Realism and Its Vicissitudes

Essays in Honor of Sandy Petrey

by Robert Harvey (Volume editor) Patrice Nganang (Volume editor)
Monographs X, 144 Pages

Table Of Content

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Our deepest thanks go to Ashar Foley—perspicacious reader, imaginative thinker, and editor extraordinaire—without whose diligence and eagle eye this book might never have seen the light of day. Thanks also to the support of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

—Robert Harvey & Patrice Nganang← vii | viii →

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Preface: For Sandy…


The intellectual legacy of Donald Petrey—“Sandy” to the scores of graduate students he trained and regaled with his captivatingly enthusiastic knowledge of literature and theory and to his many colleagues who miss him sorely, now that he has retired from active duty at the university—is the object of this Festschrift.

Fueled by his encyclopedic knowledge, his insatiable appetite for novels, propelled by bold interpretations couched in the most straightforward no-nonsense discourse, Sandy Petrey created and occupied such an important place in literary studies for himself that students were magnetically drawn to him. At the same time, his peers both at Stony Brook and across the continent, turned to his unique perspective on realism, on speech act theory, on the impact of the French Revolution on Europe and the world at large to advance their own research.

Sandy retired from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 2012 after forty-three years. Forty-three years during which he never once had a day of absence except in those months when he fought and beat cancer—twice. A brilliant student of Henri Peyre (about whom Sandy says he’d “read everything and understood it”), he came to Stony Brook—“the Berkeley of the east coast”—fresh off a Ph.D. defended at Yale University in 1966 on “Zola’s Rougon-Macquart Cycle.”

True to the quip about Stony Brook being a fledgling sister to the seat of the Free Speech Movement and People’s Park, Sandy’s early forays into theory and interpretation debates saw him excoriating sacred cows: Why, he would ask, were Marxist critics so taken by the royalist Balzac when there was Zola? One of Sandy’s answers was—in a trice—because classical Marxist critics were prudes. He then went on to publish ground-breaking works such as History in the Text: Quatrevingt-Treize and the French Revolution (Purdue, 1980), Realism and Revolution: Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, and the Performances ← ix | x →of History (Cornell, 1988), and Speech Acts and Literary Theory (Routledge, 1990). Sandy’s circumscribed but razor-sharp use of J.L. Austin drives much of this work. Sandy’s translations of Zola’s Sin of Father Mouret and Jules Vallès’s Insurrectionist are also great indicators of his predilections and orientations.

In the late 1990s, like many of his colleagues, Sandy Petrey became a migrant from area studies—stuck as it often is in a defunct essentialist stance in regard to the relationship between nation and language—to Comparative Literature. There, he thrived. He found the caliber of students that matched his brilliance. He served as chair and even, for a short while, dean of the college. He found colleagues in Comparative Literature with whom he could joust in earnest, yet with whom he could remain friends. At a memorial for one of them—the much regretted Michael Sprinker, who died in 1999 at forty-nine—Sandy led the mournfully joyous gathering in a few verses of L’Internationale.

Shortly after the most recent turn-of-the-century, Sandy leapt into the debate over cultural studies, pulling no punches in defense of what he called “French studies,” as opposed—but only to a certain extent—to French literary studies. His latest book is In the Court of the Pear King: French Culture and the Rise of Realism (Cornell, 2005). The book explores such disparate cultural phenomena as graffiti caricatures of Louis-Philippe and George Sand’s adoption of men’s clothing—disparate, queer, yet infinitely important for the moment and beyond—juxtaposing them with Stendhal and Balzac’s simultaneous development of the techniques of the realist novel that still dominate much of the world’s fiction. In examining what humans deem as real, Petrey points insistently to the hybrid character of the monarch’s caricature as a pear—both totally unlike the king and the king’s spitting image. In the Court of the Pear King crowns Sandy Petrey’s work on realism and theories of realism.

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1. The Present King of France Is Bald


Despite the fact that we came of age during a decades-long era dominated by something we would come to know as “literary theory,” I suspect that many of us who attended high school during the 1970s and 1980s headed into the business of reading, critiquing, and teaching literature because, to paraphrase Wayne Booth, we kept close company with fictional characters and their stories that made an indelible impression on us. Literature delighted and instructed us, thus fulfilling its ancient and classical charge, and we were both happy and quite likely equally satisfied with our investment in the books that occupied a privileged place on our shelves. Even during our undergraduate education, unless we ran into a very progressive professor or were among those who attended either an elite university or college, we were studying literature for the important things it could teach us about the human condition, and the emphasis of classroom pedagogy was invariably on what literature said about enduring aesthetic and philosophical values, themes and problems. We were thoughtful humanists, maybe even belletrists. We knew nothing else and were unaware that there was any other way to engage a literary text.

The challenge of graduate study in literature presented itself as something of an ultimatum. With the introduction of literary theory and criticism into the curricular landscape, resistance was futile. Confronted for the first time with the names Derrida, Foucault, de Man, Althusser, Lacan and their comrades in academia, we could no longer pretend that we could study the stories that had taken us this far without rethinking the entire enterprise. Very simply put, we had to contend with theorists who, in prose that initially dazzled, baffled, and frustrated, sent us running to a bookstore to purchase Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, and forced us to contend with questions regarding how literary texts signified. On the surface, their references to a vast array of literary and philosophical sources notwithstanding, ← 1 | 2 →these writers seemed to render the venerable studia humanitatas obsolete. If we committed ourselves to a graduate program in literature by the end of the Reagan presidency, the only real decisions we faced were what kind of critic each of us was going to become, and to what area of literary theory each of us would pledge primary allegiance.

These initial impressions upon entering a course of graduate study in literature twenty-five years ago did not remain quite so provincial, and I imagine that fear as much as any principled objection motivated resistance to the new. (The level of anxiety among first year students in any graduate department of which I at any rate have been a part, either as student or instructor, has been discernible; obviously qualified new students know what they know but often feel as though they must know significantly more to keep pace, so they either compensate by over-reaching or resort to general silence in order not to remove any doubt of what they believe to be their deficiencies.) The more we read, the more familiar we became with the luminaries of the field whom everyone else was citing in her scholarship, the clearer it became that these new theoretical and critical trends were not aiming to empty literary study of its traditional humanistic element. In certain instances they were certainly ignoring it, but they were very characteristically, if unintentionally, contributing to an understanding that had been evolving since its first iterations in Classical Greek culture. Moreover, the tradition was being interrogated in unprecedented and generative ways that could nevertheless indeed serve ends that extended beyond the academy. It turned out that learning about how texts signify could have important, powerful, and even dangerous applications to the real business of human being and becoming. All a student had to do was find the right critic, group of critics, or school of criticism, and graduate school suddenly had a purpose that it may well have lacked during the New Critical era. The trick then was to find that critic or critical school.

For me, that critic was Sandy Petrey. What drew me to Petrey’s work and has kept me there since is his understanding of the events and consequences of the French Revolution as he presents them in much of his academic writing, but nowhere as powerfully, succinctly, and convincingly as in Realism and Revolution: Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, and the Performances of History. This text, which will form the basis of my reflections ahead, is one of only three pieces of literary criticism of which I own two copies so that I may keep one in my campus office and one in my home for those not infrequent occasions when I need to reference it without delay. What makes Petrey’s work resonate so powerfully in my own professional teaching and writing is that he reads the primary import of the Revolution forward ← 2 | 3 →with stunningly innovative consequences that impact not only the history of western thought and its aesthetic representations but also the way that history is signified.

Entering the Stony Brook doctoral program from bachelor’s and master’s curricula deeply rooted in New Criticism and manuscript studies, I had never seen anything like it before. I came to the Revolution with what can only be described as a conventional historical understanding of its causes, circumstances, and effects. In broad strokes, the events of 1789 and their immediate aftermath were the culmination of ideological trends that had been developing for two thousand years. The Revolution was the apotheosis of a rational assessment of the empirical evidence of an unjust social order teetering on the crumbling supports of temple-city beliefs. The transformative impact of Renaissance thinking had gradually provided potentially powerful individuals with the education, feeling of individual self-worth, and innate moral rectitude to recognize and enact the force of their collective, secular will and expose the Great Chain of Being as a fraud, a scare-tactic to keep the vast majority of human beings under the heel of a privileged few. The ensuing revolt transformed the economic, political, social, educational, and religious landscape first of France and then beyond. Aesthetically, the Revolution inaugurated the major themes of romantic and, shortly thereafter, realist art because now each human individual, and material history, mattered in ways that they had never before in such a comprehensive and thorough way. Endorsing the latter considerations were critics like René Wellek and M.H. Abrams on romanticism and Erich Auerbach on realism, whose work I had dutifully read and, I will admit, genuinely appreciated.

Then, in the midst of his graduate seminar “Realism and History in the Novel,” I read Petrey, who fires his first two shots across the bow of the primary convention of realist fiction, that it assiduously attempts to represent an objective, material reality with the greatest possible referential fidelity, in the opening pages of Realism and Revolution, noting that his study “defines the nineteenth-century French novel as displaying a comparably dual awareness that words freed from their referential ground are nonetheless susceptible to stern social regimentation.”1 A gauntlet thrown down, indeed. Referentiality is the sine qua non of literary realism as conventionally understood until Roman Jakobson’s “On Realism in Art” (1971). There simply is no realism without it. Period. Petrey summarizes the parameters of the genre through Auerbach’s Mimesis, which carries the subtitle The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, thus: “The principle characteristic of the realist constative is its production of a fact from invocation of the semiotic forms conventionally associated with factuality.”2

← 3 | 4 →In sharp contrast, Petrey announces that his text “provides a way to discuss Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, and the reality of history without repeating the errors that continental scholarship has persuasively condemned in considering prestructuralist understandings of the realist project.”3 Appending ‘the reality of history’ to the inventory of canonical French realist authors in the book’s title reveals the full force of Petrey’s critique. He is not satisfied with developing a new interpretive model for interrogating literary realism and its conventions. Such an enterprise is essentially academic insofar as its likely audience is primarily restricted to those interested in realism as a genre, in one or more of Petrey’s exemplary authors, or in one or more of these authors’ texts. Developing a detailed account of the way history is signified, without resorting to traditional assumptions about the adequacy of language to refer, has an application that extends far beyond the walls of the academy. Using an event as significant and well-known as the French Revolution as the context for an assessment of the way reality is analogously pressed into narrative form in literary scenes of sociohistorical tension is brilliant. So thorough is his reconsideration that, were I ever in a position to reissue the text, I would not hesitate to recommend changing the subtitle from Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, and the Performances of History to The Reality of Representation in Balzac, Stendhal, and Zola. Such a revision might more directly and transparently convey how Petrey turns Auerbach’s traditional designations of the realist literary form on their head.

