David R. Jarraway. Wallace Stevens Among Others: Diva-Dames, Deleuze, and American Culture.
David R. Jarraway's Wallace Stevens among Others is an ambitious book. It places Stevens at the centre of an American canon that includes Cormac McCarthy and Barbara Guest, and Philip Roth and George Cukor. It promises to "document the precise extent to which Deleuze's theorizing about identity and difference is so indebted to American as opposed to French literature" (4). Finally, it aims to illuminate the importance of "female subjectivity" in Deleuze and Stevens and to "refurbish" Jarraway's earlier work on subjectivity as "a dissident process constantly engaging the world in a distanciated space of difference" (3).
These are worthy goals. There is much work to be done on Stevens's influence--and even more on his exemplarity, on how he represents a vital facet of American literature and culture. Further, Stevens and Deleuze have much in common, especially concerning identity and difference, and Deleuze was clearly obsessed with American literature--from Walt Whitman to George Jackson, from Herman Melville to John Cage. (In 1977, Deleuze published a dialogue with Claire Parnet entitled, "On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature.") Finally, "female subjectivity" and subjectivity itself are important topics in the work of Stevens and Deleuze--and, of course, in literature and theory.
But Wallace Stevens among Others does not fulfill its goals. The book's references are often confusing. An example: on page 4, the phrase "divadame" from the book's subtitle is first discussed:
Since man, conventionally defined as Being, serves in Deleuze as the self-evident ground for habit-forming identity or molar politics, the "diva-dame" of my subtitle thus offers herself as the opening to a molecular otherness, and carries readers of American literature toward a rethinking of its basic complexion complementary to the more static masculinist syntheses of Being in the form of a wide variety of feminist distanciations or becomings. (4)
This sentence is typical. Indeed, it is repeated almost verbatim ten pages later. (A few substitutions are made: most significantly, "woman, or more precisely 'becoming woman' as we shall see a bit later" for "the 'diva-dame' of my subtitle," and "differentiation" for "becomings.") Deleuze's terms--Being, molar, molecular--are not glossed, nor are the books'--identity, distanciations. As a result, the meaning of "Diva-dame" remains obscure.
With some work (and outside reading), the significance of "diva-dame" becomes somewhat clearer. The phrase is from Stevens's "Adult Epigram" (1946), and Jarraway uses it to designate a practice of self-distancing that disrupts the binaries that structure our understanding of the world and ourselves--male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, human/animal. An analogue is "becoming-woman" from A Thousand Plateaus (1980)--hence Jarraway's substitution. For Deleuze and Guattari, "becoming-woman" (and "becoming," more generally) is a way to complicate identity and foreground change. "Becoming is a rhizome," they write, "not a classificatory or genealogical tree. Becoming is certainly not imitating, or identifying with something" (239).
"Diva-dame" is central to Jarraway's basic argument, which, I take it, is like this: American literature and culture is defined by self-distancing. Stevens and Deleuze are the great theorists and practitioners of self-distancing. Therefore, to understand American literature and culture, one must understand Stevens and Deleuze. This summary is, I suspect, an oversimplification--but it is the best I am able to do.
The argument justifies the readings that compose the majority of Wallace Stevens among Others. Jarraway's familiarity with American literature and culture is astounding--and his taste is superb. Chapter 1 puts Stevens and Deleuze into conversation with Mark Doty and McCarthy; chapter 2, with Michael Cunningham and George Santayana; chapter 3, with John Updike and Roth; chapter 4, with Santayana (again) and Cukor; chapter 5, with Guest, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler--the New York School of Poets; and chapter 6, with Elizabeth Bishop. The conclusion puts Stevens and Deleuze into conversation with Northrop Frye and Alfred Hitchcock. Although the book does not develop a cogent analysis of Stevens's relevance or Deleuze's interest in American literature or "female subjectivity," it does present a thrilling archive of interlocutors or "others."
The book is a missed opportunity. A more modest and, ultimately, more powerful version might have used Stevens and Deleuze to develop a non-genealogical account of cultural history. Stevens and Deleuze did not influence Hitchcock or Cukor--to name two examples. But I am enamoured by the idea that Stevens and Deleuze are essential to understanding the filmmakers' work. The relevance of Deleuze to Hitchcock's movies is not controversial. But I cannot think of a book that makes a compelling argument about Stevens's importance to the history of film--or the novel. How does Stevens illuminate Cukor and Hitchcock, and McCarthy and Roth? How do these artists illuminate Stevens? These are worthwhile questions.
Could Wallace Stevens among Others have been such a book? I am not sure. It certainly could have benefited from more attentive editing. The first chapter repeats large sections of the introduction. Writers quoting other writers are often quoted, rather than direct sources. There are some misquotations. In chapter 1, for instance, a long passage is attributed to Deleuze when it is actually by Rosi Braidotti. Finally, it does seem as if the book assumes a familiarity with the author's two earlier books on Stevens and subjectivity in modernist American literature, respectively. Clearly summarizing the key claims of these books would have been an act of generosity--and a practical way to facilitate the reception of his ideas.
The best defense of Wallace Stevens among Others is that it is an exploration of a complex set of resonances. (For a cogent account of Deleuze's use of American literature, see Michelle Koerner's dissertation, The Uses of Literature: Gilles Deleuze's American Rhizome, 2010.) Jarraway's archive is stimulating and his politics are admirable. He brings a surprising range of writers into conversation and gestures toward their power to transform our understanding of identity. At the very least, the book presents a robust research agenda for scholars and theorists.
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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