Living our Skepticism of Others through Film: Remarks In Light of Cavell
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Living our Skepticism of Others through Film:
Remarks In Light of Cavell1

In Stanley Cavell’s ethical universe, no concept is of more moment than that of acknowledgement. In Cavell’s view, the question of acknowledgement is not a matter of choice but is at issue whenever we confront, or are confronted by, others. To acknowledge is to admit or confess or reveal to someone, typically another, those things about oneself and one’s relations to the world and others that one, being human, cannot fail to know – except that “nothing is more human than to deny them” (Must 96). The question of whether I acknowledge others and whether others acknowledge me and the character, depth or failures of our reciprocal acknowledgement, are central to Cavell’s articulation and exploration of the ethical dimension of our lives together.2

What motivates the present paper is the intensely paradoxical character of Cavell’s treatment of the question of the acknowledgement of the human drama we witness on film. In both theater and film, there is no question of the performers acknowledging us, the audience. We are, by convention or mechanical means, simply not present to the characters in a play or a film. But this does not stop Cavell from inquiring, in relation to the characters we confront in theater, what acknowledgement of them requires of us.3 So, too, even if we are not in the presence of the “human something[s]” (World 26),4 we witness on film there is, presumably, an analogous call upon us for some acknowledgement of them.

And yet, in apparent tension with this compelling line of thought, it is Cavell’s view that there is, in fact, no call upon us to acknowledge the characters we witness in the fictional worlds of cinema. As Cavell puts it: “I do not have to make good the fact that I do nothing in the face of tragedy, or that I laugh at the follies of others” (26).

As he sees things, the “automatism” of film – by which I mean to refer to the causal-mechanical basis of the photographic transcription and filmic projection of reality – screens viewers from the world past, a now non-existent world, whose transcription onto film happened without human involvement or complicity. The crucial difference from theatrical [End Page 120] performance is, in Cavell’s way of seeing things, that our condition as a viewer of film “is not part of a convention that I have to comply with” (26).

Since the world on screen is mechanically displaced in time, wholly independently of the viewer’s agency, there is no demand on him or her to respond to the human suffering and joy, tenderness and cruelty that he or she witnesses. Put otherwise, since “movies… do not deny or confront their audiences” (118), the whole issue of acknowledgment of the human drama we witness under the conditions of cinematic viewing is suspended or rendered moot.5 To watch a movie is to partake of an automatic skeptical detachment from reality “that seem[s] more natural than reality” (102). Cavell concludes that the cinematic respite from the ordinary ethical precondition of society – according to which “something [is] owed another simply as a human being, the failure of which reveals the failure of one’s own humanity” (Claim 434)6 – does not need accounting for.

In the present context, I want to explore my uneasiness to rest content with this paradox of acknowledgement in the realm of film and the apparent (and surprising) implication that the concept of acknowledgement is irrelevant to our response to the human drama presented on screen. This implication is of a piece with Cavell’s idea of cinema as “a moving image of skepticism” (188) which treats film’s power to automatically present world projections as naturalizing a Cartesian skeptical relation to reality according to which “our normal senses are satisfied of reality while reality does not exist” (188-9). Let me explain Cavell’s position in more detail.

Like being in the throes of a Cartesian skeptical scenario, we are, in viewing film, aware of appearances or images of reality whilst the existence of...


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