HomePerfectionnism and TV series. A tribute to Stanley Cavell (1926-2018)

HomePerfectionnism and TV series. A tribute to Stanley Cavell (1926-2018)

Perfectionnism and TV series. A tribute to Stanley Cavell (1926-2018)

Perfectionnisme et séries télévisées. Hommage à Stanley Cavell (1926-2018)

Journal “TVSeries”

Revue « TVSeries»

*  *  *

Published on Wednesday, September 26, 2018


Il s'agit pour cet appel à contributions pour le n° 17 (2020) de la revue TVSeries d'interroger la place des questions éthiques et politiques dans les séries télévisées sous l'angle de l'œuvre du grand philosophe américain récemment décédé Stanley Cavell, qui quant à lui a beaucoup travaillé sur le cinéma. C'est la notion de « perfectionnisme » qui lie chez Cavell préoccupations éthiques et politiques. Les propositions (en français ou en anglais) pourront relever de la philosophie et/ou des sciences sociales, des études cinématographiques, de l'histoire et de la culture étasunienne, de l'épistémologie et/ou des études de cas. Le corpus des séries est libre.



Ordinary Greatness of Stanley Cavell

Great intellectual and political figure of Harvard University, the late Stanley Cavell   (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/02/opinion/stanley-cavell-and-the-american-contradiction.html), (September 1, 1926, Atlanta-June 19, 2018, Boston) has left its original mark on several fields of American philosophy. These include the philosophy of ordinary language from John L. Austin (Cavell, 1969; Laugier 2013), Ludwig Wittgenstein's version of skepticism (Cavell, 1979; Laugier, 2013), the moral and democratic perfectionism that has its source in Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and works on American political culture (Cavell 1989,1990; Norris ed., 2006; Laugier ed., 2010) or, quite unorthodox for a philosopher in the early seventies, philosophy of film  (Cavell, 1971, 1981, 1996, 2003, 2004; Laugier & Cerisuelo, 2001; Corcuff & Laugier, 2010 ; Domenach, 2011).

The question of the ordinary is located at the intersection of Stanley Cavell's various research fields:

Inquiring that way (into entrusting the health of the human spirit) I am in fact armed with names, before all with those of Emerson and of Thoreau, whose emphasis on what they call the common, the everyday, the near, the low, I have in recent years repeatedly claimed as underwriting the ordinariness sought in the ordinary language methods of Wittgenstein and of Austin. (Cavell, 1989, p. 64-65)

The Many Faces of Cavellian Perfectionism

Perfectionism, through its inscription in the fragilities and resources of the ordinary (Laugier, 2017), does not constitute a moralist theory, nor the vain hedonistic quest for a unique perfection. Stanley Cavell warns us. In this vision of perfectionism, there is no horizon of perfection, in the sense of “a state, the same for all, at which the self is to arrive, a fixed place at which it is destined to come home itself” (Cavell, 1990, p. 13). Because it is a question of tackling the chances, failures and joys of the ordinary in the singularity of people and situations. Neither moralism of the imperative, nor vain aesthetics of perfection, perfectionism also rejects conservatism and elitism:

Perfectionism, as I think of it, is not a competing theory of the moral life, but something like a dimension or tradition of the moral life that spans the course of Western thought and concerns what used to be called the state of one’s soul, a dimension that places tremendous burdens on personal relationships and on the possibility or necessity of the transforming of oneself and of one’s society. (Cavell, ibid., p.2)

The ordinary is not a place of nostalgic conservation of fantasized past social ties, it works with individual singularities and is worked by them.

