Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 13, June 2002

 

 

Willam Rothman

Response to Tepper

 

 

 

Craig Tepper

'The Cavell Cavil'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 12, June 2002

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n12tepper

 

In his review of _Reading Cavell's The World Viewed_, Craig Tepper allows that the quality of _The World Viewed_'s writing earns it a companion volume, and does not deny that we have valid reasons for proceeding in our reading the way we do. He judges our reading to be 'close' and 'alert', our insights 'sharp', our references to Cavell's other writings 'apposite'. And he finds the philosophical view at the heart of _The World Viewed_, as our book helps bring it into focus, to be breathtaking.

 

By Tepper's own reckoning, then, our book -- and _The World Viewed_, of course -- must be judged to be, at the least, a considerable achievement. But does he reflect even for a moment on our achievement, much less Cavell's? No. All he does is harp on what he takes to be the 'chief difficulty' that 'plagues' both books, the 'totalizing technique', as he calls it, he takes them to share.

 

According to Tepper, Cavell withholds explanations, deferring them to the end, and thus all the views and judgments he presents in the course of the book are 'provisional'. And our book's aim, Tepper asserts, 'is never simple clarification where clarification might entail any narrowing of Cavell's 'meaning''. Tepper goes on: 'If Wittgenstein suggested that an explanation is what satisfies, Rothman and Keane, like Cavell, are not offering anything like 'explanations'. Read on, read further, meanings are to be deepened and widened is their tact [sic]. In due course, all nine of Cavell's other works' -- actually, Cavell has published not nine books but thirteen by latest count, with more on the way -- 'eight written subsequent to _The World Viewed_, are copiously cited'.

 

It is simply not the case, though, that Cavell keeps saying (or implying), in effect, 'Wait until later'. On every page of _The World Viewed_, he enters claims and offers explanations. He never takes them back; they are not 'provisional'. To be sure, if we follow his thinking, our understanding does deepen as we read on. But that is not because Cavell employs what Tepper disparagingly calls 'totalizing technique'. As we read _The World Viewed_, following his thinking, our perspective changes.

 

When Tepper says that _The World Viewed_ 'withholds its fullest aspect' until the end and that we do so as well, hence that reading our book is like reading Cavell's, the word 'withholds' implies, erroneously, that Cavell deliberately refrains from saying until the end what he could just as well have said at the outset -- as if there were some other, more direct, path to the perspective of self-knowledge that is in our view at once the book's philosophical aspiration and achievement. Of course, Cavell places certain of his claims and explanations at the end of the book, but that doesn't mean that until then he withholds them. Certain of his claims and explanations, certain of his thoughts, are not possible for him to express, or for us to grasp, without following the book's thinking to its conclusion, that is, without achieving the perspective that is the book's conclusion, its conclusive achievement. Again, that is not because Cavell employs 'totalizing technique', but because the writing of _The World Viewed_ is 'under its own question', as Cavell sometimes puts it. What _The World Viewed_ is about cannot be separated from what the book is. That is part of what makes it philosophy, in Cavell's view.

 

On every page of our book, we, too, enter claims and offer explanations. Except for a handful of exceptions, our claims, too, are not 'provisional'. And, of course, we mean our explanations to be satisfying. They satisfy us.

 

Tepper is right, however, that our aim is not what he calls 'simple clarification', where 'clarification might entail any narrowing of Cavell's meaning'. Why should we aim to 'narrow' Cavell's meaning? Our aim is to hone in on it. Innumerable times in our book, this requires us to run through a range of possible readings of particular passages, commit ourselves to one (or sometimes more than one, if two or more aspects are equally in play), and explain our reasons for making these choices. And we are forever paraphrasing Cavell's words and/or amplifying on them by referring to his other writings. But that is as it should be, given that our goal is to read _The World Viewed_ in a way that follows its thinking. Cavell is a major philosopher, after all, one who is committed, on philosophical principle, to saying what he means, to finding words he can stand behind to make his thoughts intelligible to himself and others. Reading Cavell's words, we are committed, on philosophical principle, to being open to what they say and mean. Our reading is close, as Tepper recognizes. But it is not closed, as he charges. That honor belongs to him.

