Revolutionary tracts that left us 'all shook up'

New Accents Series

November 1, 2002

New Accents began in 1977, between the Grunwick union ban and the silver jubilee, but just too late for me. Nevertheless, I read most of them as they came out and I owe all the authors - though some may wince at "author" - a debt of gratitude for clear introductions to difficult topics. Too smooth to be punk, New Accents was more like Elvis, leaving English departments "all shook up". Twenty-five years ago, Terence Hawkes, the general editor, started a cultural revolution. The teaching of English bubbled with new ideas, and bliss it was to be alive.

What a contrast now. Who could have imagined that the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham would close? Or that bookshops would reduce, if not remove altogether, shelves devoted to criticism in its many guises? Thinking has to submit to the discipline of the market, clothe itself in management-approved language and surrender autonomy to accountability. New Accents is a reminder not just of how things were, but how they might be again.

Routledge is therefore right to celebrate 25 years of kicking against the pricks; but it should do it in style and republish all the titles, not just a selection. Where is Peter Widdowson's seismic Re-Reading English or Tony Bennet's superb Formalism and Marxism ? And surely, in these days of worrying about national identity, we cannot afford to ignore Brian Doyle's brilliant English and Englishness ?

It also seems hard that the series founder should not be among the batch that landed on my desk. I suppose you could argue that Structuralism and Semiotics appeared almost "under erasure" as, by that time, the study of stable sign systems was giving way to a delight in the free play of meaning. But Hawkes's urbane introduction gave a sense of its importance and is therefore valuable as a historical document. Looking at the book again, I wonder whether Giambattista Vico, Jean Piaget and A. J. Greimas did not have something to offer after all. However, I remain unmoved by diagrams about communication.

Keir Elam's The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama induced a similar lack of frisson. Elam is one of those whose book on an aspect of structuralism does get a makeover. Much of his postscript is devoted to defending terms such as "isotopy" and "proxemics", pointing out, no doubt rightly, that far from being obsolete, they underpin current forms of criticism: new historicists "frequently (and silently) assume a general semiotic model". If you care about matters such as the "distal deitic orientation towards an elsewhere" in the opening dialogue of Hamlet , then buy this book.

Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan could have called her postscript to Narrative Fiction "Narratology: the wilderness years", but as narratology is now enjoying something of a revival, she settles for "Towards". As well as reminding us that narratives underpin all cultures, she also provides a list of the differences between structuralist and post-structuralist narratology - in the form of binary oppositions no less. Very retro.

Another binary opposition is that between orality and literacy. It looks as if Walter Ong did not take the opportunity to write a postscript, but his book remains a fascinating read. Michael Holquist's introduction to Bakhtin rejects binary oppositions in favour of dialogism, "which always insists on the presence of the other, on the inescapable necessity of outsideness and unfinalizability". Among the nuggets in this little book is that Bakhtin was a plagiarist. Whole pages of his book on Rabelais were apparently copied from Ernst Cassirer. What a dialogical liberty.

The philosophy of translation throws another light on the fate of binary oppositions in the past 20 years. For structuralists, translation was a matter of original and copy, whereas the post-structuralist translator "frees the text from the fixed signs of its original shape" as he or she tries to find common ground between the original author and the new audience. Translation, like criticism itself, is always an interpretation, never a faithful transcription.

Quentin Crisp felt that we shouldn't communicate, we should charm. And Catherine Belsey turns it on in Critical Practice . It came out two years after I graduated. Just as well. Who wants to know, just before taking finals, that everything you have been taught is wrong? Belsey's book was an assault on the old-style practical criticism and wanted to purge English of traditionalists. She and her clear prose underlined how reasonable and right it all was. There cannot be many students who have studied English over the past 20 years who have not made its acquaintance. It was the first introduction to theory, and it has spawned many imitators but few equals.

Of course, at the same time, another woman had also started a little revolution of her own. Margaret Thatcher's rise to power coincided with New Accents, curiously enough. The original aim of the series, to find "modes and categories... to fit the reality experienced by a new generation" has a slightly ominous ring in the light of the Conservative transformation of British society.

Christopher Norris, whose Deconstruction is the outstanding book of the series, looks back in anger, laying into his youthful self for signing up to the "de Manian rhetoric of undecidability". "So, you once believed that 'truth, fact, historical evidence and accountability for past actions' were the delusions of the ignorant eh? Take that! And that!"

