Saturday, January 30, 2010

Our City Our Words: Calling all corners

by Ryland Walker Knight

Get your own copy all beat up

Here's a final reminder and syllabus, of sorts, or at the very least a notice, about my proposed group reading of Stanley Cavell's Cities of Words. I expect the weekly series to be a Thursday feature and, given the roll out these daze at home base, these posts will largely sit atop the vertical all weekend until the viewing log Sunday night. That gives us plenty of time to trade some ideas, if you decide to play this game with me. This will also, I hope, attract eyes away from the weekly Lost posts I plan to take on, though I'm not sure if they'll be recaps or idea strings or images grabbed off the television or what; chances are it'll be a goof, like the show, and, like anything on this blog, it'll just be designed to make me laugh. But that's not why we're here, in this post, today.

Today I'd like to talk Cavell, having re-read the preface and the introduction, as my own preface/introduction to why I chose this book and why I chose it now. My favorite beginning begins so: reading Cavell makes me feel good; plain and simple, as I tumble through his sentences, I can feel my face widen. Of course, it's never so plain nor so simple as that. There's a lot loaded into this pleasure. At this stage in the game, my mind is directed towards this text through too many lenses to filter in words without wasting everybody's time. But, largely, I'll say that though plenty of this pleasure is at the level of the prose, sure, it's the very idea of such writing that gets me going; the audacity, what Cavell might call the arrogance, of philosophy and its aim to speak for so much, so many, is never just "admirable" in its seriousness but hilarious in its ludicrousness. (Bloggers are a joke for a reason, but it should be admitted, as ever with human expression, some blog corners do yield fruitful thoughts.) Cavell, however, doesn't pitch modest to counteract any of that; nor does he pitch pompous. Rather, as a thinker invested in thinking about talking, about conversation, his words are largely conversational. Thus they meander, ambling around ideas as much as burrowing into them—but over all we get the sense that Cavell has covered every inch of an idea, explored the entire plot of it, or at least been curious enough to scour around as long as he can.

Philosophy can be easily debased, as Cavell argues, as the indulgence of idle minds prone as they are to returning to a text or to an idea. And, no doubt, it takes a certain life to support such a style, such a mode—such a pursuit. I, for one, understand that despite any complaints I may harbor (what twenty-something doesn't gripe? who hasn't been shit on at least once?), I lead a charmed life. I'm never hungry and I live in a world class metropolis. I work every day, I walk a dog every day, I have the luxury of a spice rack, I even find time to blog. (That is, I make the time.) And here I am, making time to go over a book I've already read at least twice all the way through not to mention any stray dips into its trough since 2007. Because I can, yes, but also because I think it will help me with a number of thoughts about things I love to think about, and need to rethink, here and now. I'm terrifically flattered that some of you readers out there are, indeed, planning on joining me as I go through these ideas in public. Put otherwise, I look forward to learning things from you, and about you, as this silly some-kind-of syllabus progresses. However, despite my interest in philosophy's therapeutic angle, I'll try not to bore you all too-too much with me. There's plenty of particulars in the text, and in the films.

—First up, her. And them.

For instance, now it should be no secret where I got the inspiration for my A Conjunction of Quotation series. I adore the idea of an epigram mix tape as imagined by Cavell here. I'm sure others have told similar stories elsewhere, but I first saw this construct here (and in the opening to Pursuits of Happiness). I just hope my attempts don't belittle the form; I certainly don't propose to claim it for my own.

For another, the exploration of "perfectionism" gets at the heart of this project: I'm not trying to master the text by any stretch. Rather, I'm just trying to understand it better. And I want to do that because I think it will help me live better. I want to answer the voices of my mind with more than a shrug or a to-do list; I hear their call of disappointment just like anybody else; I know I can find my words and actions with less head and heart aches. What's most curious about a project such as this, or such as a classroom, is located precisely in Cavell's first epigram from Emerson: "I know the world I converse with in the cities is not the world I think." Because what does calling for fellow autodidact "pedants" to join my pastime mean but an attempt to bridge, possibly even erase, that gap? (Related, broader: what's this impulse to blog? We all have a voice, and a life. Is it refuge? Or is it passion? Fuck shame: I will cop to both.) This idea starts another line of thought, though, which we will undoubtedly return to as we move forward with Cavell: skepticism, other minds, and how transparent can or should we be or get?

