Review of Chodat’s Worldly Acts and Sentient Things

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Worldly Acts and Sentient Things: The Persistence of Agency from Stein to Delillo

The new issue of Twentieth Century Literature includes a review of Robert Chodat’s Worldly Acts and Sentient Things: The Persistence of Agency from Stein to DeLillo. The review, written by Stephen Schryer, is entitled “Postskeptical Criticism.” Click here to read it.

[Updated 7/20: I’ve just been informed that this link takes you through a Williams College subscription portal, so only readers who are logged into the Williams College network can retrieve the article this way. Unfortunately, I cannot find a URL to take its place that will bypass any particular school’s subscription portal. I will try to fix this, but in the meantime, to get to the review, you will need to go through your own library’s e-journal database system. Here is the bibliographic citation that will help you get to the right journal and issue:

Schryer, Stephen. “Postskeptical Criticism,” Twentieth Century Literature 54.4 (Winter 2008): 538-543.]

Here is how Schryer’s review begins:

For the past decade, much of the best work published in twentieth-century American studies has responded to a challenge posed by a 2002 article by John Guillory. Addressing Alan Sokal’s 1996 hoax article in Social Text, Guillory argued that the resulting scandal highlighted the “spontaneous philosophy of the critics”: the assumption that

an antirealist epistemology (alternatively expressed as antifoundationalism or relativism) is a requisite for any progressive politics and, conversely, that realism, foundationalism, or universalism underlie–at the level of the episteme, as it were–all that is regressive in our society. (476)

This politically inflected skepticism originated in the disciplinary shift that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, as critics reinvigorated literary studies through the discovery of French continental theory. In the course of the fierce disciplinary battles that followed, theory became institutionalized, and what began as a series of anticommonsensical provocations by the French philosophical avant-garde morphed into the new common sense of the US literary professoriate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, a significant number of Americanists have started to problematize this unargued skepticism. This work, best exemplified by recent texts by Kenneth Warren and Mark McGurl, has used twentieth-century American literature to develop a kind of self-reflexive disciplinary sociology. Its purpose is to defamiliarize the literary field, to render what is anticommonsensical about literary criticism visible once again.

Robert Chodat’s remarkable Worldly Acts and Sentient Things goes one step further and shows what a postskeptical literary criticism might look like. The book is a study of questions of intention and agency in the work of four twentieth-century writers: Gertrude Stein, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Don DeLillo. Largely eschewing continental theory, it instead develops meticulous readings informed by the author’s immersion in the Anglo American analytic and pragmatic tradition. The object of Chodat’s critique is the anti-intentionalist bias in twentieth-century literature and literary theory–its tendency to “demythologize the self-directing ‘I,’ the monarchical transcendental consciousness purporting to lord over the contingencies of history or unconscious desire” (5). Chodat’s response to this bias is twofold. First, he highlights alternative approaches to agency and intentionality available in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wilfrid Sellars, John Dewey, and W.V. O. Quine. These approaches begin from a perspective that Sellars refers to as the “manifest image”: our folk psychological tendency to attribute agency to embodied persons acting in vaguely defined and constantly shifting social networks. Second, Chodat argues that in an important sense, agency never disappeared at all in twentieth-century literary culture. Rather, it became displaced from embodied persons onto a variety of sub- and suprapersonal entities. Worldly Acts and Sentient Things works through this logic of displacement and shows how it depends on the folk psychology that it tries to circumvent… (click here to read the rest)

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