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  • The Voice
  • R. M. Berry (bio)
Stanley Cavell and the Potencies of the Voice
Adam Gonya
Bloomsbury Academic
224 Pages; Cloth, $84.00

In Stanley Cavell and the Potencies of the Voice, Adam Gonya offers a new way of understanding Stanley Cavell's philosophy, situating it relative to two "pictures" of the human voice. According to the first, a speaker or writer knows something and selects the right words to communicate it. According to the second, a speaker or writer surrenders to a mood and words simply come. Gonya calls the former the picture of the voice's "assertive potency" and the latter the picture of its "receptive potency," and he takes Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to exemplify each.

While the metaphysical alienation imagined by both Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche seems without obvious parallel in Cavell's work, what interests Gonya is the role of language in the two philosophers' responses to it. In Schopenhauer's philosophy, a poet escapes metaphysical confinement by perceiving "the particular thing," not as an example under a concept, but as "the [transcendental] Idea of its species." Only after having attained this "pure knowledge" does he or she face the problem of how to express it. The compositional task becomes one of using words to qualify and limit other words, "as one dull knife can sharpen another," producing a distinct representation freed of all abstraction. Theoretically, it could be rendered in prose as well as poetry, since the material qualities of language—rhythm, alliteration, accent, syntax, rhyme—add nothing to it. Its meaning is translatable into other languages without loss.

While this account of satisfactory expression bears some similarity to Logical Positivism's picture of ideal reference, it diverges sharply from Nietzsche's account of Dionysian poetry. For Nietzsche, the Dionysian utterance has no prose equivalent or adequate translation. Instead, it originates in a state of intoxication, a "musical mood" that is fundamentally alien to words and concepts. Rather than sharpening meaning, the poet's words only expose their meaning's inadequacy, as though pursuing an impossible absoluteness of differentiation and "straining [language] to its limits to imitate music." While it is not clear that this pursuit gives verbal sounds priority over sense, it is clear that Dionysian poetry, like music, is without articulable content. The poet is a medium or channel merely, with no knowledge of his or her own to impart. As Gonya put it, "The Dionysian utterance … is its singularity."

Cavell's importance for Gonya is that his ordinary language procedure, asking what we say when, represents an overlap of these two pictures. Gonya interprets Cavell's ambition to "bring the human voice back into philosophy" as "a therapeutic broadening of what we have called the first potency to include the resources of the second," a broadening that exposes the "sometimes tragic" consequences of philosophy's restriction to justified assertion alone. To bring out these consequences, Gonya introduces three figures—"Jungle Man," "Skeptical Man," and "Common Man"—which he believes make concrete the "zones of expressive strain or miscarriage or even failure" that Cavell addresses. In discussing each, Gonya detects a struggle in Cavell's writing between the imperative to make oneself intelligible and the imperative to avoid falsifying oneself, and if, as Gonya suggests, Cavell proceeds more by receptiveness to what we say when than by testing it against antecedent knowledge, the metaphysical question of the origin of what we say when becomes hard to ignore.

It is hard not to feel that Jungle Man is less germane to Cavell's philosophy than Gonya's other figures, since Cavell never treats a lack of training in or exposure to language as a philosophical problem. In that sense, Jungle Man may represent a zone of expressive failure less than a philosophical fantasy of such failure, one that Wittgenstein's therapies would try to make "completely disappear." The fantasy is of someone native to our community who because of some extraordinary experience—Jungle Man wanders off as a child and then, after

miraculously surviving in the wild for fifteen years, returns home—finds our ordinary expressive practices unnatural. "Of what had he been deprived that now...


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pp. 19-20
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