The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema: Turning Anew to the Ontology of Film a Half Century after The World Viewed

David LaRocca (ed.),
The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema: Turning Anew to
the Ontology of Film a Half Century after The World Viewed
Bloomsbury Academic, New York, 2020
ISBN: 9781501349164

The two decades before his death in 2018 saw an extraordinary rise in the reputation of American “ordinary language” philosopher Stanley Cavell. Although always an established figure in philosophical circles, for the long period of cultural post-modernism his work was duly noted but confined to the past. It was understood – to consider specifically his contribution to the visual arts – that he had been influential on art historian Michael Fried, but then Fried too did not write on the art of the time and certainly did not shape the sensibility of the period. Then around 2000 a dramatic shift occurred. Fried’s great rival, the art critic and historian Rosalind Krauss, co-founder of October, undoubtedly the most important art journal of the past 40 tears, defected from that post-modernism she had helped theorise and at least partly introduced into the English-speaking world. In the Roundtable at the end of the massive Art since 1900, Krauss surprises her fellow contributors by declaring that, “without the logic of a medium, art is in danger of falling into kitsch”. [1] We can almost hear the collective intake of breath as she says it. Isn’t this to repeat the argument of Clement Greenberg’s ‘Art and Kitsch’, and isn’t Greenberg the figure before all others against whom the October project defined itself? This is the question posed by one of the other contributors to the book, Hal Foster, when he finally responds to Krauss; but in fact it is Cavell who is allowing Krauss to say this – and after this point Krauss and Fried, instead of being rivals, are effectively on the same side against the anti-aesthetic post-modernists.

At the same time too there was the rise of the new academic discipline of film-philosophy. Its premise was not the application of pre-existing philosophical concepts to film – this had already been done – but instead the taking seriously of the idea that films themselves can think. It is to imagine that films are already philosophical themselves, or at least it is necessary to philosophise not on but with them. The founding or at least initiating texts were Gilles Deleuze’s The Movement-Image and The Time-Image, which were published in French in the mid-1980s and translated into English soon after. And there were Deleuze’s own acknowledged precursors in Henri Bergson, who wrote on film in the early twentieth century, and André Bazin, who began writing film criticism at the end of the war. But soon after Deleuze, attention turned to Cavell’s several volumes on cinema, which were seen largely as distractions in his career when they first appeared. They were nevertheless always the most popular of Cavell’s books because of their subject matter, particularly so in the case of Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, which takes up a series of Hollywood romantic comedies of the 1930s and ’40s in which a couple does not simply get married for the first time but gets remarried. This was followed by Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman, which for a long time was an embattled book, criticised for its author’s claim that he could somehow speak for the “unknown” women at the centre of their dramas. But perhaps the book of Cavell’s that has benefitted most from the rise of film-philosophy is his The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, which for a considerable period was marginal in his oeuvre, and in which he seeks to theorise the “scepticism” and its “overcoming” that were the subject of his doctoral thesis. [2]

The World Viewed is undoubtedly an eccentric book, both within Cavell’s oeuvre and in its own terms. First, it is unusual in that, as a relatively newly appointed lecturer at Harvard, he did not immediately attempt to turn his thesis into a book. Instead, after the essays of Must We Mean What We Say?, he wrote The World Viewed and The Senses of Walden. And The World Viewed, for all of its subsequent importance and respectability, is undoubtedly strangely argued and organised. After its opening chapters outlining Cavell’s conception of the photographic and filmic image, there is a long sequence of chapters on such seemingly disparate and unrelated subjects as ‘Baudelaire and the Myth of Film’, ‘The Military Man and the Woman’, ‘The World as a Whole: Colour’ and ‘The Acknowledgement of Silence’, in the middle of which there is what Cavell calls an ‘Excursus’ on post-war American painting. The second, expanded edition of the book, which appeared in 1979, included a long, slightly more methodologically ambitious appendix, ‘More of The World Viewed‘, in which Cavell seeks to correct the perceived misunderstandings of the book, although it is little more systematic than the first edition. The book, in fact, as much as anything else, as Cavell admits on several occasions, is an autobiographical account of his own experience of watching films from childhood on and the way they have shaped both his life and his thinking. As he writes in the ‘Preface’: “Memories of movies are strand over strand with memories of my life”. [3] Hence, before Cavell publishes a substantial version of his own philosophical system – this would have to wait until The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Morality, Skepticism and Tragedy in 1979 – film was decisive for the formation of his intellectual project. Indeed, and this is part of the meaning of the narrative of the book going right up to the point when Cavell begins writing it, it is not so much that Cavell retrospectively philosophises film from a distance as that film teaches him how to philosophise it.

Today The World Viewed is undoubtedly one of the central texts of so-called film-philosophy. Certainly, there have been any number of colloquia, special issues of journals and even scholarly monographs on the book. And, much of the time – and this goes even for Cavell’s two other books on cinema – what is sought is somehow to apply Cavell’s original “findings” to other case studies. But, as well as this typical “application” of the work of a major thinker, as though it stated some empirical law, there have increasingly been attempts to read Cavell’s writings in their own terms. This has constituted quite a change with regard to The World Viewed, which has seemed both unrigorous and perhaps even inconsistent in its methodology. Nevertheless, a younger cohort of writers, not of Cavell’s generation or even the generation immediately after, has taken up the challenge of thinking at once the systematicity of the book and how it is consistent with Cavell’s major philosophical concerns. In truth, this project was begun with William Rothman and Marian Keane’s Reading Cavell’s The World Viewed: A Philosophical Perspective on Film. It is an extraordinarily close, chapter-by-chapter reading of Cavell’s text, almost like that shot-by-shot découpage of just five of Hitchcock’s films in Rothman’s Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze. However, in some ways, the exegetical rigour and completeness of Rothman and Keane’s book is also its limitation: it is a reading that remains too close to the original to bring out its deepest and most productive complexities and contradictions.