This line is the focus of The Claim of Reason, which was culled from Cavell's dissertation. One of the problems you might encounter reading Cities of Words, if this is your first Cavell, is that it's almost a summation book. Everything is bound up in his long life of thought. It reads richer the more you read by him. However, that should not dissuade you. His sentences may frustrate you from time to time and it may be easy to tune out and let your mind wander but every now and again I guarantee there will be a sentence that drops your jaw with its insightful redescription of an event in a film, or a line of a text. So, as he says/writes, read fast and slow and hopefully you'll have some fun with it. After all, for any selfish reasons behind a blog such as mine, and a project such as this, the guiding impetus is to inspire further curiosity. I hope you seek out the films, and the book, and other books that have inspired this effort at charity (on my part, on Cavell's part, on your part). Put otherwise, let's build something big. You know, expand our horizons. You know, for fun.

If you have already read the introduction, feel free to drop any ideas you have looking ahead in the comments. I'll be more than happy to trade topics. If not, no biggie! I'll see you back here next Thursday, the 4th, to continue this conversation. Until then, try to get outside.

Alamo squareset


  1. Speaking of which, did you hear Blair is having lunch with Mr.Cavell next week? C

    I'm going to have to set aside a few books to get back to re-enjoying City of Words.

  2. I did not hear that; that's interesting. We'll be happy to have another join our joint pursuits!

  3. A logistical question: What is your proposed/planned timeframe of reading? Around what schedule will this conversation take place?

  4. Well I'd like it to be a weekly thing for selfish reasons: it'll feel more like a syllabus, and push me/us through the book a little quicker. But if there are those who think a bi-weekly schedule would be better, I'm open.

  5. I'm around the middle of the introduction. It's not easy, but after a few pages my brain seems to have acclimated to the style. I think I know what he's saying, and it's the kind of stuff I really need to hear these days. And on top of that, it's sorta fun, not necessarily because he's going out of his way to make it fun, but because synthesizing and putting all these ideas in perspective is inherently fun.

  6. Glad you're finding the rhythms, JF. It definitely invites repeat reads for a variety of reasons, and the first time I read him, I was slack jawed pawing my head a bunch, so don't worry too much. I'm sure you're getting what you need. I think the important thing, as with most things, is to just power through and then go back to revisit/revise thoughts. And, yes, it's fun. It's empowering! It's all about finding the right way to live--with words, with movies, with ideas, with life! Anyways, I hope we get some good ideas going. And, say, do you think the once-a-week thing is too quick, too? If we slowed the roll it could easily be a full year thing.

  7. Once a week is fine. I have read the book before so perhaps that makes for a different attitude than others. Would it be a chapter on a philosophical work and the corresponding film chapter a week or some other allotment?

  8. I was thinking of following Cavell's syllabus straight up. This week's post is about the Emerson chapter and _The Philadelphia Story_ chapter.

  9. That seems best to this stranger. I've been a reader here for awhile and this is a good opportunity to return to Cities of Words, though it does derail my planned return to The Claim of Reason, though that is a-ok. Now to finally begin the chapter a day re-reading of Life A Users Manual, a good 99 day project that won't really get in the way of other reading as the chapters are quite short.

  10. Here are some rambling, summarizing, thoughts upon rereading the introduction to Cities of Words (they are quite long so will be in more than one post). Unfortunately my time is limited at the moment so I cannot give this the attention it deserves. A quick glance over this makes me realize I haven’t said much Cavell doesn’t himself say but perhaps this working through of his positions has at least me clarify what he is working towards and will hopefully lead to a more profitable discussion in the future. My apologies as this is somewhat scattershot and rambling though it does seem to touch on the connectedness of the ideas of prose and philosophy, the importance of conversation, the promise of a skepticism while not falling into cynicism, and how all this informs a moral perfectionism. Hopefully with more time in the future I will be somewhat more coherent.

    “At this stage in the game, my mind is directed towards this text through too many lenses to filter in words without wasting everybody's time. But, largely, I'll say that though plenty of this pleasure is at the level of the prose, sure, it's the very idea of such writing that gets me going; the audacity, what Cavell might call the arrogance, of philosophy and its aim to speak for so much, so many, is never just "admirable" in its seriousness but hilarious in its ludicrousness.”

