publisher colophon

I. Philosophy Goes to the Movies (To Find Redemption)

I have a fantasy about pitching a special late-night show to one of the major cable movie channels. Called Philosophy Goes to the Movies, the show would be co-hosted by Stanley Cavell and Slavoj Žižek. Žižek, I imagined, would appeal to the many Generation X-ers who are equally at home with Jacques Lacan as with David Lynch, and Cavell would draw the baby boomers, many of whom would applaud Cavell's choice of Groundhog Day – isn't Bill Murray the quintessential baby boomer? —as the one movie of the last quarter of the twentieth century that will certainly be considered worth viewing in one hundred years.1Philosophy Goes to the Movies would no doubt provide many opportunities for heated debate. Stanley Cavell, a self-styled Emersonian "moral perfectionist" who joins Wittgensteinian ordinary language philosophy to his inheritance of American transcendentalism, would find a feisty interlocutor in Slavoj Žižek, a full-throttle Hegelian dialectician who preaches the Gospel of the Death Drive.2

I have even begun to fantasize about making a pilot for the show. The obvious choice for the movie most likely to elicit a lively exchange from Cavell and Žižek, would be Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), a film about which both men have written. For Cavell, Vertigo is about "the capacity to stake identity on the power of wishing, upon the capacity and purity of one's imagination and desire ...."3 Cavell sees the film's depiction of the hero's "quasi-hallucinatory, quasi-necrophiliac quest" to be the study of a man who has entered a realm of "magic and fantasy" where the earth's everyday stability is lost, but also where a hope for new forms of inhabiting the earth may be born. Vertigo, Cavell says, "is about the power of fantasy, and in particular about its power to survive every inroad of science and civility intact, and to direct the destiny of its subject with, finally, his active cooperation."4 For Žižek, however, Vertigo is about a man seeking to pull back from the brink of the Hegelian "night of the world," the "empty nothing" containing phantasmagoria, the "derealized apparitions of partial objects" before they have coalesced into any integral subjectivity.5 Cavell holds out hope that beyond the hero's quest is a recuperation of the everyday world in which fantasy may be the energizing source of "keeping soul and body together" (World Viewed 85); Žižek would encourage the hero to release his ties to the everyday world and give himself over to a free fall into the abyss of desubjectified part-objects.

However much I would love to watch Cavell and Žižek talk about Hitchcock and film more generally, I recognize that Philosophy Goes to the Movies is only a fantasy. Like all fantasies, it screens an unfulfilled (and perhaps unfulfillable) desire. In my case, the fantasy of Philosophy Goes to the Movies is not so much about a conversation between Cavell and Žižek as it is about seeking a resolution to a debate at the very heart of the Western master narrative, a debate about the conclusion of the biblical story of redemption, call it the story of how the West was won. In this paper I want to explore how philosophy's fascination with the movies, at least as it is played out in the writing of Cavell and Žižek, re-enacts a question as old as the Christian West: is redemption won through the Law or from the Law? This question is at the heart of Paul's Letter to the Romans. It asks whether the everyday structures of our lives can be re-enlivened with a new spirit, or whether these structures must be radically shattered in order that a wholly new life might emerge. But the question is not new with Paul. It goes back to the Old Testament's dual images of Israel's redemption, figured either as the nation's willing obedience to the commandments handed down at Mt. Sinai or, in the words of the book of Jeremiah (31:31-34), the nation's entrance into a "new covenant" beyond the law of Mt. Sinai, a law engraved "upon the heart" rather than upon the flesh.6

I will devote this paper to a discussion of the film that perhaps most clearly reveals the nature of the debate between Cavell and Žižek, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962). It is one of the last movies made by John Ford and in many ways it calls into question the myths about the West that earlier Ford movies had helped to shape. Its story about "how the West was won" is cast as a story about the promise of redemption in the desert and whether it is achieved through the law or beyond it. Even though Cavell has written about this film and Žižek has not, it perfectly represents in the figure of Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne) the Žižekian theme of the hero who "includes himself out" and "unplugs" himself from the symbolic order of the Law. The movie therefore offers an opportunity to juxtapose Žižek's interest in such unplugged heroes with Cavell's focus on characters like Ransom Stoddard (played by Jimmy Stewart), who place their faith in civility and the social contract.

Before turning to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a few more words are called for about the connection between the philosophical themes informing Cavell's and Žižek's film criticism and what I have called the West's master narrative of redemption. In their philosophical take on film, both Cavell and Žižek see it as an exploration of the constitution of human subjectivity. Both thinkers discover in film a medium in which the barrier defining the subjective limits of our access to the world and to one another can be rendered visible. Differently put, film for Cavell and Žižek is a medium where the conditions of visibility itself – that of the world's to us and ours to the world -- are revealed. Where Cavell and Žižek differ, however, is in the side they take in this exploration of vision and visibility: Cavell chooses to remain, ultimately, on the human side of the horizon of our gaze, Žižek insists upon taking the other side. Cavell seeks to restore our world-estranged gaze to its diurnal orientation in relation to a shared human horizon of experience; Žižek would ask us to hold on to the disorienting moment when our gaze is alienated from our placement in the here-and-now of our daily lives. In the difference between Cavell and Žižek we may see a clash of two opposed sensibilities, call them Jewish and Christian, the first reflecting a celebration of an ever-renewed covenantal bond (Cavell would call it remarriage) as the orienting horizon of human subjectivity, the second envisioning a redemptive break with this covenantal and diurnal order in favor of a wholly new post-human, eschatological order that gives birth, as Žižek puts in explaining the meaning of the Crucifixion, to "a new subject no longer rooted in a particular substance, redeemed of all particular links ...." (Fragile Absolute 158).

When I invoke the categories "Jewish" and "Christian" to describe the difference between Cavell and Žižek, I do not wish to claim either that Judaism is free of antinomian and eschatological impulses (the passage I referred to in Jeremiah proves otherwise, as does Paul himself), or that Christianity is only about radical efforts to bring history and the Law to an end (as any study of either the Latin or the Eastern Church's involvement with imperial state power amply demonstrates). My use of the term "Jewish" to characterize Cavell's commitment to the renewal rather than overturning of covenantal law is meant primarily to contrast with the way that Žižek's characterizes himself as a defender of the "Christian legacy" in Fragile Absolute: Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? In that book, Žižek deals with the "delicate question of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity" (97).7 Žižek's Christianity is hyper-Pauline, that is, it promises complete liberation from the Law, and is therefore not so much a fulfillment and unfolding of the divine covenant with Israel (as it is, for example, in the somewhat Jewishly-inflected Gospel of Mathew) as the radical (dialectical) supersession of all legal and symbolic structures. What I wish to capture with the terms "Jewish" and "Christian" as characterizations of Cavell and Žižek are two different understandings of the nature of redemption. To appreciate what is at stake in the difference between Cavell and Žižek on the nature of redemption, it is useful to examine in a little more detail how Žižek positions Christianity in relation to Judaism.

