Disfiguring the Post-Modern

Disfiguring the Post-Modern

Frank Davey. Reading Canadian Reading. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1988. 275 pp.

Nothing can overcome the resistance to theory since theory is itself this resistance.

Paul de Man, "The Resistance to Theory"

In his prefatory remarks to Being and Time Heidegger points out that St. Augustine had considered time in the same way that the ancient Greeks had thought of being: he knew what the notion meant as long as he was not asked to define it. Something similar could be claimed for literary criticism, especially Canadian literary criticism, which has often assumed — for unhap pily self-serving reasons which have had pronounced implications for the interpretive strategies that do and do not get taught in this country — that its operative methodological and ideological assumptions could simply go without saying. But the essays collected in a recent volume by Frank Davey have as their explicit objective the task of saying what has mostly gone unsaid in Canadian criticism, or, rather, of disabling the coercive strengths of the unsaid by writing them out.1

     In one of the most successful essays in Reading Canadian Reading, for example, Davey interprets the "development of the English-Canadian book trade"(88) as a kind of text, whose hidden articulations of power and politics powerfully demonstrate the truth of the Marxist insight that "the material conditions of book production act as determinants of the kinds of texts authors create, the kinds of publishers that can be available to consider them, and the kinds of texts that these publishers will favour"(99). Moreover, Davey's underlying assumption that all of "these conditions leave their marks within the text themselves"(99) has about it the ring of truth because his essay on "Writers and Publishers" in Canada follows a series of meditations on the circumstances which shaped the writing of his own previous publications. In effect Davey here makes a significant step towards the composition of a rather different literary history of Canada, one tracing the modes of production —   both material and intellectual — which have underwritten the interpretation of English literature in our universities. Davey's introspection about himself and about his discipline is especially exemplary for pointing up the need to ask any number of questions that would seem to lie far outside the scope of his book: how, for example, has the Christian-humanist agenda of important Canadian thinkers like A.E. Barker and A.S.P. Woodhouse shaped the curricula and indeed the staffing of English departments in this country? What political rather than strictly academic forces are at work which have made it suddenly more appropriate for funding to go to previously marginalized areas of inquiry like critical theory and feminism?

     The fact that Davey's initial questions are directed at the polemical power of the unsaid in his own critical writings, however, gives the impression of a certain intellectual rigour, although one whose scrupulosity shares an oddly asymmetrical relationship with the volume's otherwise pronounced playfulness. But Reading Canadian Reading is not, strictly speaking, written out of any high Althusserian Marxism; Davey's self-reflexivity rather exhibits his intent to write a specifically post-modernist literary criticism that replicates in its specularity and self-disruptiveness the textual strategies of post-moder nist literature. The interweaving of literary and critical writing is not without Canadian precedents; Balachandra Rajan's The Overwhelming Question2, for example, is so elegantly plaited with T.S. Eliot's ideas and language that it is impossible to distinguish author from critic and critical understanding from its poetic figuration. I want to return to this difference between thought and figures for thought, but for now it is sufficient to note that Rajan's text makes obvious what Cleanth Brooks, who certainly had a greater stake than most in separating out readers from writers, once conceded in a rare moment of self-consciousness: that the interpretive act in fact always carries within itself the threat of its entanglement with the interpreted.3 Brooks feared the conflation of literature and criticism as the deconstruction of the latter, while Rajan coolly writes as if it were the inevitable result of any potent formalist reading. For Davey, on the other hand, the counter-transference between reader and writer, at least in the contemporary Canadian context, amounts to nothing less than the post-modernization of the critical gesture. Reading Canadian Reading absorbs several of the extravagant textual strategies of contemporary literature as a way of putting into question the more conventional notion of criticism as a derivative discourse which is forbidden to mimic the literary original it seeks to comprehend.