The theoretical apparatus of Petrey’s positions on post-Revolutionary modes of signification emerges in his conversation with the seminal work of J.L. Austin and John Searle in the area of speech act theory, which he both deploys for support and challenges as inadequate to a proper understanding of the events of 1789 (to be precise, Searle himself is not an uncritical reader of Austin). While there is significant debate among speech act theorists and their critics regarding the nuances of terminological distinctions (the precise definition of the phrase ‘illocutionary force’ is a notable example) in the most general terms, speech act theory explains how certain kinds of utterances derive their signifying force from the circumstance of their being expressed in a defined time and space; context, institutional authority are the preconditions of meaning and the signifying force of an utterance. According to both Austin and Searle, this precept is especially true of performative speech, which makes things happen by virtue of the social conventions into which it is spoken: “In Austin’s formulation of Rule A.1, performative speech does things only because there already exists an accepted conventional procedure having conventional effect. In Searle’s discussion of declarations, that conventional effect requires the prior existence of an extralinguistic institution.”4 ← 4 | 5 →These formulations sufficiently govern utterances like “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” the most quoted example of a performative speech act, because without the necessary social and institutional conventions in place to recognize both the state of marriage and the formal procedures required to bring a couple to that state, the utterance accomplishes nothing. But Petrey’s insight, which he makes with appeal to one of the most widely studied and important events in western history, fractures the simplicity of Austin and Searle’s formulations at the same time that it provides a new conception and narrative timeline of the Revolution.

For Petrey, the most important revolutionary event of 1789 was not material in the traditional sense; it was ideological, though with profound material consequences. As Louis XVI looked to address the nation’s financial crisis, and the wealthy, well-educated, politically informed and powerful members of the Third Estate were consigned to their conventional role of voting without the representation they felt they had earned and were owed after centuries of what they perceived as unjust treatment, they declared themselves the National Assembly and assumed the role and responsibility of the new governing body of France, thus violating both all known order of the time and Austin and Searle’s description of performative speech. Petrey explains:

The extraordinary feature of the National Assembly’s Tennis Court session is that it declares its own authority while at the same time justifying its right to do so on the basis of the authority that it is in the process of declaring. A conventional procedure is inaugurated at the moment that its conventional effect is assumed. An extralinguistic institution comes into being through a linguistic pronouncement that derives whatever force it possesses from the assumption that the institution was already in power…. By the authority vested in it, the National Assembly declared that authority was vested in it.5

Put another way, “a declaration succeed[ed] by overturning all previous declarative rules.6 Yet another: “the performative that created the National Assembly also created a procedure that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered to have already been in general use. Illocutionary conventions did not precede but followed the illocutionary act.”7

What the National Assembly accomplished was nothing less than using language the way Elohim uses it in the creationary acts of Genesis. Prior to the National Assembly’s linguistic enactment of its unprecedented identity, the King spoke with absolute authority, which “appeared to proceed from an eternally unalterable source, the divine power underlying the king’s divine right. Nothing less than God Himself validated the pronouncements of the man who ruled according to His supreme plan.”8 If Louis XVI spoke for God by representing the Truth of the divine order, the Third Estate spoke as ← 5 | 6 →God in constituting itself as the National Assembly. It duplicated the incarnationist act of speaking reality into the void. As Petrey summarized the moment in his entry for 1789 in A New History of French Literature, “the National Assembly [was] a representation that became a reality.”9 Thereafter, to confirm the force of its power to signify, not merely represent, reality, the National Assembly refigured the definitions of “designations of time, those of space, and the first- and second-person forms necessary for every dialogic interaction.”10 Petrey calls these “three linguistic universals,” but they are more than that; they are the necessary preconditions for any instance of human existence as they establish the parameters for any historical identity.11

Petrey’s reading of the Revolution as first a linguistic event—before the Bastille was stormed or the streets flowed with the blood of the non-believers, which are certainly more spectacular, and therefore perhaps more easily popularized and memorable, physical scenes of contest—possesses an authority not easily undermined; moreover, for the way it contributes to the field of speech act theory, it is enough to ensure Petrey a permanent place in that field’s history. But Realism and Revolution does not end with reflections on the revolution in France. These introductory chapters are followed by close readings of canonical French realist authors that force a reconsideration of the definition of realism as a genre. As he begins the transition from theoretical inquiry and formulation to its practical application to close reading, Petrey expounds,

The realist insight can be summarized in this way: a major task of language in human existence is to embody particular ideologies so as to make them appear universal… the following pages will accept and affirm the discoveries of critics who have shown that the textuality of realist prose is intimately connected to that of genres often defined as antithetical to the realist project. This connection does not dismantle but accentuates realist specificity, which I take to be not an impossible fidelity to a sociohistorical referent but a successful activation of the process by which sociohistorical collectives make language appear referential. This book considers realist fiction to be a literary form that corresponds to Austin’s ultimate concept of the constative, and it sees the French Revolution and its aftermath as the historical precondition for that form’s invention.12

In the chapters on Balzac’s Le Père Goriot and Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir, Petrey primarily confines his discussion to scenes in which a character’s identity is determined by acceptance of a performance that must be acknowledged in the complex dynamic of sociohistorical forces. This is of course contrary to thousands of years of thinking on the matter, which promoted the view that one’s identity was realized by the value of one’s soul as ordained by God and located on the Great Chain of Being; once the reality of this essence was established at birth, it was just as essentially fixed, and the only relationship of ← 6 | 7 →language to it was the way that words might be used with varying degrees of accuracy in order to refer to it on those occasions when a descriptive reminder, by priest or King speaking for God, of one’s place might be warranted. Armed with the theoretical ammunition of his opening presentation, Petrey now indicates that the identity of the titular character of Balzac’s text is subject to a radically new understanding: “[t[he man whose existence should in theory solidify his linguistic designation disappears as his name becomes not a sign attached to a referent but a word spinning off multiple variants on its own indeterminacy. In recounting the biography of a person destroyed by history, Mme de Langeais makes history destroy the word that gave him identity as well.”13 Because Mme de Langeais’ power to name Goriot exceeds his own, her designation immediately constitutes his identity. Moreover, “no name is more authoritative than any other because each expresses the vision of the namer instead of the existence of the named.”14 The entirety of constative identity, the ‘fact’ of one’s being, is therefore exclusively dependent upon appropriate social response.15

To demonstrate further the mechanism of a process wherein “signs do not reflect but originate the condition they articulate,” one that compromises both the theoretical and practical authority of the constative/performative distinction, Petrey traces the career of Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et la noir, illustrating how, as the character follows his ambition through changing material and ideological circumstances, Sorel can claim whatever identity he desires as long as his performance of identity compels others to acknowledge it: “Because words do not describe the world but only stimulate a conventional interpretation, designation of a fact requires nothing more than manipulation of public opinion.”16

Petrey’s very deliberate assessment of, and agreement with, Austin’s eventual concession that performative speech acts (those that make things happen) and constative speech acts (those that state a truth about reality) are not as categorically different as the latter initially proposed informs all of the interpretive chapters of Realism and Revolution but plays perhaps the most prominent role in his reading of Germinal, which I take to be the text’s most theoretically shrewd and impressive section. Up until this concluding chapter, Petrey’s examples reflect the negotiation of subjective identity. This is a rather safe, obvious move. The claim appears viable superficially, is argued abstractly without difficulty, and the enormous weight of the National Assembly’s transformation of ideological and, subsequently, material history in 1789, a circumstance impossible to refute, gives the claim what seems to me incontrovertible power.

In the strictest sense, all descriptions of reality are equally dependent on social context since only a being possessing subjectivity has the potential to ← 7 | 8 →describe. Yet there is quite clearly a difference between a claim of the form “person X is Y” and the claim “That is a rock.” One might certainly debate the felicity of a particular word or metaphor to define a material object that lacks the obviously mutable attributes of subjectivity, and the names of objects may indeed be changed, but the atomistic ‘reality’ of that material object is quite likely not going to change very much by the choice of words by which it is named. If every human being were to disappear off the face of the earth in some kind of mass alien abduction, the subatomic particles that constitute that rock will still be here, unnamed and unaffected. Blurring the lines between the performative and the constative when discussing subjective identity is logical and fair to the evidence. Blurring those lines when discussing inanimate material objects is a calculated affront to common sense and experience.

