Charles Bernstein

[Originally published in Sulfur 15, January 1986. Collected in Attack of the Difficult Poems (University of Chicago Press, 2011)

Three books by Jerome J. McGann are discussed in this essay: The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), and The Beauty of 1nflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985). McGann is Dreyfuss Professor of Humanities at California Institute of Technology and editor of the five-volume Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works now in progress from Oxford University Press.

At the heart of a crisis in contemporary literary criticism is the systematic use of 'text' for 'poem.' According to Jerome McGann, a poem is a social event — a work of literature — embedded in a dynamic, multilayered historical and ideological context. In contrast, a text is a deanimated linguistic structure — a document — removed from sociohistorical context. "What we ought to see," says McGann in The Beauty of Inflections, "is that 'text' is the linguistic state of the 'poem's' existence. No poem can exist outside of a textual state any more than a human being can exist outside of a human biological organism. But just as a person is not identical to a particular body, so neither is a poem equal to its text" [p. 22].

This metaphor suggests a parallel between New Criticism and behaviorism; both collapse the operant distinction between a mechanism (behavior) and a function (action). McGann's polemic takes up the philosophical and political imperatives of Bakhtin, asserting that language is a social act and meaning is interdependent on social context; it offers an alternative to imagining language as a formal system in which meaning is derived by a variety of internal differentiations.

McGann's "historically based critical procedure" represents one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated efforts in academic literary criticism to reverse the dehistoricizing and depoliticizing tendencies not only in New Critical "close reading" but also in structuralist and poststructuralist "textualizations." The goal is not to reject, wholesale, these heterogeneous developments but rather to incorporate them, where possible, into an historical program that would radically alter the practice of literary criticism by redressing the current schism between textual and bibliographic scholarship (investigations of the history of the text and reception of the work) and literary criticism (that is, interpretation). For McGann, textual and bibliographic research is not preliminary and incidental to the interpretation of literary works, it is a basic part of the interpretative act. That is, their function is not simply textual emendation but, more importantly, establishing the significance of the context of publication. As McGann repeatedly shows, the same text has different meanings — is a different poem — depending on where and when it appears.

In 1983, McGann published two short books, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism and The Romantic Ideology, aimed, respectively, at making a decisive intervention within the practices of textual scholarship and literary criticism. Because these books are akin to legal briefs — summarizing major positions and formulating an alternative, ideologically self-conscious program — they emphasize how seriously McGann takes the precedence of historical engagement over "pure theory"; that is, they demonstrate his commitment to sociohistorical reflection as an essential part of any meaningful historical engagement. When McGann criticizes his profession for repressing the ideological character of its subjects, his point is that neither poetry nor criticism transcends ideology. (An interesting, and provocatively truncated, appendix to The Romantic Ideology argues that Louis Althusser and Pierre Macherey are wrong to suggest that art is not to be counted among the ideologies; however, this crucial point is best understood as a corrective to Althusser's more general formulation of the concept of ideology in his germinal essay "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" [in Lenin and Philosophy; New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971], a formulation on which McGann's relies.)

For McGann, it is not just the historical subjects of literary criticism that need to be recognized; rather, and rather more crucially, contemporary criticism's own institutionally based ideological formations must also be explicated. Literary criticism can never be the final arbiter of the fixed meaning of a 'text,' just as literary or linguistic theory cannot be the ultimate explicator of fixed systems of meaning. In contrast, McGann's two tracts insist that literary criticism is an active participant in the continuing reception — reproduction — of works. I say "tracts" to emphasize McGann's stylistic extension of his ideological interventions; these pamphlets are in every sense didactic; their virtue is to be repetitive and blunt more often than elusive and elegant. If there can be any doubt that this is deliberate, the contrast with The Beauty of Inflections will settle the matter. McGann's expansive, thoughtful readings of works by Keats, Byron, Crabbe, Coleridge, Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, and others are exemplary of the possible fruits of his program. Swimming against the tide of literary theory without literature, McGann anchors his methodological and interpretive craft in close, and contextual, readings of specific poems.

