Beginning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with iconic figures such as Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, an intellectual revolution sweeps through Europe that commonly goes by the name of the scientific revolution. One of the guiding premises of this revolution is that the natural world can be mathematized and that the best way to grasp the underlying structure and logic of nature is by subjecting it to mathematical scrutiny. In the eighteenth century, this revolution is further radicalized when it is transposed to the human world, with the conviction that human behavior and moral action are not only susceptible to the imperatives of calculability but also best comprehended in that way. Attempts to arrive at a felicific calculus from Hutcheson to Bentham, La Mettrie’s insistence that the human being is a machine, and Adam Smith’s theory of sympathy, with analogies to Newton’s theory of gravitation, are only the most prominent examples. These revolutions continue apace today, unchecked and even intensified, not only in the natural sciences but also in the social sciences. The science of positive psychology is only the latest instance of the attempt to construe human aspiration by way of scientific method. Anne-Lise François does not rehearse this well-known narrative, but it is only against this backdrop (which she alludes to by the names utilitarianism, positivism, enlightenment, and modernity), and a keen sense of the ravages wrought by a naïve and reckless quantification of everything human, that her quest for a literature of uncounted experience acquires its peculiar urgency: “the ‘literature of uncounted experience’ … does indeed correspond to an ethos of ‘non-ado’ – of casual losses and as easily missed gains – resistant to modernity’s call to materialize and make good on given potential” (267). Her book would perhaps have been better subtitled “The Literature of Uncountable Experience” because what she is after is not simply those experiences that have through some omission not been counted, but rather those experiences that are not susceptible in any way to counting, accounting or recounting (150), to the scrutiny of publicity. To say that these experiences resist calculability would be saying too much since resistance itself would render them measurable or perceptible and bring them into the light of phenomenality. In order to elude the realm of the calculable, such experiences must pass nearly unnoticed (267): they must be what François calls “open secrets,” there for all to see yet unremarked and even unremarkable. All the difficulty of François’ project is concentrated here, in the strange logic by which the very act of scrutiny threatens to make the experiences she is seeking disappear. The real strength of François’ book lies in having isolated, through precise, attentive and sometimes virtuosic readings, an entire class of such improbable and nearly impossible experiences, in texts by Madame de Lafayette (La Princesse de Clèves), Wordsworth (the Lucy poems), Dickinson, Hardy (Poems of 1912-13) and Austen (Mansfield Park).
Perhaps the most elegant example of the open secret, its liminal status as an action, and the complex and unpredictable effects it has, is to be found in François’s analysis of the following scene from Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves:
M. de Nemours was wearing yellow and black, the reason for which was sought in vain. Mme de Clèves had no trouble guessing it: she remembered having said in his presence that she liked yellow, and that she regretted being a blonde, as she couldn’t wear that color. He judged he could appear in it, without indiscretion, since, as Mme de Clèves never wore any, no one could suspect it of being hers.cited in François, 117
This secret communication, available for all to read yet illegible to any but the lovers, is a paradigmatic instance of the open secret and François traces carefully the strange, unlikely, and barely noticeable effects produced by the (non-)event of the secret:
if yellow names the princess to herself, it does exactly the opposite to others: it takes her name away from the general public’s lips … Positivist models of action do not allow for the recognition of this kind of preventative, blocking action because it affects only the likelihood of her being named; we cannot exactly say that yellow deflects public attention away from the princess, as she is not in the first place an object of suspicion. Rather, Nemours’ choice of yellow, the color no one will associate with her, makes it difficult for those who are not yet thinking of her in connection with him ever to do so; it withdraws her even as a potential thought from the minds of others …
