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Hugh Kenner and the Origin of the Work of Art

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that the earliest discussion of Borges’s Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote and its implications for understanding the ontology of works of art was in a 1971 essay on Nelson Goodman’s classic Languages of Art by Anthony Savile.1 But the first time I ever read an account of the Borges and encountered the concept (if not in those exact words) of the ontology of the work of art was in the fall of 1968 in Hugh Kenner’s The Counterfeiters.2 I already knew the story because, two years earlier, when I was a freshman at the University of Michigan, my roommate had invited me out to dinner with his mother who was visiting from Bloomfield Hills, and the mother had brought a friend, a young English professor who was, I think, then at either the University of Detroit or at Windsor. The friend talked so brilliantly about Borges that after dinner, I went right away to one of those open really late Ann Arbor bookstores and bought two books: a collection of short stories by the friend (Upon the Sweeping Flood, Joyce Carol Oates) and Borges’s Labyrinths. And two years later, when a classmate from high school learned I was going to U.C. Santa Barbara, he recommended Hugh Kenner’s book on Samuel Beckett, so by the time I got to California, even though I had been a philosophy major, I knew who Kenner was, and after I enrolled in both classes he was teaching (undergraduate on the Symbolists, graduate on Ezra Pound) and then bought every Kenner text I could find, The Counterfeiters, just published, was at the top of my reading list. And even though the phrase “ontology of the work of art” never appears in it and even though—or just because—his account of that ontology would be diametrically opposed to Nelson Goodman’s, Kenner’s treatment of the Menard has increasingly seemed to me a useful way of thinking both about the history of theory and of theory’s relation to modernism, especially to that moment in modernism marked by the emergence of the postmodern.

So, what does Goodman say about Menard’s Quixote? For Goodman, writing with Catherine Z. Elgin, the identity of any text is determined by what they call its syntax—its particular “configuration[] of letters, spaces, and punctuation marks” and has nothing to do with “what the text says or otherwise refers to.”3 So, since Cervantes first produced the configuration of letters and spaces that is the Quixote, Borges’s title, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, is a mistake; Cervantes is the author. But the end of the story, which describes Menard’s achievement as having contributed “a new technique” to “the slow and rudimentary art of reading”: “deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution”4 gets it right—properly understood, Menard is not a writer but a reader, and what he produces, according to Goodman and Nelson, is a new interpretation of the text that Cervantes wrote. That is, he attaches a different meaning to the same set of letters and spaces that Cervantes produced, but since what the text is is not determined by what Cervantes meant—it’s the production of letters and spaces, not meanings that makes him an author (or, to get a little ahead of ourselves, it’s what he did described without reference to what he understood himself as doing)—the fact that Menard’s meanings differ from Cervantes is not a problem. Even the fact that Menard is influenced by William James in a way that Cervantes’s could not have been is not a problem since it’s not unusual for there to be interpretations of a work that differ from the author’s; indeed, Goodman and Elgin say, a work can have “correct interpretations that its author cannot understand” (IAI, 574), like for example, Freudian interpretations of Hamlet.

Furthermore, since it’s the letters and spaces regardless of what the text says that constitute the work, it’s not only possible for there to be correct interpretations that differ from what the author might have meant by them, it’s possible for there to be texts whose authors did not mean anything by them. Texts authored by the usual monkeys with typewriters or by a machine would be the “limit case” here. Where Shakespeare might not have been able to understand a Freudian interpretation of Hamlet, the monkeys wouldn’t be able to “understand any interpretations” (IAI, 574) of the text they’d produced. But, if they were the first ones to produce it, they wouldn’t for that reason count any less as its authors. A text, Goodman and Nelson say, is an “inscription in a language” (IAI, 571). When that inscription took place is dispositive for the question of authorship but how it took place—whether by persons with views about history or by monkeys without even the concept of history—is irrelevant to the question of authorship and to everything else.

Of course, their point is not that writing without meaning anything by what got written is the sort of thing that usually, sometimes, or ever happens. That’s why it’s a limit case; what it shows is that a text written by Cervantes is as autonomous from its author as one written by monkeys. And for Kenner too, Menard’s Quixote points us toward a limit case, but not because it shows the way in which the break with the author, as unlikely as it is empirically, must logically always take place but because it shows that the break with the author is not unlikely but “unimaginable” and that, logically, it never takes place.