According to Žižek, Judaism embraces the Law as if it were founded ex nihilo, that is, as if it were an eruption into history and not, for example, the slow struggle for freedom. "Let us not forget that, in the Jewish tradition, the Divine Mosaic Law is experienced as externally imposed, contingent, and traumatic – in short, as an impossible/real Thing that 'makes the law'" (Fragile Absolute 109). To be sure, the Bible contains the Exodus narrative of the redemption of the slaves, but this, if one follows Žižek, is not portrayed as a violent insurrection whose fulfillment is the new Law of freedom. The Law stands opposed to Pharaoh's tyranny, but it is not represented as born from the struggle against it. At Mt. Sinai, the slaves experience an absolutely new and miraculous event that temporally follows after their redemption from slavery, but does not grow out of it. Judaism, according to Žižek, thus refuses to mythicize the "violent founding gesture that haunts the public legal order" (97). Every legal order is inaugurated by a "violent gesture" which the order then "renders … retroactively 'illegal'" (92). In pagan cultures, Žižek says, this violent gesture "can be discerned only in the guise of a mythical spectral narrative" (92), but Judaism "maintains fidelity to the founding violent Event precisely by not confessing-symbolizing it" (97). Thus, Žižek might reply to someone who pointed to the violent death of Pharaoh in the waters of the Reed Sea by saying that this is not a mythic founding act, but a nearly comic prelude (his chariot wheels are trapped in mud and the Egyptians resemble the Keystone Cops more than a formidable enemy) to the giving of the Law. The giving of the Law is at another order of magnitude in comparison with the death of Pharaoh. The foundation of the Law is, Žižek would say, "sublime," that is, it transcends all possibility of representation.

What, then, is the violent act – the "founding violent Event" —that lies hidden, unconfessed, and unsymbolized in Judaism? Žižek refers to Freud's Moses and Monotheism where the unacknowledged violence is the murder of Moses. Žižek does not endorse Freud's historical speculation about the killing of Moses, but rather offers a sublime crime to replace it: the murder of God himself. The commandment that prohibits images of God is, for Žižek, a commandment to efface the only possible presence of the divine within the human world, the presence of the divine as the appearance of a human face:

In a sentimental answer to a child asking what God's face looks like, a priest replied that whenever the child encounters a human face radiating benevolence and goodness, whomsoever this face belongs to, he catches a glimpse of His face. The truth of this sentimental platitude is that the Suprasensible (God's face) is discernible as a momentary, fleeting appearance, a 'grimace', of an earthly face. It is in this sense (an 'appearance' which, as it were, transubstantiates a piece of reality into something that, for a brief moment, radiates the suprasensible Eternity) that man is like God in both cases, the structure is that of an appearance, of a sublime dimension that appears through the sensible image of the face – or, as Lacan puts it, following Hegel, the suprasensible is the appearance as such ….

(Fragile Absolute 105-6; italics Žižek's.)

According to Žižek's analysis, what Judaism refuses to symbolize as the founding gesture of the Law is the violence against God's face, the expulsion of God from the world. The voice of God is precisely that which kills the face of God and which replaces the face as the only sublime appearance of God. For Žižek, the Law cannot accomplish its goal, for the gaze of God – the haunting eyes of God – is written across the tablets of the Law, in what is so passionately not said. The task, then, is to follow the gaze in following the Law, to catch a glimpse of the face behind the voice, to put the (ghostly) face (Žižek speaks of it as the Holy Ghost) and the voice together again, to let the mere semblance of the earthly speaking face become strange again so that the uncanny disjunction of face (God's appearance) and voice (the symbolic Order) might be revealed. Thus, to catch a glimpse of the uncanny face of God is why Žižek goes to the movies. Žižek goes to the movies, in other words, to find redemption from the Law.

There is a famous 360-degree shot in Hitchcock's Vertigo that Žižek frequently returns to in his books. His analysis of it offers another way to approach Žižek's interpretation of Judaism and its contrast with Christianity. Hitchcock uses the 360 degree shot as the filmic rendition of vertigo itself. It therefore is intended to externalize the mind of Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) as it is captured within his vertiginous fantasy that the woman he is holding in his arms (Judy) is the woman (Madeleine) who (he believed) had committed suicide by leaping from a bell tower in the California mission of San Juan Batista. In the 360-degree shot, we see Scottie embracing Judy who has been made up by him to appear like Madeleine. As the camera turns around them, Hitchcock switches the scene to the last embrace the two had, back at San Juan Batista before the (faked) death of Madeleine. Žižek describes the shot this way:

... [T]he scene darkens and the background which indicates the setting (Judy's hotel room) changes to the site of Scottie's last embrace with Madeleine (the barn of the San Juan Batista mission) and then again back to the hotel room, as if, in a continuous dreamlike space, the camera passes from one stage to another within an indefinite dreamscape in which individual scenes emerge out of darkness.

(Fragile Absolute 101).

Žižek takes this vertiginous cycling of images to be a rendering of that "night of the world" preceding the emergence of the integral subject and the (seemingly) coherent symbolic order in which desire is regulated and legitimized. Before the constitution of the subject, there is nothing solid but only images, and at the center is the (No -)Thing, the gap, that is the unrepresentable place where the action, as it were, begins, but also where all the images seem to fall back into nothingness. Scottie seems to be desperately trying to hold Judy and Madeleine together, but the two split apart and Madeleine falls back into the darkness, towards the vortex which draws Scottie downward into the truth that Madeleine's face is "made-up" to cover the very origin out of nothingness of his own subjectivity.

In Hitchcock's 360-degree shot, the dizzying whirl momentarily stops when Scottie checks to see that a curl in Judy's hair falls in the right way. The curl, of course, repeats the vertiginous movement, but freezes it as well: "Crucial here," writes Žižek, "is the opposition between the vortex that threatens to engulf Scottie (the 'vertigo' of the film's title, the deadly Thing) and the blond curl that imitates the vertigo of the Thing, but in a miniaturized, gentrified form" (Fragile Absolute 20). Had Scottie been capable of holding his world in place by allowing Judy to stand in for Madeleine the way that the curl stood in for the Thing, he would have perhaps been able to live free of any further symptoms of vertigo. In effect, Judy herself would become his symptom or, perhaps, her curl would. Scottie may have been able to live contentedly with a Judy who, out of love for Scottie, would permit herself to be the expression of Scottie's fantasy, his externalized symptom. Žižek would say that this life is not different from any man's relation to woman, at least insofar as the man remains trapped within the illusory stability of the symbolic order. Žižek frequently quotes Lacan's statement that "woman is man's symptom" as a description of the male libidinal investment in the symbolic order.

