The Movies Provide the Myth of Lived Democracy

Once again I’m asking: What makes a movie a work of art? How can film be interpreted? And which role do the actors play? How can film as a performing arts be interpreted? To give one answer to these questions Ill take a look on Stanley Cavells The World Viewed.

My last two blog entries on Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed highlighted the movie star as an individual being the symbol for democracy. This time I’m going to develop this thought further by referring to the chapter “More of The World Viewed” (especially pp. 209-215). There he claims that movies provide the myth of lived democracy against the myth of ruled democracy. But they cannot provide it by showing democracy at work, since that would made it a mere utopia. He explains this by referring to the 30ies’ comedies.

Cavell’s thesis is that even though the audience in a movie theatre sees fiction, something that isn’t real life, yet it is more of a mythological character. The mythological character concerns a) the narrative mode of films and b) Cavell’s mythological expression of the spectator’s status in a cinema. Here I will concentrate on the mythological character of film’s narrative mode.

Well, Cavell’s sub-thesis is that the essential contents films project let their narrative mode be mythological. So what are those contents?

Those contents are not glamour, magical solutions or associations with the movie stars, although film as well as other arts may promote this. Yet it is not the essential content of movies. Rather the essential content of movies is happiness. But which kind of happiness?

To answer this let me sketch the background Cavell provides to answer this question. The character of modernity is that we human beings are individuals which is why we are separated and expressionless. In other words we are alienated from the world. Cavell refers to Friedrich Nietzsche as speaking for himself by proclaiming the death of God. By this Nietzsche meant to talk about a modified relation to the world as a whole, to nature, society and us, in which we put ourselves.

Thus the happiness of films is that we can tolerate individualisation and that we can claim a connection to reality although we are looking for it in privacy. So the myth of film consists of three aspects. First, that nature survives our treatment of her; second, nature survives her loss of enchantment for us; third, community is possible even if the authority of community disowned us, since film is anarchistic per se.

Whoa, whoa whoa! Anarchistic?! What does that mean? As I see it this notion concludes from his earlier ideas on the movie star as being an individuality symbolising democracy. As will be shown, I think, he uses the notion “anarchy” and “anarchistic” somehow in the sense of the deconstructive, post-modern notion of “democracy”.

To make clear what he means with the anarchistic character of film he refers to the love stories of the 30ies’ comedies. In those movies love has to find community apart from society on a large scale, but its happiness still within society. In other words, society neither can deliver nor deny love. In the chapter “The World as Mortal: Absolute Age and Youth” (pp. 74-80) he writes in more detail about the myth of modern marriage which is the myth of modern romance.

Classical comedy shows marriage in the following way: the stage is littered with marriages, confused couples are at least sorted out, the old men accept their place and youth takes its own, and last but not least families are presented in order to celebrate the persistence of its order. But there was a time when society stopped believing in its ability to provide this continuity. Thus modern romance and modern marriage entered the stage. The central idea of this is that a couple can manage on its own without support.

Those 30ies’ comedies project romance and love under new circumstances. “In the big city survival cannot wait upon security; it requires wit, invention, good spirits, the capacity to entertain, and the grace to retain oneself, since these are no longer to be had for hiring” (p. 79). What society had to learn under those reduced circumstances is that it is worth acknowledging, in particular: that society allows those, who are determined for each other, to find each other and that they can attain happiness within the law (cf. “Blush for One’s Life As a Work of Art”).

So, in general, what does the myth of film tell? It a) tells that human convention takes place without natural or divine backing, b) it shows society before its safeguard (i.e. Western) or b) after its collapse (i.e. musical or 30ies’ comedies which take their form as satires of authority).

What does the myth of film has in common with myths in general? They have in common the desire for origins and for comprehension of what lies beyond the grasp of human history and decision (cf. i.e. Hobbes’ Leviathan). “In myth the past is called before us, reenacted, and in its presence we are rededicated. On film, the past which is present is pastness or presentness itself, time itself, visually preserved in endless repetition, an eternal return, but thereby removed from the power to preserve us; in particular, powerless to bring us together. The myth of movies replaces the myth according to which obedience to law, being obedience to laws I have consented to and thus established, is obedience to the best of myself, hence constitutes my freedom—the myth of democracy. In replacing this myth, it suggests that democracy itself, the sacred image of secular politics, is unliveable” (p. 214).

Once again: Whoa, whoa, whoa! What does that mean?!

To answer this, one can ask why Cavell just mentions Western movies and 30ies’ comedies and is silent about movies that show democracy executed? That’s not exactly true, because he responds to this opportunity and concludes that in such a case anarchy will become utopia. Why? First, the polis can only be affirmed through a present speech to which the population attends to. That means, democracy is something that needs to be performed. Democracy is not a given system. Second, in film one doesn’t understand the relationship of individual and society (cf. “The Movie Star As a Dependent Figure”). That’s why anarchy would become utopia. However, last but not least, Cavell asks: What is more important? That a society is just (at least open to justice) or that all needs are satisfied? In other words: “Which would you rather have, a mind or a brain?” (p. 215).

With this understanding of democracy Cavell is, in my current point of view, quite in line with Hilary Putnam’s and Jacques Derrida’s ideas of democracy.

In “A Reconsideration of Deweyan Democracy” (pp. 180-202) in his book Renewing Philosophy Hilary Putnam refers to John Dewey as giving an epistemological argument for democracy. It’s a fallibilistic argument which is to say that human reasoning is fallible in principle. That’s why a society corresponding to this human epistemological condition is a society in which scientific as well as moral investigation is done collaborative. Discussion and experiments are in need of.

And since every human being as an individual who is changing, thus being at least an expert for himself, an elitist class of experts being the only one in charge for deciding for good of all isn’t appropriate. The background of this is, that there is a tension between freedom and liberty.

In that sense democracy is not an accomplishment or achievement but a task.

Derrida developed similar ideas. In The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe he speaks of humans being changing individuals within altering situations. Just as Putnam states Derrida claims that human reasoning is fallible, too. Furthermore human beings as individuals are determined as such not only by themselves but by each other. Last but not least he concludes from the experience of language that we are obliged to universality. Thus morality means to let the other be the law-maker and promise him or her to be faithful to one’s promise and always let him or her be the goal of treatment. However, this is not a one-sided relationship but a mutual one. That means there always will be a tension between rules and individuality. That’s why there won’t ever be a justifiable definition of justice and democracy but justice and democracy meaning openness to be willing to do justice to the other. In other words, justice and democracy are a promise.

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One response to “The Movies Provide the Myth of Lived Democracy

  1. Pingback: Why Movies Are So (much more) Important (than the other arts) « sinister pink·

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