- Textualities: Between Hermeneutics and Deconstruction
Especially indebted to the thought of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacques Derrida, Silverman’s Textualities elaborates a practice of reading drawing on hermeneutics, semiology, and deconstruction. In “juxtaposing” hermeneutic and deconstructive approaches to reading, Silverman shows how these two modes of thought both interrogate and supplement one another. Silverman’s approach to this daunting task revolves around his notion of “textuality.”
Textuality is not easy to define. Silverman himself speaks of it as being a “meaning-structure” opened up in a text but not necessarily contiguous with it. “The text,” Silverman argues, “is what is read, but its textuality or textualities is how it is read” (p. 81). For example, insofar as one reads any text as an autobiography, one has become engaged in autobiographical textuality. The fact that one might read an autobiographical text, such as Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, as a philosophical text as well suggests that a given text might be implicated in any number of textualities. For this reason, one cannot simply assign the text to a single genre as if this assignment defined the limits of the text’s meaning.
Textualities emerge as the text a reader confronts elicits in the reader a certain competency to read. This competency, Silverman argues, originates neither in the self of the reader, nor in the reader’s world, nor in the codes or metalanguages constituting the semiological axes of the text. In this assertion, Silverman exceeds the hermeneutical practice of Ricoeur and Gadamer, both [End Page 262] of whom were anxious in some manner to ground the meaning of a text in its writer or “first” reader. According to Silverman, the competency to read a text only emerges insofar as the reader “gives expression to the text, which itself asserts the interpretation” (p. 79). The reader, inextricably caught up in a “middle voice,” both reads and is read by the text. Only in this “between” where neither hermeneutics nor semiology takes precedence, where neither world nor code makes a claim for the origin of the text’s meaning, can a competency to read occur.
While Silverman’s language runs very abstract in the earlier, more theoretical section of his book, later sections fill out the notion of textuality by engaging in readings of a series of texts grouped around three selected textualities: autobiographical, visible/scriptive, and institutional. The texts chosen range from Thoreau’s Walden to Cezanne’s paintings, from Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques to Blanchot’s essay, “Le ‘discours philosophique.’” In his treatment of each text, Silverman shows how a specific textuality is configured in terms of a series of “indecidables.” For instance, in Thoreau’s Walden, both fiction and nonfiction are at play in the text’s autobiographical textuality. Lying between fiction and nonfiction, Walden can be read juxtaposed against a series of other texts, such as Rousseau’s Confessions, or Montaigne’s Essays, in which the same “indecidability” is at play, although with a difference.
Besides giving an account of textuality, Silverman’s book also functions as “a presentation and evaluation of continental philosophy from Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty to Foucault and Derrida” (p. 1). The first section engages in an interrogation of the phenomenological tradition, particularly insofar as it involves a theory of reading or interpreting texts. Silverman argues that descriptive phenomenology, the sort that has been appropriated by literary theorists such as Hirsch and Ingarden, cannot fully respond to the “richness, multiplicity, and even ambiguity of the literary object” (p. 14). Silverman is only interested in phenomenology insofar as it becomes an interpretive rather than descriptive practice. Thus, he emphasizes the thought of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty at the expense of Husserl.
Textualities is a complex and ambitious work. While it too easily dismisses Husserlian phenomenology and at times seems too schematic, it offers a comprehensive and original reading of continental philosophy and its praxes of reading.