Cavell’s Romanticism and the Autobiographical Animal

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Cavell’s Romanticism and the Autobiographical Animal

Eric Lindstrom
University of Vermont

“[T]he human is the unnatural animal”
—Stanley Cavell, Little Did I Know

“And since what interests me today is not strictly called literature or philosophy, I’m amused by the idea that my adolescent desire—let’s call it that—should have directed me toward something in writing which was neither the one nor the other. What was it?
‘Autobiography’ is perhaps the least inadequate name, because it remains for me the most enigmatic, the most open, even today.”
—Jacques Derrida, “This Strange Institution Called Literature”

I. Acknowledging Romanticism: Adolescence and “the Choice of Finitude”

1.        A useful premise from which to approach the “Romantic” position of Stanley Cavell’s thought is that we only ever “confess” to a romantic attitude toward the claims of experience, and that skepticism and idealism are two tensional poles of the same predicament. “To be interested [. . .] in the costs of knowing to the knowing creature, I suppose one will have to take an interest in certain preoccupations of romanticism,” Cavell admits near the end of the second part of The Claim of Reason (242). As he rounds the bend on a particularly tortuous stretch of argumentation, Cavell’s purchase on reason in this book—which began as a Harvard dissertation in 1961 and yet still (even before the newly written Part Four) contains what are his most important and enduring lines of discussion— can barely afford to mention his Romantic preoccupations. Alongside the study’s venture over the abyss of a young philosopher’s professional legitimacy, Cavell knows the wise tactic is to hold to other frameworks besides the Romantic. Yet the misstep he at first seems to fear, then eventually and more hospitably welcomes, need not represent any greater fall than, as he puts it, the “implication that such a one [the narcissist or “passive” skeptic figured as adolescent] just ought to grow up” (Claim 464).

2.        And yet to say that he responsively prolongs—or even that he re-describes as metaphysical—the heady and disorienting interval between pure childhood and adulthood, innocence and knowledge, isolation and sociality, is one way to characterize Cavell’s and The Claim of Reason’s central achievement. Paired with autobiography, “adolescent desire” is also the term Derrida reaches for in his interview “This Strange Institution Called Literature” in the effort to place his joint commitment to literature and philosophy, settling on “neither the one nor the other.” Rousseau’s Confessions provides the immediate context of Cavell's remark about growing up—offered at a crucial point of transition between the informally marked sections “Narcissism” and “Proving the existence of the human”—in The Claim of Reason, Part Four (464). [1]  The earlier moment I cite to begin this essay takes its cue from an important text of Enlightenment skepticism: Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion (Section IX), and Demea’s long-echoing question, “What was it [. . .] which determined something to exist rather than nothing, and bestowed being on a particular possibility, exclusive of the rest?” (qtd. in Claim 242). In joint response to Hume’s skepticism and to Kant’s transcendental construction of the possibility of experience in The Critique of Pure Reason (together dubbed “the onslaughts of Hume and Kant” [465]), Cavell concludes The Claim of Reason, Part Two, with a resonant and vivid statement of the impulse behind the Romantic crisis lyric:

If we can’t decide that [. . .] the things of our world exist, shall we say that we believe they exist? That is something a philosopher will say in the course of that rehearsal of our beliefs with which he begins his investigation of their validity as a whole. But that rehearsal does not express belief in anything; it contains no claims. Or shall we say that we have faith that the things of our world exist? But how is that faith achieved, how expressed, how maintained, how deepened, how threatened, how lost? (243)

3.        It is worth noting that Cavell’s points of orientation when he finds himself located in Romanticism nevertheless remain accessible to some of our broader culture’s most common and even cliché norms of usage, when claiming offhandedly that a person or representation is “romantic” as a throwaway expression. In his book about youth culture in twentieth-century poetry, Stephen Burt lines up the Romantic stereotypes to serve the purpose of historical overview:

The modern adolescent is not the green youth of early modern writing; nor is he (much less she) the Romantic child. “Before the Romantic” period, claimed William Empson, “the possibilities of not growing up had never been exploited so far as to become a subject for popular anxiety.”...The idea that immaturity might be preferable to maturity per se, that incompletion of any sort might be better than completion, that remaining outside society indefinitely might be better than joining it, that irrational, instinctive, excessive, emotion-driven speech and behavior might have more value than rational, considered action and thought—these are all, of course, Romantic ideas; they inform, but predate, modern adolescence, which acts them out and represents them often. (8-9)
Criticism like this reflects one popular way of thinking about Romanticism (often strategically, as a staging ground to some other argument) as the umbrella term for a diagnostic but more or less revisable list of traits. But for better or worse, Cavell responds to Romanticism existentially, as a non-localized challenge impossible to put in its place with a list. For my purposes in this essay, the key situations rehearsed by Cavell’s use of Romanticism will be existential: these include the rejection of the world often charged to adolescence and the celebration of a first world through narrating its loss as the autobiographical fiction of childhood. [2]  Throughout I will also be considering the Romanticism of his thought’s form: the in-between status of the professional expertise (and genre) in which Cavell writes (about) literature and philosophy (“neither the one nor the other. What [is] it?”).

4.        Though our contemporary understanding of adolescence would be anachronistic to apply in strictly empirical terms to tturn-of-the-nineteenth-century writings, Cavell uses it anyway precisely to locate a metaphysical impasse in Wordsworthian Romanticism. He writes as if scouting the ground ahead: “If Rousseau can be said to have discovered the fact of childhood in human growth, and Wordsworth the loss of childhood, then Romanticism generally may be said to have discovered the fact of adolescence, the task of wanting and choosing adulthood, along with the impossibility of this task” (Claim 464). As at once a “fact” that the Romantics are said historically to have “discovered,” as well as an impossible “task,” Cavell imagines adolescence as interminable and contrary; far more than a period phase of “normal” individual human development—say, the time when most people in modernized countries attend school and test peer identities—for Cavell the project of adolescence is these things and opens onto an unending horizon for individual development through “serious adult” transformation. Cavell’s quasi-conceptual use of the “adolescent” stage explains in the fullest sense why he thinks of philosophy altogether as “grownup” (lifetime) education. For Cavell, then—in a turn of thought I make more use of below—what we might call the overall claim of Romanticism is not saturated by its description as a discovered “fact” of a certain phase in individual or cultural life; Romanticism, rather, is voiced through something like the Derridean idiom of an imperative-impossible task. The Wordsworthian sobriety of dutifully wanting to want adulthood, and to sing its endurance, in this sense keeps faith with the child and honors youth’s testimony of resistance, but only under the aegis of a Romanticism that proscribes adulthood as an impossible state to will (autonomously) or to desire (realistically). Kant’s figural understanding of the state of minority as a lack of self-reliance at any age, and his redefinition of maturity as epistemological courage (to dare to know), from this point of view offer surprisingly little traction for approaching Cavell’s attitude toward Romanticism. [3]  Romanticism instead features in Cavell’s writing as a challenge (accepting a different kind of dare than Kant proposes? [compare Philosophy 160]) to “express” rather than merely “rehearse” our faith, to weigh what we often can’t help but know.

