Revolution of the Ordinary by Toril Moi (Reviewed)

I heard Professor Moi present materials from this book in person when she was in Chicago prior to the pandemic. She and her research are engaging, penetrating, powerful, and examples of authentic mind-expanding thinking. 

[Review: Toril Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies After Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 290 pp.]

I have read the entire book and especially like the debunking of structuralist, post-structuralist, and post-modern hair splitting that she undertakes from the nuanced position of ordinary language philosophy. This review focuses on the essay with which I most strongly disagree. “Nothing is Hidden: Beyond the Hermeneutics of Suspicion.” Isn’t it always that way? So please keep in mind the high esteem with which I regard her work. This is not a softball review. 

Many passages are available in which Wittgenstein writes to the effect that the confused philosopher is looking for something hidden, but it is right in front of her or his eyes. On other occasions the matter is nuanced such that the answer or solution or dissolution of the problem is (as the saying goes) “hidden in plain view.” Here it is a matter of shifting attention from background to foreground rather than from surface to depth. However, one must wonder whether the point is not the same, just translated from the x-axis to the y-axis. 

I take strong exception to the devaluing interpretation of Paul Ricoeur’s “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Moi undertakes a sustained critique of this hermeneutic of suspicion (2017: 175 – 195), which critique, at certain points, is uncharitable. This is a strong statement, but Moi’s representation of the hermeneutics of suspicion applies only to its most clumsy, stereotyped applications, not to Ricoeur’s fundamental insight and position. 

Yes, there are Freudians, Nietzscheans, and especially Marxists, who beneath every bourgeois surface ideology predictably and invariably “discover” sexual and aggressive drives, resentment and slave morality, and the fetishism of alienated work relations. This is not suspicion; it is dogmatism. And while Ricoeur may be many things, dogmatic he is not. Indeed, I never met a more inclusive, generous, horns-of-the-dilemma finessing (not to mention well read) individual. Such dogmatic interpretations need to be debunked, even if they might earn a high mark in undergraduate term papers. 

My reservations include validation and encouragement for Moi’s debunking enterprises, even though she would not acknowledge Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations as belonging on the list of ground breaking works of such a hermeneutics of suspicion. 

There is no avoiding increasing the word count when Moi plays what can best be described as “fast and loose” with Ricoeur’s contribution (especially starting at the bottom on p. 199 and following). Moi unfairly – key term: unfair – attributes to Ricoeur the position of separating the author’s intention from the meaning of the text because he is fellow traveler with Derrida, the Tel Quel group, and a New Critic (Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “intentional fallacy”). There is no doubt that Ricoeur started out as a phenomenologist and never changed his mind on the value of phenomenology, especially in its hermeneutic implementation. Ricoeur translated Husserl’s Ideas in the margins of the book itself while he (Ricoeur) was in a German prison of war camp (in the margins because paper was hard to get). This attribution rebounds on the head of the author (Moi) if she thinks it is a bad idea to separate the author’s intention from the resulting text (or, in other contexts, speech act).

The intentional fallacy is not well understood and often does not prohibit discussing an author’s intention in the context of literary criticism. However, the fallacy does indeed consist in maintaining that the intention is the canonical, ultimately authoritative defining meaning of the text. A bold statement of the obvious: Author’s have intentions. Less obvious, though perhaps not “hidden” in that dangerous way that concerns Moi: The meaning of what authors write often escapes the author’s initial intentional horizon. It also escapes the historical context, the effect on the reader (audience), and takes on a life of its own in the culture and community. Schleiermacher was fond of quoting Kant as saying that we can understand an author better than the author understands himself. From that perspective, the most accurate representation of the author’s intention is the work itself as a product. I hasten to add that does not solve the problem of what is intentionality; but it does point to why we need hermeneutics, as an approach to interpretation, since understanding without context is empty and distorting.

Moi and Ricoeur are more intimate fellow travelers than Moi may imagine at least in so far as Ricoeur aligns with Elizabeth Anscombe’s account – do I dare say “theory” (another term Moi devalues)? – of actions (and intentions) under a description. Thus, Ricoeur’s development as a phenomenologist is multi-dimensional in way that includes his existential encounter with ordinary language philosophy (see 1992, Oneself as Another, tr. Kathleen Blamey: 68 – 80). Like Anscombe’s position (and Moi’s), Ricoeur’s position is highly nuanced:

Tests of sincerely, as I shall state […] in the study devoted to narrative identity, are not verifications but trials that finally end in an act of trust, in a final testimony, regardless of the intermediary episodes of suspicion (1992: 72). 

How Ricoeur’s use of “testimony,” “attestation,” and “trust” link up with acknowledgement and recognition requires an entire book (he has written one, see Ricoeur, 2004, The Course of Recognition, tr. D. Pellauer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005); and, I suggest, leave much room for overlap in thinking and reading of literature between Ricoeur and Moi. 

