- Catherine Liu (Author)
Copying Machines: Taking Notes for the Automaton. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Wayne Gabardi (Author)
Negotiating Postmodernism. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Mohammed A. Bamyeh (Author)
The Ends of Globalization. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Charles Barbour
Catherine Liu begins Copying Machines by referring to what she calls "a generalized sense of having overcome the recent past" that she finds pervasive in "the ’now’ of academia." With the collapse of deconstruction, it would seem, "the theoretical investments of the past few decades [have] been dissolved." A few valuable lessons were passed on, the consensus suggests, but it is time for literary scholars to forget the heady days of theoretical abandon, and to return to aesthetic judgments and hermeneutic studies. For Liu, this new consensus barely conceals a fear of the political antagonisms that theory and deconstruction brought to the surface. In the wake of the conflict and turbulence caused by theory, a massive effort is underway to rebuild the foundations of traditional scholarship.
Announcing herself as an opponent of this new consensus, Liu strikes back exactly where the humanists imagine themselves to be least vulnerable—in history, and especially in the literary history of the eighteenth century. Copying Machines tells the story of how just before humanism’s autonomous subject first arrived on the scene in the eighteenth century, the European aristocratic classes were mesmerized by the phenomenon of the automaton—the "useless machine" built exclusively to mimic human behaviour. Tracing its history through literary, legal and philosophical documents of ancien régime France, Liu argues that the automaton is the repressed condition of the humanist subject: "The machine is framed, in order to establish a ground on which the human being can be represented." The automaton or "copying machine" precedes the autonomous human subject, and constitutes the discursive terrain on which that subject is composed. Historically as well as conceptually, the machine produces the human.
For Liu, the figure of the automaton articulates the promise and the curse of the Enlightenment. Like technology in general, it both offers the possibility of freedom and debases the originality or authenticity of the human individual. But the automaton is more than an exemplary expression of the contradiction between the humanism and scientism of the Enlightenment. It also provides Liu with a language for analyzing the collapse of High Theory and the formulation of the new consensus within "the ’now’ of academia." Precisely what today’s humanists find so disturbing about deconstructive theory is its incessantly mechanical composition. Theory, according to its opponents, cuts the life out of literature. Theory pulverizes a text’s animating intention, and reassembles the component bits into sinister and monstrous creatures. What is more, according to their humanist critics, theorists not only treat texts like machines, but they themselves are also disturbingly mechanical. "Theory robots" like Derrida and de Man have no feeling, no life, no love of literature. They eviscerate texts without compassion. Worse still, they maniacally control legions of followers, and threaten to turn scholarship into a practice of "thoughtless repetition."
Instead of fleeing from these criticisms of deconstruction, Liu faces them. Why are humanists so frightened by the machine— whether it is the automaton of ancien régime France, or the "theory robot" of the modern academy? In what ways does it operate as a figure for a whole range of liminal zones— between life and death, mind and body, original and copy, human and animal? Some of this terrain has been covered by Donna Haraway. But Copying Machines is an impressive study, certain to influence those who wish to continue the project of dislodging the humanist commitments of the academy.
Negotiating Postmodernism opens with the eminently un-postmodern question "What is the nature of our present?" Gabardi does not proceed to interrogate concepts like "nature," "ours" or "presence." Instead, he argues for "critical postmodernism." Like Habermas’s theory of communicative action, "critical postmodernism" is an attempt to couple the rational foundations of the modernist tradition with some of the more fruitful antagonisms exposed by post- modern investigations. For Gabardi there is no radical divide between critical theory and postmodernism. After a lengthy and helpful survey of recent cultural theory, Gabardi arrives at his destination—an attempt to forge a link between Foucault’s later work and social democracy.
The key to Gabardi’s approach is his analysis of what, in a very late lecture, Foucault called parrhesia or "frank speech." "Foucault was interested in reinventing parrhesia under present day conditions," Gabardi writes, "and contrasted it with the modern liberal right of ’free speech.’"