Such interventions count as acts even if they don’t bring about a recognizable change in the world; at the same time, they only have value insofar as they leave open and accept the possibility of making no difference.119
As compelling as such an analysis in the tradition of Barthes’ Lover’s Discourse or Nancy’s Inoperative Community is, what could be the purpose and even the urgency of discovering and highlighting these actions, which by François’s own admission “leave open ... the possibility of making no difference”? Their significance lies in their very insignificance. The non-resistive resistance (‘desistance’ she calls it, following Derrida ) that compels such actions to claim our attention can only be discerned to the extent that they run counter to the dominant tendencies of (a) narrative. This is true in two senses. First, within the story of La Princesse de Clèves, the open secret is “an (anti)intervention that does not move the narrative action forward but only removes the possibility of development” (119). However, for this (non-)action on narrative to become visible, the narrative must be there in the first place. Second, actions of this kind, François suggests throughout, resist the conceptuality of action and ethics that have dominated our modernity. In the passage above, this is signaled by the reference to “positivist models of action.” But it becomes apparent in other ways too, as when she speaks of “the imperceptible, nonfunctional, and nonprogressive character ... of their exchanges” (119). What François wants to resist without resisting, then, is clearly a functionalist and progressivist model of communication and action -- elsewhere she will speak of it as teleological and utilitarian -- which she associates with modernity. At two different levels – that of the textual narrative and that of the narrative of modernity – the value of the open secret lies in its capacity to disrupt the headlong career of plot (“I have examined figures who abdicate the powers of plot” ) in order to linger on the “missed [or] declined experience” (xvi).
Now, although François evokes whenever necessary the narrative of modernity which gives her readings their traction and critical force – “the crisis of human subjectivity under modernity” (176); “modernity as a crisis of receivable and transmittable experience” (176); “the impoverishment and evacuation of experience under modernity” (176); “the crisis of an incompletely secularized modernity” (207); “the crisis of modern subjectivity” (209); “the crisis of modern skepticism” (212) – and her account depends crucially on this narrative for its critical purchase, she does not devote her attentions to reconstructing (or even referencing) the narrative itself. Her energies are dedicated to the labor of reading that discovers open secrets in her chosen texts and teases out their complex efficacy. Indeed, given her suspicion of narrative tout court, it is not clear that she could reconstruct the narrative of modernity on which her argument so depends. (When she reads narrative texts like those of Lafayette and Austen, she is most drawn to what we might call the lyric moments that resist the development of narrative.) There are, I would suggest, grave dangers to such an approach, at least two of which shadow her argument without respite. The first danger is quite simply that the implied narrative will not be recognized, thereby diminishing or even undermining the force of the critique. For example, when she speaks above of “positivist models of action,” or claims that “it is a truism that the Enlightenment … agrees to overlook a person’s origins in return for the right to judge her by her end” (152), it is simply not clear what the referent is. Which positivist models of action? Whose Enlightenment? Certainly not Kant’s enlightenment, in which people are ends in themselves independent of the ends they may choose. There is in fact a growing body of scholarship that would suggest that the enlightenment is characterized by a crisis over the very category of an end rather than any certainty about judging others by their ends. If these accounts of enlightenment ethics are accurate, then the enlightenment François means to critique will turn out to have achieved already the very evacuation of telos and the ethics without end that François herself is after (98, 149). Her critique, then, will have been directed against a phantom menace.
