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happens to be a favourite poem of mine. Very abstract, a philosophical
poem, full of ideas of various kinds, many of them “obsolete” ideas, but
being carried in the poetry, although it™s true, centuries ago, this was read
the way we read Newton, or the way we read Einstein, as a scienti¬c or a
philosophical treatise, and now we no longer take it this way. Even then, the
work was produced by a writer who clearly felt that the language was a total
body experience, that knowledge took place in the entire organism. That
to me is what distinguishes poetry from scienti¬c knowledge or expository
knowledge. It™s language “ total.
SE: Would you separate that experience, that experiential basis, from critical
writing?
JM: It™s very different, separate, and I thought you were going to say something
like, “well, what™s the difference between poetry and the conversation we™re
having right now?,” which is basically what you are saying. The difference
is that in poetry, the sensory elements are highly organized, decoratively
organized, and the physical character of the language calls attention to
itself. But we carry on our conversation here, our words just go away, we
are so intent on transmitting messages or information that we don™t pay
a lot of attention to what we are saying. But in poetry, that™s what it™s all
about, and you™re constantly being brought back to an attention to the
language as a thing itself. Fiction doesn™t do that, which is why ¬ction
locates a serious problem for me. I believe it™s the case that when you
read ¬ction (with certain exceptions “ writers like Djuna Barnes, or ¬ction
writers who are so poetical that the surface of their text calls attention to
itself “ but let™s take a great ¬ction writer like Jane Austen or George Eliot),
the language for the most part is a system that you are to pass through in
order to get to the story that is being told. It™s as if it were permeable. In
poetry it™s not, the surface of the poem is impermeable, it™s resistant to you,
±
An interview with Jerome McGann
it calls attention to its own rhetoric at the surface of it, but you go through
the ¬ctional surface in order to follow the story, unless you™re a Joyce, or a
modernist text, obviously you try to make poetical turning-points.
SE: So you™re saying that the literary knowledge you get from ¬ction is different
because the aesthetic experience is different?
JM: It has to be, it™s certainly different for poetry, along the terms that I™ve
described here. Clearly, other people may have different lines of thinking
about this. By my commitment to an idea that poetry is language calling
attention to itself, then immediately ¬ction proves itself a problem. As the
novel in the Lukacsian sense rises you have the emergence of capitalism /
bourgeois civilization. There are a lot of friends of mine on the left who
make a great deal of this. It™s inescapable that these two things have come
together. What the meaning of it is, I™m not sure, and how one thinks about
language in ¬ction as opposed to language in poetry I™m not sure. I think
that Bakhtin had it backward, but I confess to you I don™t know exactly
how to think through the rest of this right now.
SE: How far are aesthetic responses shot-through with the ideology of the time?
Is there a separate space for the aesthetic from the ideological?
JM: I don™t think that anyone is able to escape false-consciousness. I mean, to
me, ideology is, in one way or another, a state of misperception, false-
consciousness, and to the degree that that™s the case, it seems to me that
no-one is ever able to get beyond that. As we sit here we™re a part of it.
In poetry, I know that the traditional view is that poetry like science in its
highest and most ideal form, is imagined to be able to get beyond ideology.
I don™t believe that for a minute. It seems to me that science is clearly
invested in political and cultural and social ends. It is in the service of
certain kinds of authoritative powerful organizations and institutions. It™s
clear that poetry now, and literature in general, serves culture. To the degree
that it serves culture, insofar as a culture is a system for maintaining certain
kinds of social orders, it is ideological. I don™t think these cultural services
present a problem if you are aware that within hierarchies of dominant and
indominant ideologies people are always shifting in and out. There™s some
sense in which one person may be more committed to, say, the service of
the most dominant ideological state apparatuses, as opposed to somebody
like Christina Rossetti, who wasn™t. But in some sense we™re all invested in
different scales of ideological production, and I don™t think that poetry is
any different from that, or escapes any more.
SE: It takes me on to another point. You say that when we engage in critical
activity it™s always an ongoing dialectic between the present and the past,
and that we should always “know thyself,” know where we are at the present
time. I™ve always had problems with this. How are we supposed to bare
our ideological selves?
We can™t know ourselves, no-one can. This is an ideal that is put forward,
JM:
which is unattainable. On the other hand, like ideals of any kind, it is there
as a heuristic to organize, or help to organize, a pursuit of that kind of
 Byron and Romanticism
self-consciousness. Not that self-consciousness as itself, or in itself, is the
sole end of life or the highest goal that one can perceive. Self-consciousness
is a very important thing, but what about spontaneity? Without spontaneity
you are dead. You must have that, that™s another goal. You measure yourself
by the authority of the goal of spontaneity as well. How to negotiate those
things, well . . .
P S : Marjorie Levinson uses the model of transference and counter-transference
in her introduction to Rethinking Historicism. I™ve always found that a very
useful model for that past/present dialectic, and I wondered if you found
that useful?
J M : No, I don™t, Marjorie and I really part over Freudian structures. My distrust
of Freudian structures is deep. I am very interested in more ancient ideas
of dream and dream interpretation, I™m not hostile to the ideas of Freud.
But Freudian models of the psyche, of dream, I resist them.
S E : As far as I can gather from my reading of your work, you do not allow theory
any space separate from praxis, especially in The Textual Condition, your last
work, where you say that “what is textually possible cannot be theoret-
ically established,” and you actually veer towards calling your approach
“anti-theory.” Do you think that theory and practice should always be
coterminous, perhaps to the extent that no distinction can ever be made?
J M : Not necessarily coterminous but “dancing.” You have to be trying to obtain
that kind of self-consciousness that theory postulates. If you just do theory in
the pursuit of that kind of self-consciousness you™re constantly being called
back. I am always called back by the authority of what people call “facticity”
and the resistance that certain kinds of material realities or conditions raise
up. I want the theoretical structures in fact to reveal them. So Blake is one
of my great heroes. His idea of poetry was revelation: “If the doors of
perception were cleansed, every thing would appear as it is, in¬nite.” He
literally saw poetry as something that just cleared away so he could see,
as if knowledge were so impoverished that you had to begin at that most
elemental level, because the impoverishment was an impoverishment of
the body, so you turn the body inside out, you make the body reveal, just
see. A theory doesn™t just want to see, although “theoria” means “to see,”
it wants to see conceptually, which is a different thing. So, Kant and Blake,
for me, are both theoretical “ “seeing,” as it were, imaginations. But the
one is conceptually dominated and the other is aesthetically dominated.
In a way, the whole world, in modernity™s terms, is divided over the idea
of whether you™re committed to Kantianism or whether you™re committed
to Blakeanism.
P S : That™s an interesting distinction. I™d™ve said Kant and Marx.
J M : Yes. Why didn™t I say that? Probably because one of the most formative
in¬‚uences I know on my thinking has been religion. It™s true that my
family™s religious life was always quite involved with social action, but the
grounding was religion, and so my mind de¬nitely tends to go in that