Now for a new audience comes David LaRocca’s edited collection The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema: Turning Anew to the Ontology of Film a Half-Century after The World Viewed. It is certainly something of a festschrift put together in the wake of Cavell’s death, featuring just about every prevailing expert on him. The eminence of the contributors, it has to be said, constitutes something of an honour to Cavell, and what they have to say is undoubtedly influenced by the commemorative occasion of their writing. (LaRocca has also edited a follow-up volume, Inheriting Stanley Cavell: Memories, Dreams, Reflections, whose brief is more speculative and whose contributors may be less constrained by the fact that they are not to be in the first edited collection on him after his death.) In fact, what we seek to do here is not so much review the book or offer our evaluation of it – it would seem like an obvious case of lese majesté to do so – as offer a summary of it in terms of its contribution to film-philosophy, before going on to propose our own reading of The World Viewed in its light. This is hopefully not to slight or pass over LaRocca’s collection. The expertise of its contributors speaks for itself, and it will undoubtedly become, if not the original source book for commentary on The World Viewed – that honour will always belong to Rothman and Keane – at least the definitive record of the scholars of Cavell and what they had to say about The World Viewed at the time of Cavell’s death. Or, to put it another way, the collection will serve as further evidence of the canonisation of The World Viewed and its centrality to the discipline of film-philosophy or the philosophy of film.

The crucial aspect of The World Viewed – both the advance it made on previous arguments about film and what was so difficult to grasp about it at the time it was published – is the new relationship it posits between the spectator and what they are looking at in the photographic or filmic image. Cavell follows Bazin, Siegfried Kracauer and Erwin Panofsky in arguing for a “realist” conception of its relationship to the world. What we look at in a photographic or filmic image was undoubtedly once there before the lens. As Cavell puts it in the chapter ‘Photograph and Screen’: “A painting is a world; a photograph is of a world”. [4] But then, as Cavell goes on to caution – and this is the beginning of his decisive contribution – if what we are looking at was once present, we nevertheless do not occupy the same time and space as it. The viewer is, as it were, “set back” from what they see so that they do not so much look at what is in the photographic or filmic image as look out through it. We gaze upon a world either printed on paper and held at a distance in our hands or projected on a screen in a dark room. This how Cavell puts it: “When a photograph is cropped, the rest of the world is cut out. The implied presence of the rest of the world, and its explicit rejection, are as essential in the experience of a photograph as what it explicitly rejects”. [5] This can come close to arguments that had just begun at the time Cavell wrote his book about the spectator’s identification with the gaze of the camera, with the implication that it is only a particular construction of reality, put forward by such theorists as Christian Metz, Stephen Heath and Laura Mulvey. But there is no mention of this in Cavell, even in the second edition of the book, by which time he would have had more time to take this into account. Indeed, we might even suggest that Cavell writes against this conception of cinema in holding out for what he calls the “acknowledgement” [6] by the spectator of what they look at.

No‘l Carroll and Thomas Wartenberg especially write well on this in LaRocca’s collection. In particular, Carroll draws an important connection between Cavell’s conception of the photographic and cinematic image and his seemingly unrelated notion of “acknowledgement”. He begins by contrasting the situations of the viewer before the photograph or cinema screen and the spectator either sitting in a theatre or standing in front of a painting. The decisive difference is that, in contrast to theatre and painting, the viewer of a photograph or film is automatically set back from what they are looking at, as an effect of the technical apparatus of the camera through which the scene was shot. As opposed to theatre, but also as opposed to painting, they cannot be present at he same time and place as what they are looking at, and this applies even to the one taking the photograph or shooting the film. The camera or cinema screen always comes between them and what they are looking at. As Carroll writes in ‘Revisiting The World Viewed‘, making clear this aspect of Cavell’s argument: “Films relieve us from the burden of responding because we are screened from The World Viewed. We can never help or hinder whatever is going on in The World Viewed“. [7] As a result, as opposed to watching a play, it cannot be a matter of putting ourselves in the position of what we are looking at so that we might identify with them. That is to say, although in drama as conventionally staged the spectator is separated from what they are looking at, it is still in principle possible that they could come forward and present themselves before the characters on the stage. They share the same time and space, and indeed in particular set-ups of the stage, most notably in Ancient Greece and some forms of contemporary drama, it is possible that they do directly confront one another. This possibility of “acknowledgement” is the topic of Cavell’s well-known essay on Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear‘; and his point there is that, just as Lear must acknowledge his daughter Cordelia, so the spectator must acknowledge the events of the play and the possibility of Lear acknowledging Cordelia, even though he chooses not to. And, although the audience is actually set back from the action, it is just this distance that allows them to overcome it. It is this Cavell means by “theatre defeating theatre” in the following passage from ‘The Avoidance of Love’: “Theatre does not expect us simply to stop theatricalising; it knows we can theatricalise its conditions as we can theatricalise any others. But in giving us a place within which our hiddenness and silence and separation are accounted for, it gives us a chance to stop”. [8]

