Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 14. Nr. September 2005

The viability and consequences of describing literary writing as an action

Marianne de Jong (University of South Africa)


1. Introduction

In his introduction to a proposed "comparative cultural studies" based on empirical literary studies and system theory, Steven de Tötösy remarks on constructivist problems of theory making and application. Knowledge is dependent on schemes or habits of representation which construct the objects they refer to. Glasersfeld, as referred to by De Tötösy, suggests that "constructivism means a certain manner in which to reflect on knowledge as an act and action and its consequences, that is, constructivism means that individuals construct reality through cognitive subjectivity in selfreferential autonomy and in empirically conditioned processes". (Glasersfeld 1992: 20; as quoted by De Tötösy, 2002) The method proposed will, I infer, be aware of its own inherent constructivism. When systems theory is used as one of the preferred methods of comparative cultural studies, a specific problem of the construction of the object is created. Methods based on systems theory will tend to construct a "reality"(in contradistinction to "actuality") in terms of a hierarchically ordered systemic picture in which certain phenomena are seen as subsystems of larger systems. (Ibid.) De Tötösy’s proposes to follow an understanding of communicative action as culture which "allows for the study and analysis of the literary text, an interwoven process of literary and extra-literary factors thus the notion of the literary system". (Ibid..) When he explains his own method, a specific variation of constructivism named operational constructivism, De Tötösy states: "Culture and literature, considered as a subsystem of culture occurs and functions in a soft, semi-permeable, and self-referential system of human and social interaction characterized by (cognitive) aesthetic and polyvalence conventions." (Ibid.) Does the method pre-empt its findings by considering literature as a subsystem of culture? The theoretical observer - describer has to represent the object in terms of a hierarchical order. Moreover, the theoretical gaze is fixed on conventions. It is an empirical gaze since it will work with social and institutional givens such as conventions are. This seems to contradict another explanation of operational constructivism offered by De Tötösy: "[C]ulture is neither autonomous nor is it variedly linked to other domains of human activity and thought but ........ it may be analysed by a model of layered bases, a composite: the biological (cognitive, neuroscientific, etc.) understood as a broader concept including social and cultural layers." (Ibid.) The question arises whether the layers are to be understood as hierarchically ordered. Can the hierarchical ordering be avoided by viewing each part of a so declared system as a system with its own inherent dynamics, which, on the one hand, adapts to other systems making up its environment but which, on the other, can also change such other systems, forcing them to adapt to itself? Does the method allow for the possibility that such a unit or individual system may be connected with aspects not included in the "aesthetic and polyvalence conventions"? How will the changes, which may be instantaneous, be traced theoretically? Is historical or geocultural tracing a sufficient method?

This article looks at one single aspect of literature namely the act of literary writing as a singular unit. A preliminary investigation of the viability and possible advantages of a description of literary writing as an action is presented in order to demonstrate that literary acts may be seen as unpredictable mobile units which do not follow set, ordering theoretical paths and hence challenge systemic description. The investigation is interdisciplinary in that the philosophy of action is used as the mode of theoretical analysis.


2. The act and event of (literary) writing

To refer to acts of writing and to literary agency has become common practice. Less common are efforts to develop satisfactory theoretical descriptions of literary acts and agents. A preliminary investigation of a possible theoretical description of this kind renders some results worth noting. The results concern the individual literary act and present the latter as a part of historical reality and as a mobile given, able to produce space for itself in a variety of environments. The article is not concerned with the mapping of cultural processes of which literature may be a part and the method followed here is not, strictly speaking, empirical. It is comparative to the extent that it works with a theoretical description which can be used comparatively.

As a first experimental step, the philosophy and theory of action as in contradistinction to speech act theory will be used in order to arrive at a literary action description. Speech act theorists have strongly proposed that literary speech acts are imitations or derivations from ordinary speech acts. John Searle describes literary, and especially fictional language use and as a "pretended" speech act. (Searle 1975: 324 - 325) The debate between Searle and Derrida confirms these speech act theoretical positions. (Searle1977: 204 - 208 & Derrida 1982) Speech act theories tend to confine literary actions to descriptions in terms of hierarchical institutionalisations.(1) Speech act theory, moreover, relegates literary writing to the ontological status of fiction. This impairs the possible actual and dynamic relationship between literary writing and literary meaning on the one hand, and reality or actuality - the "world" - on the other. As Derrida argues, speech act theory treats meaning in language as a repeatable given which is not affected by its move from the (speech) act to the hearer. (Ibid.) The philosophy of action, and particularly the analytical philosophy of action, is able to break this theoretical territorialisation by showing that writing and understanding (and interpreting) are two different acts, each requiring its own distinctive act description.(2)

The philosophy of action consensually regards acts as unchangeable. Any change to the act - adding a fourth leg to a chair purposefully made with three legs only - is another act and not a change of the act of "making a chair with three legs." Following the work of Arthur Danto and Donald Davidson, acts can be described as the doing of something. (3) Davidson, acknowledging the convention that acts are per definition intentional acts, adds to this that acting is doing something for a reason, "for a reason" being Davidson’s analytical description of doing something intentionally: "someone who acts with a certain intention acts for a reason; he has something in mind that he wants to promote or accomplish." (Davidson 1980: 83) Leaving aside some debates about the relation between actions and events and, for the sake of argument, accepting that an act is also an event, the possibility to describe literary acts as events with the typical attributes of non-repeatability, uniqueness and unchangeability emerges. (Davidson, ibid., 183) The uniqueness of the act is demonstrated by the example of the making of a chair with three legs. The fact that a specific act has a specific agent, time and place, poin ts to the same quality. Should we, with Barthes, Kristeva and Derrida, regard literary meaning as textuality, then the uniqueness of textuality as action and event is evident in the latter’s resistance to transliteration, to interpretive and explanatory statements or, in Derrida’s terms, in its non-transferability. (Derrida, ibid.) Referring to contesting arguments about events and repeatability Davidson explains the common talk of the "same event" as follows:

