On Being Difficult

On Being Difficult

Ken Hirschkop
The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory and Comparative Work
Rey Chow
Durham: Duke University Press, 2006

Ken Hirschkop questions whether poststructuralism and
self-referentiality offer workable alternatives to the military ‘World
Target’ that, according to Rey Chow, provides the framework for
knowledge production in Departments of Comparative Literary Studies.

The Age of the World Target is intended to be a demonstration of self-referentiality as well as a disquisition on it. Although it is, relatively speaking, readable, the syntax is complex, the vocabulary extravagant and the prose self-consciously difficult. By argument and by example it defends the critical language of modern theory against the charge that it is willfully and unnecessarily obscure. If the prose style of theory is difficult and tortured that, according to Chow, is because this self-referential language is struggling against the instrumental prose of the modern military machine, the clarity of which is merely an index of its aggressive, war-making function.

This deadly instrumentalism is the subject of the first and third chapters of this short book, which focus on the nexus between bombing and knowledge on one hand, and the task of fashioning a comparative literature untainted by imperialism on the other. Slotted between the two is “The Interruption of Referentiality: or, Poststructuralism’s Outside”, a detailed examination of the problems a destabilizing, self-reflexive critical language encounters when it takes on the episteme of the modern West. The scene for these analyses, and the rationale for the book as a whole, is set in an Introduction that explains how and why we arrived at this situation in the first place.

The explanation relies almost entirely on Foucault’s account of the transformation of language in The Order of Things. As Chow reminds us, Foucault claims that in the nineteenth century language, once the “grid” that underlay our understanding of the world, itself became an object of knowledge, losing its solid grip on things in the process. In Foucault’s narrative, three things compensate language for the loss of its kingdom: the invention of a purified symbolic logic, the development of exegetic writing, and, last and best, the appearance of literature. Of course, by this Foucault means not all literature but a different, essential literature, a writing that, in Chow’s words “takes on a permanently oppositional stance against the world - in the form of an impenetrable self-referentiality”. (6). This literature is language folding back on itself, refusing any truck with discourse on ideas, enclosed in what Foucault calls a “radical intransivity”. In short, it’s Mallarmé.

In the 1960s the torch lit by Mallarmé is passed on to French philosophers - Foucault, presumably, among them - who take it upon themselves to devise a language that suspends language, that talks of language, and that leaves the referents of language to narrow-minded positivists and technocrats. The early literary avant-garde was not enormously popular, and neither, it goes without saying, is the later philosophical one, but it does a job that has to be done, and its apparent narcissism disguises the deep political significance of its project. “In poststructuralist theory’s Sisyphean efforts to obstruct the path of a sweeping global instrumentalism (one that has led to the demotion of language), we see the compelling legacy of a romanticist high modernism with its avant-garde political aesthetic programmatic intentions” (49).

One’s immediate, if ungenerous, reaction is to remind Chow that Sisyphus is a mythical figure, and that if the stone keeps rolling back down the hill, that might be a sign that one should be doing something other than trying to roll it back up. But even this rather pessimistic account of theory’s project glamourizes it, for poststructuralist theory is not the legatee of the much sexier literary avant-garde, and as for “sweeping global instrumentalism” - it doesn’t obstruct it, and instrumentalism isn’t really the problem to begin with.

The notion that literature is self-referential is neither recent nor particularly avant-garde. Tolstoy famously claimed that to state the message of War and Peace one would simply have to write the novel out again, and Cleanth Brooks’s attack on “the heresy of paraphrase” claimed that literary works weren’t liable to summary because they weren’t, to borrow Foucault’s language, transitive. Their literariness lay in the exact arrangement of their discourse, not in the ideas, things or arguments to which the discourse referred.

But you can paraphrase Chow’s book, as I have just done. Naturally, her argument is far more detailed, subtle and stylish than the summary I’ve provided and will elaborate on below. But a summary can be made, and it can be made precisely because Chow’s discourse is transitive, not self-enclosed; it refers beyond itself, advancing various claims about the military, the West, literary studies, the nature of language, and so on.

In this respect, it is the rule not the exception for recent theoretical writing, which is assertoric even when it is playful or engulfed by waves of fanciful metaphor. The “poststructuralist critique of language” such as it is, is valuable and interesting to the extent that it’s right, and pretty much worthless if it’s wrong. Granted, Derrida is an exception here: you cannot paraphrase his texts, and the force of their arguments depends on the effectiveness with which they establish new metaphorical and metonymical connections (the same is true of some of Adorno’s writing, and perhaps some of Benjamin’s as well). But he is exceptional, and it’s striking how shallow attempts to reproduce his discourse have tended to sound: shallow because their use of figure and syntax is ornamental and affected. By contrast, most recent “theory”, whether consciously poststructuralist or not, is difficult because it deploys an inherited (and often squandered) philosophical vocabulary. It’s hard because it is philosophical and often technical, not because it’s art.

This defect - not being art - is one that theory should prolong and celebrate, not remedy. For the most egregious error Chow makes is to imagine that obstructing instrumentalism is somehow a desirable and effective route for left-wing politics. The case against instrumentalism is made in depth in the opening chapter, which argues with reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki that “[t]he dropping of the atomic bombs effected what Michel Foucault would call a major shift in epistemes, a fundamental change in the organization, production and circulation of knowledge” (33). It initiates the “age of the world target” in which war becomes virtualized and knowledge militarized, particularly under the aegis of so-called “area studies”.

