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Voice is often regarded as a stylistic ornament of philosophical writing. I argue to the contrary, exploring how voice operates in philosophical texts and what greater attention to voice promises. I also explore how voice might instruct across cultural identities.


voice, Cavell, transcendentalism, romanticism, Du Bois

Are we reduced to the dilemma of either the predicable or the ineffable?

roland barthes, "The Grain of the Voice"

Bear with me: I rarely feel as if extant debates allow me to situate myself, so permit me a different course (or forgive me). (Or just stop listening. I, and so we, proceed on your authority.)


Resolutions: Philosophy moves across a scene (and sea) of voices, perhaps despite "philosophy," which has proved, in certain ways, disinterested in voice, in its inevitable particularities, averse, perhaps, to how voice calls attention to itself—as if that were a distraction, at best an ornament, but even then, an impurity in the solution. If one resolves to find one's voice in philosophy, more than one dislocation awaits. [End Page 131]

The walk of talk: Emerson's prose has a very particular voice—earnest, cajoling, at times aflame. One would never mistake it for another's, say Hegel's; Hegel has a voice of his own, one uninterested, as the dialectic turns, in my name. (Emerson will settle for nothing less.) And this is integral to their effects. Emerson favors a certain kind of provocation and inducement; Hegel, the demonstration of conceptual self-possession. When prose accentuates provocation, awakening another to genuine thought, it must earn the reader's trust. Having a sense of who is prodding and poking—that they stand behind their words—helps establish intimacy, which in turn fans a mood of abandon wherein a reader is ready to risk new names.

"We need to lose the world," Cixous writes, "and to discover that there is more than one world and that the world isn't what we think it is" (1993, 10). And that, on her view, requires exposure to loss. While this seems integral to the grammar of transformation, even learning (which indicates prior ignorance or error), I would add that this has been my experience as well. But I also think that certain gains enable such losses, say, a voice with whom to share the world wherein we realize: I don't think we're in Kansas anymore. "We annihilate the world with a book," Cixous (1993, 19) says a bit later, thinking of the writer—but, I would add, only through venturing—and thus preserving, as its image—a certain way of being there.

Richard Rorty and Daniel Dennet have voices that delight in their skepsis, as if to say: "It isn't so hard to let go of these terms: truth, self-knowledge, God the creator of heaven and earth. I did it, and look at me now: unburdened, vibrant." Addressing the idea of God, whose creative vision has prepared for and secured human meaning, Dennett writes: "There is no future in sacred myth. Why not? Because of our curiosity. … Whatever we hold precious, we cannot protect it from our curiosity, because being who we are, one of the things we deem precious is the truth" (1995, 22). Nietzsche wondered through his madman what gave us the power to wipe away an entire horizon. Curiosity, Dennett replies; this is where it leads. It's as simple as that; just follow its lead. No pain, and gain to boot. (This is a variant of Hegel on thought's self-surpassing, hence object-surpassing, character, what Vincent Colapietro names "thinking over" elsewhere in this issue. In this context, voice marks how one covers the ground and arrives beyond where one began, to mark a site marked by Nancy Tuana and Charles Scott, also in this issue.) [End Page 132]

With an even more radical feel for our origins, Rorty writes: "To sum up, poetic, artistic, philosophical, scientific, or political progress results from the accidental coincidence of a private obsession with a public need" (1989, 37). (This is Hegel and not-Hegel once again. Private passion propels the public, but note the tone, brisk and easy, anything but encyclopedic.) For Rorty, genius occurs when someone's idiosyncrasies "just happen to catch on with other people—happen because of the contingencies of some historical situation, some particular need which a given community happens to have at a given time" (1989, 37). Catch the lilt of "To sum up …," "coincidence," "just happen"—a matter-of-fact tone for matter-of-fact events. And since Rorty tends to underplay his brilliance, his prose also conveys: "I did it, and you can too." And that solicits a certain kind of reply: "You're right. I can. Let's do this."

"Philosophy" has gathered many voices and invited more still. Some rally the troops by rhetorically establishing another no one really wants to be. Nietzsche gleefully plays this card, and we share in his delight. Who defends the herd, the last man, the ascetic priest? Dennett also plays the bully from time to time: "This book, then, is for those who agree that the only meaning of life worth caring about is one that can withstand our best efforts to examine it. Others are advised to close the book now and tiptoe away" (1995, 22). Unless you believe that the meek will inherit the earth, or that cowardice is the new cool, you're likely to take Dennett's bait, and feel the better for it, believing that there are those you both will leave behind. Of course, if you run afoul of the program, you're likely to be next for the stick.


Against self-preservation: Straw men are more than epistemic concerns. Ritualistic sacrifice, even of the rhetorical sort, is unbecoming.


