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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 55.2: Burke Hilsabeck
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Postscript to “The Is in What Is Cinema?: On Andre Bazin and Stanley Cavell”

Burke Hilsabeck

I composed this essay several years ago as a graduate student in Jim Lastra’s wonderful seminar on classical film theory. It was through Jim’s teaching that I first encountered Bazin. As it happened, I was also then enrolled in Michael Kremer’s course in the history of analytic philosophy. Under the influence of Kremer, and later in conversation with Jim Conant, I began to think about Cavell’s inheritance of Wittgenstein. Against this background, it began to seem to me that there were similarities in what one might call the metaphysical orientations of Bazin and Cavell and that the articulation of these similarities might be productive for the interpretation of each, however much the two writers might be separated by history or by their respective (and highly distinct) places within the discourse of film theory.

Several years later, I stand fully behind my reading of Bazin. It seems to me that this analysis of the “rhetorical complexity” of the Ontology essay remains a useful way of reading it. I have often found it striking that much writing on Bazin seems relatively uninterested in the actual words and tones through which he speaks. I have tried my best to listen to him.

Where I beg to differ with my essay is in its characterization of Cavell. It’s not so much that there is something inaccurate about the Cavell whom I’ve sketched here as much as that the essay has areas of misplaced emphasis. It is an adequate but not terribly round portrait, one that places too much stress on the relation in which I was most interested as a graduate student, Cavell’s inheritance of Wittgenstein. To be sure, it’s not that Wittgenstein is unimportant to the trajectory of Cavell’s work, even to the formation of its style. (Indeed, I think it is plausible to think of Cavell’s reading of the later Wittgenstein as the conceptual and rhetorical center out of which most of his work develops.) Nevertheless, my essay can make it seem as if, in order to think more deeply about The World Viewed, all we need do is read this inheritance.

This has the unfortunate quality of pushing to the background a great many other texts. Indeed, one of the difficulties in engaging with any of Cavell’s work on film is the diversity of texts from which he draws in matters both conceptual and stylistic, from J. L. Austin and Erwin Panofsky to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Northrop Frye. (The different ways in which Cavell inherits Austin and Wittgenstein is a particularly interesting subject.) The diversity of these texts and of the philosophical and literary traditions within which they were originally written as well as the highly personal ways in which Cavell reads and draws upon them help to explain the marginal position of Cavell’s writing in our discipline. (There are other reasons, of course, but that is a subject for another essay.[1])

Since writing the essay, I’ve come to think that one of these sources might help to allow Cavell to further speak to, and with, Bazin. That source is Martin Heidegger. The enlarged edition of The World Viewed turns early to What Is Called Thinking?, and in his original preface Cavell states his interest in both Being and Time and the late essay “The Age of the World Picture.” Although Wittgenstein is certainly present in The World Viewed, the book’s concern with articulating an ontology of film through a recounting, even a performance, of Cavell’s own relation to the cinema, and its interest in how screened images compose a distinct sense of “world,” seem closer to the concerns of Heidegger’s work. The presence of Heidegger is even suggested in the book’s epigraph, which would almost seem to be from Being and Time but is in fact from Thoreau: “Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?”[2]

For his part, Bazin drew from both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, themselves inheritors of Heidegger.[3] One of the key passages in “In Defense of Mixed Cinema”—“We must say of the cinema that its existence precedes its essence”—is Heidegger by way of (some might say misread by) Sartre. Returning to it now, I wonder if this statement might invite us to think of Bazin as writing against a substance ontology. Contrary to the idea that what the cinema is can be understood by means of its properties (whether material or formal—or even historical), Bazin invites us to imagine the being of cinema as what Heidegger might call “the being of equipment.” This is a being that can only be realized within a larger totality, one in which the normative uses for our equipment determine what it is for an object to be some thing. Bazin speaks in this register when he remarks that “it is not the essence of a stone to allow people to cross rivers without wetting their feet, any more than the divisions of a melon exist to allow the head of the family to divide it equally.”[4] Far from being a complex set of mechanisms or a series of historically situated formal procedures, Bazin reminds us that the cinema has a “towards which”: it is always pointed toward, and implicated within, human activities which themselves disclose a larger way of being.

In this sense, Bazin might be understood as asking us to consider the relationship between this being of the cinema and a specifically human existence. In a passage from Being and Time that resembles the line that Cavell takes from Walden, Heidegger comments that, “if one is to put various pictures of the world in order, one must have an explicit idea of the world as such.”[5] With some imagination, we could hear Bazin say: our uses for film signal the ways in which we take a stand toward our being.[6] In this sense, thinking about Bazin’s inheritance of Heidegger helps to reveal the distinctly ethical dimension of his work, a dimension that should also be viewed in light of his almost idiosyncratic Catholicism.    

I wonder too if thinking through these traces of Heidegger might reveal something about the stories that we tell about the history of film theory. Instead of thinking of this connection between Bazin and Cavell as focalized through Heidegger, we might think of it as making visible a common interest in the relationship between media and value. This might suggest that the conceptual divisions that often structure our accounts of the history of film theory—apparatus theory, psychoanalysis, semiotics, cognitivism, and so forth—could be imagined along other axes. The phenomenological, value-oriented nature of both Bazin’s and Cavell’s work, for instance, might be understood as placing them within a tradition of film theory that would include writers as diverse as Edgar Morin, Sigfried Kracauer, and Gilles Deleuze, theorists for whom the question of the nature of the image is inseparable from the imagination of its relation to a being larger than anything contained in its stylistic and technological histories.


[1] See Garrett Stewart, “The Avoidance of Stanley Cavell,” in Contending with Stanley Cavell, ed. Russell B. Goodman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 140-56.

[2] Cavell, The World Viewed (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), front matter.

[3] Andrew traces this legacy, in Bazin, to the figure of Emmanuel Mounier, founder and editor of Esprit. Andre Bazin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 33-37.

[4] Bazin, What Is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 2:35.

[5] Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 77.

[6] Here is Robert Pippin on Heidegger: “In some sense poets and painters, as well as unclassifiable writers like Nietzche, can be said to ‘have a metaphysical teaching,’ to have illuminated some aspect of our understanding of the beings for the most part covered up or passed over.” Modernism as a Philosophical Problem: On the Dissatisfactions of European High Culture, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999), 126. Heidegger was dismissive of cinema (and we are certainly not dealing with “high culture”), but what is at stake here is the appearance of these themes in Cavell and Bazin.

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