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  • The Ordinariness and Absence of the World:Cavell’s Ontology of the Screen—Reading The World Viewed
  • Martin Shuster

1. Introduction: Cavell and the Ontology of Photography and Film

For Cavell, understanding the ontology of film is linked to understanding the history of photography, which, in turn, links to the trajectory of French modernist painting in the nineteenth century. While Cavell mentions these connections several times in The World Viewed,1 they are most apparent in his discussion of the automatism of photography, and thereby film.2 Cavell points out:

Photographs are not hand-made; they are manufactured. And what is manufactured is an image of the world. The inescapable fact of mechanism or automatism in the making of these images is the feature Bazin points to as “[satisfying], once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with reality (WV 20).

“It is essential”, he continues, “to get to the right depth of this fact of automatism” (21). For Cavell, this means disputing important elements of French film theorist André Bazin’s account of film. Foremost among the disputed claims is Bazin’s suggestion that photography [End Page 1067] “freed Western painting, once and for all, from its obsession with realism and allowed it to recover its aesthetic autonomy” (16). Bazin’s suggestion, which is likely an ‘intuitive’ view of the matter, is that the rise of photography gave to painting a sort of new artistic lease: photography allowed painting to enter a non-representational phase (and the rest, as they say, is history).

In response, Cavell emphasizes that (1) it is misleading to say that painting and photography were in competition, and (2) in fact, painting “was not ‘freed’—and not by photography—from its obsession with likeness”; it was rather “forced to forgo likeness exactly because of its own obsession with reality, because the illusions it had learned to create did not provide the conviction in reality, the connection with reality, that it craved” (21). Painting only gave up a desire for objective reference well after photography came on the scene, giving up that desire because of its own, internal history and evolution (21). One way to understand Cavell’s points is to highlight that the focus is not on the ‘automatism’ of photography, i.e., that the camera seems to capture everything that comes before it, and do so, automatically. Rather, it is on what automatism marks or suggests. Cavell writes that, “what is manufactured [through photography] is an image of the world” (20, emphasis added). The notion of ‘world’ is central. Automatism is essential to the birth of film (more on this shortly), but for film’s continued existence, automatism is chiefly important mostly to the extent that it clarifies how the notions of ‘world’ or ‘worldhood’ function in film’s context. In stressing this point, Cavell’s account is quite distinct from the many film theorists he is often—mistakenly—associated with, notably Bazin and Erwin Panofsky (on this point, see especially 184—for an opposite view, see Carroll’s Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory [9ff]). For this reason, Cavell throughout uses ‘automatism’ in a novel way, and understanding this use is implicated with his use of the notion of a ‘medium.’

Beginning with the former, Cavell stresses that photographs are inherently “mysterious” (WV 19) because “we don’t know how to think of the connection between a photograph and what it is a photograph of” (18). He highlights that, “a photograph does not present us with ‘likenesses’ of things; it presents us, we want to say, with the things themselves” (17). A photograph of me is not a likeness of me; it is me, and in that sense it is not representational. At the same time, it is a photograph of me, i.e., it is not me. In a later text, Cavell returns to the same idea when he writes that, “representation emphasizes the identity of its subject, hence it may be called a likeness; a photograph [End Page 1068] emphasizes the existence of its subject, recording it, hence it is that it may be called a transcription” (“What Photography Calls Thinking” 118). The ontological status of a photograph...


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