- Revolution of the Ordinary Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell by Toril Moi
These are good days for ordinary language philosophy (OLP). The last few years have seen the appearance of compelling books by Avner Baz and Sandra Laugier defending a kind of philosophical attention to the "ordinary" derived from the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin, and Stanley Cavell. While those were books written by philosophers and mainly aimed at an audience of philosophers, Toril Moi's new book, Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell, undertakes an affiliated project for literary studies: a response to misconceptions of OLP pervasive among literary theorists, and a case for the distinctive contribution that OLP can make to our understanding of our relations to literary texts. The effect is a book that not only demonstrates an encyclopedic familiarity with the work of the philosophers of its subtitle (and with the secondary literature on those philosophers), but also expands most received conceptions of OLP, so that Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Iris Murdoch, Simone Weil, Jean-Paul Sartre, and most importantly Simone de Beauvoir all plausibly emerge as philosophers of the "ordinary." This expanded conception of OLP largely results from Moi's attempts to procure more ethical and political significance from OLP than might be apparent to, say, a casual reader of Austin and Wittgenstein. This is an important project, and Moi's work raises several questions that will shape future work in the field.
Before turning to some of those questions, I want to convey, by way of rough summary, the scope of Moi's book: a scope that testifies to how much can result from conscientiously reading, as Moi does in her first chapter, the opening passages of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Indeed, Moi's first chapter ("Five Red Apples") is a particularly excellent introduction to those passages—and to Wittgenstein's notion that "to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life" (PI §19)—strengthened by Moi's juxtaposition of them with a scene involving language-learning and the distinctive vocabulary of bullfighting in Julio Cortázar's novel A Certain Lucas (Un tal Lucas). Moreover, Moi's understanding of Wittgenstein's opposition to the "Augustinian" picture of language (whereby the relationship between words and the world is principally representational) supplies her accounts of several important moments in literary theory, all of which she thinks have somehow involved [End Page 1416] variations on the Augustinian picture: Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics (1916); the emergence of a "post-Saussurean" tradition (as in Émile Beneviste's reading of Saussure and Vicki Kirby's use of Beneviste in her "new materialism"); and even Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels's "Against Theory" (1982). Moi also elaborates on conflicts between OLP and the view of concepts at play in Derridean deconstruction; between OLP and the kinds of lessons about the relation between grammar and rhetoric that Paul de Man tries to draw from a scene from All in the Family (in his "Semiology and Rhetoric" ); and between OLP and such critics of its supposed conservativism as Ernest Gellner and Herbert Marcuse.
In its last third the book takes the ethical and political turn prepared for throughout it, with Moi using Cavell's notion of "acknowledgment" to develop an ethics of reading meant to contrast with the "hermeneutics of suspicion" (as in her chapter "Reading as a Practice of Acknowledgment"). Moi takes this still further in her elegiac and personal final chapter on the ethics of attention, based on a pamphlet in Norwegian written from her experience attending parts of the trial of the right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik for his July 22, 2011 attacks in Oslo and Utøya, Norway, in which he killed 77 people.
A consistent theme of Moi's book is OLP's attention to particulars. It should be clear that "attention to particulars" cannot exclude placing certain particulars in wider contexts, including social practices, that are in a sense "prior" to those particulars. Thus, in...