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ontologia del cinema

Film and Skepticism: Stanley Cavell on the Ontology of Film

Temenuga Trifonova
p. 197-219


The present essay analyzes the reflections on the ontology of cinema in the works of Stanley Cavell. In particular, it highlights the way in which Cavell foresees in the philosophy of ordinary language as in Hollywood comedy, as many forms of that effort of redemption from the human condition which he calls skepticism, understood not so much as a philosophical position but rather as an underlying condition, as a reaction to the knowledge conceived as human knowledge, that is, experienced as potentially imperfect. Cinema, therefore, turns into an unveiling of the inadequacy of systematic philosophical frameworks and underlines the insufficiency of the interpretative patterns of research that either end up at an intellectualistic level or return, instead, to a mystic-intuitionist one.

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  • 1  Mullarkey 2008: 66.
  • 2  Trifonova 2007.
  • 3  Cavell 1984b: 173.

1While many have welcomed the growing popularity of “film-philosophy” over the last decade, others have cautioned against its subordination of film to philosophy. According to John Mullarkey, for instance, the aim of seeing film as philosophy is more often than not reduced to «film as text as philosophy», in as much as the film’s audio-visual matter, no less than its cultural, technological and/or commercial dimensions, are nonetheless read or interpreted from a ready-made philosophical vantage-point1. Mullarkey could have been speaking about Cavell, whose writing on film, in which he argues that cinema has the potential to «save us from skepticism», is representative of the tendency to subordinate the visual/representational dimension of the cinematic image to its philosophical/avisual dimension. As I have argued in The Image in French Philosophy2 the subordination of aesthetics to ontology, and the denigration of the visual in general, was a defining feature of twentieth century French philosophy (e.g. Bergson, Sartre, Lyotard, Baudrillard and Deleuze), which revived metaphysics as a thinking pertaining to impersonal forces and characterized by an aversion to subjectivity manifesting as an aversion of the philosophical gaze away from the discourse of vision, away from the image. Through his writing on film Cavell inscribes himself squarely in this Continental line of thought, which is less interested in the image as an aesthetic category than in what the image can do for thinking, how the image can reveal the conditions of possibility for subjectivity (the pre-reflective, the pure, the impersonal, the inhuman or, to use Cavell’s own term, the “automatic”) and thus «save us from skepticism». The title of one of Cavell’s most frequently cited essays, What Becomes of Things on Film, is indicative of his interest in what the film image can tell us about our relationship to things rather than in the cinematic experience as such. Recalling Lyotard’s discussion of the postmodern sublime – exemplified by Barnett Newman’s abstract expressionist paintings – as an “event”, Cavell maintains that the most “cinematic” aspect of film is never one or other technique particular to film but rather the “event” of film itself3.

2For Cavell, skepticism is inherent in the ontology of the film image, which reveals things as always already displaced from us and us as always already displaced from them. In silent film comedy (e.g. Chaplin and Keaton) – but also in cinema in general – our relationship to objects is that of “seeing as”. It is precisely this capacity for seeing something as something (e.g. Chaplin treats a shoe as if it were a piece of steak, and bread rolls as if they were a pair of shoes) that demonstrates the fundamental skepticism underlying human existence. However, although Chaplin’s charming playfulness with things reveals a profound skepticism concerning our relationship to the world of things, this is not a negative skepticism expressing an anxiety over our inability to penetrate appearances and know things in their essence, but rather a positive skepticism that takes pleasure in the unstable nature of things and in our inability to reduce them to specific, humanly defined functions: this type of skepticism celebrates the resistance of things to our attempts at conceptualizing i.e., using them. When Chaplin and Keaton attribute different functions to the same object, or the same function to different objects, they do not demonstrate our control over things but precisely the failure of our concepts to capture the things they supposedly refer to in all their multiplicity and complexity i.e., in their essential inhumanity. There is always something in things that does not belong to us, that we do not recognize and cannot assimilate, just as there is always something in the film image that, despite its strong indexical relationship to reality, withdraws from us and from the real into that realm we clumsily call “the unreal”, “absence”, or “nothingness”. Cavell concludes that, paradoxically, rather than a threat to reality cinema is its best guarantee precisely insofar as cinema chips away at the real, keeping skepticism alive.

  • 4  Cavell 2005: 7.
  • 5Ibidem.

3In terms of their constitutive displacement from us things are structurally analogous to film images, which are also constituted by such a displacement: in Metz’s well-known formulation, film is an «imaginary signifier», the presence of an absence. Just as it is in the very nature of things to be always already displaced from us, and of the human world to be always already displaced in relation to the world of things, by its very nature the film image lends itself to this constant displacement, to the projection of a world that is not the same as the real world and that is, in fact, often the complete opposite of it. For Cavell, one particular film genre dramatizes the ontology of film based on displacement: Shakespearean Romance. Romance, often considered a sort of a proto-genre or Ur-genre, is structured namely around the «human capacity to wish for a completer identity than one has so far attained […] such a wish may project a complete world opposed to the world one so far shares with others»4. Both Shakespearean Romance and the film image exemplify «the realization, in terms of Descartes’ First Meditation […] that there are no conclusive indications by which waking life can be distinguished from sleep»5. Just as the inability to distinguish the real from the unreal, or waking life from sleep, is a cause for skepticism, the inherently partial nature of human perception – as well as of film perception – which can never grasp reality as a totality, captures the profound skepticism underlying the film image.

  • 6Ivi: 52-53.
  • 7Ivi: 53.
  • 8Ibidem.
  • 9Ivi: 55.
  • 10Ivi: 96.

4However, Cavell assuages any possible anxieties over skepticism by arguing that precisely the “weak” links in either of the above two dichotomies – the unreal and the partial – keep skepticism in check. Discussing North by Northwest, particularly the scene at the Rushmore Memorial, Cavell observes that «filming inevitably proceeds by severing things, both in cutting and, originally, in framing»6. He aligns this process of severing (the fragmentation of the huge stone faces) – exemplary of film viewing in general – with Melanie Klein’s theory of the perception of part-objects, which emphasizes the «fantastic disproportion between what is actually shown on the screen and the emotion it elicits»7. It is this severed perception that apparently makes possible what Cavell sees as the most important potential of film to reveal to our gaze «the physiognomy of the world, say the face of the earth,» to «animate, or reanimate, or humanize the world and so achieve a reciprocity with it»8. Cavell’s redemption of the physical world involves not the revelation of the secrets of an underlying reality but, rather, the subject’s awareness of the partial nature of his perception: as he puts it, we ought to consider «our attachment to things less in the light of what things they are than in the light of what mode of attachment we take toward them – for example, fetishistic, scopophilic, masochistic, narcissistic or in general, to use a key word of Emerson’s, partial»9. Things “release” their inherent “poetry” when they are considered in their spatial isolation (when space becomes condensed into one single thing or even in a specific part of the thing, displacing it from other things) and in their own duration (when time is expanded). Echoing Bazin, Cavell asserts that the poetry of the ordinary depends simply on «the ability to hold a camera on a subject»10: any object whose spatial existence is maximally condensed while its temporal existence is expanded so that it appears to occupy the whole of time (it has no beginning and no end, i.e. it cannot serve either as a cause or as an effect and thus emerges as completely outside our own experience of time) is poetic or cinematic. He redeems the inevitability of “partial perception” (subjective perception) by arguing for its necessity over total or complete perception: partial perception is superior insofar as it is “poetic” i.e., fetishistic and scopophilic. In fact, it is precisely the skepticism lurking behind the destruction of the belief in totality that guarantees what Cavell (echoing Heidegger) calls «the worldhood of the world». For Cavell “skepticism” does not express our inability to know the world, or the doubt that the world might not be real; instead, he re-interprets the inherent limitation of our perception and of our intellect as negative proofs of the existence of a world beyond our limits, a world that emerges indirectly only in our failure to reach it. Thus, skepticism does not undermine the reality of the world but, on the contrary, enhances it. Doubt is the strongest form of belief.

  • 11  Cavell 1984a: 20.

5Cavell’s major justification for writing about movies is that «art now exists in the condition of philosophy, since it has always been the condition of philosophy to attempt to escape itself, which for several centuries has taken the form of each new major philosopher wishing to repudiate the past of the subject – I mean repudiate it philosophically»11. Movies promise to reveal the condition of viewing as such, which, in our age at least, is the condition of remaining unseen, viewing from “behind the self”. Cavell invites us to think of philosophy as a certain stage in the historical development of film, a self-critical stage at which film finally begins to examine its own conditions of possibility. At the same time, however, he also maintains that philosophy is not just a stage in the history of film but its ontological basis: film exists naturally and perpetually in the condition of philosophy, which is to say in the condition of skepticism. Cavell’s subordination of film to philosophy – he equates film with consciousness and philosophy with self-consciousness – becomes evident in his privileging of doubling and repetition, both of which imply self-consciousness or, in his terms, philosophy. The two film genres he singles out as both dramatizing the threat of skepticism inherent in the ontology of the film image and refuting skepticism, function precisely through doubling and repetition: the Shakespearean Romance works through displacement/doubling, splitting the world into two parallel worlds (how things are and how we want them to be) while the Comedy of Remarriage is based on the notion of the repetition, re-discovery and re-animation of marital love. Conversely, Cavell considers tragedy and melodrama inferior genres since they fail to present the possibility of another (better) world. The criteria on the basis of which he evaluates a film, or an entire genre, are thus determined by the film’s philosophical – rather than aesthetic or social – significance, by its ability to recall the criteria or conditions of possibility for its own existence and to assuage our skepticism about the world and about the existence of other minds. In short, for Cavell ontological considerations always take precedence over aesthetic ones.

  • 12  Trifonova 2008: 271-286.

6Cavell’s theory of film, like Kracauer’s, performs a cosmetic surgery on skepticism. As I have argued elsewhere12 Kracauer’s account of film’s «redemption of physical reality» was based on his implicit redemption/aestheticization of modernity. In Film Theory: the Redemption of Physical Reality Kracauer responded to the prevailing climate of skepticism about modernity, manifested in popular critiques of modernity’s negative aspects – fragmentation, alienation, solitude, drift, meaninglessness, and distraction – by redeeming them as, in fact, essential to film’s realist aesthetic: fragmentation was redeemed as autonomy; solitude and alienation – fragmentation on a social level – were refigured as states of (Kantian) aesthetic disinterestedness; distraction was aestheticized as episodicity; skepticism and moral/existential relativism or groundlessness were redeemed as ambiguity and indeterminacy; finally, melancholy was aestheticized as a state of “hesitant openness” or a more ethical relation to reality. Starting from Kracauer’s premise that film demonstrates an “affinity” for the infinite, the indeterminate, the fortuitous, the unstaged and the incidental, Cavell argues that film undermines its own inherent skepticism thanks to its “affinity” for the involuntary, the unconscious, and the automatic, all of which, in Cavell’s view, describe the nature of the human in modernity and post-modernity: they are the cogito’s conditions of possibility. Cavell reads the advent of photography and film as a manifestation of something that had already happened to the human mind – namely the fall into skepticism recorded in the work of Descartes, Hume, Kant, Emerson, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Wittgenstein – only to redeem film as the ultimate proof of the cogito’s existence. Even as he acknowledges that film offers us nothing more than “views” of the world and throws us into skepticism – skepticism about the world, about the existence of other minds, and about our own existence – Cavell insists that film can “save us from skepticism”, inasmuch as the film camera functions as the ultimate guarantee that the cogito can no longer be concealed but, on the contrary, is always already on display and thus impervious to doubt.

7Cavell considers skepticism endemic not just to philosophy but to all aspects of modern culture, including literature, psychoanalysis, and cinema. The skeptic fails to realize that if something cannot be known, then it cannot be coherently doubted either. Refusing to accept that human knowledge is necessarily conditioned, the skeptic suffers from his disillusionment in the name of “true knowledge”; his desire to negate the human, to present the human condition as falling short of some transcendent knowledge, is naïve and arrogant at the same time. When the skeptic denies that we can ever know that someone is in pain, or that material objects really exist, he wrongly assumes that the issue at hand is cognitive, whereas, as Stephen Mulhall explains,

  • 13  Mulhall 1996: 7, 6.

if our relationship to the world is fundamentally criterial, it cannot intelligibly be assessed in terms of truth and falsity. […] The truth is that, since criteria are the conditions for the possibility of knowledge-claims, they cannot themselves be items of knowledge. Criteria specify what must be the case if something is to count as an instance of a certain kind, but they do not claim that any given thing is of that kind, or even that there is such an instance anywhere in the world13.

  • 14Ivi: 10.

8If skepticism is the denial or forgetting of conditions of possibility/criteria, then the struggle against skepticism must include recalling criteria and acknowledging conditions of possibility. Thus, despite the obvious influence of realist film theories on Cavell – consider the numerous references to Bazin and Panofsky throughout Cavell’s writing on film – Cavell’s major object of study are not what Kracauer calls film’s “recording” and “revealing” functions, but rather film’s potential to reveal the criteria – the conditions of possibility – underlying these functions. Film reveals the conditions of possibility for our existence in the world, and acknowledges i.e., accepts these conditions. Cavell’s notion of acknowledgment is always linked to that of acceptance of what is being acknowledged, an attitude of forbearance or stoicism, rather than resignation or despair. Mulhall correctly identifies Cavell’s philosophy as essentially “therapeutic” inasmuch as it attempts to overcome the skeptical impulse and restore the subject’s connection to reality: although recalling criteria or acknowledging conditions of possibility «leaves everything as it is […] the passivity it demands is a species of forbearance, a refusal of the all-too-human desire for the linguistically (and socially and biologically) unconditioned»14.

  • 15  Charney’s analysis of cinema as both contributing to drift and resisting drift is premised on the (...)