     Christopher Norris's recent characterization of this interpretive tactic as one which promotes "the idea of criticism as a pretext or opportunity for pleasurable self-display"4 is apposite because in many ways specularity (or self-display) is the master trope at work in Davey's volume. Reflecting upon his own academic career for the first third of the book, and intermittently through the rest, Davey disinters the movement of forces at work in his own evolution as a thinker while also meditating on the more general intellectual shifts which have characterized the Canadian academic scene in which he has played an unquestionably significant part. The textual effect of this heightened critical self-consciousness can be disconcerting, even vertiginous; reading Davey reading Davey reading various Canadian writers, we are instantly caught up in a proliferative chain whose optimum effect is to unsettle the possibility of any univocal reading. Nor is the self-reflective impulse that Davey identifies with post-modernism itself immune to such searching. Significantly the book begins with his observation that a recent Canadian literary theory conference, though salutary for foregrounding the place of theory in criticism, suffered from at least two faults: to the extent that the speakers at the conference perceived themselves to be the latest soldiers in the grand march of Canadian intellect, they relied upon "humanist myths of continuity and progress"(2); moreover, their affirmation of the current multiplicity of critical voices amounted to an "idealization of the dialogical"(2) in which the tacit agreement to disagree in effect flattened out the genuine and mutually disruptive differences between these voices.

     These are especially trenchant criticisms, not only because they disclose a hidden conformity at the putatively iconoclastic heart of the oontemporary critical scene, but because they are uncannily descriptive of displacements inhabiting Davey's own text, moments at which Davey's post-modernist theory differs in revealing ways from its praxis. This supplementary bit of self-reference can only come unexpectedly if Davey's intent is to write a critical text which — like its literary original — is characterized not by expressions of continuity and idealization but "by a multiplicity of aesthetics and discourses, by decentred, discontinuous forms, by processes rather than structures"(106). The theory that Reading Canadian Reading advances is at once simple and complex: to transform criticism into "Criticism as performance"(111). Thus Davey's text names the ideal form of its de-formed hermeneutic, and, in a phrase, advises us of the possibilities of interpretation as play or performative. (En)acting and producing critical understanding, performative criticism renounces the conventional, constative view of language as grasping (or failing to grasp) an already present truth.

     But what is interesting is the degree to which this performance is nevertheless reinscribed — or perhaps it reinscribes itself; the difference is not without consequence — into a less severely sceptical epistemological framework. We see this re-inscription in several ways, but most subtly during Davey's chronological discussion of his previous books, beginning with Earle Birney (1971) and concluding with Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics (1986). Davey's sustained reflexive gesture is explicitly dialogical, the total effect of which is to graft all of his books into a larger critical context which exposes the self-dissent at work both within each book and across his academic career. The corpus of Bahktin's writings is therefore not surprisingly held up as exemplary for its "shifts in definition,. . . its refutation of earlier positions, [and] its never having achieved synthesis or summary"(3). Synthesis and summary — especially that synthesis and summary grounded in the self-presence of the author — are of course the great enemies of the post-modernist text, and Davey declares at several points that his own project is innocent of them. "[T]he author is only one of the text's authors," he notes, "and is the very first of these to cease to contribute to its production of meaning"(33). As perverse as this statement sounds, it is nevertheless called for in a country which has for the most part yet to wean itself from an uncritical phenomenology. As Davey says, addressing his reader directly, it is one thing to say what he thinks of what he has written; but "[w]hat Earle Birney, or [Reading Canadian Reading] . . . ,says to you is a further matter"(33). Freely giving over his text in this way, Davey affirms the importance of releasing his writings into a field of dissemination that is uncontrolled by authorial expectations. We can grant the truth of this and yet feel there is something missing, for Davey's theoretical claim completely elides the ways in which a text inscribes within itself the modes of its own reading. In other words, post-modernist declarations of the death of the author in no way mitigate the role of self-authorizing figures or effects in the post-modernist text.