Introducing philosophy: It has become customary to read Socrates as an image of philosophy and to read the dialogues, the Republic above all, as staging philosophy—conversation, first and foremost, but also its manner(s), locations, interlocutors, topics, and so forth; across the Platonic dialogues, philosophy, in dramatic terms, is enacted for our reception. But when is that not true? As Cavell suggests: "As representatives, we are educations for one another" (1990, 31). Every text inaugurates and exemplifies (or images) philosophy, even those that are less than exemplary. [End Page 133]

The narrow is never straight: Accounting for his description of two years by the pond, Thoreau remarks, "In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted, in this it will be retained," adding two sentences later: "I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this narrowness of my experience" (2008, 5). Typical Thoreau: dry, a bit grating, and provocative. One may know oneself better than others but not know oneself well. Moreover, the ability to say I may help give oneself to oneself, but this needn't mean that the self I know better (a) appears when I say "I" or (b) is even the referent of "I." What looks like Thoreau's proximity to what transpired along the shore, this acknowledgment that "I" write as "I," thus converts to a narrowness that less secures access than marks another matter to be surveyed, or charted, or sounded like a pond fed from elsewhere.


Called to task: "Know thyself" is an incomplete instruction. Whatever your commitments, philosophy also demands that they be yours. No one can philosophize for another. We can philosophize together, help and/or hinder each other, and we can agree (or not), but I cannot philosophize for you (or for us), because I can neither understand nor commit for you. Philosophical endorsements on behalf of another are thus forgeries. Not that philosophy is a solitary affair. (Here we are, after all.) But philosophy carries an ineliminable personal dimension involving processes that require our participation—understanding a position or claim, accepting it (or not). Voice names one way in which one's endorsements prove legible, perhaps more so than "I believe," "I argue," or even "I think," remarks whose focus hides so much of what we are about.


I am you and you are me and we are all together: In Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler argues that language gives us to ourselves only to whisk it, I suppose, away: "It is only in dispossession that I can and do give any account of myself" (2005, 37). She has two movements in mind. The first is semantic and de Manian. That which renders me legible leaves me substitutable: husband, friend, professor, son, self, even "I"—we all have the narrows, as "you" must know. The second is structural in a pragmatic sense. "The address establishes," Butler writes, "the account as an account, and so the account is completed only on the occasion when it is effectively exported and expropriated from the domain of what is my own" (2005, 36–37). Hear me speak and watch me go, you and me together, in the company of us. [End Page 134]

But accounting for oneself is integral to philosophy. (Defend the unexamined life and you'll see why.) And as Butler reiterates, the call of conscience, whatever its measures, seeks an account of what we stand for, what we do, what we forego. And I agree. Conscience measures, in various ways, modes of conduct, prospective or actual, ours or another's. Accompanying acts, wishes, desires, and beliefs, conscience registers their propriety, especially in morality's most gripping affects, namely, shame, guilt, and outrage. (I see no reason, therefore, to not take affect into account.) Even refusals to account for oneself, say, under coercive duress, seem to have the character of a conscientious objection (as opposed to mere petulance).

An account of oneself is thus quite a puzzle. Is to be "with the logos" to be and not to be, and is that the question to which we are a kind of answer? But some of Butler's terms give me pause. Oneself is an awful shorthand for beliefs, actions, character, and consequences, an ensemble or multiplicity that is not "one's" in any clear sense of possession. Autopoesis marks thought's occurrence, and the script of one's thought is already in the hands of a generalized other before one adds one's name. My intelligibility to myself is already bound, in part, to my intelligibility to another and at points of genesis and destination. (This is Mead rather than de Man.) But if my own is already in some sense less then exclusively yours and thus ours, I'm not sure that the scene of address dispossesses me. It, rather, disposes me to myself in the company of others. And even if some range of possibilities are thereby foreclosed, others arise; if the semantic displaces, it also reconfigures, and with a capacity to contest, say, with words like dispossession or opacity or mine and yours, each of which, the words, that is, is ours.

To be sure, a concrete other might expropriate what I offer, whether an insight or a stumble. But the scene of address that seeks and thereby helps to generate accounts is not limited to the dialectic of self and other made famous by Sartre in his analysis of the gaze, which now reads like the look of desperate (even horny) men. Among the ever-proliferating roots of address, expropriation seems more a matter of receiving but ignoring or of being asked for but withholding or denying recognition. Something has been given but not returned (which remains a reply). Or what has been given has been mishandled to the degree that we neither re-cognize ourselves nor find new possibility in whatever returns. But even then, I usually am not thoroughly dispossessed but irritated, maybe hurt, possibly harmed if the illocutionary conditions are right. And each effect evidences that I am [End Page 135] not wholly dispossessed, which indicates, I think, that "the domain of my own," to the slight degree I can endorse a metaphorics of possession, is this movement in which we remain in situ, you and me together in the company of us. Even our narrows are more like currents in broad water.


