The Edward Scissorhand finesse of Avital Ronell

Avital Ronell in the style of Tim Burton generated by Leonardo AI
Avital Ronell in the style of Tim Burton generated by Leonardo AI

Downtown New-York, Avital Ronell,  “machete in hand, splicing and editing, involving blowing up bridges with her Edward Scissorhand finesse” sets up the stakes and gives focus, in America (spring 2024), to Stanley Cavell’s famous analyses of the United-States, where he falters, investigating how he handles the relation to Europe and the overall problem of philosophy’s inheritability, maintaining a Nietzschean attack plan, bringing in Derrida, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein strategically, and following Lacoue-Labarthe’s deconstruction of politics and poetry.

She than “goes in for the kill, to offer an analysis of America’s turning mean and MAGA, throwing in some autobiographemes for good measure, commenting on an immigrant’s trajectory.”

A philosophical essay exploring democratic fragility and the predicament of dreamers from Plato to DACA, the reliance of political philosophy on poetry, and developing an unavoidable theory of poverty. Extracts.

                                      For Pierre Alferi, on the road again.

I once raised the question, with respect to Thoreau, whether America has expressed itself philosophically. (Stanley Cavell)

I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. (Edgar Allen Poe)

I’m Nobody! Who are you? (Emily Dickinson)

Nietzsche, first philosopher to put his body on the line, warned against the way political events, the implacable rhetoric of politics, and recurring destructions would disturb your organs, making you want to puke. Shuttered by migraines and retching, Friedrich Nietzsche dismantled any certitude we might have about separating off work from life, thought from existence, and body from the pulse of malheur in political strife. Donning night-goggles, Nietzsche also took it upon himself to capture futural flashes: In order to give a leg up to philosophers of the future, Nietzsche had to calibrate the capacity for human figures of dominance to mutate and step away from false sovereignties. Ever becoming-woman, choosing Eve as the primal “gay scientist,” Nietzsche made it a matter of duty to re-gender and multiply the existing possibilities of inhabiting different facets of Geschlecht, resetting the sexualities, adding question marks, implanting zoomorphic insets, sizing difference among species, and breaking down genus. Friedrich Nietzsche took time out to review, in short, everything that will have sought to stabilize a concept of “humanity,” suppressing its violent undertow and a history of severely mismanaged disavowal. Kant had already thrown in the towel regarding the human as essence, pointing up the instabilities of the figure of man in its mutating self-production. It was not clear what the future would hold as humanity lost substance and “man” no longer lined up as a refracted image of God. For his part, Kant had to pen in the wayward human by means of moral laws, short-leashing the autonomy of man. Becoming dangerous to itself, man as concept was on the ropes. Being and responsibility, caught in the ongoing destruction of humanitas, had to convene a summit meeting. The outer reaches of sovereignty appeared to muscle up mainly in acts of self-destruction. For what is more sovereign than running high on empty, itching to do away with oneself, and the practice of scaling back on exalted figures by means of willed extinction?

Intent on going down and stepping away, step by step, and by dint of purposeful overstep, Nietzsche practiced a takedown of European thought, aiming his star power at Hegel, but also gunning for the startup troubleshooter, Kant. Only Spinoza, Goethe, Emerson, Brutus, and a few other breakout phenoms were kept on Team Nietzsche. The raids Nietzsche conducted were thoroughgoing, not sparing any piece of human or suprahuman substance, embodiment, or cultural strain. Nietzsche rooted out all sorts of stalwart claims while rummaging through the digestive tract. Sidelining the culinary and speculative habits associated with Germanity, Nietzsche not only scandalized contemporaries by turning French, but also began laying claim to an African spirit that pervaded the writing that came under the name, “Friedrich Nietzsche,” and the pseudonyms that his work generated. For the transhuman shakeout that wanted more for us, beginning with a non-pessimistic practice of difference and Dis-tanz, Nietzsche taught us to dance, to take measure and calibrate steps, to whirl without turning down or blindly denying the brunt of a nihilistic encroachment. (…)

Becoming woman, Nietzsche also became an early-bird hyphenated (Franco-, African-, Polish-, Swiss-, Italian-, Jewish-) American. The philosopher understood in prescient waves that thinking always abuts on a foreign exchange that is unavoidable, if barely calculable, according to his style of shredding identities and keeping the outside in, the foreign near. Heidegger tried to call Nietzsche home, like the straying boy in Lecture V of What is Called Thinking? But she was gone. Nietzsche would not stick around for mystified nationalisms. (…)

One can only appropriate what is foreign, says Hölderlin. At this point, I want to hitch a ride on something that presses us still today, a phrasing that Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has offered in Heidegger and the Politics of Poetry: When evoking themes of an implicit turf war between poetry and philosophy, he makes it a matter of “taking measure of an epoch (with which we are far from finished) and of the philosophical questioning that subtends it: Our politics, and not only our politics, still depend on it.”1 Every mythologeme embedded in nationhood, its sovereign inflation and inevitable collapse, attaches back to a philosophical appropriation of poetry, no matter how deeply concealed in the playoffs of degraded language games. (…)

