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Philosophy and Literature 24.2 (2000) 294-311

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Staging Authenticity: A Critique of Cavell's Modernism

Gordon C. F. Bearn

The task of the modern artist, as of the modern man, is to find something he can be sincere or serious in; something he can mean. And he may not at all.

S. Cavell, "Music Discomposed" (1967) 1

Early in his career Cavell's characterization of modernism helped articulate both his subtle inheritance of ordinary language philosophy and his curt dismissal of Pop Art. More recently he has written in opposition to Derrida's philosophy, and without referring to modernism as such, he employs terms which recall if they do not exactly repeat his dismissal of Pop. In both cases, it is the concept of seriousness which bears the weight of his criticism, and so admirers of Derrida, no less than admirers of Pop, would do well to take aim at Cavell's conception of seriousness, his conception of authenticity. If, as Derrida has long insisted, there is a "fatal necessity of a contamination" between the serious and the nonserious, 2 then, at one stroke, Cavell will lose his critique of Pop, his critique of Derrida, and the very conception of modernism which has informed his writing since the mid 1960's.


Cavell's "Austin at Criticism," 1965, includes the following remark on the term serious: ". . . quite generally, [Austin] . . . conveys the impression that the philosophers he is attacking are not really serious, that, one may say, they have written inauthentically (cf. Sense and Sensibilia, p. 29)" (MWM, p. 109). 3 Cavell himself adopted Austin's interpretation of the serious as the authentic by using "serious" as a [End Page 294] translation for "genuine"(MWM, p. xxvii). 4 In his more recent writings, things are more complicated because he now distinguishes two interpretations of seriousness and only endorses the second.

The first, sacramental, interpretation of seriousness treats a serious linguistic expression, in Austin's terms, as an"outward and visible sign . . . of an inward and spiritual act." 5 This is a linguistic modulation of the existential thought that actions which are authentically mine represent the tendencies of my true self. This first interpretation of seriousness is immediately rejected by Austin. Cavell also rejects it because he accepts Wittgenstein's insistence that anything, or nothing, could be going on inside of us when we mean something. 6 As it happens, Derrida would also reject it, for according to Derrida, the absence of a transcendental signified, the absence of such inward and spiritual acts, extends the play of signification endlessly. 7 Cavell seems to think that this is as far as Derrida gets, the endlessness of the nonserious. Cavell's modernist project is to bring this endlessness to an end.

The second, Wittgensteinian, interpretation of seriousness provides a way to stop the endless play of signification, to break off philosophy, to bring it peace (PI, §133). Cavell: "I have elsewhere contrasted Derrida's and Austin's somewhat hysterical insistence on being initial, medial, unfinished, undefined, with Wittgenstein's punctuating readiness to come to an end, hence perhaps at any time to a dead end. Quite as if I am taking it at such times that this readiness is all that marks seriousness in saying or doing or suffering anything"(PP, p. 125). This is a bit mysterious, for it claims to be able to stop the endless play in a non-arbitrary way, but without appeal to anything which is the true meaning of our words. It recalls the odd persistence of the rhetoric of authenticity in Heidegger even after he rejects the notion of an authentic self. But it is this mysterious notion of seriousness which characterizes Cavell's Modernism.

Cavell's first approach to Wittgensteinian seriousness was from the side of his interest in skepticism, and it is on the topic of skepticism that Cavell most distances himself from Austin (MWM, p. 323). The lesson Cavell takes from Wittgenstein, not Austin, is that there is an "impotence in words that skepticism fastens on," and even if there is a...


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