Is ‘overinterpretation’ good or bad? Is it even possible, and is it ever enough? (Or are we reading too much into this?) Clint Burnham shadows Colin Davis as he traces the interventions of a “wild bunch” of critics, theorists, and philosophers, who grapple with the question of what counts as a reading of a literary text.
In Praise of "In Praise of Overreading"
In Praise of "In Praise of Overreading"
Colin Davis’ Critical Excess is an important book: examining, as the subtitle suggests, what Davis calls “overreading” or “over interpretation” in the critical practice of Derrida, Deleuze, Levinas, Žižek, and Cavell (but also Gadamer, Heidegger, and Lacan), it is a call for more textual analysis, for more attention to the page, for that thing our undergraduate students (and, perhaps, family and friends) accuse us of all too readily: reading too much into it. Typically, then, in my reading of Davis, I read too much into it, or I read too much around it, spending weeks at a time boning up on the Derrida-Gadamer debate, or the Derrida-Lacan-Žižek threesome, watching old Hollywood movies to assess Cavell’s Kantian take on It Happened One Night and North by Northwest (I don’t know, it just seemed easier than revisiting Kant), thinking about my own odd mélange of Lacan/Žižek/Fish reading practices. In what follows, then, I want to move through Davis’ book in a fairly chronological or linear manner, assessing his arguments as they develop, but also using this extended review as the occasion for some arguments of my own about what close readings and critical exegesis means in a post-new Historicist, neoliberal, post-postmodern epoch. I’ll just quickly sketch out what I mean by those three phrases and then move on to Davis.
By post-new Historicist, I mean that while our critical practice today has assimilated the New Historicist critique (answered by Copjec or Žižek - see Davis’ discussion of Žižek on historicism below), this is not to dismiss the close reading practices promulgated by psychoanalysis (here Lacan may be a better tutor or model than Žižek). Then, in terms of neoliberalism, perhaps a historicization of close reading qua critical practice may trace its career in the twentieth/twenty-first century from the pedagogical paradigm of G.I. Bill college classrooms, then to the Derridean retreat to the text from politics (post ‘68) and now as a globalized frenzy of the enjoyment of the Thing in the text. Finally, if “post-postmodernism” can denote a leveling of cultural hierarchies (high, low, middle brow, etc.) without either the slumming affect of the high or the misguided populism of the low, then a close reading of Kung Fu Panda (as offered, perhaps, in Žižek’s recent Living in End Times) may be the new go-to paradigm, replacing the European left’s fascination with Bartleby the Scrivener. So close reading as a practice that both historicizes its object and refuses the glamour of its own enjoyment.
But let’s get back to Davis’ Critical Excess. The book is an account of, or argument for, the importance of overreading, over-interpretation, for essentially new or contestatory paradigms for interpretation, and, in its various chapters on the figures in the subtitle (again: Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Emmanuel Levinas, Slavoj Žižek, and Stanley Cavell), takes us on some wonderfully digressionary divagations. Thus the introduction situates itself with the attitudes toward over-interpretation to be found in Umberto Eco, Jonathan Culler, and Richard Rorty. The first chapter proper, then turns to philosophy - specifically, Plato and Heidegger, for a meditation on the relationship between that pursuit and literature - looking specifically at Plato’s argument that poets pretend to know things they don’t, and Heidegger’s call for more thinking about poetry, but thinking in a philosophical vein. Then, in chapter 2, Davis settles in with Derrida, but Derrida in two protracted debates with Gadamer: first an actual debate, staged in Paris in 1981, and then Derrida’s posthumous tribute to Gadamer (oddly akin to his passive-aggressive tribute to Lacan in Resistances), where he discusses missed encounters (“the missed encounter is the successful encounter. It succeeds because it fails” - 55) and his and Gadamer’s readings of the poetry of Paul Celan.
Then Davis takes up Deleuze, both in his early guise as a reader of Proust, and as cinema theorist, having discarded interpretation for the machine of the text. “Rather than asking what literature means,” Deleuze avers in Davis’ words, “we should ask: what can it do” (63). Levinas, too, resists reading, resists interpretation - but here, again, Davis finds a gem, one of “Levinas’ relatively rare discussions of secular literature” - again, an essay on Proust. Yet it is in Levinas’ commentary on the Talmud that is most startling, his resolutely anachronistic and presentist exegesis that refer to the situation of their presentation as unabashedly as a graduate student reading the English Civil War through Billy Bragg (um, as I did, in a Milton course in 1987). So we don’t need a chapter title like “Žižek’s Idiotic Enjoyment” to get the sense that Davis is saying everything I’m looking for here: but like the Derrida chapter that sidetracks through Gadamer, here the Žižek chapter sidetracks through Derrida’s critique of Lacan in The Post Card, where Derrida engages with Lacan’s “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’.” For Davis, Žižek’s reading of that debate (which itself spooled out into a book, The Purloined Poe, including responses by Barbara Johnson, Jane Gallop, and Norman Holland) makes explicit what is the “true object” of Žižek’s exegesis: “the ‘stain’ or ‘uncanny excess’ of the text … the trace of what [Žižek] calls ‘the traumatic presence of the Real’ ” (123). At last we come to Cavell (but not finally - for there is still a closing chapter “in praise of overreading”), to whom Davis turns not merely for the bravura reading of It Happened Last Night invoking “the Kantian divide between the knowable phenomenal world and unknowable things in themselves” (as promised on the book’s back cover), but also for “the best defence … of overinterpretation” that Davis knows, Cavell’s argument that “The fear of overreading is a desire for containment, a longing for the familiar, the stable and knowable unspoiled by the taint of uncanniness” (140).
And this is true, in Davis’ text, for the question of what a reading or critical or interpretive practice itself constitutes, for throughout Davis’ account of these critics, theorists, philosophers - what have you - the criteria for a reading of a text is continually shifting, being challenged, debunked, debated or discarded. Reading (or overreading) itself is never, here, familiar, stable, or knowable. Reading is always “spoiled by the taint of uncanniness”, spoiled in the double sense of rotten or rancid but also the spoils, the treasure, the booty (call). So if Heidegger’s method doesn’t need to be a consistent critical method, if he is not interested in whether it works for others (“nor does he seek approval for his interpretations as ‘correct’ in any conventional philological or literary critical sense” - 14), Derrida’s fantasy is that of a demanding text, demanding “absolute fidelity”, and his anxiety is that of the inadequate or adulterous lover: “his reading can never be fully faithful” (30). And if Gadamer insists on the importance of good will in interpretation, Deleuze’s distrust of that good will, of debate, turns out to conceal “a disabling and authoritarian dogmatism more than an enabling liberation from the despotism of meaning” (60). Whereas Levinas hates literature because, in the words of commentator Seán Hand, it “actively promotes a pact with obscurity”, its characters, as Levinas put it, are “confined beings, prisoners,” whose story continues without advancing or progressing (Davis 97), Žižek is more distrustful of his own stupid enjoyment: he turns to popular culture to explain Lacan, as he argues in Metastases of Enjoyment, simply because of the idiocy of all three - Lacan, mass culture, and Žižek’s explanations. Throughout the book there is a shift from argument (and sometimes even from engagement with the putative text) to assertion, to rhetoric - thus the J.L. Austin quote that begins the Cavell chapter (“I assert this as obvious and do not argue it” Davis 135) stands comfortably next to one of Cavell’s on the same page: “I must now put the uncontroversial aside and put forward a bunch of assertions.” And while this shift from argument to assertion has also been argued to be Lacan’s method in Écrits and elsewhere (see Fink), and I am not saying this is Davis’ method (while I do admire the winding paths he takes, as in the digressions to Plato and Heidegger, Gadamer, the Derrida-Lacan debate), there is much to be said for the “wild” bunch of assertions to be found in this book, as much in the quoted critics as in Davis’ own text.
