Friday, February 17, 2012

Joyce's Ulysses does and does not Exist

(I'm freely, and gleefully pillaging Levi Bryant's Democracy of Objects in developing my Free University class: Revolutionary Narrative: Toward a Poetics of Power. Free on-line or as PDF, and highly recommended.
I remember someone once challenging the merit of Joyce’s Ulysses because it doesn’t exist as a completed whole. His argument went something like this: in the thousands of minor and some not so minor differences in the existing manuscripts and proofs, there is no way to decide what a definitive, authorial edition would look like. What we have, then—is a collective assemblage representing no single aesthetic vision, and therefore, does not exist as a unity. Setting aside arguments for how collective, even accidental productions, might come together as unified systems—which is how I would have responded at the time—the more basic, and unexamined assumption here, is the idea of unity itself—that there can ever be such a thing as a ‘whole.’

There is no such thing as ‘a’ novel. Or poem. Or story or… as a single, aesthetically (or otherwise) coherent, systematically organized structure or system, such that every part relates to every other to create a unified, and unifying whole. And it is this, not because there are as many readings as readers, or because every possible interpretive translation (all interpretations are translations) is necessarily limited, that we can never comprehend a literary production as a whole—as convincing and these arguments might be—but because there is no such thing. It does not exist. That is not to say, Joyce’s Ulysses doesn’t exist. It does. In different versions, and each version is made of parts that are always greater than any hypothetical, always inconceivable whole. I say ‘inconceivable,’ not that we can’t conceive of the possibility of an aesthetic whole—but that it will be impossible to point to what that might actually be. Sort of like the way we talk about God. Imaginable in general, but inconceivable in the particular. Or for that matter, how we think of collectives of power… of the State…which has more than a little in common with the way we think of God.

It will be a working principle of this class, that any narrative is both a collective allowing for variation and internal contradiction at the deepest structural level, and even, like Theseus’ ship--the addition, deletion and replacement of parts--yet still retain an identity. Plutarch’s paradox vanishes when Identity no longer assumes Unity.

further thoughts along these lines in comments to a post on Written Word, Spoken Word. As I wrote there...... this increasingly suggests to me that the turn from content based criticism to inter- and intra- textual linguistic analyses, all signifier and no signified, may be in part, an anxiety reaction to avoid moving to a more dangerously revolutionary mode of reading and constructing narratives.

1 comment:

  1. If I didn't already love this work I would be endeared to it now for its salubrious affect on you, Jacob. Enjoy every word. I saw god there: greater ontological dignity!