 

'Rothman and Keane', Tepper writes (in a sentence that is as ungraceful as it is ungracious), 'are generally tone deaf to' -- can one be 'tone deaf' to unvoiced difficulties? -- 'or uninterested in giving voice to, the difficulties Cavell's book presents outside those difficulties Cavell's method presents to itself'. Because of our totalizing technique, Tepper suggests, we offer no explication for 'the host of provisional views and judgments offered' that 'readers have found by turns provocative, wrong-headed, odd, or just counter-intuitive'.

 

What are the views and judgments he has in mind? He doesn't say. He goes on to give virtually no examples other than the one he addresses at length, which he considers, in any case, to be 'an exception that proves the rule'. What readers have found Cavell's views and judgments to be 'provocative, wrong-headed, odd, or just counter-intuitive'? How does he know this is how readers find them? Again, he doesn't say.

 

Tepper's language here seems deliberately designed to convey the impression that the film study literature has already done the job of identifying the host of views and judgments in _The World Viewed_ that allegedly strike readers this way, and has clearly articulated what seems so provocative, wrong-headed, odd, or just counter-intuitive about them. That is anything but the case. Within film study, Cavell's writing, when referred to at all, is routinely dismissed as vague, impressionistic, self-indulgent, unrigorous, but this charge is never backed up with specific examples. Several philosophers -- Alexander Sesonske, Douglas Lackey, and Noel Carroll among them -- have been more forthcoming, presenting arguments intended to counter several of Cavell claims. Our book addresses and contests a number of these arguments

 

But even if these philosophers' arguments were accepted at face value, they would hardly validate Tepper's blanket assertion that all readers -- all readers who are not Cavell's disciples, that is -- find _The World Viewed_ to be chock full of judgments that are provocative, wrong-headed, odd, or just counter-intuitive. As it stands, Tepper's assertion is as unsupported and pernicious as those dismissals of Cavell's writing by smug self-styled 'theorists', untutored in philosophy, that are so prevalent within the field of film study.

 

Marian Keane and I, personally, do not feel that any of Cavell's views and judgments in _The World Viewed_ are counter-intuitive, odd, or wrong-headed. (Some are provocative, perhaps, but it must be kept in mind that Cavell is not a philosopher whose aim is to provoke.) We hope, and believe, that most readers of our book, as they follow Cavell's thinking with us, will feel that way as well.

 

The only example Tepper offers is our treatment of Cavell's response to Alexander Sesonske's response to _The World Viewed_. Except for the condescending phrase 'soldiers on', we have no major problem with Tepper's summary of Sesonske's objection, and Cavell's reply, as we summarize them in our book. Tepper questions whether Cavell succeeds in disarming Sesonske's objection, as we claim he does, simply by pointing out that Sesonske errs in assuming that Cavell believes movies to be recordings of reality. Cavell's point, which Sesonske misses, is that movies are projections, not recordings, of reality. Tepper launches into several paragraphs that have all the earmarks of dense argument, except for the fact that they are complete nonsequiturs. The more he babbles on, erroneously charging Cavell with a kind of essentialism that Wittgenstein's _Philosophical Investigations_ teaches us to distrust, the clearer it becomes that Tepper has completely missed the point of Cavell's rejoinder to Sesonske, which is that movies are not recordings at all. And the clearer it becomes that Tepper does not really have a clue who Stanley Cavell is, nor how deep a reader of Wittgenstein he is, as evidenced by his philosophical masterwork _The Claim of Reason_, and later books, among them _This New Yet Unapproachable America_ and _Philosophical Passages_ (Tepper's cluelessness is never more obvious than when, early in his review, he sums up Cavell's philosophical enterprise as a 'contest with language'.)

 

Chiding us for failing to attend closely enough to Cavell's response to Sesonske, the 'evidence' of our alleged inattentiveness that Tepper presents is an out-of-left-field claim that what is 'central to Cavell's view of our relationship to movies' is that 'the world we view in movies shares an identity' -- what does that mean? -- 'with the world that provides the scene for our lives'. Tepper goes on:

 

'For Cavell, it is not that there aren't differences, it is that their likenesses, their resemblances, are so pervasive and transparent that they are missed. When Cavell's book succeeds in revealing their correspondence it provides readers with the thrill of insight, the exhilaration of seeing something clearly obvious. It is this quality that has won him adherents and earned him a companion reading.'