Similarly – this is the subject of ‘Excursus’ in The World Viewed –the spectator is not automatically set back in relation to a painting. Indeed, at least at first – this is what Cavell means when he speaks particularly of modern painting’s “frontedness” [9] – they all too obviously stand face-to-face. Proper acknowledgement, which is as we say the overcoming of a prior distance, is therefore not possible. So that, in Cavell’s words – but here he is undoubtedly channelling Fried – painting, if not automatically set back as a result of its technique or technology, has to set itself back. This will be Fried’s soon-to-arrive notion of “absorption”, “embodiedness” or even “facingness” in the sequence of art-history books he was to write from 1980 on, but it was something that Fried was already teaching classes on at the time Cavell wrote his book. It is why, in fact, Fried in his famous essay ‘Art and Objecthood’ does not regard cinema as a proper art. It is because in it, unlike those Minimalist or literalist objects he condemns, there is not even the possibility of overcoming or failing to overcome the distance between the spectator and what they are looking at. As Fried writes: “Because cinema escapes theatre – automatically, as it wereÉ the fact that what is provided is a refuge from theatre and not a triumph over it – means that the cinema, even at its most experimental, is not a modernist art”. [10] All this, of course, would appear to raise a problem for Fried’s later taking up of photography as an art in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, but that book is written in the wake of The World Viewed, in which it does become evident that photography and film are caught up in scepticism and its overcoming. This is not merely because by the time Fried came to write about it in 2008 the technology of digitisation allowed photography to be put together like a painting, but because even in pre-digital times the technical “support” of the camera did not invariably bring about this setting back – and therefore both this setting back and its overcoming had to be achieved as an effect of art – and thus we were already involved in the problem of scepticism.

Almost all of the essays in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema address the relationship of photography and film to theatre in some way. It is, after all, the deepest subject of The World Viewed, that which is its most abiding contribution, even if its details remain unresolved. Here is Robert Sinnerbrink in his essay ‘Between Scepticism and Moral Perfectionism: On Cavell’s Melodrama of the Unknown Woman’ setting out how the problematic of scepticism applies to photography and cinema, despite the technology that would appear to spare them: “Cavell has placed the problem of scepticism – or loss of belief or conviction in our capacity to know the world, to understand oneself, and to acknowledge others – at the centre of his philosophical engagement with cinema”. [11] And here is Kyle Stevens in his essay ‘The World Heard’ further specifying how, against the apparent “automatism” of the apparatus, it is the case that in the historical playing out of the medium this distance of the spectator from what they are looking at has not always been guaranteed: “[Of the woman in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour] Her self-reflection dramatises the inability to extend our consciousness into the world but to feel that it exists in it, nonetheless. We might see it as a reflection of the threat of scepticism that preoccupies much of Cavell’s work”. [12] Indeed, at least one commentator on Cavell, David Macarthur, has suggested that Cavell cannot logically allow the possibility of acknowledgement if we are to take seriously the “automatist” nature of the medium. As Macarthur writes in his ‘Living our Scepticism of Others through Film: Remarks in Light of Cavell’: “The clear implication is that since we are mechanically absent from the screened world there is no demand on us to acknowledge the tragedies and follies we witness, but that, as dictated by the very condition of film, we can do nothing about”. [13] Certainly, Cavell himself has to propose an almost oxymoronic formulation in his argument when he proposes that cinema is a matter at once of “ontology” and “history”: “The complexities [of the different meanings of ‘automatism’] are at once historical and ontological”. [14] It is intriguing here, to begin with, that Cavell can use the word “ontology” with regard to cinema, when the idea of some particular medium or artform having an ontology sounds like Greenberg. But, then, how could this ontology be “historicised” when the technical apparatus of photography and film appears so determinative? How could photography and cinema possibly embody both of these qualities and not just the one or other of them?

Allow us, therefore, to set out the steps whereby the ontology of cinema becomes involved in the modernist question of how to maintain conviction in the medium. How can it be neither a matter of setting the spectator back from the screen nor of the spectator simply being present with what they see, so that the question of scepticism is properly raised? These questions are the subject most especially of Sinnerbrink’s essay ‘Between Scepticism and Moral Perfectionism’ and Mathew Abbott’s essay ‘On Film in Reality: Cavellian Reflections on Scepticism, Belief and Documentary’ in LaRocca’s book. In fact, it is in those chapters following Cavell’s setting out of the “ontology” or at least “automatist” conception of cinema, which as we say can strike the reader as merely anecdotal or biographical, that Cavell tells the story of the historicisation of the media of photography and film. More particularly, what he relates there is the gradual closing of the gap between the camera and the world or the screen and the spectator, the fact that increasingly it is not a matter of looking onto a world that is unaware of being beheld, but a world that is already photographic and cinematic and thoroughly aware of being beheld. This is captured for Cavell by the way that a photographer has to click their fingers and yell out “Watch the birdie!”, in order to distract their subjects from their consciousness of being photographed: “The command is given not to achieve the unnaturalness of theatre but precisely to give the impression of the natural”. [15] But it is a consciousness of the image that is already in the world itself, a kind of implicit gaze onto things that means that it is no longer possible to look onto the world without the world looking back. Perhaps the most revealing example of this is pornography, which Cavell surprisingly addresses, although it did undoubtedly enter public consciousness in the late 1960s, around the time Cavell was writing his book. The hypocrisy of pornography, of course, is that its apparently intimate and authentic actions are absolutely staged for the camera and would not take place without it. And Cavell’s example of this is the notorious opening shot of the naked Brigette Bardot at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt: “In the passage in Contempt during which Brigitte Bardot turns her bright body in bed as part of a questioning of her lover, she is flooded in changing centrefold or calendar hues. Godard perceives here not merely our taste for mild pornography but that our tastes and convictions in love have become pornographised”. [16]

