Zachary Sng. The Rhetoric of Error from Locke to Kleist.
With clarity, precision, and deftness, Zachary Sng analyzes in The Rhetoric of Error from Locke to Kleist the topic of error as it is thematized and figured in an array of philosophical and literary texts from Britain and Germany in the eighteenth century. The topic is of core importance to a century preoccupied with the function and aims of reason in grounding, guiding, and organizing discourses and modes of knowledge and, as a corollary, with identifying sources of error that could corrupt, contaminate, derail, misdirect, or redirect the seemingly progressive and cumulative trajectories of such knowledge. The topic is a demanding and potentially unwieldy one that Sng handles with athleticism and elegance. An example of rigorous exegetical work backed by erudition in eighteenth-century British and German philosophy and literature and, more widely, the history of philosophy and contemporary literary theory, Sng's book employs critical modes ranging from monetary theory to etymology to political thought, opening up new ways of thinking about knowledge-production and its entanglement with movements of error during and since the eighteenth century.
As his point of departure, Sng takes Locke's 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which he privileges in the design of the book as raising first a question all the texts analyzed share in common, serving for certain texts as an explicit source of derivation and contention and for others as one that implicitly articulates and stages resonant concerns. That common question is the relationship between language and thought, with Locke arguing that language, construed as the means of distribution of ideas, be subject to regulation and clarification so as not to corrupt or obscure the understanding. It is specifically to language, wherein words are made arbitrarily the signs of ideas, that Locke traces the origin of error. The launching of his empiricist program necessarily involves, then, an effort to regulate language. Citing a recent study, Sng attributes to Locke "the first linguistic turn not only in the modern period but in the history of philosophy" (45)- The priority or "firstness" credited here is one that Locke's Essay self-consciously claims for itself as a hallmark of its modernity: just as the understanding is supposed to begin ab ovo, severed from any history that might compromise its originality, so too does the Essay aim to make a new beginning in the history of philosophy with its propositions concerning the understanding and, consequently, the origination of agendas and itineraries of knowledge.
While Sng analyzes how philosophical and literary writers grapple with the relationship between language and thought in the wake of Locke, the account he produces is not a linear one in which Locke's 1690 text simply serves as the genesis of a history bookended by Kleist's 1808 Penthesilea. As he writes in the Introduction, "The figuration of knowledge as an itinerary assumes the coherence, systematicity, and productivity of movement, making it amenable to historical description, but this is precisely what error does not allow" (4). Rather, Sng shows how each text in question stages a repetition of Locke's preoccupation with identifying the source of error in language, a repetition that occasions variant movements of error rather than accretes into a coherent and cumulative narrative. The very reading of Locke in Chapter One likewise calls into question the reliability of Locke's own account of his text's origination by showing how that account itself consists of a series of false starts. Sng undertakes then in the chapter a brilliant analysis of the rhetorical strategies Locke uses to secure thought from contamination by comparing mental operations to "fountains of knowledge" and language to mere "pipes" whereby ideas are circulated. He turns to Locke's remarks on language, gold, and exchange in the Essay and to his pamphlets on monetary theory to analyze contradictions in Locke's attempt to safeguard language and gold from the very processes of circulation and exchange whereby linguistic and monetary value are derived. Chapter Two examines how Leibniz in New Essays on Human Knowledge and John Horne Tooke in Epea Ptereonta, or the Diversions of Purley take up Locke's project by turning toward systematizing the history of words and stabilizing the meaning of words in etymology. To this discussion, Sng appends a reading of Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," in which he argues that the poem's claims about the unity and identity of subjectivity are foiled by the errancy of language. Chapter Three turns to Kant's critical philosophy to examine how Kant's "as if" prescription maintains a tenuous difference between analogy, as a necessary precondition of thought, and the error of subreption, which involves "a set of possible confusions concerning the distinction between subjective and objective conditions of knowledge" (80). It reads in a recent work of political theory, Pheng Cheah's Spectral Nationality, the performance dan error of subreption in Cheah's use of the metaphor of the gift to hail and conceptualize "the organismic metaphor" as "Kant's greatest bequest to moral and political thought" (78). Chapter Four, "The Madness of the Middle," links the logic of subject-formation through self-correcting error in Goethe's 1800 novel, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, to Aristotle's discussion of virtue as moderation in the Nicomachean Ethics and Smith's account of sympathy's mediating function in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. While the process of Bildung ostensibly involves the exploration and subsequent renunciation of extremes of error in relation to a normative middle, Sng argues that Goethe's novel shows instead the protagonist's failure to achieve a coherent subjectivity through such self-correction. Chapter Five pairs Kleist's Penthesilea with a passage in the Histories of Herodotus to investigate how the figure of the Amazon in both texts occupies a position of linguistic and political uncertainty that marks the precariousness of political union and the possible return of an originary violence. In the Conclusion, Sng turns to a contemporary text of cultural anthropology, Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger, and its discussion of dirt's potential recuperation into a system of signification. Sng contends rather that this structure cannot ultimately prevent the return of a noxious waste that remains irrecuperable for symbolic power.
At the conceptual crux of the book is Sng's insistence on thinking and tracing the movement--or, to be more precise, movements--of error beyond a strictly binary logic wherein error would be simply the opposite of truth. Etymologically, as Sng remarks in the Introduction, "the Latin errare means both 'to wander freely' and 'to wander from the right path' "(3). The very definition of error already contains an equivocation that names two kinds of movement: the first, an aimless and nonsystematic wandering, the second, the deviation from a presupposed norm that implies the possibility of correction or rehabilitation. Sng deems the former "errance," and he dedicates himself to uncovering in his exegeses the nonsystematic and nonsystematizable movements of errance even as he elucidates carefully the particular strategies whereby various thinkers and writers figure error as rectifiable and potentially productive deviance. In so doing, the book distinguishes itself from such narratives of modernity and critiques of progressive knowledge as that told by Adorno and Horkheimer in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. "A binary understanding of the difference between rationality and irrationality, knowledge and superstition, Enlightenment and myth, can only generate constant reversal around a single turning point," Sng contends, which "produces a narrative that ignores error's ability to unset-tie even the very logic on which such dialectical reversals depend" (4)To the extent that error is already by definition divided from itself, it cannot be simply opposed to directed movement; rather, in its (dis)articulation as errance, it manifests itself in multiple and heterogeneous ways as non-directed, uncontainable, and uncontrollable reflux, convulsions, or irruptions. The movements of errance take place at the threshold of the economic in the sense that the "risk" they constitute does not, in Sng's vocabulary, come with "a corresponding guarantee of recompense" and thus may not "yield profit" for the operations of knowledge-production (7, 8). Potentially even aneconomic, they may "turn out to be utterly incommensurate to any model of conversion and empowerment" (8).
In offering the etymology of "error," Sng notes that the second meaning of "wandering from the right path" is a "pejorative one that became prevalent in English usage after the seventeenth century," while "[i]n the Romance languages and in German, the neutral meaning of error as mere 'moving about' survived much longer" (4). While Sng himself does not pursue the implications of the word's acquisition of a pejorative connotation specifically in English usage and specifically after the seventeenth century, he opens the door for critics of a historicist orientation to engage with that question. What relationship might there be between the historicity of the word "error" and the historicity of the economic metaphors Sng, in common with Adorno and Horkheimer, uses to critique the alliance in modernity of instrumental reason with liberal capitalism? Bringing the practice of rhetorical reading in connection with concerns of the Frankfurt School, The Rhetoric of Error from Locke to Kleist reinspects fundamental premises underlying knowledge-production and takes risks that revitalize if not remunerate the task of reading.
National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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