Experience and Experimental Writing: Literary Pragmatism from Emerson to the Jameses
Consider looking at that cursive “c” through a microscope, the edges of the dried ink branching out in irregular furrows into the fabric of the paper. Could Dickinson mean that? Could any human mean that? Would ever more powerful microscopes uncover more and more layers of meaning? It made sense to me to think the answers here should be “no.”
In his provocative discussion of “experience as experiment,” Paul Grimstad wonders how it is that “life may be created out of words,” that the “wording of the world [can become] something shareable and meaningful?” Answering that question involves an issue of paramount concern for those wishing to interpret literary or other kinds of works of art: namely, the relationship of “causes” to “meaning.” What is the proper way to understand the relationship between the causal antecedents of knowledge and the justifications for our claims about what we know–or in other words between nature considered as an order of causes, and language considered as a normative order in which we give reasons for our beliefs?
Grimstad analyzes various replies to such questions by thinkers ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey to the analytic neo-pragmatists Robert Brandom and Richard Rorty. He also discusses the writings of Stanley Cavell, Michael Fried, Walter Benn Michaels, and Ruth Leys. That diverse group suggests that Grimstad aims for flexibility in thinking philosophically about “experience.” To be sure, the author is adept at finding ways to explain one major line of thought in terms of another: much of his introductory argument, for instance, works toward diminishing the differences between Cavell and Dewey. The strategy serves the him well. In attempting to show how the intentionalist position variously expressed by Michaels, Leys, and Fried is not incommensurate with a certain pragmatic naturalism, Grimstad aligns himself with intellectual positions that, on first impression, might appear to run counter to his own.
Grimstad argues that in rejecting the idea of representation as correspondence (or, of representation as the squaring of “inner” and “outer” matters), pragmatists commit themselves to a feedback-loop model of meaning. An agent expresses what he or she means through a circuit of perceiving, acting, evaluating the consequences of action, and integrating what is learned into new acts of perceiving. Experience is thus experimental, a process of development and discovery. For pragmatists, the spontaneity of meaning seems to attest to a continuum connecting nature as a noncognitive order of causes to the cognitive space of reasons. (Dewey in Experience and Nature : “Cognitive experience must originate within that of a non-cognitive sort.”) On Grimstad’s view, understanding experience as experiment spans the gap that is often presumed to exist between the two.
As the author observes, there are objections both to defining experience on experimental terms, as well as to positing a continuum of causes and meaning. Analytic neo-pragmatists, specifically Brandom and Rorty, see a fundamental discrepancy between causes and meaning and think that Dewey’s vaguely defined “experience” merely blurs the categories. Natural events or causal transactions–what Wilfrid Sellars called the “myth of the given”–cannot, in their view, serve as a foundation for justification or reason-giving. Grimstad grapples with these reservations, and attempts to counter them by sharpening Dewey’s definition of experience, revealing it to share certain aspects with what Cavell calls “composition,” or the search for criteria to judge what counts as composition. Thus, he finds both Dewey and Cavell aligned in their concepts of artistic process, which on Grimstad’s view involves artists or writers who (1) attempt to discover the criteria by which what they are writing or making may be judged to be expressive or meaningful; and (2) attempt to discover the conditions under which the meaning of what they have written or made–that is, the work of art–can become shareable.
Sharing meaning requires someone who intends to express something and someone who tries to interpret what is expressed. (Needless to say, it’s not productive to think narrowly of “intention” as an author’s conscious plan, nor of “meaning” as an item that a reader might discover and then completely know. Intentions and meanings are fixed and determined by the artist in the work of art, but this does not diminish their complexity for either party.) To his credit, Grimstad volunteers to answer certain criticisms of his position that are implicit in the work of Michaels, Leys, and Fried. Collectively, they are committed to the distinction, most pointedly formulated by Fried, between “art” and “objecthood;” or somewhat more precisely, between the kind of imaginative “experience” an artwork frames for its projected beholder and the kinds of actual “experiences” we undergo in the course of our everyday lives. The latter constitute the entire lived situation that attends our every interaction with the physical features of our environment (including objects, and artworks when they are treated like objects). But even more than that, some works project objecthood insofar as they stage an encounter with the subject, insist on themselves as objects of our experience, hold us at a distance, and confront us. These qualities, common enough in actual experience, become the program of the ideological project of literalism and together constitute the quality Fried calls “theatricality.” By contrast, the work of art solicits us not just to experience it in its literal sense, but to understand its intentional structure. Grimstad concurs with the need to distinguish between the empirical viewer’s or reader’s literal experience of an image or a text and her sense of the structure of intentions that are built into a work by the artist or author (and concomitantly, between what we might call the object’s actual effects and the artwork’s intended effects). What is at issue is a contest over the proper target of interpretation: should it be the viewer’s affective reaction, or rather the artist’s meaning? Grimstad concludes it is the latter. Still, he remains wary of “pit[ting] experience against intention.” His notion of experience as experiment is meant to show “how intentional structures get built into artworks; and how beholders (or readers) come into conceptual possession of those structures.”
Paul Grimstad’s Experience and Experimental Writing poses an important provocation to contemporary philosophical pragmatism that can be situated midst what we might please ourselves to call ‘third-generation’ (in the sense of that which a pragmatist orientation generates) pragmatism. This is to say that Grimstad’s starting point is situated at a moment that looks outward from within the first two generations of pragmatist philosophy. The first generation was that of inception, in which pragmatism bloomed in late-nineteenth century New England in the words, writings, and deeds of William James, Charles Santiago Peirce, and then later John Dewey. Not long before Dewey’s passing in the middle of the century, the tradition supposedly fell into sharp decline in the pre- and post-war era, but this only set the stage for a proposed revival of pragmatism. This time pragmatism generated a decidedly linguistic and professionalized-but-anti-professionalist philosophy as expressed by Richard Rorty, and forwarded more recently by his erstwhile student Robert Brandom (who appears cheerfully professionalized without any bit of anti-professional impulse). Whereas the first generation of pragmatism was often said to be a philosophy of experiential experimentation, the second generation boldly declared itself thoroughly linguistic such that it searched for pragmatist experimentation at the scene of language use. This narrative of pragmatism is a story we can generalize across much of the last one hundred and twenty years of philosophy in a number of its most prominent traditions: a shift from an empire of experience to a landing at language.
Those inclined toward pragmatism today, as well as those perhaps not inclined but finding themselves somehow in its sway, face a decisive choice. The choice is regarded by some as an impasse. What shall we prioritize? Experience or Language? Grimstad’s project is ‘third-generation’ in my sense because it situates its bid both through and beyond these two crucial options of previous pragmatism. It is the “and” in his title toward which we should look for the distinctiveness of Grimstad’s persuasion. His book is a bid for both experience “and” writing. Accordingly, Grimstad moves beyond both of the prior perspectives, according to which either experience or writing alone was sufficient.
Such movements beyond always take place in two directions. Grimstad, for example, moves both forward out of contemporary pragmatism into its future and backward through the history of pragmatism to its zero moment in the proto-pragmatism of the philosophical moment of the inception of literary America in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his contemporaries. This is the philosophical moment that F.O. Matthiessen, writing backward from 1941 during exactly that period about which it is often said that pragmatism then fell from its mantles, summarized as “one extraordinarily concentrated moment of expression.”1 Grimstad, in other words, moves American pragmatism forward out of today by pressing it backward through that moment just before American pragmatism became expressly conscious of itself in the work of James and Peirce. This is the so-called moment of “American Renaissance.”
In moving pragmatism forward through its past, Grimstad rightly senses the need for a third approach which would rest neither on experience alone nor language alone, but which would rather rest both on some third term. That term Grimstad borrows from another, more contemporary, reader of Emerson who finds himself writing midst pragmatism’s more recent renaissance, namely Stanley Cavell. Following Cavell, Grimstad looks to the writers of the American Renaissance for “composition.”2 It is in an examination of the work of composing that we might find clues to a conception of pragmatism that is outside of the dominion of the either-or of experience-or-language. For, as I understand the proposal, composition is (supposed to be) big enough to comprehend both. We are to look, then, to what Emerson and his contemporaries were doing: to how their work of writing and experiencing was a production of ordering together the manifold diversity of their moment. Here we might sense that Grimstad is following, whether purposefully or not I cannot say, Matthiessen, who announced that his subject is not so much what Emerson, Melville, and others said as “the degree to which their practice bore out their theories.”3 If Matthiessen, nascent pragmatist that he was, taught us to look toward the work of practice, then Grimstad advises that we look toward the work of composition. In such work we might find the ‘workings’ of both experience and language, taken of course in the pragmatist sense forwarded by William James’s infamous claim that pragmatism’s “only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us.”4
If composition would hold together both experience and language, then it must do so without allowing itself to slip too far into the territory of either. An analytics of composition, in other words, must remain independent from the analytics of experience central for first-wave pragmatism and the analytics of language central for second-wave pragmatism. Or, perhaps, it must so remain if it is to truly usher pragmatism out of the experience-versus-language impasse it finds itself within today. It is not clear, however, that Grimstad manages to keep composition on its own two legs, at least in the “Introduction” to his book. I think, as it happens, that his analyses and accounts of Emerson, Melville, and Poe that follow in later chapters do the work of composition he seeks. But the window we are offered onto that work by the introductory chapter seems to me to fog just a little too much.
