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The Uncreating Conscience: Memory and Apparitions in Joyce and Benjamin

Article excerpt

What's a ghost? Unfinished business, is what.

--Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

They List," Stephen Dedalus tells us in "Scylla and Charybdis," "and in the Porches of their ears I pour" (Joyce, Ulysses 196). With what seems a quintessence of Joycean allusive irony, Stephen revises the haunting words of the ghost of Hamlet's father in order to predict the potential effects that his own demystifying interpretation of Shakespeare may have on the Anglo-Irish intellectuals who listen to his lecture in the Dublin National Library. The critic of a Derridean frame of mind might inquire as to whether this seemingly lethal re-interpretation of the great poet of the Empire is a poison or a cure, or, perhaps more importantly, both poison and cure. "Scylla and Charybdis" underscores the work of revision, and so the potentially dangerous and revolutionary power wielded by those who tell new or different versions of history--or of the texts that work to construct that history. In order to explore such acts of revolutionary retelling, I want to bring together two of modernism's more celebrated thinkers. Though they are rarely mentioned in the same breath, both Joyce and German critic Walter Benjamin see the history of the West as catastrophic, and both move back and forth between theological and aesthetic models in order to find an appropriate paradigm for rereading the past and effecting change in the present.

Dialectical and Marxist appropriations of Joyce have often been rather messy things. As Peter Hitchcock has acknowledged, such criticism tends to "neglect the substance" of Joyce's own positions (56). But much like Ulysses, Marxist criticism has a vested interest in rethinking history. Heterodox Marxism works to produce a revolutionary criticism that, in part, finds its basis in Hegelian notions of totality. Hence, fragmentation becomes intertwined with universality, and the new is often bound up with theories of progress and movement. Though most Marxist critics unite in their aspiration to think historically, they often part company on just what counts as material history and what constitutes a critical resistance to capitalist hegemony. Thus, despite many hard-fought theoretical debates, we remain plagued by an apparently simple, yet hauntingly complex, question: what is it to think historically? For instance, in "Universal Language and Esperanto," Antonio Gramsci suggests that "all human historical activi ty is one," and that in the resolution of any cultural problem lies "the potential resolution of all others" (29). Conversely, Theodor Adorno claims, in a much misunderstood passage from Minima Moralia, that "the whole is the false" (4). For Adorno, a negative theory of history, a theory of the discontinuous, requires a concomitant notion of the pervasive and ideological sociohistorical whole that it intends to criticize. In Aesthetic Theory he explains that emancipation, "principium individuationis," cannot be conceived of without an element of universality (200). Without a theory of the whole, denunciations of totalization flirt with quietism. In other words, Adorno calls for a form of historicizing that strives to work through a dialectic of totality and particularity.

Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" offers us non-narrativized, dialectical reformulations of history that trenchantly criticize the coherent stories of the past, but they also recognize that to criticize requires a notion of totality. Benjamin does not simply work to eliminate narrative histories altogether; rather, his approach allows for a reworking of history that foregrounds its oppressed elements and repressed discourses. His unfinished Passagen Werke was to have been an example of this type of historical writing, writing that did not communicate through narrative, but rather through a complex process of montage, gloss, commentary, and juxtaposition (The Arcades Project). In such a critical history, what occurs is precisely a dialectical reworking of the particular and the universal. …