     In the case of Reading Canadian Reading, the basic conceit of reflection inevitably produces the considerably authoritarian figure of a "writer" who is willing and able to engage his reader authentically, on the ground of intimate self-revelation. Davey can be deeply, even bravely critical of his own work, and I rather suspect that what makes this book so fascinating is in part the vicarious thrill of having Davey confess about himself the kinds of errors and assumptions that we would be loath to disclose about ourselves. In this self-declaredly un-self-ed text — but how can one authorize one's own lack of authority? — there is very much the sense of an author, one who far from being expendable, "the very first to cease to contribute to" the text's "meaning," is in fact the chief source of its intelligibility. Sensing this prospect, Davey will insist that this author has no meta-critical privilege: stopping himself midway through his discussion of Earle Birney, for example, he reminds his reader that this self-reflection has, after all, been a kind of fiction, in no way to be confused with truth: as he says, his retrospective analysis only "recasts and reimagines much of what the book argued"(27). But in point of fact the reimaginings which make up the single largest part of Reading Canadian Reading are not staged as simple re-castings; another way of putting this is that although Davey's post-modernist theory affirms that all recastings are equal, his praxis suggests that some recastings are more equal than others. Theoretically, Reading Canadian Reading constitutes only the latest in a chain of discourses and representations, whereas it consistently reads as if it were written from a position of wisdom and truth. The repeated use of phrases like "I can see now" (21,42; emphasis mine) is especially telling, locating Davey as it does in the clarified atmosphere of the present gazing on a past which has suddenly assumed the integrity and lucidity of a thing brought to sight. And this even though Davey elsewhere points up — I think correctly — how tropes of "reflection, looking and representation" generate the illusion of epistemological certainty by implying "that criticism does not participate in the construction of what it discusses but confronts unchanging and completed pre-existing phenomena"(258).

     A revealing pattern of self-construction emerges as Davey reconsiders his previous books. Each study is castigated for its more or less hidden or incoherent philosophical and ideological articulations. And yet each is also claimed to contain in germinal form the "greater level of self-consciousness"(43) and the "theory of criticism"(44) that Davey possesses, or claims to possess, in the present. Earle Birney falls prey to "disastrously" na´ve assumptions about the nature of poetic language; yet the book also "glimpses the possibility of saying"(27) that, among other things, Birney finds in the principle of dialogism a way of resisting forms of "hegemony and authority"(26). (We need to determine the totalizing implications of Davey's personification of his own text as a written entity capable of seeing the premonition of its own voice.) From There to Here is similarly "marred by na´ve optimism"(41) and a "failure of foregrounding"(43), but is sophisticated enough to have at least "declared . . . an understanding of language as play, in opposition to the empiricist understanding of language as instrument"(47). Louis Dudek & Raymond Souster suffers from poorly understood phenomenological and transcendental assumptions, yet it "contains the materials for" a much more radical "account" of the poetry as a language which "subverted dominantly denotative discourse with ambiguity-producing puns, rhymes, assonance and imagery"(53). As Davey describes it, the book was a "Trojan horse," written with the intent "of inserting a radically different cluster of criteria into the practice of Canadian criticism"(42); "I can see now, and dimly saw in 1974," Davey concludes, that the book's major fault lay in its "[f]ailing to announce itself as a self-announcing Trojan Horse"(42).

     What emerges from these recastings and reimaginings is an authoritative plotting of the past which requires of it both na´vetÚ and sophistication; that is, Davey's earlier texts are really the pre-text for a critical history — with its own stake in "humanist myths of continuity and progress"  —  in which the past doubly serves to validate the present. As the object of critique it is the means by which the present constitutes a more authentic understanding of its origins. Previous critical errors are censured; but their censure is inseparable, given the retrospective structure of Davey's volume, from their reclamation in the name of the negative, if exemplary knowledge that they automatically attribute to the discursive "present" of Reading Canadian Reading. But as the place from which Davey also "dimly saw" what he will claim to see looking back, the past guarantees that his post-modernism is a Trojan horse which had always already occupied — pre-occupied — the city of his own critical history. This curious enfolding of past and present, in which Davey in effect repeatedly goes back to the future, gives the shape of his academic career a strange tightness, even necessity. But it also neutralizes the ambivalences of his texts. A case in point: "The problems in the Dudek chapters," Davey writes in a discussion of Louis Dudek & Raymond Souster, "are largely extensions of the intentionalist and representational assumptions in Earle Birney, which are accompanied in both books by fragmentary theories of textual production which both offer correctives to the representational theories and contradict them"(51). Much can be unpacked from this sentence (and similar ones found elsewhere in the volume), beginning with its implicit idealization of the dialogical aspect of the books in question. Together the two studies constitute a double lineage, with the later volume an organic "extension" of the other both in terms of its erroneous "assumptions" and in its self-enlightened capacity for putting these assumptions into question. This suppression of the differences between the books repeats a similar suppression within each book, as the "fragmentary theories" to which Davey refers at first neutrally "accompany" and then more vigorously "correct" the arguments that they also "contradict." The point is that Davey is reluctant to allow that his texts are made up of conflicting strata of awareness; instead the texts' contradictions are consistently recast as moments in a dialectic of correction whose clearest sign of success is the possibility of the writing of Reading Canadian Reading itself.