Do you hear what I hear? More than oneself is at stake in an account of oneself, at least when offered philosophically. Recounting the idiosyncratic—naming what befalls me—avoids philosophy and clings to the thinnest positivity. Philosophy ventures something representative, something more than just me, especially when we grow skeptical about the universal, the necessary, or the ahistorical. (The account concerns ourselves, I would say, you and me, in the company of us.) The "double consciousness" does not simply accompany Du Bois like a headache. Existential ambiguity claims us all; Beauvoir is not dizzy. And Anzaldúa is not the only one living in and reweaving the braids of mestizaje. Such fates are representative and offered as such, which clarifies the task that philosophy initiates: speak representatively, in one's own name, without usurping the address of another.


Who's asking? For Emerson, friendship requires one to establish the self that one would share. "Voice" is one way to imagine this in the context of writing. An intense individuation helps establish conditions of intimacy with a reader who might respond in kind, which philosophy invites. This is not quite Cavell's point in Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (1990), in which Emerson plays the friend by serving as "another self" we might yet be. My thought is that one's voice might help secure a site where another risks the experiment of becoming otherwise. I note the difference because a representative individuation can also play Narcissus.

Initially, I found Cavell's prose self-absorbed. He always recalls past texts. His sentences are long; their rhythms, laborious. He proves prodigal when it comes to enumerating possible terms. "Look at me," I kept hearing, and: "Don't think this is my first rodeo."

Thinking of deconstruction, whether it dissolves saying into quoting—as if I were only ever an iteration, rather than a being faced with the task of perpetually refinding and reformulating my iterability—Cavell writes:

This sense of philosophy's opposite possibilities is, at any rate, why I am drawn (and take the likes of Emerson and Wittgenstein to be drawn) not to undermine but to underline such distinctions as that [End Page 136] between quoting and saying. I can imagine that this might be said of deconstruction too. Then style and its obligations become the issue—what I might call the address of language, or the assumption of it, perhaps the stake in it. I have most consecutively followed the consequences of (something like) the distinction between saying and quoting in my The Senses of Walden, which can as a whole be taken as a meditation on Thoreau's distinction between what he calls the mother tongue and the father tongue (see Senses pp. 14–16). This is something like—and nothing like—the distinction between speaking and writing. In The Claim of Reason it is at one point registered as the difference between what I call the first and second inheritance of language.

(1988, 133)

It would take too much time to mark and track every play: (a) "consecutively" instead of "thoroughly" and "consistently," though saying both by way of avoidance; (b) "something like—and nothing like"; or (c) the three ways of thinking "style and its obligations," which move from the object (the address of language) to the subject (the assumption of it) to some odd middle term (the stake in it), which demands that one fathom what is at stake in an address that temporarily settles on the word stake. Even the graphemes are multiple, and Cavell cites two previous works. Fresh from undergraduate study, I read these lines in 1988—or tried to. I was unable to assume their address or find their stakes. But now I hear something quite different. "I'm here in every word," they say: "Are you?"


A provocative site: "Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep," Thoreau writes (2008, 64). The line helps explains Walden's epigraph: "I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roots, if only to wake my neighbors up" (Thoreau 2008, 5). And could Walden be prouder? It is weighed down with condescension at points, for example, in its second paragraph, where Thoreau suggests that no one near him has lived sincerely. At other points, Thoreau is positively smug with self-congratulation. The second paragraph closes with the claim that no reader would stretch the seams of Walden, which Thoreau offers as a coat, though it may serve whomever it fits. And note, we are not even out of the second paragraph. As a work of reform, therefore, Walden sometimes—and only sometimes—misses the mark with histrionics that divert the reader from a scene of reformation to Thoreau's own self-regard. [End Page 137]

The mark in question is what Emerson terms "cheer," whose nineteenth-century resonances are remarkably precise: (a) a shout of praise or encouragement that is able (b) to dispel gloom and (c) to infuse life, in the case of philosophy, with provocations, exemplifications, and disclosures. And please do not think that this is a matter of optimism. One can cheer through honest courage even as one's thought pauses us with its pain, even tragedy. "But I want to talk about the blues," James Baldwin says, "not only because they speak of this particular experience of life and this state of being, but because they contain the toughness that manages to make this experience articulate" (2010, 70). I also recall Baldwin's thought because it underscores that voice is not a matter of reason containing affect but, rather, in the case of cheer, of not being undone in the surge of thoughts and feelings that, in their occurrence, might prove equal to an occasion involving subject matter, addressees, and their scenes' convergence. Or not. At times, Thoreau's impatience with his peers shows through, and it leads him to sound as if he believes that he has none, a slight keenly felt by many readers, including some who elect to read past it.