For Žižek, Judaism offers an escape route from the transformation of vertigo into the externalized symptom called "woman." Judaism, if I may put Žižek's point in terms of Hitchcock's movie, denies that any woman's face could look like Madeleine's. Madeleine's face is declared to be unrepresentable.8 In place of Madeleine's face, Judaism erects the curl, although not Madeleine's curl or, indeed, any particular curl. Such focused particularity is the position of the fetishist, according to Žižek, and Judaism transcends both the idolatry of the made-up face and idolatrous fetishism of the curl because it rejects any real curl in favor of the abstract form of the curl. The generative rule that produces the form of the curl defines Jewish identity. Since the form of the curl is, in fact, the universal form of "gentrified" humanity, Judaism's particularity – its manner of separating one people (genos) from every other people -- consists in its devotion to the abstract form of the law as such:

Judaism stands for the paradox of Universalism which maintains its universal dimension precisely by its 'passionate attachment' to the stain of particularity [the curl as cover for the Thing – BR] that serves as its unacknowledged foundation. Judaism thus not only belies the common-sense notion that the price to be paid for access to universality is to renounce one's particularity; it also demonstrates how the stain of unacknowledged particularity of the gesture that generates the Universal is the ultimate resource of the Universal's vitality: cut off from irredeemable/repressed roots, the Universal ossifies and changes into a lifeless, empty, abstract, universal form.

(Fragile Absolute 99)

The circular "curl" that inaugurates Jewish male identity – made by the cut of the circumcision – becomes the sign of a covenant of repeated curls/cuts (separations) that constitute the body of the Law. Judaism thus evades the fantasmic (idolatrous) element of vertiginous desire (the search for Madeleine's "real" face or the fetishizing of any part-object standing in for the face) by making each action conform to the generative rule of a form that replaces the Thing at the foundation of all subjectivity. Such, at least, is the Žižekian account of Judaism.

I have not yet said why Cavell goes to the movies, but I have suggested that it is for a "Jewish" form of redemption, call it redemption through the Law, although in a quite different manner than Žižek's interpretation of Judaism would propose. In the remarriage comedies that are the subject of Cavell's Pursuits of Happiness, religious (or, better, biblical) themes predominate.9 In particular, Cavell claims that these films restage the "creation of the human" in the opening chapters of Genesis, and this means the creation of two humans. Humanity is not created in a single act, but in a mutual act. In the remarriage comedies, Cavell writes, the couple, like Adam and Eve, "have discovered their sexuality together and find themselves required to enter this realm at roughly the same time that they are required to enter the social realm, as if the sexual and the social are to legitimize one another" (Pursuits 31). What the creation of the human – the entrance into the sexual and social realm -- means for Cavell is, first of all, a discovery of the gaze of the other as different from one's own, as not merely a different angle on the same world. Such difference begins with a difference in desire and in knowledge so profound as to make the world viewed by each gaze a different world. When Eve sees the tree of knowledge as desirable, she reveals her difference from Adam; when she eats of its fruit, her knowledge is radically other than Adam's. Adam also tastes the fruit, but this does not close the gap between him and Eve, but only confirms it. For the fruit offers precisely the knowledge that subjectivity is purchased at the cost of a separateness and a privacy that cannot be crossed without doing violence to the other. Scottie in the movie Vertigo seeks to transcend this separateness, but all he does is multiply endlessly the fragments of a fantasized perfection (Madeleine's face) that trap him within the privacy of his dizzying vision.

How can one overcome the radical separation between humans? Must every attempt end in madness? Cavell speaks about Carl Dreyer's films, Passion of St. Joan and Gertrud, as offering a counter-image of the human face to the one conjured by Hitchcock to represent Scottie's fanstasy in Vertigo. Dreyer, Cavell claims, stills the camera and allows the viewer to see the face in profile, thereby underlining "the fact of the limitedness, or arbitrariness, of the single view" (World Viewed 205). The profiled faces in Dreyer's two films are revealed to be parts of a whole that we, the viewers, cannot ever fully know or see, but that nonetheless draw us lovingly towards them, not to possess them but to communicate with them, to join in conversation with them. The "opacity of consciousness" that the profiled faces convey call upon our response, a "lucidity of consciousness," that Cavell describes as "the capacity to exist for others, to acknowledge and accept the limitedness of others' views of oneself" (World Viewed 205). Such reciprocity – accepting the limitedness of knowledge – is possible only through one's accession to the symbolic order of language and society.

Žižek might reply that accepting the limitedness of desire and knowledge under the regime of the symbolic order does not draw humans together, but only divides them up monadically on a grid organized by superegoic injunctions. But Cavell no less than Žižek understands that the symbolic order is a "cover up" for the naked truth of humanity's origin in separation. The difference between Žižek and Cavell can be expressed this way: the discovery of the otherness of the other's gaze "unplugs" the subject from the symbolic order for Žižek, but for Cavell it opens the space for (re)marriage, for taking responsibility for the renewal of the symbolic order as non-violent play (the "conversation," as Cavell often puts it) of and with the only world we share, the world of words. To voice these words in such a way that we do not wish to hide our face in shame as we speak, to sing them before the world as Cavell says in his discussion of opera, is all the redemption that we may hope for. In the movies, this means seeing the actor shine through the appearance on the screen, acknowledging the actor's gaze and voice to be human and thus re-creating humanity once more. It may be tendentious to put it this way, but Žižek, in contrast with Cavell, goes to the movies to experience the un-creation of humanity. As Žižek himself points out, the condition of Christian redemption is a "new creation" that requires "erasing the traces of one's past ... and beginning afresh from a zero point: consequently, there is a terrifying violence at work ...." (Fragile Absolute 127). Žižek seeks redemption from the Law by following the gaze of God's hidden face to the violent ex nihilo origin of the Law; Cavell forgoes the quest for any glimpse of God outside of the stunning fact that the other's gaze is that of another human whose reality, although it cannot be known, can be acknowledged.

The theme of "winning the West" bears centrally on the film criticism of both Cavell and Žižek because their criticism is based upon a philosophical elaboration of the biblical narratives of the creation and redemption of humanity. When, for example, Cavell explains his philosophical interrogation of film by saying "I am asking for the ground of consciousness, upon which I cannot but move" (World Viewed 148), he is signaling not only his interest in the reciprocal "opacity" and "lucidity" of consciousness, but also how this philosophical theme – and film's inheritance of it – interprets the biblical dictum that in God "we live, move, and have our being" (Acts 17:28). Žižek's interest in film's inheritance of theology is more overt. The split between Cavell and Žižek over how to (re)tell the story of humanity's creation and redemption reveals something of the ineluctable tension within not only the constitution of subjectivity, but of its historical unfolding in (as) the West. In the remainder of the paper I will examine how this tension is played out in the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a movie that quite self-consciously draws from biblical motifs and images as it tells the story of how the American West was won.

II. The Gift of Murder and the Foundation of Justice

In the previous section I spoke about how the philosophical problematic of Cavell's and Žižek's film criticism elaborates the Western master narrative of the creation and redemption of the human subject. Before approaching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a few remarks about how, for both Cavell and Žižek, the medium of film as such is eminently suited to explore the nature of human subjectivity.