9Cavell’s therapeutic or redemptive discourse is representative of the ambivalent response to the emergence of cinema recorded in various histories of modernity. In Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity and Drift Leo Charney discusses the birth of cinema as a response to urbanization and industrialization and, at the same time, as a determining factor in the total transformation of the sensory apparatus brought about by urbanization and industrialization. On the one hand, inasmuch as film perception mimicked the drifting, distracted perception of the flâneur cinema was just one manifestation, among many, of modernity’s tendency to drift; on the other hand, cinema served as a bulwark against the threatening tendency to drift by structuring the viewer’s attention into “peaks and valleys” (e.g. the peaks and valleys of classical Hollywood cinema)15. The redemption of drift – its construction as both a problem and a solution, which, as we shall see, anticipates Cavell’s analogous redemption of skepticism – becomes apparent in Charney’s discussion of Freud’s theory of consciousness and Benjamin’s idea of the “optical unconscious”. According to Freud, consciousness emerges in the place of a memory trace: every “peak” of consciousness conceals a “valley” of repressed memories i.e., consciousness is born in the act of forgetting. Along similar lines, Benjamin argues that the modern subject is increasingly incapable of registering and integrating new experiences. Bombarded with visual and audio stimuli, his consciousness shrinks back from new shocks, leading to an “impoverishment of experience”; the loss of immediate experience forces the subject to replace it with memories in a vain attempt to compensate for the loss. However, considered from a different point of view, this so-called “impoverishment of experience” appears almost as a blessing in disguise: Benjamin goes on to celebrate cinema’s potential to unlock “the optical unconscious” – which includes all direct experiences that have remained un-integrated, accessible only to involuntary memory – thereby tapping into a formidable source of surprising, fresh experiences that are simply “waiting” for the camera to reveal them. The ambivalence toward cinema that informs both Benjamin’s writing on modernity (cinema embodies the modern experience of being overwhelmed by the constant shocks to the eye but, at the same time, it holds the key to the “optical unconscious”) and Charney’s gloss on modernity (his discourse of “drift” as both a danger and a desirable state of aesthetic pleasure) underlies, as well, Cavell’s writing on film, in which he redeems concepts with apparently negative connotations – e.g. “automatism” and “metaphysical fidgetiness” – as both causes of and solutions to skepticism.

  • 16 The multiple meanings of the term “automatism” account for numerous contradictions in Cavell’s wri (...)

10Cavell’s emphasis on film’s automatism is one important way in which he departs from realist film theories even as he remains indebted to them16. While Bazin claimed that photography freed the plastic arts from their obsession with likeness – thanks to photography’s superiority in reproducing the world – in Cavell’s view the main wish photography satisfied was not the wish for likeness but the

  • 17  Cavell 1971: 21.

human wish, intensifying in the West since the Reformation, to escape subjectivity and metaphysical isolation – a wish for the power to reach this world, having for so long tried, at last hopelessly, to manifest fidelity to another. And painting was not “freed” – and not by photography – from its obsession with likeness. Painting, in Manet, was forced to forgo likeness exactly because of its own obsession with reality17.

11While painting has always been preoccupied with establishing a connection to reality through a sense of presentness, photography overcame this essentially romantic pursuit by overcoming subjectivity itself,

  • 18Ivi: 23.

by automatism, by removing the human agent from the task of reproduction. […] Photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it. The reality in a photograph is present to me while I am not present to it; and a world I know, and see, but to which I am nevertheless not present (through no fault of my subjectivity) is a world past18.

  • 19Ivi: 118.
  • 20Ivi: 119.
  • 21Ivi: 113.

12Unlike art, movies do not have to establish presentness to and of the world, nor do they have to deny or declare the artist’s presence since «the object [is] always out of his hands»19. Movies, then, are automatically candid: «Film takes our very distance and powerlessness over the world as the condition of the world’s natural appearance. It promises the exhibition of the world in itself. This is the promise of candor: that what it reveals is entirely what is revealed to it»20. Cinema is the most modern of the arts because it creates the impression of being absolutely autonomous, producing itself automatically: «In achieving these works without the trace of hands or wrists or arms, without muscle – the idea realizing itself – an automatism of canvas and paint […] is set in motion, admitting an overpowering beauty»21. Thus Cavell links “automatism” to “autonomy”: the automatic nature of the photographic medium guarantees the autonomy of the work, which in turn implies the autonomy of the world and thus appeases our skepticism about the world’s reality. The attainment of the work’s autonomy is a continuation of the old wish of romanticism

  • 22Ivi: 113-114.

to imitate not the look of nature, but its conditions, the possibilities of knowing nature at all and of locating ourselves in a world. For an old romanticist, these conditions would have presented themselves as nature’s power of destruction [e.g. the sublime] or healing, or its fertility. For the work of the modernists I have in mind, the conditions present themselves as nature’s autonomy, self-sufficiency, laws unto themselves. […] This is not a return to nature but the return of it, as of the repressed22.

  • 23Ivi: 24.
  • 24Ivi: 39.

13In short, Cavell argues that precisely our distance and separateness from the world constitute the ultimate proof of its existence since they reveal the conditions of possibility for the very existence of a world23; further, he suggests that since film’s natural tendency is to screen us from the world (a manifestation of its inherent automatism), it has the potential to refute skepticism. Paradoxically, the cause of our skepticism – our distance, or even absence, from the world – constitutes the best refutation of skepticism. Film automatically saves us from skepticism, because it screens us from the world, thus not only satisfying the condition that the world is not just a subjective representation but «satisfying it without my having to do anything, satisfying it by wishing. In a word, magically»24. The automatism of photography and cinema does not satisfy our obsession with realism in the sense of “producing a likeness of reality”; rather, automatism satisfies our wish for escaping subjectivity. Thus, in Cavell’s work the concept of automatism performs a function similar to that of the privileged concepts I examine in The Image in French Philosophy: pure memory (Bergson), image-consciousness (Sartre), time-image (Deleuze), the sublime (Lyotard), and the fatal object (Baudrillard). The ultimate proof of the reality of the world demands, for Cavell as well as for Bergson, Sartre, Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Deleuze, our absence from it, an absence guaranteed by the automatic nature of photographic reproduction.

  • 25  Mulhall 1996: 295.

14Cavell has repeatedly voiced his desire to mend the split between Anglo-American (analytic) philosophy and Continental philosophy, as well as to establish the distinctiveness of American philosophy whose unsung founding fathers, Emerson and Thoreau, he reads in conjunction with Wittgenstein’s theory of ordinary language. His unconventional combination of Continental thought – especially Freudian psychoanalysis – and Anglo-American analytic philosophy – specifically, ordinary language philosophy and moral perfectionism – may account for his deeply ambivalent treatment of cinema’s relationship to skepticism. Cavell’s discussions of the human body on film, of “hidden literality”, and of the ordinary and the self-evident, are representative of the “Freudian moments” in his work. The purpose of these discussions is to demonstrate that skepticism does not pose a real philosophical problem, because the condition in which the modern cogito finds itself (a condition exacerbated by the invention of the camera) is one of “always already being exposed” and thus not requiring proof. The cogito “betrays itself” through its embodied existence, particularly through its unconscious, automatic movements and gestures, which the film camera records automatically and thus, supposedly, objectively. Our skepticism toward language is equally unjustified: meaning is always already available and transparent, guaranteed by the principle of overdetermination, though we refuse to notice it or we miss it precisely because of its obviousness. Conversely, in his “Emersonian moments” Cavell presents skepticism as a real threat, the overcoming of which demands an act of self-assertion, for «human beings exist only in so far as they acknowledge their existence – claim it, stake it, enact it»25. Nevertheless, as we shall see, even in the second case skepticism does not pose a real threat, since Cavell translates the philosophical problem of the existence of the world and of other minds into a psychological problem, the struggle between individualism and conformity.

  • 26  Cavell 1996b: 49.
  • 27  Cavell 2005: 147.
  • 28Ivi: 346.

