Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Jessica Benjamin

I’ve recently been reconsidering Derrida’s influence on the theorists I’ve been reading over the last month or so (as can probably be gathered from the last few posts). Today I am interesting in continuing this thread and looking at Derrida’s fingerprint on Jessica Benjamin’s text The Bonds of Love. After this post, I promise to take a break from post-structuralist readings of feminist and post-colonial theoretical texts.

In The Bonds of Love, Jessica Benjamin seeks to explore the binary oppositions that she sees operating in contemporary society, especially those between male/female; subject/object; master/slave; dominated/dominator. In her text, Benjamin begins by looking at the harmful relationships of domination that people find themselves in. These relationships are characterized by a loss of subjectivity by one person in the relationship and the usurping of this subjectivity by the other member. Once subjectivity has been usurped, violence can take place between these two parties, where one acts violently upon the other. This violence need not be physical or outright abusive, rather, it can be manifest when one person exerts power over another. (Benjamin acknowledges that there are relationships of sadomasochism that seem to find pleasure in pain, but argues that these relationships many times do not embody a total lack of subjectivity). When it comes to the violence that happens between people, it is clear that Benjamin is using Derrida’s notion of the violence that happens within the framework of the binary opposition. One term of the binary is always given privilege over the other. Benjamin is concerned with relationships of domination and, after showing how these relationships fall into Derrida’s binary formulation, seeks to “play” with them and come up with a solution to the problem of domination.

Benjamin’s solution is to retain the tension between the two terms of the binary opposition, which is an idea that Freud and Hegel (as Benjamin points out) say is impossible. Freud would argue that the unresolved tension would cause neurosis and Hegel would argue, from the dialectical standpoint, that the tension cannot last and will eventually resolve itself in a linear and possibly violent fashion into a new, third term (or synthesis). While Freud and Hegel would say that Benjamin’s idea of binary tension cannot work, Derrida would say that it can. Although Benjamin does not use Derrida’s term “play” frequently in her text, the continued tension she describes is an illustration of this play, or if you will, of Derrida’s idea of “differance” (to differ and to defer so as to never arrive at a set meaning or dialectical synthesis). The interesting part of Benjamin’s formulation is that (along the lines of Cixous) she seeks to create relationships of subject and subject, where two individuals meet on similar terms and are thus able to relate and not commit violence against one another.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Albert Memmi

In this post I am interested in reading Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized as an example of a nascent post-structuralist text. While The Colonizer and the Colonized does not mention Derrida specifically (in fact, I believe it was penned before Of Grammatology), it none-the-less employs notions of the binary opposition, play, and differance.

The title and structure of Memmi’s text reinforce the notion of the binary opposition. The text is titled to show that opposition between these two terms/groups and the book itself is divided into two major sections, one of which deals with the colonizer and the other with the colonized. Memmi shows that the colonizer is in a privileged position in relationship to the colonized. Even colonizers who claim not to gain from the colonial system still receive benefits (i.e. you may be a poor white French man in Algeria during the occupation, but if you go to the colonial run post office, you will be able to move to the front of the line ahead of the colonized). The privileged position of the colonizer also entails a level of violence. The colonial “master” is able, and encouraged by the colonizer/colonized binary to commit acts of violence because he sees himself as being over the one he punishes.

Asides from the binary opposition and violence found between the colonizer and the colonized, Memmi argues that the colonizer will do everything in his power to repress the colonized and keep the binary opposition in place. For example, Memmi points out that in later colonialism, religion and the church were sought to be marginalized by colonial administrators because, as Memmi argues, if the colonized got religion and shared a similar religion with the colonizers, then it was harder for the colonizers to punish the colonized because they were now somewhat like each other. To use Derrida here: the colonizers feared that the binary colonizer/colonized would collapse because if part of them (their Christian religion) could be found in the lower half of the binary, then the binary and their privileged position would be deconstructed.

Memmi concludes his text by saying that the binary opposition of colonizer/colonized must be completely dismantled for colonialism to come to an end. Since the collapsing of the binary opposition would end colonialism and the perks the colonizers receive from the system, the colonizers strive to keep the binary in place while the colonized must seek to deconstruct it.

