Boccaccio’s Realism

Mimesis on Trial: Legal and Literary Verisimilitude in Boccaccio’s Decameron

by Justin Steinberg

The essay begins:

Boccaccio is generally the least appreciated of the “Three Crowns” of the Italian literary canon (after Petrarch and Dante), yet his focus on the realistic, even gritty details of everyday life, everyday characters, and everyday language has no real precedent, at least not one of the scope of the Decameron. Studies of the novel typically identify Boccaccio’s masterpiece as an influential precursor in the development of modern literary realism, and Erich Auerbach devotes a critical chapter to the Decameron in his monumental history of Western mimesis. Although recent scholarship has called into question Boccaccio’s supposed modernity, underlining the allegorical aspects of the Decameron and its continued debt to medieval textual practices, it is difficult to deny that, at the very least, Boccaccio expands the frame of what can be legitimately represented in literature.

At the same time, something is inevitably lost when we view the Decameron from the end point of the modern novel. Our retrospective glance privileges a very specific conception of realism, a conception defined by its rejection of rhetorical notions of appropriateness and fittingness. (This unruly literary style befits a genre “in which one can tell absolutely any story in any way whatsoever.”) Auerbach, for example, maintains that only once literature has freed itself from the rigid confines of classical decorum is it possible for authors to depict the world in its complex, particularistic entirety. Yet this version of realism does not admit the extent to which Boccaccio’s mimetic art remains preoccupied by rhetorical verisimilitude. While it’s true that Boccaccio incessantly interrogates the status of verisimilitude throughout the Decameron—what it means for something to “fit” in a given scenario—he does so by delving into the precise components of the circumstantiae (the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a case, deployed by an orator to enhance the “true-seemingness” of his argument). Even when exploring its inner contradictions, that is, Boccaccio innovates through, rather than from, rhetoric. Studies that neglect the influence of rhetorical verisimilitude on Boccaccio’s realism, preferring to imagine a seamless evolution from the plausible to the particular, miss this essential tension at the heart of the Decameron between competing notions of the real.

Rather than treating the Decameron as a stepping-stone on the path toward modern realism, I will argue that Boccaccio’s realistic style is a historically specific response to a historically specific crisis of verisimilitude. This crisis was propelled by a critical institutional innovation: the rise and spread of the medieval inquisitorial procedure. In the inquisitorial trial, judges were frequently called upon to estimate the likelihood of circumstantial evidence; this migration of notions about the probable from the rhetorical to the judicial sphere, from persuasion to evidence, is Boccaccio’s primary focus and concern. Through the many trial scenes in the Decameron, he illustrates the dangers that arise when judges, witnesses, and prosecutors are “trapped by a picture”—when the theater of justice becomes a self-fulfilling mimesis of the already known and always seen. The singular, remarkable details that eventually come to the fore in these trials (and that characterize the plot lines of Boccaccio’s novelle) reveal the disconnect between norms of likelihood and the particulars of a case.

Not only do the trials in the Decameron probe the legal uses of verisimilitude as evidence, they also raise questions about verisimilitude as a literary device. What is the relationship between an aesthetic principle of “fittingness” and the normative knowledge of “what happens for the most part”? What is the role of innovation in an art of the probable? How can a plausible account of the facts encompass historical contingency and singularity? These simultaneously legal and literary questions are exactly what the Decameron is wired to navigate: the degree to which the verisimilar picture must be open to the singular case, the structure open to the event.

My argument, then, is not simply that Boccaccio was influenced by rhetorical verisimilitude but also that he employs the numerous “procedural” tales in the Decameron to reflect critically on the nature of, and the increasing real-world power of, realistic narrative. Continually questioning the very realism he employs as a poet, he puts mimesis on trial. Continue reading …

In this essay Justin Steinberg argues that the celebrated realism of Boccaccio’s Decameron responds to the new prominence of verisimilitude in legal contexts in his time.

Justin Steinberg is Professor of Italian literature at the University of Chicago and editor-in-chief of Dante Studies. He is the author of Accounting for Dante: Urban Readers and Writers in Late Medieval Italy (Notre Dame, 2007) and Dante and the Limits of the Law (Chicago, 2015). He is currently writing a book on Boccaccio, representation, and the law.


An Episode in the Histories of Realism and Emotion

Prosaic Suffering: Bourgeois Tragedy and the Aesthetics of the Ordinary

by Alex Eric Hernandez

The essay begins: 

In 1778, Samuel Johnson was asked to weigh in on the prose of a new bourgeois tragedy, The Female Gamester. Its author, Gorges Edmond Howard, was a Dublin-based lawyer and literary dabbler whose attempt at domestic drama might have been wholly forgotten were it not for the fragment of Johnsoniana he preserved in its preface. Having originally written the play in a mixture of prose and verse, Howard had been advised by “several of [his] literary acquaintance” that his “not much exalted” prose was much more suitable to the “scene . . . laid in private life, and chiefly among those of middling rank.” For many, it seems, the bourgeoisie suffered in prose. But Johnson, Howard recalls, would have none of this:

Having communicated this to Dr. Samuel Johnson, his words (as well as I remember) were, “That he could hardly consider a prose Tragedy as dramatic . . . that let it be either in the middling or in low life, it may, though in metre and spirited, be properly familiar and colloquial; that, many in the middling rank are not without erudition; that they have the feelings and sensations of nature, and every emotion in consequence thereof, as well as the great, and that even the lowest, when impassioned, raise their language.”

Johnson’s argument tweaked the older, neoclassical assumption that poetic decorum mandates a correspondence between the language and social rank of a drama’s principal figures. Here a tragedy’s verse style has less to do with the nobility of those represented—as had been the case for John Dryden in An Essay on Dramatick Poesie (1668), where heroic rhyme’s “exalt[ation] above . . . common converse” images “the minds and fortunes of noble persons . . . exactly”than with the intensity of the depicted afflictions. Tragedy needs verse not because its “elevation” allegorizes the status of its heroes, but because it corresponds to the magnitude of the drama’s subject matter, quite literally inscribing an emotional richness otherwise lost in the flatness of prose.

Johnson’s intervention plays out a mid-eighteenth-century discussion of the representation of emotion on the tragic stage, disclosing an unease with the degrading (if not also disenchanting) effects of prosaic suffering. Contemporaries in the period worried that prose was “fine and nervous,” disconcertingly “artless,” and “offensive,” while at the same time mere “trifling,” “below the dignity of Tragedy,” and even, for that reason, somehow “unnatural” in its expression. Consider, for example, that Johnson himself asserts that affliction “raises [one’s] language,” lapsing—naturally, he suggests—out of the grittiness of prose into the elegance of the poetic. A sort of poetry in the raw, suffering reaches after what’s already aesthetic and universal to misfortune, while prose trivializes and bogs down in the particular, rendering a tragedy “hardly dramatic,” untrue to the genre and affliction it purports to represent. Writing a few years later, Henry Mackenzie saw the genre’s strength as its ability to simulate those very same particulars, “the ordinary feelings and exertions of life” that nevertheless remained in tension with the tragic. In his view, suffering of this sort was if anything too true, its realism overburdening one’s perception. “Real distress, coming in a homely and unornamented state,” he concludes, “disgusts the eye.” Obscuring its art with disturbing efficacy, the outward formlessness of prosaic suffering threatened to neutralize the pleasures of the tragic.

