David Herman | From Narrative Narcissism to Distributed Intelligence


This essay focuses on ways in which the final episode of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (sometimes called “the ricorso”) exhibits a deep, constitutive reflexivity. At issue is a propensity for self-characterization that surfaces in repeated specifications of Joyce’s text by the text itself. Despite the chapter’s reflexive (and more specifically recursive) profile, however, my essay disputes the further inference that the text’s self-specifications are tantamount to hermetic self-enclosure. The Wake is not, I contend, a metafictional or proto-metafictional experiment marked by semiotic introversion—e.g., by a bottomless stratification of the text into (self-replicating) levels. Instead, adapting a phrase from Louis Mink and drawing on research pertaining to distributed cognition, I suggest that Wakean reflexivity functions as a cognitive instrument—specifically, a tool for distributing intelligent activity through time and space. Precisely by commenting on its sources and detailing its own compositional mechanisms, Joyce’s final episode suggests the porous-ness of the border between textual artifacts and their interpretive contexts. In this sense, the reflexivity of the chapter can be characterized as “lateral” in nature. Focusing on the linguistic, textual, and narrative protocols required for its own processing, the episode enhances its own capacity to distribute intelligence among textual designs, interpreters making sense of those designs, and the larger, transindividual environment or gestalt in which the activity of making-sense-of-textual-designs unfolds.

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