Cavell and “I” / R.M. Berry

Photo ©2014 Charles Bernstein

Following Stanley Cavell’s death last month at the age of 91, we invited some of his students, friends, and admirers to write about his life and work. We were particularly interested in soliciting personal essays that acknowledged how Cavell’s thinking or character as a scholar and teacher had influenced the contributor’s own thinking or teaching, or helped to point them in new directions in their work. We ultimately received eight such pieces, with essays by Charles Bernstein, R.M. Berry, Beci Carver, J.D. Connor, Andrew Epstein, Walt Hunter, Imani Perry, and Johanna Winant. We will publish one per hour on July 26, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT. To read them all, please follow along or click on the “Stanley Cavell” tag at the bottom of this post at the end of the day.

—Andrew Epstein and Abram Foley

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Although I was nearly forty years old at the time, had earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and a PhD in English, and had published my first book of fiction, my aesthetic education began with reading Stanley Cavell’s Must We Mean What We Say? My experience of aesthetic discussion among practicing novelists at Iowa had struck me as impoverished, and my study of literary philosophy—what was called “theory” at the time—in Iowa’s English Department, although less oppressive, had proven no more satisfying. To fiction writers, my questions seemed without practical urgency or consequence, while to theorists, no answer to them seemed more decisive than any other. An exception to this unhappy dichotomy was Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which I had read under the guidance of my teacher and friend, Gerald Bruns. With Jerry’s help, I saw in Wittgenstein’s writing a third possibility, one that didn’t just defer answers indefinitely or leave me at the mercy of predominant opinion. However, I couldn’t see how to put Wittgenstein’s discoveries to work in my writing, either as a critic or novelist.

I spent 1985-86 in France as a Fulbright junior lecturer, while Jerry was at the Hebrew University Center for Advanced Study in Jerusalem, along with Cavell. Over drinks after we both returned, Jerry regaled me with stories of his and Cavell’s attending movies together and of their rich conversations afterwards. Although I’d already read Cavell’s essay on “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy,” I hadn’t distinguished it, or not in any memorable way, from the countless other Wittgenstein commentaries I’d studied, and it was largely to find out what Jerry’s excitement was about that I began Must We Mean What We Say? It changed my life. Something I’d always been told was abstract and theoretical felt so concrete and practical in Cavell’s work that describing it seemed inseparable from exemplifying it. The reason no answer had ever struck me as decisive, it now appeared, wasn’t that answers were multiple, partial, and changing. It was that the decisiveness I craved didn’t take the form of an answer, or not as any literary critic, philosopher, or novelist I’d ever read had represented answers.

Over the next three decades I read all of Cavell’s work, most of it multiple times, in my effort to understand the change that, by the time I’d finished twenty pages of Must We Mean?, I was already undergoing. The strands of my writing, thinking, and life that came together in those intricate sentences were so interwoven that, even in retrospect, I have difficulty unraveling them. However, two have seemed fundamental. The first involved a peculiar way of using, or perhaps a peculiar potential in using, the pronoun “I.” A well-known contribution of Cavell’s early work was its response to the seemingly unanswerable, seemingly rhetorical question, “Just who do you mean by ‘us’?” Cavell’s response was to recall that, even though plural, the pronouns “we” and “us” are first person. That I can speak for my linguistic community, that I can say what we say and mean, just means that I can speak, that I inhabit a linguistic community, even if what I say about us—whoever “us” happens to be—sometimes proves too limited. This treatment of the subject’s communal embodiment made Cavell’s own first person sentences sound less like assertions of a personal viewpoint than like tests of his culture’s inclusiveness. Just how far, he seemed always to be asking, can I or anyone else follow what I find myself inclined to say now? Although plumbing inclinations to locate one’s group posed new challenges, especially for those impatient to grasp Cavell’s “point,” it also raised the stakes of writing and reading. That, in giving voice to what was inside me, I risked making myself unrecognizable—as much to myself as others—meant that even the most self-effacing sentence was a scene of struggle. Claiming to speak from my own subject position offered no protection. To free myself from my culture’s repressiveness, I had to attend to every word coming out of me, to hear it as never before. It was as though the past refused to go away short of my total acknowledgment of it, and that meant my relation to my linguistic community had become a matter of transference as much as identification. Not everything sayable needed saying, needless to say, or not in every circumstance, but nothing my culture meant was hidden. I just had to say what was in me to say, to decide, in a word, what “I” means.

And the second strand, almost inextricably sewn into the first, was the idea, or perhaps Cavell’s continual demonstration of it, that prior to representations, words were actions—or more precisely, that like insulting, mocking, tattling, or lying, representing was an action, too. Although versions of this idea were already commonplace by the time I read Must We Mean What We Say?, in Cavell’s prose the action in question seemed uniquely unsettling. The fact that, when we used our words in the customary ways, the question rarely arose whether we knew what we were doing, did not imply for Cavell, nor for Wittgenstein in Cavell’s interpretation, that the question was settled. On the contrary, if it implied anything, it was simply that we—whoever “we” were—comprised a linguistic community, that we shared a language and so could interact meaningfully. However, as Cavell went on to recount, if such questions did arise—that is, if, any time I apologized, debate ensued over whether I was channeling my father, or if, when I howled in the dental chair, no one felt sure I wasn’t just calling my hamsters—then trying to tell everyone what I was doing was unlikely to put an end to them. What I found exciting about such examples was that the difference between narrating the action and performing it consisted of nothing either the narrator or participants knew. Knowing what I was doing simply meant doing it, not doing something else instead, and if questions arose—that is, if, in saying what I felt inclined to say, I became unrecognizable—then that represented a failure of acknowledgement, not knowledge, although whose failure remained unclear. In Cavell’s writing, how words were used seemed the best test, not merely of what they meant, but of whether they were, that is, of whether their users were doing what they imagined, and to imagine otherwise, to imagine that the difficulty of telling resulted from knowledge to which, because of historical, economic, educational, or other differences, some had better access than others, was to replicate the difficulty in trying to tell it. It was as though in such straits I turned a deaf ear to what everyone was saying, or as though I imposed a limit on what “we” could mean. And in Cavell’s writing, that was how the past came back.

Woven together, these two strands fashioned for me what during my time at Iowa I had craved: a vision of language in which the decisiveness to which philosophy and science aspired materialized in my relation to the words of fiction and criticism. What “I” meant was decisive, not because, prior to saying it, I determined that my meaning was recognizable, but because what I had in me to say established the conditions for, and set the limits on, my knowing what I or anyone else was doing. What I said we said and meant proved to be multiple, partial, and changing over the subsequent decades. First person sentences were just as consequential for me when they turned out to be too limited, exposing my blindspots and prejudices, as when, often in a form I barely imagined, another located her meaning in what I said. But what “I” meant never proved any less decisive for being experimental. Knowing it has always meant doing it, which hardly represents an answer to my questions. It simply makes them fade away.

R.M. Berry
R. M. Berry is emeritus professor of English at Florida State University. His books include the novel Frank (Chiasmus: 2005), the fiction anthology Forms at War (U. of Alabama: 2009) and the critical anthology, Fiction’s Present: Situating Contemporary Narrative Innovation (SUNY: 2007), co-edited with Jeffrey Di Leo. His criticism has appeared in New Literary History, Philosophy and Literature, Symploke, and the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature.