Antagonized by the text, or, it takes two to read Alice Walkers "Everyday Use"

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Author: Matthew Mullins
Date: May 2013
From: The Comparatist(Vol. 37)
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,468 words

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After publishing his study of Racine in 1963, Roland Barthes came under fire for what many critics of the French literary establishment saw as a misreading of the iconic dramatist. One particularly hostile member of the Sorbonne, Raymond Picard, charged Barthes with denying the possibility of self-evident "objective knowledge in literary criticism" (Keuneman xiv). "The stage was set," Francois Dosse recounts, "and all the elements assembled for the duel, which was cast like some great Racinian tragedy of the twentieth century" (223). But Barthes refused to take the stage. He responded to Picard's attack, which was entitled New Criticism or New Imposture?, with a short treatise of his own entitled Criticism and Truth. Philip Thody characterizes this exchange by explaining that "instead of taking up Picard's somewhat acerbic criticisms and responding with a comparably mordant wit, [Barthes] moved the debate on to higher ground" (viii). Despite Picard's best attempts to pick a fight, Barthes, it seems, avoids any antagonism altogether. Yet, there is a strain of antagonism at work in Criticism and Truth, an antagonism between critic and text: "as soon as one claims to examine the work in itself, from the point of view of its make-up, it becomes impossible not to raise broad questions of symbolic meaning" (Barthes 16). This concept of symbolic, or second-order meaning, which Barthes addresses most notably in Mythologies, transforms the critic into a perennial antagonist dedicated to demystifying, demythologizing, and unmasking the text.

A wave of recent criticism suggests that the predominant view of the relationship between critic and text in literary studies today is one of antagonism. However, what should be a dialogic battle most often turns out to be a one-sided interrogation of the text, which theorists have variously described as "paranoid," "suspicious," and "symptomatic." (1) "As literary critics," Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus observe, "we [have been] trained to equate reading with interpretation: with assigning meaning to a text or set of texts" (1). In fact, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that "in the context of recent U.S. critical theory [...] to apply a 'hermeneutic of suspicion' is, I believe, widely understood as a mandatory injunction rather than a possibility among other possibilities" (5). Best and Marcus and Sedgwick have tackled this problem, as Rita Felski does in her essay "Suspicious Minds," by situating the hermeneutics of suspicion as one unique approach among many. (2) But as Felski points out, this discussion has focused primarily on "the suspicious dimensions of contemporary styles of criticism" and not "the related issue of how works of literature encourage suspicion in readers" (216n). Rather than jettisoning the language of antagonism altogether as others have done, (3) this essay takes up the issue of textual agency, considering how texts incite, provoke, and generally antagonize readers. Recognizing the agency of the literary text in its antagonism with the reader, I argue, revises our current critic-driven hermeneutic by abandoning unnecessary limitations on the practice of reading that drown out the text's voice and ultimately enslave the critic to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A330143673