Louky Bersianik: Aristotle’s Lantern

theory-croppedThe Fourth Estate

Criticism inhabits the same space as the symbol: both are subject to interpretation, and are thus subjective. There is no more a science of the literary than there is a science of the symbol, even if various theories manage to tease out laws or detect constants. Critical reading, therefore, is nowhere near an exact science; in fact, it can be just as arbitrary as a linguistic sign. It often hews to the interpretive code attached to the work’s author, where clichés and labels take the place of real analysis. As with all codes, every rule that is laid down can be undermined, circumvented. Just as there are loopholes in the legal system, there are escape exits with literary criticism. The interpreter can forget that he is no more than a performer and begin to take himself for a creator. And there is surely more than one way to execute a work…

The media is called “The Fourth Estate” and by taking part in the media, criticism becomes a part of that Estate. Since criticism is made by a handful of intellectuals, we could say that it also profits from the power of the local intelligentsia. As a result, its responsibility is commensurate with the extent of power it believes it has.

Lyotard writes: “Knowledge and power are two sides of the same question: who decides what is knowledge and who knows what should be decided?”[1] The question I want to raise now concerns the exorbitant power accrued by certain forms of criticism, which have multiplied their decision-making tasks and wielded power in the name of real and “legal” knowledge; that is, power legitimized by, regulated by, and conforming to the norms of institutional, patriarchal knowledge while being wholly devoid of any scientific basis.

In universities and scholarly journals, the heavy hand of “legitimacy” is placed on texts, which either painstakingly decodes them or pulls them out of circulation. It is not uncommon for professors and critics to form literary sects, and, like priests having the power to consecrate, they celebrate their rites before the congregation — those with a deep faith in literature — while deciding which works will pass on to posterity and which should be ignored. These then are the “deciders.” And, as Lyotard continues, “the ruling class is and always will be the deciding class.”[2] By deciding the fate of literary works, they control the artistic mindset of their fellow citizens. Either they direct them to works of quality, which often happens, or they turn them away if they cannot — or will not — appreciate quality, preferring works of lesser quality through clannish narrow-mindedness or incompetence and a neglecting of anything that is in the margin.

In Québécois literary circles, the critics who decide the fate of literary works usually come from the universities. Professors enjoy greater credibility. And when they themselves have authored a few novels, collections of poems and essays, things get even cozier because they are both the judges and the contestants. Frequently, it occurs even that they are asked to review books to which they have already given editorial guidance before publication. Furthermore, their multiple functions often involve them in situations in which the career of a writer is literally at stake: not only in deciding how much attention the work should be given, but also in times when the finances of the writer are at play; for they are on all the juries, either in person or through their critical texts, which will always be included in a candidate’s dossier. (It should be emphasized here that as authors they too are eligible for prizes and fellowships and financial assistance for their creative projects.) Their approval is therefore indispensable for an author/ess to get taken seriously in their circles and even by the public at large. After the entrance examination (which sometimes has to be re-taken) and the passing grade that only they can bestow, the writer can then participate, under the critic’s benign or fatal auspices, in the passionate (deranged?) competition for recognition, rewards, prizes, grants, fellowships, etc.

For it has to be admitted that a literary career, like any other profession, has its rivalries and power struggles. While it may not come as such a shock, it is nonetheless something to think about: the inevitable result of the games played by cliques with their pet preferences, and the pretense that these professional realities don’t exist. Moreover, we cannot deny that a certain number of professors-writers-critics rule the literary world, either as “wise men” or as dictators, because they hold down all the key positions — the decision-making positions. I hasten to add that most critics are acutely aware of their privileged situation and that such benefits (which are beyond the reach of a mere female writer!) are offset by a profound intellectual integrity. Needless to say, it’s not necessarily the wearing of multiple hats, which is profitable in every sense of the word, that’s being called into question here. As Claude Roy states: “the most interesting criticism, in fact the only true criticism, is always that of writers who are not just critics”[3] — provided, of course, that they are also professors (certainly there have been notable exceptions, though not everyone can be Joyce or Mallarmé) — and they must take the time to read and re-read in context, to digest their countless readings before claiming to speak in a tone that is not the echo of their academic institution.

In fact, a number of critics seem far too busy telling authors, especially female authors, what they should be doing instead of taking an interest in what they are actually doing. According to Claude Roy once again, these critics make up catalogs, programs, itineraries; they set goals; “they dream of leading authors as a sheepdog herds his flock (…) baring their teeth at the disobedient ones.”31 They do not even have the time to realize that they may pass by a work entirely, in the same way one can pass by “something within one’s self, something that has failed to bloom.”[4]

By condemning without appeal the books they don’t like, by denying them a passing grade, the password is slipped to colleagues and informed readers. Instead of letting “the work open up,” they close it for an indefinite time. Every now and then, especially when it comes to women’s books, an anachronistic character of traditional literary criticism springs up to perform his duty: he either commends or condemns the work; either he immediately understands everything, or he shuts it, locks it up, stows it away.

“The critic can only continue the metaphors of the work, not reduce them,”[5] Barthes writes. So, he must consider himself a wave detector, a sonar, his task to detect the vibrations of the signifiers, to enter their game, even if that game is unfamiliar, to demodulate them — to reconstitute the original signal of a carrier wave modulated by that signal. Demodulate, not demolish, not undo a construction by lending it a sole meaning, claiming to find a signified that is already fixed, to be lying in wait for a desire, for a “will-to-write” and not, as some critics wish, a “will-to-tell,” which amounts to seeking a definitive meaning, with the predictable effect of closing the work forever. “It is sterile,” says Barthes, “to bring the work to a state of pure explicitness, for then there is immediately nothing more to say, and the function of the work cannot be to close the lips of those who read it.”[6] And he recommends: “We must read as we write.”[7]

Sometimes critics can find nothing better to do with collections of poetry written by women than to drag out moralistic judgments, totally unrelated to the poetry, as in: this book is frivolous — and then to lock it in tautology — it is frivolous because dissipated, thereby denying all its symbolic significance and its architectonic complexity. What is he doing, in this instance, if not literally putting a fence around these works, banging down an iron curtain? What poetry lover will waste her time on such frivolities? There is the same fencing-off technique used when they write, without the slightest proof, that other women’s books have missed the main thing and are boring, thereby ensuring that only masochists will have the heart to open such books. “Nothing can be done,” Barthes says. “Boredom is not simple. Boredom (with a work, a text) cannot be chased away with a gesture of annoyance or good riddance¼ There is no sincere boredom.”[8]

Translated by Popahna Brandes

This excerpt from Louky Bersianik’s  “Aristotle’s Lantern” in Theory, A Sunday is posted with permission from *belladonna. Watch for excerpts from Theory, A Sunday to come over the next six weeks and save the date, October 16th, for a celebration of Quebec Women’s Writing at Concordia University. More to come, and please, we welcome comments, discussions, elaborations and entanglements below.


[1] Lyotard, Jean-François. La Condition postmoderne. Paris: Minuit, 1979. 20.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] Roy, Claude. Défense de la literature. Paris: Editions Gallimard, coll. Idées, 1968.151. 31 Ibid., 161.

[4] Ibid., 159.

[5] Barthes, Roland. Critique et vérité. (Tel Quel). Paris: Seuil, 1966. 72. 34 Ibid., 72. 35 Ibid., 72.

[6] Ibid., 72.

[7] Ibid., 52.

[8] Barthes, Roland. Le Plaisir du texte. (Tel Quel). Paris: Seuil, 1973. 43.

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