5.        Before Part Four, The Claim of Reason often leaps back and forth from enlightenment to modernist contexts in moody flashes that act out the very rejections of that adolescence, via the brilliance of a Romanticism which makes youth and “the impossibility” of “choosing adulthood” its very subject. Encountering what Cavell in the same passage calls the “choice of finitude” (Claim 464), however, Romanticists in 2014 are far less likely to be put off than most philosophers were when The Claim of Reason was first published (1979). Instead of being taken as a concession, Cavell’s remark (“I suppose one will have to take an interest”) might be understood better to belie deep affinities with a project he does not wish lightly to expose in its pre-formative stages. [4]  Coming soon after his close-range dealings with the academic positivism dominant through the mid-twentieth century decades during which he was trained as a philosopher, the “interest” divulged in this moment previews a terrain that has become Cavell’s most familiar intellectual haunt since. [5] 

6.        If pressed to answer the question, What is Cavell’s Romanticism?, with a more direct reply than those initiated above, the imaginative legacy of “skepticism” provides the widest terms throughout his work through which to archive an answer. In particular I would locate Cavell’s habitual sense of Romanticism in the language of economic exchange as “the cost of knowing to the knowing creature” (Claim 242); [6]  the concern of his skepticism, in other words, is less the foundational grounds of knowledge (the positivist dogma of reducing meaning to true and false claims) than its “creaturely” situation: the availability of our responses to the many forms that questions about knowing can take (communal criteria, and terms for their acceptance or denial). At the same time, this first intervention in Romanticism as such for Cavell engages with modernism’s two greatest philosophical texts. Romantic concerns point not only to the winding “trails” (Claim 242) [7]  of a socially-alert autobiographical range we have since grown accustomed to from Cavell's books, but also in direct lines to both Heidegger and Wittgenstein. According to Cavell, as he provides a kind of autobiographical map of landmark philosophy in the twentieth century:

Being and Time goes further than Philosophical Investigations in laying out how to think about what the human creature’s relation to the world as such is (locating, among others, that particular relation called knowing); but Wittgenstein goes further than Heidegger in laying out how to investigate the cost of our continuous temptation to knowledge, as I would like to put it. In Being and Time the cost is an absorption in the public world, the world of the mass or average man. (I find Heidegger’s descriptions of such a world, especially in Chapter IV of Being and Time, the least original and most superficial passages in that uneven book.) In the Investigations the cost is arrived at in terms (e.g. of not knowing what we are saying, of emptiness in our assertions, of the illusion of meaning something, of claims to impossible privacies) suggestive of madness. (I will go further along certain trails of this suggestion in Part Four.) And in both the cost is the loss, or forgoing, of identity or of selfhood. To be interested in such accounts as accounts of the cost of knowing to the knowing creature, I suppose one will have to take an interest in certain preoccupations of romanticism. (Claim 241-42)
To use a different sort of therapeutic metaphor, rather than Cavell’s graphemic idea above of the “trail” or trace, this passage strikes off in the direction upon which Part Four of The Claim of Reason achieves its “breakthrough.” Cavell owns his version of Romanticism explicitly after this moment, as what he means by the challenge of living one’s skepticism alongside the simultaneous impossibility of living one’s skepticism.

7.        The body of Cavell’s work can be understood as enacting the challenge to acknowledge each of these words, “living” and “skepticism,” seriously enough together. It is through his relentlessly focused and inventive carrying on with that problem that Cavell departs so bravely from his teachers. The double imperative distinguishes his project from the rejection of private language found in different ways in J.L. Austin and Wittgenstein. As unlike as their approaches are, Austin and Wittgenstein together leave the very recognition of a gulf between (idiosyncratic) isolation and (coercively “transparent”) community to the effort that only a peculiarly Romantic, aporetic, sort of architecture would ever dare attempt to bridge, or formulate as its constitutive problem. [8]  Cavell needs his deployments of Romanticism to project that sort of bridge, which (as Derrida shrewdly declares of Kant) is not “an analogy” so much as “the recourse” to analogy in itself to move “between two heterogeneous worlds, a third term to cross the abyss” (The Truth in Painting 36). This is a job for the reflective judgment, to be sure. But is it also an urging of adolescence? If the task of ordinary language is to lead philosophy back from the metaphysical brink through better knowledge of what we are saying, to engage with “certain preoccupations of romanticism” involves assuming the risks of emptiness, the illusions about meaning, and the unshareable privacies “suggestive of madness.” Yet prior even to this list of deficiencies, a Romantic condition mobilizes Cavell’s anti-Kantian claim “to be interested” at all. In that spirit, an early essay from Must We Mean What We Say (“A Matter of Meaning It” [1969]) appeals so far back as Martin Luther to establish the “guiding ambition of Romanticism” not as the Kantian limit-concept of critical philosophy, but as an effort toward self-critical renewal: a dauntless critique of sacraments in order to make “[a]ll our experience of life [. . .] baptismal in character” (229). [9] 

8.        Moving on chronologically in Cavell’s writing from there, another essential Romantic proposition appears in the middle of Chapter Two of In Quest of the Ordinary, with the notion of “an idea that Emerson and any Romantic would be lost without, that the world could be—or could have been—so remade, or I in it, that I could want it, as it would be, or I in it” (35). There is much to be said about this passage in its turn. The changes it rings take the stakes of this “idea” ever higher and make its grounds increasingly shifty. Who’s judging what or whom? How much of this is really available for judgment and self-possession? Here active and passive modes, affirmation and rejection, and the melodramatic, theatrical roles of a spurning subject and the spurned object are all repeatedly turned over and then put back into play. Remaking, affirming, or rejecting the world altogether is interchangeably woven into and haltingly recombined with the imaginative syntax of creating and accepting the self.

9.        Or not—one may reply; Here Cavell phrases an insight about the fundamental intersubjectivity of a shared world instead as a mutually isolated performance of self and world, concretely affirming “neither the one nor the other.” The very possibility of self- and world-renewal by way of our skepticism is just what’s at stake in the question when it is posed in this way, our reply to which may not be fully available, or may be available at the time only through affects that are flat or numb, or delayed indeterminately. If Cavell acknowledges that judgment precedes and makes available the so-called fact(s) of the world, he thus might also be taken to suggest a self-directed culture of disengagement that one might align with the Hegelian “beautiful soul.” The passage wants all the drama of decisiveness packed into equivocal phrasing, so as both to mark and to resist the predicament analyzed in Hegel. Between Must We Mean What We Say? and In Quest of the Ordinary, one can see Cavell’s Romanticism shift from the convenient shorthand name for an epoch before modern alienation, to a set of attitudes and texts that must “prove” what it means for philosophical thinking to depart from and reclaim the horizon of an existence only felt through literary conditions as subjective autobiography. The pulse of that experience is taken through measuring intervals of departure (deadness, if not death) and re-enlivening confirmation. To offer that the world could have been different so that I could have wanted it, refines the terms not so much of confirmation as of, again, an adolescent withholding. Voiced now by the Emersonian spiritual “sovereignty” of youth, instead of by politically sovereign old age, this is the threat that Cavell calls “avoidance” in his pairing with “acknowledgment,” so crucial to his work beginning with the famous King Lear essay collected in Must We Mean What We Say? and then in Disowning Knowledge.

10.        The assertion begins with a stunningly negative given—that something is unacceptable “as it is”; by saying “the world,” Cavell enlarges this to no less than everything. And the sentence deliberately hedges about whether the self or the world (first?) needs to be remade. An activism of world-making and, or as, a project for fashioning the self “works” at the same time as the neutralizing renunciation one hears in Cavell’s menu of options. These propositional “terms” are really what in the same essay he thinks of as forms of life, signaled by the parenthetical “Terms as Conditions” in the title. If terms are declarative and factive in their ontological grammar, conditions are value-laden and modal (see Claim 323): That the world could be remade so that I could want it; that I might be different so as actually to be in the world; or that either of these merely could have been true, or even just that we may feel ourselves positioned to say so.

