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An Ethics of Reading

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An Ethics of Reading

At the age of nine, Edith Wharton fell ill with typhoid. The local doctor told her parents nothing could be done and that their daughter would soon die. Only the ministrations of another physician, who happened to be passing through town and was prevailed upon to examine the girl, saved her life. Her fever fell, and the young Wharton began to recover. During her convalescence, she read voraciously. One of the books she was given contained a “super-natural” tale — a story which turned out to be, in Wharton’s own phrase, “perilous reading” (Wharton, p.275). In the original manuscript of her autobiography, Edith Wharton describes how reading this uncanny story occasioned a relapse, which brought her, once again, “on the point of death”:
This one [book] brought on a serious relapse, and again my life was in danger and when I came to myself, it was to enter a world haunted by formless horrors. I had been a naturally fearless child; now I lived in a state of chronic fear. Fear of what? I cannot say — and even at the time, I was never able to formulate my terror. It was like some dark undefinable menace forever dogging my steps, lurking, threatening; (pp.275‑6).[1]

According to Wharton, an act of reading plunged her body back into fatal illness. The young Edith Wharton did recover from the relapse, but its uncanny effects continued to haunt her well into adulthood.

In “Women and Madness: the Critical Phallacy” (1975), Shoshana Felman tells another uncanny story of reading. Analyzing the critical commentary that brackets Balzac’s Adieu in a Gallimard/Folio pocket edition, she demonstrates how two scholars, Pierre Gascan and Patrick Bertier, effectively rewrite Balzac’s story by focusing their analyses entirely on a section of historical backstory – despite the fact that this element comprises but one-third of Balzac’s narrative.[2] In addition, by adopting a criteria of alleged ‘realism’ and labeling Stéphanie’s madness as ‘super-natural’, they excise Balzac’s main character (a madwoman) and replace her with protagonists who are soldiers in the Grand Army. The madwoman inhabits, according to these critics, “a state of semi-unreality” linked to “the presence of the invisible” — which renders her inexplicable and outside the purview of discussion (qtd. in Felman, 1975, p.6). As a result, Felman argues, critical commentary meant to situate Balzac Adieu in a wider literary context ends up repeating Philippe’s ‘cure’: in erasing from the text the disconcerting and ex-centric features of a woman’s madness, the critic seeks to ‘normalize’ the text […] making the text a reassuring, closed retreat. […] By reducing the story to a recognition scheme, familiar, snug and canny, the critic, like Philippe, “cures” the text of precisely that which in it is incurably and radically uncanny (Felman, 1975, p.10).

On one level, Felman engages in a mode of analysis quite common in feminist criticism — a deft unveiling of the ways allegedly ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ interpretations excise women through “total neglect, their pure and simple omission” (p.6). But her analysis also opens onto less familiar, and very fertile, critical ground — specifically, questions about how the act of reading effects (or fails to effect) knowledge and cognition. Since these scholars can only see Adieu as a grand historical narrative about heroic soldiers, the interpretive project becomes an exercise in narcissistic projection: “for the ‘realistic’ critic, as for Philippe, the readable is designed as a stimulus not for knowledge and cognition, but for acknowledgement and re-cognition, not for the production of a question, but for the reproduction of a foreknown answer” (p.10).

Here Felman sets up an important distinction between knowledge and cognition, on the one hand, and mere acknowledgement and re-cognition, on the other. Acknowledgement and recognition, Felman suggests, are not enough in order for cognition to transpire. At best, they are incomplete processes; at worst, exercises in narcissism. When subjected to such ‘therapeutic’ critical closure, Felman argues, both text (Balzac’s Adieu) and woman (Stéphanie) are granted existence only as mirrors –– flat surfaces on which a perceiving subject is reflected back to himself, thereby reassuring him of his own presence-unto-self, identity, unity, wholeness.[3] It is this inability to perceive an other (feminine or textual) without reducing it to a reflection of the perceiving subject that constitutes the “critical phallacy” Felman sees being played out on “the critical as well as the literary stage”: “the ‘realistic’ critic thus repeats, in turn, his allegorical act of murder, his obliteration of the Other: the critic also, in his own way, kills the woman, while killing, at the same time, the question of the text and the text as a question” (p.10).

Felman sees these critics, blindered by a reductive ‘realist’ criteria, reading only the story they want to read in Balzac’s Adieu, while repressing that which is ex-centric to that desire (a madwoman), even though her experiences comprise the bulk of Balzac’s narrative. Indeed, Balzac titled another version of the story A Woman’s Duty, a fact one of the critics (Patrick Berthier) finds “odd” (qtd. in Felman, 1975, p.5). By applying a highly reductive criteria to Adieu, these critics, Felman argues, end up “killing the question of the text and the text as a question” (p.10).

