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
I was once challenged in a job interview to explain why I kept quoting Cavell. What did he clarify about the direction of my work? Why was I drawn to him in particular? Rushing in where angels might have hovered, I said he was “someone who lived in my bag.” This had the virtue of honesty: for months, Cavell’s Must We Mean What We Say? had been a stowaway in my rucksack, accumulating ecstatic notes and growing fat with folded page-corners. Almost every page in the book is turned down, in defiance of annotative value, but testifying to something—at least infatuation.
Questions are more interesting than answers to Cavell, and the only defense I’ll make of my interview answer is that it kept the question “active,” as he would put it. Why Cavell? I still can’t say. In my reading of him, the art of intellectual inquiry lies in equipping questions for longevity (making them difficult and interesting) and ensuring their tenure. Considered in this light, answers may feel like a kind of defeat. In his volume of essays on Shakespeare, Disowning Knowledge, he writes with a modesty that is also an inscription of methodology: “By instinct and training my mode has been that of careful ignorance.”
Cavell’s rationale for “careful ignorance” is hinted at in his first book—my cargo, Must We Mean What We Say?—in an account of an oppressive “philosophy which seems to have uncanny information about our most personal philosophical assumptions,” but “tr[ies] no special answers to the questions which possess us.” In Cavell’s hands, philosophy is not “information” but a continuous volley between “the questions which possess us” and the “special answers” he “tr[ies]” out. Arguments conducted in this way are not so much concluded as organised into some gesture of finality.
Cavell writes of the problem of ending in an essay on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which he understands the play to hang between Hitchcockian suspense and Christian faith, committing to neither:
Suspense is for Hitchcock what faith is for the Christian, an ultimate metaphysical category, directing life’s journey and making the universe come clear, and clean at the end. The overwhelming question for both is: How will the truth come out at last? Beckett’s couples have discovered the final plot: that there is no plot, that the truth has come out, and this is the end. But they would be mad to believe it and they cannot, being human, fully give up suspense. So they wait. Not for something, for they know there is nothing to wait for. So they try not to wait, but they do not know how to end.
How do you end when you don’t believe in plot? One solution is to set your closing statement spinning, as Cavell does at the end of an essay on what music means, with: “And, of course, I may be taken in.”
These techniques of perpetuation are not applicable to every question, however carefully ignorant one might aspire to be. Cavell’s work is scattered with insights that convince in one shot, like: “Art begins where explanations leave off, or before they start,” or “cruelty cannot bear to be seen.” The appropriate “procedure,” Cavell says, in approaching statements “which seem right” straight away, without any recourse to the machinery of reasoned debate, is “to treat them phenomenologically, as temptations to feelings; in a word, as data, not as answers.”
Can there be such a thing as a persuasive answer to a difficult question? Perhaps not. But Cavell would be bound to emphasise the intellectual importance of waiting for genuine answers (whatever their degree of persuasiveness) to emerge. Writing his essay on Macbeth for Disowning Knowledge, he felt thankful for being left to “leave things incomplete, as it were uncovered, until I felt I had something interesting and urgent enough to say in my circumstances.” It is tempting to imagine Cavell in a job interview bringing the whole bureaucracy of assessment to a hypnotic halt.
What Cavell wanted to figure out about Macbeth—how to “account for its famous spookiness”—remains unresolved in the essay he published. Nonetheless, his reading of the play as a series of attempts by Macbeth and others to square up to the questions they are asked may be felt to enact his own predicament, both with regard to the problem of spookiness and to all the “questions which possess us.” Like Shakespeare, Cavell sets out to imagine how “an understanding is—or can be—intellectually adequate to its question, neither denying what is there, nor affirming what is not there (a deed, a dagger). As if what is at stake is the intelligibility of the human to itself.” In Macbeth, there is a (partially generic) pressure towards conclusiveness which is absent from Cavell, but Cavell is no less vividly conscious than Macbeth of the need to deliver a response.
And not all questions may be left spinning. Reflecting on an editorial request to shorten his essay on Shakespeare’s Lear and on his own reluctance to do so, Cavell writes that he gave way because “Of course I could understand why this was asked—who could not? Space and time are humanly limited.”