     Not surprisingly, then, it is during Davey's reflections on his latest critical work that he most forcefully consolidates the writerly authority of his text. His discussion of Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics in particular marks his sudden abandonment of the notion that this authority is dispersed into an infinite ironic regression (or what Friedrich Schlegel called "permanent parabasis" long before the advent of post-modernism) of the sort that had been self-consciously claimed in the chapter on Earle Birney. Davey's discussion instead shifts into a more straight-forward restatement of his (relatively recent) positions on Atwood, as he energetically and often convincingly fends off criticisms from both conservative and radical quarters. When Davey does couple his defensive remarks with concessions that his book suffers from certain weaknesses, they are revealingly all ones that his reviewers have more or less missed. Outfianking his critics by implying that they have not been critical enough, Davey effectively argues that his text is simultaneously more and less successful than his closest readers have seen. A position of greater authorial self-possession would be difficult to imagine.

     Sometimes Davey's defence of the Atwood book comes across as just plain defensive, making it seem, momentarily, as if his post-modernist self-reflectiveness is in fact a playful veneer covering the more serious (and familiar) task of setting one's readers straight. Responding to reviewers who "noticed" that two of the Atwood book's chapters contained "substantial parts" of previously published essays, Davey argues that his remarks "have remained active and provisional for [him] . . . , despite multiple publication." "What has changed in these essays over the years," he suggests, "has not been my specific reading of the poems and novels so much as my interpretation of the readings"(65). I am not exactly sure what Davey can mean here, but this much is clear: he is asking his readers to take him at his word that a reflective consciousness has always been at work behind his texts, reimagining and recasting them even when they remained literally unchanged. Perhaps more to the point is the fact that although Davey's desire to clarify his book for his readers is understandable it is curiously out of place in a volume which everywhere condemns the heresy of paraphrase. Elucidating his argument in this way, Davey can suddenly blind himself to its true shape. For example, he describes his book as having argued that Atwood's "essentialist equation of rigidity with the male and liquidity and spontaneity with the female offers a stereotypical vision of human behaviour"(76). In point of fact his book most often uncritically endorses this very equation in order to pursue the thesis that Atwood is seeking a "female" semiotic to unravel the "male" pretensions to logical, rational discourse.5 In other words, the earlier book is not nearly as critical of Atwood's essentialism as Davey retrospectively makes out. A similar transposition of hindsight with insight occurs over the issue of Atwood's choice of narrative forms. In the Atwood book Davey's position on this matter is conspicuously understated. As he says at the start of his discussion of the fiction, "In view of the argument of Atwood's poetry that pattern is a humanistic 'male' second-order imposition on experience, it is curious that four of Atwood's novels appear to be written in a traditional narrative pattern."6 But when Davey paraphrases this position in Reading Canadian Reading he silently emends it so that it seems more attentive to texts which are also more sharply divided from themselves. What was only "apparent" about Atwood's narrative tactics and the object of Davey's "curiosity" now becomes an example of the "contrasts and contradictions" which he claims he "directed much of Margaret Atwood: a Feminist Poetics toward exposing"(82).7