In The World Viewed, one of Cavell's central arguments is that movies are ideally suited to play upon our suspicion, resulting from our heightened sense of self-consciousness in the modern era, that we are only spectators of our lives, or characters in a fiction not of our own construction. Films can both heighten this sense, and offer a path beyond it. The recent movie Stranger than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006) explores this territory by literalizing the feeling that we are enacting a plot not of our devising. In this movie, the problem that Emma Thompson (playing a writer) faces of how to end the plot of her novel comes down to a question of whether to accept life in a world peopled by fictional characters or to live in an illusion-free but ultimately dead world. To re-enter our lives seems dangerous, an exchange of the self's apparent security as a mere spectator of the world for a role whose engagement with the world exposes the self to unforeseeable risks. Cavell in The World Viewed argues that movies present the world to us as uncanny, as exactly like our world but with one rather decisive difference: we are not in it. "The uncanny is normal experience in film," Cavell writes (World Viewed 156). "This is an importance of film," Cavell comments a little later, adding that it also constitutes "a danger" (World Viewed 160). The danger is that film "takes my life as the haunting of the world" (160). In watching movies, our existence thus becomes spectral, the existence of spectators who haunt a world they cannot affect. This uncanny world, however, is the projection of our deepest fantasy wish, namely, to be safe from the world's unpredictable otherness. Cavell says this is the fantasy of "the world of my immortality": "A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality" (160). Film can be said to spectralize the spectator, to give the spectator a foretaste of immortality. But it also has the power to resurrect the spectator, to teach him or her what is necessary to "join body and soul" in this world, namely, to turn one's back upon the fantasy of safety and make oneself visible, exposed, and vulnerable. At the conclusion of Stranger Than Fiction, the fictional character (Will Farrell) and the author (Emma Thompson) are disentangled from one another, each having freed the other to survive, for a time but not forever, in the incomplete world of contingency and unpredictability. This is a conclusion Cavell would endorse. Movies promise happiness (or redemption), Cavell writes, "exactly not because we are rich or beautiful or perfectly expressive, but because we can tolerate individuality, separateness, and inexpressiveness" (World Viewed 213). In other words, the uncanny world of film can tempt us with a fantasy of god-like immortality but it can also free us to embrace the uncanniness of world around us.

In his discussion of film, Žižek also frequently speaks of film's capacity to reveal the world's uncanniness, the sense that we are strangers to and in the world, and he identifies this sense of uncanniness as the source of the illusion of the "big Other," a sort of "super-director" in whose benevolent guidance we place our trust that the world will not betray us. The films that appeal to Žižek are those that betray our trust in the big Other and therefore return us to an uncanny world. Cavell shares this rejection of films that reinforce the illusion of the world's consoling coherence and intelligibility. But it is not necessarily the case that the two would agree about what is and what is not consoling. If we take the ending of Stranger than Fiction, Žižek might say that the movie capitulates to the illusion of the big Other when Emma Thompson, acting in the role of the big Other, saves the Will Farrell character at the very last moment. But the movie acknowledges this ending to be a contrived, "Hollywood" happy ending. Cavell would likely say that the happy ending does not reinforce the fantasy of the world's coherence (recall his love of Groundhog Day, certainly a movie with a "Hollywood" ending). Žižek, on the contrary, might agree with the English literature professor in the film (played by Dustin Hoffman) who sees the author's act of giving her plot a happy ending to be a compromising of her earlier vision of the world's essential nullity.

However differently expressed, Cavell and Žižek agree in understanding film to be a medium that can offer us an apparently secure vantage from which to view the world, and expose the illusion of that security. Žižek is especially critical of films that only seem to accomplish their task of exposing the big Other. In particular, he finds fault with "the celebration, in movies and narratives, of a lone hero who accomplishes his sacrificial act for the sake of others unseen, without others being aware of it":

Although people around him ignore him or even laugh at him, he is deeply satisfied in and with himself – or is he? Is it not rather that he did it for the sake of the big Other who appears precisely at this point at which there are no "real" others to take note of him? In other words, does not the satisfaction he gets emerge from the imagined gaze that observes him? This big Other is eventually embodied in us, spectators—as if the hero knows he is part of a film (or, at least, part of a story).10

This passage about the "lone hero" who acts unselfishly and unseen by others serves as an apt introduction to a consideration of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The central act upon which the film The Man who Shot Liberty Valance turns (the shooting of Liberty Valance) is precisely a "sacrificial act for the sake of others unseen." The unseen and self-sacrificing act in this movie – the shooting of Liberty Valance from a side-street -- is performed by the John Wayne character, Tom Doniphon. The name "Doniphon" itself reflects the nature of the act. Combining the Latin stem for "gift" and the Greek stem for "murder," the name identifies the hero as one whose "gift of murder" inaugurates the law in/of the West.11 The question that arises for both a Žižekian and a Cavellian interpretation of the movie has to do with whether Doniphon's gift of murder is part of a satisfying heroic myth, whether it draws from and reinforces the iconic place of John Wayne as the "lone hero" in the genre of the Western. Cavell argues that the movie undercuts the myth of John Wayne and, indeed, of "how the West was won" more generally. I will argue that a Žižekian reading of the movie would concur with Cavell's judgment. But this point of agreement only exposes the radical difference between a Žižekian and Cavellian interpretation of the movie. Where Cavell sees the movie as pointing toward the ethical order enjoined upon us by a debt incurred through Doniphon's gift of murder, Žižek, I will suggest, would have us focus on the trajectory that is left unrepresented in the movie, the disappearance from the order of the law and visibility itself that becomes Doniphon's self-willed fate after his act.

The movie begins when Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), a Senator from an unnamed Western state, arrives by train from Washington with his wife Hallie at the small town of Shinbone. Stoddard's political career has been based upon his fame as "the man who shot Liberty Valance." Stoddard and his wife have come to Shinbone in order to offer their last respects to Tom Doniphon, a man who was known to the city's current citizens only as a broken-down drunk. Why should a Senator travel so far to honor the passing of this man? As the movie unfolds, we will learn the answer to this question, posed by a curious newspaperman in Shinbone. Stoddard himself will narrate the events in a flashback.

Stoddard's narrative returns us to the pre-statehood territory in which Shinbone was located. Ransom Stoddard, traveling by stagecoach to Shinbone from the East to set up a law practice, is robbed and beaten by the outlaw Liberty Valance. Maintaining his refusal to "pack a gun," Stoddard is committed to bringing the rule of law to Shinbone. Tom Doniphon, once a widely reputed gunslinger, helps Stoddard after the robbery but is unwilling to initiate a confrontation with Liberty Valance. Doniphon, intent upon putting a life of gunslinging behind him, has become a horse rancher with a small homestead outside the town. He has even allowed himself to imagine living a quiet, domestic life with the woman he loves, Hallie, a waitress in the town's restaurant.

