The idea that films could have a bearing on philosophy, and especially that there could be a form of cinematic, reflective thought that deserved the name of philosophy itself, remains quite a controversial one. When Stanley Cavell began teaching philosophy seminars on Hollywood films in 1963, it was even more controversial. Indeed the very idea was outrageous. In Little Did I Know, Cavell reports, “There was, I do not deny, a certain pleasurable indecorousness in the idea of taking film into a philosophy classroom, anyway in the English-speaking dispensation of the subject.” (424) Cavell explains why he thinks this was an important and appropriate thing to do in a number of different ways, some of which are quite general and involve an inspiring resistance to the idea that philosophy is exclusively what academic philosophers do. Instead, he argued that philosophy in some form is instead a part of everyone’s life, is at work in any thoughtful response to living a life as the distinct creatures we are. Other accounts are more specifically addressed to the problem of skepticism, treated by Cavell not as a puzzle that needs (and always lacks) a solution, but an unavoidable aspect of human life that can either be borne well or can become a kind of philosophical neurosis, a narcissistic retreat from the world and a form of resistance to, rather than acknowledgement of, the other people with whom we interact. Still others, especially in his book on melodrama, involve psychoanalytic contributions to philosophy’s general task, “clarifying concepts,” say. I found especially inspiring in his memoir, and clarifying about why his work on film and literature has been so important to me, this passage:
This makes the medium of film inherently philosophical. (Philosophical here contrasts, as explicitly in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, with the scientific, on the ground that philosophy does not seek to tell us anything new but rather to understand what human beings cannot on the whole simply not already know. Yet we are shown repeatedly in the Investigations that one cannot tell another something unless it is news to that other. It follows that philosophy takes place before or after we tell things to each other, in art or in rumor or in confidence or as information. So what moves philosophy to speak?)
All of these accounts intersect with the concerns of a philosopher who, for one reason or another (as much chance, the dispensations that determine where one goes to school, who one’s teachers are, what colleagues one happens to have) never seemed important to Cavell, Hegel, the center of my philosophical interest for over forty years. The terms “sociality,” “Geist,” “the state,” “the Absolute,” “the struggle for recognition,” “logic as a form of metaphysics,” “contradiction” or even “history” in the sense in which Hegel made it a philosophical topic for the first time, are certainly not Cavellian terms of art. But there are analogues and echoes of most of Hegel’s concerns throughout Cavell’s work, and not just his work on film. I can say what I found inspiring in Cavell, given an interest in Hegel, by drawing back from the terminology somewhat and posing the issue in terms that best fit his melodrama book, Contesting Tears.
Assume (and it is a very safe assumption) that among the most obvious human needs are two that Hegel links with his most important topic, freedom, understood by him not just in the sense of an escape from domination by the will of others, the absence of external constraint, but as the positive realization of some objective and subjective conditions thanks to which I can experience my life as my own, as the expression of who I take myself to be, to stand for, while also experiencing recognition by others as having such standing. These two needs are the desire to love and be loved (Hegel’s most frequent examples of the positive realization of such freedom, called by him “being with oneself in others”) and the desire for status, standing, acknowledgement as equally worthy; a respect from others that is indispensable in self-respect. Understanding the realization of our independence as involving the proper acknowledgement of our dependence on others is already a paradoxical (“dialectical”) notion, and it is made more complex by the intersection of such desire with the need for some standing in the world as a worthy participant in the communal exercises that constitute living a human life, in romantic love, marriage, the family, the production of wealth, the organization of social and political power. It becomes more complex because these great desiderata can and frequently do conflict, do not seem compossible. This is especially so because criteria of such recognition can become deformed in ways that could be called, indifferently, pathological or ideological or simply wrongs. These mostly have to do with inequality, unequal standing, a situation that renders both the giving and receiving of recognitive status unsatisfactory to both sides (“both” being Hegel’s great innovation); a form of suffering. Lacking such standing when judged by such deformations is a serious human lack, an injury, and the results of that injury can infect and distort the understanding of love and its fulfillment. In Stella Dallas and Now Voyager these deformations involve both socio-economic class and patriarchy. Stella is deeply distressed by the meanness, in effect the ugliness, of her working class home life and aspires to rise in class, not, interestingly, ever for the sake of money and the power it brings, but for the beauty and elegance of the upper class lives she sees in movies; in order to be, as we say, classy, refined. She finds that aspiration incompatible with marriage as she experiences it; it requires a sacrifice of spontaneity, independence and genuineness that she is not willing to make, and she senses that it is a sacrifice any man would require of her, so she withdraws from the game, devoting her life to her daughter instead. (She says that no man “could get her going” again.) Conventional readings of the film would have it that Stella’s self-sacrifice at the end of the film involves her complicity in her own erasure as a mother, and would see the film as an expression or, rather than critique of, the patriarchy that requires it. Cavell seeks to rescue the film from such a reading, offering instead a view of Stella as canny, the subject of her life, not the unknowing object of a manipulative world. It is a part of a general resistance he complains about in the book.
