Romantic Circles

"Soundings of Things Done": The Poetry and Poetics of Sound in the Romantic Ear and Era

Phonemanography: Romantic to Victorian

Garrett Stewart, University of Iowa

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  1. "O wild West Wind," writes Shelley in the mode of high-Romantic incantation. But writing, scribed marks, is what the intonation remains—from the first tripled whoosh of strained onomatopoetic alliteration forward. With the titular W's wafting over the line in self-propelled graphic gusts, the first of these mere W-ords sweeps up the prearticulate "O" into an airborne but strictly lexical momentum. More than this, the press of enunciation is aimed toward the very object of its own discursive gesture across the drift from the phonetically denominated "double-u" to its single and more immediately recognized graphic variant. The inaugural "O" is only confirmed as vocative, that is, when the first junctural lurch of "O W" is rounded out by the equally opened-mouthed apposition that results in the line's coming phonetic increment, "thou(w) breath of autumn's being." Latency and fulfillment seem almost at one in verse wording. We will come back to this, via Giorgio Agamben, under the sign of potentiality.

  2. We will also come back, by the same route, to the deep ontological ramifications of the so-called equative genitive (or genitive metaphor) in that line's second phrase: the breath of fresh air that is autumn, rather than the breath that issues from it, as one might say in common figure "the very breath of life." Yet if autumn realizes itself in breath, it is far from clear that the speaker of "O" can do so in expelled voice, quite apart from its spelled-out discourse. For homo loquens, neither the fact nor the act of sounded speech, let alone its imitative rewiring as onomatopoeia, can ground being, can get behind words to presence. Such language is there where being is not, naming things like being and need and the rest.

  3. Before apostrophe, before the sounded "O" is caught up in any further alphabetizing of the vocative, Romantic poetry begins with a sigh. It is only then that lexical borders might start giving way to each other, as when Shelley's first summoning juncture faintly anticipates the second-person "thou." Romantic poetry begins with a sigh. I repeat more than myself. For "German poetry," I've put Romantic, but only to paraphrase the first sentence of Friedrich Kittler's Discourse Networks (3). He means Goethe, not the preludic and breath-born(e) launch of Wordsworth's "Oh there is a blessing in this gentle breeze," where the deictic "this" serves almost to demonstrate the poem's own aspirant impetus. The reader of Wordsworth's Prelude may well hope the blessing is contagious, there and then in the forced-air burst of the so-far breezy enough "Oh." For his part, Kittler's best evidence comes immediately with Schiller's two-line poem "Language." Its compressed point is that there can be no direct communion from spirit to spirit. A medium is required. "Once the soul speaks, then, oh!, it is no longer the soulthat speaks" (3). Only words can discourse. Even the primal uprush of Schiller's "Ach!" (whose onomatopoetic alternate is "Oh" in German too) has begun the move from voice to language. That's why, for instance, in a classic modernist formulation that has all of Romantic philology to draw on, the phenomenology of the Logos in Joyce is never more than a phonemanon, anonymous, Babelized (258). Even divine fiat disappears into what it releases, what is let be by its speaking forth. So with each and every manifestation of (rather than in) language. "O" may record or at least interpret the soul's speech, but it is never the soul speaking, never the instance of a speaking soul.

  4. Thus this essay, because of rather than despite that recognition. The undertones one hears in poetry or prose—as for instance in Romantic poetry and its attenuated strains within Victorian fiction—are not those of the speaking subject, let alone of the expressive soul, but language's own: imprinted phonemically by textual event according to the formative oscillations of wording itself. They are, to lift a Wordsworthian coinage from the 1805 version of The Prelude, a lurking "underpresence" (bk. 13, l. 71) in the weft of phrase—a borrowing from this romantic mastertext licensed only if the phrasing sheds completely its immediate metaphysical context in the visionary moment that "feeds upon infinity" in manifesting its "sense of God" (the former phrasing retained in the 1850 version [bk. 14, l. 71]), though "underpresence" and its deification were dropped. Maybe "under" seemed wrong for the transcendental uplift at stake. In any case, the thematic sustenance offered by the wash and undertow of sound is quite different from any such funding of higher "presence" from beneath consciousness. We are concerned simply, at the lexical level, with the nonabsent—with collocations percolating beyond the given. At transient rest in sheer potential, unselected by the inscriptive gestures of diction but not thereby cancelled entirely, these effects are not to be written out by textual encounter just because they are left invisible. Even as relinquished formations, they retain the gesture of their lingual possibility. Call them cognitively imprinted without being written. As such, they may resound in silence upon the inner ear of reading.

  5. And in ways that plumb only the renewable energies and bottomless options—rather than any stable ground—of speech. "Ach" stands as the lower limit in German of voice enlisted, made letteral, as discourse, sound made not just sensed but sensible—what Agamben calls in the etymological sense "literalized" ("Philosophy and Linguistics" 65). With Shelley's drawing in English on those interchangeable speech sounds "O" and "Oh," his ode momentarily arrests that move into literalization, into discourse, or pretends to, in a cross-lexical alphabetic suspension—even in the very fashioning of its first signifying transit; and even in the equivocation of its monosyllabic letter sounds. Shelley does not say "Oh! There is a wild west wind," still less "OH there is a blessing in the blast," let alone "Ach!" What his initial expansion of the O matrix does, instead, is to put us on early alert to the link between minimal utterance and its dream of intersubjective communication through speech. For his opening move—in which "Oh" would have been a feasible if less canonic alternative (fully licensed by the dictionary)—is a line that negotiates in process between the vocal base line of expressive oralilty, on the near hand, and, at expression's farthest reach, the vocative asymptote of natural communion with inanimate energy. Shelley's speaker as scriptor hovers, in other words, on the very cusp of wording, between an eruptive "O(h)" and the transitional "O-W" on its way to the widened diphthong of "thou."

  6. Apart from genre tendencies, the point of departure would have been equivalent in English orthography: "Oh" or "O." Each is available as interjection and vocative alike—as exclamation or a (resultant) summons to audition, clamor or claim, pealing or appeal, calling out or calling to. Just as one might say that "ah" inheres in as well as preceding the word "Mama," so, in this leading genre of Romanticism, is there always a phantasmal "Oh" embedded in the address of every odic shorthand "O." And not just as the linguistic mystification of sound grounding a word, noise an enunciation, sigh a sign—but as a moan of solitude transmuted to communication. Transmuted, rather than ever directly transmitted. That targeted "O" is only the special case, of course, of an underlying fact in this regard. Lyric's raw phonemic matter precedes and equips every strophe as well as the odd apostrophe.

  7. Working out of a subjectivity theory where the discursive self is indicated but never anchored by the linguistic shifter, Jonathan Culler, in his influential essay "Apostrophe," has shown how lyric address of this sort is always a kind of projective self-expression (135-54). But this is also true at the phonic as well as the psychological level, where ontologies of self and other get embroiled in phonologies of enunciation. Or, in other words, where philosophy (Hegel via Heidegger to Agambem) confronts linguistics on the absent ground of being. The silent phonemic mark d-o-g appears precisely where the animal isn't, and at the same time carries as inscription no noise, let alone bark, of its own.[1] Likewise, "wind" has on the page no "breath," coming or going. In both cases, dog and wind, voice is gone from speech as much as from the spoken.

  8. Operating still within an axiom of subjective presence, Shelley's poem nevertheless spells out the logic of projective expression as a manifest wish-fulfillment. That, and something more elementary into the bargain: not just a rhetorical vaunt but a phonetic vector as well. The inanimate wind can be spoken to only because it is a willed aspect of the subject—or is wished (fantasized) to be. Between first and third person, between grammatical interjection and descriptive projection—in other words, between the merely expressive "O(h)" and its full-blown apostrophic uptake—comes the immediate middle term of formalized address. But such vocative wording emerges there as a homophone of presence itself, the voice degree zero. Phonic and emphatic before actively phatic, making noise before contact, the monosyllabic sigh at the core of all Romantic sonority is a phonic surge before it can be coded as a monosyllabic signal in some discursive circuit with the Other: in the present case of Shelley's Ode, a mere animal venting before it can be enchained in any dream of spiritual ventilation.

     

    Voices / Voice Is / Voice Says: Beneath the Metaphysical Spectrum

  9. Kittler is quick to spot the "O!" ("Ach") in Schiller's title "Spr-ach-e" (3). Yet what his analysis skips over entirely in Schiller's second line might best be glossed by a more recent theorist of vocality, Mladen Dolar, who pays neither Kittler nor poetry the least heed—but who draws intermittently on Agamben's post-dialectical language theory in ways that lead us to the threshold of the latter's revisionary philosophical impulse. We can best close in further on Schiller's German wordplay by circumscribing its implications in advance as follows. Dolar reminds us, following Agamben (and of course Derrida), that voice is exiled not just from text but even from primary orality itself in its capacity as discourse, where the somatic is inevitably subsumed to the semiotic. I reproduce below a trio of Venn diagrams to this effect dispersed across Dolar's chapters. In each diagrammatic case "voice" is the apparent transit zone—or flange-between a presumed interiority and a desired (or enforced) sociality.

    In the first diagram (73), voice connects body with language. In the third (121), and parallel exactly to this transition (once rewritten in Greek) as the channeling of phoné into logos, is the spectrum running, let's say, from a general zoology of animal life to the biographical possibility of definition as a self, a social being. Life becomes a subject, which is always to say a social subject, strictly by the avenue of speech. Here, for Dolar, zoe achieves bios only through—or better to say (and we'll come back to this adjustment momentarily), only by passing through—voice. This is the sense of voice that, in the middle diagram (103), locates the audible interface between subject and Other.

  10. But here is where we must stand back. The overlaps involved in all these schema seem at a glance more neutral and even-handed than in fact Dolar wants to show, so that his title, A Voice and Nothing More, is almost a (deliberate?) false lead in the setting out, before the full setting forth, of his argument. As clarified by my own reconfiguration below, speech suppresses by definition exactly the brute sonics of voice that its own phonics (taken up as logos)—its own discourse in transmission—may be mistaken to release. Where there is language, "a voice no more," rather than "a voice and nothing more," would be closer to the result.

