Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 12, June 2002



Craig Tepper

The Cavell Cavil




William Rothman and Marian Keane

_Reading Cavell's The World Viewed: A Philosophical Perspective on Film_

Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2000

ISBN 0-8143-2896-2

320 pp.


Stanley Cavell, an American philosopher, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics at Harvard since 1963 and Professor Emeritus since 1997, famously began his career while still a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1957 he delivered a paper titled 'Must We Mean What We Say?' that was widely viewed as taking to school eminent Berkeley professor of logic Benson Mates's quibbles about the availability, the ordinariness of ordinary language. His revision of that essay, and Cavell's subsequent wide-ranging work -- 'readings' of Emerson, Thoreau, Shakespeare, Beckett, Kierkegaard, among others -- attest to the contest with language he has been engaged with in the last four decades.


Cavell's second book, _The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film_, was published in 1972. A seemingly radical departure from his first book (titled after his famous essay), Cavell's new work required an audience able to appreciate his personal brand of late Wittgensteinian thought and Heideggerian hermeneutics, one that might perhaps even be startled by the aptness of his choice of film (as it turned out, the traditional, 'Hollywood' film) as his originating point. Further complicating matters, _The World Viewed_ sought that audience at the same moment feminist, semiotic and Lacanian theory were sweeping across academia with film studies as their leading edge.


From the outset, Cavell's book was met with puzzlement. So much so that he was prompted to publish an addendum, 'More of _The World Viewed_', as part of an Enlarged Edition in 1979. He explained that many friends had told him he had written 'a difficult book, a sometimes incomprehensible book'. [1] Nevertheless, _The World Viewed_ has slowly found not only readers, but disciples; not the least reason being that two chapters have been reprinted in Mast and Cohen's widely-used _Film Theory and Criticism _ text.


_Reading Cavell's The World Viewed: A Philosophical Perspective on Film_, co-written by William Rothman and Marian Keane, is a fittingly paradoxical testament to both the influence and obscurity of the book it purports to help film students and other readers 'read'. The Preface states that: 'The pages that follow present a consecutive reading of _The World Viewed_' (9). This is true enough. The introduction sets out the plan -- a reading divided into eight sections that deal sequentially with Cavell's text and clearly and concisely lays out the context in terms of film studies. Yet even here, the chief difficulty that plagues Rothman and Keane's book surfaces. They offer a 'reading' of Cavell's book that does so by means of Cavell's considerable philosophical/literary output, and by means of a similarly totalizing technique.


Since Cavell's own way of proceeding is determinedly totalizing, one soon notices that the Rothman/Keane book's aim is never simple clarification where clarification might entail any narrowing of Cavell's 'meaning'. If Wittgenstein suggested that an explanation is what satisfies, [2] 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. In due course, all nine of Cavell's other works, eight written subsequent to _The World Viewed_, are copiously cited.


Though the authors' reasons may be valid, more pertinent is that the clearest, most intelligible account of Cavell's approach comes after the book concludes. In the Appendix to Rothman and Keane's book the reader gets a more complete view as to why the authors refer to _The World Viewed_ in their Preface as a 'Metaphysical Memoir'.


In no sense an 'ordinary' ordinary language philosopher, the contortions required of Cavell in answering Mates's deceptively naive query, as to how ordinary language philosophers had recourse to ordinary language, set Cavell's sails early on. Rothman and Keane here provide a context for understanding Cavell's philosophy:


'By registering differences that elucidate the diverse roles particular words play in our lives -- the logic underlying the ways we use these concepts, what Wittgenstein calls their 'grammar' -- an ordinary language philosopher makes claims whose own grammar is closer to that of aesthetic judgments than to ordinary empirical judgments.' (264)


After Wittgenstein, one wants to call a person who makes aesthetic judgments about film a 'film critic'. Though, indeed, Cavell is not (or at least only occasionally). At other times he resembles a 'film theorist'. But the inadequacy of both terms leads us to see how the 'grammar' of Cavell's enterprise most nearly shares a 'grammar', an underlying logic, with that of a work of art. It is a performance, 'a path of philosophy, a path of self knowledge . . . an uncharted path' (259).