And so I want to demonstrate, or perform, or even perhaps in an extended play make this assertion, this love of the wild bunch, with a series of readings of Davis’ readings of his critics. And why not begin, again, at the beginning, where, in a short preface, less than six pages long, Davis succinctly situates an exchange between Umberto Eco (against overinterpretation), Jonathan Culler (in favour of overinterpretation: “interpretation is interesting only when it is extreme” xi), and Richard Rorty (who doesn’t think overinterpretation can happen: there is nothing “in” the text before it is described: x). This is useful as a starting-off point for Davis, for first we have Eco’s argument that “If there is something to be interpreted, the interpretation must speak of something which must be found somewhere, and in some way respected” (Davis x). Now, Davis has already pointed toward the problems of what is “gained” and what is “lost” in his wild fellow travellers’ methods, so it might be useful to think of that “loss” in combination with Eco’s “something which must be found.” That is, for Eco, perhaps there is already the fantasy that the “something” that has to be “found” actually exists, unlike the psychoanalytic argument, which says it is always a matter of refinding the object, of the object - or the “something” - being constituted by the search for it - in this case, by the interpretation (this is what Žižek calls the “that’s not it” moment, or the search that constitutes the lost object [Sublime Object 159-160]). This psychoanalytic argument is similar to Rorty’s; he suggests that Eco mistakes the text for an actually existing and agreed-upon entity, hedged on the one hand by Eco’s “somewhere” but intensified, on the other hand, by his demand that the “something” be “respected” (shades of Gadamer’s need for good will). For Rorty, however, as Davis notes, “It is not possible to separate the text and its meaning from our interpretation of it” (x) - all overreadings are just another form of reading. Culler, however, does think over-interpretation is possible, it’s just that he likes it: when successful, over-interpretation “pushes thinking as far as it can go, puts pressure on its objects in order to uncover things which might have remained hidden, and gives fresh insight to language” (xi). It’s the antinomy between Rorty and Culler that is useful as a guide to reading Davis’ book: if the text does not exist separate from its interpretation (or from the search for it, in psychoanalytic terms), that is a different argument from the view that an extreme interpretation holds out the possibility of a positive result. Perhaps, to bring back Eco’s notion of respect, the best way to respect a text is to seek out its occluded meanings. The question that will haunt Davis’ text is whether this is merely another act of demystification - along the lines of Paul Ricouer’s “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Davis goes back and forth on the question, but, like the antinomy between Culler and Rorty, this question can also be connected to Žižek’s antagonism or parallax between knowing and doing - Žižek’s concept of “fetishistic disavowal” (they know very well, but they do it), that is, argues that demystification is not enough. Overinterpretation may be neither possible (Rorty) nor enough (contra Culler, contra Davis).
Davis’ first chapter traces the relationship, as I said above, between literature and philosophy, and while this will continue to be an important theme in his discussion of Delezue (for whom literature is always philosophy’s poor cousin) and Cavell (who finds literature to be doing things beyond what philosophy can), what is more compelling than that discussion with respect to Plato is how Davis takes on Heidegger and his readings of Hölderlin. For Heidegger, “art is the becoming and happening of truth” (10: from his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art”). More specifically, poetry is the bestowing, grounding, and beginning of truth; thus in Hölderlin’s poetry we have the time of need: in Heidegger’s Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry, “it stands in a double lack and double not” (Davis 13). So that’s a lot of truth and portentous rhetoric, but what is more crucial for my reading - and I think for Davis, even as he traces out the contours of Heidegger on art and poetry, is the question of Heidegger’s method: it does not need to be a consistent critical method, he is not interested in whether it works for others. Here I think about how I want students, particularly graduate students, to be aware of their methodology. This is a good first step, but the next one is to think about how it matters if one’s method is consistent; that is to say, I also want them to take the kind of risks that Heidegger did.
Heidegger, talking about Hölderlin’s hymn “As When on a Holiday” writes that the poem is based on an interpretation - challenged by a student (with the commonsense argument that Heidegger got it backwards, the interpretation is based on the text), he allows it should be the other way around; as Davis notes, that re-writing - the “interpretation is based upon the text” would be “trivial and superfluous” (20-21). The question comes down to how much Heidegger was imposing his reading onto the text, and this mistake of Heidegger’s (if that’s what it is - and note that the “mistake” would only be evident because of the student’s challenge - i.e., it is a result of an intervention, of the dialogic) is symptomatic. Davis furthers this exploration by referencing Heidegger on an unfinished poem of Hölderlin’s in which snow makes a dinner bell come out of tune: the snow is the interpretation, without which neither the bell, nor the poem, can ever ring. Thus, as Davis continues, in “The Essence of Language” Heidegger warns against not just the dangers of overreading but the dangers of not overreading enough (23), the danger of not thinking enough - overreading is a matter of thinking a lot, of thinking too much, of thinking boldly (23-25). Without overreading, without the snow, we wouldn’t hear the bell. There is no text without an interpretation. And it is this Nietzschean side of Heidegger that will then come to be a point of contention for Davis’ next account, that of Derrida and his debate with/reading of Gadamer.
Here the focus is on Derrida’s debate or encounter with Gadamer in 1981 - that is, as I noted above, what is interesting is Davis’ decision to read Derrida in terms of a dialogue or antagonism - especially because of how this method will bring to the fore the insufficiency of Gadamer’s own theory of dialogue. First of all, then, Derrida’s method, Davis argues, is to apply a “sufficient critical pressure” to a text to result in a “disruptive semantic excess” (28) - and note how Davis’ title (Critical Excess) has been severed, or spread out, or disseminated, into his characterization of Derrida’s method. If Derrida sees his work as a “duel of singularities”, of reading and writing, that he “writes toward … the event of another text” … literature “names something that cannot be contained by rules and principles” (29); and while the text demands “absolute fidelity,” there’s always a remainder (Lacan’s objet petit a) - “the text has the force of law” (30) - so, overreading because there is always part of the “txt” (part of no part) that resists, remains (resists in the sense of the stain in fabric, in dyeing; remains in the funereal sense; txt in the abbreviation from late 20th century digital “suffixes”). In Eperons Derrida takes on the phrase “J’ai oublié mon parapluie” (I’ve forgotten my umbrella) - found, in quotation marks, in Nietzsche’s papers. For Derrida, “there is no way of knowing for certain what [Nietzsche] meant by it, or even whether he meant anything by it … The phrase is entirely legible, we all know what it means, and yet it remains secretive” (31); there will never be “an exhaustive, definitive and complete reading of a text … the dream of hermeneutics” (32) - that dream of a correct or complete or coherent reading is arguably the fantasy of hermeneutics. Davis argues that deconstruction thus opposes the naivety of hermeneutics to a proper semantic indeterminacy; but they may have more in common, including a common origin in Heidegger, a focus on language, a rejection of a single correct reading (33).
