University of OregonThe Performative Basis of Modern Literary TheoryAuthor(s): Henry McDonaldReviewed work(s):Source: Comp...
HENRY McDONALD              The           Performative Basis                                          of              Mode...
COMPARATIVE          LITERATURE                   /58   In this essay, I trace some of the historical and philosophical fo...
THE PERFORMATIVE                                                                             BASIS/59Letter.Speaking of th...
LITERATURECOMPARATIVE        /60contemporary ideas had been prefigured in allegorical disguise by Homer, justas later gene...
THE PERFORMATIVE                                                                            BASIS/61 ... Symbol is a sign ...
COMPARATIVE          LITERATURE                   /62indeed, interdependent, for both conferred on the sensuous features o...
THE PERFORMATIVE                                                                              BASIS/63not a "presence"but ...
LITERATURECOMPARATIVE        /64Baumgarten; the latter, not incidentally, also helped to establish the modernusage of the ...
THE PERFORMATIVE                                                                          BASIS/65   The latter question i...
COMPARATIVE          LITERATURE                   /66had put it in the ninth century: "The fabric of divine Scripture is i...
THE PERFORMATIVE                                                                             BASIS/67feeling of absolute d...
COMPARATIVELITERATURE/68sity"(72). But in order to "escape necessity; a principle of being must be posited"above being" (i...
THE PERFORMATIVEBASIS/69edge, which from Descartes and Locke through Hume and Kants first Critiquehad been viewed as the p...
COMPARATIVE          LITERATURE                   /70much like a chaos of particulars incapable of being put into rational...
THE PERFORMATIVE                                                                   BASIS/71   By insisting that there is a...
COMPARATIVE          LITERATURE                   /72trary and "created"nature of literary language, proves decisive for t...
THE PERFORMATIVE                                                                         BASIS/73cal mechanism fueled by h...
COMPARATIVE LITERATURE /74       . TheStudyofLanguageznEngland, 1780-1860. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 198...
THE PERFORMATIVE BASIS/75        "Post-Scriptum:Aporias, Ways and Voices"Derrzdaand NegatzveTheology. Harold Coward       ...
COMPARATIVELITERATURE/76Holmes, Richard. Coleridge:                          Darker           1804-1834. New York:Pantheon...
THE PERFORMATIVE BASIS/77Schlegel, Friedrich von. Schlegels        ofLzfe,and Phzlosophy                                  ...
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The performative basis of modern literary theory, by henry mc donald

  1. 1. University of OregonThe Performative Basis of Modern Literary TheoryAuthor(s): Henry McDonaldReviewed work(s):Source: Comparative Literature, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Winter, 2003), pp. 57-77Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of the University of OregonStable URL: .Accessed: 23/09/2012 12:21Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact University of Oregon and Duke University Press are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Comparative Literature.
  2. 2. HENRY McDONALD The Performative Basis of Modern Literary TheoryT HE TERM PERFORMATIVEis undoubtedly among the more complex and ambiguous in the vocabulary of modern literary theory. It was coined byJ.L. Austin in the 1960s to convey languages ability not just to communicateinformation but also to bring about or effect actions-from marrying and prom-ising to christening and declaring war-in accordance with social conventions.In the wake of the John Searle-Jacques Derrida debate of the late seventies andearly eighties, however, the term acquired a very different connotation: that lan-guage "performs; but is not a form of action in any usual sense, because theperformance may always negate itself by failing to convey its intended meaning.Such uncertainty of meaning is illustrated by literary productions in which theresults effected by the writer may be contrary to, or at least at some remove from,his or her purposes. Whereas Austin and Searle had defined performative utter-ances as rule-governed speech acts grounded in the social circumstances andintentional processes of the agent, the dominant connotation of the term thatemerged from the Searle-Derrida debate-a debate that most literary criticsthought Derrida had "won"-was that of autonomous, self-referential "text actswhose occurrence was decidedly non-rule-governed. As Martin Heidegger, oftenacknowledged by Derrida to be his most important philosophical influence, putit, "wedo not speak language"; rather, "language speaks us"by fashioning mean-ings that we can sensitize and attune ourselves to but never fully determine or arecontrol. Derridean deconstruction and Heideggerian "destruction" philosophi-cal practices intended to heighten our attunement to language in the latter sense.Both valorize language as an ungrounded mode of being.2 1In the second half of How toDo ThzngsWzthWords, "performative"is displaced by the term "illocu-tionary" (also coined by Austin), just as the earlier "constative"is displaced by "locutionary" Searleadopts the term "illocutionary" and, except in Expresszon Meanzng,infrequently uses "performa- andtive" In SpeechActs, Searle makes clear his dissatisfaction with the latter term: "Austinsoriginal in-sight into performatives was that some utterances were not sayings, but doings of some other kind.But this point can be exaggerated" (68). It is not sentences that "act:Searle maintains repeatedly,but people; language "performs"only to the degree that it is the product of an intentional act (29). 2 In The BaszcProblems Phenomenology, of Heidegger says, "It can be shown historically that at bot-tom all the great philosophies since antiquity more or less explicitly took themselves to be, and assuch sought to be, ontology" (12). As for Derrida, the Western tradition is repeatedly characterizedin terms of the pervasive influence of a "metaphysics of presence": "I do not believe that a singlecounterexample can be found in the entire history of philosophy" ("Signature"3).
  3. 3. COMPARATIVE LITERATURE /58 In this essay, I trace some of the historical and philosophical forces that under-lie this valorization. I begin with an historical and philosophical overview of theconcept of "performative"language, comparing it with "allegorical" and "sym-bolic" languages as a means of bringing out some of the richness and complexityof the formers meaning. I then argue that the key feature of modern literarytheorys valorization of language is that it subverts the "metaphysical"role tradi-tionally given language as a reflection or mimesis of reality, substituting in itsplace an "ontological"role of language as an ungrounded mode of being. Finally,I maintain that the engine of such ontologization is modern aesthetics and itsanti-mimetic, anti-didactic, and language-based account of art. My effort through-out is to show that the rise of modern aesthetics gains a greater philosophicalcoherence when it is viewed against the backdrop of a radically new idea of "real-ity;one which did something classical metaphysics, the metaphysics of presence,had never done: it invested languagewith ontological significance. I. The demise of speech act theory as an active influence in literary studies inthis country after the Searle-Derrida debate was coincident, roughly, with therise of poststructuralism and postmodernism.3 Indeed, it constituted one of themany factors that set the agenda for literary theory in the following decades. Inorder to gain a broader perspective on these issues, we need to "rotate" theo- theretical orientation of literary criticism in a direction away from the dispute be- tween analytic and continental traditions over whether language is referentially grounded or not, and toward what I will characterize as a much more basic dis-juncture between "pre-modern"and "modern"perspectives. From such a vantage point the term "performative"has a radical and at the same time subtle ambiguity. On the one hand, language is "performative"in the sense that it participates in and resembles sensuously the reality it represents. "Language" is understood not as a set of conventional or arbitrary meanings imposed by us, but as what the seventeenth-century Lutheran thinker Jakob Boehme called a Naturspracheor "language of in which the essences or nature, natures of things impose themselves on us.4 In pre-modern allegorical narrative, for example, language is taken to be a reflection or manifestation of some extra- linguistic reality that functions mimetically and didactically. "Presence"signifies in this instance not an experience reducible empirically to a private act of con- sciousness, or "idea"but a social and public experience, one version of which can be found in the following passage from Nathaniel Hawthornes The Scarlet Two especially valuable essays that acknowledge the declining influence of speech act theory inliterary studies areJacqueline Henkels "Speech-Act Theory Revisited" and Mary Louise Pratts "Ide-ology and Speech-Act Theory." 4 On Boehmes pervasive influence on romanticism through his notion of an "Adamic"language,see Aarsleff, Language and IntellectualHzstory59, 60, 65, 84, 87, 97 n13, 317; Study of Language 154;"Rise and Decline" 282-84; and Beck 147-56, 381. On Boehmes influence on Schelling, see Aarsleff,Language and Intellectual140-42, 144; and Bowie 3, 117, 178. On Boehmes influence on Coleridge,see Holmes, Early Vzszons 120, 365; DarkerReflectzons 207, 250, 399. On his influence on Emerson, 53,see Richardson 23-27, 221, 228.