    -The question of prose, the pleasure you describe, seems to echo that which Cavell finds to be fundamental to the question of philosophy. It is both at philosophies core and within the discipline tied intimately to the schism in the practice of philosophy in the academy, what he labels the fracturing between the English philosophical tradition and French-German. In the introduction to The Claim of Reason Cavell writes of “thinking usefully about the connection of writing and the problem of the other, and about the connection of both with my interest in a tradition, anyway an idea, of philosophizing opposed to the tradition in English, as that tradition is represented in the best English-speaking departments of philosophy.” He goes on to say that he “found I had to, and felt that I could, writes as though these paths had never divided…what makes this spirit possible for me has been, I think, that the philosophical pressure to comprehend this division or splitting between cultures has begun transforming itself for me into the pressure to comprehend the division between the writing of philosophy and the writing of literature, hence the splitting within (one) culture.” This is echoed, or returned to, or furthered, in the introduction to Cities of Words where he writes: “Emerson’s achievement…that he refuses the breakup of philosophy into separate fields, an eventuality fully institutionalized as philosophy becomes one discipline among others in the modern university”

  11. What is it that this refusal of the breakup of philosophy entails? Why is it an achievement and a water through which Cavell swims as well? What is the power and purpose of prose as described in your experience? These questions are complex, and we may not have the answers to them, but they are of tremendous importance. The “not having the answers” itself may be of fundamental importance as Cavell shows us, invites into the conversation, with the very question of not having answers, in some regard. He writes: “Emersonian perfectionism…sets itself against any idea of ultimate perfection.” He quotes Emerson on “the unatained but attainable self”, and we may takes this as being fundamental to our own reading, to the process of philosophy. It is in seeking to attain entirely that shuts us off from philosophy, that casts us out of “the city“. One must engage in the conversation with the other. To strive for the “ultimate perfection” is to close oneself off from the conversation, to return to the above discussion, to lower oneself into the fragmented, divided culture. This division of philosophy is a division that destroys the culture and the community, that halts the conversation. Cavell writes in the intro to Cities of Words:

    “I habitually speak of the task of accepting finitude. The attempt to satisfy the demand for the absolute makes what we say inherently private (as though we withheld the sense of our words even, or especially, from ourselves) , a condition in which the good city we would inhabit cannot be constructed, since it exists only in our intelligible encounters with each other.”

    This then leads into the other major point covered in the introduction, the pitch and purpose of this moral perfectionism, “the question of how they shall live their lives, what kind of persons they aspire to be. This aspect or moment of morality -- in which a crisis forces an examination of one’s life that calls for a transformation or reorienting of it --- is the province of what I emphasize as moral perfectionism.” Like philosophy itself, a philosophy not shattered, this is not to be undertaken alone. I have always found great resonance in Cavell’s acknowledgement of the misanthropic (much discussed in the essays of Themes Out Of School) and the cynical while detailing a need to move beyond these inclinations (nothing is sadder than the extended adolescent who carries these attitudes into adulthood, here’s looking at you Haneke). One may find themselves, as many do in the films discussed, leaning upon this cynicism, finding it to be the only crutch one can rely upon in their solitude. As Cavell says, “these films concern the difficulty of overcoming a certain moral cynicism, a giving up on the aspiration to a life more coherent an admirable than seems affordable after the obligations and compromises of adulthood being to obscure the promise and dreams of youth and the rift between public demands and private desires comes to seem unbridgeable.” (onto post 3...)

  12. In the aspiration to a finitude, a complete comprehension, an all knowing one may find this misanthropic view to be the only one which appears to be a complete system, that provides an explanation, that satiates these “private desires”, however false it may be. The desire for certainty closes one off from the community. Cavell wishes to restore the individual to the community, but this entails an acknowledgement that this need for certainty, the fact that “the attempt to satisfy the demand for the absolute makes what we say inherently private”, must be moved past, that there is a productive skepticism in some respects that counters the private cynicism. That it is not as important to obtain every answer privately as it is to engage in the questions with others. In The Claim of Reason he writes: “And that moral discourse is not singly an order of public debate on issues known and taken to be of moment, but is a form of intimate examination, you might say private, by one soul of another. It teaches us to ask not alone, What is to be done?, but as well, What am I to do? And not just, IS what the other does acceptable, but as well, How am I prepared to confront that other?” And in Cities of Words, “…one’s quarrel with the world need not be settled, nor cynically set aside as unsettlable. It is a condition in which you can at once want the world and want it to change…”

  13. Well said, Jack! Thanks a bunch for such a long and thoughtful comment!

    The best I can muster on my lunchbreak here is that, yes, it's all about participation. The words "with" and "and" are way more useful, exciting tools than "but" or "however"; however, there's always uses for any word. The other main thing I see in your comment/s is the idea of philosophy as a form of life that subsumes all pursuits (we hope of happiness). That's one reason why Emerson's humanities are plural. Everything feeds something, ideas inflect each other, bump and collide and fertilize. It's about what you can produce, in conversation, not what you take away.

    More to come tomorrow, of course, as I look forward to continuing this conversation even more when I'm more cogent and less time-stressed!