Unreal Nature

October 16, 2014

Other Minds

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:58 am

… Philosophy, for Cavell, is defined as ‘responsiveness, as not speaking first’ …

This is from Philosophy and the Moving Image: Refractions of Reality by John Mullarkey (2009):

Cavell has something more conceptual in mind when he invokes the realist ontology of photography, namely, that, in essence, ‘objects participate in the photographic presence of themselves; they participate in the re-creation of themselves on film; they are essential in the making of their appearance.’ What is real is not one, simple reality, nor one world, but the presence of a world, the being of a world.

This participation of objects in their own coming to filmic presence, and our witnessing of it in the cinema, is both fascinating and mysterious for Cavell. On the one hand, film lets us be fascinated with objects, with the elements of a world. We can see them as they seemingly are, for themselves: ‘film returns to us and extends our first fascination with objects, with their inner and fixed lives.’ On the other, this is a mystery, the mystery of film as permanent recording (but of nothing, for it is not a reproduction of the world) as well as evanescent performance (yet one that is seemingly repeatable). Cavell is fascinated with this mode of presence to and absence from film — ‘I am seeing things, things not there, experiencing them as overwhelmingly present’; and it leads him to ask, ‘how can one be present at something that has happened, that is over?’ The photographic quality of film is ‘unlike anything else on earth,’ in that it lies in the absence of what it ’causes to appear to us.’ It does not bear a relationship to anything present, yet we are still in the presence of things which are not present.

… Only that which appears within the projected frame counts or exists for film, and yet the frame only masks a whole world, it does not exclude it.

What is significant in all of this is that Cavell has revealed our ordinary (‘natural’) experience of film to be of theoretical interest (and personal fascination) on account of the mystery of our presence to and absence from it, on account of the ontological enchantment of being and non-being when watching a film and the world it views.

Cavell is mindful to point out that most of us have forgotten just how mysterious photographs (and so also the photographic nature of film) are.

… Philosophy, for Cavell, is defined as ‘responsiveness, as not speaking first’; it is an acknowledgement of limits, of alterity, of other minds. And this is precisely what modernism in film means too: the need to ‘acknowledge’ its limit as outside the world, for exactly this allows film to fulfill its role in ‘letting the world exhibit itself.’ The ‘significance’ discussed earlier, which makes any automatism artful, is due to the care and integrity with which it appears in the film, a care that is itself established intersubjectively, embroiling the camera, the projection and the audience’s reception. Referring to the famous 360-degree tracking shot of Scotty and Madeleine in Vertigo, Cavell writes that the meaning of this shot applies only ‘in this context, in this film.’ Tiny, nuanced moments, no matter how trivial, can be productive of meaning if done carefully, responsibly, acknowledging the specificity of the narrative and its audience; ‘why did the hand do that? Why did the camera turn just then?’

Our acknowledgement of each film’s particulars is also a response to its careful acknowledgement of the specifics of its world. Its careful details show a mind, an intent, a something that wants something from us.

My most recent previous post from Mullarkey’s book is here.




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