Facing Stanley Dancing

March 2, 2009

 Steady. If you need a chair or something to hold on to, try this sentence:

It is a condition of, or a threat to, that relation to things called aesthetic, that something I know and cannot make intelligible stands to be lost to me.

There. There’s your rock to anchor to. Now we will start with two ‘conjoined quotes’, the first one by John Dewey, who is quoting Emerson, and the second by Nietzsche who is thinking about Wagner.

As Emerson says in his essay on “Self-Reliance”: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, . . . else to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another” . . . Language does not help us at this point; rather the habits of our vocabulary betray us . . . To know what the words mean we have to forget the words and become aware of the occasions when some idea truly our own is stirring within us and strivingto come to birth.

Art has never been so much talked about [by critics, journalists, in schools, in society] and so little esteemed . . . On the other hand, many a being more nobly and delicately endowed by nature, though he may have gradually become a critical barbarian in the manner described, might have something to say about the unexpected as well as totally unintelligible effect that a successful performance of Lohengrin, for example, has on him—except that perhaps there was no helpful interpreting hand to guide him; so theincomprehensibly different and altogether incomparable sensation that thrilled him remained isolated and, like a mysterious star, became extinct after a short period of brilliance. But it was then that he had an inkling of what an aesthetic listener is.

That Dewey should be quoting Emerson at all is evidence that pragmatism does share some roots in Emerson’s thought. For Emerson and Dewey, habits tend to be a bad thing; it is better to cultivate an attention on the mind at the birth of an idea, to the ‘light’ that flashes from within; it keeps one from suffering the opinions of others as one’s own. Dewey, however, doesn’t quite get Emerson’s sense of the power of words, that we can use them against themselves, make them our own. The habits of our vocabulary betray us, he sums up. True, but this is not the whole story. John and Waldo seem to be taking a slow turn around the dance floor, agreeing that a habitual response is bad, but politely misunderstanding each other’s words about words.

Nietzsche is dancing to Lohengrin, but he too has words on his mind. Never has art been talked about so much, and never has it been so little esteemed. Curious, isn’t it? One would think that the interested listener could—should—be able to use words to describe the effect that a performance of Lohengrin has had on him. We seem to have two bi-polar pals in the concert hall, the critical barbarian and the aesthetic listener, the wordsmith without sensibility and the sensibility without the vocabulary to aid him.


The aesthetic listener? My, that rather recalls to mind Kant’s characterization of aesthetic judgment… at least it reminds Stanley Cavell of Stanley Cavell’s characterization of Kant’s notion in a little essay he published in Must We Mean What We Say? in which he proposes that Kant’s characterization of the aesthetic judgment models the relevant philosophical claim to voice what we should ordinarily say when, and what we should mean in saying it. Underline ‘ordinarily’ here, because this whole dance we’ve been blocking out is in the interest of Stanley Cavell’s recovery of ‘what J. L. Austin and the latter Wittgenstein name the ordinary.’

Not to worry. We have merely crossed the threshold of Something Out of the Ordinary, which started out as an address Stanley Cavell gave to the American Philosophical Association and is now chapter one in a book called Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow. Are you ready? Fred Astaire is going to perform and Immanuel Kant is out front warming up the crowd. Something out of the ordinary. They say Ginger Rogers danced every step Fred Astaire did, but backwards, facing Fred. All we have to do is dance a little dance backwards, facing Stanley—and figure out what the ordinary is—in the work, you know, of John Austin and Ludwig Wittgenstein. That’s all.

One problem we have to start with is that Stanley Cavell might well be the Mount Rushmore of philosophy. Reading him fills one with words and sentence structure and difficult rhetoric—all good stuff—but one can be left gasping—and that breath of air competes with a breadth of knowledge and a range of reference and an idiosyncratic style—perhaps we confront true philosophy here, perhaps we duplicate the sort of thing the Athenians dealt with when talking in the Agora with Socrates…

And perhaps we don’t.

But I have a theory about theory and Stanley Cavell. I think it is fair to say that he not only fills one with his breadth but also with his hot air and his steam, and while there is nothing I personally like better than to sit, pondering and parsing a few paragraphs of his prose (sure), to expect to get to anything like a synoptic perspective on his writing is perhaps to expect cows to fly and pigs not to poke. As we sit in the wings of this essay—playing the producers, directors and stage hands—wondering how we are going to get Fred Astaire on to the stage after John Dewey and Frederick Nietzsche vacate it, and wonder what all this has to do with ‘the ordinary’ (quotes mine), and aesthetic judgment, let’s wonder at the journey too and wonder if once we have climbed to the precipice we will see the landscape below, or just get a better view of the hot air.

But we have gotten to our rock.

It is a condition of, or a threat to, that relation to things called aesthetic, that something I know and cannot make intelligible stands to be lost to me.