Why unimaginable? The answer comes clear when we look at Borges’s attempts to imagine it. Since Menard’s intention “was to produce a number of pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of … Cervantes,” he had “no intention” of “copying” Cervantes (CF, 91), Borges says, a point that Kenner insists on by identifying the interest of the project with our ability to “see behind arranged words the act of a man finding and arranging them” rather than “suppos[ing] these words were simply copied.”5 For if the words were simply copied, then there would actually be no point in copying them, you could just sign your own name to a copy that already existed (which is, for example, what Kenner thinks of Andy Warhol as doing with his soup cans). By contrast Menard ended producing “endless” drafts, which he “stubbornly corrected” in the process tearing up “thousands of handwritten pages” (CF, 95). Which makes it clear the process was difficult but doesn’t yet get us to Kenner’s point, which is not just that what Menard was doing was difficult but that it’s difficult to imagine what Menard was doing. Which we can begin to see just by asking ourselves on what criterion the torn-up pages were deemed inadequate.

Borges famously singles out for praise Menard’s description of “truth’ whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past …” (CF, 94). A rejected draft might have said something like this: “truth, whose father is history,” “preserver of time ….” Then “father” and “preserver” crossed out and replaced with “mother” and “rival,” the point of the revision being to express Menard’s thought better and also to make sure the text in which he expressed it coincided (“word for word and line for line”) with what Cervantes had written. Of course, it’s hardly likely that in expressing his own thoughts he would find himself doing so in Cervantes’s words, but that’s the problem that infinite time (like the monkeys and the typewriters or being “immortal” [CF, 91]) is supposed to solve. However, the idea that he could, in revising, check to see how he was doing is a deeper problem. You wouldn’t know that truth whose father is history was wrong unless you checked, but if you checked and then corrected, you’d be copying. So, you could never check. But if you didn’t know what the original said, how could you understand yourself to be trying to reproduce it? The difficulty of Menard’s project, in other words, is not exactly how hard it is to succeed in producing even a few sentences that coincide with rather than copy Cervantes but how hard it is even to try, how hard it is even to know what trying is.

Which is why Kenner calls the Menard “a hypothetical extreme case, uninhabitable like the summit of Everest.” “[I]t is doubtful,” he says, that “we are in the presence of a work of art, if we cannot imagine what a man went through to produce it” (C, 91). Which directly contradicts Goodman and Elgin’s idea that we can be in the presence of a work of art even if no man ever went through anything to produce it, even, that is, if it was produced by accident. For Goodman Menard’s Quixote is a limit case because it shows the fundamental autonomy of the text from the act that produced it; for Kenner it’s just the opposite—its uninhabitability demonstrates the irreducible connection between text and act. We thus have two fundamentally opposed theoretical positions: the act’s only relation to the work is as its cause (so therefore it doesn’t really matter how the Quixote was produced) versus the act determines both the meaning and the identity of the text (so Menard’s Quixote, if it could exist, would necessarily be different from Cervantes’s Quixote). And it’s worth noting that if Kenner’s position opposes him not only to Goodman and Elgin but also to the New Critical consensus in place at the time and to the deconstructive disarticulation of text from author just beginning to emerge, it allies him with philosophers like Stanley Cavell and David Lewis who, with respect to the Borges, urged us to not “to think of a fiction in the abstract, as a string of sentences” but as “a story told by a storyteller on a particular occasion.”6 “Different acts of storytelling, different fictions,” Lewis wrote in 1978, so, “When Pierre Menard re-tells Don Quixote, that is not the same fiction as Cervantes’s Don Quixote—not even if they are in the same language and match word for word.”7

