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  • Failing to Succeed: Toward a Postmodern Ethic of Otherness
  • Tammy Clewell
Ewa Plonowska Ziarek. The Rhetoric of Failure: Deconstruction of Skepticism, Reinvention of Modernism. Albany: SUNY Press, 1996.

In The Rhetoric of Failure: Deconstruction of Skepticism, Reinvention of Modernism, Ewa Plonowska Ziarek offers a welcome intervention in current debates on postmodern ethics. It has been widely recognized that the possibility of a contemporary ethics crystallizes around the dominating figure poststructuralism has addressed as “the other.” However, the frequent argument has also been made that contemporary thought merely sides with a romantic view of marginalized others to secure for itself a dubious position of innocence. The importance of Ziarek’s book, especially when juxtaposed with critical appraisals attempting to rescue poststructuralism from itself, resides in her elaboration of the special sense of responsibility and obligation emerging not in spite of but within deconstructive criticism.

Ziarek also shows how understanding the ethical relevance of poststructuralism entails nothing less than a reconceptualization of both literary modernism and philosophical postmodernity: modernism no longer evaluated in terms of an aesthetic autonomy severed from political concerns; and postmodernity no longer restricted to the Habermasian view that Derrida’s deconstruction exhausts the paradigm of subject-centered reason but fails to move beyond it. For Ziarek the persistence of themes like exhaustion, impasse and skepticism suggests that evaluations of modernist aesthetics and poststructuralism have not taken into account their “rhetoric of failure.” By rhetoric she means the double significance of “failure” which not only negates traditional patterns of thinking, but also affirms an encounter with alterity, what Derrida has called poststructuralism’s “search for the other and the other of language” (10).

Ziarek brings together the philosophical texts of Stanley Cavell, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and Walter Benjamin, and the literary texts of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and the Polish modernist Witold Gombrowicz. She argues that the philosophical texts not only engage but also deconstruct skepticism, the negative thesis (roughly beginning with Descartes) claiming the impossibility of all truth and knowledge. For Ziarek the “deconstruction of skepticism” reveals what may at first look like a conflicting distinction between the epistemological negation of truth and the ethical signification of otherness. What allows for a “certain rapprochement” between otherness as both an epistemological and an ethical issue “is precisely [poststructuralism’s] turn to modern aesthetics where the intense confrontation between the claims of alterity and the claims of rationality is perhaps more readable than in philosophical discourse” (8). In her readings of Kafka, Beckett, and Gombrowicz, Ziarek suggests that modernism’s self-referential aesthetic undoes the concept of truth and the representational theory of language. Instead of purifying art, Ziarek’s modernist exemplars show how this loss of meaning produces a desire for discursive community based on a nostalgic notion of authentic speech. Because the texts disclose otherness not as an external threat but as an inherent feature already at work within self and community, modernist aesthetics has the potential to reopen a repressive socio-linguistic totality.

The first chapter, “Stanley Cavell and the Economy of Skepticism,” pursues one of the most important questions in the book: can the signification of alterity be contained within the logic that assimilates divergent meanings into a coherent system? (9). By locating a contradiction in Cavell’s revision of skepticism, Ziarek answers no. In The Claim of Reason, Cavell takes issue with the typical reading of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language as a refutation of skepticism. The problem is that both skepticism and its philosophical refutations equally assume that skepticism’s significance is limited to its negation of the possibility for knowledge. Instead of a refutation, Cavell revises skepticism to disclose its special “truth”: that our relationship to the world and others is not a question of knowledge, where knowing is an epistemological issue of certitude, but rather a matter of acknowledgment, a recognition of the other as different and separate from oneself. However, Ziarek also locates a competing emphasis in Cavell’s work which suggests that without any grounding for knowledge, the meaningfulness of language can only rest on a common linguistic practice, on what he calls attunement, the being together of speakers within a discursive community (27).

Ziarek convincingly argues that while...

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