However, it is in the sequence of chapters dealing with the different moments of Hollywood cinema that Cavell outlines the gradual merging of the image and the world, which opens up the possibility both of scepticism and its overcoming. (It is this history, which is to be understood not merely as a history of cinema but as the putting of cinema into history, that Cavell calls modernism.) This history, whose systematicity is rarely remarked but is fully the equal in inventiveness and diagnostic power as Cavell’s identification of the genre of the comedy of remarriage in Pursuits of Happiness, takes place in three stages. In the first moment of cinema – which we might even call pre-historical and pre-modernist – we have the figure of the star. The chief example of the star Cavell provides in his chapter ‘Audience, Actor and Star’ is Humphrey Bogart. The star, as he contends there, is a solitary or singular figure who lives in a world that is entirely different from our own and is absolutely unaware of anybody else, insofar as we can only look upon them from afar through a cinema screen: “The figure ‘Bogart’ names is not only in our presence, we are in his, in the only sense we ever could be [watching him on film]. That is all the ‘presence’ he has”. [17] In a sense – and this is to complexify any pure automatism, insofar as it is already to “allegorise” it [18] – everyone and everything is a star in early cinema, to the extent that it reveals people and worlds to which we never before had access. Then, in the next moment of cinema, we have, with the popularisation of the form and the development of commercial formulae to give audiences what they want, the arrival of “types” and “genres”. Cavell adduces a considerable number of these in The World Viewed: the Western, Gangster film, Musical, Romance, the Vamp, Straight Girl, Family Man, Villain. And it is at this point, we suggest, that we fall into scepticism, for these types and genres are not only meant to be recognisable to audiences, but embody a kind of knowing wink to them, an irreducible element of parody or exaggeration, a consciousness or self-awareness of being looked at. Sandra Laugier in her essay ‘The Conception of Film for the Subject of Television: Moral Education of the Public and a Return to an Aesthetics of the Ordinary’ puts it well: “Cavell teaches us that an ordinary aesthetics of cinema must defend not the specificity of the individuals who created a work, nor the singularity of the work, but, rather, our common aesthetic experience – for example the experience of an ordinary movie viewer who goes to see a movie less for its director than for the actors in it, whom he or she liked in earlier films and now wants to see in new incarnations”. [19]

The final type or moment of the actor Cavell points to is the most complex or at least the most ambivalent. It is what he calls “individual”, [20] and it corresponds to the time of “Neo-Hollywood”, that period of the decline of the movie studios, the exhaustion of the various narrative genres and the end not only of stars but of those character actors like Walter Brennan or Joan Fontaine, who were known for playing particular kinds of roles. Rather, in films like Bullit, The Graduate and In the Heat of the Night, made around the time of the writing of The World Viewed, we no longer have the “singularity” [21] of the star or the “separateness” [22] of the type, but the “indistinctness” or even “interchangeability” [23] of the individual: the actor who is no different from people in everyday life or, to put it the other way around, people in everyday life who are no different from actors. Cavell understands this as a further closing of the gap between the screen and the world, the loss of the automatist “magic” [24] of films to show us another reality that comes from far away. Now the world that films depict is merely our world, with characters who resemble us and scenarios that are like our own. We simply see ourselves on screen with nothing that comes between us. This is Cavell in The World Viewed: “These figures no more lend themselves to study than they do to imitation. To impersonate one is to impersonate all”. [25] And this situation – and Cavell’s diagnosis of it – is taken up and repeated in several essays in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema to address aspects of contemporary film. LaRocca in ‘On the Aesthetics of Amateur Filmmaking in Narrative Cinema: Negotiating Home Movies after Adam’s Rib’ speaks of Michael Haneke’s Caché as exposing the “theatrical space of the domestic sphere”, [26] Laugier in ‘The Conception of Film for the Subject of Television’ speaks of such TV series as ER, Friends and The West Wing as revealing the “integration of characters into the viewers’ ordinary and familiar lives” [27] and Shawn Loht in ‘Film Exists in a State of Philosophy’ appropriately speaks of the main character in Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant as an “android built to be immortal and perfectly rational, yet who lacks certain human features”. [28] For Cavell, undoubtedly the culminating example of this radical scepticism is Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which in the extended close-up of the captured Norman in his cell at the end we have the absolute coming together of the film and reality in something of a parody of proper acknowledgement. In Cavell’s dismissive words from towards the end of The World Viewed: “The close-up, which used to admit the mysteriousness of the human face, now winks a penny-ante explanation at us. Hitchcock parodies this with the long final close shot of Tony Perkins in Psycho, making a mystery of himself”. [29]