An interview with Jerome McGann
direction. Marx for me is a conscious decision of choice, it™s not instinctive,
as it were.
S E : Do you see a collapse of literary studies into cultural studies, and if so, do
you think it™s desirable?
J M : [Laughing] I wonder what prompted that question? Does it show that I ¬nd
that a problem?
S E : I always get the feeling that you have this real love of poetry which is at odds
with a certain way that I see educational establishments in Britain going. It
seems to me their desire is to do cultural studies. At the back of everything
you write there appears to be this clinging to Blake, that ideal which seems
to me doesn™t have a space in the new way of looking at literature.
J M : I agree with that. I wouldn™t have, maybe ¬ve or so years ago. But now
I am not involved in cultural studies “ it™s not what I do “ I™m interested in
it, but it™s de¬nitely not what I do. I™m much more concerned about what
used to be called “art” or “poetry,” “imagination” perhaps you would call
it. The world seems to be getting along very well with cultural studies as it
always has. These things change from time to time, and some things I have
more sympathy with than others, but art, especially in our day, seems to
me to be in great peril, and it also seems to me to be a way of holding “
and I am humanist in this sense “ holding certain kinds of human ways
of experiencing present and active. As I see our present cultural situation
we™re increasingly alienated from immediate experience. It™s more and
more wildly and complexly mediated. I do see that younger people seem
to be able to maintain their aesthetic, as it were, more easily, than I can, in
face of this. Young people especially seem to live in the world of simulacra,
as if they were always in that vicinity. It™s hard for me to live in that relation
to simulacra.
S E : So do you ¬nd yourself ¬ghting a rearguard action?
J M : I™m old-fashioned in the sense that I™m interested in textuality, I™m interested
in editing, I™m interested in all sorts of memorial-type things.
S E : Yet you came up with the emergence of New Historicism, which is the latest
thing, and here you are saying that you™re old-fashioned. Do you just think
New Historicism is an “old-fashioned topic”?
J M : To do historical studies well, you have to be trained and train yourself in
certain kinds of skills that don™t come very quickly. It™s not that they™re
harder than other things, but they do take more time. Under the present
institutional frame of reference that we live in, or the world that we live in
as scholars, that kind of work is hard for a person to undertake, unless you
want to take it in a kind of fast way “ you are skilled and go after it. But
really important scholarly work takes years for a person just to acquire the
body of facticity that can be needed to work well. The institutions don™t
encourage you to do that. It™s a dif¬cult situation.
P S : You were talking earlier about “lived experience,” I just wondered if it was
possible to have a “lived” relationship with Postmodern culture, the idea
 Byron and Romanticism
of the simulacra, or whether or not in that sense that Baudrillard uses, the
simulacra just over¬‚owed everything “ the map now covers the territory,
there is no longer a distinction between the appearance and reality.
J M : We live in a world of simulacra, and whatever comfort one can take out of the
fact that we know that this is the case “ it may be an opening-up, an avenue
for getting at a certain amount of human control over these things. I say that
very skeptically because it does seem to me the case that what™s happened
in the United States over the past twelve or thirteen years has involved
the implementation of a massive institutionally governed simulacra-driven
presentation of culture to itself. Large portions of the intelligentsia are
aware of it but it seems to have made no difference whatsoever. What has
happened recalls for me one of my favourite passages of Byron, though
I don™t like to think of it as one of my favourite passages: “The Tree of
Knowledge is not that of Life.” That™s a terrible idea for anyone engaged
in intellectual life “ to say it and to expect other people to believe it. Is that
true? If that™s true, it™s a terrible truth.
P S : Well, Baudrillard would say you can™t even say it™s “true” anymore. That™s
the in¬‚ection.
J M : Once again you catch me in my old-fashionedness. We all speak in the
language that we inherited, that we learned, and we have these conceptual
forms that we have. I know there are other people, Baudrillard for one,
whom I admire a great deal and read all the time, but who speak in a
language that I have to reach for. It™s not at all natural to me.