Recurrence may be no more than similar, but distinct, events following one after another..... talk of the same event no more requires an event that happens twice than talk of two tables having the same width requires there to be such a thing as the width both tables have. (Ibid., 184)

He proposes that "our intuition that events are true particulars" is legitimate. (Davidson, ibid., 164 & 165)

How is the literary act then to be described? Since this is a preliminary investigation, the pressure to provide a literary act description which holds for all cases of literary acts will be withstood. If the standard formula for act description is "to do something (for a reason)", then "to write a (literary) book/novel/poem/play" seems to be the obvious answer. However, this description relegates the act of writing to the domain of discursive, institutional events. Let us take as test example those literary acts of writing which work with, and on, language and discourse in a complex way, acts which do not fit any conventionally established text-external blueprint, and let us use the word "textual" for the way meaning works in such literary acts. One faces the problem of thinking together what seems to be a definite and unchangeable given, namely the act and its event, and what is open-ended and changeable from reader to reader and from context to context, namely meaning functioning in a textual way.

That readers tend to take literary texts seriously is evident in the very act of reading, its attention to detail, its acceptation of the text as if it were a given, and its willingness to follow the textual traces and accept the open-ended semiotic field in which they often end up. These are conventionalised ways of reading, but they are not as self-evident as they seem. Why would a open-ended complex of meaning be treated seriously by readers in the first place? Why the willingness to accept that texts do not have meaning in the form of something which can be synthesised, relayed or paraphrased? Why do readers accept a literary text as it stands, as practically all theories of literature presuppose? Even deconstructive readings are based on the implicit presupposition that the text as it is written is an unrepeatable and unchangeable given, as once performed and completed acts are. Readers do not change the way the text is written. If such an action presupposition did not exist, plural, changing understandings and interpretations of literary texts would not be possible unless one accepts that the text derives its ontological status from interpretations only. Interpretation produces meaning, but this cannot mean that the text itself has no meaning, that is that it is meaningless. The text is meaningful as a linguistic object in the same way in which common speech or written material - from letters to journalistic articles - are meaningful. It is readable to the extent that it makes sense for the users of the language in which it is written.

This phenomenon can be further explained by proposing that readers regard texts as actions performed by a specific agent who wrote the way she or he did for a reason. When readers presuppose that the text is the way it is for a reason, then it makes sense to accept the text as it stands, that is to accept that the way in which it is written is unchangeable, and to continue interpreting the text no matter how complex and alienating it may appear. It is then possible to argue that a multiplicity of meaning exists for a reason. The agent, for example, intentionally wrote in a way which produced a multiplicity or plurality or intentionally decided to leave the multiplicity as it developed during the process of writing as it is. By the same token, the choice of narrative voice, the use of lyrical, naturalistic or any other mode of description and many other features of a text - here referring to the novel - which can be regarded as technical features, can be taken seriously and can be included in the interpretive response.

To be consistent with these observations and their explanations, the act of writing might be described as "writing in a certain way", that is using language and using aspects of literary discourse (such as the discourse of the novel) in a specific way. One could argue against an act description based on the formula: to act is to do something. Are certain acts not sufficiently described by "he dives", "she cries", etc? A further debating of this will exceed the purpose of this experimental investigation of what action theory can contribute to the description of literary texts and their writing. The description "to write in a certain way" has the advantage that it can account for the act as event. It is the way in which a literary text is written which readers read and follow during the interpretive process, and which they do not change. Readers do not add new characters to a story they read; they do not change endings, although they might do so as a game, with the purpose, perhaps, of establishing what the reason for the specific ending as it stands, is.


3. The opaqueness of textual events

The unchangeability of the act "as it stands", as a once performed and completed doing by a particular agent (or a group of agents working in tandem on the same project) does not imply that literary acts and events are objectifiable givens, graspable by theoretical or institutional systematisations. The present day postulate, namely that interpretation and theoretical systematisations "construct" their object on the basis of modes of representation, can be extended. Systematisations and representations will display their status as constructions when they indicate points at which the (worldly or "real") given is in excess of theoretical description. Existing literary discourse has already absorbed and verified that textual meaning is polyvalent and polyvalency does not any longer have the power to disrupt systemic or other theoretical orders. A description of the literary object as an act (which is per definition of the world and "real") appears to have such power.