Felman’s text thus opens its own questions: “how should we read? How can a reading lead to something other than recognition, ‘normalization’ and ‘cure’? How can the critical project, in other words, be detached from therapeutic projection?” (p.10). Phrased otherwise: to what degree does criticism involve submitting literary texts to the therapeutic designs of critics whose interpretive projects are thinly disguised projections of self onto the text in question? Felman seems to be advocating a way of reading that involves cognition as opposed to re-cognition — a critical approach to literary texts that moves beyond simple acknowledgement towards some degree of knowledge, away from “the reproduction of a foreknown answer” towards “the production of a question” (p.10). But what would such a cognitive process look like? And what role might literary texts play, if any, in the production of such knowledge?

In “The Risks of Empathy: Interrogating Multiculturalism’s Gaze” (1997), Cultural Studies professor, Megan Boler, proposes an answer. Like Felman, Boler is concerned with the way readers interpret literary texts. Specifically, since Boler’s focus is the classroom, she questions the pedagogical aim embraced by many contemporary educators and philosophers of getting students to “identify” with an “other” via literary texts: in popular and philosophical conceptions, empathy requires identification. I take up your perspective, and claim that I can know your experience through mine. […] What is ignored is what has been called the ‘psychosis of our time’: empathetic identification requires the other’s difference in order to consume its sameness. […] [T]he social imagination reading model is a binary power relationship of self/other that threatens to consume and annihilate the very differences that permit empathy. Popular and scholarly (particularly in the analytic traditions of philosophy) definitions of empathy seem unwittingly founded on this ironic ‘psychosis’ of consumptive objectification (Boler, p.258).

Boler’s description of ‘identification’ resembles Felman’s critique of ‘acknowledgement’. It is not enough, they both argue, simply to acknowledge or identify with an other. Like Felman, Boler sees the issue in Lacanian terms – a self (reader) projecting onto an other (text). Boler supplements her Lacanian-inspired critique of the “social imagination reading model” with examples from her own teaching experience. Quoting from student papers on Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, she demonstrates how these readers achieve the very empathetic identification (or acknowledgement of the other) promoted by Martha Nussbaum’s theory of the social imagination, while simultaneously reducing the textual other to a reflection of self. One student praises Spiegelman’s animal metaphors for allowing her to feel “more comfortable” while confronting the horrors of the Holocaust, since she was not “bombarded by feelings of rage or guilt” (qtd. in Boler, p. 260). Like Felman’s Gallimard/Folio critics, this student adopts a reductive criteria that turns MAUS into a “reassuring, closed retreat” (Felman, 1975, p.10) — a canny space that is safe and re-cognizable.

Boler illustrates how such interpretations do, in fact, meet Nussbaum’s criteria for empathetic identification, while simultaneously foreclosing any possibility of cognition or knowledge, since identification allows students to avoid confronting the cognitive and imaginative limits one encounters when faced with a trauma like the Holocaust. Responding to a course lecture given by a philosophy professor — who argued that the horror of the Holocaust is, to a great degree, unimaginable — Boler’s students expressed “an almost unilateral offense” at such a claim: “they deeply wanted to believe that their identification was sufficient” in trying to understand history (p.261). Boler’s experience demonstrates that mere identification (or acknowledgement) enables readers to occupy positions of “heightened detachment rather than intimacy” with a text (p.260), while simultaneously promoting interpretations that are “more a story and projection of myself than an understanding of you” (p.257; italics mine). All of which circles back in the same troublesome terrain of Felman’s article: Is interpretation — whether by scholars or students — inelectably an attempt to see the self reflected in a textual other?
Boler proposes an alternative to the social imagination reading model, which, she argues, produces nothing more than “passive empathy” and “consumptive identification” (p.258). As she sees it, the main problem with her students’ interpretations is that they are decontextualized (p.267). Boler’s notion of context, however, is an odd one — not ‘history’ per se, but rather, a reader’s “own historical moment” (p.267). Accordingly, she proposes an alternate reading strategy called “testimonial reading”, which requires a self-reflexive participation: an awareness first of myself as reader, positioned in a relative position of power by virtue of the safe distance of reading. Second, I recognize that reading potentially involves a task. This task is at minimum an active reading practice that involves challenging my own assumptions and world views. (p.263; italics mine)

She continues in the same vein: “We finally arrive at the key distinction between passive empathy and testimonial reading: in testimonial reading, the reader recognizes herself as a ‘battleground for forces raging […] to which [she] must pay attention’” (p.265).