11.        The last phrasing suggests there is another level of opacity to deal with, one worth calling Cavell’s humanist version of the linguistic turn. Cavell’s persistent measurement of our distance from even the language we routinely use (on, as he puts it, our words having turned away from us [Little Did I Know 523]) means that the drama of acknowledgment and avoidance never takes place only as a first-order event, but also as a taking place and a testing of language. A section in The Claim of Reason on moral thinking, for instance, concludes by emphasizing the finitude of “where we stand” in questioning the use of our own and others’ language (Claim 312). (He evokes the seeming lack of response to the three books before The Claim of Reason as a phatic “Hello” without reply in Little Did I Know [523].) Though vexed conditions of praise have been Cavell’s predominant concern over the last decade, [10]  rejection and failure in some form could yet eventuate from the series of permutations from which I’ve excerpted. To revise a famous quip of Austin’s about the problems dogging the performative, there is no end to the outrages that can happen to us in language—and through it, to the Wordsworthian-sounding collective “forms of life” that so preoccupied Wittgenstein.

12.        Again I return to that page from “A Matter of Meaning It,” where the “modern” experience according to Cavell involves “reactions of disgust, embarrassment, impatience, partisanship, excitement without release, silence without serenity” (Must We Mean? 229): an Eliotic list of failed attachments and hollow consummation. With distressingly little struggle, these conditions are said to be “just facts—facts of life, of art now. But it should also be said that they are grammatical facts: they tell us what kind of object a modern work of art is” (Must We Mean? 229). [11]  Cavell’s productive response to this litany suggests he finds its counterweight stimulating. Whatever else it may be, Romanticism as a condition means keeping imaginative possibility open, despite (or, by negation, propelling itself away from) such allegedly “given” facts of modernity. In such a framework, any recourse to envisioning a world otherwise comes across as appealing and even celebratory. Jonathan Culler has sharply identified the “bad writing” in the “good philosophy” of Cavell (The Literary in Theory 211-21); yet an oblique, resourceful courage to accept at least some features of adolescent response is not the least of Cavell’s gifts to the practice of Romantic studies.

13.        A key sentence from Cavell’s new autobiography, Little Did I Know, reproduces the effect Culler takes to task from the start of The Claim of Reason. “By the end of college I had come to realize that music was not my life,” Cavell soberly states, before moving on from the grammatically preconditioning that to the experiential and educative how, by means of which he recalls the shape of his life in one seemingly endless autobiographical coil of a sentence:

How that crisis eventually produced the conviction that a life of study and writing growing out of philosophy was for me to discover, and how that was affected by being rejected for military service during the Second World War because of an ear damaged when at age six I was struck by an automobile (a trauma inextricable from the trauma of leaving music), and how that rejection was an essential element in my motivation to spend two weeks of the Freedom Summer in 1964 lecturing at Tougaloo College, a black school outside Jackson, Mississippi, and why I changed my name in the months before I left for Berkeley, having just turned seventeen years old, and what it meant to me finally to leave teaching at Berkeley to teach at Harvard, and to have encountered the work and presence of such figures as Ernest Bloch and J.L. Austin, and to have known deeply gifted friends, some renowned, and eminent colleagues who modified my life, and to have worked over decades on doctoral dissertations with students of the most superb promise, some about to be, or who deserve to be, famous, others still struggling to write as well as they think and as they imagine, and from the beginning of my professional life having lived with children whose inescapable, if not always convenient, expectations of me were an essential protection of me against less loving expectations that might have destroyed my hopes, are registers of the rest of the story. (Little 4)
The passage offers what one can only assume is a deliberate mimesis of life’s contingencies. Yet in his transition from the “that” to the “how,” Cavell performs the very way in which an impersonal (Humean) causal contingency becomes a philosophical “grammar” of life in all its intersubjective plenitude of interests—how the everlasting universe of things flows through a life, constituting Cavell’s unique life as it collides with or spins it on different paths through post-war, Civil-Rights-Era America.

14.        Yet there is no point in ignoring how the passage, too, assumes many risks typically run less convincingly by immature writing. The borderline maturity of the stance Cavell is interested in becomes patent in context when he opens the paragraph from In Quest of the Ordinary about the Romantic: “But I think I know by now what the man of fifty finds distasteful that made the boy of sixteen or seventeen ecstatic” (Quest 35). [12]  Such adolescent impasse—the problematic of adapting to reality, reaching maturity, or establishing the terms one might accede to as real, enough, or real enough— is a characterization to which Geoffrey Hartman gives room in his important essay on “Romanticism and Anti-Self-Consciousness.” Romantic art, like Cavell’s style at its best, is a means to “resist the intelligence intelligently,” as Hartman says (47). The sense of such a project as mature yet green further comes through in Cavell’s winning definition of “philosophy as the education of grown-ups” (Little 9; also see Claim 125).

*

15.        At a deliberate pace that could also have paused over passages on Blake and Keats in The Claim of Reason that are in one way or another definitional of Romanticism, together with the attempt to recuperate the role of adolescence in Cavell’s Romanticism, I’ve begun to provide textual coordinates for why retracing a British trajectory through Cavell’s Romanticism proves an enterprise of value. Thus while it feels natural, when looking back, to assume the original literary concern of Stanley Cavell’s thought is the pioneering American “Transcendentalists,” Thoreau and Emerson—of course this isn’t true. Moreover, it is not just different interests, but a specifically English sequence of concerns that comes to matter, like the “other” before the “I” in psychoanalytic thought, before Cavell’s writings on the philosophical inheritance of “his” America. Cavell’s choice of J.L. Austin as a philosophical “father” (and his choice of “ordinary language” philosophy as an approach) at the expense of the tradition of William James (and the pragmatism from which Cavell often maintains a wary distance) is made palpable by the fact that Austin’s How to Do Things With Words was first delivered as Harvard’s William James Lecture for 1955. [13]  The early essays of Must We Mean What We Say? develop a tone and set of questions designed to connect readings of Shakespeare, J.L. Austin, and Beckett. After the formative engagement with Wittgenstein’s thought, British and European Romantic “intellectual tragedies” undergird the structure of The Claim of Reason, especially through Cavell’s discussions, in Part Four, of the master-slave dialectic, Frankenstein, and Faust. Predating his seemingly “foundational” reading of Emerson—and, in the one essay from which I have already cited, “Emerson, Coleridge, Kant (Terms as Conditions),” actually helping to give rise to it at a point when basic ideas still needed “follow[ing] out” (Quest 27)—Cavell’s engagement with Romanticism stands behind his career-long project of troubling philosophy with its suppressed “literary” occasions and voices. British Romanticism, for its part, lies at the bottom of his simultaneously generous and nettlesome practice of taking up literary texts with a reflexively “philosophical” seriousness—a fact to which Cavell’s large subset of exasperated readers continues to bear witness. [14] 