But Norris should not be so hard on himself. He is one of the few British intellectuals who has consistently tried to bridge the gap between academic specialism and the contingencies of everyday life. His book Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War is exemplary in this respect. At another level, his work on Derrida is a corrective to those who would appropriate the most long-winded living Frenchman to justify a textual free-for-all. Norris is also rightly sceptical of the "ethical turn in recent deconstructionist debate which takes its cue from Levinas urging us to open ourselves to the 'absolute alterity' of the other". As Norris points out, such surrender "is in danger of denying those elementary ties of reciprocal trust and mutual obligation that alone can offer some hope of achieving peaceful co-existence despite and across certain otherwise intractable conflicts of ethnic religious or political allegiance".

Toril Moi is another who, if not angry, is a mite dyspeptic. Running through the first edition of Sexual/Textual Politics was Simone de Beauvoir's observation that "one is not born but rather becomes a woman" and hence "any theory that set out to define women's essence" - the writing of Luce Irigaray springs immediately to mind - "is detrimental to the goal of feminism: to obtain freedom and equality for women".

Moi initially believed that post-structuralism contributed to that goal but now thinks its "hatred of agency" impeded attempts to realise it. She is particularly impatient with Judith Butler, whose Gender Trouble was influential in proportion to its incomprehensibility. Buried beneath a mountain of words is the idea that gender is "performative". Butler argues that women can undermine the gender roles they are compelled to perform by parodying them. Moi is sure they can find more positive forms of resistance. This optimism is sadly absent from her new conclusion, where she ponders the effectiveness of the "politics of theory". Since it achieves nothing, why write about it? Her answer is that this is the wrong question. There is no justification for writing theory when "children are dying", but that is a different matter from what one aims to do with one's writing: "to write is to appeal to the freedom of the other", which means "risking their rebuff".

Not all authors are so chastened by the developments of the past quarter century. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin in The Empire Writes Back remain decidedly upbeat about post-colonialism. All right, you can worry about whether it covers "all cultures affected by the imperial process" or "cultural production which engages with the enduring reality of colonial power" - but such debates are a sign of the term's vitality. Among the diverse interests of post-colonial studies today are the Spanish empire, the status of women, origins, the place of the sacred and the politics of translation. It looks as if post-colonial critics are going to be very busy for a while yet, especially as animals and the environment are also on the agenda.

It never seems to occur to post-colonial critics that their "theory" is another form of imperialism. It certainly does not to Linda Hutcheon, who takes postmodernists to task for being predominately male and white, declaring that they have much to learn from post-colonialism, whose engagement with the inequities of power will give substance and purpose to those postmodern tropes of irony, parody and ambivalence. Postmodernism has also inadvisedly teamed up with camp to save us from the ever-present danger of nostalgia, which it will do by "pervert(ing) it to its own ends".

Let me finish with the US, whose culture holds sway in Europe and the developing world, through Star Trek, Star Wars and Starbucks, even more than it did when New Accents began. US power has been largely overlooked by the publishers. Here is an opportunity to expand this worthwhile series.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

New Accents Series
Routledge, all £50.00 and £9.99:

  • The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama
    By Keir Elam. 260pp, ISBN 0 415 28017 6 and 28018 4
  • Narrative Fiction .
    By Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan. 192pp, ISBN 0 415 28021 4 and 28022 2
  • Orality and Literacy
    By Walter J. Ong. 204pp, ISBN 0 415 28128 8 and 28129 6
  • Dialogism
    By Michael Holquist. 228pp, ISBN 0 415 28007 9 and 28008 7
  • Translation Studies
    By Susan Bassnett. 176pp, ISBN 0 415 28013 3 and 28014 1
  • Critical Practice
    By Catherine Belsey. 161pp, ISBN 0 415 28005 2 and 28006 0
  • Deconstruction
    By Christopher Norris. 234pp, ISBN 0 415 28009 5 and 28010 9
  • Sexual/Textual Politics
    By Toril Moi. 221pp, ISBN 0 415 28011 7 and 28012 5
  • The Empire Writes Back
    By Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. 283pp, ISBN 0 415 28019 2 and 28020 6
  • The Politics of Postmodernism
    By Linda Hutcheon. 222pp, ISBN 0 415 28015 X and 28016 8

New Accents Series

Publisher - Routledge
Price - all £50.00 and £9.99

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