  4. 4. THE PERFORMATIVE BASIS/59Letter.Speaking of the seventeenth-century Puritans in New England, the narra-tor remarks:Nothing was more common, in those days,than to interpretall meteoric appearances,and othernaturalphenomena, that occurredwith less regularity than the rise and set of sun and moon, as somany revelationsfrom a supernatural source.Thus, a blazingspear,a swordof flame, a bow,or asheaf of arrows,seen in the midnightsky,prefiguredIndianwarfare.Pestilencewasknownto havebeen forebodedby a showerof crimsonlight.Wedoubtwhetheranymarkedevent,for good or evil,everbefell New England,from its settlementdownto Revolutionary times,of whichthe inhabitantshad not been previously warnedby some spectacleof this nature.Not seldom, it had been seen bymultitudes... It was, indeed, a majesticidea, that the destiny of nations should be revealed,inthese awfulhieroglypics, the cope of heaven. (1389-90) on In this passage, language is viewed as an act of nature, like a meteor shower ora picture. As for Augustine and most pre-eighteenth century theorists, languagedoes not "represent" a reality that may be accounted for empirically by its ap-pearance within "the minds presence-room" as John Locke put it (60). Rather,language emanates or manifests the presencing of a reality, or essence, of whichit is a part.5 The term "allegory"comes from the Greek allos, meaning "other," combinedwith agoreuein,meaning "speakopenly; thus implying that there are two levels ofmeaning, often termed the "figurative" and the "literal;in any allegory (Fletcher2; Bahti 8). Nonetheless, we must distinguish between different kinds of dualism:between a relative or constrained dualism that presupposes a larger, unifying "pres-ence" that links the terms of the duality; and a radical or binary dualism thatpresupposes only two independent entities that, precisely because they have nointermediate or "middle"terms-no unifying context by which one could com-pare and order them-can simultaneously be separated from and merged withone another in dialectical fashion. Defined in this way, the "dualism" allegory is clearly non-dialectical or rela- oftive; it is constrained by being subordinated to a larger encompassing unity or"presenceIn William Empsons words, "Partof the function of an allegory is tomake you feel that two levels of being correspond to each other in detail andindeed that there is some underlying reality, something in the nature of things,which makes this happen. Either level may illuminate the other... so that it isnot even obvious which is tenor and which is vehicle" (346). Although the unify-ing context of allegory cannot exhaustivelybe specified, it can always be speci-fied in part; it is always in processof being illuminated, a feature that explains whyallegory has typically been written in narrative form. Thus, allegorical exegesis,or allegoresis, often functions, in Peter Szondis words, "to annul the distancebetween reader and author" by drawing "the canonical text ... out of its histori-cal remoteness into the present, to make it not only comprehensible but also, asit were, present" (6). By the time of the classical age of the Athenians and thelater Alexandrians, for example, Homers language was no longer immediatelycomprehensible; the allegoresis of the Stoics bridged this gap by claiming that 5Qtd. in Vance, "Saint Augustine" 251, 22. "Augustinedoes speakof things and of signs in [OnDialectics]. . . but he does not take the former to be referentsof the latter.The world is dividedinto signsand thingsaccordingto whetherthe perceivedobjectivehas transitive valueor not. Thingsparticipate in signs as sigmnfiers, as referents" (Todorov 40; see also 15-16, 35-59). not
  5. 5. LITERATURECOMPARATIVE /60contemporary ideas had been prefigured in allegorical disguise by Homer, justas later generations during the Middle Ages refigured Virgils Aeneid as an alle-gory of the human soul from birth to death. Similarly, the typological inter-pretation of the Bible bridged the historical distance between Old andNew Testaments by interpreting them in terms of the relation of promise andfulfillment (Szondi 6-11, 110). During the seventeenth century, as SacvanBercovitch has argued, American Puritans radicalized the tradition of Biblicaltypology by applying such an allegory of promise and fulfillment to their owncontemporary history.6 In allegory, the temporal or "horizontal"dimension is subordinate to its "erti-cal"dimension, whose scale, or degrees of difference, is ideally fixed:Allegorical dualism.., .is the natural result of the cosmic function of allegory, inasmuch ascosmologies of times earlier than our own depended on a "chain of being" in which, if one de-scended just a step lower than the lowest stage one could imagine, one reached a sort of absolutezero, Lucifer upturned in the pit of Hell, while his counterpart, Jehovah, stood at an absolute heightof divine power and good. (Fletcher 223-24) What is reflected, then, in the mode of allegory is a pre-modern confidencethat the "mind"can grasp the "reality" represented in art, even if that grasp willalways be limited. It follows that the functions of allegory, as well as those ofother pre-modern literary and artistic forms, can be properly didactic; art, likerhetoric, may "teach lessons" about life, including ethical and political ones(Fletcher 121). If we turn now to the term symbolic, find not just that the meaning of the welatter is intimately bound to the meaning of allegory, but that it is bound to aparticular-and, from a pre-modern perspective, impoverished-understandingof allegory ushered in by Martin Luther during the Reformation and culminat-ing in the work of Coleridge in the early nineteenth century. Indeed, it is onlypossible to understand the mode of allegory as "performative"in a distinctively"pre-modern"sense if one distances oneself from Coleridges influential account.That account, shaped by Schelling and the Schlegels, associates allegory with theKantian category of the Understanding, in which a concept, or "pre-determinedform" is impressed "mechanically" on the "material" of experience. In A.W.Schlegels words,The form is mechanical when through outside influence it is imparted to a material merely as anaccidental addition, without relation to its nature (as e.g. when we give an arbitrary shape to a softmass so that it may retain it after hardening). Organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it unfoldsitself from within and acquires its definiteness simultaneously with the total development of thegerm. (qtd. in Wellek, TheRomantzcAge48)Whereas "Allegoryis but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-languagewhich is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses" symbol-ism is associated with the higher Kantian power of Reason. Its form is not pre-determined but "organic": shapes, as it develops, itself from within... It always "itpartakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates thewhole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative 6 See Bercovitch, Americanxiv, 4-10, 24-26, 125-60; Puritan 114-18; and Miller 29-31, 34-39, 133-40, 173-85, 192-204, 305-15,460-63, 482-85.