These concerns spoke to a moment of renewed interest in bourgeois and domestic tragedy, capping a period of formal experimentation in Britain, France, and Germany that Peter Gay claims was crucial to the Enlightenment’s “emancipation of art.” Beginning around the production of George Lillo’s landmark 1731 tragedy The London Merchant, a series of important works fashioned a new aesthetic idiom calibrated to “the ordinary feelings and exertions of life” by working through varieties of verse, prose, and the visual arts. Scholars have long cited Denis Diderot’s Le Fils naturel (1757) and Discours sur la poésie dramatique (1757) as well as G. E. Lessing’s Miss Sara Sampson (1755), Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767–69), and Emilia Galotti (1772) as key moments in the drama’s modernization. But a variety of lesser-known works such as Charles Johnson’s prose Caelia; or The Perjur’d Lover (1732), Lillo’s 1736 encore to The London Merchant, Fatal Curiosity (which contemporaries claimed produced domestic interiors to horrifying effect in the cramped Little Haymarket theater), and Trauerspiele like Clementina von Poretta (1760; by Christoph Martin Wieland) and Clarissa (Johann Heinrich Steffens’s 1765 dramatization of Samuel Richardson’s novel) played with the representational mechanics of what one might call “ordinary suffering,” inhabiting familiar spaces and embodied emotion in ways that contemporaries took to be radical departures from established tragic convention. Among the most revolutionary of these innovations was the sustained use of prose, which until then had been largely confined to the domain of comedy. Indeed, in London, the 1770s and ’80s alone saw the production and publication of a number of prose tragedies, including notable revivals of The London Merchant and Edward Moore’s The Gamester (1753), curious adaptations such as The Fatal Interview (1782; a domestic tragic sequel to Pamela), quasi-gothic meditations on domestic violence like Richard Cumberland’s The Mysterious Husband (1783), as well as drames bourgeois in the form of Diderot’s 1758 Le Père de famille (translated “by a lady” as The Family Picture in 1781) and Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’Indigent (1772; translated in London and Edinburgh as The Distressed Family in 1787). Despite the concerns of those like Johnson and Mackenzie, by the latter half of the century, a deft use of prose on the stage could render the theater uncannily intimate, calling forth a space where private woe played out for all to see.

In what follows, I want to explore the affective stakes of this turn to prosaic suffering. Or rather more precisely, I want to trace a line through the contested process by which suffering became prosaic in eighteenth-century bourgeois and domestic drama in order to draw some implications for the history of emotion and the dialectics of realism at midcentury. My claim is that the emergence of prosaic suffering on the period’s tragic stage helps to imagine modern forms of affliction, thereby navigating a range of confessedly “ordinary” feelings by evoking and engaging and testing them across page and stage. Unlike the “heroick suffering” of classical, pathetic, or otherwise “high” tragic forms prevalent at the earlier part of the century, prosaic suffering performed its grief with troubling immediacy and a raw intensity, in ways that were personal and familiar, absorptive rather than theatrical, and provocatively disenchanted in their implications. Prosaic suffering presents the tragic figure as an emblem of abandonment, in which (as Georg Lukács claimed of the novel) everyday life is experienced as simultaneously leaden and trivial. I anchor my discussion in a close reading of Moore’s The Gamester, a drama whose importance to the development of realism was well known in the eighteenth century, and whose use of prose at midcentury tracks this shift in suffering most clearly, though by no means exclusively (as will become clear). Adapting the novel’s “writing to the moment” for the theater, (a method almost certainly absorbed in Moore’s reading of Clarissa and correspondence with Richardson on the novel’s formal effects), prose conferred a lively presence upon the performance of suffering, in ways that denied its spectators the sort of rhetorical elevation that stood in for transcendence. In making this case, therefore, I place the practices of British bourgeois tragedy in dialogue with contemporary performance and aesthetic theory so as to reconstruct the terrain of emotion’s exploration onstage. If, as one critic has claimed, versification serves to beautify the experience of suffering, prose insists on its crude intolerability, its reality and resistance to poetic gilding. Continue reading …

This essay looks to bourgeois tragedy’s use of prose in the mid-eighteenth century as an episode in the histories of realism and emotion, arguing that the emergence of prosaic suffering on the period’s tragic stage helps to imagine modern forms of affliction. Taking Edward Moore’s 1753 drama The Gamester as emblematic of this shift, and situating the text in its performative and aesthetic contexts, I trace the “emotional practices” that navigated a range of confessedly “ordinary” feelings by evoking, engaging, and testing them across page and stage. Performing its grief with troubling immediacy and a raw intensity, in ways that were personal and familiar, absorptive rather than theatrical, and provocatively disenchanted, bourgeois tragedy thereby embodied a middling mode of existence in which the prosaic qualified not only the drama’s form but also, ultimately, its content.

ALEX ERIC HERNANDEZ is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he works on Restoration and eighteenth-century literature and culture. This essay is part of his book in progress titled Modernity and Affliction: The Making of British Bourgeois Tragedy.


The “Minor Writer” and Literary Value

The Metapragmatics of the “Minor Writer”: Zoë Wicomb, Literary Value, and the Windham-Campbell Prize Festival

by Aaron Bartels-Swindells

The essay begins:

UnknownIn the festival program for the 2013 Windham-Campbell Prize for Literature, Zoë Wicomb, a South African writer primarily known for her work during the postapartheid era, construed her success as “impossible. For a minor writer like myself, this is a validation I would never have dreamt of.” The prizes, given by Yale University, are among the most lucrative individual cultural awards in the world, worth $150,000 each, and the honor was well publicized: in addition to generating global media coverage, Yale hosted a four-day festival that included a prize ceremony and reading. Wicomb’s self-identification as a “minor writer” seems slightly paradoxical in light of such publicity and remuneration. What, then, does “minor writer” signify? How is that significance shaped by broader frameworks that change throughout time and space?