It’s hard not to see this as a Pacific version of the notorious argument that the Gulag and/or the Holocaust reveal the exhaustion of modernity. And the first thing one has to say is that this interpretation of war as no longer “the physical, mechanical struggles between combative oppositional groups” (33), as now transformed into a matter technology and vision, puts Chow in some uncomfortable intellectual company: like that of Donald Rumsfeld, whose recent humiliation is a timely reminder that wars continue to depend on the deployment of young men and women in fairly traditional forms of battle. Pace Chow, war can indeed be fought, and fought successfully, “without the skills of playing video games” (35) and this is proved, with grim results, every day.

But it’s the title of this new epoch - the title of the book as well - that truly gives the game away. Heidegger’s “Age of the World Picture” claimed that the distinguishing phenomena of what we like to call modernity - science, machine technology, secularization, the autonomy of art and culture - depended, in the last instance, on a particular metaphysics, that of the “world conceived of and grasped as a picture”, as something prepared, if you like, for the manipulations of the subject. Against this vision of “sweeping global instrumentalism” Heidegger set not Mallarmé, but Hölderlin, and not just Hölderlin, but also “reflection”, i.e., Heidegger’s own philosophy.

It’s a philosophical reprise of what Francis Mulhern has dubbed “metaculture”, the discourse in which culture is invoked as a principle of social organization superior to the degraded machinations of “politics”, degraded machinations which, at the time he was composing this essay, had led Heidegger to lower his expectations of what National Socialism might achieve. In the fog of metaphysics, every actually existing nation - America, the Soviet Union, Germany - looks just as grey, as does every conceivable form of politics. For the antithesis of the “world picture” is not a more just democratic politics, but no politics at all, and it is hard to see how this stance can serve as the starting point for a political critique.

If Chow decides to pursue this unpromising path anyhow, it is probably because turning exploitation, military conquest and prejudice into so many epiphenomena of a metaphysical “instrumentalism” grants philosophy and poetry a force and a role in revolutionising the world that would otherwise seem extravagant. Or it would do, if “instrumentalism” was, as Chow claims a “demotion of language”, if language was somehow more at home exulting in its own plenitude than merely referring to things.

Poor old language. Apparently ignored for centuries, it only receives its due when poststructuralists force us to acknowledge it. In their hands, “language flexes its muscles and breaks the chains of its hitherto subordination to thought” and, as a consequence, “those who pursue poststructuralist theory in the critical writings find themselves permanently at war with those who expect, and insist on, the transparency - that is, the invisibility - of language as a tool of communication” (48).

We have been down this road before and will no doubt go down it again. In fact, it’s fair to say this particular journey has become more or less the daily commute of critical theory, though few have thought it ought to be described in such openly military terms. There is good reason, however, to think Chow’s chosen route will lead not to the promised land of resistance and emancipation, but to more Sisyphean frustration. In fact, there are several good reasons.

First, by transparency Chow seems to mean a kind of spontaneous empiricism we adopt whenever we use language “referentially”. But it is perfectly possible to use language transitively without assuming that our concepts are mere abstractions from sense experience. Physicists routinely refer to a range of particles that they know are theoretical constructs or metaphors. In everyday language we regularly refer to things (“his increasing uneasiness”, “the bottom line”) without for a moment assuming they are things. Chow confuses a doctrine about the nature of our concepts or signifieds with the act of referring, which can coexist with a variety of epistemologies.

Second, and perhaps more serious, is the confusion of “instrumentalism”, a mode of action, with referring. It’s hard to conceive of instrumental relationships without acts of reference, but you can’t conceive of non-instrumental relationships without them, either (“I love you”, after all, requires reference). In and of itself, referring in language doesn’t incline us towards any particular mode of social existence, or any particular politics: it’s just something we do in language, and do naturally.

Put another way, to imagine that language is only acknowledged in philosophy and poetry - as if asking it to behave transitively were degrading, unseemly and servile - is to assign it a singular telos and function, to identify it far too closely with forms of discourse that belong to particular societies and particular circumstances. It overloads language, asking it to do too much (resist the tide of US militarism) by insisting that when it is true to itself it does very little (produce self-referring works). This linguistic romanticism has a long and broad history, and you can find traces of it in everyone from Herder to Habermas.

For sure, human cooperation is inconceivable without the activities gathered under the title of “language”. But if cooperation is inconceivable without language, so is much of what we find brutal in our shared social life. You cannot explain the ruthless pursuit of extraordinary wealth, the murder of millions of European Jews or the persistence of ethnic violence and torture by thinking of it as a betrayal of language. Humans are the only creatures who have language but they are also the only creatures who make a habit of such brutality, and it’s more than disingenuous to pretend these two facts aren’t connected.

Sisyphus was condemned to his task by Zeus. Cultural critics are free to stop pushing language up the hill whenever they want. Rey Chow can’t emancipate the injured and exploited by giving up her vision of self-referentiality; but she’ll free her readers from an illusion, and open up more promising political paths when she does.