Today repeats the future

Apr 23, 2014

Moving day

I've moved my blog from the Wordpress engine to Scriptogr.am which is far easier to work with and should load quicker. Hopefully, the change will incite me to blog more often.

Apr 21, 2014

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Apr 21, 2014

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Apr 21, 2014

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Apr 16, 2014

The Phoenix Saga

I recently re-read a run of old X-Men comics, more precisely the beginning of Chris Claremont’s tenure on the series, starting with #94 and ending with #140. Claremont continued with the comics but #140 was the end of Marvel Masterworks: The X-Men volume 5. I feel a strong sense of nostalgia for these issues, having first read them when I was a teenager and superhero comics was one of the things that made life bearable. Of course, the most famous arc within those 40-odd issues is the Dark Phoenix Saga in #129-138.

What strikes me, having read this limited saga a few times over the past decades, is how tame the affective impact is when only the short arc is read. To get the full sense of the scope and depth of the astounding bereavement I felt and feel at Jean Grey’s death, one must read all the issues from #101, when Jean becomes the Phoenix. In fact, it is better to begin with #94 when Claremont started the regular comic. While today I recognize the unusual nature of Jean’s death as an unexpected divergence from superhero narrative norms, where only poor sales can kill a character, this explains nothing about what I feel for this character and the extended arc.

While almost fifty issues may seem unnecessary long to appreciate the death of a character, the mood which builds through these issues, sometimes in only a few panels per issue, is paramount for the haunting sensation Jean’s death caused me. This story is not simply the story of Jean being tempted to the dark side, led astray from her friends, and having to pay the consequences of a power grab. The extended Phoenix Saga is the story of someone slowly losing control of their life, how it derails the people who love Jean, how Jean’s transformation affects Scott and his building frustration of being unable to tell Jean how he feels, as well as finally living with and accepting the consequences of actions you had no control over.

Narratively speaking, re-reading these early X-Men reminded me how cramped and frantic much superhero narration is; there is hardly a moment’s pause issue after issue, and even denouements suddenly turn into stories and adventures of their own. At the same time, a surprising amount of time is spent on character building, everyday life, and the eccentricities of each X-Man in some issues, allowing characters and readers time to breathe and delve into the personalities of the characters.

Although I haven’t read X-Men since Claremont left (and didn’t appreciate everything he did), what this extended saga leaves me with is a deep appreciation and admiration for his ability to weave in brief moments of particularly Jean and Scott but in essence all of the X-Men considering the transformation of the Phoenix. These moments, however brief, are what makes the later tragedy take on such resonance. The death of Jean is not simply the death of someone who turned evil and amoral and had to be punished. That story, presented in the Dark Phoenix Saga collections, is relatively banal and straightforward. What matters, what makes the story still echo for me, are the brief moments of reflection on Jean’s transformation.

These moments are not exactly foreshadowing since they tell us nothing of what will happen explicitly, but they can be considered affective beats, weaving a rhythm of feeling through all the other stories, delaying what will happen but through that delaying action makes the impact the greater. As the interval between these moments becomes shorter, the intensity of Jean’s transformation builds. This is also why the final transition, through the introduction of the Hellfire Club, Jason Wyngarde/Mastermind, and Jean’s slow loss on reality through Mastermind’s mind-manipulating device is a stroke of genius.

A stroke of genius not because it excuses Jean’s behavior (it doesn’t), not because it is innovative (mind-controlling villains feature prominently in these fifty issues), but because this mental manipulation continues Jean’s already slipping personality. There is no telling where Jean, the Phoenix, or Mastermind’s manipulations end or begin. This ambiguity creates an intense ambience which is released in the double apocalypse at the end of the arc: Jean/the Dark Phoenix destroying a planet and Jean sacrificing herself. The extremity of both choices underlines the change Jean has undergone and becomes the culmination not of ten issues but of fifty issues’ worth of emotional build-up.

While narrative and narration are often discussed very clinically in either structuralist or informatics terms, what the extended Phoenix Saga shows us, is that narrative is as much about atmosphere and the way that this atmosphere can be generated through a slow, undulating rhythm, imperceptibly at first, only to reach a cataclysmic crescendo.