However, it is at this point that a fascinating ambiguity enters the argument of The World Viewed, which is perhaps not entirely recognised by Cavell. It arises because, for all of his diagnosis of a fall into scepticism with the “individuality” of Neo-Hollywood, it is also at this point that, consistent with Cavell’s other writings, both scepticism and its overcoming for the first time become possible. Let us, then, go back and characterise in more detail that “acknowledgement” Cavell sees at stake in Shakespeare’s King Lear. In the opening scene, Lear refuses – this is the “avoidance” of the title of Cavell’s essay – properly to accept the love of his youngest daughter Cordelia, as opposed to the merely formal and later-to-be-revealed insincere declarations of her sisters Regan and Goneril. And the question for us looking on is whether we recognise that the sincerity of Cordelia is sincere for all of her inarticulateness and Lear himself is capable of recognising it and thereby can be seen to be refusing to do so. It is a situation that newly arises because Lear is stepping down from the throne, and therefore becoming an ordinary man, which itself represents both the new modernity of democracy and the potential of the modern stage itself. And it is Cavell’s argument that it is the distance imposed by the stage, the fact that we are set back from what we look at, that allows the crossing of this distance that is acknowledgement. It is this sceptical distance that allows its overcoming. As Cavell puts it in ‘The Avoidance of Love’: “But doesn’t the fact that we do not or cannot go up to [the actors] just mean that we do not or cannot acknowledge them? One may feel like saying here: The acknowledgement cannot be completed. But this does not mean that acknowledgement is impossible in a theatre. Rather it shows what acknowledging, in a theatre, is. And acknowledging in a theatre shows what acknowledgement in actuality is”. [30] Or, again, to sharpen the paradox, we might say that, if it is this distance that allows its overcoming, it is also its overcoming that brings about this distance, for acknowledgement makes us not merely the same, but the same in our difference, always with more to say or know. Or, indeed, to put this still another way – drawing this time on Cavell’s philosophy of language – conversation with another is not a simple resolution of difference, but as well an agreement to keep on working to resolve any misunderstandings, and outlining the rules to do so. Each new line exchanged between us is an attempt to clarify what has been said before from some position outside, which will in turn have to be clarified by another coming after. Hence Cavell’s long-running fascination with comedy, which embodies the paradox of a statement that at once sums up what has been said before, as though the last possible statement, and has to be further explained, like a series of ascending punchlines.

Acknowledgement is never a distance between people, but neither is it merely having no distance between people, for that is another form of scepticism, as Cavell makes clear when he writes: “The head-on effort to defeat scepticism allows us to think we have explanations where in fact we lack them. More important, in fighting the sceptic too close in, as it were, the anti-sceptic takes over – or encourages – the major condition of the sceptic’s argument, viz., that the problem of knowledge about other minds is the problem of certainty”. [31] Rather, we might say, acknowledgement, the “overcoming” of scepticism, is the aporia or circularity between scepticism and its overcoming. It introduces both the distance between us and the world and allows its overcoming, one because of the other. This is again why the automatic setting back of the spectator without any possibility of overcoming it is not properly to play out the logic of scepticism; and, indeed, Fried would be right in his dismissal of cinema, if this were all that was at stake in it. However, the true narrative of The World Viewed is how this initial automatism is “historicised”, that is, more than simply being put into history, or this is what being put into history would entail, explicated in its aporia. To say this more slowly, what The World Viewed narrates is the is the putting of this “ontological” automatism into time, which also means – as Cavell understands it – in retrospect it has never been simply ontological, never existed outside of history. As he makes the point in The World Viewed: “I am prepared to modify my claims about film’s modernism by saying either that movies from their beginning have existed in a state of modernismÉ or else that movies from their beginning have existed in two states, one modern, one traditional, sometimes running parallel to and at varying distances from one another”. [32] But the question this also raises is what is the relation between ontology and history in The World Viewed, and beyond that in Cavell in general? It is undoubtedly true that the ontological, as Cavell says, is not to be grasped outside of history, is in a sense historical; but can it also reciprocally be said that this history would not be possible outside of ontology, or to put it another way outside of the inexplicable advent of scepticism and its overcoming? For, we would suggest, it is just this problem of scepticism that leads to modernism; and it is modernism that is history in Cavell, as opposed to the tradition of the pre-modern, which has none.

But to begin to unravel this more slowly still, it is implied in The World Viewed that, if the “individuality” of Neo-Hollywood ends in a pornographic scepticism in which the world we see on the screen is the same as the one we inhabit, it is also this that makes possible the acknowledgement that would be the overcoming of this scepticism. This is only gestured to in Cavell’s text – it is never proposed explicitly – but we would want to suggest that Cavell writes his book in a spirit of “instruction”, [33] by which we mean that he would not have written a book on cinema, and more profoundly his own experience of it, without the implication that it is what led him to think the limits to scepticism. And by this we mean to attribute not some unfounded, Candide-like optimism to his project, but that it is speaking or writing as such that is the “overcoming” of scepticism in the ordinary language model of how we make sense of the world. That is, at each turn of a conversation the party whose turn it is attempts to state what they have in common with the other. They inevitably fail to, can only put forward something different, but the act of speaking itself – this is the whole Wittgensteinian emphasis on “action” that Cavell makes his own – is the agreement. [34] Any relationship between them lies as much in the saying as the said. And, similarly, in The World Viewed, it is the very speaking of the lapse into scepticism with Neo-Hollywood that necessarily implies a certain space outside or after it, which is the time of the writing of Cavell’s book itself. Again, this would not be unrelated to Cavell’s notion of “theatre defeating theatre”, in which, although theatre sets up a situation in which the spectator is placed before what they see, it is through the remarking of this that a certain space is opened up onto it: “When society becomes fully theatricalised, cinema re-establishes our sense of reality by asserting its own powers of drama”. [35] And along the same lines in language a certain “subjectivity” – we are tempted to say a Cartesian subject – is brought about by the recognition that all is language: “The camera is outside the subject as I am outside my language. The abyss of ready insincerity is fixed, but that is what makes truthfulness possible”. [36]

