Eduardo Cadava

Eduardo Cadava, Professor of Philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Eduardo Cadava is a contemporary critic and theorist specializing in American literature and culture, comparative literature, media technologies and theory, political theory, and translation theory. He is a professor of philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS and a professor at Princeton University teaching in the Department of English, the Department of Comparative Literature, the School of Architecture, The Center for African American Studies, and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. He also serves on the executive committees of the Program in Media and Modernity, the Program in European Cultural Studies, the Program in Latin American Studies, and the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies. He is also the Benjamin Menschel Distinguished Visiting Professor in Architecture at Cooper Union.

Cadava's first major work is a meditation on Walter Benjamin's discussions of the relation between history and photography and is entitled Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton University Press, 1998). His book Emerson and the Climates of History (Stanford University Press, 1997) addresses the politics of Emerson's climatic and meteorological reflections. While these two books could be said to cover materials from different areas of specialization, they both reflect Cadava's interest in the relationship between literature and history. In particular, each book expresses his interest in what Cadava calls the "historical physiognomy" of an author's language: in Benjamin, for example, he follows Benjamin's use of the language of photography in his discussions of history, and in Emerson, he traces the American writer's recourse to the language of weather in his writings on history. In both instances, Cadava argues that each writer confirms his conception of history through the particular figures each chose to represent it.

Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History understands Benjamin's conception of history through an analysis of the theorist's recourse to the language of photography in his reflections on history. "Focusing on Benjamin's discussions of the flashes and images of history", Eduardo Cadava suggests "that the questions raised by this link between photography and history touch on issues that belong to the entire trajectory of his writings: the historical and political consequences of technology, the relation between reproduction and mimesis,images and history, remembering and forgetting, allegory and mourning, and visual and linguistic representation. The book establishes the photographic constellation of motifs and themes around which Benjamin organizes his texts and thereby becomes a lens through which we can begin to view his analysis of the convergence between the new technological media and a revolutionary concept of historical action and understanding. Written in the form of theses--what Cadava calls 'snapshots in prose'--the book memoralizes Benjamin's own thetic method of writing. It enacts a mode of conceiving history that is neither linear nor successive, but rather discontinuous--constructed from what Benjamin calls 'dialectical images.' "

In demonstrating that Emerson's writings are traversed by his preoccupation with the central historical and political issues of his day, Emerson and the Climates of History attempts "to contribute to the ongoing reevaluation of Emerson's relation to the domains of history and politics. This reevaluation–led by critics such as Len Gougeon, Sacvan Bercovitch, Michael Lopez, Carolyn Porter, Lawrence Buell, Barbara Packer, and David Robinson–marks a significant critical turn in American literary historiography, which works to revise what critics like F.O. Matthiessen, Charles Feidelson, R.W.B. Lewis, Richard Chase, and Harold Bloom have understood to be the major theme of the Emersonian tradition: ahistoricism" (p. 10). Emerson and the Climates of History historicizes "Emerson by trying to clarify the important thematic and rhetorical connections between his writings and some of the central literary, theological, and political texts or movements of his period" (ibid.). Cadava explores "the extent to which his writings may be read as both symptomatic and critical of the governing cultural rhetorics through which Americans of his day thought about the most important issues of their particular historical moment and, second, that what has often been understood as his retreat from the arena of the political into the domain of the spiritual is in fact an effort on his part to re-treat or rethink the nature of the political in terms of questions of representation.... Although this reading has certain relays with the work of those critics now involved in reassessing Emerson's relation to history, it differs ... in its attempt to think through the way in which the figures of his rhetoric-- figures (like frost, snow, the auroras, and nature in general) which often seem to have nothing to do with either history or politics–are themselves traversed by the conflictual histories of slavery, race, destiny, revolution, and the meaning of America" (ibid., 10f.).

