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The Play-Acting of Thought : ALTARITY by Mark C. Taylor (University of Chicago Press: $42.50, cloth; $15.95, paper; 371 pp.)

June 05, 1988|Jerome McGann | McGann's most recent book is "Social Values and Poetic Acts" (Harvard University Press). and

This is a book about thought--or rather about thinking. Or rather, it is a book in which thinking is what the text is trying to do, or trying to persuade you that it is doing. Blake said that "Thought Is Act," and that thought (or act) might well stand as the motto for a great deal of modernist writing. It is an idea, a "truth," held by this book to be self-evident.

Mark C. Taylor's nominal subjects are a series of serious thinkers: in this order, G. W. F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Lacan, George Bataille, Julia Kristeva, Emanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, and Soren Kierkegaard. But you do not come to this book to be given a series of essays, more or less connected, which will tell you what these thinkers thought (or are still thinking). Taylor's book assumes that you are familiar with his subjects, and has no interest in giving you nutshell versions, critical or otherwise, of the thought of these people. To attempt such a task would be to violate the conviction that drives Taylor's book--that Thought Is Act. Readers of this book are not meant to be passive receivers of given thoughts.

The primary heroes of Taylor's text are two of the thinkers he discusses, Kierkegaard and Derrida. Their special importance for Taylor lies in the style through which their thinking is executed. Both are serious ironists, thinkers to whose work playfulness is essential. Of the two, it is Derrida who is more closely followed in Taylor's text. On the other hand, Kierkegaard seems a more essential figure for Taylor because the thinking of both Taylor and Kierkegaard takes place in a distinctively religious space: When either of them uses the term God , the word still plunges into abysses which are not simply the abysses of language. Derrida does not take God seriously in the way that Taylor and Kierkegaard do. But Derrida is closer to Taylor's heart. Derrida is the lover for whom Taylor left his Kierkegaardian family, the lover whom he married and then brought home, his Significant Other. It was a mixed marriage, however, and while the Kierkegaards have grown to love Derrida, Derrida will never be "family."

I play with this metaphor because Taylor's book licenses one to such acts. Derridean language play is the dominant stylistic convention of Taylor's book, as one readily sees in the title itself. Altarity is a word, a sign, which intends to respond explicitly to Derrida's call for "unheard-of thoughts . . . required . . . across the memory of old signs." It is a word meant to carry Taylor (and us) into that territory of thinking that takes place "beyond absolute knowledge" where meaning is undecidable. But altarity is a word that has no existence, or at least that had none until Taylor decided to invent it and even write a long book "about" it, "on" it. Those two prepositions are to be understood here, you understand, as calling out to their embedded spatial dimensions. Altarity is a joke, a play on various words (principally altar and alter ), and Taylor introduces us to the word with an extended meditation on what it suggests to him. This exercise is set out in Taylor's introduction, which is here called, jokingly and allusively, "Encore."

In this sort of writing, style is not merely the dress of thought, as the ancients used to say, it is an active sign of the thinking that is taking place in the act of writing itself. As a consequence, the "subjects" treated in Taylor's book--the other authors and their works--begin to emerge as allegories, or tropes, of Taylor's personal concerns. "Altarity" is a book about Mark Taylor more than anything else--a "solipsistic" book, as the detractors of such writing never tire of pointing out, a narcissistic text feeding on itself.

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