    When voice passes over into intelligible speech, the carrier of meaning is linguistic, not acoustic. Sound goes mute exactly when "voice" is metaphorized as the force of language. Or, pressing harder on the third of his diagrams, say that speech is the alien Other within voice that robs it of body. Not even symbiotic: just alien, invasive. Every language act is the erasure of voice, its suppression by meaning. Dolar so far. But no farther.

  11. Hence the point of this essay. The armature of meaning, differential at its linguistic base, remains malleable, edged with its own othering, slippery and relativistic. The differential system that rules out voice from the byplay of linguistic signification is therefore an oscillatory mechanism through which voice itself may seem to stage its phantom evanescent renewal. Literary evidence on this point concerns the way voice returns from its requisite linguistic suppression by wording only in subvocal reading. Thus Schiller's turn, in the capping line of his famous distich: " . . . so spricht, ach! schon die Seel nicht mer" ("so speaks, oh!, no longer the soul"; emphasis added). Note the poet's elision of subjectivity when the skewed echo of the ach is picked out equally in the lost Ich of the first person and its own negation with nicht. In such fading in and out of differences there can be no voiced identity, only its phonemes in dispersal.

  12. So, too, in Shelley's Ode and its first- and second-person singulars en route to fusion in ". . . Be thou, spirit fierce, / My spirit (l. 62-63; emphasis added), where enjambment, coasting on assonance, helps distend the appositive into intersubjective identification. No sooner installed, the effect is rephrased by further phonetic transfusion: first in the bracketing internal echo between imperative verb and its internalization as an objectified subject in "Be thou me"; and then in another appositive, turning this time on a four-syllabled punning epithet dilated into an almost conflationary rebus—"impetuous one" for the stormy impetus that turns "you" into "us" as "one." Kittler's larger point about nineteenth-century poetry would emerge here as clearly as anywhere: that in place of the soul's speech, poetry tries incorporating nature itself as muse. And the days of this effort are numbered.

     

    Lyric vs. Vampiric Ear

  13. With his argument bookended, in effect, by Goethe and Bram Stoker, Kittler could be taken to claim that in Dracula the womblike maternal orality that forms the basis of literacy training and the literary muse alike in the romantic discourse of 1800 must, a century later, return to the tomb of mute transcription. This would be a death indexed most notably by the puncture wounds of typography (and their demoted female agency in the new secretarial pools), a death of voice necessary to battle a vampiric transgression of mortality on its own terms. Though not quite spelled out by Kittler, the economy is remorseless. Just as the vampire's giving multilingual tongue to his desire is a speech from beyond life's natural bounds, so he must be bested by a death-defying lifelessness of inscription. What reaches beyond the grave must be recontained by the virtually engraved. The stroke of each typewriter key would become in this sense another nail in the monster's coffin. But only if the letter of text can be trusted.

  14. So we get a quite tangential reminder of even writing's shape-changing instability in the capture and conveyance of fact. At one point Jonathan Harker complains in his own longhand rather than shorthand journal, and thus in standard alphabetic succession, about being misled by the (quote) "phonetic spelling" of a Cockney workman-sending him on a wild ghoul chase to Poter's court rather than Potter's court (Stoker 314). Most readers, and precisely because they subvocalize in the production of a text, are likely to be taken momentarily aback by this thumbnail sketch of a dysfunctional orthography. In this first of two orthographic false leads, a purely scriptive mistake is evident in the man's semi-literate writing. It is only Jonathan's reading that could properly be called "phonetic." A more typical example follows. Jonathan is on guard now, only momentarily thrown off by the transliterated spelling, and quickly decodes "depite," despite itself, as "deputy": the common name that allows him to track down another informant. Mishearing the u as i while thinking to turn the long-e sound of y into a rebus of itself: these more closely resemble the slips accused under the usual heading of "phonetic spelling."

  15. By contrast, the mistaking of "Poter" for "Potter" has been yet more revealing as a limit case in the default of orthographic literacy—and as a potential threat to an empiricist dossier on the elusive nosferatu. Derrida might well have ghost-written this passage, or even, less anachronistically, Saussure. The scribble that includes "Poter" doesn't testify to a difference in sound between one and two t's. A doubled consonant in English does nothing to the sound of either component. Its effect is entirely differential, grammatological—not acoustical. The unactivated sound change that results is deferred back to the preceding vowel, which is thus differentiated phonetically by a mark outside itself. The misspelling of the single t, in short, is a graphic miscue that changes the phonemic weight of an adjacent vowel within a strictly letteral code. I belabor the obvious only because Stoker has flagged in passing, though under unusual thematic pressure, the mismatch between phonemes and morphemes overburden by its preoccupation with linguistic transcription—somatic, mechanical, telegraphic, phonographic, and so on. A commonplace phonetic spelling of "Potter's" would be "Pa(h)ter's" or even "Pawders." Most of all, perhaps, what Jonathan trips over here, and we stumble upon by momentary metatextual conundrum, measures the increased (if still only relative) freedom from phonetic ambiguity toward which the scripts and typescripts, to say nothing of the dictaphone rolls, of his own vampire-tracking "discourse network" so obsessively aspire.

  16. Nothing could mark more clearly the difference between Shelley and Stoker—between the rhapsodic sublime and the paranoid meticulous; or between lyric vocation and discursive networking—than this policing of the phonetic by the graphic, including its momentary, though nervous and diverting, lapses. But "phonetic spelling" aside, phonemic reading is inevitable, even if only as a kind of transmissive static in the scriptive network—and can sometimes be recruited for rhetorical rather than informational results. So that, even in Stoker (no Shelleyian phonologist he), we come upon the last clause in Mina Harker's journal, with its lament over Quincey Morris's death. As if elegized by long i's pillowed upon sibilance, "with a smile and silence, he died"—itself a kind of sylleptic slipped gear for "with a smile and in silence." Accompanied by a simultaneous fourfold exclamation from the other vampire hunters of the closural "Amen" (pronounced "Ah-men" by the dead American's British survivors), this is exactly the way men should die, their souls leaving their bodies behind rather than dragging those bodies with them into a perverse mouthing from beyond the grave, whether vocal output or vampirical intake. And I'm thinking here of Mladen Dolar's emphasis, out of Deleuze and Guattari, on the reciprocal relation of eating and speech, translated via Freud into the overlapping zones, respectively, of drives and desire (186-87): the urge seeking satisfaction and the void that names it (for Deleuze and Guattari, the "starving" that is the speech it leads to). This is the same Dolar whose resolute emphasis on voice should lead us back to the philosophic crux of self-nomination in Agamben, where, too, "men" would never be present as constituted beings in the "ah" of an appeal even to the Logos, the self never anchored in prayer any more than in any other kind of enunciation.

  17. In this way discussion will be brought alongside Agamben's heuristic search for a potentiality in self-voiced existence that survives the discredited metaphysics of Voice per se. Along a parallel path, literary examples lead us to what we might term a fully deconstructed phontology, where linguistics and philosophy, having emptied out each other's assumptions, might thus relaunch themselves together from a shared crux and crisis. At which point, however, Agamben would seem, so we'll find, to have given over his emphasis on voice, whose role—and with it, for us, that of subvocally engaged textuality—seems no longer directly engaged by a philosophy of the potential. Why not? How might it be otherwise? Why is the valorization of a contingency beyond necessity, as we'll see Agamben defining it, not routed back through the heightened literary convolutions of "phonetic spelling" after all, in instances more ambitious and self-searching than that of Stoker's Cockney botcher? That's where the evidence of this essay would come in, not smuggling back anything like a metaphysical Voice, to be sure, but giving vocality a fresh hearing on the Q.T.-the quiet of its own subvocal performance.

  18. The nature of this quiet remains a Romantic (if only to say as well a post-Romantic) question. Somewhere between Faust's bartered lease on life and the Count's countless days—between the poet seeking an immortality in phrased voice that he thinks will compensate for his soul's fate and the damned polyglot soul so committed to leaving his body's imprint that poetic justice requires his being hounded down by textual inscription—somewhere between these poles falls the watershed Victorian moment of a long if ultimately posthumous Romanticism. Somewhere between the reign of lyricism's organic music and a subsequent anti-somatic archive of the living dead falls, as well, the nineteenth-century legacy of textual sound play. Or put it down to the distance between Keats's "This Living Hand"—with its figuration of hand-writing activated from beyond the tomb by reading (and itself a fragment not coming to light until the last decade of the nineteenth century, returned to haunt literary history from the much visited grave of Romanticism)—and Stoker's transcribed Undead. In this respect, we might want to take the nosferatu in his late-Victorian treatment as a veritable caricature of potentiality (in the debased mode of sheer organic recylement). If so, then the collaged chain of texts that isolates and curtails his self-resurgent momentum in Stoker's novel becomes in its turn a deliberate lampoon, and a strategic suppression, of everything figured elsewhere in Romantic verse as the shape-shifting thing "about to be." For under Romanticism the promise set forth, sent forth, even by the inevitable deferrals of any and all wording is everywhere recognized—rather than as the mere undead—to be something not yet let live, an aspect of existence awaiting rather than posthumously resumed. The relevant binary: not dead matter versus living spirit but, as we'll see in comparable terms via Agamben, the undead versus the potential—the latter enacted as such in the self-forged nexus of verbalism's always partially contingent linkages.

     

    Acoustical Ink, Oneiric Hearing

  19. Conjuring a paradoxical voice out of life's final silence, Thomas Hardy also seems to be evoking the Undead at the lower limit of humanizing speech, where the primal "ach" of romantic poetry ends up spoken paradoxically by the soul after all—in the absence of body, and thus only from the space of death—in the eponymous first line of "Ah are you digging on my grave." Breath itself is melodramatized in summoning the so-called verb of being. Again, this groan or sigh is literally a far "cry" from Wordsworth's opening line in The Prelude, "Ah, there is a blessing in the gentle breeze," which is closer in spirit—and suspiration—to the Faustian "ach" in Kittler's epoch of the organic muse. But by 1850 "Goethe in Weimar sleeps." Thus opens, by lamentory inversion, Matthew Arnold's "Memorial Verses". Wordsworth's tempered voice has gone from the world, too. And it is the subsequent mourning for two English romantics in this same poem, Wordsworth following Byron, that gets more than its share of the prelinguistic "Ah"—and with it a subtextual roiling of further elegiac energy at the phonemic level.