But it’s also worth noting that neither what I’ve called Kenner’s position nor the opposing idea that the text is necessarily detached from the person who produces it is offered by him as a theoretical argument. The main point of The Counterfeiters is not to argue for a theoretical alternative to the idea of the text’s autonomy from its author but to analyze the aesthetic produced by the fantasy of that autonomy. Hence Goodman’s argument that a text can be produced even by someone who doesn’t understand it appears in Kenner not as a theoretical claim but as what he calls a “game”—the game of empiricism whose “central rule forbids you to understand what you are talking about” (C, 173), as when, for example, Gulliver explains human wars to the Houyhnhnms as disputes “whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh” or “whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine” (C, 139). If one way to understand these descriptions is as literalizations that reveal the pointlessness of religious war, the way that interests Kenner is rather as a “chronicle of” (by Gulliver) “uncomprehended externals” (C, 139). In other words, the target of Swift’s satire is less the folly of human behavior than the folly of trying to describe human behavior without reference to what people actually understand themselves to be doing. This is what Kenner calls the Gulliver game, embodied in its purest form in the Turing game, which identifies what it is to be human with the ability to produce the Goodmanian letters and spaces that would look just like the letters and spaces a human would produce, thereby making the computer indistinguishable from the human. The computer (and here he anticipates John Searle’s Chinese Room argument, which makes sense since Goodman’s idea of a text is a syntax independent of any semantics) is the most advanced player in the you’re not allowed to understand what you’re talking about game.

But, again, it’s not the theoretical mistake in imagining a text without a writer that mainly interests Kenner; it’s the aesthetic possibilities made available (or necessary) by what he sometime calls “suppress[ing] traces of origin” (C, 160) but what might be more accurately described as raising the question of origin.

So, for example, he’s interested in Wyndham Lewis’s account of how you forge a signature in The Revenge for Love: first because it’s clear that what you are counterfeiting is not an object but the act of producing an object; second because, Lewis recommends, you do it not by trying to make your own handwriting look like someone else’s but by turning that other person’s signature upside down and then drawing what you see. You achieve success, he says, not by becoming “however slightly, someone else” (C, 165), that is, not by doing what someone else has done, but by manufacturing a way not to see what someone else has done—by not reading the signature and copying what hasn’t been read (not so much imitating an act but replacing one act with another). And, of course, if we invert this process and instead of adding someone else’s signature to something we have made, we imagine ourselves adding our own signature to something we haven’t made (the exemplary instance for Kenner is Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can, but more foundational variants would be R. Mutt’s Fountain or what could be anyone’s blank canvas), we can see why Kenner thinks of the relation to the signature and hence to the act as central to Modernism—why he thinks a book called The Counterfeiters is a book about modernism.

In this respect, Kenner is like Cavell not only with respect to his intentionalism (an intentionalism that is built into the idea that what it means to understand a work is to know what the person who made it was doing) but in their shared sense that modernism makes the question of what the artist was doing—of how the object was made—particularly acute. When Kenner says that the counterfeiter of a twenty dollar bill “is imitating … not the bill but the moment when the bill was … issued by the Treasury” (C, 83), he is insisting on the relation between what the object is and what it was made to be. And when Cavell invokes a familiar skepticism about some abstract art—“A child could do it”8—he is insisting on the importance of an account of what the artist did that will distinguish it from what the child (having perhaps made a similar object) did.

But the way Cavell puts his point is by saying that what he calls the “dangers” of the “counterfeit” and of “fraudulence” are in modernism revealed more clearly than ever to be “essential to art,” and so the pressure to distinguish between the “counterfeit” and “the real thing”9 is more intense than ever. Whereas for Kenner, the counterfeit is not exactly the alternative to the real thing. It’s not as if The Counterfeiters is a book about exposing frauds or about defending the real thing—it’s about establishing the real thing under conditions in which the possibility of its fraudulence is understood as internal to it, as part of what it means to be and a resource for making it real.

Maybe a way to put this is just to say that in Kenner, what was about (in 1968) to be called postmodernism was not exactly the enemy of modernism but already part of what had become its logic, that the threat of a work of art not looking like a work of art was precisely what made it crucial to be able to imagine what the artist went through in trying to produce it—not so much because what the artist went through guarantees its sincerity (another term that’s crucial to Cavell but irrelevant in Kenner) but rather because it was the artist’s ability to incorporate a relation to what she went through in making the work that counted as its claim to be a work. Hence making good work and making bad work can’t be transposed into being sincere and being a fraud.