The presence of the agent in the act renders the literary act and event unstable and opaque when perceived from an objectifying, theoretically ordering perspective. It is, firstly, intentionality which makes it possible to describe the text as an inherently dynamic, mobile unit escaping many existing modes of representation. When Davidson’s description of intentionality is used, the fallacious presumptions about authorial or agential intentions, rejected by literary discourses since many decades ago, can be avoided. As far as literary reading and interpretation consists of a questioning after the reason for doing - Why this pronoun instead of that one? Why the pursuit of this specific connotation and why is it dispersed in the way it is? etc. - it is the reason for doing which is investigated and not a presumed mental content. It seems as if the reader needs to know that there is an intention and that, therefore, the text can, like an act and the event of this act, be taken as it stands because it is done for a reason. The questions can be answered by returning to the text as it has been written, and by comparing ways of doing, establishing their function. Readers can speculate about, and test, possible reasons for specific ways of doing. Yet, as the philosophy of actions has pointed out, there often are reasons for the reason for doing something. More information might be needed about reasons or intentions for the reader to arrive at a plausible understanding of the writing as a specific way of doing. (4) Being able to test possible reasons and weigh them up against one another would be evidence of the function of such a reason for the way of writing. This presupposition can, I propose, be checked by readers. What very often cannot be checked about literary acts is that which one could call the "real reason". The explanation of causes of a mental or subjective kind is one of the predominant problems of philosophies of action. One method tested and found to be unreliable is the agent’s own rational self-explanation.(5) Because the act of writing may consist of many different activities, and because these activities may spontaneously arise within un- and subconscious processes, because biochemical factors might help explain these various activities, the reason for the reason or the finite explanation of ways of doing is not at hand. Agential responses may be evoked by the very act of writing or by the very way of writing an agent pursues. The act might be propelled by spontaneous insights, memories, metaphors and the work of the imagination.

It seems in order to describe the literary act and event as an opaque event which does not explain itself. Arthur Danto, postulating a distinction between actions and events, argues that the understanding of an event as an action and the understanding of events and actions in terms of causal chains do not refer to the object described, but to its understanding or its representation by observers of the event. What we observe when we observe an event is only the event as it concretely happens. To repeat Danto’s own example: when a billiard ball strikes another billiard ball I have two different events, the stick striking and the ball moving, which happen practically at the same time. Nothing about this "event" explains or shows that the two events are conjoined, for example in terms of causation. Causation and similar rules, for example the belief that specific actions cause specific events, are modes of representation. Danto’s point is that we experience events and then add something to it, namely not only a conjunction but this conjunction regarded as one of causation. He argues that our language use encourages us to understand events in such a causal way. The understanding of many transitive verbs such as "destroy", "burn" or "denotate" are examples of this. (Danto, ibid., 82) Perception and representation are affected by language since language often suggests links and relations. The validity of (philosophical) descriptions depend on a logic pertaining to language and not to a "world" the language supposedly expresses. When the raising of an arm is a blessing - a meaning not perceived since one only sees the raising of the arm, which is the event - I "bring what I perceive under a rule of interpretation, according to which it is a blessing." (Ibid., 29) (6) We do not, when perceiving an event, necessarily also perceive an act. Should we, as Wittgenstein suggested, subtract the event (say: an arm goes up) from the action or doing ( I raise my arm) then "nothing is left". (7) The concept of "action" appears to be added on. This "addition" belongs to the observer of the events. It is part of our way of making sense of the event, this again being based on our own experience (which itself includes learnt modes of experiencing). (8) The classical and causal explanations of events do not describe events "as they are" but as we understand them, so that they already include the additions or presuppositions of human understanding. Danto’s point is not that a more "realistic" or correct description should be striven for, but quite the opposite. Such a description is impossible, bound by our bodily, perceptive and representational limitations as we are. (9)

The typical changes of interpretation and apparent openness to different worlds in different times and different places of literary texts can be partly explained by this. Each time readers respond to a literary event, the questioning after possible reasons restarts. The reasons for the reason for doing, the psycho-physical, chemical, bodily, environmentally determined or even pathological factors which might explain why a reason for doing something is a reason and motive for the agent, remain inaccessible since we do no know enough about the field in which agential factors arise and operate, and since what we know is representational.

From a systemic or a systemic - organic point of view, this inaccessible space is a feature inherent to events which we understand as linked to human action. However, the action which we "add" to the event is itself not open to precise theoretical descriptions with predictive value. The literary act can be thought of as an undefinable but material opening or field in which a potentially limitless and unpredictable set of systems intersect. These systems could be biochemical, psychological, psycho-linguistic or social and cultural, to mention but a few. Did the writer use a first person narrative in order to indicate a biographical reason for the writing? Is there a causal link between the way of writing and events which actually happened to the agent, or does the writer only perceive such links as causal? Does the agent have a certain visual and linguistic intelligence which allows him to write descriptively the way he does, so that the biological and biochemical facets of the agent as an individual come into play? What traumas have moulded his responses and interpretations?

Most importantly: in which way do we represent the links between these various, potentially systemic factors?


4. The mobility of agents and their acts

The notions of "agent" and "reason", referring to the agent and the act of which he or she is the agent, do not provide stable points for efforts to effectively represent, reconstruct or comprehensively understand literary writing. Post-humanist descriptions of the subject as agent can be drawn upon to underscore this point. Action, the intentionality which marks the action and the agency necessary to make sense of intentional action, do not require the concept of a transcendental "subject" for their explanation. It is for this reason that the term "agent" is today often preferred in order to refer to the literary writer and the kind of subjecthood ascribed to her or him. An action theoretical description of literary writing allows for more clarity in the use of the term "agent". The agent can be described strictly in terms of the actual action and event complex. In a "critique of the critique of the subject", Descombes (1991) proposes that the late-semiotically rejected "humanist" subject, referring to the classical "philosophical subject", results from the philosophical subject’s lack of definition. He demonstrates this, and in the process proposes an improved "subject" definition by means of a grammatical description of action sentences. Sentences including action predicates always contain that to which these predicates are attributed, i.e. persons doing things:

It is a matter of adjusting each of two grammatical categories ........ on the one hand, the category of verbs that signify an action, on the other, the category of designations for individuals susceptible of being considered ..... as subjects of action. (Descombes 1991: 131)

The classical philosophical subject, called, for example, "moral conscience", cannot answer to the question concerning the "Who?" which regulates the grammar of action sentences: "If we can never point to a human subject when it is a matter of answering the question Who?, it is, philosophically speaking, no longer possible to take practical questions seriously." (Ibid., 130; Descombes’ italics). He summarises the argument as follows:

The philosophy of the subject, in its usual "humanist" version, declares that the only conceivable suppositum of a "properly" human action is the being that identifies itself, not with the empirical person that it also is, but with the autonomous subject. Not the individual, taken up as he is in the tissue of the world, but a being capable of positing itself as ideally (or ultimately) different from everything that history has made, from everything that society has conditioned, from everything that institutions have fixed, from all the futures that past events have already marked or cleared the way for. But it is also the being that decided to conduct itself in such a way that it can think of itself the author of all its worldly determinations . .......................... [T]he subject of a worldly action should be a worldly suppositum. It cannot be a transcendent ego. If certain actions performed in the world should be recognized as "properly human" actions, that is to say, as actions that are open to examination and rational critique, it is necessary that these actions, freely performed in this world, are attributed to suppositums of this world. (Ibid., 132)

He adds: "(O)nly a worldly suppositum can have a grasp on things, so as to modify the source of things in a way that will appear, upon a rational examination, reasonable, inept, or mad." (Ibid.) Such a grammatical subject description supports the argument that the "subject" is to be defined in terms of the action. Depending on the action, the agent could be described as the doer who may have certain "reasons" for what he does, or who knows that and what he is doing, and therefore is the agent of an intentional action. The agent is then regarded as a rational human being. Since this contradicts the many irrational or uncontrollable factors which might influence his action, the qualification "who knows that and what he is doing" should be added to Descombes’ argument. This circumscribes the rationality as pertaining to the actual performing of the action and does not in advance exclude irrational or untraceable influences on the intentional action. Agents are part of "the tissue of the world" since they often have to plan the way the action is to proceed, or to negotiate problems of ways of doing, and since they act in terms of certain capabilities and skills which explain the action, as Danto argues throughout Analytical Philosophy of Action .

Should this agent description prove to be an apt one in respect of the agent of literary acts of writing, we might be able to describe specific literary agencies in terms useful to an empirical method, when "empirical" is defined broadly - at least so it appears. The agent or doer, but much more so the reader responding to the event of writing, furthermore participates in "the tissue of the world" since institutions which "fix" relations, forms of behaviour and the field of choices for human beings in a real world can be included in the explanation of the way of writing. However, such a description should only be posited when the admission that the description and explanation of the event is a representation or construction, is included. Descombes qualifies his own description of a worldly agent in a way which suggests that agential action is not necessarily prefixed. The grammatically derived agent is not of that humanistically conceived kind which claims that the agent as subject is able "to conduct itself in such a way that it can think of itself the author of all its worldly determinations". Since the term "agent" refers to acts in a real world with all its constraints, circumscriptions and possibilities for change, since agency and action are not metaphysical concepts but dependent on realities, agency implies the exposure to a contingent world. It is in real conflicts or real dillematic situations that agents may come to discover how they have to proceed in order to achieve their own purposes. The agent cannot know with certainty what the consequences of his action - the way(s) of writing - will be. This is perhaps a typical feature of literary acts of writing where the writer may only know what he has done once the writing is completed, since the text often processualises itself. Textual ways of literary writing are often closed or brought to an ending on an instinct or a sense of aptness, since the literary agent cannot oversee and in advance calculate the textual event as a whole.

In spite of the promise of a clear description which may deal with empirical aspects of the literary agent and the "world" of the events, it is especially the literary event which present openings or fields of irreducible complexity and mobile productive potential. When we postulate that the agent is not the hierarchically first or only cause of the act and that, following the psychosemiotics of Kristeva, agent and act may affect and change one another during the time of the actual performance, then such an irreducible aspect of the literary act is at hand. Describing the dialectics between language use and society, Kristeva asserts:

Jedes Aussagen - sei es eines Wortes oder eines Satzes - is thetisch, denn es setzt Indentifizierung voraus, das heißt einerseits die Scheidung des Subjekts von und in seiner imago wie auch von und in seinen Objekten, andererseits deren Setzung in einem von nun an symbolischen Feld ...... (Kristeva 1978: 54; Kristeva’s emphasis)

The very first sentences of a child are thetic in that they establish a separation between the speaking subject and object speech refers to. This "Einschnitt" is the thetic phase. (Ibid., 55 - 56) Kristeva grants the writing subject, or the "subject - in - process", an active role in literary production. The user is eventually submerged by and in "use", or, in psychosemiotic terms, the subject - in - process is a subject submerged in the semiotic and psychical processuality of meaning production, and put to the test as to his or her presumed autonomy and control. Using language places the user or speaking subject in a position of submersion or subjection. This is, according to Kristeva, the result of the actual language use. The productive language use and the change in the status of the agent happen simultaneously. A dialectical figure which shows that the speaker or language user is both initiator and effect or victim of a "thetic" act in language emerges. Since writers are agents of their acts during a process of writing, initial agent positions may shift and agents may find themselves in unforeseen and often dilemmatic writing positions and situations. Their own actions affect them and the measure of control and effectiveness agents require to perform their actions as intended. This does not nullify the role of the agent, since for such displacements to occur, there has to be an act and an agent in the first place.