One worries at times that Grimstad would be willing to retrieve through composition the workings of experience alone, or even treat composition merely as an index for experience. Sometimes, in other words, Grimstad appears enmeshed in his titular first word: experience. This path is perilous. It may one day work again. But to get it to do so would require more than philosophy has managed to present. Even Dewey, inveterate champion of experience, realized in his late work that the word, indeed perhaps even the concept, could not be rescued:
Were I to write (or rewrite) Experience and Nature today I would entitle the book Culture and Nature…. I would abandon the term ‘experience’ because of my growing realization that the historical obstacles which prevent understanding of my use of ‘experience’ are, for all practical purposes insurmountable. I would substitute the term ‘culture’ because with its meanings as now firmly established it can fully and freely carry my philosophy of experience.5
Grimstad seems to want to both hold on to experience and to press beyond it (Dewey was of the same bent for much of his life). He frames this in terms of “a shift from one way of thinking about experience—the affective encounter—to another: the process by which literary works become through composition conditioned experiences.”8 To this we can pose two questions. In shifting away from the affective encounter, is there any use in continuing to deploy experience as an analytic concept? If so, can experience then bear the shift that is being urged upon it? Dewey, for most of his life, emphatically answered the first question in the affirmative. But when he finally came to take the second question seriously, Dewey late in life answered in the negative, thereby also realizing he would have to reverse his answer to the first. Thus, when Grimstad aims to show through his analytics of composition how his renaissance writers “exemplify, in different ways, the move from earlier accounts of experience (classical empiricism; transcendental idealism) to pragmatism’s idea of experience as experiment” we need to ask these questions of him too.9 For my part, I am not sure what use there is to be had in writing composition back into experience (first question), in large part because I worry that experience cannot bear the shift that is being asked of it (second question). That is to say that in our present philosophical moment we have yet to have the privilege of meeting with an account of experience that sees its way beyond the impasses of foundationalism and representationalism first diagnosed by the classical pragmatists but also not sufficiently worked out in their writings.
To see why, we can turn to the neopragmatists, whose characteristic championing of the linguistic turn need be read as a rigorously anti-experientialist move. Grimstad rightly locates Brandom’s and Rorty’s critiques of experience through the Sellarsian critique of the myth of the given. This is, Grimstad summarizes, “the myth that causal determinations—what the classical empiricists called ‘impressions’—could serve as a foundation for discourse in the space of reasons.”10 The Sellarsian critique of ‘givenism’ can be read as the rigorous pursuit of the snares of foundationalism and representationalism first worked out by Peirce, James, and Dewey.11 But where the classical triumvirate remained wedded to experience, Sellars’s critique of givenism shows why experience should be abandoned due to concerns about epistemological foundationalism first forwarded by the classical triumvirate. In short, the problem is that an analytics of experience has yet to be detached from a connection to “felt” (James) and “qualitative” (Dewey) modalities of consciousness that are invited to serve as justifiers that cannot themselves be justified. These “experiences” are taken as justifiers insofar as they construed as evidential for, or inferentially articulated to, other bits of consciousness. But the same “experiences” are also taken as given, or not in need of justification themselves, insofar as they are merely qualitative feelings (such as a simple affect or a sensation of warmth or cold). These “experiences” are causal determinations (unjustifiable) that can be made to serve as foundations for normative discursive practice (justificatory). It is not that any account of experience must of necessity commit this givenist sin of unjustified-but-justificatory. Rather, the claim is just that nobody (including Dewey) has yet to work out a suitably post-givenist account that would free experience from the stain of the sin.
All of this is internal to Grimstad’s own argument insofar as he expressly endorses the Sellarsian critique as it has been mounted by Brandom and Rorty.12 This is what makes his return to classical pragmatism more than simple first-wave pragmatism redux. This is why he is properly a third-generation pragmatist. But I would suggest that making good on these promises would involve a more rigorous tuning of composition as the center of analysis such that experience might become legible through the conduct of composition, but not the other way around, as if we could bear to hear again that old demand to bring it all back down to experience. In focusing the work of composition on “the specifically modernist predicament of needing to find the criteria by which the work becomes intelligible” Grimstad aims to position himself outside of neopragmatist inferential justification.13 But this is to forget the crucial Wittgensteinean lesson common to the work of Brandom and Cavell: every instance of meaning is an instance of normative determination and thus cannot fail to confront the question of justification. Grimstad would be right to charge that Brandom reaches too far in thinking that meaning always comes back down to inference,14 but for that reason we need not pretend that we can reach back behind meaning into something more pure that would function as experiential finding and founding. If a work makes a claim in virtue of its particular composition, or say as an effect of its style, rather than in virtue of what it expressly says, then we should be willing to read this making of meaning through composition or style, rather than resuscitating experience to do so. It is the work that founds meaning, presumably in concert with the history of the practices (and culture?) in which such works have before made meaning, and will again do so later on, in ways as yet undreamt. We are here clearly beyond inference and purely linguistic articulation. But we are also beyond qualitative sense and purely experiential immersion. We are with the works themselves: how they are composed: practices of composition.
Now, to be sure, all of this is exactly what Grimstad’s book really wants to do (if I may be allowed to speak truth into his pages from a space well outside of the work of their composition), as is evidenced by everything that comes after the introduction. Grimstad there takes his reader touring through the work of experimental composition in Emerson, Poe, Melville, and Henry and William James. We witness scenes of literary production in Emerson’s essays vis-à-vis taxonomies of natural history, in Poe’s production of the detective genre vis-à-vis the puzzlement he met with in meeting a mechanical chess automaton, in Melville’s fantastic literary reaches in Pierre, or the Ambiguities where he weaves into his narrative a satire of then-emerging practices of public literary criticism, and finally in the late literary and philosophical productions of the James brothers vis-à-vis the cosmopolitan opportunities of radical empiricism. Grimstad’s focus, via Cavell, is on the work of composition in each writer. We read of Emerson producing his essays as compendia of his journals, of Poe’s poetic craft and his later explicit thematization in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” and of Melville’s late act of insertion of 160 pages into Pierre as it was nearing the printers in a kind of mocking response to earlier critical reactions to his work. Grimstad’s accounts focus, in each instance, on what his writers are doing. Largely absent in the discussion is whatever experiences they may have had. When experience does arise, it is in the service of action or conduct, thus confirming that literary experiment on this account is not the mere transcription of experience: “Melville turns experience understood as copying into the doing of composition.”15 What matters is always the doing: the work of composing or what I like to call the conduct of composition.16
What I am suggesting, perhaps, is that we follow the contours of Grimstad’s analysis rather than his presentation of where that analysis should lead us, or to put it otherwise by tilting Matthiessen, the degree to which Grimstad’s theories bear out his practice. If we do that, we find in Grimstad’s categoreme of composition an analytic tool with which contemporary pragmatism has managed to generate a new kind of claim. This, then, would suggest that Experience and Experimental Writing has, and of its own resources, already achieved a decided claim on the wild and rolling seascape that is contemporary pragmatism.
For much of Paul Grimstad’s Experience and Experimental Writing I have nothing but praise. I am grateful, in particular, for his insight that a version of aesthetic experience repudiated by Walter Michaels and Michael Fried is hardly experience at all, is rather “a field of unorganized affects.” Although claims made on behalf of post-sixties art works and movements have often sought to justify themselves by vague appeals to experience, nothing is to be gained from carrying over uncritical concepts into subsequent critical discussion. Michaels and Fried are right about the confusion of these appeals, but Grimstad is right that, in aesthetic discussion, the concepts of experience, intention, and meaning just function differently. The conflict lies elsewhere.
I am also grateful for Grimstad’s relating Stanley Cavell’s “truth of skepticism”—that inhabiting a world with others is a matter of acknowledgment rather than knowledge—to Cavell’s account of modernism, despite the challenges of understanding their relation. For Cavell, the problem faced by modernist composers and sculptors is to discover in their present practice the continuities with past music and sculpture that conventions formerly provided, continuities on which overcoming subjective isolation depends, and Grimstad has correctly recognized this problem as an aesthetic inflection of other minds skepticism. What Cavell noticed in The Claim of Reason about what Wittgenstein noticed in Philosophical Investigations is that access to another’s subjectivity, if it occurs at all, occurs naturally, making the threat of isolation, not any lack of knowledge, but our repression of it.17 When in The World Viewed Cavell characterizes modernist painting as a return of the repressed,18 he connects Wittgenstein’s philosophical procedures with modernist compositional practice, fully justifying Grimstad’s description of innovations in American literary prose in terms Cavell developed for twentieth-century music, sculpture, painting, and drama.
However, it is just here that I hesitate. When Grimstad claims—I think correctly—that Emerson’s argument with Kant, as explicated by Cavell, is fully manifest in Emerson’s way of writing, which Grimstad calls “experimental,” I am unsure whether he means to be describing Emerson’s philosophical predicament or his literary method. The distinction can seem finicky, especially given Cavell’s own notorious boundary crossing, but even though J. M. Bernstein is right that Cavell’s writing practice is itself modernist,19 there remains in Cavell’s work a persistent troubling of the literary-philosophical relation that, in my reading, Grimstad elides. In support of Emerson as an experimental writer, Grimstad appropriately cites Cavell’s remark that “Emerson’s and Thoreau’s relation to poetry is inherently their interest in their own writing…their interest in the fact that what they are building is writing.” However, Grimstad breaks off his quote before Cavell’s paradoxical conclusion: “Their prose is a battle, using a remark of Nietzsche’s, not to become poetry.”20 In Cavell’s account, the constructive power of language appears for Emerson, as for Wittgenstein, equally promise and threat. Grimstad is at his most interesting when explicating the philosophical consequences of particular compositional practices, but I am less confident that the relation of literature to experience can be clarified by saying that, for Emerson or Henry James or Gertrude Stein, writing is itself a version of, and can be taken as a model for, human experience.
I can sharpen my point. Grimstad lucidly summarizes what he takes “experimentation” to mean for Cavell: “an activity taking the form of a search; one which does not know where it is going ahead of time, fashions’ provisional goals as part of the unfolding of the process, and remains open to the surprises that emerge from an attention to work as it is being made.” This admirable summary encapsulates much of what Cavell implies when emphasizing the role of whim in Emerson’s writing and of inclination or temptation in Wittgenstein’s. However, I cannot tell whether, in using the adjective “experimental,” Grimstad means to be describing a particular mode of compositional practice, one that can be contrasted with other modes—that is, with non-experimental ways of organizing and arranging words—or whether he means to be describing what composition fundamentally is, something writers and philosophers have not consistently recognized, perhaps with consequences for their ways of organizing and arranging words. If the former, then the helpfulness of Grimstad’s account depends on our understanding how each of these contrasting modes of composition—i.e., experimental and non-experimental—addresses a distinct challenge and set of circumstances. If the latter, then its helpfulness depends on our understanding how the experimental nature of all composition, something with which anyone composing must become familiar, could go unrecognized. The difference between these two explanatory aims is hardly absolute, of course. Whether understood as a compositional mode or as the revelation of composition as such, experimental writing is likely to contrast itself with other ways of writing and to attempt to discover writing’s underlying nature. However, I take Cavell’s account of modernist art to be in the service of the first aim more than the second.
Grimstad’s stake in Cavell’s modernism involves a particular view of experience, one that Grimstad attributes to John Dewey and characterizes as “pragmatist.” This view presents itself as a way of avoiding the standoff between Locke’s empiricism, in which experience consists of objective particulars, and Kant’s transcendental idealism, in which experience depends on subjective universals. In contrast to the concern of both with internal-external correspondence, Grimstad offers Dewey’s view of experience as an active process, “an experimental loop of perception, action, consequences, further perception of consequences, further action, further consequences, and so forth.” Although Grimstad does not attribute this (or any) view of experience to Cavell, he believes that Cavell’s modernism—in which the meaningfulness of an artistic composition depends on no previously established conventions or criteria—can help neutralize a forceful criticism of Dewey. According to both Richard Rorty and Robert Brandom, the problem with Dewey’s describing experience as a “continuity between natural events…and the origin and development of meanings” is that it confuses the causes of what one says with the reasons offered in defense of what one says. Because competency in using language implies competency in justifying one’s uses, they argue, there is a gap between nature and whatever can be said about it: “the deliverances of the senses alone are not enough to get a language game going.” Having recognized that in Cavell’s modernism the justification of meaning plays only a secondary role, while the experience of meaning—what Cavell describes as “a continuous seeing of the point”21—is essential, Grimstad hopes to use Cavell’s account of artistic composition to preserve Dewey’s experimental process from Rorty’s and Brandom’s critique.
I don’t see how this can work. Cavell’s description of the predicament of the modernist artist, like his description of the philosopher’s predicament in Philosophical Investigations, begins with an experience of confusion, not of nature. It is this confusion that modernist work, either philosophy or art, comes into the world to combat. In Cavell’s account, the artist abandons her art’s established genres, forms, styles, and techniques, not out of a craving for newness, but because these conventions have become so implicated in art’s impostures, in art’s displacement by its compromised and dispirited likenesses, that, without a severe purification, art’s conventions can no longer function as correctives. No interpretation of Cavell’s modernism makes sense apart from this disorienting encounter with aesthetic fraudulence.22 Against its backdrop, the modernist composition—or our experience of it—appears profoundly negative. In describing Anthony Caro’s sculpture and Beckett’s Endgame, Cavell devotes far more attention to the knowledge of which these works deprive him than to any statement of their meaning. It is as though everything that had previously enabled him or us to judge art, all the accumulated experience on which our critical perspective depends, must be forgone. Although I think the term “experimental” aptly describes this relinquishing of concepts, norms, and touchstones—that is, I have no quarrel with Grimstad’s liberal application of it—its connotation of tentativeness may underplay the fixity, exposure, and helplessness we experience before such works. In The World Viewed, Cavell stops using the word “conventions” to describe the local meaning events discovered by modernists—e.g., Beckett’s “hidden literality,” Wittgenstein’s “perspicuous presentation,” Pollock’s “all-over line”—and starts calling them “automatisms.” The point of the change is to emphasize that, when art happens, it happens of itself, automatically or naturally. To require these discoveries of naturalness to submit to further tests—unless that just means to further experiences of art—will suppress, not just modernism, but experience.
If it is correct to say that the goal or aim of Wittgenstein’s compositional practice in Philosophical Investigations is an experience of meaning that is simultaneously an experience of nature—which I take to be Cavell’s point—then that aim is met only to the extent that experiencing the meaning of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is not composing it. On the contrary, nature in Philosophical Investigations seems more closely akin to decomposing, to discovering the emptiness of one’s most ambitious attempts at composition. (Cavell compares the work of Emerson’s writing to the work of mourning.23) When Cavell concludes that, instead of the metaphysical given of Beckett’s Endgame, meaninglessness is its characters’ goal, their “heroic undertaking,”24 he provokes a question much like Wittgenstein’s in PI §118: “Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important?” No answer that Wittgenstein, Beckett, or Cavell can provide prevents this question from repeating endlessly. Instead, what seems needed is an experiment, one I perform on myself. It involves testing, trying out in imagined contexts meanings with which I am intimately familiar but, in trying to locate their basis in nature and experience, I have deprived of life. For Cavell, such an experiment, when it works, resembles what Emerson calls the “work of genius.” One’s own rejected thoughts return—if not from the dead, then from oblivion—with “a certain alienated majesty.” The meaninglessness imposed on me proves to be my own doing, and where I imagined action was required, I discover meanings already acting upon and through me. Thus composed, my life’s meaning displays all the autonomy of a natural phenomenon. In confessing that, even with no concept or criterion, he is “stuck with the knowledge” that Anthony Caro’s work is sculpture,25 Cavell gives voice to this experience of our passivity before modernism’s achievements. In his view, Endgame is performed by sufferers rather than actors. Nobody on the stage or in the audience knows the meaning of the action. It occurs to us.26
I do not imagine anything I have said is news to Grimstad. He is as familiar with Cavell’s writings as I and knows Emerson’s far better. In truth, it has struck me more than once in reading Experience and Experimental Writing that I may be confused about my own response, that I could be superficially imagining differences where accord lies deepest. Like Wittgenstein’s compositional practice, which involves assembling commonplace observations for a particular purpose (PI §127), Emerson’s method of transposing journal entries into his lectures and essays, which Grimstad sensitively records, offers a practical response to naturalized fraudulence and despair. To audiences too habituated to being audiences, Emerson culls from his journal the evanescent distractions in which our nature is forever revealed. Where I find Grimstad’s commitments most closely aligned with Cavell’s is in his treatment of Emerson’s writing, not as a representation of human experience, but as the disclosure of how we fail to experience, of how the meaning of our lives continually passes us by. This disclosure may be what Grimstad wants from the idea of literary experimentation.
However, between the naturalness with which a phrase like “the deliverances of the senses alone” occurs to me and the contexts I imagine in which examples of its meaning seem familiar, I experience, not a continuous process, but an alienating break. Pinching a nerve in my shoulder is, in its mind-clearing jolt of pain, a vivid example of experience delivered by the senses alone, and yet, contrary to the conclusion drawn by Rorty, Brandom, and Wilfrid Sellars, I know of nothing that will get a language game going faster. However, the examples Grimstad cites—from Rorty, et al—are not of this kind. They are instances in which my response to what my senses deliver bears comparison with a trained parrot’s cry, the rusting of a piece of iron exposed to moisture, or the sound made by a tape recorder hooked to a photoelectric cell at the flash of a light. In other words, the context is one in which my relation to nature is that of a beast, object, or machine. Do I know what the phrase “the deliverances of the senses alone” means in such a context? Despite their lack of familiarity, I find that examples like those Grimstad cites come automatically to my mind whenever, fending off skepticism’s allure, I try to ground my life’s meaning in nature and experience. To the extent that I can imagine what a deliverance of the senses might be in contexts from which the human form of life has been excluded, I do not see how Rorty, Brandom, and Sellars can be other than right. Such experiences “are not enough to get a [human] language game going,” or not unless the game is to explain how I become interested in them in the first place. And I do not see how providing a different model of experience—one based on an experimental process or compositional practice—can end the craving I feel when meanings written into my memory and flesh exercise their constructive power in this way, independently of nature and experience. What seems needed is an acknowledgment of my part in my discomposure, and that seems unlikely to occur apart from a continuous seeing of the point.