Cavell asks: "For what is writing responsible?" He replies, beautifully: "Not to hearten pointlessly; but not to dishearten expansively" (2005, 279). He is led to this remark by Benjamin's claim that "there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism" (2007, 392), a claim I have quoted elsewhere and more than once. It haunts, and in doing so, orients, one's ears, alert for fading echoes of cries for all that injustice takes away: succor, resistance, recognition. But the "very power of the perception disguises," Cavell thinks, "the fact that it is as much phantasm as insight"—too many differences are blurred, erased, and everything else that civilization announces—cooperation, ingenuity, perseverance, and so on—seems eclipsed by the condemnation, which risks a "frenzied invitation to a madness of misanthropy" (2005, 279).

I am unsettled on this point, because it makes me pause both in a way I had not previously and before a line that has become part and parcel of my thought. But I am also unsettled because I'm not sure how to locate, let alone weigh, evidence given that I disagree with Cavell's assessment. But maybe one can disagree, and effectively, without covering up the issue. (This means that the evidence and whether it's evidence are questions that one cannot easily disentangle.)

My initial resistance lies with how Cavell takes the thought as a singular thought, which turns, I think, shame and desperation, a sense of being [End Page 138] buried alive, into an inductive generalization about a class of objects. I want to say—it may look that way, but it doesn't sound that way. I say this because Benjamin acknowledges that the thought requires an extreme dissociation, and of oneself, thereby acknowledging other possible and actual relations to these "documents." (X can be a document of barbarism and not be exclusively so.) Moreover, he requires that dissociation to read history against the grain, which echoes, as Cavell knows, Emerson's insistence that we rake language. The intensity of the line is thus, in part, selective or strategic, perhaps like Thoreau's crowing. But that intensity also conveys a horror, a sense of being buried alive by phenomena one also admires, even desires to approach with praise. Benjamin's line is schwer, as one might say in German, and with more gravitas than "heavy" in its colloquial sense, which gestures in the same direction. And Cavell's charge of misanthropy loses the pain in a line that could only arise from a love for humanity. Finally, there is a large context, announced a few sections later: "The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs. The thoughts which we are developing here originate from similar considerations" (2003, 393). And what are the affairs of the world? Fascism but also complicity and amazement that such things are still possible, as well as, above all, a "stubborn faith in progress," which obscures barbarism. I thus find Benjamin's line resounding with the kind of blue's sensibility that Baldwin admires: "Now I am trying to suggest that the triumph here—which is a very un-American triumph—is that the person to whom these things happened watched them with eyes wide open, saw it happen" (2010, 72). He calls it a "passionate detachment," one that tries to say it as it is, in the same key, even, and in the saying, not be undone. And that helps me think about how I might acknowledge it.


Knowing a straight line when you meet one: "For Austin as for Wittgenstein intention is anything but something inner making up for the absence of something outer; it lines the outer" (Cavell 1994, 111), or underwrites it, I think. The remark, from "Counter-philosophy and the Pawn of Voice," is vintage Cavell—the unresolved (because unresolvable) play of inner and outer, the ambiguity of "lines," and the refusal of a presence, inner or outer, that would, unaccompanied, compensate for an absence, say, certainty, a foundation, the really really real.

The last is Cavell's refusal of metaphysics, which he elsewhere aligns with a refusal of the unbedingt, which entails an acknowledgment that we [End Page 139] are bedingt, the conditioned ones, drawing the thought, affirmatively, from Heidegger's efforts to think some of the ways in which we are "bethinged" as the thing things, giving us to ourselves in yet another manner. Not that we are thereby dispossessed. In fact, and this is me (in keeping with Cavell, I think), why even register this as a loss, unless of course, like Kant, you not only think but insist (beyond any conceivable endorsement, I would add) that reason seeks the unbedingt? And if that is where we meet, I'm not sure there is more that I can say than "Let it go," perhaps padding the nudge with an old saw like "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be."

The whole of "Counter-philosophy and the Pawn of Voice" is also vintage Cavell, who signs his name with parentheses rather than his initials therein, with his several qualifications and nuances. But the piece also seems quite different from Cavell's many essays on Emerson, which keep to words and phrases in a context more or less of his making. "Counter-philosophy" flirts with polemics. "Derrida's assertion of philosophy's overpraise of the voice struck me as jamming my call for it," Cavell confesses. And that leads him to struggle for voice at the junction of Austin, which makes his essay, simultaneously, an apologia on behalf of Austin and his commitment to Austin, to how Austin lines his (both of their) prose, which I take to be Cavell's intention across the essay, not just when he says: "I would like to say that Austin's exemplification of seriousness takes the form of showing that he can listen," which registers, even resounds, in how he proceeds (1994, 99). A voice that listens?


