Daniele Rugo, Philosophy and the Patience of Film in Cavell and Nancy. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016; 196 pages. ISBN 978-1137580597.
Reviewed by Chelsea Birks, University of Glasgow.
Daniele Rugo’s Philosophy and the Patience of Film in Cavell and Nancy brings together two philosophers from disparate traditions through their shared interest in film. The book is an excellent overview of the mutual concerns of Stanley Cavell and Jean-Luc Nancy, as it effectively links the two philosophers through a common genealogy – primarily Heidegger and Wittgenstein – while simultaneously remaining sensitive to the differences between them and indeed turning these differences into productive areas for further philosophical inquiry. While Cavell’s ordinary language approach to philosophy might seem at odds with Nancy’s abstruse, even poetic, mode of argumentation, Rugo convincingly argues that the two thinkers share a similar understanding of the limits of philosophy; he claims that for both Nancy and Cavell, philosophy cannot properly address “the problem of the world.” (xv)
Rugo’s central argument is that this problem requires a “relinquishment of philosophical mastery” (xv), since philosophy’s obsessions with certainty and generalized knowledge are inconsistent with the world’s contingent particularity. For both Nancy and Cavell, this chastening of the philosophical tradition can be learned through a sustained engagement with film. Although film plays a central role in the theoretical manoeuvre that Rugo hopes to accomplish by uniting Cavell and Nancy, readers approaching Philosophy and the Patience of Film from a film studies perspective – or for that matter, philosophers looking for a metaphysics of film – should be warned that the stakes for Rugo are resolutely philosophical rather than cinematic. Though the book’s description promises “detailed readings of cinematic works ranging from Hollywood classics to contemporary Iranian cinema,” (back cover) Rugo’s examples are mostly limited to those explicitly referenced by Cavell and Nancy, and often these are only mentioned in passing, in order to support broader philosophical claims. Rugo is most concerned with tracing conceptions of the world in Cavell and Nancy and with explaining how the world’s excesses of meaning resist traditional philosophical methods – meaning, for Rugo, largely those of the Cartesian/rationalist tradition. He argues that philosophy needs something else in order to see past its own limitations, and that for Cavell and Nancy film can teach philosophy how to “realize” the world without appropriating or mastering it.
Philosophy and the Patience of Film opens with “Patience,” a short original essay by Jean-Luc Nancy and translated by John McKeane. In his characteristically beautiful and challenging prose, Nancy writes about the relationship between language and the world in terms of patience: he describes patience as the temporal gap between language and the world, in which language differentiates itself while simultaneously providing “access to the sense that exceeds it.” (xiii) This definition of patience prefigures Rugo’s focus on the incommensurability between philosophy and the world, which he elaborates in six chapters: he first outlines the problem of philosophy posed by Nancy and Cavell, then details the ideas of worldhood offered by both thinkers, before finally arriving at possibilities for a mutually beneficial relationship between philosophy and film.
Chapter One, “Taking Things to Heart,” introduces the purpose of philosophy for Cavell and Nancy. For both thinkers, philosophy is an attempt to get to “the heart of things” (2), but Rugo wants to re-characterize this “heart” not as an underlying kernel of truth but as a capacity to be moved or affected by the world. Rugo clearly draws inspiration from Nancy’s writing style in this chapter, as the parallels drawn between Nancy and Cavell are largely evocative and metaphorical. He draws from musings on heartbeats and cardiac arrest found in the works of both thinkers, in order to explain the philosophical impasse at stake, and to indicate the place where film might help us move beyond the restrictive grasp on the world offered by conventional metaphysics. Though readers may be frustrated by the tone in this chapter, which often mystifies its terms rather than elucidating them, the following two chapters are much clearer and more systematic in their engagement with Cavell and Nancy. Chapter Three focuses on Cavell and argues that his conception of the world relies on a reorientation of the problem of skepticism. Rugo traces Cavell’s “solution” to skepticism (which consists of accepting its premises but reframing them as positive knowledge of the world rather than obstructions to such knowledge) through detailed analysis of a number of works, including Cavell’s treatise on film in The World Viewed, but also his works on philosophers (e.g., Heidegger and Wittgenstein) and Romantic poets (e.g., Emerson and Thoreau). For Cavell, skepticism fails to recognize that it has created the very problem from which it cannot extricate itself: philosophy distances itself from the world only to find itself troubled by the space it has created, and in order to avoid this calamity, Cavell argues that philosophy must relinquish objective, generalized certainty in favour of particular engagements with the world.