In stead of deriving the act from the agent and whatever categories of subjecthood, personhood or bodily determinations can be ascribed to him or her or, vice versa, in stead of deriving the agent from the action, we have, according to Kristeva’s psychosemiotics, an event in which agent and action cannot be theoretically reduced to one another. Agent and action, taken as this specific action and the specific performance which is the action, cannot be defined separately. Descombes’ description of agency implies that one person may be many kinds of agents in the course of her life, and that the environment in which she performs can create spaces for new and unpredictable kinds of agency for one individual. We cannot ascribe the act to an contiguous, "self-identical" agent because the agent is whatever he or she is in terms of the actual unique action, just like the action is what it is due to the agential activities attached to it. Actions can then be described as spaces where the mobility of the "person", individual or "self" is displayed. Descombes’ agent analysis together with work such as Kristeva’s allow for the conclusion that actions can serve to produce a space or place for "person" or "self" to emerge as a changing, productive and mobile phenomenon in the actual world. In other words, a specific action which is exposed to worldlycontingency may produce, for the agent, a role or function he or she does not in have in any of their other functions - profession, emotional relationships, political activities, etc . An act may be a space where the agent emerges as if her other agential, and often institutionalised, functions do not necessarily have an effect and cannot be used to explain the particular event. If we regard the text as a real event in a real world then it will concretely testify about the mode of being which the agent became or was during that singular occurrence of writing. The reality of this event cannot be denied and the complex indistinguishability of the specific action and the specific agent have to be regarded as realities in the world.


6. Choice: singularity and world

A third space of "undecidability" and potential unrepresentable mobility is the question of moral or ethical responsibility, a feature commonly and philosophically ascribed to actions and their agents. Agents have a choice about ways of doing, and this choice is, according to philosophical consensus, a necessary condition for the concept of action to apply: "It is analytical to the concept of an action that a man acts only if he could have done otherwise." (Danto, ibid.: 181; Danto’s italics) Conventionally the freedom of choice is also a necessary condition for the description of acts as ethical, since the supposed opposite of freedom in action, namely determinism, contradicts the rational understanding of "ethical".(10) One does not act ethically when one is forced to act the way one does. An example is the Indian custom according to which the widow has to be buried together with her deceased husband.

The term "freedom of choice" requires a brief elaboration. It does not (have to) refer to the freedom of will. In Danto’s terms, freedom of choice means that the agent of an ethical action is in a position to do something else, to do otherwise. This description avoids the implication that a freedom based entirely on subjective, transcendental rationality (Vernunft) exists. It is a freedom of choices and the choices may be circumscribed and limited. To take responsibility for what one does, is itself a choice rationally and cognitively made. Agents decide, for a reason, to hold themselves accountable for the consequences of an action or not to do so. (11)

Ethical actions are typically in need of explanation and interpretation because institutionalised norms, shared social morality or universal imperatives cannot explain them sufficiently. Philosophies and theories of the ethical today share this view. Discourses which state, and try to substantiate, basic ethical truths in the forms of abstract or theoretical formulations, of the kind: the most basic reason why the fellow human being should be respected is because he and I have a right to freedom, fail to provide sufficient explanations and are generally rejected because they are foundational. With the possible exception of Levinas, ethical theory has not yet convincingly explained why people act in terms of an ought, that is why they act in certain way because they believe or feel that they are obliged to do so. (12) Ethicality is often displayed when agents take responsibility upon themselves, whether socially and institutionally entrenched rules require this or not. The following is a random example: a man with a serious heart condition jumps into icy water to save a beggar from drowning. This action might well prove to be irrational if the agent acted spontaneously. This type of spontaneous ethical action is in excess of available explanation unless we apply empiricist or naturalistic methods of explanation such as psychometrics or psychoanalysis.(13)

That these descriptions and considerations of ethical action can be applied to literary writing can be demonstrated with a brief example. In J M Coetzee’s Foe (Coetzee, 1986) the narrative voice is either that of the erstwhile "castaway" Susan Barton or another figure indicating literary agency or authorship. The back slave, Friday, who is the focus of the authorial discourses in Foe, is never given voice. A possible reason for this is that the agent of Foe wished to avoid speaking on behalf of an "other" who is lost in history and voiceless, because white authors such as Daniel Defoe gave him speech, thus imposing on him a language, a name and speech itself (Foe’s Friday is mute). Various aspects of the ways of writing support such a conclusion so that the reader might decide that she is dealing with an ethical way of writing. So, for example, Friday’s voice, when it is finally speaking for itself, overwhelms the listening author figure and silences him. The act of writing quite literally comes to an end at this point. Foe’s agent might have intended to experiment with writing a book in which the ethical error of his literary forefathers is not repeated. However, we cannot claim that this is the true reason for the literary way of doing, since it cannot be proven with certainty. Even if we can argue for the aptness of this possible reason, we can still speculate whether this reason applies because the author wanted to follow the social and political norms of the day, in which case the writing would be moralistic rather than ethical. Whatever argument for specific reasons for ethical doing may be presented, they have to be evaluated against the backdrop of the opaqueness of Foe as event. The act is unstable or open-ended from the perspective of interpretation, appropriation, institutionalisation, etc., because it can potentially rest on an unpredictable, uniquely performed choice, a choice we know only in the form of an event and which moral convention cannot explain. The logic of the meaning of the word "choice" implies that the agent who makes a choice, has the freedom to ignore or positively go against existing conventions. It is the concept of choice, especially in ethical action, which confronts theoretisation, in this case systemic and empirically based descriptions, with their own status as representations or constructions.

Philosophical and related deliberations on the ethical indicate that ethical actions imply that a choice is being made. That the ethical choice can potentially remain in excess of theoretical (systemic) constructions, can be elucidated with reference to Bakhtin’s Philosophy of Action. (1993) According to Bakhtin, the act of choosing for a certain (ethical) way of doing produces a merging of agent and environment. It projects the individual agent or subject into "world" or, as Bakhtin calls it, "Being." (14) This confirms the description of action as a worldly given.