  20. "And Wordsworth! Ah, pale ghosts, rejoice!" (l. 34). He is yours now, ". . . and ye, / Ah, may ye feel his voice as we!" (ll. 40-41). Whether mere inversion or the forced march of wishful thinking, the turn of these of awkward, halting (hence, rhetorically, all the more heart-felt?) lines obligates the pause on which it pivots. Given the tmesis of that neo-Goethean "Ah," the "may ye feel" is almost an accidental phonemic shadow of the telescoped alternative, "ye, Ah, may feel"—with the elision of the second "ye" more economical, to be sure, if less breathily felt. As written, the diphthongization is a kind of threnody in its own right. More slowly than otherwise, this long sighing inscription offers the deathless poet, unbodied, to the realm of immortality, where some may feel his power as much "as we". . . as we did, as we do. Voice itself is figured as somatic (palpable) in these lines, not linguistic, but only by poetic license—and along a sliding scale of displacement. The mystification is all but transparent. The Romantic laureate is to be felt beyond the grave by the Victorians, and by their own poet, not in the wispy or whispering touch of his breathed words but in the abstract feelings generated from the written traces of their prophetic aura of aurality.

  21. All but transparent, as I say, this figurative ruse. And yet out of the present "feel" of produced sounds comes something more, or at least something other. For by an entirely unscripted and strictly phonemic enjambment, the closural "as we!"—so abrupt and lumpen on the page—yields to the melancholy "He too upon a wintry clime / Had fallen" (ll. 42-43, with "He" in a disorienting slant rhyme with the cross-linear iteration "and ye, / Ah, may ye" just before). Yet in precisely this jostling of succession, that wintry decline and fall of the precursor is already redeemed by the previous linear drop, despite the attempted brake of the exclamation mark. By phonetic traction alone, one may say, the Wordsworthian gift lingers on, virtual still, into its aftermath in "Ah, may ye feel his voice as we (!)/ (H)e t/oo. . . ." I know no precedent, even in the comic runs of Byronic rhyme, for such a four-word monosyllabic liaison—this unwieldy oronym—yet it is strongly urged upon the ear by the otherwise jolting truncation, syllabic and grammatical both, of the echoic "as we!"[2] And certainly the point is instantly recuperable by an ongoing sense of Wordsworth's "soothing voice" (l. 35): the point, in short, that in the afterlife of its production (figured here as the otherworld of his transumption) its strictly textual—but not therefore silenced—timbre will remain "as sweet too" as it was (and is) for us.

  22. I spoke hastily a moment ago. For I can in fact think of four monosyllables operating in something like this extreme cross-lexical mode of phonetic play, not in Romantic or Victorian poetry, or even in English, but in the French title of a linguistic treatise. It is very much in unmentioned keeping with a Romantic aesthetic of dream speech that Dolar's passing stress on the phonetic play lurking at the heart of structuralist linguistics should be linked to the precincts of unconscious dreamplay, jokes, and double entendres in Freud. For the grand metaphonetic punning of Roman Jakobson's French title, Six leçons sur le son et le sens (Dolar 146; emphasis mine)—and hopelessly lost in translation in the MIT edition, Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning—finds mention in Dolar's chapter on voice and psychoanalysis, "Freud's Voices," as an instance of the phonetic repressed of signification and its now facilitated, now blocked returns. In its homophonic recursions, the triple soundplay also happens to be a clear example of Jakobson's "poetic function," where echo is mapped upon an overdetermined succession according to the beat, in certain instances, of a dreamlike code.

  23. Such, too, if you will, is the connection in Keats between "Sleep and Poetry"—with its early examples of what Susan Wolfson, in her introduction, has detected for us as the phonemic dormancy in Keatsian script: a veritable "sound asleep."[3] And not least because that early poem by Keats climaxes with the spirit of poetry trying, like Kittler's Faust, or Shelley for that matter in his breathless Ode, to hear in the manifestations of nature the inspiration for its own speech. We begin with Sleep personified as a "Low murmurer," the adjectival effect rounded off almost comically by the next line's last word in "pillows" (ll.11-12). In her own edition of Keats, as it happens, without mention of her "sound asleep" paradigm, Wolfson notes how, in the erotic braidwork of the next line's "Silent entangler of a beauty's tresses!" (ll. 14-15), one hears the "poetic wit" of metrical "stresses" as well (33). Then, too, beyond this cross-lexical effect, there is the adjective's quiet anagrammaticization in the immediately following line, where "silent entangler" telescopes under conversion to "listener"—sleep apostrophized as if overhearing its own wordplay. In the same vein, in light of the synonym rest for sleep in Keats's epigraph, we may find further anagrammed in "tresses" exactly what sleep most deeply shares with poetry, besides the visions generated and sustained by each: namely, the recurrent rhythm of rest after stress. For it is in the hum and tumble of phonetic rather than strictly graphic anagrams—rather than in the slide from long to short i, hard to mute t, in silent listen—that reading comes upon the quintessential literary moment nonetheless so named.

  24. When Keats's poem waxes Shelleyan toward the end, the chariot of poetic flight encounters the visionary shapes it seeks by converting the previous phonatory "l-o-w" of oneiric audition to the exclamatory and forcefully open-mouthed "Lo! How they murmur." Simultaneously, the charioteer, in Keats's rhyming wordplay, appears as "bent" on (and in the very posture of) transcribing them as is the dreaming spirit similarly "intent" to audit them in his turn. At this juncture, a juncture both narrative and lexical, the visionary chauffeur "seems to listen: O that I might know / All that he writes with such a hurrying glow" (ll. 153-54), where the familiar epithet of whispered presence ("low") may seem detached at the end, extraneous to all syntax, as a kind of dying fall to the passage beginning "Lo!" If so, that is only a trivial aftereffect to the telling cross-lexical skid—the carefully timed d/rift—just before, where our own listening, cued by that within the poem, springs an unwritten but decisive rhyme. For it is here that the interjective "O" of sheer pre-apostrophic exclamation (at the core of "Lo!" before it) appears to suggest that pure audition might—across the caesura, the epistemological gap itself—become cognition as smoothly as the phonetic ligature at "listen: O" releases the verbal alter ego of "(k)n-ow."

  25. With the full-blown Shelleyan verse that this early pastiche by Keats so cannily anticipates, instances of phonetic reading proliferate in the visionary Triumph of Life. The reflexive line that impugns the "sceptre bearing line" (l. 268) of violence transforms its word for sword, by phonetic anagram, and across the grammar of hendiadys, when the effect of conquest is said to "spread the plague of blood and gold." Inevitability per se seems coiled upon itself in this alphabetic reknotting of s(c)ept(d)r into spred(t). Another partial phonetic anagram marks the fleeting reconfiguration, rather than the implacable consequence, of cause and effect in "Glimmers, forever sought, forever lost" (l. 431). Given this, one seizes the shimmering moment, as with the visionary "wind-winged pavilion" of the sky's arched dome (l. 442). This stratospheric aegis of inspiration triggers a further heady (and dizzying) syntax of vertical hierarchy and enjambment: ". . . underneath (th') aetherial glory clad / the wilderness" (ll. 442-43). No sooner, that is, does "etherial glory" seem glancingly posited on the phonemic run as "the"—localized and transcendentally contained as its own cynosure, comprising that sublime height beneath which something is further to be located—than the prepositional valence of "underneath" shifts to a new adverbial sense, modifying the transitive verb "clad." Now the canopied glory is realized to rain its glow on the whole subtending world, pervading it by insistent echo, eath/eth, even while effacing the spectral definite article in this transfusion.

  26. Via Kittler once more, the Faustian (Goethean) bargain—trading one's mute soul for the voice of poetry—comes true yet again in an oralized alphabetic writing resembling nothing so much as the metonymic skids of the unconscious. All of which can lead, as we know, to nightmare as well as to visionary relief, even in this same poem, when the early "waking dream" initially discloses a vast human "crowd"—the jostling mob of modernity itself—pictured (with the forced air of phonemic friction) to be "half fainting in the affliction of vain breath" (l. 61). Not only does the dislodged morpheme ain seem emerging as an dreamlike root of vanity and dimmed consciousness alike, but in turn this frittered energy takes shape in the phonemic switchback of lexical "motions which each other crost" (l. 62). In the unconscious energy field of phonemic circuitry and its short-outs within the subvocal production of literary meaning, the double-cross can precipitate a visionary option or knot off an ironic one.

     

    The Victorian Turn: Toward a Full-Voweled Novel

  27. So far, given this session's gathering of Romanticists as audience (and leaving the brief remarks on Arnold and Stoker and Hardy aside), I've mostly been preaching, or at least intoning, to the converted. On, instead, to Victorian prose. No matter how consonant with romantic themes at the discursive level, the further indebtedness of later fictional language to Romantic experiment can only be told in the voweled curvature as well as the consonantal strokes of its patterned enunciations. Theme is only a precipitant. It is no surprise to say that, like Shelley's or Keats's, Dickens's social vision can at times seem like a waking nightmare, as with the fricative fever and fret of Little Dorrit's last dozen words, their forced-air consonants (recalling "affliction of vain breath" in Shelley) jostling each other as "the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed" in the London rat race. Respite comes, as one might expect with Dickens, in equally phonemic terms, floated upon (in that same paragraph) the sibilant, assonant, and iambic bonding of "inseparable and blessed" to describe the union of the title figure and Arthur Clennam, the man whose fetishistic vision of her impoverishment has seen her until now as a "youthful figure with tender feet going almost bare on the damp ground, with spare hands ever working" (bk. II, ch. 27).