Davis then focuses on the Gadamer/Derrida debate in 1981 at the Goethe Institute in Paris. But perhaps it is more accurate to call this a non-debate: a signal example of the Lacanian-Bakhtinian precept that “there is no dialogic relation.” As Davis makes clear, it is not just the unequal nature of the interchange (Gadamer’s initial paper is 30 pages long in the documentation of the event, while Derrida’s runs two pages), nor even the suspicion that Derrida refuses to engage with Gadamer’s work on its own terms (nor, for that matter, Gadamer with Derrida’s). But for all the importance of dialogue and the dialogic to Gadamer’s philosophy, it is important to keep in mind both the social and well-nigh Marxist tenor of Bakhtin’s theory of the dialogic - a sort of class struggle at the level of discourse, a history of languages not only in contradiction with each other but within themselves, a history only, for Bakhtin, readable in the novel. Then, if Lacanian theory teaches us that the sexual relation is always itself untenable, fraught, or antagonistic, and not just via his slogan of “there is no sexual relationship”, that same psychoanalytic suspicion toward harmony can be read into the dialogic (as will become clear below where it is on the basis of the psychoanalytic that Derrida deconstructs Gadamer’s “good will”) - thus “there is no dialogic relation,” evidenced as well by Žižek in his following comments on Antigone in “Melancholy and the Act” (reprinted in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?): “to put it in slightly ironic terms, is Antigone not the anti-Habermas par excellence? No dialogue, no attempt to convince Creon of the good reasons for her acts through rational argumentation, but just the blind insistence of her right” (667/158).
Davis avoids the common pitfalls in commentary on the debate as a non-encounter (see the documentation of this event, Dialogue and Deconstruction), and instead argues that the exchange “entails a dense interplay of astute comment, misreading, appropriation and defensiveness … the difficulty of establishing an encounter rather than a simple refusal to engage in dialogue” on either part (35). Gadamer begins with a consideration of the relationship between interpretation, text, and dialogue, focusing especially on the question of what the text is distinguishing it from the “antitext,” “pseudotext” and “pretext” (“Text and Interpretation”, 37ff). The first category includes jokes, the second rhetoric, and the third ideology. But Gadamer’s route to the veneration of the text depends on an unexamined high culture (in this regard he is hardly different from Derrida) - after disposing of these pretenders to the textual throne, he writes that “the connection between text and interpretation is fundamentally changed when one deals with what is called the ‘literary text’ ” (40). And this is surely to mistake the question of value for the substance of the text itself, a mistake Gadamer has already made in his discussion of interpretation itself, when he backs off from a Nietzschean notion of “interpretation [as] an insertion [Einlegen] of meaning and not a discovery [Finden] of meaning” (30). Here Gadamer is hazarding the very terms of Davis’ book avant la lettre (or avant le livre).
So this notion of interpretation creating meaning causes a great deal of difficulty for Gadamer, even if he is willing to concede (“the point must be firmly adhered to” ) that “only on the basis of the concept of interpretation” will “the concept of the text” become “a central concept in the structure of linguisticality” (30: linguisticality, or Sprachlichkeit, being not only the foundation of Being for Gadamer, but also constituted by conversation as mutual agreement or Übereinkommen: see Schmidt). But even this (faintly) argued point seems to dissolve: first, because the rhetoric here is so layered: the point must be adhered to (we will see how “binding” this is shortly), that the concept of the text as a central concept of not even “linguisticality” but the structure of linguisticality; secondly, I would argue that Gadamer soon jettisons interpretation in his reification of the literary text, failing to recognize that what is called literary is itself a matter of interpretation (and thus history), not a fundamental or substantial quality of the text. But for Gadamer, the text as constituted by interpretation must be “an authentic given that is to be understood” (30), even in a dialogic situation, where the very misunderstanding that he concedes characterizes the dialogic, requiring that “the disputed statements be repeated,” resulting in a chasing or pursuing of “the intention to a binding formulation … the interpreter asks what is really in the text.” This “binding formulation” brings to mind, since we are discussing or about to discuss deconstruction, Derrida’s play on the binding of a book in his critique of Lacan’s “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’,” of which more below. But the “what is really in the text” is surely a view that there is something in a text, that the text exists prior to or independently of interpretation.
I will return to Gadamer’s use of conversation as a metaphor momentarily - both for how it connects with his “linguisticality” and provides a pretext (in the full Gadamerian sense) for Derrida’s critique, but for the purpose of Davis’ account of Gadamer, what is important is what Gadamer finishes his essay “Text and Interpretation” with, a reading of the interpretive crux in a poem by Eduard Mörike (“Auf eine Lampe”/On a Lamp) and whether the German word scheint should be read to mean “shines” or “seems” (“Text and Interpretation” 49-51). Resolving the question “for conceptual, historical, generic, thematic and rhythmic reasons” in favour of “shines,” Gadamer concludes that the interpreter must then withdraw from the scene, “efface himself by bringing forth arguments which allow the text’s meaning to emerge” (Davis 35). For Gadamer, what “our understanding understands … does not depend on any context of use” (51) - interpretation takes place without interpretation. As Davis remarks, such a “resolving” of semantic indeterminacy offers an easy target for orthodox deconstruction; so of course Derrida ignores it. Rather, Derrida’s “Three Questions to Hans-Georg Gadamer” addresses tangential issues - Gadamer’s brief insistence on the importance of good will in interpretation, in terms of a Kantian/Heideggerian metaphysics of will, a psychoanalysis of good faith, and the role of alterity. Gadamer had (in passing, as it were) stressed the importance of good will (“Both partners must have the good will to try to understand one another” [“Text and Interpretation” 33]) in, on the one hand, distinguishing letters from texts, and, on the other, connecting correspondance to the “oral exchange.”
Derrida, however, wants to suggest or being “a quite different way of thinking about texts” (“Three Questions” 54) and thus he suggests not so much a psychoanalytic critique of good will as “a question traversed by the possibility of psychoanalysis … an interpretation worked on by psychoanalysis,” for such an interpretation, Derrida notes, might return us to Gadamer’s abandoned (or disavowed) Nietzsche. And arguably, a psychoanalytic “traversing” of good will enlists the unconscious - or the neighbour - as ways to problematize intentionality; to this critique Gadamer insists on a psychoanalytic hermeneutics in terms of the clinical situation of the analyst and the analysand, a misreading in its own right, perhaps, for he believes that psychoanalysis “goes in a totally different direction” (“Reply to Jacques Derrida” 56) from hermeneutics. Davis views Gadamer’s rejoinder as a “limitation” to the clinical scene, since psychoanalysis has broader things to say about human experience (Davis 39). But Gadamer’s focus on the clinical might be more useful than Davis allows, which can be illustrated by the “clinical turn” that has taken place in the reception of Lacan’s thought over the past twenty years, with the translation of seven of his seminars (which, as training for analysts, were overwhelmingly concerned with clinical issues), the retranslation of Écrits by the clinician Bruce Fink, and the burgeoning commentary on Lacan from such clinicians as Dany Nobus, Colette Soler, and Paul Verhaege, among others (including even Slavoj Žižek’s work that directs our attention to the clinical categories of the neurosis, perversion, and hysteria, albeit in more cultural forms). This clinical turn has arguably provided more productive readings of Lacan that, in their attention to the text and to the clinical situation, continue to provide new ways of thinking psychoanalytically in the clinic, with respect to the mother/child situation (which of course is supposed to be re-enacted via transference in the clinic) and in such socio-cultural spheres as the text, theory, and the political. Nonetheless, Davis’ take on Gadamer is useful, as is his question as to whether Gadamer’s “Platonic notion of good will [can] really survive the test of psychoanalysis without being transformed” (40). Indeed, as Davis notes, Gadamer elsewhere in the debate seeks to maintain a cordon sanitaire between hermeneutics and psychoanalysis, repeating the hoary old saw that since psychoanalysis is concerned with the deranged and neurotic, it hardly applies to “normal” interpretation (39); a logically untenable argument when we think, if not of the neurotics who number themselves among the poets, at least of the problem of categorizing (the writings of) Hölderlin, Rilke, Pound, Plath, Nichol, or Silliman as “normal.” But this question of the psychoanalytic, occasioned in some ways in Gadamer’s response not just to Derrida but also to Paul Ricoeur’s notion of the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” we will return to at our conclusion when we examine whether Davis’ overreading or overinterpretation is the same as, or different from, Ricoeur’s hermeneutics.
