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The Ends of a Genre1 R. Lane Kauffmann What we call his work was, for him, only an essay, an approach . . . —Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “ Cézanne’s D oubt” I. W HAT ARE THE “ ENDS” of the essay? The question—phrased in the manner of Jean-François Lyotard’s The Differend, 2— was perhaps implicit in the opening words of Merleau-Ponty’s famous essay on Cézanne.3 That essay already contained the seed of what may be seen as both a debt and a differend pending between Merleau-Ponty and Lyotard. A debt, insofar as Merleau-Ponty’s phrase, “ only an essay, an approach” —the “ only” recalling Montaigne’s ironic modesty in using the term—betrays a feeling, to be shared by Lyotard, that the stakes of the essay are high indeed. Its application to a painter shows that Merleau-Ponty does not consider the term (any more than does Lyotard) simply the name of a literary genre. Instead he takes the word essai (there and in another famous text) in its broader sense, as an experiment or project aiming beyond the self toward the unknown, the not-yet-thought; as a “ thought in act” which renounces any intention of mastery or appropriation of its objects.4It is this sense that thinkers such as Adorno and Lyotard draw upon in taking the essay as a genre of philosophical discourse. Lyotard will thus identify The Differend, his “ book of philosophy,” as “ a discontinuous form of the Essay” (xiv). But Merleau-Ponty’s gambit also prefigures a “ differend” between his thought and that of Lyotard, insofar as it suggests that genres may be experienced differently by those who work in them (as one says) and by those who receive works shaped under their sign. The very category of experience, implying the existence of a “ subject,” lies near the center of that “ humanism” and “ anthropocentrism” whose refutation Lyotard lists among the chief stakes of The Differend: “ To refute the prejudice anchored in the reader by centuries of humanism and of ‘human sci­ ences’ that there is ‘man,’ that there is ‘language,’ that the former makes use of the latter for its own ends. . .” (xiii). It is not this debt or this differend per se that I want to explore here— 62 Sp r in g 1991 K a u ffm a n n though I will return to them—as much as it is the questions they raise: that of how the ends of a genre are determined and, more specifically, that of how the stakes of the essay are defined in Lyotard’s works. In the idiom of The Differend, “ phrases” from distinct “ regimens” are not intertranslatable; they can only be “ linked one onto the other in accor­ dance with an end fixed by a genre of discourse” (xii). Each genre is said to “ imprint a unique finality onto a multiplicity of heterogeneous phrases by linkings that aim to procure the success proper to that genre” (129). “ Do ends show up right along with genres? . . . They certainly do, and they take hold of phrases and instances they present, especially ‘us.’ ‘We’ do not intend them. Our ‘intentions’ are tensions (to link in a cer­ tain way) exerted by genres upon the addressors and addressees of phrases. . .” (136). Lyotard distinguishes between the rules of linkage that determine phrase regimens, and optional “ modes” or “ strategies” of linking through which to attain the specific finality or “ end” of a genre. Related to Wittgenstein’s “ language games,” Lyotard’s genres of discourse are distinct insofar as they are “ de-anthropomorphized” and declared to be “ strategies—of no-one” (137). A question or two to orient this inquiry: Does each genre then have a fixed, singular or “unique” end? Or are there genres whose ends are multiple and overdetermined? Let us suppose that the question with which this essay began, con­ cerning the ends of the essay, forms the “ canonical [interrogative] phrase” (137) defining the object of a particular discourse genre or (as I prefer for the moment) language game: namely, that subgenre (meta­ genre?) which is the essay on the essay. The undisputed master of that game, if Aldous Huxley is right, would...


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