- The Rhetoric of Error from Locke to Kleist by Zachary Sng
The Rhetoric of Error is a precisely articulated, insightful look into the figure of error, defined as the slippage between language and thought, in eighteenth century literary and philosophical texts from Britain and Germany. This potentially vast inquiry makes for an ample text that tackles canonical works with a rare rhetorical verve. Sng's attentive readings of Locke, Leibniz, Kant, Goethe, and Kleist comprise a rigorous exposition of error's many forms, while also brimming with comparisons to classical accounts (as in Herodotus, Quintilian, and Aristotle) and contemporary modes of reading (of the likes of Derrida and de Man). Even if the scope is illimitable, Sng's work is no less precise: dubbing as errance the potentially productive wandering and, conversely, defeating movement that error's etymology entails, the author aims to account for the rhetorical strategies that develop the idea of "error" as well as the ways in which they are undercut by it. It may be needless to emphasize that Sng's text often confronts the possibility of a near-constant doubling and self-criticism, yet preempts this threat by arguing that the work aspires "to trace the irresolvable contradictions that constitute these texts" (5) rather than offering a systematic account. Sng's modest "tracing" shies away from absolutes in favor of nuanced articulations of textual ambivalence in these works.
The first chapter of the book examines John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, describes the philosopher's view of the complex interrelationship between thought, words, and objects, and notes the ambiguity of Locke's position with respect to language. Locke is fearful of the possibility of corruption contained within language's circulation and exchange; as such, Sng argues that the Essay offers a rhetorical performance that narrates the work's own composition in order to give an impression of origination, which putatively secures the epistemological integrity of the Essay according to its own standard. By identifying Locke's figurative associations between the origination and circulation of language and fountains and pipes, as well as gold and coinage, Sng represents the epistemological structure of Locke's notion of language's relationship to truth: namely, that the source cannot be corrupted and circulation is to blame for error. Unfortunately for Locke, this system cannot hold. Sng draws on Locke's economic pamphlets to substantiate the figurative connection between language and coinage, signaling Locke's [End Page 1211] concern with the British state's intervention in the denominated value of a coin, communally accepted, like the meanings of words. Yet, Sng concludes, the ambivalence of Locke's need for gold to be both self-identical but also figurative in exchange undercuts the systematicity of the model of origination and dissemination that the Essay lays out.
The issue of language's relative reliability or unreliability continues in the second chapter, in which Sng examines G. W. Leibniz and John Horne Tooke's attempts to affirm language's stability by offering rigorous etymologies by which one might successfully account for the origin and use of a word. While their efforts are noble, these quickly give way to variances that proceed in an unpredictable, "incalculable" way (46). Sng picks certain stunning examples from Leibniz's New Essays on Human Knowledge to demonstrate the ways in which the method is sound (as in the Latin fatum as the source for "fate") and those in which it takes errant transformations and turns (as with the German term quaken and its spinoffs). Whereas the source of error for Locke was, Sng argues, language's relationship to the external world, for Leibniz, the source becomes the tropological changes that defy predictability. Tooke adds a third possibility: that of "dispatch" or abbreviation, the tendency to prefer swiftness in conveying thought. The chapter concludes with an elegant reading of S. T. Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" and its exemplification of the divergence among thought and word.
The impressive third chapter begins with a playful reference to the sitcom Seinfeld as a transition into a discussion of...