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How To Do Things With Literature

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Organizer: Osman Nemli

Co-Organizer: Chelsea Stieber

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Taking its title from J.L. Austin’s How To Do Things With Words, this seminar is interested in various attempts to bring deconstruction, speech act theory, and postanalytic philosophy together via an analysis of literature, specifically around the question of what literature can do. We are interested in various approaches to the question of the performative, or active, aspect of literature, and thus in returning to the debate, and mis-communication, between deconstruction and speech act theory. In this regard, genre itself becomes a concern and is necessarily reflected upon in philosophical approaches to literature (genres of literature, genres within philosophy, and the difference between literature and philosophy). We welcome submissions examining: how we read literature in the wake of Austin, Searle, Derrida, and Stanley Cavell; interpretations of specific texts, be they philosophical or literary; an inquiry into literary or philosophical authors and their relevance for this debate; metaphysical speculations on the being, activity, and possibility of literature; methodological analyses of the activities of literature.

What does literature do, and how do we see it in action? Is it political (focused on justice), focused on socio-economic concerns, purely aesthetic (art for art’s sake), an individual art (care for the self), or does it constitute the conditions for its own reading (transcendental-historical)? Should literature be examined from the point of the reader (reader-response, textual analysis, or reconstruction theory), the object itself (the book, text, etc.), the author (via categories of intentionality and authority), or a mixture of all three?

This seminar is, thus, an attempted rapprochement between deconstruction and speech act theory, from the standpoint of literature. The focus on literature cuts through the so-called debate, or mis-communication, between the two schools via an analysis of the practical performative dimension of literary texts. This practical performative dimension is grouped by Derrida under the heading Acts of Literature, and to this we could bring in an analogous, ‘literature act theory.’ Literature becomes, then, the diagonal that wounds and sutures the wounds of debate. 

Additional questions we are interested in discussing are: What distinguishes and differentiates literature from the mere synthesis and collection of words? What happens when we no longer ‘confine ourselves,’ as Austin intended, to the spoken utterance and move towards the (always already) written one?  Is literature, if we accede to this dichotomy, the un-uttered, the in-utterable, that which will have been uttered, or that whose utterance is, like Blanchot’s ‘book’, to come? What is the relation between the intentionality of Phenomenology and the intentionality of the speaker, with regards to literature? Does literature speak for itself, or do we need a new grammar by which to speak about the acts of literature?

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