Philosophy is never where you expect to find it. Scaled for obsolescence, pronex to the displacement of value, caught short by aberrant tropologies, it is bloated with fadeouts and congested rhetorical byways, routinely mismanaged by conceptual handlers of all stripes—or simply too-smart-for-its-own-good in our age of straight-shooting calibration and moralistic overdrive. It carries a legacy of broken promises and flubbed transcendence. Still, the philosophical attitude compels respect, a kind of Achtung delivered by Kant, the “Moses of our nation,” according to Hölderlin. Kant was a lawgiver who pondered the peculiar popularity of philosophical investigation among different strokes, a large variety of people—an enduring enigma, whether in the common language sought by Wittgenstein or in concert with the being-in-common of Jean-Luc Nancy. Even as it appears to take a series of curtain calls or trade up with the privilege of formalist logic, philosophy shows a pulse, answers to the vibrancy of an existential need in terms spelled out by Husserl, who signaled the need for philosophy in our lives. How does this work? (…)

Wittgenstein and others—on both sides of the Atlantic—wondered whether America had anything to contribute to philosophy, or was it rather some impoverished outland where thought goes to die? Can poetry seriously flourish in such a vacant lot reserved for Being’s steady destitution and wordless drop off site? It has seemed to a number of grand commentators, moreover, that the jointure of philosophy and politics has been doomed to buckle under the pressure of such nullity. Maybe so, according to a specific algorithm of usefulness and the language centers that still prime philosophical thought, chasing off the serious dives of poetic utterance.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx looks to a version of America that comes close to gaining his approval. He marks the young nation up for inventing an unheard of vitality and the historically vibrant verve of voracity, endorsing an exemplary, if violent growth plan. “America” hosts all sorts of aporetic appraisals to which European philosophy takes recourse when ducking self-appraisal or, for the most part, building on a handily circumscribed deficit of thought. All in all “America” is hard to fix, but pulsates a residue of meaning where the gods have not as such fled, but never bothered to tour—a retreat of source and ground of which it was never in the first place a claimant. Squatting in conceptual hideouts, this imposing strip of land-meaning and contradictory impulse has also sucked vital energies, reinvented outposts of greed, yet succored dreams, promoted getaways, and housed the fabled outcasts of its plurimutational heritage. (…)

Freud, whose analyses explicated and expanded the field, delivered political heft when analyzing the covert operations of malcontents and parricidal influencers, social infrastructures and the slips of aggressive co-existence. He shared with Plato a sense for the way polis and nation-builders manage the anarchic unconscious, whether it goes collective or stays singular. The way a citizenry dreams and crawls into nighttime—lifting repression, indulging taboo, allowing for the expulsion of Superego and altering the promise of light-filled representation—is something that specifically concerned Plato as he was considering the lures of the tyrannical soul-structure in governance. It took Plato ten books to overturn the hypothesis that tyrants have more fun. One can be released to one’s own tyrannical recognizance after dusk falls, when turning in. At night, every citizen gets a free pass to disinhibition by means of bubbling incest, murder, and related morphs of violent trespass, sidelining state restrictions with deregulated license, allowing for represented actions that contrast with terms set for a diurnal polis—a serious problem for political watchdogs, since it is never sure whether the dreaming demos can clear out its transgressive romps by daylight and return to the realm of the laws. (…)

In the punk-pulsated Hedwig drama, the “angry inch” of German castration was expressly commissioned by an occupying American military officer. Hedwig, a trans philosopher, had been expelled from the university because of a thesis that analyzes the influence of aggressive German philosophy on the genesis of rock and roll. The East German protagonist, so poor a student that as a child they “lived in an oven” in Mother’s tiny apartment, received a massive dose of inculcation, a surviving inkling of Bildung, from the blaring radio broadcast of rock, a sliver of early Rammstein, the Neue Deutsche Härte band, coalescing American cultural and military bases with German rehabilitation/education. The political shards, drugs, and poverty that link the two cultures in a mutually repressive hold still needs to be told. Even Elvis went to Germany, instructed to “do nothing to embarrass your country,”3 and Jim Morrison doted on Nietzsche. As for the angry inch of Hedwig-the-German-scholar, it veers toward an obsession with Jews: The film is suffused with images of Jewish spectators as it flashes Hebrew lettering, part of an inerasable haunting that attends any memory henceforth, no matter how receded or tattered, crazed or ghost-dunked, of historical recounting in overlapping Germano-American fields. (…)

“Poverty as a condition of philosophy” writes Cavell, “is hardly a new idea”. Emerson “deploys it as an idea specifically of America’s deprivations, its bleakness and distance from Europe’s achievements, as constituting America’s necessity, and its opportunity, for finding itself”. Separating off from an overladen charge of European tradition, America paradoxically crawls in the dust to assert something like an original authority, at times lacking the will or need to propose even a pretend-basis for the legitimacy of a restart. There is something of a Kantian gesture in this hunger crawl, because, in a nearly dialectical swerve, poverty becomes its fortune, as Kant’s inability to write like Moses (Mendelssohn) becomes a virtue—and model—henceforth for the overriding power of cloddy philosophical writing. Cavell’s commentary: “I read: The poverty that, morally speaking, is pleasing to the God and affords us access to the humanity of others—it is its poverty, not its riches, that constitutes America’s claim upon others—is, philosophically speaking, our access to necessity, our route out of privacy”. These vital claims on impoverishing authority are parenthetically stated in a note on the end of “Experience,” crawling out of a textual mine.

Cavell continues, breaking ground for the unaccommodated. The impoverished reader that European tradition disdains becomes a means of negotiating a peace treaty with inheritable aspects of philosophical mainstays: “Others take Emerson to advise America to ignore Europe; to me his practice means that part of the task of discovering philosophy in America is discovering terms in which it is given to us to inherit the philosophy of Europe. Its legacy may hardly look like philosophy at all, but perhaps rather like an odd development in literature. By European patterns, Americans will seem, in Thoreau’s phrase, ‘poor students’, the phrase by which Thoreau identifies the unaccommodated who are his rightful readers” . The brunt of poverty, a barely recognizable feature of the tradition that is sidelined to margins of disavowal, travels among different conceptual milieux on which, in American writing, literary and philosophical usages of language depend. American theory (an undecidable limit between literature and philosophy) henceforth covers a friable ground ranging from miserable material conditions of wretched deprivation to the limited resources of the struggling student, the “rightful” reader on Thoreau’s roster. Poverty binds the clashing cultures, soothing an Oedipal rage. Poverty, as revolutionary wounding, becomes as important to originating an American relation to reference and thought, as it was to Wordsworth or Rousseau—and Victor Hugo, calling up the great European novels of the 19th century whose destitute characters sorely scraped by on a ground level of subsistence. In a way, poverty, keeping everyone down, unleashes a democratic strain of viral proportions, pre-globally cast, felling or potentially wrangling each and all to the ground, flashing in the discordant worlds a constant threat of a mobile “creditory”-predatory clamp down. The specter of poverty, its encroaching strike or stubborn facticity, affects those outside the genocidal firing range, instigating another kind of murder spree that obsesses American letters and a referential debt to the material sprawl. The rough conditions of an impoverished order of being, gaining the upper hand in American letters, reroute thinking and some of the critical presumptions on which it may have relied. Poetically and philosophically recognized, the motif of poverty, as it spreads, maintains an edge as thematic crumb and material dredge to the degree that it makes everything appropriable, including the dusty glitter of pretend-knowledge and the increasingly false jacked of ruthless acquisition.


Beyond the theoretical pertinence and empirical solidity of Cavell’s inquiry, the reflections he offers on America repeatedly indicate a nonthematizable encroachment under whose sway he watchfully proceeds. He is not the only philosopher to be swarmed by a ghostly entourage as he seeks to encounter the mutinous depth of his object. He is clear about the otherworldly facets of this study, at least clear enough to allude strongly to an effect of the phantom that underlies the investigation he conducts on The Investigations in the vicinity of Heidegger and Emerson in addition—or due—to a spectral cohort that invades his own thought. When reckoning with American impoverishment in philosophical slums or neighborhoods, and in terms of historical allowance, Cavell avers a double haunting as he attunes to Wittgensteinian air. When reading the heir, questioning the knots and nots of inheritability, he sheds light on a Shakespearean convocation that calls together the nexus of heirs, airs and phantom heirlooms. . (Note: You may think that I am merely brushing up against an unhinged signifier, or putting on airs. Not at all. The rapport between speculation and “spookulation” has been a longtime pursuit for me, pinpointed by Kant, urged by Shakespeare and Cervantes, prompted by Goethe, goaded by Hegel, interiorized by Nietzsche, poked by Swedenborg and Schnitzler, followed up by Freud, dignified and spectrally recast by Derrida, thwarted by Acker, Lispector, and Cixous, among premier ghost catchers and those in convo with Marx.) Cavell cops to the haunted disposition to which the study owes its subtle uprisings without going so far as to risk losing his bearings, though losing bearings and bungling earthly markers is part of his challenge to self. When writing the text on America, he is plainly haunted, as he repeats, finding and losing himself off course. By dint of a spooked venture consciously offered, the critical reader, no matter how impoverished, is far less constrained than in other contexts to dig up latent signifiers plotted in invisible ink and Wolfman-like magic words, or when anxiously made to follow underground logic and cover-up rhetoric, ploys that double in more unconscious regions for a pretend solidity of means and method. There is yet another bow he makes to a phantom procession spiriting and carrying through his probe, creating a double framing that I’d like to acknowledge before proceeding.