My approach to these questions understands signification as the effect and effectiveness of social action. My adoption of language-in-use methodologies is inspired by Wicomb’s pragmatist analyses of contemporary South African literature and culture, which demonstrate an acute sense of how utterances interact with contexts fashioned through social action. In one such essay, “Shame and Identity: The Case of the Coloured in South Africa,” Wicomb examines how contemporary discursive formulations are produced by and engender “coloured” shame. She uses the past and present of coloured shame to consider the fate of South Africa’s “youthful postcoloniality,” analyzing “ethnographic self-fashioning” and “discursive construction by others” in relation to “the narrative of liberation and its dissemination in the world media that constructed oppression in particular ways.” This formulation provides the impetus to consider how narratives about oppression emanate and are taken up in ways that effect localized articulations of identity. Wicomb’s paper encourages us to examine the significance of the “minor writer”—and its poetic resonances with “minority”—in relation to her claim that “the newly democratized South Africa remains dependent on the old economic, social, and also epistemological structures of apartheid, and thus it is axiomatic that different groups created by the old system do not participate equally in the category of postcoloniality.” We should also think about how the term “minor writer” functions in relation to Wicomb’s literary works, following her discussion of the deleterious influence that these epistemological structures and narratives about oppression have on metropolitan reading strategies that stress cultural hybridity.

Unknown-1Wicomb’s second novel, David’s Story, from which she read at the Windham-Campbell Prize (henceforth WCP) festival, stages many of her concerns about shame, cultural hybridity, the effacement of history, and the past and present status of women in the struggle for justice in postcolonial society. The novel, according to critic Dorothy Driver, is “self-consciously positioned as a postmodernist text” and “dramatize[s] the literary, political, philosophical and ethical issues at stake in any attempt at retrieval of history and voice.” Set in 1991, after the release of Nelson Mandela, and told by a nameless amanuensis, the narrative weaves a number of related plots that imply connections between past and present around that of David Dirkse, a former guerilla of the African National Congress (ANC), who, after the unbanning of the movement, researches the history of his coloured roots. The segment that Wicomb chose to read does not mention David and is drawn from the second narrative of David’s Story, which is about a “minor Griqua chief.” How does this excerpt from the narrative function in relation to Wicomb’s self-description as a “minor writer”?

This article considers postapartheid narratives of liberation and the activity of parsing a text in relation to the creation and circulation of literary and social value. Thus, while I focalize my discussion through the term “minor writer,” my aim is to understand how the expression functions in relation to the schemata of value to which its usage points. The article proceeds in two parts. The first examines how two distinct usages of “minor writer” index different schemata of social knowledge. From Wicomb’s use of the phrase in an interview from 2002 about writing and nation, I explicate how “minor writer” articulates a self-reflective orientation to the intersection of literary and social value in South Africa. I then contrast this usage with the section on Wicomb from the WCP program, which effects a transformation of social value by yoking representations of Wicomb’s literary persona and voice to a particular kind of chronotopic formulation of South Africa. My reading of this artifact demonstrates how microdescriptions of Wicomb and her work evoke macroconstructions of South African society, a process that occludes Wicomb’s self-positioning in the earlier interview. The second part asks how discourses from the WCP festival concerning value circulate beyond it, and whether they affect how we read texts that move between schemata of value. At stake throughout is how the power to consecrate literary value is metapragmatically constituted and contested in relation to the term “minor writer.” Continue reading …

How does the significance of Zoë Wicomb’s description of herself as a “minor writer” in the 2013 Windham-Campbell Prize festival program contrast with her other uses of the term? Arguing that the term’s usage at different times and places indexes distinct schemata of value, I examine the program as an artifact that sediments a certain formulation of Wicomb’s literary persona and provides affordances for parsing her literary works.

AARON BARTELS-SWINDELLS is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania.

Hazlitt’s Ephemeral Style

Talking with Texts: Hazlitt’s Ephemeral Style

by Tristram Wolff

The essay begins …

Since social life, like art, is a problem of appeal, the poetic metaphor would give us invaluable hints for describing modes of practical action which are too often measured by simple tests of utility and too seldom with reference to the communicative, sympathetic, propitiatory factors that are clearly present in the procedures of formal art and must be as truly present in those informal arts of living we do not happen to call arts. . . . Is not the relation between individual and group greatly illuminated by reference to the corresponding relation between writer and audience?

—Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change

Introduction: Mouthiness

When he wrote this passage, in 1935, Kenneth Burke was—as ever—looking for ways to persuade readers not only to observe written texts themselves as forms of social action but also to observe social action through what he called “the poetic metaphor.” According to this view, social life is a kind of “composition”: it is guided by questions of address (the “problem of appeal”); its “assertions,” as he puts it, must be “socialized by revision.” Though generally overlooked, the “communicative, sympathetic, propitiatory factors” foregrounded in art similarly bear the weight of social interaction (such “factors” belong, in the context of this special issue, to the indexical threadwork that allows “participation frameworks” to hang together). In the epigraph’s final line, Burke suggests that cultural-historical relations of a literary kind, as between “writer” and “audience,” revealing lines of separation imaginable between individual and group in a given social formation. Better remembered for arguing that literary forms bespeak and contest broader cultural convictions, here we are reminded that Burke also advocated thinking about social relations themselves through categories of verbal art.

In the work of British romantic essayist and political radical William Hazlitt (1778–1830), vivid accounts of the sociable worlds of everyday speech in early nineteenth-century London—in the tavern, parlor, pulpit, theater, or Parliament—are often likewise enmeshed in questions of literary form, in a comparable if unsystematic fusion of literary and social criticism. Burke’s comments (and the ethnopoetic and metapragmatic fields of research that Burke indirectly influenced) retrospectively help clarify that what enables Hazlitt so readily to assume continuities between literary writing and sociable ways of speaking is a version of the belief that language, whether literary or not, is active in and constitutive of the worlds around it. Moreover, the inseparability for Hazlitt of politics and style points to his intuitive grasp of the latter—in any of the discursive genres he analyzes, including his own writing—as practical activity.

In this he seems to have had an early sense of how, as V. N. Voloshinov emphatically put it, “poetic work is a powerful condenser of unarticulated social evaluations,” and reciprocally the way that “these social evaluations . . . organize form.” If the Marxist-inflected idea of language as practical activity elaborated by the likes of Burke and the Bakhtin circle aided later influential theoreticians of sociolinguistic practice like Erving Goffman, Dell Hymes, and Michael Silverstein in bridging analytic domains by offering theories of social discourse imagined through categories borrowed from verbal art (for example, performance roles, genres, meter), the point of departure for this article is to open backward onto a longer history of thought that presumes the mutual involvement of linguistic styles and social fractions. For this account, the prehistory of a literary sociology like Burke’s materializes in an earlier view of language as constitutive social activity. Though their narratives conflict in some respects, critics seem to agree that, for various reasons, views of language as historical, “public,” and active take recognizable shape in the literary era we now call romantic; indeed, one head of the difficult hydra called “European romanticism” was a rapid shift in available theories of linguistic change and interaction. Under romanticism’s monstrous shadow, then, this article zeroes in on William Hazlitt as one idiosyncratic precursor for language-in-use. Continue reading …

This article considers how the essayistic style of William Hazlitt’s printed texts produces, in its form, a critique of what it considers conservatism in speech and its uncritical reception. Situating Hazlitt in a longer history of thought that considers language a form of practical activity, I argue that the conversational character of Hazlitt’s writing is calculated not to resemble speech, but rather to take aim at speech’s false spontaneity.

