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5B. New Words, New Voices
Angela Esterhammer (Western
Ontario): "Romanticism and the New Speech Act"
Anne Urbancic (Toronto): "Niccolo Tommaseo: Protosemiotician"
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Questions about the way language, language-users, and the world are related to one another have preoccupied twentieth-century philosophy since Husserl and Wittgenstein, and have taken on special importance in the second half of the century with the work of J. L. Austin and John Searle. These speech-act theorists, in turn, have had an enormous influence on linguistic pragmatics--the branch of linguistics that complements syntax and semantics by focussing on the use of language by speakers and hearers in specific settings. Yet pragmatics experienced a much earlier flowering from the 1780s until the 1820s, though this movement has gone unnoticed by many linguists and certainly by literary critics. My paper proposes that the new philosophy of language that emerged during the Romantic period, largely in Germany but with important correlatives in England, provides a necessary critique of speech-act theory as it has been formulated by twentieth-century analytic philosophers. This is because of the Romantics' greater and, in the literal sense of the world, wonderful attention to the speaking subject as a subject-in- process.
What makes the Romantic conception of the speech act unique and powerful is that it fuses the two classical contexts for the understanding of language cognition and communication. For Romantic-period thinkers, the effect of utterances in an interpersonal context follows directly from the way words operate in the private context of the mind's encounter with the world. In this paper, I discuss the German linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt's concept of utterance as an "act of spontaneous positing through synthesis," which nevertheless needs to be legitimated by being communicated to a dialogic partner. Humboldt's English contemporary Jeremy Bentham presents the political and negative side of this phenomenological linguistics. In his theory of linguistic "fictions" and his discussions of speech acts in the law, Bentham shows how verbal utterance exposes a cognitive act to the contingency and power-structure of a communicative situation. Romantic philosophy of language opens up a new perspective on the tenuousness of speech acts, as acts of cognition that need to be tested against the Other in acts of communication, but it also draws attention to the power-play of speech acts, as acts that begin to impose limits on the cognitive process of the Other as soon as they achieve uptake. Both insights make the "Romantic speech act" a paradoxical, yet particularly appropriate model for analysing the relationship between speaker and addressee, or the speaking subject and the objective world, in Romantic poetry and fiction.
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Tommaseo, who was born on the Dalmatian coast, has always been a problematic figure in Italian literature. First, he was not of Italian origin. Secondly, he was among the first men of letters to have to earn his living through his writing; there was no family inheritance that could be depended on, as was the case for most of his contemporaries. He was recognized in his lifetime for his works of poetry, of literary aesthetics, of prayers and other religious reflections, of historical novellas, of pedagogy, and especially for his seminal works in establishing dictionaries of the Italian language, which continue to be referred to to this day.
Tommaseo wrote but one novel, Fede e bellezza (Faith and Beauty-1840) which was popularly read and critically unappreciated. It depicts in detail a contemporary situation wherein the life events of one of its fictional protagonists, Giovanni, closely match the publicly known events of Tommaseo's life. However, in the defense of the work, Tommaseo insisted that his intention in writing it was not a semi-autobiographical one. Nor was there any need for such a literary goal since he had just completed the Memorie poetiche (his literary memoirs) and was continuing with annotations for the book that would eventually become inown as his Diario intimo (intimate diary). Much biographical information could also be inferred form his poetry of the time, which in many cases dealt with his relationships with his friends and mistresses. Nor was Fede e bellezza an attempt to take advantage of the contemporary popularity of the romantic novel, although his critics accused him precisely of that.
The author himself spoke of the novel in terms of style. He felt that the weak point of the work was its plot. Fede e bellezza is, in fact, a book about writers and writing; a "novel" whose male protagonist is an author who actively practises his art during the course of the events described in the novel. Tommaseo was not concerned with plot development but with language. The word, for Tommaseo, was a nucleus because its very structure-etymology, prefixes, suffixes, stress, length-as well as its position in a sentence were of utmost relevance.
Fede e bellezza is an isolated work; the usually prolific Tommaseo wrote no other like it. If it is viewed in retrospect, however, one can readily see that this was the single piece of fiction written in a period in which Tommaseo was writing his many treatises of literary aesthetics. Fede e bellezza is, for all intents and purposes, the literary embodiment of Tommaseo's theories about language, about textual self-reflexivity, about inter- and intratextuality. It was, in short, a literary experiment that curiously anticipated some poststructural and postmodern authors of today. My paper will introduce Tommaseo to English literary studies, although he is already known in Italy, France and also Germany. I will deal specifically with the ways in which his fascinating literary experiments were embodied in Fede e bellezza . The study will focus on his activities as a protosemiotician who researched the signs and meaning of the Italian language at the time it was being established as the official language of the peninsula. His linguistic experiments, as realized in Fede e bellezza (and discussed and encouraged by Alessandro Manzoni) place Tommaseo within the Romantic school of thought but take him far beyond as well.
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