16.        One senses that all the involvement concerning his prose over the years must relate to Cavell’s chronologically early, but quite personal, way of absorbing so many ideas about linguistic address that a general reader would now call “poststructuralist.” Whereas Cavell himself once was happy enough to curtail his sense of Romanticism to the paradigms of Abrams’s “natural supernaturalism” and Bloom’s quest myth, in addition to modes of critical attention practiced (in very different ways) by Hartman and Paul de Man, [15]  his influence now is felt in the more theoretical realms of Romantic studies as an undoctrinaire practice of something like “late” or “ethical” deconstruction. [16]  A complex reckoning remains to be staged with Derrida, certainly on the level of Cavell’s prose style. Cavellian skepticism and deconstruction also have shared a similar historical and conceptual trajectory as objects of popular misunderstanding. Readers have attributed to both a relativistic denial of knowledge, as if a celebration of the refusal, or failure, of knowledge were these approaches very aim. [17]  Meanwhile, Cavell’s careful engagement with the work of Shoshana Felman follows implicitly upon remarks others have made concerning the missing account of women theorists of the so-called “Yale School.” [18]  If the comparison to the practice of deconstruction in Romantic studies proves apposite, one of the primary reflections one might take from Cavell’s writings in the long view would be their early and sustained commitment to questioning the conditioning claims of ethical life. This context makes especially visible Cavell’s renunciation of the rhetorical violence that so often occurs both in the name of, and against, claims of finitude whenever there is a turn to ethics. [19]  His way of saying this in “Texts of Recovery,” the essay most directly representative of an interest in British Romantic Poetry, in both its less forthcoming and most explicit aspects, is that “[w]e moderns are likely to imagine that the giving up of the ground of revenge is the effect of therapy. I take the Intimations Ode to be saying on the contrary that this forgoing is the cause, or say the condition, of change” (Quest 75). For perspective on the distance that Wordsworth has traveled in this crucial area for Cavell, one can page forward through In Quest of the Ordinary and recall that the “next” chapter in the chronological literary and philosophical history roughly traced in that book—“Being Odd, Getting Even,” on Poe—is not a deepening of this therapeutic cure from the impulse to revenge, but a regression to the thesis that “the idea of thinking about individuality (or the loss of it) [comes] under the spell of revenge, of getting even for oddness” (Quest 106). Cavell’s Romantic preoccupations and his confession to reckon by “certain” Romantic “costs” cannot then be absorbed into a progressive account of the psyche in literary history.

II. Cavell, Derrida, and the Literary Animal

At bottom, all these people, from Defoe to Lacan via Heidegger, belong to the same world in which the animal is cut from man by a multiple defect of power (speech, dying, signifier, truth and lie, etc.). What Robinson thinks of his parrot Poll is pretty much what Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, Lacan, and so very many others, think of all animals incapable of a true responsible and responding speech, of a logos semantikos and a logos apophantikos.
—Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, Vol. II

17.        In the last half of this essay, I move on to discuss Cavell’s entanglement with Jacques Derrida and the relation of both to autobiographical modes of Romanticism. This comparison goes hand-in-hand with the diversity of interests evident in Cavell’s recent work. Having already written books on cinematic ontology, the “remarriage” plot in golden-era Hollywood films, and opera, in the last decade Cavell has written also on Jane Austen and—at least by invitation—on animals. Little Did I Know might not only be fruitfully read as a sort of Victorian novel like David Copperfield, but also compared to Derrida’s moving and almost as prolific turn to autobiographical writing from the 1980s onward, up to his last interview, Learning to Live Finally. [20]  Derrida’s very willingness to give so many important interviews has the effect of aerating his prose and raising the profile of embodied voice of his text, so that at times he parallels Cavell in a precise, yet diffusely lively, vocal inflection. [21]  This is a surprising area of overlay, given the differences between these two thinkers’ willingness to “hear out” the voices of philosophy, as Cavell reflects in his attempt to puzzle through the most notorious of Derrida’s interventions with speech act theory. [22]  In the books Philosophical Passages and A Pitch of Philosophy, Cavell takes on the troubling question of “What Did Derrida Want of Austin?”—his own teacher. [23]  Lost in translation between cultures and academic tonalities, it becomes clear that Cavell thinks there has been a missed opportunity to honor one school of serious philosophical play by means of the other; that even if he has had the encounter of reading Austin at some unspecified length, Derrida in a sufficiently meaningful sense has not heard through the full implications of Austin’s voice, allowed himself to be reoriented by that voice’s deft crosscurrents and deep soundings. Further, the missed dimension of response is not at all a centering of logos as metaphysical “presence” in voice but an inflection of thought by the tensional body of performed language: an attitude, and, in short, a praxis of teaching. The reading I offer below elaborates a sense that such testing of the “force” of language by more language is surely as much Derrida’s as it is Cavell’s and Austin’s project, surely not a metaphysical domain but a kind of bodily (and hence finite) strain of philosophy moving both against and (at a certain late point) arching back toward the conditions of song.

18.         This demand to test out philosophical meanings through the autobiographical body makes direct reference to Romantic philosophical writings per se difficult. For instance, in The Claim of Reason, a brand of rigid rational utopianism that makes “libels against the body” would seem to matter decisively against the perfectionist philosophical thought of William Godwin (471). [24]  In contrast to a Blakean celebration of embodiment that Cavell on the same page calls a “brave acceptance of the sufficiency of human finitude,” few of the overtly philosophical productions of the British Romantic Era sustain a commensurable depth of interest. Even Cavell’s proposed and unwritten “proper dissertation” on the “concept of human action” makes reference to a visibly British Romantic-Era topic (Hazlitt had written his first book on such a principle) only to swerve powerfully away (Claim xv). That project was jolted out of its course permanently when Austin came to Harvard for a term in 1955. William Godwin comes across as a prim builder of systems, as opposed to the “ruggedness” and “zaniness” of Emerson and the film characters Cavell explores (Conditions 101). And where Godwin is zany, his fanaticism takes on further excesses of rationalism that amount to the ultimate denial of finitude as its condition. [25]  At work in his perfectionist political philosophy one might suspect some kind of fantasy of omnipotence, and Godwin’s later novels, including Fleetwood and St Leon, tend to confirm this. Wordsworth thus narrates his rejection of Godwinism in The Prelude as an abstractedly self-blinded and deaf space “Where passions had the privilege to work, / And never hear the sound of their own names—” (1805 Prelude, 10.812-813). In an appendix to the 1798 Third Edition of Political Justice, Godwin presents a teleology by which even the motions of the blood eventually submit to willful control. He audaciously holds that human “perfectibility” (not akin to Cavell’s perfectionism) involves a movement from the domain of autonomous body systems into voluntary domains, leading individuals not only to regulate but to “despise the mere animal function” (Godwin 776).

19.        Because of this gap in major British Romantic philosophical achievement as such, the challenge becomes that of properly assessing the philosophical work of knowing born out distinctively by Romantic poetry and poetics. In contrast to what Cavell (surely correctly) admires in the resolutely immanent model of Blake’s vision of spirituality, none of the overtly philosophical productions of the British Romantic Era bear up to his admiration of Emerson for the ability to jolt and chagrin the official discourse, to rouse philosophical thinking by means of the very force of a motile linguistic responsiveness it disowns. The impetus of Cavell’s engagement with Emerson has everything to do with the latter's of philosophical meaning through modes of thinking decertified by the official discipline (or, alternately, marked in hindsight as central but cripplingly “genteel”). Yet the challenge in reading the Romantic poets through Cavell appears to be something like the reverse of his recovery of Emerson. Their assured “canonical” standing makes it difficult to trouble, and thereby renew, the living stakes of the poetry. In order to re-open that poetry as a field of both dubiety and potential, one would have to renounce so much canonical learning about literature. Learning is so much easier simply to use as a foil by mastering so as to revise in scholarly output. In order to develop a material phenomenology of Romantic poetry and poetic thought, Cavell would have us shrug off institutional memory as much as that project is ever possible, not accrue another level of sophistication in an ideologically overburdened hermeneutics of suspicion.

