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.
“Rousseau: Music, Language and Politics,” in Keith
Chapin and Andrew Clark, eds . , Speaking of Music
(New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), pp.
StanleyCavell, “The Good of
Film,” Cavell on Film , edited by William Rothman
(Albany, NY: State
happiness that is the promise of an
emancipated perfectionist democracy.
StanleyCavell, Cavell on Film, edited by
W. Rothman (Albany, NY: State University of New York
Press, 2005) p. 11.
Jacques Rancière, “The
automatism, or a human
something “unlike anything else we know.” 38
The godlike feature of cinema, and its aesthetic and
political value, is its capacity to give us something unlike
anything else we know . And that , to be sure, is a
StanleyCavell, Must We Mean
There is little I can offer here in response to your
letter to StanleyCavell on film and what you are calling the
tragedy of remarriage. (Since I am recently remarried, and find our
marriage meet and happy, I have to say that I am not inclined to
sympathize with your perspective on The Philadelphia Story .)
This is not to say that I
been endorsed by many but celebrated by one
distinguished voice in particular, especially with reference to
film, that of StanleyCavell. It is therefore necessary, once again,
to rehearse the opposing view, not out of any dislike for that
medium, but out of a greater concern for its corrosive effects on
our democracy. Not having found any way to improve on
Rousseau’s style of
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.
should read it, don’t you think?’
Modern American writing, in so far as it can be understood to have its
foundations in Emerson, had its origins, as he observed, in a fully developed,
historically aware, enthusiastic view of the world; that enthusiastic point of
departure being crucial, so it has been suggested, to the literature’s mobility,
form and subject matter. William Penn identified in George Fox’s
experimentalism a desire for ‘nearness’ with the condition of inspiration, the
same ‘nearness’ that StanleyCavell has described as American literature’s
Literature (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 12.
18 See Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication
in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1974); Maurice Blanchot, ‘Where now? Who now?’,
in The Siren’s Song, ed. Gabriel Josipovici (Brighton Harvester,
1982); Gilles Deleuze, ‘The exhausted’, in Gilles Deleuze, Essays
Critical and Clinical, trans. Michael A. Greco (London: Verso, 1998),
pp. 152–74; StanleyCavell, ‘Ending the waiting game: a reading of
Beckett’s Endgame’, in StanleyCavell, Must We Mean What We Say?
to, or borrowed from – the work of two of
Thoreau’s major modern commentators: StanleyCavell, who writes brilliantly
about prophecy in The Senses of Walden, and Lawrence Buell, one of whose
importantly responsible questions in The Environmental Imagination is (to
paraphrase), ‘What is it in Thoreau, or in Walden in particular, that has
secured and stirred so many readers?’3 What I want to say – it’s difficult now
to propose it – is that thinking about Thoreau’s enthusiasm, and thinking of
him as an enthusiast, is a good way of going back to these and other