Christopher Norris

Christopher Norris a lecturer in English at the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, is the author of a study of William Empson and of Deconstruction: Theory and Practice.

Paul de Man’s Past

Christopher Norris, 4 February 1988

On 1 December 1987 the New fork Times ran a piece under the title ‘Yale Scholar’s Articles Found in Nazi Paper’. The scholar in question was the late Paul de Man, who had written these pieces during the early Forties before leaving Belgium for America. They were published in Le Soir, a newspaper of pro-Nazi sympathies, and contain many passages that can be read as endorsing what amounts to a collaborationist line. There is talk of the need to preserve national cultures against harmful ‘cosmopolitan’ influences; of the Jewish element in modern thought as a threat to this healthy condition; and of German literature as a model for those other, less fortunate traditions that lack such a strong national base. Their language often resorts to organicist metaphors, notions of cultural identity as rooted in the soil of a flourishing native literature. One could draw comparisons with a work like Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, where it is likewise argued that the vitality of ‘satellite’ traditions (for de Man, crucially, the French, Dutch and Belgian) must depend on the continuing existence of a strong hegemonic centre. But of course de Man was writing at a time and in a political situation where thoughts of this kind carried a far more dangerous charge. These texts are utterly remote from de Man’s subsequent writings, not only in their crudity of utterance and sentiment, but also in the way that they uncritically endorse such mystified ideas as the organic relation between language, culture and national destiny, ideas which he would later ‘deconstruct’ with such extreme sceptical vigilance.

Semiotics Right and Left

Christopher Norris, 4 September 1986

The sheer bulk of this volume – as well as its highly miscellaneous character – suggests one of the problems about modern semiotics, considered as a discipline or field of study. It is hard to draw the line as to just what should count as a properly ‘semiotic’ line of enquiry, given that the field extends to every kind of signifying process or activity. At the limit (as in many of the essays here) it is not so much a method, theory or discipline as a generalised pretext for making observations that would otherwise lack any handy descriptive label. Of course there have been those – Saussure and the early Roland Barthes, among others – who held out the prospect of a unified endeavour that would place semiotics on a genuine scientific footing. Such was the dream of method that found its most ambitious expression in the structuralist ‘revolution’ of the human sciences proclaimed by various disciples of Saussure. Linguistics was to serve as the pilot methodology, the basis for a universal science of signs. Anthropology, political theory, psychoanalysis and even (according to Piaget) mathematics and the ‘hard’ sciences – all were to be seen as constituent fields of this overarching programme. Their interests converged on a handful of propositions about the workings of language – derived mostly from Saussure and Jakobson – which seemed to point beyond ‘linguistics’ as such to a much larger theory of mind, culture and signifying systems in general. Semiotics (or semiology, as the French preferred to call it) was set to usher in this bright new age of interdisciplinary endeavour.’


Christopher Norris, 20 February 1986

There are many possible ways to describe Derrida’s text, none of them adequate but some less misleading than others. One can begin on safe ground, surely, by saying that Signsponge is ‘about’ the French writer Francis Ponge; that it involves a sustained and intricate meditation on the status of proper names and signatures in general; that it takes up themes from Derrida’s previous writing, notably from Limited Inc, his exchange with John Searle on the topic (supposedly) of speech-act philosophy; and that Signsponge is perhaps his most extravagant text to date, judged by all the normal, reputable standards of literary-critical practice. But having said all this one has really done no more than mark off a space in the (by now) quite familiar ongoing project known as Derridean deconstruction. And if there is one thing that Signsponge sets out to undermine it is the placid confidence that gathering texts under an author’s proper name is enough to ensure the substantial unity of a work, a corpus, an oeuvre. Derrida signs on, so to speak, at the point where most interpretation signs off: with the idea that putting one’s name to a text can ever be a simple gesture of containment, a claim to authorial copyright. What Signsponge calls into question is ‘the link (be it natural or contractual) between a given text, a given so-called author, and his name designated as proper’. And this it does by a species of massive and wilful impropriety, discounting the rule that would regard word-play on an author’s name as the merest of impertinent jokes.

Textual theory at the bar of reason

Christopher Norris, 18 July 1985

This book is by far the most sustained and intelligent critique of post-structuralist theory yet published in Britain or America. It is argued from an adversary stance, but with a vigour and passion all too rare among opponents of ‘theory’ in whatever threatening shape or guise. According to Rose, it is the fault of post-structuralism, not that it has become too much embroiled in theoretical issues, but that it has failed to think through the problems bequeathed by philosophers in the critical tradition descending from Kant. That tradition she sees as having set the main terms for a debate whose categories are centrally those of jurisprudence, or the individual subject and his or her standing before the law. Post-Kantian philosophy is heir to certain problems in the nature of its own grounding concepts which cannot be simply pushed aside in the name of some radical break with ‘Western metaphysics’. Such gestures are a species of intellectual nihilism, a refusal to engage with hegemonic structures of reason, legality and ethical discourse alike. Taking issue with Foucault and Derrida especially, Rose argues that post-structuralism has not come out – as its proponents would claim – on the far side of those problems and antinomies that dominate classical reason. Rather, it has attempted to exclude them de jure from its own more ‘radical’ or liberated discourse, only to reveal how far it is in thrall to those same (unrecognised) critical motifs. In short, these thinkers have opted for a rhetoric of militant unreason, thereby depriving thought of any power to criticise its own concepts and categories.’

