“Wordsworth and Subversion: Trying Cultural Criticism”

Citation: “Wordsworth and Subversion: Trying Cultural Criticism.” Yale Journal of Criticism 2.2 (Spring 1989): 55-100.

Beginning of essay (pp. 55-56)

Subvert, oppose, contest, transgress; but also contain, assimilate or–to draw upon the language of post-May-1968 Paris–recuperate. These are the words that in the New Historicism and affiliated cultural criticisms now serve much the same function as did in the New Criticism ambiguity, tension, paradox or irony, on the one hand, and unity, harmony, pattern, on the other. Literature or intellect, we increasingly say, is subversive of dominant culture; yet dominance, we also recognize, is uncannily subversive of subversion. Releasing disruptive tensions in its marginal spaces–a page in a book, a carnival in the streets, or, in Steven Mullaney’s recent paradigm, the “place of the stage” in the Liberties zone of old London–dominance at last contains the radical tension, gives it a place among the commonplaces. In Pierre Gaudibert’s view of the post-May-1968 milieu: “La récupération, c’est ce mouvement social pour lequel une agressivité qui se veut subversive se trouve apprivoisée, édulcorée, émasculée, assimilée, digérée par l’idéologie et la culture dominantes. L’oeuvre d’art voit ses griffes émoussées, ses dents élimées: elle devient spectacle, marchandise, décor, gadget culturel, icône inoffensive, foyer éteint; elle cesse d’être active, de dégager sa charge de déflagration.

Or in any case, such is the analytic of subversion/containment that “we” recognize (to repeat my pronoun above)–where “we” are the intellectual generation(s) whose primal scene is the intersection between the breakout on the streets in the late ’60s and early ’70s and the simultaneous breakout “beyond formalism” in literary criticism. In that turbulent intersection, we remember, all the old verbal icons of the New Criticism became a swirl of slogans, protest signs, and poststructuralist anti-icons (deconstruction’s hymen, pharmakon, gram, mise en abyme, etc.). But now in the ’80s, the slogans again seem icons as inoffensive as some deconstructive paradigm drawn from the commercial image on a cocoa box. Subvert, oppose, contest, transgress–the purposely slogan-like chant upon which I began–is a protest banner hung within cultural criticism as if in some museum of popular culture. It is contained, even as it appreciates in critical value.

Let me be extreme for a moment. Acting government agent and cultural critic without distinction, let me actually indict Wordsworth for subversion as if drawing up one of the sedition and treason cases of the Pittite repression in the mid 1790s. (p. 61) What I offer are two concurrent investigations. The first is a reexplanation, by means of the subversion/containment analytic, of Wordsworth’s turn from radicalism in the aftermath of the revolution of 1789. The second is an examination of the revolution manqué expressed in the subversion/containment analytic itself, specifically as spoken by cultural criticism in its American New Historicist or “Representations” inflection. The collation of these inquiries will be a way to try out–and, as I will imagine it, to bring to trial–the basic assumptions of cultural criticism as a method of reading. What kind of contextual and textual event does the method explain that could not be explained before? And what drops out of the picture to make the explanation possible? A working hypothesis: there is something suspiciously easy about the equipollent symmetry of subversion and containment that suggests that the stasis of their contest–of subversive intellects always already contained, and of dominant cultures always already big with subversion–is a much reduced, tamed antithesis. In an age when Absolute Knowledge and/or dialectical materialism has become “interpretation of cultures” with its exclusive attention to symbol, display and representation, the dynamics of Lordship/Bondage is itself bound. It is décor, gadget culturel contained within a room of larger interpretive possibilities.

Here is a definition of subversion and, implicitly, of what we mean by “action” in a critical universe teethed on “intertextuality”: there is no subversion without its advocate; and the measure of a subversion’s effectivity–of its “excessiveness”–is whether that advocate is willing to proceed in such a way as himself to require advocacy. Only when subversion is laterally displaced in this fashion is it “received” as social act. (p. 87) The thesis I will shape from this hypothesis: if there is a cultural fallacy, pace the New Critical biographical fallacy, it lies in the constrictive interpretation of social “representations” empowered by the notion of the “subject.” The hermeneutics of representation applauds the primarily theatrical power plays of subversion (a subject’s display of resistance to subjection) while merely hanging a backdrop to indicate the detail of the zone beyond the theater. That zone is containment, the place before the stage where actions are not just dramatic or representational but also physical, logistical, rhetorical and political–that is, involved in a hermeneutics of movement and suasion not wholly coincident with the hermeneutics of representation. Subversion/containment can be unbound from its present stasis only when we see that subversion need not be just a stage act. It is an activity bound up with and within equally active processes of containment that do not so much recuperate subversion as enable the possibility of any action, subversive or otherwise.

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