“Fantasy is precisely what reality can be confused with”

The dialectics of films

Reading Stanley Cavell’s [amazon ASIN=”0226097889″]Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes[/amazon] (1984), I came across with this sentence: “Fantasy is precisely what reality can be confused with” (p. 178). It’s actually a quote from another of his books, [amazon ASIN=”9780674961968″]The World Viewed[/amazon] (1979), that he brings to a discussion on ‘what becomes of things in films’.

According to my reading, Cavell’s question is this: what makes of a film something real despite being based on the unreal, on fantasy? The question concerns with what he calls the “ontology of films” — the matter of their being. Or the juxtaposition of the real and the unreal to the point in which we need to face the skeptic basic premise: that there is no way to distinguish one from the other. Films, therefore, seem to accomplish this epistemological function — to portrait this dialectical tension between the real and the unreal, between what we call reality and the fantasy films are built upon.

Films and tools

Cavell also quotes Heidegger’s phase: “worldhood of the world announcing itself.” Per Cavell’s reading, Heidegger’s phrase implies a “mode of sight or awareness.” He mentions Heidegger’s analysis of a tool (from Being and Time) to explain the way this awareness operates. Heidegger’s analysis of tools is actually about objects in general, to which he recognizes two complementary modes of existence: as ready-to-hand and as present-at-hand. Objects as ready-to-hand are objects independent from us (the hammer in use by our hand), and somehow opaque to our consciousness of them. However, objects as present-at-hand are those which are broken and therefore become consciousness — that is, when they become an idea or concept in our minds: an object of such and such shape, size, weight, made of, etc.

Back to the realm of films, for Cavell, a film is made of instances of objets trouvés — displaced objects (broken tools) as opposed to the ready-to-hand (and opaque) objects of reality. For instance, he offers an interpretation of Buster Keaton’s films in this way: Keaton’s comedy are like the presence-at-hand of tools which intrude in the world to announce its “worldhood.” His comedy and even his “extraordinary gaze” renders the filmhood of the film visible, since they are displaced instances of real life actions and gazes. However, I see a problem here. To me, Cavell’s reading of this “displacement” seems too close to the old idea of “defamiliarity” used by Russian formalists. I’m not so sure that we can come up with a way to define this “displacement” without appealing to the kind of value-judgments that Formalists had implicit in their analysis. I don’t know. Something I need to look into.

Films and desire

Another interesting point concerns ‘desire’. Even if we admit my previous point — the affinity with the formalists’ “defamiliarity” principle — one questions remains: why do we need this process? Why conscious awareness needs the breaking of the object and its juxtaposition with the ready-to-hand object? Beyond the fact of the dialectics of seeing there is the question of a need for such a dialectics. I suspect that Cavell stretches the idea a little bit. Anyway, he defines desires in terms of a basic principle: that to be human is to have the capacity to wish for a completer identity than the one we have, or that we wish for a world that goes beyond the one we share with others (reality), or that is even opposed to it (fantasy). Since all the time he refers to the logic of skepticism (i.e., “that knowledge is expected to fail in best cases [and that] this failure be discovered in ways open to any normal human being”), I’m afraid that here Cavell may be begging the question. Or, I might have just been over-reading him all along.