Simon Morgan Wortham (2003) Samuel Weber: Acts of Reading

Aldershot: Ashgate. ISBN 0-7546-3122-2

Paul North

Simon Morgan Wortham’s study of the work of American literary critic and theorist Samuel Weber successfully avoids two risks involved in introducing complex critical writing: historicizing and systematizing. Samuel Weber: Acts of Reading neither simply inserts Weber into a developmental narrative of twentieth century ideas, nor reduces him to a set of themes or concepts that it abstracts and systematizes for a reader unprepared or unwilling to be educated by the complexities of the texts themselves. Many self-styled ‘introductions’ to deconstructive writing fail to avoid these pitfalls. In the case of Weber, the first mistake would do an injustice to the idea of history that he inherited from and developed out of careful study of Walter Benjamin, Heidegger and others. History is neither linear nor progressive for these thinkers. The second mistake would discount the thrust of his writings away from the philosophical conceit of a self-contained (an important pedagogical term for Weber), self-identical, and thus exchangeable concept, toward a hermeneutics of conflictual and contested interpretations, which are in each instance inseparable for Weber from the materiality of a written text. Weber assiduously avoids conceptualizing or generating a technical vocabulary. What is most worthy about Morgan Wortham’s book is that it sets itself the task of remaining faithful to the difficulty of these aspects of Weber’s thought.

From his earliest book, Unwrapping Balzac: a reading of La peau de chagrin, to his forthcoming Theatricality as Medium, Weber’s readings of the not-so-canonical implications of canonical literary and philosophical texts set in play, in a rigorous and precise manner, insights that he elaborates out of the critical practices of Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida, among others. Both of these thinkers, as Morgan Wortham’s book points out, stand in strong relationship to Weber’s thought, although Morgan Wortham seems to prize the relation to Derrida above all others. Derrida, immersed in the texts of Heidegger and Husserl and writing from the milieu of Paris academia, and de Man, emerging from the French literary-critical context of Starobinski and Poulet and installed in the American Ivy League, develop related though differing critiques of the notion of consciousness that grounds phenomenological discourse. Both do so from the point of view of signification, which stimulates two theoretical concerns that remain constant throughout Weber’s oeuvre, though they never remain at the level of theory. ‘Reading’ designates the active receptivity involved in interpretation; as such it is a problematic practice, in the etymological sense of the word. Throwing up as many problema — obstacles – to understanding as it clears away, the practice of reading constitutes a critique of the notion of interpretation as a sacred act authorized by a consciousness transcending the text, the process of interpretation, and time. An historical collision that jars reader and text into an unexpected relation, reading’s charge is twofold: to reread what has already been interpreted, that is, to respond to the call of rich texts whose meaning and value have become accepted as self-evident, and to recharge these texts with the power to ionize our most calcified formations. Often this ‘power’ appears as a blockage – a problema – which appears as a loss of powers, an ‘Ohnmacht’ at the very center of interpretation.

‘Writing’ exposes the desire of Western metaphysics for a stable realm of meaning beyond time as a medium of loss, and beyond interpretive practice as a ductus of desire, and redirects the desire to the historical and material realm of the mark. At one and the same time the mark prevents and initiates loss, channels and blocks power, inspires and saps mental ‘powers’. Weber’s reading and writing are, if one can say this, a mobile army of markings that redistribute the boundaries of received interpretations while mustering themselves for other future redistributions in interpretive battles to come. In response to the Nietzschean insight that all interpretation involves violence, Weber’s reading and writing participate in the violating, deformative nature of interpretive practice, while patiently and carefully prohibiting us from forgetting that and how it violates. Conflictual senses of traditional philosophical terms seeded in Weber’s careful philology bloom throughout his writing. But the flowers of his thought are never just purple passages: he patiently unwraps his own assertions to expose the violence his readings do to the texts and terms they are supposed faithfully to represent.