A number of the essays in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema point to particular moments in Cavell’s work as part of their proposal that a new, post-automatist conception of subjectivity is possible there. Garret Stewart in his essay ‘”Assertions in Technique”: Tracking the Medial “Thread” in Cavell’s Filmic Ontology’ speaks of the way that the credits at the end of Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, about which Cavell has written, “signal a better day for the TV weatherman after his allegorical ordeal of being stuck in a rut”. [37] Similarly, Kyle Stevens in ‘The World Heard’ makes clear via Heidegger that Cavell’s last period of Neo-Hollywood individuality is not just sceptical but also the overcoming of scepticism: “It is only through such anxiety [of where one’s existence begins and ends] that ‘the world as world, into which we are thrown, can manifest itself'”. [38] Perhaps a contributor LaRocca might have considered is the Australian film scholar Lisa Trahair, who in an important essay ‘Being on the Outside: Cinematic Automatism in Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed‘ puts forward a typology of the various ways in which Cavell uses the notion of “automatism” in The World Viewed. The first is “associated with Bazinian realism”, the second is “as the “mechanism responsible for giving us views of the world” and the third is to refer to the “different ways in which medium is put to use in traditional and modernist art”. [39] Trahair is pointing to a certain inconsistency or unresolvedness on the part of Cavell with the term “automatism” being used in three apparently irreconcilable ways. The only thing we would add is that these uses might be not so much inconsistent as correspond to those three different periods in the history of cinema that Cavell outlines: the first to that in which automatism is automatic and scepticism is not at stake; the second to that in which acknowledgement fails and there is a fall into scepticism; and the third to that in which automatism is striven for again and scepticism can be overcome. Indeed, we even have something of this typology or chronology in the work of Rothman, who in both Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze and Documentary Film Classics outlines a similar movement from the pre-sceptical through a theatrical scepticism and on to a finally cinematic post-scepticism. [40]

However, again, if in one way we can point to a certain chronology in Cavell’s argument, in another way we cannot. This is not only because, as we say, after that initial positing of scepticism, scepticism has always been at stake, with what comes before it only able to be understood in terms of it. (This is why, for example, after The World Viewed, Cavell could go on to write Pursuits of Happiness, in which the question of scepticism and its overcoming can already be seen in films from the 1930s, which is a time he otherwise characterises as that of genres and types, which are simply and therefore not yet sceptical.) It is more that – following on from this –the whole problematic of scepticism and its overcoming is a kind of radical doubling gesture that creates something out of nothing. That is to say – and here we go back to Cavell on Descartes – doubt is an absolute imagining, something “purely fictitious” [41] in Descartes’ words; but, more than this, if it allows the regaining of certainty through its thinking, it also exists only as a retrospective fiction. It is a pure aporetic invention, with doubt and certainty each bringing the other about, so that is what now stands in for another. The world is no longer merely “indifferent”, but possible only through the overcoming of a prior doubt, just as the “ordinary” in Cavell is to be attained only after a great deal of perfectionist effort.

It is this “doubling”, in which something comes out of nothing through the positing of a kind of “transcendental” condition for things, that we see not only in Cavell but also in Fried. To start with Fried, the brilliance of Absorption and Theatricality is that the paintings of Chardin and Greuze, depicting such everyday scenes as a family reading a Bible, a boy playing cards and a girl at her lesson, are no longer merely modest and unassertive. Rather, their introspection and unawareness of the spectator must be seen as a refusal of the ostentation and self-consciousness of the approximately contemporaneous Rococo. Their apparent indifference and unworldliness cannot be grasped directly, but only as standing in for something else in something of a double negation. We see the same thing in Cavell’s thinking of women’s melodramas, which at once brings about and does away with their central characters’ “unknownness”. That is to say, Cavell argues that in such films as George Cukor’s Gaslight and King Vidor’s Stella Dallas the woman’s “unknownness” is meant to be recognised by him, but it is also the case that this “unknownness” would not exist unless it was recognised by him. The woman’s “unknownness” is possible only because of the critic who sees it, while the world of the film takes the place of the woman’s “unknownness”. With this positing of scepticism, we enter into the symbolic order, in which one thing (doubt, the unknown woman) cannot be spoken of so that all else can be. And this symbolic order, in which everything has meaning, even indifference, unrecognisability, unknownness, is the advent of modernity, in which artistic convincingness is no longer guaranteed as in tradition (although strictly speaking, it is not a matter of artistic conviction in tradition), but has to be regained at every moment after a previous doubt. It is the historical arrival of modernism, whose occurrence can be traced in science, politics, philosophy and art; but it is also the pure “performative” doubling of the world by a hypothesis that is at once undemonstrable and irrefutable.

Something close to this is hinted at in several of the essays in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema: that it is not a matter of some empirical philosophical precept to be followed, not because this is somehow an inappropriate use of philosophy, but because philosophy is fundamentally not like this. Philosophy does not work through the slow accumulation of evidence, but rather makes the world over in its image. It proposes a transcendental condition – or even a transcendental aporia, as in Cavell’s doubt and the overcoming of doubt – which means that the world as such, in its very “ordinariness”, can only serve as evidence for it. It is not some approximate match made between film and philosophy to be tested through particular instances – Cavell rejects this conception of philosophy – but film is philosophy. Paradoxically, it is the very unempirical nature of philosophy that means that film is not some lesser version of philosophy, as is usually understood, but exactly philosophy in the fullest sense of the word, caught up in the same aporetic questions as philosophy itself. Stephen Mulhall in his ‘What a Genre of Film Might Be: Medium, Myth and Morality’ speaks of the way that “Cavell’s account [of the genre of the comedy of remarriage] is just as much a reconstructive version of it as are the versions embodied in any of the films”. [42] Similarly, Kyle Stevens in his ‘The World Heard’ will cite Cavell in The Claim of Reason speaking of the way that “they all [his works] seemed to [him] part of one another”. [43] Again, it is not a matter of applying some philosophy, but of a mutual or simultaneous coming about of both film and philosophy as the result of a kind of “philosophical” event or big bang. We are able to know of this “philosophy” through the particular fields in which it is evidenced – politics, science, art and philosophy – but it is not simply the same as them. They are, as it were, the “said” of its “saying”, or we might think of their relationship as an aporia, like that between doubt and the overcoming of doubt. [44]