Derrida’s interrogation of good will in terms of alterity (40-41) is useful to consider briefly here because of how Davis further expands on Levinas’s gentrification of alterity later in Critical Excess. For Gadamer, alterity can, if not be penetrated, at least be mediated by “the shared-ness of shared meanings” (40). For Derrida, however, Verstehen (or understanding the other) is always a process of interruption, “a certain rapport of interruption” (which Davis then links to Levinas’ rapport sans rapport or relation without relation), where the “otherness of the other” remains intact; as Davis puts it, “[i]nterpretation would thus be about preserving difference rather than about overcoming it through consensus” (40). Here - and this is a topic I return to again and again in this review - we have the concept of “there is no dialogic relation,” or the constitutive notion for overreading of the dialogic and its tenability, a concept that Davis raises immediately when he continues in his reading of Derrida.
For this discussion of the Derrida/Gadamer debate is by far not all that Davis has to say about Derrida and overreading, as he now considers Derrida’s Béliers, a lecture in the memory of Gadamer (such a “hauntology” was, of course, a constant feature of the later Derrida, beginning with Specters of Marx); later, in the chapter on Žižek, Davis will turn to a much earlier work of Derrida’s, his critique of Lacan from the 1970s, published in The Post Card (curiously, as in Derrida’s late essay on Lacan in Resistances, we see a disavowal of the critique of the earlier work). But the Béliers reading quickly returns to the question of dialogue, both for its importance in Gadamer and for the question of whether the 1981 encounter was a failure; rather, Derrida argues, because the debate was a missed encounter, “it left behind an active, provoking trace” than would have been the case with some genteel, gentrified “let’s agree to disagree” or, as Davis argues, “[d]ialogue succeeds in its failure because it retains its power to provoke, not because it tends to agreement or understanding” (45).
Derrida’s Béliers then continues with a discussion of Gadamer on Paul Celan that echoes Heidegger on Hölderlin. Specifically, Derrida characterizes a reading that Gadamer makes of Celan’s poem “Wege im shatten-gebrÄch” (paths in the shadow-rock) as a risk, “an audacious step.” But, Davis argues, in Gadamer’s reading of the poem, “it is the poem which acts boldly” (46), not Gadamer. Thus Derrida argues the interpretation takes over from the poem, in much the same way Heidegger did in his debate with a graduate student in the 1950s. So if for Derrida, “the commentator must be bold to bring out the boldness of the text,” then for both Gadamer and Derrida, such boldness entails a risk - the risk of error for Gadamer, the necessary risk (necessary because only in this way can one see what the poem is saying) for Derrida. But if Derrida (and Davis) has been defending interpretation against a naïve view of the text a la Gadamer, then when Davis turns to Gilles Deleuze, we now have interpretation being thrown out the window.
That is, for all his engagement with philosophy, literature, or film, Deleuze is resolutely against interpretation - books, etc., are machines, they do something, as opposed to meaning something. And the creativity of a work of literature can only be unlocked, it seems, with the conceptual machine that is philosophy; that is, while Deleuze (and, often, Guattari) will argue that philosophy has no privilege over other forms of “the creation of concepts” (57), the question of hierarchy still haunts the work (and reception) of Deleuze. Davis follows this line by exploring the difference between reading and interpretation in Deleuze, in terms of two concepts: the repetition of ideas or readings in Deleuze’s work (i.e., whether there actually is difference in repetition) and Deleuze’s own resistance to dialogue or debate. The first issue has to do, as well, with Deleuze’s argumentative style: not only does his approach flatten out differences between Proust, Kafka, and Kleist (58), but, to take one well-known concept from the Deleuzian universe, “rhizome” is thrown around like confetti, never really explained but only declared: “[t]he term itself turns out to be rhizomatic, characterizing both the component and the whole … the novelty of what it elucidates being diminished by its repetition” (59).
This reluctance to use traditional logic or argumentation surely is connected, as well, to how Deleuze disavows interpretation and backs away from any debate. Davis sees this stance of Deleuze’s as “a disabling and authoritarian dogmatism more than an enabling liberation from the despotism of meaning” (60) - but here, again, we can look back to our emerging meta-theme of “there is no dialogic relation” and trace a continuity here. As shown in the Derrida-Gadamer debate, perhaps the academic belief in dialogue (even in its strongest form of Gerald Graff’s “teaching the conflicts”) is only ever a matter of wish-fulfillment. Perhaps Deleuze is uninterested in presenting his work as an interpretation because of the logical strangeness of his arguments (more declarative than demonstrative; a tendency that also characterizes Lacan, especially the Lacan of the Écrits [Fink 65]). Perhaps, too, he disdains debate because his criticism itself is not a debate with the text. Indeed, Deleuze’s most (in)famous metaphor for his critical activity - the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery - hardly suggests a genteel afternoon in a graduate seminar. In a way, Deleuze is serious (even if biologically confused): “I imagine myself arriving behind the author and giving him a child, which would be his, and would be monstrous. That it should be his is very important, because it was necessary that the author really did say everything that I made him say” (ctd. Davis 60). So there is an intolerable tension here between the violence of the (metaphorical, although Deleuze and Guattari are always adamant, as in Anti-Oedipus, that their metaphors are not metaphorical) buggery-cum-rape, and the fetishistic disavowal of Deleuze’s claim that he is just using the author’s words. Nonetheless, Davis goes on to argue, for Deleuze, there is nothing inside a book or a text, it only matters in terms of its outside, what it does.
In some ways what is most relevant to the outside of a text (or film) that Deleuze treats are two factors: the author or creator as a proper name, and how the text functions under the barrage of Deleuzian readings. Thus, here, we have a reading of Deleuze reading Proust - the canon is evidently safe in the hands of the sacrilegious critic. Deleuze’s Proust et les signes is a fractured text, however, made up of a first part from 1964 and then a second, more Deleuze-and-Guattrian (discussing Proust in terms of a logic of the machine), from 1970. The earlier part of Proust is also more reconciled with interpretation, especially of the semiotic sort, hunting down as it does the signs of love, material signs, and signs of art in A la recherche du temps perdu. For Deleuze, the novel is a search for truth that rivals philosophy, showing as it does that “thought is provoked only when something does violence to it, when something forces us out of our quiescence” (Davis 70). While Davis is interested in pursuing Deleuze’s reading in terms of the ancient quarrel between art and philosophy, turning to the form of that text, to the idea of a quarrel or debate or dialogue, allows a return to our continuing theme: Deleuze’s argument confirms, via Proust, the very difficulty of dialogue. Then, with his work on film, (in L’Image-mouvement and L’Image-temps), Deleuze similarly finds cinema doing the thinking usually accorded to philosophy, with the proviso that “the concepts of cinema belong to cinema but are not fully present in it” - they require the philosopher to produce them for thought - and thus, for example, Deleuze writes in the latter book that Orson “Welles’s critique of judgement is ‘in the manner of Nietzsche’ ” (137, ctd. Davis 75). But it also has to be said that at such a point, when Deleuze finds in film his canonical anti-philosopher (Nietzsche), he is not only conducting an interpretation, but a banal, thematic one at that. Thus in the wiki-Nietzschean reading of Orson Welles, we have a run down of his characters: “Othello wants the truth, but out of jealousy, or, worse, out of revenge for being black, and Vargas, the epitome of the truthful man, for a long time seems indifferent to the fate of his wife” (Deleuze 137). It’s no wonder Deleuze disavows interpretation: he’s not very good at it.