Such an approach, however, does nothing but replace Felman’s critical phallacy with a historicist one –– though it is an odd view of history, to be sure, focusing, as it does, on learning to “question the genealogy of any particular emotional response” within oneself (p.267). Such an approach to literary texts does not alter what Boler herself terms the “psychosis of consumptive objectification” (p.258), since it still forces literary texts into the position of submissive object, allowing them to exist only as a mirror:
As I examine the history of a particular emotion, I can identify the taken-for-granted social values and structures of my own historical moment which mirror those encountered by the protagonist. Testimonial reading pushes us to recognize that a novel or biography reflects not merely a distant other, but analogous social relations in our own environment, in which our economic and social positions are implicated. (pp.266‑7; italics mine)[4]

Such an approach reduces literary texts to flat surfaces that consist solely of the economic, social and political structures that traverse them — a mimetic reflection of the “historical moment” a given reader occupies (p.267). The text is still a mirror in which a reader seeks her own reflection; only that reflection is now a fetishized notion of context — i.e. those power structures that enmesh a reader.

Even more troubling is her assumption that any act of reading involves an ineluctable master/slave dynamic, installing readers in a “safe distance” above the text (p.263):

Recognizing my position as ‘judge’ granted through the reading privilege, I must learn to question the genealogy of any particular emotional response; my scorn, my evaluation of others’ behavior as good or bad, my irritation — each provides a site of interrogation of how the text challenges my investments in familiar cultural values’. (pp.266‑7)

Her entire article rests on the premise that reading literary texts can effect a “shift in existing power relations”, thereby helping to achieve greater “social justice” (p.255). But how is such a shift possible, if reading automatically places readers in a privileged position of ‘judge’ over a submissive (potentially guilty?) text? Reading cannot occasion ethical shifts unless the event itself places readers at risk, making them vulnerable to the trauma of the text. As Shoshana Felman points out: “If reading has historically been a tool for revolutions and of liberation, is it not rather because, constitutively, reading is a rather risky business […]?” (Felman, 1993, p.5). If we are safe, we are not truly reading.

More to the point: what has happened to that unique creature, MAUS? What happens to those elements of a text that do not serve to throw readers back onto themselves in a reflexive cycle of self-interrogation? ‘Testimonial reading’ requires that the perceiving subject (reader) submit MAUS to a critical project(ion), Since a testimonial reader’s primary ‘task’ is finding socio-economic reflections of self.[5] The narcissism inherent in this approach strikes me as no less extreme than that of the Felman’s Balzac scholars. Texts are still submitted to the therapeutic designs of their readers — rewritten by a pedagogical agenda that demands serve only as a reflective object that mirrors contemporary social relations. By using literary texts as a mere reflections in which to recognize one’s own socio-economic position, Boler’s reading strategy is nothing more than the critical phallacy in drag — veiled beneath the theoretical buzz-words of ‘other’ ‘contextualization’ and ‘difference’. Such a critical approach relies far more re-cognition of self than cognition of textual other, on generating acknowledgement of my ‘own historical moment’ rather than knowledge of the particular text in question. It demands the ‘re-production of a foreknown answer’ (I am situated in power relations) rather than “the production of a question” (Felman, 1975, p.10). Such an approach forecloses any potentially traumatic encounter with the enigma of a text, which, in effect, prevents students from actually reading.

But can reading really be traumatic? What does it mean to speak of the ‘risks of reading’ or the ‘trauma of a text’? For nine-year old Edith Wharton, lying in bed recovering from typhoid fever, reading is indeed traumatic. It is an event rife with somatic and psychic danger. The bodily risks are obvious: death from the typhoid relapse that her act of reading triggers, a fate she luckily manages to avoid. The psychic aftershocks, however, haunt her for years to come:
I had been a naturally fearless child; now I lived in a state of chronic fear. Fear of what? I cannot say — and even at the time, I was never able to formulate my terror. It was like some dark undefinable menace, forever dogging my steps, lurking, and threatening; I was conscious of it wherever I went by day, and at night it made sleep impossible, unless a light and a nurse-maid were in the room. But, whatever it was, it was most formidable when I was returning from my daily walk […] while I waited on the door-step for the door to be opened, I could feel it behind me, upon me; and if there was any delay in the opening of the door I was seized by a choking agony of terror. It did not matter who was with me, for no one could protect me; but, oh, the rapture of relief if my companion had a latch-key, and we could get in at once, before it caught me!