     I do not think that these examples of Nachtrńglichkeit or "aftering" are accidental. They rather result from Davey's desire to appropriate Atwood —  and through her, himself — more and more fully to post-modernism. Thus Atwood's essentialism is reimagined, in a way that cannot but remind us of how Davey recasts his own past, as "an ideological strategy," as if her patently foundationalist treatment of the differences between "male" and "female" languages was all along ironically self-aware. The gap between Atwood's reputedly radical politics and her choice of conventional narrative forms is similarly rationalized as not the author's "problem" at all, but one that "faces all women who would not write in the official discourses from which they have hitherto been excluded"(82). Alternately ironic mistress over the stereotypical stances of her own text, or heroic victim of an alien and alienating metaphysic, Atwood remains curiously sanctified, as an identity which knows itself and in that knowledge guarantees the soundness of readers who, like Davey, feel compelled to read against the grain of what her texts actually say to retrieve that which they do not or cannot. In the context of Davey's discussion of Atwood, and of Canadian criticism generally, considering its fascination with contemporary writers, this hermeneutical model possesses an undeniable seductiveness because it employs reading tactics that are reassuringly similar to those of the New Critics in order to locate Atwood at the forefront of post-modernism. My suspicion is that a great part of the exegetical strength of the later chapters in Davey's book, on Eli Mandel, "Prairie" poetry, and bp Nichol's The Martyrology, rests with the same critical strategy.

     But perhaps a reading that was less inclined to identify post-modernism with a certain authenticity or meta-critical sophistication would more readily permit Atwood's texts their disjunctions, contradictions, and slippages without idealizing them in the distinct way in which readers like Davey tend to idealize them, that is, by automatically seeking in Atwood a reflection of their own extreme epistemological scepticism. There may be self-differences or "problematics"(76) in Atwood's texts which resist or even contradict their own post-modernism, and, moreover, which do so exactly because her "theoretical position"(76) must be (re)produced or performed in fictional writing. The same thing could profitably be said about the complex critical stance that is posited in Reading Canadian Reading. In a volume which openly declares itself to be a reimagining, Davey's "post-modernism" can only be one figure (of understanding) among many, and thus subject to effacement and displacement by the text in which it figures. As Tilottama Rajan has recently argued,

when a theory is replayed in the theatre of the text, it discloses itself as a figure of thought. Moreover, the tacit or conscious fictionalizing of theory by a text sensitizes us to the discrepancies within theoretical writings, to their interrogation of or discomfort with their own assumptions.8

Cast in this light, Davey's insistence that the hyphen be removed from the term "post-modernism" takes on an added significance. Perhaps he is correct in arguing that the hyphen "implies a doubt that [post-modernism] . . . is a useful term"(120). But the true utility of the term may lie precisely in the dissevering and conjoining force of that hyphen, or rather in its capacity to (re)mark the instability which always already divides "postmodernism" — as a figure — from itself.

     Let me outline two examples in which Davey's volume displaces or disfigures its own post-modernism. In the first place Davey repeatedly calls for "metaphysics'' to be supplanted by "semiotics and politics as the grounds of writing"(116). As Linda Hutcheon says in her blurb about the book, Davey asserts that "criticism can and must be a political act." Yet the means by which this call for action is made, notably the dismantling of the free-standing subject and the dissolution of truth into an army of metaphors, makes the relationship between post-modernism and politics far more deeply problematical than Davey is willing to allow. That the notion of "the grounds of writing" continues to be evoked in the context of "politics" acknowledges in its nostalgic metaphysical vocabulary the ongoing need for the very thing that post-modernism has renounced. It is by no means apparent how or what kind of political action is possible or even desirable once it is demonstrated that the self will never know itself and thus be in a position to "ground" action in such knowledge. The problematical link between Davey's theory and its political praxis can account for more than one evasion in his book. For example, in a discussion of the work of Jack Hodgins and bp Nichol, he argues that the "world here is indeed to be invented . . . — but of course one remains responsible for the consequences of one's inventions and interventions"(117). Who is this "one" who so naturally remains "responsible?" And responsible to what? The existential connotations of this apparently innocent afterthought seem at first a little gratuitous, not to say inconsistent with Davey's otherwise convincing disarticulation of the self as the sort of simple presence against which "one" might meaningfully measure degrees of responsibility or irresponsibility. And yet the momentary swerve out of post-modernism and back into "metaphysics" — the only field in which notions of human freedom and responsibility can have any meaning — is also strategic and perhaps unavoidable, for it is a way of begging the question of the epistemological basis of active "intervention" which post-modernism also paradoxically insists on asking. We need to examine more closely the aestheticizing (and anaesthetizing) effects of post-modernism and to resist the temptation to identify its radical textual strategies with an equivalently radical political stance. We need to determine whether or to what extent the playful inconsequentiality of post-modernism amounts to a form of self-imposed immobility, to the last liberal intellectual evasion of politics rather than its new grounding. The disturbing possibility arises that post-modernism describes the abstention of criticism from politics as na´ve, when it is, in fact, itself the very abstention to which it refers. Under these conditions, political action is more complexly the horizon that post-modernism projects but which recedes even as it is approached.

