Answering as Authoring: Or, Marxism's Joyce

By Hitchcock, Peter | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 1999 | Go to article overview

Answering as Authoring: Or, Marxism's Joyce


Hitchcock, Peter, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Shifts in Marxist positions on Joyce can be viewed as an index of specific crises within Marxist thought. Enlisting Bakhtin's work on answerability, and with a view to deepening our sense of the intersection of social theory and culture, this essay argues that the major pitfall in Marxist readings of Joyce has been an inadequate theory of authorship.

Marxist literary criticism has always occupied a somewhat Janus-faced position between aesthetic and social-science concerns - never hesitant to proclaim the idealism of the one while steadfast in its resistance to the material certitudes of the other. This tension between the imaginary and the real remains a hallmark of materialist analysis, but one that is overdetermined by the vicissitudes of history. Indeed, it is history that gives the lie to any univocality in Marxist critique and shows instead that the hard line, or the party line, was ever only a tactical orientation within a whole range of approaches fed and famished by the contradictory demands of scientific and aesthetic inquiry. While it is quite possible to measure such a history in terms of the fate of core Marxist ideas, the literary itself can play a more forceful role in understanding the various trajectories of Marxist criticism without sacrificing the question of the social that is its first concern. It is here that the example of James Joyce becomes particularly instructive.

Certainly, Marxist critiques of Joyce represent a fascinating story about the interrelationship of literature and social science. Whatever Joyce's expressed political views, Marxists have often employed his work as a sounding board for the integrity of their own politics and artistic predilections. This has tended to obscure the substance of Joyce's own positions (with their specific complexity and paradoxes) in favor of an overarching agenda about the politics of art into which Joyce's writing was more or less squeezed. Recently, however, the collapse of Eastern European communism and the fall of the Soviet Union - together with a more general reconsideration of Marxism's contribution to the study of culture - have begun to relieve the burden of this agenda. Indeed, from this perspective, Marxist criticism can now put its narrative of Joyce into better focus as part of the intensive and ongoing commitment to rethink its raison d'etre. More importantly, the example of Joyce highlights key dilemmas in the history of Marxist aesthetics while simultaneously providing a deeper sense of how a novelist "authors" the social. And this may be of greater importance to Marxist literary criticism than previous evaluations have suggested.

To elucidate what might otherwise be deemed the strange consonance of a high modernist aesthetic with the study of social egalitarianism I am going to use the process of "answering" itself as an answer. My chief interest is how answering can mediate the problem of Joyce for Marxism and the question of the aesthetic and the social, and my point of departure is an essay on Mikhail Bakhtin by Michael Holquist published over a decade ago. Entitled "Answering as Authoring" this 1983 essay introduced what was at that time a little known Bakhtinian concept, "answerability" i.e. the axiomatic relationship between the Self and Other that structures the authorial utterance. The importance of Holquist's essay is that it emphasized the formative role of Bakhtin's early philosophical mode, a post(and sometimes neo-) Kantian moment that distinguishes matter which is there (das Gegebene, or dan) from consciousness which is not quite (das Aufgegebene, or zadan). This emphasis was confirmed by the subsequent publication in English of Bakhtin's early essays in Art and Answerability and Toward a Philosophy of the Act. The author, according to Bakhtin, cannot escape the distinction between matter and consciousness, but negotiates it through language - the medium that is potentially answerable to both. In "Art and Answerability" (a fragment of a longer project no longer extant), Bakhtin stresses an ethical responsibility in linking matter and thought, one which underlines a social imperative to every aesthetic act. …

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