  28. Recovering from fever in prison, the autumnal Clennam "sat listening to the voice"—Little Dorrit's voice—as it read to him" and "heard in it" (bk. II, ch. 34) much of comfort. We notice that he is not said to have audited her exactly, let alone her words, but instead to have sensed in its vocal aura, heard in rather than from it, "all that great Nature was doing"—including at the end "the harvests of tenderness and humility that lie hidden in the early-fostered seeds of the imagination." And so on, Wordsworth by the numbers. But there is also a Keatsian or Shelleyan phonology at work in this, as well as the Wordsworthian tropology. Such is the naturalized harmonics not simply sealed tight by the inverted cognate object of "songs  . . . sings" but conveyed along a cadenced phonic slope all its own—like the descent of grace itself—from the bonded vocalic plateau of "great Nature" through the interlaced assonance of "doing . . . soothing" and "all . . . songs" across the rolling iambic declension of vowel tones in "all the soothing songs she sings to men"—with a(h)men the very bracket of this phonetic span. Only Tennyson, among the Victorians, could top this descrescendo with the almost alphabetic rebus of sounded letters in the cosmic trope of "Aeonian music measuring out" (st. 95)—pacing off not just the "steps of time" but the metaharmonic intervals of nature's own scalar duration. With Tennysonian phonemics epitomized by example in this same stanza, the "silent-speaking words" of text, in this case the letters of the dead, give virtual voice to silence rather than merely speaking from it. They do so by lexical wrinkles like the paradoxical "silence-speaking" itself of this same junctural ligature. In Dickens, too, mute typography comes not alive but aloud. This is not paradox or mystification; it is merely a figure of speech for the way speech is somatically refigured in the suppressed articulation of the silent reader.[4]

  29. Such are aural resources that a Tennysonian syllabic ironist like Dickens can elsewhere mobilize, and in the context of epochal dissonance rather than the restorative harmony of Little Dorrit, when, in describing the roar of a locomotive in Dombey and Son, he generates, beyond onomatopoeia, a kind of phonetic Doppler effect of descending vowel tones in the horrific machine's "shrill yell of exultation." Apart from mimetic phonetics like this, an opposite thinning out of vowel tones can be used to mark the blinkered (or sonically baffling) suppression of the very engines of progress, and their laboring noise, in a passage like the following from Conrad. It is one that looms large for Fredric Jameson's political (rather than phonemic) reading of the hero's latter-day Romanticism in Lord Jim and its aestheticizing—and anestheticizing—effect. The tones are familiar ones, compact of assonance, alliteration, and their metered even keel:

    . . . . the violent slam of a furnace-door, exploded brutally, as if the men handling the mysterious things below had their breasts full of fierce anger; while the slim high hull of the steamer went on evenly ahead, without a sway of her bare masts, cleaving continuously the great calm of the waters under the innaccessible serenity of the sky. . . ." (214, ch. 12).[5]
    Combining Mladen Dolar's passing Freudian schema with Jameson's abiding Marxist one, we might say of a passage like this that the unconscious of voice itself—its lost organicist mythos—surfaces from inscription along with the attempted return, from beneath the simultaneous meliorations of euphony, of a repressed political unconscious. If so, the euphony is, for Conrad, not just thoroughly but almost allusively Romantic. Think back to Shelley's dead Adonais as he "takes" his rhymed "fill / Of deep and liquid rest, forgetful of all ill" (Adonais; st. 7), obliterating thereby all conscious recognition of the "f all" into mortality itself, which only darkens the line on the slant—and no more so than does the "love" ("l of") that elegically redeems it. Amid such phrasing's chiastic (f-ul [l])o-f) and cross-lexical repletions, the threefold vocallic onset of "of all ill" could hardly, in the alliterative smoothing-over of its enforced rhythmic pulse, make the "liquid rest" designated by Shelley sound more like a technical phonetic description.
  30. But no text of Victorian fiction puts the flow and reflux of phonetic play under more stringent requisition, as the very rescue action of plot itself, than does George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss. In the process, Eliot goes Goethe one better. Remember Faust in Kittler caught worrying about how to translate into German "In the beginning was the Word." Eliot tries backdating the crisis in order to evade it. In The Mill on the Floss, romantic consciousness defines itself as always and already a translation of nature as langue: a Wordsworthian "language of the sense" thus paraphrased by Eliot as "the mother-tongue of the imagination" (bk. 1, ch. 5). Beyond examples I've noted elsewhere of Eliot's subvocal and cross-lexical effects in this novel, there is a kind of summary instance in the heroine's being described with "an ear straining after dreamy music that died away and would not come near to her" (bk. 3, chap. 5), with the contrapuntal play on straining—the effect (yearning) of an absent cause (harmonious strains)—serving to override, or overwrite, the hint of "near" in "an ear" (235).[6] As any reader senses, this musical undertext leads inexorably toward Maggie Tulliver's lethal infatuation with Stephen Guest's unctuous baritone voice, which plays, Aeolian-harp-like, upon the heroine's "highly-strung, hungry nature," where, to mix instrumental metaphors, Eliot's phrasing pulls out all the glottal stops with its anagrammatic shuffle of r-ung into ung-r and even, kinesthetically, with the empty swallowing the whole phrase requires. Again (in Deleuzian terms): to speak is to starve. More to the point, I might sound out the gist of this paper so far by calling back a Romantic contrast to such Victorian prose. Put it that Eliot's "strung hungry" is Shelley's "underneath etherial" under the further narrative pressure of romantic irony.

  31. In Eliot, the character closest to Maggie has premonitions of her end that might be called phonemically figured. Tapping again the relation of language to the unconscious, of sleep to poetry, her disappointed suitor Philip has a nightmare prefiguration of her elopement with Stephen, dreaming in lubricious glottal pulsations that "Maggie was slipping down a glistening, green, slimy channel of a waterfall, till he was awakened by what seemed a sudden, awful crash" (bk. 6, ch. 8). Though merely the sound of a door slamming open, the awfulness drops back into his dream as an partial anagram of the precipitating "waterfall." And when disaster approaches in waking life, the same liquid, gutteral ligatures figure it in echo of its premonition. Drifting down the river in silence, the lovers indulge, by velar and glottal tension as well as ethical laxity, in a "grave untiring gaze" of reciprocated desire that seems released from the phonemic chiasm of "solitude" and "twofold" (bk. 7. ch. 13). This time the snare of participial juncture is smoothly mutual and binding, rather than viscous and thickening—as in Philip's vision of a "glistening green" waterfall. Yet no less treacherous. For in the further moral as well as syllabic riptide of this seductive fixation, such a blinkering "gaze" envelopes the oblivious couple, only a few lines later, in an "enchanted haze" that is also, by the lapsarian slackening of ethical vigilance (and the drifting dental sound of "d"), a spiritual "d (h)aze" as well, rapidly disenchanted. Liaison is the problem at the linguistic as well as the ethical level.

  32. To resist it, however, produces a brutal recoil from desire, for just before the implacable death of Maggie that such metaphors prefigure, "anxiety . . . beat on her poor heart in a hard, d/riving, ceaseless storm of mingled love, remorse and pity (bk. 7, ch. 2). Erotic denial operates to convert a natural beating of to a traumatic beating upon the heart in a partly anagramatized "storm" of "remorse" that is also an inner riving even before the swollen river takes the heroine down. And in a further dead-ended turn from the same paragraph, again the fricatives of a hemmed-in life so chafe against Maggie in her blocked progress that vibratory soundplay stiffens to irony under the seemingly insistent, even when ungrammatical, double negation "never." For: "It seemed as if every sensitive fibre in her were too entirely preoccupied by pain ever to vibrate again to another influence" (bk. 7, ch. 2). From the midst of Victorian melodrama, phrasing has at this point, among its other effects, a Romantic exactitude in the prepositional relation of self to the world outside it, a relation that goes beyond the keenly plucked imitative echo of "fibre" in "vibr. . . ."[7] For the heroine's despair comes from feeling not that she will never fall "under another influence," but, less passively (and less idiomatically), that she will never "vibrate" (as in resonate) to such an influence—in the full sense of sympathetic vibration.

  33. By the time the literal storm arrives, its floodtide "depths" have become a dead metaphor for her brother's final recognition of her love, only to recur as a subvocal epithet of vocality itself, not only in Tom's "deep hoarse voice" as he is "loosing the oars" (bk. 7, ch. 5) but just before that in the heavy stress of Maggie's "long deep sob." Her all but onomatopoetic cry harbors again (typography aside) that primal "ah" or "ach" of Kittler's romanticism, offering an inarticulate signified to the sublimed unitary homophone of Eliot's coming signifier in designating it as "a sob of that mysterious wondrous happiness that is one with pain." Beyond insinuating the "pain" anagrammatically back into "happiness," such is a victory not only at one with, but won from, ruin.

  34. Without paying the final price of death, Dorothea Brooke has her own victory deliberated at the end of Middlemarch in a way that thematizes the very "medium" (Eliot's word via Hegel) of human life, akin to Tennyson's "element" in the closing stanza of In Memoriam:

           One God, one law, one element,
           And one far-off divine event,
    To which the whole creation moves.

    Moving to time's divine beat in both rhythmic and teleological senses, Romantic pantheism is recast by Tennyson not only as a cosmic masterplot but also as a pan-euphonic suffusion: a kind of phonocentrism writ large. Here, the primal "O" or "ah" of subapostrophic interjection seems hidden in the very principle of duration, as hypostasized in the appositional "one God, one law," and then taken up in chiastic echo within the effortless tip-toe alliteration of the chiastic "far-off divine event." The phonemic common denominator this time: "awe" itself, four times re-sounded in its eschatological chord changes. The open-ended "something ever more about to be" in Wordsworthian Romanticism finds here its more orthodox Victorian curtailment. Last things are immanent in the compensatory revelations of grief. The titles say it all. What was once no more than preludic is here vouchsafed in memoriam. To anticipate our closing return to the concepts of Agambem, Victorian potentialism (if I may coin that term) has channeled the prophetic strain of Romantic verse into a straitened perfectionism with clear teleological horizons.