Morgan Wortham’s study alternates in intention between ‘defin[ing] Weber’s abiding interests and commitments’ (xiii) and ‘read[ing] Weber “otherwise”‘, between representing his terms, concerns, and arguments and violating them according to their own logic. According to the latter intent, it takes Weber’s reading lessons to heart with the express intention of producing what it will later define as iterative readings. It intends, as it states in the preface, to ‘read Weber “otherwise”, according to a different movement or, indeed, a movement of difference’ (xi).

Alongside this movement, however, the study also attempts to present Weber’s contributions to critical theory. The book proposes a thematic organization of topics proper to an introductory study, among which are ‘disciplinarity, institution and the academic profession; technology, technicity, media and tele-effects; theatricality, scene and scenario; authorship and authority; translation and reading; knowledge and indebtedness; and, indeed, deconstruction’s “wake”‘ – an invaluable guide to Weber’s theoretical concerns (3). The most successful explanations of these topics emerge in the chapter on institutionalization and its effects in academia, and in the chapter on theatricality. In the latter, theatricality gives Morgan Wortham the opportunity for an excellent description of Weber’s modus operandi, which ‘continually work[s] to exceed, destabilize and dislocate any framework in which the question of theatricality as such might be put’. For several reasons, theatricality is inseparable from the idea of a theatrical performance. Unlike a theoretical treatise, for instance, a theatrical presentation cannot be conceived outside of its reliance on and exposure of a stage on which the supposed content of a drama can appear. Exposure of the indispensable workings of a frame for the presentation goes hand in hand with whatever occurs onstage. Also fundamental to a theater piece is the occasionality of any single performance. But, as Weber reminds us, performance implies a forming of material through to perfection; the root ‘form’ and the perfective prefix ‘per’ entail a traditional, ultimately theological notion of aesthetics, where spiritual form ennobles base matter. In contrast, in the theatrical, material artifice determines the presentation in the form of props, costumes, lighting, and scenery, while the essential authorizing of the scene by a playwright in the transcendent position of a god is undermined by the social, historical, and linguistic contingency of the relations between actors and the inconsistent plurality of spectators in an audience; a performance whose results are anything but predictable.

Morgan Wortham pursues the implications of these insights for Weber’s own writing: ‘if the problem and effects of theatricality cannot be reduced to detached theoretical description’, because writing has also a theatrical, material, temporally contingent component, his study will attempt to investigate ‘how Weber’s writing partakes of the kind of theatricality he wishes to explore, and how this theatricality is at work in his own texts’ (85). Indeed, nothing is more deserving of attention than Weber’s ongoing preoccupation that his writing be ‘theatrical’, that is, that it expose, in the manner perhaps of Brecht’s Epic Theater, its own dependence on things other than logic or argument, things like, for example, the ‘Entstellung’ (displacement) in the process of ‘Darstellung’ (presenting, exposing, acting-out) of his own ideas. The conclusions Wortham draws from his investigation into Weber’s theatricality are as follows:

This entstellte ‘work’ of Samuel Weber could be described as a play or a ‘goings-on’ of destructuring structuration, in which the centre of attention is continually displaced, re-placed and displaced once more in turn, at – or, indeed, as – the very limit (not just a dividing line) of the ‘other’ or the ‘unknown’. Just this entstellteparticipation on Weber’s part means that each ‘frame’ calls for another, and another (‘no glance can ever oversee’) . . . so that Weber’s ‘work’ itself is theatrical in the sense of staging a ‘series’ of scenes that dislocate themselves and each other. In turn, this theatricality would disrupt, or, indeed, dislocate any simple attempt to correlate, reduce and explain Weber’s writings in terms of a continuous, consistent body of scholarship or a distinguished instance of philosophical ‘development’, accessible to its readership as an ‘object’ of knowledge or cognition to be grasped and mastered by an autonomous subject of reason or thought (the independent individual). (Italics in the original, 95)

The description sums up the crisis of authority in representation that Weber writes about without ever being able to avoid it. ‘Entstellung’, as a critical term and a critical practice, indeed offers quite an allusive point of entry to this crisis. Following this description, Morgan Wortham turns his analysis into a self-reflective program for his own study. ‘This “invitation”‘, he advertises, ‘to continually rephrase and reformulate is one to which I have attempted to respond, in following the dislocating movement of Weber’s writings on a host of topics . . .’ (96). Thus, over its course the book will not simply explain the topics, on the grounds that Weber opens them up as theatrical problems that cannot simply be named and then extracted and universalized outside of specific performances. Having made this insight into a rule of thumb, Acts of Reading attempts to perform acts of reading like Weber’s. The imperative to ‘continually rephrase’ begins with the book’s title, with a play on the word ‘act’ that alludes to a theatrical element inherent in human praxis, which is no more avoidable in intellectual endeavors. Taking wordplay seriously – and the idea of serious play in general – is an important motif in Weber’s writing. For Weber, all depends on the ground of play, on what makes it serious. Weber’s rhetorical strategies, which are often playful – his figures of speech, literalizations, processual participles, sonic gests, and wit – interpose themselves into an existing discourse to disrupt a composed meaning-making process and disturb its unequivocal reception. The gambler in his reading of Balzac’s La peau de chagrin, for instance, engages in such serious play, risking not just one coin after another, but his own stable position as a self, on the game. Weber’s reading of this scene risks a lot as well, wagering, with his reading, inherited critical judgments about Balzac’s fictions, which involve a very unrisky account of literary history, and beyond this, Marx’s notion of the ‘worker’, which is central to his revolutionary theory of social relations, history, and economy. To the Weber of the Balzac book, Marx’s worker continues to fulfill the Western subject’s project of self-fulfillment insofar as he is pictured seeking only ‘Bedürfnisse’, ‘needs’ (20). Even in this, his earliest book, Weber’s wordplay radiates like a small blast, challenging not only a linguistic prejudice, the univocity of terms, but the philosophical necessity of ‘need’, over something like risk. Risk, in the theater a nightly necessity, is set over and against the accepted, stable opposition of necessity and contingency, which Weber’s play reveals to be a move in a philosophical game, at considerable risk to a young scholar’s career.

Another focus of Weber’s attention, a ‘quasi-concept’ Morgan Wortham calls it, is the notion of ‘iterability’. In the book’s ‘Conclusion’, Morgan Wortham cites Weber’s explanation of this originally Derridian term and the paradoxes associated with it. ‘In order to speak about something called iterability, we must name it, identify it, describe it, and thereby treat it as though it were an object. In other words, we must conceive it in a way that it itself seems to call into question’ (quoted in Morgan Wortham, 103). In ‘iterability’ Morgan Wortham recognizes the possibility to capture in a word the type of paradox Weber frequently approaches in his writing. By definition attempts to theorize ‘iterability’ fall short because it is an operative concept, not only an epistemic one. On the other hand, merely employing the term brings one no closer to an understanding of its operations. That would be ‘iteration’. If ‘iterability’ is a ‘synonym’ for the double-bind in which Weber’s work thus leaves us, Simon Morgan Wortham’s book skillfully demonstrates the Scylla of simply reiterating Weber’s theatrical discourse and the Charybdis of reducing it to an object of study.


Weber, S. (1979) Unwrapping Balzac: A Reading of La peau de chagrin. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Weber, S. (forthcoming) Theatricality as Medium. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Weber, S. & Cholodenko, A. (1996) Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Paul North is writing a dissertation on a conceptual crisis that animates Franz Kafka’s writing and finds a response in Jorge Luis Borges’s fictions. A doctoral candidate in German and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University in Chicago, US, his areas of interest include: Ancient Greek literature and philosophy, German critical thought, Latin American literature, romanticism, literary theory and aesthetics, and Walter Benjamin. His article ‘Der Zerrissene: Nestroy at the Rip’, about the linguistic speculations of the 19th century Austrian playwrite Johann Nestroy, appeared in the April 2004 volume of Modern Language Notes.