Something I know and cannot make intelligible: an experience lost or missed because I cannot make it intelligible—John Dewey cites the loss of an idea, Frederick Nietzsche a world opened by an opera—experience that I know and cannot make intelligible and I’m going to lose it: something to do with aesthetic experience, something that is a threat to things called aesthetic. This is a mysterious place, indeed, a rock in shadows, like we’re dancing in the dark…

There is a little confusion in the booth at this point. The kid at the controls thinks I’m referencing Springsteen, and some very unhelpful rock music starts blaring, but cooler heads prevail and soon Fred and Cyd Charisse glide out on the stage. They’re the best. Not even Stanley has the heart to mention that this is not the piece he had in mind from The Band Wagon. So we watch; really it is not to be missed; but as the curtain closes, we are enjoined and cautioned: the fragment of film we were supposed to be watching, that Stanley chose for us to see, is much different, it allows itself to be missed; it is not a performance to write home about. Think of it as a memorable enactment of the ordinary as what is missible. Fred and Cyd are good, but the scene, as Stanley describes it is this: a man is walking along a train platform singing a modest song to himself. That’s it. Sure, it’s Fred Astaire doing the walking and singing, but Fred’s strength is dancing—we all know that—and it’s at the opening of the movie; just a little introductory piece designed to be seen as trivial…

But, Professor Cavell tells us, it is a task…to try to make such a conclusion a matter of judgment rather than taste as it were.

As it were.

This judgment thing, we need to understand it in a little more detail, and fortunately there is a dense paragraph to help, a paragraph, to be sure, not to be missed. Stanley has been making an assumption about Kant’s ‘location’ of aesthetic judgment. Because it claims to record the presence of pleasure without a concept (phew), it makes room for a particular type of criticism. This criticism is one capable of supplying concepts which, after the fact of pleasure, articulate the grounds of this experience in particular objects (double phew).

We go on: The work of such criticism is to reveal its objects as having yet to achieve its due effect. Something there, despite being fully open to the senses, has been missed.

Something missed? Like this little scene in The Band Wagon: what’s been missed is not so much that it is trivial—a little warm up for the rest of the show—but that it is, in fact, about triviality, about the importance of the trivial. But this is a judgment, not just a matter of taste—or it will only become significant as triviality when it is judged trivial, say, its triviality is properly assessed—and this will be done (I’m sure) after the fact of pleasure in an articulation of its particular objects.

Fred, rescue me!

If it didn’t sound so good, I’d think this kid in the booth was trying to sandbag us (turns out, his name is Fred—more properly, Frederick) …the lights dim; I am alone on the stage…and up starts Fontella Bass, her hit song Rescue Me…I sing along, everybody gets into the groove, clapping and dancing, even Stanley, who you might expect to disapprove, is rocking…what year was Rescue Me? As a piece of trivia: it was 1965 and it was Fontella Bass’s only hit. Can’t you see that I’m lonely?

Now, Fontella Bass and her song really have no part in the story—just a musical interlude. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, but, as a song, it’s pretty undistinguished. What shall we do with Rescue Me? I suppose we could cut it from the show, but, when you have a moment, sketch out how you would know this song was ordinary…and how you could not know it.

Okay, let’s get on The Band Wagon. As the opening credits fade, we are in attendance at an auction where the top hat and walking stick belonging to one Tony Hunter, AKA the Fred Astaire character, is being auctioned off. ‘Will anybody give me five dollars for it? Two? Fifty cents…anything?’ Turns out, it’s worthless—a fleeting symbol of fleeting fame—and Fred is feeling the same way when we meet him on a train to New York. The first scene Professor Cavell wants us to attend to is Fred’s first song, By Myself. To start, it gets Fred off the train and into the movie; it shows a great and famous dancer—he’s playing that in the movie—walking and singing and worthless. No one will tell you Fred had a great voice—nice timing and phrasing maybe, but that is not what you paid your money to see. Interestingly, while it shows him walking along the platform, the camera manages to not show his feet. Even when he uses one of them to stub out a cigarette, the completed action is implied. In 1953, the year The Band Wagon was made, people watched the feet of a dancer; it’s where the dance was—so, a great dancer with no feet singing a minor and modest song…there is it, there’s your judgment…Visually, this is a subtitle and easily missed clue to The Band Wagon. Pointed out, it could become a clumsy metaphor: Fred tripping over his own non-existent feet in a non-dance performance—Stanley calls it a ‘proto-state of dancing’—and it is worth asking: is Fred’s stroll down the train station platform while performing a song, a type of walking, proto-dancing, dancing…or what?

Fred’s walk, like all walks, can be characterized. It’s clearly not lethargic or lumbering or lazy: Stanley points to a certain jauntiness, a swinging of the arms, a step in the right direction perhaps, towards, if not resurrection, then at least someone who is going to get his feet back, and soon. In fact, it is the walk, of someone who cannot not dance. And certainly it is the walk of a performer performing a song who needs his dancing to aid that performance: this is not Mario Lanza getting off the train—it’s Fred Astaire. But it is also a walk that does not turn unequivocally into a dance. Think of the difference between Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple when they ‘walk’ up the steps in The Little Colonel. Fred at the end of the platform does get his feet back, but we have a little wooden dialog to get through before those feet get to dance.

Stanley Cavell thinks the first proper dance scene is one of the most elaborate and stunning in the history of Astaire dance routines, which is a pretty amazing claim for what is in fact just a short dance to ‘When There’s a Shine on Your Shoes’. Fred’s dance partner was Leroy Daniels, who in real life was not a professional dancer, but a professional ‘shoe shine man’ (Stanley’s description: but even in 1953 there’s a good chance it would have been ‘shoe shine boy’). Of course, the stars of the show are Fred’s two shoe shod feet, and they do shine. Pardon me, boy, is that the Chattanooga choo choo?

But, come on: one of the most stunning of Fred’s dance routines? Let’s take it from the top: Fred leaves the train and walks down the platform ‘by himself’. This little walk and a song has helped; he’s feeling a little better. He meets up with Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray and we race through a little set-the-scene dialog—it’s a good thing this is a musical—and Fred ditches the two of them to spend some time ‘by himself’, alone in the crowds of 42nd Street. Stanley starts his analysis of the dance with Fred’s engagement with the new 42nd Street.

The first part of the routine—I’m not sure we can say ‘dance’ yet—has Fred playing with the new fangled entertainment in a penny arcade where you can get your fortune told, find true love, and get a hot dog. There is also a heavily armored booth with a large question mark on it that Fred can’t fathom. The movie’s message, however, is plain: the new world is mechanized and mechanical and Fred is of the old world. (Though he’s not a total neophyte; he knows how to cheat at pinball.) This is the Fred who has bottomed out in Hollywood and the mechanical form of art known as the movies. This is the Fred who has come back to New York to perform live on stage. This is the Fred who is searching for his soul and identity amongst the soulless automatons: this is the Fred, when he gets his fortune read, feels free to try again; the machine won’t care; you hold out for the future you like. This is of course all happening in a movie—though it is plainly a movie that is filming a play, that is, filming a stage performance by Fred Astaire. Trying again.

Perhaps it is fair to say that the exact point when the ‘routine’ transforms itself into a dance is when Fred trips over the shoe shine—um—guy. Stanley thinks of him as ‘meditative’, but surely it is perceptive to think of him as slumped, tired—or more to the point, mimicking the automatons around him: inanimate until the penny drops. And while with good reason Stanley sees this dance as a dance of identity, it also seems possible for Fred to be entering the automaton world, jumping onto the stage of the shoe shine machine and performing for the mechanized crowd.

Stanley is acute here—albeit in his usual baroque way: The place he has entered, replacing the place that had replaced the Broadway theater he had in another life entered and in which he had found his identity as a star, turns out to be an allegorical version perhaps no more of a movie theater than of a sound stage, as if he is searching out new origins, or searching for them in a new way, in an unpredicted place, yet still one of entertainment, or show.

And: What does the mechanically reproductive art of film show?

It’s a good dance and Leroy Daniels more than holds his own with Fred—but what about this theater, this sound stage that Stanley is talking about? Is it a place for Fred to find his identity and to acknowledge his dept to black American dancing? Is this stage—a Band Wagon?—the right stage?

In this case it does seem possible to tell the dancer from the dance. When we are born we cry that we have come to this great stage of fools.

Stanley leads here: there is the simple dancing, and a not-so-simple enactment. This enactment is a dance about dancing and about the relationship of Fred Astaire to black dancing in America: Fred asserting the right to praise, and to phrase this praise with his two minute non-tap dance to black tap-dancing. It happens like this—

Leroy invites Fred to a stage within a stage that’s in a movie; this stage is doubling as a shoe shine stand. Fred revived, receives a shine (and we are all aware that ‘shine’ is a less-than-complementary reference to a black man) from Leroy and his at least tacit approval; Fred in frenzy re-encounters the Penny Arcade and its symbolized armored booth with its semi-absurdist, semi-existential question mark (which he sets off in fire-cracker like manner—the birth of a nation), triumphs over it in his own enactment of rebirth—or at least his birth into language—the chanting, babbling ‘shoe shine; I’ve got a shine on my shoes’—Stanley stopped counting at 70 repetitions.

So this theater is supposed to be making intelligible what we stand to lose, the ordinary. Fred walks off a train, feet-less, a visual portrait of lost identity. He, through a complex of soul searching and feet finding, of affirmation and the acknowledgement of just what that identity consists in (the African-American dancer and Fred’s complex relationship to it, that once again a white man can, because of his talents and his opportunity, take this tradition into mainstream American culture, and to a success that no black performer could) regains his feet, soul and spirit, body, ecstasy—and dance. And dances.

Think back to The Little Colonel: Shirley is cute, and Bill Robinson is avuncular, and they both can dance—sure—their playing around on the stairs is still one of the great dance routines filmed. What does it show? Come on, are you blind and deaf? To make a judgment: Mr. Robinson was every bit the dancer, the performer, Mr. Astaire was

I take the unremarkableness (the missableness), together with the remarkableness (the unmistakability), of Astaire’s musical syllabification, and the routine that renders it so, to emblematize a way of manifesting the ordinary.

Bill and Shirley finally get chased up the stairs.

That’s the fastest my feet ever moved, Bill says.

Don’t you believe it.

Now face Stanley, focus on his eyes, his feet, the words…

…and let’s do this backwards. Steady.


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