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La rhétorique – Rhetoricity

Jean-Paul Regis

The Rhetoric of Bodies: Privacy in Cavell

Bridget MC Donald

Texte intégral

  • 1 Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969) 62.

1Published in 1969, Stanley Cavell's first book, Must We Mean What We Say? formulates succinctly a question that remains central to his work up to his present essays: "What kind of knowledge is the knowledge of what we ordinarily mean in using an expression, or the knowledge of the particular circumstances in which an expression is actually used?"1 By way of Wittgenstein's later philosophy, Austin, Beckett, Kierkegaard, analyses of music, aesthetic problems in modern philosophy, acknowledgment, and King Lear, Cavell addresses the question of knowledge and in so doing establishes the framework for his most well-known work The Claim of Reason. Frequently in dialogue with Wittgenstein, Cavell enters timely discussions of philosophy — the problem of other minds, dualism, materialism — by commenting on, and ultimately developing, Wittgenstein's work on privacy; specifically on the possibility of a private language. Must We Mean What We Say? inaugurates an extended study by treating Norman Malcolm's work on the privacy of pain in Wittgenstein, the latter of which holds that: "In so far as it makes sense to say that my pain is the same as his, it is also possible for us both to have the same pain," (MW, 242). Malcolm sets Wittgenstein against the idea that it is impossible that two people should have (or feel) the same pain. The question is prodded in multiple ways until its most lucid formulation emerges in The Claim of Reason whose section on "The Private Language Argument" responds to Wittgenstein's view, expounded in Philosophical Investigations, that there can be no private language.

  • 2 Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason-Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy. (Oxford: Oxfor (...)

2The main points of the argument will be outlined here, in order to help access how private language relates to the body, how these can be said to inhabit one another, how the transition is made from one to the other in terms of a Cavellian epistemology, ontology, and metaphysics. If, indeed, a privacy in language is possible, one is prompted to ask whether a privacy of bodies can exist. Cavell begins by asking what the point is in "'trying' to 'imagine' a 'language' which 'another' 'person' 'cannot' 'understand'".2 He claims that "the effort is to illuminate something about the publicness of language, something about the depth to which language is agreed in." One example of private language is that used in diary writing in which the diarist hides names with symbols such as asterisks or scribbles. Cavell writes:

So the fantasy of a private language, underlying the wish to deny the publicness of language, turns out, so far, to be a fantasy, or fear, either of inexpressiveness, one in which I am not merely unknown, but in which I am powerless to make myself known; or one in which what I express is beyond my control [...] A fantasy of necessary inexpressiveness would solve a simultaneous set of metaphysical problems: it would relieve me of the responsibility for making myself known to others — as though if I were expressive that would mean continually betraying my experiences, incessantly giving myself away; it would suggest that my responsibility for self-knowledge takes care of itself — as though the fact that others cannot know my (inner) life means that I cannot fail to. It would reassure my fears of being known, though it may not prevent my being under suspicion; it would reassure my fears of not being known, though it may not prevent my being under indictment. — The wish underlying this fantasy covers a wish that underlies skepticism!...] As the wish stands, it is unappeasable. In the case of my knowing myself, such self-defeat would be doubly exquisite: I must disappear in order that the search for myself be successful. (CR, 252-253)

3Such discrepancy between public and private results in Cavell's final admission that "I was led to express the fantasy of inexpressiveness as a sense of powerlessness to make myself known, and this turned out, in pursuit of the idea of a private language, equally to be a powerlessness to make myself known to myself." Thus, being known by the public amounts to being as dangerous as not being known in the public arena, and these respective knowledges — from others, from the outside — in turn determine the integrity of a private, interior knowledge. In his excursus on making oneself known to oneself, Cavell reasons his way through linkages between language and image-formation in evoking of the idea of imagination — an idea contingent upon images. In claiming that the problem of the other is none other than a problem of certainty, he suggests that "the 'sense' in which an image enters into the language-game in question is a sense of the concept of seeing," (CR, 354). While this reasoning jumps rapidly over tomes of discussion devoted to this very problem, Cavell offers a persuasive association of the linguistic and visual image.

4If the diarist confirms the privacy of her text with marks such as asterisks, ampersands, checks, sharps and loops (CR, 348), she disrupts the linguistic flow of her text with material marks that stand reminiscent of gaps, lacunae, opaque fillers whose function, paradoxically, is to empty the text of meaning. Cavell's insight, as we have seen, is that such an assertion of privacy confirms exclusivity, yet simultaneously implies an excludedness. At this point, we are led to consider the implications of this conjunction in its relevance to the body/image conflation that eventually derives from it. How, for example, does the private language argument relate to what we might term a private body argument? If these instances of private language do arise — along with their consequences involving negated ends and collapsed significations — how might a private body exist? And would it ever exist free of the trappings of morality, which in Cavell appear in the contexts of ownership, punishment, intuition, and so forth. If, further, we were to look at the material correlates of language in their various guises as text, inscription, performative, or mark, one might ask how the material bears on rhetoric; what is material about rhetoric, or how elements of the rhetorical are precisely those spots where slippages in a characterization of language as material occur — in, for instance, the ironic aside (so characteristic of Cavell's own rhetorical style).

  • 3 Cf. Baudelaire's "De l'Essence du rire" and his studies of caricature in Le Peintre de la vie mode (...)

5As a point of departure for considering these material aspects of language, Cavell begins with a dismissal of dualism that takes into account his Cartesian, Hegelian, and Wittgensteinian predecessors. Commenting on the Investigations, Cavell reiterates that " To know another mind is to interpret a physiognomy [...] The human body is the best picture of the human soul — not, I feel like adding, primarily because it represents the soul but because it expresses it. The body is the field of expression of the soul. The body is of the soul; it is the soul's; a human soul has a human body." (CR, 356). We should note that it is not the spirituality of the soul that is denied, but that the necessarily material matrix of the spiritual is affirmed. He elaborates by saying that the underlying idea of the allegory of words is that human expression, the human figure, to be understood, must be read; this reading, we are well aware, is itself a metaphor. Furthermore, although he is not alone in addressing the idea of the human body as a text, he remains the first to elucidate the claim in the following terms: "If I had said 'The human body is a text', then [...] I might have been using that remark as a simile, and I could exhaust its content by saying, 'I mean it can be read, I mean it can be interpreted, understood'" (CR, 363). In terms of Cavell's own writing, or his invigorating rhetorical approach, the frequency with which he relies on irony should be noted for precisely its ability to admit into his discourse a para-material network — in the form of laughter. Laughter borders the realm of the material by sharing characteristics inherent in machinic response: an automatic click (laughter) follows, like a triggered reaction, some stimulus. It can be said to resemble the automatic in its essentially uncontrollable activity, in its unpredictable, yet inevitable, manifestations.3

  • 4 Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).

6As the seminal American theorist of the ontology of film, Cavell considers image and body through relying upon an idea of the body as picture (368). In his book The World Viewed (1971), the so-called ontology of film spans everything from color and silence to how Baudelaire's Dandy cultivates a "hidden fire".4 The fruits of this text are developed in The Claim of Reason (1979) in its consideration, divergent from Cartesian or Leibnizian precedents, of how the automaton relates to the human body. By claiming that pictures are present at once, he shows that they are unlike music, plays, the bible, and even unlike statues. He does not ignore that the idea of the body often involves a fantasy of it as veiling, as an object that separates beings from one another. Further, in his suggestion that the fantasy of a private language can be understood as an attempt to account for and protect the separateness of beings, it is the failure of the fantasy that signifies that there is "no assignable end to the depth of us to which language reaches; that nevertheless there is no end to our separateness [...] The idea of privacy expressed in the fantasy of a private language fails to express how private we are, metaphysically and practically," (CR, 369-370). Thus, his suggestion is that the problem of others may not be exclusively epistemological, but also metaphysical.

7The insistence on the metaphysical in Cavell gives way to extended meditations of the nature of the physiological as well. But before proceeding with his comparisons of the materiality of a human body and that of an automaton, the question of rhetoric should be admitted. In the elaborate turns of the private language argument, we have seen that the idea of privacy depends upon the possibility of an exclusive appropriation of words — in the form of coded marks — the possession of which results in various manifestations of excludedness: of the diarist from her text, of the text from itself, of the foreign reader from the diary, of l'écrit from l'écriture, etc. One might graft for a moment the concept of rhetoric on to this model and ask how privacy functions in the rhetorical gesture, since rhetoric finally amounts to being what is made private in one's language, what is stylized, specific, strategic, in a word: appropriated for the purposes of persuasion and power. It is no surprise that from the Ars Rhetorica to Pascal's discussion of persuasion in the context of geometry, rhetoric has been systematically approached for its capacity to structure argumentation, to delimit linguistic trajectories, to assume arguments and adapt them to their ends. Cavell's own analysis of irony concerns the superimposition of the unnatural over the natural. His comments on irony proceed as follows:

  • 5 An alternative reading is presented by Paul de Man in his essay "The Rhetoric of Temporality" whic (...)

Picking up Bergson's idea of the comic as the encrusting or the obtruding of the mechanical or material onto or out of the living, we might conceive of laughter as the natural response to automatonity when we know the other to be human. This takes laughter as some reverse of amazement [...] the form I have given skepticism is a comic one: natural, inescapable progressions of argument are shown to be encrusted with unnatural, inevitable origins. (The comic crescendo of flailings of one about to slip on a field of ice are the antics precisely of one for whom walking and running and dancing are in his natural repertory, and who is using just that repertory, there is no other, to try to regain his balance and find his footing.) [...] Laughter [...] is the touchstone of the unnatural, where unnatural is the opposite of that naturalness in language the ordinary language philosopher reckons with. (CR, 415)5

8The notion of the materiality of argumentation in this sense — materiality as structure or framework — is precisely that aspect of language which makes it able to be possessed, able to be made private. Yet materiality is recharacterized as superimposed, or, in Cavell's terminology, as an unnatural superstructure.

9A formulation offered by Judith Butler addresses problems similar to those found in Cavell, this time from a post-structuralist vantage point. In her discussion of the discursivity of bodies she raises the following question:

  • 6 Judith Butler "The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary" in Differences. (Bloomington: (...)

Although the referent cannot be said to exist apart from the signified, it nevertheless cannot be reduced to it. That referent, that abiding function of the world, is to persist as the horizon and the "that which" which makes its demand in and to language. Language and materiality are fully embedded in each other, chiasmic in their interdependency, but never fully collapsed into one another, i.e., reduced to one another, and yet neither fully ever exceeds the other. Always already implicated in each other, always already exceeding one another, language and materiality are never fully identical nor fully different.
But what then do we make of the kind of materiality that is associated with the body, its physicality as well as its location, including its social and political locatedness, and that materiality that characterizes language? Do we mean "materiality" in a common sense, or are these usages examples of what Althusser refers to as modalities of matter?6

10To approach this question, we shall refer to a final example from Cavell's chapter "Between Acknowledgment and Avoidance" which focuses on statues. He writes:

[...] the relation between the stone and the statue is pervasive, but they are not close to one another, they do not touch at every place, or at any place. The smile is not close to the face [....] Let my attitude be what it may, it cannot turn stone into a human being. The lamp illuminates hands and gems indifferently. Say that the gem does something special with the light; it nevertheless does nothing to the lamp. — This proves merely that the lamp has no attitudes. The statue is not in the stone (except on a certain myth of the sculptor); the statue is not on the stone (except in the case of intaglio). The statue is stone.
I am not this piece of flesh (though perhaps Falstaff was his); I am not in this flesh (though perhaps Christ was in his, but then his body was also bread); nor am I my flesh and blood (though somebody else is); nor am I of my flesh (though I hope somebody is). I am flesh. (CR, 398)

  • 7 Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity. Merleau-Ponty, "The Intertwining" The Visible and. the In (...)

11For Cavell, access to the human is not by way of ascertaining its animation, but its incarnation — the former sets Frankenstein's limitation; the latter Pygmalion's. In the interests of persuasion, Cavell lodges resonant sentences at the close of his dense paragraphs: "The statue is stone" provides a grammatical correlate of "I am flesh." Yet a crucial shift is effected when "the statue" is not met by "the body" not even by "my body," but by a pronominal "I". What seems to be emphasized is how the "I" — as authorial authority of the text-is not only reduced to a fundamentally carnal matrix, but can be nothing other than this. If there is a rhetoric to the speaking "I" of the passage, it is precisely that it remains a fleshly "I". Cavell offers an alternative to such readings as that of Levinas on the face, Merleau-Ponty on the flesh of the world in its relation to touch, surface, and vision, and Lacan on the mirror stage7.

12We have noted that the fantasy of privacy equally involves a dynamic of control; that controlling language maintains an essential link to identity-formation. As for the specific place of rhetoric in language, we have also affirmed its demand for stylization as that part of it which makes it able to be owned, to be proper to its user. If we invert this model, we are left with a rhetoric which instead of being a type of language that is used (employed, made use of), becomes a language that uses (employs, makes use of). The singularity of Cavell's philosophy appears when he explains this in the context of art. He states that "A comparable problem arises in the psychology and/or psychoanalysis of art. A thinker who cannot grant the right autonomy to the object he or she is thinking about is not thinking about art," (CR, 358). Art must be granted autonomy for its autonomy to act upon us. Not thinking about the autonomy of art is to not think about it at all; we are compelled to need art's automat, its status as automatic. He writes in Must We Mean What We Say? that "... modernist art has become a problem for the philosophy contemporary with it (in England and America anyway); and perhaps that is typical of the aesthetics of any period," (MW, 183). He asks "How can fraudulent art be exposed? Not, as in the case of a forgery or counterfeit, by comparing it with the genuine article, for there is no genuine article of the right kind," (MW, 189). Thus, fraudulent art cannot be equated with fraudulent human beings (i.e. automata). We might ask then, taking Cavell's indications to their limits, whether rhetoric is not precisely that aspect of language which assumes its speaker. He asks if automata (only) drink or if they (really) drink (CR, 413); we in turn shall ask if rhetoric — especially in the case of irony — really speaks or only speaks. And if it only speaks, does its speech speak to its speaker, or is it something mastered? From the very fact that it expresses only its speaker, can it be said to speak at all? On one hand Cavell appears concerned with automata and objecthood, and on the other with the rhetorical split within rhetoric at the locus of irony. His specific coloring of the rhetorical body prods the disjunction between the automatic character of rhetorical gestures and their capacity to bear meaning. While the automaton is frequently described as being independent of autonomous determination, Cavell tests the limits of this claim through his particular combinations of language, physicality, rhetoric, and automatic systems. In his attempt to secure possible sources for the mobilization of meaning, what becomes clear is that a mechanical aspect surfaces in both language, which automatically exists within every sphere of language itself, and in the very possibility of language to mean: not only in its ability to speak, but to say something. Rhetorical language may harbor aspects of the private, but it is never strictly private — just as the rhetorical trope of irony, like automata, remains a self-enclosed entity that works like a machine, splitting from itself to reveal some unreachable dimension.



Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)." Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review, 1971.

Butler, Judith. "The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary" in Differences. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992, vol. 4, no. 1.

Cavell, Stanley. The Claim of Reason — Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

——. Must We Mean What We Say? London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

——. The World Viewed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

De Man, Paul. "The Rhetoric of Temporality" in Blindness and Insight, Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1983.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. "The Intertwining — The Chiasm." The Visible and the Invisible. Trans. Alfonso Lingis. Ed. Claude Lefort. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968.


1 Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969) 62.

2 Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason-Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979) 344.

3 Cf. Baudelaire's "De l'Essence du rire" and his studies of caricature in Le Peintre de la vie moderne which broach relations of laughter, automata, and art; Cavell's reading of these subjects offers another perspective to their Baudelairean counterpart.

4 Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).

5 An alternative reading is presented by Paul de Man in his essay "The Rhetoric of Temporality" which makes reference to Baudelaire's essay "De l'Essence du rire": "In the idea of the fall [...,] a progression of self-knowledge is certainly implicit.!...] The ironic, twofold self that the writer or philosopher constitutes by his language seems able to come into being only at the expense of his empirical self, falling (or rising) from a stage of mystified adjustment into the knowledge of his mystification. The ironic language splits the subject into an empirical self that exists in a state of inauthenticity and a self that exists only in the form of language that asserts the knowledge of this inauthenticity. This does not, however, make it into an authentic language, for to know inauthenticity is not the same as to be authentic." In De Man, the problem of naturalness and unnaturalness has been shifted to one of knowledge and the impossibility of overcoming inauthenticity (which amounts to unnaturalness), yet at the same time the unnaturalness of knowledge remains the unnaturalness of naturalness. In irony, the distinction between these two poles remains obscured. Yet this element of the indistinguishable, for De Man, characterizes irony, while in Cavell, the realms of unnaturalness and naturalness are opposed. See "The Rhetoric of Temporality" in Blindness and Insight, Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1983) 214.

6 Judith Butler "The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary" in Differences. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992) vol. 4, no. 1, 143. In her essay, Judith Butler refers to Louis Althusser, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an nvest igationà" Lenin n and Philosophy and Other Essays. (New York: Monthly Review, 1971, 127-86.

7 Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity. Merleau-Ponty, "The Intertwining" The Visible and. the Invisible. Butler goes on to elucidate Lacan's corps morcelé in the following clarifying terms: "If the body is "in pieces" before the mirror, it follows that the mirroring works as a kind of synecdochal extrapolation by which those pieces or parts come to stand (in and by the mirror) for the whole or, put differently, the part substitutes for the whole and thereby becomes a token for the whole. If this is right, then perhaps "The Mirror Stage" proceeds through a synecdochal logic that institutes and maintains a phantasm of control." Butler, 154.


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