  35. A similar socialization of potential operates in George Eliot, though without the Christian vector. Compared to Tennyson, her inestimably more modest but equally self-elemented textual incrementation of historical destiny at the close of Middlemarch begins in the imagination of other secular ordeals presenting (and notice the vocalic escalation) a "far sadder sacrifice"—with an interlaced echoism now taking over—"than that of the Dorothea whose story we know." In Dorothea's case—thanks to narrative, and as emblemized by this pervasive fourfold assonance—personality seems altogether continuous with our knowledge of it, and this across the very "medium," medially refigured here, of alphabeticized story (even though "the medium" in which the "ardent deeds" of earlier heroines like Antigone and St. Theresa "is forever gone").

  36. Despite being fenced-in by provincial constraints, "still" (that unstable adverb) Dorothea's impact persists: nonetheless, and even yet, spaced out across the double fold of symmetricalized i sounds: "Her finely touch spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible." To suggest the subtle pervasiveness of her aura, mention of its spread is carried in turn lexically and syntactically as well as phonetically. For "the effect of her being. . . " Here we would expect something like a participial complement: of her being there; of her being always alert to the needs she meets; of her being so grand of heart. Instead: it is "her being," her existence, that is a power in itself: a form of presence needing no epithetical content.[8] For the sentence rounds itself out by rounding back on its own predicating ontological nomination: "But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive"—as if those last crimped syllabic units themselves were attempting to parcel out and quantify it, before giving up. After all the novel's divisiveness, here diffusiveness.

  37. In the novel's last sentence, too, both "Ill" and "half" seem phonetically cured or otherwise fleshed out by the "full" of "faithfully," even as this phonetic cluster releases, in reverse phonetic pattern, f-l flipped to l-f, the heroically cognate object "life": self-definitional object of subjectivity's own duration. For "that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." This is because, as testified to just above, "the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts." I once heard William Gass mention in passing, and with clear approbation, the deliberate awkwardness of the alliterative phrase "growing good"—by which he no doubt meant to include the snag induced by the middle g. No smooth liaison is permitted, certainly no swift elision.

  38. Yet the diffusive linked progress of Victorian perfectibility seems instinct there nonetheless, grammatically as well as rhythmically, overriding the caesura and all the other shocks and setbacks of progression, not only in the emphatic glottal ligature of "growing good" but in the double semantic bond of the words. Marked by the thickened release of "good" from "growing," what we find inscribed from within narrative time is both a phrase for cumulative social improvement and an asymptote of its visionary teleology as well, Tennyson secularized: the immediate "growing betterment" (participial adjective plus noun) as well as, hard on its heels, the "growing [ultimately] good" (gerund plus adjectival complement) that shadows with visionary optimism all tragic sacrifice. In a compressed pivotal dialectic, the form of Victorian eschatology is formulated coextensively with its own historical force—as, so to say, the inherent "growninghood" of the world. To read it is almost to participate in it: the arduous growing pains of Victorian fiction's own evolution out of Romantic sonority. Or another, and forward-looking way, to put this: the very lexicon has been virtualized.

     

    Evocality: the Phonic Imago

  39. Dolar's The Voice and Nothing More has chapters on the "linguistics of the voice," the metaphysics of the voice, its physics, its ethics, its politics, on Freud's voices, and still in a strictly psychoanalytic vein, of Kafka's. Nothing on the poetics of voice. We made a start at this in my revamped Venn diagram above. But redrawing his set theory as the hierarchical suppression of voice by speech doesn't entirely do the trick. As often happens, Venn diagrams need reconfiguration by the semiotic square. I've given, below, one possible attempt, sprung from Schiller's dichotomy between speech and the spirit's constitutive silence, and overlapped here, vertically, with a variant on the attempt by Kittler's Discourse Networks to map the fundamental Lacanian triad onto nineteenth-century media innovation. It is in this way that, for Kittler, phonography records the Real of the voice, the typewriter inscribes the Symbolic order of discourse, and cinema projects the Imaginary of virtual presence (276-47).[9] You'll note from the italicized categories at the left that I've quietly inserted into the zone of filmic virtuality in that top tier of immanence, instead, the mind's-eye screening (along with the linguistic "flicker effects") of literary reception.

    If voice, in the bottom quadrant of this semiotic square, is the neither/nor of orality and literacy, organic noise without enunciation, even as it locates the repressed basis of each, it finds its unexpected contrary—and potentially its phantasmal return—in the uppermost synthesis of the founding dichotomy. Here, in the "imaginary" of literary mediation, unfolds the rolling image track of the script-generated signified, Saussure's "mental image" and its only slightly discontinuous apperception. It is this shifting frame of imaginative projection across which, as maximized by Romanticism, voice oscillates as the return of the repressed in the unreeling of a discrete alphabetic scroll. And it is there that accidents will happen, often on purpose.

  40. Degrees of enworlding credibility (or mirage) aside, reading shares something of film's power in the phenomenal activation of a fictive (or at least absent) site. But acknowledging as much scarcely exhausts the sense in which the imaginary exceeds in reading the more obviously symbolic status of written language (rather than projected photo frames). One can insist on this, I think, but only if one goes cautiously. When reading engages coded alphabetic symbols and generates through them a poetic setting in the head, or a narrative scenario, the reader has not entered upon the imaginary via some magic auscultation, some occulted relation to a speaking authorial presence. But orality lies latent nonetheless. The reading of arbitrary symbols passes over to mental image even while recirculating through that imaging the reverbs of a silent enunciation necessary in the first place to differentiate symbolic clusters into given word signals (as in setting off "Poter" from "Potter," just for example).

  41. Standard theoretical accounts, in this sense, clamp down on voice too soon. Lower-case it certainly is, that textual voice, but not voided or choked off. Its silenced strains are still in play. Its silence strains, in fact, against lexical constraints, loosing new words en route—or, at the very least, keeping the literary medium in mind, though not strictly in earshot. Even when not sounded out, the phonotext is, we may say, sounded-in: putting any imagined "din" under erasure at least as much as does that scriptive break of juncture in the phrase just italicized. The snags of phonemic sequence cling and linger. Even wholesale aural anagrams grab attention without meeting the eye in a manifest alphabetic shuffle, again sounded-in rather than spelled out. There is no price to be paid in theoretical savvy for noticing this sort of thing, this sorting of the things called lexemes: no sensible skeptic's credential to be surrendered. A salutary leveling of Voice in writing, rooted deep in the currents of postmetaphysical philosophy—or otherwise the deconstruction of the transcendental Word in all its various mystifications—can rightly disenchant the file of the signifier without going so far as to ignore the phonemic enchainment linked by letters but not coterminous with those scripted increments.

  42. The imaginary of literary language thus includes the world it conjures and the phonic insurgence it generates. When these effects seem correlated in the reader's subvocal production of the text, suspended or inward aurality is rendered thematic as well as systemic. In any case, we may say that it is virtualitized: become not the residue but the checked (yet still active) impulse of speech, less vestige than present instigation, an active potential under local constraint. This energy of the phonotext is a possibility lying fallow in the law of the letter—which is to say in the structure rather than the nature of speech. In literary writing, it is a liability in the positive sense, a risk in the form of a dispensation. I spoke above of repressed enunciation and its "potentially phantasmal return."I had better say instead its return as pure potential. In such irrepressible voicings, the generative void sings. This is where deconstructive commentary, to say nothing of media theory, tends to turn a deaf ear. Yet the imaginary phonotext—pulling the symbolic field part of the way back toward the real, and thereby obtruding the fact of sound back into the circulations of sema—eludes Dolar's post-Derridean model, with its arrest of all embodied vocality by an abstracting semiosis. Alphabetic—which is always to say phonemic—reading also falls outside the discourse network reduced to media technology in Kittler. Subtending even the local static of such a network and its inevitable interferences, isolated thereby in the imaginary sonics of phonemic silence (beyond any mechanics of impress), wording goes about its inscriptive work while continuing to reverberate in a toneless undertow not noted by manifest spelling. Accidents, yes, will happen. Accidence too. What lies fallow is as if allowed by the license of the letter under the rule of flaw.  

  43. In such moments we discover, but only by evincing it in ourselves, the productivity of text as subvocal performance. In this way the negative may in fact be paradoxically gainsaid by the inoperable positive. In literary writing, alternative phrasings audibly proliferate. And have their use value. For if subvocal production makes the exchangeable matter of writing a latent manner of speaking after all, virtualizing script as the sheer ongoing possibility (never the present fact) of transmitted utterance—giving thought to such utterance, as it were, rather than giving it voice—then a new conceptual horizon comes into view. Maybe such a Romantic legacy of phonotextual encounter could serve to model and propagate, in its own right, an "indwelling" ethics beyond negativity—as advocated for in other terms, though also by linguistic association, in a writer like Agambem. We're about to gauge the quite specific (if, I suppose, fitly elusive) idea of potentiality in his revisionary enterprise, and in so doing take some measure of the ethical implications of its paradoxical basis in the transgressed law of noncontradiction. But the point of the literary examples so far, as I'm hoping might be already clear, is a not unrelated one.

  44. In terms of communicative chains forged from subacoustical links and phonemic kinks, the negated subjectivity of language, however aesthetically mobilized, is the very source of a textual ethics of intersubjectivity. Think of textual exchange as the mute sociality of reading, a textual commotion born of suspended communion—suspended, not cancelled. Arrested for redirection. The exchanged and commodified text is infused, then, with its peculiar utility in having been drained of all voice. Not just taken up in reading, the phonotext is given over as the reader's for the making. The resultant feedback loop of silent enunciation becomes, in part, an image of myself as Other: not a parasitic incorporation of the Other, as in the often telepathic metaphors of phenomenology, but an offering up of my own body to the energized page, and through it to the reach of thoughts beyond me, thoughts both floated on and plumbed by subvocal soundings. At stake here is not some idealized conversion of inert text to inner text, a founding voice resuscitated by our presence to it, with expression returned to the depths of an anchoring orality. Reading instead produces voice from scratch. We motivate in silence all that can survive and reanimate another's script. Vampires are us—though not so much in intake as by the energies of regeneration. Transforming the negative of the Other's inscription through the half-involuntary force of our subvocal enunciation, we are the Undead of text. Vampires are us, but only because the mouth of the silent reader is needed to sustain the afterlife of writing.