When Davis turns to Levinas the effect is salutary, not least because of the frisson of rejectionism that haunts the philosopher: Levinas is the girl who plays hard to get, the guy who ignores you at the beach or café. He hates literature because, in the words of Levinassian commentator Seán Hand, it “actively promotes a pact with obscurity”, its characters, as Levinas put it, are “confined beings, prisoners,” whose story continues without advancing or progressing (Davis 97). How refreshing to find a high European penseur with the same philistine belief’s as one’s redneck relatives! Of course, things are more complicated for Levinas: he pursues a form of interpretation, of overreading, that rather than depending on literature, or secular literature, is based on the Judaic sacred tradition, and, specifically, Talmudic commentary. And Levinas gets really weird here, for his interpretive style can only be compared to the most reader-centric forms of secular criticism to be found in the work of Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser. Beginning his chapter on Levinas with precisely that context, Davis contends that we are here, again (as with Derrida and Gadamer), dealing with alterity, with the question of whether a “text can be experienced as truly other” or if it merely ends up “as a screen” onto which we project our prejudices. This metaphor of the screen is not an innocent one, either for Davis’ project or the psychoanalytic bent with which I am reading it. From Freud’s notion of the screen-memory (a false memory that serves to displace a more significant one) to Žižek’s of fantasy as a screen (both screening or covering up and serving as a surface for our wishes: see the first chapter of The Plague of Fantasies), to Davis’ later (in this study) engagement with Stanley Cavell’s readings of film (and, most notably, the sheet qua screen in the motel room in It Happened One Night), the screen can rival dialogue as a productive node in Critical Excess (and, given the context in which this review appears, perhaps we can add “screen poetics” or the new forms of digital textuality, as another meaning or sense of screen).
Davis provides, then, before engaging more directly with Levinas, a useful potted survey of the phenomenology of reading and its close cousins reception aesthetics and reader-response theory. Thus he draws on first Iser and then Fish; the first arguing for a dialectic between what is fixed in a text and what is indeterminate - or what is there in the text versus what is supplied by the reader. And here alterity becomes important, for “because the text never quite matches up to our expectations of it, it reminds us that something remains indeterminate … the act of reading becomes an exemplary encounter with the unknown” (82). The reader’s response is not only to the text but to him or herself; or, translated (as Davis puts it) into Levinas-speak, “reading is an encounter with otherness which shatters self-understanding and re-orients our very subjectivity” (83). Of course, this sounds better in theory than we (probably) find it to be in practice - or, to put it another way, it isn’t as if our reader-response colleagues (and I would put myself in that camp in many respects) or more flexible, open, or contrarian than the run-of-the-mill, middle class academic. As Davis puts it via Terry Eagleton, “I can only be challenged as a reader if I am pre-disposed to read in a manner which allows me to be challenged.” We can extend this argument in two crucial ways: first of all, we have no doubt all had the experience of seeing a student come to a fundamentally new or unsettling realization on the basis of encountering or interpreting a new idea via a text (be it digital or print, literary or popular, theoretical or political). Perhaps this notion of a ceaselessly reinventing subjectivity is one demanded of our neoliberal epoch, one as necessary to late capitalism as the patient who heals himself via Google or the voter who rejects “ideology” in favour of pragmatic “post-politics.”
These nagging suspicions also bedevil Stanley Fish’s notion of interpretive communities, which, like Iser’s phenomology of reading, can be placed into a context of anti-authorcentric interpretations. We can see, then, an etiology that might begin with the New Critics’ (Wimsatt and Beardsley’s) “intentional fallacy” (1946), which argued that the author’s intention not only should not be a constraint in interpretation but couldn’t be, since the author’s intentions didn’t necessarily end up in the literary work. But this tradition really gets going in relation to Umberto Eco’s idea of the open text from the early 60s, as well as the canonical Barthes’ “Death of the Author” and Foucault’s “What is an Author?” for post-structuralist variations. Fish’s interpretive communities are useful not only for arguing, as Davis notes, that any distinction in a text is only an “interpretive assumption which produces the effects it claims to describe” (83), but also that interpretive communities themselves are the products of earlier interpretations. Then, 1980s cultural studies continued this debate in at least two ways: first of all, with the distinction between mass and popular culture (the latter made by audiences from the former) and then with notions that the meaning of pop culture is not inherent in the works but in what use is made of them (especially through fan cultures or subcultures); too artworld ideas, including both conceptualism, which argued against any meaning inherent in the art work, as well as institutional critiques - which, like Fish, argue that the museums and gallery system was itself a network of power relations. More recently, the Canadian poet Jeff Derksen’s theory of the productive reader, which sees the poem as a site for the reader to make meaning, rather than consume it (see his Annihilated Time), a Marxist idea itself ensuing from 70s L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing (Steve McCaffery but also Ron Silliman are the great source here).
This (Davis’ and my summaries) is all by way of backdrop, then, to Levinas’ sustained, thirty-year engagement with the Talmud, the Jewish commentary on the Bible, and especially Levinas’ argument that the strength and vitality of the Talmud and Talmudic commentary ensues from its disputes over virtually every word or question: “contradictions, disagreements, and ambiguities [are not] disturbances to be overcome; they are precisely what gives the Talmud its vitality” and, indeed, give it a transhistorical universality (Davis 86). In this regard, Davis locates Levinas’ method - strikingly similar to Žižek’s (who argued, as Davis cites later in this study, that the “elementary hermeneutic test of the greatness of a work of art is its ability to survive being town from its original context” [Davis 182]) - in opposition to the historicist and philological approach pioneered by Spinoza. That is, whereas Spinoza regarded meaning as “static and entirely located in the past,” for Levinas we need to pay attention to “a role in the production of meaning [for] the reader of the text” (87). Thus the relationship between the text and the reader is a two-way solicitation: “the reader solicits the text with his or her current interests … and is … solicited by the text to an exploration of meaning” (87). Key to Levinas’s interpretive methodology (or to Davis’ summary of it) is the notion of surplus (which can be connected to Derrida’s remainder or Lacan’s objet petit a): the “Talmud contains a surplus of meaning, which ensures its ability to speak to the concerns of modern commentators” (87).
While Davis lists a number of principles that guide Levinas, arguably the most important is the open door to anachronisms: “the reader must always solicit the text in the light of his or her current concerns” (88); thus Levinas would situate his Talmudic commentary in terms of the theme of the conference he was addressing, as little as the text in question might (seem to) have to do with it. This resolute ahistorical approach is also not a little violent: in a metaphor up there with Deleuze’s buggery, Levinas compares his reading “done to words to tear from them the secret that time and conventions cover over with their sedimentation” (89) to the story of Raba, who was so caught up in his studies that he rubbed his foot bloody: “I am in the process of rubbing the text so that blood spurts out of it. I accept the challenge!” As the metaphor suggests, Levinas is caught up in a sort of sacred radicality, one that accepts any reading because “in the Talmud ‘everything has been thought’ ” (92): the text is the ultimate (Lacanian) “Subject supposed to know.” The text “contains more than it contains” (94): there is more in the text (contained in it) than can be controlled (or contained). But this radical sense of alterity (of the text as other that can never be contained) also meets its limit when Davis reads an early (1947) essay on Proust, where Proust’s sense of the other, and the possibility of love for the other (in the relationship between Swann and Odette) as potentially murderous, must be contained by Levinas’ own reading practice. Whereas Swann’s love “leads him to seek to annihilate the other in its very alterity” (Davis 105), Levinas cannot acknowledge such a potential for murder - writing, as he was, in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, and determined not to let that horrific event control his ethics. Tragically, and possibly only visible due to Davis’ inspired juxtaposition of the wonderfully anachronistic Talmudic commentary and Levinas’ reading of Proust, we can see that Levinas’ mature philosophy denies the very murderous attitude toward the other that was there in Proust: “Levinas turns out to be a bad reader” (107).