The second danger, by far the greater, in not spelling out explicitly the narrative of modernity she has in mind lies in the possibility of unwittingly replicating aspects of the very narrative she means to unsettle. The danger here is not that we don’t recognize the narrative of modernity François invokes, but that we recognize it too well and sense her participation in it. Indeed, it is not simply we who recognize it but François herself who seems uncomfortable at the proximity of her counter-concepts to their discredited modern counterparts. The instances of her disavowal are too numerous to mention so I will only single out those that underscore her proximity to some of the broadest tendencies and intellectual constellations of the period. So for example, she insists from the outset that “this book is not simply a defense of ‘romantic’ over rational or instrumental ways of accounting” (xvii), yet she acknowledges in almost the next breath that romanticism is also the “closest ally [of the ethos of minimal realization]: the turn, in romanticism and elsewhere, toward aesthetic experience as a respite from the rushed action of a modernity so bent on bringing about the future that it leaves no time for the taking -- deferral or postponement -- of time” (xviii). To be sure, the differences between her project and a romantic one are worth noting but ultimately, her attention to the texture of uncountable experience is continuous with the project of a certain romantic aesthetics, indeed a subtle refinement of it. After all, there could hardly be a better term than “open secret” to describe the logic by which the romantic poet in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads or Prelude shares publicly the most intimate, private, and even inconsequential experiences. (Not coincidentally, Schiller’s aesthetic concepts of “grace” and “play” are important critical concepts for her because they provide models of inconsequential and non-teleological action.) Even François’s insistence on the everydayness and inconsequentiality of such experiences against the sublime heroics of romanticism (xvii) is already echoed in the Wordsworthian text. It is also to be found in the emphasis on everyday and domestic experience in the tradition of the novel that François too easily associates with teleological narrativity (152, 154, 200, 257). Eighteenth-century novels often resist the thrills and seductions of the teleological romance plot even as they plunder some of its strategies. Indeed I would go further and argue that a number of eighteenth-century novels enact the very same privileging of experience over narrative that we find in François’s text (Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; Richardson, Pamela; Rousseau, Julie). Similarly, the value she places on passive or recessive action and “tropes of passive agency” (27) have a long history in Christian re-writings of classical paradigms of heroism. Though perhaps best exemplified in Milton’s Paradise Regained, this tradition gets a secular makeover in eighteenth-century sentimentalism from Richardson’s Clarissa to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and McKenzie’s Man of Feeling. Here too, François is aware of this genealogy even as she seeks to distance herself from it, reassuring readers that hers is not an ethics of grace over good works (28; cf., 206). The reassurance rings hollow as the category of grace and an aesthetics of minimalism and inconsequentiality dominate her study. Like sentimentalism, Kantian ethics, or a radical Protestant theology of grace, François finds the value of action to lie not in what it achieves but merely in the form of acting itself. Perhaps most striking is François’s inevitable proximity to the formalism of Kantian ethics:
Instead, the works in question share an ethos of attending to unobserved, not-for-profit experience rather than results entered on the public record, of defining action as a matter of timing and form rather than consequence, and of measuring difference not by what an action materially produces but by the imaginative possibilities revelation may either open or eclipse.21, my emphasis; cf., 133
François’s ethics are not Kant’s ethics but the family resemblance is unmistakable (94 n.32): for both, the virtue of ethics lies not in the consequences of action but in the form, or in François’s case the aesthetics, of willing. It might appear that François’s emphasis on the secret would disturb this resemblance significantly, since Kantian ethics depend on the public availability of reasons, but it can be shown that the relationship an agent has to his or her happiness in Kant’s ethics must have the structure of an open secret in François’s sense: for Kant, the reference to happiness in any action cannot and must not be erased, yet to act for happiness risks undermining the ethicality of an action, meaning the subject’s relation to happiness has to be an “open secret.” As I argue elsewhere, the consequences for ethics when we relate to happiness as an open secret instead of openly are dire.