This is the modernism of the postmodern—of what Jennifer Ashton tried to call (Cambridge University Press wouldn’t let her) modernism post post modernism. It isn’t exactly Cavell’s modernism or even, it seems to me, the modernism of The Pound Era. Even though a lot of it is about the eighteenth century, the aesthetic described in The Counterfeiters comes into being after that of The Pound Era. The Counterfeiters needs both Duchamp and Turing—needs a theory that refused the relation between the act and the object in order to be interested in the irreducibility of that relation. The Pound Era understands itself as centered in the world before the First War—Duchamp’s first readymade may have been produced in 1914 but Kenner’s “men of 1914” are the Vortex, and his subject in that book is the simultaneous extension and dissolution of what, in his terms, we could call the pattern of energies the Vortex consisted in. By contrast, the question of the difference between a urinal and Fountain or a person and a computer (or a blank canvas and a painting) is one that would only fully emerge after the Second War.

At the same time (and in the face of these differences), I’d like to end by remembering that The Counterfeiters does nonetheless have a significant relation to The Pound Era—it was written, Kenner says, as an experiment in solving the “formal difficulties” he found himself confronted with trying to write The Pound Era, for which “a linear narrative would not do, and a sequence of essays was unthinkable.” What he wanted instead was to “keep many themes going, by local saturation and cross reference” (C, 180).  I’m not sure how accurately that describes what he actually did in either book, but I do think his desire not to write a single author study is important, as was his success in imagining not quite imitable instances of alternative literary histories. If The Pound Era produces a somewhat different modernism from The Counterfeiters, they’re nonetheless both committed to a formal structure and a kind of coherence that is not of the life or the person or even the text—one that might be more visibly identified with the Foucauldian episteme (or the idea of the vortex itself). And although nothing came easier to Kenner (or to Foucault for that matter) than writing books, The Counterfeiters even more than The Pound Era raises the question of what a critical book that’s not a narrative or a series of readings or a study of a topic (or, primarily, an argument) can be. Of course, one answer is the elaboration of a theoretical position, but that’s not exactly what The Counterfeiters is either—it’s maybe more like a set of historical variations on a theoretical problem. Which both as a thesis about how to understand the history of art and literature and as an intervention in the question of how to write a book, continues to seem to me an interesting provocation.


1.  “History of the Ontology of Art,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, July 31, 2012,
2.  As the rest of this paragraph suggests, my primary relation to Hugh Kenner was as his student. For two years as an undergraduate at UCSB, I took every class he offered (undergraduate and graduate) and then took two more in graduate school. This was the period in which he was writing The Pound Era, and many graduate seminars involved him coming to class and, in effect, reporting on what he’d figured out that week. It was pretty exciting! A few weeks ago, I looked for the first time in many years at my hardcover copy of The Pound Era and saw, what I’d forgotten, that there was an inscription to me (dated January 1972), and I suddenly remembered being in the living room of the Kenners’ house and Hugh saying he’d just received his first few copies, pointing out that I was mentioned in the book and offering me one of them. It was through his seminars, made more than manifest in that book, that I felt for the first time what it could be like to engage in intellectual work that mattered.
But, of course, for the well-known political reasons, being Kenner’s student was a complicated business. (My own unimaginably naïve effort to win him over on the subject of anti-Vietnam War protests almost ended our relationship before it started.) And for me it became further complicated when I got interested in what was not yet called French theory, which Hugh wasn’t. Partly for that reason and partly because he was in the midst of deciding to go and then going to Johns Hopkins, my dissertation director was the wonderfully provocative scholar Herb Schneidau, whom Hugh had recruited to Santa Barbara because of his first book on Pound but who also, in his previous position at Buffalo, had developed an interest in Derrida, which he very effectively communicated to me. It would be a mistake, however (and part of the point of this short piece is to suggest why), to think that Kenner was not a theoretically interesting critic. In fact, although his theoretical interests were anchored more in questions about the Turing test than in, say, Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art,” his work, in my opinion, speaks very brilliantly to many of the debates that have preoccupied literary theorists over the last half century, even if none of the participants has ever quite recognized it.
3.  Nelson Goodman and Catherine Z. Elgin, “Interpretation and Identity: Can the Work Survive the World?,” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 3 (Spring 1986): 570. Hereafter cited as “IAI” followed by the page number.
4.  Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 95. Hereafter cited as “CF” followed by the page number.
5.  Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 91–92. Hereafter cited as “C” followed by the page number.
6.  David Lewis, “Truth in Fiction,” American Philosophical Quarterly 15, no. 1 (January 1978): 39.
7.  Lewis, “Truth in Fiction,” 39.
8.  Stanley Cavell, “Music Discomposed,” in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 205.
9.  Cavell, “Music Discomposed,” 209.
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