Knowing How to Go on: Modernism and the Ordinary Uses of Language
Abstract: Many literary scholars consider the distinguishing marks of modernism to be its unconventional uses of language, particularly as this unconventional language shows the failure of representation and communication. This failure is thus seen as a critique of meaning, conceptual stability, and knowledge. The writers in this study—Oscar Wilde, Joseph Conrad, Nella Larsen, and Samuel Beckett—offer ... read moresome examples of the difficulties, obscurities, and logical confusions of the rules of language, and in this way they are typical of avant-garde writers of the modernist period. I argue that their concern with rule-following behaviors extends beyond the breakdown of language to understand how we know how to go on even without absolute meaning, conceptual stability, and knowledge. This claim relies on the ideas of modernist writers' philosophical contemporaries in the schools of pragmatism and ordinary language philosophy. These schools break from assumptions that language should correspond with objects and thoughts, and instead propose that the meaning of language is in its use. Language remains useful even when it is illogical, extremely complex, changeable, and contingent on situations and speakers. The chapters of this dissertation examine the uses of language in modernist fictions that present scenes of uncertainty. In the first chapter, I look to Wilde to understand how linguistic conventions can be used to satisfy desires and produce favorable consequences, but also how they keep speakers tethered to reality. In the second chapter, I show how Joseph Conrad holds on to the possibility of truth in as a reflection of shared forms of life. In the third chapter, I turn to Nella Larsen's Passing to see the value of practical certainty for social interactions and for coping with conceptual ambiguity. In the fourth chapter, I look to Samuel Beckett's Three Novels to understand how modernist fiction challenges its readers to rely on the resources of our ordinary language, even when that language frustrates logical and contextual explanations. Changing the picture of language that underlies our understanding of modernism challenges scholars to consider the many ways readers go on reading and making meaning despite the uncertainties that puncture theoretical and historical explanations.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Tufts University, 2018.
Submitted to the Dept. of English.
Advisor: John Lurz.
Committee: Modhumita Roy, Ichiro Takayoshi, and Lisi Schoenbach.
Keywords: English literature, Modern literature, and Philosophy.read less