Needless to say, this philosophical totalisation is not the usual way in which Cavell’s philosophy has been considered. The orthodox conception of Cavell – although this is changing – is that he is an incremental thinker of small gains and the slow perfectionist approach towards an end that never arrives. But, in fact, what we have been suggesting – the topic of another essay – is that this perfectionism is not gradualist and necessarily imperfect, but rather operates through a series of repeated doublings, the remarking of what is from somewhere outside of it that produces a certain ethical distance onto what is; but that, as soon as it moves from enunciation to enunciated, it falls back into the things of this world and has to be taken up again. This is Cavell in Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life: ‘In Emerson and Thoreau’s sense of human existence, there is no question of reaching a final state of the soul but only and endlessly of taking the next step to what Emerson calls ‘an unattained but attainable self'”. [45] And we see something like this in the logic or narrative of The World Viewed. We spoke a moment ago of the ambivalence of that moment of Neo-Hollywood individualism, insofar as it appears to involve both a deeper fall into scepticism and the possibility of an acknowledgement that would be a way out of it. We suggest that this is an ambiguity that is unresolved within the playing out of The World Viewed, along with the related difficulty that it is impossible definitively to locate that turning point when the “ontology” of the cinematic apparatus is “historicised”. But if we were to say when this reversal or turning point takes place, we would suggest that it corresponds with Cavell’s writing of The World Viewed. In other words, if the growing scepticism of films corresponds to Cavell’s own passage from unself-conscious child to self-conscious adult, this is redeemed by his subsequent narration of this passage. But, of course, Cavell’s book also brings about the very scepticism it seeks to overcome, insofar as this passage from innocence to experience would not exist outside of this narrative and is even an effect of it.

We see the same with Fried. For what drives the momentum of Fried’s famous art-historical trilogy Absorption and Theatricality, Courbet’s Realism and Manet’s Modernism, in which each subsequent artist seeks to overcome the fall into “theatricality” of the one before, is as much as anything Fried’s own presence or consciousness of himself in front of the painting. It is Fried himself who can no sooner elaborate the absorptive strategy practised by one artist or work than it no longer appears convincing, but explicitly made to be recognised by the viewer. Fried is therefore always looking for a later period of history, or indeed an earlier one, as in his recent writings on Caravaggio, to try to find a moment that is not or not yet theatrical. Again, we have that split between the saying and the said that we have seen in Cavell’s reading of Descartes: we have the overcoming of doubt not by its being spoken, but only in the very moment of its speaking. This is Cavell’s distinctive take on scepticism, understanding it as going all the way down and not something that can definitively be resolved, as opposed to his great intellectual influences, Austin and Wittgenstein. It is a speaking that would overcome the very doubt or scepticism it at the same time brings about. Scepticism exists only in its overcoming, just as its overcoming leads only to another scepticism. So that, in that way we have been trying to trace here, the authentic philosophical gesture is always self-dividing or self-negating. And this is explicitly admitted by Cavell at the beginning of The Claim of Reason, where he rephrases Emerson’s thought that great books “split their audience into insiders and outsiders”, [46] but with the twist that this audience also includes the one who writes it. It is this that explains Cavell’s much-discussed loquacious, digressive and seemingly never-ending style: it is not so much any personal preference or idiosyncrasy as because he is always arguing against himself.

In this sense – and this is the paradox of all properly powerful thought – when critics write on Cavell they merely repeat what Cavell has already said. Cavell is always in effect writing about himself, and a book like The World Viewed is already about what it means to write it, so that when someone is critical of or differs from Cavell this is merely to follow Cavell himself. In all of this, as many commentators on Cavell have already observed, to write on Cavell is like joining a conversation with him, with the understanding that a conversation is not merely the exchange of different views, but that each party to the conversation also attempts to say what the two of them have in common, in effect speaks about the conversation. But – and it is just this that means there is always more to say – every attempt to sum up what has been said from somewhere else also allows another to come along and say what all parties, including that previous attempt to sum up, have in common. It is exactly because each new line in a conversation is an attempt to remark upon it from the outside and thereby bring it to an end that there is always more to say and not otherwise. (It is for this reason too that Cavell can say in the ‘Introduction’ to Pursuits of Happiness that at once a genre is complete and each addition to it must add a new quality. [47] And LaRocca understands this applying to The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema: that the true aim of a collection of essays on a major philosopher is not the usually understood one of offering a variety of different viewpoints to survey the “range” of their work. Rather, it is the much more immodest one of each essay seeking to think what makes it possible to speak of Cavell at all, thus implicitly speaking for all of the other essays in the collection and bringing the conversation to a close. As LaRocca writes fittingly in the ‘Acknowledgements’ at the end of the collection: “Though Cavell will not see the book, we, the contributors, might hope it is a fitting tribute – part of our effort at making our way in the world without him, if, ever gratefully and gratifyingly, in the continued company of his prose”. [48]


