Monday, February 06, 2006

Metaphysics and Make-Belief

The theoretical inspiration for Mulhall's book on film is an earlier book by Stanley Cavell, which develops, in part, a way of thinking about the metaphysics of artworks initiated in "The Avoidance of Love".

Like all writers whose style is idiosyncratic, Cavell runs the risk of self-parody: the long paragraph consisting of a single sentence with fourteen semi-colons; the enigmatically repetitive phrasing; the glorious allusion. But he is a master of the unexpected question:
What mistake has the yokel in the theater made [when he leaps on stage in an attempt to rescue Desdemona]? – He thinks that someone is strangling someone. – But that is true; Othello is strangling Desdemona. – Come on, come on; you know, he thinks that very man is putting out the light of that very woman right now. – Yes, and that is exactly what is happening. – You're not amusing.
How should we explain why the "non-yokel" fails to intervene? Not because he is uncertain. But also not because he is sure it isn't real:
"They are only pretending" is something we typically say to children, in reassurance [...] The point of saying it there is not to focus them on the play, but to help bring them out of it. It is not an instructive remark, but an emergency measure.
In a similar way – Cavell apparently insists – it mistakes the reasons of the audience, as immersed in theatre, to say that they do not intervene because they know it's all pretend.

When I first read it, I thought this argument was obviously bad. My reasons for acting need not be conscious, or salient to me, even as I act on them. Why not say, then, that I let Desdemona die because I know it's make-believe? How does that get the phenomenology wrong?

There is a prior question: what is Cavell up to when he insists that Othello is strangling Desdemona, after all? I think the picture must be this: in just the sense in which Sherlock Holmes lives at 221b Baker Street, Othello is strangling Desdemona. According to the fiction: Sherlock Holmes had that address. According to the make-believe in which the audience is engaged: Othello is strangling Desdemona.

Seen in this way, Cavell's argument is controversial, but not lame. It rests on the premise that the reasons for which we refuse to intervene must be reasons that are true in the make-belief. If we are properly immersed, our practical reasoning is in the direction of what we make-believe, not what we believe. (Think of the games that children play, and that we play with them.)

In theatre, we make-believe that actors are characters; that they are in our presence, but we are not in theirs; that we cannot affect them. There is no path from us to them: "we do not occupy the same space".
We do, however, occupy the same time [...] And the time is always now [...]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A British friend of mine spent a year teaching English in a village school in Lesotho, in Southern Africa. For one lesson, she screened a feature film, a war movie, and in the discussion afterwards asked the class if they would also like to make a film. One of the students replied that they would first need to get the permission of the village chief. Why?, asked my friend. The student replied: In order to make sure we would not be arrested for killing so many people during the film.

1:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The yokel does appear to be confused in this respect. If Othello is strangling Desdemona, he's strangling her in Cyprus, not in your neighbourhood theatre (and not, for that matter, where there's anyone around to stop him).

10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason we don't intervene is that we would have to break through the mysterious force field preventing the actors escaping into the audience.

9:47 AM  

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