Mar 19, 2014

Things Gone Wild: The Movie Camera in the Drone Age

This is the full text of my talk for the panel on Objects, SCMS 2014 in Seattle.

Contemporary cinema is entering the drone age. Cinema is currently undergoing a transition, and I’m interested in how motion capture technologies and digital animation produce a new form of cinematic subject, a subject I tentatively term the drone subject. I draw primarily on work within new materialism, alongside work on the relation between war and cinema. My argument is that drone warfare alters contemporary cinema, just as previous military technologies altered earlier forms of cinema. Both the figure of the drone as a new form of perception, and the related verb droning as a new form of affective timbre will be deployed to articulate the ways that new cinematic technologies reconfigure human sensorium and agency. The drone signifies a state of tele-affection, or action at a distance, while droning suggests a narrowing of affective responses into a state of numbness.

War of the Senses

Paul Virilio in his classic War and Cinema (1984) reveals how war and cinema function on the same plane of operation; not distinct entities but articulated together. He also argues how weapons are always not only tools of destruction but also tools of perception:

stimulants that make themselves felt through chemical, neurological processes in the sense organs and the central nervous system, affecting human reactions and even the perceptual identification and differentiation of objects. {Virilio 1989, 8}

In the contemporary vocabulary of cultural theory, we would say that weapons are forms of affect; reconfiguring the human sensorium but also troubling the boundaries of agency between human subjects and objects. Our senses are articulated in conjunction with media technologies, in other words, and do not exist separately. Media not only affect us, media also mark the limits for our being affected.

Working from this new materialist perspective, then, recognizes the fact that weapons, media, and human senses all work on the same plane of operation and are contingent on the same processes. Patricia Pisters has done excellent work in updating Virilio’s logistics of perception for a new media ecology of multiple screen formats in her article “Logistics of Perception 2.0.” {Pisters 2010} Pisters argues that “media has become a gigantic networked battle of screens where perceptual and psychological effects become affectively entangled.” {Pisters 2010, 249} While I find this entirely convincing, I also believe that we are seeing a shift in terms of cameras, not only screens. A proliferation of different types of cameras are integrated into film production, altering the logistics of perception even further.

My argument extends from Jane Bennett’s work on vital materialism and her concept of dispersed agency, the way “bodies enhance their power in or as a heterogeneous assemblage.” {Bennett 2010, chap. 2} The human is no longer the only actant with efficacy or effectivity and we need to recognize thing-power, as Bennett calls it. The best way to do this in this case, I believe, comes from the concept of the drone. I’m not interested the exact technological definition of a drone (quadcopter, Predator, etc) but rather that we all feel that drones exist; they have an affective presence in everyday life.

Drones suggest precisely the kind of dispersed agency which we find in a range of other tele-technologies today, such as motion capture technologies and digital animation graphics, where movement is spread out across a network of technologies. Drones, notoriously, have large degrees of autonomy, much like animation software and motion capture rendering processes which often produce results beyond what designers and programmers expected.

Motion Capture

Here, I wish to focus on the way that motion capture technologies record movement rather than images. I argue that these vector movements transmit as vectors of feelings. It is this vector transmission which opens up my notion of tele-affection.

Motion capture technologies present new ways for recording the movements of bodies, primarily with the purpose of layering a different, digital body onto those movements. Motion capture cameras record movements but not appearances through the use of what is known as cloud marks, tiny dots on the actor’s body. Tele-technologies are traditionally regarded as absorbing presence in favor of distance; in the case of motion capture this distance is both foreshortened and increased.

On the one hand, the motion capture camera foreshortens the physical relation to the motion capture actor, since the cloud marks are placed directly on the body. On the other hand, distance increases because the dispersal of the resulting character’s body across motion capture camera, motion capture actors, virtual cameras, simulcams, computer rendering and animation and similar mediating instances. In both cases, however, I believe that the camera-actor relation intensifies.

