Do films that challenge us to turn away from the screen as a result of their depictions of violence raise issues about the ethics not of regarding the pain of others, but of watching films as a whole? Drawing on Stanley Cavell's notion of revulsion, recent investigations into “extreme“ cinema and, Antonin Artaud's concept of a “theater of cruelty,“ this article argues that watching violence on screen is not necessarily a negative and voyeuristic exercise, but that it can be good for viewers to see graphic violence on screen. This is not simply a question of viewing onscreen violence per se. What also is important is that the filmmakers adopt a set of stylistic techniques that are defined here as “cruel.“ Films (typically art house films) that adopt these techniques encourage viewers not to view violence for entertainment, but rather they encourage viewers to understand the potential in all humans to commit such acts. Such an understanding in turn forces us to lead our lives in an ethical fashion, whereby we do not unthinkingly follow a moral code, but rather choose and take responsibility for what we do. Furthermore, it encourages an “ethical“ mode of film spectatorship in general: we watch films to learn not just voyeuristically about others, but also about what we ourselves could become.
I would like to begin my “response” to my “critics” by acknowledging my sense that they are less critics than fellow travelers in a joint project of understanding the philosophical significance of film. Each of them has provided me with help and support over the years. My own attempt to think philosophically about film was aided substantially by my discovery that Cynthia Freeland was also engaged in the same line of inquiry, and this, in turn, resulted in our collaborating on the first anthology about film written exclusively by philosophers, Philosophy and Film, published in 1995. Richard Eldridge and I have also maintained an ongoing if somewhat episodic discussion over the years about my understanding of film and the significance of Stanley Cavell’s account of the cinema, a conversation that has helped me refine my own thinking even as the conversation challenged it. So I would like to begin, then, by thanking rather than responding to these two friends and colleagues.