Next time...Jessica Benjamin

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Helene Cixous

Cixous is interested in using deconstruction to explore the binary oppositions that exist between the terms male/female, self/other, and subject/object. In her text The Newly Born Woman (co-authored with Catherine Clement) Cixous argues against what she labels the “empire of the self-same.” The empire of the self-same is basically the mono-sexual descriptions of the world that have been passed down through history and have been recapitulated by patriarchal psychoanalysis. Cixous points out that women are not seen as women, per se, rather, they have (and are) viewed as little men with small deformed penises (clitoris). This idea is one that is shared and pointed out by many other feminist theorists (including Luce Irigaray), but a difference extant in Cixous’s work is that she also argues that the empire of the self-same is harmful to men as well as women. Cixous claims that men suffer to fit into the patriarchal roles that have been assigned to them as well.

Cixous believes that Freud and other psychoanalysts are too concerned with physical sex and wants to move the discussion to the idea that humans are bi-sexual. This is not bi-sexuality in terms of physical sexual preference for both male and female partners, rather, it is the notion that men and women both share elements of the opposite sex. Cixous believes that based on this idea, there should be a shift that takes place in the relationship between the self and other. She points out that in traditional patriarchal formulations of society, the other is seen as an enemy and thus something that needs to be murdered (violence is one of the hallmarks of the patriarchal world Cixous wants to challenge). Cixous believes that instead of seeing the other as a threat and killing it, there needs to be an acceptance of the other and a new love relationship needs to be formed that incorporates both sides of the subject/object binary opposition. One way this can be accomplished is through the development of a feminine ecriture, or a writing that seeks to disassociate itself from the power structures of patriarchal Western society. Cixous is careful to point out that feminine ecriture is not mere identification with a feminine point of view (for example, a patriarchal male could write a novel from a female point of view, but is will still encompass patriarchal violence [and many times men write women “better” than real women really are]). Cixous also avers that she cannot provide a concrete definition of what this writing looks like, though many argue that novels such as Carol Maso’s Ava and Kathy Acker’s Pussy, King of the Pirates could provide a picture of what this type of work is like.

Next time...Albert Memmi

Monday, October 29, 2012

Julia Kristeva

The beauty of Kristeva’s career has been its multifaceted nature. She has moved between the poles of poetics, linguistics, feminism, psychoanalysis, and even novel writing. I have read bits and pieces of Kristeva’s works over the course of the past few years, but for this post I will focus on my encounters with Kristeva through Kelly Oliver’s “The Portable Kristeva,” a text that provides a cross-section of disparate writings drawn from throughout Kristeva’s career. Since Kristeva is so prolific, I will also try to tie my reflection on her work back to previous posts and discuss some of the ways her work poses a challenge to Lacan (whose lectures she attended while a student in Paris).

In her early career, Kristeva was interested in poetics and discussed how poetry functioned, especially in her writings about the revolution of poetic language. In her poetics writings, Kristeva broached the ideas of the semiotic and the symbolic and also coined the idea/phrase “intertextuality” (which she arrived at by doing readings of Bhaktin’s idea of heteroglossia and dialogue in Barthes’s work on anagrams). Returning to the semiotic and symbolic (later these terms would become the genotext and the phenotext), Kristeva saw poetry “working” when these two ideas struggled or were in tension with each other. The symbolic, in Kristeva’s formulation, could be described as the “rules” of poetry or language (similar to Saussure’s idea of the “Langue”). The symbolic is what makes poetry make sense, as it allows a poet to string words and ideas together in his or her text. The semiotic, on the other hand (not to be confused with the scientific study of semiotics) was where the “poetry” could be found. The semiotic is hard to define as it is what lies underneath the symbolic structure of a poem and every-now-and-again pokes through the surface of the symbolic elements of a poem and creates a deep sensation within the reader.

In furthering her discussion of the semiotic, Kristeva develops the idea of the chora. The chora (a term that can be traced back to earlier philosophic works, especially in Plato) was the semiotic area where “poetry” was created. For Kristeva, the chora was a distinctly feminine space akin to the womb. This is crucial when looking at Kristeva in relationship to Lacan and her reformulation of his work. Lacan essentially shuts the feminine out of his work. There is a transcendent m/other in Lacan’s work, but she quickly disappears. In Lacan’s development of language acquisition, the child becomes introduced into language through the laws of the father and by setting himself in opposition to the mother. In other words, there is no feminine space for language acquisition in Lacan. With the idea of the chora, Kristeva attempts to rectify this situation by creating/discovering a space that is left out of Lacan’s work.