Tristram-WolffTRISTRAM WOLFF teaches in the Comparative Literary Studies Program at Northwestern University. He was a cowinner of the ACLA’s 2015 Bernheimer Award for best dissertation in the field of comparative literature. He is currently completing a book on the poetics and politics of the linguistic root, titled Frail Bonds: Romantic Etymology and Language Ecology.

Steven Justice on Historicism

Representations’ Steven Justice will present the 2016 Gayley Lecture at UC Berkeley


On Wednesday, APRIL 20, from  7:00 to 9:00 PM in 300 Wheeler Hall (Maude Fife Room), UC Berkeley

Steven Justice is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (California, 1994) and Adam Usk’s Secret (Penn, 2015). He is currently writing a series of books on belief and historical inquiry.

In addition to his editorial work for Representations, Justice’s written contributions include “Did the Middle Ages Believe in Their Miracles” (103, Summer 2008) and “Inquisition, Speech,and Writing: A Case from Late-Medieval Norwich” (48, Fall 1994).

Endō Shūsaku and Frantz Fanon

Crossed Geographies: Endō and Fanon in Lyon

By Christopher L. Hill

Textual evidence indicates that the novelist Endō Shūsaku read the anticolonialist writer Frantz Fanon in the early 1950s, incorporating Fanon’s arguments on color and colonialism into his depiction of Japanese subjects after 1945. In this essay, examination of that heretofore unnoticed encounter provides an opportunity to reconsider the paradigms by which each writer is understood today and the terms in which they imagined a world not ordered by empires, whether European, American, or Japanese.

The author writes:

“The paths writers trace in the world tell as much about the geographies scholars give them as the geographies they lived. Figures of international repute pass each other unnoticed if the conventions under which we labor don’t allow a meeting. Once acknowledged, such encounters are an opportunity. Unexpected encounters reveal greater forces at work; new questions demand answers. Through crossed paths we can see the world in a different shape, but only if we are willing. In disciplinary and conceptual terms, we shy away from the leap of scale that making sense of an encounter between, say, a novelist from Japan and an anticolonialist from Martinique requires. It is easier to blow up or clone—to ‘globalize’ a national field or to deploy a theory anew—than to struggle toward a geohistorical problematic, a transnational frame for criticism, that would not reduce the unevenness and heterogeneity of the geography of lived experience to a comforting, because familiar, model. Two discomforting journeys may suggest the way.

200px-Frantz_Fanon“In early 1943 Frantz Fanon, who later became famous for his writings on colonial psychology and the struggle against colonialism, dropped out of his lycée and took a boat from Martinique to Dominica, where he hoped to join the Free French army. He was sent home, but the following March, after Martinique rallied to Charles de Gaulle, he sailed for Morocco with some one thousand volunteers. Fanon told a teacher that when freedom was at stake, all were concerned—but only the officers and some of the noncommissioned officers onboard were white; the rest of the volunteers were black. In the training camp in Morocco, soldiers from Martinique and Guadeloupe (‘old’ French colonies) ate the same food and wore the same uniforms as white soldiers; they lived apart from recruits from Morocco, Algeria, and sub-Saharan Africa. Fanon and his friends quickly saw that the army that had been formed to fight fascism had a racial hierarchy: whites at the top, North Africans at the bottom, and black West Indians ambiguously above the African Tirailleurs sénégalais in the middle. When Fanon’s unit decamped to Algeria in July, he discovered that the locals loathed black men. By the time he was fighting in France, in autumn, he was doubting his position between European soldiers and the Tirailleurs, because the black soldiers seemed to face the worst action. In January 1945 he wrote his brother that his reasons for joining up had been wrong; in April he wrote his parents the same.

“Fanon returned to Martinique in late 1945 and finished his baccalaureate. With funds provided for veterans’ education, he sailed late the next year for Paris, where he planned to study dentistry. He left Paris abruptly a few weeks after arriving there and went on to Lyon, where he enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at its university, specializing in psychiatry. He read widely, attended classes by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and gave some lectures of his own. In May 1951 he published ‘The Lived Experience of the Black Man’ (‘L’Expérience vécue du noir’), an essay on Antillean men’s discovery that in France they were considered to be black. He took a temporary post in Dôle while he finished his thesis, which he defended at the end of November. He spent several weeks in Martinique in February and March 1952, but, deciding against practicing there, he returned to France and took a post at the clinic in Saint-Alban run by François Tosquelles, where he developed the foundations of his social psychiatry. In February he published an essay on the psychosomatic illnesses of North African men in Lyon, ‘The North African Syndrome’ (‘Le Syndrome nord-africain’), and in June, Black Skin, White Masks (Peau noire, masques blancs). (‘The Lived Experience of the Black Man’ was its fifth chapter.) After another temporary assignment in 1953, he took a post in Blida in Algeria, where he moved in November, and began learning about the struggle against French rule; in 1955 he began his work with the anticolonial Algerian National Liberation Front. He never returned to Martinique.

b2767b0b“In June 1950, Endō Shūsaku, who later became famous for fiction about Catholicism, began a journey in a different part of the world that, like Fanon’s, took him to Lyon. The first leg was a fourth-class voyage from Yokohama to Marseille. As Endō observed in his diary, relations among the passengers were determined by wealth, race, and the hierarchies of Western colonialism. A group of African soldiers from the French colonial army shared his compartment. They were returning to Saigon after escorting war criminals to Japan. During several port calls, Endō, and other Japanese students too, were treated as war criminals by local authorities. In Manila they were assembled on deck, while Filipinos on the docks shouted ‘Murderers!’ and ‘Assholes!’ in Japanese. In Singapore they were forbidden to disembark. While passing through the Suez Canal he learned of North Korea’s invasion of the South and US President Harry Truman’s order to intervene. After arriving in Marseille, Endō spent July and August with a Catholic family in Rouen, where he encountered a Japan-hating young man whose brother had served in Indochina during the Asia-Pacific War.