     A second and uncannily similar way in which Reading Canadian Reading discloses its post-modernism as a figure of thought is by including within itself representations of the identity of post-modernist theory and praxis. Davey punctuates one chapter of his book with exemplary instances. A case in point:

Some (Canadian) postmodern texts: the IPATT on-line computer conference. The federal civil service bilingual education program. Christopher Dewdney's pataphysical science. The files of the Scientific Research Tax Credit program (113).

Lists such as this one are themselves the most obvious instance of the kind of texts they list: compilations of various "found" documents "characterized by a multiplicity of aesthetics and discourses, [and] by decentred, discontinuous forms"(106). In each instance Davey inscribes within his text the ideal form which his text strives to reach. Yet this intra-textual allegory of reading, far from initiating a moment of self-possession, marks the distance between Davey's text as such and the post-modernism it acclaims. For Reading Canadian Reading is, as I have tried to argue, significantly traced with the univocality and self-centring "forms" that it would seek to efface, and indeed does efface in the case of these "random" listings. The book's very intelligibility as a literary critical endeavour, however self-conscious and self-reflexive, reminds us that the post-modernism it stages in the lists is but a figure of hermeneutical desire, a decentred, discontinuous form cast in the text's inner mirror of the imaginary.

     Strictly speaking, the structure of self-difference which I have described is not a "failure" understood against the backdrop of an imagined, "successful" text, but an expression of more deeply inscribed articulations. What keeps Davey from possessing the post-modernism he affirms may instead reflect the turns of a more profound "error," a systemic blindness which inhabits the post-modernist project and which in a very real sense writes "Davey."9 But neither is this self-difference open to recuperation by what Davey names as "postmodernism," since it is precisely that which exceeds it. Distanced from its own desire, Davey's critical text is unavoida bly put into play in the hiatus between theory and its own reading/writing. For strategic purposes we could call the resulting, exorbitant, textual effect "post-modernism," as a way of underlining how Davey's theory displaces itself. But to do so risks reproducing the hallucination that only contemporary writings are characterized thus, and, stranger still, that this self-difference is a sign of a lately won meta-critical sophistication. Davey is certainly not alone in associating post-modernism with a kind of theoretical refinement, and it is the evaluative logic of this association that compels him to imagine all "earlier" texts, especially Romantic or Modernist texts, to be much simpler than they in fact are. His detailed attention to the complexities of post-modernism only throws into relief his curious tendency to simplify comparable complexities in earlier moments of literary his tory — or to ignore these moments altogether. It seems to me that post- modernists could learn a great deal by recalling that, for example, "the long poem" was intimately involved with problems of "appropriation, recontextualization, literary intervention, historical revision, textual subversion, re-inscription, [and] re-construction"(133) somewhat before the writing of The Martyrology — as a glance at the extent and depth of post-structuralist work on Wordsworth's Prelude will instantly attest. Like "Romanticism," "Modernism" tends to be employed far too carelessly and simplistically in Davey's book, even though there is a large and growing body of critical work available to suggest that terms like these have always effaced and elided much more than they ever revealed.10 For Davey to distinguish the post-modernist text from the modernist text on the grounds that only the latter "dreams of unity"(210), for example, is to make the very mistake that he attributes to modernism, for such distinctions ignore what is in fact palpably problematic about modernism, and, for that matter, about all attempts to divide literary history into discrete "dreams." As Howard Felperin warns, we must be careful not "to perpetuate the . . . error of trying to explain the unknown by the more unknown, for how can we speak of 'post modernism' when the nature of modernism itself is very much open to question?"11 The danger of writing literary history in this way is even more apparent if we remember that the explosion of metatheoretical work over the past twenty years has come largely from a scrupulous reading, not of post-modernist writers, but of Romantic authors such as Rousseau, Wordsworth, H÷lderlin, and Shelley.