Aside from the chora, Kristeva challenges Lacan’s notion of the patriarchal symbolic order on a number of other fronts, which include: bring the feminine body back into the discussion; arguing that language development happens earlier than Lacan says it does (a type of pre-verbal language that is more closely tied to the mother); and by positing that the move into language may not be one fraught with fear and trembling underneath the gaze/phallus of the father/law-giver (in fact, Kristeva posits that the acquisition of language is an incredibly pleasurable experience for the child). by moving into areas of the psyche and human experience that have traditionally been ignored or elided by traditional patriarchal psychoanalysis (such as the feminine, corporeal, and pre-verbal) Kristeva provides incredibly astute challenges to the patriarchal symbolic order of Jacques Lacan.

Next time...Cixous

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Jacques Lacan (Part Deux)

...The second term in Lacan’s triumvirate is the Imaginary. The Imaginary is situated

between the Real and the Symbolic. The best way to define the Imaginary is to look at it in terms of another Lacanian idea: that of the mirror stage. According to Lacan, there comes a point in the infant’s life when he/she moves from the Imaginary into the Symbolic. This transition is facilitated by the infant’s gazing into a mirror and coming to the realization that he/she is an individual set apart from the world he/she has, up until this point, been inhabiting. Once the infant comes to this realization, he/she begins to see itself in relation to others. The first other he/she sees is the mother (or as Lacan puts it at one point the m/other). Once this happens, the child has moved from the Imaginary and into the Symbolic. To back track, in order to more clearly define the Imaginary, Lacan believes the stage before this recognition of the other is the Imaginary. In the Imaginary, the child is one with the world around it and able to purely experience the world sans mediation. There is no differentiation between the subjectivity of the child and the objects that surround him/her.

The final term to discuss is the Symbolic. As alluded to above, the Symbolic is the stage that comes after the Imaginary and it is the stage that, once entered by the child, acts as a prison for the rest of the child’s life (i.e. we are all stuck in the Symbolic and there is no escape [this is reminiscent of Wittgenstein and his ideas about people being stuck within language]). Concomitant with the mirror stage is the recognition of not only the m/other, but the recognition of the father/phallus/law giver. Once a person moves from the Imaginary into the Symbolic, he/she is from that point forward defined by the language others use to describe him/her. We are born into language, Lacan claims (for example, before a child is even born he/she is given a name and those in the community the child will be born into are already talking about the child). IN the Symbolic order, we are no longer able to determine who we are, rather, the way language functions around us defines us. As we are able to play with/create with language, so language is able to shape us. Within the Symbolic, we are always removed from the Imaginary and the Real. Everything we encounter is a symbol for something else, and we are forced to live out our lives continually seeking to define ourselves in terms of the “other.” This creates within people issues of “desire” and “lack.” In my understanding of Lacan, when we are in the Symbolic, we seek to return to the Imaginary that we were forced out of by the mirror stage and the law giving father, but, as the cliche goes, we can’t go home again. There is no return to the imaginary and this causes neurosis in many individuals in contemporary society.

Next time...Kristeva

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Jacques Lacan

The Suppling Mind returns with a few posts about some Psychoanalytic theory I've been reading...

Jacques Lacan is one of the most influential theoreticians of the 20th century. Lacan's work is notoriously difficult as he changed his mind and reformulated his ideas throughout his career. For example, before the early 1970's he viewed jouissance (the idea that one uses an "other" to fulfill a lack in one's self) as a negative thing, but later shifted his position and saw jouissance as a positive and necessary move. Lacan also wrote in a style that mimics the unconscious because he wanted his readers to do the work of the psychoanalyst to gather meaning from his work. Ecrits is a collection of Lacan's work that is dense and turgid, but, in the end, worth struggling with.