In the Introduction to Experience and Experimental Writing: Literary Pragmatism from Emerson to the Jameses, Paul Grimstad aims to provide the theoretical framework for what later chapters on Emerson, Poe, Melville, and the Jameses render concrete: “the transition from thinking of experience as the squaring of inner and outer matters to thinking of experience as a process continued in composition” (2). The methodology of the study depends upon a fluent juxtaposition of philosophical pragmatism, pragmatist literary criticism, and individual case studies of literary composition. Grimstad’s work thus seeks to be understood as a contribution to (among other things) the revision of dominant paradigms for thinking about the relation between philosophy and literature. By claiming that “certain writers exemplify, in different ways, the move from earlier accounts of experience (classical empiricism; transcendental idealism) to pragmatism’s idea of experience as experiment,” the study does not “reduce literary works to epiphenomenal aftereffects of socialhistorical formations,” but rather aims to reveal how the shift from one way of conceptualizing experience to another takes place in and through particular acts of literary composition (14). Literary criticism, if you will, as a mode of intellectual history. This fundamental assumption underlying Grimstad’s approach—namely, that literary works might be or become philosophically expressive – bears emphasizing at the outset. For it is, first of all, a repudiation of the notion that literature only becomes philosophically significant when it represents ideas, theories, or arguments, and equally of the view that literary works possess attributes that philosophical ones, in their abstraction and intellectualization of lived experience, could never express.
The extent to which the work’s basic assumption challenges the conventional polarization of the functions of literature and philosophy becomes most evident in the individual chapters, which explore what Grimstad dubs “different ways of dramatizing in prose the replacement of experience as correspondence with experience as composition” through readings of Emerson’s Nature (1836) and “The Method of Nature” (1841), Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “Maelzel’s Chess-Player” (1845), and “The Raven” (1845), Melville’s Pierre (1852), and James’s The Ambassadors (1903) (2). But this commitment to breaking down the false dichotomy implied in the particularity of literature and the universality of philosophy is already evident in the Introduction, where Grimstad seeks to explain how we might understand artworks as arriving, through experiment, at a way of “discover[ing] and acknowledg[ing] the criteria under which their specific ways of saying become provisionally universal” (16). This “process by which literary works become through composition conditioned experiences” is “the way [that] experimental writing involves the wording of the world into something shareable and meaningful” (14).
To reach this conclusion, we need a more perspicuous sense of what is meant by “experience,” “composition,” and “experiment.” As the previously quoted formulations indicate, the three terms appear throughout the Introduction as virtual synonyms of one another, in ways that are at times ambiguous. For instance, Grimstad quotes Robert Brandom’s interpretation of Dewey’s concept of experience: “‘processual, developmental, Erfahrung rather than episodic, self-intimating Erlebnis…a feedback loop of perception, responsive performance, and perception of the results of performance’” (9).27 While the activity of “composition” may well be characterized in these terms, it evidently does not follow that all experiential processes that conform to this criteria are “compositions,” in the sense that Emerson’s “Experience” or James’s The Ambassadors are “compositions.” If there are ways of describing “experience” that do not necessitate “thinking of experience as a process continued in composition,” however, then the question of why these thinkers needed to work out the new conception of experience via the practice of literary composition (and not some other practice) seems relevant to the project (2). Indeed, this is a question that Grimstad addresses at some length towards the end of the Introduction:
My effort to fuse Cavell’s account of modernism, understood as the search in composition for an object worthy of our attention, with Dewey’s account of composition as an experiment in opening up “new fields of experience,” is made explicit when Cavell says of Emerson’s prose that in it can be found a “deduction of every word in the language.” Transposing Kant’s transcendental deduction of the conditions for possible experience, Cavell imagines a deduction resulting not in twelve categories of the understanding but in a prose that would be continually deducing the meaning of “every word.” Cavell finds a description—and, presumably, an example—of this sort of deduction at work in a line from “Self-Reliance”: “primary wisdom is intuition whilst all later teachings are tuitions,” hearing that line as saying that “the occurrence to us of intuition places a demand upon us, namely for tuition; call this wording, the willingness to subject oneself to words, to make oneself intelligible.” In an earlier essay on King Lear Cavell describes this as being in “straits of mind in which only those words said in that order will suffice,” and in a later interview he speaks of the conviction a piece of writing can elicit as a matter of “nothing other than this prose here, as its passing before our eyes.” These last examples, in their different ways, offer both the clearest alternative to thinking of language as bound up with justification—as if just these words in this order, as if style itself, amount to a kind of claiming—and the moment where Cavell’s (however qualified and embedded) affinity with pragmatism becomes most vivid….Thought of as exemplified in Emerson’s distinctively difficult prose…this sort of search is what the classical pragmatists call “experience.” (14)
This passage elaborates the quest for literary style as the bridge between composition understood as experiment and composition qua search for “an object worthy of our attention” (and, indeed, of much more than that; for Cavell,” objects of art not merely interest and absorb, they move us; we are not merely involved in them, but concerned with them, and care about them; we…invest them with a value which normal people otherwise reserve only for other people”).28 Yet the account of why “composition” becomes the exemplary form of this conception of “experience” nevertheless gives rise to further questions. I often do use “just these words in this order” to mean what I say, and although I may be thereby manifesting my “willingness to subject [my]self to words, to make [my]self intelligible,” I do not necessarily take myself to be composing something like “Self-Reliance” or King Lear (or even, for that matter, an e-mail). Thinking in language necessarily submits us to the conditions of meaning. But even if we are to understand this as a kind of “search in composition,” what makes it a search for what will count as literature, here and now, is a different question entirely.
Why should this matter for Grimstad? First, the relation between our everyday use of language and its literary use, between everyday situations and art, between everyday meaning and the meaning we seek in art, seems especially acute given the intense implications of “composition” for later modernist figures such as Woolf and Stein. (I do not wish to imply that Grimstad conflates the pragmatist notion of experience as experimental composition with the inheritance of Cézanne’s notion of composition by these later figures; on the contrary, I wonder how much continuity he would wish to find here, and how much difference.) More importantly, the stakes of his intervention become clear in his discussion of the role of experience and meaning in the work of Michael Fried, Ruth Leys, and Walter Benn Michaels. Grimstad argues, “I want to avoid descriptions of the relation between work and beholder that would pit experience against intention….If Fried wants to replace experience understood as continuousness or duration with experience understood as a channel through which one accesses something at every moment ‘wholly manifest,’ I want to equate experience with the work’s conditions of expressiveness” (12-13). It is almost as if Grimstad wishes to take Fried’s distinction between the experience of literalist art and the experience of modernist art as generating two different concepts of experience, thereby enabling him to recast the dialectic of theatricality and absorption that exists within art itself into experience and posit an alternative model. However, Fried’s description of experience-as-art, the conditions of which are established by minimalist works that necessitate the subject’s awareness of his presence in relation to an object, is not intended to provide the more general grounds for a critique of the importance of experience as such to art and its criticism. Furthermore, although Fried does claim of modernist painting and sculpture that “at every moment the work of art is manifest,” he argues that “[i]t is as though one’s experience of the latter has no duration…as though if only one were infinitely more acute, a single infinitely brief instant would be long enough to see everything, to experience the work in all its depth and fullness, to be forever convinced by it” (my emphasis).29 As opposed to Grimstad, his concern is grounded in the problem of how the work of art establishes these illusory conditions of its viewing—the possibility of experiencing it as though these particular conditions were true—and not with the role of experience as such.
At this juncture, the implications of Grimstad’s conception of “composition” as “experimental” insofar as it is a search for “experience” become clear. Quoting John Dewey’s claim in Art as Experience that “because the artist operates experimentally [in this way] does he open new fields of experience,” Grimstad declares, “What is Dewey’s ‘operating experimentally’ but the way a process of composition becomes a search for the criteria by which the work begins to mean? And what are ‘new fields of experience’ but the way those meanings depend on the discovery in composition of the conditions by which they become publicly intelligible? Far from ‘standing in’ for the work tout court, experience is what is found in the work….experience names the conditions under which intentions become sharable in and as the work (and always with the possibility that this will fail; that the work will not arrive at those conditions)” (13).30 If “experience” is understood as the discovery of conditions by which the meaning of the work becomes publicly intelligible, then according to Grimstad those conditions are to be found through the “experiment” of the “composition,” in its search for the criteria by which it has meaning. The terms in need of explication thus shift from “experience,” “experiment,” and “composition” to “criteria,” “conditions,” and “meaning.” For surely the search for the criteria by which they come to have meaning is a process that can and does apply to many experiments in language, without this determining that they are compositions as meaningful as (or meaningful in the way that) the particular works studied in Experience and Experimental Writing claim to be. What are these specific compositions, these “conditioned experiences”—what conditions for experiencing them must they establish, such that we are compelled to understand our experience of them as “meaningful,” “provisionally universal,” worthy of being called works of art in their time?
This question implies a range of a various historical and formal issues that may perhaps exceed the scope of the Introduction, but are relevant to the transgeneric character of the study. Why does “experience as composition” become important to the essay, short story, narrative poem, and novel at this particular moment (2)? If, as Grimstad suggests in a later chapter, “for Poe the experimental magazinist experience is analogous to the invention of a genre,” then how, if at all, does the space of existing genres inflect the inheritance of this conception of experience, and how do the different internal constraints and prehistories of various forms of writing bear upon their establishment of conditions for meaningful experience (64)? Another way to put this point would be to say that for Cavell and Fried, any search or discovery of the conditions for meaningful experience necessarily unfolds within the space of problems generated by particular traditions. The convergence of the particular philosophical issues delineated in the Introduction with the various aesthetic problems confronting the individual traditions from which these writers depart must, in each instance, matter to the significance of the transition from one account of experience to another. An intriguing implication of the study’s methodology is that it posits “composition” qua “experimental writing” as an encompassing category under which works of various literary and philosophical genres may find themselves. The literary-historical implications of this claim seem significant enough to warrant further elucidation.
