- The Subject as Action: Transformation and Totality in Narrative Aesthetics
The Subject as Action is a dense and challenging book. In it Alan Singer brings together three distinct strands of contemporary critical thinking [End Page 929] —narrative theory, the category of the aesthetic, and the critique of the ideological subject—for the purposes of demonstrating how a rethinking of the place of agency in each can lead to a reconceptualization of its relationship with the others. “Narrative theory” is represented by an engagement with Lukács, Ricoeur, and Genette, as well as with key texts by Blanchot, Sterne, and Henry James. “Aesthetics” is engaged principally through a rethinking of Baumgarten and Kant. And the critique of the ideological subject is sustained primarily through the positions of Adorno and Giddens. The upshot of Singer’s intricate arguments is that the intersection of these three traditions can lead to a model of agency that is open equally to transformation and to recognition (often figured as “totality”). The goal of ideology critique, as he rightly sees it following Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, is to restore agency, not truth.
The formidable risks in attempting to sustain this noble effort are apparent in the exposition and arguments of the book. Foremost among these are two. The first is that the “place” where narrative theory, aesthetics, and ideology critique meet may be forced to appropriate the vocabulary of certain preexisting categories (such as “action”) in order to appear recognizable at all. In rewriting, for example, aesthetics in terms of agency, however, the boldness of Singer’s claims may also distort what early aesthetic theory had in mind, which was judgment and reflection rather than action per se. This may be lost to readers not sufficiently alert to the subtleties of his Singer’s argument. The second and far greater risk is that the delicate balance between “transformation” and “totality” may at any moment be lost and what must be a dialectical relationship may become dominated by one of the two terms at the expense of the other. In the concrete case at hand, this usually means that the terms of totality and recognition are forced to yield to transformation; transformation in turn accounts for what is at stake for Singer in the category of action. Indeed, the book argues strenuously in favor of a model of action that is without a telos, and in favor of an model of action that is pure motive or, at its most extreme, pure activity. It is the absence of telos that, in Singer’s view (115) may enable action to be ethical. This radical view of the subject of such action/activity is an amalgam of Kristeva’s “subject-in-process,” of Sartre’s agent of choice, and ultimately of the Fichtean subject as the center of activity (126). We know, but need to be reminded, that this radically contingent [End Page 930] subject is also situated and is susceptible to determinations in a myriad of ways that are (at the very least) social, historical, and material in nature.
Central to Singer’s reevaluation of narrative theory in this work is his engagement with Lukács, and especially the Lukács of The Theory of the Novel. The Lukácsean subject of the novel is caught in the anxiety of searching for totality in a world where the whole is only remembered or indirectly given. The form-making imperative that Lukács’ imputes to the novel makes that genre essentially Kantian in nature, but the impossibility of meeting the demands laid out by such an imperative impels the novel either toward the bad infinity of a romantic nostalgia or toward a romantic irony; the latter, Lukács argues, represents the specific modality of the novelist’s greatest acts of freedom. Singer essentially rewrites Lukács by displacing the presiding importance of nostalgia and romantic irony and by arguing that narrative always involves the interplay of ends and means. Narrative involves the recontextualization, the transformation, and the re-direction, always...