This species of hallucination lasted seven or eight years, and I was a ‘young lady’ with long skirts and my hair up before my heart ceased to beat with fear if I had to stand for half a minute on a door-step! (Wharton, pp.275‑6)

Wharton figures her illness as a time of subjective splitting and alienation. Recovery involves a return to self: “when I came to myself, it was to enter a world haunted by formless horrors. I had been a naturally fearless child; now I lived in a state of chronic fear. Fear of what? I cannot say” (p.276). Her act of “perilous reading” occasions an illness that drives the young girl elsewhere (p.275). But she does recover/return. And upon her return – to physical health and to self — she finds this self radically altered. She is no longer the same “fearless girl” she was before, but is now someone dogged by “an unreasoning physical timidity” (p.275). In short, the nine-year old Edith Wharton recovers her health only to discover that she now inhabits a self that is, to some degree, un-re-cognizable. As a result, a process of cognition must now transpire. The young girl must come to know this altered self and learn to live otherwise.

Thus Wharton’s story of reading is also a story of knowledge and cognition. A young girl must learn to move through the world differently from the way her former, fearless self once did. And so she does learn. Her physical surroundings and daily routine are adjusted: a nursemaid keeps her company each night, a light is left shining in her bedroom after dark, and so on. But the changes wrought by this trauma extend far beyond such quaint domestic arrangements: “till I was twenty-seven or eight, I could not sleep in the room with a book containing a ghost-story, and I have frequently had to burn books of this kind because it frightened me to know that they were downstairs in the library!” (p.276).

What drives someone whose greatest consolation in life is reading to “frequently” burn books? What impels a future Pulitzer Prize winning author to commit repeated acts of literary barbarism? Wharton “cannot say” (p.276). She has never been able to “formulate [her] terror”. Even though this “formless” terror remains in close proximity (“forever dogging my steps, lurking, threatening”), where she is “conscious of it” day and night, “it” remains “undefinable”. All she can manage is a description of its effects: sleeplessness, book-burning, a “choking agony of terror” while standing on the door-step after daily walks. Thus while Wharton’s story of reading is a story of cognition and knowledge, it is also a tale of their limits. A young girl succeeds in knowing, to some degree, the other self to which she returns following her illness. She knows this altered self must try to avoid lingering on the threshold of a house, that she must, if necessary, burn books that contain ghost stories if she is to get a good night’s rest. But she never manages to achieve any direct knowledge of the “hallucination” that haunts her (p.276). She can sketch its traces; but she still has not formulated the fear itself. She has only circled it, located its indices. The word ‘it’ appears seven times in the above-quoted passage, and by the end, ‘it’ becomes a big ‘It’. Even after thirty-odd years of writing fiction, this celebrated author cannot describe her fear. She knows ‘It’ no better than she did when she was nine years old. Wharton can provide nothing but a vague place-holder — an enigmatic signifier, ‘It’.

For Wharton, otherness is not monolithic. Alterity, in the above-quoted passage, is topographically dispersed. There is the altered self, to which Wharton returns after her illness and which she does come to know. But there is also ‘It’ — that which lurks outside her, lingering in terrifyingly close proximity, yet resisting all attempts at cognition. ‘It’ remains alien and unassimilable. Unbound to any signified, ‘It’ addresses, solicits, and haunts her, but ‘It’ does not mean anything. ‘It’ indicates, but ‘It’ does not designate.

Psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche also sees otherness as topographically dispersed. Returning to Freud’s use of two distinct terms — der Andere (human) and das Andere (thing) — Laplanche locates alterity in different, though inextricably linked, sites: there are two others, latent in Freud. Freud speaks of der Andere, that is the other person, and das Andere, which we could not translate except as the other thing, […] that is the unconscious which is the remainder of the other’s messages. (Laplanche, 1992, p.68)

For Laplanche, the unconscious (das Andere) arises from a complex process of repression, wherein an infant attempts to translate the enigmatic messages of an adult other (der Andere).[6] Since a profound asymmetry exists in any relation between human infants and adults, infant translations of adult words, gestures, and deeds will always be partial. As a result, “that which eludes the child’s first attempts to construct for itself an interhuman world” gets repressed in the form of “thing-like presentations” which come to constitute the unconscious (Laplanche, 1999, p.93). In other words, those aspects of the adult message that the infant (literally, in-fans speechless) cannot translate, metabolize or bind are repressed in the form of “an internal foreign body” or “psychical other” (pp.64‑5). Thus the unconscious is an “an alien inside me, and even one put inside me by an alien” (p.65).