Germinal gives Petrey the opportunity to challenge common sense and experience by investigating the signifying force of things without having to suddenly and surprisingly admit his credentials as a card-carrying radical empirical idealist. He himself announces this shift in emphasis, acknowledging that, in the works he has discussed leading up to Germinal, “the prominent exemplifications of the realist constative have been human…. In Germinal, too, constative representation of humans figures in compelling ways, and is in fact inseparable from constative representation of things.”17 By this point, Petrey has firmly established his stance that, like the performative, “[t]he realist constative requires names that designate reality by virtue of a network of textual conventions corresponding to [a] network of social conventions.”18 He then proceeds to read the scene in Zola’s novel that narrates the striking miner’s visit to Hennebeau’s house for the first articulation of their grievances. Already nervous about the unaccustomed role of making demands instead of executing them, the miners are further intimidated by the imposing objects that surround them in the room where they are told to wait for Hennebeau’s arrival. The text’s description of their discomfort includes a long list of the things that intensify their malaise, a list that could serve as a model of unrelievedly referential discourse.19

Petrey carefully explains the reciprocal relationship of the strikers and the material artifacts that adorn the owner’s bourgeois estate as one of antagonism. As long as the strikers feel subordinate to Hennebeau, they are subordinated to his possessions as well; the room’s furnishings possess an oppressive force that is enabled by the strikers’ concession to bourgeois power: they literally feel the weight of things on their collective will to revolt. This circumstance allows Petrey to maintain Austin’s conflation of performative and constative signifiers. In Hennebeau’s home, “things are present as things because they are also present as signs. By virtue of the protocols that make ← 8 | 9 →up the ideological system in which they simultaneously perform and are performed, bourgeois objects manifest the solidity of the bourgeois world. When workers are in their place, proper nominative procedures admit no suggestion that objects can be displaced.”20 When, however, the strikers momentarily feel empowered in Hennebeau’s living space, their “[s]ubversive speech dissolves things as impressively as deferential attitudes magnify them. In Germinal, to name a thing is to invoke the conventions that make the name an act. Overturning those conventions leaves the name unspoken and the thing invisible: ‘the luxurious room had disappeared.’”21

Of course, the material things in the luxurious room do not disappear, any more than the hunter disappears when the ostrich drives its head into the sand. What is, however, rendered inconsequential is the ideological force of the objects in Hennebeau’s home. The genuine site of contest is the value of the thing, not the thing itself. If we understand the late-Austinian constative to refer to statements of fact about the truth-value of an object, and I do in fact believe this is what Petrey contends, then his reading of Germinal is entirely persuasive, because the truth-value of anything can only be established in the engagement between a subject and an object. If the late-Austinian constative is meant to signify statements of fact about the material reality of an object, the objective fact of an object’s existence, its ‘truth’-value, then it remains to be demonstrated that such truth-value is only determined in the dynamics of sociohistorical exchange. I note this distinction because any lack of transparency on the question of the reality of the material when it is divorced from human perception or representation may eventuate in the kind of mischief for which some postructuralist theory has been quite conscientiously condemned.

Perhaps my concerns brand me a poor student of Althusser, who imagines a reader like me “who is convinced that ideology and matter are mutually exclusive,” for whom “materiality itself is unproblematic” (and for the record I do not recognize myself in that depiction), but it does nothing to diminish my admiration for Petrey’s bold attempt to push an insight gleaned from an act of reading as far as it might go in the world beyond literary narrative.22 This combination of uncommon interpretive acuity and commitment to extend the work of criticism beyond literature into the existential, social, and historical is what distinguished Petrey’s work for me from the moment of my first steps into theory. Were I to attempt to categorize Realism and Revolution within the spectrum of literary theory that solidified from the 1970s to the 1990s, I would place it somewhere between deconstructive and Marxist literary studies, with roots in each but more theoretically sound and practically useful than both. These remain the two areas of literary study for ← 9 | 10 →which I retain the greatest affinity, the first because it endeavors to reveal the mechanisms of ideological pretense and opacity in aesthetic objects, the latter because it subjects history and its ideological representations to similar critique.

I do not think that Petrey would object too vigorously to this characterization of Realism and Revolution. In several places in the text, Petrey describes his own project in a manner that reverberates with concepts denoting language’s self-referentiality and the ways that textual meaning may be displaced in the act of asserting it. The most synoptic instance appears while discussing Germinal: “realist fiction conveys a vision of the world in which the deconstruction of facts and matter as something more real than social or ideological productions coexists with spirited defense of those productions as matters of fact. Abolition of a ground is inseparable from preservation of what it supported. Refusal of an opposition prepares affirmation of the attributes foregrounded when the opposition is posited.”23 The deconstructive trajectory of his formulation of the realist convention provides Petrey the opening to soften the boundary between realism and modernism; the significance of this idea for considerations of literary history justifies my quoting liberally:

Realism uses words to convey the impression of reality, modernism to convey the impression of words. Although neither genre escapes the iron law of representation, according to which the representing medium inevitably dominates the thing represented, realism enacts the fact that collective conventions can effectively abolish the distance between reality and representation… If realist narrative is consistently concerned with the historically specific conventions that make signs appear to refer, is there a sense in which realism—like modernism—embodies the verbal operations it also represents? Modernist experiments confound the reader with words while showing characters universally confounded with words. Does realist fiction analogously make words do for the reader what they do for its characters, assume referential authority while simultaneously denying that this authority is based on reference?24

A final evocation of deconstructive methodology comes in the concluding paragraph of Petrey’s text, where he provides a summation of realism’s “dual ontology of constative reality,” explaining, “[c]onventional production of truth institutes facts that are both overwhelming and subject to instant collapse… [t]he realist constative names an absence and a presence, a fullness and an emptiness, what is most abstract and what is most concrete.”25

I do not recall the deconstructive strand of Petrey’s text for archival purposes. Rather, I want to emphasize how Petrey’s text presses deconstructive precepts into the service of historical analysis, more specifically, the way that ideology and materiality intersect to generate the conditions of human ← 10 | 11 →individual and collective existence and their aesthetic representations, areas of inquiry generally associated in literary studies with Marxist criticism. Both explore the dynamics of power, how those who have it can represent reality in order to create and maintain control over those who do not. But there is a pretense in much Marxist literary criticism, absent in Petrey’s text, that is often impossible to avoid. A Marxist reading of a literary text will characteristically present a case for how the specific aesthetic form of that text is an expression of ideological conflict informed by the material effects of class dynamics; a Marxist literary reading will thus use literary analysis as a gateway to recover and elucidate the material history of the class tensions informing the text’s specific form of inscription. This is why the novels of Balzac, Stendhal, and Zola can only have been produced in the nineteenth century. On this view, their fiction is like a time machine allowing us to move backwards into knowledge of their century. But with just how much accurate historical detail can we understand the Bourbon Restoration simply by reading literary texts produced between the fall of Napoleon in 1814 and the July Revolution of 1830, no matter how rigorous and principled our method? We are, after all, reading fiction. It seems much more likely that we can only genuinely connect these dots if we already know the history of the class struggle during this period and can thereafter explain the connection between material history and its aesthetic representation. Petrey does not encounter this problem because speech act theory may assess the material facts first and then discusses how history is subsequently represented aesthetically.

The enduring value of Petrey’s work in speech act theory is that it is not limited to theoretical innovation, critical perspicuity, and revisioning literary history within the academy, though these features of it are hardly insignificant. One can also read a text like Realism and Revolution, forget every last detail about the novels he discusses, and still have made profitable use of one’s time. Petrey’s painstaking elaborations on the relationship among language, meaning and power may be appropriated towards a more lucid, comprehensive understanding of any circumstance where some one or group represents a reality into existence. His account of the French Revolution may be used to expose the dynamics of social power and the processes by which institutional authorities keep ideology opaque so as to keep subjects in line. It is a truly powerful instrument in so far as it can empower human beings to understand the process by which they might write the scripts of their own lives rather than enact the scripts of others if such not be their will. I presume agreement that contemporary American culture is so thoroughly saturated with others’ scripts that there is no need to rehearse even a brief inventory of them here. But I am reminded of one insidious instance that demands recall.

← 11 | 12 →In October 2004, Ron Suskind wrote an essay for The New York Times Magazine that explored the importance of faith in the politics of then President George W. Bush in which he reported the following conversation:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like… I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend–but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency. The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

This sentiment would later be attributed to Karl Rove as an example of Orwellian political discourse and truth-making, but the exact identity of its author is less relevant than the fact that it was uttered by someone in the highest circle of American politics. Its message is clear: we can create our own history, or we can read about our lives later after someone else has created our history for us. Very simply put, Petrey’s contributions to speech act theory provide us with the tools to be creators of our own lives.

I was fortunate to have read Petrey’s work when I did, but I was more fortunate to have met the man when I did. He is one of three scholars from whose professional and pedagogic example I have immeasurably gained in my own work during my thirty-year tenure within academia. I can effortlessly recall the seminars I took with him, and I continue to try to emulate both the dynamism and level of critical discourse in his classroom, the mix of trenchancy, tenacity, and generosity that were their support. Nothing could have prepared me for his wonderful good humor, which colored even the most meaningful conversations we generated each week. His presence on the fourth floor of Melville was as galvanizing as his absence was palpable on the days he was off campus. Never did he contribute more to my course of graduate study than in his role as my dissertation advisor. Dissertation horror stories are legion, but their plot is usually the same: graduate student is frustrated because degree is delayed by advisor who neglects his responsibilities but nevertheless finds time to fault student for not writing the book that the advisor envisions. Petrey refused this stock role. Even though he thought my dissertation topic was risky because it might end up insufficiently theoretical ← 12 | 13 →and therefore difficult to market, he recognized my commitment to the project and allowed me to see it through without antagonism; rather, his critical commentary was aimed entirely at helping me complete the text as competently as possible. To this day, I feel a form of survivor’s guilt when I speak to friends who lived the horror I never experienced.

An example of Petrey’s own writing might serve to verify his approach to critical engagement. Over a dozen years after the publication of Realism and Revolution, David Gorman trashed it as an egregious instance of a more wide-scale misreading of speech act theory by literary theorists. The briefest of obligatory nods to the “undeniable virtues of Petrey’s survey” notwithstanding, Gorman assails virtually every facet of Petrey’s “unsuccessful” book.26 Gorman introduces his assessment with the concise claim that it “epitomizes the shortcomings of comprehension and response that blight these writings” explaining how “[t[he most striking problem with Petrey’s study is that he simply does not understand Austin well,” and that “[e]ven to the extent that he has understood [Austin and speech act theory], Petrey remains largely uncritical of [them].”27 The third and final failure of Petrey’s text “has to do not with the interpretation of Austin or of speech-act theory, nor with how to respond to them, but rather with intellectual style, and in particular with the extraordinary degree of vagueness or, less kindly put, confusion evident in Petrey’s handling of concepts and arguments.”28 To fit it in a fortune cookie: Petrey is a bad thinker and a bad writer. These are fighting words to be sure.