An offer one could refuse: The modern research university presents itself as a site of inquiry, discovery, even tech-transfer—in short, results. And when results prove technical, many wonder whether one couldn't simplify those results for laypersons. If you can, you may prove a "public scholar," one who plays the expert among the inexpert.

Philosophy awkwardly inhabits the modern research university, as John Stuhr observes elsewhere in this issue. While the circling crises of the sciences (or the occlusions of normal inquiry) seem to keep open an office for philosophy, the door usually closes before all that's on offer can enter and because philosophy lacks results. My point is more formal than the usual hand-wringing over philosophy's lack of consensus. To what degree can one separate a conclusion from the process that led to it and have that conclusion maintain its character? (Would any single sentence count as philosophy?) And does a conclusion really mark the terminus of philosophy? [End Page 140]

Philosophy evaporates when it is reduced to belief. "God exists" means something very different in contexts such as private prayer, a liturgy, or a proof fresh from possible worlds. The line becomes philosophical through the way it is offered, which invites several possible responses, including endorsement or rejection, contestation, and even withdrawal, as Calicles and Euthyphro demonstrate. Cavell terms this the pitch of philosophy, which attenuates in a context that wants the fruit without the tree (or the sun and the wind bringing clouds and rain).


Who walks the line? The most famous concept in The Souls of Black Folk concerns a "peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt" (2007, 3). But is this how Souls presents itself? Does it simply or even primarily exemplify a double consciousness? Du Bois sets Booker T. Washington within a double consciousness, terming him the "leader not of one race but of two,—compromiser between the South, the North, and the Negro" (2007, 25). The charge is clear: Washington internalizes too much of what the white majority interjects into his ambition for himself and black folk in general.

But Souls seems to operate with a far more dynamic and multifaceted "consciousness." Souls gives itself over to various, distinct modes of reflection and presentation, for example, historical inquiry in "Of the Dawn of Freedom," which recounts the history of the Freedmen's Bureau, as well as social theory in "Of the Sons of Man," which approaches "race contact" along a "few main lines of action and communication," such as geography, exchange relations, political relations, and intellectual relations in civic-social settings, not including religion, which Du Bois accords its own category. Both analyses exemplify an effort to render conspicuous how the color line has operated and continues to operate with a kind of social-objectivity. Souls does not limit itself to social objectivities, however. It also works its way into social-psychological sites where the color line operates, employing autobiography in "Of the Passing of the First-Born," historical fiction in "Of Alexander Crummell," fiction in "Of the Coming of John," and musicology in "The Sorrow Songs," tracking how the color line impacts lives that must contend (or not) with its exclusions and refractions. Souls exemplifies, therefore, a polyphonic approach to language and discourse. Given the demands of its object (which includes its own latent genius), it assumes explanatory, diagnostic, rebellious, expressive, and [End Page 141] programmatic tasks, and their interaction drives the whole address in the polyphonic company of the sorrow songs, that "music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways" (Du Bois 2007, 123).

Epistemic fidelity is not Du Bois's principal goal, however. He names the color line to contest and redress white supremacy, and so Souls offers, by way of performance, a criticism of criticisms that have hardened into pernicious habits. Its constellational discursivity thus exemplifies more than a kind of multidisciplinarity. Above all, it exemplifies the kind of bearing that Du Bois feared that black folk would lose if they succumbed to Washington's "triumphant commercialism." "We are training not isolated men but a living group of men,—nay, a group within a group," writes Du Bois, thinking of Negro education: "And the final product of our training must be neither psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man" (2007, 42). Thought in terms of its moment, then, Souls exemplifies such a man at work—better yet, such a human being. Positioning itself in history, attentive to the social-psychological complexity of everything to which it must prove equal, Souls moves from a central, orienting term into the irreducible sites of its appearance, enlarging itself along the way, without recuperating each venture into a fixed identity. Working on and in the conduct of life—the burden of culture—it exposes to weaken the current of white supremacy and offers itself as proof for the claim that "we the darker ones come even now not altogether empty handed" (Du Bois 2007, 7).


Losing my way: Lysaker is a suburb of Oslo. I thus address you as a Norwegian American. Or do I? I wasn't raised in a culturally literate, let alone self-identifying, set of "Norwegian Americans." My mother's lineage, through her mother, is Jewish in some part, though a part of that part converted to Catholicism well before emigrating in the nineteenth century. But again, I wasn't raised in a culturally literate, let alone self-identifying, set of no-longer-Jewish-Catholics. Not that such a lineage could never matter. "Nineteen thirty-three" proves otherwise. But in this context, and in the broader context of a philosophical address, what context do those phrases add? And "American"? I find that difficult to say. "American" is wildly contested by all who claim (or resist) the name. What do I acknowledge, therefore, if I present as "American"? [End Page 142]