If Levinas is a bad reader, then surely Žižek is an idiotic, or, to use a more Lacanian modifier, stupid, reader. Davis begins his chapter on Žižek by quoting from Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, where Žižek remarks that “Lacanian theory serves as an excuse for indulging in the idiotic enjoyment of popular culture” (Davis 108). This is an example of Žižekian “fetishistic disavowal” - I know very well that I just enjoy pop culture, but nevertheless I will connect it to high theory, but the methodology is a key question for Davis’ chapter on Žižek. Davis argues, for instance, that the “question is not ‘What does psychoanalysis tell us about film?’; rather, Žižek asks what film and psychoanalysis may tell us about one another” (110), and “it is important to stress that Lacan does not figure as the knowledge which popular culture illustrates” (111).
This relationship between popular culture, Lacan, and idiocy can be further elaborated upon with two problematics. The first is the Lacanian notion of idiocy or stupidity, which has its roots (as Lacan argues in Seminar XX) in the mirror stage, in satiation at the breast as a kind of stupification. Then, we have Žižek’s self-interview in Metastases of Enjoyment:
The second example of your approach to Lacan is your obsession with providing examples from the domain of popular culture….
I resort to these examples above all in order to avoid pseudo-Lacanian jargon, and to achieve the greatest possible clarity not only for my readers but also for myself - the idiot for whom I endeavor to formulate a theoretical point as clearly as possible is ultimately myself. … I am convinced of my proper grasp of some Lacanian concept only when I can translate it successfully into the inherent imbecility of popular culture. Therein - in this full acceptance of the externalization in an imbecilic medium, in this radical refusal of any initiating secrecy - resides the ethics of finding a proper word. (ME 175).
What Žižek is saying here is that popular culture functions in his work as a sort of test material, an intermediary, between Lacanian thought and the reader. On the one hand, translating Lacan into mass culture affords a degree of understanding - things must be simplified; on the other hand, this very process is thought to still convey the important or salient points of the theory. But what is interesting in Žižek’s text at this point is that the cultural examples he then gives are neither from popular culture nor of Lacanian theory. That is, in the passage that follows this statement in Metastases Žižek offers, by way of demonstration, not an example from “imbecilic” popular culture with which to understand Lacan, not a scene from Dude, Where’s My Car to explain imaginary identification or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to explain the big Other; rather, he offers a scene from Citizen Kane, arguably one of the greatest films ever made, to explain Hegelian “infinite justice,” or the dialectical meeting of opposites, “the judgment which posits the speculative identity of two thoroughly incompatible terms” (ME, 175). Now, of course, in Žižek’s idiotic imaginary, Lacan is a subset of Hegel - but it should also be remarked that this example - from Citizen Kane - doesn’t do anywhere so good a job of explaining infinite judgment as does that in Žižek’s 1997 New Left Review essay “Multiculturalism,” where he conjoined the left-elitist Adorno to the right-populist Pat Buchanan. And, indeed, here and elsewhere Žižek succinctly draws from Hegel himself what is arguably the best example of infinite judgement: “Spirit is bone” (ME 175).
But this, of course, is not all. (Dr. Seuss?). If Žižek’s first example of using popular culture to explain Lacanian theory fails to use the former to explicate the latter, so too, his second example, in which he refers to Macbeth to explain Kantian radical evil!I should add then when I made this point at an APCS conference in 2009, Jodi Dean pointed out that for Žižek’s concept of the stupidity of the big Other, Citizen Kane would be merely a Hollywood film (restoring it to the milieu of Welles’s cultural sphere) and Macbeth too was “originally” popular culture. Point taken w/r/t idiocy but otherwise these readings seem overly historicist and to ignore the subsequent canonization and elevation (in Bourdieu’s) sense of both Welles and Shakespeare. Now, elsewhere in Žižek’s work - and certainly in that which was extant when Metastases was first published in 1994, we find many examples of precisely the operation Žižek here identifies as crucial to his working through of Lacan (but even then … for every Raymond Chandler there is a Holbein, for every Hitchcock there is an Edward Munch: see also Kay Turner on the essentially middlebrow, art-house taste of Žižek) but it is surely striking that at this moment his nerve fails, as it were.
But to return to Davis’ argument: he astutely points out that Žižek’s reading of film or popular culture do not rest on a bedrock of assured psychoanalytic knowledge; if for the ancients, the problem of literature was that it pretended to know what it did not, if Deleuze found Proust or Welles to be working out (knowing?) philosophy, or if Levinas proposed that the (sacred, Talmudic) text knows everything, then for Žižek, in Davis’ reading, it is the theoretical or philosophical text that is held under scrutiny. Psychoanalysis “is not a body of assured, disinterested knowledge subject to verification and falsification,” it is the Subject supposed to know, in which the emphasis is on the “supposed” (111-112). And as willing as Žižek is to discard psychoanalytic certainty, so, too, (or even more so) will he discard the current political correctness that haunts the academy, “contextual” or historicist readings. Thus Žižek argues, first, that too much history blurs an actual contact with the work, and, second, that the work of art itself provides its own context: literary works or films can help one “to locate the raw data of his experience” (Žižek, Organs Without Bodies 15, ctd. Davis 113). Two further points should be made here. First of all, is this not actually quite similar an approach to Levinas’ move away from Spinozist biblical hermeneutics? Additionally, as can be seen in his recent reading of Kung For Panda (in Living in the End Times) the disavowal of historicist contextualization in no way clarifies the text (instead it is often in danger of disappearing into a theoretical fog) and in no way removes the possibility of a political reading.
Throughout Critical Excess, Davis chooses interesting texts, not always the most obvious ones, in which to explore the given critics’ practice - thus for his chapter on Derrida he focuses on his dialogue with Gadamer; for both Levinas and Deleuze he chooses texts on Proust as ways to bring into contrast deviations from their practice (a turn to secular literature for Levinas, and an indulgence in interpretation for Deleuze). In a similar regard, Davis here expands on the idea of Žižek’s criticism by grounding it not in Žižek’s commentary on Henry James or Shakespeare, but the Lacan-Derrida debate with respect to Edger Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” While there are no doubt some great reasons to focus on this debate in terms of setting up the stakes for psychoanalytic criticism, it is interesting that Davis uses a case of literary criticism - to situate a discussion of Žižek that otherwise focuses on film.
