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  • I Know That You Know That I Know: Narrating Subjects from Moll Flanders to Marnie
  • Richard Walsh
I Know That You Know That I Know: Narrating Subjects from Moll Flanders to Marnie. George Butte. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2004. Pp. 270. $44.95 (cloth).

The impossibility of achieving mutual knowledge—that is to say, a fully reciprocal understanding between two minds—is a familiar philosophical problem. For knowledge to be mutual, not only must you know what the other knows, but the other must know that you know it; accordingly, you must know that the other knows that you know it, and the other in turn must know that you know that they know that you know. As this regress recedes, the likelihood of achieving each of its levels diminishes to the infinitesimal; and still there is no point of rest at which symmetry is achieved between what each knows of the other. The ordinary purposes of practical communication or social interaction, of course, require rather less rigorous standards than this: but this book, as its title suggests, is particularly interested in the nuances of those moments at which narrative significance hangs upon the ability of characters to penetrate (or not) to the deeper levels of intersubjective understanding.

Butte's study is grounded in a reading of Merleau-Ponty, for whom subjectivity (and intersubjectivity) are intimately related to narrative, in that their possibility is founded upon time experienced in bodies. Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology holds out the promise of a paradigm for the post-Cartesian subject in which intersubjectivity is structurally inherent: accordingly the political and ideological freight of questions of community is already stowed within the embodiment of consciousness, rather than being posterior to, or antithetical to, the disintegral selfhood of the postmodern subject. Intersubjectivity, on this model, is the interpenetration of consciousnesses that necessarily occurs when perceiving subjects reciprocate in the interpretation of each other's gestures and words, weaving a web of response and counter response that is too intricate to be merely delusional and therefore constitutes, however partially and imperfectly, a genuine knowledge of other selves.

Butte takes great pains, in his espousal of Merleau-Ponty, to extricate him from the charges of naïve idealism that have tarnished the reputation of phenomenology. One of his primary objectives in this book is to establish the legitimacy and critical value of a "poststructuralist phenomenology," by which he means an approach to representations of consciousness that "avoids on one hand a kind of mystical idealism and on the other hand a reduction of subjectivity to material causes" (236). This neither/nor position is articulated against the foil of Sartre, Lacan and Foucault, with occasional support drawn from Bakhtin, and hinges crucially upon interpretation of some of Merleau-Ponty's more gnomic or paradoxical formulations, such as his notion of the chiasm, "in which there are never quite two of us, and yet one is never alone" (24). Part two of the book provides the critical justification for these theoretical negotiations through a series of case studies in literature and film, which explore deep intersubjectivity in relation to issues of genre (comedy in particular), the gaze, and masquerade. The favored directors are Hitchcock, Hawks and Woody Allen; the novelists are Austen, James and Charlotte Brontë. Austen, in fact, turns out to be the heroine of the literary-historical narrative that constitutes the other major argument of the book: Butte cites her rhetorical mastery of free indirect discourse, [End Page 825] in particular, as pivotal in a fundamental shift in (English) fictional representations of consciousness between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The claim is that deep, or complex, intersubjectivity is absent from fictional characters' understanding of each other prior to Austen. By "deep intersubjectivity," Butte means intersubjective understanding that goes beyond a simple, one-level recognition of the perspective of others: beyond "I know that you know." He establishes the difference by contrasting the ways in which Moll Flanders and Pip understand and respond to those around them. Moll has moments of insight into the experience of other selves, but they are confined to general and stereotypical formulations, without individuation; and that is as far as she...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6601
Print ISSN
1071-6068
Pages
pp. 825-826
Launched on MUSE
2005-01-05
Open Access
No
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