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The Ends of Description

The Ends of Description

(p.144) Chapter Five The Ends of Description
Strange Likeness
Dora Zhang
University of Chicago Press

Whereas the previous chapters explored how early twentieth-century writers sought to describe the world without mortifying it, this concluding chapter turns to the limits of what can be described in words. It proposes that in modernism descriptive failure is caused not by confrontation with a Romantic sublime beyond comprehension but rather with the particularities of sensations we know all too well. The ability to communicate subjective experiences was a pervasive worry among turn-of-the-century thinkers, opening onto questions about the shareability of experience. This chapter reads Woolf alongside philosophers Bertrand Russell and William James in order to argue that the end of description lies in precise but empty demonstratives, words such as “this” and “there,” that at once say everything and nothing. Such words turn out to register the limits of communicability at the same time that they open the possibility of creating new communities of understanding. For philosophers, description is a crucial means of making knowledge public, and thus epistemologically securing the social. For writers, demonstratives offer a way for the novel to describe a common world while leaving it undetermined and open to revision.

Keywords:   Virginia Woolf, indescribable, Bertrand Russell, William James, indexicals, point of view, knowledge by acquaintance, knowledge by description

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