  6. 6. THE PERFORMATIVE BASIS/61 ... Symbol is a sign included in the idea, which it represents" (Coleridge, On Language 40; Statesmans Manual 230). This account, however, scarcely does justice to the pre-modern understanding of allegory; in order to grant the symbol a higher organic unity and ontological status, it attributes to allegory a rigid dualism. Whereas traditional allegoresis assumed that one and the same truth could be understood in two different ways -philosophically and theologically, for example-the new mode of textual in- terpretation ushered in by Luther and the Reformation claimed, in Frederick Beisers words, "not that they are different kinds of discourse about the same subject matter, but that they are different kinds of discourse about different sub-ject matters" (27). The two "different subject matters" that Beiser refers to here correspond to Augustines "kingdom of heaven" and "kingdom of earth, except that the polarity between the two has been sharpened, by Luther, so as to consti- tute a "double-truth Such a doctrine entailed an "ontological distinc- doctrine. tion concerning different kinds of existence or realms of being" (25) that effected a radical dualism between reason and faith:All that we can infer about God from our natural reason, [Luther and Calvin] argue, is that heexists. We cannot have an adequate knowledge, however, of how he exists, of his essence or nature.Luther undercuts the main premise behind natural theology by denying that it is possible for rea-son to know the final and efficient causes of things. (31) It is its hierarchical, cosmological framework that allows allegory, in contrastto modern "symbolism,to serve didactic functions and convey its ideas directly,as opposed to the "indirections" of symbolism. Goethes formulation of the dif-ference between the two, which, according to Rene Wellek and Tzvetan Todorov,was the main source for the development of the opposition between allegoryand symbol in German romantics and Coleridge, brings this point out: "Theallegorical differs from the symbolic in that what the latter designates indirectly,the former designates directly."8 Although it was Goethe who introduced the opposition between allegory andsymbol, it was Kant who in the Critique ofJudgmentinitiated a dramatic change inthe meaning of the word symbol. According to Todorov,Until 1790, the word "symbol"had a very different meaning from the one it was to acquire in theromantic era. Either it was simply synonymous with a series of other, more commonly used termssuch as allegory, hieroglyph, figure (in the sense of number), emblem, and so on, or else it desig-nated primarily the purely arbitrary and abstract sign (mathematical symbols) ... Far from charac-terizing abstract reason, the symbol belongs to the intuitive and sense-based manner of apprehendingthings. (199-200)Kant himself showed awareness of the change he was helping to initiate when inthe CritiqueofJudgmenthe remarked that "logicians"are "wrong ... to contrastsymbolic with intuitive presentation, [for] symbolic presentation is only a kind ofintuitive presentation" (227). As discussed in more detail below, a very similarkind of change of meaning was initiated by Alexander Baumgarten in the usageof the term "aesthetic"in the early eighteenth century. The two changes were, 7For a discussion of the way in which modern commentaries have oversimplified traditional alle-gory, see Fletcher 103-35. 8Wellek, The LaterEzghteenthCentury211; Todorov 200; Goethe 314, 1112, 1113. The final sen-tence in the passage of Goethe is from On the Objects ofthe PlastzcArts(qtd. in Todorov 199).
  7. 7. COMPARATIVE LITERATURE /62indeed, interdependent, for both conferred on the sensuous features of artisticrepresentation an autonomy and epistemological legitimacy or seriousness thatthey had lacked prior to the eighteenth century. Both, that is, were reflections ofa more general change in which the ontological status of art was enhanced. Ratherthan being relegated to a subordinate sphere by virtue of its sensuous, particular-ized content-a content that traditional metaphysics had alwaysregarded as hav-ing an intrinsically deficient cognitive status-art gained a new and enhancedontological dignity as a unique, dialectically grounded form of experience inwhich what was formerly seen as a deficiency could be transformed into a virtue.The engine or life of art came to be viewed as a dialectical process in which theparticular was universalized, the sensous spiritualized-in which the art workcarried within it what Hegel called "the sensuous representation of the absoluteitself" (IntroductoryLectures 76). The new opposition between allegory and symbol served as one of the impor-tant vehicles of this ontological enhancement, or separation between metaphys-ics and ontology. Whereas allegory, as A.W. Schlegel said, was merely "thepersonification of a concept, a fiction contrived only for this purpose, [symbol-ism] is what the imagination has created for other reasons, or what possesses areality independent of concepts" (qtd. in Wellek, RomanticAge 299). All genuineart, according to Karl Solger, is symbolic, for it unites essence and existence:"The symbol is the existence of the Idea itself. It is really what it signifies. It is theIdea in its immediate reality. The symbolic is thus alwaystrue in itself: not a merecopy of something true" (qtd. in Wellek, RomanticAge 42). The "truth"of the symbolic is ultimately a function of the reflective capacitiesof the mind. Its sources, if not exactly "within"consciousness, are in some sense Besonnenheit) us? For Locke and Condillac,within us, are a "reflection"(reflexion, ofButler and Coleridge, "reflection"could be used, asJohn Beer puts it, "both as anabstract word to describe a mental process and as an image invoking metaphorsof religious and moral illumination" (lxxxix). It is by virtue of the reflective ca-pacities of the mind that humankind, according to Kant, is given access to "thesublime" For crucial to the experience of sublimity is that "infinitude"which isglimpsed above all in poetry and art:Beautyis the symbolicrepresentationof the infinite.., .the oracularverdict of the heart, thesedeep intuitionsin which the darkriddle of our existence seems to solveitself.., the powerof infin-ity itself, and the pursuit of the infinite, is properly natural to man, and a part of his veryessence ... the longing for the infiniteis ... one of the greatarteriesof true poetryand art.0 From a modern perspective language is "performative"in a sense that can onlybe understood with reference to modern symbolism; it is autonomous and "stages,so to speak, its own reality or acts of consciousness. Language, that is, does notparticipate in or resemble a reality external to it. Rather, the meanings of wordsare a function of the relations of arbitrary signifiers that, lacking positive values,are never, as such, "present." The reality that language exhibits or "performs"is in 9 Rousseau 13. For further discussion of the importance of the term reflectzon eighteenth-centurythought, see Aarsleff, Locke29, 107-9, 128-29, 155,163-64, 341-42, 350. o The first part of the quotation is from A.W. Schlegel, qtd. in Wellek, RomantzcAge 43. Thesecond part is from his brother Friedrichs Phzlosophy Lzfe 429, 426. of
  8. 8. THE PERFORMATIVE BASIS/63not a "presence"but an absence or non-presence; it is an imaginative capacity orpotentiality of inwardness related to what the Germans call Bildung (inner cul-ture), and which, although "within" cannot be controlled or mastered byus." us,In the words of Edgar Allan Poe, whose critiques of allegory anticipated modernsymbolism, and whose works brilliantly incarnate that nihilistic marriage of skep-ticism and romanticism diagnosed by Nietzsche, it is "some exciting knowledge-some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction.2 Or, inHeideggers words in On the Wayto Language, "the essential nature of languageflatly refuses to express itself in words-in the language, that is, in which wemake statements about language. If language everywhere withholds its nature inthis sense, then such withholding is in the very nature of language" (81). Such anunderstanding of language as negatively, or "intransitively," performative informsDerridas notion of ecriture. he says in Writingand Difference, As "The pure book,the book itself.., must be the book about nothing that Flaubert dreamed of... This emptiness as the situation of literature must be acknowledged by thecritic as that which constitutes the specificity of his object, around which he al-ways speaks" (8, 108). Language must "twistits tongue to speak the non-linguisticconditions of language" (Derrida, "Me-Psychoanalysis" 10). Timothy Clark sumsup the common features of Heidegger and Derridas philosophical perspectivesas follows:Languagecannot.., .become the object of any representationalist meta-language. This transcen-dental force of language can only be approached..,.by way of a mode of language that tries to sayingof saying,hearkenor resonateto its own sourcesor genesis. It must become an intransitivewhatever extraordinary the innovationsthis demandrequires.(149) stylistic II. What is at issue in the radically different modern and pre-modern accounts oflanguage as performative are the ultimate sources from which language gains mean-ing. Pre-modern accounts-associated with a metaphysics ofpresence-posit thosesources as beyond human experience yet comprehensible; the meanings that"the language of nature" conveys exist prior to our reception of them and areimposed on us. Modern accounts-associated with an ontologyof reflection-bycontrast posit that those sources are a function of human consciousness, yet arenot comprehensible in strictly rational terms. Metaphysics an ancient term that iscarries Aristotelian and neo-Platonic connotations of a "chainof being.Ontology,on the other hand, is a modern term that was coined in the seventeenth centuryby an obscure Calvinist philosopher, and that became widely used during theeighteenth century by the Leibnizian philosophers Christian Wolff and Alexander " See Bruford for a discussion of the German concept of Bzldungfrom Wilhelm von Humboldt toThomas Mann. 12The quotation is from Poes "MS. Found in a Bottle" (Poetry and Tales 198). Speaking of theinfluence of romanticism on modern criticism, Rene Wellek remarks, "much is not drawn directlyfrom the original sources but rather comes through many intermediaries, through Coleridge, Poe,the French symbolists, and Croce" (LaterEzghteenth Century4). Elsewhere, Wellek also comments,"Coleridge was the main source..,. not only for a long line of English critics but also for the Americantranscendentalists and for Poe, and thus indirectly for the French symbolists" (RomantzcAge 157).
  9. 9. LITERATURECOMPARATIVE /64Baumgarten; the latter, not incidentally, also helped to establish the modernusage of the term aesthetics." terms Metaphysics The and ontology thus have roots,respectively, in the two major currents of our western heritage, the Greco-Romanand Judaeo-Christian. These currents, although inextricably linked to one an-other in innumerable ways, have nonetheless been engaged, as Nietzsche put it,"in a fearful struggle on earth for thousands of years" (488). Classical metaphys-ics may be distinguished from modern ontology by the formers lack of a distinctconcept of "existence"as radically contingent (see Kahn; Seligman 18, and Gilson119). Usually set in opposition to the Aristotelian and more rationalistic conceptof the notion of existence has its sources in the distinctively Christian "essence,account of creation ex nihilo. It was given special emphasis by Martin Luther dur-ing the Reformation and gained currency in modern times through the workof Soren Kierkegaard, which influenced Heidegger and other existentialistthinkers.!4 By providing a counter-concept to "presence" it has also influenced,less directly, poststructuralist and postmodernist thinkers (see Derrida, "Post-Scriptum," "Faith,"and "How to Avoid"). As I will use the terms in this essay, then, metaphysics inherits the rationalisticemphasis placed on being by classical culture; it seeks the whatnessor essences ofthings (ousia, essentia), such "essences"forming a conceptually comprehensible,eternally self-generating, hierarchy or chain of being in which the human es-sence occupies one, but not the highest, level. Ontology, the other hand, signi- onfies not metaphysics, but what Kant calls a "metaphysics of metaphysics" (myemphasis). It inherits the sense of radical contingency placed on being by Chris-tian-especially Lutheran-theology, seeking the thatnessor "existence"of things (existentia),an existence not comprehensible in human terms but one with whichhuman beings are uniquely qualified, by virtue of their capacity for language, toengage. Whereas classical metaphysics declares ex nihilo nihilfit (from nothing,nothing comes to be), Christian thinkers such as Augustine maintain ex nihilofit -ens creatum(from nothing comes created being). Pre-Christian metaphysicsasks, "Whatis?"Post-Christian ontology wonders that there is anything at all andposes the question, originating with Leibniz but taking on its distinctively mod- ern implications with Hume, Schelling, and Heidegger, "Whyis there something rather than nothing?"15 13The obscure Calvinistphilosopherwas, according to Rene Wellek,Rudolf Golclenius (1547-1628) (American 161). See also Owens35 and MacIntyre Criticism 542. 14 See Heidegger,Being and Time30; Oberman120-21,274-75;Bambach199-201;Richter10, 88;and Zimmerman, 19. Eclzpse 15 Heidegger,Kant andtheProblem Metaphyszcs see chapter4 for discussionof the meaningof of 28;Kants phrase.Leibnizsquestionappearsin "ThePrinciplesof Natureand Grace,Basedon Reason"[1714]. The sentence followingthe question, "Fornothing is simplerand easier than something"(Selections clearlyindicatesthe non-ontological, 527), determinedly and metaphysical, "non-modern"sense in which Leibnizunderstood the question. See also Heideggerscomments in "Nihilismas IV: andDeterminedby the Historyof Being" (Nietzsche 208); Exzstence Bezng to 328-49;IntroductzonMetaphyszcs and Pathmarks 317. See also DavidKrells 1-42; 289, commentson the importanceof thisissue in Heideggersworks:"Study [Heideggers]later texts disclosesthe lasting qualityof the ofissue of ground and nullity. Such study makes it impossible to assent to that interpretationofHeideggers career which asserts that the problem of the nothing pertains to an existentialistphase that is soon tranquilized into releasement by thankfulness to Being" (Heidegger NzetzscheIV: 284-85). In his Essay on the Orgin of Language, Locke remarks on the metaphysical implications
