MLA Panel on Cavell and Close Reading


Photo Credit: Charles Bernstein

Amir Khan, co-editor of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies (and longtime friend of this blog) has let us know that he is organizing a panel at this year’s Modern Language Association Conference (in Austin, Texas) titled “Cavell and Close Reading.” Information about that panel is below, together with abstracts for the papers to be presented.

Modern Language Association Annual Convention
January 7-10, 2016
Austin, Texas

Panel # 652. Cavell and Close Reading
Saturday, 9 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., 5B, ACC

A special session
Presiding: Amir Khan, LNU-MSU College of International Business


The so-called “crisis of the humanities” has had particular resonance in the field of English and literary studies and has had a deleterious effect on the practice of “close reading.” The formalist presuppositions the New Critics brought to the text at the outset via close reading, so the argument goes, led not necessarily to the same readings, but to a stance of disinterestedness that precluded more salient cultural critiques. The subsequent “cultural turn” in literary studies of the 1970s and 80s sought to address fundamental issues of power relations behind the cultural acts of meaning-making and identity-formation. Close readings that attempted to elucidate an aesthetic response without responding to the material conditions beyond the text that elicited said response were considered quaint. In many ways, the text receded from significance.

What has happened since to the critical practice of close reading? The cultural turn has since eaten its own children. It is increasingly obvious in literary studies that commenting from some ahistorical ur-position is a critical stance fraught with peril. Many literary critics recognize that whatever criticism is destined to look like moving forward, claims to objectivity are dubious. Professed, or performed, acts of critical subjectivity are perhaps more common nowadays; but these are still an extension of cultural critique, with more liberal use, say, of the first person pronoun. Critical acts of close reading centred on the text are still very much an anomaly in literary studies.

Strangely enough, the practice of close reading is gaining steam in philosophy. As Tzachi Zamir notes in his book, Double Vision (2012), philosophers are increasingly turning to the knowledge gleaned from literature or literary experience to articulate and express the limitations of traditional epistemic inquiry. Morality and ethics remain stable aesthetic categories to philosophers. But to acquire real moral or ethical knowledge, one must take steps beyond strict syllogistic reasoning and standard argumentative prose. Philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Stanley Cavell have long since turned their sights to literature and close reading.

In providing a close reading of some of Stanley Cavell’s close readings of literature, this proposed MLA seminar has two goals. The first is to comment not on what literary knowledge is per se (as distinct, say, from philosophical knowledge), but on what type of knowledge we are afforded via close reading that remains inaccessible to, say, cultural critique. The first goal leads to the second, which is to discuss how or what Cavell’s close readings are doing when they do whatever it is that they are doing.

The three papers to be presented here both discuss and demonstrate the value and risks associated with close reading, in particular, by focussing on the close reading proclivities of one very popular practitioner of a dying practice. It is hoped that the parameters of what its revival might look like can be tentatively expressed.


David Schur, Brooklyn Coll., City Univ. of New York
“Cavell and the Metapoetics of Walden

This paper addresses the role of self-referential and recursive structures in Stanley Cavell’s study of Thoreau (The Senses of Walden). Cavell’s book is, self-consciously, devoted to a book that is in turn self-consciously concerned with being a book. And this broad sequence of readings embedded within readings opens an especially revealing vista on an important aspect of close reading; namely, the crucial relationship between, on the one hand, paying careful attention to a writer’s language and, on the other, recognizing how the complications of written language often reveal themselves through distancing gestures of self-reference. In other words, close reading thrives on cascading moments of metapoetic insight, even though at these moments the text is—in a noteworthy sense—withdrawing into itself and away from the reader. Here I explore this dynamic by arguing that Cavell’s close reading of Walden is largely propelled by features of writing that create distance rather than closeness.

Sara Saylor, Univ. of Texas, Austin
“Cavell’s Intuitions: ‘I See It Feelingly’”

Stanley Cavell’s foundational essay “The Avoidance of Love” (1969) exemplifies close reading in the traditional sense of careful attention to textual detail. But I argue that this essay also illuminates a second sense of “closeness”—intimacy—as vital to criticism. For Cavell, to read closely is not to scrutinize a text as through a microscope, but to become vulnerable in its presence, submitting oneself to painful self-revelation. To chart the emergence of this dual sense of close reading in Cavell’s discussion of King Lear, I consider moments when Cavell weighs critical accounts against his “experience of the play” and describes the feelings that animate his readings, including the “terror” at Gloucester’s confrontation with Lear that forms the heart of his meditations on shame and avoidance.