Bakhtin postulates that the "answerable act" is the original or archetypal action. His primary proposal, that of the answerable act, is intended to overcome a difference between theoretical and historical Being. The primary proposal in respect of acts is that they are (or should be described as) acts to the extent that they are "answerable" and "participatory". (Bakhtin, ibid., 4.) For the purposes of this article Bakhtin "answerability" can be understood to mean; to take responsibility for something. Ethical action amounts to a participation in or surrender to historical actuality with its unpredictability and contingency. The essence of the ethical act is that the agent accepts that he is part of this historical reality or "Being". The philosophical problem Bakhtin addresses is the "fundamental split between the content or sense of a given act/activity and the historical actuality of its being, the actual and once-occurrent experiencing of it." (Ibid., 2) Only the answerable and participatory act is an event and events for Bakhtin define Being - as - Event, i.e historical being. Bakhtin’s argument must be understood against his acceptance that theoretically stated ethical truths ("Thou shalt not steal."; "Do unto others what you want them to do unto you.", etc.) do play a part in he description of ethical acts. (15) They cannot, however, explain and sufficiently describe the answerable act since they cannot explain why agents act in terms of ethical obligation, in other words in terms of an "ought". Bakhtin acknowledged this problem before it became part of the critical theoretical discourse on ethics. Values stated as meaning contents, that is theoretical and abstract descriptions of the ought as a content, are not part of the reality of experiences, conflicts and engagements of agents in the here and now. The act, Bakhtin contends, should be described as a unity of both content (or meaning) and actual existence, described, that is, in terms of the "whole concrete historicalness of its performance." (Ibid., 3) It is the concept of "answerability" which facilitates such a unity: answerability is "the subiectum’s" answering act that issues from within him, the act of acknowledging that the ought is true." (Ibid., 5; Bakhtin’s italics) The ought can be explained when it is seen as the act of the acceptance of the truth of the ought, and when this acceptance includes the acceptance that one is personally responsible for acting according to this "truth". Introducing the "signature" as formula for the answerable act, Bakhtin puts this point as follows:

Yet the whole point at issue is precisely that fact. It is not the content of an obligation that obligates me, but my signature below it - the fact that at one time I acknowledged or undersigned the given acknowledgment. And what compelled me to sign at the moment of undersigning was not the content of the given performed act or deed. This content would not by itself, in isolation, have prompted me to perform the act or deed - to undersigning(?)-acknowledge it, but only in correlation with my decision to undertake an obligation - by performing the act of undersigning-acknowledging. (Ibid., 38)

This "acknowledgment" is a unique, once-occurrent deed as well as an action which is the subject’s "self-activity" (Ibid., 6). It is that moment of self-judgment or self-evaluation by a specific, singular person when he or she identifies with a theoretical judgment. The (rational) judgment of the content becomes "an ought-to-be judgment for me." To repeat: from the truth of a judgment - its "veridicality" - does not follow the act of judgement. I may see and agree with the truth of a judgment but not therefore apply it to myself and in reality. The judgment has to become part of individual "consciousness" and this happens when an act of "cognition" takes place. The answerable act is "[t]he evaluation of a thought as an individual act or deed" and it is, as such, an "individual-historical moment" (Ibid., 3). The personal verification of a value or norm - the "judgment" - is necessary for a theoretically existing meaning to become part of historical "Being" (to become a historical event). For Bakhtin action is a condition of existence of the ethical ought: "The ought is a distinctive category of the ongoing performance of acts or deeds (....) or of the actually performed act (and everything is an act or deed that I perform - even thought and feeling)." (Ibid., 6) Moreover, Bakhtin maintains that the "ought" is an open category or space: "[T]he ought does not have any determinate content." This is because it is not a theoretical proposition and cannot be stated as such. (Ibid., 5) It is quite simply an act. A specific ethical or moral value is "true" to the extent that a specific agent accepts that it is true (for him) and this acceptance is knowable only as an act, that is the mental act of cognising which is a condition of acts of identification with specific value contents and decisions to identify, to accept and to "apply". That decision will also expose the agency to the dichotomies of historical, actual reality:

Content/sense abstracted from the act/deed can be formed into a certain open and unitary Being, but this, of course, is not that unique Being in which we live and die, in which our answerable acts or deed are performed; it is fundamentally and essentially alien to living historicity. I cannot include my actual self and my life (qua moment) in the world constituted by the constructions of theoretical consciousness in abstraction from the answerable and individual historical act. And yet such an inclusion is necessary if that world is the whole world, all of Being ....................... In that world © i.e. that unitary being constituted by contents abstracted from the act. MJdeJ ª we would find ourselves to be determined, predetermined, bygone, and finished, that is, essentially not living. We would have cast ourselves out of life - as answerable, risk-fraught, and open becoming through performed actions - and into an indifferent and, fundamentally, accomplished and finished theoretical Being (which is not yet completed and is yet to be determined only in the process of cognition ................. (Ibid., 8 - 9; Bakhtin’s italics)

The answerable act participates in historical, unique or individualised, undetermined and "risk- fraught" (Ibid., 9), open "Being". Truth as act rather than as concept makes it participatory of historical, unique, open-ended, unstable Being:

The actual act of cognition - not from within its theoretical-abstract product (i.e., from within a universally valid judgment), but as an answerable act or deed - brings any extra-temporal validity into communion with once-occurrent Being-as-Event. ( Ibid., 10).

The answerable act, in which the "ought" of "ought" is actualised, makes the ought part of the open-endedness and incompleteness of the world, part of its contingency, one may add.