Working in collaboration, Cadava pubished Fazal Sheikh: Portraits (2010) with the New York-born, Pakistani-Kenyan photographer Fazal Sheikh. In the essay "Trees, Hands, Stars, and Veils: The Portrait in Ruins" [1], which forms an important part of the book, Cadava writes: "Since the early Nineties, Fazal Sheikh has oriented his camera toward some of the most vulnerable people in the world. He has done so in order to call attention to the necessity of human rights and their accompanying discourses, even as his photographs argue for a vigilant interrogation of the terms of these discourses and, indeed, the concepts at work within them: life, death, humanity, subjectivity, relation, alterity, ethics, violence, and displacement in general." Considering a series of portraits taken from the entirety of Sheikh's career, these "are never simply the portrait of a single person, even if there is only one person in the image, but rather a kind of archive, or set of archives, of all the experiences, histories, and relations that have made 'him' or 'her' who he or she is, even if—because of these same experiences, histories, and relations—it becomes clear that this person is never simply himself or herself. These are portraits, in other words, that ask us to rethink what a portrait is or may be, and do so by suggesting all the different ways in which we are always, in advance, related to others."

Eduardo Cadava has recently completed a new collection of essays entitled Paper Graveyards: Essays on Art and Photography (forthcoming from Princeton University Press). The title takes its name from a passage in Johann Christian Hallmann's 1682 Leichreden (Corpse speeches) that Walter Benjamin cited in his Trauerspiel (The Mourning Play) addressing our being with images of death. The six essays that comprise Cadava's collection form a kind of constellation around a series of related themes, including the relations among images, writing, memory, ruins, death, mourning, and the technical media. They touch on works by, among others, Nadar, Andreas Embeiríkos (the modern Greek surrealist poet and photographer), Roland Barthes, Leon Golub, and Fazal Sheikh, and cover material rarely considered. The essays also engage several of the most central issues within contemporary debates on art and photography—the relation between the photograph and the photographed, the visual and the linguistic, photography and writing, the role and place of art and photography within the historical and political domains, and questions of medium-specificity. A collection of his essays on photography will also appear in Spanish under the title La imagen en ruinas in Santiago, Chile and a small book entitled Erasures that takes its point of departure from Fazal Sheikh's The Erasure Trilogy; both will be published in 2015.

Another collection of essays, entitled Of Mourning and Politics, is currently in progress. The collection brings together eight essays that seek to delineate the political and ethical stakes in the act of mourning. Taking their point of departure from different modes of mourning—individual, collective, national, historical, political, and aesthetic—the essays explore the relations between loss and survival, memory and forgetting, the past and the present, and the dead and the living (and within the context of writings by, among others, Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Paul Celan, Roland Barthes, and Karl Marx, along with the photography of Fazal Sheikh, and art works by Salvatore Puglia). The essays trace relations to several nineteenth and twentieth century historical traumas, including those of war, slavery, dispossession, migration, genocide, globalization, and capitalist imperialism, and associated media (writing, music, literature, art, and photography among others) that expose, record, archive, work against, and sometimes conceal these violent histories. Considering the relations among memory, history, nationalism, and death, Cadava proposes that it is perhaps only through the experience of mourning that we can have an open and engaged relationship with history—with what passes but also with what remains—and therefore also with the future.

Cadava is also working on a new book entitled Music on Bones (forthcoming). It is a meditation on the relation between music and techniques of reproduction, memorization, and writing. The title of the project refers to a dissident practice in Russia in the 1950s and early 60s in which music lovers, in order to bring Western music into their country, would use X-ray film taken from hospital refuse to press "vinyl records." By heating the exposed X-rays one could press a master "disk" onto the heated film resulting in a kind of phonographic recording, a crude vinyl transcription whose barely visible grooves were etched on chest cavities and spinal cords. For this project, Cadava reviews the history of X-rays, the history of musical recordings, theoretical and literary writings on music by Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Adorno, Malraux, Leiris, Barthes, and Lacoue-Labarthe, and the writings of various composers who meditate on the fugitive, scriptural character of music. As well, he co-curated an exhibition at the MAXXI Museum in Rome (2011), which includes materials related to the Music on Bones project. He has also co-curated shows at the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia and the Princeton University Art Museum, and has co-produced and co-edited the DVD, Unpacking Derrida's Library (Slought Foundation and PIIRS), with remarks from Judith Butler, Hélène Cixous, Hent de Vries, Avital Ronell, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Samuel Weber.