Motion capture technologies work by rendering movements in terms of vectors: relations between positions. I will make the, possibly perverse, move of conflating this type of vector with Whitehead’s notion of feelings as vectors: “they feel what is there and transform it into what is here. {Whitehead 2010, 98} My interest in this conflation lies not in any one-to-one correspondence but from a conception of these motion capture technologies being essentially about the translation of one form of motion into another form of motion. Movement becomes affect through tele-technological vectors.

These vectorized motion capture technologies present a remote-control spectatorship, where our relation to the screen image refers primarily to an attempt of capturing us as vectors of affective movement. Identification is no longer a matter of empathic recognition of actor performance but instead a matter of us aligning with the movement of the motion capture character. This change suggests that kinesis is central to contemporary cinema, and the camera’s function is to register this movement rather than register pro-filmic reality effectively.

Shawn Levy’s Real Steel encapsulates this aesthetic perfectly, mirroring the motion capture process in the character-robot relationship. Set in a future where robot boxing has replaced human boxing, Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) must learn how to operate a robot as well as he operates his own body, in order to win back the respect of his son. The climactic battle between robots shows the evil robot controlled by a host of technicians in front of a multitude of screens, while Charlie’s robot follows Charlie’s movements while also having learned how to dance from Charlie’s son Max. While on the narrative level this suggests a primordial relation between father-son-robot, the scene itself is a complex motion capture sequence, where motion capture actors play out the fight, then a previsualization trains Jackman to move and fight like the robot, all of which is then brought together into the finished scene.

Jackman, then, dances to the tune of the motion capture rather than the reverse. Movement comes before acting and Jackman transforms into a puppet, just as the robots work through telemetry. In this way, we must insist that motion capture technologies work not simply as tools but rather as machines which reconfigure the human sensorium. If, as Patricia Clough argues, the human eye and the moving camera are linked and inseparable, then motion capture cameras, virtual cameras and simulcams are similarly inseparable from the human eye. {Clough 2000, 57} Yet the machinic assemblage of motion capture technologies produces different subjectivities than the moving camera and the human body becomes simply one body among others in a network of vectors.

Tele-technologies push perception beyond the human body and while Virilio remained mainly within the field of telesthesia, perception at a distance, we find an increase in the telemetric and tele-affective relation of acting at a distance. That is, for Virilio, speed reconfigures duration and extension, as well as intensity. {Virilio 1993, 5} Tele-technologies, and motion capture technologies even more so, are not about the reproduction of images but about the intensification of images, achieved through the paradoxical obliteration of the image into pure movement through vectorization.

Animation and Wonder

Now I wish to switch focus to vector graphics and the role digital animation plays in contemporary cinema. Through vectorized animated images, things take on life which fills us with a sense of wonder at the images in themselves. This cinematic sense of wonder opens up a desire for the nonhuman as a form of cinematic transgression. We wish to become a thing.

We can think of another instance of vector graphics in recent cinema: the Iron Man films where Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) pilots different versions of a military combat suit, necessitating both motion capture and animation. Due to Downey’s breezy, charming performance, we are strongly aligned with the Iron Man suit, and in the third installment the autonomous suits and their wondrous liveliness fascinate us. This animate-ness of the battle suits suggest a wonder and desire for being more-than-human, moving beyond human bodily capacity.

Through complex visual effects of motion capture and animation, there are many scenes of the Iron Man films where the battle suit moves in ways that are physically impossible for a human body, even in scenes that do not involve flying, lifting, and so forth in ways that are clearly superhuman. Instead, digital animation amends some movements by motion capture actors in order for the movement to either ‘look right’ (ironically), or to look more heroic and powerful. So, in order to maintain our alignment with Iron Man, we as spectators must detach from our embodied logic and extend into what Ian Bogost has termed alien phenomenology: to be subsumed entirely in the uniqueness of the cinematic object’s native logic of motion capture and animation effects which allows for nonhuman movements. {Bogost 2012, chap. 5}

Bogost proposes wonder as the term for how objects orient, how things fascinate in themselves as things. I believe that this is precisely what the Iron Man suit does — it offers a cinematic object worthy of interest on its own accord, not subsumed to narrative logic, emotional character investment, or any other human concern. Cinematic objects and the object of cinema itself, i.e. the entire assemblage of cinema as a media ecology, are wonders in their own right. In Savage Theory Rachel O. Moore points out that,