Laplanche means ‘enigmatic’ in a highly specific sense; these messages are not puzzles or riddles that can one day be solved by learning and applying the proper codes (linguistic or otherwise). They are enigmatic because they are compromised (in the sense of the psycho-pathology of everyday life) by the adult’s own unconscious, and thus opaque to the sender as well:
To address someone with no shared interpretive system, in a mainly extra-verbal manner: such is the function of adult messages, of those signifiers which I claim are simultaneously and indissociably enigmatic and sexual, in so far as they are not transparent to themselves, but compromised by the adult’s relation to their [sic] own unconscious (pp.79‑80).

Because adults have an unconscious — an internal other of which they are not fully cognizant — certain gestures, words and deeds will be “impregnated” with “more” than they know or intend (1992, p.10). These “impregnated” messages are doubly “compromised” — i.e. “opaque to recipient and transmitter alike” — though opaque, it should be noted, in different ways (1999, p.169).[7] Any address characterized by an excess of message, one doubly compromised on both sides (at transmission and reception), is enigmatic insofar as it harbors an irreducible, interrogative kernel — a question neither sender nor receiver can ever completely answer: “an enigma is not just to ask a question of which you have the answer; it is a question for which even you are not to have an answer” (1992, p.89).[8] To summarize, there are two ways to conceive of Laplanche’s concept of the enigmatic address: 1) as an enigmatic message that contains a question that neither sender nor recipient can answer; 2) as an enigmatic signifier that interpellates, but does not mean, because it lacks a signified; it signifies to without signifying of. This interpellative pull of the enigmatic signifier, or message, is “irreducible to a projection coming from the subject” (1999, p.196).

As a result, an enigmatic address initiates an elliptical, spiraling movement marked by “an essential dissymmetry” (p.228) — a movement that propels the one who receives this enigmatic message “back along the threads of the ‘other’: the other thing of our unconscious, the other person who has implanted his messages, with, as horizon, the other thing in the other person, that is, the unconscious of the other, which makes those messages enigmatic” (p.258). Thus, for Laplanche, alterity is not binary, but exponential. Any external other (der Andere) who sends an enigmatic messages also has an unconscious (das Andere) with which she, too, has an asymmetrical relation, whose source is another external other (der Andere), and so on and so forth: “there is the primordial split, which means quite simply that the other is other, but with this paradox or amphibology: he is other than me because he is other than himself” (pp.220‑1).

Laplanche’s concept of exponential alterity profoundly impacts how projection is conceived. Because the unconscious which projects is itself implanted by an external adult other (der Andere), all projections harbor, at bottom, an element “hard as iron” that is irreducibly other (p.114).[9] In other words, even if ‘It’ is projected by the young Edith Wharton’s unconscious, since that internal foreign body (das Andere), in turn, originates from an external other (der Andere), ‘It’ contains an element of irreducible alterity — one that cannot be reduced to purely auto-generated psychical fantasy. All projections, says Laplanche, harbor an allogenic kernel, an unanswerable question that opens towards the other: “at the bottom of projection, there is something that is not projection — that is, a question: what does he want from me? […] a question not about what I am introducing in the other, but that something comes from the other” (1992, p.37).

Wharton’s ‘It’, like all projections, contains the interrogative seed of an enigma — an unanswerable question that originates from that primal other (der Andere), whose messages formed the source of Wharton’s own unconscious (das Andere), which means the question enclosed in the pod of any projection cannot be answered by the other either, because her own unconscious renders the message she has sent opaque to her as well. As a result ‘It’ can never be properly reunited with ‘It’s original signified. Binding ‘It’ to another signified would be an act of narcissistic re-centering, forcing the enigmatic signifier to cease its interpellative re-opening onto the question of the other in favor of closing off its question with a ‘foreknown answer’. Thus Wharton’s inability to define ‘It’ (assign it a signified), in fact, maintains ‘It’s alterity by keeping the question that leads back to the threshold of the other’s enigma open. And if one assumes that ‘It’ is projected by her own unconscious, maintaining ‘It’s alterity by refusing to define ‘It’ maintains, in fact, the alterity of her own unconscious:
We have reached the point which I consider is the essence of the Copernican revolution begun by Freud; the decentering, in reality, is double: the other thing (das Andere) that is the unconscious is only maintained in its radical alterity by the other person (der Andere) […] When the alterity of the other person is blurred, when it is reintegrated in the form of my fantasy of the other […] then the alterity of the unconscious is put at risk (1999, p.71).

