was scandalously reductive and misrepresented Derrida in the way only dogmatic polemicists could be. This crudity is of the kind Poirier disliked in Rorty, an inability to read. Yet, because of his own determination to wage war against deconstruction (killing a corpse), Poirier never bothered to get right many of the authors and ideas a dislike of which motivated his book. He is very good in making the Whitheadean or Emersonian point about self in formation, as process, revision, and uncertainty. But he believes that the advance recognition of process and revision preempts deconstruction and theory’s concern with subjectivity, massively confusing, as his grammar betrays (he has a good take on the double meaning of this word), the instability of a self, of any self, of all selves with the rigorous project of deconstructing the subject, the very workings of which nostalgically underlie his own belaboring of the self as a process goal and value in his work, all literature, and all language.
Had he stuck to his meditations on slow reading, his accounts of linguistic complexities, his arguments for language and so literature as work that forms minds, values, and plays games in power he would have made a more convincing argument. Of course, he was preoccupied with making all his claims American, pre-Gallic imports–readers of Emerson, or at least Emerson and Burke and a few others always already knew and knew more than what the French were teaching. The nationalism is unfortunate and I think crucial as one obstacle to reflection on the large polity in which he wanted to carry out any sort of literary or humanistic work. That plus the fact that he seemingly disliked Foucault enough–and no doubt lots of Marxists–that he embraced a version of the Gitlin line that academics have no real relation to state politics. How that is true or false and how best negotiated is not clear yet, but Poirier should have done a better job if he had not taken Derrida as his opponent but Lynn Cheney and the job crises that regularly plagued the humanities since the mid-1970s.
I still find engaging moments and traces of deep insight in his pages. This surprises me because on previous readings–given my antipathy to Neo-Pragmatism–I had not found a lot to move me. By the way, his account of how the profession moves through a succession of fashionable theories–which now we call commodities–is still a good caution. Lots more to say. Including something more about Frost and his letters and about Poirier’s history of alternatives to Yale English then.