 

As an interpretation of _The World Viewed_, this strikes us, frankly, as not only out-of-left-field, but also off-the-wall. On what grounds does he make these claims as to what is 'central' to Cavell's view of our relationship to movies, and what 'quality' the writing of _The World Viewed_ possesses that has 'won him adherents and earned him a companion volume'? What evidence does he provide? None. On what grounds does he claim to know what it is that 'adherents' -- elsewhere, he denigrates them as 'disciples' -- value in the book? He doesn't say. What evidence does he provide? None.

 

Viewed from a Wittgensteinian perspective, Tepper argues, Cavell attempts to have it both ways, attending to the particular case while also following that 'craving for generality' that, according to Wittgenstein, leads philosophers astray. Tepper writes:

 

'Rothman and Keane consistently draw our attention away from how Cavell, in demanding adherence to his meaning in each 'particular case', simultaneously appeals to 'our craving for generality' -- how, for example, when Cavell speaks of 'the world viewed' he conflates the world viewed in a movie with the world itself.'

 

How do we 'consistently draw' attention away from this? Tepper doesn't say. How does 'conflating' the world on film and 'the world itself' exemplify Cavell's appealing to our craving for generality? Yet again, he doesn't say.

 

Rest assured, in any case, that Cavell is not guilty as charged. Nor are we. Cavell does not conflate the world on film and 'the world itself'. The world projected on the movie screen, in his view, is the world transformed or transfigured by film. What that transformation is, what it comes to, is a central issue in _The World Viewed_.

 

Tepper professes to find it dumbfounding that we 'seem not to see, or are affecting not to', that Cavell's assertion that 'the fact that the projected world does not exist (now) is its only difference from reality' -- significantly, Tepper omits Cavell's parenthetical 'Existence is not a predicate', a link with the understanding of Wittgenstein's concept of 'criterion' that Cavell works out in _The Claim of Reason_ -- is likely to generate confusion because 'we ordinarily think a movie *differs* from reality' (note the slippage from 'projected world' to 'movie') in '*a host* of ways'. But when we say: 'The projected world does not differ from reality by being, for example, two- rather than three-dimensional', we are acknowledging that we want to say -- as Tepper wants to say -- that there is a host of ways in which the projected world differs from reality. And yet, it is incontrovertible that if the projected world did exist now, it would not be separated from reality at all; it would be real.

 

When we go on to reflect on Cavell's understanding of the temporality of film, we are acknowledging how remarkable it is that the world projected on the screen is at once present and absent, like the world of our memories. Cavell's claim does not seem provocative, wrong-headed, odd, or counter-intuitive so long as we keep in mind, as _The World Viewed_ calls upon us to do, that film is something so strange, so singular, that we do not know how to place it ontologically. What is remarkable, in other words, is film's mode of existence itself, not Cavell's claim that 'the fact that the projected world does not exist (now) is its only difference from reality'.

 

What is truly dumbfounding is Tepper's belief that by saying 'If I stand up in front of the projector's beam don't I see my own head in silhouette?' he can expose us as benighted souls who have been reading Cavell too long. On the one hand, Tepper is astonished that we don't consider this supposed objection to Cavell's view. On the other hand, he points out how easily we could have dismissed it. Evidently, he doesn't deem it a formidable objection. Why does he imagine that any reader would? If not, why should we consider it?

 

Tepper opines that in 'pretending' that Cavell's claim is 'transparent', we are 'struggling to preserve an illusion of naturalness about Cavell's words. It is the loss of a similar illusion which Cavell confesses to having been a source of his own promptings to write about cinema.' First, Cavell specifically does not say that in the decades that he -- along with countless millions of others -- enjoyed what he calls a 'natural relation' to movies, he was in the grip of some kind of illusion. The world projected on the movie screen is not an illusion, in Cavell's view.

 

Awakening to the realization that going to the movies was no longer a normal part of his week, his experience of movies, and the movies in his experience, Cavell began for the first time to think philosophically about film. Writing _The World Viewed_ closed the book on his natural relation to movies. And our book, far from asserting that _The World Viewed_ is 'transparent', far from trying to preserve 'an illusion of naturalness' about Cavell's words, insists from first page to last that without thinking, thinking for oneself, it is not possible to read _The World Viewed_ in a way that follows its thinking. The writing of that book was a great achievement. And the writing of our book, our reading of _The World Viewed_, is an achievement as well (if a modest one by comparison).