Laplanche explicitly rejects Lacan’s claim “there is no Other of the Other”. For Laplanche, there is indeed an other of the other: her unconscious, that “untranslated, but distorted anamorphic residue” of yet another other: “not the Lacanian Other, but the concrete other: the adult facing the child” (p.212). This exponential conception of alterity (due to the essential heteronymy of each individual) breaks us out of the reflective cycle that Lacan’s more binary notions of the self-other relation often precipitate (desire is the desire of the other; there is no Other of the Other).
Adopting a Lacanian analytic vocabulary to discuss the relation between reader and text, as both Felman and Boler do, creates an intractable problem. Since the Lacanian other is always, at bottom, a projection of the perceiving subject, reading, when figured via a Lacanian self/other relation, can never be conceived as anything but an exercise in narcissistic projection — regardless of the direction this vector of projection moves (text to reader, reader to text. Or, to phrase the question in Lacanian terms: Is the text the desire of the reader, or is the reader the desire of the text?). Since for Lacan no subject to subject relation is possible, framing the question of reading in Lacanian terms often ends up figuring the event as an unbroken cycle of acknowledgement and recognition.[10]

But reading does, at times, break this cycle of acknowledgement and recognition.
Wharton’s traumatic story of reading while recovering from typhoid is but one example. Textual encounters can, from time to time, render us un-re-cognizable to ourselves. When a reader passes from self to text and back again, this passage has the radical potential to alter the self to which she returns, rendering her other than she was before. The key word here is ‘passage’, for the event of reading is just that — an event, a passing through. For this reason, I propose moving away from conceiving it in terms of Lacanian theories of the self/other relation and, by extension, re-conceiving interpretation outside psychoanalytic notions of projection. As Laplanche points out: “the old notion of ‘projection’, which psychoanalysis borrows from an obsolete neurology and psychology, could be re-located in a situation subordinated to the ‘centripetal’ movement that has priority in […], the remnant […] of the message of the other” (1996, p.664).

Correspondingly, I would suggest re-locating both the event of reading and the act of interpretation outside a Lacanian self/other binary. Reading literary texts and interpreting them are not discrete acts. One does not read a story, then write an interpretation of it without returning to (i.e. re-reading) the text in question. Likewise, the very act of reading — even on the part of an ‘ordinary’ reader, one who is not a critic — is ineluctable from interpretation. Readers of literary texts are always interpreting, and interpreters of literary texts are always reading (and re-reading). Receiving the enigmatic message of a literary text (reading) and attempting to understand, translate that message (interpreting) are interwoven, indissociable activities — both of which transpire in transference. Indeed, transference is the ‘situation’ in which Laplanche calls for projection to be ‘re-located’ and in which I am suggesting the event of reading be re-located.

Transference, according to Laplanche, is not a spontaneous, auto-generated phenomenon. It is a dynamic that can only be provoked by the enigmatic address of an other: “transference, like faith, comes from the other” (1999, p.193). Nor is it a static construction, reducible to a fantastic projection of the subject. Transference is a dynamic — a situational response on the part of an individual to encountering the enigmatic address of an other. Because the address of another initiates the process, the primary vector of transference is centripetal — which means a “basic Copernicanism” underpins any transferential moment . Transference is not limited to psychoanalysis (p.231). According to Laplanche, any asymmetrical communication situation installs transference: “Transference, as I conceive it, is characteristic of the analytical situation and of some other specific intersubjective constellations which all have in common the fact that they reproduce and renew the [primal] situation” (p.131). As such, these “intersubjective constellations” have the potential to break us out of familiar cycles of acknowledgement and recognition, plunging us into a de-centering “Copernican” process that can effect cognition and knowledge.

The “privileged” constellation, according to Laplanche, is culture (p.233): “if one accepts that the fundamental dimension of transference is the relation to the enigma of the other, perhaps the principal site of transference, ‘ordinary’ transference, before, beyond, or after analysis, would be the multiple relation to the cultural, to creation or, more precisely, to the cultural message” (p.222).[11] Insofar as we exist in culture, we are constantly forced to confront enigmatic messages that we cannot fully assimilate: “the biological individual, the living human, is saturated from head to foot by the invasion of the cultural, which is by definition intrusive, stimulating and sexual” (p.225). Because literary texts are by their very nature enigmatic, since that’s what makes them ‘literary’ — textual messages ‘impregnated’ with ‘more’ that their authorial senders or their reading recipients, know — reading literature is such an ‘intersubjective constellation’. To read literature, to allow the enigmatic message of a text to exert its gravitational pull on one’s psyche, is a de-centering experience, making the event a prime site for effecting cognition and knowledge.

