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  • A Healthy Disorientation
  • Michael Benveniste (bio)
C. Namwali Serpell, Seven Modes of Uncertainty. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2014. viii + 393 pp. $49.95.

In Seven Modes of Uncertainty, C. Namwali Serpell extends and nuances contemporary ethical literary criticism by arguing that the ethical demands of formally experimental novels arise from readerly experiences occasioned by their narrative structures. Rather than locating ethics in a particular position that a narrator or character represents or espouses, Serpell frames ethics as a temporal process of reasoning or questioning that accompanies narrative structures of uncertainty.

Drawing inspiration from and openly invoking William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), Serpell tethers her claims to a work that helped inaugurate modern literary criticism. Empson’s landmark study asserted that literature’s value was not traceable to the specific messages it expressed but, rather, to the experience of complexity and ambiguity—even inconclusiveness—it generated in readers. Similarly, Serpell posits that the temporal experience of uncertainty occasioned by experimental narratives creates the phenomenological opportunity for ethical engagement.

Serpell’s introduction outlines a “neo-phenomenology” (21) of uncertainty in the late-twentieth- to twenty-first-century Anglophone novel that establishes her proximity to and difference from Empson as she incorporates the temporality of narrative experience into her account of phenomenological apprehension. While Empson highlights atemporal—logical or semantic—ambiguities of meaning [End Page 372] engendered in the process of reading, Serpell attends to the durative uncertainty enacted by narrative: lyric ambiguity versus prosaic uncertainty. Such temporality is central to her understanding of both literature and ethics “as dynamic, temporal, and accretive processes” (20). To this end, Serpell contrasts the relatively static logical form of Empson’s “type” with “a suggestive, phenomenological evocation of the aesthetic, affective, and ethical affordances of moving through that structure [diachronic narrative], what I call a mode” (24), shifting the analytic focus from the material formal structures of the text itself to their temporal, phenomenal effects. Similarly, she distinguishes the “agonistic, unsettling experience over time” of “uncertainty” from Empson’s putatively more atemporal “ambiguity” because “it captures the interactive, temporal, and experiential qualities to reading” (9).

Both distinctions shift critical focus to an experiential source—the reader. The reader, and the process of reading, transforms the material object of the text into a temporal experience. As such, Serpell’s approach aims to occupy the middle ground between pure textual analysis and reader response, chronicling the dynamic interaction between reader and text: “While its kin terms (ambiguity, difficulty, indeterminacy) tend to get attributed solely to the literary object, uncertainty can refer to either the object or the cognitive state of the observer”; it “feels analyzable, an experience that emerges out of specific structures” (9). Uncertainty thus permits Serpell’s analyses to hover between subject and object.

From the start, the ambition of this book is evident—to locate the ethical potential of narrative fiction in the dynamics of experience that arise in response to the structure and texture of narration itself. In order to better define the intermediate terrain, or event, that occurs in the interaction of reader and text, Serpell borrows the concept of “affordance” from cognitive psychologist James J. Gibson. An affordance designates the properties of a text that might give rise to affective or interpretive responses, including the propensity of narrative structures to provoke or elicit cognitive and affective responses from readers. Hence “an affordance,” as Serpell quotes Gibson, “is neither an objective property nor subjective property; it is both if you like” (21). Seven Modes of Uncertainty proffers its readings as contingent phenomenal experiences afforded by narrative [End Page 373] form. This approach avoids locating meaning, significance, or affect solely in textual discourse (a feature shared by such odd bedfellows as New Criticism, new historicism, cultural studies, deconstruction, and poststructuralism); at the same time, it (theoretically) proposes a less determinative relationship between text and experience than is typically asserted by cognitive literary studies or rhetorical criticism, because it considers a text less in terms of what effect structures will have than in terms of “properties that suggest how it might be used” (21).

Serpell divides the body of her book into three sections, each delineating a different uncertainty...


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