Petrey could reasonably have replied to Gorman’s evaluation with an equivalent cocktail of bile and scorn, but he is quite clearly a better man than I and chooses an approach and accompanying tone of rejoinder that helps to convey some measure of the man. He begins generously: “[t]he question I want to address isn’t which of us apprehends more astutely, but how we could have come to such disparate apprehension of Austin’s How to Do Things with Words (1975). The answer I will propose is that our differences arise not because one of us understands and the other doesn’t but because each of us understands through distinct conceptual frames.”29 The remainder of the essay delineates an entirely persuasive point-by-point rebuttal of Gorman’s position that never deviates from the primary notion that the analytical philosophical tradition that Gorman defends refuses to try to speak to the literary critical tradition, rendering Gorman’s dismissal of the latter essentially irrelevant. “We critics have read Austin with pleasure and profit, and a major part of Gorman’s indictment is that both—our pleasure and our profit—have proved immune to philosopher’s protestations that they haven’t experienced either one,” Petrey contends in a tone whose playful rigor never falters.30 He may at times appear artful, “If I discovered a group of philosophers who were ← 13 | 14 →enthusiastic about critical views I dismissed, my tendency would be to smile at their mistakes and move on to other things,” but only because he seems genuinely perplexed that Gorman would produce such an odd, misguided argument that basically misses the point of Realism and Revolution.31 On this he is explicit:

[t]he exuberance of [my colleagues’ and my] response to Austin is thoroughly bound up with his ability to liberate himself from analytic thought, to adopt a heretical stance toward positions held by his philosophical colleagues. I admire Gorman’s defense of an intellectual tradition he values, and I agree unreservedly that Austin’s roots lie within it. But I don’t think this tradition is the only game in town, and I fear that Gorman’s concern for roots has blinded him to the many passages in How to Do Things with Words where J.L. Austin sounds very much like a man uprooting himself.32

It is obvious to Petrey that Gorman’s real problem is not with Petrey but with Austin. With restraint of manner and clarity of thought, Petrey sets the record straight.

Last semester, I spent an afternoon listening to one of my senior colleagues whose retirement loomed just months away and who was lamenting what he saw as the inadequacies of a forty-five year life in the academy. I was a bit surprised to hear such expression of doubt and apprehension from someone characteristically disinclined to either because he is, by most professional standards, quite accomplished as both a teacher and a scholar. I offered a rebuttal of his relentlessly unforgiving self-assessment at that moment, which he politely acknowledged before dismissing it as a kind social formality. He told me that he had been giving the matter a great deal of thought since filing his paperwork several semesters earlier, and he was willing to accept that he was by all accounts a good scholar but not the great one he had aspired to be when he earned his first university post. A good scholar, he explained, perhaps as an admonition, is productive, attends conferences, writes articles and books, chairs important committees both inside and outside his university, and contributes in other visible ways to the production of knowledge that is our charge. He was satisfied that he had attained those things in meaningful, visible ways. Yet while his work had undoubtedly informed, he had no tangible record that it had ever inspired, and so he had fallen short of his goals. I recall this conversation, and the distinction between the good and the great that it embedded in my thoughts, now as I conclude this essay. Petrey’s abundant academic achievements are a matter of public record; his curriculum vitae may be accessed in seconds with a simple internet search. They reflect the efforts of a remarkably successful career committed to the production of ← 14 | 15 →knowledge. I can declare without hesitation or doubt that Petrey’s work also inspired, prompting me to my best effort and accomplishments during four happy years at Stony Brook. Let the considerations of Petrey’s work collected in this volume stand as at least one more testament to his ability to educate and inspire as we celebrate the retirement of a great scholar, teacher, friend, and man.


1.Petrey, Realism and Revolution, 1.

2.Ibid., 153.

3.Ibid., 7.

4.Ibid., 23.


6.Ibid., 32.

7.Ibid., 33.

8.Ibid., 28.

9.Petrey, “1789,” 570.

10.Petrey, Realism and Revolution, 46.


12.Ibid., 49.

13.Ibid., 85.

14.Ibid., 86.

15.Ibid., 96.

16.Ibid., 132, 131.

17.Ibid., 170.

18.Ibid., 164.

19.Ibid., 165.

20.Ibid., 167.

21.Ibid., 168.

22.Ibid., 195.

23.Ibid., 198.

24.Ibid., 147.

25.Ibid., 201.

26.Gorman, “The Use and Abuse,” 116, 108.

27.Ibid., 108, 111.

28.Ibid., 114.

29.Petrey, “Whose Acts?,” 423.

30.Ibid., 424.

31.Ibid., 425.

32.Ibid., 426.← 15 | 16 →

← 16 | 17 →image

2. Sandy Petrey’s Unacknowledged Contribution to Historical Materialism


Introduction: Let Them Eat Realist Cake

The title of this essay, appreciating the work of Sandy Petrey, may seem overreaching and dogmatic. Marxists often get accused of distorting facts and justifying the theories they find. Indeed, the first essay Sandy read of mine in my first semester of graduate work elicited a comment I will never forget: “In your attempt to be historical and materialist you come perilously close to being neither.” Clearly the following intended tribute to Petrey’s work and placement of his theoretical contributions within an intellectual tradition (Marxism) that Petrey does not claim may get taken in this manner. Petrey explicitly situates his theoretical lineage within the speech-act theory of J.L. Austin and his famous work, How to Do Things with Words. Speech-act theory and Marxism never, to my knowledge, have been confused—for logical reasons. Austin’s work suggests truth claims derive from the functioning of language, which seems far from the materialist or Marxist assertion that truth derives from objective material life shaped by existing social conditions.

Austin, in my extremely simplified account, distinguishes himself from other varieties of what is called “the linguistic turn” in that he offers a distinction between statements he terms “constatives,” which purport to describe the world, and those phrases termed “performatives,” which act upon the world.1 Austin stresses that when statements seem to describe the world, such as a lovers’ vow, they actually perform an action. Austin points out that much logical and conceptual confusion derives from mistaking these two categories. Yet, for Austin the distinction quickly becomes difficult to maintain. Statements, propositions, or utterances slide between the distinctions he ← 17 | 18 →introduces. In Austin’s final analysis, all statements perform actions, not neutral descriptions. Therefore, the implication follows that statements that claim to describe truth or reality fail in their ambitions. Significantly in Austin’s account, neither constatives nor performatives necessarily function to name things in the world, but operate according to grammatical or conventional procedures. If a phrase functions intelligibly (grammatically proper) and produces meaning but cannot be judged for its inherent truth value, outside of reference to social conventions, then language functions as a very unreliable instrument. This severely complicates, or in some readings of Austin, fatally undermines any relationship between language and the world it claims to tell the truth about, often referred to as the referent or the real world. Petrey spells out the radical implications of such a theory: “Like the referent, truth is not found but produced.”2 This suggests that representations don’t re-present a prior true world, but produce another world inherently fictional. Contrary to commonsense logic, language produces effects without a discernible cause, or representations without a stable referent. In this narrow sense, speech-act theory and Plato (whom Petrey strongly critiques in his writing) seem to agree that the representations and the real never meet directly, but only appear linked through artifice. However, as I hope to show, Petrey ultimately affirms, as a good materialist, that such an interpretation of speech-act theory remains misguided and that history mediates and unites, in the final analysis, fiction and reality. We should note that Petrey does not claim an absence of truth but merely that it gets “produced.”

Realism, in a literary sense, gets traditionally understood as comprising a genre, movement, or attempt to create representations (written, drawn, or otherwise constructed) that model themselves upon an accurate vision of an objective world existing beyond the caprices of the imagination. Realism in a philosophical sense asserts that material existence predates and takes precedence over concepts (which take form in representations). Therefore, the two valences of realism overlap and both are at stake in this discussion. Various interpreters of Austin or theories that view literary descriptions as embedded in an arbitrary system of linguistic signs producing meaning within the structure of language, to varying degrees, challenge the premises of realism. It is impossible for language to serve as an objective, truthful and clear reflection of the external world, such critics argue, because language operates as a rhetorical performance or set of traditional conventions rather than as a neutral mirror, which they claim is impossible. When language seems to describe it is most false. Descriptions either perform an action or operate according to internal structural rules, such arguments assert, but never directly touch upon the world beyond language. Representations function as copies of previously ← 18 | 19 →existing copies (or linguistic and cultural codes) without an origin, but never a neutral world. Such theories seem to reveal realism as an ideology (in the old fashioned sense of falsehood) and nothing more. Petrey partially agrees with the critics of realism, but at the same time brilliantly argues for a reconceptualization of realism as a genre that stages just such a performance of the performative nature of language. Petrey argues, through his close reading of episodes of French revolutionary history and its aftermath, that although the realism never directly reproduced historical reality, the genre did. The turbulence of revolution and counterrevolution that made terms and concepts like “king” unstable created realism, with its equally unstable characters and their shifting identities. In this sense, Petrey argues for prior historical reality determining the precise contours of a transformation of modes of writing that ushered in a new genre. Whether Petrey the author recognizes the implications or not, he performs a Marxist analysis by his persuasive interpretation of history determining forms of representations.

To show that changing social relations determine concepts (in this case the birth of a genre) is to argue for the historical determination of literature. Some vulgar Marxist analyses of literature, in my opinion, miss the importance and subtlety of the kind of reading Petrey offers. Despite Marx’s famous injunction that critics or “philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it” many would-be Marxists seem to argue the exact opposite.3 Vulgar Marxism (or Stalinism) demands art reflect the world in so-called realistic fashion. This misses Austin’s central linguistic distinction as well Marx’s approach to life.