20.        Cavell’s Romanticism is a process of departure and return to the ordinary. And insofar as Romanticism acts as a name for the draining and restoring of a charged distance to language—language thereby still capable to inspire, jolt, and discomfit actual readers— its relation to critical activity becomes a project for renewal at any moment. I’d like to turn Godwin’s philosophical failure to accept not just the body, but also the human animal, to account, by juxtaposing recent Cavell with late Derrida in terms of their parallel reflections on animality. One might call this relation to autobiography, as Cavell seems to do at a key juncture on Austin in Little Did I Know, the “movement” of an animal-like mobility found even in spending a life deskbound in reading, writing, and teaching (364). A kind of thinking that won’t sit still for fixed concepts suggests the animal-like habits of a daily or seasonal range, a migratory or hunting track, a tracing of the patterns of tagged experimental subjects, and perhaps finally a sedentary local haunt. [26]  In this way, Cavell “trails” everywhere the animal as a feature of autobiographical voice. Most broadly, the growing contemporary study of the “Literary Animal” might offer a place to stage Cavell’s and Derrida’s work under a possibility of fuller mutual recognition— but fuller under the conditions of meeting through estrangement. [27]  “Wittgenstein’s motive (and this much was shared by Austin) is to put the human animal back into language and therewith back into philosophy,” Cavell writes in the belly of the Claim of Reason (207). [28]  Whereas Cavell’s chapter, “Companionable Thinking,” in the 2008 collection Philosophy and Animal Life [29]  holds to a kind of broadly humanist stance over and against the animal—for instance, one of Cavell’s main concerns there is to confront himself as a willing subject who eats meat—he nonetheless sustains the important discussion throughout that book of the state of “exposure,” the violability, or uncanny ontological openness, that can at times be a non-domineering measure of animal otherness. The theme of “exposure” also dates back to The Claim of Reason (432). This is as close as Cavell allows himself to come to Derrida’s universalizing claim, il faut bien manger. For Derrida, of course, against the humanist idea of Man this category of the Animal triggers a repeat of the move he makes against Austin, to insist on the other as “internal” and constitutive yet never itself forming a new center; hence the reliance on outrageous puns like animots and je suis not as “I am” but as “I follow” the animal in The Animal That Therefore I Am (2008). The animal encounter Derrida finds internal to the cogito retraces an admission from his interview “This Strange Institution Called Literature,” in which he admits that even literature, as “the most interesting thing in the world,” carries the minimal precondition of a safe dwelling and place to sleep:

I’m well aware that this involves an immense forbidden desire, an irrepressible need—but one forbidden, inhibited, repressed—to tell stories, to hear stories told, to invent (language and in language), but one which would refuse to show itself so long as it has not cleared a space or organized a dwelling-place suited to the animal which is still curled up in its hole half asleep. (40)
To realize the impulse toward literature requires a different version of a room with a door; its precondition is a sort of den, which environs a figure “curled up in its hole half asleep.” [30]  Oddly and compellingly, the predicate “half asleep” characterizes at once the necessitous animal and the creature “half”-freed to dream. The exposed condition of bare-life or animal existence before, or external to, the discretionary time afforded by culture is also figured here as another kind of den, or retreat, for non-appearances to hide in: “one which would refuse to show itself so long as it has not cleared a space or organized a dwelling-place.” The precondition of literary appearances is the “clear[ing]” of a site for the secret, an “organized” refuge of non-appearing. That ontological cover shelters the creature as much from the clearing of Being as cozily within its frame. But the unclothed, unhoused animal is paradoxically even more secret—it would refuse to show itself at all. At once exposed (abandoning anything like a defensive position or productive, functional rationale) and sheltered nevertheless (tucked away in a space of retreat), the “irrepressible need” Derrida articulates occurs by way of a skin-like or hair-like simile of what also “suits” the animal. The criterion of what’s proper (propre) to the animal (a gathering of what is “suited to the animal”) stands in place of a broader theory of figuration as the basis of literary associations. The very conditions of literature in the account from which Derrida speaks—passivity toward action and non-appearance toward Being—mean that literature can only manifest itself or peek its head out of the den (like a burrowing, perhaps hibernating, mammal, “show itself” [31] ) when it can safely curl up in half sleep.

21.        Somatic rather than symbolic—never amounting to a coded dreamwork whose key we are asked to insert—this is a logic of sleep to unsettle the binaries of public and private, active and passive, literary activity and survival. One might follow these thoughts through Derrida’s striking commentary on nakedness, animals, and the Fall narratives that attend virtually every aspect of Western metaphysics and religious tradition. Instead, however, I want to bring the discussion around to another feature of the mobile landscape that conjoins animality and autobiography and offer a short Romantic poem as a paradigm for further reflection in those areas where Derrida intersects with Cavell. At the end of another dense section of The Claim of Reason, Cavell offers a definition of what he means by skepticism—even “the moral of skepticism”—as the idea that “the human creature’s basis in the world as a whole, its relation to the world as such, is not that of knowing, anyway not what we think of as knowing” (Claim 241). This embrace of “nescience” (Bennett 27) opens to the question of animal life, whose otherness the “pantheistic” Romantics particularly invoke and acknowledge. Romantic “pantheism” troubles the status of reflection as the basis of knowledge, while reconfiguring the minimal conditions of knowing in experiences of pleasure.

III. Measures of Knowing

22.        I take my example from perhaps the least repentant “nature poem” of all the Lyrical Ballads, preparing to talk about a plurality of animals where one usually remarks on the early Wordsworth Circle’s “One Life” animism. “Lines Written in Early Spring” is a poem to which Cavell would seem to allude—and almost to take for granted—in setting up his discussion of the “Immortality” Ode as a text where “Wordsworth apparently claims to find not only that flowers feel but that they speak” (Quest 69):

The birds around me hopp’d and play’d:
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion which they made,
It seem’d a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.
Lyrical Ballads 76
In this lyric, what Andrew Bennett calls the “gnoseological status of poetry” (25) intertwines with the poet’s curiosity about the availability and grounds of a new epistemological attitude about pleasure: a linking of the “human soul” to nature’s “fair works” at once enables associative thinking and sets off the melancholy background of the project of human thought (ll. 5-7). The poem seems to shift the enabling premises of knowledge, and to offer a poetic method of receptive testing for just where the knowable world takes its preconditions and finds its limits. Hence the lyric, in its way, follows Kant in the genre of critique. But it also renders a kind of performative answer to how experience nevertheless continues, opaquely, beyond regulative critical limitations placed upon the epistemological endeavor as such. The consonance of mourning with moaning—which Robert Burns had heard in the poem from the 1780s which undeniably lies behind this one, “Man was made to Mourn”—in “Lines written in early spring” becomes a pleasurable, complexly purposive texture of rhyming associations (Crawford 193). Well-rehearsed by now (Claim 329-32) is Cavell’s “new” philosophical drama of acknowledgment and avoidance as an alternative to those “old” criteria of epistemological validation and certainty. Might Wordsworth’s criterion for testing his knowledge be located in his own reconfiguration of both cognitive and non-cognitive measure with pleasure? Despite the “dismay” voiced at man-made suffering later in the “Lines” (Stafford 103), the poem suggests that pleasure nevertheless enables and conditions the very experience of place, of having a “there...there” (“Lines Written in Early Spring” l.20). A regulative but open commitment to the purposive experience of pleasure allies Wordsworth to the indeterminate, Kantian concept of natural beauty. In this spirit, Simon Jarvis’s keen emphasis on something Wordsworth captures as the “sentiment of being”—not the egotistical sublime—in lines from The Pedlar (“I felt the sentiment of being spread / O’er all that moves, and all that seemeth still” [qtd. in Jarvis, Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song 29]) does honor to the ear of Cavell, and could be mistaken for an instance of Cavell’s own language. “What else can this mean,” writes Jarvis in a sentence that feels somehow already there in The Claim of Reason, “but that before this feeling a sentiment of nothing was spread over all that moves and all that seemeth still: that nothing, precisely, which goes under the name of ‘being,’ whenever being is understood as no more than the bare predicative cement in a proposition?” (Wordsworth’s 29). [32]  Thus we find the same configuration of birdsong, philosophical “measure,” and everyday origination (the spring, the dawn) in Cavell on Thoreau’s sense of “philosophical wonder”: “Thoreau was interested that dawn does not, or should not, wake us just as it wakes birds; that what is early and what is late, what is appropriate for night and what for day, origins and ends, are for us to measure; that, perhaps one could say, the natural history of the human essentially contains the unnatural, contests itself” (Emerson’s 8)

