Unworldly Reflections

Unworldly Reflections

2011-01-27
Worldly Acts and Sentient Things
Robert Chodat
Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008.

In this review of Robert Chodat’s Worldly Acts and Sentient Things, Stephen Dougherty argues that Chodat’s inquiry could have profited from a deeper engagement with posthumanist thought.

The first sentence of the jacket cover description of Worldly Acts and Sentient Things reads: “Ants, ghosts, cultures, thunderstorms, stock markets, robots: this is just a partial list of the sentient things that have filled American literature over the last century.” Not that this book really has anything to do with the sentience of ants or thunderstorms or stock markets or robots. (Ghosts and cultures are another matter.) Nor has it much to do with the sentience of French cathedrals, which Henry Adams, at least in one phase of his literary career, as Robert Chodat explains, treated as if they were “ ‘manifestations’ of some power, not slabs or mute matter but things expressing attitudes and ideas…” (2). If, as Chodat points out in his Introduction, titled “French Cathedrals and Other Forms of Life,” many important twentieth-century U.S. writers would be inclined to follow in Adams’s footsteps in discerning “sentient speakers and actors” in untraditional places, and in displacing agency “onto new and varied forms” (4), the rest of the book does little to illuminate this matter. The forms upon which agency are displaced in Chodat’s account are not so varied, nor are they new.

That doesn’t mean they are without interest. However, it does mean that if Chodat had really been concerned about exploring issues and themes related to the proliferation of sentience and agency, then he might have written another book: one, for example, that considers the significance of relevant science fiction texts, or one where boundary issues regarding sentience and agency are framed by the contemporary rhetorics of posthumanism and the posthumanities. Instead, Worldly Acts explores selected works of canonical twentieth-century U.S. writers: those of Adams, Gertrude Stein, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Don DeLillo; and it puts them in contact with philosophers hewing mainly to pragmatist and Anglo-American analytic traditions: a partial list of this number includes William James, John Dewey, W. V. Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, Donald Davidson, J. L. Austin, Stanley Cavell; also Ludwig Wittgenstein, Niklas Luhmann, and Steven Pinker. It is a curious cast, both because it is so big, so unwieldy at times, and because it is so narrowly conceived given the issues presumably at hand. Sometimes the juxtapositions that Chodat achieves are fascinating, and certainly his powers of summary, description, and analysis are keen. However, this book feels very much as if it is about something distinctly other than that which is announced in the Introduction.

Presumably, the book is about proliferating agency. But this proves a highly relative notion. Chodat writes: “My discussions trace the interactions of two broad ideas of agency to which twentieth-century texts drift. The first is what I’ll be referring to as ‘persons’ ” (11). “To call something a person is to underscore … [its] embodied condition - unlike human being, which suggests a generalized membership in a species, or, individual which suggests an existence abstracted from a social order and history” (11). Chodat argues in Chapters 3 and 4 that Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison “enact extended debates about ‘person,’ exploring the various ways that we understand this term and asking how or whether it relates to other concepts such as ‘human being’ ” (15). These chapters do not extend the notion or the concept of agency anywhere. What they do, and what the book does, is put in question what we mean by a “person.” “When is person properly applied?” (74). This is approaching the matter of agential boundary definition from a familiar center looking outward. The critical perspective, in other words, is profoundly person-oriented, even if the person is precisely (or presumably) what is put in question. The danger, which is heightened by the whiff of canonicity hanging in the air, is the ideological re-entrenchment of person in spite of, or because of, all the attentive probing.

The book is not only about persons. The person stands over and against the other pole “to which ideas of agency have drifted” (15) through the twentieth century, that of “presence.” “Presences” are things within us and things outside of us to which we ascribe agency: William James’ “experience”; what Stein frequently referred to as “the inside”; cognitive science’s “modules” of the mind; and outwardly, history, culture, the social. “We may ascribe [these] beliefs and desires, and thus liability, praise, and blame,” writes Chodat, “but these ascriptions are not made of any particular material bodies. They are more akin to forces or spirits…” (16). Ghosts, one might say. The presence or absence of material bodies is the telling factor when it comes to the difference between persons and presences. Chodat’s commitment to persons, at least through much of the book, is grounded in a prior and ongoing commitment to two things: the role of embodiment in and for the concept of agency, and the importance of shared language, Austin’s “ordinary language,” over and against the bewitchments of Steinian/Jamesian private language on one hand, and cognitive scientific modularity and “mentalese” on the other hand.