Reading as a woman

Christopher Norris, 4 April 1985

Why these books should have come to a male reviewer is perhaps more a question for the editor than myself. All the same, it is an issue that can hardly be ducked in the context of present-day feminist debate. Is it possible for a well-disposed male heterosexual to ‘read as a woman’, overcoming all the gender-based habits and assumptions imposed by a rigidly patriarchal culture? Jonathan Culler argues as much in the opening chapters of his recent book On Deconstruction. For Culler, this serves as a paradigm case of the way that deconstructionist strategies of reading can work to undo such naturalised categories as ‘male’ versus ‘female’, conceived in biological or essentialist terms. It is not enough for feminist critics to identify subjectively with women writers, or with those elements of repressed female experience there to be uncovered in the texts of patriarchal tradition. Such thinking is the first stage only, since it cannot do more than put up local resistance and leave the opposition male/female firmly in place. What is needed, Culler argues, is a systematic process of displacement which interrogates the logic underlying such assumptions and shows it to rest on a certain blindness to its own textual workings. Thus Freud’s discourse on female sexuality reveals all the symptomatic twists and distortions of a theory bent upon establishing power over that which would otherwise elude its control. Hysteria and penis-envy are just two of those mythic explanations which Freud has to invent by way of warding off this threat to the phallocratic order of things.

Some Versions of Narrative

Christopher Norris, 2 August 1984

Philosophers are understandably aggrieved when literary critics presume to instruct them in the finer points of textual interpretation. Particularly irksome is the claim of conceptual rhetoricians like Paul de Man that philosophy has not yet caught up with ‘elementary refinements’ that criticism has long since taken for granted. Deconstruction goes furthest towards contesting the status of philosophy by showing how its concepts finally come down to the ‘unmasterable’ play of linguistic figuration. There is a striking example of de Man’s mercilessly consequential logic – deployed to most ‘illogical’ ends – in his reading of Kantian aesthetics, collected in the Shapiro and Sica volume. This essay deconstructs the Critique of Judgment by pressing its concepts and categories to the point where they yield up a series of perverse rhetorical manoeuvres at odds with any self-respecting ‘philosophic’ argument. It is tropes, not concepts, that structure the economy of Kantian reason and enable its crucial transitions from stage to stage of ‘enlightened’ critique. From the deconstructive viewpoint, de Man’s is a reading of exemplary rigour and scrupulous textual awareness. To most analytic philosophers – those trained up, let us say, on the regulative mastery of concept over trope – such ‘rigour’ looks more like mere semantic juggling, the sort of thing which had better be confined to university departments of literature.–

Beyond Textualism

Christopher Norris, 19 January 1984

One gets the impression from Riffaterre’s book that he enjoys playing single-minded hedgehog to the foxy representatives of Parisian post-structuralist fashion. Despite some fairly arcane terminology, he is basically an old-style formalist whose forays into theory are largely in the service of traditional interpretative ends. The literary text, for Riffaterre, is an object of patient and erudite close-reading, a ‘monument’ whose utterly distinctive character the critic sets out to describe and explain. At bottom, there is not much difference between this kind of ‘structuralist’ activity and the techniques of verbal analysis perfected by ‘old’ New Critics like Wimsatt and Brooks. Of course there is a shift of technical idiom, from the homespun rhetorics of Ambiguity, Irony and Paradox to a post-Saussurian language of signifier and signified, text and intertext. But Riffaterre’s commitment to the structuralist project stops well short of dissolving the poem into a play of circumambient codes and conventions beyond all reach of formal analysis. His readings are squarely opposed to the current mood of ‘textualist’ euphoria which merges poem and commentary in an endless exchange of productive signification. Criticism has its work cut out, he thinks, in explaining what it is about the nature of literary texts that both marks them out clearly as ‘literary’ and preserves their meaning against the ravages of time and cultural change. There is much here that would gladden the heart of a rearguard New Critic, but little – besides the somewhat de rigueur terminology – that a current post-structuralist would want to take on board.–

From Plato to Nato

Christopher Norris, 7 July 1983

Eagleton’s book is both a primer and a postmortem. It surveys the varieties of recent and present-day literary theory, only to suggest – in its closing chapter – that they had better be abandoned in the interests of a practical, transformative involvement in cultural politics. Like Wittgenstein at the end of the Tractatus, Eagleton asks his reader to think, and think hard, about the theories on offer; then, having achieved a perspective that transcends them, to kick away the ladder and enjoy the prospect thus afforded. Those familiar with Eagleton’s earlier writings will hear the crash of ladders distinctly near home as the book comes to deal with structuralist and post-structuralist theory. Gone is the Althusserian quest for a ‘science’ of the text and its productive mechanisms, the project which Eagleton resourcefully argued in Criticism and Ideology (1976). As that scientistic dream receded, so the influence of Foucault replaced that of Althusser, and the truth-claims of knowledge were increasingly seen as effects of a dominant ideological discourse. No matter how radical their proclaimed intent, critical theories were all too readily processed and adapted to the ends of maintaining the institutional status quo. If ‘truth’, as Foucault argues, is a reflex function of the power to impose such a dominant discourse, then it is the concept of truth which itself needs dismantling, and along with it the old opposition between ‘science’ and ‘ideology’.–