I have shown François’s affinity with a number of modern ethical strategies: a Protestant theology of grace, sentimentalism, romanticism, the nascent novel’s privileging of experience over narrative, romanticism, an ethics of everydayness, Kantian ethics. I don’t mean to conflate her ethics with any of these, since she wants, in important ways, to radicalize tendencies only implicit in some of these traditions. But it is within this broad strand of modern ethical thought that her own project belongs, however much it qualifies or radicalizes its precursors. There should be no automatic taint that attaches to being situated within such an illustrious geneaology, but François’s constant disavowals suggest that there is indeed a problem for her in being located within this tradition. What is the problem, then? I would suggest that, by refusing to elaborate fully the narrative of ethical modernity she is implicitly working against, by refusing narrative itself, she ends up relying on a partial narrative of modernity, while taking up sides against it with the half of the narrative she refuses to articulate. In other words, she resists the modern utilitarian, progressivist, secular, functionalist, positivist Enlightenment by resorting to strategies drawn from Protestant theology, sentimentalism, romanticism and Kantian ethics, themselves every bit as modern as the counterparts they are meant to resist. Again, to say this by itself is not yet to condemn, since these may in themselves be perfectly usable strategies for resisting the coercions of the Enlightenment. The problem is that, once we introduce the other half of the narrative, once we look at the whole picture (a demand François would no doubt resist), the crisis in modern ethics looks very different than the picture François is working against, and what appeared initially to be a forceful critique is ultimately complicit in deepening the crisis we confront. I agree with François that there are grave problems with the quantification of human experience and action. But the problem does not lie with teleology, an excessive publicity or a heroic model of action. Rather, as a number of commentators have shown, these are precisely concepts we no longer know how to think in the wake of the enlightenment transformations, and the tradition François situates herself in strives for their complete breakdown. Thus, at least since Hobbes, a teleological model of human action governed by ends is being displaced by an immanentist model in which agents are guided by their immediate desires and pleasures. As MacIntyre and Taylor have shown, Enlightenment ethics is characterized by a crisis of teleology and narrative, not an affirmation of these. Bentham’s felicific calculus does nothing to restore the end of happiness to its rightful place. Rather, the word “happiness” is evacuated of its meaning on the very first page of the Principles, and becomes an empty placeholder for an algebraic sum of pleasures and pains, instead of an end by which to orient action. What Bentham offers then, is neither teleology, nor an adequate model of publicity, nor a heroic model of action. He gives us an immanentist ethics in which all relation to ends has been lost, in which narrative is not an appropriate category for understanding human action, in which the possibility of publicity has been compromised by prioritizing pleasure and pain, in which heroic action is replaced by administered behavior. If we understand the crisis this way, then Kant’s ethics, or sentimentalism, or romanticism are not part of the solution but part of the very problem of which the Enlightenment is one piece. To take sides with Kant or romanticism or sentimentalism against the Enlightenment, then, is merely to engage in an intra-modern feud which accepts the most fundamental terms of the argument, the privileging of procedural over ends-oriented thinking, thereby deepening the crisis instead of pointing the way out.
I have only used the single example of Bentham for convenience here. He is by no means alone, but merely one symptom of the crisis I am pointing to. Other scholars have developed a fuller picture of this crisis. In addition to MacIntyre and Taylor on the crisis of teleology, Arendt has shown how the category of (heroic) action is compromised in a modernity concerned only with managed behavior, labor and work (Human Condition). Habermas has shown that the Enlightenment public sphere does nothing to restore a properly political sense of publicity available in the ancient polis (Structural Transformation). For all the talk of “publicity” in the enlightenment, there is a profound crisis about what the term could possibly mean under the conditions of modernity. François herself appears to acknowledge this crisis (141), although her own theory of recessive action is designed if anything to exacerbate it by calling attention to experiences that are “beyond public notice and without public consequence” (73; cf., 21, 250). If these narratives that discern a demise of publicity in modernity are accurate in their broad outlines, as I believe they are, then a return to the secret, even the open secret, and a theory of recessive action, does nothing to restore the capacity for public and political action which has been threatened with obsolesence at least since the eighteenth century, and it even does its part to put such action beyond our reach. (By contrast, Derrida’s insistence on the necessity for a certain secrecy in ethics in the Gift of Death is more compelling because juxtaposed with the aporetic recognition of the simultaneous need for publicity, a recognition largely absent in François’s account.) A hypermodern ethico-aesthetics of minimalist action is not a solution to the crisis of the ethical born in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, best diagnosed by Mandeville who recognized the disjunction between actions and their consequences under the conditions of modern mass society; rather, it is one more symptom that we still do not know how to think ourselves beyond this crisis. François puts it best when she concludes with the following worry:
Austen’s Fanny presents perhaps an especially uncomfortable note on which to end a book which has sought to contest the dominant influences of utilitarianism, expressive individualism, and therapeutic imperatives to improvements. For hers is a disquieting example of how quickly the alternative to this productivist ideology may reify into its bad image – that of the quietist acceptance of the status quo. Yet I take this as a partially satisfying stopping point, precisely because … nonappropriation can emerge, as it does for Austen’s Fanny or Lafayette’s princess, not as that which is difficult to do … but as the path of least resistance.267
The “path of least resistance” is not an ethics, but the failure of any ethics whatsoever. There are in fact other alternatives to the “productivist ideology” of the enlightenment that do not lead to “quietism” and the “path of least resistance,” to the “ethical value of doing nothing” (197), more robust alternatives than Kantian ethics or romanticism which are complicit with the problem. Aristotle and Arendt, for example, both distinguish strongly between action and production, a distinction that does not appear to be available in Enlightenment ethics or the tradition François counterposes to it.