“In September Endō settled in Lyon, where he enrolled at the Catholic University and the University of Lyon’s Faculty of Letters to study French Catholic writers. In the streets Endō encountered plaques marking locations where fighters in the French Resistance had fallen; he also learned about a massacre of civilians by the Resistance in the town of Fons. His experiences on ship and the traces of the Resistance in France pushed him in the following years to write several stories, two novellas, and a novel about collaboration, resistance, and war crimes in France and Japan. Twice in 1952 Endō spent time in sanatoria in the Alps for tuberculosis. He moved to Paris in the autumn of that year and was hospitalized there in December. One of the patients in his four-bed room, a veteran, berated Endō with memories of his treatment by the Japanese army in Indochina. In January 1953 he departed Marseille for Japan because of his health. In 1954 he published a semi-autobiographical story called ‘As Far as Aden’ (‘Aden made’), about a Japanese student’s time in France, where he discovered he was un jaune, a yellow man, in the eyes of French whites….

“Yet the geographies of each writer’s lived experience are not as distinct as those in which scholarship presently confines them. The circumstances that shaped their writings on color and colonialism were at once personal and part of a history that encompassed both the Caribbean and East Asia. Reading Endō’s work through Fanon’s, and Fanon’s through Endō’s, reveals a mid-twentieth-century history of race and racialization on a large (I will not say global) scale. In this history decolonization and what should be called the de-imperialization of Japan by the victors in the Asia-Pacific War are entangled with the demise of the European empires and the rise of the American. The transformations coincided with manifold changes in the social meanings of black, white, and yellow and the rights associated with them. A history and a criticism in which this kind of encounter is plausible and meaningful must dismantle the analytically separate problematics of anticolonialism and decolonization, on the one hand, and of “postwar” and the Cold War in Asia, on the other. Reconstructing the history that connects Endō and Fanon does more than historicize these two writers’ early works. It suggests too what can be gained from an intellectual history and a criticism that ignores divisions more constructed than real while acknowledging, rather than trying to reconcile, the heterogeneous and sometimes contradictory qualities of the geography that results.” Continue reading …

CHRISTOPHER L. HILL is Assistant Professor of Japanese literature at the University of Michigan. The author of National History and the World of Nations: Capital, State, and the Rhetoric of History of Japan, France, and the United States (Durham, 2008), he is currently completing a book on the transnational career of the naturalist novel and beginning a project on Japanese writers in the “Bandung moment” of the 1950s.

Shelley’s Lucretianism

Growing Old Together: Lucretian Materialism in Shelley’s “Poetry of Life”

by Amanda Jo Goldstein

Goldstein’s essay, published in Representations 128, explores Percy Shelley’s The Triumph of Life as a strategic revival of Lucretian poetic science: a materialism fit to connect the epochal, romantic interest in biological life to the period’s pressing new sense of its own historicity. Shelley mobilizes Lucretian natural simulacra to show how personal bodies produce and integrate passages of historical time, exercising a poetics of transience that resists the triumphalism characteristic of both historiography and vitalist biology in the post-Waterloo period. Representing aging faces as mutable registers of the “living storm” of a post-Napoleonic interval, The Triumph depicts the face-giving trope of prosopopoeia as the unintended work of multitudes—demonstrating a nineteenth-century possibility of thinking biological, historical, and rhetorical materialisms together.


The Triumph of Life was made famous,” says Goldstein, “in late twentieth-century criticism, for the way its ‘disfigured’ faces allegorized the verbal and material violence inherent in figuration as a function of reparative reading. In this article, however, I attempt to show how The Triumph’s last lines pointedly cease to construe figuration as a principally verbal or cognitive process at all. The neglected ‘new Vision’ (434) with which Shelley’s poem breaks off instead urges readers to review the scene of life that The Triumph of Life has been showing all along, but this time under changed philosophical and poetic premises about the relation between life, matter, and trope. For Shelley summons a very old poetic science to achieve his ‘new Vision,’ pointedly depositing the poem’s speakers and its readers in the midst of a closely adapted scene from Lucretius’s classical materialist epic, De rerum natura (c. 55 BCE). This ancient atomist scene construes the sensation of ‘Vision’ itself as a mode of figuration and a feature of material transience.” Read more …

AMANDA GOLDSTEIN is Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University. She is the author of essays on Herder’s poetic empiricism, Goethean morphology, and William Blake and the present-day revival of Lamarckian evolutionary theory.


Chronicle of Higher Ed on “Surface Reading”

“The New Modesty in Literary Criticism”


Jeffrey J. Williams’s recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in identifying a shift toward a new, more empirical, method of literary study, focuses significantly on “surface reading,” the subject of an influential special issue of Representations: “The Way We Read Now” (Fall 2009), edited by Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best.

According to Williams, “a good deal of contemporary criticism has performed ‘symptomatic reading,’ a term that conveys looking for the hidden meaning of a text, using, for example, Marxian, Freudian, or deconstructive interpretation…. Surface reading instead focuses on ‘what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts,’ as Best and Marcus put it. Thus the critic is no longer like a detective who doesn’t trust the suspect but more the social scientist who describes the manifest statements of a text.”

Indeed, as Marcus and Best point out in their introduction to “The Way We Read Now,” “The essays [included in the issue] remind us that as much as our objects of study may conceal the structures that give rise to them, they also wear them on their sleeves.”

Find “The Way We Read Now” online, or read pieces by other authors working in this vein (such as Margaret Cohen, Elaine Freedgood, Cannon Schmitt, Eric Bulson, and others) in more recent numbers of Representations, especially the special issue “Denotatively, Technically, Literally” (Winter 2014), edited by Freedgood and Schmitt.

What Was African American Literature?

Representations’ Best, Lye, and Otter in conversation with Kenneth Warren

On Friday, September 12, UC Berkeley English department faculty and Representations board members Stephen Best, Colleen Lye, and Samuel Otter will join Kenneth Warren, Professor of English at the University of Chicago, for a roundtable on Warren’s book, What Was African American Literature? (Harvard University Press, 2011). The roundtable will take place at UC Berkeley in the Maud Fife Room, 315 Wheeler Hall, from 12-2 pm.


Two Responses to “Denotatively, Technically, Literally”


At the symposium “The Literary and Its Outsides” held at UC Berkeley on April 1, Representations editorial board members Kent Puckett and Stephen Best offered responses to the journal’s recent special issue “Denotatively, Technically, Literally.”

STEPHEN BEST | “Well, that was obvious.” 

