Sianne Ngai: “Passionate Utterances: Learning from Stanley Cavell”

The LA Review of Books Blog has published a piece by Sianne Ngai (Stanford University) entitled “Passionate Utterances: Learning from Stanley Cavell.” Ngai’s piece is the seventh installment of LARB’s Writers On Teachers series. To read the whole thing, please click here.

Here is how it begins:

I was a grad student in English at Harvard in the mid-90s, but physically there for just three years, anxious to move to Brooklyn for a relationship as soon as I became ABD. In that brief but intense period of time, I tried to take as many courses offered by Stanley Cavell as possible. In my last year, I asked him to be a member of my dissertation committee. Looking back I’m still flooded with gratitude (and astonishment) by the fact that he said yes.

At the time I couldn’t have said why I felt so attuned to Cavell’s writing. I just knew, after reading his essay on moods in Emerson and Nietzsche (“Aversive Thinking”) and then his books on Thoreau and remarriage comedy (The Sense of Walden, Pursuits of Happiness), that I wanted to read more, and to think and talk with him as much as possible about the things he thought were interesting. All the more so when I realized that, in person, Stanley Cavell was exactly like the voice his writing projected. That voice, no matter what it happened to be speaking about — Shakespeare and the avoidance of love, Jacques Derrida and J. L. Austin, the Hollywood women’s film of the 1930s and 40s — was unfailingly generous and infectiously interesting. It was a meta-philosophical voice, preoccupied less with thewrongness of skepticism (that is, with skepticism understood as intellectual error, thereby capable of intellectual correction) than with its status as a basic condition of human life and also as a kind of madness, a denial of our shared reality with other minds. Cavell’s voice was a kind of therapy against that madness. It was also an utterly and profoundly non-snobby voice: the voice of a philosopher concerned with philosophy’s aversion to the ordinary, and with the nondiscursive aspects of ordinary language — its affect and force, its ontology as action — that seemed to interest so few other philosophers of language at the time. It was, finally and significantly, the voice of someone deeply interested in how gender inflects both of these problems.

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