However, the basic insights of Marxism do remain inextricably realist—in the philosophic sense of the term. Instead of language—and by extension literature or other forms of artistic expression—functioning as a closed system that cannot offer a reliable mirror of reality, historical materialism merges all products of the mind, including language and literature, into determinant objective material relations founded ultimately upon a historical, material base. This essay claims that the logic of Petrey’s utterly convincing readings of several realist works, as well as cultural representations and theory, ultimately place him (perhaps unwittingly) within the camp of historical materialism. Petrey demonstrates that a precise series of political economic transformations (the French Revolution and its aftermath) and the class struggle to determine the meaning of these events, creates and makes necessary a precise genre—realism.

Indeed perhaps I am inverting Petrey’s critique of my early writing, and claiming he is perilously close to being more historical and materialist than recognized. Personally, as a former student of Petrey’s and well aware of his ← 19 | 20 →intellectual rigor and precision of thought, I recognize the possibility that he will read this essay and conclude I have misunderstood or distorted his position in the service of dogmatic Marxism. And Petrey’s rigor as a reader who complicates the intentions or claims of a writer or critic cannot be underestimated. Indeed, his dismantling of received wisdom may offer the greatest pleasures in reading his work or listening to his lectures. Further, frankly, when writing about an enormously accomplished intellectual mentor that one admires, the dangers increase.

Yet, when carefully re-reading his major works of literary and theoretical scholarship, particularly Realism and Revolution and In the Court of the Pear King, I find myself surprised by the debt Marxists should acknowledge to Petrey’s analysis of French realism and its connections to France’s revolutionary history. His approach seems compatible with, and even offers a model for, an extremely original, nuanced and sophisticated form of historical materialist analysis of cultural representations. He also highlights certain blind spots in traditional Marxist analysis of class struggle and revolution, particularly concerning the importance of linguistic and representational features in undermining or constituting ideology. Perhaps Petrey reminds Marxists that when Marx contrasts bourgeois revolutions that claim their legitimacy from the past to the proletarian revolution that should not, they should take Marx’s famous phrase from the Eighteenth Brumaire, “There [bourgeois revolutions: DA] the phrase went beyond the content; here [proletarian revolutions: DA] the content goes beyond the phrase,”4 quite literally. Indeed, Marx’s point begins by translating what happens when a performative (a phrase that does something) masks itself as a constative (a statement that appears to describe reality).5 Hence the phrase goes beyond the content by denying it is performing or doing something truly as new and radical as the act necessitates. When Marx notes the political problem with confusing phrases and contents, past history and future transformations, he anticipates key parts of Petrey’s analysis. Petrey approvingly cites Jacques Derrida noting that the American and French revolutions pretended their authority derived from the old ideological sources of authority they were in the process of undermining.6 The French revolutionaries began by citing royal authority and the American Revolution began by claiming inalienable and timeless rights. These inalienable rights were precisely not inalienable since, as Petrey would probably point out, they came into being through their articulation. Petrey, Derrida, and Marx all notice that bourgeois revolutions deny the radical nature of their actions by offering inaccurate descriptions. In Austin’s terms a performative speech-act masks itself as a constative description. Marx characterizes future proletarian revolutions as avoiding constantives or descriptions that actually operate ← 20 | 21 →performatively (Marx gives the example of “the Revolution of 1789” “draping itself alternatively as the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire” to serve “the purpose of glorifying the new struggles”).7 Marx believes that proletarian revolution will “draw its poetry from the future” rather than performing a false description (constative) based on false appeals to the past.8 Indeed, Marx’s point draws a line in the sand, asserting the proletarian hopes for a new society cannot succeed without drawing distinctions of the kind that Petrey’s speech-act theory highlights.

Further, I also think Petrey’s readings of literature and cultural objects offers one useful road out of some of the extremely vexed problems that plague historical materialist attempts to relate literature to society and history without being reductive. This claim, if persuasive, presents itself beyond Sandy Petrey’s explicit authorial intentions. As a justification for offering my own admittedly partisan reading of the implications of Petrey’s arguments, I will borrow Petrey’s defense of his admittedly partisan use of J.L. Austin’s speech-act theory. He puts it well: “Like realism and revolution, speech-act theory is open to… divergent interpretations. Let the defense of my interpretation be the uses to which the rest of this… puts it.”9

Also, as someone who first seriously read and fell in love with French realist literature under Sandy’s tutelage, I value his defense of realism as a genre. He defends realism, eloquently, in the face of the combined attacks upon realism by poststructuralist analysis and modernist and postmodernist modes of writing that together ally to dismiss realism. Petrey does this by making a persuasive case that realism never existed as the naïve caricature to which it often gets relegated. He turns the charges against realism on their head by showing that any dismissal of realism for blindness to the representational or linguistically bound nature of social, political or ontological realities and identities remains misguided. The awareness that signifiers, representations, and identities are always historically and politically bound already found anticipation in French realist literature. Indeed, Petrey’s close readings persuade that the historical nature of identity recurs as the subject matter of realist novels and other cultural products that accompanied France’s revolutionary turmoil. As a bonus, the power of Sandy’s readings on the features of realism and their relationship to history allows Marxists a guilt-free pleasure. Petrey persuades that the aesthetic and the political or (to paraphrase Horace whose Ars Poetica I first read in a seminar Sandy Petrey presided over), “instruction” and “delight” work together in harmony in realist literature understood properly.10 Petrey does this by alternating historical events (the French Revolution, the July Revolution/Monarchy) with close readings of realist literature or contested cultural productions. Petrey allows Marxists, and even ← 21 | 22 →perhaps readers of a structuralist, poststructuralist, or deconstructive bent, to have their realist cake and eat it too.

Further, Petrey’s close attention to the social and historical determinations of identity merits the often contested label dialectical. His work shows how contradictions, in life and in literature, develop, come in conflict, and work themselves out, if only provisionally, in language and outside language. These contradictions are not only fought out on the barricades or streets, but in words, propositions, representations and social performances, which include graffiti of pears that would be king. This last example refers to Petrey’s masterful analysis at the beginning of his In the Court of the Pear King where he convincingly proves that those who wanted to challenge the right of Louis-Philippe’s inherently contradictory claim to monarchy as a result of an anti-monarchic revolution disseminated images of pears throughout France to show that just as an individual can be compared to a pear only with distortions to the reality of representations, a revolution can only bring to power a King due to the ways representations distort reality. Marxist dialectics might describe this process as the unity, interpenetration, and conflict of opposites leading to a negation of what exists. Therefore, the validity of Petrey’s elaboration on these fascinating episodes, in art and history, serves the cause of historical materialism and dialectical thinking.

In this essay, my task is to justify these assertions. Further and even more ‘perilously,’ I will argue that as insightful and useful as Petrey’s radical rethinking of realism as a genre or moment in literary history remains, a certain partial omission needs attention. This omission, or point that needs to be supplemented, revolves around Petrey’s correct observation, borrowing from J.L. Austin, that certain “speech acts” “performatively”11 constitute reality based on “illocutionary force [that] never is a given but always a collective creation.12 When collectivities are in conflict, illocutionary values conflict as well.”13 By illocutionary “force” or “value,” Petrey follows Austin’s extremely elaborate distinction between an “illocutionary” utterance, defined as one that intends in itself to perform an act that changes the situation and a “perlocutionary” statement that does.14 For both Petrey and Austin this requires conventions and minimal acquiescence. But Petrey stresses the historical and conflict-laden nature of such statements, whereas Austin tends to treat them as contentious primarily based on misunderstandings or questions of appropriateness.

Petrey goes on to explain, “The speech-act vision of language has at its core an awareness that all acts of speech derive force from the protocols by which a collectivity regulates itself.”15 This invites questions left oblique or only indirectly explored in Petrey’s analysis. I say this despite appreciating ← 22 | 23 →Petrey’s periodic recognition that political and class struggle are not insignificant and that such “omission was strategic,” that he notes as such when he points out, “[e]ach stage in the verbal wars that began the French Revolution assumed and relied on the massive presence of armed force for its articulation.”16 However, his strategic omission may produce other interesting questions. Such issues concern the nature of what determines the relative power of the rival “collectivities in conflict” and what determines why some “illocutions” or “representations” as he tends to put it in his later work, succeed in constituting reality (becoming socially accepted “constatives”) and others fail. Austin himself in his famous rule A.1 states, “There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect” which leaves open the nature of the “conventional” as a prerequisite for procedures producing effects.17 Petrey historicizes the “conventional” in his recognition of “collectivities in conflict” that supplements Austin and provides the basis for his reading of realist literature. However in the precise historical situations that Sandy cites, such as the beheading of a king, or a revolution against monarchy unwittingly creating a new king, Petrey’s narrating of these events deepens analysis of the contested nature of the “conventional.” Austin speaks of conventions in relation to the authorized person pronouncing a marriage legitimate, i.e. according to some conventions a religious official or representative of the state. In contrast, to define the conventional and its contested nature, Petrey offers the conflict over whether the “third estate” (citizens in France who were not aristocrats or officials of the Church) could succeed in naming themselves the “National Assembly” and succeed in transforming governmental authority. Such a conflict gets determined, in Petrey’s analysis, by the success or failure of a performative speech act becoming accepted as an accurate constative or description. This conflict over the conventions (backed up by conflicting social interests) that authorize performatives became the world-shattering event called the French Revolution. Yet, for those of us alarmed at the current state of affairs (economic crises, ecological dangers, perpetual war, etc.), we may learn from Petrey’s analysis but still wonder why the performative or historical works sometimes and fails often. Austin lists various “infelicitous” situations where proper conventions are ignored that involve examples deriving from individual speech acts, whereas Petrey stresses collective social struggles. It is an interesting question whether or not individual speech acts that are determined by “conventions” can be equated with the types of “collectivities in conflict” to which Petrey refers. To consider these issues further, I will conclude my essay by briefly offering a reading of the short story “Désirée’s Baby” by the American realist writer, Kate Chopin, in which several types of performatively constructed ← 23 | 24 →identities present themselves as neutral representations and yet clash. Are all socially constructed representations of identity equally far from a stable referent? In Chopins’ tale, the famous trinity of race, gender and class vie for influence and I argue class trumps in the final analysis. How the tale unfolds will suggest how some representations, “illocutionary forces,” “constatives,” “performatives,” and “collectivities” triumph and others don’t. Indeed, the competition among identities constituted by conventions is the subject of Chopin’s narrative just as Petrey shows it is the subject of realist writing. This essay, modestly, hopes to emulate Petrey’s accomplishment. Where Petrey assimilates realist literature and cultural representations to theoretical traditions seemingly incompatible, Petrey’s theory itself assimilates with a theoretical tradition he perceives as partially inhospitable.

