Derrida, Sartre and the Fictive Institution of Literature

by Daniel Hartley

What is the limit point that separates a ‘Marxist’ approach to literature from a deconstructionist one? If we were to deal in stereotypes this question would be easy to answer: Marxism’s ultimate explanatory ground is history itself, understood as the determinate social totality produced by labouring humans whose ultimate structure at any given moment is known as the ‘mode of production’. Literary phenomena can variously be described as ‘reflections’, ‘reflexes’, ‘effects’ or ‘reproductions’ of this ‘untranscendable horizon’.  Deconstruction, on the other hand, would reject the Marxist approach as a metaphysics of presence and would prefer to think of literature as a prime example of that which escapes any final reduction to some underlying structure.

But when we read Derrida – as I tried to show in my last post – the matter becomes more complex. Unlike the (Marxist) stereotype of deconstruction as an ahistorical textualism whereby material historical phenomena are reduced to so many instances of ‘textuality’, Derrida is resolutely ‘historical’ in his explanations of the origins of ‘literature’ as an institution: ‘The name “literature” is a very recent invention…The principle (I stress that it’s a principle) of “being able to say everything,” the socio-juridico-politico guarantee granted “in principle” to literature, is something which did not mean much, or not that, in Graeco-Latin culture and a fortiori in a non-Western culture.’ (All Derrida quotations are from the interview with Attridge in Acts of Literature). Moreover, in this interview Derrida thrice mentions Sartre’s What is Literature? as a work which, it is implied, guided his thinking on the paradoxes of the literary object. Given Derrida’s interest in literature as ‘the institution which allows one to say everything [tout dire], in every way,’ we should perhaps turn to a passage in Sartre which deals with this very issue.

In a central chapter of What is Literature?, entitled ‘For Whom Does One Write?’, Sartre constructs a dialectical history of the notion of ‘Literature’. There is no space here to recount the entire trajectory of that chapter (though see my post on Atwood for a bite-sized rundown), but it is enough to say that literature as we know it today is bound up for Sartre with the crisis of (industrial?) capitalist modernity. Until the 18th-century, literature was a matter of conservation and purification: it dealt with the commonplaces of a firmly integrated ruling-class, and constituted a mere rearranging of the mental furniture into pleasing new positions. Its content was determined by tradition. But in the 18th-century the writer’s public became split between the old-school ancien régime and the new rising class – the bourgeoisie. Positioned subjectively and objectively simultaneously inside and outside these two classes, the standpoint of the writer became effectively universal: ‘literature…became conscious in him and by him of its autonomy…[It] suddenly asserted its independence. It was no longer to reflect the commonplaces of the collectivity; it identified itself with [universal] Mind.’ The battle for formal freedoms was coextensive with the bourgeois revolutionary battle for political freedom.

Image by James Andanson/Apis/ Sygma/Corbis

But by the time that class had achieved its aims and had itself become the new reactionaries, the writer was in a bind. For Sartre, the revolutions of 1848 are the breaking point. The gifted bourgeois writer loathes his own class, but he cannot bring himself to write for the new rising class: the proletariat. To do so would have meant jeopardising the formal freedoms of the writer that had been won in the crucible of Revolution the previous century. Instead, literature enters its ‘reflective period’. In a nutshell, this self-reflexivity, this impotent assertion of literary autonomy (which is correlative to the lack of a specific public) is best manifested by its lack of specific content: the writer could write about literally anything – he could, in Derrida’s phrase, tout dire. Thus Flaubert, one day satirising provincial French mundanity, the next indulging in Carthaginian mercenaries.

I’ll save for another post the role that style then plays in the formal unification of that disparate content, but by now it should be obvious that the strict division between Marxist (even if Sartre was never, strictly speaking, a Marxist) and deconstructionist accounts of literature is not as strict as it might at first appear. Derrida effectively takes this stimulating Sartrean account of literature, one which explains historically how literature came to be (potentially infinite), and runs with it:

…given the paradoxical structure of this thing called literature, its beginning is its end. It began with a certain relation to its own institutionality, i.e., its fragility, its absence of specificity, its absence of object. The question of its origin was immediately the question of its end. Its history is constructed like the ruin of a monument which basically never existed. It is the history of a ruin, the narrative of a memory which produces the event to be told and which will never have been present. Nothing could be more “historical,” but this history can only be thought by changing things, in particular this thesis or hypothesis of the present – which means several other things as well, doesn’t it? There is nothing more “revolutionary” than this history, but the “revolution” will also have to be changed.

Derrida takes Sartre’s historical account of the dialectical development of literature and transforms it into a questioning of historicity as such. It is here, I think, that the limit point between the two discourses – that of Marxism(s) and that of deconstruction(s) – is reached. I am not even sure that the two can be thought together.