And so Davis turns to Lacan’s “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’ ” (Écrits 6-48), one of Lacan’s most sustained works of literary analysis (along with his seminars on Hamlet [in Seminar VI], Antigone [in Seminar VII], and James Joyce [in Seminar XXIII]). It is worth noting that while on the one hand Lacan thought so highly of his Poe seminar that he used it to begin the Écrits (Derrida makes hay of this “binding” effect that the seminar had on Écrits in his commentary on the seminar, “Le Facteur de la vérité,” in The Post Card), it was not part of the first English translation of Écrits in 1977, and was only known to Anglophone readers through its appearance in Yale French Studies (in 1972) and then Muller and Richardson’s The Purloined Poe (1988), until Bruce Fink’s 2006 translation of the complete Écrits. So looking at the Poe controversy is already a turn or swerve away from Žižek’s work proper, it is worth considering in terms of Davis’ method throughout Critical Excess. He jumps from Plato to Heidegger, he swerves from Derrida to the Derrida-Gadamer debate, and from Deleuze and Levinas to their writings on Proust. Here, Davis jumps within his jump, turning to Lacan but resisting being a reader of Lacan and, in his first paragraph on Lacan’s Poe seminar, characterizes the seminar only negatively, which is to say via Derrida’s criticisms:
Lacan’s reading of Poe has become a key text for any discussion of psychoanalytic interpretation of literature. In particular, Derrida’s response to it in his essay “Le Facteur de la vérité” (The Purveyor of Truth) lays out what he suggests is a key difference between psychoanalytic and deconstructive approaches: psychoanalysis tends to pin literature down, seeking out its occluded truth, which ultimately merely exemplifies what the analyst already knows, whereas deconstruction aims to respect the text’s residue, which resists critical appropriation. For Derrida as for Deleuze, classical psychoanalysis dreams of hermeneutic mastery and in the process finds nothing new. Lacan, according to Derrida, might initially look as if he breaks with established psychoanalytic practices of reading, but in fact his discussion of Poe reproduces them insofar as it uses fiction to illustrate a pre-existing body of knowledge. Derrida criticises Lacan for simplifying Poe; he has in turn be criticised for simplifying Lacan. What is at stake in the debate around Lacan’s Seminar, then, is whether or not psychoanalytic reading inevitably constitutes an imposition of meaning onto the text. (115; all emphases, except the last, mine: CB)
No one familiar with the history of the reception of the Seminar - especially in the Anglophone world - would gainsay the importance of Derrida’s reading of same in The Post Card. But remember that this engagement with Lacan, appearing as it does in a chapter on Žižek, is already a turn away from the putative subject of the chapter. In some ways, Davis seems to be determined to under-read Žižek, to under-interpret him, to avoid his thought and practice (by turning to Lacan) and then to under-read or under-interpret Lacan by turning to Derrida.
Too, the terms of Derrida’s critiques foregrounded here by Davis are symptomatic both in light of the criteria with which Davis has developed his theory of overreading, and also for how they function as a preface to Lacan and Žižek’s interpretive methodologies. Psychoanalysis, we are told (we are told that Derrida argues) seeks out the text’s “occluded truth”, unlike deconstruction, which respects the text’s “residue.” This critique seeks to maintain psychoanalysis in a cordon sanitaire, in Ricouer’s hermeneutics of suspicion (Davis has invoked Ricouer in the Derrida-Gadamer chapter). I should admit that I am not entirely unsympathetic to this criticism - if not of Lacan’s practice in the Seminar on Poe, than in the over-arching ideology of Lacanian psychoanalysis and/or Žižek’s practice of same. That is, a great deal is made of the analyst as the “Subject Supposed to Know” (see, in particular, Seminar VII and Žižek’s Sublime Object), with the emphasis being that in the clinical situation, he or she does not, in fact know, that she or he is only supposed to know by the analysand. Davis reiterates this point:
The analyst is supposed to know, but in fact does not. His therapeutic effectiveness does not depend on what he does or does not know. Nevertheless, what is at stake in the current context is whether or not the analyst or critic strives to establish a magisterial position, even whilst insisting he has none. (117)
I wrote in the margin of my copy at this point - fetishistic disavowal. But I think Davis has it exactly wrong, or backwards. I think the theory of psychoanalysis as a clinical practice may be engaged in fetishistic disavowal (I know very well that, indeed, I know, but I will fetishize my lack of knowing in a postmodern game of relativism) but this is not so for Lacan’s critical practice in the Poe seminar.
I would like to pursue this with respect to the “Schema L” that Lacan introduces in the seminar:
Lacan theorizes what is going on in the story via what he calls the "dialectic of intersubjectivity" (Écrits 40, where the schema also appears). In both scenarios, there is a subject who sees nothing - the King and the police - they stand at upper left of the diagram, as the S or Es - the it, the Id, but also the Subject. The Subject does not know. Then, on the lower left of the diagram is the ego, the little a, which is the Queen in the first scenario and the Minister in the second. On the upper right is the Minister in the first scenario, and Dupin in the second. On the lower right in both scenarios is the letter - the Other (Autre, so A), the treasure-house of language or signifiers.
But like Lacan's diagrams of the dialectic of desire (which, the reader will note with relief, I will not go into today), this diagram shows two paths: the first runs directly from the A/Other to the ego or a. The second runs from the A to the S, then across the top to the a' and back down to the ego. The first path, the short circuit, can also be thought of in terms of the question or declaration with which Lacan finishes his seminar, and which troubled Derrida so much: "a letter always arrives at its destination." For indeed this seems to confirm exactly Davis' point with that "Lacan is reaffirming his authority over the text" (117). In that reading (of Lacan's reading of Poe), Dupin would turn out to himself be delusional (he seems to not be aware of his own animosity towards the Minister), and be in the position of S, while Poe would be in the position of the a or ego (like first the Queen and then the Minister) and Lacan would then be in the position of the a' - a recombinative interpretation that could then be continued with Derrida's reading (which sees Lacan's blindness), and then Barbara Johnson or Žižek's readings of Derrida, and, finally, Davis' (or perhaps my own). Let us return to the "short circuit" mentioned above: as Žižek comments in Enjoy Your Symptom, "the letter always arrives at its destination" in the sense that all letters' true destinations are the Symbolic, the big Other (11). The purest form of this is the letter that is returned to us - or, even better for our digital present, the email that comes back, in the case of my university's system, from MAILER-DAEMON@sfu.ca.I owe much in this discussion of Lacan to members of the Vancouver Lacan Salon, comrades - if not neighbours - in over-reading and over-interpretation of the highest order.
A final comment on how Davis discusses Žižek and Lacan: in Enjoy Your Symptom, Žižek also reads this "early" Lacan in terms of the "late" Lacan of idiotic enjoyment or jouissance, arguing that the letter can be seen to be an "object of materialized enjoyment, the stain, or uncanny excess that the subjects snatch away from each other" (27). For Davis, this demonstrates Žižek's goals as a critic: to treat Lacan with the same mixture of fidelity and revisionism that Lacan treats Freud, in a reading that pays as much attention to (what I would call or witness as) the nerdy geekdom that underwrites all criticism, the idiotic enjoyment we take in getting down to a text and taking it apart.
Davis' final chapter that examines a critical practice has for its object the work of Stanley Cavell. Here, I would argue, the method I have detected in Davis' own practice - the critical swerve or detour (which, I should add, is also a trope to be fond in the Lacan and Derrida texts we have just left behind), come to inflict the most serious damage on Davis' survey. But that is to come. First some central points in Davis' summary of Cavell.
As with Deleuze, or Žižek, Cavell is not interesting in merely applying or illustrating philosophical ideas in film (or Shakespeare: 137) - rather he sees those cultural texts as doing philosophy. And for Davis, this also then involves the motif of the "stolen": "If for Lacan 'The Purloined Letter' is an allegory of psychoanalysis, for Cavell it is an allegory of ordinary language philosophy: what we seek (to possess, to undersand) is right in front of us, invisible to us or stolen from us because we do not know how to hold on to what is our own" - that is to say, it is a matter of the Freudian uncanny (136). For Cavell, Davis argues, the way in which to encounter this uncanny is through a full-dress deep reading, because if "the skeptical problem is no longer ... 'how to conduct oneself best in an uncertain world'; it is now 'how to live in a groundless world' (139)- this is what literature as well as philosophy works through (Shakespeare before Descartes) but what is also glimpseable through interpretation, through overreading or, in Cavell's terms, "overinterpretation."
