Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow

Stanley Cavell,
Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, & London, England: Harvard University Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0 674 01704 8 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Harvard University Press)

This collection of interwoven essays guides the reader through the thoughts of Stanley Cavell since his retirement from regular teaching. The reader unfamiliar with his earlier work is fortunate that Cavell perpetually feels the need “to introduce myself intellectually […] Call this need my identification with the stranger, even, as Emerson almost says, with the immigrant.” A very particular constellation of texts have been the spur to Cavell’s thought over an extended period. The names of the thinkers to whom Cavell constantly returns include Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Martin Heidegger, as well as Henry James, William Shakespeare, the great operas, and the great cinematic comedies and melodramas of the 1930s and 1940s. All these sources figure prominently in this latest collection, which wanders from one to another with the appearance of carefree celebration, leading the inattentive reader to risk missing that this is just as much if not first of all a matter of being perpetually unsettled.

What more than anything ties the collection together is indeed a preoccupation with being unsettled on the one hand, and on the other hand being able to celebrate. Cavell spells these as the threat of “skepticism,” and the ability of “praise” to guard against this threat (3). “Skepticism” might seem to name a particularly uninteresting way into philosophy: the overly logical or absurdly abstract contention that existence as such is without proof or certainty. This, of course, describes the Cartesian method of doubt and the foundation of modern philosophy. But the skeptical possibility places into doubt not only the existence of the world but of myself. What Descartes insists upon is less the famous cogito ergo sum so much as the fact that by saying “I am” I not only assert but make my own existence (a fact). [1] Taken in this way, the anxiety behind skepticism is brought to the fore: what if I do not say, or cease to say, “I am”? Do I then cease to exist; does my existence become thereby less certain; is this the modern condition? Abstract philosophical accounts of or denials of skepticism are in fact only the reflection of this contemporary skeptical anxiety.

Cavell leaves open whether skepticism has historical conditions, that is, whether it begins with Descartes or is simply the consequence of belonging to that species that has fallen into the possession of language (140). In the ancient world, he notes, philosophy, including skeptical philosophy, was not a question of theory but a way of life, and Cavell asks, first of all, whether such a way of life is livable and, secondly, whether today any other way of life is livable (27). And yet Cavell does not shirk from also wondering whether our contemporary condition poses to us the possibility that skeptical anxiety may be disappearing, with our increasing capacity to accommodate without fuss to the evanescence and inexpressiveness of everything (140). And “everything” here includes other minds, skepticism toward which Cavell variously describes as “my denial or annihilation of the other” (150) and as the “drive to the inhuman.” [2] Such an event would be the triumph rather than the overcoming of the skeptical attitude and, we might add, the end of the (human) future.

If skepticism is irreducible, that is, if human existence irreducibly haunts the world, how does celebration or praise guard against this threat? One way into this question is via Nietzsche’s invocation of the man of “tomorrow and the day after tomorrow,” from which Cavell gains his title. In a world where existence has the condition of haunting, Nietzsche thematizes the philosopher as the wanderer, the free spirit whose thought is directed not by today but by tomorrow, or not by tomorrow morning but by something which he calls, evocatively, Übermorgen. Cavell draws this back to Nietzsche’s praise of Emerson, and to Emerson’s thought that there is always “another dawn risen on mid-noon,” and thus to the disconcerting (to philosophers) link between Nietzsche and Emerson that can be called “cheerfulness” (118).

From out of all this Cavell is brought back to what has been perhaps his central thought, that of “moral perfectionism.” From the moment Socrates, the wanderer, thinks philosophy as the dialogue of disagreement over the difference between the honorable and the dishonorable – that is, not as an evaluation of particular deeds as good or bad but rather an evaluation of ways of life in terms of whether they are worthy of praise – from that moment moral perfectionism finds its ground of possibility. This is written, in Emerson, as the aspiration to “our unattained but attainable self,” that is, to a thinking, a wandering, a way of life that is capable of praise not on the terms of today’s haunted shadow-life, but rather in terms of a philosophy which will not arrive until a new dawn rises to cast existence in a new light (120). What is worthy of praise today, then, what must be praised, is that which strives to forge a path toward, or strives to consent to embark on the journey toward, that land which is nowhere here yet will not be anywhere other than where we are right now (which is why, again following Emerson, Cavell is likely to call this place “this new yet unapproachable America,” that is, that America which he has consented to and awaits the arrival of). [3]