The ordinary is also uncanniness (Cavell, 1989, 1990) containing skepticism, in the double sense of integrating it and preventing it from overflowing into nihilism (Corcuff, 2004). The ordinary is therefore both the “rough ground” to which Wittgenstein enjoins us to “back to” for locate our questions, contrary to the search for “ideal conditions” (Wittgenstein, 1958, part I, § 107, p. 46), one of the main sources of our problems and the place where provisional solutions can be formulated. The ordinary moral and political tradition known as “perfectionism” is a resource, especially in societies with democratic ideals. There is even an affinity between perfectionism and democracy, and therefore a certain continuity between moral perfectionism and perfectionist politics:

If there is a perfectionism not only compatible with democracy but necessary to it, it lies not in excusing democracy for its inevitable failures, or looking to rise above them, but in teaching how to respond to those failures, otherwise than by excuse or withdrawal […] I understand the training and character and friendship Emerson requires for democracy as preparation to withstand not its rigors but its failures, character to keep the democratic hope alive in the face of disappointment with it. (Cavell, 1990, p.18 and 56).

Stanley Cavell’s political work is not an apology of existing political regimes that claim to be “democratic”, but are rather professionalized representative regimes with democratic ideals. For perfectionism turns out to be a social critique of the distortions of the “democracy principle” (Ogien & Laugier, 2014) and of fake democratic discourses.

Whatever the confusions in store for philosophical and moral thinking, ought we to let the fact of debased or parodist versions of a possibility deprive us of the good of the possibility? The inevitability of debased claims to Christianity, or to philosophy, or to democracy, are, so one might put it, not the defeat, not even the bane, of the existence of the genuine article, but part of its inescapable circumstance and motivation. So that the mission of Perfectionism generally, in a world of false (and false calls for) democracy, is the discovery of the possibility of democracy, which to exist is recurrently to be (re)discovered. (Cavell, 1990, p. 16-17).

This social critique implies a broadening of the conception of democracy, not only as a set of political institutions, or as an impossible ideal, but as “a form of life” (Cavell 1989; Ogien & Laugier, 2014).

Both the community and individuals interact closely in the perfectionist process of societies with democratic ideals. The question of civil disobedience as inspired by Henry David Thoreau, that is, withdrawing from consensus in the name of the values of the community itself, is precisely played out in the discrepancies inherent in true democratic individualism. Since it raises questions about the accuracy of the relationship between an individual's personal voice and that of the community's spokespersons. Both individuality and community are starting points and question marks in the perfectionist movement, and therefore stakes in its more or less bumpy and even chaotic course. With this democratic individualism, we move away from fashionable and opposing political philosophies: monadic individualism, ignoring the common, and collectivism, making the “common” the only solution in the marginalization of individualities.

Cavellian Ways for TV Series

The analyses developed by Stanley Cavell on skepticism, perfectionism and cinema are likely to enrich the philosophical approach of television series, which take over from cinema in the task of moral education for a wide audience that Cavell claims for popular cinema (Laugier, 2009a, 2012, 2017; Shuster, 2017).

But the linking of resources drawn from Stanley Cavell's work can also be heuristic for social sciences interested in series, either by questioning the fictionalization of reality through aesthetic codes (Shuster, 2017; Taïeb, 2017), or, through the "decodings" of viewers (Hall, 1973), on reception (Ang, 1982; Pasquier, 1995; Chalvon-Demersay, 1999; Corcuff, 2006). There are already areas of intersection between the avenues provided by Stanley Cavell and sectors of contemporary sociology, both critical and pragmatic (Corcuff, 2010).

Directions of inspiration can already be identified for the series, both from the point of view of philosophy and social sciences (non-exhaustive list):

