Halfway through this lecture by Stanley Cavell, I stopped listening to it. It is not just that the lecture comes across – to me and to many others – as boring and self-involved. More than that, I had a moment of enough is enough. Not only do I not feel like listening more. I will not listen more. It was a flashback to fifteen years ago when, though at the time I poured through his writings, I stopped going to his classes. I wasn’t going to put myself through it anymore.
Not put myself through what anymore? What am I feeling when watching the lecture? There is a pain, a sense of frustration. A feeling that I am torturing myself by listening to this. But why?
It is the sense of a siren call, a pleasant, melodious, hopeful song luring me into its orbit even as ultimately it leads only to my entrapment and an intellectual dead end. That what I am listening to is really, for me, a mirage, a false hope, an illusion of a future at the end of the talk.
Cavell’s writing has the feel of being all self-consciousness. A mind turned within, pondering its own existence, its limits, its attempts at pushing past those limits, only to fall down and to try again, and again. With Cavell there is the sense that the whole person is present in the writing, that what is being presented are not just thoughts or arguments, but a mind in full, a kind of baring of the soul engaging with its deepest temptations and hopes.
And yet, there is also a basic lack of self-awareness, or at least a lack of an expression of awareness, about a fundamental fact: that of the institutional structures through which Cavell is speaking to his audience. In this Cavell is like Wittgenstein. In both thinkers, there is a presumption that they are speaking to the reader or listener person to person, as it were outside any institutional context, as two people who might just be sitting on a park bench, or talking a walk, sharing about their life and trying to make sense of it all.
One way this effect is achieved is through their taking a critical stand towards, as they see it, mainstream academic philosophy. The self-consciousness is inseparable from their trials and tribulations in dealing with professional philosophy, and in their trying to save their soul from its deadening effects. Hence often Cavell’s writing has a conspiritorial feel, as if he were speaking in a hush, in the corner of the room, away from all the professional analysis and metaphysics.
This sense of inviting to a private conversation, or, even more enticing, to a call of rebellion against the status quo – that is the siren call. However – and this is the feeling of I will not put myself through this anymore – once you meet Cavell there, in the corner of the room, all one finds is a monologue, but no prospects of a true dialogue. This is what gives Cavell’s philosophy, as with Wittgenstein’s, a sense of narcissism. That the self-consciousness has been rendered into an intrinsic feature of his philosophical expression, so much so that dialogue in a normal sense seems impossible.
In lieu of a dialogue, Cavell seems to offer an invitation to the listener to go on in the same way as him, for the listener to find his voice just as Cavell found his. But how is the listener to do that given how academia has changed in the last fifty years? Or given that no everyone can have the institutional privileges that Cavell has? To this Cavell has no answer.
This brings out the extent to which Cavell’s mode of philosophy, as a mode of how to be a professional philosopher, is antiquated and passe in current academia. Here Cavell’s self-consciousness strangely goes missing, as if he has forgotten that he himself is within academic philosophy after all, in fact at the very center of academic philosophy. As if he is so embarrassed by the privileges that he has had that he simply blocks them out, and assumes that he is simply speaking as a person.
Cavell, like Wittgenstein, seems altogether oblivious to the fact that in academia being able to speak just as a person is in fact the greatest privilege of all.
It is the privilege where the audience supports the speaker’s sense that they have all been transported to a space beyond power and institutional dynamics. That whatever privilege the speaker enjoys of being listened to is one based only on merit. As if Cavell speaking philosophy is like Glenn Gould playing the piano, and everyone in the room knows that Gould is the best person in the room to be at the piano.
What is ignored by Cavell is that the scientism of analytic philosophy is often motivated precisely by a skepticism towards the academic privilege of speaking “just as a person”. This is what gives thinkers such as Lewis or Fodor or Stalnaker the sense that they are more democratic than thinkers such as Cavell or Wittgenstein. For there is the question: what justifies the privilege of being a philosophy professor, that too at a prestigious department with all the benefits that come with that?
The scientific analytic philosopher’s answer is that there is an objective method that anyone can master and learn, and that the professor is the one who has mastered it better than the non-professors. A very straight-forward answer. What is Cavell’s answer? What can be his answer? Given that his philosophy is inseparable from his personal growth, in what way can Cavell take on the role of a master without putting himself in the role of a guru or an enlightened human being, at any rate more enlightened than the audience?
Here there is a bizarre irony. Cavell’s way of attempting to undercut this worry that he is complicit in the audience relating to him as a guru is to double-down on the autobiographical nature of his philosophy. As if to say: “Listen, I am not a guru. I am just speaking as a person. This is just how my intellectual life has progressed.” The trouble of course is that this only makes him seem like more of a guru figure, as someone who is so enlightened that he does not even care about his own power. But given that he is communicating this from the podium, there is the uncomfortable feeling that it is not that Cavell doesn’t care about his power, as much as that he has fallen into an illusion that he doesn’t have much power. What leads to abusing power more? Affirming that power or denying that one has it?
Philosophy is both autobiographical and communal. And if it takes place in an institutional setting, there have to be mechanisms in place which can enable this combination for all participants.
The scientific analytic philosopher retains the communal aspect, but at the cost of forgoing the autobiographical element. Thinkers like Cavell and Wittgenstein retain the autobiographical element, but at the cost of forgoing the communal element. Not that they do philosophy alone, but that they treat philosophy as so tied to autobiography that it becomes unclear what it means to engage with it institutionally.
The scientific analytic philosopher can accept things like tenure review, journal acceptance practices, and so on because he treats them all as reflecting the method of philosophy. For Cavell and Wittgenstein, these institutional structures are embarrassments which seem to suggest that they haven’t escaped academic norms after all, and so they deal with it by passing them over in silence. As if they are not bound by such norms at all. But, of course, only those at the very top of the hierarchy can get away with such a pretense.
There has to be a third way: a way to combine the autobiographical and the communal. There is. It is called being part of a social movement. Where this doesn’t have to mean politics in a limited sense. It means rather that in philosophy understanding the world and getting together with people in similar situations to change the world cannot be separated.
This is to foster not just an individual self-consciousness, but an institutional self-consciousness. This is one reason Cavell’s lecture above seems strangely disembodied. It is Cavell in the midst of the pomp and circumstance of giving an academic talk, and yet Cavell’s self-consciousness doesn’t reach beyond himself to incorporate the institutional context and dynamics that he and the audience are a part of. As if the room is filled with disembodied minds luxuriating in the splendid thoughts of the mind at the front of the room, outside of any concerns of how the very institutional structures they are a part of have to change in order for them to achieve greater self-consciousness.