15Although Cavell encourages us to read his writing on film as a response to the threat of skepticism, more often than not he implies that skepticism is ultimately a phantom problem that can “solve itself” or that does not even demand to be solved. For instance, he denies that his task as a philosopher of film is to provide evidence against skepticism: «My interest […] lies in finding out what my beliefs mean, and learning the particular ground they occupy. This is not the same as providing evidence for them. One could say it is a matter of making them evident»26. Cavell’s discussion of the fantastic in cinema, in the course of which he rethinks “doubt” not as a manifestation of skepticism but as a form of imaginative “displacement”, provides a good example of his reduction of skepticism to a phantom problem. While European literature and cinema have demonstrated at best a marginal interest in the fantastic, the founding works of American culture belong to the literature of the fantastic, the most prominent among them being Thoreau’s Walden, which Cavell reads, against the grain, as a fantastic text27. Hollywood cinema, for instance, is obsessed with contrasting everyday worlds with the worlds of the imagination, not only in more obvious instances like The Matrix but also in horror films, which are about the transformation of the self and the world, in comedies of remarriage, which are presumably about the same thing, and in musicals, which blur the distinction between the ordinary world and an ideal, harmonious world28. Collapsing “the fantastic” into “the transcendental” and “the supernatural”, Cavell proposes that cinema as such is fantastic since it is based on the constant hesitation between the empirical and the transcendental/supernatural, on the duality of the world as it is and as the characters in a film want it to be. “Fantasy”, for Cavell, does not refer to a particular genre but instead describes, very broadly, human desire, which by its very nature transcends the world as it is. In this broader sense of the term, fantasy – that is, cinema, inasmuch as cinema is essentially fantastic – has the power to invoke, and thus “prove” (in the weaker sense of “demonstrate”) the reality of other possible worlds/other minds. Since our desires and wishes are always displaced from the world as it is, displacement – the displacement of things from us and of us from things – appears to be a manifestation of skepticism (e.g. the Romantics’ view of the world as “dead” to us). At the same time, however, Cavell insists that precisely the displacement of our desires from the world – the inherent duality of the world – provides the best demonstration of the existence of other worlds, other minds. In other words, Cavell wants to have it both ways: fantasy/cinema exposes the unreality of our desires or of the world we inhabit (The Matrix), thereby provoking skepticism, but precisely in doing so fantasy/cinema demonstrates the existence of other worlds, thereby assuaging our skepticism.

  • 29Ivi: 102.
  • 30Ivi: 97.
  • 31  Mulhall 1996: 198.
  • 32  Cavell 2005: 206.
  • 33Ibidem.
  • 34Ivi: 210.
  • 35Ivi: 207.

16Cavell’s critical excursions into the other arts further demonstrate his treatment of skepticism as a phantom philosophical problem. For example, he discusses the “hidden literality” of Beckett’s language as another instance of recalling criteria or conditions of possibility, of making transparent the inherent (given, automatic) transparency of language, which usually remains obscured by connotative, metaphorical or symbolic interpretations of words. Beckett’s strategy of literalization is to try to free language of any rhetoric, to write in purely denotative language, which he accomplishes not by going outside language but by accepting that “there is nowhere else to go”: «You say only what your words say»29. There is only this world, the world of the ordinary, of habit and repetition, whose transparency, which we have missed or refused to accept, renders it opaque and enchanted: its biggest secret is its total lack of secretiveness. Beckett’s “hidden literality” exposes the general conditions of intelligibility: «The words strew obscurities across our path and seem to willfully thwart comprehension; and then time and time we discover that their meaning has been missed only because it was so utterly bare – totally, therefore unnoticeably, in view»30. Skepticism – about the meaningfulness of words, the possibility to communicate, or the possibility to know the world and other minds through language – is merely an arrogant refusal to accept the utter transparency, obviousness, or ordinariness of meaning. The task of philosophy and of psychoanalysis is, therefore, not the excavation of repressed material but the acknowledgment of the fact that what has been repressed or forgotten is precisely what should have been most obvious, namely Being (or, the ordinary). Apparently, we have repressed the fact that nothing can really be repressed but that, on the contrary, everything is exposed and often, precisely because of that, missed/doubted. Skepticism can never be a real threat to meaning as long as we recall the conditions of possibility of language (as Beckett and Shakespeare do), which include «the recurrence and the commonality of words»31. For instance, Macbeth foregrounds the conditions of possibility of language by means of prophecy and mind-reading: «Prophecy, or foretelling, takes up the condition of words as recurrent; mind-reading takes up the words as shared»32. Prophecy enacts one of the basic conditions of possibility of language – the repetition of words across different contexts/times: «The play dramatizes the fact that a word does not exist until it is understood as repeated»33. Mind-reading enacts the other condition of possibility of language, the ability for different speakers to understand/acknowledge one another, for whenever we speak we say things that the other one has already said or already knows34. By structuring the play around prophecy and mind-reading Shakespeare acknowledges the conditions of possibility of language, the repetition and overdetermination of meaning, or what Cavell calls «our fatedness to significance, ourselves as victims of intelligibility, which […] corresponds to Freud’s idea of “the overdetermination” of meaning in human action and passion»35.

  • 36Ivi: 31-45.

17The phantom problem of skepticism is likewise easily solved by assuming an ethical perspective to ordinary language philosophy. In the essay The Normal and the Natural36 Cavell discusses the conventional nature of the “normal” and the “natural’. As Mulhall explains in the introduction, Cavell’s thinking here follows Wittgenstein’s idea that

  • 37Ivi: 31-32.

we learn the criteria-governed use of words in certain contexts and are then expected to project them into further contexts, but nothing insures that this will happen […] the fact that it does happen is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, a matter of a certain “attunement in our natural reactions or responses to reality”, of the human capacity to recognize oneself in another37.

  • 38  Mulhall 1996: 46.
  • 39  Trifonova 2007: 9-23.

18The automatism of conventions presupposes a natural i.e., “automatic” attunement with others, an ability to recognize ourselves in them and thus an acknowledgment of other minds; in this way, the automatism of conventions shields us from skepticism. However, merely recalling the criteria underlying shared conventions – revealing the grounds of our automatic attunement with others – is not sufficient to overthrow skepticism. For example, when we try to answer the question whether we can know someone else’s pain, «the mere reiteration of criteria cannot amount to a refutation of skepticism. Since criteria determine the identity of something rather than guaranteeing its reality or existence, they cannot exclude the possibility that pain-behavior is feigned or expressive of something other than pain»38. A stronger defense against skepticism, Cavell suggests, can be built on ethical grounds. Skepticism’s fundamental error is to assume that the relationship of the subject to the world, to itself, and to other subjects, is purely cognitive whereas, in fact, it is ethical, a matter of reciprocity and acknowledgment rather than knowledge. In The Image in French Philosophy I suggested that the subordination of aesthetics to ontology was part of a general ethical turn in Continental philosophy, which manifested itself in a desire to “get rid of ourselves”, as Deleuze puts it39. Similarly, the concept of acknowledgment, with its unmistakably ethical connotations, occupies a central place in Cavell’s work. For Cavell, our relationship to others takes the form of acknowledgment rather than knowledge: the question is not whether others exist but what claim they make upon me and how I respond to that claim, acknowledging it or refusing to. However, even my refusal to respond to the other’s claim is a kind of response; accordingly, Cavell interprets “failures of acknowledgment” in Shakespearean plays as “enactments of skepticism”. No neutral (cognitive) attitude to the other is possible: by his sheer existence the other makes a claim upon me, which I either acknowledge or refuse.

  • 40  Cavell 2005: 149.

