Rewiring the Real reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books

Rewiring the Real

This weekend, the Los Angeles Review of Books ran a review by N. Katherine Hayles of Mark C. Taylor’s Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo. Hayles examines the way that Taylor chooses to “construct [his] own audience” rather than write for “other critics,” and after a thorough look at the insights that Taylor offers in linking literature and religion, claims that “even if Taylor would likely disagree, … [Rewiring the Real] is a provocative, engaging, significant, and resistant work of literary criticism.”

Hayle’s review begins by pointing out the differences between most works of literary criticism and Rewiring the Real, notably the fact that Taylor seems to be engaging with philosophers and theologians rather than critics:

The absence of references to literary scholarship in Taylor’s book is all the more striking because of his wide-ranging evocations of difficult works in religion and philosophy. The presumed reader has perhaps heard of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bataille, Derrida, Kant, Fichte, and a host of others in these traditions, but may not know their philosophies in depth. Rewiring the Real dares to imagine the creature whose existence seems increasingly imperiled by web surfing, video games, and distracted attention: the general educated book reader. Significantly, Taylor does more than ignore literary criticism; he actively resists it, choosing to locate the payoff for his readings as contributions to a field that does not yet exist — literature and religion, or better still literature as secular theology — but that he strives to bring into being. As if following the mantra, “if you build it, they will come,” he aims to convince his readers not only to believe in, but also to imagine themselves inhabiting, this hypothetical field.

In addressing this general reader, Rewiring the Real modifies the kind of argumentation in which literary criticism typically engages. Devoting one chapter to each of the four authors whose names populate the subtitle, Rewiring the Real may appear on first reading to lack an overall thesis. Each chapter stands more or less alone as an in-depth reading of a literary text, with few explicit connections between chapters. Many books are constructed using this model, gathering into one volume essays previously published separately. Rewiring the Real, however, follows a more creative and devious strategy. The thematic connections are there, but they are not framed as explicit arguments. Rather, they work through subtle repetitions of tropes that gain resonance as they reappear in new contexts: the counterfeit, the uncanny, the virtual, the cave, and most importantly, the void, the nihilation, the nothing (no-thing). These repetitions function more like poetry than explication, gesturing toward something that cannot be named or grasped directly. The role of this elusive something, it turns out, is the book’s major thesis.

Hayles then delves into Taylor’s examination of each of the four postmodern novels featured in Rewiring the Real, starting with his look at William Gaddis’s The Recognitions:

Taylor’s explication is an important contribution to understanding and appreciating Gaddis’s remarkable achievement. An astute reader, he recognizes The Recognitions as aspiring to be “the last Christian novel,” and that theological references and subtexts are central to this massive and deceptive text. With admirable sensitivity to these themes, Taylor excavates the theological disputes that lead to two different interpretations of Christ: that he is like the Father, or that he is identical to the father….

Taylor connects this theological question to the crisis of faith that Wyatt Gwyon, a sixth-generation Congregational minister, experiences following his wife’s death. After a sojourn in a Spanish monastery, Gwyon returns to his New England flock to preach disturbing and increasingly erratic sermons. He aims to insinuate into the staunchly narrow minds of his congregation the beliefs and rituals of the pagan sun worship that precede and, in a literal sense, underlie Christianity, since Christian churches were built over the caves where the pagan rituals were performed. The cave, in this sense, is the original (contra Plato’s cave, as Taylor observes), and the Christian rituals are the repetitions that transform but fail to eradicate it. The pattern echoes (or repeats) the controversy over Christ’s incarnation: is He a simulacrum of the Father, or the divine Original?

Hayles notes that this idea of “the cave” also factors in Taylor’s analysis of Plowing the Dark, by Richard Powers:

The motif of the cave returns in the chapter on Richard Powers’s Plowing the Dark, where it appears in two guises inversely related to each other: a high-tech virtual reality (VR) system usually called the CAVE (Computer-Assisted Virtual Environment), altered in Powers’s text to “Cavern”; and a dark pit somewhere in Lebanon where a kidnapped American languishes after being mistaken for a CIA agent and grabbed from the Beirut high school where he was teaching English. The sentiment Taylor repeats several times — “religion is most interesting where it is least obvious” — pays dividends here, for unlike those in The Recognitions, the theological implications of Plowing the Dark could easily be overlooked, forming only part of the mosaic design rather than dominating the text….

Deftly anticipating the following chapter on House of Leaves, Taylor proposes that the imagination is a place “bigger on the inside than it is on the outside,” and quotes a significant passage from Powers’s novel about VR “approaching the point of full symbolic liberation.” This underscores Taylor’s following remark, which serves to connect the two narratives in Plowing the Dark: “reality has never been large enough, because the body has never been large enough for the thing it hosted. Where else but in the imagination could such a kludge live?” As a whole, Taylor’s reading of Powers is both thorough and convincing, serving to advance his overall theme about how contraries — original/fake, real/virtual, confined/expansive, light/dark — engage and entwine with one another, only to evolve into something new that still contains the tension between the poles.