A note toward a (less than) supreme friction: To prove less clumsy in the presence of music, Barthes posits: "Rather than trying to change directly the language on music, it would be better to change the musical object itself, as it presents itself to discourse, better to alter its level of intellection, to displace the fringe of contact between music and language" (1977, 180–81). To this end, Barthes offers us the grain of a voice, one he distances from any pheno-song, namely, "everything in the performance which is in the service of communication," taking the set from Kristeva, as well as its contrary, the geno-song, "where the melody really works at the language—not at what it says, but the voluptuousness of its sound-signifiers, of its letters" (Barthes 1977, 182). Geno-song names the region in which the grain of voice appears. Does philosophy have something of this? A way or manner of speaking, of raising questions (say, like children or scolding schoolmasters), of objecting (say, generously—or not), of reading, of inhabiting the myriad speech acts that make up the pheno-song of philosophy? And does it matter, philosophically speaking?

How I commit or execute any of those deeds that seem integral to philosophy will indicate other commitments, model them, and thus model philosophy like some kinetic sculpture twirling in discursive space, churning the very currents that enable it to turn. Barthes locates the grain of the voice in the "very friction between music and something else, which something else is the particular language (and nowise the message)" (1977, 185). Might I too lodge a friction, even as, particularly as, I decline the invitation to imagine language but nowise the message? (To be irreducible to X is not necessarily to be free of it, and I don't see how my voice can be pried from the topics that claim it, orient it, compel it to speak. I could address other issues, but at the cost of being me. But perhaps my resistance arises because here my analogy between music and philosophy begins to break?)


On not being a snowflake: My willingness to follow Barthes (and given the point at which we part, whose explicitness marks a way of remaining abreast) recalls me to Cavarero's worry that "grain" neglects voice, at least in its originary register, that unique sonority we each convey simply through the sound of our voice. "Indeed," she writes, "in Barthes' writing, the voice and body are still presented as general categories of a depersonalized pleasure in which the embodied uniqueness of each existent (something that Barthes never thematizes) is simply dissolved along with [End Page 143] the general categories of the subject and the individual" (2005, 15). By now you know, I presume, that the voice I seek resounds on the other side of this ancient picture, that of the sensible and the intelligible. Between you and me, I imagine voice rising with and through language as it gathers itself through syntax, semantics, logical-rhetorical operations, and even genre and only finding-offering itself through these circulations. But Cavarero writes toward the other side of the picture, its underside on her view.

I recall Cavarero's reflections for the difference they introduce and because the difference that drives them, that between the sensible and the intelligible, troubles me in this context. I worry about her almost phrenological belief that the uniqueness of a voice is somehow the uniqueness of whoever is speaking, that a series of tones somehow contains and thus conveys him or her. Cavarero insists that the "human condition of uniqueness resounds in the register of the voice" (2005, 8). But unique in what sense, and regarding what? Humanness? I don't see how. A baby's coo resounds in a relation underwritten by attunements selected for across a sublime, evolutionary history that primes more than parents. I don't see how the sensible and intelligible can be distinguished in such cases. You recognize the voice of your beloved entering a room. What precisely do you hear? "The uniqueness of the voice is an incontrovertible given of experience, technologically proven by digital machines that can trace it; this is not a problem" (Cavarero 2005, 8). But the problem concerns what those machines register and what that uniqueness concerns. An almost purely sensible, if relational, uniqueness leads Cavarero to posit a "different way of thinking the relation between politics and speech. In a certain sense, it is simply a matter of focusing on speech from its vocal site" (2005, 200). But the spatialized terms already indicate that this different way of thinking has already taken something larger into account, against which the vocal site comes into focus. If so, the uniqueness conveyed by a voice is the uniqueness of something more than the resounding "acoustic, empirical, material relationality of singular voices" (Cavarero 2005, 13). Voice, as it concerns me, conveys this more—and without erasing differences, whether Cavell's, Du Bois's, Emerson's, Hegel's, or Cavarero's, to the degree hers resonates in English translation (which I doubt).


Stage of reasons: With voice in mind, it bears emphasizing that how we comport ourselves in the company of others has a great deal to do with how that company unfolds, even when it limits itself to an exchange of validity [End Page 144] claims. How we address one another impacts how others reply or whether they reply. (The principle of charity, as a supplement to an exchange of validity claims, acknowledges the determining presence of other forces within that exchange.) I thus find voice—or some voices—to be something like an a posteriori condition for the possibility of a stage of reasons or some broader, linguo-affective public within which one accounts for oneself. (Other voices serve as conditions for its impossibility.)

