Response to “The Positive of the Negative: Joycean Post-Structuralism as Felskian Critique” by Robert Baines

By | November 24, 2021

Guest post by Cristina Ionica

Robert Baines starts his essay with a vivid analytical presentation of the last five decades of research in the field of Joyce Studies, emphasizing the context and stakes of the shift from (a) post-structuralist criticism to (b) a focus on “Joyce’s engagements with the history, politics, and culture of his age” (Baines xx), and later to (c) genetic criticism.

Focusing mainly on readings of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake within the first and the last of these three approaches, and consistently using Felski’s distinction between “critique” and “postcritique” to ground his observations, Baines insightfully lays out, for each critical orientation, both its strengths and its blind spots, and for each moment of transition, its contextual conditions –

Finnegan's Wake

Focusing mainly on readings of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake within the first and the last of these three approaches, and consistently using Felski’s distinction between “critique” and “postcritique” to ground his observations, Baines insightfully lays out, for each critical orientation, both its strengths and its blind spots, and for each moment of transition, its contextual conditions – from the general academic, as well as field-specific needs the new approach was meant to serve to the sometimes-conflictual nature of the shift. The purpose of this presentation is to stress that, given the undeniable contributions of each of these approaches to a more comprehensive understanding of Joyce’s works and of his creative process, more dialogue between these perspectives would greatly benefit the field – and, in the subsequent section of the essay, Baines elaborates on three related ways in which “Joycean post-structuralism has much to offer Joycean genetic criticism” (xx). First, in focusing on sources such as Joyce’s notebooks, genetic criticism productively reveals how specific phrases came into existence but may fail to acknowledge the perhaps forcibly disambiguating effect of its gestures – and would benefit from giving more attention to the more equivocal significations of each finalized phrase in interpretation (the focus of post-structuralist readings). Second, in focusing on manuscripts and source texts, genetic criticism privileges the perspective of the author – and an increased focus on the reader’s role in (re-)constructing/ (re-)creating meaning (the focus of post-structuralist readings) would productively complete that picture (xx).  

James Joyce

Finally, in searching for the source texts for Joyce’s notes, genetic criticism contributes necessary clarifications to our understanding of Joyce’s creative process but may fail to acknowledge the non-linearity of “influences” and the degrees of mediation that may be involved – and, as such, it might benefit from a more productive engagement with post-structuralist objections to the notion of a source text.

In my response, I emphasize the relevance of Baines’s claims beyond the scope of Joyce studies and attempt to build on his suggestions through some convergent observations derived from one of my research areas, Beckett studies.

Baines’ account of the last 50 years of criticism and his suggestions for extended forms of dialogue between supposedly divergent critical/ theoretical orientations can easily be transposed, mutatis mutandis, to Beckett studies. Textual scholarship has significantly advanced the field – most prominently, Beckett’s letters have been made available in a 4-volume edition from Cambridge University Press, and additional archival research has been done on his early manuscripts and published works (Caselli), as well as on petitions he signed and periodicals he read (Morin) and on documentation related to his French Resistance activities (Salisbury, “Gloria”).1 Recent theory-inflected and/or socially-oriented approaches to Beckett have started to engage more extensively with this textual scholarship (Salisbury, Laughing Matters and Langlois are examples). However, some critical works grounded mainly in textual scholarship can be manifestly averse to cultural criticism and theory, positing these interpretive modes as opposite to the work they do.

In 2017, I organized a panel on “Reading Beckett with Cognitive Narrative Theory” at the NeMLA Convention. During the discussion period, several audience members with publications in the field delivered a variation on the theme, “Beckett’s works do not need to stimulate the cognitive processes you speak of in order to be valuable.” (No one had argued that.) Such rejections of theory may derive from the fact that some theory-heavy interpretations of Beckett offer next to no close readings and make unsupported big claims – but textual scholarship can fall into traps of its own. Using manuscript fragments Beckett excluded from the published version of a work to “disambiguate” the meaning of that work (one of the issues Baines identifies in Joyce studies, too) strikes me as problematic. Similarly, claiming that Beckett held certain convictions throughout his life because he held them in his early twenties (as some scholars do, based on Beckett’s early letters and fiction) is questionable – after all, there is evidence within Beckett’s letters (if his literary texts and documented agreements with publishers are not enough) that he had later come to reject his early works and positions in rather sharp terms.2

Samuel Beckett's letter
A letter by Samuel Beckett

Finally, using selective quotations from Beckett’s letters to argue against interpretations extensively supported by countless elements of diction and structure in specific published texts also seems problematic, as it conflicts with the principles of genetic criticism itself alongside more general principles of interpretive responsibility.3

Such issues demonstrate the need, equally present in Joyce studies as in Beckett studies, to focus more on the reader’s perspective or on the level of interpretation, as Baines suggests, but also to avoid operating with a selective or reductive definition of the author. If an author’s notes or letters form the object of our examination, they have to be treated as partial, historically situated, and intricately connected documents themselves – not as stand-alone and unconditionally reliable expressions of “authenticity.” This is where Baines’ other two suggestions come into play: with Joyce and Beckett, as with many other Modernist authors whose articulation of meaning is typically multilayered (“equivocal,” in Baines’s terms) and whose recourse to “sources” is far from straightforward (see Baines’s rejection of the “teleological model of textuality”), any responsible critical engagement with the text should by necessity be attuned to the texts’ fluid and composite nature.