19Skepticism, then, is not a real problem, because the world and other people inevitably reveal themselves to us: «Whether or not we acknowledge others is not a matter of choice, any more than accepting the presence of the world is a matter of choosing to see or not to see it»40. Although Cavell admits that skepticism cannot be absolutely refuted – because our relation to the world and to other minds necessarily takes the “weaker” form of acknowledgment rather than knowledge – he also suggests that, in fact, skepticism need not be refuted, because it is rooted in a false assumption, the assumption (or the desire) – bound to be disappointed – that our knowledge of the world can be unconditioned. Cavell “wins” the battle against skepticism by bringing the concept of skepticism from the metaphysical realm (where skepticism has to do with the difficulty of proving the existence of the world and of other minds) down to the human/ethical realm (where skepticism has to do with our ethical relationship with others, with psychological responses such as shame, guilt, embarrassment, and hysteria). The cogito is never really in need of “proof” because it is always already implied in our existential/ethical relationship with others and with ourselves: ontology is a matter of ethics. Thus, if the first moment in Cavell’s philosophy of film is the subordination of aesthetics to ontology, the second moment is the subordination of ontology to ethics.

  • 41  Cavell 1971: 123.
  • 42  Cavell views Godard’s films as representative of the skeptical impulse. By un-theatricalizing the (...)
  • 43  Cavell 1971: 93.
  • 44Ivi: 94.

20If the battle against skepticism involves recalling conditions of possibility, how do movies acknowledge their own conditions of possibility? Cavell emphasizes that self-reference is not the only, or even the main, way in which movies acknowledge their conditions of possibility i.e., acknowledgment is not equivalent to self-reference: «We should not assume that the point of the personal pronoun here is to refer to the self, for an acknowledgment is an act of the self […] and it is not done apart from an admission of the existence of others (denial of which made the acknowledgment necessary)»41. In fact, self-reference does not assure candor (hence Cavell’s distaste for Godard42) but feeds into skepticism by threatening to “un-theatricalize” the cogito. Cavell traces the theatricalization of the cogito back to Machiavelli’s theatricalization of politics (the idea that one’s identity is determined by one’s social position and function) and to Marx’s theatricalization of the cogito as class-consciousness43. The cogito’s self-dramatization or theatricalization resembles the period of adolescence: the Romantics’ self-dramatization was still a form of acknowledgment44. However, such acknowledgment has become impossible in the transition beyond Romanticism, when dramatic/theatrical explanations of the self and of human behavior are no longer valid. Instead, the self appears opaque, unexplainable, mute i.e., it is de-psychologized or un-theatricalized:

  • 45Ibidem. The de-psychologization or un-theatricalization of the cogito precipitates the vanishing o (...)

Dramatic explanations cease to be our natural mode of understanding one another’s behavior – whether because we tell ourselves that human behavior is inexplicable […] or that the human personality must be sought more deeply than dramatic religions or sociologies or psychologies or histories or ideologies are prepared for45.

21As the camera grows doubtful of its ability to allow the world to reveal itself, it takes over the task of revelation through techniques such as slow motion, freeze frames, and so on. However, the purpose (and effect) of such techniques is not to foreground the presence of the camera but rather to emphasize the opacity or unknowability – the autonomy – of the world. For example, a freeze frame does not allow us a better view and thus a better understanding of the character but, on the contrary, stresses the character’s unknowability. Acknowledging the world, then, is acknowledging its unknowability, autonomy, or outsidedness. For Cavell, it is precisely the unknowability of the world that constitutes the best proof or evidence of its existence.

22The appropriate response to skepticism is not, therefore, to expose the entire world as the work of ideology by depersonalizing characters or by underscoring the ways in which they have been constructed by discourses they do not recognize as their own (as Godard does). The cogito cannot declare itself truthfully by making the absolute claim that it has been “constructed through and through” for this would mean that even its consciousness of this is just another external discourse, another construct. On the contrary, Cavell maintains, the only proof of the cogito is that it does not know itself because large “chunks” of it remain unconscious: the only proof of the mind’s existence is the very fact that it does not know itself, which presupposes that there is something to be known. From this point of view, the role of psychoanalysis in the struggle against skepticism cannot be overstated:

  • 46  Cavell 2005: 235-236.

I see […] the advent of psychoanalysis as the place, perhaps the last place, in which the human psyche as such (the idea that there is a life of the mind, hence a death) receives its proof. And it receives proof of its existence in the only form in which that psyche can (any longer) believe it – namely, as essentially unknown to itself, say unconscious. As Freud puts it in the closing pages of The Interpretation of Dreams: The Unconscious is the true psychical reality. […] Freud’s assertion declares that for the mind to lose the psychoanalytic intuition of itself as unconscious would be for it to lose the knowledge that it exists46.

  • 47Ivi: 314.

23Even the ultimate failure of psychoanalysis, which, while promoting itself as a new “science of the mind” deteriorated from a critique of metaphysics to a kind of quasi-metaphysics, did not give a boost to skepticism, because, Cavell explains, the modern cogito exists in the mode of having always already betrayed (declared) itself. Cavell develops this argument in his analysis of Poe’s short story The Imp of the Perverse, which Cavell sees as marking an important shift from the Cartesian «I think, therefore I am» to Emerson’s (and Cavell’s own) translation of it as «I think, therefore I am destroyed». Thinking is not the only, or the purest, way in which the cogito declares itself; on the contrary, in Poe’s tale the thought “I am safe” precipitates the protagonist’s self-destruction as it becomes perverted/translated as “I am safe as long as I don’t say anything” and, ultimately, into a confession of his crime, thereby demonstrating that «thinking will out, that it inherently betrays the thinker»47. The cogito does not need to make an effort to declare itself i.e., prove its existence, because it always already exists in a “perpetual theater” with all other minds: we live in a constant state of metaphysical embarrassment. While it might seem that self-consciousness is a prison from within which we desperately try to reach to the outside world and other minds, in reality the sheer fact of our embodiment guarantees the defeat of skepticism. The body’s lucidity – the body’s everyday, automatic or unconscious movements and gestures – constitutes the horizon of the unsayable against which we interpret the actual actions of film characters (as well as those of real people). The unsayable (the condition of possibility for saying anything) is

  • 48  Cavell 1971: 153.

conveyed by freeing the motion of the body for its own lucidity. […] It was always part of the grain of film that, however studied the lines and set the business, the movement of the actors was essentially improvised – as in those everyday actions in which we walk through a new room or lift a cup in an unfamiliar locale or cross a street or greet a friend or look in a store window or accept an offered cigarette or add a thought to a conversation. They could all go one way or another48.

24However scripted or rehearsed a film, the actors’ bodies always move in more or less unrehearsed, improvised ways which do not – cannot – perfectly match the significance of the actions they are performing. The body can never be completely fictionalized: its inherent lucidity guarantees that it will always exceed the meaning we are supposed to ascribe to it based on the script, the editing, and so on. In short, the body is the cogito’s condition of possibility.

  • 49  Cavell 2005: 71.

25The skeptic assumes that my knowledge of others depends on their expressing themselves: if another person fails to express himself, or deliberately or inadvertently falsifies his expression of himself, I won’t be able to really know what is going on inside of him, but “he still knows”. Cavell argues that the skeptic’s way of reasoning – that I cannot know how another feels whereas “he still knows” – erroneously presupposes that people’s relationship to themselves is purely objective, that the other “knows” his own pain, that his relationship to it is purely cognitive rather than one of acknowledgment: «To know you are in pain is to acknowledge it, or to withhold the acknowledgment. I know your pain the way you do»49. Indeed, even the skeptic’s failure to acknowledge this is just another form of acknowledgment:

  • 50  Cavell 1971: 69.