In addition to these projects, Cadava has co-edited three volumes: an anthology of philosophical essays, Who Comes After the Subject? (Routledge, 1991); a collection of essays on citizenship and statelessness entitled Cities Without Citizens (Slought Foundation/Rosenbach Museum, 2004); and a special issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly devoted to the question of human rights entitled And Justice for All?: The Claims of Human Rights (Duke UP, 2004). In Who Comes After the Subject?, Cadava brings together work by contemporary French philosophers––Etienne Balibar, Maurice Blanchot, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, Sarah Kofman, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean-Luc Nancy among others––on the question of the subject, specifically the subjects of philosophy, psychoanalysis, the State, and history. The collection features texts by thinkers whose work continues to serve as the context for current debates on the nature of subjectivity, sexuality, responsibility, democracy, and nationality. Cities Without Citizens takes its point of departure from a series of questions about the ways in which cities are delineated, built, and undone in relation to the shifting and changing populations that both define and loosen its borders. It was linked to an exhibition in the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia and includes essays by philosophers, literary critics, artists, and architects, including Giorgio Agamben, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, David Lloyd, Colin Dayan, Thomas Keenan, and Arakawa and Gins. And Justice for All?: The Claims of Human Rights "examines the idea and the reality of human rights and their attendant discourses. The essays gathered here--from academics and activists working in law, philosophy, political theory, literature, medicine, and ngos–collectively interrogate these universal claims to human rights and the political justice that may or may not follow from them." Among the contributors are Jacques Derrida, Jacques Rancière, Étienne Balibar, Slavoj Zizek, Werner Hamacher, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Avital Ronell.

Within the context of his research and writing in the area of literary theory, Cadava has translated several texts in contemporary French philosophy. He understands this work of translation as a means of apprenticing himself to the movement of a certain mode of thought, whether it is the work of Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe, Blanchot, Granel, or one of the many other philosophers he has translated. For example, nearly all the texts he has translated are concerned with the relation between literature and philosophy, and with the role of rhetoric within philosophical argument. He views this translation work as an essential part of the work he does in the fields of philosophy and literary theory at large; it is a form of instruction that informs his desire to be as attentive as possible to the mobility and range of a given text's language. His most recent translation is of the memoirs of Nadar entitled, Quand j'etais une photographe, for which he has also written the introduction; it is to be published Autumn 2015 by MIT Press.

Additionally, Eduardo Cadava has also published individual essays on Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Benjamin, Kafka, Celan, Barthes, architecture, the relation between space and violence, the role of the weather in the constitution of literary history, and the relationship between decision and responsibility. He also has written several essays on the work of artists such as Fazal Sheikh, Marcelo Brodsky, Martin Parr, Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, Cassio Vasconcellos, Horst Hoheisel, and Leon Golub. His Benjamin book has appeared in Serbian, Turkish, and Spanish, and Greek and French translations are in progress (portions of the book have already appeared in French). Although his work has moved in different directions since his early works on Benjamin and Emerson, focusing primarily on photography and art, and questions of human rights and citizenship, it retains his interest in the relation between literature and history (in what it means to read historically), and his conviction that literature is in fact the best entry into questions of history, politics, ethics, and art.

Following, Cadava is also presently co-directing an ongoing project entitled "The Itinerant Languages of Photography" (Princeton University Art Museum and Yale UP) that has established a photography research network in collaboration with scholars from DiTella University (Buenos Aires, Argentina), the Universidade Federal de Rio de Janeiro, the Center for Photographic Research at the Instituto Moreira Salles (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), the Centro de Historia Gráfica at the University of Puebla (Puebla, Mexico), and the University Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona, Spain). The project seeks to create new forms of cross-disciplinary international collaboration between programs and departments in dialogue with cross-disciplines such as literary and cultural studies, media studies, cultural history, art history, and anthropology. The research conducted brings together international scholars involved in image production; it aims to give preference to Latin American and Hispanic archives, as well as to regions usually neglected by dominant versions of the history and, also, analysis of photography. The project has included artists such as Susan Meiselas, Alfredo Jaar, Joan Fontcuberta, and Marcelo Brodsky, and scholars and curators such as Okwui Enwenzor, Hal Foster, Maria Gough, Pamela Lee, Ariella Azoulay, Thomas Keenan, and Carles Guerra.

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