This summer New Literary History will publish an article by Anthropoetics collaborator Richard van Oort on GA and esthetic phenomenology. In conjunction with this, the editor has kindly asked me to contribute an exposition of GA as a branch of critical theory. Whence these preliminary reflections on literary history.

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Literary history is an unfashionable concept today because it no longer has an interesting story to tell. (The exception is the new nations of the third world; scholarly interest in the cultures of these countries reflects their constructive vitality as well as, or rather as a result of, their victimary “post-colonial” status.) At the turn of the twentieth century, the now-forgotten Ferdinand Brunetière‘s Darwinian thesis on the “evolution of genres” had a certain plausibility. In 1960, when I began graduate study, French literature was still a vigorous, ongoing phenomenon. Today more novels are produced than ever, but if the French public continues to read them, French professors almost never do, and no one sees the French novel or any other genre as “evolving.” The postmodern cultural universe is averse to literary history, not because today’s literary productions are inferior to those of the past, but because we forbear to provide this history with material by crowning our contemporaries as masters. Culture is in the first place the assignment of roles with the ultimate goal of deferring violence through representation, and as hierarchies dissolve, so does that of the high culture.

This dissolution reflects the victimary sensibilities that have been released into the postmodern cultural atmosphere; as continuing battles over the “canon” demonstrate, victimary thinking attacks cultural hierarchy more insistently–and more successfully–than political hierarchy. Behind the facile denunciations of the “patriarchy” of the past, it is the potential cultural hegemons of the present that one wishes to hold at bay. The literary world is fractionalized into genres produced by specialists whose expertise we can admire without having to set them above us as universal spirits. The same is true in the theoretical sphere: humanists willingly bow down to the authority-figures of psychoanalysis because “clinical” experience makes them external rather than internal to the sphere inhabited by their worshippers. It is easier to sacrifice to foreign gods than to risk elevating someone too much like ourselves.


But if literary history as the history of literature has become unfashionable, as the assertion of the literarity of history it is so fashionable as to have become invisible. At our recent graduate student conference, when an undergraduate speaker referred to the xenophobic discourse of the French Front National, an academically innocent questioner wondered if there was not indeed some point in Le Pen‘s insistence that Arab and African immigrants were taking jobs away from native Frenchmen. At this point, my antiquated sensibilities anticipated a hostile reaction from the young but amazingly professional lecturer. But she elegantly side-stepped the question: I am neither sociologist nor economist, she said; I concern myself with discourses, not realities. Behind the diplomacy of this reply lies the scarcely questioned conviction that history is in the first place the history of discourses, such that the language of Le Pen, like that of Hitler, is best understood in relation not to its social but to its discursive context. Whatever its purportedly specific justifications, racism remains racism and is as such condemnable. This incident is one more confirmation that the Holocaust is the defining event of postmodernity. We tend to forget that since the late nineteenth century, it had been perfectly acceptable for respectable people to declare themselves antisemites. That this is no longer possible is (however little help it may be to the Jews) a genuine postmodern accomplishment that we should bear in mind when we complain about the proliferation of victimary discourses.

Postmodernity is dominated by “literary history” precisely because, having rejected the hierarchy of the esthetic center, it can no longer boast a “literature.” If we suspect the history of facts because we see facts as secondary to the discourses that organize them, the source of this model is not some vague fin-de-siècle malaise but our historical experience of the discourse of victimization. It is no doubt significant that France suffers from high unemployment while maintaining the highest level of immigration of any European country, just as it is significant that Germany in the Weimar years suffered from ruinous inflation; but the Holocaust shows that these facts remain less important by an order of magnitude than the return of modern-day political discourse to the archaic language of demonization. Inflation, unemployment, and immigration can be lived with, however painful they may be; the enactment of sacrificial expulsion on the scale of Auschwitz cannot.

Because the Holocaust is important not as a contingency but as a significant potentiality, not to say a necessity, of Western civilization, literary history becomes the history of the victimizing discourses not just of Hitler and Le Pen but of the “patriarchal” West as a whole. The oppositional “subaltern discourses” now being unearthed have so far been treated in a different light, but the window of victimary opportunity, which saw the end of such institutions of ascriptive hierarchy as colonialism, segregation, and apartheid, is now in the process of closing. The current critique of affirmative action corresponds to the realization that the discourses of the dominated are no less sacrificial than those of their erstwhile dominators, and often more so. Today’s more positive trend is to concern oneself with the cultures of the “borderlands” where the two discourses interact; this is a salutary development whether it originates as an attempt to save or to expunge the victimary perspective.

To treat political and historical discourse as the matter of history is not to show contempt for reality, but to assert that the originary structures of the human reveal themselves less clearly in the realities of social difference and the events they generate than in the ideologies with which we attempt to justify them. The high art of “literature” criticized the violence of sacrifice from within what remained a sacrificial structure; sacrificial violence was necessary because social difference was necessary. If we are no longer willing to allow the esthetic scene to subsist unchallenged, it is because the revelation that has proceeded from this scene is incompatible with our continued submission to it–a submission that ended with Auschwitz. The resentment that refuses to accept heroes of any kind finds its historical justification in the cautionary tale of Nazism: The Triumph of the Will is the West’s last serious artwork. The Christian “abolition of religion” ultimately leads to that of art as well; the self-creating individuality of Western market society can subsist only in the absence of a strong central figure.

If the postmodern era’s victimary sensibility is the product of the Holocaust and its discrediting of the esthetic image, its postliterary culture reflects its unstoppable democratization–its generation, through the proliferation of meaning-bearing consumer goods, of the means to ever-greater reciprocity. The end of literature is the beginning of literary history because the postmodern, postliterary world is one in which our imagination no longer shields us from the presence of the Other who generates discourse and is generated by it. There are still authors and readers, but there are no longer characters. Our history will henceforth be the tale not of legendary figures but of ourselves.