If the account of the conditions and criteria themselves, and hence the stakes of “experience” in the “experimental writing” of the various subjects of the study, is left open in the Introduction, Grimstad nevertheless is keen to stress that these compositions establish the conditions by which they may be susceptible to failures of meaning. Following Cavell, his study thereby calls our attention to the fact that our words “experiment” and “experience” both stem from the same root belonging to peril. What is tried and what is risked is no less than the possibility of the work itself. In this trial lies the work’s proof of itself.
I feel honored to have such thoughtful comments about my book and am grateful to nonsite for organizing this forum. That one of the respondents is a literary scholar, another a philosopher, another a fiction writer and theorist, and the fourth an art historian makes it even better. It’s encouraging to think my ideas could invite such a wide range of responses. In replying to my critics I will I hope not too indulgently take the opportunity to offer a brief account of how I arrived at the central claims of the Introduction, and to raise some new thoughts about experience in relation both to 19th century literature and experimental writing more generally.
The ideas in the Introduction stemmed initially from the excitement I felt as a graduate student reading Emerson’s 1844 essay “Experience” nearly simultaneously with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Beyond the suggested affinity in “transcendental idealism”—which might lead one to think American transcendentalism were merely a belated Boston version of German idealism (still in some ways the received intellectual history)—reading the Critique could not have been a more opposite thrill to reading Emerson. Emerson writes gorgeously and argues associatively; Kant writes miserably and argues excellently. Beyond the immediate pleasure of Emerson’s strange, elastic sentences, a line near the end of the essay—“but far be from me the despair which prejudges the law by a paltry empiricism”—seemed to capture a central distinction in Kant’s account of Erfahrung: that experience was not some bare encounter with the impingements of the senses (“paltry empiricism”) but a function of judgment and so conceptual through and through.31
Two passages from the (very) late Henry James seemed to solidify the connection between Emerson’s experimental prose and Kantian Erfahrung. The first was a 1915 letter from James to H.G. Wells in which he wrote that “art makes life, makes interest, makes importance…and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”32 I soon discovered that the famous line had been given vivid exposition in the “Prefaces” James added to the New York Edition of his fiction. One passage in particular, from the Preface to The Golden Bowl, described the revising of the novel as “the history of an effect of experience; the history [that is] of the growth of an immense array of terms [that] in sentence, passage and page simply looked over the heads of the standing terms,” leading to what James called “intenser lights of experience.”33 Where did this new intensity come from? Had fresh experience been created in the process of revision? How exactly was James imaging the relation between composition and experience?
With this set of interests in mind I came across some of the most provocative criticism I’d read in graduate school, Walter Benn Michaels’ The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History. I’d already read his essay “Against Theory” (co-authored with Steven Knapp) in a seminar on literature and philosophy and had, like many others, become fascinated by a thought experiment in which a Wordsworth poem appears to wash up on a beach. 34 A version of the argument (if the lines of the poem turn out to be the result of a natural accident like erosion it isn’t a poem at all but merely resembles one) was continued in The Shape of the Signifier in the example of believing the meaning of an Emily Dickinson poem changes if you regularize her cursive handwriting into lineated print stanzas. Such a belief would entail thinking that the shape of the cursive “c” in “Its Coming—the Postponeless Creature,” for example, is relevant to the meaning of the poem. Consider looking at that cursive “c” through a microscope, the edges of the dried ink branching out in irregular furrows into the fabric of the paper. Could Dickinson mean that? Could any human mean that? Would ever more powerful microscopes uncover more and more layers of meaning? It made sense to me to think the answers here should be “no.”
Yet Michaels’ word for the opposite of meaning was “experience” and that’s where I started to lose the thread (my reading in Kant, Emerson and Henry James had led me to think of experience and meaning more as synonyms than as opposites). Paraphrasing Michael Fried’s essay “Art and Objecthood” (a touchstone throughout Shape of the Signifier, whose subtitle—From 1967 to the End of History—is a nod to the publication date of Fried’s essay), Michaels’ notes that Fried “invoke[s] the concept of meaning as against experience.” An example in “Art and Objecthood” that might lead one to think the essay pits meaning against experience is Fried’s discussion of sculptor Tony Smith’s account of a drive across the unfinished New Jersey turnpike at night. As Smith put it, “there was no way to frame it, you just had to experience it”; a situation Smith strangely thought of as “the end of art.” About these claims Fried says that the “availability of modernist art is not [of the kind Smith describes] and that the rightness or relevance of one’s conviction about specific modernist works, a conviction that begins and ends in one’s experience of the work itself, is always open to question.”35 What is interesting here is the way Fried places our capacity for judging and assessing—the “availability” of an artwork—as “beginning and ending with experience.” This, I take it, is experience in the sense of discriminative attention directed at some aspect of the world and not a total, engulfing “situation.” Three things in Fried’s diction to pay attention to on this point: first, the proximity of the words “conviction” and “experience” (to be convinced is to have a certain kind of experience); second, the phrase “experience of the work itself,” ie, the bounded structure of intentions that makes the work what it is and not all the stuff around it; and, three, the idea that our judgments about such works are “always open to question”; ie, our capacity for being convinced by, or rejecting, the work is an act of judgement for which experience must be the condition if such judgments “begin and end” there.36
Nothing in any of this invites Michaels’ sundering of experience from meaning. Indeed, the stark opposition of the words is the mirror image of Tony Smith’s thinking that an experience not of art could somehow be the “end of art”: the latter wildly generalizes experience dissolving everything into a situation; the former banishes experience entirely and so evacuates any chance of encountering an artwork, modernist or otherwise. Michaels does offer a more nuanced rendering of the relation of meaning to experience elsewhere in Shape of the Signifier, noting that Fried’s “fundamental commitment is…to distinguishing between those objects to which our experience is relevant and those to which it is not.”37 Michaels’ “relevant” seems meant to mark a difference between artworks which require the involvement of the viewer to be what they are and those which are what they are independently of the presence of a viewer. Something like this distinction comes through in a recent interview with Fried, where he says that he thought minimalism “worked like something, but it didn’t work the way I thought art should work…it didn’t work the way standing in front of a [Morris] Louis Unfurled worked…[an Unfurled] doesn’t care whether I’m there. It doesn’t care whether I exist. You stand in front of…the Olympia or the Le Dejeuner [sur l’herbe] and Victorine Meurent is looking out of the picture and she ain’t looking at me. She does not care whether I’m there…[conversely] Minimalism depended absolutely on your being there.”38 I suppose I am stating the obvious if I say that some person’s experience would be “relevant” to the distinction made here between Victorine Meurent’s stare and a minimalist work. And while Fried is no doubt right that a Manet canvas doesn’t “care” about him he certainly cares about it. Again, if our capacity for being convinced (or unconvinced) by an artwork “begins and ends with experience” then this must be experience as Kant’s Erfahrung; ie, that which makes possible what Fried calls “availability.” Surely experience in this sense is required even to begin to start making distinctions between everyday experience and experiences of artworks; between works which solicit the beholder’s involvement and those which are entirely independent of any viewer; between works which convince us that they are genuine instances of some medium and those which fail to convince us, and so on.
I took up some of these questions in a recent email exchange with Todd Cronan, suggesting that the crucial distinction in “Art and Objecthood” was not between meaning and experience but rather between everyday experience and an experience of art. To this Todd replied: “I just don’t know what ‘experience’ means when you say it matters in art, except to say it matters if it’s supposed to matter, which just is meaning.”39 I’d reply that experience, as the condition under which any art becomes available at all (Fried’s “begins and ends”), it is not properly describable as more or less relevant, for without it there is nothing (unless we’re talking about brute natural occurrences such as, say, the gravitational collapse of a star, in which case, yes, it doesn’t care about you and there is no experience necessary). The point is nicely captured by Stanley Cavell (with whom Fried was in dialogue at the time of the writing of “Art and Objecthood”) when he writes that “when I experience a work of art I feel that I am meant to notice one thing and not another, that the placement of a note or rhyme or line had a purpose, and that certain works are perfectly realized, or contrived, or meretricious”40
In his response to me Michael Schreyach is careful not to commit to a hard and fast split between meaning and experience, noting how my arguments are in accord with the distinction “formulated by Fried, between ‘art’ and ‘objecthood,’…the latter is comprised by the entire lived situation that attends our every interaction with the physical features of our environment (including objects, and artworks when they are treated like objects). Literal experience, which privileges our subjective responses to things, is distinguished from our experience of art.” Still, if experience is the word for the ability to make the distinction between art and objecthood, I don’t see what is gained by the designation “literal.” As a category of assessment, experience is the condition of possibility for conviction, for attention, for caring or not caring, and of course also for being able to tell the difference between an immersive situation of the Smith turnpike sort and the availability of a fully intended work (again, it is not something that may be parceled out and distributed according to its “relevance”).
Schreyach is thus right when he says that I am concerned in my Introduction to give an account of experience as “discovering the conditions under which the meaning of what [someone] has written or made—that is, the work of art—can become shareable.” Again, the “condition” Schreyach identifies here is experience as discriminative attention, of the sort that would allow both for noticing the formal features of an intended work, as well as the endless decisions and adjustments and revisions that go into its making. This is just where I appeal to John Dewey’s marvelous phrase, from Art As Experience, that “because the artist operates experimentally..he opens new fields of experience.”41 All of this, from the side of composition (the experience James seems to have had revising The Golden Bowl) to the “new field of experience” made available to a reader or listener or beholder, is a function of intentionality and so is a normative matter.