In The Romantic Ideology, McGann argues that the criticism of Romanticism, to our own day, has uncritically absorbed the key self-representations of the Romantic Movement. Terms like "spirituality", "creativity", "process", "uniqueness", "diversity", "synthesis", "reconciliation", "imagination", "poetic truth" are accepted as fundamental human concepts that need not, and cannot, be analyzed. McGann contends that the belief that Poetry transcends history and ideology (in the sense of false consciousness) is an essential element in Romantic displacement, the "grand illusion" that one may escape the disappointments of history through imagination and poetry: "a sense sublime", as Wordsworth had it in "Tintern Abbey," "Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns ... / A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things." While the wrecks of history "fade and fall to ruin," McGann comments, "the abbey of the mind suffers no decay...The poem generalizes — we now like to say mythologizes — all its conflicts, or rather resituates those conflicts out of a sociohistorical context and into an ideological one" [pp. 87-89]. "The polemic of Romantic poetry, therefore, is that it will not be polemical; its doctrine, that it is non-doctrinal; and its ideology, that it transcends ideology" [p. 70].

Romantic ideology has descended to us, says McGann, largely through the lines of thought that have developed from Coleridge and Hegel (the German ideology). But while the Romantic ideology of 1789 to 1824 was articulated, to a large extent, by poets skeptical of many of its features, this ambivalence and self-consciousness largely disappears in the debased forms of Romantic ideology we encounter today. McGann censures his own 1968 study, Fiery Dust: Byron's Poetic Development, because of its absorption in Romanticism's self-representations and its presumption of the poet's linear development (a biographic teleology that cripples much critical thinking about art).

The uncritical acceptance of Romantic ideology, however, poses problems for more than the study of Romanticism. The effect is all the more disastrous when, institutionally reified, this ideology continues to be the basis for the reception of post-Romantic poetry by an influential segment of what McGann calls the clerisy, that is, literary academia. In this light, the grotesque, yet systematic, misjudgments about twentieth century poetry by a critic of Romanticism such as Harold Bloom become more understandable, if no less excusable. MGann's sometimes humorous self-consciousness, true to his own didactic intentions, specifically keeps the focus on "that narrowest and most cloistered of spheres...the critical work produced by the literary academy" [p. 59]. It would be a mistake to ignore the pervasiveness of the same debased Romantic ideology as it informs much contemporary American poetry. Indeed, a broad range of seemingly antagonistic tendencies in current writing share a conception of poetry as giving a "voice" to unmediated "basic truths" of "imagination" and "feeling" through "direct expression" of human "creativity"; they also share an allergic reaction to any intimation, in a poem, of intellectual or ideological self-consciousness. Absorption in Romanticism's self- representations, then, is not only a problem for critics; it is also a problem for poetry. This is the kind of reciprocal interaction in our own time that McGann sees as central to understanding the ideological context and reception of past and present literature.

I take McGann's various explications of Romantic ideology to be provisional, that is, a stage in the development of an historical criticism informed as much by the contemporary ideological climate as by Romantic "texts." While McGann rejects René Wellek's view that there is a basic unity underlying the various manifestations of Romanticism, he does not quite adopt Lovejoy's skepticism — Romanticisms not Romanticism. The first step in breaking from the spell of a unified Romanticism is to recognize its particular and parochial ideological formations. McGann notes the fundamentally Christian character of the Romanticism formulated by Coleridge and formalized by Hegel. It is not surprising, then, that Heine — a poet inclined to consciously resist absorption in Christian Romanticism — would write a work McGann finds paradigmatic for historical criticism, The Romantic School. Heine "writes between 1833 and 1835 as an expatriate German Jew to a French intellectual audience about a cultural phenomenon, German Romanticism, which is now historically concluded … At every point Heine is concerned with the problem of the immediate relevance of removed cultural resources — in this case, German Romantic literary works. He is qualified to take up this problematic matter because he contains in himself, as it were, a crucial division of sympathies and knowledge" [p. 33]. Heine's otherness can serve as a reminder that Romantic ideology was one among many ideological formations present in the early nineteenth century. Which is to say, the history of literary criticism is as much a history of unheard or disregarded voices as it is of the privileged voices able to "dominate" a period (originally or in retrospect). The increased prominence that historical method gives to the history of a work's reception makes imperative that lacunas — failures or refusals of reception or publication — be enabled to speak as loudly as the ideas that flowed unimpeded through official cultural channels. Otherwise we will see, as we have seen over and again, the initially tragic story of marginalized lives told in farcically amnesiac official histories of English and American writing.

In this respect, McGann makes a useful distinction between Romantic works and the Romantic Period, citing Austin and Crabbe as non-Romantic writers of the Romantic Period. He is particularly irritated at attempts, for example, to reverse the critical "neglect" of Austin by trying to make her out as a closet Romantic. Nonetheless, the kind of critical thinking that McGann encourages will hopefully move more in the direction of Romantic ideologies than he presently allows for, without vitiating the polemical edge of his term; perhaps, that is, the non-Romantic ideologies of the "Romantic Period" may even erode the legitimacy of that monicker. McGann's position on such problems is basically pragmatic; he wants to develop an historical methodology that will be as teachable as New Critical reading. Radical skepticism about periodization and ideological characterizations may be difficult to teach, but it is just this type of institutionally motivated thinking that led to many of the problems with New Criticism. Critical thinking has not fared any better under historical narratives than it has under structural verities. While an historical and ideological dimension needs to be restored to discussions of literature, positivism and reductionism are perennial dangers. McGann is acutely aware of these problems, despite his troubling espousal of the hegemony of the sociohistorical method as "the general science governing [the] human context" [Inflections, p. 63; my italics]. (The troubling positivism within the natural sciences is exactly the suppression of this sociohistorical context.) But his intensely reflective example, his consistent reiteration of the tendentiousness and ideological character of his own (or any) historical account, will not necessarily be heeded by those adopting his program.

McGann's method would remove poetry from the pedestal of the purely beautiful and sublime, beyond or above ideology, where it is constantly at risk of dissolving into the "spirit of the age," or worse, "the spirit of the ages" — authorless, contentless. To tar poetry with the name of "false" — i.e., historical, partisan — consciousness is to return it to the field of contention and use. It is as valuable to take issue with Shelley's "doctrines," as one would take issue with Napoleon or Rousseau, as to savor his "exquisite sensibility." This requires a recovery of the historically specific situations in which poems of the past were written, published, republished, reviewed, and read (all different dynamics). It means we stop reading past works as if they were contemporary or temporally transcendent and start to appreciate their value as culturally alienated and socially estranged.

"We have to recover those traditional philological procedures for putting us in touch with worlds, people, and experiences from the past, and with the media in which these things embodied themselves; for putting us in touch with them in the full range of their pastness and differentials. The ultimate purpose of establishing a structure of such differentials is not to lose one's self in a displaced world, which is certainly a danger in pursuing such methods, but to gain a measure by which our present interests and ideologies may be critically observed. Past worlds, in an historical consciousness, make up points of fixity and finishedness, but not in some permanent and absolute sense. The finished past is constantly being reformulated into new forms of finishedness, forms which answer to the changing needs of the immediate world. Nevertheless, whatever form of finishedness the past may take, it can be — must be — made into an (arbitrary) measure in terms of which the present may be understood and judged" [Inflections, pp. 12-13].

