Decorum and Insolence in Robert Walser’s Dialectic of Manners

McAuliffe, Sam. 2017. 'Decorum and Insolence in Robert Walser’s Dialectic of Manners'. In: Play, Recreation, and Experimentation: Literature and the Arts since the Early Modern Times. University of Kent, United Kingdom. [Conference or Workshop Item]

Walser, Politeness paper, 9 December 2017.pdf

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Abstract or Description

Any show of civility, so Jacques Derrida suggests, is subject to an “internal contradiction”: to comport oneself towards the other with decorum “involves both rules and invention without rule. Its rule is that one knows the rule but is never bound by it. It is impolite to be merely polite, to be polite out of politeness” (‘Passions: An Oblique Offering’). Paradoxical as it may be, to act in conformity with the codes of conduct prescribed by politeness is to render these codes inoperative; their rule is upheld only by an action that surpasses, and thus in a certain sense contests, whatever it is that this rule otherwise stipulates. This means that an instance of play – “invention without rule” – is intrinsic to the principle of civility at stake here. Without it politeness remains ineffective. And yet, if this is so, what is there to stop the necessary transgression of the rule from converging with civility’s contrary: impoliteness, insolence, if not outright maleficence?
This “internal contradiction” is ever-present in the fiction of Robert Walser and one reason for the unsettling light that falls upon even the simplest of circumstances presented by his work. Perhaps this light shines brightest in The Robber (1925), a novel in which politeness attains the status of a vocation, becoming the protagonist’s single concern. The remarkable compendium of actions and practices that his efforts result in lead to a singular code of civility (one that shares nothing whatsoever with what Walser disparages as mere “middle-of-the-road politeness”). This paper seeks to reconstruct the vicissitudes of this code – from the games of wit (Witz) it initiates, to the form of servility it cultivates, a servility so extreme it threatens to unfound the rule being submitted to – with a view to understanding the provocative equivocation between decorum and insolence on which this code rests.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Visual Cultures


9 December 2017Accepted

Event Location:

University of Kent, United Kingdom

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

21 Dec 2017 11:58

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:42


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