But the simple fact of transference does not guarantee a break in reflexive cycles of acknowledgement and recognition. Literary texts present readers with the hollow of an enigma, an uncanny space that is pure indication, an enigmatic signifier that addresses but does not designate. Most often recipients (readers) will respond by instinctively filling in that uncanny hollow with a ‘plenum’: re-productions her own ‘foreknown answer’, binding the enigmatic signifier, in other words, to a signified that reifies her own identity (whether personal or professional). Such a move responds to the question of the text by answering it, thereby closing off the question, turning the enigma of the text into “a recognition scheme, familiar, sung, canny” (Felman, 1975, p.10). Such instinctive, ‘Ptolemaic’ re-centerings are akin to what Laplanche calls ‘filled-in’ transference — any response to a transferential situation that reverses its initial centripetal vector into a centrifugal one, fixing a text into orbit around a reader’s ‘foreknown answer’ (Laplanche, 1999, p.229). The Gallimard/Folio critics’ blindered application of a reductive realist criteria is an example of such a ‘Ptolemeic’ re-centering or ‘filled-in’ critical response. Megan Boler’s ‘testimonial reading’ is another one, since such a response fills the hollow of a text’s enigma with re-productions of one’s ‘own historical moment’.

But interpretation is not ineluctably a ‘Ptolemaic’ move. A critic can offer a constructive response to the question in the text without closing that question off. A response need not be an answer. ‘Copernican’ critical responses to literary texts engage in a process of questioning initiated by the enigma in a literary text — the question(s) of the text — offering responses to that question (or set of questions) without filling the text’s interrogative hollow with a ‘foreknown answer’. Such a response would be akin to what Laplanche calls ‘hollowed-out’ transference, wherein an individual, confronted by the hollow of an enigma, resists the ‘Ptolemaic’ instinct to deposit re-productions of self into the hollow, and instead, confronts the hollow of the enigma that addresses her with another hollow — or question. Only then will the responses generated by confronting the hollow of a text’s enigma be responses to that particular enigma — that particular text-in-question and the question-in-the-text — and not impositions of one’s own ‘foreknown answer’.

Thus ‘Copernican’ criticism might be conceived as a correspondence — an epistolary exchange between critic and text wherein there is “an essential dissymetry in the relation” (Laplanche, 1999, p.228). The critic faces the hollow of the text’s enigma — that question that even the text is not to have an answer for — and responds without closing off the question in the primary text so that, in the end, her own subsequent text (critical treatment) yields a further question (enigma), which remains open, thereby confronting the critic’s own addressees (readers) with a hollow which can then be transferred to an alternative site of inquiry — in a dynamic which Laplanche calls “the transference-of-transference”.

A ‘Copernican’ critical approach is propelled not by a drive towards hermeneutic closure — what does a text mean? what must it designate? — but by an interpellative, centripetal pull that initiates a re-opening — what does a text indicate, or strain towards? What interrogative seeds are enclosed within this fantastic pod of authorial projection, and how might they be dehisced and scattered most fruitfully, and what question(s) does that scattering, in turn, provoke and leave open, ready to be transferred to another site of critical inquiry? By extension, what might a ‘Copernican’ pedagogy entail? Or, insofar as literary studies requires students to receive enigmatic messages with every assignment, is literary studies, by its very nature, ‘Copernican’? And if certain textual encounters have the potential to de-center students, rendering them, perhaps, un-re-cognizable to themselves, how can teachers assist in channeling that centripetal force towards productive, rather than destructive ends — towards writing books, rather than burning them?

On May 26, 1890, Edith Wharton opened the letter-box to find an envelope addressed to her from the editor, Edward Burlingame. It was a message telling her, to the sender’s own apparent surprise (“We cannot often use a sketch as slight as that which you have kindly sent us”), that Scribner’s Magazine wanted to publish her story “Mrs. Mainstay’s View” (qtd. in Lewis, p.61). That year, her twenty-eighth, Edith Wharton’s first piece of fiction went to press. It was the same year that she found herself, for the first time since the typhoid relapse, able to sleep in a room with a book of ghost-stories.

