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Reviewed by:
Alan Singer. The Subject as Action: Transformation and Totality in Narrative Aesthetics. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993. xii + 290 pp.

The current “crisis of faith respecting the sources of human agency,” central to Singer’s book, has at least three sources: the dissolution of the “subject” in deconstruction and postmodernism; views of history propounded by the Frankfurt School, Althusser, and Foucault; and the renewed interest in psychoanalytic theories. Among the victims of this crisis of faith are the aesthetic (guilty by association with subjectivity), ethics (impossible without agency), and, for many postmodernists, politics. Singer’s aim is to rehabilitate and integrate these domains through an enhanced conception of narrative.

Singer’s summary of his argument in the introduction is ten pages long. In the space here available, I can only attempt to characterize his endeavor. His main conceptual resource is Adorno, with reliance on Althusser and Anthony Giddens for conceptions of ideology and society, recourse to Fichte for a theory of subjectivity, and resuscitation of Baumgarten’s ideas about aesthetics. Nelson Goodman and Paul Ricoeur supply important features of his view of narrative; Bakhtin, Lyotard, and Habermas attract his attention as theorists whose mistakes his own theory is able to correct. For Singer, “narrative” means “a reflective capacity of mind,” and “the aesthetic is nothing but motive made ethically vital through submission to the narrative tempers of time.” Hence, despite the passages that discuss novels, this book is not about narrative or aesthetics as we usually conceive them, but rather about action and society, practice and theory, ideological totality and [End Page 567] reflective transformation, “mobile subjectivity” (no mention of Laclau and Mouffe), non-intentional “agency without a telos,” and “contradiction as a basis of subjectivity.”

Readers conversant with the theories Singer treats, especially those sympathetic to Adorno’s negative dialectic and “second reflection,” will be best equipped to understand and appreciate this book. My own mild reservation is that emphasis on community as a mediator between the subject and society, so important in current social and political philosophy, has not found a place in Singer’s endeavor.

Wallace Martin
University of Toledo

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pp. 567-568
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