Glimpses of Austin

In a recent review of a new book defending Ordinary Language Philosophy, Sari Nusseibeh makes some interesting comments on the possible connections between the war-time service of J.L. Austin and the philosophical style he developed. He also includes a couple of personal biographical vignettes to bolster the argument (he is married to Austin’s daughter, Lucy, which might explain the access implied in his review), and mentions that a full biographical study is in the offing.

Austin is an oddly anonymous figure, someone whose influence clearly depended in no small part on the force, shall we say, of his personality, without whose presence it has even been suggested the full significance of his ideas cannot be appreciated (for example, Cavell’s presentation of Austin’s importance in general revolves around a repeated invocation of the impact that Austin’s own teaching had upon him personally). I have been interested in the relationship between the biographical and the theoretical for a long time – once upon a time I even tried to write seriously about this relation, which seems to me quite central to the genre of Theory as we have come to know and love it, but which is poorly appreciated and even more poorly theorised (the construction of author-effects around Foucault and his lectures seems to me to exemplify the point, and also manages to cover over one of the most important resources available for engaging with this problem).

Austin is a ubiquitous reference across the canon of French Theory in particular, perhaps more often mentioned than used certainly. Derrida was a fan, and Austin’s vocabulary was quite central to how literary deconstruction presented itself in the 1970s and 1980s (one of my unwritten fantasy papers would be about the ways in which deconstruction is the source for an ongoing tendency to ‘freeze’ Austin’s ideas around a simple distinction between constatives and performances, i.e. half way through How to do things with words, which helps to support strongly political, ‘de-naturalising’ interpretations of the idea of performativity [and thereby manages to sustain Emile Benveniste’s defence of this distinction against Austin’s own undoing of it]. I think this freezing still accounts for the way that ideas of performativity and enactment slip into routine constructionism all the time. ‘Force’, in Austin, is the name for a problem to be investigated, not the concept for an effect felicitously realised. Not sure I’ll ever get round to writing that one, though). The Derrida/deco link to Austin is obvious enough. Austin pops up in de Certeau, rather weakly, is more or less disavowed in Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, is an important reference point for Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, he gets a mention in Lacan. Pierre Bourdieu’s favourite insult, that of scholasticism, is taken from Austin. I could go on (Austin of course is also at work amongst the Anglos, such as Quentin Skinner or Hilary Putnam [I’m presuming there is a world in which Austin is not contained by John Searle] , but it is French resonance that is most entertaining – the fascinating thing about Austin’s war-time service, one of those things mentioned a lot in passing, and given his status in what becomes Continental Philosophy, is that he had a rather senior role in Allied military intelligence – he played an important part in the liberation of France…. I suspect a keen sense of pretence and masquerade, or fakery in general, might have come in handy in that world).

I suppose I find this trace, more or less visible, of Austin in French Theory interesting because it throws into question a long-standing account of this style of philosophy as ‘conservative’ – a charge which dates back to Ernest Gellner’s attack on ‘OLP‘ (as it is abbreviated these days), reiterated by Perry Anderson in 1969. Austin was Anderson’s model of the de-politicised nature of post-war British philosophy. I think Austin might be an interesting case study of what it is that academics are looking for when they go in search of ‘political’ significance in bodies of thought.

Austin the man, as a biographical figure, makes an appearance in various places – in biographies of Freddie Ayer and Herbert Hart, for example, as well as in Isiah Berlin’s reflections on life in Oxford. There are fleeting sketches in Geoffrey Warnock’s book about Austin; he is mentioned in reflections by people like Bernard Williams, Stuart Hampshire, and Michael Dummett. But in general, Austin seems to be a figure who resists much fleshing out, biographically. And as I suggested above, that might be interesting not least because of the ‘ad hominen’ qualities of Austinian styles of criticism – something that Simon Glendinning has written about recently in a volume of essays re-evaluating Austin’s legacy.

Shosana Feldman has a wonderful take on the masculine framing of action in Austin, a theoretical reading of course, and one of the more interesting accounts of Austin I have come across is in Mary Warnock’s autobiography, which I bought for a pound in an unexpectedly large charity second-hand bookshop in Cheltenham earlier this year. Warnock’s story of Oxford philosophy centres on women, such as Iris Murdoch, and Elizabeth Anscombe, who harboured a deep personal hostility towards Austin it seems. She writes about being a woman admitted into the manly circle of the famed Saturday morning sessions that Austin ran, with all those aforementioned soon-to-be stalwarts of post-war British philosophy (Warnock’s stories reminded me too of the tale that Gillian Rose tells in Love’s Work, about being told at the start of her time as an undergraduate to remember that all the (male) philosophers she was about to encounter were much smarter than she was – and told this by Jean Austin, Austin’s widow).

Anyway, who knows, these and other fragments may come together and begin to make sense in the biography mentioned by Nusseibeh. I can’t find any other mention of this yet.

 

Theorizing the Arab Spring

I have a short comment piece now published online in Geoforum, which discusses various different academic responses to The Arab Spring – amongst media theorists, leading lights in ‘Continental philosophy’, and anthropologists and other social scientists. It’s an attempt to raise some questions about what we have come to think Theory is, as revealed by academic public commentary on these ongoing events – contrasting a version of Theory practiced as the imposition of pre-disposed theoretical frameworks on the world, and a version in which theoretical ideas are thought of as somewhat more accountable to the contingencies of the world.  