"Stage? How so?" An exchange of validity claims is fed by and aims to feed the broader currents of life, and, like art, it evidences a degree of artificiality, regardless of whether one commits to aphorisms or formal, deductive systems. Philosophy inherits and converts words and tropes, genres and forms, orders them, perhaps intensifies them—aufheben, "if … then" and "or." It slows actions, from borrowing and buying to believing, asserting, and justifying, and it can slip into flashes of anger, longing, fear, and despair. And each time, it tags them with something like a request for justifications of the first and second order. Even commonsense philosophy goes to uncommon lengths to locate the common and protect it. Not that philosophy is nonlife imposed on life. (Call this my refusal of the immanence-transcendence distinction.) Rather, life is so many things, philosophy one among them, and one can transformatively take up another—economics, friendship, sexuality, family orders with or without animal companions, religion, and so on. At times, philosophy is a stage on which these many currents converge in a slowed recounting, the lives of the mind unfolding. Which will be yours?


More than your attendance is requested: A philosophical voice is something like an actor-director staging humanity for those who care to participate. And one can do so poorly. No stage is broad or deep enough for a sufficient depiction, and who can play the lights and shadows just right? One thus proceeds with more than caution.

Narrowness marks one potential restriction: our ways of seeing and hearing, so many habits and predilections. Do I name them as such or bury them or simply proceed, obliviously? Do I actively peek past or beyond them or draw upon other lines of thought keyed differently? And with a quickened pulse or in a perfunctory manner?

Another restriction is opacity, to cite Butler's chief concern in Giving an Account of Oneself, and its murky depths course like an individuated, social-historical unconscious through (a) whatever we would recount (our [End Page 145] experiences, lives, motivations, deeds, and desires) as well as (b) the terms of our accounting (from their norms to the names and syntax we employ, many of which operate as institutionalized codes). We could enumerate the ways in which we elude ourselves, but here I would also add: How do we bear those currents? For example, "opacity" already names them and thus takes them into account. Is that a sufficient acknowledgment? Or could we go on to ask: Yes, name it, but how concretely, and how transformatively?

There is also disagreement. Others may take issue with what we say and how we say it, even with our authority to say it. How should one acknowledge and take up such moments? Habermas's public is always one of potential (even likely) disagreement; his voice is always alert to an "I think not," sometimes actual, sometimes imagined. (I would say that his texts are attuned to the phenomenon of disagreement and that this characterizes them, perhaps above anything else.) But he tends to respond polemically, which, as Benjamin has it, approaches a text like a cannibal seasons a baby (to paraphrase). What public is inaugurated by a text that never imagines any disagreement? Might this not indicate a constitutive denial of (or retreat from) ourselves?

Thinking of the conditions for a democratic public, Cavell believes that "the conversation over how good [our] justice is must take place and must also not have a victor … not because agreement can or should always be reached, but because disagreement, and separateness of position, is to be allowed its satisfactions, reached and expressed in particular ways" (1988, 24–25). This is a nuanced thought, understated even given that "disagreement" and "separateness of position" may not equally enjoy their respective satisfactions. I say this because I think that Cavell sometimes clings to "separateness of position" at the expense of "disagreement," and this impacts the public his writing co-constitutes.

At times, Cavell's readings exploit semantic ambiguities, with little feel for how wildly they will strike his readers or with little concern over the fact that they might strike them as wild. And at those moments, his readings turn their voice away from the reader, as if his or her incredulousness were not worth mentioning and so not worth inclusion in whatever public was being convened. I have in mind several interpretations of Emersonian terms. One is Cavell's refusal to entertain any traces of eschatology in Emerson's use of last near the close of "Experience." Another is his proposal that Emerson, in "The American Scholar," identifies the most private [End Page 146] with the most universal in an exact and knowing accord with Kant's sense of the a priori. To be clear, my point here is not that these interpretations are wrong, weak, or good for that matter. Rather, my concern is the voice that offers them and its disregard for how strange they must sound, particularly to others who also have spent a lot of time with Emerson. That voice, to my ears at least, dismisses those predictable resistances out of hand or at least is overtly impatient with the very idea of them. And this is what I mean by favoring separateness at the expense of disagreement (which is a way of bearing our separateness). The satisfaction of the former dissatisfies the latter.

In "Aversive Thinking," Cavell stages a reading of Emerson in very particular terms: "In coming to Emerson's text from a certain alienated majesty [our own reappearing in Emerson's lines], we (each of us as Emerson's reader) form an illustrious monarchy with a population of two" (1988, 60). Our majesty, even alienated, renders each of us something like a monarch. And so, Emerson's public is full of kings and queens, as opposed to load-carrying beams. But two is too few, particularly given how many are also reading Emerson. And this is what concerns me about how Cavell bears his separateness. It proves too insular—and precisely because I endorse Cavell's insistence that "responsibility remains a task of responsiveness."

