A Yet Unapproachable America
Where do we find ourselves? Thus begins Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience.” It’s a reasonable place to begin with respect to the problem of “American exceptionalism,” and to that of Stanley Cavell’s philosophical writings. This short piece follows through on some of Cavell’s writings about American exceptionalism in order to highlight a minor tradition that both deserves consideration and stands in constant danger of neglect, forgetting, or perhaps even loss. The ascendance of Trumpism and the profound changes it is installing within American politics—changes, in some ways reversions, in others novelties—reach to fundamental matters of national identity flying under an exceptionalist banner with the promise to “make America great again.” These changes would alone recommend returning attention to the formation of American exceptionalism, including minority, dissenting versions of it. But even beyond its current “shithole” president, the United States, I am convinced, is bound in fundamental ways to the problem of the “exception.”1 While this thematic is perhaps indispensable and obvious, Stanley Cavell might seem an unlikely resource to turn to in investigating it. His philosophical voice is only one of many that grapple with American exceptionalism, but the turn he gives to the problem, always subtle, is all the more so now as it has begun to embody the vulnerability of the eclipse that it thematizes. (An important part of Cavell’s contribution is an acknowledgment that his is but one possible way of engaging with the question of American exceptionalism, rather than a final or even fully sufficient answer.)
Written about thirty years ago, Cavell’s “Finding as Founding,” reads now as a very late but only near-contemporary entry in a relatively long historical tradition of re-figuring and re-activating the problem of American exceptionalism. That larger tradition could include John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity,” reputedly composed and first delivered at sea, between old and new worlds, the first of the Federalist Papers, which announces its intention to sway “the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world,” many of Emerson’s essays, including “Experience,” Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” through to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. That is a rather grand tradition. If Cavell’s text can be inserted within it, it also importantly clings within its much more modest local historical circumstances, at the intersection of philosophy and literary theory in the late 1980s. More specifically, Cavell’s work emerges at a time in the American academy marked by concern over a growing rift between Francophonic and Anglophonic philosophical traditions, and more specifically still perhaps somewhere in an anxious, even somewhat defensive response to the influence of European theory.
That local context clings to it, and as a group, at the “Theologies of American Exceptionalism” workshop, we found Cavell’s text nearly unreadable, so much that if an answer to the deceptively simple query, where do we find ourselves?, with respect to the reception, teaching, and writing of social theory within the academy today seems as little forthcoming as ever, it nonetheless seems clear that we find ourselves somewhere else today than we did thirty years ago. And it seems as little likely today as then that this tradition, such as it is, can be continued. The sustainability of the humanities as a major component of the university, that of the university as a major component within contemporary political economies, that of these same economies within a natural world, are preconditions for social theory as we know it and they are themselves profoundly in question. But I take Cavell’s point to be that it has never seemed possible to continue this tradition, perhaps never even possible to begin it.
The very work of traditions, on the other hand, flies in the face of and counters such skepticism about the continuation of a way of life (including Emerson’s and Cavell’s skepticism about whether we have yet or might ever begin this way of life). Traditions work to set time in joint, to integrate the inchoate within the everyday. Talal Asad, for example, argues that it is a key virtue of traditions to orient the present toward the future with respect to its past by giving shape to a form of life at those points where language and bodies are bound within the “minutiae of everyday living.” Asad sets that argument against the thoroughgoing problematization of the very possibility of a modern tradition powerfully thematized by thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and Alasdair MacIntye.2
We began our conversation by pairing two texts, what has become the unavoidable ur-text, Winthrop’s conjuration of a city on a hill with an artifact of Cavell’s career, a minor text indeed. And so we found ourselves, a group of scholars who cannot quite bring themselves to read with confidence and conviction a thirty year old work of philosophy, yet reading it, and reading it without an open suspicion that it may be “fraudulent” in the sense of being a remnant of a passing fad, or a mere reiteration of a thought had many times before and after. And this minor circumstance mirrors, I think, a point that can be drawn from Cavell’s text: if the major forms of the American exception, the “Cities on the Hill,” are an overwhelming presence, the alternatives to it are obscure, frustrating, and doubtful. Insofar as Cavell recommends attention to a variety of minor, everyday, ordinary exceptions, our capacities to respond to these narrow contexts—those wrapped in something as arcane, dismal even, as the mid-century rise of logical positivism in American departments of philosophy (responding to which as a student, Cavell writes, “became as if on the spot an essential part of my investment in what I would call philosophy”)—may be what matters most.3
Obscurity, frustration, doubt---Precisely when we might no longer care terribly much about the particular points disputed, or more pointedly, precisely where we think what was in dispute did not matter, where we think there was nothing exceptional to begin with, Emerson’s and Cavell’s question of how one might begin to work within a tradition to produce new kinds of exceptions appears. That fact is meant to be disconcerting, for as Cavell observed in one of his earliest publications, “the dangers of fraudulence, and of trust, are essential to the experience of art. If anything in this paper should count as a thesis, that is my thesis. And it is meant quite generally. Contemporary music is only the clearest case of something common to modernism as a whole, and modernism only makes explicit and bare what has always been true of art.”4 The emphasis here might be placed on trust. I take it to be —in part— that those things that matter (exceptions, artworks, ideas) are always a bit suspect, elusive, vulnerable to fraudulence, and requiring trust in another world of relationships—the trust that would sustain them.