The other configuration impels the text toward its allegorization. Urged on by a compulsion, Cavell seeks the cause of ungroundedness that hacks into “America,” revealing a chip that obsesses, haunts the writer, taunts the heritage he thought to have understood, inflects a shaky reception reluctantly welcomed, if in a mode of aversion. According to Cavell’s frank confession, the first haunting from which the text on America emerges involves a stunned discovery made by the philosopher, pushing him away from the relative safety of Richard Rorty and the often rhetorical squabble with pragmatists, trailing Transcendentalists. Veering away from the course charted by his academic writing career, he suddenly comes upon two sets of European thought-mines. Stunned and staggered, Cavell encounters for the first time texts signed by Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe, as well as, in another sitting or séance, the theories of the phantom proposed by Abraham and Torok, commented by Derrida who, when analyzing the post-Freudian theory of the phantom, stalks and stakes condemned sites in the preface to their work, Fors. 6

Both teams (Lacoue-Labarthe/Nancy; Derrida/Abraham/Torok) appear at the start gate of the work on This New Yet Unapproachable America, as apparitions that startle the American philosopher who finds his worlds sidelined and reconfigured, severely questioned and refreshed. A new Euro-American alliance is called up in a maneuver that determines the irremediable breaking points of American thought. I shall start with the second instance of haunted avowal, where a traumatic encounter prods Stanley Cavell to reappropriate his own work and that of his usual suspects, no longer recognizable to him simply as Mssrs. Emerson and Thoreau, yet more compelling/cavelling in the shattered urgency of their spectral appeal and the delivery systems of European rerouting.


Stupefied and haunted, he is on the way to the language of Hölderlin’s elegy “Bread and Wine.” Swerving to German poetry, Cavell repeats the question, “…wozu Dichter in duerftiger Zeit?” Why do we need poets in times of radical deprivation, clutching to those squeezed by “starvation?” How is it that we rely on the poetic word in the time of depleted figures, when stranded with the broken pump of promising and positing, clenched by material drought and spiritual emptying? How does philosophy stay popular, even unread and half dead while poetry, skinned and shivering, keeps guard over scarcity, its own and that of others and defeated worlds—overseeing the “unaccommodated” have-nots, the “poor student” of Thoreau’s predilection, his elected addressee? How does the imago of an inerasable Hunger Artist come to preside with vigorous dignity over these scenes of spent nurturance? Impoverishment presents a prime calling card of philosophical modes of destitution to which Socrates’ fashion sense already attested. The scandal of impoverishment, its strip-down exposition and persecuted forbearance, cuts an intolerable figure to some, yet remains a staple of the Christian calling and poetic sound-outs, the Walpurgnisnacht of beggars, a preview of Hölderlin’s elegiac haunt.

Scouring the ravine of philosophical output, Wittgenstein appears to scrape against a barren heritage, bottoming out on “an impoverished idea of philosophy in its own systematic shunning, its radical discounting, or recounting, of philosophical terms and arguments and results, its relentless project to, perhaps we can say de-sublimize thought” . It is here that Cavell picks up the theme of his own haunting, if almost inadvertently, as a subtle recurrence in the space of his strapped investigation. “So I am understandably haunted by a reaction Wittgenstein in 1931 is reported by [Friedrich] Waismann to have expressed concerning [Moritz] Schlick’s teaching in an American university: ‘What can we give the Americans? Our half-decayed culture? The Americans have as yet no culture. But from us they have nothing to learn. . . . Our talk hasn’t the force to move anything’” (Recollections of Wittgenstein, quoted on p. 71). Cavell argues that, in questioning “whether Europe’s central thought is inheritable further West and further East Wittgenstein is expressing an anxiety over whether Europe itself will go on inheriting philosophy; whether he, who represents a present philosophy, can hand on his thoughts to another generation. If philosophy is to continue it must continue to be inherited”( 71). With Cavell signaling to Wozu Dichter, etc., we note that philosophy in crisis often turns to poetic utterance as a bailout, keeping close to an ambivalently held address, desperately sought. Let us continue. The principal concern of philosophy henceforth is organized not so much around its originality, as Cavell points out, “but over its intelligibility to another generation—call this its historical power to go on—apart from which the path may be lost”. A lot is going on in these key passages, each strand of which deserves its own dossier and careful consideration.

One of the instigating concerns mentioned by Cavell, perhaps not as urgently imposing as the consequence of historicity and the reliance on intelligibility that organize his thought on America, involves the common disbursal of transfer tickets to universities—the way brainy Europeans fly over to America to teach, without awakening the expectation, on the part of the American professoriate, of a reciprocal booking. It would be wrong lightly to insist that Europeans practice a slammed door policy, even though the exchanges are indisputably lopsided, non-equivalent in terms of the conferral of cultural value and a general approbation of the learned. Wittgenstein questions the very premises of an exercise that ships European professors to American institutions, a habit operating on the uninterrogated assumption that the Europeans have something to teach. The full implications of these transfers and the bartered volleys of transatlantic translation would benefit, no doubt, from a survey consisting of pedagogical destination, layovers, the handling of visas, class enrollment figures, remuneration, and other technologies of sponsorship, in addition to a speculative analysis of the imaginary profit margins of foreign exchange as part of higher education. In the meanwhile, American institutions are reducing language requirements and down-dosing on reading practices.


Working up the conditions of “worlding” and its American counterparts, Cavell was concerned with philosophical accounting and how things could move ahead. The study begins to transvaluate a motif that threatens irreversible slowdown and previews philosophical attrition—that of penury, the diminishment of means and historical commission. He flips these terms into viable attributes, holding up an inverted American trophy: The prestige of atrophy, premature and lasting, positing an originary markdown. The Europeans begin to plead decadence and fear of obsolescence. Reserved for the other side of the Atlantic, as provisional counterweight, is the conjectured matter of “naiveté,” the fable of stunted growth: Cowing to this hypothesis, refreshing it with a strike of transvaluation, we could say that there is something about American immaturity that, in one corner, kicks off another kind of cultural competition and scientific-mathematical compulsion, an institutional Disneyland, spelling out the advances of kids’ stuff.