The point […] is that the concept of acknowledgment is evidenced equally by its failure as by its success. It is not a description of a given response but a category in terms of which a given response is evaluated. […] A “failure to know” might just mean a piece of ignorance, an absence of something, a blank. A “failure to acknowledge” is the presence of something, a confusion, an indifference, a callousness, an exhaustion, a coldness. […] Just as, to say that behavior is expressive is not to say that the man impaled upon his sensation must express it he must suppress the behavior, or twist it50.

26The mind automatically expresses itself through the body: if it wished not to express itself, the mind would be forced to suppress its behavior or pervert it. The falsification of one’s behavior is, therefore, the best testimony to the cogito’s automatism (self-evidence) or transparency: one falsifies one’s behavior precisely because he assumes that if he doesn’t, his body will betray him. Skepticism proceeds from the incorrect assumption that we have access to other minds only through their behavior or through their unconscious gestures. The problematic term here is “only”: it presupposes another, more direct access to other minds that promises a more “authentic” knowledge of them. The problem is not that the other is hidden from me (the body as an obstacle) but just the opposite: the other is totally exposed, transparent to me – by virtue of his body – as I am to him. Shame and embarrassment are, for Cavell, ontological facts rather than feelings associated with uncomfortable or traumatic experiences one has repressed. Reading other minds through the unconscious or automatic (hysterical) bodily symptoms displayed on/through their bodies is analogous to exposing the grammatical criteria underlying the words we use: knowing ourselves in the body of the expressions we use is the same as knowing ourselves in the unconscious gestures we-as-bodies perform.

  • 51  Cavell 2005: 77.
  • 52Ivi: 244.
  • 53Ivi: 245
  • 54  Freud qtd. in ibidem.
  • 55Ivi: 246.

27Cinema’s role in overcoming skepticism consists in automatically recording these unconscious, automatic gestures. Now that the cogito has become alienated from itself or pornographized – in the sense that all its wishes and desires have ceased to be its own but are produced for it by society, so that when it speaks it speaks someone else’s language and desire – the human survives only in the body’s unconscious actions. In this context, “fidgetiness” – the body’s automatic actions, gestures or tics – emerges as the only means of self-individuation. Here lies the value of cinema as a bulwark against skepticism: by automatically (unconsciously) recording the body’s automatic gestures, cinema reassures us that there is still something left of the human, something that is not fully conscious and thus not fully rationalized/constructed. To refute skepticism, then, one must take the risk of apsychism: «Call the belief in the soul psychism. Then a serious psychology must take the risk of apsychism. It can no more tolerate the idea of another (little) man inside, in here, than a serious theology can tolerate the idea of another (large) man outside, up there. […] The spirit of the body is the “body”»51. Freud’s unique contribution to the history of the idea of the body as an image of the soul/spirit was his suggestion to look at the body’s relationship to the mind not simply in terms of expression but in terms of exposure, betrayal and embarrassment, for example in his description of Dora’s “symptomatic acts” as a “pantomimic announcement”52. While all human beings are capable of hysterical conversion – the capacity to modify the body in response to an excitation, instead of rendering the excitation conscious or responding to it on the practical plane – «a particular aptitude is required for a given sufferer to avail herself or himself of hysteria over other modes of symptom formation, as in obsessions or phobias»53. According to Cavell, Freud was much more interested in hysterical conversion than in other modes of symptom formation, for instance phobias or obsessions, because hysterical conversion reflects the highest degree of intelligence and a plasticity of imagination. What made hysteria so fascinating was the temporality of hysteric conversion, which Freud explained in terms of reminiscences: hysterics suffer from reminiscences of repressed traumatic events. Although Freud claimed that the «leap from a mental process to a somatic innervation»54 left the hysterical conversion unknown to us, Cavell reads this unknowability positively. For instance, he insists that precisely the unknowability of Greta Garbo, “the unknown woman” par excellence – in the genre Cavell calls “the melodrama of the unknown woman” – is the ultimate proof of her existence, for «the sense of failure to know her, of her being beyond us (say visibly absent) is itself the proof of her existence”55. If consciousness emerges in the place of a memory trace (Freud), the fact that the cogito remains unknown to, or forgotten by, itself is the strongest proof of its existence.

  • 56Ivi: 301.
  • 57Ivi: 301-302.

28We have seen that “the Continental line of inheritance” in Cavell’s philosophy dismisses “the threat of skepticism”, on which this line of thinking is supposedly based, as a phantom philosophical problem. Let us now look at “the American line of inheritance” in Cavell’s philosophy of film to see if it takes skepticism more seriously. Reading Descartes through Emerson, as well as through Heidegger’s description of Dasein as a kind of being for which its own being is in question, Cavell takes Descartes’ idea that my existence requires proof or authentication to mean that I exist only by virtue of acknowledging my existence i.e., Cavell understands “self-authentication” or “proof”, via Emerson, in terms of “self-reliance”. Emerson is interested in what happens if one fails to say “I am, I exist”, in moving from the possibility that I can disclaim certain actions or thoughts as not mine to the possibility that none of my actions and thoughts are mine, that «I am worked, from inside or outside»56. However, Emerson denies that the self can be absolutely worked by Others, reminding us that the soul is always in the process of becoming (moral perfectionism) and thus capable of liberating itself from the tyranny of conformity. Following Emerson, Cavell reformulates the problem of skepticism not as an ontological proof of one’s existence (the Cartesian “I am, I exist”) but as a matter of self-individuation: to say sensibly “I exist”, he argues, is to differentiate this “I” from others to which it does not refer at the moment of declaring itself. The problem of skepticism is thus transferred to a psychological plane, where what requires proof is not my existence but my individuality, my independence from others, in short my autonomy. To be the “author” of oneself means to demonstrate/enact the condition of possibility of the cogito, namely its “nature” of “becoming” rather than “being”. The possibility of this self-authoring or becoming oneself exists against the very real threat of not being oneself, failing to author or create oneself: «Emerson needs a view of the world, a perspective on its fallenness, in which the uncreatedness of the individual manifests itself, in which human life appears as the individual’s failure at self-creation, as a continuous loss of individual possibility in the face of some empowering competitor»57. Taking advantage of Emerson’s account of existing in a state of fallenness or uncreatedness as “conformity”, Cavell manages to avoid the metaphysical turn (proving one’s existence by referring to an external agent responsible for my existence, God) by psychologizing the whole issue of existence and proof, translating metaphysical questions, e.g. “do I exist?” or “is the world real?” into psychological ones, e.g. “Is my existence authentic (rather than ‘real’)?” or “Is my existence fake, inauthentic, conformist, uncreated?”. He goes as far as to claim that the metaphysical question of the proof of one’s existence cannot even be posed coherently at certain historical moments in the life of the individual and in the life of the culture at large. Modernity is one such historical moment, in which modern man cannot even demand of himself to prove his own existence because he is ashamed of it:

  • 58Ivi: 128.

I pause here simply to state [Emerson’s] observation that we are no longer able to announce the cogito for ourselves, no longer able, as he puts it, to say “I think” and “I am”, on our own, for ourselves. I take this to imply that we are without proof of our existence, that we are, accordingly, in a state of pre-existence, as if metaphysically missing persons. Emerson’s famous word for lacking words of our own is “conformity”58.

