Between skepticism and moral perfectionism

on Cavell's melodrama of the unknown woman

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In this chapter I consider Cavell’s “ethical” contribution to film-philosophy: his claim that (Emersonian) moral perfectionism, as enacted in particular cinematic genres, offers a response to (cultural and moral) skepticism via its emphasis on open-ended, creative, as well as collective self-transformation. I explore the ethical significance of cinema as a response to skepticism, most vividly portrayed in the genres of remarriage comedy and melodrama of the unknown woman, as a film-philosophical engagement with the problem of modernity. My central concern will be to show how it is not only the successful pursuit of moral perfectionism that marks the ethical contribution of these films, but also the thwarting, breakdown, or impossibility of realizing this path, thanks to the normative context within which characters finds themselves. The latter tension or ambiguity, moreover, not only finds expression in melodrama’s well-known aesthetic of “excess” but also serves as a provocation to critical reflection. The limits of Cavell’s moral perfectionist cinematic ethics—namely, framing moral perfectionism via its communal and democratic conditions, and thus making explicit the relation between ethics and politics—shall be addressed by way of a contemporary “melodrama of the unknown woman” that is also a queer romantic drama: Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe thought of Stanley Cavell and cinema
Subtitle of host publicationturning anew to the ontology of film a half-century after the world viewed
EditorsDavid LaRocca
Place of PublicationNew York ; London
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781501349171, 9781501349195, 9781501349188
ISBN (Print)9781501349164
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Cavell
  • Skepticism
  • Moral Perfectionism
  • melodrama
  • cinematic ethics
  • film-philosophy

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