  • the way in which the ordinary is a space of failure, vulnerability and unrest (“the uncanniness of the ordinary”), but also a place where resources can be drawn;
  • the difficulties of characters in finding their personal voices in the face of the weight of conformism and skeptical uncertainties;
  • the relationship between self-transformation, in particular but not exclusively around the figure of “second chance” (Corcuff and Laugier, 2010), and transformations of human communities; and thus questions of everyday resistance, disobedience and ordinary forms of individual and collective self-emancipation;
  • the theme of education to democracy;
  • the series considered as moral and political conversations, in their content, as well as by their circulation in everyday sociabilities via ordinary conversations (Laugier, 2012a and b); here cross-reference with the role of conversations in the sociology of opinion e.g. outlined by Gabriel Tarde could be useful (Tarde, 1989; Katz, 2006);
  • the way in which the perfectionist angle and aesthetics break the opposition between the intelligible and the sensitive (Laugier, 2009a), allowing to consider figures of sensitive reason (Wahnich, 2008);
  • the moral and political teaching of television series, through pluralism of voices;
  • the perfectionist renewal of an ethically supported social critique, escaping current various traps affecting the critical stance, relativism of “everything is equal”, moral emptying by academic criticism, or ultra-conservative criticism breaking historical ideals of emancipation by resorting to the rhetoric of “politically incorrect”;
  • the alternative to conspiracy-based Manicheism by a narrative driven by an ethics of human fragility and care (Corcuff, 2015; Laugier, 2009a).

The serial form seems particularly adapted to the exploration of these tracks by the reinforced narrative possibilities it offers, in the plurality and complexity of characters as well as their follow-up over time, by the diversification of situations, by the succession of episodes, seasons and the attachment to the characters. And the reception modalities opened by the series broaden their circulation in ordinary conversations, conceived as a place of shared moral progress.

The series are thus likely to feed the scholarly conversation in a different way. Beyond the academic fields, the series could contribute, in a dialogue with the “language game” of politics, to the (re)invention of a politics of the ordinary (Laugier ed., 2010; Corcuff, 2018) in a particular period of blurring of previously stabilized landmarks and redefinition of the categories of perception and action (such as “left” and “right”).

Types of Proposals Expected    

Proposals may relate to philosophy and/or social sciences, film studies, American history and culture, epistemology and/or case studies, analysis of production and/or reception of television series. Cross-cutting proposals are welcome. They will have to draw significant resources from Stanley Cavell's work, whether it is his work on film, or other sites of his philosophy (e.g. moral and political philosophy).

The corpus of TV series is open (but the corpus is not open to film).

Submission Procedures

Proposals of between 200 and 400 words, accompanied by a brief biography, can be sent to Philippe Corcuff (philippe.corcuff@sciencespo-lyon.fr) and Sandra Laugier (sandra.laugier@gmail.com)

until 30 November 2018.

The selected proposals will be announced at the end of December 2018.

Articles, in French or English, of between (2500 and 4000 words or between 30000 and 50000 characters including spaces, notes and bibliography) should be sent by 3 May 2019.

Articles must be formatted according to TV/Series instructions:


  • Philippe Corcuff
  • Sandra Laugier

Stanley Cavell’s books

  • Must We mean What We say ? A Book of Essays, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1969; trad. franç. sous le titre Dire et vouloir dire. Livre d’essais, Paris, Cerf, 2009.
  • The World Viewed. Reflections on the ontology of Film, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1971; trad. franç. sous le titre La projection du monde. Réflexions sur l’ontologie du cinéma, Paris, Belin, 1999.
  • The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy, New York, Oxford University Press, 1979; trad. franç. sous le titre Les voix de la raison. Wittgenstein, le scepticisme, la moralité et la tragédie, Paris, Seuil, 1996.
  • Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1981; trad. franç. sous le titre À la recherche du bonheur. Hollywood et la comédie du remariage, Paris, Éditions de l’Étoile/Les Cahiers du cinéma, 1993 ; réédition Paris, Vrin, 2017.
  • This New Yet Unapproachable America. Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1989.
  • Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome. The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism. The Carus Lectures, 1988, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1990.
  • Contesting Tears. The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman, Chicago, University of Chicago Press. 1996.
  • Le cinéma nous rend-il meilleurs?, textes rassemblés par Élise Domenach, Paris, Bayard, 2003.
  • Cities of Words. Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2004; trad. franç. sous le titre Philosophie des salles obscures. Lettres pédagogiques sur un registre de la vie morale, Paris, Flammarion, 2011.
  • Qu’est-ce que la philosophie américaine? De Wittgenstein à Emerson, Paris, Gallimard, 2009.

