Wilner, Afterword


Joshua Wilner
City University of New York

1.         Must We Mean What We Say was published in 1969, thus shortly after the publication of De la grammatologie in 1967 and shortly before the appearance of Blindness and Insight in 1971. All inaugural books, all challenging their disciplines from within but in relation to an encompassing sense of cultural and political crisis, all centrally concerned with the question of literature’s relation to philosophy. It is imaginable then that those entering the profession (but which one?) at this time and drawn toward theory [1]  might have found in Cavell’s writing and its sources in the late Wittgenstein a counterdiscourse to what was emerging as deconstruction. [2] 

2.         By and large, of course, this did not happen. In the years and decades following that late sixties moment there has been no lack of discrete responses by individual literary scholars and theorists to Cavell’s work—as Eric Lindstrom discusses in his introduction—and even the occasional institutional overture. [3]  But it is only comparatively recently that something approaching a collective response by the field of literary studies and of a kind comparable to that elicited by any number of contemporary continental figures, not to mention Derrida and de Man, has begun to organize itself. Nor by collective response do I mean that the “field” as a whole has found it necessary to engage with Cavell’s writing and thinking in a systematic way, but only that an interest has emerged in organizing occasions, whether conferences, sessions, or collaborative publications like the present, whose form more or less ensures that at least some literary critical responses to Cavell’s work will be collected rather than remain dispersed, gathered together in the hope that something like a critical mass will be reached. The apparent historical, geographical, and thematic circumscription of its topic notwithstanding then (though one could argue that the word “Romanticism” and the name “Cavell,” especially when considered in conjunction, all but guarantee this result), the present collection is symptomatic both of the reopening—or perhaps better the resuscitation—of possibilities of exchange one might have thought foreclosed or moribund, and, in its heterogeneity, of an ongoing uncertainty as to whether and how they are to be sustained.

3.        Since my own involvement with Cavell began in 1966, more or less at the same time that I began studying with Paul de Man as an undergraduate at Cornell, and just as I was beginning to hear about someone named Jacques Derrida doing exciting work in France (all of this scored to the drumbeat of bombardments half a world away and growing calls to bring the war home), Eric Lindstrom’s invitation to write this afterword naturally leads me to reflect on two closely related questions: first, what hindered theory’s reception of Cavell’s work; and second, what, if anything, has changed to make that work more available for engagement?

4.         To speak briefly to the first question, and to forestall the suggestion that the difficulty, alluded to briefly by Lindstrom, has been the idiosyncracies of Cavell’s style, or (more complexly) his (parochial?) concern with the fate of philosophy in America and its repression of Emerson as its founder: the real stumbling block has always seemed to me Wittgenstein or, not to speak in proper names, the appeal to the authority of ordinary language. [4]  While one can imagine Derrida and Cavell alike finding use for Lacan’s dictum, “il n’y a pas de métalangage,” no transcendental standpoint from which language might be apprehended in its totality and critiqued, for deconstruction this entails as its dialectical counterpart the idea that everyday language is conditioned through and through by metaphysical oppositions, and the difficult task (“immense labeur,” as Derrida would say) of undoing and displacing them from within a syntax and lexicon they intimately inform. From such a perspective, Wittgenstein’s remark that “what we do is bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” (Philosophical Investigations 116), a remark which surely provides the subtext for Cavell’s characterization of the work of Romanticism as “the task of bringing the world back, as to life” (Quest 52), will seem at best an evasion of the problem, at worst an invitation to complacency, a pastoralizing appeal to normative contexts of usage that turns a blind eye to the destabilizing critical potential of literary language, while from a Wittgensteinian perspective, deconstruction perpetuates the mirage of a totalizing linguistic edifice that holds us captive—an edifice which Wittgenstein could dismiss as “houses of cards” (Philosophical Investigations 118)—through the very project of undertaking to dismantle it.

5.         It is not surprising then that Paul Fry’s finely argued piece on “Saving Skepticism in Shelley and Cavell,” which explicitly characterizes Cavell’s work as mediating between two “traditions of philosophy” (2) and whose reading of Shelley is shaded in various ways by de Man’s “Shelley Disfigured” essay, [5]  originally published in the 1979 Deconstruction and Criticism (Fry himself having arrived at Yale as an assistant professor in 1971), essentially has to bracket Cavell’s “primary interest [. . .] in the recovery of the quotidian” (par. 6) in order to conduct its argument. What remains is Cavell’s other signature preoccupation (to the extent they can be separated from one another), the problematic of skepticism, whose subversion, in Fry’s reading of Shelley, of the categories of truth and error (as of those of life and death) gives poetry its chance, at least in the pre-1820 Shelley. Fry finds in this “grounding of poetry in skepticism,” in particular in its critical, “constructive” potential, common ground with Cavell’s insistence, early and late, on the skeptic’s “insight [. . .] that certainty is not enough” (Must We 258).

6.         That “the skeptic’s insight” is integral to Cavell work; that his concomitant rejection of a Cartesian epistemology of certainty makes common cause in this regard with what came to be known as post-structuralist theory; that this rejection is further concomitant with an openness to literature as an originary mode of human knowing and thus as a contestant of or partner in philosophy’s claims; that this rejection and openness are hallmarks of Romantic writing and thought and what Cavell’s diagnoses as its “disappointment with the Kantian settlement” with skepticism; that Cavell’s work therefore involves from the start an original relation to Romanticism (prior to its channeling through the pivotal figure of Emerson): all these propositions Fry’s discussion of Cavell and Shelley demonstrates, either directly or by implication, in exemplary fashion. At the same time, that Fry speaks of “Cavell’s understanding of the liberating power of skepticism” (which Fry sets off against a “linguistic determinism” to which he sees the late Shelley turning and that he associates with the “Yale School” and its impact on literary studies), gives me pause. In my reading, the importance Cavell accords skepticism is not a function of its “liberating power” but of the irrepressibility of the impulse to which it gives expression and access, an impulse Cavell identifies with the all-too-human wish to escape the human and finds articulated in, for example, the first sentence of the first edition of Kant's First Critique.  [6] 

7.        Of the other contributions, it is Eric Lindstrom’s—which is also the essay most concerned (particularly in its first half) with claiming for Cavell an original relation to Romanticism—whose way of construing that relationship most resembles Fry’s. Again it is skepticism, or more precisely what Cavell calls “living one’s skepticism,” which Lindstrom understands as the task of “bridg[ing]” “isolation and [. . .] community,” as the uncertain possibility of self- or world- “renewal by way of our skepticism,” which is seen as constituting “Cavell’s Romanticism” (par. 6, passim) Both find touchstones for their arguments in cognate passages from In Quest of the Ordinary: for Fry, Cavell’s interpretation of “Romanticism’s work [. . .] as the task of bringing the world back, as to life. This may present itself as the quest for the return to the ordinary, or of it, of a new creation of our habitat; or as the quest away from that, for the creation of a new inhabitation” (Quest 53); for Lindstrom, Cavell’s presentation of the thought “that the world could be—or could have been—so remade, or I in it, that I would want it, as it would be, or I in it” as “an idea that Emerson or any Romantic would be lost without” (Quest 35).

8.         It is understandable that such words might be construed as a warrant for skepticism, understood as a thorough-going questioning of what I take as given in my relation to the world and others, and Lindstrom is certainly not alone in taking Cavell’s words about “living one’s skepticism” to involve an ethical injunction (though he is careful to describe its possibility as in question). For myself, however, I take away a different understanding of this issue, and therefore a different understanding of Cavell’s relation to Romanticism on this score. The theme of “living one’s skepticism” arises initially in The Claim of Reason in the context of Cavell’s extended comparison of the classical philosophical problem of material objects skepticism, reaching its definitive formulation in Hume, and the more peculiarly modern problem of other minds skepticism. With regard to the former, Hume famously observes that “when we leave our closet and engage in the common affairs of life, its conclusions vanish.” [7]  Or, as Cavell phrases it, “[W]ith respect to the external world an initial sanity requires recognizing that I cannot live my skepticism”—and then continues, “whereas with respect to others a final sanity requires recognizing that I can, I do” (Claim 451).

9.         Particularly when considered within the context of this latter acknowledgement, the “Romantic” idea over which Lindstrom lingers—“that the world could be—or could have been—so remade, or I in it, that I would want it, as it would be, or I in it” (Quest 35-36)—reads to me as formulated in resistance to the draw of a skeptical half-heartedness that repeated experience (hence, “a final sanity”) all but requires us to share, and that manifests above all (and here my line of thought rejoins Lindstrom’s) as “our distance from [. . .] the language we routinely use” (par. 11). Whether this distance, to again echo Lindstrom glossing Cavell, is understood in terms of “the finitude of ‘where we stand’ in questioning use of our own and others’ language” (ibid) or in terms of an absolute demand that no remaking of the world or imagining of the world remade could satisfy, seems to me precisely where the issue of skepticism in its relation to Romanticism’s transformative aspirations is lodged for Cavell.

10.         But what is “the finitude of where we stand” in questioning our use of language? Consider the following passage from Arthur Eddington’s 1929 The Nature of the Physical World, recognizably a latter-day version of (and conceivably reflecting familiarity with) Hume’s portrayal of the situation of the skeptical philosopher:

I am standing on the threshold about to enter a room. It is a complicated business [. . .] I must make sure of landing on a plank travelling at twenty miles a second around the sun. [. . .] The plank has no solidity of substance. To step on it is like stepping on a swarm of flies. Shall I not slip through? [. . .] [T]he occurrence would be, not a violation of the laws of nature, but a rare coincidence. [. . .] Verily it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a scientific man to pass through a door. And whether the door be barn door or church door it might be wiser that he should consent to be an ordinary man and walk in rather than wait till all the difficulties involved in a really scientific egress are resolved. (324)
In a well-known 1938 letter to Scholem, Walter Benjamin famously wrote of Eddington’s conceit, which he cites in translation at greater length, “In all of literature I know of no printed passage that exhibits the Kafkaesque-gestus to the same extent.” That it does so is because this “most recent of experiential worlds”—which “is projected theoretically, for example, in modern physics and practically in the technology of warfare” and which Benjamin also associates with “the experience of the modern city dweller”—“was conveyed to [Kafka] precisely by the mystical tradition,” with which it exists in “tremendous tension” but whose powers had to be appealed to in order to confront a “reality [that] can scarcely be experienced by an individual” (Benjamin 563-4). [8] 

11.        Less well known, at least by students of literature, are some remarks in Wittgenstein’s Blue Book (1933-34) which may as well (and might in fact) be responding to the same passage in Eddington:

We have been told by popular scientists that the floor on which we stand is not solid, as it appears to common sense, as it has been discovered that the wood consists of particles filling space so thinly that it can almost be called empty. [. . .] To say, on this latter ground, that the floor is not solid is to misuse language. For even if the particles were as big as grains of sand, and as close together as these are in a sandheap, the floor would not be solid if it were composed of them in the sense in which a sandheap is composed of grains. Our perplexity was based on a misunderstanding [. . .] the word “solidity” was used wrongly [. . .] in a typically metaphysical way, namely without an antithesis. (Wittgenstein 45-46)
These things are a parable. In Benjamin’s reading, although Eddington’s explicit subject is the constitutive role of uncertainty in quantum mechanics’ displacement of classical mechanics, the passage expresses something more general, an immobilizing anxiety—"Shall I not slip through?"—in the face of what Dickinson could still name “that precarious Gait/Some call Experience,” [9]  a skeptical bearing that paradoxically claims the vindication of scientific truth. No less for Wittgenstein, more (and then less) is at stake in Eddington’s scene than meets the eye: it is the type of metaphysical error, and it is to be met by “bringing words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.”

12.        The method or idea of “bringing words back [. . .] to their everyday use,” which is to say of ordinary language philosophy as practiced (differently) by Wittgenstein and Austin, is presented by Cavell as simultaneously the “return of a voice to philosophy” and “giving me a voice in philosophy” (Pitch 69). [10]  Since that unembarrassed, if exquisitely complex, appeal to voice went directly against the grain of the deconstructive critique of phonocentrism, confirming it in its suspicions, as it were, of appeals to the ordinary, it is notable that the second half of Lindstrom’s essay on “Cavell, Derrida and the Literary Animal” should look for the grounds of a rapprochement in “Derrida’s [. . .] raising the profile of embodied voice of his text, so that at times he parallels Cavell in a precise, yet diffusely lively, vocal inflection” (par. 17) The possibility of such an approach attests not only to what Lindstrom accurately describes as “Derrida’s [. . .] turn to autobiographical writing from the 1980s onward” (par. 17) and, with surehandedness, asks us to consider in relation to the even more marked and earlier initiated tendency in Cavell. It is also grounded in the increasing importance accorded by Derrida to the “idiomatic,” marker of the singularity and multiplicity of languages, and closely allied as a linguistic category, I would argue, with the “ordinary” and the “everyday.” Finally it attests to the easing of a degree of censorship attaching to invocations of “voice” whose imposition was the inevitable if not sought as such consequence of the deconstructive program of undoing metaphysics’ foundational repression of “l’errance joyeuse du graphein” (Derrida, “Éllipse” 429; Derrida’s emphasis). Here again, the shift from emphasis on the irreducibly figural dimension of propositional language to an emphasis on an irreducibly performative dimension has played a central role.

13.        Thus Lindstrom is careful to stipulate, in initiating his comparative investigation of Derrida’s and Cavell’s "strain[s] of philosophy moving both against and [. . .] arching back toward the conditions of song,” that what he is inquiring into “is not at all a centering of logos as metaphysical 'presence' in voice,” but rather, in his suggestive if elusive formulation, “an inflection of thought by the tensional body of performed language” (par. 20) Although one may ask whether such a recasting of voice in terms of embodied performance (here dependent on an equivocation as to whether the “body of performed language” is the body doing the performing or the “body” of the language performed) does not reproduce the anchoring of language in a relation of self-presence that is the target of Derrida’s critique, I prefer to examine for a moment one figuration of that “tensional body” on which he dwells in developing his related thinking about the relation to animality in Cavell’s and Derrida’s comparably mobile, improvisatory inhabitations of language, the following stanza from Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring”:

The birds around me hopped and played
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion which they made,
It seem’d a thrill of pleasure.
Lindstrom’s attention is rightly drawn to Wordsworth’s play with “measure”: “Surpluses of feeling nearly built into the pseudo-cognitive structure of the ‘measured’ verse ballad lightly and non-insistently countermand [. . .] Newtonian [. . .] or Cartesian [. . .] paradigms of measurement” ("Introduction" par. 23). But there is another less evident but more piercing play of words involved in the way “thrill” channels “trill” (as de Man would, in fact, have pronounced it), an association by means of which Wordsworth connects the vibratory intensifications, the “trills” of poetic voice to the birds’ “least motion,” and which anticipates, in the unfolding of Lindstrom’s essay, his closing citation of Derrida (referencing the myth of the cicadas in The Phaedrus): “‘I philosophize’ can mean that as a man I am a cicada, I recall what I am, a cicada who remembers having been a man. To remind myself of myself is to recall myself to singing and music” (Animal 53; qtd. in Lindstrom). The writings of Cavell, Derrida, and Wordsworth alike make something—and ask us to make something—of this tremulous excess.

14.        Turning from Fry’s and Lindstrom’s essays to the contributions of François and Walker, what strikes me most immediately is the degree to which questions about the relationship of self and world yield place in both to intersubjective dramas of relationship, with marriage the dominant figure and Austen the preeminent writer to be interrogated. While it might seem that François provides the theoretical context for this difference in emphasis, drawing on yet another Cavellian account of Romanticism as “the ‘process of secularization,’ whereby finite individuals are asked to play ‘God’ to one another by verifying and bearing witness to one another’s separate existences” (par. 3), this is only partially the case since the wedding of “the discerning intellect of man [. . .] to this goodly universe” of which Wordsworth “would chant [. . .] the spousal verse” (“Prospectus" to The Recluse ll. 52-3) offers a competing pattern of secularization and figuration of marriage, a complication to which I return below. [11] 

15.        Walker observes with admirable economy, “A cornerstone of Cavell’s work is the claim that marriage marks the recalcitrant sites where narratives wrestle with skepticism” (par. 4) Correlatively, both he and François lay stress on what the latter calls “marriage as a daily or diurnal event” (par. 6; my emphasis). For François, Cavellian marriage is “incapable of definitive achievement because it consists of the precarious sustaining (or not) of a conversation over time, one felicitous instance of which can never absolutely guarantee the dawn of another” (par. 6) while Walker identifies as “[a] hallmark of Cavell’s work on marriage [. . .] that there is no such thing as marriage: there is only remarriage, day after day” (par. 12) In short, marriage is also a figure of the everyday, the ordinary. This way of associating marriage with the diurnal cuts two ways (at least). On the one hand, as the preceding quotations make clear, it exposes in its structure the marriage bond and everything figured by that bond to the condition of separateness it is conventionally imagined to allay, a move at once desentimentalizing and dramatizing. On the other hand, that marriage (which is to say, remarriage) should be the privileged figure for this (condition of) commitment to the everyday accentuates the risk of conflating the ordinary with the normative, and, still today, specifically, the heteronormative. In this respect, Emily Sun’s treatment of marriage and friendship as virtually interchangeable “conditioned forms of intimacy,” while eliding the specifically institutional nature of marriage (as Cavell observes, “If marriage is the emblem of intimacy, it is equally the emblem of institutions”), has the virtue of making room within a discussion of Cavellian marriage for the homoerotic intensities of Shelley’s “Julian and Maddalo.”

16.        Sun’s essay is also distinctive in locating in Cavell’s account of Romanticism a critique of its “defects” or “defaults”: more specifically, Romanticism’s disappointment with the Kantian “settlement” or bargain with skepticism (relinquishment of knowledge of the thing-in-itself, in exchange for an intelligible phenomenal world) as leading for Cavell to its own problematic bargaining with “animism” (thus seeming, as Cavell remarks at one point—though speaking, in the first instance, of himself—to “exchange one form of craziness for another”). To pursue this reading of Cavell, Sun has to disregard his explicit statement that “[t]he matter of animism is not going to be easy to state, because it has been badly misconceived (though perhaps it no longer is) as something Romantics embrace” (Quest 53), but it is useful to be reminded that Cavell’s relationship with Romanticism is indeed shadowed by a philosophical uneasiness vis-à-vis the claims of literature that does not enter into his relationship with, say, Shakespeare.

17.        It is thus indeed telling, as Sun emphasizes, that the last of the 1983 Beckman Lectures, which form the first part of In Quest of the Ordinary and constitute Cavell’s most sustained explicit engagement with British Romanticism, in fact turns to a reading of The Winter’s Tale, for something like a dramatization in its final scene of a solution to the problems Romanticism poses “in its efforts at re-animation of the world and recovery of (interest in) the ordinary” (Sun par. 2). Accordingly the last third of Sun’s essay is likewise devoted to tracking this reading, while the first half reads “Julian and Maddalo” and in particular the fate of Julian, as “an unconnected man,” as dramatizing “a forfeit of the quest for the ordinary” (Sun par. 9). The theoretical hinge of Sun's argument, however, turns on Cavell's concern with how the Ancient Mariner “takes his tale to compete with the prospect of marriage” (Quest 64). Since the burden of that tale is, of course, "to love and reverence...all things that God made and loveth," and moreover to find the celebration of such love and reverence "far sweeter than the marriage feast," one may well understand that concern as a further moment in a critique of Romantic animism. In turning towards what Sun, borrowing a phrase from Cavell, calls "intimacy at large" (think Schiller's sloppy "Kuss der ganzen Welt"), Romanticism turns away from the "conditioned intimacies" of our shared criteria in language, without which nothing, and no one, can count (a further aspect of Sun's essay, as Eric Lindstrom notes, being its careful attention to Cavell's use of economic metaphors—of which Romanticism’s “bargain” with skepticism or animism would be yet another instance).

18.        The phrase "intimacy at large" occurs in the course of what Cavell calls his "way of figuring" the Mariner's moral: "To marry now is to be willing to have a further adventure of aloneness...as if marriage is a further investment of our narcissism.... [F]or that very reason this intimacy cannot be celebrated, or sanctified; there is no outside to it.... Then the Mariner's may in this way be a message of romanticism as such, that there is an intimacy at large, and that poetry is responsible for giving it expression" (Quest 55-6). The originality of Sun's reading is to hear in these words a "critique of Romanticism," rather than, as I find myself inclined to take them, a possible critique of what it is "to marry now." In fact, Cavell's "way of figuring" does not, I think, quite allow us to locate where his investment lies, as though there is "an intimacy at large" in his prose, not in the sense of embracing everything at once, but in the sense in which we may speak of a fugitive being "at large," evading the detection of the authorities.

19.        Perhaps what gets pinned down as Romanticism's "animism" also involves an "intimacy at large" in this sense. Consider these lines from "To My Sister," written while William and Dorothy were keeping house at Alfoxden and caring for the illegitimate child of a friend (thus the original title, "Lines Written at a small distance from my House and sent by my Boy to the Person to whom they are addressed”):

Love, now an universal birth,
From heart to heart is stealing
From earth to man, from man to earth:
It is the hour of feeling. (ll. 21-24)
Someone might say these lines are guilty of animism in the sense of attributing feeling to the world "at large." But if love is here “stealing” across boundaries, what passes between earth and man is continuous with the vows which pass unspoken in the lines the poet writes for his sister’s reading (“Some silent laws our hearts may make/ Which they shall long obey” [ll. 29-30]), and which make of the poem a kind of epithalamion, but an epithalamion celebrating a moment and a form of relationship for which there precisely were not and could not be publically established forms of consecrations and which it thus becomes the task and raison d’être of the poem to create. [12] 

20.        This brings me back to the issue of intersubjectivity as the sphere in which the acknowledgement of relationship and separateness is to be played out. As the varying emphases of these five essays bear witness, Cavell’s work, like Romanticism itself, moves between questions about my relationship to the world and questions about my relation to others. While there is plenty of reason to construe this movement as a development—thus The Claim of Reason passes from “Skepticism and the Existence of the World” in Part II to “Skepticism and the Problem of Others” in Part IV, as The Prelude seeks to pass “From Love of Nature to Love of Man”—in the end that crossing seems to me no more decided, nor would one want it to be, in Cavell than it is in Wordsworth. Having explored the way in which Austen’s use of free indirect style frees her protagonists from the “burden that Cavell takes as the mark of secular individuals—that of making themselves known and accepting to be known by one another” (par. 11), Anne-Lise François is led to ask, “What would it mean to reimagine marriage as something occurring between novelist/narrator and protagonist, according to heteronormative assumptions, rather than between hero and heroine” (par. 14)? Perhaps nothing more, I am inclined to surmise, than to imagine a child wed to its doll or its truck. This is to suggest, first of all, that the oscillation in Cavell’s stagings of skepticism as between what I will call the problem of object relations and “the problem of others” should be thought of as continuing to underwrite his thinking about marriage (which is not to say that they are simply analogues of one another since, to begin with, the one predicates asymmetry while the other symmetry); and secondly, and more crucially for me, that this oscillation is intimately involved in experiences of reading and writing and the pre-verbal processes of symbol-formation that precede them. [13]  In his “Afterword” to The End of the Line, Neil Hertz observes how “because the frame separating the author/reader from the work is permeable—and has to be, if the work is to be read at all—a play develops between author/reader and text, regardless of the degree of autobiographical likeness with which a particular surrogate is represented” (220), thus elaborating on his preceding, more schematic, analysis of how “a differential play between subject and object can find its echo and emblem ‘within’ the nominal object” (218). The lightly ethical cast of François’ interest in how the play of free indirect style "frees characters from the work of...making themselves legible to others" invites consideration in the context of such reflections and may justifiably be seen as declining Cavell's "conception of marriage as a kind of shorthand for the ongoing and difficultly evinceable project of acknowledgment" (par. 7). That she should be led, however, to locate these degrees of freedom at least partially in response to Cavell’s writings on Romanticism, acknowledgement, and marriage speaks to just how continuously Cavell’s working of these themes and wooings of his reader leaves itself open to perpetual interruption.

Works Cited

Austin, J. L. "Performative Utterances." Philosophical Papers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961. 232-252. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940. 1st ed. U of Chicago P, 1994. Print.

Cavell, Stanley. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

---. In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988. Print.

---. Must We Mean What We Say?: A Book of Essays. New York: Scribner, 1969. Print.

---. A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1994. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. De la grammatologie. Paris: Édtions de Minuit, 1967. Print.

---. "Éllipse," in Écriture et la différence. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967. 429-436. Print.

---. The Animal That Therefore I Am. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. Print.

De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979. Print.

---. Blindness & Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1971. Print.

---. "The Resistance to Theory." The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986. 3-20. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Ed. R. W. Franklin Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press, 2005. Print.

Eddington, Arthur Stanley. The Nature of the Physical World. New York: Macmillan, 1929. Print.

Gould, Timothy. Hearing Things: Voice and Method in the Writing of Stanley Cavell. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. Print.

Hertz, Neil. The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime. New York: Columbia UP, 1985. Print.

Klein, Melanie. “The Role of School in the Libidinal Development of the Child” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 5 (1925): 312-331. Print.

Wilner, Joshua. "Experimental Prose and the Re-configuration of Incestuous Bonds: from The Grasmere Journal to Tender Buttons." EOAGH 7 (2011). Web.

---. "Romanticism and the Internalization of Scripture." Feeding on Infinity: Readings in the Romantic Rhetoric of Internalization. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2000. 13-26. Print.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Rev. 4th ed. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.

---. Preliminary Studies for the "Philosophical Investigations," generally known as The Blue and Brown Books. New York: Harper, 1965. Print.


[1] In what follows I use the word “theory” idiomatically and without precise definition, but always with the understanding that literary studies has functioned as its primary institutional base of operations. BACK

[2] Cavell’s early work did not of course develop in response to deconstruction, but it did develop in response to a shared set of problems about the relationship of language and subjectivity inherited from Romanticism, and may usefully be thought of as simultaneously attracted to and resistant of something like the route of response deconstruction was to pursue. Because I see Cavell’s work as intimately exposed to the attraction of what it resists (and which he figures as “skepticism”), I also see it as articulating (one mode of) theory’s resistance to itself, thus not simply countering it from the “outside.” Here I have in mind Paul de Man’s statement at the end of “The Resistance to Theory,” “Nothing can overcome the resistance to theory since theory is itself this resistance” (19). One way in which deconstruction may be seen as having enacted this relation of self-resistance is in its transition from a predominantly topological model, organized around the inversion and displacement of inside-outside (and thus center-periphery) oppositions, to a performative model concerned with, to borrow again from de Man, “the disruptive intertwining of trope and performance” (Allegories ix) I find it notable that this development occurs in part through an engagement with Austin’s distinction between constative and performative utterances (a distinction, it is often forgotten, that Austin blurs in the same talk where he initially draws it [246ff]), while Wittgenstein (whom de Man curiously styles a “philosopher of science” [Allegories 17] in one of two explicit references I’m aware of, the other being to the Tractatus as “scientific rather than literary” [Allegories 111) remained off-limits, notwithstanding the occasional effort to promote a dialogue, such as Henry Staten’s Derrida and Wittgenstein. Motivated in part by my desire to stimulate a “conversation” between Derrida and Cavell, I recall asking Derrida in the early eighties whether he didn’t think that deconstruction might enter into a productive engagement with Wittgenstein. His answer was a decided no, though he went on to allow that with Austin “il y’a quelque chose à faire.” BACK

[3] I am thinking in particular of the effort in the mid-seventies, in which, if I am not mistaken, Bloom, de Man, and Hartman all participated, to bring Cavell to Yale’s Department of Philosophy. BACK

[4] Austin comes in here too, of course, though not to the same extent, if only because Austin had his own use for technical language. BACK

[5] In addition to various explicit references, Fry’s analysis of Shelley’s complexly chiasmic handling of the relationship between life and death in the epilogue to “The Sensitive Plant” and elsewhere is reminiscent of de Man’s discussion in that essay of the relation between sleeping and waking in “The Triumph of Life.” BACK

[6] “Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of mind.” BACK

[7] The sentence I cite is from the opening of the third book of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature and is said with reference to all “abstruse reasoning.” Its specific application to skepticism is developed in the concluding section of the same book. BACK

[8] The use Benjamin makes of the Eddington passage would have been suggested to him in part by Eddington himself. The title of the chapter from which the passage is drawn is “Science and Mysticism” (a title which undoubtedly attracted Benjamin’s attention), while the chapter’s theme is that “The physicist now regards the external world in a way which I can only describe as more mystical, though not less exact and practical, than that which prevailed some years ago, when it was taken for granted that nothing could be true unless an engineer could make a model of it” (344). The cited passage itself is immediately preceded by the statement that “the deepest philosophical researches as to the nature of the Deity may give a conception equally out of proportion for daily life [as those of the physicist]” (323). BACK


I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt,
About my Feet the Sea -

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience -

[10] Timothy Gould’s 1998 Hearing Things: Voice and Method in the Writing of Stanley Cavell remains the crucial investigation of the problem of voice in Cavell’s work. In the present context, it is worth noting that Cavell’s relation to Romanticism is one of Gould’s running concerns, and his relation to deconstruction a recurrent one. BACK

[11] I follow François, who here is following Cavell, in using the term “secularization” with reference to Romanticism, but share Lindstrom’s hesitations about those of Cavell’s remarks that “are content to stop at broad agreement with the longstanding idea of romanticism as a substitute for, or afterlife of, religion” (personal communication). My essay “Romanticism and the Internalization of Scripture” was intended as a critique of that idea as expounded in Abrams’ Natural Supernaturalism (and, more fleetingly, De la grammatologie), though the copula of my title has sometimes been mistaken for an equals sign. BACK

[12] See Wilner, “Experimental Prose and the Re-configuration of Incestuous Bonds: from The Grasmere Journal to Tender Buttons.” BACK

[13] In this connection, I have always been fascinated by Klein’s account of “little Fritz,” for whom “in writing the lines mean roads and the letters ride on motor-bicycles—on the pen—upon them. For instance, ‘i’ and ‘e’ ride together on a motor-bicycle that is usually driven by the ‘i’ and they love each other with a tenderness quite unknown in the real world” (317, Klein’s emphasis). BACK