restricted access Arrow of Chaos: Romanticism and Postmodernity (review)
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Reviewed by
Ira Livingston. Arrow of Chaos: Romanticism and Postmodernity. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. xiii +251 pp.

Recursiveness is the obsessive object of this new wave account of the romantic origins of postmodern culture. Irony figures as its master trope. From the romantic irony of Friedrich Schlegel and Lord Byron to the “recursive self-reference” that would become “a privileged marker of the literary” and also of modern theory, the climate of modernity is deliberate, cool. At odds with intertextual accounts of the romantic roots of modern writing, the author’s survey stakes out large orders of affiliation. Or rather disorders of them, since he takes his bearings from chaos theory and is skeptical of any stable understanding [End Page 1078] whatsoever. It is with Blake’s anarchic voice that he is most at home. In this as in his construction of the Byronic turn, among other gestures, he signals his allegiance to the romantic school of Jerome McGann

“The reactionary Wordsworth” is an indicative phrasing, as is the author’s perfunctory nod to writing afield of English tradition. McGann is the final figure of recursion here, even as Livingston compares with Manuel De Landa and Oliver Sacks, the fractal principle, or the second law of thermodynamics.

For students of modern fiction, the book’s interest lies elsewhere. Despite the author’s indifference to critical genealogy, he makes a case for the origins of literary modernity in the birth of romantic irony: “With the Romantic pluralization of power-knowledge comes the famous rise of Bakhtin’s ‘heteroglossic’ or ‘dialogistic’ novel, in which all voices must appear in (explicit or implicit) ironic quotation marks.” It is a characteristically rickety critical fabulation, indicative of the drift of the argument from romantic precursors to modern and postmodern theory. Rather than dwelling for a line or two on the kind of connection he wants us to imagine, Livingston moves on distractedly to bash liberal constructions of Bakhtin’s terminology—surely a rote exercise at this late date in the critical reception of dialogic theory. In quick succession, he strings together Althusser’s contrary construction of codependent subjectivity, Benjamin’s “oppositional take on irony,” the ironic postures of Baudrillard and Zizek, as well as more conventional academic reckonings with irony. It is a breathless exhibition of timely critical work, despite the author’s scamping of the details. His treatments are too schematic to stick, but the intimations should be valuable for readers trying to make sense of irony in the postmodern climate.

A sequence of romantic readings anchors the book, and here too Livingston produces interesting, if mostly schematic work, as in his recursive readings of “Tintern Abbey” and “Frost at Midnight.” These are novel and convincing, and they do bear on larger issues of narrative construction. The pursuant treatment of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and some cinematic affiliates takes off from its “Chinese box” narrative structure, with the creature’s voice sandwiched between R. Walton’s epistolary and Victor Frankenstein’s death-bed confessional. Livingston makes much of this but he does not go quite far enough in his own vein. Self-referentiality of the kind that he finds at the wellsprings of [End Page 1079] modernism is vitally at work here in the virtual identity of the three narrators, who participate in the self-destruction of their joint personality. Twin Peaks, the television serial, is introduced instead to take “concentric collapse” into our own narrative condition.

“Masternarrative” is a recurrent term in the book, but the general effect is more like the talk show mentioned in passing than any kind of mastery. Livingston spins out figure after figure, like the “jests at a wine-table” instanced elsewhere by Coleridge. Such delirious verbal concatenations can be vivid, but they are usually one-dimensional. (Is “Romanticism . . . a voodoo doll that oppresses and empowers its handlers with its own fractures and fixations”?) Association is the author’s real forte, and he makes the most of this arch-romantic faculty for his purposes. Minnesota’s Theory out of Bounds series provides scope for his musings; the book is designed around boxes full of collages, visual and verbal constructions, personal recollections, and doodlings...