The latter can only be achieved, as Baines argues in relation to Joyce studies, through more extended dialogue between apparently divergent critical approaches such as post-structuralist and genetic criticism (xx) – an observation that equally applies to Beckett studies. Surely an interpretation of a work by Joyce or Beckett that takes into account archival aspects, engages in close readings, is attuned to the socio-historical context of the work’s production, and uses one or more theoretical frameworks to interpret the text is a responsible and desirable form of scholarly engagement. Interpretations focused – typically for practical reasons (length, time, etc.) – on just some of these aspects would also fit the description insofar as they avoid totalizing or reductive claims. As Baines illustrates both through his analysis of successive approaches in Joyce studies and through his three suggestions, reductionism and totalization are risks that unavoidably emerge whenever an approach defines itself unrelentingly against something. To take Baines’s suggestions one step further, strict polarizations open the door for types of work with literary texts that become more attached to their own principles (however defined) than to the very object of their research, and in so doing, abandon critical responsibility for forms of critical positioning that may confirm the worst assumptions of the opponents of “strong” theorizations. (Genetic criticism would arguably posit itself as more objective and description-based, and reject poststructuralist/ theory-inflected critical modes as “strong” and “paranoid,” within the terms of the strong/weak, paranoid/reparative, interpretive/descriptive debate – but, as Baines’s suggestions reveal, in engaging in that gesture of rejection, it risks embracing forms of reductionism and totalization of its own.)

The need to define one legitimate and authorized interpretive mode in fields such as Joyce studies or Beckett studies is all the more ill-suited considering that these writers’ texts, to use Stephen Ross’s phrase, “think otherwise” (“Futures of Critique” 1) in relation to their socio-historical and aesthetic contexts and appear to run parallel to, engage critically with, or anticipate major twentieth-century (or even more recent) developments in theory. These writers’ texts demand multipronged, generative critical approaches, and any responsible critical response would be bound to meet that demand. While the value of an approach that would establish a productive “dialogue” (Baines xx) between divergent critical approaches seems self-evident, large amounts of energy continue to be spent on delegitimating theory-inflected, “critical” interpretive modes as a matter of principle – in new theorizations of textual interpretation, in modernist studies in general, in single-author subfields, etc. Some of these discussions may be, in part, useful, as they may stimulate us to continually rethink the reach and limitations of our interpretive modes – yet the conversation would become much more productive if it stopped being predicated on exclusionary principles. As Baines persuasively argues in his paper, valuable aspects of critique and theory are lost in this oppositional way of conceiving of our research fields, and a lot could be gained by placing these interpretive modes in dialogue instead. Several critical/theoretical interventions included in this volume (see especially the introduction by Stephen Ross and the essays by Yan Tang, Kathryn Carney, and Masami Sugimori) make related arguments concerning the best strategies we can use to respond to our objects of study in responsible and generative ways while avoiding reductionist or totalizing claims – and, as Ross persuasively argues in his introduction, adopting a responsible interpretive mode has always been, and is all the more so today, a necessary ethical gesture.

Modernism, Theory, and Responsible Reading cover

Note 1

Since this is a short response, I will limit myself, here and elsewhere, to one or two examples from each category.

Note 2

Beckett reluctantly authorized new trade editions of More Pricks Than Kicks as late as 1970, after years of mounting pressure from Grove Press and Calder and Boyards, while labeling the volume, at best, as “this juvenilium,” and at worst, as “this old shit” (see, for instance, his Letters, vol. 3: 663, and vol. 4: 221). He also barred the publication of Dream of Fair to Middling Women during his lifetime.

Note 3

For instance, the figure of the Auditor in Beckett’s Not I is consistently read, in Beckett Studies, as a positive, compassionate presence, primarily based on Beckett’s statement, in a 1972 letter to Barbara Bray, that the image was inspired by “an Arab woman all hidden in black absolutely motionless at the gate of a school in Taroudant” (Letters, vol. 4: 287). However, Beckett also mentions “the watching figures in the Caravaggio Malta decollation” as a source, literally in the same sentence (287), and he elaborates further on that connection in a 1986 letter to Edith Kern (671). The latter connection, far less frequently discussed in criticism, suggests a disturbingly voyeuristic and not fully benevolent quality to the Auditor’s figure – as do the Auditor’s reactions in the play (as the protagonist, Mouth, continues to reject identification with the woman she is speaking “about,” the Auditor’s gestures of compassion recede and disappear).

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. The Letters of Samuel Beckett. Edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Daniel Gunn, and Lois More Overbeck. Cambridge UP, 2009-2016. 4 vols.

Caselli, Daniela “The Promise of Dante in the Beckett Manuscripts.” Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui, vol. 16, no. 1, 2006, pp. 237–257. https://doi.org/10.1163/18757405-016001032

Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. Edited by Robbert-Jan Henkes et al., Oxford UP, 2012.

Langlois, Christopher. Samuel Beckett and the Terror of Literature. Edinburgh UP, 2017.

Morin, Emilie. Beckett’s Political Imagination. Cambridge UP, 2017.

Ross, Stephen. “Provocations on the Philosophy of Weakness.” M/m Responses to the Special Issue on Weak Theory, Part IV, 16 May 2019. https://modernismmodernity.org/forums/posts/responses-special-issue-weak-theory-part-iv

Salisbury, Laura. Samuel Beckett: Laughing Matters, Comic Timing. Edinburgh UP, 2012.

—. “Gloria SMH and Beckett’s Linguistic Encryptions.” The Edinburgh Companion to Samuel Beckett and the Arts, edited by S. E. Gontarski, Edinburgh UP, 2014, pp. 153-169.

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