  10. 10. THE PERFORMATIVE BASIS/65 The latter question is distinctively modern because the mere asking of it throwsus into a "hermeneutic circle" that is not only inescapable but imposes on usskepticism about "the reality" of what lies outside us; it imposes a view of our-selves from within as stretched between a dialectical, but at the same time dialec-tically unresolvable, tension of being and nothingness. That tension subsists on,and is continuously incited by, the threat of nihilism. Such a threat, as KarlLowithpointed out (51), could have arisen in radical form only in the context of theChristian notion of creation ex nihilo, for only those who believe they have beencreated out of nothing can be haunted by the contingency that they may becomenothing once again. For many centuries prior to the modern period a creationist account of theuniverse coexisted in apparent harmony with a rationalist and essentialist view ofthat same universe as the emanation of eternal categories of being. The fragilityof this harmony was first exposed by the nominalistic philosophy of William ofOckham (later adopted by Martin Luther):Whatfourteenth-century Christianspeculationtried to do wasto blowup the solid block of Greco-Arabicdeterminism,and this wasmainlythe workof the Franciscan School. Ockham,for instance,wasgoing to do it by simplyannihilatingall essences ... the blockof Greco-Arabicnecessitydisinte-gratesunder the pressureof twochargesof theologicalexplosive:the absoluteinfinityof the divineessence and the absolutefreedomof Godswill. (Gilson84-85)Anticipating in a limited way certain features of modern empiricism, Ockhamsnominalism "annihilated all essences" by insisting that such essences, or univer-sals, were only the common names we give to individuals among themselves. Inreality, "there are only individuals:16 Such nominalism thus stripped "the playingfield of reality"by eliminating any intermediate entities, or essences, "between"God and man-by eliminating everything, that is, except language and therebyopening up a pathway to the valorization and re-ontologization of language thatwas a feature of Christianity from the beginning." This "nihilation" and elimination entailed, at the level of language, what StephenNichols calls the abandonment of "the literal language of historical time andplace, the univocal language of phenomena, in favor of... the more difficultand veiled language [of] scripture" (57). By engaging actively in the interpreta-tion of such difficult and veiled language, the individual reader participated inwhat was ultimately the discovery of his own existence. As John Scotus Erigenaof essentiaas follows:"Essence maybe takenfor the being of anythingwherebyit is whatit is. Andthus the real internal,but generally(in Substances)unknown,constitutionof things,whereontheirdiscoverable qualitiesdepend, maybe called their essence. This is the properoriginalsignificationof the word,as is evidentfrom the formationof it: essentza, its primarynotation, signifyingprop- inerly being"(238). Withintwentieth-century Frenchphilosophy,Bergson,whose workDerridahaspraised, anticipatesthe (ontological) "turn" language. As Vincent Descombes says, "Leibnizs tostatementof the metaphysical problem [whichis preciselynot metaphysical from mystandpoint]-whyis there something,ratherthan nothing?-clearly showsthat the metaphysician nothing on setsa par with something, or even accords it a certain priority.But in reality,explains Bergson, thisnothing is an effect of language"(25). RobertBernasconiaptly comments that in addressingtheQuestionof Being, "There no why,only the that"(8). is 16The firstpartof the quotationis from Duns Scotus,qtd. in Lovejoy 156;the second partis fromDescartes,qtd.inDoing 289. 17For discussionsof Ockhamand his influence on Germanphilosophy,see Beck, Early78-82,512-13;and Tillich,Hzstory 183-88, 198-99,206-7.
  11. 11. COMPARATIVE LITERATURE /66had put it in the ninth century: "The fabric of divine Scripture is intricately wovenand entwined with turns and obliquities. The Holy Spirit did not desire to makeit so because it grudged our understanding, a possibility about which we shouldnot even think, but because it was eager to exercise our intelligence and to re-ward hard toil and discovery" (qtd. in Nichols 257). During the sixteenth cen-tury this model of reading scripture was adopted and intensified. By "releasingthe reader from the constraints of what one might call institutionalized allegory;as Terence Cave has argued, "Protestant theories of Scriptural reading trans-formed the reading of Scripture from a process in which the reader passivelyaccepted knowledge about what exists to a performative activityin which one par-ticipated in the discovery of the grounds of ones own existence" (151, 162-63). Drawing on Ockhamswork, Luther initiated a long history in which, as NorbertElias and many others have maintained, Germanic Kultur,with its center in thewritten word and private experience, was privileged over French and Englishcivilization, with its center in speech and courtly rules of conduct.s The rise of"writing" this sense, helped to effect the decline of the Latin "tongue";it also inchallenged the authority of those languages, Italian and later French, which,after the Middle Ages, had taken over the functions earlier performed by Latin(CivilizingProcess42-43; Curtius 25-35, 383-88). Although the eighteenth century was, ironically, the century in which the con-cept of the chain of being "attained [its] widest diffusion and acceptance" (Lovejoy183), it was also the century in which the metaphysical basis of the concept wasundermined and eventually "destroyed"The principal agent of such destructionwas time. For it had alwaysbeen essential to the chain of being that its categoriesbe fixed, that the whole of reality consist of the same number of individuals sepa-rated by fixed degrees of difference. Increasingly, especially in the writings ofGerman romantics and idealists, there was a tendency to substitute the Faustianideal of a "strivingfor the unattainable" (Streben nach dem Unendlichen)for theideal of the soul at rest in its contemplation of perfection. Such striving is thecomplement of a sense of absolute dependence on God that can be found inGerman writers from Luther to Schleiermacher: "The common element in allhowsoever diverse expressions of piety . .. is this: the consciousness of being ab-solutely [schlechthinig] dependent, or, which is the same thing, of being in rela-tion with God" (Schleiermacher 12). Such a sense of absolute dependence isclosely related to Schleiermachers concept of "the hermeneutic circle": in bothcases one must submit oneself utterly to the Word by enclosing oneself withinthe text, suspending all questioning of origins by recognizing, in Heideggerswords, that "Whatis decisive is not to get out of the circle but to come into it inthe right way" (Being and Time 195). Indeed, since "the world itself came intoexistence through the spoken word of God, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo isequivalent to the textualization of existence:The expression "out of nothing" excludes the idea that before the origin of the world anythingexisted outside God, which as "matter,"could enter into the formation of the world. And undoubt-edly the admission of "matter"as existing independently of the divine activity would destroy the 18 Elias, CzvzlzzzngProcess 3-43, 59-61; Germans 123-32, 323-24; and Czvzlzzatzon, Power 49-109. Seealso Mennel and Goudsblom 13-24, 36-39.
