Being on the Outside: Cinematic Automatism in Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed

Lisa Trahair


Stanley Cavell's The World Viewed was the first book on cinema to attempt to provide an ontological theorisation of film that could account not only for its popular instances and the reason why they enthralled audiences for over half a century but also for the demise of its mythic function and the possibility of its redemption in serious modernist film. Inadequately understood at the time of its publication, and for too long ignored by Film Studies, Cavell's arguments about modernist cinema all but disappeared in the wake of the rise of postmodern theory. Yet the crisis of belief that confronted modern arts, condemned them to the production of serious works, and eventually unsettled the privileged place of mainstream cinema in twentieth century liberal democracies, still laps at our feet.

This essay follows on the back of Kathleen Kelley's recent essay on Cavell, Greenberg, Bazin and medium specificity in film and Robert Sinnerbrink's work aligning Cavell’s understanding of cinema as 'a moving image of skepticism' with the project of thinking philosophically about film. It aims to continue to unpack the idea of automatism as it is conceived by Cavell to operate in film and to argue, along with Kelley and Sinnerbrink, for its importance for understanding the conviction of serious films.


Cavell; Deleuze; Rancière; Automatism

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