- Walter Scott and Contemporary Theory by Evan Gottlieb
The breadth of Evan Gottlieb’s Walter Scott and Contemporary Theory announces itself in the book’s chiastic structure, in its promise to use “theory to illuminate the complexities of Scott’s fictions while simultaneously using Scott’s fictions to explore the state of contemporary theory” (4). Gottlieb, with a contagious passion for both subjects, proves a more than apt critic for such an ambitious endeavor. In five searching chapters—each reading two Waverley Novels alongside one or more theorists—Gottlieb simultaneously provides a comprehensive overview of contemporary theory and exposes the undeniable philosophical relevance of Scott’s novelistic vision: if theory aims to critique “the normative claims of Western modernity” (8), then Scott’s fascination with historical processes that both constitute his characters and propel [End Page 267] them toward modernity makes his fiction a perfect mirror for reflecting theory’s preoccupations.
At the heart of such preoccupations is the problem of modern subjectivity, which Gottlieb, via Žižek, examines in Waverley and Ivanhoe. Waverley, through its notoriously pliable hero’s trading of one fantasy for another—Jacobitism for Hanoverianism—illuminates the forces that imprison the subject in the “ontological nullity” of the symbolic order (21). Ivanhoe, through its exclusion of Jews from the story of the birth of the British nation and Ivanhoe’s unacknowledged grief for the loss of Rebecca, underscores the steep cost of the subject’s full embrace of the symbolic order. Ultimately, both novels produce, in Žižek’s parlance, “barred subject[s]” (20), whose core bespeaks “hollowness,” “self-doubt,” and “melancholy” (30-31).
Scott’s insight into the modern subject’s predicament points to the novelist’s proto-post-modernist understanding of History as “historicity,” a discursive formation that trades in “permeable boundaries between fact and fiction, record and rhetoric…past and present” (39). Drawing on Reinhart Koselleck, Gottlieb reads The Antiquary as a self-referential text that enacts the incompleteness of experiencing reality and thus dispenses with any notion of historical totality. In contrast, Redgauntlet, with its pronounced “material motivation” (49), anticipates Manuel DeLanda’s “realist ontology” (55), underscoring the slippery imbrication between genetics and culture and, by implication, the inadequacy of human agency to control the causes—and the outcomes—of history.
An illuminating exploration of Homi Bhabha’s idea of “hybridity” allows Gottlieb to distinguish in Scott’s Rob Roy characters who, like the eponymous Rob, form “fluid, mobile subjectivities” (64) from someone like Rob’s wife, an anachronistic remnant of times past who survives through an antagonistic relationship to modernity. Turning to The Talisman, Gottlieb identifies the main protagonist’s cross-dressing as an abject African slave as a realization of Butler’s concept of “performativity,” which enables the character’s “transcultural epiphany” (73) and thus promotes the ethics of self-understanding based on a radical exposure to the Other.
In Gottlieb’s recuperative readings of Scott, the novelist-philosopher—rather than a “conservative” promoter of modern subjectivity (11)—launches a “critique of modernity” (76) that, as in The Heart of Midlothian, results in explorations of Foucauldian “governmentality,” in representations of the police as an omnipresent, menacing force. In Quentin Durward, Scott goes even further by envisioning normative apparatuses that have the power to both form and destroy the subject. Relying on Agamben’s poignant formulation of homo sacer, Gottlieb convincingly shows how Scott portrays the sovereign power as an arbitrary will to dehumanize, even annihilate its disposable, co-optable subjects.
If Scott, with his (often forced) happy endings, champions the “winners” of these oppressive forces, thus failing, in Alan Badiou’s terms, to “rend open… ‘[the] knowledges’ that constitute the present situation” (133), he never fails in exposing “the essential ethico-political (in)consistency of modernity” for what it truly is (96). In other words, he never fails to historicize, which, in Gottlieb’s book, makes him “just as prescient as today’s contemporary theorists” (96). Reading The Bride of Lammermoor and Chronicles of Canongate, Gottlieb shows (via theorists such as Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, Michael Hardt...