[cinematic] objects are different from those daily-life objects from whence they came, but [...] nonetheless these objects are no less but rather even more alive than those objects. Objects burn bright as constellations of meaning and crackle with tactile effects; things take on life. {Moore 2000, 73}

Moore’s argument is in part that a magical form of life imbues these cinematic objects, a source, which is a double of our own, a formulation entirely congruent with Bogost’s argument that things are special in themselves. The crackle of tactile effects is that of tele-affection, the way the object acts on us at a distance, beyond our knowledge or understanding. In other words, another instance of vector transmission of affect, a production of desire for the Iron Man suit. This desire is not one of the classical cinematic identification but instead an eradication of human desire in favor of nonhuman desire; what Patricia MacCormack terms cinesexuality, the ambiguous state of desire in cinema, where we cannot say no to the affect of cinematic images. {MacCormack 2008}

The nonhuman nature of the Iron Man suits is what attracts us to them; the fact that they have a different life from our own, their sleek and sexy bodies, able to do things we can only desire. Yet we should keep in mind that the nonhuman desire of the Iron Man suits is closely intertwined with destruction, which seduces us into a state of wonder of the destructive capacities of the suits. For this reason, I see these films as also drawing on what Sarah Wanenchak refers to as drone sexuality:

Like the sexualized cyborg, a sexualized drone is transgressive, and that transgressiveness is erotic. A drone is not literally an enmeshing of organic and mechanical in the way that a cyborg is, but in terms of power, that’s exactly what it is. {Wanenchak 2013}

I would make explicit that Wanenchak’s argument includes desire alongside power, which I believe she implicitly argues. Iron Man is a drone from this perspective, as an enmeshing of organic and mechanical, just as the cinematic image of Iron Man is an enmeshing of digital and physical bodies, and it is this enmeshed object which we cannot help but desire in its transgressiveness and its crackle of tactile effects: we are, in other words, insatiably drawn to the nonhuman enfleshment of motion capture effects and animation sequences.

Yet the drone does not stop there, for it is also a matter of how the drone reconfigures human sensorium. I have already argued that motion capture and animation technologies exist on the same plane of operation as the human eye, emphasizing vectorized movement as forms of tele-affection. The nonhuman desire for the Iron Man suits revolves around Virilio’s conception of cinema as ‘I fly’, but with a twist that underlines that this is a desire for intimacy at a distance. Virilio suggests that mobile human will increasingly become motile human; our mental imagery dominated by inner feelings of action. {Virilio 1993, 8} The drone is the perfect figure for these inner feelings of action beings expressed at a distance. Motion capture technologies function as the exteriorization of this interior state, as long as we acknowledge that the interior state is produced by this process of exteriorization in the form of folding.

Droning Images

I will now turn to the concept of droning as a modulation which limits our range of affective responses. I consider this delimitation of affect as giving us an appetite for destruction.

I know no better example of this expression of inner images of action through exteriorized images of destruction than Michael Bay’s Transformers series. Several of the actors themselves commented on the aggressive nature of the first Transformers, with Megan Fox saying, “It made me feel very masculine and aggressive, like you want to just punch someone,” while Julie White pointed out that “It’s huge, it’s concussive, it hurts your head.” Rather than simply seeing these films as a deplorable development of late cinema, I believe that we must recognize it as a deliberate construction of sensory overload.

The construction of Transformers series happens through digital animation and vector graphics which allow for nonhuman shots, vertiginous angles with no sense of cinematic space, and impossible camera contortions which hammer our sensorium. This effect produces our interior state through exterior vectors. We cannot embody these shots in any human way; the only way we can inhabit these films is to accept their nonhuman nature and become nonhuman ourselves. Instead of a cinema based on human perceptual structures, we get a post-cinema based on nonhuman perceptual structures. Motion capture cameras, virtual cameras, and synthcameras all produce images which go beyond the human sensorium and reconfigure this sensorium in the same process.