I would argue that the current period of disciplinary navel-gazing began in 2004, with the Critical Inquiry volume on the future of criticism that was organized to mark the journal’s 30th year of publication.   Bruno Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?,” in which he makes a number of observations regarding the impasses of critique in science studies, appears in that volume, and has since served as a touchstone for a generation of special issues on the limits of historicist “critique.” At Representations, in the fall of 2009, we published “The Way We Read Now,” a volume in which a number of the scholars assembled here today also participated. That volume identified methods of interpretation that depart from a long tradition of “symptomatic reading,” which understands texts as symptoms of hidden structural and psychic forces – from material histories of the book and “new formalisms” to sociologies of reading and data mining. In the introduction to that volume, Sharon Marcus and I offered the notion of “surface reading,” arguing that literary critics might productively locate meaning in what texts say rather than in what they do not, cannot, or will not say. One of the points of our introduction was to extend Latour’s observations to the domain of literary criticism, suggesting that the work of demystification, so central to Marxist, psychoanalytic, feminist, and New Historicist criticism of the 1980s and 1990s, loses much of its effectiveness in a moment when its moves can be anticipated. Heather Love’s “Close But Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” published in a 2010 special issue of New Literary History called “New Sociologies of Literature,” suggested that practices of description offered a useful alternative to depth hermeneutics, drawing for her method the accent on interactions and operations in the sociology of Latour as well as Erving Goffman.  At least two special issues appeared in the last several months that I would consider a part of this moment of critical self-reflection. In the commemorative volume of American Literary History, entitled “History, Historicism, and Historiography,” a journal that had relentlessly scrutinized the categories American and literary since its inception has turned its attention toward the third category – history – which over that same time, in the thinking of at least one of the contributors, had been taken more in the Jamesonian sense of an “imperative.”[i] And, finally, the Victorian Studies volume “The Ends of History” responds to these calls for alternatives to historicist “critique,” setting forth a range of practices that aim to reshape the historicisms of the past.

Cathy Gallagher, in the “Afterword” to the Victorian Studies volume, observes that all this controversy “sounds like an echo chamber for almost every debate regarding historical criticism that has emerged since the 1950s.”[ii] Thus when Love asserts that “deep” reading and textual “richness” serve as carriers for “an allegedly superannuated humanism,” she echoes Althusserian critics’ accusations that Raymond Williams merely propped up bourgeois humanism.[iii] Or when anti-critique critics assert their hostility to ideology, they are merely grafting their ideas onto Foucauldian roots that had been crucial to the New Historicists, where power “denied that texts (and discourses) were pathological,” and as such both devoid of symptoms and incapable of generating symptomatic readings (Gallagher 686). Each one of the contributions to the Victorian Studies volume, she writes, “reverberates with a unique arrangement of echoing judgments,” and in that respect, like the broader debate to which the volume contributes, rings “familiar rather than unique to the current critical moment” (683-4). We’re not dealing with our issues in these special issues — that seems to be the conclusion.

But ten years of special issues sure seems like a lot of anxious worrying about the future of criticism and the limits of historicism, certainly more than can be reduced to an “echo” of a previous generation’s terms of debate.  I understand that, in this circumstance, I might be expected to issue a resounding “no” to this charge – to deny the claim that the terms of recent literary critical debate simply rehash those of an earlier one. Still, I’d prefer to inhabit the charge, and argue that we ought to find interesting the reasons behind the echoes and repetitions.

The current issue of Representations (“Denotatively, Technically, Literally”) hones in on some of the concerns regarding literality that were raised in “The Way We Read Now,” taking up, in particular, language that, as literary critics, we often leave unread, “as if it were denotative, literal, and technical,” as Freedgood and Schmitt write (1). When we read so as to concede that language “either means what it says or stands outside our purview,” they continue, “we create or recreate these categories of language within the literary, lightening our work but also thinning texts to predetermined sites of meaning or interpretive possibility . . . . To read denotatively, technically, or literally is not to explicate . . . . It is the reverse: to restore obscurity to the apparently clear, to stop language from working” (1). What if we pitched Gallagher suspicions at this description of denotative reading: does this way of configuring denotative reading echo judgments about literary language formed by a prior literary critical generation? By folding denotation into the act of literary reading, does it not bear a familiar ring with Paul de Man’s judgment of the literary as the kind of writing uniquely aware of the instability of the distinction between the literal and the figurative, between grammatical and rhetorical modes of meaning? And by offering “nonfigurative reading” as one way of approaching the text, are the editors simply coming at the literary from the opposite side to de Man’s “rhetorical reading” – denotative reading and rhetorical reading sharing a basic premise, i.e., the idea that “we organize – [that is] stabilize – language as we read it,” specifically the instability between the literal and the figurative?[iv] When de Man notes that the irony of the literary text is that it “says one thing and performs another,” couldn’t that apply to its denotative aspect as well if to read denotatively, technically, or literally, again, “is not to explicate . . . [but] to restore obscurity to the apparently clear” (4)? And when he claims that a text “simultaneously asserts and denies the authority of its own rhetorical mode,” isn’t that precisely what the editors have here claimed for its denotative mode?[v] All that said, and accepting the link back to de Man for the sake of argument, should it be a problem that “denotative reading” echoes “rhetorical reading” when the former proves so phenomenally productive: giving us more to read, as the editors put it, that is, directing our attention to the “understudied languages of the novel” (3), the stuff we’ve ruled out, ignored, deemed opaque, or passed by?

In Louis Menand’s recent review of the Evelyn Barish biography, he observes that the de Manian project of bracketing off the “real-life aspects of literature” – that it’s written by people, that it affects people – the putting aside of these aspects allowed for a more purposeful burrowing into the way literary language works. Menand celebrates this way of reading as de Man’s attempt to (as he puts it) “get inside the atom.” What if denotative reading doesn’t alter the fact of that burrowing, but simply shifts the terms a bit, from rhetoric and figurality to literality, denotation, reference and description? What we might lose in that case is precisely the configuration “the literary and its outsides” — some requirement that one must jettison denotative or literal language beyond the pale of critical scrutiny in order to preserve the distinctiveness of literature.  What we might stand to gain is a sense of another generation of literary critics’ attempting to “get inside the atom.” To come at it another way, as Kent put it to me in another context, rather than ask whether something is a description or an interpretation, a text’s surface or its depths, what the text says or what it means, a denotation or a connotation, rather than make “dualist” distinctions, perhaps we ought to be ask what is currently drawing our attention to description?, what is currently drawing our attention to denotation? The answer might be something like the urgency of coming to terms with the nature of things. The interest in description, the interest in denotation: both reflect an anti-dialectical or post-dialectical turn in recent critical theory, and share the “monist” impulses of other critical tendencies:

    • the Deleuzian fold
    • Eve Sedgwick’s “cybernetic fold” (“differentiable but not originally differentiated system”)
    • Graham Harman and Quentin Meillasoux’s Object-oriented Ontology
    • David Graeber’s claims for debt as what gives market economies their “sense,” which shifts arguments regarding capitalism’s move into its late stage away from the commodity (it’s mystery, the symptom, the movement of the dialectic)
    • the resurgent interest in Wittgenstein, and specifically his invitation to see the object represented in language not as something that means this or that, but as having multiple aspects, a bundle or sheaf of aspects (see especially Michael Taussig on apotropaic texts and Ross Posnock on W.G. Sebald)