  • 59Ivi: 127.
  • 60Ivi: 126.

29Given that Cavell translates the problem of skepticism into the problem of conformity, one would expect his refutation of skepticism to underscore the importance of the struggle to maintain one’s individuality in the face of conformity. If to stake or enact one’s existence means to be true to one’s individual nature, one may wonder what, according to Cavell, makes an individual unique. And yet, the example he gives – in his discussion of Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town – raises more questions than it answers. In his film analysis Cavell aims to demonstrate that the importance of cinema lies in «returning the mind to the living body»59 recording thinking, which is not limited to “intellectual processes” but is enacted in “universal fidgetiness”, the little involuntary gestures and movements of the human body. Cavell calls such recordings “somatograms”, claiming that they belong to «what Walter Benjamin calls cinema’s optics of the unconscious»60. In the scene Cavell analyzes Mr. Deeds delivers a speech, in which he argues that involuntary gestures and actions are a form of thinking too, although they do not conform to the common idea of thinking as a purely intellectual act. However, it is not just any movements of the body that qualify as “thinking” and thus as “proof” of the cogito’s existence. Mr. Deed’s examples of “thinking” (“somatograms”) include fidgetiness, doodling, filling in the “O” in the title of a brochure, and playing the tuba – actions that are done mostly unconsciously, or if done consciously (tuba playing) are always already accepted as somewhat eccentric rather than functional, conformist or goal oriented:

  • 61Ivi: 130-131.

And I take it that Deeds’ insight is that a reverse field of proof is available by way of the motion picture camera, so that while thinking is no longer secured by the mind’s declaration of its presence to itself, it is now to be secured by the presence of the live human body to the camera, in particular by the presence of the body’s apparently least intelligent property, its fidgetiness, its metaphysical restlessness. In Descartes the proof of thinking was that it cannot doubt itself; after Emerson the proof of thinking is that it cannot be concealed. […] Am I saying that the camera is necessary to this knowledge? […] Must I commit myself to saying that my existence is proved (only) each time the camera rolls my way? I ask a little license here. My idea is that the invention of the motion picture camera reveals something that has already happened to us. […] We can think of what the camera reveals as a new strain either in our obliviousness to our existence or in a new mode of certainty of it61.

  • 62Ivi: 127.

30The cogito is no longer self-evident so the only proof of its existence is the body which does not even have to “try” to prove its existence for it betrays itself in spite of itself: by recording somatograms cinema «return[s] the mind to the living body»62. If there is a threat to speak of here, it is not the threat of skepticism but the opposite threat of overexposing the cogito:

  • 63Ivi: 131.

If the price of Descartes’ proof of his existence was a perpetual recession of the body […] the price of an Emersonian proof of my existence is a perpetual visibility of the self, a theatricality in my presence to others, hence to myself. The camera is an emblem of perpetual visibility. Descartes’ self-consciousness thus takes the form of embarrassment63.

31Paradoxically, Cavell suggests that the most automatic, arbitrary, involuntary actions or movements provide the strongest evidence of the cogito, which is no longer capable of rationally, consciously declaring itself. What individualizes Mr. Deeds, Cavell would have us believe, are precisely those little inconspicuous actions and gestures he does unconsciously, automatically. Thus both the cause of skepticism – living automatically, in conformity, unable to declare oneself as the author of one’s existence – and the refutation of skepticism – the automatic recording of automatic, unconscious movements by the camera – are described in the same terms, in terms of automatism.

  • 64  Cavell 1971: 72.
  • 65Ivi: 107
  • 66Ivi: 103.

32Cinema, along with the other arts, has moved into the modernist predicament «in which an art has lost its natural relation to its history»64. The question it has to answer is no longer “in what direction will this art develop in the future” but rather “how can this art survive?”: «A modernist art, investigating its own physical basis, searching out its own conditions of existence, rediscovers the fact that its existence as an art is not physically assured»65. The lapse of conviction in the traditional uses of its automatism has forced cinema into modernism: «Its potentiality for acknowledging that lapse in ways that will redeem its power makes modernism an option for it»66. Insofar as modern art foregrounds the conditions of possibility for the existence of a whole range of automatisms, it functions as a bulwark against skepticism: the battle against automatism (in the sense of tradition or convention) is the battle against skepticism. The modern artist frees himself from the automatic inheritance of traditional/conventional/automatic uses of the medium, which he doesn’t recognize as his (since they are prefabricated), and instead creates automatically, tapping into some subconscious or repressed sources of authenticity and individuality not traversed by the automatism of tradition. In other words, Cavell challenges one type of automatism, that of tradition or convention, with another type of automatism, the subconscious/ unconscious which, like tradition, the artist does not recognize as “his” since he is unaware of it. The dialectic of the “automatism” of conformity (“bad”) and the inherent automatism of the body (“good”) is reproduced in the dialectic of “automatism” referring to the nature of the photographic/film medium as such (“good”) – photographs are not hand-made but manufactured automatically – and, on the other hand, “automatism” referring to tradition or convention (“bad”).

  • 67  Cavell 1988: 139.

33Cavell’s conflation of several mutually contradictory meanings of “automatism” demonstrates that even from the perspective of the American line of inheritance in his philosophy skepticism remains an imaginary problem. In the final analysis, Cavell’s redemption of cinema from a cause of skepticism to a solution to skepticism remains purely tautological. His remarks on the amoral act of the protagonist in Poe’s The Imp of the Perverse – an act that he reads not as a rejection of morality but as a desperate attempt to establish and affirm the moral law precisely by breaking it – may serve to clarify his ultimate position with respect to skepticism: the skeptic doubts the world’s existence precisely in order to believe in it, or, as he puts it, «the self-defeat of skepticism is precisely the point of it»67. The skeptic affirms the world by denying it: in order for him to deny something, it must already exist so the denial actually affirms or reanimates the (apparently) lost world. Cavell’s “solution” to the problem of skepticism – we regain the world only by mourning it – is modeled after the subject’s response to trauma:

  • 68Ivi: 172.

Since I lose the world in every impulse to philosophy […] the world must be regained every day, in repetition, regained as gone. Here is a way of seeing what it means that Freud too thinks of mourning as an essentially repetitive exercise. It can also be made out in his little essay Transience that Freud regards mourning as the condition of possibility of accepting the world’s beauty, the condition, that is to say, of allowing its independence from me, its objectivity68.

34Mourning and, by implication, trauma are necessary to our belief in the world’s objective existence. The intentionality of skepticism – the fact that we are skeptical of something, that we mourn the loss of something – indirectly proves the existence of what skepticism denies. The desire to reach this world, to prove its existence and thus refute skepticism, can be satisfied only by renouncing the desire for proof or, to use Cavell’s favorite term, by not “acknowledging” it, a renunciation made possible, in fact guaranteed, by the inherent automatism of the photographic medium. The best proof of the world’s existence is the suppression of the desire for proof, the suppression of the cogito demanding the proof. If doubt (including self-doubt) is the cogito’s current mode of existence – as Cavell observes on numerous occasions, the cogito is no longer capable of declaring itself, staking its place, proving its existence – the only escape from solipsism is to show that reality reveals itself independently of, or even in spite of, any skepticism about its existence. The automatic “world views” supplied by photography and film fit the bill perfectly: they demonstrate the existence of the world automatically, rather than in response to our wish or need for demonstration. Cinema proves the reality of the world precisely by not setting out to prove anything.

