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Reviewed by:
  • Thinking Allegory Otherwise
  • David Kelman (bio)
Thinking Allegory Otherwise. Edited by Brenda Machosky. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010. 288 pp. Cloth $50.00.

It would seem that a volume of essays called Thinking Allegory Otherwise would be setting expectations a little too high. After all, how to propose a different way of thinking about a trope that has been theorized differently for millennia? To make matters more difficult, allegory has passed through a number of significant revaluations over the last two centuries, unfavorably, for [End Page 478] example, by the romantics and more favorably by twentieth-century theorists such as Walter Benjamin and Paul de Man. Allegory, it seems, has always been thought differently, each time it has been theorized. In fact, this difference is inscribed in the very name "allegory," as almost every contributor to this volume notes: allegory etymologically means "to speak otherwise." To speak or to think allegory otherwise is therefore to follow the logic of this trope, namely, to recognize that it is always necessary to think allegory otherwise. For this reason, Brenda Machosky suggests that there are two dominant themes in the volume: it shows that it is impossible to return "to the old, established ways of thinking about allegory," and it "manifests a realization about allegory that we should have known all along" (7). Thinking Allegory Otherwise therefore has something for everyone: it posits itself as a radical break from previous treatments of allegory, but insofar as it is thinking allegory otherwise in this way, it is also maintaining a very traditional emphasis on defining allegory as a speaking otherwise.

One of the clearest ways that this volume presents something new is in the strikingly interdisciplinary nature of the contributions. Along with the usual treatments of allegory in medieval and Renaissance literature (Spenser, Milton), there are also essays that treat the relevance of allegorical expression for the fields of law, political theory, urban planning, architecture, and the history of science. For instance, James J. Paxson suggests in "Allegory and Science" that although allegory would seem to be a threat to the literality of science, he nevertheless finds that the story that modern physics tells is in many ways allegorical in structure. Following Paul de Man's definition of allegory as any reference to a previous sign that radically precedes it, Paxson convincingly shows that supposedly post-Euclidean modern physics refers back to Euclid as its model and "pre-text": "We have, in physics's (post) modern, post-Euclidean world of fundamental structural thought, traced an allegory of the progressive levels of Euclid's hierarchy in the Elements. The move from particles to strings to membranes parallels the move from points to lines to planes in Euclid's great ur-text or, to use another term expressly from the literary history of allegory, his 'pre-text'" (258-59). Likewise, Daniel Selcer's contribution shows that Galileo, while critical of any attempt to describe nature using allegorical structures (that is, by referring back to a previous text as authority), nevertheless insists that the book of nature should stand as an allegorical pre-text: "This most unnatural of tropes will be naturalized, as the data of experience and its mathematical organization by reason constitute the well-ordered series of figures to which any meaningful discourse must correspond" (70). [End Page 479]

This same emphasis on the allegorical structure of meaningful description can be seen in Richard Wittman's contribution, "Monuments and Space as Allegory." Even during the Enlightenment (which often polemicized against allegory), proposals for urban monuments resisted mere description and instead created highly complex allegories that substituted for the monument itself. Wittman suggests that this kind of allegorical expression is, in turn, a symptom or allegory of the way printing had replaced architecture as the dominant public expression of the community: "The public domain had changed in some fundamental way that, quite literally, took the ground out from under architecture's ancient vocation as the human artifact that most prestigiously and most legibly shaped the common spaces of social experience" (158). Allegory, in both architecture and science, not only turns out to be a legitimate discourse of its own but also ends up...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1528-4212
Print ISSN
0010-4132
Pages
pp. 478-481
Launched on MUSE
2012-08-17
Open Access
No
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