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Imagining Joyce and Derrida: Between "Finnegans Wake" and "Glas," (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2008
pp. 171-176 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0130

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Peter Mahon's Imagining Joyce and Derrida: Between "Finnegans Wake" and "Glas" is an extremely ambitious book. It engages with some of the most important and, some would say, most difficult thinkers in western philosophy in order to construct theoretical and philosophical contexts for exploring some of the many complex relationships between the texts of James Joyce and Jacques Derrida. Joyce's readers and scholars who are not familiar with the works of G. W. F. Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Martin Heidegger upon which Mahon constructs his readings of the relationships between Joyce's Wake and Derrida's Glas may well find Mahon's complex and elaborate arguments too challenging or distracting from the immense difficulties that Joyce's and Derrida's texts offer. Joyceans interested in theory and philosophy would probably find the study less daunting. It will be particularly interesting to see what trained philosophers make of Mahon's engagements with the classical philosophy of Plato and the later works of the European writers whom Mahon examines. The book spends a considerable amount of time exploiting Derridean "non-concepts" like the "double," the "double structure," and "différance" as it attempts to create a view of the relationships between the Wake and Glas. It might be his reliance upon Derrida's notion of undecidability that makes it almost impossible for me to decide if Imagining Joyce and Derrida comes close to achieving its author's ambitions or if it is "only/Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself,/And falls on th' other."

There is a significant body of work upon which Mahon could have drawn for his study. Instead, he distances himself from this material, arguing that his book "differs from all these efforts," which he dismisses as "constraining" readings of Joyce. Mahon sets himself the ambitious task of "creating a theoretical framework that will enable readers of Joyce and/or Derrida to theorize and negotiate a broadened conception of Joyce-Derrida intertextuality and to unlock the rigorously deconstructive potential of the Wake's textual practice" (4-5). Already extant engagements with Joyce and Derrida, however, constitute a developing tradition of scholarship that engages efficiently with the rigorous deconstructive practices of the Wake in practical and textual terms. Why, then, dismiss the valuable work of critics like Jean-Michel Rabaté, Laurent Milesi, Sam Slote, Louis Armand, Margot Norris, and others? Mahon devotes a considerable part of his study to his reductive interpretation of the Wake's "immarginable" (FW 4.19) as "imaginable," and his refusal to consider the already existing and effective engagements with that text's deconstructive theorizing practice brings to mind Northrop Frye's argument that writers who ignore tradition in order to rely solely upon imagination bring forth monsters and monstrosities rather than effective works of literature.

An important part of Mahon's central argument is that imagination is preferable to the classical philosophical concept of mimesis. Imagining Joyce and Derrida contends that the Wake "disrupts and reinscribes the philosophical understanding" of the Platonic concepts of mimesis, or interpretation, and eidos, or idea (form, shape, and so forth—3). Mahon contends that "[i]n place of this process of mimēsis, Finnegans Wake proposes the problematic of the 'immargination'" (3). His term "immargination" (it is not Joyce's) allows the reader to uncover one of the problems that emerges from Mahon's frequent confusion of meaning and signification. Mahon often uses the terms "meaning" and signifier and signified as if they had the same semantic value and signifying functions, but they do not. Meaning can be influenced by context, but it refers to semantic value whereas a sign always signifies the double values of the signifier and signified that constitute it, and all signifieds can become signifiers, shifting the semantic values we can attach to them. Interpreting the Wake's "immarginable" as "immargination," Mahon sets aside, or suppresses, both the grammatical class and the polysemy of Joyce's term in order to focus upon only one of its possible signifieds. Instead of exploring both the values of "that which can be imagined" and "that which cannot be marginalized or be limited by margins," Mahon captures the value of the former at the expense of the...

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