- Political Monsters and Democratic Imagination: Spinoza, Blake, Hugo, Joyce by Patrick McGee
In the conclusion of his monograph, Patrick McGee suggests that "[t]he present work no doubt has become what it describes, a political monster" (225); that is, it has developed a hybrid form that makes it difficult to assimilate with recognizable models. This failure to assimilate, however, is something that is seen to be productive and is something McGee also observes in the works of Baruch Spinoza, William Blake, Victor Hugo, and James Joyce, who, rather than adapting models drawn from one another, instead follow particular paths that are nevertheless seen to develop the same way forward.
This kind of monstrosity, of course, poses some difficulties for readers, as is the case with all four of the writers discussed, in that it is not always immediately apparent what the author is attempting, and one needs to find a way of situating oneself in relation to those efforts. In the case of McGee, the difficulty comes with the problem of incorporating as much of what is at stake as is possible into his work. This is seen throughout but is exemplified in the conclusion, which begins with some precise indications of how he imagines the study to work (indications that are not always given to the reader in the process of reading), before moving to digressions that relate not to those writers he has just dealt with but to others he might have discussed in a different iteration of the book. There is a tension in this work, then, between the breadth of knowledge that McGee brings to his subject matter and the problem of giving form to this knowledge.
McGee is a distinguished Joyce critic, having published two monographs on Joyce: Paperspace: Style as Ideology in Joyce's "Ulysses" and Joyce Beyond Marx: History and Desire in "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake."1 He has also written monographs related to cinema, postcolonial literature, and theory, including Theory and the Common from Marx to Badiou.2 His work, then, has long come into dialogue with Marxist perspectives—and this is evident here, though his perspective is not strictly identifiable with standard forms of Marxist criticism.
While Spinoza is central to his project, McGee is not offering readings of the three literary thinkers that consider, in the first instance, how these writers have been influenced by Spinoza. Rather, he understands Spinoza (or what he calls, following Jacques Derrida3—the "Spinozist idea"—225) to represent a certain ontological tendency towards democracy, a tendency that McGee believes to be disruptive of hierarchies in all their forms. This tendency, furthermore, draws us towards the expression of "transindividual" truths.4 As he acknowledges, McGee takes the term "transindividual" from Étienne Balibar's [End Page 181] reading of Spinoza,5 but McGee adds considerable detail to this idea throughout.
McGee's Spinoza, then, is not situated within an historical, strictly textual reading but is understood to form the basis of a tendency that McGee sees as being extended in important ways in the writing of contemporary philosophers (who work across both Spinozian and Marxist traditions), Antonio Negri and Alain Badiou. Badiou, in particular, is a constant reference throughout. At times, indeed, McGee tends to conflate his understanding of Spinoza's positions with those held by Badiou, and, if in doubt, he leans towards Badiou (most tellingly, for example, Badiou's understanding of truth is identified with Spinoza's third kind of knowledge6). From the perspective of the history of philosophy, one might certainly take issue with some of the readings of Spinoza that this engenders. Yet this, on its own, would not be sufficient for a dismissal of McGee's project, since he makes it quite clear that his interpretation of Spinoza involves his understanding of the transindividual; thus, for him, it is in no way inconsistent to pair authors who might consider themselves to be antagonistic (such as Hugo and Spinoza) or not to have clear points of relation to one another, either in terms of terminology or...