In A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism, McGann notes "a hypnotic fascination with the isolated author has served to foster an overdetermined concept of authorship, but (reciprocally) an underdetermined concept of literary work" [p. 122]. He argues that the best text of a poem is not necessarily produced by trying to reconstruct the "author's final intentions." He criticizes, for example, the preference for using as "copy-text" an author's manuscript even when an early edition, together with author-corrected proofs, is available. Traditionally, textual scholars have tried to construct a hypothesized "lost original" for classical or Medieval works whose earliest extant texts date from long periods after the work's composition. Biblical scholars face the most extreme, and metaphorically interesting, case of lost "originals." As a result, the work of textual scholarship has been defined as purifying the corruption and contamination of the "lost original" that has occurred in the process of transmission through publication, expurgation, augmentation, modernization, and previous scholarly editions.

In modern textual criticism the "ideal text" has become a substitute for the "lost original" and the author's holograph documents are taken to be the source for the author's final intentions, even if the writer never imagined that these documents would be reproduced. McGann disputes the notion that publication necessarily contaminates the text. Poetry, insofar as it is published, is a social form and the intersection of the text with social institutions is part of the work, not a corruption of it. "Having learned the lesson that authors who wish to make contact with an audience are fated, by laws of information theory, to have their messages more or less seriously garbled in the process, textual critics proposed to place the reader in an unmediated contact with the author. This project is of course manifestly impossible, a Heisenbergian dilemma, since some form of mediation is always occurring, not the least in the editions produced by critical editors of various persuasions. Nevertheless, though everyone today recognizes this inherent limitation on all acts of communication, the idea persists in textual studies that a regression to authorial manuscripts will by itself serve to reduce textual contamination" [p. 41].

McGann argues that the overall effect of much textual criticism is to discount the social and historical dimensions of textual production. Certain writers serve as outer limits to his consideration: Blake's self-published editions and Dickinson's manuscripts were specifically produced outside the customary social nexus of publication; however, their work is now known only insofar as, at some later point, it entered into this nexus. Moreover, the collaborative interaction of writers, friends and colleagues, assistants, proofreaders, editors, publishers, and readers is not inevitably pernicious. Almost all writers choose to make some sort of collaborative arrangements, as much because of, as in spite of, potential disagreements. "Sometimes these relationships operate smoothly, sometimes the author will struggle against every sort of intervention, and between these two extremes falls every sort of variation…'Final authority' for literary works rests neither with the author nor with his [or her] affiliated institution; it resides in the actual structure of the agreements which these two cooperating authorities reach in specific cases" [pp. 53-54]. The history of publishing is filled with unwarranted and meretricious alterations of a writer's punctuation, spelling, and grammar; such abuses need to be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis. At the same time, the dispute becomes part of the work's meaning, which is suppressed when such problems are resolved, as McGann puts it, in terms of right and wrong rather than "what does this mean?" Ironically, recourse to the ideology of final intentions has often resulted in the circumvention of the writer's actual intentions as expressed by active consent.

The social process of literary production is a constituent component of a work's meaning, not a barrier preventing access to it. In this regard, the visual representation of language — typography and book design — is among the least recognized, and most important, actors in constituting a work's meaning. Furthermore, theories about "ideal texts" do not offer viable methods of resolving problems arising from variant versions of the "same" poem. Variants, McGann points out, arise from different social contexts of publication, changing assumptions about readership, or a poetics that incorporates variants as part of its processes. The contextual nature of variants helps to dispel the illusion that each poem has a perfect and inviolable autonomy that is defamed not only by publisher's changes and printer's mediations but even by author's errors and irresolutions. McGann notes that many writers have been more than willing to dismember and revise their poems, leaving open the issue of finalization. In contrast, the reification of the Poem erases the historicity of its composition, that is, its appearance in the world and the forms its past readers have responded to. Reified timelessness is an effect that some poets may wish to create, but, as McGann says, "An author's work possesses autonomy only when it remains an unheard melody" [p. 51]. The theory of final intentions turns out to be thick with Romantic ideology.

Most importantly, McGann argues that just as there is no ideal text of a poem, so there is no ideal — definitive — scholarly edition. Scholarly editions are historical, institutionally motivated, documents; yet the scientism inherent in much textual methodology denies this ideological dimension. The implication of this appeal is not to legitimize unwarranted alterations by publishers and scholars but to bring into the open the dynamics of these, virtually inevitable, interactions. McGann's writing acknowledges the effects that current developments in poetry have on the editing of past poetry. A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism will seem relevant to readers familiar with Charles Olson's notoriously indeterminate manuscripts; Robert Duncan's and Robert Grenier's insistence on retaining the typewriter grid in their books; any of a number of recent collaborative poems; and the scrupulous or funky self-publications of many writers, ranging from xeroxes of manuscripts with holograph changes to "book art" productions in which the graphic element is foregrounded. McGann's currency will not surprise those familiar with a book he published a baker's dozen years ago, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism. Cast in the form of a dialogue among a variety of personages who knew Swinburne, the book provides a beautifully realized alternative to the monological voice of critical authority; it also engages many of the questions that have focussed discussions of poetics in the ensuing years.

In advocating a sociohistorical approach to the poem, McGann is as wary of biographic reduction (conceiving of the poem as existing primarily in terms of the poet's life history) as of formalist aestheticization (poems are primarily about other poems or the poetic process). Yet it is important to keep in mind that a well-grounded, scholarly reading of a poem is not the only kind of desirable reading. Many poems thrive on wildly ill-informed readings, as anyone knows who has flipped open a book of older texts and read them without reference to author or date. That a poem may have this kind of resilience is a central fact in any reading of it. Thinking of poems as texts is liberating because it locates their object status within the generic democracy of the written — a piece of writing; it undercuts the Romantic aura of the Poem while allowing for an exhilaration in the wordness of all writing. Poems are not necessarily diminished (or illuminated) by specialized (partisan, tendentious) readings — Marxist, psychoanalytic, biographic, structural, formal, bibliographic. The problem arises when such readings claim for themselves priority or exclusivity, that is, deny their sociohistorical and ideological character; which, of course, they so often do. Indeed, it was the hegemony of proprietary readings of literature — fixed meanings executed by authors and embalmed by textual science — that led Roland Barthes to renounce the notion of the work (that which can be "held in the hand") in favor of that polymorphous, heterogeneous, decentered, unauthorized, plural "methodological field" that is the Text.* McGann's work is polemical because he does not ameliorate the dispute between "Dryasdust" philologists and "Skimpole" deconstructionists, as he labels them. On the contrary, he wishes to bring into the open a conflict both sides have chosen to ignore by proceeding, uncontested, on their own falsely separate paths. McGann's historical program, paradoxically, supplements, rather than supplants, Barthes's critique (as is apparent in his considerations of "final authority"). Like Marx's critique of Hegel, he wishes to turn Barthes's dialectic on its head, not revert to the state of affairs that led Barthes to write his essay.

There is no key that unlocks the mystery of how or what or why a poem means or becomes. All readings are partial and distorting, though some more than others; there are many virtues in excess, even if this excess effectively annihilates the object of reference. McGann's view is more sobering, less ludic. He insists that we pay a high price for such transgressions, that they threaten our ability to learn what history teaches. The implicit analogy is to our relations with one another, where a moral distinction can be made between projection and understanding; response based on projection is a form of denial, on understanding a sign of acknowledgment.

McGann's project is not to curtail the proliferation of approaches to reading, or writing, but rather to ground them. I think it is something like that he means by choosing as the epigraph to his most Textual work some lines from Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird":

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

* See Barthes's 1971 essay,"From Work to Text" in Textual Strategies, ed. Josue V. Harari Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979) and "Shall These Bones Live" in The Beauty of Inflections. back

PEPC Edition ©
2005 Charles Bernstein