     The survival, and, indeed, the underlying necessity, of a genetic historical model in Reading Canadian Reading, in which the past —  Davey's and English literature's — grows into a more complex present, clearly marks the limits of the post-modernist critique as Davey defines them. It also points to the need for Canadian theorists to desynonymize post-modernism and post-structuralism, or much more exactly, post-modernist affirmations of infinitized free-play and the radically disarticulating force of deconstruction. Running before and across post-modernism, a deconstructive reading has little or no stake in privileging recent texts over earlier ones. In the case of Reading Canadian Reading, it disrupts the polemic determinations of the early/late opposition underwriting the text's clandestine historical narrative by finding that specularity is not something that literary theory came into recently but was there from the beginning, at the divided heart of the critical gesture itself. Thus in Earle Birney Davey can claim to have "access to the writer's intentions"(27), just as he can argue that the Romantics possessed a "belief in an organically whole nature"(57); but what is claimed or argued is always just that — a positing, an intent, and therefore an expression of hermeneutical desire or belief rather than a statement of simple fact. Even the most fervently argued interpretation is permanently in the subjunctive mood, unsaying itself at the moment that it speaks. As de Man argued more than thirty years ago, a critical text "states its own truth in the mode of error."12 Understood as a self-conflictual site, as a knot of blindness and insight, an "earlier" text could hardly be said, then, to possess the uncomplicated na´vetÚ that post-modernism requires of it in order to secure for itself a "later" complexity. A deconstructive reading of post-modernism would consequently raise several pertinent questions: if the deep "truth" of a critical text is that it is always at best a statement of hermeneutical desire, how is this text in any meaningful way different from a text like Reading Canadian Reading, which also declares its fictionality? What exactly are we saying when we attribute a "much greater level of self-consciousness"(43) to a post-modernist text? Greater in what way? How is the critical text as de Man describes it in any way less self-conscious, less caught up in the problematic of representation than a text which actually says that it is caught up in the problematic of representation? Who cares what a text says about itself, especially a post-modernist text? My last question is not meant to be frivolous since it is the very question that the post-modernist text asks but cannot afford to answer: to base the distinction between self-conscious and un-self-conscious criticism mostly on the presence or absence of foregrounding devices we must attribute an extraordinary epistemological authority to the precise textual characteristics which have put that authority into the most doubt. We begin to see why "self-consciousness" and "self-reflexivity" are the metaphors of choice in naming what amounts to a purely formal difference between post-modernist texts and their supposedly less insightful counterparts or predecessors. Texts of course have no consciousness or reflective capacity; the notion of a textual knowledge or self-knowledge is a figure, and although it is a figure freighted with meaning in post-modernist criticism, it is (to cite de Man) "without an objective correlative that can unambiguously be pointed to in empirical reality," as when we speak of a literal self reflecting upon and knowing itself.13 The hidden aporia in Davey's appeal to consciousness and self-reflection is that it is only through the use of these profoundly phenomenological tropes that post-modernist criticism can momentarily ground itself in a realm lying "outside" the play of figures and representations. Covertly assimilating itself to the order of cognition in this way, the post-modernist text is an example of the same metaphysical gesture that it designates as error.

