What will become of the legacy of “French theory” in the twenty-first century? This is an important question because its answer is up to us—that is, to those of us who have learned from and who care about the conceptual and critical resources transmitted by the heterogenous production of philosophy and literary theory in France in the twentieth century. Audrey Wasser is of a generation of critics and theorists steeped in that inheritance who have devoted themselves to thinking through its relationship to transcendental critique, speculative idealism, and historical materialism. Wasser is also one among many younger critics who have little patience for the “post-critical” ideology afflicting some contemporary theory. Though her philosophical commitments are most directly to Spinoza and Deleuze, she is just as much at ease with Kant and Hegel, Derrida and Badiou, and her discerning intelligence never settles for the kind of dismissive postures that inhibit a generative relation to discrepant theoretical legacies from which we still have much to learn.
Wasser’s first book, The Work of Difference: Modernism, Romanticism, and the Production of Literary Form (Fordham, 2016) is a model of how one might draw lines of demarcation between different theoretical approaches without reducing them to polemical props. Wasser’s aim is to advance a theory of literary production answering to the question of the “new”: how is it that literary works are irreducible to context or intention—are genuinely different than their causes—without yet dissolving into the free play of indetermination? How can we read and theorize the determination of the new, of literary invention, without falling into either determinism or indeterminacy? That these questions are themselves by no means new is part of the point: Wasser shows that the form these questions take within literary theory has a history stemming from the reception of Kant by the Jena romantics, and she is concerned to articulate the difference modernist fiction makes, or should make, to the way in which we answer them. That is, she wants to articulate a theory of literary production that not only moves from romanticism toward the present but that accounts for the decisive intervention of literary modernism within that movement.
The core of Wasser’s argument can be delineated as follows:
- The reception of Kant’s philosophy by the Jena romantics conditions their theory of literature through a schema of reflection, overburdening the literary work with the vocation of reflecting the absolute within its interior structure.
- This romantic schema of literary reflection, paradoxically conjoining the autonomous unity of the work to a logic of the fragment, is transmitted to contemporary theory through both New Critical and deconstructive methods of reading.
- The novelty of modernist literature can be grasped through its rupture with the romantic schema of the reflective fragment, inaugurating a new logic of literary differentiation irreducible to formal autonomy, negativity, or dissemination.
- A critical method adequate to this determinate differentiation of the modernist text might be elaborated through a theory of the literary work’s “problematic genesis,” drawn from concepts developed by Deleuze in Difference and Repetition.
Wasser thus takes up Deleuze’s affirmative thinking of difference, distinguishing this approach from theories of reflection, unity, and negation—but in doing so she nevertheless thinks as closely as possible to the Kantian and deconstructive concepts she argues against. Her approach to the specificity of literary modernism pits it against the theoretical legacy of Jena romanticism—but her understanding of that specificity is conditioned by a formation steeped in the romantic inheritance she attempts to delimit. Working from the reception of Kant by Fichte and the Schlegels through developments in French theory indebted to that reception, Wasser’s careful engagements with Derrida, Blanchot, Nancy, and Lacoue-Labarthe glean as much as they reject from what they criticize. Though the theory of literary production she advances is indeed “Deleuzian,” it owes as much to Macherey as it does to Difference and Repetition. Moreover, the method of rhetorical reading Wasser practices in her book’s final three chapters—on Beckett, Proust, and Stein—is deeply indebted to Paul de Man, even as she pushes the consequences of that method in new directions. In terms of its genealogy, then, the theory of “the work of difference” articulated by Wasser is itself internally differential, drawing discrepant theoretical resources into an original practice of reading.