It is worth clarifying a bit here the relation between the words “intention” and “normative.”42 The normative in the sense I use it is in play any time something is taken as something; any time there is an experience of something, überhaupt. The normative in this sense is needed to be able to “make sense of the idea of a mental state’s…being directed toward the world” as John McDowell succinctly puts it.43 Schreyach is clear on this point: “it’s not productive to think narrowly of ‘intention’ as an author’s conscious plan, nor of ‘meaning’ as an item that a reader might discover and then completely know.” Yes. Intention, meaning and experience as I use the words in my Introduction are rather bound up with the conditions that make it possible for some person to take it things are thus and so. Schreyach is right to link all this to what I describe in my Introduction as a concern with “how intentional structures get built into artworks; and how beholders (or readers) come into conceptual possession of those structures” (12). With that description in place, we should now look more closely at the intellectual history of the pragmatist account of experience as experiment, and what it means to say that artists “open new fields of experience” as Dewey put it.
A pragmatist corrective to the obsession with skepticism could take the form of the question: why all the hand-wringing over an abstraction one never encounters in practice? The abstraction, germane to all varieties of skepticism, is “correspondence”: the problem of squaring worldly (outer) phenomena with subjective (inner) states. It may be found in everything from the Cartesian substance dualism which tries to square res extensa with res cogitans (from which arises the thought experiment in hyperbolic doubt), to the way Hume’s claim that all knowledge of matters of fact arise from sensory impressions leads to skepticism about justifying induction. Even aspects of Kant’s transcendental idealism preserve elements of the problem of correspondence, though he modifies it to one of the relation of phenomena to “things-in-themselves” (skepticism is now reserved for noumenal entities we cannot access). Part of the aim of my Introduction is to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater by getting rid of “experience” tout court, even as we drop of the problem of correspondence. And this is to some extent just what the classical phase of pragmatism did. Peirce, James and Dewey, in their different ways, devised an entirely new conception of experience which had nothing to do with squaring inner and outer matters. Experience was a process by which you found out what things were and what they meant in practice, through testing and remaining attentive to the results of testing, then responding anew to the results. No longer the episodic event—discretely bundled packets of sensation with their atomic registration in the mind—experience is conceived as doing, attending to the consequences, revising, more doing, more consequences, more revision, and so on.
In his condensed intellectual history of pragmatism Colin Koopman notes the divide between this first phase of pragmatism, with its focus on experience, and the new mode of pragmatism that emerged in the 20th century, as Dewey’s influence was gradually eclipsed by a more exclusive concern with language. As Koopman puts it: “the first generation of pragmatism was often said to be a philosophy of experiential experimentation, the second generation boldly declared itself thoroughly linguistic such that it searched for pragmatist experimentation at the scene of language use.” Koopman rightly frames my Introduction as focused on the schism between experience and language and says what I am doing is part of a “third generation” pragmatism which seeks, or ought to seek, a way out of this impasse, noting that this for me takes the form an “analytic of composition.” Koopman is also right that I get all this into view by looking closely at the literary prehistory of pragmatism—that burst of invention and expressiveness in American literature of the 19th century which I identify as a tradition of experimental writing (Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Melville, the James brothers).44
So, on to the objections. Koopman thinks that my analytic of composition does not convincingly resuscitate the word experience from its deserved oblivion at the hands of analytic pragmatists. The basic accusation is that in hanging on to the word “experience” I can’t help but drag in a lot of foundationalist metaphysics, which was residual in classical pragmatism and which Richard Rorty and his student Robert Brandom definitively did away with as pragmatist sympathizers shaped by the Linguistic Turn.45 As Koopman puts it: “In shifting away from the affective encounter (ie, some version of classical empiricism) is there any use in continuing to deploy experience as an analytic concept?” The answer, for me, is that Deweyan pragmatism was one such effort to continue to deploy the concept of “experience” even after foundationalist models were abandoned. While Brandom is unsympathetic to the whole idea of experience he is one of the best explainers we have of this specifically Deweyan advance over previous uses of the word in the tradition. Experience for the classical pragmatists (especially Dewey) is
not the ignition of some internal Cartesian light…Experience is work…something done rather than something that merely happens—a process, engaging in a practice, the exercise of abilities, rather than an episode [while] earlier empiricists had thought of experience as the occurrence of conscious episodes that provide the raw materials for learning…for the pragmatists experience is not an input to learning…it just is learning….it is knowing how rather than knowing that.46
It would not be wrong to say that my Introduction is an effort to think through exactly this account of experience as it bears upon artmaking, and as a way of thinking through the tension between classical and analytic pragmatism. It is important to consider the role in all this of what Wilfrid Sellars called the Myth of the Given, which I describe in my book as “the myth that causal determinations—what the classical empiricists called ‘impressions’—could serve as a foundation for discourse in the space of reasons.”47 Koopman approvingly cites my summary and adds: “the Myth arises when ‘experiences’ are taken as given, or not in need of justification themselves, insofar as they are merely qualitative feelings (such as a simple affect or a sensation of warmth or cold) [but such] ‘experiences’ are causal determinations (unjustifiable) that cannot be made to serve as foundations for normative discursive practice (justificatory).” That is a nice encapsulation of the confusion between causes and reasons Sellars diagnoses in his critique of empiricism, and Koopman is right that I “expressly endorse” all of this. Here then is just where the rubber needs to hit the road if my argument is going to both resuscitate “experience” and yet prevent it from becoming a mere “unjustified justifier.” Accordingly, Koopman says he wants from me “a more rigorous tuning of composition as the center of analysis such that experience might become legible through the conduct of composition.”
One way I think I manage to do this is to stay with the critique of the Myth of the Given without reducing it solely to a matter of “inference,” and Koopman is right to say that I “aim to position myself outside of neopragmatist inferential justification.” My analytic of composition is in part an attempt to see how the cumulative judgments, revisions and reshapings that occur in the process of making a specific work becomes a model for experience itself (what I hear going on both in James’s Preface to The Golden Bowl and in Dewey’s Art As Experience). But someone attuned to Sellars’ critique of empiricism might reply: how do these brute perceptions somehow become the conceptual apprehension Kant called Erfahrung? One answer would be that Dewey’s artist is guided by an attitude; an awareness that every tweak, nudge, cut, addition and subtraction, is undertaken intentionally (you are not making breakfast, or writing a letter to the editor, or boarding an airplane or playing baseball: you are at work on just this piece). This is not “intention” in the sense of having an explicit meaning one wishes to get across, as if the work of making were a calculated effort to implant some message in the material, but intention in the sense of an open-ended and experimental feedback loop of doing, judgement, further doing, further judgment, and some eventual exit from the process. While not a matter of “inference” exactly—it would be difficult to codify as premise and conclusion these co-inhabiting attitudes—it is nevertheless a unique kind of experience happening in and around the work, perhaps something close to what Robert Pippin has called a “dimension of aesthetic normativity.”48
The normativity implicit in the making and reception of an artwork, which allow the practices of judging, accepting, beholding, rejecting, appraising, analyzing, evaluating—all the capacities that might fall under Fried’s “availability”—are implicit, historical, open to revision and without foundation. “Experience” for me is a word for the medium in which the norms implicit in these practices may occur and go on. What doesn’t happen, and what doesn’t need to happen, is some further explanatory theorizing—the “making explicit” Brandom wants.
Let me make another pass at how we might hang on to the word “experience” and yet not succumb to the Myth of the Given. Koopman says that I “forget the crucial Wittgensteinean lesson common to the work of Brandom and Cavell: every instance of meaning is an instance of normative determination and thus cannot fail to confront the question of justification.” Nothing I say in my Introduction indicates that I disagree with that, but I’ll elaborate the point here via a couple ideas germane to the later Wittgenstein and an exchange between Brandom and John McDowell about how to read a particular passage in the Philosophical Investigations. Here is the passage:
217. How am I able to follow a rule? –If this is not a question about causes, then it is about justification for my acting in this way in complying with the rule. Once I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do.”
In the situation imagined here, a theory about justification is not what the speaker is looking for. Yet it is not that there isn’t some kind of rule—some recognizably correct way of going on—at play when we project our words in the way imagined in the example at §217. Wittgenstein does not want to be explicit about what the rules consist of, other than simply noting that such projection happens. The word he will use to capture this non-formal rule structure is “grammar.” The idea is that in knowing how to go on in our everyday talk we already agree in grammar (one of Wittgenstein’s words for this agreement is Ubereinstimmung which Elizabeth Anscombe translates as “accord”). This does not at all imply that we agree at the level of the content of what we say; indeed, disagreement, even violent disagreement, would already presuppose the kind of “accord” Wittgenstein describes.49 One wouldn’t know there was a disagreement in play were there not already an accord in language. Such questions lead Wittgenstein to want to get us to stop thinking about rules as fixed calculi (of the sort you find in a formal language, which he took as his focus in the Tractatus), and to try to imagine how rules may operate in ordinary use. This leads to puzzling questions about how the rules are supposed to apply: for example, wondering if a rule’s application is all there from the beginning, like a formula. But that seems absurd: how could natural language contain all future applications of every word, as if it were a computer program or algorithm. The answer, rather, is that the rules are implicit in knowing how to do something; in the carrying out of a particular practice.50
The predicament imagined at §217 is the occasion for a telling disagreement between Brandom and John McDowell. McDowell prefers to heed Wittgenstein’s caution against superfluous theorizing about how we go on talking (or following a sign post, or continuing a number series) while Brandom refers to moments like the one cited above—when I have exhausted my justifications then I have reached bedrock. Then I am inclined to say: This is simply what I do—as a form of “semantic nihilism.” Brandom thinks there is a theory that may make explicit what lies even behind Wittgenstein’s bedrock. That theory is the inferentialist one: when we make moves in a language game we are making claims; to make a claim is to commit oneself to something, as well as to be held to those commitments by everybody else making moves in the language game. Such committing oneself to what one says makes one responsible for what is said in a uniquely inferential form: my claimings must be able to stand as premises and conclusions for other moves in the game made by any other competent speaker of the language. And so one is entitled to what one says only insofar as one is responsible in this way (in turn holding everyone else responsible for what they say). For Brandom, the currency behind this entwined commitment, responsibility and entitlement is the giving and asking for reasons. The justification of a claim will, as it a were, make explicit the conditions of your entitlement to that move in the language game. None of this is to give up on the “meaning is use” equation of the later Wittgenstein. The difference is that for Brandom the use may always be explained, the norms made explicit through the giving and asking for reasons. The spade is never turned. All is explicable.
