- Thinking in Literature: Joyce, Nabokov, Woolf by Anthony Uhlmann
The term ‘aesthetic,’ Anthony Uhlmann contends in his most recent book Thinking in Literature, has come to signify so many meanings that “it has itself become meaningless” (1). To combat this, Uhlmann explicitly calls for a return to the “original meaning” of the term as it relates “to the kind of perceptual cognition, or thought, developed through sensations and perceptions” (1). But the desire to recuperate what has been lost or, more accurately, erased in debates about the social [End Page 319] and political ideologies of the term ‘aesthetic’ is less about a kind of nostalgic return to the beginning than it is the beginning of a rethinking of how the “original meaning” of the term ‘aesthetic’ reveals “the manner in which literature might be understood to be thought” (7). To strip away social and political ideologies, and to resuscitate a primary relation to cognition, sensation, and perception, as Uhlmann postulates, frees our critical examinations from unnecessary constraints, thereby allowing us to examine aesthetic production as a form of cognition.
To begin, Uhlmann claims that stream of consciousness—the pervasive lens through which the cognitive content and production of most modernist literature is read—is “reductive” (3), and thus unable to adequately account for the ways in which cognition is constituted by far more than a subjectivist turn to interiority. For Uhlmann, cognition is more complexly characterized by a multiplicity of internal and external modes that are folded (in the Deleuzian sense) into each other. He wants, in other words, to “shift the focus of analysis away from the narrowly subjective mode of interior monologue to a fuller understanding of thought and thinking” and “to examine how the Modernist novel might be understood as a machine for thinking” (3). To pursue this end, Uhlmann builds his theoretical framework through a sustained engagement with Gilles Deleuze’s readings of Spinoza and Leibniz, as well as with Deleuze’s readings of Proust and Beckett. Bolstered by his own engagement with Spinoza’s writings, Uhlmann argues that art, as a form of thought, “proceeds through relations” and involves “a kind of linking or connection across gaps” (12). Art, in other words, is relational insofar as it composes the relations among the three different kinds of knowledge posited by Spinoza: first, sensation and the association of ideas; second, perception and understanding as a process of causation; and third, intuitive understanding, which coheres the relations as understanding.
This is critical for Uhlmann because, as he contends by way of Deleuze’s readings of Leibniz in The Fold, “[l]iterature allows an overview that is capable of mixing various viewpoints and drawing them together into the unified perception that is the work. It does this by showing and passing between representations of the multitude of ‘possible worlds’ that inhabit the real” (21). Thought is thus characterized by a movement that reveals not just how it is a creative process but more precisely how that creative process moves knowledge through a kind of thinking. In art and in literature, therefore, “the ‘actualized’ event (an event which is possible)…can be laid out (through design) on the plane of composition, producing affects of sense and value in the minds of readers, which in turn can have real effects upon their actions” (26-27). The power of literature, as Uhlmann articulates, is precisely that it utilizes sensation to accommodate and interconnect “different viewpoints” (28). As it then follows, the composition of a literary text is characterized by a continuous folding between relation and sensation that renders both a concept of expression and a “purely external” expressive process (35).
That Deleuze and Guattari posit the same understanding of art in their text What is Philosophy? is not lost on Uhlmann. But Uhlmann is less concerned with recapitulating the main ideas in that text than he is with considering how modernist literature stages the implications of this approach to art as its own kind of thinking. Uhlmann thus turns to works by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Vladimir Nabokov to demonstrate how...