The Rhetoric of Failure

Deconstruction of Skepticism, Reinvention of Modernism

By Ewa Plonowska Ziarek

Subjects: Comparative Literature
Series: SUNY series, The Margins of Literature
Paperback : 9780791427125, 247 pages, November 1995
Hardcover : 9780791427118, 247 pages, November 1995

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents


1. Introduction: Deconstruction of Skepticism, Reinvention of Modernism

2. Stanley Cavell and the Economy of Skepticism

Cavell Reading Wittgenstein: Lingusitic Games and the Threat of Skepticism

Revision of Skepticism: Acknowledgment, Community and the Aesthetics of Ordinary Speech

Moments of Excess: Alterity, Metaphor, Modernism

3. Rhetoric of Failure and Deconstruction

Unmasking Deconstruction: Skepticism in Disguise?

Levinas and Derrida: Skepticism and the Signification of Alterity

Community and Communication

"Hear Say Yes": Rhetoric, Skepticism, Modernism

4. "The Beauty of Failure": Kafka and Benjamin on the Task of Transmission and Translation

"On Parables": Exemplarity, Transmissibility, Figuration

"The Pit of Babel": Translation as the Limit of Formalism and of Linguistic Community

"The Ground under Our Feet": "The Great Wall of China"

5. The Paratactic Prose of Samuel Beckett: How It Is

The Remains of Aesthetics: Failure, Task, Obligation

Impossible Invention: Aesthetics and the Signification of Alterity

Inventions of the Possible: Beckett's Couples and Nightmare of Communicative Reason

"The Inevitable Number": Calculation, Community and the Divine

6. Witold Gombrowicz: Forms of Life as Disfigurement

Rethinking the Parameters of Modern Aesthetics: Form, "Immaturity," "The Interhuman"

Between Philosophy and Art: The Double Articulation of Form in Cosmos


Ewa PÅ‚onowska Ziarek is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.


"There are many books on the links between deconstruction and literary modernism, but I know of no work that undertakes so detailed a confrontation between a series of major thinkers (Cavell, Derrida, Levinas, Benjamin) and writers (Kafka, Beckett, Gombrowicz). The strategy is an original one. It is rare that a critic has the kind of dual sensibility that is needed to carry it off." -- Alexander Gelley, University of California, Irvine

"This book makes a significant and needed contribution to post-structural philosophy and literary theory. In this impressive analysis that delicately weaves together philosophical and literary texts, Ewa Ziarek powerfully and persuasively demonstrates that the rhetoric of the failure of traditional subject-centered rationality does not lead to nihilism or nominalism. Against accepted interpretations of Derrida, Kafka, and Beckett, that see them as prophets of impossibility, violence, and misunderstanding, Ziarek offers an alternative interpretation that opens up the possibility of writing otherwise. The Rhetoric of Failure makes a significant and timely contribution to debates over the possibility of post-structural ethics.

"Ziarek argues that the skepticism of the discourses of the failure of subject-centered rationality is not a traditional skepticism that denies all truth or meaning. Instead, she reads the failure of the subject-centered discourse as the failure to exclude or annihilate the other. In this way, the rhetoric of failure is the triumph of the other that has been violently excluded from traditional subject-centered philosophy. Ziarek skillfully demonstrates that deconstruction leads to neither linguistic immanence nor communicative immanence. Ziarek's readings are original, persuasive and beautifully presented." -- Kelly Oliver, University of Texas at Austin