Seen from the philosophical framework of "how the West was won" that I broached in the introductory section of this paper, the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an allegory about the transformation of the lawless state of nature into the civil state, the state of civility and civilization.12 Resonances with the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden complicate this political allegory, however. The transition into civility is ambiguous, at once a progressive movement into law out of violent lawlessness and, at the same time, a fall from pre-civil Edenic grace and innocence. Ransom Stoddard's Puritan-sounding name – Tom Doniphon calls him, teasingly, "Pilgrim" -- resonates with the Calvinist emphasis on the fallen condition of post-Edenic humanity, suggesting that the civilizing law he brings to Shinbone is in some measure a corruption of its innocence. But the name also suggests the Pilgrim dream of building a "city on the hill" in America, of redeeming (ransoming) human fallenness in a new Eden. Stoddard's arrival in town signals Shinbone's inevitable transformation, but is this transformation a fall from innocence or is it a redemption of an already fallen nature? The question admits of no simple answer. Stoddard, the agent of transformation, will himself be transformed, call it his loss of innocence. And Tom Doniphon's transformation – his loss of nearly all his ties to humanity -- will carry him into a position somehow beyond either innocence or fallenness. One could say, then, that Shinbone is a sort of palimpsest of several possible geographies: Edenic, post-Edenic, and para-Edenic.13 When Ransom Stoddard first arrives in Shinbone, he views the territory as uncultivated wilderness. He looks forward to a day when the railroad will link the town to the East. He wants to remake the surrounding arid land into a "garden" -- an agricultural heartland – by digging irrigation canals and diverting water from a dam on the nearby river, the "Picket Wire" (Purgatoir River). The name of the river, Purgatoir, evokes the liminal condition in which the town of Shinbone exists. The town is not "under the law," but neither is it in a condition of grace. This ambiguous in-betwixtness is figured in the female lead, Hallie, who is drawn both to Tom Doniphon and also Ransom Stoddard.

Hallie is first introduced to us as an "unlettered" woman of the West, a figure for Eve before her temptation. Tom Doniphon speaks of her as "my girl." He tells her that she is prettier than the cactus rose – the unadorned and uncultivated beauty of nature -- that he brings her as testament of his love. Hallie is certainly more akin to the uncultured (and uncivil) Doniphon than to the "tenderfoot" (over-civilized) Stoddard. Hallie, nonetheless, is immediately drawn to the Easterner. If Hallie has lived in an Edenic West, Stoddard comes from a place that is "east of Eden." He brings her a knowledge of good and evil "under the law" (he teaches her how to read using the Constitution).14 Hallie recognizes, not without sadness, that the settled life of marriage can only exist within the terms of Stoddard's vision of the world. She rejects Doniphon's overture to her, marked by his gift of the cactus rose, in order to create another kind of garden with Stoddard, a garden under the law of (agri)culture, a fallen garden to be sure, but one that nonetheless promises security from the other side of innocence, namely, childish (one might even say narcissistic) violence, the violence embodied by Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin, a dandified gunslinger hired by the cattle ranchers to stop the plans of Stoddard and the townsmen. The name "Liberty Valance" conjures the twin possibilities (valences) of Edenic freedom, balanced between innocence and violence.15

Ransom Stoddard reveals the blind-spot within his apparent sophistication when, offhandedly denigrating Tom Doniphon's gift of the cactus rose, he asks Hallie, "Have you ever seen a real rose?" With this question, Stoddard displays his naïve belief in the metaphysical illusion sustaining the symbolic order "east of Eden." He shows himself to be unaware that the metaphoric "cactus rose" is more "real" than the Eastern cultivated rose. The literal rose is a human artifice, the metaphoric rose is uncultivated. Although Hallie is willing to be drawn into the artificial space of cultural simulacra by Stoddard's promise of a knowledge of good and evil beyond the purely natural valences of innocence and brutality, Doniphon cannot accede to the terms of life under the law. He burns down the house he had built for himself and Hallie when he recognizes that he has lost Hallie to Ransom Stoddard. But not only does Tom Doniphon sacrifice the imaginary order (of romantic love) and the symbolic order (of law), he sacrifices the one part of himself that had sustained his identity, his honor. Concealed in the shadows of a side-street, Tom Doniphon murders the gunslinger Liberty Valance. Liberty had called Ransom Stoddard out to a gunfight, and Tom Doniphon knows that when Valance kills the inexperienced Stoddard, Hallie will have lost her chance of happiness. Firing from the darkness, Tom Doniphon "includes himself out," as Žižek would say, effectively removing himself from every possible subject position that had been available to him.

Tom Doniphon does not keep silence about his murder. Not long after the event, after Stoddard had just won an election as local representative to a territorial convention that will decide a statehood initiative, Doniphon tells Stoddard about his act. Ostensibily, his motive in revealing the truth is to free Stoddard from the pangs of conscience he, Stoddard, suffers at the thought of having killed a man. But by telling Stoddard that he should not feel guilty for the crime, he makes Stoddard complicit in the lie through which he gained the election. Doniphon thus loses the satisfaction that Žižek says comes from the "imagined gaze" that consoles the solitary hero of an unseen act of self-sacrifice. Doniphon's confession, relieving Stoddard's guilt over the murder but burdening him for the rest of his life with a knowledge he cannot share, cancels the "big Other"'s gaze, so to speak.

Illustration 1. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) fires unseen from the shadows and "includes himself out," enacting "justice from nowhere."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Illustration 1.

Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) fires unseen from the shadows and "includes himself out," enacting "justice from nowhere."

In the apparent triumph of civilized order, the "big Other" should consolingly appear, but the fact is that Stoddard, Doniphon, Hallie, and we, the spectators, see quite clearly that justice "comes from nowhere," as Cavell puts it. Cavell argues that while "justice, to be done, must be seen," the act by which the realm of justice – the realm of the symbolic, of the interpellation of the subject "under the law" – is established "must remain unseen" (World Viewed 58). Normally, this invisibility sustains the illusion of the big Other. But this movie unmasks the illusion. In the shot that triangulates the three nearly simultaneous gunshots (Illustration 1), John Ford unmasks the violent foundation of the symbolic order as he also unmasks the illusion of the unseen camera. The framing of the action within the alley's two sides places the camera in relation to what is viewed in the same position as Tom Doniphon in relation to the gunfight between Stoddard and Valance. Ford's "shot" unmasks itself in the painterly set-up of the framed scene in the same way that it lifts the veil on Doniphon's shot.

Cavell is no less opposed to the false consolation offered by the illusion of the big Other than is Žižek. Cavell argues in The World Viewed that as spectators of the "cold blooded murder," as Tom Doniphon calls it, we see the emptiness from out of which the law is both created. Comparing the movie to a Greek tragedy, Cavell speaks of the absence of a "place beyond our lives" from which a deus ex machina might appear to assure us of "the justice of justice." "Such are the traumatic births of law in the new world," Cavell writes in a typical expression of his confidence in the promise of America (58-9). America for Cavell names the site of law founded upon law-creating violence that opens up the hope of marriage even in the desert, a hope that Stoddard expresses to Hallie when he asks her if she shares his desire to return to Shinbone "once the irrigation bill is passed." For Cavell, when The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance shows us the victory of good over evil, we should not be consoled, but rather awakened to a profound anxiety: "The victory is almost arbitrary, and the hair's-breadth lets in the question: What is the fate that chooses the stronger to defend the good? Evil is always victorious in the short run, why not forever? Why is it the fate of good in an evil world ever to attract strength in its behalf, and strengthen it? Because God is a mighty fortress? So is a mighty fortress; and it is very hard to tell one from another." (World Viewed 59) Cavell's analysis of the movie clearly wants us to side with Stoddard and Hallie, accepting as do they the terms of the fallen world, the world under the law, as the only terms available to humanity, but to accept this world without the illusion of a divine foundation guaranteeing its order. The order, according to Cavell, is one that must be ever re-created anew through a covenantal performance of consent (re-marriage) whose only ground is faith in the possibility of a non-violent order, in other words, in the possibility of redemption.