Although one may not agree with the metaphysical aspects of this description of "answerable acts" as the Ur-form of action, one can conclude that the analytical descriptions of action presented in this article confirm many features of Bakhtin’s exposition. What is added to the unique, "once-occurrent" nature of the act, and to its worldliness or participation in "Being-as-event", is the notion of a singular, individual choice. Bakhtin’s descriptions also imply that this unique and singular choice can be seen as a means by which "subjects" place themselves in the world of actual events, or in the world as a ongoing happening. His expositions imply that the answerable act amounts to producing a position in it rather than occupying a prepared, circumscribed and controllable one:

What underlies the unity of answerable consciousness is not a principle as starting point, but the fact of an actual acknowledgment of one’s participation in unitary Being-as-event, and this fact cannot be adequately expressed in theoretical terms, but can only be described and participatively experienced. Here lies the point of origin of the answerable deed and of all the categories of the concrete, once-occurrent, and compelling ought. I, too, exist ................... actually - in the whole and assume the obligation to say this word. I, too, participate in Being in a once-occurrent and never-repeatable manner: I occupy a place in once-occurrent Being that is unique and never repeatable, a place that cannot be taken by anyone else and is impenetrable for anyone else. In the given once-occurrent point where I am now located, no one else has ever been located in the once-occurrent time and once-occurrent space of once-occurrent Being. And it is around this once-occurrent point that all once-occurrent Being is arranged in a once-occurrent and never-repeatable manner. That which can be done by me can never be done by anyone else. The uniqueness ........... of present-on-hand Being is compellently obligatory. (Ibid., 40)

The act in the world, performed by a purposive, aware agent who makes a choice, is a singular one which grants the agent a singular, unique place within actual, historical being. Contrary to theoretical constructs of ethical truths and principles, the answerable act is singular because it is an act within the world.


7. Some remarks about the singular event and its theoretical representation

It is the very worldliness and actuality, or the participation in historical actuality and contingency, which makes the action singular and which renders it an actuality or given. The singularity and actuality, the very undeniability of the event of this answerable act, results from an overcoming or a leaving behind of theoretical truths. Bakhtin did not necessarily have general theoretical discourses and their truths in mind and certainly did not think of present day theoretical construction such as systems theory or, for that matter, Levinas’ ethics of the other. Yet it is the participation in a world of ongoing events and the exposure to event contingency which implicitly mark the answerable act as act and from which it gains its uniqueness.

The point with which this article closes is not that this gap in our interpretive procedures challenges further theoretical description as if theoretical discourse should, at some point in the future, get it under descriptive and explicationary control. On the contrary, the gap can be seen as a material, substantive feature of the way acts are in the world, of what they display about themselves as observable or perceivable givens. The act and its event can be regarded as a material deterrotiorialisations of systemically or otherwise theoretically ordered space and time. Bakhtin implicitly works with an opposition between theory and action - a conventionally acknowledged contradiction or categorical difference. His act postulate does not foresee a merging of theory and practice but an overcoming of the theoretical as such. What is purely mental is categorically changed since it becomes part of action and events. Theoretical constructs are mental ones, and systems theory might serve as a good example of a mental map which tries to account for contingencies by including the notion of systemic adaptation and change. In spite of that, theories do not themselves participate in the actual world of events except, perhaps, in the form of institutionalisations which affect behaviour. As such they tend to become immobile, unresponsive and abstract.

If the term "singularity" can describe certain kinds of events such as literary textuality or ethical answerability as event, and if "singularity" refers to the "once-occurring" nature of this event and what it, in our understanding, implies, namely specific action and specific agency, then a theoretical representation which can register such a singularity is required. (16) The analytical descriptions investigated show that the space produced by specific, singular acts and events is discernable or noticeable. Intentionality or reasons for doing can be established and the work of presuppositions to the effect that written literary texts are intentional acts can be tested. Readers normally presume that the act of writing had a beginning and that the ending refers to a decision of the agent, whether carefully planned or intuitive. We can recognise actions as actions and we can recognise that choices have been made. Hence we can recognise and meaningfully respond to the new spaces opened up by certain actions and events. But this is, according to Danto, because the observers of an event are themselves potential agents and have been actual agents. They have actual experience of the relations between action and contingency. Theoretical constructions are usually forced to change these actual, alive and potentially productive experiences into abstract, surveying schemes. They construct maps allowing access to a not well-known domain beforehand. These maps work on condition that no unforseen events which could disrupt the order as outlined happen. In the case of the description of literature as act, the singular occurrence as such cannot be represented. Ethical actions and the questions of reason, intentions, and choices confirm that irreducible complexities and "undecidabilities" accompany actions and events. Theoretical descriptions are spatially and temporarily at a remove from the occurrence. They are themselves specific acts with specific agents, and performed in specific situations which are arguably different from the situations in which the actions which they try to describe happen. Theoretical representations cannot inhabit that originally produced space called the singular occurrence.

To admit that theories represent and construct "objects" and that they operate on another level as their objects, is necessary and " the proposed "operational constructivism" could to some extent be understood as an effort to account for this. When we admit that theoretical work is itself a representation, then the descriptive terms "act" and "event" as pertaining to literary writing can be very helpful. When actions are described as events, then it is possible to show where the theoretical interpretive and representative labour starts, namely with the actions. The actions themselves require understanding, interpretation and construction. The compelling feature of acts, as investigated here, is that they cannot be repeated. Talk about actions is necessarily interpretive and representative (in the constructivist sense) unless the actions are of the immediately recognisable kind, such as brushing one’s teeth and other forms of routine behaviour. The complex act may be seen as an example of a real, material or worldly "composite", participating in so many various, systemically distinguished systems that its outlines or presumed identity do not show up, and that the "layers" by means of which the systemic given is to be described cannot be isolated. That is, unless one insists on describing literary givens in terms of larger, encompassing systems. Like many apparently ethical actions, literary action, described as event, is a space where reasons and performance cannot be separated since the act is a condition of existence for that which supposedly precedes it and which is used to explain it causally, namely the reason for the performing of the act.