Petrey’s Historical Account of Social Performance: History Is Representational and Representations are Historical

First, however, I want to defend my claim that Petrey’s argument does not dissolve material, historical, reality in some idealist or relativist manner (or what Petrey critically refers to as “unlimited semiosis”) but rather does what a historical materialist (Marxist) analysis of literature should do; namely, Petrey places realism, a historically contingent mode of narrative, onto the foundation of history and society. And he does that while simultaneously retaining the Marxist point about the kind of society (capitalism), which gives birth to realism as a distinct literary mode. In his earlier work, Realism and Revolution, Petrey approvingly quotes Marx’s famous description of the nature of identity and reality in capitalist society that Marx sums up in the famous line from The Communist Manifesto: All that is Solid Melts into Air. This means that attempts to represent a prior existing reality should recognize the non-absolute nature of the historical referent being represented, particularly in societies where in rapid periods Kings go from being absolute identities to bald (since they have no head) fictions. Indeed, he reminds readers that reality, in its dialectical unfolding, may mean that a revolution to remove monarchy can lead to a pear that may or may not be a king. This, I would add, gets determined by the state of class struggle. Indeed, Sandy inverts traditional oppositions associated with modes of representation when he writes:

Whereas recent literary theorists have taken language’s freedom from any obligation to facts… speech-act theory as I use it demands concomitant attention to the socially bound impact of linguistic work…. Realism and Revolution defines ← 24 | 25 →the nineteenth-century French novel as displaying a comparably dual awareness that words freed from their referential ground are nonetheless susceptible to stern social regimentation.18

The key point is that although representations cannot be taken as initially or automatically tied to a referent, they may impact upon the extra-literary world and, in turn, be dictated by “social regimentation.” In the passage from Petrey, the social and the historical returns, in “words” despite the latter’s being “freed from their referential ground”—due to “stern social regimentation.”

Throughout the history of Marxist thought generally, and Marxist literary theory in particular, the problem of how brute historical reality represents itself in language and literature remains a thorny, vexed issue. This problem begins with Marx and Engels. On the one hand, Engels wrote a famous letter to a minor writer Margaret Harkness asserting that he learned more about French society “after the Revolution” from Balzac than all the French “professed historians, economists and statisticians.”19 This suggests that realism operates in the traditional one-to-one correspondence between text and reality (although a close reading of the letter reveals that Engels’ argument actually contradicts such an interpretation).20 And, Marx’s historical materialism predicates itself upon the proposition that ideas derive from social existence, or, as he puts it, “We see out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the… ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process.” This clearly establishes that ideas follow prior referential, real conditions, for Marxism.21 Ideas reflect historical, social conditions. This would seem to place a barrier between Marx, and Petrey who believes words do not reflect truth but “produce it.” Yet, Marx himself, in his famous discussion of Greek art recognizes a problem with a reductionist notion of historical materialism. Marx notices that the problem with Greek art lies not in tying it to the social conditions from which it sprung [Marx does this easily: DA], but rather in explaining its allegedly “eternal charm.”22 In other words, for Marx who asserts social and historical being determines consciousness, literature seems to escape historical conditions—if only in the ahistorical aesthetic pleasures. Terry Eagleton offers the most persuasive (and relevant to this discussion) way out of this seemingly ahistorical and non-materialist pronouncement by Marx, in my view.23 Eagleton claims that Marx offers a special role for literature and works of the imagination in contrast to other modes of ideological discourse and practice and that the “charm” of Greek Art lies in its distance from the alienating and dehumanizing conditions of modern life. In other words, the power of literature or art lies not in the degree to which it reflects or reproduces an existing referent, but rather the degree to which it frees itself from direct reference. However, we should note that such an ← 25 | 26 →argument does not obliterate reference into “unlimited semiosis” but rather takes historical reality (economic and social conditions in Greek culture and economic and social conditions in capitalist culture) and mediates seemingly completely disparate referents. The imprecise term “eternal charm” signifies a unity produced out of differences. Two almost complete oppositions, ancient life and modern life, are brought together through their precise, historically determined, differences. In other words, history as a prior referent determines aesthetic judgments but not in a one-to-one, automatic, or natural way. Attempts to assert direct causality between literary production and reception fail; however the connection between the two (representations and historical reality) remain, if understood as separated or displaced but mediated in some complex but convincing manner. How this connection works is convincingly illustrated in Petrey’s work. I say this because despite Petrey’s seeming acceptance of a necessary disconnect between language and any referent, the logic of his project suggests otherwise. He writes about “an impossible fidelity to a sociohistorical referent”24 while arguing a page earlier:

This book’s thesis is that the realist novel developed an especially powerful means for representing the inextricable connections between verbal expression and group dynamics figured among the French Revolution’s object lessons for the world.25

What Petrey confronts contains striking parallels with Marx saying art gets determined by history and saying it doesn’t in the same essay. Petrey stresses an “impossible fidelity” just after discussing “inextricable connections” between what “verbal expression” and “group dynamics,” i.e. social conditions and social struggle, link. He also connects the “realist novel,” which elsewhere he defines as a genre unique for its lack of predecessors, with the “object lessons” of history. Literature gets determined, in Petrey’s analysis, by a prior referent, the bourgeois revolutionary process, even though he appears to affirm the impossibility of his own thesis just one page later.

This dialectic between denial of historical determination of literature and strong argument for historical determination of literature continues. Petrey writes, “Unlike other literary schools, realism sprang full grown into the world. It knew no infancy…. Literary historians speak of preclassicsm, preromanticism, “pre” versions of most other creative -isms, but not of prerealism.”26 Petrey’s point stresses the unprecedented invention of a genre which came out of the revolution of 1830. The implications are enormous! A revolutionary process creates a new genre and its masterpieces (in his earlier book Petrey stressed the revolution of 1789 and the Restoration as establishing the genre, here 1830, but the point remains). However, as much as Petrey denies ← 26 | 27 →believing that representations are shaped by a prior referent, his argument flows otherwise.

To make sense of Petrey’s seeming contradiction, we should return to Marxism’s seeming contradiction. However acceptable we may or may not find Eagleton’s purported solution to the problem of Marx’s treatment of Greek Art, the entire discussion poses obvious problems for historical materialism. Clearly this quandary points to the necessity of a different approach, which contrasts with naïve reflection theories of the relationship between reality and representations. Implicitly in Marx’s comments, Eagleton’s gloss, and Petrey’s approach to realism, we find some gap or mediation necessary between representations and reality. History determines the nature of representations and our response to them, but indirectly. Petrey’s writings on realism helps us think about a way out of the dilemma that positions readers as either accepting a one-to-one correspondence between the literary and the extra-literary, which Marx himself sees as empirically false in his discussion of Greek Art, or completely severing representations of the world, which have social power, from material reality. Fredric Jameson gives an eloquent account of the dialectics of this dilemma in a passage from his magisterial attempt to justify Marxism as the unsurpassable horizon of literary analysis in his work The Political Unconscious when he writes:

That history—Althussers’s ‘absent cause,’ Lacan’s ‘Real’—is not text, for it is fundamentally… nonrepresentational; what can be added… is the proviso that history is inaccessible to us except in textual form…. Thus… to overemphasize the active way in which the text reorganizes its subtext (in order… to reach the triumphant conclusion that the ‘referent’ does not exist); or on the other hand to stress the imaginary status of symbolic act… as to reify its social ground… merely as some inert given that the text… ‘reflects’—to overstress either of these functions of the symbolic act… is surely to produce sheer ideology… as in the first alternative, the ideology of structuralism, or, in the second, that of vulgar materialism.27

Jameson warns against two errors. To situate texts in language to claim that the ‘referent’ which has no linguistically necessarily referential or historical background, has no existence at all remains an idealist and anti-historical ideology. All literary production gets put into some relation with the Real, even if only as an “absent cause” according to Jameson (and, I believe, Sandy Petrey). Simultaneously to “reify” “social ground” leads to “vulgar materialism,” which suggests a non-dialectical static referent, an “inert given,” which implicitly removes history from what Jameson terms “socially symbolic acts” and that Petrey claims as Austin’s “performatives.” Indeed, we can detect a possible implicit linkage between Jameson’s “symbolic acts” and Austin’s ← 27 | 28 →“speech acts” when we notice two things: first the “overstress” warned against in Jameson has its similarities with how Petrey employs Austin, and second, when we ‘consider how Lacan situates the subjects’ integration into the order of language as the “symbolic” order. Jameson historicizes Lacan by stressing that the symbolic order manifests itself as social acts. Indeed, Petrey’s reading of realism also strives to escape a dilemma close to Jameson’s dichotomy. By contrasting Roland Barthes, who sees linguistic reference to an outside world as an illusion consisting of a “string of signifiers that can never be extracted from the linguistic system,” to Bertrand Russell, who views denotation as a “rigorously reliable operation,” provided the world described by language corresponds, Petrey dialectically overcomes the two contradictory positions. “My argument is that realism incorporates aspects of both these contradictory positions by representing the referent as a reality produced by communal agreement to act as if denotation were feasible.”28

To show how Petrey avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of pure structuralism or ‘vulgar materialism’ or “unlimited semiosis” contrasted to positivist and ahistorical realism, while arguing that Petrey retains a historical and, perhaps more controversially, materialist reading of realist literature, merits looking closely at a few sections of his argument. If convincing, then Petrey helps Marxism with a problem that has confounded since Marx. And he accomplishes this with a sophisticated recognition of the non-intrinsically referential nature of representations while retaining history as the determination in the final analysis.