  12. 12. THE PERFORMATIVE BASIS/67feeling of absolute dependence ... Our self-consciousness, in its universality.., can only representfinite being in general so far as it is a continuous being; for we only know ourselves in this mannerbut have no consciousness of a beginning of being. (Schleiermacher 153, 148, 146). Although the pre-modern perspective confers on humankind a certain dis-tinctiveness, that distinctiveness is achieved by virtue of being torn by conflictingdesires and propensities, of being a member of two orders of being at once, andtherefore not at home in either; it is not a distinctiveness gained by virtue of a fallfrom innocence that has conferred on humankind a unique self-knowledge asso-ciated with an "infinite"capacity of mind!9 In the pre-modern view the capacityfor self-consciousness is a product of, and in no sense a means of transcending,ones place in the order of the cosmos. Humans are always "tweened," occupyinga position between angel and beast in a manner analogous to the Earthspositionat the midpoint of the celestial spheres (Aristotle, Physics266 [207a]; Grene 62-63).Just as the pre-modern view of language as performative dictates that oursystems of representation, or languages, participate in the reality they represent,so too the metaphysics of presence dictates that the differences between the hu-man and natural worlds, or between elements within either of the two, be con-ceived in terms not of binary oppositions but of graded or relative differencesthat belong to the same chain or hierarchy of being. However great the "dis-tance"that might separate "high" from "low" such a chain, their oppositionality onis not binary or mutually exclusive, but rather graduated or defined in terms ofthe contextual links between them. In Shakespeares tragedies, for example, the highmindness, nobility, and purityof the heroes, who occupy the highest rungs of the social ladder, are posited atthe furthest possible remove from the egotism, sensuality, and slavishness of thevillains, who are implicitly associated with the non-human order of bestiality. Yetthese differences, however great, are only differences of degree, for connectingthe two extremes is a hierarchy, in descending order, of the lower nobility, mer-chants, peasants, homeless beggars, and slaves. Moreover, the heros position atthe top of the social/human order is at the same time a position at the bottom ofthe celestial one. Social order is not only hierarchical; it is continuous with thatof a yet higher hierarchy (Utterback 271, 278). Thus, there can be no hope foran "escapefrom necessity" such as Christianity holds out to those who have faith.That is why the subversion of the social order in classical and Shakespeareantragedy is usually a sign of a tear in the fabric of the cosmos. But again, disorder,chaos, and "nothingness" in these tragedies are not set in binary opposition toorder, reason, and fullness of presence. Rather, the former are the "relative ab-sence, the lack or privation, of the latter; they constitute not a part of "reality"but what lies "outside"it: a vague and indefinite dimension of unmeaning andirrationality that cannot be represented, named, or made the object of any sortof knowledge--what Sophocles in Oedipus at Colonus describes as "somethingawful,/Fearful and unendurable to see" (182). The subversion of the concept of the chain of being requires, as Gilson puts it,that "there take place such events as are the work of freedom and escape neces- 19For discussions of the distinction between the infinite and the unending, see Koyre 8; Wittgenstein145-46, 218, 229; Lovejoy 66, 112, 116, 117, 123, 125, 127, 138; and Sorabji 198, 210.
  13. 13. COMPARATIVELITERATURE/68sity"(72). But in order to "escape necessity; a principle of being must be posited"above being" (i.e., above the chain of being). Gilson calls that principle "exist-ence," and it is grounded in the unconstrained will of God through which thecreation of the world ex nihilo was effected.2"What is "abovebeing" will not onlynot be "intelligible" in an ordinary sense, but might even be said "to not be.21And such an absence is not "relative" Gilson emphasizes (137), is not a priva- astion or lack of presence in the traditionally Catholic, non-mystical sense, but israther, in Derrida words, "anabsoluteness of absence" (Limited 7). As Eckhardt, Incfrom whose writings Heidegger chose the epigraph for his 1915 habilitation onthe medieval philosopher Duns Scotus (Safranski 64), states, "There is in Godneither to be nor being; for, indeed, if a cause is truly a cause, nothing of theeffect should be formally in its cause. Now, God is the cause of all being. Hencebeing cannot formally be in God.22 The sense of the world as a rational, orderly process found in pre-modernthought is reflected above all in "the principle of sufficient reason" formulatedby Leibniz: "Nothing happens without a reason ... For a thing to be rightly esti-mated I state as a principle the Harmony of things, that is, the greatest amountof essence exists that is possible. It follows that there is more reason in the exis-tence of a thing than in its non-existence. And everything would exist if thatwere possible" (92-93). Here the distinctively modern question, "Whyis theresomething rather than nothing?" is implied only to be disqualified. For in orderseriously to ask that question, one must first have a concept of nothingness asdistinct and separable from any particular "something And it is precisely such aconcept that classical and medieval thinkers for the most part lacked; their useof the concept of "nothingness" is relative to, and not independent of, "what is."Existence" such pre-modern thinkers, is contained within and subsumed by forthe necessary and eternal realm of essences that constitute "reality" III. I observed above that the term ontologywas coined and became widely used inthe seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in order to give expression to a newsense of the "being" of language. Something similar happened with the term except that rather than a new term being coined an old term was givenaesthetics,an entirely new sense and meaning. Traditionally, aesthetics had referred to akind of sensuous experience that could become the object only of a "confused;"indistinct"perception, and thus could never attain the status of genuine knowl- 20 As I have argued elsewhere, Nietzsches thesis of "the eternal return of the same" stands op-posed to a Heideggerian account of being quite as much as a Christian one. This is not to imply,however, that there arent significant differences between Heideggerian and Christian views; seeCaputo, Hezdegger Aquznas147-84. and 21 Aristotle, GreaterHzppzas1545, 292e; cf. Parmenedes (129e). 23 22 Qtd. in Gilson 39. For discussion of Eckhardt and his influence on German philosophy, seeBeck 43-45, 59-60, 71-73, 510-11; and Tillich 144, 201-3. On Eckhardt and Heidegger, see Heidegger,Nzetzsche 220; Caputo, Mystzcal105-12, 129-30, 216-17; and Zimmerman, "Heidegger, Buddhism" III:241-42, 250, 258.