We will loop back to the relatively fine point I am trying to make here, but it is important also to note that much of what Cavell has to say can also be put plainly, and in this he pursues a line of thought easily discernible in Winthrop, Publius, Emerson, Douglass, Lincoln, and Baldwin. Here it is not that Americans are an exceptionally blessed, virtuous, or accomplished people. Much to the contrary, the point is that the American people must be spurred to transcend their all-too-compromised circumstances. In its basic outlines, the idea is that the people at large must be converted to a new set of values, a new way of life, a new world. The idea is not to praise Americans as an exceptional people, but rather to press Americans to take exception to their present shortcomings in order to begin amending them. As Emerson’s “Experience” puts it, echoing a theology of conversion, the thought is that “I am ready to die out of nature and be born again into this new yet unapproachable America I have found in the West.”
If Emerson is often interpreted as an American triumphalist, much of Cavell’s thrust in reading Emerson is to inoculate American exceptionalism against that impulse by insisting on the tragic dimension of America’s unapproachability. Cavell suggests an exceptionalism in which the leading notes are those of determined criticism, rather than celebration; aspirational solidarity rather than historical or ethnic nationalism; dissent and resistance rather than a self-sacrificing love of country. The exhortation is addressed to Americans not because they are an especially worthy people, but rather because when we ask, “Where do we find ourselves?” the answer is that we find ourselves in America, among a people who might yet become Americans. This remains an exceptionalism, but it is a severely chastened one such that enacting the American exception is bound up with acknowledging the failure (as yet) to attain America’s promise. Despite the apparent dominance of chauvinistic white nationalisms in the history of American exceptionalisms, Cavell would remind us, there might be a minor though no less American tradition that takes exception to those dominant forms.
This tradition maintains that ethical, political, and spiritual life depend upon cultivating people’s willingness to take exception to their way of life in the name of something better. Taking exception, however, requires a way of thinking, a kind of practice that has to be continually renewed and reinvented; thus, it involves a tradition rather than a definitive statement, concept, or origin. To enact American exceptionalism in this sense is to find a new answer to the question, “How does one conceive (think and enact) America’s novelty, and this as an inheritance and transfiguration of a distinct spiritual tradition?” Taking this question from Cavell, rather than Emerson or Winthrop, suggests a bit more clearly that it may yet be a living question, rather than a merely historical artifact. Taking this quite recent form might let us wonder how much resistance to all claims of American exceptionalism are formed by a near-contemporary secularism that obscures, disavows, or otherwise evades the theological resonances of the exception. It may also let us wonder a bit about our contemporary post-secularist context that solicits reconsideration of those resonances.
Cavell suggests that for an American philosopher, serious thinking must pass through the question of how to create an exception, that is to say that to think seriously is to discover how to think creatively within one’s own tradition. To put that another way: Cavell insists upon producing an American exception—in his particular professional and intellectual context, that meant finding in Emerson’s response to Kant the path for serious/philosophical thought after Heidegger and Wittgenstein. That Cavell puts this as a question for Philosophy, however, seems a consequence of his own professional formation, or perhaps his effort to find his own voice in turning away from this formation. While Cavell’s focus falls on creating an exception within his own field of ‘Philosophy,’ it stands to reason that serious work in a number of fields—literature, the arts, theology, political theory, politics—might also pass through this same question. Throughout his writing Cavell insists upon the idea that a certain kind of thinking, questioning, criticizing, and writing becomes qualitatively different, in a word, “serious.” In Cavell’s words, there is “an obligation of any writer who takes on, perhaps beyond her or his will, certain, let’s call them scriptural tasks” that include “struggling to keep its moral urgency” through establishing “the right to philosophize, to reconceive reason.” That right must constantly be re-established—it is exceptional.