Such a view of the inferential deep structure of language games prompts McDowell to caution against the belief that Wittgenstein’s way of imagining “norms implicit in practice [requires] work on the part of philosophers to uncover and make explicit” such norms, since “there is no reason to suppose there must be a level of normativity below the level at which linguistic practice is described as using this or that concept, and it is no concern of Wittgenstein’s to suggest that there is.”51 The whole temptation to theorize such things, McDowell is saying, is just what Wittgenstein resists. What Brandom labels “semantic nihilism”—my justifications run out, my spade is turned, this is simply what I do—McDowell takes at face value. We might say that McDowell is true to the letter of the Philosophical Investigations while Brandom hears in its spirit an invitation to theorize.52
When Koopman writes that I “would be right to charge that Brandom reaches too far in thinking that meaning always comes back down to inference, but for that reason we need not pretend that we can reach back behind meaning into something more pure, that would function as experiential finding and founding” I’d respond that I do not equate experience with “purity.” Experience (Erfahrung) has rather to do with the norms implicit in the practice of going on in language, but also in practices like composition, reception, acceptance, rejection, indeed a multitude of social practices all of which entail rules not made explicit at the level of the theory. Does that sound like purity? It seems rather that the desire for an exhaustive theoretical account of what we are doing when we go on talking (or go on in some other normative practice) would be closer to “purity”; that is, a desire for total explanation, with nothing left out. Koopman goes on: “If a work makes a claim in virtue of its particular composition, or say as an effect of its style, rather than in virtue of what it expressly says, then we should be willing to read this making of meaning through composition or style, rather than resuscitating experience to do so.” Not at all, since experience would be the word for the practical sense of the implicit norms one draws upon when talking, making, responding, agreeing, being convinced, accepting, rejecting etc. When Koopman finally accuses me (again reverting to the bad, old idea of experience as discrete, episodic encounter) that my “accounts focus, in each instance, on what writers are doing [but] largely absent in the discussion is whatever experiences they may have had” I would note finally that I don’t care at all what Emerson, Poe, Melville, or Henry James “actually experienced.” I care about what they wrote and how they wrote it, and my own experience reading what they wrote, of which my book is a record.
Ralph Berry’s response takes up some of these same questions from an angle more explicitly keyed to Stanley Cavell’s writings on modernist aesthetics. When Berry notes that in Cavell’s writing on aesthetics “the concepts of experience, intention, and meaning just function differently” my Introduction could be said to explore what that “differently” might consist in. How is it that experience, intention and meaning should be understood differently when the topic is not declarative assertion, or deliberative rationality, but the sustained attention that goes into the making of artworks, and the sort of care artworks elicit in a beholder, reader or listener?
As I noted in my response to Koopman, I replace an account of experience that would invite a rehearsal of the problem of skepticism and instead emphasize the way classical pragmatism (especially Dewey’s) aligns the word to something more like composition. I describe the affinity between composition and experience in my book as “an activity taking the form of a search; one which does not know where it is going ahead of time, fashions provisional goals as part of the unfolding of the process, and remains open to the surprises that emerge from an attention to work as it is being made.”53 Cavell’s way of describing this in “Music Discomposed” is to say that composition is an “experimental problem” of trying to arrive at “an object in which a human being can or will take an interest.”54 Composition captures a certain kind of “interest”; a directed attention open to surprise, to what may unexpectedly be brought out of some material in the course of doing and making, as well as the choices, decisions, and judgments the will follow from one set of consequences rather than another.
Still, Berry wishes to raise, if not quite a criticism, at least some tough questions about the word “experiment” in all this. He says he
cannot tell whether, in using the adjective ‘experimental,’ [I] mean to be describing a particular mode of compositional practice, one that can be contrasted with other modes—that is, with non-experimental ways of organizing and arranging words—or whether he means to be describing what composition fundamentally is…If the former, then the helpfulness of Grimstad’s account depends on our understanding how each of these contrasting modes of composition—i.e., experimental and non-experimental—addresses a distinct challenge and set of circumstances. If the latter, then its helpfulness depends on our understanding how the experimental nature of all composition, something with which anyone composing must become familiar, could go unrecognized.
The answer here is both. First, I do try in the book to make a case for American writers of the 19th century as “experimental” in the same way we might think of Jean Toomer or Gertrude Stein or Raymond Roussel or Donald Barthelme or Italo Calvino as experimental: that is, self-consciously testing out new ways of telling stories or making sense, formally challenging and unorthodox, in some cases theorizing about the process of inheriting and transforming established literary conventions (the book goes roughly from Emerson’s leaving the Unitarian ministry in 1831 to Henry James’ late style circa 1901-1902).55 Emerson took his training as a minister and in the sermon form as the starting point for making paratactic, collage-like essays built up from journal entries. Poe took the sensational gothic as he found it in Blackwood’s magazine (where he read essays like Thomas de Quincey’s “Murder Considered as a Fine Art”) and arrived at a ludic fantasia of logical inference in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and later gave a step by step account of how he wrote his poem “The Raven” in his mock didactic essay “The Philosophy of Composition”; Melville took established genre conventions like the sea adventure and sentimental romance and turned them into weird, unclassifiable books like Moby-Dick and Pierre. In some ways Henry James is the most exemplary instance of this 19th century experimentalism, as he took his own earlier work as a convention to be transformed, from the realism of Washington Square and The American to what he called the “inveteracy of a certain indirect and oblique” style in The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl; finally becoming a scrupulous theorist of his own formal evolution in the Prefaces he added to the New York edition of his fiction.
To return to the other side of Berry’s question: do these historically local instances of experimental writing lay bare something fundamentally experimental about composition as such? The experimental nature of composition need not be reduced to the problem of modernism, and Cavell is I think able to get the more general inquiry into view just as often as he is describing the vicissitudes of the modernist predicament. Yet Berry says that in Cavell’s account “the artist abandons her art’s established genres, forms, styles, and techniques, not out of a craving for newness, but because these conventions have become so implicated in art’s impostures, in art’s displacement by its compromised and dispirited likenesses, that, without a severe purification, art’s conventions can no longer function as correctives. No interpretation of Cavell’s modernism makes sense apart from this disorienting encounter with aesthetic fraudulence. Against its backdrop, the modernist composition—or our experience of it—appears profoundly negative.” This strikes me as too severe. Cavell is not Adorno.56 In “Music Discomposed” there is a more basic curiosity about what makes a particular work an “object in which human being can or will take an interest”; a curiosity not reducible to art’s “combat” with the world. I take this in part to be a question about the sort of imaginative freedom available to us through the making and appreciation of artworks. This is not the same thing as seeing in artworks a last vestige of the genuine or authentic in the midst of total debasement and fraudulence. While I agree that the specifically “modernist” predicament as explored in Cavell and Fried is a matter of fraudulence and genuineness, I think the experimental nature of composition in general (again, the second half of Berry’s question to me) has more to do with the search for a certain sort of freedom.57
The question of whether Cavell’s account of aesthetic modernism is entirely reducible to the “negativity” Berry describes is related for Berry to whether or not Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is concerned with locating the “natural” in our ways of going on talking. The implication is that our “nature” has somewhere along the lines become lost, or obscured, or faked, or forgotten, or renounced. Accordingly Berry asks if it is “correct to say that the goal or aim of Wittgenstein’s compositional practice in Philosophical Investigations is an experience of meaning that is simultaneously an experience of nature.” I am doubtful that this is what is going on in the Philosophical Investigations and I am not convinced that Cavell’s chapter on “Nature and Convention” in The Claim of Reason is the definitive way to understand the book (this is to leave aside whether the Philosophical Investigations may best be understood as bound up primarily with other minds skepticism, which itself seems a tendentious way of reading Wittgenstein). Let me pose a related but different question: is the account of what Wittgenstein calls our shared “grammar” in Philosophical Investigations reducible to what Berry calls an “experience of nature”?
My sense is that what Wittgenstein means by our agreement in grammar is not a mutual immersion in causal transactions (what we have in common with dust, sound waves, electricity, the tides, fish, as well as with other persons) but our ability to go on talking to one another. When Berry writes that “experiencing the meaning of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is not composing it” and that “nature in Philosophical Investigations seems more closely akin to decomposing, to discovering the emptiness of one’s most ambitious attempts at composition,” this again seems to me too corrosive. I don’t find this sort of “critique” in Wittgenstein. Rather, I would say that the preponderance of dialogue, scenes of instruction, of giving and carrying out orders, the conversational asides and versions of Socratic dialectic, the whole panoply of voices that run through the Philosophical Investigations, is a virtuosic enactment of how we “compose” our shared grammar.