At this point Davis quotes Cavell's defence of overinterpretation from Pursuits of Happiness (1981) adding the moral incentive that I cited near the beginning of this review - that “[t]he fear of overreading is a desire for containment, a longing for the familiar” (140). But this morality of overreading has now, in the months that I have been thinking about Davis, come to seem more like a case of Marx’s surplus value (or Lacan’s surplus jouissance) - that is to say, a fantasy, an extra that is there to justify what we would do anyway. As Davis goes on to argue, “Cavell wants his enjoyment to go together with a full engagement of his intellect” (141) - that is, unlike Žižek, Cavell does not see his engagement with Hollywood film as merely idiotic enjoyment - but perhaps it is the other way around, too. Perhaps Cavell just enjoys his close readings and wants to give them the veneer of Kantian philosophy. Again, I think this problematic comes back to haunt Cavell.
Davis’ interest, then, is in whether, in an encounter with a work of art, the critic “actually learns from film, or whether on the contrary he ends by reaffirming the precedence of his own discipline and established insight” (141); so he compares Cavell on film to Žižek & Deleuze; for Žižek (in Enjoy Your Symptom) theory has the final word; for Deleuze, Welles is but a pale imitation of Nietzsche; for Cavell, film triumphs, his “practice consists in a willingness to attend to it in such a way that he can learn from it philosophically” (144). But, again, what if it works the other way around? Or, what if, when I tell my undergraduate students that we will engage in a critical way with graphic novels or other pop culture ephemera (hello Facebook!), I am just disavowing my own pleasure?
And this paradox also comes to the fore in Cavell’s consideration of what film’s knowledge is, in his contention that film interested in what women know - a libidinal-epistemological paradox. Here Cavell’s reading of It Happened One Night is exemplary of how he tries to engage with the very foundation of his own enjoyment, a foundation that is always stained with the trauma of the real. For Cavell, It Happened One Night is about characters’ “respect for” each other’s strangeness (Davis 149), but we can apply the disingenuousness of this claim to Cavell’s and Davis’ readings, for therefore philosophy and film’s essential strangeness (whether in terms of medium or in terms of cultural value) are gentrified, in an operation that then spirals outward (as in the various readings of Lacan/Poe/Derrida entertained above) to Davis’ respect for the strangeness of the various critics he’s assembled (and mine for how his book works).
Here, then, the central trope in Cavell’s reading of It Happened One Night - and of my review is also expanded on by Davis: I refer to the plaid blanket that Clark Gable’s character strings across the motel room he is sharing with Claudette Colbert. Davis argues that for Cavell, the “blanket is a limit to knowledge … the transgressable boundary between selves … and it serves to represent the movie screen onto which are projected our uncertainties and desires” (152). These are all to be sure ways of reading the blanket, and its metaphorical usefulness to Cavell, but it is also a material object, in the film that resists its own symbolization, via its perpendicular place - rather than being something we see face on, for the most part (and here I refer especially to the “first” blanket, in the “first” scenario of the film) it is something we see as dividing the two characters. It divides them from each other but not from us, the viewers. Like the Queen in the Poe story, we see that they cannot see; but perhaps like the Queen, that also means that we think we are safe in making our critical judgments.
As I noted above, Davis’ interest is in whether, in an encounter with a work of art, the critic “actually learns from film, or whether on the contrary he ends by reaffirming the precedence of his own discipline and established insight” (141), and, like the blanket metaphor, this antinomy (between actually learning versus reaffirming) breaks down or self-deconstructs when he turns to Cavell’s reading of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Cavell’s essay, originally printed in Critical Inquiry (1981), is a curious beast that features, amid hesitant and passive-aggressive abdications of critical responsibility - Cavell repeatedly asserts that he is trying to begin in an uncontroversial manner (Davis puts it in a more politic manner: “Cavell does not rush his reader into assent” - 158), some bravura assertions about the film: not only is Cary Grant qua actor playing an actorly character, which the film “underscores” by repeatedly commenting on his familiar face, or allusions to other Grant-Hitchcock films (To Catch a Thief, Suspicion), but Hitchcock is evidently, according to Cavell, both alluding to Shakespeare and Freud, as well as, with the famous cropduster and Mount Rushmore scenes, making the viewer unmistakably aware of the filmed nature of the proceedings. But here Cavell stumbles, and, in his stumbling, as if following him over the precipice, so does Davis. Because Cavell’s very demurrals of the radicality of his own critique - the passive-aggressive nature of his continued declarations (“But let us begin as uncontroversially as possible,” then “But I was trying to begin uncontroversially”) do not mean, as Davis argues, “Cavell has acquired for himself the right to open the interpretive throttle,” rather, they are an example of fetishistic disavowal. They are a form of rhetoric (the litote) that allow him to understate his critical agenda and then to move from the undeniable (Cary Grant is in the film, its title is North by Northwest) but without establishing a methodology any more rigorous or appropriate to film than merely borrowing from moral philosophy. In effect, such rhetoric functions as a screen or blanket, separating the demure film (the Claudette Colbert character in It Happened One Night) from the disingenuous reporter (played by Clark Gable).
Colin Davis’ examination of these radically divergent critical practices has much to teach us, or remind us, about the value of and necessity for over-reading or over-interpretation. In his final chapter “In Praise of Overreading”, he offers some conlucding principles on a “hermeneutics” of this practice (178ff), which I would like to conclude this essay by expanding upon some of these. Thus he argues that “no form of evidence shall be ruled out on principle” (181), “the potential of context to generate meaning is never exhausted” (182), “nothing is only what it seems; everything is interpretable,” “the boundaries between the inside and the outside of a work are never certain” (183), and that “mistakes don’t matter too much.” Here the great example is Stanley Cavell, whose mistakes in remembering Hollywood films (especially when he was writing in the 1970s, before the availability of films on VHS, let alone YouTube) become fodder for his Freudian hermeneutic - but Davis also quotes Žižek in support of Cavell. Too, “there is no point in trying to persuade those who disagree with you” (185): in some ways the risks taken by overreading or overinterpretation acknowledge that the operation may not be suasive: Cavell’s characterization of his work as a bunch of assertions, or Wittgentstein’s “This is how it strikes me” or Deleuze’s stronger resistance to interpretation (“Objections have never produced anything positive”) or Žižek’s well-known declarations that a true philosopher is uninterested in debate) - all of which is to remind us of the real difficulty of the dialogic - indeed, thinking about Davis’ survery of overreaders, perhaps we should fuse Lacan’s “there is no sexual relation” (from Seminar XX) with Bakhtin and argue that there is no dialogic relation, that critical interventions rarely convince unwilling readers. But this also speaks to what Davis continues to warn us against: “the oldest interpretive trap … the inclination to find in a text only what we are predisposed to see in it” (180). Again with Davis’ hermeneutic: “the work knows something; perhaps it knows everything” (186): here Davis cites Žižek (Hitchcock knows everything you always wanted to know about Lacan, or sentimental literature may know what Kant did not), Paul de Man (“the text knows in an absolute way what it’s doing. I know this is not the case, but it is a working hypothesis”), and Cavell (a text knows as much or more about itself than we can know about it, although this is a fantasy). There are two points to make about this argument: first of all, what we are talking about is undoubtedly the Lacanian Subject supposed to know or Sujet supposé de Savoir (S.s.S.); then, as in the caveats added by both de Man (“I know that this is not the case”) and Cavell (that knowledge as a fantasy”, what also must be talked about is the text’s unconscious. Davis’ final tenet: “believe!” Or, more audaciously - Jameson’s “Always historicize” is deflated, as Davis states more strongly that “overreading is the precise opposite of the hermeneutics of suspicion” for the aim of overreading “is to listen to the work rather than to demystify it” (186). That such a practice may fall prey to its own rhetoric, to be listening to itself (or looking at the text and not seeing itself, conflating Lacan and Cavell) is, in the final instance, a risk worth taking.
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