  14. 14. THE PERFORMATIVEBASIS/69edge, which from Descartes and Locke through Hume and Kants first Critiquehad been viewed as the product of perception that was intellectually pure, with-out sensory components""23 The two changes were, indeed, interdependent, forboth conferred on the sensuous features of artistic representation an autonomyand epistemological legitimacy or seriousness that they had lacked prior to theeighteenth century. Only by transposing a creationist account of the cosmos ontothe realm of art could the work itself, as a distinct mode of being, be granted theindependence and autonomy required by modern modes of criticism, whetherphilological, hermeneutical, New Critical, or poststructuralist. Whereas art, forDante, was "the grandchild of God" (InfernoXI: 104) and thus grounded in, aswell as subordinate to, metaphysics, for romanticists such as Friedrich Schlegelthe artist supplants the functions of God-"as God is to his creation, so is theartist to his own" (qtd. in Lussky 78)-and so provides his creation with its ownontological status. Descartess reduction of the properties of matter to the lowest common de-nominator of "extension" as well as his replacement of the metaphysical conceptof ousia or essence with that of "knowable object: had given the domain of sen-sory experience a "solidity" and self-identity it had lacked in classical times.24 None-theless, as I have noted, it was Alexander Baumgarten, a rationalist philosopherof the Leibnizian-Wolffian school, who first treated aesthetic experience as a radi-cally different kind of cognition, which Baumgarten called "sensate cognition.25To the ancients Baumgartens phrase would likely have seemed incoherent, sincesensory experience existed too far down on "the chain of being" and was too 23 On the sensory, "confused" nature of the aesthetic response in Leibniz, Hutcheson, Addison,Burke, Hume, and others see Guyer, Experience Freedom 62, 65, 81; Thomas 166; Ross, "Beauty" of 60,237-41; Mackie 387-96; and Furniss. 24 In ThePrnczplesof Phzlosophy Descartes argues that "the nature of the body consists not in weight,hardness, color, and the like, but in extension alone" (Method,Medztatzons Phzlosophy and 335). Seealso Marion 114; Kenny 203-4; and Ariew 65. A large part of the appeal of Descartess dualism ofmind and matter was, as John Cottingham says, that "The theologians could now be offered ametaphysic in which consciousness was a suzgenens phenomenon, wholly detached from corporealevents of any kind" (240-41). 25 In his Aesthetzc Benedetto Croce specifically disputes the revolutionary nature of Baumgartensnotion of sensate cognition: "criticsattribute to Baumgarten a merit he cannot claim ... Accordingto them, he effected a revolution by converting Leibnizs differences of degree or quantitative dis-tinctions into a specific difference, and turning confused knowledge into something no longernegative but positive by attributing a perfectio to sensitive cognition qua talis; and by thus destroy-ing the unity of the Leibnitian monad and breaking up the law of continuity, founded the science ofAesthetic. Had he really accomplished such a giant stride, his claim to the title of father of Aes-thetic would have been placed beyond question" (214). R.G. Collingwood, strongly influenced byCroce, does not even mention Baumgarten in his ThePrinciplesof Art. But the arguments of Croce,who is concerned to establish the priority of Vico in this regard, do not seem to me very convincing,and in any case Croce acknowledges that in the work of Baumgartens "disciples"-including Meier,Mendelssohn, and Herder-just such a break with tradition was eventually carried out (212-19, 242-56). Rene Wellek is somewhat more positive regarding Baumgartens role: "Baumgarten, however,has not only the merit of inventing an important term More definitely than anybody before himwith the possible exception of Vico, he distinguished the realm of art from the realms of philoso-phy, morality, and pleasure... Art and poetry are cognition but not thought; they are nonintellec-tual knowledge, perception" (Later EzghteenthCentury 145). Or, as Paul Oskar Kristeller says,"Baumgarten is the founder of aesthetics insofar as he first conceived a general theory of the arts asa separate philosophical discipline with a distinctive and well-defined place in the system of philoso-phy" (425). See also Cassirer 338-60.
  15. 15. COMPARATIVE LITERATURE /70much like a chaos of particulars incapable of being put into rational order, to begenuinely cognitivized. By comparison with knowledge that was "clear and dis-tinct"a knowledge modeled on mathematics, it "lacked reality"although thislack was a matter of degrees or of graded differences, however vast the propor-tions such differences might entail. The assumption behind this scheme was that"knowing"was proportionate to "being.It is not that our senses "deceive" us;rather, it is that the data that they present to us is incapable of being cognitivized.Plato, for example, argues that art is representational or mimetic in that its con-tent, the "reality" seeks to reflect, is the same reality that governs our ordinary itlives. However, due to its sensuous form it is a lower degree of that reality. ForPlato, the disorder, even "madness, of a total immersion in sensory experiencecannot be overcome in art because the poet, is required to submit himself to, notcontrol, his Muse. Aristotle, more typically Greek than Plato in this respect, isless able to imagine a world without poets than was Plato in TheRepublicand sogives art a more respectable status, emphasizing that "poetry is more philosophi-cal than history," because it deals with universals, as well as particulars. But thecompliment is back-handed: although Aristotle, unlike Plato, welcomes the sen-sual delight that the experience of art can bring, he nevertheless agrees thatsuch experiences do not lead to much in the way of knowledge. The experienceof art, being grounded in the senses, cannot be disinterested or "objective"26That is why Aristotle found music a more essential form of mimesis than paint-ing: in his view it possessed a greater capacity than other forms of techneor art toimitate directly, and by imitating to unify, the patterns and flows of sensuous andintellectual experience (Politics1309-16). For modern thinkers such as Schopenhauer, however, music, viewed now notas a technebut as a gateway into a region of rarefied experience that only aesthet-ics can represent, is privileged for exactly the opposite reason-for its ability todramatize the absolute irreconcilability of intellectual and sensuous experience,of the noumenal and phenomenal spheres of reality.As Schopenhauer says, "Theinexpressible depth of music, by virtue of which it floats past us as a paradisequite familiar and yet eternally remote, and is so easy to understand and yet soinexplicable, is due to the fact that it produces all the emotions of our innermostbeing, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.., .music [is] thecopy of an original that can itself never be directly represented" (1:264, 257; seealso I:154, 256, 321; 11:404-32,447-62; and Magee 117-88, 240-41, 351-402). This rarefied conception of the functions of music reflects a more generalfeature of the modern sensibility: that sensuous and intellectual experience arebifurcated and not linked, necessarily, by any unifying context. Sensuous experi-ence, that is, is not a form of cognition-however "unclear"and "indistinct"-atall, but rather the "unknowing"-and in Kants notion of the "Sensibility," theunknown and unknowable-basis for cognition (PureReason42, 56; see also Guyer, Claims13-16, 388-90). 26Aristotle, De Poetzca1464, 1451-56; Metaphyszcs 689. "Knowing is a matter of language, of stat- conflationof whating; it is not a havingof sensationsor sense data"(Randall7). ForAristotleswe todayregardas the separateprovincesof epistemologyand ontology,see Categorzes and Meta- 35;physzcs 713-15,729, 732, 735, 747, 776, 782.