Taylor finds that religion also lurks in the corners of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves:

The starting point for the text is an event both momentous and very small: Will Navidson, his partner Karen Green, and their two children return from an outing to their newly purchased suburban home to find, upon investigation, that the inside of the house is bigger than the outside by one quarter inch. This impossible situation is exacerbated when a mysterious door spontaneously appears in the living room, leading to a hallway that eventually proves to be older than the solar system and bigger than the earth’s diameter. The hallway is represented by many different tropes within the text, including a void and a manifestation of nothing. This is not “nothing” as absence, but as an intensely present nihilistic force that radically de-centers and deconstructs whomever enters it. It is also, as Taylor points out, a force we might call God. Playing on this idea, he remarks that “nothing is not the opposite of the thing; to the contrary, thing and nothing are inseparably interrelated — there can be no thing without nothing.” He thus interprets the House (both the building and the book) as a metaphor for the entwinement and co-evolution of opposites, a recurrent theme that reaches its climax in his final chapter.

Hayles claims that Taylor’s investigation of Don DeLillo’s Underworld is primarily interested in themes of deterioration and decay:

After arguing that Underworld posits the Cold War period as actually more stable than what followed because of mutual deterrence, Taylor adroitly connects Underworld with capitalism’s imperative to expand by fueling excessive consumer desires, with the result that waste production becomes not only inevitable but also excessive. The crowning irony is the spectacle to which Nick Shay, the novel’s protagonist and a waste management consultant, is invited: a Russian firm has invented a new way to deal with nuclear waste, annihilating it by dropping a nuclear bomb on it. This paradoxical and recursive logic becomes, for Taylor, another manifestation of the self-reflexivity he finds in all his texts. He ends the chapter with a description of his own (literally) ground-breaking art, a large canvas he buries in the earth and digs up a year later, fascinated by its deterioration and the intricate forms its decay has created. Underground, the canvas is transformed from the mundane into the remarkable, which he implicitly offers as a commentary on DeLillo’s artistic strategies in Underworld.

Finally, Hayles uses an analysis of Taylor’s final, concluding chapter to pull together a picture of what she thinks Taylor is trying to accomplish in Rewiring the Real:

The concluding chapter of Rewiring the Real abruptly changes tone, leaping into turbo-drive. Here, Taylor develops the deeper implications of the tropes he has been following and makes the book’s full design explicit. All recursive structures, he argues, although they seem to be closed like facing mirrors repeating each other to infinity, nevertheless “prove to be open because they presuppose as a condition of their possibility something, which might be nothing, that they can neither incorporate nor assimilate.” “Nothing” here, as in House of Leaves, denotes not a mere absence but a powerful presence that, in Heidegger’s neologism, “nihilates.” Nothing in this sense, Heidegger argues, marks the limits of the thinkable — a limit that serves as the condition of possibility for thinking anything at all. Taylor relates this limit to the constitution of self-consciousness, when “the subject turns back on itself by becoming an object to itself.” “As such, the structure of self-relation constitutive of self-conscious subjectivity presupposes the activity of self-representation,” and this in turn implies, as with all representations, a point where representation fails. This limit, according to the Heideggerian logic Taylor evokes, is also that which makes representation possible. All that can be said of it is that it consists of what cannot be represented, which is to say, the nothing. Since it cannot be grasped in itself, it can only be gestured toward, a condition that authorizes and underlies Taylor’s use of tropes rather than arguments to frame his literary readings.

As strongly condensed as Turkish coffee, this line of reasoning culminates in the idea that “all comprehension […] emerges from and, therefore, returns to what remains incomprehensible,” which might be called the nothing or, Taylor finally suggests, God. “Negativity is affirmative insofar as it is the condition of the creative emergence of everything that exists,” he writes. In a passage that recalls from The Recognitions Aunt May’s injunction to Wyatt not to create original art because it mimics and therefore blasphemes God, Taylor writes, “Just as God creates freely ex nihilo, so the productive imagination creates freely out of nothing. This ‘is’ the nothing that nothings or nihilates by giving the gift of being itself.” Thus he joins theology, philosophy, and religion to literature, revealing what has been hinted at in his interpretations of the literary texts: at their centers resides a nihilating nexus that makes all forms of creativity and self-consciousness possible and that might as well be called God. This is the unresolvable nexus toward which all the binaries that co-evolve and co-produce each other have been tending, the creative/destructive force that affirms by negating.

Read the review in its entirety here.

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