François’s book is ultimately an assault on narrative itself and the possibilities for action it implies, in favor of what she calls “lyric inconsequence” (129). Ironically, she shares the suspicion of narrative with Bentham himself, for whom narratives are unwarranted fictions that produce simulacra of continuity where there is none. By refusing to spell out the narrative she means to resist, she remains all the more fully in thrall to it. Narratives are the only chance we have to make sense of our historical predicament, and by refusing them, we remain at the mercy of the very history we believe we have overcome. (On the necessity of narratives of modernity, despite their necessarily ideological character, see Jameson, Singular Modernity.) To be sure, there are good reasons to be suspicious of narratives which arbitrarily impose a spurious teleology on the shape of history. But any action worthy of the name is teleological by nature. To act without purpose, without some aim in mind, without some end we hope to achieve, without some narrative structure to our action, is sheerest folly; it is to mistake Brownian motion for action. Yet this is precisely where a theory of recessive action tends: “the purging of desire’s forward-looking intentionality” (174). Until we can learn how to value narrative, for all its frailty and fragility, as a way of making sense of human action, we remain trapped by modernity’s own denigration of narrative in favor of experience; we accept the narrative of an already scripted modernity instead of rescripting the narrative for ourselves. For François, to attempt to shape the course of a narrative is to succumb to teleological and progressivist models of action, but to refuse the attempt, I would argue, is to fall victim to narrative instead of availing oneself of its resources to shape the future.
Vivasvan Soni is associate professor in the Department of English at Northwestern University. His book, Mourning Happiness: Narrative and the Politics of Modernity, was published by Cornell University Press in 2010.
See MacIntyre, After Virtue; Taylor, Sources of the Self; Pfau, “Philosophy of Shipwreck”; Pfau, “Beyond Liberal Utopia”; Soni, Mourning Happiness; Soni, “Modernity and the Fate of Utopian Representation.”
- Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
- Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments.Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.
- Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Translated by David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
- Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.
- Jameson, Fredric. A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. London: Verso, 2002.
- MacIntyre, Alasdair C. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.
- Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Inoperative Community. Translated by Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland and Simona Sawhney. Edited by Peter Connor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
- Pfau, Thomas. “Beyond Liberal Utopia: Freedom as the Problem of Modernity.” European Romantic Review 19.2 (April 2008): 83-103.
- Pfau, Thomas. “The Philosophy of Shipwreck: Gnosticism, Skepticism, and Coleridge’s Catastrophic Modernity.” MLN 122 (2007): 949-1004.
- Soni, Vivasvan. “Modernity and the Fate of Utopian Representation in Wordsworth’s Female Vagrant.” European Romantic Review 21.2 (forthcoming).
- Soni, Vivasvan. Mourning Happiness: Narrative and the Politics of Modernity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, forthcoming.
- Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.