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Eduardo Cadava - Biography

Eduardo Cadava, Ph.D., is a prominent contemporary American literary and philosophical critic and thinker. He joined the faculty at Princeton University in 1989. He is a Professor in the Department of English and an Associate Member of the Department of Comparative Literature, the School of Architecture, The Center for African-American Studies, The Program in Latin American Studies, and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. He also is a member of the Committee for European Cultural Studies, and of the steering committee for Princeton’s graduate Program in Media and Modernity. He teaches in the areas of literary theory, visual and cultural studies, philosophy, theories of translation, and, within the field of literature, he specializes in American literature, and also in French, German, and Latin American literature. He also is a Professor at the European Graduate School (EGS), where he teaches an intensive summer seminar.

Cadava has written extensively on topics ranging across literature, philosophy, photography, architecture, music, democracy, war, memory and forgetting, race and slavery, human rights and citizenship, and the ethics of decision. He has published three books, co-edited three books, published over fifty essays, and translated several works from French into English. The first book 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, 1997). The second addresses the politics of Emerson's climatic and meteorological reflections and is entitled Emerson and the Climates of History (Stanford University Press, 1997). While these two books could be said to cover materials from different areas of specialization and even different national literatures, they both reflect Cadava’s interest in the relations between literature and history. In particular, each book expresses his interest in what he 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 the weather in his writings on history. In both instances, he argues that each writer confirms his conception of history through the figures he chooses to represent it.

Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History attempts to understand Benjamin's concept of history by analyzing his recourse to the language of photography in his reflections on history. Focusing on his discussions of the light, the flashes, the images, or the development of history, it suggests that photography becomes a means for him to reconsider the relations among thought, the technical dimension of memorization, and the techniques of material inscription. Cadava suggests that the questions raised by the links 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, visual and linguistic representation, and film and photography. He argues that the constellation of motifs and themes around which Benjamin organizes his texts forms a lens through which we can begin to register and rethink the intersection between the question of history and that of photography. Seeking to measure the stakes of Benjamin’s thought on modernity, Cadava suggests that Benjamin's recourse to photographic language signals his engagement with the fundamental event of modernity: the production and reproduction of 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 contributes to the ongoing reevaluation of Emerson's relation to the domains of history and politics. This reevaluation marks a significant critical turn in American literary historiography that works to revise what critics generally have understood to be the major theme of the Emersonian tradition: ahistoricism. Emerson and the Climates of History historicizes Emerson by clarifying the important thematic and rhetorical connections between his writings and some of the central literary, theological, and political texts or movements of his period. Cadava suggests, first of all, 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 history into the domain of spirit is in fact an effort on his part to re-treat the nature of history in terms of questions of representation. Although this reading has certain relays with the work of critics presently working to reassess Emerson's relation to history, it differs in its attempt to think through the way in which the figures of Emerson's 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.

The third book, Fazal Sheikh: Portraits (2011), is a collaboration with the New York-born Pakistani-Kenyan photographer, Fazal Sheikh. 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 and included in Sheikh’s recent publication, Portraits, Cadava’s contribution to the book seeks to develop a theory of the portrait in general. What we have before us is a series of portraits that 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, even when the distance between us and these others may seem impossibly vast.

Cadava recently has completed a collection of essays entitled Paper Graveyards: Essays on Art and Photography, which is forthcoming in 2013. The six essays that comprise the book 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, with the exception of the essay on Barthes, they cover materials that are rarely considered. They 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, and photography and writing, the role and place of art and photography within the historical and political domains, and questions of medium-specificity. The title of the collection comes from a passage from Johann Christian Hallmann’s 1682 Leichreden (Corpse speeches) that Walter Benjamin cites in his Trauerspiel book and that identifies our being with images of death.

Cadava also is finishing a second collection of essays entitled Mourning Politics that brings together eight essays that seek to delineate the political and ethical stakes of 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 do so in the context of writings by, among others, Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Paul Celan, Barthes, and Marx, and of the photographic work of Fazal Sheikh and the artistic work of Salvatore Puglia). They trace our relation to several nineteenth- and twentieth-century historical traumas, including those of war, slavery, dispossession, migration, genocide, globalization, and capitalist imperialisms of all kinds, but also to the various media—among others, writing, music, literature, art, and photography—that expose, record, archive, work against, and sometimes conceal these violent histories. Considering the relations among memory, history, nationalism, and death, they suggest 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.

Finally, he also is working on a book entitled Music on Bones, which is a meditation on the relation between music and techniques of reproduction, memorization, and writing. The title of the project refers to a practice in Russia in the 1950s and early 60s in which, in order to bring Western music into the country, dissident music lovers first heated already exposed x-ray film—taken from hospital refuse—and then, pressing a master disk onto the heated film, made a kind of phonographic recording, a crude vinyl transcription, whose barely visible grooves were etched on chest cavities and spinal cords. In this project, he has been looking at 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 writings by various composers who meditate on the fugitive, scriptural character of music. He has co-curated part of an exhibition that opened at the MAXXI Museum in Rome in December 2011 and that includes materials related to this project.

In addition to these projects, he has co-edited three volumes: an anthology of philosophical essays under the title 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 and entitled And Justice for All?: The Claims of Human Rights (Duke, 2004). The essays in Who Comes After the Subject? bring together work by contemporary French philosophers on the question of the subject: the subject of philosophy, of psychoanalysis, of the State, and of history. Including writings by Etienne Balibar, Maurice Blanchot, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, Sarah Kofman, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean-Luc Nancy, and others, 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 it 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. The essays gathered in And Justice for All?: The Claims of Human Rights seek to interrogate, measure, challenge, and encourage the efficacy of human rights and human rights discourses with a majority of the contributors addressing both theoretical and practical questions. The collection brings together philosophers, human rights activists, and literary scholars and theorists, including 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 also 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 that of Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe, Blanchot, Granel, or one of the other philosophers whose work he has translated. The texts he has translated, for example, are nearly all concerned with the relation between literature and philosophy, with the role of rhetoric within philosophical argument. He views this translation work as an essential part of the work I do in the fields of philosophy and literary theory—a form of instruction that informs my desire to be as attentive as possible to the mobility and range of a given text's language. He presently is finishing a translation of Nadar’s memoirs, Quand j’etais une photographe, for MIT Press, which will appear in early 2014.

In addition to the books and editorial work mentioned here, he also has published essays on, among other topics, 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 concepts of decision and responsibility. He also has written several essays on the photography and art 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 already have appeared in French). Although his work has moved in different directions since the books on Benjamin and Emerson—it increasingly has focused on photography and art, and questions of human rights and citizenship—what he has retained from these earlier works is 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.

He also is presently co-directing an ongoing project entitled “The Itinerant Languages of Photography” that has established a photography research network in collaboration with scholars from DiTella University (Buenos Aires, Argentina), the Universidade Federal de Rio de Janeiro and 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 initiate and develop new forms of international interdisciplinary collaboration between programs, departments, and research centers at several universities, in dialogue with disciplines such as literary and cultural studies, media studies, cultural history, art history, and anthropology. The scope of the research covers a wide range of fields of expertise, and brings together scholars from Latin America, Europe, the United States, and potentially other areas of the world involved in international circuits of image production, giving preference to the examples of Latin American and Hispanic archives and regions which have been traditionally neglected by the dominant versions of the history and analysis of photography as a transnational cultural practice. 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.

Eduardo Cadava is a Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he teaches an Intensive Summer Seminar.