Like an epic poem or novel, or even a Hollywood movie (narrative works whose conclusions ideally ramify back across all that has gone before), Cavell's performance withholds its fullest aspect, at once the goal and source of the 'obscurity of [its] promptings', [3] until its end. Likewise, so do Rothman and Keane. Consequently, reading their book is like reading Cavell's. The host of provisional views and judgments offered -- that readers have found it by turns provocative, wrong-headed, odd, or just counter-intuitive -- often get no explication. More often they are amplified upon by reference to Cavell's other works. Furthermore, Rothman and Keane are generally either tone deaf to, or uninterested in giving voice to, the difficulties Cavell's book presents outside those difficulties Cavell's method presents to itself.


An exception that proves the rule is to be found in Section II of _Reading Cavell's The World Viewed_. Here, the book treats one of the chapters reproduced in Mast and Cohen's popular _Film Theory and Criticism_ -- Chapter 3: 'Photograph and Screen'.


On pages 68-69 Rothman and Keane air objections philosopher Alexander Sesonske raised in a 1974 review. They were objections of enough merit to incite Cavell to respond in 'More of _The World Viewed_'. Because this passage quotes Sesonske's review, Cavell's paraphrase of it, and the rejoinder, for clarity's sake I've taken them separately and abbreviated them slightly. Sesonske's objection is this: 'What is 'the world' that Cavell says photographs, and therefore movies, are of? It it not clear . . . Spade and Archer never shared an office in San Francisco; Jules and Jim never shared a girl in prewar Paris.' [4] And Rothman and Keane quote Cavell's reply: 'it may seem to follow that this issue of reality is settled, that movies are something on their own; the only things they *could* be recordings of . . . have simply never taken place.' (69) [5] Rothman and Keane then say, 'Cavell's response in 'More of _The World Viewed_' to Sesonske's objection merits careful attention.' (69) The core of what they quote from Cavell is this:


'it does not follow that reality has played no essential role in the origin of that projection. All that follows is that any role reality has played is not that of having been recorded. But reality is not so much as a candidate for that role, because the projections we view on screen are not in principle aurally or visually indistinguishable from the events of which they're projections -- what could be more distinguishable.' (69) [6]


'Having disarmed the objection', Rothman and Keane then say, 'Cavell does not simply let it drop' (69). They emphasize how Cavell soldiers on, turning the objection into his own question; then quote his assertion that: 'I describe the role of reality as one of being photographed, projected, screened, exhibited and viewed . . . The significance I attach to these terms can be assessed, I believe, by nothing short of my book as a whole.' (69) [7]


Again, Cavell asks the reader to wait for his view to be seen in *total*. However, has Cavell really disarmed the objection? One would hope the authors of a 'reading' would closely attend to Cavell's response themselves. They do not. Central to Cavell's view of our relationship to movies is that the world we view in movies shares an identity with the world that provides the scene for our lives. For Cavell, it is not that there aren't differences, it is that their likenesses, their resemblances, are so pervasive and transparent 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.


But, to return to Sesonske's objection, was 'reality' never so much as even a candidate for what was recorded in, say, _Casablanca_? Maybe not, though certainly it was at least a *candidate* for recording in _Battle of Algiers_. It seems fair then to go on to say, as he does, that the events recorded for _Casablanca_ are indistinguishable from the movie. And there's no arguing Cavell's next move -- that nothing could be more 'distinguishable' from 'Casablanca' than 'reality'. The unvoiced argument runs something like this: since the movie was never in competition with reality, was never something that could be confused with it, and since reality was never put before the cameras, all it makes sense to say about reality in terms of _Casablanca_ is that *reality wasn't what was recorded in making it*.


This is a peculiar kind of language game that gives the meaning of 'reality' just one context, Cavell's at this point, in the service of making a general assertion. (It is also a game that has benefited from a clever substitution, 'reality' for 'world' -- Cavell's admitted paraphrase.) For example, might not Michael Curtiz have maintained there was some 'reality' _Casablanca_ was after in its filming? Would Curtiz have meant something else by 'reality'? A huge number of uses (meanings) of the word 'reality' could be instanced as true statements about the 'recording' of the film.


Cavell's dismissal of Sesonske's objection implies that any objection about 'reality' in this context could be disarmed this way. Either Cavell thinks it fair to use 'reality' extremely narrowly and/or, conversely, all uses of the word share an essential thread. As an assertion the last idea is probably false. Cavell, however, doesn't make this *as an assertion* and the potentially fatal objection, like many others that could be offered along the way, must be treated as a mere cavil.