The victory of the good, Cavell is therefore saying, depends upon our willingness to embrace the vision of "Pilgrim" Ransom Stoddard's "errand" into the wilderness, although it must be tempered with the awareness that goodness is, to the extent that it exists in this world, always "under the law" and, therefore, never, as St. Paul would say, justified. The "justice of justice" arises out of nowhere: "No single man can establish it," Cavell writes, "only men together, each granting the other a certain right over his own autonomy" (World Viewed, p. 58). Cavell's faith remains under the law. The law is purchased (ransomed, we might say) at the cost of our innocence, our necessary expulsion from Eden. Speaking of the vacant spaces revealed in the Westerns of John Ford, Cavell writes: "The gorgeous, suspended skies achieved in the works of, say, John Ford, are as vacant as the land. When the Indians are gone, they will take with them whatever gods inhabited those places, leaving the beautiful names we do not understand (Iriquois, Shenandoah, Mississippi, Cheyenne) in place of those places we will not understand. So our slaughtered beauty mocks us, and gods become legends" (World Viewed 60). And legends, like the legend of "the man who shot Liberty Valance," hide the murderous truth upon which culture is based. The task, according to Cavell, is to embrace justice without succumbing to the legend. The task is to repeople the land without repeating the violence of those who slaughtered its first peoples. It is a repeopling, Cavell will frequently say, that never loses sight of the inescapable human condition of "immigrancy," the awareness of the ephemerality and fragility of one's inhabitation of the world.16 Call it an awareness of living in a land "east of Eden" and never, until perhaps the end of history, in Eden itself. It is the land of Pilgrim's (i.e., Ransom Stoddard's) progress, but never of his secure settlement.

Of course, "progress" can easily become a pretense for conquest. The real Ransom Stoddards of the American West slaughtered innocent beauty by turning desert roses into Eastern roses. They used as the murderous agents of their slaughter men that in the nineteenth-century came to be known as "Indian-haters," men cut from the same cloth as Tom Doniphon and Liberty Valance, men whose hatred of the Indian stems not from their greater knowledge of the nature of the "red man," but rather from their loss of faith in human nature more generally. Cavell is fully aware of the dark side of Ransom Stoddard, how his appeal to the law can become a cover for a violence far more sinister than that of Liberty Valance. But the ambivalence of the law, Cavell insists, cannot be overcome by embracing some sort of transcendent violence. This is the path, however, that it seems Žižek would take. It is also the path, as I will presently explain, that the "Indian-hater" takes.

The "Indian-hater" was the subject of the central and most famous chapter of Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, "The Metaphysics of Indian-hating."17 A few words about Melville's account of the "Indian-hater" will help explain how, at least in his "metaphysical" explication of him, he prefigures the Žižekian hero who "includes himself out." The "Indian-hater," at least as Melville presents his story, had suffered a trauma at the hands of Indians – the murder of family and friends -- and had embraced an all-consuming hatred of the Indian "race" as the very embodiment of Satanic evil. The Indian-hater, however, is not so much a racist as a radical misanthrope, a descendent of Shakesepeare's Timon of Athens, someone who figures as prominently in Melville's novel as he does in the text of Marx, Melville's contemporary. The Indian-hater, like Timon of Athens, believes that he sees through the hypocritical veneer of civility to the core of humanity's corrupted nature, its attraction to a dead world of money and prostituted bodies. Žižek in the essay "Looking Awry" (expanded into the book of the same name) explained Timon's disgust with the world of civility as a result of his having caught a glimpse not of some underlying selfishness beneath the veneer of civility but rather of the nothingness out of which all the symbolic gestures – the give and take of social intercourse – arise. Humanity's desires are insatiable because they arise from a gaping hole at the very heart of their being, and we must "look awry" as Žižek puts it (quoting Shakespeare's Richard II, Act 2 scene 2, ll. 18-20) in order to make the hole seem substantial. Žižek's heroes are those who refuse the consoling illusion of an integral and substantial "I" achieved by looking awry. They recognize that they are the puppets of the "death drive" and accept "the utter nullity" of all their "narcissistic pretensions."18 In a Žižekian interpretation of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Tom Doniphon figures as a hero who takes one step beyond the Indian-hater's misanthropic disgust with humanity to embrace a self-directed death drive itself as his final identity. Doniphon renounces the object of his desire, the "cactus rose" Hallie. She functions as his "objet petit a" that holds him to the symbolic order, and his "gift of murder" of in order to finally break with the endless cycle of violence in which his life seemed to be trapped.

Why does Cavell not see Tom Doniphon as the hero of the movie? What attracts him to Jimmy Stewart's Ransom Stoddard? Cavell sees in Stewart another response to the vision of nothingness at the heart of the symbolic order. Rather than "unplug" from the order, Stoddard puts his faith in the conjoined power of free individuals to "replug" the void. Cavell places his confidence in confidence itself (much as I think Melville does in The Confidence Man), confidence in the "game" of justice whose rules – and whose outcomes – are not spelled out in advance of our moves. Rejecting the terms of civility upon which the game of justice depends will not return us to Eden or resurrect the gods. Cavell certainly does not approve of using the world-destroying misanthropy of the Indian-hater in the service of "civilizing" the wild West. Like Melville, he acknowledges that civilization is built upon a violence that escapes the bounds of legal justice, but he is clear that this fact does not legitimize such violence. And, as Michael J. Shapiro argues in his discussion of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,19 John Ford in the film also turns away from the heroization of the Indian-hater that earlier films (like The Searchers, also with John Wayne) seem to endorse. Cavell reads Tom Doniphon's murder of Liberty Valance as extra-legal violence turning against itself, an act of justice beyond legal justice. But this "justice" can also erupt as pure slaughter, the "metaphysical" justice of the Indian-hater. Cavell would disagree with a Žižekian reading of Doniphon's act as a rebellion against the tyranny of the big Other. The death drive is the death drive, however it is manifested.