But to assume that the technology and economy of motion pictures emerged in Western civilization, perhaps especially in the Golden Age of Hollywood, exactly and rigidly to reiterate the worst gestures of that civilization, is beyond me. (Contesting Tears, 26)
And in his treatment of Now Voyager, his demonstration of the powerful role played by cinematic irony also seeks to rescue the film from conventional readings. These would have it that a woman’s lack of acknowledgement, her social invisibility, is a function of her appearance. She is fat and ugly, and the road to higher social status is the beauty industry. And again, her independence requires a great sacrifice, again for the sake of motherhood, treated as incompatible with female independence, and requires yet again a great self-de-sexualization. Cavell again brilliantly “rescues” the film from such readings. And he sums up his reading with a fine statement of what Charlotte Vale is rejecting.
There is surely a sense of sacrifice in this group of films; they solicit our tears. But is it that the women in them are sacrificing themselves to the sad necessities of a world they are forced to accept? Or isn't it rather that the women are claiming the right to judge a world as second-rate that enforces this sacrifice; to refuse, transcend, its proposal of second-rate sadness? (129)
All of these treatments resonate with Hegelian themes, as well as with Hegel’s confidence that art works are an indispensable modality of collective self-knowledge. This is resisted by some who argue that Cavell treats the human dramas he explores in apolitical terms, that he is insensitive to the role that the struggle for power, and the results of unequal power, play in human life. This has always seemed to me short-sighted, and demands that any interrogation of such issues must be recognized by appeal to some particular set of terms and to some particular theoretical structure before it can qualify as an appropriate treatment. Cavell is well aware of the issue, and we can see in what he says that his awareness of the political is for him the concerns of what he generally calls “the public.”
A recurrent theme of the course, following the consequences of recognizing that Emersonianism provides the intellectual texture of remarriage comedies, is the perpetually contested relation of public and private… (203)
I might say of novels that they are meant to make private what is public and private business, make them mine. In these terms, film brings an unprecedented, if not unanticipated, medium into play that questions the distinction between public and private. (229)
I find this commitment carried out throughout the work on film. It is behind what he calls the “taint of villainy” in the male heroes of both the comedies and the melodramas, and in his account of the manifold barriers to mutual acknowledgement, treated by him as primarily a matter of some form of psychological resistance (mainly an unwillingness to be known, disguised as a worry about one can ever know of others) but the social bases of such resistance are never far from view, even if expressed in terms that do not explicitly invoke power, privilege, self-interest, greed, or even injustice. But the concerns, and their Hegelian resonances, are there.
When Dr. Jaquith tells Charlotte in Now Voyager that “if you want people to be interested in you, you have to be interested in them,” he is expressing a version of Cavell’s understanding of the relation between knowing and being known, as well as what is for me the underlying Hegelian problematic of seeking recognition from those whom you recognize as recognizers, in a world where a mutuality of such status should be institutionally secured, but is not. That seems to me the heart of Cavell’s treatment of movies, and it will stand as a permanent contribution, forever altering our sense of the potential of both film and philosophy.