Other books and articles

  • Ang Ien, Watching Dallas. Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, London, Methuen, 1982.
  • Bauer Nancy, Crary Alice and Sandra Laugier, “Stanley Cavell and The American Contradiction”, The New York Times, July 2, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/02/opinion/stanley-cavell-and-the-american-contradiction.html.
  • Chalvon-Demersay Sabine, « La confusion des conditions. Une enquête sur la série télévisée Urgences », Réseaux, vol. 17, n° 95, 1999, p. 235-283, https://www.persee.fr/doc/reso_0751-7971_1999_num_17_95_2160.
  • Corcuff Philippe, « Le cimetière des éléphants. La philosophie sauvage d’Eddy Mitchell », Cités. Philosophie Politique Histoire, n° 19, 2004, p. 93-102, http://www.cairn.info/revue-cites-2004-3-page-93.htm.
  • Corcuff Philippe, « De l’imaginaire utopique dans les cultures ordinaires. Pistes à partir d’une enquête sur la série télévisée Ally McBeal », in Claude Gautier et Sandra Laugier (éds.), L’ordinaire et le politique, Paris, PUF, collection CURAPP, 2006, p. 71-84.
  • Corcuff Philippe, « Perfectionnisme démocratique et sociologie : interférences et tensions entre la philosophie de Stanley Cavell et la théorie critique de Luc Boltanski », in Laugier Sandra (éd.), La voix et la vertu. Variétés du perfectionnisme moral, Paris, PUF, 2010.
  • Corcuff Philippe, « Nos prétendues "démocraties" en questions (libertaires). Entre philosophie politique émancipatrice et sociologie critique », site Grand Angle, 5 mai 2014, http://www.grand-angle-libertaire.net/nos-pretendues-democraties-en-questions-libertaires-philippe-corcuff/.
  • Corcuff Philippe, « ‘Jeux de langage’ du noir : roman, cinéma et séries », Quaderni. Communication, technologies, pouvoir, n° 88, automne 2015, https://www.cairn.info/revue-quaderni-2015-3-page-21.htm.
  • Corcuff Philippe, « ‘Fargo’, un défi pour l’imagination politique », site AOC (Analyse Opinion Critique), rubrique "Critique", 11 avril 2018a, https://aoc.media/critique/2018/04/12/fargo-defi-limagination-politique/.
  • Corcuff Philippe, « Des mésaventures académiques du couple critique/émancipation en France. Et du possible renouveau d’une théorie critique en sciences sociales », Revue du MAUSS permanente, 5 mai 2018b, http://www.journaldumauss.net/?Des-mesaventures-academiques-du-couple-critique-emancipation-en-France.
  • Corcuff Philippe et Sandra Laugier, « Perfectionnisme démocratique et cinéma : pistes exploratoires », Raisons Politiques, n°38, mai 2010, p. 31-48, https://www.cairn.info/revue-raisons-politiques-2010-2-page-31.htm.
  • Domenach Élise, Stanley Cavell, le cinéma et le scepticisme, Paris, PUF, 2011.
  • Hall Stuart, “Encoding and decoding in the television discourse”, Paper for the Council of Europe Colloquy on “Training in the critical reading of television language”, organized by the Council & the Centre for Mass Communication Research, University of Leicester, September 1973, 20 p., https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-artslaw/history/cccs/stencilled-occasional-papers/1to8and11to24and38to48/SOP07.pdf; « Codage/décodage » [texte de 1973], Réseaux, vol. 12, n° 68, 1994, p. 27-39, http://www.persee.fr/doc/reso_0751-7971_1994_num_12_68_2618.
  • Katz Elihu, « L’héritage de Gabriel Tarde. Un paradigme pour la recherche sur l’opinion et la communication » [communication de septembre 1991], Hermès. Cognition Communication Politique, n° 11-12, 1993, p. 265-274, https://www.cairn.info/revue-hermes-la-revue-1993-1-page-265.htm.
  • Katz Elihu, “Rediscovering Gabriel Tarde”, Political Communication, Vol. 23, issue 3, 2006, p. 263-270, https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1278&context=asc_papers.