35Kant interpreted the unsurveyability, indefiniteness or richness of the world and the errors built into our mind and language as unknowability. For Cavell, however, skepticism and disappointment are natural to human beings. That we cannot fully survey the world with our language does not mean that it is unknowable. In fact, the splitting of the world into two parallel worlds – the way things are and the way we think they are, or the way we would like them to be – is healthy because it reveals negatively – through our mistakes, self-delusions, and doubts – that there is indeed something in the world that does not belong to us: that, for Cavell, is the ultimate victory over skepticism. Skepticism, like disappointment, is simply a mental attitude we erroneously consider an ontological fact. We are always most detached and alienated from that which is closest to us because this very closeness predisposes us to lose sight of it. Alienation is the same as habituation, and habituation destroys the feeling of home: to be at home one must remain not completely habituated, always living a little beside or outside oneself. Ultimately, Cavell’s interest in film remains limited to using film to demonstrate that skepticism – holding the world at a distance from myself and continually questioning its reality – is, in fact, the condition of possibility for feeling at home in the world.

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Cavell, S.

– 1971, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, New York, The Viking Press

– 1984a, The Thought of Movies, in Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, pp. 3-27

– 1984b, What Becomes of Things on Film, in Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes, cit., pp. 173-184

– 1988, In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism, Chicago, University of Chicago Press

– 1996a, The Normal and the Natural, in The Cavell Reader, ed. and with an introduction by S. Mulhall, Malden, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 31-45

– 1996b, Knowing and Acknowledging, in The Cavell Reader, cit., pp. 46-71

– 1996c, The Frog and the Craftsman, in The Cavell Reader, cit., pp. 72-88

– 1996d, Ending the Waiting Game, in The Cavell Reader, cit., pp. 94-112

– 1996e, The Avoidance of Love (Theater), in The Cavell Reader, cit., pp. 143-155

– 1996f, Macbeth Appalled, in The Cavell Reader, cit., pp. 197-220

– 1996g, Psychoanalysis and Cinema: the Melodrama of the Unknown Woman, in The Cavell Reader, cit., pp. 221-252

– 1996h, Being Odd, Getting Even, in The Cavell Reader, cit., pp. 295-320

– 2005, Cavell on Film, ed. and with an introduction by W. Rothman, Albany, SUNY Press Charney, L.

– 1998, Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity and Drift, Durham, Duke UP Kracauer, S.

– 1997, Theory of Film: The Redemption of physical Reality (1960), Princeton, Princeton University Press

Mulhall, S.,

– 1996, Introduction to The Cavell Reader, cit., pp. 1-21

Mullarkey, J.

– 2008, Film as Philosophy: A Mission Impossible?, in European Film Theory, ed. by T. Trifonova, New York and London, Routledge, pp. 65-80

Trifonova, T.

– 2007, The Image in French Philosophy, New York and Amsterdam, Rodopi

– 2008, From Distraction to Indeterminacy to Distraction: Kracauer and Contemporary Film Realist Discourse, in European Film Theory, ed. by T. Trifonova, New York and London, Routledge, pp. 271-286

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1  Mullarkey 2008: 66.

2  Trifonova 2007.

3  Cavell 1984b: 173.

4  Cavell 2005: 7.


6Ivi: 52-53.

7Ivi: 53.


9Ivi: 55.

10Ivi: 96.

11  Cavell 1984a: 20.

12  Trifonova 2008: 271-286.

13  Mulhall 1996: 7, 6.

14Ivi: 10.

15  Charney’s analysis of cinema as both contributing to drift and resisting drift is premised on the assumption that consciousness is “naturally” predisposed to drift or distraction, to valleys rather than peaks, to involuntary rather than voluntary perception and memory. Once this a priori proclivity to drift or inattention is posited as a threat, cinema’s structuring potential appears to keep at bay the vertigo of drift by arresting time into moments that give us the illusion of presence.

16 The multiple meanings of the term “automatism” account for numerous contradictions in Cavell’s writing. On the one hand, automatism reflects our natural attunement to the world and thus saves us from skepticism: it reassures us that we all work with the same criteria – defined by shared feelings and interests – which enable our mutual self-recognition in one another. Automatism in this sense is linked to acknowledgment, the acknowledgment of the existence of other minds following from our capacity to recognize ourselves in others. However, “automatism” is also synonymous with a tyrannical convention, from which we must free ourselves by challenging the unexamined assumptions propping up a particular automatism. Cavell understands “automatism” as inherent in the ontology of the photographic medium and, at the same time, referring to any particular convention (“automatism”) in the history of the medium.

17  Cavell 1971: 21.

18Ivi: 23.

19Ivi: 118.

20Ivi: 119.

21Ivi: 113.

22Ivi: 113-114.

23Ivi: 24.

24Ivi: 39.

25  Mulhall 1996: 295.

26  Cavell 1996b: 49.

27  Cavell 2005: 147.

28Ivi: 346.

29Ivi: 102.

30Ivi: 97.

31  Mulhall 1996: 198.

32  Cavell 2005: 206.


34Ivi: 210.

35Ivi: 207.

36Ivi: 31-45.

37Ivi: 31-32.

38  Mulhall 1996: 46.

39  Trifonova 2007: 9-23.

40  Cavell 2005: 149.

41  Cavell 1971: 123.

42  Cavell views Godard’s films as representative of the skeptical impulse. By un-theatricalizing the cogito through excessive self-referentiality they actually participate in the process of dehumanization they supposedly critique.

43  Cavell 1971: 93.

44Ivi: 94.

45Ibidem. The de-psychologization or un-theatricalization of the cogito precipitates the vanishing of the human as such, a vanishing registered in the turn to abstract art, which replaces human portrayal with the surface of the canvas, is more interested in the question of presence, and deprives art of any dramatic value (e.g. abandoning the value contrast between hues). Cinema cannot get rid of the human figure completely; nevertheless, the vanishing of the cogito and its inability to declare itself are reflected in the appearance of film characters deviating from the classic goal-oriented protagonist whose essential nature is given and knowable. The human figures we begin to see on the screen (in the Sixties) still look like us but they are no longer «psychically present to us, we read them as depsychologized, which, for us, means un-theatricalized».

46  Cavell 2005: 235-236.

47Ivi: 314.

48  Cavell 1971: 153.

49  Cavell 2005: 71.

50  Cavell 1971: 69.

51  Cavell 2005: 77.

52Ivi: 244.

53Ivi: 245

54  Freud qtd. in ibidem.

55Ivi: 246.

56Ivi: 301.

57Ivi: 301-302.

58Ivi: 128.

59Ivi: 127.

60Ivi: 126.

61Ivi: 130-131.

62Ivi: 127.

63Ivi: 131.

64  Cavell 1971: 72.

65Ivi: 107

66Ivi: 103.

67  Cavell 1988: 139.

68Ivi: 172.

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Notizia bibliografica

Temenuga Trifonova, «Film and Skepticism: Stanley Cavell on the Ontology of Film»Rivista di estetica, 46 | 2011, 197-219.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Temenuga Trifonova, «Film and Skepticism: Stanley Cavell on the Ontology of Film»Rivista di estetica [Online], 46 | 2011, online dal 30 novembre 2015, consultato il 14 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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