Cavell and History

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Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies
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Stanley Bates (Middlebury College)
Sarah Beckwith (Duke University)
Peter Dula (Eastern Mennonite University)
Richard Eldridge (Swarthmore College)
Adam Gonya (KU Leuven)
Larry Jackson (CUNY)
Andrew Klevan (University of Oxford)
Stephen Mulhall (University of Oxford)
Sianne Ngai (Stanford University)
Andrew Norris (UC Santa Barbara)
Lawrence Rhu (USC)
D. N. Rodowick (Harvard University)
Miguel Tamen (University of Lisbon)


It is easy to believe when reading Cavell that one has stumbled upon "privileged knowledge," so that the intimate experience of going over some of Cavell's close readings makes one feel "privileged" in a sense, to the point where it becomes inconceivable that others – from, say, other disciplines or specialties – could be reading Cavell correctly, unless they too are beginning from the same vantage point.

Yet whether the discussion begins with Wittgenstein or Austin (ordinary language philosophy), Nietzsche or Kierkegaard (Continental philosophy), Emerson or Thoreau (American studies), Shakespeare or Beckett (literature and drama), Capra or Cukor (film and romance), Coleridge or Kant (poetry and ethics), or, even, music discomposed, Cavell's insights have less to with specialized knowledge than with his unique ability to make his readers feel as though they – suddenly and somehow – have a real stake in what otherwise seems to be a privileged field. The understanding Cavell's philosophical work and readings afford us is the humane sort, unencumbered by (a lack of) specialization.

Conversations is a journal that seeks to promote precisely this sort of communal, human conversation. For dialogue between seemingly disparate realms of thought to thrive, it is imperative that contributors not simply take up Cavell's work solely within a given specialization, but that efforts are made to extend Cavell's thinking to other realms and disciplines as well, either familiar or unfamiliar to Cavell's thought. While interdisciplinary conversation occurs quite frequently between film and philosophy, literature and film, or literature and philosophy, Conversations puts no restrictions on the nature of the dialogues, or number of disciplines, at the outset.

The end result, it is hoped, will be a dissolution of disciplinary boundaries at best, or, at least, an assurance that conversation can occur between otherwise perfectly delimited discourse communities. Hence it is hoped that humanistic lessons and insights supposedly unique to certain specialized investigation are made salient and shareable with a broader audience — in true Cavellian spirit.

Cavell and History

Whatever one makes of Cavell's writings, one can hardly say they are historical. We are told, for example, that 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 benefit of Cavellian study, or detract from it?

Moreover, Cavell himself explicitly, if still somewhat coyly, historicizes his skeptical argument in his introduction to his collection of essays on Shakespeare (Disowning Knowledge, pp. 20-37). Coy because Cavell is hardly interested in employing a "professional" historical methodology. When he discusses the "advent of skepticism" (20), 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" (21). Do competing threads of Romanization, Christianization, the advent of skepticism, the New Science, and 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 deal with Cavell's somewhat murky relationship to history, professional or otherwise. 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 to no later than July 31st, 2014.