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  • Stephen/Joyce, Joyce/Haacke: Modernism and the Social Function of Art
  • Mark A. Wollaeger

What are the political consequences of reading Joyce within the labyrinthine structures of his own intentions? Readers of Joyce are familiar with the experience of following out an interpretive lead, an allusion, say, or an intratextual echo, only to discover that one’s ingenuity has all the time been in service of returning to a place where Joyce has long been expecting us. Of course one could do worse than explore these textual spaces; the pleasures of reading require no defence. Yet important questions arise when oppositional criticism claims subversive force for its immanent analyses. Can readings that remain bound by Joyce’s formalism discover a genuinely critical perspective on the culture (or cultures) which produced it? What is the status of exercises in social reading that subvert various modernist pieties only by responding to the interpretive indices programmed by Joyce? 1

Not surprisingly, when literary modernism is drawn into more encompassing debates about the political implications of various features of modern art — the prevalence of contemplative modes of observation, say, or the ordering power of autonomous aesthetic forms — Joyce often appears as a touchstone. Thus whereas Frank Kermode in 1965 cited Joyce’s relative “lack of mythologizing” to account for his having resisted, unlike many of his contemporaries, “the intellectual opportunities and the formal elegance of fascism,” Leo Bersani has suggested more recently that Ulysses and the professional activities of its devoted readers represent “modernism’s most impressive contribution to the West’s long and varied tribute to the authority of the Father.” 2 The surprising reversal here, with Kermode placing what would now be considered a postmodern emphasis on the liberating randomness of Ulysses and Bersani emphasizing the monumentalizing conservatism of Joyce’s epic, suggests the difficulty of situating Ulysses within the historical and cultural contexts its self-reflexive formal experimentation would seem to enfold only to disintegrate. 3 More fundamental than the issue of gauging the politics of particular texts, the problem Joyce poses so acutely turns on the question of how historical and political [End Page 691] criticism can move beyond formalism without slighting the very literariness that draws most readers to Joyce in the first place.

My aim in this essay is to mobilize questions about the problematic relation between Joyce’s textual practice and the interpretive protocols of the postmodern critic by pursuing an immanent analysis of Stephen Dedalus’s sense of his artistic vocation in selected moments from “Wandering Rocks,” the episode of Ulysses in which Stephen’s lonely wanderings are routed through the social totality of Dublin. Then, in order to explore questions about the social significance of the ways in which Joyce is articulated in the theorization and teaching of modernism, I resituate the kind of immanent reading Joyce solicits in relation to modes of institutional critique associated with the installation work of Hans Haacke. To recover and redeploy the avant-garde energies of Joyce’s texts, I argue, criticism must exploit critical and pedagogical opportunities opened up by interdisciplinary methods: the possibility of critique by way of literary means requires an extra-literary vantage.

Although Leopold Bloom is Joyce’s most searching representation of bourgeois consciousness, the image of Joyce himself as a bourgeois aesthete frequently depends on a conflation of the author with Stephen Dedalus. This often unarticulated assumption is as telling in Harry Levin’s nostalgically celebratory allusions to Stephen as artist in “What Was Modernism” (1960) as it is in Alan Sinfield’s slip in a recent discussion of modernist criticism: “ [history] is, in Eliot’s phrase, a nightmare from which one is trying to awake.” 4 If Sinfield inadvertently compresses an important moment in the reception of modernism into a single phrase — Eliot’s “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” (1923) may still be the single most influential essay on Joyce ever written — even more important is the characteristic isolation of Stephen from the complex mechanics of meaning in which Joyce situates him. 5 For it is precisely this decontextualization of character that permits a facile construction of Stephen/Joyce as the estranged modern artist and Ulysses as the epitome of the autonomous work...

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