Unresponsive separateness is a concern for those included as well as those shunted to the side. Cavell powerfully lionizes Emerson. But he does so on narrow terms, eclipsing Emerson's obvious links to Asian philosophy and neo-Platonism, as well as his ecstatic regard for the power of poetry. And he buries those aspects of Emerson's prose that he finds impossible to inherit, namely, his theodicy and the white supremacist racialism that winds through Emerson's philosophy of history. It is as if Cavell cannot abide an Emerson with whom he disagrees. But that leads to a separateness that shuns what it cannot endorse. Not that there are not contrary voices in Cavell. Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome engages Kripke's reading of Wittgenstein and Rawls's estimation of moral perfectionism. But when it comes to Emerson and the tradition Cavell finds him founding, Cavell's voice seems to keep to a public more than less of his own insistent making.


Here I am: A voice puts itself on the line. It thus should count as a reply to "Who are you?" which I hear less in terms of "How did you become you?" and more in terms of "What are you about?" I take the latter to modify [End Page 147] "What do you stand for?" with a thought from "The Creations of Sound": "We say ourselves in syllables that rise / From the floor, rising in speech we do not speak" (Stevens 1971, 251).


Get with it: "We can hear race around a corner, before we even see it. Race is as much, if not more, in the voice than in the skin color" (Mendieta 2014, 112). Eduardo Mendieta is remarking upon the sonic ways in which racialization situates persons in patterns of recognition and misrecognition and thereby subjects them to asymmetrical fates. This leads me to ask: How does ethnolinguistic identity voice itself in philosophy, and with what effects? One will find a wide range of views endorsed by members of any group, and thus, as with "American," one should be wary of too closely aligning commitments and ethnolinguistic identities. But what if the matter is manners? What topics are worth our attention? What examples does one imagine and use to concretize one's generalizations? If one uses foreign words or idioms or a dialect, from where and how? Who is cited, how often, and with what depth and care? How one engages the texts of others seems integral to voice and thus a candidate for a certain kind of character. Not that such a character would flow directly from whatever box one checked on a U.S. or similar census. "They all sound alike" also offends in philosophy. If voice matters to philosophy, we should expect and listen for inflections in accents, for something beyond functionalized accounting.


Who am I to you? Alongside whatever it says, "voice" announces, Here I am, though not to the Other that Levinas tries to write into the very fabric of human being in the world. As Cavell suggests: "As representatives, we are educations for one another" (1988, 31). Voice's "other" is a secret addressee, its intimacy solicitous of a reading that is willing to be read in turn. Voice thus presumes that our linguistic resources do not reduce to a killing field for alterity. In fact, voice offers itself to an-other as a possible future. That which voice exemplifies might be borne in turn, or a reader might welcome the terms set forth, enact them in the space that voice helps clear and preserve. But this requires trust, which voice might nurture. (And if not voice, what?) Moreover, it requires that one believe that another might hold the key to whoever one might become. Do we despair of this, except in sites of (presumably) shared identities? Am I not Du Bois's secret addressee? Is that not me returning from his pages, and [End Page 148] not just in differences those pages articulate and which I thereby come to (or begin to) acknowledge, reforming what keeps me from myself? Is that not also some me to be in the example? Not that one could know this ahead of time, say, through a concept of "humanity." But could one know ahead of time that such a turn of events (and persons) were impossible? The humanity exemplified by Souls reduces itself to neither an unconditioned subject nor a mere function of sociohistorical forces, and in doing so it reaches toward an open readership. When Du Bois recounts the death of his son, Burghardt Gomer, the narrative's frank despair offers a site of braided com-miseration for those forced to "grow choked and deformed with the Veil" (2007, 102). Is this not our tragedy? And the task thereby set, what Souls terms (and enacts as) "co-work in the kingdom of culture," is it not also mine, and in ways no one can assume for me? Must I not aspire to a kind of polyphony? Near its close, Souls asks: "Would America have been America without her Negro people?" (Du Bois 2007, 128). "No" begins a reply.

John Lysaker
Emory University

works cited

Baldwin, James. 2010. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. Edited by Randall Kean. New York: Random House.
Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image, Music, Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Benjamin, Walter. 2007. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. New York: Shocken Books.
Butler, Judith. 2005. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press.
Cavarero, Adriana. 2005. For More than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Cavell, Stanley. 1988. In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cavell, Stanley. 1990. Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cavell, Stanley. 1994. A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Cavell, Stanley. 2005. Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Cixous, Heléne. 1993. Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. New York: Columbia University Press. [End Page 149]
Dennett, Daniel. 1995. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Du Bois, W. E. B. 2007. The Oxford W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mendieta, Eduardo. 2014. "The Sound of Race: The Prosody of Affect." Radical Philosophy Review 17 (1): 109–31.
Rorty, Richard. 1989. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stevens, Wallace. 1971. The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Thoreau, Henry D. 2008. Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings. 3rd ed. Edited by William Rossi. New York: W. W. Norton. [End Page 150]

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