Interestingly, in his early writings (Realism and Revolution and Speech Acts and Literary Theory), Petrey mediates history and language through recourse to J.L. Austin’s concepts of “constative” and “performative” phrases or speech acts, whereas these terms rarely, if ever, appear in his last work In the Court of the Pear King. This might be explained by the foray into various forms of representations that are not “speech acts” per se, but include popular graffiti, Delacroix’s famous painting Liberty Leading the People, and George Sand’s (or as Petrey notes G. Sand—the double’s) gender performance. While Petrey tackles the social nature of gender in his discussion of Balzac’s Sarrazine and Barthes S/Z, the distinctions are linguistic. When discussing Sand, the distinction moves beyond linguistic representation to social performance by including her performance of gender through drag. This represents a broadening out of focus from verbal statements that constitute reality in realist literature to a broader concern with the multiple forms of signs that constitute representations including an attention to visual media and detailed attention to the performative nature of gender identity. Petrey’s argument contains nice parallels to Judith Butler’s well-known deconstruction of ← 28 | 29 →“gender” and even “lesbian” identity through similar recourse to drag.29 Indeed, we can notice the contrast between early and late Petrey by considering the “performative” and verbal nature of identity in Petrey’s early reading of Balzac’s masterpiece Le Pére Goriot30 with his later treatment of Le Chef-d’ouevre inconnu.31 In the former we find both names “father” and “Goriot” become signifiers detached from signification and clear referential authority. They function as constatives that fail to describe. As Petrey puts it, “In recounting the biography of a person destroyed by history, Mme de Langeais makes history destroy the word that gave him [Goriot:DA] identity as well,” going on to explain, “the referential is the language of objective reality, the constative that of social conventions,” to conclude, “the name of Goriot was an empty noise because historical conditions had abolished its referential authority. When ‘the present King of France’ regained its denotational force, ‘Goriot’ became a denotational nightmare.”32

In contrast, Petrey’s treatment of Le Chef-d’ouevre inconnu stresses that an image, in this case a painting, can derive simultaneously a mess of conflicting colors and a perfect reproduction. We might think that the identity and nature of the painting should be taken as completely subjective. The lesson of the Balzac story might be quite un-realist and instead stress the absolutely relativist, personal, and nihilistic void at the center of representations. However when Petrey writes about the story of a painting, he explicitly rejects such an absolute or one-sided conclusion. He writes:

Le chef-d’ oeuvre inconnu… combines a ringing defense of art as imitation of reality with gripping proof that art can be taken as real without imitating anything at all… [t]he dominant reading takes Le chef-d’ oeuvre inconnu as a subversive introduction of something new, the postrealist idea that art does not imitate the world. But the text is also subversive by virtue of its thorough disassembly of something old, the view that only one kind of art can successfully imitate the world.33

We should note the dialectical approach to the implications Petrey draws. By dialectical, I mean the way that Marxists, following Engels, have understood that truth is not an absolute, an either/or but instead contains polar opposites simultaneously. When Petrey stresses that the Balzac tale both defends the idea of “art as imitation” and challenges it, he reproduces Engels’ famous (or infamous) claim that identity contains an interpenetration of opposites. The logic of a text can both justify and defend a claim while also undermining it or critiquing it at the same moment. Petrey also makes the point that realism as a form or genre can face attack while realism as a content remains. If realism means a particular approach to representing reality, this fails while a different mode of “art imitating the world” succeeds.

← 29 | 30 →A Petreyan Reading of Kate Chopins’ “Désirée’s Baby” with a Splash of Marxism

Kate Chopin’s relationship to realism as a genre remains less clear than the canonical examples Petrey offers of Balzac or Stendhal. Nevertheless, her often-anthologized short story “Désirée’s Baby” presents an illuminating illustration of the strength of Petrey’s theoretical approach.34 It allows a practical case for applicability of his methodology and its affinities with a Marxist approach to literature. At the same time, I (humbly) find the implications of the tale open a range of questions that can build upon Petrey’s contributions while suggesting a justification for supplementing his approach with more explicit historical materialist concerns.

To briefly summarize, the story involves a young woman, Désirée, of unknown parental origins, and her marriage to a slave-owner named Armand Aubigny. They share a passionate love and produce a son (significantly never named and usually referred to as a child, not a son), and all begins idyllic. The happiness of the couple cannot be threatened by Désirée’s “obscure origin” because “Armand looked into her [Désirée’s: DA] eyes and did not care… that she was nameless. What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana?”35 The absence/presence of a name gets explicitly connected to the importance of names in passing on private property. As Désirée explains, “Armand is the proudest father… chiefly because it is a boy, to bear his name; though he says not—that he would have loved a girl as well. But I know it isn’t true.”36 Here the relations between gender and the patriarchal conventions that determine affection, identity and property express themselves in their interconnection and potential conflict. We should also notice that they are tied to private property, even if indirectly.

However, after the baby turns three months old, “something in the air” disturbed Désirée’s “peace.”37 The “something” is, at first, “too subtle to grasp” but soon the readers along with Désirée receive a constative statement that performs a transformation of the situation.38 Armand pronounces, “the child is not white; it means that you are not white,” leading to the dissolution of the marriage, the denial of the child’s relationship to his father, and the negation of Désirée’s existence.39 As Désirée purportedly begins the journey to her adoptive parents and her former home, the narrative informs us that Désirée does not travel the direct route back to her former home. “She disappeared among the reeds and willows that grew thick along the banks of the deep, sluggish bayou; and she did not come back again.”40 The description leaves uncertain the meaning of the phrase “she did not come back again” since it may refer to her permanent absence from Armand’s plantation, it may ← 30 | 31 →mean she does not go to her former home, or that she never leaves the “reeds and willows,” which “[s]he disappeared among.” Indeed, the last part of the sentence, separated from the first by a semicolon that highlights the separation between her entering dense foliage and her not coming “back again,” might lend credence to the argument that she dies there. Alternatively, it might just as much be taken as a mark signifying two completely different moments in time, since a semicolon gets employed, grammatically, often to put together two complete statements that could serve as complete sentences but link together closer than distinct sentences. Clearly Austin’s speech act theory, Petrey’s employment of it, and a close reading of the sentence agree upon the impossibility of discovering a referent or reality despite the sentence’s clear, grammatical production of meaning. The meaning, seemingly clear enough, cannot, however, adequately describe a reality in a world. The referent Désirée completely disappears with the disappearance of the marriage. In effect, the character’s identity ends as her position in a prior set of conventional relations ends. These relations include marriage (one of Austin and Petrey’s favorite examples of a speech-act, since one performs a marriage with the conventional “I do”) and her previous name, which included Armand’s surname, Aubigny. Along with her marital name, Aubigny, disappearing from Désirée and her child, disappears a set of conventional markers of identity and power. Désirée, like Balzac’s Colonel, or Goriot, finds her identity as dependent on a set of conventions and as Petrey points out, tirelessly, in his writings, these conventions can change quickly. A mere statement can change reality. And, as Petrey points out, the socially constructed building of identity can also lead to the socially deconstructed elimination of identity, which in turn can kill real referents represented by fictional characters, who lose all presence.

But the story continues. In order to erase all prior traces of the wife that no longer exists as a wife and the son who lost his father’s name, Armand lights a bonfire and throws all of the items that previously belonged to the now non-existent mother and child into the fire. Armand discovers a letter, from his mother to Armand’s father. In the letter, which concludes the short story, Armand reads:

But above all… night and day, I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.41

The first obvious reaction to the story, written in 1892, after the abolition of slavery and the defeat of Radical Reconstruction (the United States’ own version of a revolution to eliminate legal inequalities followed by a reaction or restoration determined to pretend such a revolution never transpired), is the ← 31 | 32 →profound irony. A love that struck Armand Aubigny like “a pistol shot” not only cannot exist but must never have existed.42 The obvious reason concerns the apparent fact, expressed in Armand’s mothers’ letter that the marriage means (in the eyes of the world and the slaves that watch the bonfire) that Armand has mated with a member of “the race that is branded with the curse of slavery.” But the truth of who belongs to such a race gets determined not by biology (the putative foundation of race which actually has no material foundation; race is a historically created reality that most biologists deny has referential reality), but the successful act of destroying the letter. The destruction of the letter as part of a larger destruction, simultaneously reveals a truth through its reading, while ensuring such truth will never exist afterwards.

The description of “blacks” as the “race branded” by God with the “curse of slavery” suggests the naturalizing features of ideology that Petrey following Barthes and others understand as the essence of ideology. And as Petrey reading Derrida argues, such claims often cite the ultimate authority, God. However, the irony of the story undermines such an ideology. Precisely as we read the story and the story ends, readers learn that Armand is the “black” [the quotes around black are mine for reasons that will hopefully become clear: DA] progenitor of the “black” child. And, being “black” means being “branded,” which means having a visible trace that establishes identity as the property of another.