Notes

[1] Italics are original. As a rule, all italics within quoted texts throughout this paper are the author’s italics, not mine. Hereafter, my italics alone will be indicated. This passage was part of the original manuscript for A Backward Glance, but Wharton excised it from the final version of her autobiography. The description has since been published as ‘An Autobiographical Postscript’ to her collected ghost stories, The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. Citations refer to this volume, which contains the only published version of the passage.

[2] Adieu recounts tragic events in the life of Countess Stéphanie de Vandières, a woman who endures such hardship and suffering while accompanying her husband and lover (Philippe de Sucy) across Russia during the Napoleonic Wars that she loses her reason. Divided into three sections, Adieu opens with Philippe crossing paths with his former lover, Stéphanie, whom he has been unable to locate amid the chaos and devastation of the French countryside. The second section jumps back in time to recount the horrific events that occasioned Stéphanie’s madness – the suffering she endured during the Grand Army’s retreat, the scene of her separation from Philippe, and the death of her husband. The final section rejoins Philippe after his discovery of Stéphanie, who does not recognize her former lover, because she has lost memory. Joining forces with a doctor, Philippe attempts to restore Stéphanie’s sanity by re-enacting the scene of their war time separation, thus forcing her to recognize Philippe, which, he assumes, will restore her reason. It works: she recognizes her former lover, smiles, says Adieu, then dies.

[3] Here, she is drawing explicitly on Luce Irigaray’s interrogation of Western philosophy and the male imaginary it generates and perpetuates. Of particular relevance is Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman, which demonstrates the repressive manner in which the Masculine/Feminine dichotomy has traditionally operated in Western philosophical discourse, resulting in the female taking on status of Other, which exists only as a reflective opposite, an inversion of masculine presence, a lack, a hole, a mirror, an inverse reflection of a ‘unified’ (male) subject.

[4] Tellingly, Boler figures her hypothetical reader in the first person, a grammatical Ego, I.

[5] Such an aim assumes an individual can step far enough outside those relations in order to see them.

[6] For more detail see Laplanche 1989, pp.130‑3.

[7] This is what keeps Laplanche’s theory from being determinist, since ‘the originator of the enigmatic message is unaware of most of what he means, and to the extent that the child possesses only inadequate and imperfect ways to configure or theorize about what is communicated to him, there can be no linear causality between parental unconscious and discourse on the one hand and what the child does with these on the other’ (Laplanche, 1999, p.160).

[8] Not everything is an enigmatic message, and not all messages are equally enigmatic. An enigma arises from a communication situation, a situation of address; as a result there is always a degree of contingency depending on a sender’s and a recipient’s relation to one another and to their own respective unconsciouses: ‘there is no enigma […] in the objectivity of the data’ (Laplanche, 1999, p.171).

[9]. “The character of this question is irreducible. It is not a statement, not a delusional belief […] But a question about the other [which] is something that cannot be explaimed. It is the residue of all explanation” (Laplanche, 1999, p.174)

[10] This is what keeps Laplanche’s theory from being determinist, since “the originator of the enigmatic message is unaware of most of what he means, and to the extent that the child possesses only inadequate and imperfect ways to configure or theorize about what is communicated to him, there can be no linear causality between parental unconscious and discourse on the one hand and what the child does with these on the other” (Laplanche, 1999, p.160).

[11] For Lacan, the other is always a projection of the perceiving subject. Even the mystical Big Other is only a subject in the secondary sense, insofar as another (subject) can occupy this position and stand in for the Other; this mystical complete Other does not exist, which is part of what Lacan means in claiming ‘Woman does not exist’ or ‘There is no such thing as Woman’. See Lacan, pp. 189‑193

Works Cited

Boler, Megan, “The Risks of Empathy: Interrogating Multiculturalism’s Gaze”, Cultural Studies 11.2 (1997) pp.253‑273.

Felman, Shoshana, “Women and Madness: The Critical Phallacy”, Diacritics (1975) pp.2‑10.

——, What Does a Woman Want?: Reading and Sexual Difference, (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

Lacan, Jacques, Écrits, (trans.), Alan Sheridan, (London: Routledge, 1989).

Laplanche, Jean, Seduction, Translation, Drives, (eds.), John Stanton and Martin Fletcher, (trans.), Martin Fletcher, (London: ICA Press, 1992).

——, New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, (trans.), David Macey (London: Blackwell, 1989).

——, Essays on Otherness (ed.), John Fletcher, (trans.), Luke Thurston, (London: Routledge, 1999)

Lewis, R.W.B, Edith Wharton: A Biography, (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).

Wharton, Edith, “An Autobiographical Postscript”, The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, (New York: Scribners, 1973) pp.275‑76.

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