23.        Even as one of most tenderly green effusions of the “vernal poet” (As Shelley dubbed Wordsworth) in Lyrical Ballads, “Lines Written in Early Spring” models remarkable technique for living out skepticism. The poem’s key methodological terms—thinking, reason, and pleasure, elaborate themselves as if in response via the most simple of cognitive prompts. Nature’s apparent givenness is always putting to us the question, What do you make of it? Famously, at the end, “Lines” points back with added bewilderment to the destruction of fraternity (“What man has made of man” [“Lines” l.24]). But because of the lines’ tenacious resistance to understanding the non-human environment in terms only of knowledge, the end of the poem offers a striking and de-constructive vantage on modern technicity. Its subject is the historical production of Man alike with the processing of the animal and vegetal worlds. Like those whom Stanley Cavell deems “creative philosophers,” Wordsworth in this poem and many other comparable ones then has “two tasks: to oppose skepticism and to oppose false answers to skepticism” (Cavell, “Questions” 227). The failure of all conceptual attempts to “measure” another being’s “thoughts”—much less the significance of a bird’s or a twig’s movements—nonetheless is at the same moment met by a “pleasure” repeating its force of a conceptually weakened personification. Surpluses of feeling nearly built into the pseudo-cognitive structure of the “measured” verse ballad lightly and non-insistently countermand a supposedly unfilled Newtonian space or Cartesian coordinate grid as the paradigms of measurement. [33]  The warm movement of an embodied thinking in verse—already so like a feeling of “joy in widest commonalty spread” (Home at Grasmere l. 968) in Wordsworth, as opposed, say, to Byron or Keats where but to think is to be full of sorrow and near to freezing—replaces the thoughts of a subject bearing a determinate relation of form to content.

24.        Though such “measure” is present in the movement and body of the verse, it is, however, the unavailability of the lines’ “measure” as a cognitive matter of which we cannot lose sight here. Reflecting on her favorite philosophical figure of Socrates, Hannah Arendt intriguingly picks up on Solon’s definition of concepts as “non-appearing measure” in her posthumous The Life of the Mind (I, 170). Using this formulation, I want to end by touching on yet another major set of coordinates in Cavell’s “Romantic” career: the interrelation of music, philosophy, and literature—and specifically, measured verse. [34]  As it reaches back to pre-Socratic Greek paideia, the educative role of the musical poem exceeds any idea of “didactic” verse in the transmission of knowledge. Yet in the unattributed Platonic dialogue Ion, Socrates carries the day largely by converting the rhapsode’s bodily performance of sung speech into the contrasting assumption that knowledge instead must require a thematic and content-driven reference; that is, it must be representational knowledge about the subject matter adduced by the poem. In the case of Homer, that might be medicine, horsemanship, war strategy. This signal move in the history of the philosophy of art is so important, though enforced in an argumentative dialogue, it is in all essential ways left unargued as a precondition; it marks a pre-conceptual shift between two incompatible regimes of truth. The rhapsode performs with a lyre, the inspired instrument of Apollo, in depictions before this intervention, and thereafter bears a staff, the sign of the discursive office of Hermes. A culture of performance of ecstatic, mythically “efficacious,” sung speech becomes a culture of prestigious, legitimate, “dialogically” reasoning philosophy. [35] 

25.         Writing much later in the day of Western artistic culture, Cavell is focused on the inverse process by which a highly professionalized philosophy held at the risk of depletion may learn its prompt and gain its voice back from literature. “But can philosophy become literature and still know itself?,” he asks famously in the final sentence of The Claim of Reason (496). What had become philosophy’s disarming of literary knowledge in Ion, its stripping away of any knowing about the world absorbed with poetic resonance, now reverses direction and returns to philosophy—but only as a choice bearing the difficult challenge to accept a revived knowledge back from literature’s hands. Philosophy’s fear of not consciously knowing itself remains present in Cavell’s suggestive way of aligning the condition of literature with the unself-conscious and unexamined, with animal life.

26.        In the Preface to Poems, 1815, Wordsworth discusses without nostalgia the relation of the modern lyric as a genre or sub-genre to the classical idea of musical accompaniment. Consonant with Cavell’s post-musical commitment to a “pitch” of the philosophical voice, Wordsworth's belief is that, though poets “have been in the practice of feigning that their works were composed to the music of the harp or lyre,” the modern lyric’s musicality “require[s] nothing more than an animated or impassioned recitation, adapted to the subject” Prose 375-76). Wordsworth as a poet is able to affirm both that the loss of music to his art’s formal-historical materiality is not really a loss, and that it is the modern poet’s affectation to retain a non-cognitive musical prestige that amounts to a craft of “feigning.” It is a deft reversal of Plato, insofar as Wordsworth claims music, not conceptual knowledge, proves an object of envy. The move keeps its force as a turning of tables on philosophy even if that is not how Wordsworth himself claims to feel. By comparison, Cavell’s transition from the life of a jazz musician and Julliard piano student to that of a professional philosopher actually seems more plangent in tone than Wordsworth’s poetic theory. The idea behind the gathering of essays in Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes (2003) is Cavell’s “desire to think of Emerson’s essays as transcendental musically as well as philosophically,” just as wonderful and “alarming[ly] difficult” as the pages of a score by Liszt (Emerson's 1-2).

27.        I am tempted to frame a response to the status of what Jarvis in a series of recent essays [36]  has called “verse melodics” in Romantic and modern poetry, by stealing the terms of Cavell’s own brilliant reading of the ordinary sun in Wordsworth’s “Intimations” Ode. Like a modern poet who realizes it is impossible “ever” to be a bard or ever to be one “again,” Cavell begins the account of himself in Little Did I Know under the sign of a loss of musicianship (“By the end of college I had come to realize that music was not my life”; “the trauma of leaving music” [4]), imagining, as an entryway to his writing life, what it means to practice conceptual thinking as a form of “renunciation” [37]  (330). Following two waves of response to loss that merge together without ever quite harmonizing in Romanticism, we might then say about the status of both thinking in verse and the bodily performance of music in verse what Cavell says about the loss of insupportable poetic feeling in the Ode: “But ‘fades into’ does not say ‘fades out’” (Quest 75). [38] 