 

When Tepper says that acknowledging how startling Cavell's claim ('The fact that the projected world does not exist (now) is its only difference from reality') is 'would have done more to advance our understanding than pretending to its transparency', he does not deign to say what this would have done to advance our understanding. In any case, his use of the word 'our' here is quite disingenuous. Throughout, his know-it-all tone (all too familiar among academic philosophers!) is meant to project an image -- here we have a real illusion! -- of a philosopher who knows perfectly well what Cavell's philosophical practice comes to, what quality has won it adherents, what is central to his views. Does his writing give us any grounds for believing that he possesses such knowledge? No.

 

Tepper ends by quoting what he takes to be _The World Viewed_'s 'fullest statement', that: 'A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality. This is an importance of film -- and a danger. It takes my life as my haunting of the world.' He calls this a 'breathtaking' view -- the one and only moment he acknowledges the grandeur of the book's aspiration. But does he say, on the basis of his experience, what makes this view so breathtaking? No. Instead, he writes:

 

'Perhaps a book that hopes to present so breathtaking a view, that so deftly invites the reader to occupy the exact same space as its author, to assume his language as well as his vision, is doomed to hermetic enshrinement, to be available only to those who initiate themselves by way of its difficulties.'

 

Is it really the case that _The World Viewed_ invites the reader to occupy the exact same space as its author? Of course not. Reading _The World Viewed_ isn't the same as writing it. Once these words are in the world, they are open to being read. To read these words the way we do, to follow their thinking, is not to 'assume' Cavell's language, to claim possession of it or take it for granted. Reading _The World Viewed_ in a way that follows its thinking requires questioning its words, interrogating them, checking them against our own experience.

 

It is perhaps fair to say that _The World Viewed_ -- and perhaps our book as well -- is only 'available to those who initiate themselves by way of its difficulties'. That is, it is available only to readers who follow the book's thinking. Is that the same thing as saying that such a book is 'doomed to hermetic enshrinement'? Is 'hermetic enshrinement' a just characterization of our book? Of course not. Marian and I don't worship _The World Viewed_, we read it. We are readers of Cavell, not his 'disciples', if that is taken to mean -- Tepper takes it this way -- that our close relationship to Cavell's thought in general, or our close reading of _The World Viewed_ in particular, deprives us of the power to think for ourselves. On the contrary, we find it enabling. We try in our book to help readers to realize how liberating Cavell's understanding and practice of philosophy can be.

 

In _Reading Cavell's The World Viewed_ we do not hide the fact -- it is hardly something to be ashamed of -- that Stanley Cavell is a cherished friend. Nor the fact that we have both had the good fortune of having been his students (we still are, if 'student' is understood in Emerson's sense). Cavell is a great teacher of philosophy, and for him philosophy is not a game of one-upmanship, as it is for Tepper. In the classroom as well as in his published writings, what Cavell teaches above all is the necessity of thinking for oneself, of checking one's own words, and those of others, against one's experience (and vice versa).

 

Tepper predicts that 'the audience for _Reading Cavell's The World Viewed_ will in the main be [Cavell's] disciples', adding: 'Those who turn to it in frustration, looking for a way in to _The World Viewed_, will remain so.' Do we accept Tepper's view that our potential readers can be divided between Cavell's disciples, on the one hand, and, on the other, readers of _The World Viewed_ who are frustrated, and will remain frustrated, because they are unable to find a way in? Again, our answer is: of course not. We know many readers, in and out of the field of philosophy -- potentially, there are far more -- who are in no sense Cavell's disciples but who find his writings, as we do, to be enabling, indeed inspiring, but challenging.

 

In our experience, most of the people in the field of film study who have dismissed _The World Viewed_ cannot accurately be described as 'frustrated'. They haven't tried, but failed, to find a way 'in'. Mostly, they haven't tried. Even more objectionable, though, is Tepper's studied ambiguity as to his own relation to _The World Viewed_. Is he one of those frustrated readers, poor souls, whose pain he claims to feel? He denies it, for he makes a point of showing -- or, rather, pretending -- that he is really 'in', indeed more 'in' than we are. Then how can he be so sure that he speaks for all readers who are not Cavell's disciples? How can he be so sure that they are frustrated? And how can he so sure that our book will not, cannot, speak to them?