This process is what I refer to as droning: a process which disrupts and distorts perception by blurring and obscuring some perceptions while amplifying others. I take the droning concept from Robin James’ interesting discussion of drones. James connects drone aircrafts to drone tones, positing a drone phenomenology where our perceptual limit reconfigures through ‘droning’ – the creation of a consistent psychological timbre. {James 2013} As James argues,

Droning rivets you to material conditions, affects, and sensations that compel you to behave in specific ways, and not in others. So riveted, you might think and feel like “there is no alternative,” to use a catchphrase often associated with neoliberal ideology. {James 2013}

The US military’s enthusiasm for Bay’s films in general and Transformers in particular is telling here. In the DVD extras for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, military representatives constantly emphasize both the size of their involvement (the biggest contemporary military co-production), and military realism (several scenes show Bay letting military commanders direct how a scene should play out). Recognizing that it is unlikely that Earth will ever be attacked by giant sentient robots from space, these same commanders still insist that Transformers remains good PR for how the US military operates. I believe these films are more than just good PR.

The Transformers series works by reducing our affective responses, transmitting only certain vectors through which our sensorium is modulated. As James argues, “Droning is the stacking of the deck so that only certain kinds of responses from certain kinds of people will be successful.” {James 2013} Watching Transformers is an exhausting affair, an act where the external cinematic movements produce interior states of action; we leave the film feeling like we have been in a war. The drone of Bay’s images leave room for little else, allowing only for a numbing state of tele-affection, a revision of Virilio’s cinema as ‘I fly’ into cinema as ‘I destroy’.


The films that I have dealt with here all reveal a shift in contemporary cinema, where other forms of media technologies become part and parcel of film production, as a result reconfiguring the relation between cinematic image and spectator. While cinema has always elicited feelings of wonder and shock, and blurred the boundary between animate and inanimate, this contemporary form of cinema drones out much of human subjectivity, remanding us to inevitably embrace the nonhuman embodiment offered by these films.

Our sensations are not contingent solely on the image-spectator relation but a larger assemblage of media technologies. The vector transmission moves from motion capture cameras, which reproduce movement over image, to a variety of digital processes, before an animated image confronts the spectator. While the resulting image may at first appear like any other cinematic image, the timbre of drone cinema is different. Rather than revealing an optical unconscious, what we find in these films is instead a drone unconscious, a reconfiguration which trains the human sensorium for action at a distance. John Protevi has shown how certain forms of military training tries to cut subjectivity out of the loop, producing desensitized soldiers capable of killing. {Protevi 2008, 410} Drone cinema works the same way, modulating the subjective states we can inhabit while watching these films, allowing only certain forms of response and sensation. These films are articulations of Protevi’s cyborg training, which for him produces a cybernetic group subject “operating at the thresholds of the individual subjectivities of the soldiers.” {Protevi 2008, 412}

I would argue that these films go further and produce a drone subject on the thresholds of the dispersed agencies of cinematic technologies, simulation technologies, and the human sensorium, a heterogenous assemblage of materials, what Bennett calls an interfolding of the human and the nonhuman. {Bennett 2010} We are no longer only dealing with a change in the human sensorium. We are dealing with a reconfiguration of human agency, one where we willingly secede autonomy to a range of technologies which results in dispersed agency, distributed embodiment, delimited affects, and pluralized efficacies. Things go wild as we go inert, satisfied with a sense of action at a distance: our mode of existence is one of tele-affection. This is the transformation of drone cinema.

Sep 14, 2013

How to write about the beautiful: Spring Breakers

The story of Spring Breakers is as banal as it is predictable: four girls go to Spring Break to let loose, but as they have no money, two of them rob a diner for the funds to take them to Florida. Partying and doing drugs, they inevitably get caught by the police. Helped by a local gangster, the girls are embroiled in a life of violence and drugs, which eventually makes two of them leave. The two hardcore girls, Brit and Candy, stay behind to help the gangster Alien and the movie concludes in a spectacular, violent shoot-out with the girls in fluorescent bikinis gunning down hardened gangsters. The absurdity of the story is matched only by the surreal landscapes and images of the movie.

