- Ian Angus (Editor)
Anarcho-Modernism: Toward a New Critical Theory. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jodey Castricano (Author)
Cryptomimesis: The Gothic and Jacques Derrida's Ghost Writing. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Charles Barbour
The biggest challenge facing deconstruction, one which has in many ways denned it since its inception, is how to remain challenging—how to avoid becoming one more critical methodology, or consumed by the academy it seeks to delimit. Jodey Castricano’s Cryptomimesis: The Gothic and Jacques Derrida’s Ghost Writing, or rather the style of Castricano’s text, provides an answer to this challenge. According to Castricano, "the term cryptomimesis draws attention to a writing predicated on encryption: the play of revelation and concealment lodged within parts of individual words." It is a question of turning language inside out, or of exhuming the remains of meanings buried within particular words. At this level, writing is not the transparent communication of intentions but a pixilated collection of fragments—a deferred promise of meaning. Castricano’s aim is not merely to describe this "cryptomimetic" conception of writing but also to perform it. Thus her writing quite deliberately gives the uncanny impression that it is haunted by innumerable potential interpretations, or that the writer is always preparing for her own death and the emergence of countless readers (whose work is, as Derrida likes to say, a "work of mourning").
To the extent that we can claim it is "about" anything, Cryptomimesis is a reading of American gothic literature and Derrida. Rather, it uses a collection of topoi taken from gothic literature as tools for reading Derrida. The text is composed (or decomposed) as an assemblage of citations woven together by a diffuse narrative that attempts, like the use of citation itself, to break down distinctions between inside and outside, self and other, life and death. The suggestion is that meaning is something that returns at the moment of citation, but what returns in the citation is never what the author (the one who cites her) intended. What returns is always something uncanny and spectral—a diabolical image of what was expected. Thus all reading has the character of a haunting. The most successful articulation of this theme in Cryptomimesis is found in an astonishing interpretation of Steven King’s Pet Sematary. Castricano provides not so much a Derridean reading of King as a Kingian reading of Derrida. "In King’s novel," Castricano argues, "the dead return not only because they were not properly buried but also because they represent, in Derridean terms, a certain remainder." Like the remains of the dead, writing is the remainder or supplement that both conditions and troubles our sense of identity, and of the difference between life and death. The fact that, in King, the spectres transgress boundaries—between life and death, and between human and animal, uprooting our assumptions about the kinds of ghosts we expect to find in a gothic narrative—only serves to reinforce Castricano’s point. It is, in this text, always a question of "the crossing of certain lines or borders which constitute a threat to identity."
Not surprisingly, some of the most captivating material is found in the longer footnotes, which are more like protocols for a series of alternative readings of Castricano’s text—or, perhaps, alternative research projects. There is more than a little at stake when, for example, Castricano asks
What returns to haunt? ... do the tropes and topoi of the Gothic show us that, rather than being unique to the Gothic, haunting, mourning, and revenance are integral components of subjectivity, language, and thought, thus comprising social and cultural reality?
Is being haunted not part of what it means to be alive? It is an old question, one that neither Castricano nor Derrida, nor even Heidegger or Freud, was first to articulate. And it is a question that is bound repeatedly to return, though differently and unexpectedly, each time. The crypt, as Heidegger reminded us, is what makes each repetition, each Dasein, something singular and discrete. Death individuates, even as it steals that individual in the process. But it is the living dead who return to trouble every individual or every "authentic" being. Castricano knows the phenomenon, it would seem, intimately.
As evidenced by Castricano’s book, the current trend in deconstructive criticism seems to tend away from the explicitly political and ethical themes that dominated the last decade, towards more aesthetic questions. Not that the latter won’t continue to have political implications, but they will have to be articulated otherwise.