  45. That afterlife—if I may put it this way again, and adduce now the fuller philosophical orientation that would invite it—is writing seen under the paradoxical aspect of its present potential. To explain this requires a review of explanations elsewhere given to a problematic far vaster than literary poetics but not, I think, entirely tangential to it. For Agamben, the problem for metaphysics converges with that of linguistics most obviously around the limits of nomination. Ontology tries declaring and defining the fact of "being" when it can only name it arbitrarily, just as linguistics, in naming "language," never brings the precedent fact of it to light, just its systemic inner workings. In this context, Agamben cites Wittgenstein on the way names fall out of normal discourse as a different kind of function from propositional statement. Quoting the Tractatus: "I can only name objects. . . . I can only speak of them. I cannot assert them" (69). Onomastics is not ontology. This is the conception that we may see Shelley, and the Romantic apostrophe at large, straining to outbid—even as the lyricist of the "O" or "Oh" turns its address back on the subject as a reified self-assertion. To wit, again: "Be thou me, impetuous one." Shelley, in not being satisfied simply to name the "West Wind," but in effect contriving an Ode to it that will personify its energy as coextensive with the speaker's, and hence permit the intersubjective gambit of the poet's own inspirational equivalence with it, tries the impossible task of asserting nature. But neither existence, nor for that matter coexistence, can be proven, let alone manifested, in our names for them. That's where Agamben digs in his heels on the most slippery of ontological grounds.

     

    About "To Be": the Slipstream of Predication

  46. When the study of literature took "the linguistic turn," as we all remember, such are the vagaries of academic and institutional trends that it was Derridean deconstruction and psychoanalysis, not linguistics, that became the interdisciplinary benchmarks for poetics and narrative theory alike. One reason comes clear from Agamben's magisterial review of the "linguistic turn" in philosophy, on the occasion of reviewing new work in language theory by Jean-Claude Milner.[10] For philosophical thought had already taken up the crisis faced independently (or at least separately) by the science of language. Philosophy's millennial assignment to think thought itself—to define the grounds of being-in-the-world in a way that cannot, in fact, be hypostasized as inner voice—finds its close parallel in the far and paradoxical horizon of language theory. Which is to say the challenge, not faced up to (let alone faced down) by linguistics proper, to speak of the fact of language without a metalanguage: to speak voicing itself, the factum loquendi (73). Agamben borrows from Milner to show how linguistics doesn't really take language per se as its object of study, "but only as its axiom" (66). One may say that linguistics has no choice but to presuppose what it can only name (without asserting—or asseverating). As the science of being rather than speaking, ontology takes existence as given in a similar way. It does not in this sense probe to first causes. What comes to the fore, then, is not simply a close parallel between philosophy and linguistics, or even a deep homology. But something more, too.

  47. Agamben arrives just at the brink of acknowledging that the problematic of each discipline comes down to the same thing, or the same imponderability of the thing: that thing called language in its role of naming existence, and at the same time that thing called existence as more than a name. Each impasse dissolves into the other in their provocation and insolubility: how, on the one hand, to voice the ground of being in the fact of speech; and on the other, for instance, how to say "I" without meaning something else—or less—than identity. (I am trying to pin down with examples the abstractions through which Agamben's discussion moves.) If "I am I" is one aggravated instance of the ontological and linguistic problem alike, in another sense it is also—in the circularity of its self-constitution—the escape clause: the egress into immanent contingency, into potentiality as an ontological existent rather than a mere alternative to what is. This locus of thought in the 1990 Agamben essay deserves a somewhat patient revisiting before attempting to estimate its immediate—because medial—relevance to literary praxis, by which I mean to its impact on reading as well as writing.

  48. In pursuit of such an intersection of linguistics and philosophy, language and existence, the Hegelian legacy of the determinate negative has for Agamben been played out, even the Aristotelian law of noncontradiction. It must be possible, he thinks—as if by the very definition of possibility—for things to be in one and the same moment other than they are. Contradiction is not eradication. "Philosophy and Linguistics" appears nearly a decade after Agamben has worked through the Heideggerean bond between language and death that had come to define as well the notion of thanatopraxis in Derrida's thought (unmentioned as such by Agamben) during these same years: where the absence proven by the presence of signification runs all reference into the grave even while carrying the enunciating subject back to the unspoken conditions of speech itself. As hinted at the end of Agamben's earlier and exhaustive seminar published as Language and Death, the reason to confront with full rigor the equivalence between speech and absentation in philosophy is in fact to get beyond what the subtitle termed "The Place of Negativity."[11] Unless language can be construed as more than the immediate nonexistence of its objects, the necessary deprivileging of voice would seem in its own right to close out any such move toward community.[12]

  49. In this respect philosophy is wed inextricably to a theory of language. Writing of the philosopher's role at the end of Language and Death, Agamben might as well be writing of the poet's: "A philosopher is one who, having been surprised by language, having thus abandoned his habitual dwelling place in the word [with 'habitual dwelling place' being Agamben's recurrent paraphrase of the Greek ethos], must now return to where language already happened to him. . . the taking place of language in a Voice, in a negative:  that is, the daimon itself as ethos. . . . " (93-4). If the yield of that return seems opaquely imagined here, this is because it is by definition forever provisional: a permanent experiment, a perpetual gesture of the unsettled. The revisited bond between ontology and nomination in the 1990 paper "Philosophy and Linquistics" is somewhat clearer than this, at least, in its programmatic hopes, even in the very haziness of its utopic "place" beyond—beyond not just Hegelian dialectics but Aristotelian logic. Without the self-canceling move into otherness via negation, philosophy's assignment, as Agamben puts it bluntly, is to imagine how a thing might be what it isn't. The oldest rule in logic—the law of noncontradiction—must be breached by the ethical imagination. And not just as a retroactive possibility—but instead, one might say, as a proactive f(act), a performative potential. When Agamben asks climactically, and cryptically, in "Philosophy and Linguistics," whether one shouldn't try saying "what seems impossible to say, that is: that something is otherwise than it is?"—"otherwise" rather than "not," multiplied without being first denied—he has posed his problematic in the sharpest interrogative terms.

  50. Agamben's speculative venture rests on the fact that the shared term between being and speaking, ontology and linguistics, is contingency. In science after Galileo, as he reminds us, and under the Aristotelian principle of a merely "conditioned  necessity" (75), things can be deemed true without being absolutely necessary or essential. Again, examples can't hurt—even if not Agamben's. The sun couldn't revolve around the earth, that's right; but an earth like ours might have revolved around another sun. I am not you, true; but I needn't have been exactly this me. At macro and micro levels, such is the contingency principle in scientific empiricism. In this sense, and here lies Agamben's resistance, "possibility" has traditionally been confined to the pluperfect tense, an ontological rear-view mirror, attuned only to what could conceivably have been, not to what can be immediately conceived—as, for instance, still or even now possible. His envisaged wrench to philosophy amounts, therefore, to angling contingency into the future through the present: recovering for the age-old category of "the potential" a status as immanent rather merely prospective, let along retroactive and outruled. The linguistics of this, so to speak, would be to cast the contingent not just into a grammar of the conjectural future or the conditional perfect but into a more active syntax of the present subjunctive. Not just "things might be other than they are." Or "might someday be." And certainly not just the weak epistemological sense that "Things might be other than they seem." Rather, Agamben is after the strong sense that (and I paraphrase here what we encountered before in its full paradoxical affront): "Things may, even now, be other than they are." The contrary-to-fact is not unreal, just unactualized. The virtual does not hover, it inheres. And if immanent contingency has a linguistics (even this only implicit in Agamben's essay), what about a poetics?

  51. Rhetoric reminds us that speech needn't mean what it says. A philosophy of pure potential leaves entirely behind any such halfway house. We have come a long way in this kind of thinking from philosopher Stanley Cavell's Austinian Must We Mean What We Say? For Agamben, philosophy, to renew its power of thought, must be made to come into some radical and liberatory alignment with a theory of language whose rule of the negative (the nonpresence marked by sign) is so far overthrown that—as paradoxical as this would be meant to sound if Agamben had actually articulated the parallel between linguistics and philosophy on this score—things conjured in language need not mean what they mean. Custom can be dishabituated. In the final stretch (in every sense) of "Philosophy and Linguistics," however, as before at the close of Language and Death, any strictly linguistic valence of this immanent potentiality falls away from discussion. Yet what I just called the "liberatory alignment" between the two conceptual zones of antimetaphysics and phonemanography, counter-ontology and phontology, can sometimes wait latent, to take just the example in hand as model, in something like the fleeting ambivalence (overriding even official pronunciation) of a single phrasing. In this case, the force of the "liberatory" might be shaken loose by the more openly libratory (for oscillatory) effects of subvocal text production. But to librate (rhyming in fact with vibrate) is eventually to seek rest by balancing out its wavering motions. When given over, by contrast, to full phonemic viabilitly, soundplay within and across lexemes may instead permanently unsettle a given designation—reassigning it (though undecidably) to an alternate junctural enunciation on the spot.

  52. So let it be clear that, for all Agamben's veering from linguistic matters at just the point of their imputed convergence with philosophical ones, literary implications have scarcely fallen by the wayside. Indeed, almost a third of a century after the "linguistic turn," interdisciplinary literary study might after all find new legs on this paradoxical footing broached by Agamben, new habitus on this strange untrammeled ground—once its heady paradoxes are, by a poetics of contingency, brought down to verbal earth and its morphophonemic turf. For literature isn't simply the place where things never are, even as they seem—the place of sheer fiction. In literature, rather than in a metalanguage about it, and in poetry preeminently, things, more immediately, do not entirely or exclusively say what they say. Once "vocality" is reimagined from the waver and give of textual inscription, it is always at base equi-vocation, a case of present contingency—evincing, without vouching for, the existence of a potential otherness in one and the same wording.

  53. Isn't this at least one thing that a poetics of alterity and ungrounded vocality might help school us in perceiving? Or at least in half sensing as we read? How far-fetched is it to think that such textual effects might, in turn, even go some way toward acclimating us, at least by analogy, to the always estranged—no matter how intimately engaged—habitus of the Other? The apostrophic embrace of nature's otherness in Romantic poetry would certainly not balk at such a possibility. But toward this end, the contingency of all being must be encountered not just straight on but deep down. Here is the sharpest wedge driven by Agamben's anti-metaphysical thrust. Here is what he's really asking, and asking of us in following his flight of thought: if contingency is an axiom of nontranscendental ontology, what then, pushing harder on this postulate, is the being of contingency, its present-tense existence? And what, correlatively, is the being of potentiality—not its undeniable possibility, but rather its immanent existence? If the contingent and the potential are ontological givens, how can they be felt to exist in the now of their apprehension? And so we come, then, upon the resonant, the logically discordant, the rapt and provoking, the frustratingly opaque and at the same time utopically ingratiating, note on which Agamben ends. As already excerpted above, the question is so rhetorical that the present essay wants to imagine some part of its answer as lying with the phonemic underlay and ligatures of rhetoric's own subvocal figurations. "Is it possible, in other words," writes Agamben, "to call into question the principle of conditioned necessity, to attest to the very existence of potentiality, the actuality of contingency? Is it possible, in short, to attempt to say what seems impossible to say: that something is otherwise than it is?"

  54. Again the intriguing intersection with Deleuze's reconfigured sense of Bergsonian "becoming" and the virtualities that manifest it in progress.[13] Replacing "conditioned necessity" (in Agamben's sense out of Aristotle) with what might be termed instead an imperative contingency, the virtual stands to the actual, or subtends it, as its condition of possibility. And where better than in literary writing to find a sounding-board for the sense that alternatives can be copresent and animating rather than monitored by negation? Rephrasing Agamben: If it does indeed seem "possible, in other words, to call into question the principle of conditioned necessity," wouldn't it be precisely the "other words" of ontology's linguistic equivalent in vexed groundedness that might help acquaint us with the rhythm of all such suspended negativity, help us practice it, so to speak—by entertaining that othering from within that is the very function of literary words in subvocal speaking? Potentiality would in this sense be not proleptic, but, again, a present force in consciousness. It is here that wordplay itself could be seen to do the work of philosophy—where, for instance, to put it directly in terms of Agamben's triangularion of voice, death, and negativity, the ricochets of language can themselves remind us (via oronym and metalinguistic irony) that "never say die" is possible only for those who "never said I."

  55. Taken verbally as well as ontologically, then, and directed back into romanticism, Agamben would thus help rethink Wordsworthian imminence as a kind of immanence in its own enunciative right. Alternate verses, like alternate universes, operate by "intimations." In the ode that goes by that shortened name, what is most to be blessed in recollection are "Blank misgivings"—like a kind of double negative, but not quite. Here instead is an uneasiness not cancelled or effaced but merely held latent in the face of a sense(d) sublime: "Blank misgivings," as the line continues, "of a Creature / Moving about in worlds not realized" (146-47). Complementing the overt philosophic cast of the last participle, for not yet "actualized" rather than merely not yet recognized, Wordsworth's verse, in and beyond the Intimations Ode, is often levitated on words as well as worlds that feel churning in a line without being fully conjured into print, fleeting evocations neither quite seized upon by the lyricist as yet nor brought to be in reading. But dormant and motivated, one may come to think.

  56. In Wordsworth's Ode on intimation in recollection, pure virtuality is tagged in retrospect as engaged potential—and precisely in its revelation about the inner world of our "mortal Nature" (l. 148). Imminence becomes essence under the sign of potentiality. An almost tedious (almost, except for the ironic changes rung on it) leitmotif of the Intimations Ode is sounded early on in the cognate object "sing a joyous song" (l. 19): echoic token of that pastoral "There was a time" (l. 1) when birds were everywhere and full-throated—and where the epithet "joyous" was as taken for granted, in the tautologies of the prefallen, as that prelinguistic song sung. Later, we get instead the rather desperate "I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!" (l. 51)—and the immediate "But" that heralds the lone tree of known solitude. Sadder yet, in the scapegoat hero's compressed Bildungsroman, the "growing Boy" (l. 69) soon gives up "his joy" (l. 71) in the lingering glimmers of childhood, a bliss he travesties in the perverse "new joy and pride" (l. 103) with which he "cons" (l. 104) an adult's role, adulterating his every immediacy. Faced with "all that is at enmity with joy," the poet must now resort to the risked hollowness of apostrophe in urging upon nature what it once gave unbidden: "Then sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song!"—where the sing-song nostalgia of this wish cannot be muted or overlooked. All told, what must be rescued from this vocabular excess of "joy" and "joyous," this attesting-too-much across the arc of the poem—and rescued as if dialectically—is something in excess of grief's opposite pole, nameable only by periphrasis in the transegmental slippage of the last line, so seldom quoted whole: "Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears," where "that do often" must be released from the "too often" (which its emphatic auxiliary also sounds) in order to celebrate those philosophic soundings that never can come frequently enough. I have written before about the allegorical setting, two stanzas earlier, for this tearless spiritual depth, when the "immortal sea / Which brought us hither" (ll. 165-66) can still be repaired to—and where we can "see" (and, by sibilant drift, hear) "the Children sport upon the shore"—as if that symbolic site were, which it is, their "port" of entry into this world (Reading Voices, 155). In such moments, the normalized growing child who "fits his tongue / To dialogues of business, love, or strife" (ll. 99-100) may seem counteracted in process by the reader whose loosed even if unmoving tongue, never fitted exactly to the inscribed lexeme, slips over the crevices of poetic device, tracing "too deep" for text—like trailing clouds of unloud glory, in all their silent possibility—those shadow words that lend a linguistic register to the otherwise ineffable "fallings from us, vanishings" (l.145). Nothing of the implausible metaphysics of this poem, let alone its specific Neoplatonic decor, need obscure what comes to light, and to ear, by such associations about a continuous human potentiality modeled in verse itself.

  57. One more exemplary passage from this foundational Romantic text, and then a last novelistic comparison. Given the burden of "joy" in Wordsworth's poem, as it awaits this final conversion into a sublimity beneath tears, the iterated monosyllable (harboring always a tacit outburst of "o" at its heart) is all but manifest as the identified quintessence of the poem's genre form. For the very word "ode" of the title flashes momentarily up from lexical juncture in that pivotal but rather forced exclamation "'O joy!" (l. 129)—ode/joy—and, in doing so, tunes the mind's ear in anticipation of the banked crosslexical metaphorics by which the phrase "our embers," in the same line, is spread out syllabically (and fanned up figuratively) into the rekindled spark of "yet remembers" (l. 131). So once again, too, with such a textual effect in subvocal mind, a compelling line of descent sketches itself between Romantic visionary enterprise and Victorian novelistic sonority. For what breathes the oxygenating energy of the spirit's revival across the transformation from "—r embers" to "r(em)embers" is a phonemic distention not unlike that which, in Dickens's most Wordsworthian novel, is introduced to swell the silent—all but penumbral—last letter of "solemn" as it waxes into the new noun "moon" in David Copperfield's childhood revery over graves "below the solemn moon." (ch. 2). There the dilation of one word into another is a rare syncopated function of silent lettering and phonic ligature together. Elsewhere, the paced and exclusively phonemic ripples of such effects may seem, channeled and contained by syntax, to be as barely perceptible and effortless as the intimated rhythms of ruminated duration itself.

  58. Intimated, estimated, and closely timed: clocked by the fast paced—fast spaced—misfires of the determinate across the terrain of its own groundlessness. Even the famous peroration to book six of The Prelude allows this essay's meditated convergence of ontology and language to be heard "moving about" in a wording not wholly permitted, let alone "realized," by the graphic codes of punctuation, but there nonetheless. The Prelude, that is, always and already pre-visionary as well as provisional by title, takes as its true subject "something ever more about 'to be.'" And does so not just by addressing even while becoming its own imminence, but also by encircling it ("about" in this third, positional sense as well), rimming its very vocabulary with "underpresences" and overtones.

     

    Contingent Seas of Thought

  59. Newtonian positivism in The Prelude voyages upon unknown oceans for its discoveries, those "strange seas of Thought" (III, 64) by which fundamental conceptions get reoriented and eventually normalized. In Romantic phonology, by contrast, estrangement is retained within: the most venturesome wording latently othered to itself by way of phonemic contingency. It is as if any phrasing, whether involuted or apparently streamlined in structure, may offer a potent shell of meaning held up to the inner ear of its own potential: its own clear (or near) rehearing. For a final exemplary wash of sound and its phontology, we can turn back to Shelley. "All things exist" for the perceiver, Shelley writes in setting forth his "Defence of Poetry," only "as they are perceived."[14] All potential is thereby constrained by the existent, curtailed: "But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subject to the accident of surrounding impressions" (790). One way of characterizing this lifted curse is to recognize it as in part a phonetic dispensation—a new linguistic license. Transcribing what the mind sees surrounding it, around and in front of it, poetry can sound out other images in the same descriptive words. The rescinded ban that would otherwise imprison audition within the said—confine it to suffocation—finds a quintessential phonemic instance within the final ontological regress of Shelley's own closing figuration in the West Wind Ode. Wind, as figure of poetic afflatus or inspiration, is an "unseen presence" (invisible; its effects on the subject strictly epiphenomenal). In its metonymic relation to the season, however, Shelley's wind, with all its surface effects, is also the recessional index of a further unseen presence. The latter looms as the organicist abstraction of Odic transcendentality itself, where "thou breath of autumn's being" means not, as noted at the start, the pulmonary rhythm of a embodied creature but the vital pulse of a seasonal essence, manifested by gusts whose momentum, as now to be stressed, is temporal as well as spatial.

