Margot Norris, Joyce’s Web: The Social Unraveling of Modernism [Literary Modernism Ser.] ( Texas UP 1992), 243pp.

Acknowledgements. ‘[...] Derek Attridge’s interrogation of my heliotropic valentine to Joyce in Copenhagen in 1986 had more impact than he knows on my turning away from romance and sexuality in exploring the problem of women [x] in Joyce, and turning towards class, labour, and history. This shift, in turn, required the prior work on Joyce and feminism pioneered by Bonnie Scott Kime, Shari Benstock, Mary Power, and many others. At the same time, the work of Patrick McGee, Cheryl Herr, and Vicki Mahaffey was prodding me to look at problems of culture and style as politicised and historicised elements of the Joycean text. The resulting shifts and torsions are inscribed in Joyce’s Web . (pp.x-xi.)

[…] my own shift away from the ahistoricism of my earlier approach to Joyce [The Decentred Universe …] but also the increasingly historical perspective of the contemporary critical and theoretical debates on the nature of the avant-garde and modernity, of modernism and post-modernism, that centre largely on the relationship of modern art to social practice. (p.3.)

[P]ost-structuralism’s counterargument that history must be construed as a discursive phenomenon or linguistic event, or the rhetoricising of history by theorist like Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard who locate its power in names and signs’ represents an obstacle to the rehistoricisation of Finnegans Wake, considered as the central text of literary modernism. (~p.3-4.)

Marxism’s retreat from privileging realism and the emerging understanding that the modernist aesthetic – seemingly autotelic – can serve the purposes of structural materialism on the symbolic plane; instances Peter Buerger (Theory of the Avant-Garde) who ‘suggests a means of rehistoricising Finnegans Wake’ …

Further: given Joyce’s historical situation at the precisely the moment when the avant-garde’s self-critique was made possible by its confrontation with aestheticism’s disavowal of art’s social origin (p.5.) ]

I will take as my target one of the “effects” of his [Joyce’s] canonisation […] the doubling cited above: Joyce canonised for an ahistoricism and an apoliticism […] the equation of Joyce with the aestheticism of modernism, but an equation redolent with modernism’s suppressed romantic plot of the heroic art saving art’s power to transcend its degradations in the modern world.

[Takes issue with Kernan, who equates Joyce’s epiphany with Wordsworth’s ‘spots in time’ in a larger view of Joyce as a modernist with Pound, Eliot and Yeats.]

[Quotes Alvin Kernan:] “Sometimes they took up their stance on the left, like Blake and Shelley, sometimes on the right like Yeats and Pound, but always, like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, they refused to bow – non serviam – to the bourgeois family, religion, nation, and language that they felt cast nets over their souls.’ (The Death of Literature, Yale UP 1990 p.17; here p.6.)

The postmodernisation of Finnegans Wake, celebrating the unreadability and freeplay of the text, participates ideologically in the same tradition of positioning Joyce’s art as the other of social life and material reality, as a metaphysical epiphany, as it were. (p.6.)

I will follow Seamus Deane in finding the source of the trope of the “poetic Celt” that is the historical mythology behind Stephen Dedalus in Matthew Arnold’s ideological manoeuvre, and the beginnings of its immanent critique in Joyce’s complex and incisive use of Oscar Wilde as the intertexted figure of the violence that the myth of aestheticism inflicts, materially and historically, on the Irish artist. Fololwing Buerger’s implicit internalisation of Herbert Marcuse’s formulation of “affirmative culture”, I will argue that it is Wilde’s aestheticism that makes visible and clear to Joyce the way the myth of artistic autonomy allows bourgeois society (and its historically dominant British culture in his own time) to use art as the idealistic supplement to heal the spiritual lacks and deprivations its materialism and commercialism produces; “art thus stabilises the very social conditions against which it protests. (Buerger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw, Minneapolis UP 1984, p.11.) Joyce’s texts challenge, I will argue, the bourgeois legitimation of modern art’s autonomy by exposing how art’s aesthetic discourse tells political lies about itself. In the end, Joyce’s texts can be made (through a paradoxical process of “unreading readings”) to yield their own negation of artistic autonomy by betraying their genesis in Irish colonialism and lower class [and?] poverty, in reputable and disreputable fundraising and patronage, in censorship and amateur publishing. Joyce’s texts betray [the fact] that the forgery or deception practised by an art putatively forged in the smithy of the soul, takes the form of amnesia regarding the complex economic, social, cultural, and political forces that forged it in history.

The Joycean text […] is capable of an ideological self-correction aimed specifically at the socially empowering features of its own aesthetic modernism. […; &c.]’ (p.7.)

[Critiques Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar for the] privileging of representation over performativity, of realism over écriture, a faith in the presence and unity of the subject rather than delight in its disruptions, and a commitment to the authority of the authorial voice rather than to an unmasterable play of styles.

[Quotes their verdict:] ‘Clearly, in endowing Bloom with such speculations, Joyce is taking upon himself the Holy Office of pronouncing that woman, both linguistically and biologically, is wholly orifice.’ (Gilbert & Gubar, No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Vol. I: “The War of the Words”, Yale UP 1988, p.232; here p.10.)

[Quotes further:] ‘“Oxen of the Sun” presents us with a parabolic wresting of patriarchal power from the mother tongue.’ (ibid., 260; here idem.)