Žižek, unlike Cavell, is looking for redemption from the law. Having alluded to Žižek's likely identification of Doniphon as the hero who "includes himself out," let me now offer a fuller development of a Žižekian interpretation of the movie. Focusing on Doniphon, a Žižekian interpretation of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would regard his self-sacrificing act, coupled with his renunciation of the pleasure of maintaining his act as his secret possession against the world's falsity, as modeling a self-sacrificing reduction of personhood to a part-object, in Doniphon's case the "shinbone" that names the (no-)place he occupies in the world. Such an act, Žižek frequently tells us, is the only act that can free us from the entanglements of the big Other, the seductions of both the imaginary and the symbolic orders: "the subject [constituted by renouncing a part of itself in order to accede to the symbolic order] emerges out of the person [the apparently restored integral self provided by the "I" of the symbolic order] as the product of the violent reduction of the person's body to a partial object" (Organs without Bodies 175). Ransom Stoddard, allowing himself to be interpellated into the symbolic order as "the man who shot Liberty Valance," loses the valence of liberty, call it his "Christian liberty" from the bonds of the law. Stoddard is a "person," but Doniphon's gift of death discharges all his debts to everyone and allows him to enter into a sphere beyond the law. Doniphon identifies with the part-object of the cactus above which the rose blooms, the rose that he has sacrificed. The cactus rose, in the symbolic economy of this film, is located at the site of the disjuncture between the real and the symbolic orders. Cut off from the body of the cactus, it can come to represent the "real" rose of the symbolic order. It can function like the gentrifying curl in Scottie's fantasy in Vertigo. Doniphon, his gift of the cactus rose having been rejected in favor of the cultivated rose, frees himself from the rose and identifies with the spiny body of the cactus from out of which the rose each spring blooms. He lives, so to speak, like a bone in Shinbone, as an undead skeleton, and when his coffin is crowned with three cactus roses, Doniphon's dead body is the unrepresentable remainder that is sacrificed in order to create both the imaginary realm of love (where Hallie is the "rose of the desert") and the symbolic realm of law (where the Eastern rose is more real than the cactus rose). He has truly become desubjectified through identification with the part-object, the cactus fragment that is his last link to life. (See Illustration 2.)

Illustration 2. The cactus fragment is staked in place above Tom Doniphon's casket, having been placed there (without Stoddard's knowledge) by Hallie (seen in background). Stoddard's backward glance in the doorframe figures his liminal placement between death and the woman's separateness (in knowledge and desire).
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Illustration 2.

The cactus fragment is staked in place above Tom Doniphon's casket, having been placed there (without Stoddard's knowledge) by Hallie (seen in background). Stoddard's backward glance in the doorframe figures his liminal placement between death and the woman's separateness (in knowledge and desire).

Like Melville's Indian-hater, Doniphon, after his self-sacrificing act, disappears from civilization and, at least in the interval between his deed and his death, he "is good as gone to his long home," as Melville says about the Indian-hater after he submerges himself in his murderous destiny (Confidence-Man 171). Doniphon says that he "can live with" cold-blooded murder. He does not try to justify it, nor does he place himself on the side of good against the "evil" Liberty Valance. In fact, by killing Liberty Valance in the way that he does, refusing the honorific title of "the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and renouncing the honor code of the gunslinger, he kills himself as well. While Stoddard is interpellated as "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," Doniphon is the one who wins the valence of liberty. Žižek is quite clear that liberty, or freedom, is truly won only through an identification with the part-object that resists incorporation into the symbolic order, that lives on despite its having become a piece of dirt. "Is this obstinacy that persists even beyond death not freedom – death drive at its most elementary?," Žižek asks. Continuing, Žižek points to this elementary freedom as the source of revolutionary "terror":

Instead of condemning it, should we not celebrate it as the ultimate resort of our resistance? The refrain of an old German communist song from the 1930s is Die Freihiet hat Soldaten! (Freedom has its soldiers!). It may appear that such an identification of a particular unit as the military instrument of freedom itself is the very formula of the "totalitarian" temptation: we do not just fight for (our understanding) of freedom, we do not just serve freedom, it is freedom that immediately avails itself of us. The way seems open to terror: who would be allowed to opose freedom itself? However, the identification of a revolutionary military unit as the direct organ of freedom cannot simply be dismissed as a fetishistic short circuit: in a pathetic way, this is true of authentic revolutionary explosion. What happens in such an "ecstatic" experience is that the subject who acts is no longer a person but, precisely, an object.

(Organs without Bodies 176).

So for Žižek, I think, Doniphon would represent the revolutionary force that creates freedom, and he is Liberty. His self-sacrificing act places him in the role of Christ, whom Žižek reads as a figure of the person-become-object. Given the meaning of his name, it is not out of the question to read Tom Doniphon as a Christ figure. (The staked cactus above his casket looks like a crucified man with his head drooping forward, seen from the side, seen "awry" in other words.)

But Cavell might reply to this Žižekian analysis of the movie and say that Doniphon yields both his interpellation as "the man who shot Liberty Valance" and his claim to be hero of the film to the figure who represents the law, Ransom Stoddard. Doniphon's self-sacrificing violence is not redemptive. It rather is instrumentalized in the service of the state. And far from being an act that disrupts the power of the symbolic order, Doniphon's "gift of murder" creates a debt in its wake. Stoddard and Hallie finally acknowledge, at the end of the film, the debt under which they stand because of Tom Doniphon's murder of Libery Valance, but they accept it separately and, if we trust the implication of the Hallie's gift of the cactus roses, it represents something of a rupture in their relationship. But the movie stages what Cavell might call a small comedy of remarriage after this scene. Back on the train and on their way to Washington, Stoddard and Hallie have a conversation that contains Stoddard's proposal to wed Hallie on her terms, in full acknowledgment of the separateness of her desire:

Ransom: Hallie, would you be too sorry if once I get the new irrigation bill through,would you be too sorry if we just up and left Washington? I sort of have a hankering to come back here to live. Maybe open up a law office.

Hallie: Ranse... If you knew how often I'd dreamed of it. My roots are here. I guess my heart is here. Yes, let's come back.

Hallie's dreams were unknown to Stoddard, and so was her heart. Stoddard seems still somewhat stodgy in his proposal, and perhaps he has succumbed to the legend upon which his life was erected, but this is as close to redemption as we get for the two. Doniphon's death is, to be sure, his private redemption, and he had already gained the "world of his immortality" with the "gift of murder" that defined the remainder of his life as a ghost in Shinbone. Doniphon's gift and redemption define the horizon of Stoddard's and Hallie's lives. Their faith, call it a secularized "Jewish" faith in the possibility of the covenantal promise among humans as a sufficient foundation for justice, must guide the diurnal passage of time for those who dwell "east of Eden."