Cavell also makes an altogether different point, meant to assure an historical transfer of thought when classifying the philosophical files whose very inheritability remains in question. Sizing the hurdles, he relies on intelligibility as a principle of generational outreach and sustainability, a point of philosophy’s resilience and time climb. There are moments when he pulls out of hermeneutic gridlock in order to accelerate the cause of philosophy, supplied at one bend with the lure of intelligibility, its capacity for transfer and conceptual repurposing. In order to strengthen a viable edge of intelligibility, Cavell must remove blockages that his argument also indicates. How is the petition for intelligibility compromised (or bolstered) by the ungrounded persistence of that which exceeds reason and understanding? The work at hand, he argues, is haunted or inspirited. It is dragged along by an otherworldly spirit, inspirited—inspired—by the work of Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe on the German Romantics, one of whose lead singers is Friedrich Schlegel. Reinventing the fragment as stand-alone breakoff point (without an implied totality), Schlegel, together with his brother, called for the suturing of philosophy and poetry, revealing the seriousness of literature for thought in terms of the “literary absolute” (the title of Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy’s work). Friedrich also wrote the important essay “Über die Unverständlichkeit,” which, to the degree that a title means what it says, puts a premium on unintelligibility by highlighting the incompletion of sense-making on which claims of inheritability subsist. On the basis of this groundbreaking work, one can argue, in amicable riposte to Cavell, that intelligibility—a presumption that might not survive basic testability standards—would be the kiss of death to transfer mechanisms and claims of futurity in thought. At very least, an uninterrogated standard of intelligibility would close the book on serious study, which, after the Schlegel bros, should place bets on a daring grapple with the unintelligible relay of materials and acts of signification, riding the residue of an inexhaustible text. Well, certainly, the “poor” American student, “unaccommodated,” will not find the European teacher to hold pace with the assumption of intelligibility and its looming counterpart—a topos and value that invites more critical reflection, given that literature put out a work order of absolute proportions in this regard; it was incumbent upon the Romantics, they announced, and part of the revolutionary surging of the literary absolute, to turn the literary into work, to hold literature and its fictional outlets to the standards of serious productiveness, to break away from reference yet transform the world poetically. The notion of productivity will have to be examined elsewhere, however, especially in terms of Nancy’s désoeuvrement and the way that “literary communism” de-produces the work.


Regardless of the strained receptive stamina to which the “poor American” adheres, there’s something to be said for holding the student position, the poor student as necessarily befuddled contender, unless one is condemned to the place of the disciple, Wagner, in Faust, who lacks parricidal vigor or the surpassing dazzle of a younger scholar. Whether or not one has a handle on the way things go down, get filed or shredded, poetically shelved, the transmittal of an archive is unintelligible, in large part moved by an unconscious plate involving a spectral handover that relies for grounding on a widely illegible user’s manual.

The objection raised to counter Cavell’s trust in the philosophical merits of intelligibility—what he ascribes to the inheritable text—is not meant to come at him as unwarranted intrusion, billed as a warning from outside his reflections. Precisely because he spotlights his mien as haunted receptivity in pursuit of the argument he feels compelled to make, naming a series of spectral blockages, his reflections, he intimates in the beginning of Unapproachable America, belong to the subgenre of haunted writing. The content onto which he attaches the attested condition or quality of being haunted (which, when spelled out, may prove contingent or stand as a mere placeholder for another, nonthematizable level of traumatic erasure) may be, in the end, a matter of indifference. Even so, he flags a voided space to indicate that there is something that cannot be accounted for in his account, or philosophically demonstrated. The troubled state of haunted impoverishment, a drag on critical certitude and futural scheduling, requires a reading beyond evidence or thematic summation, at the edges of subjectivity and object formation, skirting yet priming history. Doubled, the spectral urgency that he signals springs in Cavell from the ambush of texts that hold a key to the self-dispersion caused in thought by the approach of the unapproachable, a hauntedness, crypt-formation, the effect of the phantom contained in other works that he names, untouchably recalcitrant—athematic intrusions that disrupt argument and slow the rounding off provided by mathemes. All in all, Cavell’s America is goaded by spectral uneasiness, a paracognitive field, though alien (“unapproachable”) in nature, nonetheless familiar to philosophy. There is a special bridge reserved for the convoy led in the past by Kant and Freud that returns strongly in Cavell’s reading of Emerson’s “Experience” and Thoreau’s “Walden.” Since Kant, philosophy has been receding in grief, attended by phantoms—both acknowledged and still concealed—as it explores the limits of what we seek to know of and as the world. Besides his explicit considerations of a world visited by ghosts, Kant, on a differently tilted scale, in Critique of Pure Reason, is responsible for a conception of a “the world for us” and simultaneously “of a world of experience denied or lost to us”, inviting an understanding of how the world executes its withdrawal, holding a space for the unknowables. If our task lies partially in “recuperating” things and matters, “such as we can,” that lie beyond our knowledge, “then philosophy has to do with the perplexed capacity to mourn the passing of the world,” avers Cavell.

