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Fabio Akcelrud Durão, Modernism and Coherence: Four Chapters of a Negative Aesthetics (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2008. EU26.20 cloth). Pp 154. ISBN: 978-3-631-56949-8.


Perhaps one of modernism’s ironies of ironies is that while celebrating discontinuity and fragmentation, it engendered a discourse of grand coherence and totality, emulating in monumentality the protean breadth of the modernist aspiration for perfection. Building on Adorno’s negative dialectics and the seminal meta-texts of modernism, Modernism and Coherence sets out to formulate a negative aesthetics posited as the artwork’s ”resistance to the imposition of meaning” (12). In close readings of both poetic texts and the poetics of Anglo-American modernism, Durão embarks upon a radical interrogation of high theory and artistic truth, in an attempt to recuperate the authority of the text against the backdrop of the lavish proliferation of signs in the society of the visual (10). In contradistinction with poetic negativity, negative aesthetics is thus foregrounded as the self-authorising, irreducible principle that empowers works of art to elude conceptualisation, and restore their illocutionary force.

          Certainly one of the greatest merits of the study lies in the effort to revalorise the experiential and referential constitutive of the hermeneutic function in the face of the invasive semiotic overproduction in capitalism. Informed by a salient consideration of Christoph Menke’s critique of the negative aesthetic of Adorno and Derrida, Durão undertakes the daunting task of grappling with the commodification of acts of language to expose the illusion behind the weight of the discourse on gestures, as in themselves subject to reification, tending “to be solidified by time and institutions into monuments” (10).

          In the final analysis, Modernism and Coherence articulates itself as an attempt “to salvage the signifier ‘literature’ as something greater than what is said about it” (10). In so doing it raises unsettling questions about the legitimacy, indeed the limits, of the theoretical enquiry, for the larger part taken for granted since the ‘theoretical turn’. Durão’s book offers a long-overdue evaluation of the dissemination of Theory into theories of variegated genealogies, gradually ossified into reading methodologies. Amid the inflation of the meta-languages in circulation, theory defeats its own purpose, its status becoming subject to various modes of derivativeness. Although by implication and outside the main scope of the investigation, Durão’s theses on negative aesthetics break through at the level of dispelling the infallible aura of theory as a body of knowledges governing the process of reading, calling attention to the dangers in the wholesale, indiscriminate adoption of theory as a set of “congealed prototypes” pre-empting the reading experience. The return to a defining moment of artistic truth is not confined however to a relapse into the debate on the primacy of the literary text versus the ‘secondariness’ of the critical/theoretical act. Rather, Durão envisions an ethical stance that continues to distinguish between the truth in reading and the purpose of theorising:


That Theory should only come post-factum, almost as a consequence of what happened in reading, is but a consequence of the primacy of experience, a borderline concept that has a long philosophical and sociological tradition behind itself in German speaking countries, starting with Kant and informing the whole idealism. (12)


In insightful readings of Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost, Durão refines Harold Bloom’s notion of the anxiety of influence, illustrating the capacity of strong works to welcome and withstand in one and the same gesture the “pressure of reality” (80), pointing to what he sees as the disparities between the ingenious complexities of temporality in Bloom’s theoretical construct and the simplifying linear structuring of his textual interpretations.

          Undoubtedly the chapter that marks the most significant contribution of the study, is that devoted to Ulysses, a lucid and scintillating critique of the relativism, politicisation and textual rhetoric heaped upon the Joycean text by generations of exegetes, critical writers and adept thinkers. Exemplary for the anxiety exerted by the great books of modernism, the catalyst of “Joyce as a field” (118), this icon of classic modernity, in its rare capacity for accommodating virtually every known theoretical fashion, would seem to endorse the precept that a text can be made to mean anything. In analysing what he identifies as four figures of coherence performed by Ulysses as “a small laboratory of Theory” (118), Durão demonstrates that, permeable, at times congenial to reception models as unlikely as subalternity and trauma theory though it may be, the novel does foreground its own pattern of significance. Among the astute statements Durão advances here, is his dismissal of the reader-response cliché about the enriching of literary works with every newly added interpretive layer, showing how hypertrophic inscriptions can drain the life of a text, producing impoverishing effects. It follows with refreshing clarity that texts make sense at different levels of coherence, independent of all manner of imposed meanings, else the contemporary reader would be contemplating the enormity of the spectacle of meaning multiplying itself ad infinitum parodically represented in postmodern narratives.

          As well as providing an invaluable reconsideration of posthumanities textual scholarship, Durão’s enquiries heighten the awareness of negativity as precluding total closure, deploring the disjunction between overarching arguments and close readings, and in the process making a convincing case for the need to rethink the sovereignty of art. Ultimately, Modernism and Coherence is a major contribution to the philosophical dimension of modern theory, doing justice to both Adorno’s aesthetic theory and the modernist Anglo-American canon, speaking with authority, charisma and eloquence, in an endeavour to deliver literary discourse from a despotic “empire of semiotic noise” (9).



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