Colin MacCabe, James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word (London: Macmillan 1980) - extracts

Chap. 3: The End of the Story: Stephen Hero and A Portrait

With this opening [i.e., A Portrait, Chap. 1] we have left the order of classic realism which produces a father and a position in meaning at the expense of the mother and language as sound. The first paragraphs of A Portrait offer instead a juxtaposition of quotations which oppose the narrating father who fixes one in place with his look and his story (“he was baby tuckoo”) and the mother who opens up language as sound and movement, appealing to the nose and the ear against the identifying eye. In Stephen Hero, the fear of the mother’s speech determines the production of a metalanguage; in A Portrait, both the fear and the dominating position are displaced. When, however, Stephen Hero is not directly concerned with sexuality, that dominating position is continually undermined. Stephen Hero thus exists in a contradiction, the same contradiction that distinguishes in Dubliners those stories that focus on a mother from those that do not.

If we return again to the distinction between epic and classic realism and consider the different temporalities that can be inscribed within a text, we will be able to understand how Stephen Hero gives way to A Portrait. The constant identities within the epic render the enounced separate from the enunciation, for it is not necessary to reach the end of the story to correctly identify the protagonists. The epic can be reported at any time, for the epic is a mere succession of events. In the classic realist text it is the final closing of the non-disjunction in an [56] identity which makes the narration possible: the enunciation is only made possible from the end of the time of the enounced. In classic realism the end of the story becomes the inevitable and necessary condition of the start of the narration whereas in the epic the series of events have no necessary end at all for the report finds its sense and possibility outside the story. Classic realism makes the progression of events internally meaningful and thus introduces time into meaning. The ideology of progress informs both historicist theories of history and the reading of classic realism and we can identify homologies between historicism and classic realism which are not accidental. (pp.56-57.)


Chap. 4: A Radical Separation of Elements
The significance of Lacan’s reading of [Ferdinand de] Saussure is that there is now no possibility of the subject’s full access to the world of meaning. Instead the subject is constantly caught and divided between two worlds (a division which is constitutive of them both). While at one level the conscious subject rests in the world of the signified, at a different level there is an other and dominant subject which races along the differential paths of the signifier and constantly disrupts the imaginary unity of the first. What is important is that Lacan’s insight enables us to read in the organisation of language, the fundamentally divided order of subjectivity. (p.73.)


It is the lack of a commanding position from which the reader can consume the discourses of the text that allows the “Cyclops” sequence [in Ulysses] to articulate the reader’s own discourse at the same level as the discourses of the text. [.] The realist text, in its assumption of a final language which effaces itself before an evident reality, leaves unquestioned, in a reciprocal movement, the reading subject. In the area outside the inverted commas, in the absence of language, the reading subject can grasp its own [93] organisation.

The classic realist texts constantly tries to ignore the enunciation in order to fix a world of the enounced. [.] (p.95.)

Joyce’s text in its emphasis on writing refuses the possibility of any origin and therefore narrative falls back into discourse as the text refuses to give us a fixed set of substitution rules. One of the results of this loss of a masterful “it”, is that the text loses the power to confer names. it is no accident that the story [“Cyclops”] is told by the nameless One and that all the characters appear predominantly as initials or as nicknames, rather than as proper names.

It is the possibility of naming the object that characterises the realist text and it is this same power that allows it to create a character and donate a proper name [.] (p.96.)


This dynamic effect of the reader’s discourse can be understood in terms of the lack of a prescribed entry to the text, and I have attempted to demonstrate the lack of such an entry in Cyclops. However, it can also be explained in terms of the concomitant lack of an exit from the text, the lack of a moment of closure in which the various discourses of the text are ordered in terms of the narrative’s dominance. This lack of closure is obvious in the story told by the Nameless One. Throughout his narrative there are two central discourses, two rival areas of representation and meaning. We are offered to choose between the language of the Nameless One which identifies everything in terms of malicious motives and hypocritical actions and the language of the Citizen which identifies everything in terms of Ireland. There is a certain expectation that either the text will provide a meta-narrative which will correct these two discourses or that Bloom (our hero) will explain and reveal the mistakes that the Citizen and the Nameless One are making and that this explanation will demonstrate the true nature of things.

Any hope of a meta-narrative is constantly destroyed by the counter-text which, far from setting up a position of judgement for the reader, merely proliferates the languages available. As if to emphasise the lack of a position of judgement, the mutual subversion of discourses is carried over from the paragraph to the sentence in the final moments of the section. At the very end of the sequence the language of the Nameless One and the prophetic language of the explanatory text are placed side by side in the same sentence: “And he answered with a main cry: Abba! Adonai! And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, [100] amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel” (449). No discourse within the text is even allowed the privilege of physically ending it. This juxtaposition offers us no definition of the discourses within the text but throws us back to the ceaseless interplay of relations which is produced by the reader’s discourse acting on.the text.