     The reliance on unexamined literary historical models and metaphors of understanding — no less aberrant for being necessary — will only prevent us from seeing that Reading Canadian Reading is no more and no less capable of reflecting on its own written-ness than any number of earlier theoretical texts — unless of course we appeal to wholly unknowable things like the authorial intentions or desires of writers like Frank Davey. Above and beyond such phenomenological considerations, however, theoretical texts as texts, as fictionalized theory, are always their own readings and reflections, just as they are always their own resistance and affirmation, regardless of whether they are tricked out with the specular turns that we have come to associate with post-modernism. If we are to attach any significance to these formal effects it should be by way of placing Reading Canadian Reading in the larger context of works like Coleridge's Biographia Literaria and Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript, works, that is, which are not obviously post-modernist and yet which share with Davey's volume the marked capacity to uncover or disfigure their own hermeneutical theories as tropes of understanding. But Canadian post-modernism, as Davey envisages it, has a powerful stake in representing itself as original and originating, and thus in avoiding the knowledge of its own genealogy and metacritical provenance. "To write is to have the passion of the origin," Derrida remarks:14 Reading Canadian Reading is everywhere traced by this passion — in Davey's depictions of Romanticism and Modernism as blinded or na´ve, in his ambivalent reimagining of his own critical past, and, perhaps most straightforwardly, in his characterization of Derrida. In a way that at first might seem inexplicably chauvinistic (in the original sense), Davey minimizes the importance of Derrida's work by characterizing it as one example of "other national criticisms" whose applicability to the Canadian scene is limited for having "focussed almost exclusively on French literature"(9; emphasis mine). Derrida's targets are, as Davey surely knows, primarily non-French, and, for that matter, non-literary: the deconstructive readings of Plato, Freud, Husserl, Heidegger, Searle, Austin, Nietzsche, and Hegel come easily to mind. At issue is not whether Derrida's interests are Gallic, however, but what Davey gains by uncritically separating out "criticisms" on the basis of national origin. Derrida's criticism, like Davey's, is in large part directed against the very sort of value-laden and foundationalist opposition of self-same and "other" upon which nationalisms of all kinds are based. What, then, can account for this sudden blindness about Derrida, this bracketing of the arch-post-structuralist from Davey's post-modernism? What perhaps but a deep sense of belatedness which prompts an equal and opposite assertion of originality. Davey's post-modernist escape from "metaphysics" may be a displaced figure for the oldest metaphysical gesture of them all.


  1. Reading Canadian Reading (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1988). All subsequent page references to Davey's volume will be cited within the body of the essay.[back]

  2. Balachandra Rajan, The Overwhelming Question: A Study of the Poetry of T.S. Eliot (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976).[back]

  3. Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1947), pp. 197-198.[back]

  4. Christopher Norris, Paul de Man: Deconstruction and the Critique of Aesthetic Ideology (Routledge: New York, 1988), p. ix.[back]

  5. See "Maps of Misreading: Literary Theory and the 'New Canadian Criticism Series,'" Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, 20 (Spring/Summer, 1987), especially pp. 104-109.[back]

  6. Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984), p. 57.[back]

  7. Davey similarly claims that his earlier book had argued that Atwood had erred "in not writing in forms more congruent with her vision of the female as disorderly and spon taneous"(76), when in fact very little is said which would indicate that he viewed the matter as erroneous.[back]

  8. The Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, forthcoming).[back]

  9. I borrow the distinction between "error" and "failure" (or "mistake") from Stanley Corngold. See his "Error in Paul de Man," Critical Inquiry, 8 (1983), 489-507.[back]

  10. See, for example, Stephen Melville, Philosophy Beside Itself On Deconstruction and Modernism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), and Paul de Man's seminal 1969 essay, "Literary History and Literary Modernity," in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, pp. 142-165.[back]

  11. Shakespearean Representation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), pp. 6-7.[back]

  12. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 16. As de Man says in another essay in this volume, at a certain "level of thought it is difficult to distinguish between a proposition and that which constitutes its opposite" (p. 255).[back]

  13. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, p. 6.[back]

  14. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 295.[back]

    David L. Clark