Colloques & Conferences de l'Universite Lyon 2, Modernism and Unreadability / Modernisme et Illisibilite

Ontotropology: Modern Disfigurations in Ulysses

Nicola Spunt

Temps: 2008-07-07  03:40  – 03:40
Dernière modification: 2008-07-07


The unreadable is not simply an attribute of "difficult" literary texts, adequate, for example, to aesthetic experimentations that vex comprehension or narrative opacities that obfuscate plot. In fact, the unreadable does not oppose the readable - putatively synonymous with clarity, accessibility, and decipherability - or obstruct reading, but rather, as Jacques Derrida suggests, "sets it in motion" and "gives, presents, permits, yields something to be read" ("Living On" 116, 117). One of two episodes in Ulysses that explore the musings of female characters, "Nausicaa," with what Joyce described as its "namby-pamby jammy marmalady drawersy" style (Letters I 135), is a target for reductive interpretations that equate feminine modes of thinking and being with normative values of readability, such as simplicity and transparency. To conclude, however, that "Nausicaa" "yields its meaning more easily than any other chapter in Ulysses" because it "uses stock ways of articulating the world" (Richards 212), is to mistake its stylistic conventions for unmediated legibility.
Drawing on Walter Benjamin's characterization of the modern age in terms of "shock experience" (194), I will contend that shock represents the tropological yield produced by the unreadable to posit the 'modern' as an unpredictable force of shock generated by a mode of reading that disallows nostalgic reconciliations. Critics often interpret Gerty MacDowell through a lens of sentimentality, taking the latter to signify a medium of ostensible intelligibility. Although her cherished transparent stockings appear to reinforce a reading of her limpid figuration, they in fact purport a deceptive legibility that "conceals" that which is in plain sight: her lame leg. Mobilizing Paul de Man's notion that texts allegorize reading as a process at odds with fulfilling absolute referential demands, this paper will pursue an interpretation of Gerty's limp as metafigural - a figure of disfiguration or aberrancy - that precipitates the shock of non-coincidence or a "contretemps" (Ulysses 473). If reading perpetually stages its own undecidability by way of rhetorical figurations that entail their own deconstruction, then undecidability as the inexorably heterogeneous dimension of textuality, indeed its very ontological requirement, in turn figures ontological questions as the disfiguring conditions of tropological excess. As such, I will consider matters of unreadability and temporality to investigate the coextensive relationship between ontology and tropology, and in turn elaborate a theory of ontotropology with respect to the shock of the modern.


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Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.

De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke,
and Proust. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Derrida, Jacques. "Living On: Border Lines." Deconstruction and Criticism. Harold
Bloom et al. New York: The Seabury P, 1979. 75-176.

Joyce, James. Letters of James Joyce. Vol. I. Ed. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Viking Press,

---. Ulysses. 1922. London: Penguin, 2000.

Richards, Thomas. The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and
Spectacle, 1851-1914. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.