[Quotes Kristeva:] ‘As capitalist society is being economically and politically choked to death, discourse is wearing thin and heading for collapse at a more rapid rate than ever before. Philosophical finds, various modes of “teaching” scientific and aesthetic formalisms follow one upon another, compete, and disappear without leaving either a convinced audience or noteworthy disciples […] Only one language grows more and more contemporary: the equivalent, beyond a span of thirty years, of the language of Finnegans Wake.’ (Kristeva, Desire in Languae, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, et al., Columbia UP, 1980, p.92; here p.11.)

The danger, for feminism, in politically valorising a writing like Finnegans Wake, is precisely that of producing feminism without women – a feminism of no benefit to historical or material women.

However much Finnegans Wake’s experimentalism may be coded in feminist typologies as “preoedipal”, “semiotic”, jouissance, and the like, the reference of its disruptive powers to family, language, or pleasure nonetheless fails to address its historical moment or demonstrate its social relevance. (p.11)

One could argue that it was precisely the “feminine” curriculum of modern languages he studied in his Jesuit schools rather than the classical Greek he would have been taught in the more conventional English public schools from which his Irish Catholicism and poverty barred him, that gave Joyce early models of radical modernity – the Nietzschean revision of classical philology, for example, [13] that ultimately forms his use of Homer in Ulysses. His uniquely progressive Continental education dominated Joyce’s intellectual development, and spawned a remarkable cultural activism, during his late teens. (p.14.)

In Stephen Hero, Stephen argues for a Nietzschean historical use of art (“The poet is the intense centre of the life of his age … vital”), and Joyce stresses throughout Ibsen’s status as a living author […] Yet in this Irish cultural climate that refuses to read Ibsen or allow him to be read [...; 15] the most unlikely figure in the world – the harrassed mother ironing clothes while questioning the apostasy of her son – becomes one of the first readers of Ibsen. […] Mrs Daedalus needs Ibsen because she does not know why her children die. (p.16.)

[…] At the very least, Ibsen may help to prevent the hole of Irish woman’s self-understanding frm being glued with Victorian treacle. (p.17; note, the reference is to Mrs Daedalus’s appeal to Stephen to tell her the meaning of the fluxion from ‘the hole we all have … here.’)

[Discussing the episode of the butcher-boy’s basket in Stephen Hero:] This passage illustrates how aesthetic theorising is founded on the disavowal of the material and social relations of life, and how the apprehension of the beauty of the basket depends on eliding its status as a commodity, a produced object representing the transformation of human labour, as well as it social function as an implement of labour. Stephen, ignoring the young Joyce’s own lesson from Ibsen that art should represent “men and women as we meet them in the real world” (CW45), cuts the butcher boy out of the picture altogether, but not without leaving us the problematic residue of the decapitated heard still presumably within the inverted basket. Phantom figures of labour remain behind all sorts of luminously apprehended selfbounded and selfcontained images and effects in the Joycean text – which both extirpates them and makes their extirpation [19] by aestheticism visible to the reader. The social unraveling of modernism in my subtitle is effected by Joyce’s strategy of problematising the aesthetic theory that has come to emblematise aesthetics in general, and modernist aesthetics in particular, by recovering its implicit violence. (p.19.)

Discusses the scarcity of paper chez Joyce frères - (pp.19-20).

In its self-referentiality and self-reflexivity, I hope to show in the Joycean language an avant-garde intention (in Buerger’s sense) of criticising, rather than reinforcing, the autonomy, separatism, and ultimate transcendentality of modern art. (p.20.)

Quotes Terry Eagleton: ‘Its [ideological criticism] task is to show the text as it cannot know itself, to manifest those conditions of its making … about which it is necessarily silent.’ (Criticism and Ideology, London, Verso Edns. 1978, p.43.) Further, ‘An ideology exists because there are certain things which must not be spoken of. In so putting ideology to work, the text begins to illuminate the absences which are the foundation of its articulate discourse.’ (ibid., p.90; here p.22.)

Speaks of Finnegans Wake as the ‘textual unconscious of the early Joycean oeuvre’ on the basis of the divisions of Scribbledehobble (now known as Notebook VI.A in the James Joyce Archive) – but finds the study of ‘their political unconscious more compelling at the present time. (p.25.)

Bibliography
Incls. L. A. Clarkson & E. Margaret Crawford, ‘Dietary Directions: A Topographical Survey of the Irish Diet, 1836’, in Rosalind Mitchison & Peter Roebuck, eds., Economy and Society in Scotland and Ireland 1500-1939 (Edin: John Donald Publ. 1988), pp.171-92.
Seamus Deane, ‘Masked with Matthew Arnold’s Face’: Joyce and Liberalism’, in Morris Beja, Phillip Herring, Maurice Harmon & David Norris, eds., James Joyce: The Centennial Symposium (Illinois UP 1986), p.9-20.
Seamus Deane, ‘Joyce and Nationalism’, in Colin MacCabe, ed., James Joyce: New Perspectives (Indiana UP 1982), pp.168-83.
Derek Attridge, ‘Finnegans Wake: The Dream of Interpretation’, in James Joyce Quarterly, 27 (Fall 1989), pp.11-29.
John Gordon, Finnegans Wake: A Plot Summary (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1986).
Stephen Heath, ‘Ambiviolences: Notes for Reading Joyce’, in Poststructuralist Joyce, ed. Attridge, pp.31-68.
Frederic Jameson, ‘Ulysses in History, in MacCormack and Stead, ed., James Joyce and Modern Literature, London: Routledge, 1982), pp.126-41.

 

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