Thursday, October 19, 2017

Cavell: The World Viewed 'Sights and Sounds"

I am teaching a Philosophy of Film class in which we have been reading selections from Stanley Cavell's The World Viewed. from the Carroll and Choi anthology Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures.  The reading is tough, but rich.   One has to take into account a seemingly casual and unpredictable style:  read and contemplate seems to be the order of the day.  My specific interest here is in the relationship between the aesthetics of film and the aesthetics of everyday life.  A lot of the early part of the reading, for example in the "Sights and Sounds" and "Photograph and Screen" seems pretty familiar when one comes to it from such earlier theorists as Panofsky and Bazin.  Then the essay takes some interesting and surprising turns.  But here I will only talk about the first section, "Sights and Sounds."

Following Bazin, photography is taken to be the medium of movies and photography is of reality.  Of course the question, as Cavell puts it, is somewhat new viz.  "What happens to reality when it is projected and screened?" (67)  We'll get back to that.  First, however, Cavell discusses another familiar point, that photographs present us with the things themselves, or even that photographs have "an aura or history of magic surrounding them."  But magic is not much discussed in analytic philosophy, so this is a bit surprising in a textbook that follows, for the most part, the analytic line.  Cavell perhaps makes all of this safe-sounding by putting it in the language of ordinary language philosophy, talking about "what we say" and finding interesting insights in that.  We can say all sorts of things that don't sound true to the (only and always) science-minded if we are just talking about the ways people typically talk:  for example "a man can be spoken to by God and survive" is said by Cavell, but not asserted, since he is only talking about what some people ordinarily say.  Still, as much as Cavell wants to mark a big difference between the way we see pictures and the way we listen to recorded sounds so that "That's an English horn" on listening to a recording is less weird than "That is Garbo" on looking at Garbo on screen, this just doesn't seem plausible to me.  When we hear Garbo speak on screen we are hearing Garbo who is not present speak just as we are seeing Garbo who is not present speak.   

But back to mystery:  Cavell says "My feeling is....that we have forgotten how mysterious these things are" which I think is basically right.  And he is entirely correct about some stuff we say.  For example, we can say that a record "reproduces a sound" but it is not clear what a photograph reproduces, if anything.  Cavell has some interesting things to say about what we mean by "sight" here.  He thinks the best candidate for what photographs might reproduce is "sights," but this does not fit how we ordinarily use that word,  i.e. "objects don't make sights, or have sights."  And, rather neatly, he says "I feel like saying:  Objects are too close to their sights to give them up for reproducing."  

On the issue of whether photographs and paintings are in competition, Cavell follows the unusual strategy of going behind both to the notion that there is a "human wish, intensifying in the West since the Reformation, to escape subjectivity and metaphysical isolation -  a wish for the power to reach this world, having for so long manifest fidelity to another [i.e. heaven]." He ties to this the observation that painting in Manet was forced to forego likeness "exactly because of its own obsession with reality." 

I connect this to my philosophical project in this way:  the interest in everyday aesthetics comes, in a way, after religion.  Cavell and I are on the same wavelength here.  Foregoing likeness is just one way of getting closer to physical reality, which really means here the experienced reality of everyday life (since, after all, it does not mean the reality of physics.) Cavell brings this out in more detail later in the the book when he talks at length about Baudelaire's Painter in the Modern World.  So, for me, everyday aesthetics is closely tied to the project of aesthetic atheism, i.e. the project promoted by Nietzsche and Dewey, among others (for example it is implicit in Kant, and very deeply buried but also implicit in Plato read rightly, and also it is to be found in Zen Buddhism) that in turning away from a transcendent realm one becomes transcendental and in doing this one revives the magic in things of everyday experience (that was the lesson the American transcendentalists learned from Kant).  

Cavell ssys: "It could be said further, that what painting wanted, in wanting connection with reality, was a sense of presentness - not exactly a conviction of the world's presence to us, but of our presence to it." (69)  This is where his theme of the great quest of overcoming skepticism comes in:  "At some point the unhinging of our consciousness from the world interposed our subjectivity between us and our presentness to the world.  Then our subjectivity became what is present to us, individuality became subjective."  (69)  I would call this the Cartesian wrongturning:  a wrongturning that everyday aesthetics seeks to overcome.   The opposite of individuality in Cartesian isolation is individuality interacting with the surrounding world, i.e. the sense of John Dewey's notion of experience.  But, perhaps unlike Cavell, I do not see Descartes as providing any positive contribution to this.  Cavell says "The route to conviction in reality was through the acknowledgment of that endless presence of self" and I think this is giving too much credit to the cogito.  This "terror of ourselves in isolation" is a pretty manufactured terror, a self-inflicted disease.  

For Cavell "apart from the wish for selfhood (hence the always simultaneous granting of otherness as well), I do not understand the value of art."  I am with that:  finding oneself in the world is what making art, and also appreciating art, are all about, but this would be true even if there had been no Descartes to muck up consciousness by splitting mind and matter in two.  Descartes just took the worse tendencies in Plato exacerbated by St. Augustine and plopped them into the scientific world view just as they were beginning to lose power as an essential aspect of the religious one.  

"To speak of our subjectivity as the route back to our conviction in reality is to speak of romanticism."  (70) Yes!   As long as it is OK to speak of romanticism once again in a positive light.    And I agree with:  "the recent major painting which [Michael] Fried describes [in "Art and Objecthood" 1967] as objects of presentness would be painting's latest effort to maintain its conviction in its own power to establish connection with reality  - by permitting us presentness to ourselves, apart from which there is no hope for a world."  (70)  Very nice.  And then photography overcame subjectivity in another way.  

However, I cannot place as much emphasis as Cavell does on the automatism of photography or on the idea that the human agent is entirely absent in photography.  Really?  What about all the choices and manipulations photographers make?  But maybe something else can be made of sentences like "Photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it." (70)  Perhaps Cavell is talking more about a temporal thing.  That is, I am not present to the photograph because the world it portrays is of the past of which me, now, cannot be a part.  Well, maybe.  But that is also true for painting:  a painting comes out of the past, it has a history.   Maybe the difference is that in viewing a photograph we are viewing a past that was at the time of taking very much present, whereas in viewing a painting one is viewing a past that build up over time in the the slow layers of paints on surface, as the artist slowly digested the world, and also as future appreciators slowly digested the product in the history of appreciation.  But the second slow digestion is also present in photography.  So, again, I do not see the big differences Cavell sees.    


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