While this seems to me to be one way of following out Cavell’s thought, and well enough on its own, it both fails to find the bottom of it, and also fails to locate its difference from the underlying refrain established in, for example, Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity,” as it is so lucidly articulated by Constance Furey. Furey, extending Sacvan Bercovitch’s analysis, exposes the intermediate texture of human relations opened as it were beneath the canopy of Winthrop’s model of charity. The movement of Winthrop’s text, and the “America Game” that it inaugurates, is shown, in Furey’s rendering, as triumphal only insofar as it draws an open compass within which, indeterminate, ever-to-be-renewed, human agents are to enact an overarching, but abstract injunction to love within the minutiae of everyday life. Furey renders this as a space of careful discernment, self-interrogation, change and redirection. She also reminds us that in America, from Winthrop’s time to our own, everyday life has been commercial life. If Cavell draws modern philosophy toward theology by way of mutual commitment to conversion5, Furey seems to meet him there in drawing theology toward philosophical modernism through this range of concerns.6
What then does Cavell add to the game of American exceptionalism if Winthrop himself had already embodied both dogmatic certainty and high modernist discernment amid uncertainty, both scripturally grounded Pauline love and attention to the nuances of affectively imbued social relations? Cavell has reminded us that democracy requires “preparation to withstand not its rigors but its failures, character to keep the democratic hope alive in the face of disappointment with it.”7 But, however satisfying that idea may be, it has been cited many times already, and moreover, Cavell offers it openly at second hand, from Emerson’s mouth, and thus surely not as an innovation. Indeed, “Finding as Founding,” is an extended meditation on Emerson—why, if the claim is on behalf of innovation, of finding one’s own voice, is it lodged within—ventriloquized through—the voice of another? What if there is nothing of Cavell’s here—vis-a-vis Emerson, or vis-a-vis Winthrop—in which case the text would be “fraudulent” in the sense of passing another’s thoughts, insights, inventions, off as one’s own?
One of the most consistent effects of Cavell’s work is to cause the floor to drop out from under his readers. He causes us to entertain the notion that we are suspended over an abyss, not unlike Jonathan Edwards’s sinners in the hand of an angry God, inviting (more, requiring) us to confront the possibility of fraud, the possibility that this text is broken, that it makes no new link in a tradition, that there was no tradition there worth linking to. A shithole text. That’s all that some readers, sometimes, can see, myself included—shithole readers. This is an experience that, in Cavell, as much as in Edwards, is both unsustainable and indispensible. It is something to pass through, to pass on from hopefully, rather than to avoid or disavow. “What happens to philosophy if its claim to provide foundations is removed from it—say the founding of morality in reason or in passion, of society in a contract, of science in transcendental logic, of ideas in impressions, of language in universals or in a formalism of rules?” Cavell asks. But he continues:
Finding ourselves on a certain step we may feel the loss of foundation to be traumatic, to mean the ground of the world falling away, the bottom of things dropping out, ourselves foundered, sunk on a stair. But on another step we may feel this idea of (lack of) foundation to be impertinent, an old thought for an old world. (The idea of foundation as getting to the bottom once and for all of all things is a picture Thoreau jokes about in describing, in ‘The Pond in Winter’ and ‘Conclusion’ in Walden, the time he took measurements of the bottom of Walden, and times such measurements become controversial.) The step I am taking here is to receive the work of ‘Experience’ as transforming or replacing founding with finding and to ask what our lives would look like if the work is realized.8
This attitude of finding humor where we founder, of making jokes at our loss of connection with tradition is worth sitting with for a moment at America’s present impasse. Taking more steps here in this tradition, rather than remaining sunk on our stair calls for a great deal of trust, trust precisely unfounded in our tradition. This is something to contemplate closely when today’s dominant form of American exceptionalism is so tightly wrapped in racism, xenophobia, sexism, outright brutality toward the most vulnerable, callous disregard for the future, unbound commerce, and waning democracy—so tightly wrapped that we might well wonder if there had ever been a different tradition than this.
This settling with absence, impossibility, and failure may be one of the points at which Cavell’s exceptionalism pulls Winthrop hardest in a new direction. Cavell’s treatment of Winthrop’s central theme, “Love,” shines some light on this. On what seems the most direct reading, Winthrop enjoins his listeners to love, demands it of them. If there is a thesis to “A Model of Christian Charity,” this would be it:
By the first of these lawes man as he was enabled soe withall is commanded to love his neighbour as himself. Upon this ground stands all the precepts of the morrall lawe, which concernes our dealings with men, [and] therefore the exhortation must be generall and perpetuall, withallwayes in respect of the love and affection, [and] soe this definition is right. Love is the bond of perfection [and] for to love and live beloved is the soule’s paradise both here and in heaven [and] now the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke, and to provide for our posterity, is to followe the counsell of Micah, to doe justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.
These exhortations might be compared with the aging king’s solicitation of love at the opening of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and with Cavell’s interpretation of this scene.
Cavell’s interpretation of Lear, in “The Avoidance of Love,” turns to a great extent on the opening scene, and on the conjoined solicitation and avoidance that its title invokes (running to roughly eighty pages, it addresses many other things besides). Abdicating his throne, King Lear offers divides what is his and pledges it to his daughters in return for a public profession of their love:
Tell me, my daughters,
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend.”
