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After Ontology: Literary Theory and Modernist Poetics
After Ontology: Literary Theory and Modernist Poetics. William D. Melaney. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Pp. x + 260. $57.50 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).
William Melaney's project in After Ontology is to take up Gadamer's hermeneutics and Derrida's deconstruction as conceptual bridges for revisiting the major figures of English (or English-speaking) literary modernism: T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and W. B. Yeats. Why theoretical support is needed for this pilgrimage becomes clear as soon as one realizes that Melaney's interest is less in the masterworks of modernism, more in the masters themselves. He thinks we can discover in them the outlines, possibilities, or perhaps even primary versions of a distinctly postmodern subjectivity. A postmodern subject is a realist with respect to its own historicity and responsive or responsible with respect to alterity. It is in short a finite ethical subject in contrast to the legendary disengaged punctual ego exercising rational control that comes down to us from Descartes and Kant, and which is basic to definitions of modernity conceived variously as the finished or unfinished project of Enlightenment, the rationalization of the world, the globalization of representational-calculative thinking, the history of metaphysics or of a consciousness built to objectify and consume whatever is presented to it, or (at ground level) the culture of money, managerial reason, and man-made mass death. Gadamer and Derrida give us alternative, complementary, and compelling critiques of modernity and, interestingly, they do so by way of a reconceptualizing of aesthetics that makes it possible to see an internal coherence between their philosophical work and modernism, meaning by this term not just literary modernism but the ongoing culture of innovation and extravagance in Western art, poetry, and theater since the late nineteenth century. In particular they help us to see in modernism the critical workings of a subjectivity that, for all we know, is as old as modernity itself and refractory to it. As if a modernist were someone who had never been modern but always already postmodern, constantly interrupting the rationalization of the world, even without meaning to.
Melaney situates modernism against a background of fairly general, familiar terms: romanticism, realism, symbolism, and various kinds of derivative post-isms--Paul Valéry, I guess, would be a postsymbolist. This generality is a condition of Melaney's approach. For him modernism is not a historical category or period-concept but, like history itself, a kind of text. The question is how to conceptualize such a text. He quite rightly sees Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art" as the critical starting point, because this is where Gadamer and Derrida begin their investigations of aesthetic experience. The former develops Heidegger's idea that the work of art cannot be adequately comprehended as an object. Its mode of existence is temporal; it is, so to speak, structured as an event, one that always catches us up as (sometimes unwitting) participants, as if we were characters in a plot that recedes into the past and extends into the future. [End Page 548] What happens to the subject in its encounter with the work of art is perhaps the fundamental question of philosophical hermeneutics. What happens, at the very least, is that we can no longer comport ourselves either as cognitive subjects presiding over an order of things or as disinterested observers of the passing show. The ordered world of philosophical subjectivity always goes to pieces in the event of the work of art, whose business is finitude (or, as Melaney might prefer, "weakness"). Art brings home the essential negativity of experience, which releases us from what had become fixed or taken as given or real. So it is possible that modernism has a critical and transformative efficacy within the culture of modernity. Meanwhile Derrida develops Heidegger's insight that the work of art is irreducibly material in character. It is, as one might put it, naturally opaque and excessive with respect...