  • Laugier Sandra, Une autre pensée politique américaine. La démocratie radicale d’Emerson à Stanley Cavell, Paris, Michel Houdiard, 2004.
  • Sandra Laugier, « Les séries télévisées : éthique du care et adresse au public », Raison publique, n° 11, octobre 2009a, p. 277-88, https://www.raison-publique.fr/IMG/pdf/Series_S._Laugier_Series_et_ethique_du_care_RP11_.pdf.
  • Sandra Laugier, Wittgenstein. Les sens de l’usage, Paris, Vrin, 2009b.
  • Laugier Sandra (éd.), La voix et la vertu. Variétés du perfectionnisme moral, Paris, PUF, 2010.
  • Laugier Sandra, « Vertus ordinaires des cultures populaires », Critique, n° 776-777, janvier-février 2012a, p. 48-61, www.cairn.info/load_pdf.php?ID_ARTICLE=CRITI_776_0048.
  • Laugier Sandra, “Popular Cultures, Ordinary Criticism: A Philosophy of Minor Genres”, MLN (Comparative Literature Issue), Johns Hopkins University Press, Volume 127, n° 5, December 2012b, p. 997-1012, https://www.academia.edu/20466001/Popular_Cultures_Ordinary_Criticism_A_Philosophy_of_Minor_Genres.
  • Laugier Sandra, Why We Need Ordinary Language Philosophy, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2013.
  • Laugier Sandra, “Stanley Cavell, the Ordinary, and the Democratization of Culture(s)” in Paul Standish & Naoko Saito (eds.), Stanley Cavell and Philosophy as Translation: The Truth is Translated, London, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017, p. 25-43.
  • Laugier Sandra et Marc Cerisuelo (éds.), Stanley Cavell. Cinéma et philosophie, Paris, Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2001.
  • Le Grignou Brigitte, Du côté du public. Usages et réceptions de la télévision, Paris, Economica, 2003.
  • Norris Andrew (ed.), The Claim to Community. Essays on Stanley Cavell Political Philosophy, Standford, Standford University Press, 2006.
  • Ogien Albert et Sandra Laugier, Le principe démocratie. Enquête sur les nouvelles formes du politique, Paris, La Découverte, 2014.
  • Pasquier Dominique, « ‘Chère Hélène’. Les usages sociaux des séries collèges », Réseaux, vol. 13, n° 70, 1995, p. 9-39, https://www.persee.fr/doc/reso_0751-7971_1995_num_13_70_2665
  • Shuster Martin, New Television: the Aesthetics and Politics of a Genre, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2017.
  • Taïeb Emmanuel, « The Wire : séries et sciences sociales », Revue française de science politique, août 2017, Vol. 67, n°4, p. 731-736, http://emmanueltaieb.fr/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Taieb-RFSP-67-4-2017.pdf.
  • Tarde Gabriel, L’opinion et la foule [1re éd. : 1901], Paris, PUF, 1989.
  • Wahnich Sophie, La longue patience du peuple. 1792. Naissance de la République, Paris, Payot, 2008.
  • Wittgenstein Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations [manuscripts from 1936-1949], Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1958; Recherches philosophiques [manuscrit de 1936-1949], Paris, Gallimard, 2004.


  • Friday, November 30, 2018


  • Stanley Cavell, série télévisée, éthique, politique, perfectionnisme, démocratie, critique sociale


  • Sandra Laugier
    courriel : contact [at] demoseries [dot] eu
  • Philippe Corcuff
    courriel : philippe [dot] corcuff [at] sciencespo-lyon [dot] fr

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Philippe Corcuff
    courriel : philippe [dot] corcuff [at] sciencespo-lyon [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Perfectionnism and TV series. A tribute to Stanley Cavell (1926-2018) », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, September 26, 2018, https://doi.org/10.58079/10w0

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