28.        The blend of restive and valedictory tones here isn’t quite right to end on, though, because it is actually not a lamentable fact for Cavell’s way of doing philosophy—or, by extension, for the reigning media of what he calls “modernity”—that “music, such music, must be written” (Claim 5). In this area too he comes out nearer to Derrida in the end than one may have judged thinkable. Like the happy couple in an Austen novel or an embattled pair in one of the Hollywood re-marriage comedies that Cavell also has taught us to read, in the last act the principles swap outlooks with giddy relentlessness, spontaneously expressing the other’s long-rehearsed arguments on writing vis-à-vis the human voice, laying it on exuberantly against his “own.” How else, four decades after “Plato’s Pharmacy,” could Derrida write/talk about the Muse, music, and song so as to aspire to a myth of the voice? [39]  Going back to the Phaedrus, Derrida reminds us in The Animal that Therefore I Am of the Platonic irony, which Socrates condemns for not being present to speak for itself; to teach students properly is to respond live to their questions (Animal 52). But “the Phaedrus is also a sort of animal dialogue,” Derrida continues, one based on

the myth of the cicadas, who used to be men and were so intent on singing that they were capable of dying, having forgotten to eat and drink. When they came to report to Calliope and Urania, the cicadas remarked on the philosophers who spend their time doing honor to the music appropriate to those two Muses. ‘I philosophize’ can mean that as a man I am a cicada, I recall what I am, a cicada who remembers having been a man. To remind myself of myself is to recall myself to singing and music. (Animal 53)

29.        In this dizzying perspectivist turn that passes so unthinkingly through the cicadas’ adolescent-type molting unto death, the “measure” of knowledge is no longer coherently identifiable as Man, autonomous or otherwise. In Plato’s dialogue, the cicadas are both a kind of chorus “carrying on” with their nonhuman “conversations [. . .] above [the] heads” of Socrates and Phaedrus’ talk (259b); and they are also those “human beings who lived before the Muses [. . .] so overwhelmed with the pleasure of singing” that they forgot food and drink and wasted away (259c). “After they die,” says Socrates, “they go to the Muses and tell each one of them which mortals have honored her” (259d). The singers die and come to know the passage of death through the ground, then metamorphose into the cicada chorus whose cyclical existence derives from earth. And while doubtless this makes for a strange picture in which to recognize Cavell the unwavering humanist [40] —to see not even the animal but an insect stare out from his “picture of the mind” (“Tintern Abbey” l. 62)—the story comes back to Urania as the Muse of discourse, to whom the cicadas “report those who honor their special kind of music by leading a philosophical life” (259d). The Phaedrus parable also keenly marks what Derrida has called “autoimmunity,” the exposure that both makes possible and infects—and here in a truly suicidal way—any system of autobiographical telling.

30.        The myth about what these self-forgetting cicadas are singing, finally, presents a kind of analogy to the more “ordinary” but nonetheless staggering Wordsworthian mystery of what inanimate or pre-animate objects might be able to bespeak for humanity. How are we to go about “communicating with objects,” the project Wordsworth intends in his Preface (qtd. in Quest 71)? Phaedrus’ cicadas bring to mind how Cavell’s own “Immortality” Ode—the renunciation that we are told launches his vocation as a writer— will not have been written in verse about the memory of our birth “trailing” clouds of transcendence. (Anyway, does that mean we are lingering back? Or born on with the “glory” streaming behind?) Rather, Cavell imparts his series of interests through a modeling of prose that is a constant witness to a maturity whose condition is not entirely to lack, but to sustain intimacy by accepting a condition of going on without, to continue to be discomposed by, youth’s music. “‘[H]aving been a child’ is a condition that none of us—no matter how different our happy or unhappy stories may be—can ever overcome, grow out of” (Marrati 957). Cavell’s topic is the “recall,” his reclaiming, via Romantic poetry as well as through so much else, of what it means to be responsive to the human animal by other standards besides a rehearsal of self-possession in our measures of knowledge.

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Notes

[1] My discussion is shadowed by two other foundational texts of a Romantic enlightenment and the oscillations of privacy and community so critical to Cavell: Kant’s 1784 essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?,” and Wordsworth’s “Intimations” Ode. BACK

[2] I re-invest in the possibilities of a “Romantic” adolescence in this essay. However, the term brings its own risks. See Beckwith for extended discussion of the theatricalization of acknowledgment, and Anne-Lise François’s essay in the present collection for the temptation to heroism as a hyperbolic mode of investment and struggle. BACK

[3] I say this despite the Emersonian overtones of “tuition” versus “intuition” in Kant’s “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” BACK

[4] In the introductory chapter of This New Yet Unapproachable America, Cavell thus offers that “[t]he idea of romanticism as calling for a new relation, a kind of union or completion of work between philosophy and literature, orients my remarks” (6, 4). BACK

[5] Cavell similarly cites T.S. Eliot’s comment that Blake “knew what interested him” as an epigraph to Part Four (Claim 327). BACK

[6] Emily Sun comments on how “Cavell so often figures the voice as, paradoxically, transcendently emergent in a context of economic exchange” (personal communication). BACK

[7] The ambiguity of what it means to “trail” a concern will recur at the end of this essay. BACK

[8] See Charles Altieri, “Cavell and Wittgenstein on Morality: The Limits of Acknowledgment,” for a discussion of Cavell’s relation to Wittgenstein and criteria, which by contrast to my account elaborates a sense of dissatisfaction with expressive Romanticism and prefers “Wittgenstein’s wariness” (71). Altieri shares perceptive concerns about the possible re-grounding of an “imperious authority to the language of knowledge with regard to selves” in relation to the major theme of acknowledgment in Cavell (76). His essay articulates the risks internal to Cavell’s approach, which Altieri deems more assertively (and in appropriately Cavellian language) to be its “cost”: “What Cavell loses by this allegorical bent is the richness of a literary text’s powers for sheer display, for articulating the capacity of particular situations to elicit values like intimacy, intensity, and wonder without soliciting psychological and moral explanation”; in Eldridge and Rhie 62-77. BACK

[9] Beckwith (passim) brilliantly discusses the revolution in early modern ritual theory that leaves this sacramental poetics to the Romantics (and to Cavell) as an improvised diurnal task, not a social inheritance. BACK

[10] An example that brings all these issues together is Cavell’s essay on Fred Astaire’s dancing and the American historical performance of race; Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow 61-82. BACK

[11] See Beckwith for more on Cavell’s approach to art and philosophical ethics as “grammar.” BACK

[12] In “Typewriter Ribbon,” Derrida notices that sixteen marks the age of the autobiographical act—a theft—for both Augustine and Rousseau (287). BACK

[13] See Posnock, “Fathers and Sons.” BACK

[14] Little Did I Know is likely to contextualize a lot of things for this kind of frustrated reader, but not to relieve her suspicion that the voice begs a patience that amounts to special consideration. BACK

[15] “Like many other people, I’ve learned a lot, I hope, from having read M.H. Abrams, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul de Man, and Harold Bloom on these topics. I’m not talking about some of their recent work so much as the work in the sixties and the early seventies when they lived and died with Romanticism” (“Questions and Answers,” 230). BACK

[16] Cavell’s remarks in “Skepticism and a Word Concerning Deconstruction” set out certain limits for my assertion (see Quest 130-36). BACK

[17] Mikics unhelpfully links Derrida to potboiler skepticism throughout his recent intellectual biography, which leads to fatuous sentences like his claim that, for the skeptic, “[t]he world begins to seem a realm of illusion, where we have tricked ourselves into supposing that we are real” (2). For more subtle thought on the linked skeptical approaches (and common misreadings) of Cavell and deconstruction, see Kates 12, and more broadly, Ziarek. BACK