But, Berry wants to know, what about §118 when Wittgenstein writes: “Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important?” To this overheard voice in the Investigations Berry says: “No answer that Wittgenstein [or Cavell] can provide prevents this question from repeating endlessly.” It should be remembered that the question is posed by a staged interlocutor who mistakes Wittgenstein’s desire to eliminate the illusory puzzlements of philosophy for a caution about toppling what are assumed to be monuments of wisdom and civilization. If Berry says that “no answer…prevents this question from repeating endlessly” that is not quite right, since Wittgenstein himself promptly provides an answer in the sentence immediately following the one Berry cites: the “great and important” things the interlocutor worries about at §118 are what Wittgenstein calls Luftgebaude—aircastles or, more literally, structures of air. I would add that this way of doing philosophy—as a counterpoint of unmistakably human tones; tones of doubt, worry, hubris, concern, incredulousness, conviction, fantasy, caution, curiosity, madness etc—is itself a form of experimental writing.
Now, Berry is of course sensitive to all this in Wittgenstein; ie, the wish to relieve us, or cure us, of the compulsion to become entangled in philosophy. Berry writes: “The meaninglessness imposed on me proves to be my own doing, and where I imagined action was required, I discover meanings already acting upon and through me. Thus composed, my life’s meaning displays all the autonomy of a natural phenomenon.” That sounds to me like a shrewd summation of the “therapeutic” side of Wittgenstein; the side of his thinking that tries to get us to stop obsessing over metaphysical air castles. Berry then elaborates these remarks in what looks to me like a classic ordinary language example. The usage he is concerned to explore is the phrase “the deliverances of the senses alone.” “Pinching a nerve in my shoulder,” Berry writes “is, in its mind-clearing jolt of pain, a vivid example of experience delivered by the senses alone, and yet, contrary to the conclusion drawn by Rorty, Brandom, and Sellars, I know of nothing that will get a language game going faster.” The point of the Sellarsian critique is, I think, that while the pinched nerve might indeed get a conversation going, causal transactions of nervous excitement are different in kind from what is going on when we talk. The ability to take it that something is being said is unavoidably a normative matter. “Man, you know my shoulder is killing me!” followed by “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, that must be a drag” followed by “Oh, its ok, it usually dissipates after a couple days, but it sure hurts right now” and so on, is not an exchange conditioned by causal mechanisms of nerve endings, muscles, tendons and so on, even if at bottom billions of neurochemical transactions are making possible the awareness that allows the conversation to occur (though this is probably not the place to get into the qualia, awareness, materialism debate). The conversation we have about your shoulder is about taking it that something is being said and responding to it, freely. Nothing is compelling me to respond in a certain way about your voicing your pain and nothing in your voicing of pain is compelled or determined in the way that the feeling of the pain is determined. That, in any case, is how I understand the Sellarsian Myth of the Given—as the qualitative distinction between causes and meaning—and everything Cavell says about what we say when depends on that distinction.
My thought that experience is fruitfully imagined on the model of composition as experiment is meant to ameliorate what I take to be a too rationalist insistence on declarative assertions and propositions as the privileged currency of our agreement in language. I imagine this is something close to what ordinary language philosophy is up to, whether in Wittgenstein, Cavell or Austin. I also think it has a lot to do with pragmatism, but you need to think its classical and its analytical phases in stereo, as it were, because you need both experience and language to get the problem into view.
Yi-Ping Ong is right to see what I am doing as a “repudiation of the notion that literature only becomes philosophically significant when it represents ideas, theories, or arguments, and equally of the view that literary works possess attributes that philosophical ones, in their abstraction… could never express.” That is generous, and I’d like to think that in my own small way I am helping to break down the received wisdom that literature deals only in concrete particulars while philosophy deals only in generalized abstractions. This brings us back to experience as at once a care for, noticing of, attunement to fine particulars and the condition of possibility for that sort of noticing or care. Experience covers both the general and the particular, and in that way is a good word for looking closely at the relation of literature and philosophy.
I am especially grateful to Ong for being the only respondent to zoom in on the passage in my Introduction in which I take up Cavell’s claim that in prose like Emerson’s one finds a “transcendental deduction of every word in the language”; and the (for me) related description of a “mode of attention to…particular words [which] is directed to the voice which says them, and through that to…straits of mind in which only those words said in that order will suffice.”58 I think of these two passages, from different parts of Cavell’s career, as elaborations and commentaries on each other. Both get at the way a particular ordering words makes vivid the norms implicit in our broader agreement in grammar. To borrow from the title of the later essay: “terms” (words) are “conditions” (of possibility).
On my appeal to these passages in Cavell Ong raises some good questions. “I often do use just these words in this order to mean what I say,” she writes
and although I may be thereby manifesting my willingness to subject myself to words, to make myself intelligible, I do not necessarily take myself to be composing something like “Self-Reliance” or King Lear…Thinking in language necessarily submits us to the conditions of meaning. But even if we are to understand this as a kind of “search in composition,” what makes it a search for what will count as literature, here and now, is a different question entirely.
I am not so sure these are “different questions entirely.” Let’s back up and look in detail at the original passage in Cavell:
It is as if in Emerson’s writing (not in his alone, but in his first in America) Kant’s…understanding the behavior of the world by understanding the behavior of our concepts in the world, is to be radicalized, so that not just twelve categories of the understanding are to be deduced, but every word in the language [and this is related to the idea that] what Wittgenstein means by “grammar” in his grammatical investigations—as revealed by our system of ordinary language—is an inheritor of what Kant means by Transcendental Logic.59
Cavell here imagines a Kantian deduction of “our system of ordinary language.” What does this mean? Think of it this way: when we find meaning in another’s words and find our words taken up by another it is as if we were continually “deducing” the conditions for going on talking. In wanting to think of ordinary language as a transcendental logic Cavell is saying that “grammar” is the condition of possibility in relation to which we make ourselves intelligible (I take it this is why Cavell thinks of Wittgenstein as a Kantian thinker, as have many others).60 But the differences between the First Critique and the Philosophical Investigations are as striking as this suggested affinity. For Kant—systematic, architectonic, deductive thinker that he is—there are twelve conceptual categories working in tandem with intuitions of space and time, all of it a priori and subtended by logical functions from which the categories are themselves deduced.61 The Wittgensteinian transcendental, conversely, is just what we say when—our “system of ordinary language.” It is interesting that Cavell uses the word “system” here because on Wittgenstein’s account natural language is hardly systematic. At many points in the Investigations we get a picture of grammar as messy, cross-hatched, an ad hoc motley, liable to change and open to revision. Yet I think it is right to say that grammar is transcendental insofar as it refers to the norms implicit in our ability to say what anything is.
But what does all this have to do with the “deduction of every word” Cavell found in Emerson’s essay “Fate”? Or, to cast it in the form of Ong’s question: what does the fact that “language necessarily submits us to the conditions of meaning” have to do with “what will count as literature”? It’s as if Cavell has had an epiphany before the defamiliarizing luminosity of Emerson’s prose, where “every word” lays bare the conditions of our accord in grammar and so reminds us of something that is always there but we have forgotten how to hear. Because “condition” is the word Cavell zooms in on in Emerson’s essay, this inspires a flip from transcendental logic (Kant’s conditions of possibility) to grammar as the condition underlying our system of ordinary language.62 That, at any rate, is what I hear going on in the passage. Read as such it offers a way of thinking through Ong’s question about the “continuity” between particular instances of literary style and everyday use. Emerson’s power (and idiosyncrasy) as a prose stylist heightens our intimacy with words and so with each other; the deep yet fragile “con-diction” (Cavell points out the etymology) of our agreement in grammar. That we don’t all sound like Emerson all the time (or ever) does not vitiate the connection.
The question of this “continuity” is rightly bound up for Ong with some remarks near the end of “Art and Objecthood.” She says that,
although [Michael] Fried does claim of modernist painting and sculpture that “at every moment the work of art is manifest,” he argues that “[i]t is as though one’s experience of the latter has no duration…as though if only one were infinitely more acute, a single infinitely brief instant would be long enough to see everything, to experience the work in all its depth and fullness, to be forever convinced by it.” As opposed to Grimstad, his concern is grounded in the problem of how the work of art establishes these illusory conditions of its viewing—the possibility of experiencing it as though these particular conditions were true—and not with the role of experience as such.
The point of Fried’s “infinite brevity” thought experiment is, I take it, to limit experience to sheer registration (without duration), and so capture something in the modernist work that is all there all the time. While cast as a speculative “as though” this is an even more unambiguous example of the kind of experience I’ve been talking about throughout these remarks. On my account that “infinitely brief” flash of registration is directed at whatever it is that is “wholly manifest” in the work. Unless the point of the example is to stress something involuntary and mechanical occurring in the moment of conviction (that does not seem right to me) Fried’s flash of registration is inseparable from what makes the work convincing. And because conviction is nothing if not evaluative, Fried’s infinitely brief instant ruthlessly isolates what is conditioned and normative in the experience. That a modernist work, as Ong puts it, “establishes these illusory conditions of its viewing” (her way of reading the “as though”) does not alter any of this, for that “establishment” of conditions is just more intentionality; just more of Dewey’s artist “opening new fields of experience.” I don’t see why the fields, once opened, should not be wholly manifest in an infinitely brief sample.
*I am indebted to Robert Chodat, Todd Cronan, John Gibson, Martin Hägglund, Susan Howe, Toril Moi, Ross Posnock, Kate Stanley and Mark von Schlegell for valuable feedback on earlier versions of this response. And I cannot emphasize how grateful I am for the care and attention of the responses here.