While a critical approach to Spring Breakers seems necessary and required, it leaves out the passion and seductiveness of the movie. Rather than disparage the movie’s flawed rationalism, immersion into the affective encounter with the movie seems another of engaging with the movie. Steven Shaviro points out, following Alfred North Whitehead, that the basis of all experience is emotional. (Shaviro Without Criteria, 59) What this means is that every encounter has an emotional, affective, and passionate dimension to it. Shaviro argues for rendering the rules of sensibility as the subject which prehends (me), the datum which is prehended (Spring Breakers), and the subjective form of how the subject prehends the datum — my experience colored by my affective responses. (Shaviro Without Criteria, 55) This affective tone precedes cognition, so the task becomes how to bring the pre-cognitive into cognition without losing what constitutes my sensate experience — the beauty only my singularity can experience. Whitehead locates beauty in patterned contrasts which build up intensity, which makes for a good starting point.

Spring Breakers is primarily made up of contrasts and tensions; the movie opens with slow-motion images of ecstatic spring breakers, dancing, partying, and generally engaging in all the banally transgressive acts that is Spring Break. Dominated by fluid motion, bright colors, fit bodies, and intimate close-ups of sexual intimations, this is a body we can move along with, which is open and invites us to join in. The exhilarating displays are so enticing precisely because they are so permissive; they allow full immersion into the images, holding nothing back and making no judgments. These images speak directly to the masculine gaze.

So much more a shock when the cock and fire of a gun takes us into a dark, shadowy room. Hand-held images seek out people in this dark room, engaged in dulling their senses with marijuana, the slow timbre of calm music pulling us into these relaxed but also leaden moments; is this all there is, sucking on a bong? Another cut presents an abandoned campus in a montage of immobile shots, calm music, mostly empty spaces, everyday activities, slowly moving towards the golden rich colors of vibrant night. A move inside reveals the tedium of a dark lecture hall, the slides moving across both the lecturer’s screen and all the students’ laptop screens. The only escape is for Brit and Candy to play around with fantasies of sucking cocks on Spring Break, not just bongs and pencils.

So the rhythm of Spring Breakers descends on us; campus life is dreary, immobile, and repetitive, while the flashforward to Spring Break is vibrant, rich, and excessive. This rhythm of alternating between immobile, repetitive scenes and fluid, exuberant ones continues throughout the movie, making for an organic flow of images that we are swept up in. The girls’ constant sentimental philosophizing about the transcendent nature of their experiences, the insistence that ‘everyone is so nice, down here’ rings hollow and also fails to fully express the throbbing intensity of grinding bodies, ecstatic drug come-ups, and weightless violence. We wait impatiently for the next intense scene as the girls wax poetic about finding themselves and living happily ever after; as much as the girls we want to get to the next high, the next explosion of sensation that will overwhelm us. That story is irrelevant is underlined in the constant dizzying use of flashbacks and flashforwards that we cannot make sense of.

We flow along the textures and colors swirling across the different scenes: shot during magic hour, so many of the landscapes are cast in a golden, diffuse light, the warm tones of bodies, guns, and clothes stand out and make our fingers ache with the urge to touch these objects. Everything seems more vibrant, more alive, more infused with emotion and while the story moves to the background, the depth of color moves the foreground. Bodies sharply defined in the midday sun, blur when inside in grainy, pixelated images where the bodies even change shape and definition, preventing character identification but emphasizing the swirl of impression and sensation.

We immerse ourselves in the broad range of the color palette, enjoy the screen like a canvas brushed with tan skin, rich sunsets, grainy faces — everything becomes part of the same movement of our own bodies; the sharpness, resolution and grain of the images create a sympathetic resonance that allows us to step across a boundary into close, intimate contact with the cinematic frame, while the cinematic image becomes transparent and immerses us into feeling that we are there. My body is caught in passionate passivity, outwardly still but full of inner turmoil, in a zone of indistinction between cinematic body and my body — I am there, with the girls, moving, swirling, and gyrating.