Mortal Scripts

Christopher Norris, 21 April 1983

In the present climate of polemical exchange one may doubt whether Gabriel Josipovici would take very kindly to being enlisted on the side of ‘literary theory’. Though his essays make reference to figures like Barthes and Derrida, they do so with an air of studied detachment, as if to forestall any charge of deeper complicity. If it comes to a straight choice between ‘interpretation’ and ‘theory’ – however unreal the terms of that choice – Josipovici is in the business of interpreting texts, and only has time for theoretical diversions when they happen to point up a reading or adorn a theme. Yet it is fair to remark that these essays (based on his Northcliffe Lectures for 1980-81, delivered at University College, London) could scarcely have taken their present form had it not been for Josipovici’s involvement with recent literary theory. Indeed, it is one of the merits of this book that it moves between ‘theory’ and ‘interpretation’ with an unforced naturalness which helps to discredit that false and misleading dichotomy.–


Fateful Swerve

4 February 1988

SIR: I am sorry that A.J. Ayer (Letters, 18 February) failed to understand my article on Heidegger and Paul de Man. It addressed what I take to be important issues, and attempted to do so in a decently accessible manner. But he might try reading the piece again and suspending some of those fixed ideas which have made it such a high point of principle, among English-speaking philosophers, to profess...

Plain English

20 December 1984

SIR: T.S. Eliot apparently meant it as a compliment when he wrote that Henry James possessed ‘a mind so fine that no idea could violate it’. The remark might be applied less charitably to the present Henry James Professor of Letters at New York University. I refer to Denis Donoghue’s curiously off-the-point review of Inside the Myth: George Orwell – Views from the Left (LRB,...

Leavis and Norris

21 April 1983

SIR: I am sorry to have misremembered the title of Leavis’s essay on Othello. Henceforth I shall emulate Mr Dodsworth (Letters, 16 June) and keep the Master’s works always ready to hand, lest further heresies blacken my name. Meanwhile I fail to see how the substance of my argument is affected by such a trivial lapse. Mr Dodsworth will hardly need directing to the numerous essays where...

Wild, Fierce Yale

21 October 1982

SIR: Professor Earl Miner (Letters, 10 January) defends Jonathan Culler against what he sees as a needlessly ad hominem attack in my book Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. I have to protest that Culler is not cast as ‘villain’ of the piece, or as a ‘traitor within the gates’ of recent literary theory. My book treats his Structuralist Poetics as an exemplary case of those...

Faculty at War

17 June 1982

SIR: As a ‘New Accents’author I should be glad to know which books exactly are supposed to be the targets of Gabriel Josipovici’s blanket fire. It is a strangely warped high-mindedness which denounces Methuen for trading on the ‘series’ image an then proceeds to attack the whole lot under cover c evasive generalities.Of course it must be annoying to have his colleagues...

Return of the real

A.D. Nuttall, 23 April 1992

The idea has got around – among ‘advanced’ thinkers of various political persuasions – that realist epistemologies are a thing of the past, that truth values in criticism...

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Theory and Truth

Frank Kermode, 21 November 1991

The autumn catalogues of some very enterprising publishers announce as many books as usual under the rubric Literary Criticism, or possibly more, but few have titles of a sort that, even ten...

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Paul de Man’s Abyss

Frank Kermode, 16 March 1989

Paul de Man was born in 1919 to a high-bourgeois Antwerp family, Flemish but sympathetic to French language and culture. He studied at the Free University of Brussels, where he wrote some pieces...

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John Sturrock, 31 March 1988

Bait them and the Derrideans certainly rise. When the English version of Derrida’s Glas appeared last year in the United States*, I wrote a griping review of it, to regret mainly that a...

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Alexander Nehamas, 22 May 1986

The ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry which Plato described, and in which he took part, is still being fought. Poetry today has become, more generally, ‘rhetoric’,...

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Plain English

Denis Donoghue, 20 December 1984

Orwell took little care of his manuscripts. He didn’t anticipate that collectors of such things would pay real money for them, and that universities would think it a privilege to turn a...

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Textual Harassment

Claude Rawson, 5 April 1984

In a recent review in this paper, Edward Said used the word ‘narrative’ about thirty times. This might have seemed a lot even in the present state of litcritspeak, and even in an...

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Wild, Fierce Yale

Geoffrey Hartman, 21 October 1982

There are no Departments of Literary Criticism; and even proposals to have a Criticism question in official examinations can cause turbulence in academic circles. What is at stake? By now, of...

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