The concept of the problematic genesis of literary works developed by Wasser highlights the productive complexity of her theoretical affiliations. She argues that the irreducibility of a work to context, intention, technique, or to the autonomy of own its form demands a “positive, genetic account of the difference between literary form and authorial intention, or between form and its causal context” (73), and she foregrounds Deleuze’s theory of problems as a framework within which to conceptualize the differentiation of work from either ground or closure without thereby dissolving its determinacy. The genesis of the literary work involves the constructive selection of a problem from which it differentiates itself as a solution, a double process of disjunction from causal continuity that constitutes the formal determinacy (not unity) of the literary text. The particulars of this account are worked out in detail in Wasser’s fourth chapter, but what interests me here is the genesis of the concept of the “problem” itself. Theorized in its requisite metaphysical complexity by Deleuze, the concept functions quite differently in Macherey’s Theory of Literary Production, where it offers a manner of theorizing the work’s double attachment to, and separation from, ideology—a way of grasping the rifts and silences internal to the work that mark this disjunctive attachment. Wasser’s account hews more closely to Deleuze’s framework than Macherey’s, but the relevance of both these thinkers to Wasser’s book opens the possibility of a theoretical encounter between “Marxist” and “Deleuzian” approaches to literary criticism that might otherwise seem improbable. Tracing the lineage of the concept of the “problem” backward from both Deleuze and Macherey, we find its genesis in the writings of Gaston Bachelard in his important (and still untranslated) work on scientific epistemology, Le Rationalisme appliqué (1949). There Bachelard theorizes “the problematic” as the field of questions and protocols within which an object of knowledge is investigated, its “rectification” through the specification of a program of experiments constituting the terrain of an epistemological approach. Disjoined from its specific application to scientific epistemology, Bachelard’s theory of the problematic will inform the work of Canguilhem, Foucault, Althusser, Macherey, and Deleuze, and its passage across these different theoretical programs speaks to the range of its largely overlooked influence upon postwar French philosophy.
But if the theory of the “problematic,” or of “problems,” is applicable to such fields as physics and chemistry (Bachelard), biology (Canguilhem), history (Foucault), metaphysics (Deleuze), or Marxist critique (Althusser), what lends it the specificity requisite for a theory of the literary work? It is this pressing question that the final three chapters of Wasser’s book answer so persuasively, through a practice of rhetorical reading highlighting the centrality of figurative language to the problematic genesis of literary works and to their internal self-differentiation. In particular, her chapter on Proust’s Recherche brilliantly shows how the figure of hyperbole not only introduces a difference between sign and meaning, but constructs in Proust’s narrative pivotal differences between what the literary text says and what it does, a field of differences between intention, form, effect, and potential interpretive intervention that determine the work through its non-coincidence with either genesis or reception. Far from functioning as examples merely complementing the primary work of theoretical articulation, I see the final three chapters of The Work of Difference as the core of its theoretical project—a practice of criticism that is itself a practice of theoretical construction.
Our forum’s respondents—Greg Ellermann, Kate Marshall, and David Cunningham—each highlight a different question stemming from Wasser’s book. Ellermann queries the book’s account of romanticism, asking after alternative legacies that might be drawn from Kant’s notion of “the epigenesis of reason.” Marshall focuses on the relation of Wasser’s Deleuzian theses on the literary object to her complementary critiques of Cleanth Brooks and Maurice Blanchot. Cunningham challenges Wasser’s positive account of literary genesis with an historical materialist defense of the import of negation for cultural theory. All three responses thus draw out key elements of Wasser’s contribution to contemporary theory by highlighting the debates it aims to clarify and to spark, and in this respect the relation of The Work of Difference to Marxist literary criticism is a fine example of how the book’s discrepant conceptual lineages might be developed in new directions following from its intervention. The import of both Macherey and Deleuze to Fredric Jameson’s theory of the political unconscious1 suggests potential lines of affiliation between Wasser’s approach and the development of historical materialist criticism that might refine our appraisal of relationships not only between form and history, but also between apparently competing theoretical methods. Indeed, The Work of Difference should press literary critics to rethink what we know not only about the genesis of the literary work, but also about the genesis of contemporary theory.
Jameson suggests, for example, that the critique of hermeneutics in Anti-Oedipus “amounts less to a wholesale nullification of all interpretive activity than to a demand for the construction of some new and more adequate, immanent or antitranscendent hermeneutic model, which it will be the task of the following pages to propose.” Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 23.↩