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  • Medusa's Ear: University Foundings from Kant to Chora L
  • James DiCenso (bio)
Dawne McCance . Medusa's Ear: University Foundings from Kant to Chora L State University of New York Press. xvi, 164. US $55.00

This richly textured book offers inquiries into the history of ideas, art, and architecture, issues of the privileging of certain modes of sensory experience as related to conditions of subjectivity, and the assumptions structuring models of the modern Western university. It takes on works of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and Ricoeur, mainly as engaged through the readings of Derrida, and it thus covers an enormous amount of historical and conceptual material within a relatively short span. The underlying argument, elaborated through a series of focused engagements with these various figures, is that 'in foundational texts on the modern research university, the philosopher-subject recoils in fear from an othered object (body, woman) he defines as deaf and mute.' Dawne McCance refers to this as a 'Medusa effect' in which a petrified, defensive stance is erected to ward off this feared, multiform 'other.' The Medusa ear characterizes those forms of discourse that focus on hearing-themselves-speak, thereby closing down any movement and mediating interplay with the other.

To make this point, McCance illustrates the ways in which closed, controlling models of knowledge, of pedagogy, and of interpretation have conditioned major trends in Western thought and culture. For example, Kant's late work The Conflict of the Faculties argues for the privileged place of the faculty of philosophy as the instantiation of a pure reason untainted by the influences of non-rational cultural and political trends. Thus 'the border with which Kant encircles the university is supposed to withdraw the logos, logocentric speech, from contamination by body, gesture, ... and the figurative language of mythos.' This encircling, of course, problematically assumes that there is such a thing as a purely theoretical language untainted by political power. Parallel tendencies towards constructing a self-enclosed and exclusive space of reason or truth are discerned in a [End Page 283] variety of other guises. These include Hegel's family model and its crossing out, its making speechless, the middle figure of 'the woman'; Heidegger ' s reading of Van Gogh's shoes in terms of his own philosophical perspective and his closure to the uniqueness of the artwork; and Ricoeur's attempt to separate philosophy from poetry in his theory of metaphor.

On the constructive side, the book wants to make the case that forms of otherness are essential to meaningful, living, dynamic discourses that can reach out and be affected and altered by the new and different. That is, 'there can be no embodied hearing without spacing to an outside; and that spacing entails movement, vibrations, and an imprint of some sort.' This approach is very much in line with a wide range of postmodernist and deconstructionist theorizing. Thus, McCance concludes by offering some reflections on the Chora L Works of Derrida and the architect Peter Eisenman, and other ventures into postmodern architecture, as a way to disrupt 'the Enlightenment's same/different oppositions' and to help open 'multiple ways to hear.' The voice of Derrida is also especially prominent in the readings elaborated throughout the book. McCance, however, distils and concentrates many of Derrida's scattered comments on the various thinkers and issues explored, and with her elaboration of the imagery of the Medusa's ear she has enhanced and given substance to the now familiar critique of binary thinking.

Nevertheless, one major question comes to mind about this type of critique, and it is exemplified by the case of Kant with which McCance begins. She notes how Kant was officially prohibited from writing on the subject of religion by the king of Prussia, and how Kant's desire to protect open rational inquiry from such narrow-minded political interference was a major motivation in formulating The Conflict of the Faculties. McCance then notes that 'Kant walls off scholarly judgment of truth from the civic domain and from the reach of government control. His distinction [between reason and non-reason] inscribes an inside/outside border around the university.' The assumption seems to be that any such distinction...


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pp. 283-284
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