The manner in which Chodat explores these relationships is admirable. The most successful chapter in the book is the second, “Embodiment and the Inside,” where Chodat shifts from the Chapter One investigation of Steinian and Jamesian disembodied presences to those mid-century philosophers - Sellars, Witgenstein, Quine - whose work, as Chodat puts it, “show[s] why talk about ‘the inside’ implies the inside of something” (57). Chapters 1 and 2 complement one another, and illuminate one another, extremely well. The writing darts quickly and deftly between the poles marking the field of study. Chodat gets his diverse cast to speak productively to one another across considerable temporal, philosophical, and temperamental distances. Here is Steven Pinker with James and Stein:

Not all of these claims [Pinker’s on innate modularity] would sit well with a radical empiricist. From James’s perspective, Pinker’s rationalist talk of innateness may seem to imply that we are somewhat less than infinitely revisable. But Pinker’s claims about an active mental life beneath our public languages, the difference between our words and the inner workings of our experience, would clearly have been applauded by James, who, like Stein, can be seen as a proto-internalist. (66)

This is a fascinating juxtaposition - one that Pinker himself makes, though one that most critics on Pinker do not. It is instructive to consider the limitations of the cognitive scientific perspective on language and the social in light of certain biases that were built into the fabric of high modernism.

As mentioned, however, the main subject in Chapter 2 is the mid-century development of what Richard Rorty referred to as the ‘post-positivist’ period in analytic philosophy: the work of Sellars and Wittgenstein being especially relevant. Their texts to which Chodat refers underscore “how marginal a role the concept of a person plays in Stein and her philosophical cousins James and Pinker” (75). In Sellars’s elaboration of the “manifest image,” in Wittgenstein’s arguments as compactly and gnomically expressed in his Philosophical Investigations, the whole person re-emerges as a central concern for philosophy, before it is dissipated by the rupture to come between analytic philosophy and poststructuralism. Regarding Wittgenstein, Chodat writes: “Asking how we learn our words, where their ‘homes’ are, how they fit into the ‘weave of our lives,’ forces us to recognize that even the most seemingly ‘immediate’ experiences…can be identified only by creatures already embedded in a language learned in a public environment” (80). However, it’s a tightrope: “The Wittgensteinian holist doesn’t deny that some kind of machinery must be involved in mindedness, let alone that some parts of the body are imperceptible to the naked eye. But she would resist the idea that unseen machinery is where we properly and practically locate full-fledged meaningful action” (87). Chodat’s summary remarks nicely recapitulate the ambivalence built into Philosophical Investigations: “If we should be more confident than the Steinian about our ability to make sense of a character’s actions or an author’s motivations, we should be less confident than the Pinkerian realist that these actions and motivations are describable apart from the wider story of a life, culture, and history” (88).

Chapter 3 extends the critique of the “overinflated inward turn” that Stein represents for Chodat. The author reads Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King as a particularly pertinent mid-century novelistic inquiry into the status of the “person” - which has by this point in Chodat’s study become indistinguishable from the “individual” - over and against the “corrosive power of the scientific image” (98). In that image one recognizes the very figure of “society,” or rather, the emergent scientific technocracy of the postwar period, and one senses more and more that Worldly Acts is an extremely conservative critical project, indeed.

Chapters 3 and 4, treating Bellow and Ellison respectively, negotiate the book’s shift in focus from the more pointed concern about public versus private models of selfhood authorized by competing linguistic/psychological theories, to a broader theme of what one is tempted to call “the individual versus society.” It is not an abrupt shift because these concerns partake intimately of one another. However, it is a notable shift because the book gets tiresome at this point. It is relevant in the context of the preceding chapters to read that Bellow points us toward a concept of agency which is “creative yet dependent upon the histories in which it is embedded; one inventive yet grateful for the words given to us. Foregrounding finitude,” Chodat continues, “Bellow begins to clear space for mutuality. Setting limits to the prophet, to the poet, to the inner presence, he begins to make room for solidarity” (119). At which point Chodat reverses his critical orientation - inexplicably, at least as far as my readerly expectations are concerned - in order to ask another question: how much solidarity is too much? How much of public life can the poor person take? By the middle of Chapter 4 one begins to suffer seriously from person fatigue. “It is Ellison’s sustained interest in the selfhood of persons that has led many critics, both before and after Houston Baker, and in various tones of commendation and condemnation, to describe him as an ‘individualist.’ This is not so much wrong as incomplete,” suggests Chodat, “since it overlooks Ellison’s interest in more basic questions about what counts as a so-called ‘individual’…” (138). It is certainly arguable whether or not Ellison was an individualist. But the author’s discussion of Ellison’s individualism profits the reader little: “What drives the narrator is accordingly not the Socratic ‘Know Thyself,’ as if there were something to be found and examined, but the more modern ‘Become who you are’ ” (143). Or: “There is no doubt something disturbing in the claims of the Brotherhood of Ras, with their confinement of personhood to roles, but there is likewise something distorting about a self seeking to determine itself in a vacuum” (149). Here, Chodat might have productively complicated his analyses of performativity and embodiment by exploring the work of Eric Lott or Michael Rogin on blackface minstrelsy. Lott and Rogin’s respective books interrogate how racial normativity was constructed through precisely the kinds of de-essentializing performative practices that Chodat recognizes and values positively, but not rigorously enough, in Ellison.

