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Joyce Through Lacan and Žižek: Explorations (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 47, Number 2, Winter 2010
pp. 305-307 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0009

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Towards the end of this hugely enjoyable book, Shelly Brivic mentions "Joyce's devotion to Shelley" (212); inevitably, deep in the echo-chamber of this work, one hears a chiasmic reversal—"Shelly's devotion to Joyce"—for it is Brivic's devotion to Joyce and to all things Joycean that serves as the wellspring of the book and that forms, in the end, its fundamental message. Brivic has been, he tells us with relish, a Joycean for forty-three years and a Lacanian for thirty-two, and he has published on the two of them for almost as long. So how can anything new be left for him to say about the two authors? Evoking the sinthome, that "puncept" with which Lacan sought to reinvent the psychoanalytic symptom as unreadable "Joycean" saint homme, Brivic makes it turn on the very possibility of cultural innovation: "I see the sinthome as deranging language and subjectivity in order to create new possibilities" (15). The triadic rhythm of this definition soon emerges as the governing pattern of the book, even extending to its three sections, devoted, in turn, to A Portrait, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. This triplicity is announced in the preface as a variation, perhaps, of Joyce's "silence, exile, and cunning" (P 247): the book will focus, Brivic tells us, on "departure, transition, and discovery" (xii). Just as the sinthome should be a portal of discovery, so the right way to treat it, Brivic implies, is not as just another critical tool but, rather, as a way to derange and rearrange our Joycean-critical language "to create new possibilities."

The first irony of Brivic's Franco-Hiberno-Slovenian triangle is that the man introduced to mediate between the odd couple—the Blazes Boylan to Lacan's and Joyce's Bloom and Molly, so to speak—is not himself a Joycean at all. Whenever Slavoj Žižek's fast-moving theoretical engine has touched on Joyce, it has rapidly come unstuck, as Brivic has to half-admit when he politely notes that the only essay by Žižek featuring "Joyce" in the title, in fact, "leaves Joyce behind after the first page" (229 n21). The very quidditas of Žižek, one might say, is fundamentally at odds with Joycean writing, since the latter does not lend itself to rapid summary and acrobatic redeployment (as an anti-Berlusconi critique of Cosi Fan Tutte, for example, a Marxist footnote to the soundtrack of Vertigo, or a dialectical riposte to 1990s eco-feminism). In other words, you do not have to be an obsessive devotee of Joyce's work to sense how, at some level, it is likely to resist easy assimilation into Žižek's vertiginous concatenation of cultural intertexts. If Ulysses is a semiotic network relating to almost everything, our desire to map that network requires meticulous, repeated reading: the book cannot—cannot simply—be "googled" (although that word itself, as Brivic discovers with glee, is a coinage of the Wake—41).

But if "Blazes" Žižek does not love Joyce, he certainly succeeds in reawakening Brivic's relationship with Lacan. The major advantage of introducing Žižek to the ménage à quatre is that the great Slovenian panjandrum can rescue Lacan from the position of being just another Joycean commentator—a position he never really meant to occupy and one that often makes him look quite foolish, to the delight of theory-bashers everywhere. Instead, the expanding universe of Žižekian interpretation opens up to the judicious critic who, armed with Brivic's great knowledge of all things Joycean, can re-launch the sinthome, now freed from its cryptic vault and able to address many aspects of Joycean experience that Žižek himself simply does not find interesting enough to pause over.

Brivic begins with a clear exposition of the sinthome as a creative supplement to the Lacanian theory of the subject, in which the infamous "metaphorical" centering of the subject on the nom du père yields to an anti-authoritarian self-invention in and through language (15-17). The implicitly anti-patriarchal dimension of this idea has not, Brivic feels, received enough attention, and he wishes to link the sinthome to...

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