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Joyce Against Theory: James Joyce After Deconstruction (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 47, Number 4, Summer 2010
pp. 659-664 | 10.1353/jjq.2010.0016

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Taking “Ulysses Gramophone”—Jacques Derrida’s 1984 address to the Frankfurt International James Joyce Symposium—as its somewhat arbitrary cut-off point,1 David Vichnar’s book, Joyce Against Theory: James Joyce After Deconstruction, sets itself the unenviable meta-critical task of scanning the last twenty-five years of theoretical innovations in Joyce scholarship.2 In the introduction, Vichnar informs the reader that his book is divided into two parts (oddly enough, the division is not signaled in the table of contents). The first covers five critical approaches that have been applied to Joyce’s work: (1) deconstruction, (2) psychoanalysis, (3) feminism, sexuality, and gender studies, (4) cultural studies, and (5) postcolonialism. The second deals with “how these various critical positions have viewed some of the thematic concerns of Joyce’s work” (25): (1) modernism and postmodernism, (2) historicism, (3) politics, (4) technicity, media, and hypertext, and (5) textual criticism and textual genetics. The resulting book will be useful for readers seeking to know more about the field of Joyce and theory; for those immersed in the Joyce-theory question for a while, however, this text will prove to be a little frustrating.

Vichnar is keen to connect his approach to the Joyce and theory issue to Derrida’s well-known formulation, in “Ulysses Gramophone” (276, 305), of an aporetic doubled “yes, yes” that appears to affirm the “other” even as it appears to deny it (2–3). To this end, Vichnar introduces his project by exploiting the double valence of the word “against” that joins and separates the two major concerns of the book. On the one hand, Joyce’s text abuts—is up against—theory: “Joyce’s writing is theoretical through and through” (1), and much can be gleaned from such theoretical readings. On the other, there is a “Joyce whose writing stymies, precludes, evades, or (in the least radical sense) problematizes the conceptual framework brought to bear on it” (8). For Vichnar, then, the best approach to tackling the difficult interrelations of Joyce and theory is one that avoids both a cookie-cutter approach to theorizing about Joyce and a belief that he has no relation to theory (a position that, although Vichnar does not say so, clearly amounts to a theoretical one). Thus, in this author’s project, there is a quasi-ethical dimension that compels him to demand a certain restoration of “Joyce” in theory, wherein the “imposition of pre-constructed analytic grids” is “influenced and permeated by Joyce’s own sophisticated idiom” (12). The difficulty, however, with such a concern for Joyce’s “otherness” is not only that it can (ironically enough) be invoked in order to erase Joyce’s Irishness but also that “Joyce” does not simply or unproblematically name an oppressed or disenfranchised “other.” Whatever else that name may signify, it is, as Derrida makes very clear in “Ulysses Gramophone” (278–87), hopelessly, problematically entangled in struggles for power, prestige, authority, and privilege—struggles, I add, that are not at all trivial for those of us on the margins of the Joyce community. “Joyce” does not function like just any other name; it has many affluent and powerful mouthpieces—individuals, estates, foundations, and the like—that use it to authorize themselves and stifle others. Without a more detailed engagement with Derrida on these points—especially noticeable given the nature of his project—Vichnar’s attempt to inscribe Joyce as “other” runs the risk of degrading the very notion of otherness.

For these reasons, it is simply not enough for Vichnar to close his book with the implication that in remaining faithful to Joyce, one paradoxically ends up “betraying him” (419). One might wonder if betraying Joyce is not actually to remain more faithful to him, given the centrality of the figure of the “gay betrayer” in practically all of his texts.3 If the act of betraying the author remains fundamentally faithful to him and his texts, it is because Joyce’s intentions remain central here. And, so long as these intentions are not displaced, betraying Joyce simply inscribes theory as the safe, quasi-Hegelian “other” of his text: the other it retains for itself, the other that can never really surprise...

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