Cavell anticipates the recent rise of openly personal criticism that foregrounds emotional experience rather than pretending to objectivity. Yet he also perceives the risks of solipsism and sentimentality inherent in such approaches, and he questions the explanatory value of emotions: “the validity of… feelings as touchstones of the accuracy of a reading of a play, and which feelings one is to trust… ought to be discussed problems of criticism.” The touchstone image evokes contact and friction, implying that compelling criticism emerges when experience and interpretation (in Emersonian terms, intuition and tuition) confront each other up close. Cavell admirably refuses to solve these “problems of criticism,” but his essay remains a model and a provocative touchstone for our own efforts to fuse careful reading with emotional engagement.

Bruce Krajewski, Univ. of Texas, Arlington
“Little Did He Know: Cavell Absorbed by Nietzschean Esotericism”

My aim is to show, using Cavell’s own trope in his section on Nietzsche in Cities of Words (2004), that Cavell is a victim of Nietzschean vampirism (etymologically, absorption is being “sucked in”). That is, that Cavell fails to read Nietzsche as well as Heidegger as esotericists, and thus falls victim to their pernicious ideology. Nietzsche in his Nachlass had proclaimed: “My writings should be so obscure and incomprehensible!” In Cities of Words, Cavell portrays Nietzsche as a champion of a kind of independence, a methodology for “becoming who you are,” à la Charlotte in Now, Voyager. It is a crucial hermeneutical problem that Cavell takes Nietzsche at face value, despite ample evidence (e.g., Geoff Waite’s Nietzsche’s Corps/e – Duke 1996) that Nietzsche, like Heidegger, kept the real agenda at work off the main stage. Cavell also admits in his autobiography Little Did I Know that Cavell thinks Heidegger’s dalliance with National Socialism was “impermanent,” and does not seem to link it to Heidegger’s extended interest in Nietzsche nor Heidegger’s propagation of Nietzsche’s work. As early as 1921, Heidegger had written to Karl Jaspers about forming a “invisible community” of those interested in the philosophical topics occupying Heidegger. In Being and Time, Heidegger has written that “the ultimate business of philosophy is to preserve the force of the most elemental in which Dasein expresses itself, and to keep it from common understanding.” This is of a piece with Nietzsche’s comments in his Nachlass that his works are not meant for common, ignorant people.

In a recent brief and elliptical discussion the poet Charles Bernstein has with Cavell about Heidegger and National Socialism, Cavell is at pains to suggest that he would think differently about Heidegger, had Heidegger “actually laid hands on people.” This misses the point of esoteric politics bent on war. One has others put hands on people, while one’s own hands remain seemingly unstained. It’s a version of drone wars at which philosophers excel. Cavell seems to have no idea of what it means for Nietzsche to have described himself as “dynamite,” and to have predicted his own rise from the dead: “To be ignited in 300 years – that is my desire for fame.”

New Contributions to Ordinary Language Philosophy and Experimental Philosophy


Philosopher Nat Hansen (University of Reading), a longtime friend of this blog, has let us know of some recent contributions to the intersection of “Ordinary Language Philosophy,” particularly the work of J.L. Austin, and “Experimental Philosophy”:

1. Taylor Murphy, “Experimental Philosophy: 1935-1965”, in Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy, 2014.

Hansen: “This includes discussions of Arne Naess’s interactions with Austin.”

Pdf here.

2. Nat Hansen and Emmanuel Chemla, “Linguistic Experiments and Ordinary Language Philosophy”, Ratio 28(4), 422-445. (2015)

Hansen: “We test some of Austin’s classic examples, like his donkey stories from ‘A Plea for Excuses’ to see how people do in fact react to them. Our results are mixed.”

Pdf here.

Thanks to Nat Hansen for letting us know about these papers!

New Book by Kyle Stevens: “Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism”


We’re pleased to announce the appearance of a new book by Kyle Stevens (Cinema Studies and English, Colby College), titled Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism (Oxford University Press). Below is some information Stevens provided us about the book, and in particular its relationship to Ordinary Language Philosophy.

In The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell writes: “It is an incontestable fact that in a motion picture no live human being is up there. But a human something is, and something unlike anything else we know.” In his new book, Kyle Stevens explores the category of these human somethings, which, as Cavell suggests, inform and gird our own ideas of the category of the human. He does so through the study of performer and director Mike Nichols. With iconic movies like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, and Carnal Knowledge, Nichols was the most prominent American director during the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. It was also during the late 1960s and 1970s, as Film Studies crystallized into an academic discipline, that psychological realism became linked to both classical Hollywood and continuity editing. The style was derided as theatrical, or worse, bourgeois, a product of a capitalism that valorized individual personality. This view persists, though often tacitly. Yet, we must attribute some degree of mindedness to any figure that we might call a character. Stevens clarifies that at stake is an idea of action: how a film expresses a character’s orientation toward and effect upon objects, and how audiences construe that relation. He contends that Nichols creates a mode of character rooted in doubt about actions, doubt that is politically savvy and which, by accommodating quotidian anxiety about knowing other minds, offers a new register of realism.