One of Lacn's major interventions into psychoanalytic theory was his reworking of Freud. What Lacan did was to use the structuralist moves of Ferdinand Saussure and transpose the materialist Freud into language. Once Freud had been transferred into language, Lacan was then able to create a new and reformulated psychoanalysis. After this shift, the material basis of Freud, such as the physical father and a physical phallus, was then able to be read in terms of language and symbol. The father in Lacan is not a physical man who throws the football around with his kids, rahter, he is now representative of law and power. The same holds true for the phallus. The phallus moves from being a penis (or in the case of Freud's mono-sexual tendencies a "small penis" in the female) to representing power and law, as well, and becomes somthing that both sexes feel they lack and thus desire. While Lacan did reformulate much of Freud, he failed to address the patriarchal and misogynistic tendancies in his work, that of Freud, and psychoanalysis at large (In future posts I intend to discuss the intervention of post-structuralist feminists, such as Kristeva, Irigaray, and Cixous in this discussion).
Turning to the specifics of Lacan's formulation of human experience, Lacan posited his famous triumvirate (the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic) to represent what he considered to be the main registers of the human psyche and how the world is experienced (these ideas are found scattered throughout Ecrits).
The first term in Lacan's formulation is the "Real." For Lacan, the Real is the easiest term to define, but, paradoxically, it is a term that is impossible to define. In other words, the Real is that which cannot be labled and what lies outside of language and experience. The moment something is put into language, it has left the realm of the ral and has entered into the the "Symbolic." The real is infinite and unexplainable...
Next time...Lacan Part Deux: The Imaginary, Symbolic, and Mirror Stage

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920): Sigmund Freud

Freud argues that there is a problem with a simple pleasure principle to explain psychology because humans take pleasure in things that are not pleasurable, such as fear and pain. The pleasure principle comes into conflict with the reality principle that attempts to return the organism to a zero state of stimulation (called the death instinct or Thanatos, through Freud does not use this term). Beyond the Pleasure Principle is an important work because in it Freud begins to move away from a strictly libidinous or Eros based psyche and towards one that incorporates more, or that moves beyond, the pleasure principle. Freud's text is also heavily fixated on the idea of repetition, specifically the idea that humans tend repeat things, especially anxiety or trauma as manifest in dreams. Thus, dreams become more than simple products of wish fulfillment and move towards being a site for psychic struggle.

Freud broaches the idea of the “death instinct” in the following quotation from section V: “At this point we cannot escape a suspicion that we may have come upon the track of a universal attribute that has not hitherto been clearly recognized or at least not explicitly stressed. It seems, then, that an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces; that is, it is a kind of organic elasticity, or, to put it another way, the expression of the inertia inherent in organic life” (36). The idea here is that organic life seeks conservation and/or to avoid stimulus and change. This goes counter to most theory that states organic entities seek evolution, development, and change. This idea of conservation, argues Freud, is what leads to repetition.

Section VI of Beyond the Pleasure Principle opens with the following line: “A sharp distinction between the ‘ego-instincts’ and the sexual instincts, and the view that the former exercise pressure towards death and the latter towards a prolongation of life” (44). Freud spends much time trying to explore his point using biology, germ cells, and other such things (I have read that much of the "science" Freud employs in this part of his text has since been disproven). Another fundamental point of BTPP is that Freud works to set himself apart from Jung by claiming that his theory of the pleasure principe in conflict with the death instinct is dualistic and Jung’s idea of libido is a monistic theory (I guess the point here is that a two tiered Freud trumps a single tiered Jung in explaining the workings of the human unconscious, or to put it another way, "mine's bigger than yours").

Freud concludes Beyond the Pleasure Principle by saying that he is not sure if he believes the conclusions he has arrived at in the text. He says he feels more comfortable with the first two steps of his major theories (1. the idea of sexuality and 2. the development of narcissism) than with the third, the death instinct that is discussed in the essay.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (1994): bell hooks

