I personally have a lot of problems with Hopkins’s ‘theologisation’ of what I think is otherwise a very interesting idea. I would also question – in the name of the Divine Jacques (Deridda of course!) – the stress on identity placed on the idea by Hopkins, although he does stress that this identity is dynamic rather than static.
The idea of the individuality and inwardness implicit in the concepts of inscape and instress, is an important one, but it really has little to do with identity (Identities are always stable.) and all to do with the unstable play of differences which both underpin and at the same time subvert identities. (The mention of a ‘distinctive design’ is a giveaway surely.) Philosophically speaking, if you cannot integrate difference with identity you end up with something like a Platonic abstraction – which holds that everything in existence conforms to the idea of it and that idea is its ‘template’. I would suggest that the process whereby a thing arrives at its identity is more random and unstable than Hopkins – or Plato - gave it credit for. Identities depend on privileging the stability of The Logos at the expense of the unstable flux, which is its perpetual background. In truth, The Logos, arrives after the event, rather than before it; the ‘concept’ is secondary and a posteriori; what is primary – or a priori - is the flux which stimulates us to create all these logocentric categories in our somewhat futile attempts to render the flux intelligible.
It goes without saying that some things have identities – not in themselves, but thanks to the words – or signs - we apply to things to distinguish them from other things. But the words themselves are simply conveniences and should not be confused with the things they refer to. Every single being in the universe is, of course, distinct from every other single being in the universe, irrespective of the class or category that we place them in to give them an identity, but these differences have little to do with identity as such, which is determined by imposing classes or categories onto them for our own linguistic convenience. Fido and Rover are both dogs, but that doesn’t mean they are the same dog. The word ‘dog’ or ‘canine’ flattens them out against a common background of other dogs and canines, robs them very much of their individuality and distinctive difference from one another and, indeed, from all other dogs and canines. We de-individuate things when we call them dogs - to which, of course, their identity is attached - and we do this because it would be very inconvenient for us not to.
Without it, Fido and Rover would recede into the flux of unnamed Being itself and become part of the buzzing, blooming confusion of everything else, all those entities which merge into the background until we abracadabra them into the foreground of discourse with words such as “dog”, “Fido” or “Rover” – or other forms of signification - which confer an identity upon them. So you see, there is nothing primal about identity, however convenient it is to give entities identities and thereby distinquish them one from the other. Identity-conferring is a human process which has nothing to do with the Glory of God or Platonic Ideas or Forms which privilege ideas over unique things in themselves as they might emerge into view before we have given them a name or defined them, thereby isolating them from the flux in the background, which is a necessary but usually unacknowledged part of their being.
Good criticism is concerned with the inscape of poetry and the process of instress, thanks to which the good critic encounters this inscape by isolating the poem from its background, while at the same time recognising the difference made by the flux which is always there in the background and integrating it into his or her critique of the poem. It pays attention to hidden aspects of the work in question which would certainly be missed by bad critics. Indeed I have known critics who slate a poem without saying anything at all about it. How they get away with it, of course, is something else entirely. More often than not, a bad critic has favourite hobby-horses or axes to grind, and that, more or less, implies that he or she is stranded in the realm of identity rather than difference and has no relation at all to the flux from which the poem itself might have emerged. (We see this a lot in criticism influenced by identity-politics of any kind. With such politics, we always seem to be in the realm of the same rather than different – the realm of stable identities rather than the unstable flux from which the energy of a work is invariably drawn.)
All good criticism I feel has to pay attention to the flux, which is not simply part of the poem’s external background, but part of what Hopkins might call its inscape. The real challenge of poetry-criticism is to see the poem emerging from its own (unfamiliar) background in the process of taking its place in the more familiar landscape of actual poetry-criticism. In other words, criticism does not have all the answers, it is not a practice with rules of thumb which enable the critic to ‘discuss’ any poem he or she comes across without reference to the unfamiliar flux from which it might have emerged. Every original poet has had to deal with critics who know only their own familiar language and who believe their language is adequate to the task of any poem they might encounter. Such critics are invariably at sea when dealing with anything new and therefore are denied access to standby answers in their responses to original work. Nevertheless, they feel that they have to say something. To use Hopkins’ own term, instress is as important to criticism as it is to poetry. There can be no flunking its challenge, no lazy falling back on what the critic already knows. With any new poetry, the critic must reinvent him or herself in response to it or simply have nothing to say.
In his first major book, Being And Time, Martin Heidegger summed up I believe the ethos which informs a great deal of criticism. “The “they” maintains itself...in the averageness of that which belongs to it, of that which it regards as valid and that which it does not, and of that to which it grants success and that to which it denies it. In this averageness with which it prescribes what can and may be ventured, it keeps watch over everything exceptional that thrusts itself to the fore. Every kind of priority gets noiselessly suppressed. Overnight, everything that is primordial gets glossed over as something that has long been well-known. Everything gained by struggle becomes just something to be manipulated. Every secret loses its force.” In a way, the critic is there to police poetry in the manner Heidegger is suggesting, rather than enable its inner voice to be heard. Inscape is not its strong suite, any more than instress. Heidegger is not, I believe, ascribing a social role to the way “the they” maintains itself. I mean, most social interactions are pretty innocent in that regard and concern quite basic practical relations between people. But a society as a whole needs to hold itself together and impose what might be called third party plural values on the population in general and these values seep into the fabric of our social relations and institutions. They can be recognized quite easily in ‘neighbourly’ gossip whereby an ‘outsider’ is ostracised. In gossip, individuality gets, noisily – rather than noiselessly - suppressed. And that, of course, is what a lot of criticism is about as well. The uniqueness and individuality of original work, which IS primordial, here meets a blank because in such criticism the background flux of Being out of which the poem has arisen is not itself being engaged, but only values and ideas that have already been framed by society at large – including the critical establishment of course. This is what you might call reactive criticism as opposed to creative criticism. Someone once said that great criticism is even rarer than great poetry, which is probably due to the fact that criticism has a policing role to play in our society, which poetry doesn’t, and critics must find it difficult to step outside of that policing role.
Criticism does, therefore, need to be deconstructed. Deconstruction does not imply destruction. The deconstruction of the idea of identity does not mean its rejection as an idea. It simply means opening identities up to the play of differences which both constitute and subvert them. The flus, in other words, that makes us and breaks us. Whether criticism can itself start deconstructing its own assumptions and values is perhaps undecidable. It is certainly to be hoped for, but whether it can be expected is another matter entirely.