Uncertainty and Undecidability in Twentieth-Century Literature and Literary Theory  book cover
1st Edition

Uncertainty and Undecidability in Twentieth-Century Literature and Literary Theory

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ISBN 9781032155418
April 20, 2022 Forthcoming by Routledge
240 Pages

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Book Description

Undecidability is a fundamental quality of literature and constitutive of what renders some works appealing and engaging across time and in different contexts. This book explores the essential literary notion and its role, function and effect in late nineteenth- and twentieth- century literature and literary theory.

The book traces the notion historically, providing a map of central theories addressing interpretative challenges and recalcitrance in literature and showing ‘theory of uncertainty’ to be an essential strand of literary theory. While uncertainty is present in all literature, and indeed a prerequisite for any stabilisation of meaning, the Modernist period is characterised by a particularly strong awareness of uncertainty and its subforms of undecidability, ambiguity, indeterminacy etc. With examples from seminal Modernist works by Woolf, Proust, Ford, Kafka and Musil, the book sheds light on undecidability as a central structuring principle and guiding philosophical idea in twentieth-century literature and demonstrates the analytical value of undecidability as a critical concept and reading-strategy. Defining undecidability as a specific ‘sustained’ and ‘productive’ kind of uncertainty and distinguishing it from related forms, such as ambiguity, indeterminacy, indistinction, the book develops a systematic but flexible theory of undecidability and outlines a productive reading-strategy based on the recognition of textual and interpretive undecidability.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Uncertainty and Undecidability

Chapter I: The Concept of Undecidability

The Constitution of Literary Undecidability: Author, Text, Reader

Distinction of Undecidability as a Textual Feature and Quality

The Affective Dimension

Related Analytical Concepts

The Problem of Interpretation as a Resolution of Uncertainty

Reconsideration of the Notion of Contradiction

Substitution of ‘Dichotomy’ with ‘Di-Polarity’

Chapter II: Literary Theory of Uncertainty

The History of Theory of Uncertainty and the Notion of Undecidability

Theoretical Connections and Deviations in Theory of Uncertainty

Early Twentieth-Century Theory of Uncertainty

Mid Twentieth-Century Theory of Uncertainty

Late Twentieth-Century Theory of Uncertainty

Chapter III: Scenes of Literary Undecidability

Temporal and Spatial Undecidability: In Search of Lost Time

Sustained Existential Guilt, Punishment, and Dread: The Trial

Undecidability of Identity and Consciousness: The Waves

Chapter IV: Palpitation of Heart, Perception, and Meaning: The Good Soldier

Against Mimetic Reductionism

A Narrative Strategy of Disruption

Undecidability as Palpitation

Between Realism and Meta-Fiction: Theoretical and Literary Vision

Chapter V: Trembling: The Man Without Qualities

The Nachlass

The Endlessness

Trembling of the Borderline: Narrative Undecidability, Destabilisation of the Story-World and the Novel as Philosophical Investigation

Subjectivity Without Qualities

Ethics and Existence as Movement



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Mette Leonard Høeg is Carlsberg Foundation Junior Research Fellow at Linacre College and postdoctoral fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities at the University of Oxford, UK. Mette holds a PhD in English from King's College London, is a Fulbright alumna, a literary critic and literary editor at the Danish news media Frihedsbrevet. She has published extensively on Modernist and contemporary literature in magazines and newspapers and contributed papers to several peer-reviewed journals. She is the editor of the anthology Literary Theories of Uncertainty (2021).


Mette Leonard Høeg has done literary theory a great service in this wide-ranging, deeply researched, and highly perceptive study. She has a wonderfully clear-headed grasp of two phenomena – uncertainty and undecidability – that pervaded twentieth-century literature and criticism yet have never been analysed with such precision.

Christopher Norris, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Cardiff University


Mette Leonard Høeg’s lucid study combines two important things: a valuable overview of a set of related concepts – uncertainty, ambiguity, indeterminacy, undecideability etc – showing just how constitutive they are across modern culture; and superb readings of exemplary texts by Musil, Ford, Woolf, Proust and Kafka.

Max Saunders, Interdisciplinary Professor of Modern Literature and Culture, University of Birmingham


In this rich, thoughtful and far-reaching study, Mette Leonard Høeg proposes that uncertainty is never merely a side-effect or peripheral concern of this or that theory of literature. Rather, as she deftly and compellingly demonstrates, there is no literary theory — or literature — without it.

Nicholas Royle, Professor of English, University of Sussex