If anything, “America” will have inherited a European relation to loss framed by impinging worldlessness, even before European thought appropriates itself to itself. Walden’s emphasis on mourning and grieving, “as if grief and grievance are the gates of ecstasy,” succeeds in “manifesting philosophical writing as the teaching of the capacity for dawning by itself showing the way of mourning, of the repetitive disinvestment of what has passed”. Philosophy is charged with offloading attachment by means of exemplary mourning and consistent shakeouts of “what has been formerly loved,” as Nietzsche says, freeing up a relation to loss that detaches from the world, if not explicitly junking country, identity, and other vital historical attributes of material existence that must be renounced in order to affirm life.

In order to press philosophy’s task, Cavell turns first to Freud, who leads us to a hook for worlding by means of a metaphysical glint, that of beauty recovered: “According to a reinvestment of interest in its discovery, something Freud calls beauty. (The pertinent Freudian text here, even more directly than ‘Mourning and Melancholia,’ is ’Transience’ [1918])”. Something happens in the elaboration of his argument, a brief interlude flashing on grief, threading through Freud’s bestowal of the beautiful, that allows Cavell access to the distinction he discerns in Heidegger between “clutching” at or “grasping the world” and, on the other hand, “being drawn to things” — between modalities of compulsion and attraction that mourning induces. He does not delve into the haunting disorders that compel Freud’s attention or the anticipation of cryptonymy. Recoiling from the theme of grief, he cuts away quickly, refuses to linger, saying only, “I cannot presently deploy that fascinating material,” retreating with nearly military precision (“deploy”) both from grief and beauty.

Instead of deployment, then, he defers to two women philosophers who have discovered, each singularly, Emerson’s “awfully adept” way of “incorporating and denying the deaths (of wife, of brother, of son) he has had to absorb”. “Professor Sharon Cameron” and “Professor Barbara Packer” are brought into play. (I assume that the title of professor arrives as a sign of respect, but the gentlemen under consideration don’t bear their university titles when called up in this work, peu importe; one might take an offramp to study this allegory of sexual difference in grief, and, anyway, Hannah said more or less, that the status of women in philosophy is lamentable so, no, she does not consider herself a philosopher, thank you, and in the end “Professor” may turn out to mean that you are not really a philosopher, much less a thinker.) The “important recent engagement with Emerson” conducted by the two women has pointed Cavell to grief underlying his own work, contained by Emerson, and gesturing on a nonthematic register but already hiding out in the starter word “Waldo,” an inherited family name and that of his unmournable son, traveling all the way to the other in Walden, where the “wal(l)” of Emerson’s transferred crypt crumbles. The son of Emerson, buried in his text under a sliding signifier, is not forgotten. Cavell’s appreciation of the interpretive repair is unambivalent, if swiftly disposed of, having been reminded by the women professors of his own grief, estranged.

Basing his conclusions on Professor Cameron’s elucidation, he henceforth understands “Experience” to fall into the category of a work of mourning. Since Cavell embeds Abraham, Torok, and Derrida in this work, we are handed instructions on how to read mourning, even if Cavell does not. He may want someone else, perhaps a poor American reader, to do the work of mourning for him. A surrogate mourner could make the loss intelligible and somehow keep the undeployed link to an extended Austro-French connection. Given the reluctance to mourn on the doubled parts of Emerson and Cavell, I would argue, however, that it is precisely not a Trauerarbeit (work of mourning), since the Trauer is stuck, unmoveable and encrypted, but part of a stubborn mourning disorder that hangs on to the dead by dispelling the death deferred. All the same, the motif of mourning is crucial to the extent that for Emerson mourning has a founding lever on the political, saying something about the American reluctance to count or cut its losses. Yet, mourning remains problematically sealed off both for Emerson and his commentator. What is it that keeps the phantom agitating, a living dead—an undead whose status cannot be adjudicated? I too refrain from treading further, at risk of crashing against the walled up secrets of the Waldo-wreckage. Cavell is clear about not wanting to delve further. If this were another sort of study, one would investigate how and why the philosopher halts, precisely here, wondering what prevents the close up and how this aversion affects his text, which is custodially handed down on this point to the women guardians reigning over grief and the unburied. This line of inheritability, a kind of mise-en-abîme of his project, where it feminizes and wails, walls, waldos, may teach us something about the status itself of philosophy as it tends to its elusive object, an “America” slipping by in wordless grief, calling upon the experience of philosophy to detach us from doomed worlds, bringing on poetic starvation and summoning the lucidity of Freud for the purpose of retrieving an imago and partial memory tap of a libidinized “America,” furtively cathected onto its mourning disorder.