However, precisely such a lack of branding drives the story. The child gets named “black” after developing “black” features. But such features, ostensibly factual visual features that can be empirically measured, such as height or weight, are only gradually recognized as signifying “blackness.” Importantly, the allegedly objective visual features of race do not determine which parent is “black.” As Petrey might argue, such a constantive (account) only gains descriptive validity through the performance of recognizing such features. But such recognition of “blackness” only comes about when an absence of the brand gets proclaimed by the action of disavowing the mother, thereby constituting a brand on the child and the mother. The brand must be invisible and even the branding must be negated, as if the child and wife never existed. However, the performance of proclaiming “blackness” falls not only on the child but more significantly upon the mother. The very articulation of the falseness of the ideology that asserts race is a product of visible features takes place when a constative affirms the truth of race while simultaneously revealing that Armand is biologically “black.” The irony centers on the narrative ending with a performance of destroying all traces of the referent “black” while to whom the description applies is transferred, in the reader’s mind but not in the fictional world. We are left with a false description negated ← 32 | 33 →absolutely. “Blackness” in the Aubigny family has been concealed but also never existed, ontologically and also as a social referent. We should note that Armand doesn’t even voice the “blackness” of the child and allegedly the mother, he merely condemns them with the absence of “whiteness.” Armand becomes “black” referentially while destroying the real traces of an unreal referent. And since he ostensibly succeeds, as Petrey argues, social reality defeats referential reality, while the story stages the triumph. But the social negation of a referential reality simultaneously proves the real absence of ontological referentiality of “blackness” to readers in an extra-linguistic reality.

But other socially constructed fictions taken as facts play out in the story. Race clearly signifies but has no real referent. It functions as an imaginary notion with real effects. Any concept of race as a reality outside of ideology falls apart since race by definition functions as visible features that should be unmistakably obvious but clearly are not. Only when Armand pronounces the child “not white” do the effects of race transpire for the main characters. In this sense, “blackness,” which purports to be natural, only becomes significant when it gets named by its absence. On the other hand, we might ask why Armand commands the authority to performatively constitute the reality or lack of reality for the woman and the child.

Clearly the patriarchal conditions depicted in the story enable Armand to sever his marriage with Désirée. Since he runs the plantation and gives his name to the child, his banishment reigns supreme. The story makes clear that he runs his slave estate like a personal fiefdom. But he also can perform the act of dissolving the marriage and dissociating himself with all relations with the child by merely telling Désirée to leave. Why does she leave? Because just as Armand’s name constitutes the family, his name authorizes him to dissolve the family. The irony again runs rampant. The justification for the male domination of a family structure is birthright and blood. When a woman and child take the name of a man, a family forms. The man transfers his name, which signifies property and inheritance, to the son. The son then carries on the name—which we should remember explains Armand’s initial pleasure in a male child. The son takes on the name, right to property, and “bloodline” through association with the father. When the son receives the label “black,” the father then destroys all association with his lineage, the son, by denying the mother. Armand does this to destroy the very lineage that threatens to destroy his property line. If slavery, a form of economic and political control based on the superiority of one race to another, wishes to maintain its ideological coherence and constative features, then a member of dominant race cannot produce a member of an allegedly inferior race. Obviously in reality any two individuals can produce a child, but within the existing conventions ← 33 | 34 →of slavery that determine social reality in this tale, for a “white” to produce a “black” must be considered impossible. Rather than accept a reality that undermines the conventions that govern, the reality of the situation must be altered. Because Armand controls the family and controls the plantation, he commands the authority. His male privilege and his ownership of land and property, passed to him by his father, allows him to decide who gets labeled “black” and who doesn’t, and who gets labeled wife and son.

Marriage, as a social institution, purports to be eternal and Armand previously loved Désirée. But marriage and love can be undone by an utterance or statement, provided the conventional authority, the male property owner, decrees it so. At the time of the story, and in many parts of the US today, marriage constitutively involves a man and a woman in contrast to two individuals of the same gender. But in a male-dominated social order that must maintain and reproduce given property relations, eternal love and permanent legal and economic bonds, i.e marriage and family relations, are revealed as fictions. Just as race can be constituted by mere words, with no inherent reality to the referent, love and marriage between a man and a woman can also be dispelled by mere words. But since the man contains the conventional authority to transform a referent, marriage, into a non-referent, (through male based property relations) and since the marriage disappears among the smoke of the bonfire, under the authority of the male, Armand’s gender determines reality.

Indeed, within the story that imitates the historically based power relations between men and women, to a large degree gender gets constituted by the differences between men and women, in the family understood as an economic unit. Only men can control property and only male children can pass on the family name, which signifies a relation to property. The major distinction between men and women (having a son or daughter) concerns their place in the family structure. And, as we have seen the family structure gets negated by words. So wife/mother like black/white function as referents that serve as conventions based on power. Race allegedly gets determined by birth, but this can change based on the power of speech-acts. Marriage allegedly results from affection (love) and constitutes a family but is revealed in the short story as actually constituted by gender relations which can be altered through the power of the speech-act. But, what remains at the end of the story that does not change but propels the performative speech-acts that leave traditional gender relations, wife/mother and traditional race relations as descriptions performed in contradiction to referential truth? The power relations that do not dare get challenged and that generate the performative deconstruction of the other sets of power relations, are the class structure and class divisions. The material relations ← 34 | 35 →of production and the accompanying class structure produce the ideologies of gender, in the family, and race as a function of birth. These ideologies cannot sustain themselves when they threaten economic relations. The economic referent causes the fictions that construct and deconstruct in the tale, if only in the final analysis. In effect, economic class determines race, family, and gender.

After the marriage and prior to recognizing the “blackness” of the son, Désirée tells her mother “he hasn’t punished one of them—not one of them—since baby is born.”43 This begins to change when strange things are observed in the night.

It was at first too subtle to grasp. It had only been a disquieting suggestion; an air of mystery among the blacks; unexpected visits from far-off neighbors who could hardly account for their coming. Then a strange, awful change in her husband’s manner, which she dare not ask him to explain. When he spoke to her, it was with averted eyes,… the old love-light seemed to have gone. He absented himself from home…. And the very spirit of Satan seemed to take hold of him in his dealings with the slaves.44

This passage leaves unclear the nature of the “mystery among the blacks” and the “unexpected visitors.” But it makes clear that repression of the slaves increases. Why? If the child of a slave-owner starts to acquire “non-white” features i.e. the features of the slaves, then the racial ideology that serves to justify their oppression goes into crisis. The constative loses consistency. This explains the recourse to extra violence. Also we are left wondering about the visitors, whose “blackness” or “whiteness” remains indeterminate. Perhaps they are “blacks” who want to discover the “white” who produced a black or married one. The other alternative is that other “whites” recognize the threat to the legitimacy of their system and offer “stern social regimentation” (to quote Petrey again) to keep Armand in line. If Armand does not disavow his wife and destroy all traces of his “non-white” son, then a key aspect of the legitimatization of an oppressive social system will falter. Either way, fear of revolt and rebellion determine Armand’s speech-acts that serve to erase the real referent that threatens the social order. The real referents, i.e. the material traces of a wife and son, get destroyed in a “spectacle,” the bonfire, which the “negroes” watch and stoke. In this way, a determinate set of historical, social and class relations maintain themselves. Ideology maintains itself because real economic relations need to maintain their ideological apparatus as fictions taken as truths. But this fictional work, Chopin’s short story, represents the truth of the falsehoods of racial and gender relations and captures the foundations on which they rest. Those foundations are a precise mode of production and the social relations it engenders.

← 35 | 36 →This reading builds upon the insights Petrey’s work provides. It also argues that fictional representations can provide truths about the extra-linguistic, real world. However, the real of class structure and economic realities haunts the fictions (race and gender) that describe and perform the function of maintaining unjust conditions for real people. Imaginative representations such as literature and art therefore can provide the service of revealing truths about a world that needs to blend the line between fiction and reality. Petrey offers brilliant accounts and explanation of the way literature can depict the performance of fictions masquerading as truth. This seems particularly needed in a world where speculative fictions, what Marx terms “fictitious capital” in the form of bubbles of debt and economic values termed derivatives periodically reveal themselves as unreal. Petrey ultimately proves that the world-shaking events of the French Revolution and the following, decades-long attempts to deny that such a bourgeois revolution had taken place created a literary genre, which tells the truth although not according to its own account. The truth of realism as a genre, Petrey demonstrates, functions not as a series of depictions of an objective natural truth, but rather as a series of lies, masquerading as truth. Events unfolding in our real world, rapidly and constantly, show that this truth revealed by realism still pertains. Perhaps the next earth-shattering revolution(s) will make possible a more direct access to reality by creating conditions that do not require lying.


1.By “linguistic turn” I refer to the various philosophic or theoretical schools that place language at the center of cognition or truth claims.


X, 144
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2015 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. X, 144 pp.

Biographical notes

Robert Harvey (Volume editor) Patrice Nganang (Volume editor)

Robert Harvey is Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook where he chairs the Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory. He has written extensively on Jean-François Lyotard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Marguerite Duras, Marcel Duchamp, and Michel Deguy and has translated Lyotard, Deguy, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Paul Ricœur. His most recent books are Witnessness: Beckett, Levi, Dante and the Foundations of Ethics, Les Écrits de Marguerite Duras , and De l’exception à la règle . Harvey is a major co-editor of the prestigious Pléiade edition of the complete works of Marguerite Duras. He served as Program Director at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris (2001–2007). Patrice Nganang, writer and scholar, is Associate Professor of Literary and Cultural Theory at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Nganang has published collections of poetry: elobi and L’apologie du vandale ; novels: La Saison des prunes, Temps de chien , and La Joie de vivre , which constitute a cycle depicting city life, Mont plaisant and La Saison des prunes , a cycle about wars from a Cameroonian point of view; and short novellas: L’Invention du beau regard and La Chanson du joggeur. His publications also include three collections of essays: La Principe dissident, Manifeste d’une nouvelle littérature africaine: Pour une écriture preemptive and Contre Biya: Procès d’un tyran. In addition, his columns appear regularly in Cameroonian and international newspapers such as Jeune Afrique and Le Monde. His novel Mont plaisant is scheduled to appear in English.


Title: Realism and Its Vicissitudes