Themes and methods from Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell are central throughout the book, from thinking about the nature of improvisational utterances to linguistic self-presentation. For example, by asking when, or whether, The Graduate’s taciturn hero means his silences, Stevens shows that the film exhibits an interest in rethinking the nature, force, and relationality of utterances. In doing so, he illuminates its appeal to an aesthetic context fascinated by silence, and to a political context of youth galvanized by the Free Speech Movement and Vietnam. The Graduate thus becomes a means of asking what it means to speak representatively. And what, in that context, does it mean to remain silent, to choose to speak only for oneself? Hence, readers will learn not only about an important filmmaker and his influence on the last five decades of Hollywood, but about film’s participation in a US history of ideas and, more broadly, the relation of film and philosophy.

You can find out more about the book by accessing its page on the Oxford University Press website. We had previously posted on Kyle Stevens’s work some time back here.

Call for Papers: Issue 4 of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies

Amir Khan, the managing editor (together with Sérgio Dias Branco) of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies has shared with us this Call for Papers for the journal’s fourth issue. Please see it below:

Call For Paper NO. 4: Literary Cavell

In what sense is Cavell’s work indebted to literature, or literary precursors? While much is made of his writings on Shakespeare, Cavell has other literary interests manifested in writings on the Romantic poets (In Quest for the Ordinary, particularly his reading of Kant and Coleridge), 19th/20th century playwrights (Ibsen, Shaw, Beckett), and a sparse scattering of prose on a select cadre of novelists (Austen, Dickens, James, for example). For the fourth issue of Conversations, we seek submissions that engage with Cavell’s literary influences and influence, and pose the question of whether Cavell is reading literature philosophically or whether he is reading philosophy like literature, or whether, indeed, it is profitable to pose such questions at all. Where do Emerson and Thoreau fit into this discussion? Possible topics include:

– Philosophical versus literary romanticism

– Cavell and Austen and Austin

– Ordinary language and the theatre

– Wittgenstein as literature

– Philosophy and close reading

– Freudian close reading

– Literary transcendentalism

– Style and literary expression

– Cavellian Shakespeare

We also welcome shorter essays and responses that directly address Cavell’s concluding question to The Claim of Reason.

Papers should be approximately 6000 words, including footnotes, and must follow the notes and bibliography citation system described in The Chicago Manual of Style. Shorter, more intimate pieces of around 1200 words are also acceptable. Please email complete articles to Amir Khan at akhan134 at If submitting via the online user interface, please notify one of the managing editors in a separate email. All submissions due September 15th, 2015.

Panel on Vincent Descombes: Harvard University, April 16


Professor Richard Moran (Harvard Philosophy Department) is organizing a panel at Harvard on the recent English translation of the book The Institutions of Meaning by the French philosopher Vincent Descombes. (An earlier post about this translation appeared here.) The panel will take place on Thursday April 16 from 1-4 PM at the Center for European Studies Lower Level Conference Room. The panelists include:

Vincent Descombes (L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociale, Paris)

Richard Moran (Philosophy, Harvard University)

Frederick Neuhouser (Philosophy, Barnard College/Columbia University)

Webb Keane (Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

Charles Larmore (Philosophy, Brown University)

The event will take place with the support of the Harvard Provostial Funds for the Humanities and the Harvard Department of Philosophy.

Vincent Descombes is also the author of, among his books translated into English, The Mind’s Provisions (Princeton, 2001), Modern French Philosophy (Cambridge, 1980), and Proust: Philosophy of the Novel (Stanford, 1992).

Romantic Circles: Stanley Cavell and the Event of Romanticism

A new volume has appeared of Romantic Circles, “a refereed scholarly website devoted to the study of Romantic-period literature and culture.” This volume is edited by Eric Lindstrom (English, University of Vermont) and is titled “Stanley Cavell and the Event of Romanticism.” To access the volume, click here. Here is an excerpt from the section About this Volume:

At a climactic point in Part Four of The Claim of Reason (1979), the American philosopher Stanley Cavell arrives at the striking conclusion that “romanticism opens with the discovery of the problem of other minds, or with the discovery that the other is a problem, an opening of philosophy.” Cavell’s account of how Romanticism opens is not historical in orientation, but rather offers a rich conceptual, aesthetic, and ethical site of concern that both interrupts and generates his life’s work— thus presenting an opening for scholars and students of the Romantic Period to think the subject of Romanticism anew in studying (with) Cavell. The essays in this volume seek to provide the fullest account to date of Cavell’s prompting by Romanticism in light of his powerful record of engagement with British and European Romantic texts: a body of literature on which Cavell has performed several bravura readings. Cavell’s writings and distinctive philosophical approach have garnered an increasing amount of sustained attention over the past several years, particularly since the publication of Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow (2005) and Little Did I Know (2010). Yet beyond his major American subjects of Thoreau and Emerson, there is still little published scholarship that engages Cavell’s thought at extended, close range with Romanticism as the moment that matters so much him: the “perfectionist” opening that comes after religion, but before philosophy. The present collection—with essays (in suggested reading order) by Emily Sun, Paul Fry, Eric Lindstrom, Eric Walker, and Anne-Lise François, and a substantial Afterword by Joshua Wilner—hinges between the efforts to record Cavell’s engagement with British Romantic texts and to stage new interventions.