If one looks at the interpretations of literature – Virginia Wolff, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann, in Ricoeur’s own engagement with narrative fiction – counterexamples to Moi’s position (and its perhaps unwittingly caricatured reading) exist in abundance. I can imagine Moi saying, “Lou – you don’t get the point,” and maybe I don’t. Moi continues: “The complete title is ‘Nothing is hidden: Beyond the hermeneutics of suspicion.’ Yes, by all means, be suspicion, but only at the right time and place – don’t get stuck there. Continuously re-iterated suspicion is just as bad as reiterated skepticism.” Good point. Agreed. If that is the point, we are in agreement. But Moi does not say one has to work from the surface to the depth and back again to appreciate that nothing is hidden, that the surface discloses, makes accessible the depth. It sounds to me – it comes across as – the depth is an illusion. Don’t go there (Moi says). 

Here’s the thing about Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein is one of the innovators of so-called ordinary language philosophy and, as an innovator, Wittgenstein, like a sword, cuts both ways. 

Moi’s interpretation skillfully wields the sword of Wittgenstein. Yes, they both cut through the jungle of dialectical illusion. Wittgenstein cuts through the crap (just to use the technical term). But remember well, he who lives by the sword dies by the sword. Thus, Moi’s interpretation is at risk. 

Wittgenstein does indeed say “nothing is hidden” (§435) – and he means it when he says it. But he also says the contrary in so many words:

In the use of words, one might distinguish ‘surface grammar’ from ‘depth grammar’. What immediately impresses itself upon us about the use of a word is the way it is used in the construction of the sentence, the part of its use – one might say – that can be taken in by the ear. And now compare the depth grammar, say of the word ‘to mean’, with what its surface grammar would lead us to suspect. No wonder we find it difficult to know our way about (Wittgenstein, 1945: §664; p. 168e).

Is this perhaps not an inconsistency on the part of Wittgenstein? Perish the thought! In the one context, Wittgenstein is talking about mental processes and expression; in the other context, about aspects of language. But, in the latter, depth lives

Something is hidden. Thus, the battle is joined. Granted, there are several passages in which Wittgenstein writes to the effect that, hey, learned philosophers such as Russell, Frege, not to mention Locke and Kant, are overthinking things as regards such basic distinctions as meaning, mind, mental processes (e.g., Wittgenstein, 1945: §89, §11, §387). The depth is illusionary when it comes to trying to figure out what is going in conscious processes in people’s mind, brain, head. Meaning is not a mental process, or at least not fundamentally so. If you want to learn the meaning of a term, consider the term’s use in ordinary language. 

Yet, when it comes to language, Wittgenstein resolutely endorses the distinction between misleading surface grammar and deep grammar. This distinction was made famous in Bertrand Russell’s debunking of imaginary objects such as the mental existence of unicorns (see Russell, 1919, “Descriptions,” Classics of Analytic Philosophy, ed. Robert Ackerman. New York: McGraw Hill: 15 – 24). Wittgenstein consistently sticks to this distinction through early and later works. 

Moi then has to argue that neither Sherlock Holmes nor Freud are “digging beneath the surface.” Both these thinkers spend a lot of time disclosing what is hidden, disguised, and/or unknown. Would Moi align with H.G. Gadamer’s approach that there is no neutral or innocent engagement with literature or art – that the encounter is informed by our pre-judgments in the rich (not negative) sense of the word “prejudice”? Such prejudices are not obvious, but are they thereby latent, hidden, or in need of unmasking? As noted above, it is a matter of shifting attention from background to foreground rather than from surface to depth. However, the point is the same, just translated from the x-axis to the y-axis. 

Maybe we should just agree to dance in the chaos. Dance in the chaos of multiple simultaneously changing variables in complex systems. If Sherlock is not exercising suspicion, then I would not know it. 

Another example. Freud’s use of archeological metaphors is pervasive (1896: 192; 1930: 69; see also Freud, S. (1896), The aetiology of hysteria, Standard Edition 3: 191–221; and (1930), Civilization and its discontentsStandard Edition 21: 64–145)), and in these passages Freud actually writes of using a shovel to dig! The hermeneutic circle starts to spin and is curiously akin to Wittgenstein’s comparison of language to an ancient city: 

Our language can be seen as an anxiety city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods, and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and unform houses (§18).

This is Wittgenstein, the structuralist – language is a synchronous structure where the past lives alongside the present as does the modern upgrade of indoor plumbing to the 16th century Italian Palazzo. Nothing is hidden here – point awarded to Moi. This seems to support Moi’s grinding devaluing of depth until one realizes – nothing is hidden except the historical aspect of the development of the language, including development into the future as new suburbs of scientific and pop cultural surround the center. 

Still, Moi elaborates an approach to literary criticism that is penetraing and powerful in its ability to debunk the seemingly endless excesses of structuralism, deconstructionism, and post modern everything. She is able effectively to use Ricoeur as a straw man, which is sure not  to be appreciated by his many students, and yet Ricoeur is not entirely a bad choice, even when he is distorted. 

Unlike Derrida where it is especially hard to hit a moving, zig-zagging target, Ricoeur, for example, takes a position and is coherent and consistent – and intelligible –  in his developmental trajectory, coherent enough to be worth critizing, even if the critique misses the mark.