Cavell himself finds in German thought and the tradition of French critical rebuke a redemptive quality of world retrieval beyond a Spenglerian attitude of censure and disgust that he provisionally locates in What is Called Thinking? where Heidegger is at pains to back off from “what he calls Spengler’s pessimism,” an attitude, explains Cavell, “directed to the drift of one’s culture as a whole that evinces radical dissent from the remaining advanced thought of that culture,” an attitude that would “not make Wittgenstein unique among writers such as Montaigne and Pascal and Rousseau and Emerson and Nietzsche and Freud”. Wittgenstein, different from his predecessors in timing, mood and manner, capable of embracing the poverty of philosophical language, “comes from the sense that he is joining the fate of philosophy as such with that of the philosophy or criticism of culture, thus displacing both—endlessly forgoing, rebuking, parodying philosophy’s claim to a privileged perspective on its culture, call it the perspective of reason (perhaps shared with science); anyway forgoing for philosophy any claim to perspective that goes beyond its perspective on itself. This is the poverty of perspective. But what makes this poverty philosophy?”

At this point, bearing up under the pressures of poverty and tenacious self-emptying, a kind of philosophical kenosis, Cavell turns to Derrida and Lacan, tendering an ambivalent embrace. There is a misreading (and retraction) of deferral on whose particulars I must defer because it implies an infra-philosophical squabble that would incite another dossier-opening gesture when we want to stay put—limited to weighing in rigorously within the parameters of American modalities of loss and the flex of self-loss as part of a national crypt-formation to which we shall return shortly. Tempted by Derrida and Lacan’s metaphysical cutbacks and phantom nations, Cavell tracks in Emerson and Thoreau “these findings of losses and lost ways, this falling and befalling” as he reads not only the loss of a child in “the idea of a child as founder”—another emblematic effusion of the New World anthropomorphized, a breakaway from Wordsworth—but skids off the tracks of mourning as he sets out toward the unapproachable object, what he wrests from “America” as failed philosophical conquest.

During a supplementary run through, a red flag appears when Cavell, as if picking himself up from unresolved mourning disturbances attended by conceptual shortfalls, tries to make a pitch for a full-bodied philosophical future. Unlike Nietzsche’s “philosophers of the future” that roll in another direction, Cavell sets his mind to cheer on the philosophical resolve skating on poverty in America, rebounding elsewhere. He may see a necessity in backtracking or embracing repression when planning to leap forward, leaving a strong margin of hope for posterity. It is not clear whether the short encounter with grief is to be left in the dust or behave as an ecstatic stimulant, following the suggestion of an earlier statement on Thoreau. Here is where Heidegger comes to the rescue, as it were, reinstalling the nexus of call and response, whether issued or withheld, but accorded by a more upbeat, Cavellian tonality. “Virtue” reopens a gate, however slightly, just enough to let succeeding generations in, readjusting the extent of a philosophical capacity to answer a call. Philosophy’s “virtue is responsiveness. What makes it philosophy is not that its response will be total, but that it will be tireless, awake when the others have all fallen asleep. Its commitment is to hear itself called on…”

I like this mission statement; I think I’m on board with and motivated by its overall setup and insomniac edges. I even like that philosophy hears itself called on, as part of a commitment made, in the making, heeding a policy of auto-affection (“hears itself called”). Nonetheless, I have some reservations about the efficacy and soundness of the statement’s aim, given the way a recuperative operation crawls into philosophical HQ at this point in order, presumably, to assure a future or dust off a work and bind a philosophical project to the conditions for potential legitimacy. I’ll just offer an insinuation of counterpoint, which understandably requires greater expanses when considering the limits of philosophical intervention—and, certainly, when assessing what kind of mourning disorder gets swept under the rug, an order of thought relegated to the offices of our philosophical ladies, as philosophy clutches at the future. In some instances the boldness of fast-paced responsiveness offers an advantage in terms of apparent resolve and ethical tensing, a necessary vigilance on the part of philosophical probity and tentative set up. Yet, I am not sure that philosophy can or should be on the ready in the mode of first responder or lasting consciousness (“when the others have all fallen asleep”).

Let me “count the ways” that historically this impulse portends disaster—with the proviso, as said, that I like the galvanizing prod or primal heat of alertness behind such a conception of philosophical maturity. Regarding any number of levels of self-justifying impulse, including the compunction to reach for a modicum of legitimacy, one shouldn’t trust it: The wakeup call, no matter how piercing in these times of intellectual drowsiness of all sorts, appears overconfident. That is to say, I am not sure about the implied storyline, when, staying up through the night of extreme distress, receptive to or assuming the authority of sounding the alarm, the philosopher is tensely keeping watch. Nor am I willing to place bets on our capacity as a Geschlecht for rousing from the slumber of depressed bouts of numbness and dumbness, so prevalent in our times. Though Cavell himself is riding the crest of defeat, bearing up under conditions henceforth of unavoidable privation, too many pseudo-philosophers think they have been called on when, in Kafkan terms, the call may be misdirected, or even psychotically misheard, if this calling is a matter of a call at all, whether taken or declined, dropped or connecting, assumed or projected. In more Flaubertian terms, one may be arrogant enough to think the call is meant for you to accept, hold and handle, forward, file, defile, muffle, or even initiate. It’s been a while since a philosopher has presumed to answer the call or even decipher its destination, much less consider it a destiny. There are, to be sure, other instances, less primed, to which the philosophical attitude is more prone—including that of falling asleep at the wheel, or shutting off the cries of other worlds of care in the flick of an incurious drop off. It is not clear that a wake-up call, the corresponding clearance of responsible responding, should suffice to harness philosophical answerability or describe without a frisson of suspicion the virtue of so doing: The spur of such a shock is always close to a call to arms, susceptible to shadowing a fascist wake for thought. It jostles, rouses, punches out the receptor, delivers a violent jolt, as in Heidegger’s disassembling Stoß, where it becomes undecidable whether one is whacked or caressed by Being, whether one is gathered up or dented, called or handcuffed. Or, in Lyotard’s lexicon, whether one is chafing under the mainmise, a throttle hold so great that it eludes perception. At the same time, responsible assumption is what we strive toward, a stance respectful of the persecuted passivity cast in Levinas. Can a tensional structure be held in place wherein philosophy, at once weakened and lucid, renounces its relation to discernible alarm, often misappropriated or overplayed by a dubious team? One imagines the mournful duties of the cleanup crew, gliding silently over the grounds, dejected yet methodical, similar to the cleaning ladies who tend in Kafka and Clarice Lispector to the remains of litter-rature, with no illusion of juggling redemptive leaps of faith, yet too tired for Spenglerian pessimism, or too street-wise for residual forms of prescriptive lucidity, no matter how tentative and on point. I daresay that no one is more practiced (or adrenalized) in the disciplined torture of catching a break or waiting for a call than a certain “We the People” inscribed in American breakout texts.


