Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


VAS: An Opera in Flatland by Steve Tomasula, designed by Stephen Farrell (Barrytown, Station Hill) VAS looks and feels… different.

Steve Tomasula’s extraordinary ‘novel’ – or is it a film script? Collage art work? Philosophical meditation? – tracks the story of a ‘simple’ event in the life of a 21st century family. But ‘story’ is the wrong word here, for Tomasula’s dissection of post-biological life is about the new interaction of bodies and DNA possibilities. Tomasula’s imagination, his satiric edge, his wildly comic sense of things, combined with Farrell’s inventive design and layout make reading this ‘Opera in Flatland’ an unforgettable experience. – Marjorie Perloff, The Critic

Up until now, everyone alive on earth was bound to one another through African Eve, our last common ancestor, who 5,000 generations ago passed her genes and language to sons and daughters who did the same as they gradually populated the world. Today, however, Square, Circle and the other inhabitants of Flatland have the opportunity to step outside this lineage, to rearrange the bodies of plants, animals, and even themselves. VAS is the story of Square’s decision to undergo an operation that will leave him sterile for the good of his wife, Circle, for the good of their daughter, Oval, and for the good of society, including the unborn descendants he will never have. VAS is, in other words, the story of finding one’s identity within the double helix of language and lineage and Square’s struggle to see beyond the common`pages of ordinary, daily life upon which he is drawn. Utilizing a wide and historical sweep of representations of the body, from pedigree charts to genetic sequences, this hybrid image-text novel recounts how differing ways of imagining the body generate differing stories of knowledge, power, history, gender, politics, art, and of course, the literature of who we are. It is the intersection of one tidy family’s life with the broader times in which they live.

VAS will interest anyone concerned with the futures we are now writing into existence. Amazing, breathtaking in its originality, it will fascinate writers as well as graphic designers.

Where Does Modern Fiction Go from Here?

Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists: American Fiction After Postmodernism by Robert Rebein (University Press of Kentucky) What comes after literary postmodernism? Does American literature have somewhere to go after postmodernism, or will it simply implode upon itself? In his new book, Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists: American Fiction After Postmodernism, Robert Rebein answers these questions and looks at the future of American literature.

Most studies of American fiction published through the middle of the 1980s have a certain symmetry, an academic logic that is both visually pleasing and intellectually compelling. Student of American literature during this time knew the patterns of the movements well: each movement is a response to the previous movement, with all previous generations building toward the most current thought. This view raises two questions about contemporary American literature: Where do we find American literature at the end of the twentieth century, and where do we go from here?

Rebein answers these questions by first reassessing the state of American literature and then by recharacterizing it. He points to a growing dissatisfaction with postmodernism during the final decades of the twentieth century and then examines some of the most important and recent works of the period in light of what they do, rather than how they fit into any particular movement. By refusing to assign each work a category within or vis‑a‑vis postmodernism, Rebein examines the true place of the work in the whole scope of American literature. ‑

The immediate future of American literature, Rebein asserts, lies among the "so‑called marginalized people." As contemporary fiction shifts its focus away from suburban lives, it will open a window on a series of "separate and yet intricately related" worlds. "If you look at the trends of the last twenty years, our celebrated authors are likely to be minorities, women, or white men like William T. Vollmann who take us to unusual places." The trend, Rebein says, is clear and would‑be writers everywhere are looking to discover or rediscover their ethnic roots.

Rebein focuses his study not only on established writers like Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, or Louise Erdrich, but also on writers about whom much less has been written, including Dorothy Allison, James Welch, Barbara Kingsolver, and Chris Offutt. Attempting to "cut a large swath through the field of contemporary American writing," Rebein opens the landscape of American literature rather than focusing on the work of "three or four recognized writers."

Robert Rebein, an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, received a PhD in literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo and an MFA in creative writing from Washington University in St. Louis. He was educated both in the United States and England and has lectured for a year in Tunisia on American and English literature. He currently resides in Indiana.

POSTMODERNITY AND ITS DISCONTENTS: by Zygunt Bauman (New York University Press: $16.95, paper, 221 pages, notes, index, 0-8147-1304-1)

If, as Freud postulated, modern society besets human freedom by repressing sexual expression, then the postmodern era can be said to be defined by the individual's quest for sublime happiness at the expense of security. Society has held to the concepts of beauty, purity, and order for centuries; now a new worldview has emerged with the individual at its nucleus.

Framed by studies of such thinkers as Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, Hans Jonas and Richard Rorty, Postmodernity and Its Discontents explores this brave new era, tackling head-on such issues as the postmodernization of surveillance and social control; the often tenuous threads binding morality, ethics, and freedom together; contemporary artistic and aesthetic theory; and the complex associations between solidarity, difference and freedom.

Arguing that what is needed most is what is lacking most, well known social theorist Zygmunt Bauman maintains that freedom without security assures no greater happiness than security without freedom. Bauman searches for a balance between the two, tipping the scales of the postmodern world decidedly toward personal favor.

Zygmunt Bauman is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the Universities of Leeds and Warsaw. Among his books are Life in Fragments, Intimations of Postmodernity, and Modernity and Ambivalence.

THE RHETORIC OF FAILURE: Deconstruction of Skepticism, Reinvention of Modernism by Ewa Plonowska Ziarek (SUNY) 0-7914-2712-9 

Deconstructive interpretation has always been a rather difficult and risky enterprise, perhaps delivering too much and not promising enough. Without proposing a complete break from the received paradigms or assuring the critical overcoming of the past, this mode of inquiry implies both continuity and rupture, repetition and difference, affiliation and disconnection. Neither faithful preservation nor complete destruction, deconstructive intervention operates instead as a reinscription and a transformation of the established patterns of thinking. In this book, Ziarek examines two crucial moments in poststructuralist theory—its affiliation with modernism and its revision of skepticism— where this mode of intervention characteristic of deconstruction has been most frequently ignored or misread. As a result, deconstruction of skepticism has been notoriously mistaken for the skepticism of deconstruction, and a certain reinvention of modernism confused with the impasse of aestheticism.

The effects of this misreading are rather familiar and widespread. In the numerous debates concerning the impact of deconstruction, charges of skepticism and aestheticism are levied almost interchangeably to repudiate the paralyzing consequences of language severed from the task of representation and reduced to pure textuality. When deconstruction is perceived as the most extreme manifestation of postmodernity, the very appearance of the term "skepticism" implies a strong and reductive value judgment about the impasse, deadlock, or exhaustion of postmodern thinking. Just as frequently, Derrida's work is seen as a continuation of modern aestheticism with its rejection of representation for the sake of formal experimentation. Needless to say, this wholesale repudiation of deconstruction closes and distorts the debate from the very start. In this book, Ziarek contends that the reductive claims about the "skepticism" or "aestheticism" of poststructuralist theory make us overlook the deeper consequences of the deconstruction of skepticism carried out in both the philosophical and the literary discourses of modernity. Because the issue of skepticism is so frequently associated with the most superficial dismissals of deconstruction, poststructuralism's own engagement with skepticism remains an untheorized and often ignored problem. A similar observation can be made about the affiliation of deconstruction with modernism.

Ziarek brings together these two areas of inquiry—deconstruction of skepticism and the aesthetic turn of poststructuralist theory—not merely because they are the most frequently misread issues but because they are in fact interrelated and complementary projects. Deconstruction of skepticism and the poststructuralist affiliation with modernist aesthetics represent two different moments of the critique of reason—two different scenes where the transparency of truth and the generality of linguistic structures is brought into question. In both cases, the interruption of the totality of knowledge reveals the excess of signification incompatible with the coherence of discourse. Questioning the sweeping comprehensiveness of the negative thesis about the impossibility of knowledge in general, the deconstruction of skepticism severs the bond between the particular and the universal, that is, between the failure of the specific claim to knowledge and the totalizing conclusion about the impossibility of knowledge as such. This incompatibility between the particular and the general is reread as a positive interruption of the totality of knowledge—an interruption which makes an affirmation of radical alterity possible. Bringing into a sharper focus the uniqueness of style and the excess of rhetoric, the affiliation between Deconstructive theory and modern aesthetics discloses another location where the transition between the generality of linguistic structures and their particular manifestation is irremediably broken. The main difficulty here lies in the interpretation of rhetoric, so that its local instability is not generalized too quickly, as it is sometimes assumed, in terms of the negative epistemology of figurative language or in terms of the endless recesses of linguistic self-reflection. Ziarek argues that the aesthetic turn of deconstruction allows us to reread the instability of rhetoric as the figuration of an unpredictable event, whose occurrence cannot be derived from the generality of linguistic structures. The possibility of such an unexpected event sustains the signification of the other and the non-identical in language. What deconstructive intervention performs in the case of both skepticism and modern aesthetics is, therefore, a shift from the negative epistemological consequences of linguistic instabilities to the emphatic affirmation of the other of reason and the other of the subject.

