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  • The Future of Possibility
  • Pieter Vermeulen (bio)
Review of: Anne-Lise François. Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2008.

Anne-Lise François's Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience announces on its back cover that it will deal with movements of "affirmative reticence" and of "recessive action." So what do we make of these deliberately near-paradoxical phrases? Throughout her book, which consists of a chapter gesturing "Toward a Theory of Recessive Action" and three long chapters of literary analysis, François continues to offer carefully worded near-synonyms that together circumscribe the particular kind of experience that she is interested in; we read about a "nonemphatic," a "self-canceling," and a "non-epiphanic" "revelation," about an "affirmative passivity," or about a "reticent assertion" (xvi, 3, 43, 267, xix). It is easy enough to see that all of these phrases are structured in a similar way: a moment of affirmation goes together with an element that checks the thrust of that affirmation. Yet it is crucial that we do not simply understand the tension between these two conjoined elements as a movement of disappointment or limitation: François insists that we read it in the opposite direction and instead consider this tension as the expression of a "nonappropriative" or "minimal" contentment, as, indeed, an "oddly satisfying reprieve or 'letdown'" (xvii-xxi). We must, in other words, understand the book's signature list of near-synonymous near-paradoxes not only as compressed movements of self-restraint or disillusionment, but also as the expression of a capacity to find sufficiency and value in ostensibly non-promising, and potentially disappointing, places. Such admittedly unspectacular experiences of a mildly surprising lack of disappointment, grief, or pain are at the heart of François's book.

These experiences suggest a manifestly non-heroic capacity to, quite simply, make do with less. That Open Secrets phrases this suggestion in a vocabulary that combines more or less familiar theoretical lexicons points to its ambition to articulate its "less is, if not more, then at least enough" ethos as an original theoretical intervention in its own right. The most obvious positions from which the book's appreciation of "patient or benevolent abandonment" (xx) is to be differentiated are traditional utilitarian ideologies of improvement. Such ideologies measure the value of a given action by looking at what this action materially produces; they go together with an implicit or explicit call to convert all potentialities into an actual yield (François's paradigm here is the biblical parable of the talents). This ethos is unwilling to credit a desire unless its externalization is actively pursued; it remains blind to experiences that do not enter the public record; it impels us to act upon the knowledge we have. As such, it presents an immensely influential model of action that defines action as "confer[ring] actuality on the previously latent" (16). The unobtrusive movements that François deals with set aside the domination of actualization and production by making room for "experiences that may not want, need, or be capable of louder articulation" (16). The point of these experiences is that they manage to credit the merely private life of desires that are not relentlessly pursued and of wishes that are, for whatever reason, not accomplished. The latency and potentiality of these experiences is not condemned as defective or incomplete--they are simply not considered from the point of view of maximization or fulfillment. François's main example here is the story of Madame de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves (1678). In this novel, the death of the heroine's husband leaves her free to pursue her passion for the man she loves, a possibility that she rather startlingly leaves unactualized. While doing nothing so heroic as resisting the ethos of production and actualization, the princess manages to render it inoperative.

The critique of Enlightenment discourses of utility and improvement has of course long been a staple of literary and cultural studies. What is remarkable in François's book is that her insistence on the sufficiency of potentiality (independent of its manifest and material actualization) allows her to show that many...