In the last centuries the themes of slumber and dozing off, debilitation due to sheer exhaustion have come to the fore. In the Castle, when K. is about to receive a revelation concerning his status, he falls asleep, shifting to a mode of non-presence that closes off any kind of substantial reveal. Even the unconscious receptor in Kafka appears to take a snooze, missing out on the messaging to which he in principle is privy. By the time Blanchot’s turn comes around, weariness is affirmed, and the energy supply of thought barely holds out against the heaviness of metaphysical exhaustion. On the edge of extreme tiredness, two interlocutors drag along in the allotment of meager resources available to them, perhaps rejoining here the earlier motif of impoverishment or running out the clock of philosophical vibrancy. If there were some perky way for announcing philosophical discovery in diminished times, it would no longer amount to a robust, if aphonic call, a sacred instruction sheet or push for an edifying treasure hunt, even if the pursuit should involve the setting, as in Kant, firmly placed with the sober limits of philosophical capability.

In the late sketches of Lyotard as well as Deleuze’s essay on Beckett, exhaustion leads the way to another experience of lived time, scraping bottom somewhere between consciousness and its others, where experience snuffs out in overwork and empty address, more or less voiding the bounce that takes us beyond good and evil, leaving one stranded with tiresome truisms and pseudo-observation, worn out announcement. One is moreover rendered sick and tired by the pounding rhythms of Chockerlebnis—the allotment of hits taken whose disruptive consistency compromises the very experienceability of experience. It is not clear that we should want philosophy to recharge itself, if this means reinstituting a false profession of sovereignty, reviving up again a rhetoric of promise, figures of transcendence, reclaiming falsifiable premises and driving us insane with its righteous hold on “ethics.”

Well, some of the facets of the philosophical assertion have clocked out by now. Conducted off the stage of its greatest vitality, in the exhaustion of promises spelled out by Levinas and Nancy, among others, philosophical fatigue coincides with the predicament of an “America” that has cut its promissory engines. What are we to make of this entity, as a rule feisty and presumptuous, endangering, posed as insubstantial facticity, at once law-making and rogue, perilously self-assured, uncontrolled, and void? If anything, the way “America” runs itself down on empty—which also gives it a desperate edge—flags a condition that should encourage and enrage the “poor student” to search out the mourning disorder that triggers much of the overwrought action of the agitated, overeating, narcotically stuffed nation and its reciprocally cast, coerced, differently strapped partners, skidding into their post-ideological swap meets in Europe and “the rest of the world,” a syntagm criticized by Derrida. If the overreach that Cavell saw in the Romantic dream of philosophical and poetic suturing means something today, or can teach us anything, it could be indicated in the sounding of an exigency—in the task “selber fragwürdig zu werden,” to become question-worthy, rigorously self-questioning, uncompromisingly upset (Celan).

Stomaching insult, how do we stay in ongoing conference with the revolted, in the sense of Camus, where one goes toe to toe with what is revolting, upsetting historical tendencies toward repressed rewrites or coerced assimilation and false reparation? Perhaps we can continue explicating the predicament of brokenness according to different types of Unbelonging (Celan), scanning corners where the caged bird sings (Angelou), revisiting the fateful rotating out of Rome with New York, as the great cineaste projected when contemplating the enduring sequels to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Pasolini).


(1) Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007, p. 68.

(2) “The Chorus and the Real in Poetic Art” 2011, delivered at the European Graduate School in Switzerland.

(3 ) Alanna Nash, Tom Parker, The Colonel (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010) p. 177

(4) This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (Albuquerque, New Mexico, Living Batch Press: 1989), p. 92.

(5) See Lacoue-Labarthe’s discussion, ibid., p.12, of the Origin of the Work of Art.

(6) The Georgia Review Vol. 31 No.1 (Spring 1977), pp. 64-116.

About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery since 2005. He lives and works in Paris.