P S : Just to pick up on that quote you came out with earlier during your speech.
You mentioned Ulysses, “to follow knowledge like a sinking star.” I see
you now as inhabiting “the voices that moan in the deep,” to misquote
Tennyson quite severely! Do you see yourself recovering dead voices?
J M : I do feel that what we don™t know can be blessed, and probably will be
blessed, in ways that we have no idea of, so you become committed to “
and I certainly do see my own work in this way “ to saving things, even
though you have no sense what possible use they might have. It™s like old
people who have a house full of nick-nacks and they save them. Some of
them will have associations, some of them will have, as it were, conscious
meanings, but many of them will not, they are just there in some way that
you don™t understand.
P S : Felicia Hemans for example?
J M : That is the kind of writing she does, that is exactly the kind of writing she
does. The simulacra poet of that period is Landon, and what her subject
is, love, the great Romantic subject, and its illusions, told from a woman™s
point of view now which makes all the difference in the world. It™s all very
well to talk about it from a man™s point of view but it makes a big difference
when you pick up some subjects in a different frame of reference, a woman™s
frame.
S E : In Social Values and Poetic Acts you say that “ ˜Meaning™ in literary works is a
function of the uses to which persons and social organizations put those
µ
An interview with Jerome McGann
works” [p. ±µ]. This seems to me to be ¬rmly in the tradition of pragma-
tism. Do you see a great af¬nity between your work and pragmatism?
J M : Yes, clearly my work has strong af¬nities with the pragmatic tradition.
(Europeans associated with what is called “Literary Pragmatics” have
shown a good deal of interest in my work.) Dewey has been a strong in¬‚u-
ence on my thought “ from the earliest time (±° or so) that I thought self-
consciously about the social function of art and imagination. But I don™t
think about pragmatism and its traditions in the way that, say, Dick Rorty
does. My interests are more procedural than his, even more institutional
and pedagogical (e.g., I spend a fair amount of time working on experi-
mental classroom and curricular projects). I think that pragmatism as a
philosophical pursuit is (to borrow your earlier term) a kind of anti-theory,
or theory as practice. One of my principal “theoretical” projects right now
is a hypermedia edition of the complete works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
I see the edition itself as a theoretical act and intervention, a “statement”
if you will about theory of textuality.
S E : In your article “A Dialogue on Dialogue” [Postmodern Culture, :±
(Sept. ±±)], one of the interlocutors claims that “our conversations” are
grounded in “the pursuit of meaning, in hermeneutics and the desires of
interpretation,” rather than the pursuit of truth and power. What is the
status of truth and power in your own work?
J M : “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For better and for
worse, that is for me an article of faith. My passion for poetry stems from my
perception of it as an activity of loss. Social Values and Poetic Acts was originally
titled Buildings of Los(s), but the press drove me off that title by persuading
me “ I was stupid to agree “ that no one would understand it “ that readers
might even think it was a book about architecture! Anyway, “Buildings
of Los,” that is what Blake understood poetry to be. For example, power
enlisted as a machine for dismantling the structures of power “ a house set
against itself, and that therefore cannot stand; Emily Dickinson™s religion,
which eschews salvation (because salvation is part of an economic system
of rewards and punishments, a system of power). And then there™s “truth,”
if you will. Truth is for me inseparable (“ideally”) from the decisions and
acts that make up the drive toward the truth. Truth is therefore a kind of
test of itself, or a test of the person who has made a commitment to it. The
truth of the scientists and the philosophers is something else. Their Truths
are all very well, in their ways, but they aren™t “Troth.” Except perhaps in
the case of Socrates, who had ¬nally to face Truth as Troth.
±µ
CHAPTER


Poetry, ±·°“±




and NN gather to talk.
AA, XX,

AA. According to the of¬cial guides, our best view of the Romantic ranges
extending across the great divide of ±°° will be found in ±·, or perhaps
the immediately adjacent ±°°: from that splendid overlook called Lyrical
Ballads. It™s a picturesque and (historically) important locale.
Equally arresting, however, is that more remote point known as Songs of

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