Many of my fellow graduate students who have taken Professor Juliet Fleming’s M.A. Proseminar class have struggled—with blood, sweat, and tears—to make sense of the writings of Jacques Derrida. I remember our class’s attempt to untangle a sentence from a “simple” interview with Derrida. In two hours we did not even finish discussing Derrida’s first word (“Paper”) in the interview, and the eerie silence as we packed up to leave was broken only by someone’s whisper: “What just happened?” At the next class, however, Fleming offered us reassurance, and this reassurance even makes it into her new book: “As I sometimes say to my students, if we can just understand this passage—or even if we have understood the difficulties in understanding it—we will know more about Derrida than most.
Indeed, in her new book, Cultural Graphology: Writing After Derrida (University of Chicago Press, 2016), Fleming not only explains Derrida’s more difficult ideas but she shows the many possibilities for literary scholars inherent in those ideas. Like the invocation in an epic poem, Fleming’s opening encompasses the long and laborious aim of her book in a short sentence: “Cultural graphology names a new approach to the study of texts; it is the aim of this book to explore and explain it.” Consequently, this “new approach to the study of texts”—cultural graphology—uses deconstruction and psychoanalysis to expand our conception of “writing.” As an aspiring book historian, I was initially skeptical that Fleming might “use the resources of deconstruction to shake up and enlarge the field that, for the time being, and in spite of its obvious limitations, might still be called book history.” And when I saw that a major idea of cultural graphology is the conception of writing “without the guardrails of the book,” I became even more so. But as I kept reading through Fleming’s carefully structured analyses of Derrida’s writing on writing, that skepticism slipped away; or rather, that skepticism grew stronger and I began to use it not against Fleming’s challenge to book historians but against book history itself.
In much the same way as my resistance to the difficulty of Derrida’s thought gradually gave way under Fleming’s guidance in her Proseminar class, I began to see that it is about time his thought (which is absent in much bibliographical writing) shakes up the certainties in book history. Derrida’s conceptions of writing and paper, the book, and cultural graphology emphasize a need for future book historians to be not simply historians but also psychologists, economists, bibliographers, philosophers, sociologists, literary scholars, physicists, and the list could go on and on. In a word, the cultural graphology Fleming points to pushes our field of “English Literature” past the “guardrails” of the strictly delineated disciplines into a field of study that encompasses many modes of thought. And it is a great pleasure to read Fleming’s resurrection of Freud through Derrida and Melanie Klein to serve this end. In Cultural Graphology, we don’t just get a rehash, or dull analysis, of Freud’s pet ideas (repeated in academic papers ad nauseam), but, rather, Fleming uses Freud to point to an expansion of book history, to show his “extraordinary attempt to describe individual human actions within the tangled web of the material and immaterial systems that are their total context.” Fleming elucidates Derrida’s extended and complicated relationship to Freud’s work in order to demonstrate just how vastly cultural graphology can extend our thought on writing and the book. We no longer have to be stuck in our silos of separate disciplines but can break out into a more eclectic and inclusive conception of just what it is that an English major does.
Fleming’s examples of cultural graphology—from the type ornament on the edges of pages to lace fabric to sign tailoring to simply paper itself—illustrate the ways in which book history could and should be unsettled and expanded. However, Fleming’s conception of cultural graphology does not relate solely to book history but to the institution of literature as well. Derrida argues that the act of writing sustains an “intermediate environment,” and he views “the relation of writing to literature as a protracted state of irresponsibility”—a state in which “the writer is (if only in principle) licensed to say ‘everything he wants or everything he can.’” Because “writing protects readers from their own knowledge of what is, and what is not, part of the external world,” Fleming writes, “we will never be able to adjudicate what is, and what is not a work of literature.” Despite the frequent use of the word “literature” throughout all English departments (almost every class for which NYU English students can register has “literature” in its title), Fleming shows the tenuous nature of the word. As a Renaissance scholar, Fleming harks back to the time when the term “literature” was much less narrowly defined and meant all forms of learning in general. If writing can be found almost anywhere we look, literature and writing “can never be on something without also being within, about, and in response to it.” This idea of a more inclusive conception of literature and writing as not exclusively abstract concepts but part of “the material that supports it” points to a way in which we as “literary scholars” can meta-critically think about our work and hopefully produce new knowledge.
To conclude, I would like to shake up my own words on Fleming’s book with a quotation from it: “There is no proper accounting for anything if you cut it short, and there is no accounting for anything if you do not cut it short.” Cultural Graphology “needs limits.” Fleming accounts for these limits when she asks, “where to stop contextualizing…where to stop analyzing…where to stop assigning responsibility?” If “to focus on context is to focus on responsibility, and to focus on responsibility is to focus on context,” just what is at stake in unsettling the terms “book history,” “literature,” and “writing?” Fleming emphasizes in italics, “we do not know what writing is,” and the same goes for “literature” and “book history” (two words that need to be written in quotation marks after reading Fleming’s book). Fleming arrives at no easy, ready-made answers like those found in many a book history article. Though many seeming-answers to problems of book history—answers to the problems in preservation, the reconstruction of texts in new editions and in digital form—lie just on the fringe of Fleming’s analysis of cultural graphology, the admonishing spirit of Derrida always looms large, and, like the ghost of Don Pedro in Don Giovanni, cautions against those answers. Because “the problem with preservation is that it destroys what it saves,” we must find new ways to talk, to raise questions about consciousness, writing, and book history. It won’t be easy, but if we try to understand the scope of these problems raised by Fleming, “or even if we have understood the difficulties in understanding it,” we will know more about these problems than most.