The Discourse of Modernism by Timothy J Reiss - review by Colin MacCabe

Colin MacCabe

Illusory Independence

The Discourse of Modernism


Cornell University Press 416pp £22.95 order from our bookshop

One’s expectations on picking up a book on modernism from Cornell University Press are straightforward. One can expect something on Joyce and Pound, or, perhaps, Mallarmé and Lautréamont. One can predict an emphasis that modernism’s concern with signification and subjectivity is only now receiving proper critical attention in the wake of work on language in Paris in the Sixties, work focussed around the names of Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan. So fixed were my expectations by the twin signals of ‘discourse’ and ‘modernism’ in the title that I was genuinely surprised both by the subject-matter and range of this book. For Timothy Reiss’s modernism takes us back not to the turn of the century but to the Renaissance and the discourse he tries to characterise is not that of a literary avant-garde but of a whole culture.

Reiss’s thesis can be briefly stated: the Renaissance witnesses a fundamental transformation in our conceptualisation of, and practices in, language. From a world in which uses of language are justified in relation to revelation and redemption we move into the world (with which we are familiar) of analytico-referentiality, where language is justified in relation to its internal coherence and its external basis in the world. Bishop Sprat’s earnest belief that there should only be so many words as there are things is typical of a new attitude to the relations between language and reality. To understand the attitude it displaces we have to turn to Campanella or Bruno or, in a paradox that Reiss illuminatingly demonstrates, Kepler. The patterned world of the Renaissance in which language finds its place within a larger system of correspondence gives way to a world of representation in which word and world are epistemologically divided so that truth in the first is always guaranteed by its reference in the second. Reiss’s concern with this transformation is not simply antiquarian. He believes that the dominance of analytico-referentiality is itself now passing away and that insofar as we wish to hasten the end of that dominance we must concern ourselves with its beginnings.

Reiss sets up an indisputably major problem. It is important to recognise how far our culture is still to be characterised in terms of the transformations which we capture in the word Renaissance. At the same time, and equally importantly, much of our culture now totally escapes any definition in such terms. To understand our continuing relation to the Renaissance is a vital intellectual and cultural task. But Reiss’s book, which methodologically satisfies itself with the most barren formalism in which language miraculously produces its own transformations – independently of the uses to which it is put – provides nothing more interesting than a rather convoluted statement of the problem. Two over-long and over-footnoted chapters describe the fundamental change which divides attitudes to, and uses of, language at the beginning and the end of the Renaissance. This simple assertion of change is then spelt out in a complex description of how discourse is transformed in the passage from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century by focussing on a series of texts which range from More’s Utopia to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. What unifies the texts (which include Kepler’s Somnium and Cyrano’s Voyages) is their subject matter – imaginary worlds. What interests Reiss, however, is less the content of these worlds (though that is important) than the status of the narrative in which the worlds are represented: what relations between language and reality are implied in the narrative machinery which allows the details of the imaginary world to be revealed to both author and reader. Thus, for example, as much attention is paid to the sections of Robinson Crusoe which deal with his life before the shipwreck as to the celebrated sojourn on the island.

Some of the details of Reiss’s analyses are illuminating but Reiss is claiming to have produced more than an interesting set of readings. He wishes, following Foucault, to emphasise the transformation from a Renaissance world in which meaning is produced across a series of signs (indifferently verbal or natural) in a chain which found its ultimate ending and meaning in God; to a modem world in which meaning is captured in the relation of representation, which holds between language and the world. Where Reiss differs from Foucault is in periodisation. He believes that this process of transformation is more lengthy (taking some two centuries) and also that its results continue to dominate the present. Where Foucault sees the world of reason and representation swept away by succeeding transformations of which the latest is a Nietzschean nihilism celebrated in millenarian tones, Reiss argues that the discourse of analytico-referentiality retains its central position within our culture.

However, the great bulk of The Discourse of Modernism is concerned with disputing Foucault’s sharp discontinuity between a Renaissance and a representational episteme, the conditions of existence of an organised body of knowledge. Instead Reiss attempts to demonstrate in his analyses that the discourse of patterning and the discourse of representation are to be understood in a series of complex relationships (to be read in the texts) in which it is not a simple question of one replacing the other; but that from an initial failure of the discourse of patterning (exemplified in More’s Utopia) one moves through a period where the two are held together in a complex variety of relationships (most remarkably in Kepler’s Somnium) until in Swift there is no longer any possibility of producing a critique of representation except in its own terms.

The major problem with Reiss’s book is that although it claims theoretical rigour and a close attention to history, it fails on both counts. Foucault’s epistemes and their transformations were always, in large part, the product of rhetorical bravura. Reiss lacks the bravura but attempts to delineate theoretically the dominance of a discourse in purely narrative terms. This narrative formalism leaves him with scarcely any concern for the social or institutional history in which the texts are produced. As a result the texts he chooses to analyse circulate in a discursive space impervious to either national histories or national languages. It is difficult to believe that anyone concerned to differentiate the discourse of More’s Utopia from that of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe could ignore the fact that one is written in Latin explicitly to avoid its perusal by any but the learned whereas Defoe’s book is written in an English deliberately addressed outside a closed circle of knowledge. To introduce such concerns is the only way of seriously considering the problems that Reiss addresses. But so to do would be to leave the comforting position of a literary critic in which texts appear and disappear within a self-defining world of language, independently of the material constraints of institutions.

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