© Marianne de Jong (University of South Africa)

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(1) Dieter Wunderlich, for example, arguing for the inclusion of the social context or "Handlungszusammenhang" of speech acts, states that speech acts contain "die jeweils geltenden Interaktionsbedingungen (eingeschlossen Normen, Konventionen, Verpflichtungen, commitments (sic!), soziale Werte." (Wunderlich 1976, 54). Should one regard speech acts as moves in a game, then the game is a course of action or a course the action takes which is "in einer mehr oder weniger spezifische Institution ‘eingebettet’ ". (Wunderlich, ibid., 58)

(2) I take over this use of Deleuzean terms as well as terms such as "space" and "order"/"ordering" from Titlestad, 2001.

(3) See Danto 1973: 7 - 8 & Davidson 1980: 4 & 46 - 47. There is broad consensus about the following: the term "act" generally refers to a doing, and "to act" is generally taken to mean "to do" together with whatever verb describes the doing (kicking, playing a game, switching on the light, etc.).

(4) The problem is often solved by drawing on another discourse, e.g. Levinasian discourse on ethics, the discourse of myth or of political reality, philosophies of history, etc

(5) See for example Pears, 1973, 107 - 110 and Davidson’s essay on mental events, 1980, 207 - 225.

(6) Danto continues: "That it is a blessing is not something I know through knowing the man to have raised his arm. Rather, I know it is a blessing through knowing what rule applies." (Ibid., 29 )

(7) Quoted by Danto, ibid., 45

(8) Danto even regards his own approach as partly phenomenological: "[I] want to retain as essentially correct the phenomenology of action, the experience of normal agents to which I appeal for intuitions regarding basic actions......" Ibid., 61.

(9) This implies that the effort of describing the literary given as action linked to an event, or as an event causally related to an act of writing, is itself a theoretical representation. This need not be regarded as an ironic impasse, but as an inherent feature of theoretical descriptions. In my reading, "operational constructivism" follows a similar insight and aims at compensating for the contradiction by means of the method as proposed.

(10) See, for example, also Kenny, 1973

(11) It is beyond the scope of this article to compare these philosophical descriptions of ethical action with other philosophies of the ethical, e.g. Levinas’ philosophy of the confrontation with the "Other" who addresses me.

(12) This information on the philosophy of ethics is, inter alia, drawn from Von Kutschera, 1982

(13) These points presuppose that a non-ethical reason for the hero’s action has not been indicated. He did not, say, try to save the beggar in this dramatic way in order to impress his new girlfriend.

(14) The relevance of Bakhtin’s work on the ethical as dependent on action has to be established against the backdrop of his time and his own academic interests. His proposal presupposes the validity of the continental philosophy of its era and is strongly influenced by Hegel.

(15) In this respect Bakhtin’s theory of ethical acts can be seen as accommodating aspects which may today be rejected as being theoretically foundationalist.

(16) Analytical descriptions do not claim anything beyond their self-declared status as metadiscursive descriptions. This is why they are used for the description of action, agency and events in this article.


Bakhtin, M.M. 1993 Toward a Philosophy of the Act. Translation & Notes, Vadim Liapunov. Editors Vadim Liapunov & Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press,

Coetzee, J M 1986 Foe. Johannesburg: Ravan Press

Danto, Arthur C. 1973 Analytical Philosophy of Action. Cambridge at the University Press

Davidson, Donald 1980 Essays on Action and Events. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Derrida, Jacques 1982 "SIGNATURE EVENT CONTEXT". In: the same: Margins of Philosophy, University of Chicago Press, pp 307 - 330. Translated from the original by Alan Bates.

Descombes, Vincent. 1991 "Apropos of the ‘Critique of the Subject’ and the Critique of this Critique." In: Who comes after the Subject? Edited by Eduardo Cadava. London: Routledge, pp.120-134

De Tötösy, Steven 2002 "Constructivism and Comparative Cultural Studies" CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture. A WWWeb Journal. At: Cited in De Tötösy, S.: CLCWEB News 2002.8

Honderich, Ted (ed.) 1973 Essays on freedom of action. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Kenny, Anthony 1973 "Freedom, spontaneity and indiference". In Honderich, 87 - 104

Kristeva, Julia 1978 Die Revolution der poetischen Sprache. Translated and introduced by Reinold Werner. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Pears, David 1973 "Rational explanations of actions and psychological determinism." In Honderich, 105 - 136

Searle, John 1975 "The logical status of fictional discourse" New Literary History 6:2, 319 -332

Searle, John 1977 "Reiterating the Differences: a Reply to Derrida". Glyph Nr l, 198 - 208

Titlestad, Michael 2001 "Contesting Maps: Musical Improvisation and Narrative". In: Pretexts: literary and cultural studies, 10:1 (July), 21 - 36

Von Kutschera, F 1982 Grundlagen der Ethik. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter

Wunderlich, Dieter 1976 Studien zur Spechakttheorie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

For quotation purposes - Zitierempfehlung:
Marianne de Jong (University of South Africa): The viability and consequences of describing literary writing as an action. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 14/2002. WWW:

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