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Reviewed by:
  • Acts of Narrative
  • Michael O'Sullivan
Carol Jacobs and Henry Sussman, eds. Acts of Narrative. Stanford: U of Stanford P, 2003. xx + 273 pp.

While this remarkable collection of essays dedicated to J. Hillis Miller shies away from any categorical definition of narrative, its illustrious contributors are so steeped in narrative kudos that any collection they produce instantaneously alters narrative's field of inspection. Jacobs informs us in her preface that "[n]arrative, if we are to believe what follows, is everywhere" (ix); individual essays have not been included solely because they explicitly discuss narrative, but because "they themselves would also be narrative acts" (x).

The thirteen essays of the collection can very loosely be separated into essays that emphasize the form, psychology, and cross-disciplinary potential of narrative. Henry Sussman's "J. Hillis Miller and the Task of the Critic" begins by lauding Miller as a model of the "authentic critic" (14). In Miller's career trajectory from the "phenomenological gauging of texts" to the "extreme positionality" of "rhetorical criticism" (13), what has remained a constant, for Sussman, is his vulnerability to "a set of occasions" that, once mediated by a critic such as Miller, become both evidence for the critic's "self-education" and "momentous occasions in the cultural engagement of an entire readership" (12). One feels, however, that Sussman's homage knows no bounds when he refers to Miller's writing as "grander than the literary production of Proust" (9) and to the people who read Miller as an "inchoate, invisible mass" that has "made itself susceptible to the critic" (14).

Dan Shen's "Difference Behind Similarity: Focalisation in Third-Person Center-of-Consciousness and First-Person Retrospective Narration" and Nicholas Royle's "The 'Telepathy Effect': Notes toward a Reconsideration of Narrative Fiction" are the most strictly formal essays of the collection. In drawing a distinction between "Western" and Chinese "traditions of novelistic criticism," Shen wishes to present a "more balanced" account of the relation between "focalisations in [End Page 724] third-person centre of consciousness and first-person retrospective narration." She argues that the "essential similarity in focalization" between these two modes does not imply identity. There is always a coexistence of the retrospective perspective and the "the moment of experience" in the first person mode, and each mode also gives a different "rhetorical effect" through its handling of "personal reference" (92).

Nicholas Royle questions the validity of omniscience and point of view as narrative staples. For him, the term "omniscience" is misleading as it promotes "a thinking of the 'world' of narrative fiction as holistic, unified, and closed" (96). He introduces the term "telepathy" as a form of communication that disregards the "known channels of the senses" (99). He also discredits "point of view" as a "visual metaphor" that has worked to "negate the importance of voice" in narrative theory (101). Royle reveals the metaphoric nature of narrative terminology, and yet it is unlikely that his own suggestion to embrace a "critical vocabulary" developed around a Derridean "telepathic reality of being-two-to-speak" would prove any more successful (103, 109). Dressing narrative investigation up in the language of extrasensory perception may lead readers to eschew their gut reaction in favor of uncritical clairvoyance.

Tom Cohen's and Alan Liu's essays imaginatively rework readings in narrative form. Cohen's erudite and expansive "Trackings" redeploys what is a central concern of Miller's work: how "the protocols of a 'reading' might turn against themselves," "if memory were to track 'tracking' itself" thereby "opening the pre-recordings, momentarily or virtually, to disincription" (110). Cohen's vertiginous essay moves from Miller's tracing of the "black hole" in his reading of Faulkner's Go Down, Moses to his own "act of narrative" that seeks to uncover both a "preoriginary domain of the 'aesthetic'" (122) and a reading that would be "prior to phenomenalized thinking" (126), a thinking that has dogged literary studies for much of the twentieth century. These spaces open up for the reader what Cohen refers to as an agency for "renetworking the telemnemonics of scriptive legacies" (129).

Such "information age" rhetoric is echoed in Alan Liu's "Sidney's Technology: A Critique...


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pp. 724-727
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