Passing Judgment, Conceding Perfection: Third-Person Narration and Versions of the Cavellian Secular

This essay reviews the tensions between the hard work that the Cavellian figure of “acknowledgment” is supposed to perform in guaranteeing recognition between secular individuals, and the movements of “decline,” “lapse,” and “concession” by which acknowledgment happens. Cavell’s comments on perlocutionary utterances as acts whose happening cannot be definitively concluded, similarly leave open the question of what is to count as a “final word” between people. For a possible answer, the essay turns toward free indirect style in third-person narration as literature’s own performance of the finality, passiveness and non-assertiveness of acknowledgment, and offers sentences from Austen and Stendhal as instances of “passing judgment.” What light can a narrative style that enacts a split between the subject of experience and the agent of its verbalization shed on the Cavellian figures of conceded recognitions, withdrawn questions, and final judgments?