  60. Nature moves, and moves the speaker: moves him to identify with it as human vessel of its external impulsion. At the same time, temporality moves forward in a calendrical inevitability that gets cathected as promise. The wordplay to this effect is suitably effortless, inevitable. What goes without saying is here a saying that barely needs phonemic channeling around the windy enjambment: "O Wind, / If winter comes, can spring be far behind?" What happens so easily in language of this reflexive grain, so naturally as it were, is the revelation of sheer potential—its felt existence, not just its axiomatic status—made present in the internal slant rhymes ("wind"/"winter") of the closing syllabic run. Rounding off the line, the straggling disyllable "behind"—with its outdistancing echo of "be"—takes up the rear from the preceding "Wind" as well, and this with its purely inoperable sight rhyme, useless, inactive, and mute. Yet, just before, the apostrophic naming of nature—the encounter with language's primal otherness—finds so relaxed a link between the autumn "Wind" and its hardening through "wind-y" into "wint-er" that change and transformation, beyond all etymology, seem to inhabit the lexical register itself. The move to project the harbingering autumnal wind into winter so as to sweep through toward a vision of spring is, in extrapolation from Agamben's terms once more, a case of poetic language saying what it doesn't say in soundless echo of its own present eventuality.

  61. But hold the line open in its possibilities, open to itself, for a moment or two longer—by apprehending something more than its stationed metrical upbeat. It is not just that iambic impulse in "can spring be far behind" telescopes the two-word adverb into its one-word adjunct, in the process turning the ultimate predicate of existence into a mere prefix ("be" into "behind"). It isn't, in short, just this folding over each other of the Kantian intuitions of space and time—collapsed into a strictly temporal dead metaphor of topographic lag—that is enforced upon attention by this phrasing. Time is put more severely out of joint yet. And precisely by being made to seem contingent in its very sequence. "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?": out of context, an entirely logical query, so logical as to circle round on itself as a so-called rhetorical question, answering only to its own indubitable premise. But in the present apostrophic and figurative context—in a phrasing addressed to the essence of autumn, one season back—logic is eroded by a more anxious reach for visionary prognosis. In this sense, Shelley's phrasing harbors an extreme limit case of "conditioned necessity" that only an environmental (as well as ethical) crisis like global warming, for instance, helps make felt in post-romantic retrospect. In the poem's historical moment, however, his is an address, an appeal, that can count on the natural cycle of the seasons, can readily steep its tropology of restoration in the certain circuit of their transitions.

  62. Consider, then, the gist of his peroration in a far more sensible alternative: "O [wild autumn] wind. . . when winter comes, can spring be far behind?" What would thereby be gained through such an alliterative onomatopoeia (in echo of the opening line's triplicate breathiness) would at the same time have to tally its losses in forfeiting the feathery overtone of "windy" in the given line's "wind, if." More importantly, the heavier alliteration (effected by "when" instead of "if") would also surrender the inherence of the contingent even in the inevitable, thus normalizing the whole gesture of the question. As stands, however, the line asks en route, if just for a hovering moment of verbally self-availed possibility: "O Wind, if winter comes, can spring be. . . ." In temporal rather than strictly logical terms, not only is it a vernacular impossibility—short of some apocalyptic sense of last days—to say "if winter comes" (even within some general figurative sense of "the winter of our discontent"); so, too, is it anomalous to ask, in any familiar (rather than rigorously philosophical) sense, whether—in the grip and midst of such a winter's coming—spring too can be: can subsist as pure potential, even before the icy season subsides. But so the poem, in a temporal passing of its own, has the sound of asking. Its closing interrogative hinge marks, in sum, the pivot of a spectral because lectoral reciprocity. With time itself lifted into the contingent, imminence and immanence lose their distinction. The future is as much now as anywhere, springing upon us, springing up in us.

  63. Certainly Shelley's text, in its aspirations (in the full etymological sense) toward being the "trumpet of a prophecy," is about the ethics as well as the aesthetics of the virtual, about the hope of the regenerative, as breathed through poetic speech. Nearly two centuries later, Agamben's writing has increasingly come to offer one Continental rallying point, along with the work of Levinas and others, for the spate of Anglo-American scholarship in the ethics of literature. And beyond his influence on Dolar's thinking about voice, Agamben places a recurrent definitional stress on ethos as the "accustomed dwelling place," where zoe, as sheer animal existence, enters upon the biosphere of communal subjectivity, and where, given the moral ravages that have resulted from difference as negativity, it is indeed a compelling utopianism to imagine others as not what they are, to imagine the different rather than just the plural of constitutive differences. Think of it (my terms again, not Agamben's) as the otherwise before it hardens into an otherness. But literary study has no obligation to think any such newly immanent contingency just as a feature of the real as represented. Why not look as well to where such contrapositive energy has always been found in literature: as a function of literary representing per se, the writing itself? The real lair of the potential lurks not so much in textual meaning as in the production of that meaning, always in process.

  64. One unspoken lesson of Agamben's "Philosophy and Linguistics" and the luminous essays that surround it in the opening section on "Language" in Potentialities, as of Language and Death before it—even though the very issue of linguistic potential is not pursued to its own conclusions in either case—can readily be educed as follows. Language, up against its limits in naming its own existence, eludes them from within by the continuous repotentiation of its signifiers. Metalanguage cedes to undertext, in new and unbidden circulations of the reading act. This does not generate a definitive philosophy of language, to be sure. But it may disclose the philosophical working of language as constituting in its own right a refreshed poetics. What, then, would keep us from contemplating this zone of linguistic interplay as a place of ethos as well, even a laboratory for it, rather than some separately conceived field of hermetic fluctuation?

  65. Why shouldn't the byplay and counterplay of literary writing help us, in short, to conceive ethos as the experienced space of cognitive duration, an always shifting habitus of articulation within temporality? Located there would be the "accustomed dwelling" of the communicative word under continuous renewal—both rehabilitation and perpetual rehabitation. Such is the place where, up from the indwelling could well a difference inherent to it, not quelling representation but expanding it. Let us readily accept as given that the dethroning of Logocentrism is the beginning of a secular ethics in the social sphere, empirical, contingent, where alternatives might become immanent, purposeful, and reciprocally conversant. But in exploring more particularly an ethics of literature, why isn't there a potent (because always potential) way to return from ethos through logos—and this by passing beyond the toggle of the dualistic to the freer oscillation of the virtual, where, for instance, ambiguity resolves itself not dialectically but in the relentless becoming of flux itself?

  66. The interdisciplinary wager of this essay—its venture in, if you will, the philosophy of linguistic oscillation—should allow us to sum the matter in the broadest terms. Where desire speaks, there there is lack. That we've well learned. And nothing can take up this slack. So too, for traditional philosophy as well as for psycholinguistics: Where being speaks, there there is absence. And two nugatory positives make only a negative. There is no there there. Where being speaks, there are only words; whence being speaks, there is no saying. The origin of voice cannot be named by speech. But why can't literature—again, not as a metalanguage but as an undertext—make it possible to voice that placeless source, and the virtualities of its constitutive otherness, precisely in such a way that each verbal incident comes to us shadowed by the present tinge of the contingent?

  67. The literary ethos in this quasi-spatial sense, as marking out its own accustomed place of imaginative outlay and divestment, is perhaps the complement—but certainly the opposite—of anything taken up from the sociological work of Michel de Certeau and advanced as the route to critique and reappropriation within cultural studies. Given the requisite flexibility of linguistic "double articulation" (morphemes comprised of phonemes even before they can go to compose lexemes), reading is vagrant—multivalent—by definition well before it can be construed as "nomadic" by choice (de Certeau 165-76). In the latter respect, as in all others, reading is of course, in de Certeau's often borrowed title, A Practice of Everyday Life. It is also a praxis of response to everyday linguistic production, a response manifest in the processing of "ordinary language" as illuminated by its philosophy, rather than sociology, from Austin to Cavell.[15] With readers "poaching" what they want from a text in de Certeau's sense, targeting the happy anomaly, skimming the cream, they must also submit at a more elementary level—and as made evident by certain efforts of literary exaggeration—to the skid of its lettering as such.

  68. In Romantic poetry, for instance, and its Victorian derivations and attenuations, anything nomadic is anticipated by the sporadic: those irregular phonemic rhythms entrained to signification in the first place—but not entirely enchained there. Conceived as delimiting a verbal habitus or ethos, verse instigates a traverse whose unruliness is grooved deep into the genesis of phrasing—and of its evoked and self-razed alternatives—rather than merely awaiting some transgressive gesture on the reader's part. Poaching, lifting, stealing, peeling off: all common. But so, in the other and prior sense, is the drifting along of latency and reactivation from word to word: the stealing of phonemic suggestion across the ridges of script, its audiovisual sidle and slide. Laterally, collaterally, meaning is leached from the phonemes that unleash it. Words, in short, encroach upon and poach from each other even before we from them. Every day.

  69. In literature, though, it happens by design rather than by default. Each sense of verbal impingement, whether associations are stolen upon or by us, has, no doubt, its ethics of resistance. If less often than one might wish to think, tactical scavenging can indeed undermine, or at least chip away at, an ideological edifice of representation. And more often than one might stop to think, the frictional resistance of phonemic apprehension keeps the semiotic basis of representation itself from facile stabilities. Automatically even before nomadically, by the oxymoronic license (once again) of present contingency, just as an effusive and climactic "O joy!" fuses into the recursive titular phantom "Ode joy," so every "Ode to the West Wind" is otherwise, yet at one and the same time, an "Oh to the West Wind." Voice is no sooner subsumed to the formal genres of print poetics than it resurfaces there in manifestations immanent even if "not yet realized." In the overlapping schemata of fig. 3 again, voice returns from the double negation of both speech and silence into the imaginary of the virtual, potentiated there—as potential still, of course, rather than actual—by the act of reading. An immersion of this sort in the deep ethos of literature, in its placeless disposition of indwelling effect, refuses the complacencies of the inscribed. Its vigilance remains more nervous. This is to say that, in any phonemanography of response to the silent babel of text, reading will not be policed by script into leaving lost tones unturned.

Romantic Circles Praxis Series
Series Editor: Orrin N. C. Wang
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Romantic Circles - Home / Praxis Series / Soundings of Things Done”: The Poetry and Poetics of Sound in the Romantic Ear and Era / Garrett Stewart, "Phonemanography: Romantic to Victorian"