However,  Riceoeur aside (who really requires no defense from me), the real target of Moi’s debunking is literary criticism itself. “Understood as the work of reading, literary criticism has no method” (p. 178). “A theory is not a method” (p. 192). Ouch! Even though Bakthin does get a pass, Moi aims to do for literary criticism what Wittgenstein (and, to a certain extent, Cavell) did for academic, ivory tower philosophy. Blow it up! And that is another reason why this review is appearing (at least initially) as a blog post and not in an academic journal. 

Since the proof of practice occurs in the application, let us take a look at what Moi actually does when she engages with literary fiction in her monumental contribution on Ibsen, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy (New York and Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006). 

As one might expect, Moi discusses the authors personal life, growing up in relative poverty, lack of university education, his intentions and the historical context in which his innovations find an audience. She engages in a penetrating and illuminating review of the receptivity of that audience to Ibsen’s theatrical, literary, and social innovations. The hermeneutic circle is complete. How could someone who ought to be have been a Lutheran bachelor farmer end up a good family man with such deep insight in the social and psychological struggles of the women of his day? 

Rich in empathy, Moi’s 1996 contribution is at risk of doing all the things for which she denounces the departments of comparative literature. Her work engages the deep structure and the historical method in its alignment and misalignment with modernist theory. No one hears about the prevailing idealism (and anti-idealism) of Ibsen’s day because it has been so completely overturned, debunked, and buried. You can’t understand Ibsen’s innovations without appreciating what he was struggling against. Shift the x- to the y-axis. The idealism prevailing in Ibsen’s day is truly hidden from view (and from us) because it was resoundingly defeated. Moi’s literary work exposes it. Ibsen is not a realist; he is a modernist. 

At the risk (long since incurred) of over-simplification, it is truly amazing that when Nora slams the door in A Doll’s House (1879), the echo announces the arrival of modernity, feminism, anti-idealism, and avant guardetheatre all at one. But in deeper sense, Moi is completely consistent. Even though her critical work was published prior to her being knocked off her horse on the road to historicism by the lightning bolt of Wittgesntein, Conant, Cavell, and ordinary language philosophy, she shows us how to use literature – remember, meaning is use in the revolution of the ordinary – for our own specific purposes. Moi’s purposes are many and include social justice and the empowerment of women in areas where power has noticeably been lacking. 

The penultimate essay on “Reading as the Practice of Acknowledgement” wisely declines to define literature or equate it with fiction. Moi has already answered the question: What is the meaning of literature? in engaging with Wittgenstein’s approach to meaning, namely, “meaning is use.” Literature is useful for and gives meaning to as many forms of life as there are readers and authors. Literature may even be an end in itself, not requiring any use for pleasure, entertainment, moral improvement, moral degradation, training, political action, tips and techniques, strategic misinformation, and deepening our collective humanity. 

The issue is that Moi does not connect the dots between reading and reading as a form of acknowledgement. Reading is a practice. Reading is a practice of decoding, about which incidentally Wittgenstein has quite a lot to say (e.g., §156-171). In a broader sense, reading is the practice of calling forth that which is not present in the moment but lives in the future, in the past, in present imagination, or a mixture of all three. The practice of reading gives the reader access to a world which is an amalgamation of phenomena the reader has experienced and those s/he has not (and may never) experience. The is the power of language, in particular, the condition contrary to fact tense and narratives based on such a tense. 

Now I am not  saying that reading does not involve acknowledgement. Whenever I am in the presence of something that is an expression of human thought, emotion, or being, then one can acknowledge the humanity that is expressed in the expressive symbol, text, product, or artifact, whether artist or historical or ordinary. That’s always a possibility, and such may always be required to get started in engaging with the humanity expressed in the text or artistic product. Still, the chain of dots is long and a lot more work may usefully be done to connect the practice of reading with recognition. 

Moi takes one step towards connecting the dots, and a good step indeed, when she quotes Simone de Beauvoir, attributing to literature and reading the possibility of giving us a “taste of another life.” That is the empathic moment.  This is also the reversal of the revolution of the ordinary. In what sense? As de Beauvoir points out, one of the reasons we turn to literature is for adventure. Yes, this can be high drama or comedy as when Peer Gynt confronts the Great Bogue in the swamp and has to go around; but it can also be discovering the adventurous in the everyday. 

You may think you have a boring life like a boring character in Beckett, Flaubert, or Fontaine; but this boring life encapsulates an entire and amazing universe of individual, familial, and community dynamics, conflicts, and struggles that, you, the individual have to navigate and survive. Here in the final sections of Moi’s work, I do not know if she thinks of owning the drama of the ordinary as opposed to debunking its depth. Let’s say she does. But that means that the everyday is not ordinary – it has a depth that is unimaginable upon first encounter, but opens up to a vast field of human experience rich in its emotions, expressions, possibilities of action, and actions. Key term: depth. Thus, the revolutionary of the ordinary is either not ordinary or not revolutionary; expressed positively, it is extraordinarily deep and transformational. 

Categories: talk therapy

Tags: , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: