- Hearing Things: Voice and Method in the Writing of Stanley Cavell
This book divides its attentions almost equally between justification and explication—justifying the way in which Stanley Cavell writes, explicating the transition in Cavell’s writing from the attempted restoration of the human voice to philosophy (in Must We Mean What We Say and The Claim of Reason) to the understanding of philosophy as predicated on a series of reversals in the process of reading (in The Senses of Walden, The World Viewed, and since). There are difficulties with both halves of this project.
Those who find Cavell impossible to read for some reason will not find their way back into his work through this book. That is because it seems to reduplicate, at a smaller scale, some of the Cavellisms that seem annoying (“call it,” “say,” “I take X to be,” “a kind of” and “something like”) and because it overjustifies. If a problem Cavell has touched on strikes you with sufficient force—if you are concerned with Wittgenstein or Thoreau or Katherine Hepburn or Rawls—you will put aside your problems and grapple with what is, after all, only prose. (And not so difficult as all that. It is often boggling to see the resistance to reading Cavell produced by people who can curl up with Heidegger or Blanchot or the Principia.) In such cases the justification suggests itself. If it does not, then only a pure distillation will make that problem real (as in Steven Melville’s Philosophy Beside Itself, which details Cavell’s importance for an idea of modernism). This extraneous yield—whether through collision with Hegel or de Man or the history of skepticism—has lead more people into Cavell’s work than the recent spate of cavelliana.
In the context of a body of work that can seem overwhelmed by its deferred understandings of itself, it is unlikely that any historical account that attempts to embody (or enact, as opposed to depicting) the lessons of that work will be entirely successful. The doublings back, the eccentricities, the occluded puns will seem too much. The critic or commentator will be in the position of having to take a position on whether the work knows more than it does, doesn’t know what it knows, is coming to realize, has not yet realized, etc., in order to produce moments of understanding that, however prepared and however delusional, stand out from the rest of the work. In any case, Gould’s historical argument about the transition between voice and reading does not seem to cohere. This is because the preparation for the voice-model occurs in The Claim of Reason and is realized in The Senses of Walden, which is the same text where the reading-model takes hold.
The simultaneity of the composition of Senses of Walden, The World Viewed and the revisions of The Claim of Reason gives Cavell’s work at the turn of the seventies the look of a set of multiple solutions to the problems of philosophical institution, something like a personal version of the period of crisis in a [End Page 1228] Kuhnian scientific revolution. This multiplicity and the apotheosization of deferral suggest that a better route through the work would be thematic, whether those themes are ones the work offers as diagnoses (familial skepticism), or ones we diagnose in it (Americanism), or something in between (pedagogy). These are things the work knows (or does not know, or won’t admit to, or half-sees) all the time. One need not have a position on the work’s awareness of them if they are actually there, actually doing the work they actually do. They are its ordinary world. They are in general missing from Gould’s account, in large part, I fear, because so much time is devoted to the difficulties of Cavell’s style.
The main objection to Cavell’s writing is, as far as I can tell, that his personality is obtrusive. Gould is right to attack Stephen Mulhall and others...