Such a mode of thinking might be thought to run counter to today’s hegemonic attitude that prefers to keep its feet planted resolutely on the ground, or might on the other hand be thought to contain affinities to a thought that thinks democracy, if it means anything, always means democracy “yet to come.” But what has this to do with film? Everything, says Cavell. The perfectionisms of Plato and Aristotle, for all that they still may have to teach us, were the domain of the privileged (121). What Cavell cares about is the democratization of perfectionism (which would also be a necessary step toward the perfection of democracy). Carrying out the democratization of perfectionism means struggle, even combat, and if Nietzsche and Emerson are in the vanguard of this struggle, it is in the cinema that the battle has most publicly been waged, for reasons that are intrinsic to cinema, that still new art form and technology, and intrinsic specifically to popular cinema.

This must be clarified: it decidedly does not mean Cavell is praising or calling for a cinema of “headline moral issues,” neither John Sayles nor Ken Loach. He thinks firstly, rather, of what he calls the great “comedies of remarriage” (The Lady EveHis Girl FridayThe Awful Truth, etc.), to which he devoted a deservedly well-known if under-appreciated book. [4]  In these films the protagonists are inevitably far from perfect and rather too urbane to probe overly deeply or sincerely into their own souls or morality. What have they to do then with moral perfectionism? Cavell’s case is that, inhabiting a very modern (urban) world, a skeptical, haunted world, an imperfectly democratic world – that is, our world – these are movies and characters that can no longer rest easy with marriage, that is, living together, conceived as an ideal to be attained but never shown. The romantic comedy that ends in marriage implies legitimating the world today by agreeing never to examine the married world coming tomorrow.

Comedies of re-marriage, on the other hand, all move in one direction, from the threat of divorce toward there-affirmation of life together and life tomorrow, with the knowledge and awareness that today’s reaffirming decision does not mean the same threat might not have to be faced tomorrow or next week. The praise the characters in the end find themselves capable of offering one another is no inoculation against the threats of a skeptical world, but it contains the acknowledgment that by consenting to offer it they are giving themselves the best possibility of inventing for each other their own intimate, singular, way of life. And in the end what holds for a couple – that being together means being constantly open to the possibility of requiring reaffirmation, that is, to reinventing without a road map the form of their collective life – holds just as well for a nation that aspires to consider itself a democracy. In both cases the possibility of giving such reaffirmation and consent relies upon the possibility of acknowledging a genuine wish to do so and finding a form of words capable of expressing this wish, that is, on the possibility of being able to offer authentic praise.

Given this account, what is interesting is that in this latest work Cavell’s most detailed consideration of a film is concerned very much with what may be considered headline moral issues, even if the film which provokes him to such considerations could hardly have been predicted. The film is Vincente Minelli’s The Band Wagon (US, 1953), and the issue is race, which Cavell describes in the American context in as succinct a form as I have read:

For America communism was never as real a specter haunting the United States as the presence of blacks, with their standing, perpetual reminding, or mocking, of its blunted promise of equality, unfinished business. (108)

In “Fred Astaire Asserts the Right to Praise” the question asked is not whether something, in this case the heritage of black dancing, is worthy of praise, but of who has the right to offer it. Cavell is responding to a prior reading by Michael Rogin of the number “A Shine on Your Shoes,” a reading that asserted that, if this is Fred Astaire’s acknowledgment of what he has himself inherited from black tap, it is acknowledgment asdomination, thus acknowledgment that in its very way of being given reproduces the domination that first made it possible for a dancer such as Astaire to exploit this inheritance and at the same time to occlude it.

It is not possible here to demonstrate the subtlety of the reading by which Cavell contests Rogin’s reading: expressed most generally he shows that the acknowledgment played out in the number itself thematizes the very domination of which it stands accused. The scene takes place, it will be recalled, in an amusement arcade that might variously be taken to symbolize Broadway, Hollywood or America, each of these settings suffering their own black history. Astaire seems in the scene to be a man in search of his identity, thus a man afflicted with skeptical anxiety, and, after a series of false starts and dashed hopes, a path to identity is found that travels through an encounter with, that is, a dance with, a black shoeshine man. Cavell takes what follows not only as Astaire’s acknowledgment of an unjust heritage upon which his own career relied, but as demonstrating his awareness that his own acknowledgment of this will inevitably be contestable. The question will inevitably be asked: what does such acknowledgment do? Or, rather, how can it really undo anything that has already been done? But does the inevitability of such questions necessarily make the gesture inexpressive or false? We are speaking, after all, not about an apology but of praise. To offer today, somewhat smugly, a “critique” of such praise offered by Astaire risks missing the very poignancy of the moment. Cavell locates this poignancy in the fact that the moment of acknowledgment does not result in a movie in which these two men co-star:

I have called it perfect in recognition and execution. I mean that it demonstrates that these two can dance together – for a while – on an equal basis, equally choreographed, equally standing, equally kneeling, equally happy with the knowledge of their achievement in their joint work, a momentary achievement of the Kingdom of Ends, a traumatic glimpse of Utopia. But it demonstrates at the same time that they cannot leave the scene of entertainment together, and cannot for no good reason. (78)

Rogin’s reading contested Astaire’s right, given his own history, to offer praise. Cavell asks, on the contrary, whether we have the right to withhold praise from Astaire on the grounds such acknowledgment produces only momentary reconciliation, that trauma is only momentarily undone, but the situation not reversed. This is to read the dance between these two men not as illustrating an empty ritual but as posing a question to us, that is, as a challenge to us to respond, to continue the conversation, to continue to search for paths to a new future.

Not everything has happened in the Arcade, but something has; it is my judgment that enough has happened there to warrant our consent to the justice of it, that it is good enough to warrant praise. (82)

Good enough, that is, to provoke or invite a response that, for all the ambivalence of the moment, celebrates the perfection aspired to in it.

The significance of the scene derives in part from the media of cinema and dance in which it is expressed, and which together, in Cavell’s accounting, add up to philosophy. It is not a question of measurable improvements in race relations or the like, any more than the comedies of remarriage are examples of moral perfectionism because viewing audiences are measurably less likely to submit to divorce. Rather it is in the infinitely subtle details of the ways in which they constitute “passionate utterances” that praise for these films should either be offered or withheld. “Passionate utterance” is the name Cavell gives to a species of performative expression devoted, precisely, to perlocutionary rather than illocutionary effects. Whereas performative (illocutionary) utterances do what theysay (“I pronounce you husband and wife”), perlocution refers to all those things that utterances do without what they do being necessarily contained in what they say (“I love you”). Perlocution, with its potentially infinitely proliferating consequences, is what Austin deliberately excluded, more or less, from his consideration of performatives, a limit that Cavell finds catastrophic (172). A clue to the complexities, difficulties, threats, risks, and possibilities contained in passionate utterances is indicated by Cavell’s concise account of the specific difference they name:

A performative utterance is an offer of participation in the order of law. And perhaps we can say: A passionate utterance is an invitation to improvisation in the disorders of desire. (19)

It was stated earlier, without offering any grounds for the assertion, that cinema has, perhaps, a privileged place in the democratization of moral perfectionism. The justification for this assertion would be, in part, technological: the nature of the medium itself as bearer and inventor of a tradition, which is equally to say, the constitution of a public for whom cinema might offer something worth inheriting. Film, dance, and philosophy tend, at their best, to embody perfect examples of passionate utterance, that is, moments of expressiveness capable of challenging us to a change of heart. We might say, then, that the challenge posed implicitly in every case of such utterances is how to marry perfection with “improvisation in disorder.” This is the definition and the mystery of desire itself. The irreducible presence of skepticism today threatens such a challenge with the possibility it is no longer audible or can no longer be taken up. What is to be made, for instance, of the fact that the films posing this challenge are nearly all half a century old? Yet one hope by which we might guard against this threat lies in the possibility of finding the means of praising, for example, Preston Sturges, Fred Astaire, or Stanley Cavell.

Daniel Ross
Monash University, Australia.


[1] Cf., Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism, Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1988, pp. 106–9.
[2] Ibid., p. 26.
[3] Cf., Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein, Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1989.
[4] Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Created on: Tuesday, 7 March 2006 | Last Updated: 7-Mar-06

About the Author

Daniel Ross

About the Authors

Daniel Ross

Daniel Ross completed his doctorate on Heidegger and the political at Monash University. He is the author of Violent Democracy and co-director of The Ister (2004).View all posts by Daniel Ross →