restricted access Telling the Other: The Question of Value in Modern and Postcolonial Writing (review)
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Reviewed by
Patrick McGee. Telling the Other: The Question of Value in Modern and Postcolonial Writing. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992. 218 pp. $36.50 cloth, $12.95 paper.

Patrick McGee's Telling the Other is an exemplary critical hybrid; deftly employing a Lacanian and post-structuralist (primarily deconstructionist) vocabulary, it offers a series of interlocked readings whose passionate political thrust leads the work thoroughly into the domain of cultural studies. [End Page 407] McGee, well-known as a Joycean for his Paperspace: Style as Ideology in Joyce's "Ulysses" (1988), is modest about the originality of this coupling: "I would not claim for this book any strict methodological kinship with Cultural Studies; but it does try to incorporate into the very shape and content of its analyses and interpretations what Raymond Williams identifies as the 'central theoretical point' of Cultural Studies: 'that you cannot understand an intellectual or artistic project without also understanding its formation.'" He goes on to point out with succinct elegance that he sees no "logical or historical" contradiction between Williams's formulation and the techniques of deconstruction. Few critics could advance that proposition with as much justification as McGee can, since most are unable to tread both the linguistic, or rhetorical, side of literary interpretation and the historically and materially attuned side with the finesse, clarity, and illumination McGee brings to his critical fusion. McGee refuses to acquiesce in the great divides of our critical discourses, and the result is his remarkably rich study, Telling the Other.

Adjudicating the question of value is the partial impulse behind the book: arising from a pedagogical impasse that professors know only too well, McGee recounts how his investigations were prompted by issues of value, subjectivity, and authority that emerged sharply in a course on Ulysses. From this crux of questions McGee has built a set of textual readings that take the problematics of value and symbolic exchange as far as they have gone heretofore: into the realm of radical alterity, or the "big Other." Called only slightly facetiously the "big" Other, to differentiate it from Lacan's famous objet petit a, the "little" other of the alter ego, McGee traces out the space of radical alterity or Otherness in language, specifically in modernist literature and its aftermath. His brilliant readings range across pivotal texts of modernism, from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Joyce's Ulysses, Woolf's The Waves, to the circumstances of postcolonial writing in the work of Ngugi wa Thiongo, and other African writers, and in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children: returning to the European stage of postmodern writing, his text ends with an extended treatment of Monique Wittig's The Lesbian Body. Counterpointing the literary readings is an ongoing encounter with the key concepts or methods of contemporary critical theory, and here, too, McGee triumphs with the crystalline clarity of his analyses. As an expositor of the knotty reaches of Lacanian psychoanalysis or the complexities of Derridean difference McGee has few peers—among other successes, his book is a model of critical explanation. Even more formidable is its grounding in feminist theory and its foregrounding of gender and sexuality: without an iota of cant, McGee interlaces the class/race/gender triad as a genuine relation.

Telling the Other wants to teach us how to take seriously the potential for the liberation of intersubjectivity, or the opening of symbolic exchange, which can be accomplished in literary writing and in literary reading. McGee is especially good at conveying this in persuasive and original fashion for texts as picked over as Conrad's, or as resistant to reading as The Waves. [End Page 408] What joins the disparate chapters is an unfolding argument about the distribution of value in society, whether linguistically, politically, or psychically, but also an understanding of the passage from the modern to the postmodern. McGee harnesses his sophisticated notion of radical alterity to explore the unexplored within modernism—chiefly the unacknowledged presence of the colonial subject, and the hegemonic distinctions of sexual difference. McGee's discussion of these two vectors converges in what amounts to his own theory of postmodernity, a tour de force.

At times, McGee's...


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