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Senthil Nathan
Assistant Professor
PG and Research Department of English
Sri Vidya Mandir Arts and Science College
Katteri; Uthangarai, Krishnagiri :636902
Tamilnadu. India.

How to do Things with Texts

- M.H.Abrams
Meyer Howard Abrams, an American literary critic, is a distinguished scholar
who has written prize-winning books on eighteenth century and nineteenth century
literature, literary theory and criticism, European Romanticism and Western intellectual
history. He inaugurated ‘A Glossary of Literary Terms’ in 1957 as a series essays on the
chief terms and concepts used in discussing literature, literary history & movements and
literary criticism. His ‘How to do Things with Texts’ is an attempt to analysis the theories
of three contemporary critics namely, Jacques Derrida, Stanley Fish and Harold Bloom.
Abrams is not able to provide a clear description of the position of the critics which they
hold. He discards their common rejections of presumptions about the meaning of literary

Abrams introduces the term ‘New reading’ to identify the theories of those critics
which ‘propagate a new way of reading that subverts accepted interpretations and
replaces them with unexpected alternatives’. He characterised the recent history of
literary criticism as the triumph of the ‘Age of Reading’ over the ‘Age of Criticism’ a
revolution that began sometime after the mid-decades of this century. According to
Abrams ‘the great upholders of this Age of Criticism are the American Critics and
European Formalists’.

Abrams defines ‘literature is a transaction between a human author and his

human reader’. He then quotes the words of Wordsworth who says literature in terms as
‘a man speaking to men’. Furthermore he adds the quotes of Michel Foucault to bring
out the relation between the author and the reader. Foucault says, ‘it is about time that
criticism and philosophy acknowledged the disappearance or the death of the author’.
But it was first instituted by Roland Barthes who prefers ‘the author is dead: his civil
status, his biographical person, has disappeared.’ Thus, Abrams analysis the method of
the New Readings and questions it. He asks, what sort of things does each Newreader
undertake to do with texts? And by what transformative devices does he manage to do
these things?

Jacques Derrida: The Science of Nescience

Abrams first begins his analysis on Derrida by questioning how come a reader can
overcome or gives entry to understand his theories. According to him, ‘As a philosopher
of language, Derrida is an absolutist without absolutes’. Derrida’s writings are complex
and elusive. His main point is what he calls in ‘Of Grammatology’, ‘the axial
proposition that there is no outside the text’. Derrida repeatedly claim is that not only all
western philosophies and theories of language, but all western use of language and
western culture are ‘logocentric’. They are centred or grounded on a ‘logos’ or in a
phrase he adopts from Heidegger who says ‘the metaphysics of presence’. Thus they are
‘logocentric’ in part because they are ‘phonocentric’ in which the logical ‘priority’ or
‘privilege’ is granted to speech over writing as the model for analysing all discourse.

Derrida then stresses that language requires an absolute foundations to have a

clear understanding but since there is no such ground is found and there is no stop to the
play of decidable meanings. Here the views of Saussure’s linguistics mode signified and
signifier is interpreted and comes to the conclusion that the meaning is ‘undecidable’ in
the text. He further adds Nietzschean theme to his theory that ‘Absolutes through
necessary, are dead, therefore free play is permitted’.

Thus in deconstructing the Western philosophies on language, Derrida emerges to

found out the new theory on the understanding of the texts. But he says that ‘to
deconstruct is not to destroy but to reconstitute them in another way’. Thus the double-
dealing with texts is all inclusive because he is aware that his deconstructive reading is

Stanley Fish: Reading Between the words

Stanley Fish represents his theory of reading as a ringing defence against, ‘the
dehumanization of meaning’ in the formalism of current linguistics, stylistics and
structuralism criticism. Fish represented the activity of reading as one that converts the
spatial sequence of printed words a page into a temporal flow of experience in a reader
who has acquired a ‘literary competence’. In following the printed text with his eye, the
reader makes sense of what he has read so far by anticipating what is still to come. But
this process sometimes may turn out to have been mistaken. However, Fish says, ‘the
meaning of an utterances’ is the readers experience –all of it and the readers mistakes are
an integral part of the meaning of the text.

Fish states that all reading ‘strategies’ are self-confirming and there is no ‘right
reading’ of any part of the text. There are only agreements among readers who belong to
an interpretative community which happens to share the same ‘strategy’.

Finally Fish claim that all values as well as meaning of a text are ‘relative’ to the
concept or scheme of a particular interpretive community are ‘incommensurable’.
Therefore, there is no available standpoint in a literary text. Thus his theory is half-
humanism and what he calls as ‘affective stylistics’.

Harold Bloom: the scene of literature

Like Derrida and Stanley Fish, Bloom restores the human writer as well as reader
to an effective role in the literary transaction. If Fish’s theory is a half-humanism,
Bloom’s is all-too-human. Critics and Historians of literature have for many centuries
discussed what was called the ‘influence’. But Bloom used a phrase ‘the anxiety of
influence’ to identify his radical revision of the standard text. He says that influence
consist in a direct ‘borrowing’ or assimilation of materials and features found in earlier
writers. His view is that in the composition of any poem, the influence is inescapable. So
Bloom conceives that ‘every poem is a misinterpretation’ of a ‘parent poem’ like Freud’s
analysis of the Oedipal relationship of son to father. Thus he is aware that by the terms of
his theory, his own interpretations of both poets and critics are necessarily misreading.

Coming close to the analysis, Abrams put forth a reply for the third question
which makes the newreader to have diverse meaning of the text. The chief reason is that
our use and understanding of language is not a science but a practice. Human are born
into a community of speakers and writers who have already acquired this skill. The
successful practice of language depends on our mastery of linguistic uniformities that we
call conventions, or norms, or rules. Therefore the linguistic meanings we find in a text
are relative to the interpretive strategy.

When a new reader, on the basis of his contrived interpretive strategy interprets a
text, he is playing a double game or find out the diverse meaning from the text. Derrida is
able to deconstruct any text into a suspension of numberless undecidable significations,
Fish can make it the occasion for a creative adventure in false surmises and Bloom can
read it as a perverse distortion of any chosen precursor-text. Abrams concludes by saying
that each new strategy, on the other hand, is a discovery procedure which guarantees new
meanings. Thus it provides freshness of sensation in reading old and familiar texts.

To conclude with the words from Washington Post , “One of the respected
literary scholars alive…Abrams stands for understanding and conciliation, calling for
a kind of humanism that can embrace the good in all literary theories’.

Sethuraman. V.S , Contemporary Criticism: An Anthology, Edited. 1989,
MacMillian, Publishers India Limited.