He defined the parrhesiatic act in terms of two key features: the opening up of a new space of freedom and the transfor- mation of the individual speaker [.. .] The act of parrhesia placed one on the public stage, a stage where the course of future events could not be determined. The unintended consequences of one’s action could propel one in an unanticipated direction. One entered a turbulent envi- ronment of power. One’s very being was subject to this flux. Thus one’s self-identity was at stake.
The suggested strategy, then, is to be a Socratic gadfly—to proclaim those truths that neither the powerful nor the populace are willing to acknowledge. In this way, one engages in effective social critique, alters the political terrain and places one’s own identity at risk.
The question is whether such parrhesiatic gestures actually place speakers at risk, or whether they codify their sense of self. Is not distinguishing oneself from both power and the populace—and thus establishing one’s autonomy or self-legislation—the core of the humanist subject? Wouldn’t a more radical Foucauldian theory endeavour to expose the imbrication of every individual within a plurality of power relations, split and fractured by an array of unconscious social investments? The lack of attention to psychoanalysis represents a lacuna in Negotiating Postmodernism. And the effort to reconfigure postmodernism as a continuation of the tradition of rational critique is a little reductive. That said, the range of references is persuasive, and Gabardi’s synoptic readings provide a useful introduction to some difficult social theorists.
The Ends of Globalization is similar to Gabardi’s offering, although a little more explicit—a little more "parrhesiatic"— about its presuppositions. Whatever else one might say about The Ends of Globalization, it certainly avoids pretensions towards stylish postmodernism:
I use "rationality" not as a venue of "reason" but, rather, as a namesake for an integrated vision of the world: A rational vision for me is one in which the logics of political, economic, and cultural life work harmoniously to reinforce each other. Thus, a rational vision is a total vision, which can only flow out of systematic coherence of the various spheres of social life.
Bamyeh’s central claim is that, in postmodernism, the western world has abdicated any attempt to produce totalizing theories of human sociality. We seem to experience, then, "the exhaustion of the reservoir of theories of universality of culture." In order to counter this trend, Bamyeh suggests we look to universalizing theories that have emerged in different, non-western cultures. We need, in effect, to mobilize cultural pluralism in pursuit of new totalizing conceptions of human solidarity and homogeneity.
That people still write books championing universal and totalizing conceptions of humanity is one thing. However, as Liu reminds us, it is not only a question of people still writing books like this, but it is also that people are encouraged to write books like this—to endeavour to identify a coherent, universal social bond following the retreat of deconstruction and High Theory. If Bamyeh and Gabardi’s texts are any gauge of "the ’now’ of academia," then Liu maybe correct. Perhaps it is time that the "theory robots" resumed their war against humanity.
- Useful Keys by Adrienne Kertzer
Books reviewed: Hamlet for Kids by Lois Burdett, The Great Poochini by Gary Clement, Understanding Children's Literature: Key Essays from the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature by Peter Hunt, Wild Cameron Women by Maureen Hull and Judith Christine Mills, Wolf and Seven Little Kids: Based on a Tale from the Brothers Grimm by Anne Blades, and The Tempest for Kids by Lois Burdett
- Power Works by Maria Noëlle Ng
Books reviewed: Cultural Politics: Class, Gender, Race and the Postmodern World by Glenn Jordan and Chris Weedon and Engendering China: Women, Culture and the State by Christina K. Gilmartin, Gail Hershatter, Lisa Rofel, and Tyrene White
- Imagined Canadas by Kathryn Grafton
Books reviewed: Imagined Nations: Reflections on Media in Canadian Fiction by David R. Williams
- Other Stories by Claire Wilkshire
Books reviewed: And Other Stories by George Bowering and The One and the Many: English-Canadian Short Story Cycles by Gerald Lynch
- Figuring Wisdom by Adam Dickinson
Books reviewed: Wisdom & Metaphor by Jan Zwicky
MLA: Barbour, Charles. Theory Robots. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #178 (Autumn 2003), Archives and History. (pg. 151 - 153)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.