Avid readers of this blog (that’s you, Michael) might notice that this piece works over some more or less random thoughts already articulated back in February and March. Accidentally, this Geoforum piece became part of the experiment with this blogging-thing, as a way of turning a public-ish scrapbook into a slightly more honed piece of academic prose/analysis.

On difficulty: Derek Parfit’s new book is published

From Political Theory, news that Derek Parfit’s On What Matters, a two-volume work, has now been published. It is already being hailed as the most important work of moral philosophy since the 1870s. This is hardcore stuff, dealing with the fundamental issues of reason, rationality, and normativity.

Parfit’s classic Reasons and Persons is, I think, the most difficult thing I have ever read, or even tried to read. Back in the day, sceptics used to complain that French theory was willfully difficult compared to the clarity of ‘proper’ English language philosophy. I have always found this a bit disingenuous – it’s easy to read Continental Philosophy if you ‘grew up’ with it, as it were. And the sparse prose style of English-language ‘analytical’ style philosophy is its own sort of esotericism, especially once it’s couched within a broader frame of reference in which what’s at stake is often presumed in advance rather than explicitly signalled (the lack of referencing in this style of work is really an indication that it’s not trying to help the reader learn, unless they are already in the know; compare that to Derrida, who in his classic works actually just includes large extracts of Saussure, or Rousseau, so you get shown what it is they are saying that he is commenting upon – much friendlier, much better pedagogy).

I think the reason that a book like Parfit’s was so difficult was not intrinsic to it, of course, but because of my lack of feel for the context, the practice, of this sort of philosophical writing (the practice from within which one would be able to grasp not so much why this style of analysis matters, but what the point of it is meant to be). I actually think Reasons and Persons is fascinating – interesting stuff about the importance of thinking temporally rather than ‘spatially’ about the self, for example; its’ ‘atheism’ is clearly meant to be scandalous in a certain way. But it’s not part of a world that I inhabit – reading this sort of thing is like a hobby, in so far as it doesn’t really relate to the fields of work in which I am able to pass.

It’s also true, of course, that this style of philosophy is much more self-enclosed than ‘continental’ work – there is not really the same sort of secondary literature on a writer like Parfit which one finds on Foucault, or Derrida, or Deleuze (only very recently have publishers like Polity begun to publish critical introductions to thinkers like Cavell, Bernard Williams, Dummett, and the like). ‘Continental’ philosophy has always circulated, on the other hand, in translation – I don’t mean only, or even primarily, in terms of translations from one language to another – but in terms of the simultaneous circulation of the ‘original’ text (in translation) and a literature of both exegesis and critical commentary – Derrida-with-Culler, Derrida-with-Norris; Foucault via Edward Said; Foucault included in Dreyfus and Rabinow; Habermas via Held, or Giddens; Irigaray or Cixous or Kristeva via Toril Moi; pretty much everyone via Literary Theory. And so on.

If one were a card-carrying Foucauldian of a certain vintage, one might even suggest that these different styles of philosophical writing are defined by the very distinctive ‘author-effects’ through which key texts are disseminated and/or contained. It’s standard enough to observe that ‘Theory’ grew and developed through cultures of academic celebrity – a condition pilloried in turn by writers like David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury (my favourite of this genre is his Mensonge). English-language philosophy has its own author-effects, no doubt, they are just very different – not least, this is a style of writing that is systematically self-effacing in certain ways (all those initials: how to tell that A.J. was Freddie and G.E.M. was Elizabeth?).

In fundamental respects, it seems to me, these two styles of writing are distinguished not least by their different relationships to space, dare I say – the problem with the ‘geographical’ framing of Continental versus Anglo/Analytical, apart from anything else, is that it suggests two fixed locations – but ‘continental’ philosophy, as Theory, is shaped by always being in movement, in translation, across language and discipline; a writer like Parfit, whose new book has actually been circulating in draft for some years (that’s why there is already an edited collection out about it, and critical commentaries in the newly published two volumes) writes into what would appear to be much more of a known than an imagined community, one where the personae of the philosopher is no less important, just not in the same way as it is for the genre characterised by multiple biographies of Foucault and fanzines, apparently, for Judith Butler.

So, the ‘difficulty’ is no doubt mine; perhaps I should just get another hobby (or who knows, maybe Parfit’s new book is much easier, I haven’t seen it – though I have read a rather forbidding essay on ‘normativity’ which I think probably makes up a chapter of it, which didn’t make me confident that this would be the case). But perhaps too, the difficulty is an index of the degree to which one of these genres has succeeded in its own popularisation – is indeed internally defined by this movement towards a certain sort of general reader, of an overly qualified sort, like me – compared to the other one, the one which is supposed to be defined by the clarity of its argumentative style, but seems content to circulate amongst a world in which in-jokes about High Table at All Souls can be made to carry the full weight of serious philosophical demonstration (see G.A. Cohen’s otherwise wonderful account of the political value of conservatism for the left).