  16. 16. THE PERFORMATIVE BASIS/71 By insisting that there is a domain of experience centered in the sensory worldthat could not be simply dismissed as "lacking in reality,"Baumgarten helped togive that domain an autonomy that allowed it to be thought of as qualitativelydifferent from, and eventually set in binary opposition to, intellectual experi-ence. The essential and unbridgeable gulf between intellectual and sensuousexperience thus consisted in the fact that while the former, so long as it was "clear and distinct, gave us real knowledge, the latter was a "substratum" that didnot "give" knowledge but rather served as the unknowable basis for all knowl- usedge. Art could thus be granted a privileged ontological status, but at the cost ofbeing defined in opposition to a distinct mode of "knowing" episteme, associ- orated with modern science. Baumgartens understanding of aesthetics as sensuous cognition was thus radi-cally innovative, an innovation whose specifically philosophical consequenceswere developed in the work of Condillac, Rousseau, Diderot, and Herder, butnot fully realized until the publication of Kants Critiqueof Judgmentin 1791, awork that provided, in Dieter Henrichs words, "tools for establishing the aes-thetic attitude as self-contained and autonomous, thus as the foundation for aconception of art that envisages art as a primordial way of being related to andsituated within our world" (30). In the Critiqueof Pure Reason, Kant in essenceestablishes the basis of modern epistemology, asserting that "existence is not apredicate" and therefore that "knowing"what something is does not necessarilyimply that it is; it might be a mere "possibility"that lacks reality or existence. InLockes terms, just because we have "ideas"does not mean that they correspond,or "conform"to, objects external to and independent of those ideas. This pos-sible lack of correspondence is reflected in Kants distinction between a purelypossible realm of logical (analytic, synthetic) truth and a demonstrably actualrealm of empirical (a posteriori, priori) truth. What that purely possible realm of alogical truth is predicated on, however, cannot be accounted for within experi-ence, even if it "arises" from experience. Its basis is noumenal, or phenomenallyunknowable, a function of the instruments of perception, which Kant character-izes in terms of consciousness rather than of language, by means of which ouraccess to reality is mediated. To highlight such unknowability, Kant terms such abasis "the thing-in-itself" (PureReason B307)-a thing not "for us;in Hegels ter-minology, but concealed, as though behind a veil, from us. Although for Kant"the concept of a noumenon is a merely limiting concept, the function of whichis to curb the pretensions of sensibility" (B312), in later thinkers such a conceptprompts the "abysmal" thought that there is in fact nothing behind the veil. For moderns, then, art is no longer a techne,or practical, sensuous activity,whose purpose is didactic and moral. Rather, it is a form of reflection, a sort ofperformative meditation, on the finitude of human being. That meditation atonce penetrates to the heart of the human essence and "elevates [erhebt]ourimagination, [making] it exhibit those cases where the mind can come to feel itsown sublimity: a sublimity that, like Heideggers anxiety toward death, can beexperienced only when the mind is "elevated above any fear of... natural ef-fects" (Kant, CritiqueofJudgment 121, 123). This notion that art is grounded inthe minds activity of self-reflection, an activity exhibited above all in the arbi-
  17. 17. COMPARATIVE LITERATURE /72trary and "created"nature of literary language, proves decisive for the aesthetictheories of Schelling, Schiller, and Hegel, all of whom image the aesthetic expe-rience in terms of a dialectical interplay of being and nothingness, however dif-ferent the roles given to aesthetic experience in their thought as a whole. Modern aesthetics arises not by competing directly with the other sciences butby constituting itself in its own separate and autonomous sphere. But in orderfor this modern constitution of aesthetics to occur, there must have occurredfirst a revolution in our view of the objects of the sensory world. That worldneeded first to be rationalized, intellectualized, in a way made possible by mod-ern science. Once having gained a uniformity and predictability, a regularity andconsistency that is assumed by Kant in his description of the a priori intuitions ofspace and time, the confused nature of arts subject matter could gain a statuswhich, although still confused (indistinct), was clear: art could impose its ownspecial kind of logic on the senses, a logic concerned with particulars and ex-amples rather than rules and maxims, a logic which in Leibniz and Baumgartencould achieve a higher dignity than that given to it by the Greeks.7 Such logicproduced a kind of knowledge that did not equal or rival that of the othersciences but which nonetheless was of indirect relevance to the real world: thatis, its relevance was not in terms of truth, but in terms of beauty. The experienceof beauty could thus be made disinterested: it could be given a cognitive statussubordinate to that of the sciences (Baumgarten) and then be freed, in theromantics, from the need to masquerade as something cognitive altogether,asserting its importance on entirely different grounds, in order not merely tocompete with the sciences in importance but to assert its superiority. Kants "dualism, then, although still largely "classical"or constrained, is thejumping-off" place for the development, in the thought of such idealists asSchelling and Hegel, of a qualitatively different kind of dualism based on binaryopposition and made possible by the elimination of "the thing in itself" or un-knowable realm of noumena. The latter dualism is at once more radical andmore subtle than Kants, since it makes room for the potential collapse, para-doxically, of all oppositions. It is through such a collapse, or "universalization" ofthe Kantian antinomies, that the way is prepared for a modern ontology of re-flection, or absence, that does not merely limit and simultaneously preserve theauthority of science by skeptically critiquing its empiricist basis, as Kant did, butinstead subordinates the analytical logic of science (based on the law of non-contradiction) to a dialectical logic that is linked, in Schiller and Schelling, to aesthetic and religious experience, which is identified, in Hegel, with the unfold-ing of the Concept throughout history; and which characterizes, in Heidegger and Derrida, the "being"of language itself. It is a logic, in all cases, that affirms the most extreme, non-rationalist (but not necessarily irrationalist) implication of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo-the implication that Gods essence is wholly distinct from and independent of created existence-except that in place of the entirely free and arbitrarywill of God, dialectics substitutes an autonomous logi- 27For a discussion of the independence of the notions of "clarity" and "distinctness" in helpfulrelation to aesthetic objects, see Norton 30-33.
  18. 18. THE PERFORMATIVE BASIS/73cal mechanism fueled by historical processes that has "itsotherness within itself,"as Hegel says in the Phenomenology Spirit (34). The logic of deconstruction, ofalthough fueled by arbitrary linguistic oppositions rather than historical pro-cesses, similarly contains its "otherness"within itself in so far as its very identity isstipulated as dependent on such otherness. The valorization of written language characteristic of modern ontology is "un-derwritten" by a modern "existentialism"in Gilsons sense, which presupposes abinary opposition between sensuous and intellectual experience exemplified inits most radical form in the non-naturalistic tradition of German philosophy.Organicist theories of language and the modern semiotic view of the arbitrarynature of the sign both arise out of the aesthetic tradition fostered by Germanromanticism and idealism. But that tradition itself cannot be seen in isolationfrom the rise of modern science. For it is only modern empiricisms reduction ofthe classically "mimetic"view of language to a view of language as referring refer-entially to objects outside itself that it becomes possible to take the further stepof viewing language as anti-mimetic or representative of nothing-I mean Nothing-outside itself. The pre-modern metaphysics of presence, as opposed to themodern ontology of reflection or absence, does not have an empirical basis. Al-though classical mimesis adopts a "correpondence theory of truth; the corre-spondence postulated is between model or archetype (Idea) on the one handand object or "thing" on the other hand. The latter object is conceived as sounclear and indistinct that it is virtually without knowable properties and there-fore utterly dependent, in its "being, on the Idea. In order for "meaning" or alogically based notion of truth to arise, the independence and autonomy of itscounter-concept, the empirical, had to be established-an independence andautonomy that no classical conception of eidoscould provide since the latter wasnever seen as a feature of a subjectivity and capacity for reflection intrinsic to thehuman species. It was indeed the genius of German idealism to found the doctrineof the arbitrary nature of language on a basis at once universal and contextuallyindependent so that it could be governed by a logic that was "other"to nature,yet a logic that was organicist-an organicity possessed of a "second" distinctivelyhuman and reflective, "nature"In this way post-Kantian idealism transcends thelimitations stipulated by Kant on knowledge of being through methods based onthe self-limiting character of language. Homotextilisresults from the narrativizationof life within the boundaries of the text, such that lifes highest moments arecaptured, realized, and made possible by words positing a life, or being of thetext, that leaves behind any mere equation of life and words. University Oklahoma of Works CitedAarsleff, Hans.Language and IntellectualHzstory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982. . "The Rise and Decline of Adam and His Ursprache in Seventeenth-Century Thought" The Language of Adam, Dze SpracheAdams. Ed. Allison P. Coudert. Vol. 84. Berlin: Wolfenbutteler Forschungen. 277-95.
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