The table of contents is as follows:

Issue #2 of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies

Amir Khan, managing editor (together with Sérgio Dias Branco) of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies, has just informed us that the journal’s second issue is now online. You can view or download the full issue here. According to the journal’s announcement:

This special issue showcases Cavell’s appeal “down under,” all papers appearing under the auspices of guest editor, Professor David Macarthur, c/o the Philosophy Department at the University of Sydney.

Indeed, the papers in this issue were given at a conference titled “Themes from Cavell” at the University of Sydney on Feb. 27-28, 2012.

For an announcement of the call for papers for the journal’s third issue, click here.


Call for Papers: Issue 2 of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies

Amir Khan, together with Sérgio Dias Branco one of the two managing editors of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies, has written us to announce a call for papers for the journal’s second issue.

The topic of this issue is Cavell and History. You can read about the topic below. To read more about the journal, you can visit its website here. You can read its first issue here.

Call for Papers: Cavell and History

Whatever one makes of Cavell’s writings, one can hardly say they are historical. We are told, for example, America’s military entanglement weighs in on his thoughts in “Disowning Knowledge,” but what exactly has King Lear to do with Vietnam? Does the essay require, or deserve, proper historicizing? Would such an exercise be to the benefit of Cavellian study, or to its detriment?

Moreover, Cavell himself explicitly, if still somewhat coyly, historicizes his skeptical argument in his introduction to his collection of essays on Shakespeare. Coy, because Cavell is hardly interested in employing a “professional” historical methodology. When he discusses the “advent of skepticism,” as, historically speaking, marking the appearance of Shakespeare, Descartes, and the New Science, he notes also that, fictionally speaking, the Roman world of Shakespeare, as depicted in Antony and Cleopatra, is “haunted by the event of Christianity.” Do competing threads of Romanization, Christianization, the advent of skepticism, the New Science, and, say, Renaissance theatre require sorting out?

Lastly, in discussing the appearance of what he coins the seven comedies of remarriage in Pursuits of Happiness, he expressly denies a cause-and-effect relationship leading to the appearance of this new genre:

My thought is that the genre emerges full-blown, in a particular instance first (or a set of them if they are simultaneous), and then works out its internal consequences in further instances. So that, as I would like to put it, it has no history, only a birth and a logic (or a biology). (27-28)

Once again, we accept submissions from all theoretical perspectives and disciplines and encourage attempts to assimilate seemingly disparate disciplinary areas of Cavell’s thinking. For the second issue of Conversations, the editors welcome papers that engage with Cavell’s different, perhaps undecided or indecisive, views on history and historicization. Possible paper topics include:

– historicizing Cavell
– the use of Cavell in broader philosophical discourse – philosophizing history
– historicizing philosophy
– the authority of history versus the authority of self
– the influence of Marx on Cavell’s thought
– the influence of Heidegger on Cavell’s thought
– the influence of Hegel on Cavell’s thought

Papers should be no more than 6000 words, including footnotes, and must follow the notes and bibliography citation system described in The Chicago Manual of Style. We also welcome shorter, more intimate pieces addressing specific questions (800-1200 words). Complete articles should be sent by July 31st, 2014 to 

“Grammatical Stirrings: A visit by Richard Fleming” at Duke University

On March 20 and 21 Duke University’s Center for Philosophy, Arts, and Literature (PAL) will host a lecture and workshop with Richard Fleming (Philosophy, Bucknell University). The March 20 lecture is titled “Listening to Cage: ExperimentationChanceSilenceAnarchism,” and the March 21 workshop is titled “Reading Cavell’s The Claim of Reason–Threads of the Inner and Outer.” Schedules and flyers are below.



Listening to Cage

A Lecture by Richard Fleming

Thursday, March 20
FHI Garage
Smith Warehouse, Bay 4, 1st Floor
Duke University
Reception to follow in the Audiovisualities Lab




Reading Cavell’s The Claim of Reason–Threads of the Inner and Outer

A workshop with Richard Fleming. Excerpted reading available on the website.

(RSVP to


Friday, March 21, 10am-5pm

Morning Session: 10am-12:30pm

Lunch Provided 

Afternoon Session: 2pm-5pm

Dinner party to follow. 

FHI Garage 
Smith Warehouse, Bay 4, 1st Floor 
Duke University