However, Wittgenstein is suspicious of this kind of essentialism. In _Philosophical Investigations_ he suggested that it helped to picture language as a rope woven of many strands *none of which* ran its entire length, while Cavell avers in his book's Preface that: 'Memories of movies are strand over strand with memories of my life'. [8] At the heart of Cavell's metaphysical memoir, his philosophical practice, is this curiosity: his attempting to have it both ways from a Wittgensteinian perspective. In _The Blue and Brown Books_ Wittgenstein writes:


'Our craving for generality has another main source . . . the method of science. Philosophers . . . are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way that science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and lead the philosopher into complete darkness . . . Instead of 'craving for generality' I could also have said 'the contemptuous attitude towards the particular case''. [9]


For Wittgenstein, this led to a practice meant to *demystify* our thinking by appealing to the particular meaning of a word in a given context. However, 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.


This central issue is adverted to in the very next passage. In characterizing a movie screen as a barrier, Cavell in part states: 'That the projected world does not exist (now) is its only difference from reality.' (70) [10] Perhaps recognizing the puzzlement the remark has undoubtedly engendered in film theory classes, Rothman and Keane explore this characterization by making the following restatement with two clarifications: 'the projected world is separated from reality by the fact, and only the fact, that it does not exist (now) . . . The projected world does not differ from reality by being, for example, two- rather than three-dimensional', and, after explaining how this is so, they focus at greater length on how Cavell understands film temporality, how 'his parenthetical 'now' may seem to suggest that in the past the projected world really existed'. (71)


What is dumbfounding here the authors seem not to see, or are affecting not to. The far more likely confusion Cavell's statement generates is that we ordinarily think a movie *differs* from reality in *a host* of ways. They pretend Cavell's most startling claim -- that there is no difference between a movie and reality besides time -- is, literally, unremarkable. But, if I stand up in front of the projector's beam don't I see my own head in silhouette?


Either Rothman and Keane have been reading Cavell too long, or they are struggling here 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. But readers would have been better served by a less faithful imitation of their model. Cavell's claim is a startling one. Acknowledging it would have done more to advance our understanding than pretending to its transparency, which leaves the reader, again, to discover it. Rothman and Keane could themselves have pointed out that when you *stand up in front* of a projector beam you are no longer watching a movie -- but interrupting one. The spell of the illusion is broken.


In fairness, Rothman and Keane always alert the reader. Their insights are sharp, and they are close, if closed, readers. Where Cavell's other works are cited their allusion most often seems apposite and of a length that allows some hope of comprehension. But the authors are much too concerned with preserving, even weaving, his spell.


Proceeding less by explication than by quotation, restatement, and self-referral, the book tends to apotheosize, rather than open Cavell's mysteries. (For example: his seemingly arbitrary choice of categories from Baudelaire's _The Painter Of Modern Life_ applied to stars and types; or his stretching photographic 'automatism' to account for genres -- though here they work manfully and shed greatest light on Cavell's over-all position.)


If _The World Viewed_ attempts to show that movies provide a world complete without me, that is present to me, it does so in hope of bringing the reader along to realize its fullest statement, that, as the authors quote Cavell: '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 . . .' (254) [11]


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. Cavell may deserve this, but the audience for _Reading Cavell's The World Viewed_ will in the main be his disciples. Those who turn to it in frustration, looking for a way in to _The World Viewed_, will remain so.


Santa Monica, California, USA





1. Stanley Cavell, _The World Viewed_, Enlarged Edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 162.


2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, _Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough_, trans. A. C. Miles, ed. Rush Rhees (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1979), p. 2.


3. Cavell, _The World Viewed_, p. 162.


4. Alexander Sesonske, Review of _The World Viewed_, _Georgia Review_, vol. 28, 1974, p. 561.


5. Cavell, _The World Viewed_, p. 182.


6. Ibid., p. 183.


7. Ibid., p. 184.


8. Ibid., p. xix.


9. Ludwig Wittgenstein, _The Blue and Brown Books_ (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), p. 18.


10. Cavell, _The World Viewed_, p. 24.


11. Ibid., p. 160.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


Craig Tepper, 'The Cavell Cavil', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 12, June 2002 <>.


Also see:

Willam Rothman, 'Response to Tepper', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 13, June 2002 <>.





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