There look to me to be monist impulses in Roland Barthes’s “return of literality,” which Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan attribute to his turn away from the “metalanguage” of critique and toward that sense of “notation” necessary to begin thinking about the writing of a novel: Barthes’s attempt to (in his words) “guid[e] the work toward the presence of the world, making the world co-present to the Work.”[vi] This turn Barthes achieved over the course of the ten years separating “The Reality Effect” (published 1968) from his lecture course “The Preparation of the Novel” (which he began to teach at the Collège de France in 1978). Barthes bemoaned the way the earlier essay unwittingly replicated the distinction between the meaningful and the living (the meaningful and the meaningless) in the very act of critiquing it.   The critic distrusts the evidence of the senses and experience: the problem for Barthes (in “The Reality Effect”), as Buurma and Heffernan’s phrase it, is that “what at first seems to be referential meaning turns out to be ideologically laden meaning designed to produce the effect of a meaningless, found world whose ‘resistance to meaning’ lies apart from language and signification.”[vii]  A meaningless, found world: our distrust of experience is a product of ideology critique, and the critic’s metalanguage is what fuels that distrust. In place of the critic, Barthes substitutes the note taker who knows “that there is no life that is not already meaningful,” and that he or she “is already living in a fully meaningful world already, and knows this in a way that does not necessarily hurt, does not necessarily entail an enormous loss” (84-5). But such hard-won knowledge isn’t to be arrived at immediately; it is only available in the form of a “return to literality.” Barthes’s literality, Freedgood and Schmitt remind us, “is not the beginning but ‘the end of a journey’” (Freedgood/Schmitt, 5). This is why Barthes designates it “literal II.” From The Preparation of the Novel: “In order to reach the third state, the literal II, or the return of the literal, you first have to pass through interpretation . . . . The first literality: an arrogance [is not equal to] the second: a ‘wisdom’” (Barthes, 81). In order to “reach the third state,” Barthes had to abandon the identity of critic, had to put “a stop to the division of the subject,” and take on the mantle of novelist.

Barthes’s “return of the literal” sounds an awful lot like some descriptions of the obvious that I’ve happened upon as I’ve worked on Benito Cereno; descriptions that seem less intent to classify the obvious, or define it, and more keen to temporize it as an irreducible aspect of reading. Here is one example that appears in A. S. Byatt’s Possession, she writes: “the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we, the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognizant of, our knowledge.”[viii] Now, any critical position worth its salt will almost always finally rest upon calling certain other claims obvious and thus to be ruled out, ignored, passed over.[ix] The trivialization of the obvious in literary criticism feels almost like an inaugurating gesture.   The obvious is something, as Stanley Cavell has put it, “which for some reason is always underestimated, habitually . . . by critics, even when the art which hosts [it] is devoted to [its] seeing, and the artist set against that underestimation” (82). What criticism trivializes, novelists valorize (even one who, like Barthes, simply hoped to be a novelist). But what interests me are not these attempts to host the obvious, but this desire to “pass through interpretation” on one’s way back to the literal or the obvious; this desire to make the obvious or easily available not something superficial, but an achievement, something that requires critical work.

Let me close with a gesture toward another field of inquiry: the philosophy of perception. I think that it is here, in particular, in the work of philosophers who reject what is called the “myth of the given,” that we find a parallel means for working out the claim that it can be an achievement and require work to see what’s right in front of you. I have in mind the argument, say in John McDowell’s Mind and World, that even though perception allows us passive access to knowledge of the world, we wouldn’t be able to have such access unless we also had certain rational capacities in the background that we needed to be trained into. McDowell has no philosophical use for an idea that our experience contains representations that are not conceptually structured, that one has access to a genuinely passive perception. It is possible that the concepts of surface reading or denotative reading do not lend themselves to this type of analysis, but there does seem to be some consensus for the view that it can require work to see what’s right in front of you; or, to give Freedgood and Schmitt the final word (and go ahead, hear a bit of Neil Sedaka when I read them, a bit of melancholy for that old flame, rhetorical reading): “literal reading . . . is hard to do.” (9).

[i] Jennifer Fleissner, “Historicism Blues,” American Literary History, vol. 25, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 1-19.

[ii] Catherine Gallagher, “The Ends of History: Afterword,” Victorian Studies (Summer 2013): 683.

[iii] Heather Love, “Close But Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” New Literary History vol. 41, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 371-391.

[iv] Louis Menand, “The de Man Case,” The New Yorker, 24 March 2014

[v] Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (1979), p.17

[vi] Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel, trans. Kate Briggs (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 205.

[vii] Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan, “Notation After ‘The Reality Effect’: Remaking Reference with Roland Barthes and Sheila Heti,” Representations 125, Winter 2014: 80-102, 84.

[viii] Antonia S. Byatt, Possession; quoted in Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), xi-xii.

[ix] Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear,” in Disclaiming Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 82-4.


This special issue of Representations is an important contribution to a larger conversation happening in the humanities today. What do we want or expect from interpretation? Should we read for meaning, for significance, for depth, for connotation, or is it time to read for something else?

We need, however, to ask: are these methodological or historical questions? Or are they methodological questions that contain or conceal an idea about history? Or are they historical questions that must for some reason take the form of methodology?

The age of interpretation, of suspicion, of the symptom is the age of Freud and Marx, of the unconscious and ideology, and a consensus seems to be emerging that those models have somehow outlived their usefulness. What, though, do we think about Marx and Freud, about ideology and the unconscious when we imagine them as having passed their respective dates of expiration?

If we take it that these models demand interpretation because they rely on “vulgar” oppositions between consciousness and the unconscious, base and superstructure, surface and depth, connotation and denotation, then good riddance.

It seems to me, though, that both Marx and Freud are more subtle than that (surprise!). In both cases, interpretation is a response to relations between things, and, indeed, it is the fungibility of relations that demands and enlivens the act of interpretation. When we interpret the dream (something analogous could be said about the commodity), we’re not exposing the unconscious, we’re rather exploring a vital relation between things, between latent and manifest contents as well as between the past and the present, inside and outside, the pleasure principle and what lies beyond.

As everyone knows, the content of and explanations for dreams are boring. Relations, on the other hand, are always interesting. This is why the object of Freudian dream analysis is not the dream but the dreamwork, the processes of condensation and displacement that sit between two contents that were always sort of obvious to begin with.

Rather than think of interpretation as a final revelation of what’s behind the dream or the symptom, psychoanalysis—at its best and it’s, of course, not always at its best—is an invitation to remain in the space of that relation. This is why Freud imagines the dream as having a navel, why he requires threshold concepts like secondary revision and deferred action, and why, finally, he sees psychoanalysis as interminable.