Ziarek began this project with the intention of rethinking the relationship between deconstruction and modern aesthetics. The significance of modern literature for Derrida's project can hardly be overestimated: "as a peculiar institution which sheds light on institutionality, as a site of resistance to the philosophical tradition of conceptual thought, as a series of singulur (but repeatable) acts that demand singular (but responsible) responses...literature is clearly of major importance in Derrida's work." And yet, despite numerous studies devoted to Derrida's readings of key modernist figures (Artaud, Mallarme, Joyce, Kaflka), and despite the proliferating accounts of his work only Ziarek manages to frame some of the central issues in the deconstructive debate. This is an important work that resets focus on some of the central issues of postmodernity theory.

THE GRAVITY OF THOUGHT by Jean-Luc Nancy, translated and edited by Francis Raffoul and Gregory Recco (Philosophy and Literary Theory; Series Editor: Hugh J. Silverman: Humanities Press) 0-391-03985-7

The essays gathered in this volume: The Forgetting of Philosophy and The Weight of a Thought, represent a reflection on changing role of philosophy in a postmodernist world. Written to be a refutation of Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, French Philosophy of the Sixties, (translation by Mary Schnackenberg Cattani, University of Massachusetts Press, 1990). In this highly polemical and virulent essay, the authors take as their target the so-called poststructuralist or postmodern ideas. They categorize them as the Philosophy of the Sixties, a somewhat journalistic denomination that, as such, reduces these thoughts to a phenomenon that is sociologically analyzable and, in this respect, already obsolete. Their argument can be roughly summarized as post-Nietzschean and post-Heideggerian thoughts as manifested in the work of such French thinkers as Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan are essentially perverse in their results as well as in their assumptions. These thoughts are essentially nihilistic. They are politically suspect, if not dangerous, and morally irresponsible. Following this claim, a solution is proposed to return to the very ideals and values that have come into question in the poststructuralist or the postmodern movement.

Specifically, these authors advocate a return to the humanism of the Enlightenment, to the dominant values of modernity, following the example set by Jurgen Habermas and others. Their intention: to salvage what, in the modern project of the Enlightenment, is supposed to have been missed, the so called unfinished project of modernity (in Habermas’s celebrated expression). However and despite its prevalence, nowhere in these ideas is the notion of the return seen as a problem in itself, asserts Nancy. "A moment arrives when one can no longer feel anything but anger, an absolute anger, against so many discourses, so many texts that have no other care than to make a little more sense, to redo or perfect delicate works of signification." Hardly any philosophical elaboration of this motif is offered by Ferry and Renaut. In fact, the notion of return simply functions as an instrument in the service of a preestablished agenda.

Challenging the neomodernist projects of a "return" to Enlightenment, Nancy argues that these attempts ignore the true task of philosophy, which is not to manipulate or reactivate past significations, but to expose itself to the essential opening of meaning, to its event. This exposure reveals the finitude of thought, its "weight," to the extent that thought can only take place at the point of significations, at the place where no full appropriation is possible. Together these essays represent a distinctive elaboration of many of the themes which have recently occupied the work of Jean-Luc Nancy.

Jean-Luc Nancy is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, France. Born in France in 1942, a student of Derrida, Nancy has written widely on the major figures of Western philosophy. Some of his analyses, particularly of Hegel’s concept of Enlightenment and Kant’s categorical imperative, have been influential. His work focuses on theories of meaning and its textual construction, and explores the boundaries of literature and philosophy. Other works in translation show that Nancy is quickly becoming a new major voice in philosophy. The Title of the Letter : A Reading of Lacan (Suny Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy), Retreating the Political (Warwick
Studies in European Philosophy)
, The Literary Absolute : The Theory of Literature in
German Romanticism (Intersections : Philosophy and Critical Theory)
, The Experience of Freedom (Meridian : Crossing Aesthetics), among others.

Headline 3

insert content here