This promise of “our largest bounty” in return for the greatest public performance of love, clearly recalls the terms of Winthrop’s ‘double-if.’ “This is the way I understand that opening scene with the three daughters,” Cavell writes,
Lear knows it is a bribe he offers, and—part of him anyway—wants exactly what a bribe can buy: (1) false love; and (2) a public expression of love. That is: he wants something he does not have to return in kind, something which a division of his property fully pays for. And he wants to look like a loved man-for the sake of the subjects, as it were. He is perfectly happy with his little plan, until Cordelia speaks. Happy not because he is blind, but because he is getting what he wants, his plan is working. Cordelia is alarming precisely because he knows she is offering the real thing, offering something a more opulent third of his kingdom cannot, must not, repay; putting a claim upon him he cannot face. She threatens to expose both his plan for false love with no love, and expose the necessity for that plan—his terror of being loved, of needing love.9
While I can’t promise to get to the bottom of scripture, Shakespeare, or Cavell on the question of “love,” I think we can find a difference between Cavell and Winthrop here, or a difference Cavell’s reading would introduce to Winthrop’s text. Where the one enjoins love, the other asks us to consider why we are tempted to demand love, what we avoid in the demand, and how the appearance of ‘the real thing’ often takes the tragic form of spoiling our plans, or more precisely, revealing our plans to have been rotten from the start. Beneath the fraudulent surface, something more real hides in obscurity, frustration, and doubt.
One of the key questions Cavell poses is how a thinker can create exceptions within the ordinary fabric of the everyday world, and of everyday language. While Cavell hastens to translate these concerns into a ‘philosophical’ register, they clearly draw upon and resonate with key theological motifs and religious practices. They clearly reach beyond the confines of professional philosophy. Cavell acknowledges that the production of the exception is a key question in Biblical traditions—in Deuteronomy, for example, and also in the New Testament—and within the traditions of spiritual practice articulated with those texts, including but not limited to conversion. While we won’t tarry with the possible implications of that, neither Cavell nor I are committed to separating ‘religion’ or ‘theology’ or ‘philosophy’ from other forms of life. I would say in conclusion that if the idea of America is indeed bound to that of the exception, that does not mean that this idea can be reduced to the current push to “restore American greatness.” Nor does it mean that it can be reduced to its best prior historical exemplars. In answer to Emerson’s query, this might all suggest that we find ourselves very much still engaged with the question of the American exception, not only because virulent waves of American exceptionalism are coursing through our politics in a variety of forms—they seem always to have done so—but also because rethinking the exception is how we go about continuing the tradition we find ourselves within, even when that might seem hopeless.
Vanity, greed, ambition, ignorance, arrogance, aggression, bankruptcy, white-supremacy, misogyny, bluster, and lies, lies, lies—in promising to “Make America Great Again,” America’s “shithole” presidency might ironically accomplish the task of focusing national attention on the ways that America’s historical failures continue within its present, and on the constant need to return to and remain with those failures with honesty and a commitment to address and redress them, rather than to continue a triumphant tradition that disavows and otherwise avoids them. Today’s exceptionalism, arguably through its triumphalist disavowals, solicits these minor chords with intense urgency. “What seems to me evident is that Emerson’s finding of founding as finding, say the transfiguration of philosophical grounding as lasting, could not have presented itself as a stable philosophical proposal before the configuration of philosophy established by the work of the later Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein,” Cavell notes in a striking aside.10 It is perhaps in the same way that it has only recently become possible to find critical resources within Winthrop’s sermon. And this is another reason to imagine that we have not yet found the bottom of the tradition of American exceptionalism. And that we might yet find a way to go on with it.
As reported in the New York Times on January 11, 2018, and widely covered elsewhere, “President Trump on Thursday balked at an immigration deal that would include protections for people from Haiti and some nations in Africa, demanding to know at a White House meeting why he should accept immigrants from “shithole countries” rather than from places like Norway, according to people with direct knowledge of the conversation.” <<https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/11/us/politics/trump-shithole-countries.html>>↩
See Talal Asad, “Thinking About Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today” in Critical Inquiry, Hannah Arendt, “What is Tradition?”, and Alasdair MacIntyre Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry.↩
Stanley Cavell, Little did I Know, p. 253.↩
Stanley Cavell, “Music Discomposed” in Must we Mean What We Say?, 188-9.↩
In his interpretation of Thoreau’s Walden, which emphasizes the problems of “economy,” Cavell makes clear too that what is at stake in the American context is a recovery of the spiritual within the context, through the conversion of, commercial life.↩
Constance Furey, “Familiar Commerce and Covenantal Love,” in this volume.↩
Stanley Cavell, “Finding as Founding” in Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, p. 56.↩
Stanley Cavell, Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes, pp. 6–7.↩
Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love,” in Must we Mean What we Say? pp. 289–90.↩
Stanley Cavell, “Finding as Founding”, p. 139.↩