Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Rortyian Contingency and Ethnocentrism in Chance

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Rortyian Contingency and Ethnocentrism in Chance

Article excerpt

CHANCE IS A TRICKY NOTION, suspended between opposing strands of meaning. On the one hand, it suggests the randomness we see in the toss of a coin; on the other, it involves a complex web of causation and contingency. Similarly, chance can conjure up both hope and dread; it can alternately evoke both loss and opportunity. These contradictions make it fertile ground for Conrad's paradoxical narratives, and it is no surprise that Marlow chooses "chance" as his mantra throughout the novel bearing its name. This essay relates these paradoxes to the work of twentieth-century philosopher, the late Richard Rorty, and, in particular, three Rortyian notions: contingency, conversation, and community. It will be argued that the paradoxes in Chance reflect a Rortyian sense of the relationship between individual and communal identity, which are conversational because they both internalize contradiction and are contingent upon wider interactions. The device of conversation, it will be suggested, is used in Chance (as elsewhere in Conrad's work) not just to enable the novel's complex interplay of narrative voices, but also to shed light on the contingent nature of community - and of identity itself.

For Rorty (1989), language, self, and community are characterized by mutual contingency. His philosophy is anti-realist in that he denies correspondence theories of truth, instead suggesting pragmatically that understanding is constructed through a network of the metaphors we use - what he paradoxically calls our "final vocabulary" - to arrive at a provisional comprehension of the world. This vocabulary is not complete or unchanging, a key feature of Rorty5s philosophy being the potential to enlarge this vocabulary through conversational engagement. It is characterized as "final" because it cannot be defended except through circular arguments. Rorty calls this process of enlargement "redescription" and uses it as the basis for his philosophical method. He believes that by describing things in new ways, the work of previous philosophers, for example, we build new understandings and persuade people to accept our positions. For Rorty, final vocabulary is a feature of both individuals and communities: it is not only the fundamental assumptions that shape our idiosyncratic perspectives, but also those which underpin cultures, a prime example being the premises and methods of Western rationalism.

Redescription is the primary means by which conversation happens and has both internal and external dimensions. On the one hand, applied to our selves, it is the process by which we negotiate and develop our identities: we tell "stories about ourselves ... to tailor a coherent selfimage for ourselves and then use it to tinker with our behaviour" (1991: 161-62) - making Marlow's narrative a potential accessory to selfcreation. This internal redescription is conversational because Rorty conceives of the self as decentred: for Rorty, our selves are "webs of belief and desire" into which we continually weave "new candidates for belief and desire" (1989: 84), but our unconscious selves are made up of "one or more well-articulated systems of beliefs and desires, systems that are just as complex, sophisticated, and internally consistent as the normal adult's conscious beliefs and desires" (1991: 149). Thus our identities are constructed through the metaphorical conversation between our conscious selves and these other unconscious systems.

On the other hand, when redescription is applied externally - because our "final vocabularies" are necessarily dependent on upbringing and culture - it connects us to our communities, sometimes described by Rorty as our "ethnos," defined as "those who share one's beliefs enough to make fruitful conversation possible" (2010: 235). In this sense we might describe Rorty's philosophy as ethnocentric: for the limits of our vocabulary, contingent as they are upon culture and experience, are also the limits of conversation and community. …

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