But if the narrative refuses to produce a position against which the other discourses can be read off (and this because the narrative itself has revealed itself as discourse), our hero Leopold might be expected to do the job. But Bloom’s discourses, as related by the Nameless One, reproduce the montage of discourses within the whole sequence. For Bloom, unlike the Citizen and the Nameless One, is not fixed within one discourse but participates pleasurably in several. Thus, in the brief time he is in the pub, he enters into the discourses of science (394) and law (405) as well as those of Irish nationalism (410) and human compassion (416). Bloom’s entry into the play of languages means that he cannot erect a fixed representation of the world which will explain the other languages. When asked to define what life really is he comes out with: “Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred. I must go now .” (432). Bloom refuses to stay to define the identity of life, to represent and to fix it. What is opposed to the violence of the citizen (based as it is on a fixed representation of the world) and the verbal violence of the Nameless One (also founded in a fixity of meaning) is the joyful entering into the various ways of signifying world and self. This is both Bloom’s activity in the text and the activity of the reader in reading the text.

The insistence on a dominant discourse can be linked specifically to violence. The Citizen’s violence in the text arises from the misunderstanding of Bloom’s remark to Bantam Lyons that he was just going to throw his newspaper away. This remark can only be given one interpretation, one identity, by the betting fraternity of Dublin. It can only be represented in one way and it is this fixed interpretation that leads to violence. The “Cyclops” section is that part of Ulysses which is concerned with [101] the eye and sight. What we recognise as we read through the juxtaposition of various discourses is that the world we see is determined by the discourses we speak. Our senses and our sense are one. [.] there is no discourse which sees everything, no discourse which will epiphanise the world in some total moment. Furthermore, it is action based on this illusion of a final fixed reality which is allied in the Cyclops (as elsewhere in Ulysses) with violence and intolerance. (pp.100-102.)


Chap. 6: A Political Reading of Finnegans Wake
[.] Language is a constant struggle between a ‘feminine libido’ which threatens to break all boundaries and a ‘male fist’ which threatens to fix everything in place. [Quotes FW123.06-09.] (p.146.)

Through its constant demonstration of the differences and absences with which language is constituted, writing allows a constant openness to the feminine. Finnegans Wake lets the unconscious speak by investigating the very act of writing; it tells us the mother’s secrets. [.] Finnegans Wake demands, moreover, a more positive definition for it suggests that there is a totally different attitude to language which can be characterised as female. (p.147.)


On the one hand you have the story-telling father promising identity and position and on the other you have the mother dividing language into its constituent parts to let desire speak. In the oppositions of male and female, position and desire Finnegans Wake introduces writing: desire in position and position in desire, an ineradicable and inexhaustible bisexuality, a constant process, “the seim anew” (FW215.13.)


Rather than engaging in the direct espousal of political positions, Joyce’s work poses new questions about the relation between reader and text in ways that I have attempted to explicate. What remains to be discussed is the politics of this relation and the consequences of a practice of writing which subverts traditional political discourse. I have suggested that the crucial difference for the reader of Joyce lies in the position allocated him or her by the text. Instead of a traditional organisation of discourses which confer an imaginary unity on the reader, there is a disruption of any such position of unity. The reader is transformed into a set of contradictory discourses, engaged in the investigation of his or her own symbolic construction. What is subverted in the writing is the full Cartesian subject and this subversion is a political event of [152] central importance. For with the loss of the punctual subject, it is no longer possible to indicate discrete areas in which the punctual subject is represented. Instead one is confronted with the problem of understanding the individual as a set of overlapping and contradictory practices which produce a plurality of contradictory subjects. To understand the subject as plural and contradictory is to abandon a conception of politics as a determinate area with its specific discourses and organisation. When Lenin called for a “new kind of party”, he was challenging the assumption that those who wished to transform social relations could organise in a discrete area called “politics”. Lenin’s emphasis on “style of work” and on “self-criticism” can be understood as an attempt to find an organisational structure which would allow for the articulation of other practices within the area of representational politics and vice versa. The fact that the history of Leninist organisations is all too often the history of the total subordination of other practices to the political (and the political understood in the narrowest of bourgeois senses) should not obscure the revolutionary nature of Lenin’s call. And it is in terms of the desire for “a new kind of party” that one can understand Joyce’s texts as revolutionary in their commitment to the overthrow of the possibility of contemporary (both his and still ours) political discourse. Though it is also important to explain the relation between their subversive force and their profound political ineffectiveness.

To understand this contradiction it is necessary to consider the relation between form and politics. It is obvious that Joyce’s texts produce a multitude of breaks with previous literary forms and in this book I hope to have demonstrated that these breaks can be articulated in terms of the allocation of contradictory positions to the reading subject. Crucial to this process is the production of a separation between the signifier and the signified and the consequent de-naturalisation of the signification. But in so far as one makes a merely formal claim for separation it would seem that the ideal text would be a simple collocation of letters. Such an abstract formalism is untenable and it is through a consideration of the lapsus that one can theorise the [153] necessity for the text to produce enough unity for the separation to be effective. [.]. (pp.153-54.)

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