Overview of Work

My work, which is of a broadly interdisciplinary nature, has two unifying purposes: (1) a critique of the assumptions and concepts that underlie the humanistic traditions and (2) the construction of a radically new foundation for humanistic inquiry. That foundation is existentially grounded in what Paul Ricoeur calls "the subjectivity of the subject." It is thus dedicated to a discovery of the psychological motives that shape every act of interpretation and an explanation of why those motives have been so persistently neglected and denied. My goal is to construct a process of reflection that challenges the understanding we have of ourselves and our activities. The series of books that I've written in pursuit of this project constitute a single order of thought, a dialectical unity of progressive complication in which each book concludes with the problem that the next book addresses.

(1) Thus The Act of Interpretation: A Critique of Literary Reason (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978) takes up the epistemological problems of interpretation and shows that in order to resolve them we must ground literary theory in a rigorous philosophic methodology. The result of that effort is the discovery that any act of interpretation involves the psyche of the interpreter in depth. The relationship one has to an understanding of what it means to be a human being is the ultimate basis of any act of interpretation. Great literature poses a threat to the psyche. For the most part literary theory and literary interpretation flee this threat by imposing on literary works ways of understanding that protect the critic from the work. The only way to correct this situation is by grounding literary theory in a philosophic anthropology: in a theory of situated subjectivity capable of preserving the existential and psychological complexities of experience.

(2) Thus Inwardness and Existence: Subjectivity In/And Hegel, Heidegger, Marx, and Freud (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989) and an attempt to fuse the four primary theories of subjectivity developed in the modern period — Hegelian phenomenology, existentialism, marxism, and psychoanalysis — in an understanding of subjectivity that purges each framework of its contradictions and limitations in order to synthesize their contribution to a philosophic position that none was able to attain. Rather than following the usual academic practice and align myself dogmatically with one of these theories — or, regressively, with one of the earlier theories of the human subject that they render obsolete; i.e., essentialist humanism, Christianity, Enlightenment rationalism — my effort is to uncover the new complex of problems, experiences, and internal acts of self-overcoming that emerge when the four frameworks confront the reality that requires their synthesis. That reality is the tragic.

(3) Thus Get the Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama, and the Audience (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1994) a critique of all the ways in which the primary purpose of literary criticism since its inception has been to protect the reader/audience from the power of the literary work to challenge our defenses and engage us in a tragic awareness. The purpose of most critical theories (and interpretations) is to protect the reader from the power of the literary work to liberate everything we don't want to know — about ourselves. The proper relationship is thereby inverted. An ethic of interpretation begins when it is restored: when, that is, we recognize that Shakespeare, Faulkner, Morrison, Pynchon measure us — not we them — and find us wanting. So grounded, interpretation would become a process in which the psyche is exposed by the literary work and through engagement offered the possibility of a self-knowledge that becomes possible only when the system of defenses and denials that protect us from ourselves have been eradicated. Through that demonstration the larger ontological goal of the work is attained: an awareness that Literature is an original and primary mode of cognition, a way of knowing that offers an apprehension of experience that goes beyond Philosophy, beyond the order of the concept, precisely because Literature maximizes the subject's engagement in the tragic exigencies of experience. As such, Literature provides a new model for humanistic knowing in general, a model with the power to transform how inquiry is conducted in all of the humanistic disciplines.

(4) Thus Deracination: Historicity, Hiroshima, and The Tragic Imperative (Albany: SUNY P, 2001) a demonstration of how artistic cognition can be used to interrogate and transform a particular discipline — in this case History — thereby liberating a knowledge of its subject which that discipline has thusfar been unable to attain. In opening history to the demands of the traumatic and the tragic, a complex psychoanalytic relationship is revealed as the actual condition informing the relationship of historians to their subject. Which is why Hiroshima remains the repressed of the American historical collective unconscious and why a study of Hiroshima issues in a new theory of the psyche and its fundamental discontents. Moreover, that understanding is not based on any of the currently available and officially endorsed theories of the psyche. On the contrary, it reveals their limitations and contradictions.

(5) Thus a fifth volume — in progress — titled Psyche as Tragic Process: A Critique of Psychoanalytic Theory, devoted to constructing a new theory of the psyche and through it a critique of the various positions that have been developed within psychoanalysis since Freud. (I.e., ego psychology, Melanie Klein, Kohut, Fairbairn, Winnicott, Bion, and, of course, Lacan.) To cut to the quick: Freud said, "the poets knew it [the unconscious] first." Get the Guests and Deracination show that they also know it better. And therefore that the typical relationship that both psychoanalysts and literary critics establish — one in which fixed concepts taken from psychoanalysis are dogmatically imposed on literary works in order to explain them — must be reversed. Literature is the source of a knowledge of the psyche that goes beyond psychoanalysis. Articulating that theory is the task of this book. With its construction we attain a possibility that has rarely been realized: that of a tragic culture and of the tragic as the canon of problems, ideals, and experiences in which we must center humanistic inquiry. That task, however, implies another.

(6) Thus a sixth volume — also in progress — titled Toward An Aesthetic Ontology, its purpose being to show the ways in which artistic cognition gives us an apprehension of reality that supercedes the understanding of experience and of being offered by Philosophy. In this project the wheel for me comes full circle; the question that has given inner necessity to my intellectual life makes contact once again with its academic origin. I'll never forget that grey and rainy day in 1960 when, as a freshman at Marquette University, I read Plato's Republic and found my question — the one I knew even then was uniquely addressed to me because it spoke to my own deepest, most urgent, and inarticulate experiences. I refer to the quarrel between philosophy and poetry that Socrates refers to as already ancient. That day it also became mine. Of course I had no way of knowing then that my reply would involve an inversion of Plato's answer and a systematic critique of the unacknowledged hegemony that his answer has enjoyed in Western Culture. Nor did I have any idea that the richest implication of the question would be something that has emerged as an unexpected fruit of my labors and yet the ineluctable outcome of their inner necessity.

(7) Thus The Holocaust Memorial (Indiana: First Books, 2000) and Cowboy's Sweetheart (Nebraska: iUniverse, 2004). If art is the primary and only adequate way of knowing, then in order to know one must immerse oneself in the primary process: i.e., engage oneself, through art, in the search for an inwardness that is deeper than what can be attained in any order of the concept; an act in which the most radical risking of one's self, one's psyche, is the condition and portal of discovery. So far this effort has issued in two full-length plays. The first, The Holocaust Memorial, attempts to complete Deracination by taking the psychotic anxieties and implosive logic that it studies and creating from those materials a dramatic agon that does not capitulate to the need for resolution and catharsis. The play Cowboy's Sweetheart that is the featured work in An Evening With JonBenét Ramsey has a similar connection to the theoretical effort underway in Psyche as Tragic Process. It represents in a dramatic action the traumatic and tragic process that the theoretical book will strive to comprehend. To put it concretely, what I know in that play is my deepest knowledge. My effort, in the theoretical book, will be to articulate and preserve that knowledge in the medium of conceptual thought.


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