Free Association / J.D. Connor

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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When I first showed up to Cavell’s office hours, mouthy and overeager, and not even enrolled in one of his classes, it was in no small part because he seemed to have the greatest possible title a person could have: The Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value. Not just Aesthetics, which seemed like enough, but also the General Theory of Value, whatever the hell that might have been. I took it as literally as I could. I was going to be a Social Studies major, and the idea that different sorts of valuation—economic, social, cultural—might be subject to some even more general theory was wildly appealing. We hit it off. Perhaps the fact that neither of us had any obligation to the other helped.

But the other part of why I showed up was that I had seen him deliver a sharp critique of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.1 Hanging from the rafters at the Kennedy School, many of us had gone because Bloom was a celebrity who knew how to push academic buttons. “Fellow elitists,” he began. In response Cavell defended Kuhn and Rawls and movies and young people and Walkmans, decisively but amenably.

In those early meetings, what I was doing was trying to figure out how to do things with Derrida for cultural studies. What he was doing, in part, was grappling with the fascination of the youth with Derrida and working up the arguments that would appear in Philosophical Passages and A Pitch of Philosophy. In a conversation about “Signature, Event, Context” and Limited, Inc., he explained his frustration with Derrida’s reading of Austin. I responded that Derrida might be wrong about Austin, but he was right about John Searle. His response came suddenly: “And who the fuck is John Searle to be right about?”

This was not the amenable public critique of Bloom; it was something deeper, and I was taken aback. Not because I wanted to defend Searle but because it was a signal that part of the general theory of value included who you chose for your enemies and interlocutors. In our conversations, this is what passed for professional advice.

In another register, one of the crucial moments in my undergraduate career came when I was sitting in the back of a Cavell lecture and he started reading a passage from Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment. And Kant just sounded like Cavell. Like if you could just push the words in the right way, that text that had seemed so difficult, so riddled with exploitable Derridean gaps made new sense. I’d read The Truth in Painting and I was going to make some hay with it in my thesis on the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus” itself. But this was another mode: Instead of searching for the aporia that would unravel the whole—the problem of the frame or the colossal—the essential trick was assuming the text could be coaxed to know more than it said and then to imply—or even flat out claim!—that this tendentious claim was sincere.

Doubtless it was Cavell’s letter that got me into the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins (and later he was no doubt helpful in getting me a gig at Harvard which I made a mess of; I’m unfathomably indebted is the point). My first teaching in graduate school was in a freestanding film courselet run as a satellite to a larger literature course taught by Richard Macksey. Macksey assumed that anyone who’d studied with Cavell knew something about film. I didn’t, but I figured I could fake it by just leaning into the films so that whenever they wanted to say something, they said more than that. Cavellifying Chinatown. And here was the thing: It worked. It still does.

This form of kidding-on-the-square generates a free-floating attentiveness that turns out to be a superb way of clarifying a concept or a genre or an oeuvre, and of convincing people who perhaps haven’t read or seen much of anything that they might still have useful things to say about what they have.

Now that I was teaching film more seriously I tried to come to terms with Cavell’s own work in the field. As a literalist, what stood out to me were the quasi-historical studies, Pursuits of Happiness and Contesting Tears, rather than The World Viewed. For all his professed, career-long quarrel with institutionalized Philosophy (and the later versions of that quarrel with litcrit and film studies), it seemed to me that the least useful way of taking up his legacy would be to replicate the quarrels rather than test the concepts. The challenge is to avoid slipping into a junior varsity version of that singular voice and instead to put it to work in ways that are recognizable at the heart of those various institutions.

This, too, responds to a certain call in Cavell’s writing—to an intimating, intimate push to get people to do professionally recognizable work. Early in Contesting Tears he’s trying to avoid sounding like someone “taking up the problem of the relationship between genre and authorship” while doing just that:

Despite my repeated references to the idea of genre, which bespeaks communal relations of law, contract, expectation, social determination, etc., I also refer repeatedly to the films as bearing the signature of certain individual directors. To some these will seem contradictory emphases; to me they reflect the specific economy of inner and outer, or of convention and intention, or of tradition and invention, that locates film within the constellation of works of the great arts. (8)

He contends that “intention and control remain seriously underanalyzed concepts in these contexts,” and he settles on a defensible position: “As long as a reference to a director by name suggests differences between the films associated with that name and ones associated with other such names,” it’s worth making. He goes on to ask himself, “And how about the names associated with writers, actors, cinematographers, designers, studios? The intellectual warrant remains in each case the power in a given instance to show a difference. I wish I knew enough to invoke them all” (9).

I took that as an assignment. I have been hacking away at it from different directions. In The Studios after the Studios, the title makes it obvious what I’m up to, but I also try to figure out what it means for genres to be adjacent—what degree of cultural or institutional cohesion or compression is necessary for such a formulation to work. Historicizing that concept (and others) makes it possible for me to contend, for instance, that as the center of corporate reflexivity has shifted toward television, the televisual genre space has filled in, radically altering the “fact of television” and making adjacency claims possible in that medium. In Hollywood Math and Aftermath, I try to figure out how to place Cavell’s earlier formulation of reflexivity alongside more production-culture oriented versions. These have been attempts at amenability.

For Cavell, the central pairs and triads of his genres are metonyms of the problems of liberal democracy. No doubt. And one of the great attractions of his work is the pervasive implication that there is a communicating channel between the sorts of aesthetic analysis and value theorizing he does and their possible extensions and political deployments. I’ve built a career as a repeating station in that network. Today, though, I think the world where that sort of capacious and intimate writing opens a door for political action that happens elsewhere has been foreclosed. It might return when these fuckers are all dangling upside down in the public square. I suspect it is gone for good.


  1. The talk was on December 8, 1989 and was published as “Who Disappoints Whom?” Critical Inquiry 15 (Spring 1989) 606–10 and republished in Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome.