Monday, February 27, 2006


In which I recommend some excellent books that I decided not to post about…

Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind, by Charles Nicholl

A magical but down-to-earth portrait of Leonardo as impish inventor, charming entertainer, dandy and flake. Quote (from da Vinci's notebooks): "If you want to see how a person's soul inhabits his body, look at how his body treats his daily abode."

Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel

A classic study – to be read with Anscombe's marvel of obscurity, "The First Person".

And finally…

The Promise of Happiness, by Justin Cartwright

I don't have much to say about this one. But it was recommended by my step-sister-in-law, and it is very good. One character reads Bernard Williams on morality.

Monday, February 20, 2006


I am not alone in lamenting the decline of the footnote. Everyone is familiar with the frustrating comedy of endnotes: the tangled fingers and multiple bookmarks (or post-its), the vain struggle to recall the number of note and page as one prays that they are adequately marked at the back of the book. Having performed this extraordinary feat, one is greeted by the demoralizing "Ibid."

I have not attempted to trace such complaints through history, but I have found an early occurrence, in a letter by David Hume to the editor of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall:
One is also plagued with his Notes, according to the present Method of printing the Book: When a note is announced, you turn to the End of the Volume; and there you often find nothing but the Reference to an Authority: All of these Authorities ought only to be printed at the Margin or Bottom of the Page.
Hume's remarks concede that digressive footnotes, as opposed to mere citations, are justly confined to a cellar adjacent to the index. Rousseau made the same concession, in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. But it should not be made. It is precisely the witty aside, the nugget of research one could not bear to leave out, even though it didn't fit, that I look for in a footnote. Michael Dummett once remarked that reading a scholarly book without a preface is like arriving at a dinner party and being led directly to the table. Reading a scholarly book without footnotes is like having a conversation with a monomaniac.

Anthony Grafton's otherwise wonderful history of the footnote is not sufficiently sensitive to this. His topic is narrow: the footnote as a tool of historical scholarship; the book is a partial history of historiography, from Bayle to Gibbon to Ranke. A more indulgent treatment appears in The Devil's Details by Chuck Zerby, but it is characterized by an irritable anti-intellectualism, as though the scholarly use of the footnote is somehow incompatible with the digressive. On the contrary: it is only when one isn't sure what to expect in glancing down the page that digression can have its full effect; uncertainty is an essential part of the foonote's charm.

This is not to deny that the footnote is apt for parody. But it is already self-parodic. The avid footnoter knows that he is undisciplined, that he is on a slippery slope to the dissolution of the text, that he is borderline schizophrenic.

What we need is a strenuous but still affectionate history of this phenomenon, a cultural remembrance of the aside, from parenthetic remark to hyperlink. We do not know what the footnote means to us, how life would be impoverished without it. In the absence of that knowledge, the defence of the footnote is bound to be incomplete. We will tend to focus on the threat to scholarship that lies in the adoption of the endnote, or in the obliteration of notes tout court. But this is only part of the story. The decline of the footnote is a threat to philosophy, to personality, and to intellectual love.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Succession of Automatic World Projections?

Having so far puzzled things out, one is confronted with the following remark from Cavell's book on film:
The reality in a photograph is present to me while I am not present to it; and a world I know, and see, but to which I am nevertheless not present (through no fault of my subjectivity), is a world past.
This can't be right: it cannot follow from this kind of asymmetrical presence that one is presented with the past, since the events in a play are meant to be happening now. If photographs present the past, that is further fact about them.

Even if we grant this further fact, Cavell's account of film is almost impossible to square with what I took to be his conception of theatre. He argues, in effect, that since film is screened photography, it too presents what it presents as past. Thus we can explain, without need for the theatrical convention of make-belief, why no-one attempts to intervene:
In viewing a movie my helplessness is mechanically assured: I am present not at something happening, which I must confirm, but at something that has happened, which I absorb (like a memory).
But, again, this can't be right. I suppose one could treat the screened images in a movie theatre as photographs: watching a film as, in effect, a documentary about its previous enactment. But that is not what we typically do.

As Cavell points out, a photograph – unlike a painting – is always implicitly of a whole world:
You can always ask, pointing to an object in a photograph – a building, say – what lies behind it, totally obscured by it. [...] You can always ask, of an area photographed, what lies adjacent to that area, beyond the frame.
Imagine asking these questions as you watch a film. If you are properly immersed, you won't say: "Behind the building is the studio parking lot; adjacent to the actors are lights and a trailer."

To watch a film is to make-believe that these are not photographs, in Cavell's sense: and so there is, so far, no reason why what is presented must be presented as past. (Mulhall is therefore wrong to find a "conflict between the genre of science fiction, with its projections of future social and technological arrangements, and the grain of the film medium." We can travel in time.)

In effect, Cavell's account of film conflicts with the premise on which his conception of theatre rests: that, when immersed, our practical reasoning is in the direction of what we make-believe, not what we believe. We know that these are screened photographs, just as we know that they are actors on stage. But this is quite irrelevant. What matters, and what Cavell leaves quite opaque, is the content of the make-belief (or of the many kinds of make-belief) through which we engage with film.

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 [...]