The French Review 61.6 (1988): 947-948.
CARROLL, DAVID. Paraesthetics: Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida. London: Methuen, 1987. Pp. 219.
[Reprinted with the permission of The French Review]
In this excellent analysis of the works of three key theorists associated with post-structuralism, David Carroll develops a dual approach. One thrust may be called 'counter-reactive.' i.e., a severe critique of those scholars either too hostile or now too fatigued to confront the theoretical challenges which have been raised through the debates of the structuralist/post-structuralist period. Carroll is unequivocal about the current dangers of such 'theoretical 'reactivity' ' which consists 'in general in the imposition of a way of reading (most often a way of not reading), a way of approaching problems, to the exclusion or devaluation of all others. In short, all reactivity perpetuates theoretical dogmatism' (xi). But the complementary thrust of Carroll's strategy, locating the 'paraesthetic' as that which is the most essential for comprehending the projects of the focal authors, is no less critical, from at least two perspectives. On the one hand, Carroll argues against those readers of Foucault, Lyotard and Derrida, however sophisticated, who would limit the import of their works to philosophical, historical and/or political positions. Says Carroll, "my goal is to understand how each of the critical philosophers I shall treat deals with the questions of art and literature and is led not to construct an aesthetics but to develop what I call 'paraesthetic' strategies' (22). Defining 'paraesthetics' early on as the role played by an approach to art and literature 'in the struggle of critical theory beyond the limitations of theory,' Carroll seeks to develop alternative critical strategies that confront and attempt to undermine and move beyondthe closure of theory in its systematic philosophical form' (3). But he explicitly rejects 'paraesthetics' conceived as constituting some new critical school or methodology of reading; rather, by studying the 'beyond' of aesthetics as elaborated by Foucault, Lyotard and Derrida, Carroll shows how 'their determination to keep art and literature unfinished, undecidable or undetermined--as 'unwork' rather than work--serves to confront both theory and art with their limitations and to transform and displace each in terms of the other' (187).
On the other hand, within the analyses of how each author relies on 'the critical powers of art and literature to combat the restrictions of philosophy, political theory, history, and even aesthetics and literary criticism' (21), Carroll emphasizes the limits and contradictions in the different phases of the individual projects. He first grounds his studies in a brief, but clear examination of aesthetic concepts in Nietzsche (in the opening chapter aptly entitled 'Beyond Theorism and Aestheticism'). Then, frequently referring to the metacritical corpus of these authors' works as a foil for his painstaking elaboration of the different 'paraesthetic' strategies, Carroll provides important insight to Foucault's fundamental 'Self-Reflexivity and Critical Theory' (chapter 3) and progressive development of focus on 'Disruptive Discourse and Critical Power' (chapter 5); to Derrida's questioning of literature via deconstruction (chapter 4) and elaboration of a 'Borderline Aesthetics' (chapter 6); and in particularly convincing analyses, to Lyotard's early strategy of 'Aesthetic Antagonisms' (chapter 2, highlighting Discours, figure and Economie libidinale) and his more recent enterprise of relating 'the Aesthetic and the Political' (chapter 7, focusing especially on Au juste and Le différend). Despite the manifest differences in these authors' works, Carroll argues that their relentless pursuit of the question of art 'leads, in each case (but in a different way), to the breaching of theoretical and aesthetic closure and the displacement of theory' (187). And for Carroll, these effects of rupture and displacement not only put into question the scholarly integrity of those who refuse to recognize the theoretical openings of the past thirty years, they also help illuminate and demystify the relationship between aesthetics/literature and philosophy, history and political theory and thereby facilitate the ongoing work of critical recognition and theoretical confrontation for those readers whose commitment to pedagogical demands and to their own research requires nothing less.
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University