[18] Barbara Johnson, “Gender Theory and the Yale School.” BACK

[19] Malabou offers one important such critique of poststructuralist violence: “anti-essentialist violence and deconstructive violence work hand in hand to empty woman of herself, to disembowel her. In this sense, they match ordinary violence” (139). BACK

[20] Paola Marrati also draws the connection to Derrida, saying: “Learning to live, not to die—which always takes care of itself—is the promise of philosophy” (961). BACK

[21] In terms that perhaps resonate unintentionally with Derrida’s approach to the subject in Otobiographies, Little Did I Know at times reads not so much like an autobiography in all the definitiveness and prestige of that word, as like an autographed sequence of journal entries or emails. BACK

[22] I reference debates around literature and speech act theory associated with the publication event of Limited Inc, but also the unparalleled, yet more sustaining and nuanced, and more deliberative account of Rousseau, J.L. Austin, and Paul de Man in the long essay “Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Inc (2)(‘within such limits’).” In this text (written after Cavell’s relevant replies to Derrida, but showing no sign of direct response to Cavell) Derrida attends to Austin more generously as a way above all of honoring Paul de Man: “Among all the remarkable merits of de Man’s great reading [of the “textual event” of Rousseau’s Confessions (see 315)] there is first of all this reckoning with the works of Austin. I say purposely, and vaguely, the “works” of Austin because one value of these works is to have not only resisted but marked the line of resistance to the systemic work, to philosophy as a formalizing theorization, absolute and closed, freed of its adherences to ordinary language and to so-called natural languages” (325). Overall, though, I find Cavell’s response to Derrida on Austin quite acute, since Cavell in effect reads Derrida’s approach as still caught up in structuralism (see Philosophy 168). BACK

[23] A great deal of Michael Fischer’s path-breaking book Stanley Cavell and Literary Skepticism also meditates on the question of Cavell’s relation to Derrida and deconstructive theory as the latter stood in the late 1980s. See Moi for further discussion of Cavell’s disheartening by Derrida, and for more on the larger friction (the near-miss of a productive friction) between poststructuralism and ordinary language philosophy. Szafraniec (84-91) insightfully surveys the perceived disagreements and potentially shared ideas of Cavell and Derrida. Coming as it does on the heels of his treatment of the performative in “Declarations of Independence,” Derrida’s handling of biography and autobiography in The Ear of the Other is also relevant to Cavell’s manner: “All will be listening to me with one or the other sort of ear (everything comes down to the ear you are able to hear me with)” (4). BACK

[24] Vanessa Lemm’s characterization of Nietzsche’s perfectionist relation to the animal proves apt: “It is through the return to and of their animality that human beings are led toward their humanity because it is the animal which withholds the secret of how to bring forth a relationship with the past that disrupts and overturns the present in favor of future life to come. In this view, becoming overhuman depends on a return of and to animality as that force which irrupts in humanity, exceeds it and tears it apart, so as to make room for its future (overhuman) becoming” (7). BACK

[25] With a similar emphasis on his occasional zany turns, Jenny Davidson offers a lively overview of Godwin’s ideas on “perfectibility” in Breeding (165-182). BACK

[26] Compare Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, Vol. II, 240-41. BACK

[27] With respect to the project of reading Cavell athwart Derrida, that strangeness will only be further dramatized by thinking about the gender difference characteristically born by constructions of Man vs. Animal; see DeKoven for helpful reflection on the truth that “[t]he linkage between animals and women [. . .] is historically and currently pervasive” (366). BACK

[28] The observation continues, just as importantly but in a different key: “But he [Wittgenstein, where his thought “is shared by Austin”] never, I think, underestimated the power of the motive to reject the human: nothing could be more human.” BACK

[29] Stephen Mulhall, in The Wounded Animal (69-94), presents extended discussion of this slender but important collection of essays and Cavell’s role as a contributor. BACK

[30] Compare Derrida’s hedgehog (hérisson) as the specifically poetic (not just literary) animal in “Che cos’è la poesia?”: “the hérisson. It blinds itself. Rolled up in a ball, prickly with spines, vulnerable and dangerous, calculating and ill-adapted (because it makes itself into a ball, sensing the danger of the autoroute, it exposes itself to an accident). No poem without accident, no poem that does not open itself like a wound, but no poem that is not also just as wounding” (233). BACK

[31] In The Price of Truth, Marcel Hénaff reminds us that philosophical truth, aletheia, is “the unveiling of the hidden,” the movement out (a-) of the hidden (letheia)” (6). Derrida’s certain awareness of this etymology deepens the play between literature and philosophy in “This Strange Institution Called Literature.” BACK

[32] If the “Romanticism” of Cavell’s relation to Kant leads him to say “Thanks for nothing” (Quest 31, 53), Derrida brings fully to mind the peculiarity of how free play cannot have a stake in the existence of the object in the Third Critique: “What is it to exist, for Kant?” (The Truth in Painting 49). BACK

[33] See Dimock; also Jarvis, “Thinking in Verse.” BACK

[34] Composers of verse, and scholars of prosody, are sometimes called “metricians.” A Pitch of Philosophy offers extended reflections on what Cavell, in economic language, calls “the lease of the voice” and the “pawn of the voice.” Cavell’s early training and performing life as a musician retain their formative influence. He situates the new preface to the paperback (1998) edition of The Claim of Reason in terms of a repertoire of musical familiarity one might compare to the phenomenological experience of verse: “It is familiar to musicians, indeed to those concerned with the fate of the arts broadly, that a piece once thought to be awkward becomes quite manageable with time, sometimes too manageable” (xi). See Potkay’s chapter, “Audition and Attachment,” in Wordsworth’s Ethics, for one account of a musical and anti-iconic relation to Romantic poetry (24). BACK

[35] See Détienne. BACK

[36] See Simon Jarvis's “Prosody as Cognition” in Critical Quarterly. BACK

[37] For Cavell’s musical training as a “reader” and the musical structure of his autobiographical reflection in Little Did I Know, see Richardson. This metaphysical autobiography of loss does not apply to music alone among arts for Cavell. He writes in the Preface to The World Viewed: “ A book thus philosophically motivated ought to account philosophically for the motive in writing it. What broke my natural relation to movies? What was that relation, that its loss seemed to demand repairing, or commemorating, by taking thought?” (ix). BACK

[38] “Fades into” also suggests an openwork aesthetics of pleasure, as opposed to a principle of formal enclosure. Even though, as Kant writes in the Introduction to the Critique of Judgment, “we do not and cannot find in ourselves the slightest effect upon the feeling of pleasure” in the understanding, the discovery of purposive experience “is the ground of a very marked pleasure, often even of an admiration, which does not cease.” Though “[w]e no longer find” it, Kant argues, “this pleasure has certainly been present at one time, and it is only because the commonest experience would be impossible without it that it is gradually confounded with mere cognition and no longer arrests particular attention” (§ VI). BACK

[39] Derrida had written in Of Grammatology that “[s]ong is at the orient of music but it does not reduce itself to voice any more than voice reduces itself to noise” (196). BACK

[40] An example of both Cavell’s reception of and distance from the animal occurs in the essay “Thinking of Emerson,” which he appended to the later expanded edition of The Sense of Walden: “(Perhaps it helps if you think, as [Emerson] goes on to say, that what carries us through this world is a divine animal. To spell it out, the human is the rational divine animal. It’s a thought—one, by the way, which Heidegger would deny)” (“Thinking” 137). BACK

Published @ RC

July 2014