Joshua Foa Dienstag in dialogue
Series: Critical Powers

This book engages in a critical encounter with the work of Stanley Cavell on cinema, focusing skeptical attention on the claims made for the contribution of cinema to the ethical character of democratic life. In much of Cavell's writing on film he seeks to show us that the protagonists of the films he terms "remarriage comedies" live a form of perfectionism that he upholds as desirable for contemporary democratic society: moral perfectionism. Films are often viewed on television, and television shows can have "filmlike" qualities. The book addresses the nature of viewing cinematic film as a mode of experience, arguing against Cavell that it is akin to dreaming rather than lived consciousness and, crucially, cannot be shared. It mirrors the celebrated dialogue between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jean D'Alembert on theatre. The book articulates the implications of philosophical pessimism for addressing contemporary culture in its relationship to political life. It clarifies how The Americans resembles the remarriage films and can illuminate the issues they raise. The tragedy of remarriage, would be a better instructor of a democratic community, if such a community were prepared to listen. The book suggests that dreaming, both with and without films, is not merely a pleasurable distraction but a valuable pastime for democratic citizens. Finally, it concludes with a robust response from Dienstag to his critics.

Letter to M. Cavell about cinema (a remake)

This chapter engages in a critical encounter with the work of Stanley Cavell on cinema, focusing skeptical attention on the claims made for the contribution of cinema to the ethical character of democratic life. In 1757, Jean d'Alembert wrote an entry on "Genève" in the seventh volume of the Encyclopédie, the great encapsulation of the Enlightenment, of which he was also one of the general editors. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, born in Geneva, had contributed many entries to the Encyclopédie on music and political economy and was well known as a composer and patron of the theater. Determined to oppose Voltaire's suggestion that theater represented cultural and political progress, he wrote a public letter to his editor and friend. It was published in 1758 as Letter to M. d'Alembert on the Theatre. It provoked an extended public exchange and represented Rousseau's permanent break from d'Alembert, Diderot and all his former Enlightenment allies.

in Cinema, democracy and perfectionism
Open Access (free)

In this chapter, the author argues against an optimistic account of the relation between film and democracy. He contests Stanley Cavell's interpretation of The Philadelphia Story, a film that he has said exemplifies the connection between Emersonian perfectionism and the "remarriage comedies" of the 1930s and 1940s. The author turns from The Philadelphia Story to its dark twin The Rules of the Game, a film made at roughly the same time with roughly the same plot but with a much more pessimistic account of the relationship between eros and politics. He considers Cavell's contention that time is a "barrier" between film and audience. The author argues, to the contrary, that time is in fact the medium that forms the aesthetic connection between humans and film, something people can understand better by contrasting cinema with television.

in Cinema, democracy and perfectionism