Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Who is Stephen Mulhall?

This is the title of a paper I wanted to write years ago, dealing with the position of the author in philosophy. It would have dealt with questions of individual responsibility and linguistic normativity of the kind addressed here. It would have focused, of course, on Mulhall's views on these issues. I don't think I will ever write it now.

But Mulhall is interested in the question of what philosophy is, or ought to be, or can be, which is an excellent question. And his answer seems to be roughly that philosophy is reading texts. The texts he chooses are typically ones that have the potential to illuminate our lives, and his readings build on this potential, helping his readers to benefit from those texts, perhaps even without reading them. I have not seen all the Alien films, for instance, but still think I have gained from reading what Mulhall has to say about them.

Authors are not necessarily infallible about the meanings of their works, but commentators are in an even less certain position. Hence an understandable hesitancy sometimes in Mulhall's writing. In The Wounded Animal (p. 192), for instance, he brings up Hamlet because Coetzee's description of a man laying a woman out sounds (to Mulhall) more like something a funeral director would do with a corpse than part of a sexual encounter and because the man (the fictional writer Emmanuel Egudu) goes on to introduce something to her (Elizabeth Costello's) ear. Hence the relevance of the dumb show in Hamlet. Mulhall recognizes that the connection here depends on feelings that might not be universal. It isn't only that you won't see the connection unless you feel this way: there simply is no connection unless this feeling is in some sense normal or normative. He is a tremendously sensitive, perceptive reader, but how can anyone judge whether connections that are not blindingly obvious are real or imagined? Does Mulhall's sensitivity and knowledge of the literature make him an authority on the reality in question? Perhaps it does. But if it does, this is surely an interesting fact about reality.

I don't mean "Who the hell does Stephen Mulhall think he is?" (which is roughly what I did mean when I talked about David Brooks). What I mean is more like "Who is the reader?" And what happens when the reader is also an author?

As I think I've said before (here), my problem is not so much that Mulhall hears echoes that are not there. Rather it is that he hears some and not others. And, the point is, this will be true of any reader. If I'm criticizing Mulhall at all it's because I think he is as good a philosopher as there is today, and he might well represent the (best possible) future of the subject. On the back of The Wounded Animal Cora Diamond is quoted as saying that Mulhall claims that philosophy can be radically changed, that his work attempts something very ambitious, and that it is a great success. I agree with all that, but I would struggle to say what exactly it is that he is doing and why it matters.

Perhaps I just want a manifesto or a slogan, which would not be very impressive of me, but there's something unsettling about his project and I'm not sure I can put my finger on it yet.


  1. You're right about Mulhall hearing "echoes"; The Wounded Animal is sort of astounding (in a good way) in this respect. I agree that it's hard to say "what exactly it is that he is doing and why it matters," but when I'm reading the book, those questions don't arise. He's engaging, and his perspective, given all those "echoes" and his ability to peel back the various layers of Elizabeth Costello (in a particularly careful and patient way) is what makes him an interesting reader. If you figure out what exactly is unsettling, I'd like to hear...

  2. I have the same experience when I'm reading the book: there is no problem then. I don't know exactly what's unsettling about it, but here are some questions that I find myself asking: Could I do what Mulhall does?, Can even he do it successfully, given the inescapability of personal perspective?, What is the "it" that he is doing--offering a personal perspective? (what interest would that have?), offering an impersonal perspective? (what could that be?),... I see (at least some of) the value of scholarship and commentary, but is this what philosophy is? Or is it Coetzee who is the philosopher here? Or are Mulhall and Coetzee in some sense doing the same thing (writing texts in response to other texts)? Or does none of this matter? If this is what philosophy is, or should be, how can we teach it? How could you ever justify to others doing something like this? I suspect the proof is in the pudding: you write the book and then just let people see how good it is (if you can). And how should others respond if, say, they think Mulhall has missed something or got something wrong? By writing a different book in response to Elizabeth Costello? People have talked about the death of the author, but what about the reader? Is there enough of a common store of references and feelings for there to be such a thing as the reader of a book? Mulhall does as good a job as I can imagine anyone doing in bringing out what it is to read, or to have read, Elizabeth Costello, but I still feel that he has his own biases. So in the end he seems to occupy a halfway house between me and the authors he discusses. I appreciate the service, but is that what's going on, or is it meant to be something more that I'm not getting?

  3. just curious—i'm not privy to the details of the texts here yet—but does it open up your questions to think of them in this way?:

    from the perspective of analytic philosophy, or let's say from a contemporary scholar's point of view, there are a variety of uses of language, forms of discourse, and modes of representation. standard practice is to keep them relatively regimented. it's ok to write in the first person but for certain kinds of writing, certain things you say need to purport to be backed by more. it's ok to address your reader in certain ways, but only ok in certain other ways to address an interlocutor ad hominem rather than in terms of 'what he said'. it's ok to use a metaphor, or to make a somewhat dark remark, but less ok to weave them throughout your writing. subject to certain accepted constraints, it's ok to 'work with a model' or 'adopt a way of looking at things' (e.g. narrative, dramatic, etc.).

    sometimes authors go against these habits, conventions, or taboos, whether because of personal idiosyncrasy, motivated stylistic or 'methodological' choices, rhetorical strategies, or preferred styles of thought. and sometimes—i imagine so in the case at hand—an author makes so many such choices that it's hard to unravel the resulting writing so that it permits response in one of the more conventional forms.

    given the prevailing acceptance of regimented writing, deviating incurs greater commitments from those who would respond, draws on more complex or subtle resources, calls for less habitual ways of response, i.e. more thought. i would expect that this tends to set up stratification of talent, privilege to write as one wishes, and so on.

    (i would say, then, that yes, it's not clear how this kind of thing could be taught, or justified to others, except in the old humane-letters way of talking to people, having them write, judging the products of their work, responding and responding and so on; and that you do just write the book and then let people see how good it is.)

  4. Maybe there's not something more going on, and maybe there doesn't need to be (with Mulhall and this particular book). One might ask whether it is philosophy, and I don't know what the answer is. I don't know that there needs to be an answer. But it is true that if we call what Mulhall's doing "a work of philosophy," it's something different than The Republic, or Being and Time, or Reasons and Persons, etc. (I guess the question might be whether we should instead call it "literary criticism"? I don't exactly know what "literary criticism" is in contrast, though I recall being disgusted by the literary criticism I found on Beckett when I was an undergrad English major; what I found wasn't helping me think about the philosophical aspects of Endgame (I think it was)--and this was one of several things that got me more interested in philosophy. Another instance was that when my paper on happiness in Rasselas was returned (in a History of English Lit course), the teacher asked if I was a philosophy major because that's how the paper seemed to her; I hadn't realized that I was doing philosophy--at least in her view--in writing that paper; I thought I was just exploring an interesting theme in the text).

    I don't know that the "inescapability of the personal perspective" is a problem--on some things one can only speak for oneself. (Of course, I'm cribbing that line from Wittgenstein (around the time of "Lecture on Ethics"), and it seems that the early Wittgenstein would have said that those things aren't part of philosophy proper.)

    Costello is a difficult, provocative work, on many levels; it's hard to know what to say about that book, too. (It raises questions about animals, about authorship (and the relation of author to character), about realism, about belief, expression, etc.) And so if philosophy (in another Wittgensteinian idiom) is finding one's way about, then perhaps the value of Mulhall is that he offers a way of finding a way through these various (philosophical?) strands in the text. So I guess we could say that Mulhall is doing philosophy in that sense?