The Critic Inside Me

I’d finished my scone and was having a second cup of Turkish coffee when I saw him. The No. 73 Express bus from the University District had come in a few minutes before, and he was peering in one end of the café window, the end nearest the anarchist bookstore, wiping his hands on his Huggy Bear t-shirt and blinking against the light. He saw me watching him, and his trucker cap faded back into the shadows. But I knew he was still there. I knew he was waiting. The hipsters always size me up for an easy mark.

I lit my pipe and slid off the thrift store chair. The waitress, a new girl from Bothell, watched as I gathered my bag. “Why, you don’t even carry a notebook!” she said, as though she was giving me a piece of news.

“No,” I smiled. “No notebook, no sketch pad, nothing like that. Why should I?”

“But you’re a teacher — a tenured professor, I mean. What if you think of something while you’re sitting there?”

“I don’t have many ideas these days, ma’am,” I said. “Anyway, a good idea is a good idea, even if you don’t write it down right away. If you don’t remember it then, you’ll remember it later. I trust my gut.”

She shook her head, wide-eyed with awe, and I lurched up to the counter. The manager shoved back my BECU card and laid a fresh pack of G.L. Pease Cumberland coarse cut on top of it. He thanked me again for taking his nephew in hand.

“He’s a different boy now, Lou,” he said, kind of running his words together like guys who drink too much espresso do. “Stays in nights; actually goes to school. And he always talks about you — what a good teacher is Professor Lou Ford.”

“I didn’t do anything,” I said. “Just talked to him. Showed him a little interest. Anyone else in the literature department could have done as much.”

“Only you,” he said. “Because you are smart, you make him smart too.” He was all ready to sign off after that, but I wasn’t. I leaned a sueded elbow on the counter, hoisted my Italian messenger bag over my shoulder, and took a long slow drag on the Meerschaum. I liked the guy, as much as I like anybody I suppose, but he was too good to let go. Friendly, polite, online MBA from a state collegel: guys like that are my meat.

“Well, I tell you,” I drawled. “I tell you the way I look at it, discerning signifieds systematically for each lexia does not aim at establishing the truth of the text — its profound, strategic structure — but its plurality, however parsimonious.”

“Umm,” he said, twitching. “I guess you’re right, Lou.”

“I was thinking the other day, Max; and all of a sudden I had the doggonedest thought. It came to me out of a clear sky: It is generally held, by its promoters and detractors alike, that semiotics is not a form of historical thought, though it is acknowledged that, through the distinction between diachrony and synchrony, it provides conceptual and operational room for history. Just like that: It is generally held, by its promoters and detractors alike, that semiotics is not a form of historical thought, though it is acknowledged that, through the distinction between diachrony and synchrony, it provides conceptual and operational room for history.”

The courteous smile on his face was starting to crack. I could hear his Skechers squeak on the wooden floor as he squirmed. If there’s anything worse than a snob, it’s a windy snob. But how can you brush off a nice friendly fellow who’d let you into his Overview of Modernist Literature Class if you asked him, even if you didn’t have the prerequisites?

“I reckon that I should have been one of those Frankfurt School fellas or something like that,” I said. “Even when I’m asleep, I’m working out theoretical paradoxes. Take the fact that the rejection of the signifier takes the form of the rejection of writing. Now, a lot of people will tell you that this goes to show you that philosophy defines itself as a discipline unaffected by the machinations of words and their contingent relationships. But it’s not like that, Max. The problem isn’t just the relation of speech and writing in philosophical discourse, but also the claim that competing philosophies are versions of logocentrism.”

He cleared his throat and muttered something about needing to sign off for a shipment of cup sleeves, but I pretended like I didn’t hear him.

“Another thing about the signifier is how its exteriority is that of the exteriority of writing in general, but without that exteriority, the very idea of the sign falls into decay. But maybe it’s better that way. Since our entire world and language would collapse with it, and since its evidence and value keep, to a certain point of derivation, an indestructible solidity, it would be silly to conclude from its placement within an epoch that it is necessary to dispose of the sign, the term and the notion. At least that’s the way I figure it. I mean, hell, the production or interpretation of signs, the text in general as fabric of signs, they allow themselves to be confined within secondariness. When you think about it, they’re preceded by a truth, or a meaning already constituted by and within the element of the logos.”

“Lou…” He was begging now.

“Well,” I said, “I guess I’d better shove off. I’ve got quite a bit of getting around to do, and I don’t want to rush. After all, any fictional theme is, by definition, a challenge to the single signified because it is a polyvalent signified, a blasting of selfhood. The critical distance which arationality produces allows us to be self-conscious in a dissident and ironic fashion about the society in which we live, in my opinion. It’s like I always say: the tribunal whose idiom is that genre of discourse which is cognition asks of the one who claims an obligation: which is the authority that obligates you?”

I was draggin’ him in by the ankles, but I couldn’t hold back. Striking at people that way was almost as good as the other, the real way. The way I’d fought to forget — and had almost forgot — until I got tenure.

I was thinking about my lesson plan when I stepped out into the cool Seattle night and saw the hipster waiting for me.

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