Rugo uses this point to draw commonalities with Nancy’s philosophy in Chapter Four, which similarly characterizes the world as irreducible to reason. Though Rugo begins with Nancy’s The Evidence of Film, he curiously does not engage with Nancy’s other works of aesthetic philosophy (The Ground of the Image and The Muses) in determining importance of film. Rugo focuses instead on Nancy’s more metaphysical texts (The Birth to Presence and The Sense of the World) and his works on the deconstruction of Christianity. Nancy’s sense of the world comes from a genealogy of Western thought, from monotheistic Christianity to atheistic modern philosophy – traditions that he argues are mutually implicated rather than mutually exclusive. The absence of God implied by the deconstruction of monotheism means that the world is full of sense but lacking determinate meaning, a condition that Rugo parallels to Cavell’s insistence on philosophy’s inevitable failure to achieve certainty. Rugo further argues that this common assertion of philosophy’s flawed and partial relation to the world leads both Cavell and Nancy to the study of film, which Rugo surveys in Chapter Five through a comparative analysis of The World Viewed and The Evidence of Film. Chapter Six then elaborates on the implications of film for philosophy, and concludes that film can teach philosophy patience – that is, it can teach it to tarry with the particularities of the world without falling prey to skeptical despair.
The Patience of Film will be most useful to philosophers and film scholars looking for new connections between continental and analytic or postanalytic traditions, since the book’s primary contribution is the way that it brings Nancy and Cavell together through detailed readings of their work. Though Rugo provides a thorough and engaging summary of film’s influence on the two philosophers, the final two chapters raise more questions about the cinematic medium than they answer. One could argue that this is because Nancy and Cavell are somewhat vague about the exact mechanisms at work in the relation between film and reality, and Rugo follows suit with similarly imprecise descriptions of cinema as an “ontological event” (6) that can “recapture our relation to the world as one that is not based on knowing as certainty derived from objectification, but on the reception of the singular.” (128) The function of a secondary text, however, is to provide more clarity than the original, and though The Patience of Film generally accomplishes this with regard to Nancy and Cavell’s ontologies of worldhood, it does not always do so in relation to their views on film.
Rugo discusses film in Nancy and Cavell as non-representational. (It is an image that opens onto the world rather than mutely reflecting it.) Rugo contrasts this view with film theories about the indexical nature of the medium. (This discussion is mostly limited to a somewhat reductive reading of André Bazin’s realist ontology of cinema.) Rugo also draws from Cavell and Nancy to make some interesting claims about the ways that the perceptual distance between camera and profilmic reality is analogous to the separation between thought and existence; for both Nancy and Cavell, this spacing is a condition of, rather than an impediment to, a relation with the world. Rugo argues that this way of relating to the world allows film to rescue philosophy from itself, since it encourages a patient engagement with the particularities of existence. In light of this emphasis on particularity, it seems strange that Rugo is more interested in the abstract philosophical notions he aims to disrupt than the distinct cinematic moments he argues can disrupt them. Expanding the cinematic examples beyond those discussed by Nancy and Cavell may have helped here, and could also have addressed questions about whether film always serves the utopian function identified by Rugo. This is a dubious position, given the film industry’s implication in global consumer capitalism, and one that overlooks some of Nancy’s more ambivalent writings about art (such as passages on images and violence from The Ground of the Image). As it stands, film in The Patience of Film mostly serves a soteriological function for philosophy, as an irrational force that can expose reason’s folly and, in doing so, can open new possibilities for philosophical discourse. This is potentially an exciting proposition, and one that film-philosophers in particular will be eager to take up and to expand into new territory. If film is as important as Rugo argues, however, surely its value to philosophy exceeds its instrumental function as escape hatch.