Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 1900 to Present recently interview Sam Girgus, author of Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption: Time, Ethics, and the Feminine, in their series of conversations with scholars of American popular culture.
As you might surmise from his most recent title, Girgus has strayed a bit from being a strictly American studies scholar. In the interview he charts his intellectual development from American Studies to English to Film studies. Along the way, Girgus examined the genius of Woody Allen and the films from the “Hollywood Renaissance,” including those by Kazan, Hawks, Ford, and others.
Girgus also talks about his new book Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption and the ways in which it actually brought him back to American Studies:
I became obsessed with the importance of Levinas’s ethical philosophy of placing a priority on the face of the other as opposed to the existential self. It was an extreme reversal for me of customary ways of thinking about individualism, personal identity, and freedom that also made sense as an irreducible source of ethics based on inter-subjective relations. It made me realize that in a way the book and idea are an extension or counterpart to Hollywood Renaissance by identifying the source of ethics not just in culture and society but in alterity and the relationship to the other. Levinas says in Totality and Infinity, “Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality.” That seemed to me to be a key question for Capra and Ford and other directors. Moreover, the key concepts for Levinas of time and the feminine as inexorably connected to ethical relationships and subjectivity also seemed to have a strong potential for providing an interesting way to study film.
So Levinas in a way brings me back to American Studies. Interestingly, I see some similarity between Levinas’s idea of the mission of Israel, meaning the idea or ideal of the messianic Israel as the heavenly city incarnate, and my sense of America’s place and role in the world. Obviously, such notions are anathema to some today and have become the object of ridicule and condemnation to such critics.
Now writing about Levinas and ethics as informing American transcendence and the cinema of redemption suggests to me a foundation of ethics and responsibility for both the American Renaissance and the Hollywood Renaissance. Reading Levinas put Matthiessen’s American Renaissance and the Hollywood Renaissance in new contexts for me with historic foundations that integrate ethics and transcendence.