Barthes makes a similar case in Writing Degree Zero and S/Z. In his effort to identify the literary, he draws on the terms of structural linguistics and imagines two poles of significance that bracket literary writing. On the one hand, there’s the pole of pure style: “it is the writer’s ‘thing,’ his glory and his prison, it is his solitude.”[1] This is parole without langue, a private writing that is so personal, so raw that it must be incomprehensible to others. On the other hand, there is what he calls language: “a language is a kind of natural ambience wholly pervading the writer’s expression, yet without endowing it with form or content.” This is langue without parole, the storehouse of conventions out of which the writer selects his or her already cooked materials.

We might think of both these poles as being only available to denotation; they can be named, which is to say repeated, but not explained or interpreted. When faced with either style or language, the magic word or the phone book, the imaginary or the symbolic, all one can really do is point because neither style nor language can ever on their own be like anything else. Because literary writing exists somewhere on the line that links these poles, and because denotative limits make that continuum possible, it represents a point where, like the space between the manifest and latent content of the dream, denotation passes into connotation and connotation into denotation.

The literary happens, perhaps, when we can’t tell the difference. This is, I think, what Genette calls “the paradox of every poetics”: “always torn between those two unavoidable commonplaces—that there are no objects except particular ones and no science except of the general—but always finding comfort and something like attraction in this other, slightly less widespread truth, that the general is at the heart of the particular, and therefore (contrary to the common preconception) the knowable is at the heart of the mysterious.”[2]

This is why instead of saying that we need to choose between denotation and connotation, Barthes says in S/Z that denotation is always only the place where connotation comes to a provisional halt; they are, he says, only “supposedly different systems.”[3] This is not to deny the reality of denotation; as Barthes understands, denotation is a real aspect of language. It is, as Jakobson said before him, one and only one of its several functions. Literary reading is, in that case, always suspended between denotation and connotation; it is the recognition that literature is meaningful not because it is surface or depth, denotation or connotation, but rather because it is a protean point of suspension between the two.

So, from a methodological point of view, the recovery of denotation as a term of art is crucial because it helps us to avoid arguments that emerge from reifying differences that are projected as metaphors onto an account of language that we should understand not in terms of seeing oppositions but, rather and following Wittgenstein, seeing aspects. Language has different functions, different aspects and literature happens when some or all of those functions are held in a certain kind of suspension. To assert these differences as ontologically as opposed to heuristically real, or in fact to read Barthes or Freud or Genette as asserting them as ontologically as opposed to heuristically real is to miss the point.

The essays in this volume help us to see that moment of suspension between connotation and denotation in several different expressions: in the space between belief and disbelief conjured by the Victorian ghost; in the space between invention and discovery, induction and deduction in Victorian science; in the space between the personal impersonality of technical maturity and the impersonal personality of the classic bildungsroman; and the space between known of literary convention and the unknown of early subaquatic discovery.

What these examples also share is a rough time period, one that coincides with the kind of interpretive suspension that I’ve been describing.

A historical question thus remains: do denotation and its interpretive demands work in the same way at other moments in time?

This is the question that seems to motivate some recent turns away from interpretation toward surfaces, toward new ontologies, toward the assemblage. Implied here is the idea that something has changed that demands a new way of seeing meaning. Have materialist discoveries about the brain mooted talk of the unconscious? Has a widening sense of ecological precarity undermined the urgency of the phenomenological? Has the financialization of the culture industry undone a historically specific alienation that underwrote the antinomies of bourgeois thought and the critical theories that went along with them?

There’s obviously too much to say here. I want, though, to suggest that these essays begin to imagine a politics of denotation and thus of interpretation that we need carefully to consider. It’s there in Cannon Schmitt’s invitation for us to look differently at the work, the labor of the novel, in Margaret Cohen’s suggestion that we consider what happens when there are no coral reefs left to denote, in Ian Duncan’s discussion of the passage between the figural and and the empirical that authorizes science, in Elaine Freedgood’s suggestion that ghosts not only allow us to diagnosis a moment’s relation to belief but also to follow the traces of its political disavowals: ghosts “always return: as farce, as tragedy, as religion, and as an exercise in choosing what to believe, and more radically perhaps, what to see.”

Indeed, Freedgood’s essay—and the whole of the issue—made me think of another example. In 1919 Abel Gance made a film called Jaccuse. It’s a silent antiwar melodrama that follows the experience of two soldiers who love the same woman during the First World War. One dies and the other goes mad with shell shock. At the film’s end, the latter returns home, wild-eyed and apparently paranoid, to tell the people of his town that he’s seen the ghosts of the war dead rise from their graves. Before he finishes, the war dead appear for all to see and march through the town, accusing those who betrayed the war dead and saying goodbye to the faithful. Gance handles the moment with remarkable restraint, using montage and subtle, ghostly transparencies to create a believable encounter between the living and the dead. The gesture is also a moment of political denotation: Gance uses the sequence to point at what’s hard to point at, the whole human costs and consequences of war. To accuse, for Gance, is to try and denote cinematically, which is also to demand that his audience interpret.

In 1938, Gance remakes the film as a sound feature; it is once again called Jaccuse. Where the earlier version was a response to a war that had just ended, the later version is made on the eve of another war, a war that seems to depend on our having forgot the suffering and stupidity of what came before. He also restages the earlier film’s ultimate appearance of the dead. Where in the first film he relies on montage, in 1938 he uses lurid anamorphic lens effects to suggest the breakdown between the worlds of the living and the dead. And as opposed to the quiet, if chilling confrontation between dead soldiers and survivors, he films the sequence as if it were a horror film. The townspeople run, scream, and riot as if the soldiers were Romero zombies as opposed to Shakespeare’s ghosts. And instead of actors, Gance uses real veterans from the First World War, soldiers whose faces were mutilated or, as they said, “broken” in an apparent attempt to bypass the merely believable in order to show us the real. This, too, is an act of denotation, a fantastic effort to name directly and not merely to imply or to figure the costs of war.

So, we have two moments of denotation that share the same subject (war in all its complexity), the same narrative context (the story of two soldiers), the same historical object (WWI), and the same director (Abel Gance). They are, though, entirely different. What, then, has changed? I want to say that denotation has changed; the basic coordinates of aboutness, of denotation, of connotation have changed. Gance demands something different from denotation after one war and before another and so allows us to track a passage in the related histories of war, belief, and reference. Because denotation has a history, turning to it is necessarily not to turn away from either interpretation or critique. So, while there’s much more to say here, I’ll end by suggesting that what Gance and these essays have to tell us is that there’s critical life in denotation, connotation, and interpretation still yet. We don’t have necessarily to give up the ghost.

[1] Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero (Macmillan, 1977) 11.

[2] Gerard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983) 23.

[3] Barthes, S/Z: An Essay (Macmillan, 1975) 9.