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  • The Illicit Joyce of Postmodernism: Reading against the Grain
  • Daniel Morris
Kevin J. H. Dettmar. The Illicit Joyce of Postmodernism: Reading against the Grain. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1996. 276 pp.

The “New Modernist” studies have challenged how modernism is remembered by exploring it from previously unacknowledged perspectives. Such is the case in the scholarship on women modernists by Bonnie Kime Scott, Susan Stanford Friedman, and Shari Benstock, on modernism in relation to race, ethnicity, and class by Marianna Torgovnick, Michael North, Cary Nelson, and Barbara Foley, as well as in scholarship devoted to the economics of modernist production in relation to mass culture by Jennifer Wicke and Lawrence Rainey. In editing two volumes of essays—Rereading the New (1992) and Marketing Modernisms (1996)—that contain examples of these approaches, Kevin Dettmar has contributed to the reassessment of modernism by understanding that it “was not just a way of writing, but equally a way of reading.” In his nuanced and readable contribution to Joyce studies, Dettmar has continued to rethink modernism by challenging paradigmatic critical assumptions, in this case about Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses. He questions the structuralist or “mythic method” of reading Joyce, a project fostered by T. S. Eliot, Stuart Gilbert, and Joyce himself, who later regretted “leaking” the outline of Homeric parallels to Gilbert as it limited the play of his text. Replacing [End Page 1030] modernist reading with an approach that is derived primarily through Barthes’s notion of the blissful text, Bakhtin’s idea of “carnival,” and Lyotard’s concept of the sublime, Dettmar is able, in Rorty’s phrase, “to keep the conversation going” about Joyce while abandoning the cliches of modernism. “What sort of beast are we left with,” Dettmar asks, if we defamiliarize Joyce by giving up chestnuts such as “stream of consciousness,” “spatial form,” “impersonality,” and the “mythical method”? Dettmar’s answer to his own question is that situating Joyce within a new paradigm—text instead of work, laughter instead of high seriousness, mystery instead of mastery, and a suspension of epiphanic readings and hermeneutic detection—can revive his wildness and transgressivity.

There are ironies to Dettmar’s attempt to bring Joyce to life by replacing an outmoded set of (New) critical practices with another set of authoritative principles. In “Theorizing Postmodern Stylistics,” Dettmar provides a useful summary of key terms from Barthes, Bakhtin, and Lyotard, but the rehearsal of their positions must seem familiar to all but the most atavistic of graduate students and college teachers involved in literary studies. This is not to deride his elucidation of postmodern theory; he even makes an important corrective to McHale and Hutcheon by viewing postmodernism as a philosophical and stylistic attitude rather than as a historical phenomenon. By noting the familiarity of his models, however, I am suggesting that instead of making Joyce seem strange by embracing textual play and authorial disfiguration, Dettmar’s critical apparatus enables Joyce to be received by a new interpretive community that will contain his texts under the sign of a firmly established critical paradigm. If adhered to, Dettmar’s project will keep Joyce in the academy and out of the dustbin, where the New Critics are found.

Albeit in postmodern fashion, Dettmar’s reading of Joyce contradicts postmodern theory by maintaining a type of intentionality, authority, and even historical limit in Joyce’s avant la lettre version of postmodernism. Even as he argues for the Barthesian text of bliss, rather than for the distinct borders of the modernist work, Dettmar is most informative about Joyce’s compositional strategies when he reads in terms of a literary career that developed from one volume to the next. Dettmar shows that Joyce’s novels can be characterized as a progressive lightening up as he replaced the overseriousness of Stephen [End Page 1031] found in Portrait with the whimsical ad man Bloom, who displaces Stephen as the major figure in Ulysses. While the postmodern turn may acknowledge no master, Dettmar’s discussion of John Cage’s reliance on the I Ching as a method of arrangement that is comparable to Joyce’s trust in compositional luck suggests that Joyce...

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