From a very different, in many ways opposed, perspective, Anarcho-Modernism: Toward a New Critical Theory, a collection of nearly forty essays in honor of the Simon Fraser University professor Jerry Zaslove, also attempts a new articulation of the political and the aesthetic. Indeed, with the exception of a number of very moving and inspiring reflections on personal relationships with Zaslove, the book is more or less evenly divided between essays dealing with literary or aesthetic issues (including the fascinating "An Excursion into the Amature Grotesque" by Martha Langford, which deals with incidental photographs from the beginning of the twentieth century) and ones that focus on political topics (and particularly on the politics of pedagogy). Generally we find an anarchist critique of what the Frankfurt School first dubbed "the culture industry." And overall the essays hold up well, even in the wake of postmodernism, which tended to deny critique its privileged position of exteriority.
Probably the central theoretical essay—a manifesto, really—is Wolf-Dieter Narr and Martin Blobel’s "Anarchism Today." While Narr and Blobel admit that anarchism is "not a constitutive, but a regulative principle," or that it is, in the Kantian terms invoked here, a regulative ideal, they also insist that "there is no history without anarchism." That is to say, human cultures will always be conditioned by a longing for emancipation from the institutional structures that nonetheless comprise those cultures—a world in which each is "fully self-conscious" of herself as a "concrete human being." But there are some theoretical problems here—not incidental oversights, but issues that go to the heart of anarchism itself. Mixing contexts quite carelessly, even after having informed us that such a conflation of discrete situations is the gravest of errors, Narr and Blobel conclude that "if one can learn anything out of the KZ’s, the Gulags and ’identity politics,’ which exemplify the pressure and the longing toward identification, then it is to understand that one should never identify oneself with anything; not even with oneself." This attack on collective identity is formulated as an ethical, we might even say categorical, imperative. And it is the ethical claim at the core of anarchist thought that needs to be interrogated most rigorously. Is it not curious to realize that ethical coercion emerges most powerfully there at the limits of politics, or among those who dream of abolishing political institutions and replacing them with the spontaneous self-administration of the social?
That said, one cannot deny the generosity of spirit which permeates this text—a reflection, one suspects, of the character of the man to whom it is dedicated. In Kath Curran’s contribution "Forever Mud: Zaslove as Teacher," it is recalled that, in the early seventies, Zaslove’s nickname among students was "Old Muddy," and that he was known to be "clearly opposed" to what he himself called "premature clarity." This is probably a marker of the kind of influence that continental philosophy—Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger, as the conventional grouping has it—had on people of Zaslove’s generation, a crash course in metaphysics which generally went hand in hand with what was then called "existentialism." While the two thinkers are very different, a great deal of what is happening in Derrida’s thought relies on a knowledge of the same texts, so much so that it is difficult to imagine reading Derrida without (and I am sure he would despise the formulation) a grounding in the tradition. The fact that thinkers like Derrida or Zaslove are difficult, even serious, and that they demand a great deal of their readers, means that they will repeatedly return, and that each return promises something new.
- Narrating BC by Joel Martineau
Books reviewed: West by Northwest: British Columbia Short Stories by David Stouck and Myler Wilkinson, Wilderness Beginnings by Rose Hertel Falkenhagen, and Talk and Log: Wilderness Politics in British Columbia, 1965-96 by Jeremy Wilson
- Feminists and Methods by Catherine Dauvergne
Books reviewed: Gendering Government: Feminist Engagement with the State in Australia and Canada by Louise Chappell and The Madwoman in the Academy: 43 Women Boldly Take on the Ivory Tower by Deborah Keahey and Deborah Schnitzer
- Green Liberalism by Graham Good
Books reviewed: How to be a Green Liberal: Nature, Value and Liberal Philosophy by Simon Hailwood
- Post-Race: Contemporary Black Writing by Karina Vernon
Books reviewed: Writing from the Borderlands: A Study of Chicano, Afro-Caribbean and Native Literatures in North America by Carmen Cáliz-Montoro, Race and Racism: Canada's Challenge by Leo Driedger and Shiva S. Halli, Dreaming Black Writing White: The Hagar Myth in American Cultural History by Janet Gabler-Hover, and Being Black: Essays by Althea Prince
- Emancipatory Theory? by Rachael Gardner
Books reviewed: The Creolization of Theory by Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih
MLA: Barbour, Charles. On Returns. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #180 (Spring 2004), (Montgomery, Carson, Bissoondath, Goodridge). (pg. 111 - 113)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.