Cavell’s Passionate Utterance / Imani Perry

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

: :

It began with Claudette Colbert. I have always loved old movies. The composition of each scene, gray scale such that texture and shape are an excitement, the artifice of elocution and melodramatic gestures, and the ease of storytelling—these are the things that drew me in. In one of my graduate school courses taught by Elaine Scarry, she introduced me to Stanley Cavell’s work. We read Pursuits of Happiness, and it was Cavell’s reading of It Happened One Night that I took to be an invitation—into his world of ideas, into using his ideas to expand the world of my own.

A scholar who delights in his subject is a delight to read. That was the case with Cavell. As an undergraduate at Yale, who had been trained in literary criticism and cultural theory, I was familiar with film as a subject of critical inquiry. But Cavell’s work brought me something different. His explorations were more than an analysis of representation and symbolic meanings. He also asked fundamental questions about human yearning and being.

I had been taught skepticism towards such approaches. The shift from the humanities to cultural studies, as I had been taught it, was a shift from the individual to the collective—a disavowal of fictions of objectivity and universality (and all of the imperial baggage that came with them)and a turn towards examinations of relations of power and modes of living, especially insurgent ones. Then, as now, I believe that cultural studies was an important corrective to dominant approaches in the humanities. And yet reading Cavell made room for my own recognition that the continued contemplation of the interior and our relations to the other, all others, both intimate others, and more distant others, categorical others and conceptual others, who sit apart from us in the matrix of social arrangements, is critical.

And if I am completely honest, Cavell made philosophy attractive to me again, after I had been profoundly turned off by the discipline. Philosophy seemed to me so often to be wrapped up in the minutiae of cleverness, as well as a narrow conception of truth, rather than a full contemplation of the human condition. It seemed to make icons of disembodied specters of thought, to reject everything fleshy and organic. Cavell was a reminder that philosophy need not be that way. Instead, it could be a living set of interpretive practices and tools, which, like cultural studies, had bearing on our daily lives and our immediate condition.

Cavell also answered a frustration for me with the disciplines in which I had been trained. As a young graduate student, I could talk about semiotics and paradigms, power and agency, hegemony, structuralism, and its aftermaths, the colony and its post. But what eluded me was a deep contemplation of the encounter—that dynamic, vexed thing that happens more than millions of times each day—and vastly more possible permutations, all bounded and framed by large-scale social relations but also filled with so much more.

This is the primary reason that in my forthcoming book, Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation, I take up Cavell’s concept of the passionate utterance. A great deal of gender theory of the past several decades has explored Austin’s concept of the performative utterance as a speech act. Cavell’s expansion of Austin’s idea of performatives to include passionate utterances—invitations into the disorders of desire—has captivated me as a critic who looks towards liberation, and not simply description of our plight. As in his work about exploring the meaning of conversations in cinema, Cavell’s engagement with Austin in Philosophy The Day After Tomorrow brought readers to the possibility that exists and persists in human encounters. For me, that possibility is key because it means we might move towards more ethical human relations. It is an acknowledgment that even as injustice is persistent, nothing under the sun, no matter how conventional, is static. At each refreshed moment transformation is possible.