Outlaw Culture is a collection of essays, interviews, and reflections by bell hooks on many different aspects of popular culture and cultural criticism. hooks' stated goal in her introduction is to open up the field of cultural studies. She is interested in challenging the academy and trying to get people who have traditionally been excluded from “scholarly” discourse to engage in it. “Talking critically about popular culture was a powerful way to share knowledge, in and outside the academy, across differences, in an oppositional and subversive way” (4). hooks further posits that, “These essays reflect the desire to construct frameworks where border crossing will not be evoked simply as a masturbatory mental exercise that condones the movement of the insurgent intellectual mind across new frontiers (another version of the jungle safari), or become the justification for movements from the center into the margin that merely mimic in a new way old patterns of cultural imperialism and colonialism” (5). hooks expresses frustration that she began to do interdisciplinary work in this area before the white, male, conservative academy caught on and made it okay to study these things. The key to this book is the phrase hooks uses to describe contemporary American culture: White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. Almost every essay included in this book deals with how minorities and women must struggle against this hegemonic force. Anyway, there are twenty essays in this book and I will provide a summary/reflection of a few of them below:

“Seduction and Betrayal: The Crying Game Meets The Bodyguard”: In this piece, bh explores how the arty “white” Crying Game got more critical attention than the “black” Bodyguard. bh also shows how the directors and actors of both films tried to distance themselves from the issues of sexuality/gender and race. Kevin Costner, for example, said that the Bodyguard was not about “race” or an interracial relationship, rather, it was about a love story. bh points out that is easy for people who have the hegemonic power (whites and males) to assert that race and/or gender are not important issues. bh concludes that both films are daring works that evoke the issues of gender and race, but both resolve the problems by returning to the status quo (also, in both of these films, white males are allowed to deal with their problems/insecurities, not minorities). This keeps things from being challenged or changed.

“Censorship from the Left and Right”: In this essay, bh moves beyond trashing right wing censorship projects, and discusses the self-censorship, or silence, that occurs within marginalized movements such as feminism and black liberation. bh uses the Clarence Thomas hearings as an example. Black people did not feel that they could question Thomas, b/c they would be questioning one of their own (even though Thomas’ views would not support black rights). bh also says that there are a number of high-powered black intellectually who seek acknowledgement from the white powers that be. She says, for example, she had trouble questioning the powerful Henry Louis Gates Jr. when she disagreed with a piece he wrote for the New York Times about blacks and Jews. bh concludes by saying that all these movements need to protect free speech and not encourage silence.

“Dissident Heat: Fire with Fire”: The idea of anonymity, that used to be very important in feminist thought in order to avoid patriarchal subversion, is being lost in our society due to the more public role of feminists and the mega-success of many feminist texts. This has caused a loss of the feminist community and camaraderie, and has replaced it with in-fighting and individuals seeking attention. bh says that many new feminists, including Katie Roiphe and Naomi Wolf, ignore issues of class and race in their works. This essay focuses on Wolf’s book Fire with Fire (incidentally, Wolf trashes Roiphe’s The Morning After in this book). bh agrees with Wolf’s idea that feminist thought and theory do not fully speak to the needs of masses of women and men, but does not think that the answer is to “popularize” feminism and make it a soft sell to the masses. “Feminist movement is not a product—not a lifestyle. History documents that it has been a political movement emerging from the concrete struggle of women and men to oppose sexism and sexist oppression” (99)

“Love as the Practice of Freedom”: In this piece, bh argues that there is not an ethic of love that guides many social programs and movements in America. Many people who call for racial equality and other noble social goals are sexist and do not discuss the idea of people loving one another. bh claims that love can be transformative, but love is a difficult sell in contemporary American culture b/c the focus is on power as a vehicle of transformation. In our current capitalistic society, true love is co-opted by capitalism, where love and other people are seen as commodities to be exploited. bh says a love ethic emphasizes a commitment to serving others and that true freedom and transformation can come from an embracing of love. This is a powerful essay to close her text with as bh has been attacked and accused in the past for being hate filled.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Question of Power (1974): Bessie Head

Binary oppositions: Good/Bad, Black/White, Young/Old--we use them everyday to make sense of the world and to categorize our observations. The problem, however, is that when we employ binary oppositions, we most often privilege one side of the opposition over the other. This opens the door to ethical judgments: White is not just different from black, rather it is better. Take this specific example one step further and you arrive at the foundation of racist ideology. This idea is not new. If you have encountered any post-structuralist theory (or in fact almost any literary theory written in the last thirty years), the idea of binary opposition and its damaging power is probably quite familiar. Bessie Head's novel A Question of Power is an exemplary work of deconstructive fiction that calls into question the binary oppositions of sanity/insanity, good/evil, and native/exile.

Set in the Botswanan village of Montabeng, Head's novel is centered on a young mixed race woman named Elizabeth and her son Shorty who end up in Botswana after fleeing from racial hatred in South Africa. Elizabeth finds work as a teacher in Montabeng, but is soon fired from her job after being declared "mentally unstable." In order to support herself and her son, Elizabeth becomes a gardener and works with a production group that grows and sells their vegetables in a local market. During this time, Elizabeth begins to receive visits from two spiritual entities (for lack of a better term) named Sello and Dan Molomo. Throughout the rest of the text, Sello and Dan Molomo (who initially represent Satan/God and Evil/Good respectively) vie for control of Elizabeth's mind in a process that pushes her towards total insanity. As the text moves forward, Head complicates the binary of Good/Evil by having Sello and Dan Molomo exchange roles.

A Question of Power is a tour-de-force that explores the nature of being marginalized (by race, nationality and mental stability) through a mix of relatively straight forward prose narration and deeply convoluted sections of magical realistic/psychedelic "trips" into Elizabeth’s head.
The book also contains much intertextuality. There are many references to western and world literature. Many times in the text, Elizabeth is compared to King David from the bible, and what she is going through is likened to the David and Bathsheba story. There are also many references to Buddha, Indian religions/gods and goddesses, D.H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde’s obscenity trial, and James Baldwin, among many others. Numerous allusions to the Holocaust and Hitler are also made in the text, for example, Head likens the way the Afrikaners treated the blacks in South Africa to the Third Reich's treatment and extermination of the Jews. At one point in the text, Elizabeth says that one of the only things she learned from her descent into the hell of mental illness was how horrible life in a concentration camp would have been. Head's inclusion of Nazi and Third Reich references are important to the text and the idea of binary opposition. In the 20th century, one would be hard pressed to find a group that tried harder to cement binary oppositions (Aryan/pretty much everybody else) and use their power to oppress others.

Towards the end of the book, Head writes:"If the things of the soul are really a question of power, then anyone in possession of power of the spirit could be Lucifer." It all comes down to the issue of power. The power to determine which side of a binary takes precedence over the other is a great power and one that has the ability to corrupt. If you are able to label someone as "sick" or "insane," you then have the power to lock them up in a hospital or an asylum (see Foucault's The Birth of the Clinic).

So what do we do with binary oppositions? Derrida says that we need to play serious games with these oppositions to show their arbitrary nature and that, in so doing, we take power from them (and those who employ them). Bessie Head's A Question of Power is an example of this "serious play." Through her fiction, Head forces her readers to confront the dangers inherent in marginalizing people and arrives at the conclusion that individuals must confront both the sanity and insanity that resides within themselves.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Country and the City (1973): Raymond Williams

Many literary theoretical texts seem to make a big splash when they are first published and, almost as quickly, slip out of mind: destined to quietly fade away and collect dust on university library shelves. Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City is not one of these, though. Nearly thirty five years after its first publication in 1973, and through at least fifteen print-runs, Williams’ text still impacts the way people think about the relationship between the country and the city and how geographical space itself can contour ideas of social structure and artistic achievement. In The Country and the City, Williams endeavors to explore how the country and city (specifically the English country and city) have been constructed and shaped throughout history and specifically what role literature has played in this process. There is a measurable difference between the country and the city, and Williams avers that, “In and through these differences. . .certain images and associations persist; and it is the purpose of this book to describe and analyse them, to see them in relation to the historically varied experience” (2). In The Country and the City, Williams realizes his stated purpose and provides his reader with an erudite, yet accessible, tour of the English country, city, and literature and along the way showcases numerous examples of English literary writing. On nearly every page, the reader encounters snippets (and not infrequently longish selections) from poems, essays, and novels that help elucidate Williams’ main points.

From a structural standpoint, The Country and the City is essentially arranged chronologically. After establishing the basis of his text’s argument in the first two chapters, Williams, using the image of an escalator that can travel back and forth in time, begins in chapter three to explicate early historical conceptions of the country. In each proceeding chapter, Williams moves his “escalator” from the past towards the present, stopping along the way to view major historical and literary epochs and how these epochs aided in the development of ideas about the country and the city. Williams encompasses a wide breadth of these epochs, including discussions of the emergence of pastoral and counter-pastoral poetry, the era of enclosure laws, the rise of industrialization, and the birth of modernist novels, among many others.