For both Cavell and Žižek, going to the movies is a (replacement for a) religious act, a Passover/Eucharist celebration of redemption. To use my earlier and admittedly overly simplified dichotomy of Cavell's Judaism and Žižek's Christianity, I might say that Cavell goes to the movies as a Jew "under the law" whose foretaste of redemption depends upon the faith of the audience that the world it has viewed can be claimed only communally, in a venture whose success cannot be guaranteed in advance. The audience is responsible for resurrecting the world. Speaking about the audience of Shakespeare's plays as secular participants in a Eucharist drama in which words rather than flesh and blood are the offerings, Cavell writes that

what preserves the tragedy, what creates a certain kind of drama, is the appropriation of its words. When the sharing of a sacrifice is held on religious ground, the ritual itself assures its effectiveness. When it is shifted to aesthetic ground, in a theater, there is no such preexisting assurance; the work of art has to handle everything itself. You might think of this as the rebirth of religion from the spirit of tragedy. A performance is nothing without our participation in an audience; and this participation is up to each of us.20

For Cavell, the Eucharist is not about a fulfillment in a single act of self-sacrifice through which the audience, one by one and privately, finds redemption. Having its roots in the Passover ceremony, the Eucharist for Cavell is about the renewal of covenantal bonds. But for Žižek, the Eucharist creates a "community of believers qua 'uncoupled' outcasts from the social order – with, ideally, authentic psychoanalytic and revolutionary political collectives as its two main forms" (Fragile Absolute 160). Žižek goes to the movies not in order to join an audience, but to become a specter, an "uncoupled" subjectivity existing as a "brief apparition of a future utopian Otherness" (160). The uncanniness of the viewed world in film does not beckon to Cavell (as it does for Žižek) as the Holy Ghost of a "utopian Otherness" beyond the law. Rather, it recalls him to the fragile covenant upon which our civility rests. Žižek, on the other hand, turns his gaze upon the "fragile Absolute" that haunts all civility as the unacknowledged face ("grimace") of God. For both Cavell and Žižek, movies hold the promise a form of redemption, however fragile.

Bruce Rosenstock

Bruce Rosenstock is Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Illinois. His book, Philosophy and the Jewish Question: Mendelssohn, Rosenzweig, and Beyond, will appear in 2009 with Fordham University Press. He is currently at work on a study of the theory of perception in Bergson and James, its intellectual antecedents, and its continuation in the film criticism of Stanley Cavell and Gilles Deleuze and the science fiction of Philip K. Dick.


1. Stanley Cavell, New York Times Magazine, Sept. 29, 1996 (One Hundred Year Anniversary Issue).

2. Something resembling a Žižek-Cavell face-off has been staged in the pages of Theory & Event in the journal's "Conversation" between Žižek and William Connolly, a thinker whose sympathies lie more on the side of Cavellian Romanticism than the Žižekian Gospel of the Death Drive. See Slavoj Žižek, "Hallucination as Ideology in Cinema" Theory & Event 6.1 (2001) and William E. Connolly, "Film Technique and Micropolitics," in the same issue.

3. "What Becomes of Things on Film" in Stanley Cavell, Themes out of School: Effects and Causes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984): 173-83; the quotation is on page 180.

4. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Expanded Version (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979; orig. publ. 1971): 85. For a discussion of Cavell's comments about Vertigo in The World Viewed, see William Rothman and Marian Kane, Reading Cavell's The World Viewed: A Philosophical Perspective on Film (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000): 153-57. Rothman and Kane rightly point out that Cavell takes Scottie's fantasy to be exemplary of the human desire to deny the lack at the heart of human existence, a desire Cavell believes drives tragedy but that also is the prelude to the comedy of remarriage.

5. Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute – or Why is the Christian Legacy Wroth Fighting For? (London: Verso, 2000): 102.

6. Eric Santner captures the two alternative concepts of redemption (through and from the law) when he speaks of the Exodus narrative as containing two possible "senses of futurity": one that follows a "nomotropic trajectory" that is "directed toward worldly goals and tasks, i.e., the emergence from bondage and the cultivation of covenantal responsibilities" and another that "tells a story of a movement from history to a new Eden beyond the ethico-temporal logic of promise and obligation" ("Frued's 'Moses' and the Ethics of Nomotropic Desire," October 88: 3-41; quotations from pp. 20 and 21.

7. The theme of Judaism's difference from Christianity recurs frequently in Žižek's writings. A useful gathering of some of these texts may be found in Santner, "Freud's 'Moses' and the Ethics of Nomotropic Desire," 15n23, 33n48. The importance to Žižek of the theme of Christianity's difference from Judaism is the subject of Eric Santner, "Freud, Žižek, and the Joys of Monotheism," American Imago 54.2 (1997): 197-207. Santner, while sympathetic to Žižek, seeks to reclaim Jewish "nomotropic desire" as a basis for a vision of a non-messianic ethico-political community.

8. I believe Cavell would concur with this comparison between Scottie's fantasy and (a certain aspect of) Judaism. He writes that "the totality of his longing – and the terrorizing defacement of his object's identity which his longing comes to require – mimics that convulsion of consciousness which transcends idolatry in favor of the fantastic reality of God, that point past imagination at which happiness and truth coalesce" (World Viewed 86). Cavell takes Hitchcock to be interested in deflating this eschatological fantasy of true happiness by showing that it is perversely private. Scottie's fantasy images of Madeleine, he writes, "do not proceed from outside the world whose perspective is in principle shareable; they do not imply the world as a whole, but select fragments from it whose implication is for him alone" (World Viewed 203). Žižek denies that there is, in principle, a shareable perspective; all perspectives are perverse.

9. Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).

10. Slavoj Žižek, Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 129.

11. In the story by Dorothy M. Johnson upon which the movie is based, Tom Doniphon is named Bert Barricunel. The name change in the movie to Tom Doniphon has not drawn previous critics' attention. The original story was published in Dorothy M. Johnson, Indian Country (New York: Ballantine Books, 1953).

12. For an interesting commentary on this theme in the movie, with special attention to how it plays against Ford's earlier movie Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), see Jean Roy, Pour John Ford (Paris, Edition du Cerf, 1976): 129-48. Michael J. Shapiro places the political allegory within the context of America's nation-building myth in which the Native American figures as the "lawless" inhabitant of the pre-civil state. See Michael J. Shapiro, "The Demise of 'International Relations': America's Western Palimpsest," Geopolitics 10(2) (2005): 222-243, esp. 230-33. See also his remarks about the film in "Wanted, Dead or Alive" in Theory & Event 5(4) (2002).

13. Michael J. Shaprio includes the Westerns of John Ford among the most significant cinematic "palimpsests" of America's ambiguous political cartography in "The Demise of 'International Relations': America's Western Palimpsest."

14. He first discovers that Hallie is illiterate when he asks her to read a paragraph from a law book beginning with the phrase, "Under the law of this territory."

15. This theme is at the center of Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd. Billy Budd and Claggert represent the twin valences of the state of nature, prior to the imposition of the law of Captain Vere.

16. For the concept of "immigrancy" as Cavell's reworking of the Emersonian theme of abandonment, see, for example, Stanley Cavell, A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 1994): 144. There Cavell identifies Emerson's "abandonment" as a "spiritual achievement (of, let us say, neutrality) expressed as a willingness to depart from all settled habitation, all conformity of meaning, the human as immigrant." Cf. also Stanley Cavell, Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 2005): 229, where Cavell speaks about Thoreau's use of the term "sojourning" in relation to his sense of immigrancy.

17. Herman Melville, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (New York: The Modern Library, 2001; orig. publ. 1857).

18. Slavoj Žižek, "Looking Awry," October, Vol. 50. (Autumn, 1989), pp. 30-55. The quotation is from page 53.

19. "The Demise of 'International Relations': America's Western Palimpsest," 230-5.

20. "Coriolanus and the Interpretation of Politics," in Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge In Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987): 168.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.