The biggest problem with Chodat’s book, which is so finely written and so astute in many ways, has to do with the philosophy, even though, as I’ve suggested above, the problem begins to manifest itself more visibly in the readings of the literature: it is that Chodat routes his discussion of “agency” almost entirely through analytic and pragmatic philosophical channels. This is why the “agency” of his subtitle (“The Persistence of Agency from Stein to DeLillo”) ends up being a misnomer. It is more accurately the persistence of “self,” or “the individual,” because the philosophy he brings to bear nearly everywhere (the penultimate chapter on Luhmann and DeLillo aside) is far more concerned with testing the conditions of possibility for liberal individualism instead of contesting its viability or legitimacy. What Chodat does not do is seek to renovate analytic philosophy by articulating it together with something else, something outside of the analytic tradition, over and against which one might or might not be more readily convinced of the relative value of the analytic philosophical toolkit for examining questions of agency today. Except for in scattered footnotes, critical engagement with poststructuralist discourses is missing from the book. As for “posthumanism,” the word shows up for the first time (and only once) in the concluding chapter. One feels the absence of these critical engagements more and more as the book goes on.

Some might commend Chodat for eschewing poststructuralism and following his own, less familiar, critical and philosophical lights. Such “individualism” is indeed commendable, given the right circumstances, given the proper context. In the case of Worldly Acts, the refusal to engage with well-rehearsed, well-known poststructuralist investigations into the philosophy, history, and politics of agency opens up the book to the charge of anachronism. As for the “remarkable range of sentient things” (234) in modern and contemporary literature that Chodat insists his book catalogues, I just don’t see it. The whole question of agency Chodat poses is too firmly rooted in the analyses of liberal personhood and its cultural ghosts, too obsessed with self, the individual in its relation to community, for it to lead anywhere that might even remotely be considered as culturally/politically progressive. On the one hand, Chodat seems to recognize this himself. The word “persistence” in the subtitle suggests that the book might be more accurately conceived as a study of the inertial force of the concept of agency in its most entrenched (i.e., liberal individualist) form. On the other hand, there seems to be a certain lack of self-comprehension insofar as Chodat thinks that he is smearing agency - spreading it out, defacing it by de-prioritizing its human visage - in a manner that framing statements and claims suggest he thinks he is.

Ultimately, Worldly Acts and Sentient Things is marked mainly by an unnerving quiescence, a refusal to connect the theorization of agency to any question of human actions. In other words, both “worldy” and “acts” seem to be the wrong words for the title too. “Recognizing ourselves as purposive agents,” Chodat writes, “is not the same as knowing what purposes we are to pursue” (244). That is true, but then trying to turn the failure to own up to the responsibility of thinking through the question of purposes into a virtue smacks of the kind of imperiousnesss that marks many of the post-World War II-era studies of U.S. literature that Chodat’s book resembles in telling ways:

The unpolemical that is characteristic of literary works, including the ones I have examined here, arises not from the heightened moral sensitivity or ageless wisdom of their authors, but from these texts being the kind of texts they are - fictions, stories, texts that recount actions and events rather than draw conclusions from premises, texts that remain silent, or at least quiet, about broad concepts like “the just society” or “the good life.” Even Bellow and Ellison, who locate agency in ways so similar to Wittgenstein and Sellars, resist announcing what this agency exactly entails. Once we get past a certain range of purposive actions…the best we can do is to reflect upon the stories available to us or to tell new ones of our own. (244-45)

There is certainly nothing wrong with contesting the instrumentalization of literary studies, which is in part what I think Chodat is attempting to do in this passage. But that final clause, “the best we can do, …”, is so deflationary as to put in question the legitimacy of literature and/or philosophy for anything other than purposes of pure self-reflection. One might logically expect that a book about agency would open a little more space for posing cultural/political questions about “what…agency exactly entails,” or even roughly entails. In the end, Worldly Acts ends up (only a little surreptitiously) promoting individualism against the (mainly) technologically proliferating agencies it purports to be interested in. Therefore, it fails to seriously consider the significance of postwar technocracy, or those proliferations it helped to spawn.

Works Cited

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Rogin, Michael. Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.