In the early chapters of his text, Williams uses many different writers to illustrate his thematic points. In chapter nine “Nature’s Threads,” for example, Williams includes excerpts from and commentary on the works of Goldsmith, Thomson, Cowper, Herrick, Shenstone, Gray, Langhorne, and Crabbe. Starting in chapter fifteen, though, Williams makes a shift in his text and begins to hone in on specific writers. In the latter chapters of The Country and the City, Williams spends much time discussing in particular the works of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Richard Jefferies, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence, often times giving each of these authors a chapter all their own. In both the chapters that incorporate numerous authors, and those that focus specifically on a few, Williams’ readings of the primary texts themselves seem fresh and pertinent to literary scholarship today.

While The Country and the City, in my opinion, has stood the test of time rather well, it is not without its criticisms. In his book Culture and Imperialism, published in 1994, Edward Said takes a very polite stab at Williams’ work in The Country and the City, countering Williams’ claim of when imperialism found its way into English literature, and stating, “It is dangerous to disagree with Williams, yet I would venture to say that if one began to look for something like an imperial map of the world in English literature, it would turn up with amazing insistence and frequency well before the mid-nineteenth century” (82-83) (Said’s deference to Williams in his critique goes far to illustrate the impact The Country and the City has had on literary studies). Said makes a valid point here regarding the scope of Williams’ work, but it must be remembered that Williams’ and Said’s projects are different in nature. Said’s post-colonial readings of English literature positions his text at a different vantage point from that of Williams.

Speaking of ideological vantage points, Williams’ Marxist leanings can definitely be seen in The Country and the City, as illustrated by lines such as, “I have been arguing that capitalism, as a mode of production, is the basic process of most of what we know as the history of country and city...Seeing the history in this way, I am then of course convinced that resistance to capitalism is the decisive form of the necessary human defence” (302). While sentences like these do appear in the text, the impressive thing about The Country and the City is that the ideology generally doesn’t overpower the ideas and literature Williams is discussing. Williams is able to find balance between his personal ideology and his readings of literature, and thus does not lose sight of the texts he is explicating. The Country and the City is essentially a text about history and literature that incorporates Marxist readings, not a Marxist text that merely includes a smattering of literary and historical references to bolster political ideology.

One of the few problems encountered in The Country and the City is that at times Williams over-simplifies issues in order to fit them neatly into his theoretical framework. A major instance of this truncation can be seen in Williams’ discussion of George Eliot. Regarding Eliot, Williams says, “though George Eliot restores the real inhabitants of rural England to their places in what had been a socially selective landscape, she does not get much further than restoring them as a landscape” (168). Williams’ statement may be true, but I believe George Eliot accomplishes much more in her novels than merely restoring the rural inhabitants of England to a position of reified landscape. Williams does spend much time discussing the works of Eliot, but the conclusion he arrives at regarding her “landscape” writing appears short-sighted at best.

Throughout his presentation of English historical and literary development, Williams continually returns to the major theme of “mystification.” Mystification, as used by Williams in The Country and the City, refers to the process of how contemporary views of the past are misinformed due to a presentation of history that overlooks, or purposefully misrepresents, the “realities” of life for certain social groups (for Williams these groups are specifically farmers and laborers). By looking critically at how contemporary notions of both the country and the city are constructed, Williams believes a “real” history of both of these areas can be ascertained and that humankind can use this knowledge to move forward and attempt to create more just societies, ones where divisions of labor will be erased.

Williams includes a strain of personal commentary that runs throughout The Country and the City. Being raised in the country, and having spent much time in the city, Williams’ exploration of the construction of these two places seems almost at times to be an exploration of his own life and past. This personal element allows Williams to find embodiment in his text and keeps his theoretical positions from becoming too stodgy or inaccessible. Williams, time and again in The Country and the City, shows himself as not just a literary theorist or cultural historian, but as a lover of and a very adept reader of literary texts themselves. Be it a line of 16th century pastoral verse or a 1,000 page Charles Dickens novel, Williams, in The Country and the City, provides commentary that is both intellectually challenging and a joy to read.