[1] Krauss in Art since 1900, p. 613.
[2] Cavell, The World Viewed, p.166, p. 189, p. 239, n. 40
[3] The World Viewed, xix.
[4] The World Viewed, p. 24
[5] The World Viewed, p. 24.
[6] The World Viewed, p. 22, p. 177. See for Cavell on philosophy and “changing reality”, The World Viewed, p. 92.
[7] Carroll in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 53.
[8] Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?, pp. 333-4.
[9] The World Viewed, p. 110.
[10] Fried, Art and Objecthood, p.164.
[11] Sinnerbrink in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 130
[12] Stevens in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 79.
[13] Macarthur, ‘Living our Scepticism of Others through Film: Remarks in Light of Cavell’, p. 125.
[14] The World Viewed, p. 105
[15] The World Viewed, p. 90.
[16] The World Viewed, p. 95.
[17] The World Viewed, p. 28.
[18] The World Viewed, xvi.
[19] Laugier in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 215.
[20] The World Viewed, p. 33.
[21] The World Viewed, p. 35.
[22] The World Viewed, p. 33.
[23] The World Viewed, p. 71.
[24] The World Viewed, p. 39.
[25] The World Viewed, p. 72.
[26] LaRocca in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 262
[27] Laugier in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 220.
[28] Loht in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 194.
[29] The World Viewed, p. 131.
[30] Must We Mean What We Say?, p. 332.
[31] Must We Mean What We Say?, p. 258. See on this also The World Viewed, p. 189, p. 239.
[32] The World Viewed, p. 219. All of this is why, as we will go on to say, the “chronologies” of Cavell’s two subsequent books on cinema could be different from The World Viewed. In Pursuits of Happiness and Contesting Tears, there is already that “Neo-Hollywood” scepticism and attempt to overcome scepticism in Hollywood studio movies from the early 1930s on.
[33] The World Viewed, p. 208.
[34] The World Viewed, p. 128.
[35] The Word Viewed, p. 225. The possibility of “acknowledgement” and of “theatre defeating theatre” is at stake in Lawrence Rhu’s essay in LaRocca’s collection, ‘A Sceptic’s Reprieve: Cavell on Comedy in Shakespeare and the Movies’, particularly when he speaks of the casting of black actor and singer Paul Robeson as Othello in a famous production of the play that ran on Broadway from 1943 to 1944 (The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 185).
[36] The World Viewed, p. 127.
[37] Stewart in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 30.
[38] Stevens in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 72.
[39] Trahair, ‘Being on the Outside: Cinematic Automatism in Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed‘, p. 129. A number of other important studies of important studies of Cavell’s notion of “automatism” should also be mentioned here: Temenuga Trifonova, ‘Film and Scepticism’: Stanley Cavell on the Ontology of Film’; Mal Ahern, ‘Cinema’s Automatisms and Industrial Automation’; and Catherine Wheatley, Stanley Cavell and Film: Scepticism and Self-Reliance in the Cinema, especially the chapter ‘Screening Scepticism’.
[40] That is, we can trace the same passage from the pre-sceptical to the sceptical to the overcoming of scepticism across both Rothman’s Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze (from The Lodger through Murder! and on to Psycho) and Documentary Film Classics (from Nanook of the North through Chronicle of a Summer and onto Don’t Look Back). It will be what Rothman speaks of as the movement from “theatre” to “cinema”, and notably he will disagree Cavell’s characterisation of Psycho, seeing in it instead a great work of “acknowledgement”.
[41] René Descartes, The Philosophical Works of Descartes, p. 146
[42] Mulhall in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 95.
[43] Stevens in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 82, n. 2.
[44] LaRocca will say something like this in his Introduction to the collection, ‘Philosophy’s Claim to Film, Film’s Claim to Philosophy’, where he writes of the terms “film-philosophy” and the “philosophy of film”: “The ‘of’ commands possession, even intimacy, while the all-important hyphen bespeaks union, hybridity and yet the cautious retention of a distance, of an acknowledged in(ter)dependence” (The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 16). We for our part might suggest that all of this applies even to the relationship of philosophy to itself in Cavell.
[45] Cavell, Cities of Words, p.13; this passage is also cited by Sinnerbrink in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 135.
[46] The Claim of Reason, xx.
[47] Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness, pp. 27-28. Mulhall also speaks of this in terms of Cavell’s notion of genre-as-medium: “We can grasp the individuality of each [comedy of remarriage] only by grasping its relation to every other member of the genre, and what we thereby grasp is partly constituted by the view each film takes of these others, and the view those others have of it – by what one might call their opinion of each other” (The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 93).
[48] LaRocca in The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, p. 291.

Works Cited

Mal Ahern, ‘Cinema’s Automatism and Industrial Automation’. Diacritics 46(4), 2018, pp. 6-33.
Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969 (2008).
Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971 (second edition 1979).
Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Scepticism, Morality and Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Stanley Cavell, Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.
René Descartes, The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.
Hal Foster, (ed.). Art since 1900. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004.
Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
David LaRocca, (ed.). The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema: Turning Anew to the Ontology of Film a Half-Century after The World Viewed. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.
David Macarthur, ‘Living our Scepticism of Others through Film: Remarks in Light of Cavell’. Substance 45(3), 2016, pp. 120-36.
Lisa Trahair, ‘Being on the Outside: Cinematic Automatism in Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed‘. Film-Philosophy 18(1), 2014, pp. 128-46.
Temenuga Trifonova, ‘Film and Scepticism: Stanley Cavell on the Ontology of Film. Rivista di estetica 46, 2011, pp. 197-219.
Catherine Wheatley, Stanley Cavell and Film: Scepticism and Self-Reliance at the Cinema. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.

About the Author

Rex Butler

About the Author

Rex Butler

Rex Butler is an art historian, writer and Professor of Art History & Theory at Monash University. He is the author or editor of eleven books, including What is Appropriation?(1996), Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real (1999), A Secret History of Australian Art (2002), Slavoj Zizek: Live Theory (2005), Radical Revisionism (2005), Borges' Short Stories: A Reader's Guide (2010) and Deleuze and Guattari's What is Philosophy?: A Reader's Guide (2015).View all posts by Rex Butler →