Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

From Time to Totality: The Aesthetic Temporality of Objecthood


This dissertation constructs a philosophy of perception that creates what I call a “perceptive ontology of objects.” This ontology emphasizes, not the subjective perspectivalism of human identity, but the dynamic emergence of objects into objecthood through impersonal modalities of space, time, light, and sound. Objecthood is an attempt to render perceptive experience as something neither wholly subjective nor wholly objective. Here objects are connected with subjectivity and yet still external. I argue that modernist authors present changeable, novelistic surfaces, which submit the novel’s material objects to epistemological doubt. This creates radically interruptive moments of heightened perception, rupturing immediate experience from the more conventionally mimetic, referential, and social surfaces of the novel found within literary realism. These perceptive experiences create representational effects which I call “the mimesis of sensation.” This creates a sensory surface in the story world through which the reader aligns with the perceptive experiences of characters. This form of readerly connection is distinct from either Aristotelian empathy on the one hand, or Brechtian estrangement, on the other. In what I call, following Woolf, “the moment,” a temporality distinct from the present, the modernist works of authors like Mallarmé, Woolf, Joyce, and Kafka foreground perception itself, altering visions of time to construct discrete and static temporalities. These discontinuous moments create forms of abstract continuity. They thus create a dialectical relationship with narrative.

These event-like ruptures, occurring through encounters with the surface of objects, offer two distinct notions of time that could serve as alternatives to the post-structuralist critique of the materiality of the signifier as seen in theorists like Derrida and Barthes. First, the surface of the text becomes an expansive medium of perception: a collection of perpetual gestures, interruptions, reflections, and possibilities which arises, not through linguistic play, but through a composite surface of language and perception. Secondly, a totality emerges through perceptive processes in relation to this medium, not through the infinite deferral of the signified, but through the ongoing logical recession of the object through epistemological immanence. Here I also take an important departure from the work of other theorists of modernity—Baudelaire, Bergson, Benjamin, and Deleuze, and others—who suggest an imagistic immediacy to the experience of non-chronological time. My notion of the modernist literary object is distinctively not a ready-to-point-to image. I critique the centrality of images in 20th-century theories of temporality, arguing that modernism constructs moments of readerly critical alignment not through the satisfaction of visual desire, but by foregrounding processes of apprehension, perception, and inquiry: attempting to decipher an object which is never quite fully known.

Even as the modernist techniques I study draw attention to the artifice of representation and the difficulties of constructing knowledge, they also frame objects of perception, constructing scenes of aesthetic totality—available to the spectator so long as she acknowledges the mediated lens through which she looks. I see totality as the possibility that perception could be made whole, the possibility that there is a form of subjectless experience in which perceptive inquiry creates order (as forms of abstract continuity). These totalities, perceivable not in chronologies of external perceptible phenomena, but within impersonal faculties of apprehension, as they coincide with these forms of deeper time, also invoke pathos (through the acknowledgment of dimensions of fate). In four chapters, each devoted to a respective modernist author, the project shows how the works of Mallarmé, Woolf, Joyce, and Kafka reveal relationships between what I call modernism’s “moments” and the receding totality of the object.

Chapter 1 of the dissertation argues that a relationship exists between Mallarmé’s reception of impressionism and the poet’s linguistic theory. Here I examine Mallarmé’s writings on the impressionist plein air technique in his essay, “The Impressionists and Édouard Manet” (1876). Plein air means more for Mallarmé than just painting outdoors. Air, in Mallarmé’s eyes, is a full presence. Atmosphere is the key to a deep and abstract form of naturalism in his work. Other subjects in this chapter include atmospheric modalities like breath or respiration, speech and the sounds of words, or aspects of nature like weather. In Chapter 2, the novelistic objects of perceptive ontology in Woolfian impressionism create a temporal rupture from realism’s more conventional referential representation. I argue that Woolf creates another type of realism through her experiments with time. Importantly, I break from the work of 20th-century continental theorists of radical time influenced by Bergson (like Deleuze) in which the image plays a central, functional role. Woolf’s moments challenge the idea of a Bergsonian image-form not subject to doubt in order to open the imaginative field of literature to what I call “the mimesis of sensation.” This sensible time is not a form of eternity, it is a form of “living in time” (Elizabeth Abel’s phrase). A sense of reality lies in the atmospheric diffusion of Woolf’s unfinished marks of time (my phrase) such as the floating “airs” Woolf mentions in To The Lighthouse. Chapter 3 begins with a look at Joyce's notions of the “ineluctable modality of the visible” and the “ineluctable modality of the audible” from Chapter 3 (Proteus) of Ulysses. I define the ineluctable as that which overwhelms the cognitive work of Joyce’s characters. I argue that in Joyce’s work, visual modalities, for the most part, do not correspond to the ineluctable. I argue, sound does. I demonstrate that Joycean sound displays a certain tragic character which is moreover, non-anthropocentric. Sound thus seems to exceed the human point of view. Joycean sound thus surpasses narratological elements which take affect and the human lifespan as points of departure. I argue that the uncanny laughter in Joyce’s Sirens dismantles omniscience and anthropomorphic tragic surveillance (the assumption that the story world can be viewed by the all-seeing gaze of divine figuration). The fourth and final chapter of the dissertation argues that in Kafka’s The Trial epistemological operations bring about the gradual dawning of objects. Here I characterize an object as “dawning” because its state of emergence seems posited for a reader. In a challenge to critics like Adorno, Lukács, and more recently J. Hillis Miller, who see Kafka’s work as impenetrable to the spectator’s view of phenomena, I argue that in The Trial, Kafka’s representational effects reside in the protagonist’s sensory apprehension. The reader then aligns with this mimesis of the character’s perceptual experience.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View