The undulations of the thumping soundtrack sweeps me way, taking over the pace of my bodily rhythm, the pumping of the music becoming the beat of my heart. A physiological reaction we cannot control, it nonetheless carries me along with or without my will. As the girls agree to take down Archie to help Alien rise to the top, it does not matter that Alien is killed immediately; we all feel the urge to continue with the assault. Not because it matters, not because we want the money or the drugs or the power, but because we want to continue the trip, because we are on Spring Break, and the rules don’t apply here, bitch. Keep it going, don’t slow down, get caught up in the inevitability of the spent trip.

And yet the movie does not allow the full climax we anticipated. The assault is first postponed incessantly by Alien because he is scared, our frustration building and as we finally descend on the mansion, the images move in slow-motion with no diegetic sound, only a sentimental voice-over talking about the ecstasies of Spring Break, how the world is perfect, even though we have to go back to school. The climax is not resolved as intensely as expected or hoped for, there is a sense of let-down and come-down, a strange post-coital sensation without the sex; we feel cheated — it wasn’t enough somehow, and yet it was still right, it was exactly what is was supposed to be, and we would do it again.

Left in a state of disarray as the movie ends, I recognize that my affective responses are made richer when the incompatibilities of the movie are brought into a larger complexity, as contrasts, rather than minimizing and excluding them. Productive tension is an essential part of any aesthetic response; locating these tensions, contractions, and organic lesions is the only way to approach the movie fully. We cannot reduce the movie to one or the other; to bring it into only a cognitive frame of reference, and allow only the art cinema aspects come to the fore would reduce the enjoyment of the movie and make it for us, rather than for itself. If anything, we should learn to accept that we exist as purpose for the movie, rather than the other way around. Desire produces the real, but my subjectivity is produced by beauty, by affect. This opens up the process of subjective form as one where I exist in a state of becoming in relation with the movie, where my feelings are not my own nor the movie’s but emerge from the entanglement of our two bodies. Emphasizing the loss of control, our blurred subjectivities in face of aesthetic events is of course dangerous and anathema to the rational logic of critical theory, but it is the only way that we can begin to understand the seduction of the image, the texture of art, the sensation of all events. Locating incompatibilities, productive contrasts, and the impurity of our experience is the only way to begin to be honest about our being in the world. It is a singular event, an affective encounter that leaves me changed, it is a shock to my subjectivity and writing about the beautiful must attempt the same shock to thought, a shock to the reader’s subjectivity.

Aug 26, 2013

The Nova Trilogy and Contagion Theory

Here is the full text of my paper for this week’s European Beat Studies Conference.

This paper extends from the assumption that humans are technics; what makes us human is always already technological. The question I try to answer, through a reading of William Burroughs’ Nova trilogy, is how technics takes control of the human and how technics take part in what Gilles Deleuze has called societies of control.

When we take William Burroughs’ dictum at face value and consider language as an alien virus, we open up to a nonhuman understanding of human life. No longer is the human privileged as the carrier of language, a typical definition of the human, but rather we move along a poststructuralist trajectory, which regards language as the carrier of the human. Yet this does not explain how language maintains a level of control over the human, nor how or why language would be a virus. In order to understand the controlling and viral aspects of language, we ned to turn to the virality thesis developed by Tony D. Sampson, based on the social epidemiology of Gabriel Tarde. The similarities between Burroughs, Tarde, and Sampson come primarily in their non-anthropocentric worldview. As Sampson points out, Tarde makes “no distinctions between individual persons, animals, insects, bacteria, atoms, cells, or larger societies of events like markets, nations, and cities.” (Sampson 7) Burroughs’ poetics have always emphasized such assemblages of different scales and he has always been a profoundly nonhuman writer: the human, for Burroughs, is rarely in control but rather the subject of control ranging from insects, mugwumps and junk to intergalactic conspiracies and tape recorders.

Both Burroughs and Tarde question the divide between nature and culture, where the word has always been a hostile entity for Burroughs, one that enslaves the human but also blurs the line between human and word. In The Ticket That Exploded, we hear that “The ‘Other Half’ is the word. The ‘Other Half’ is an organism. Word is an organism. The presence of the ‘Other Half’ a separate organism attached to your nervous system on an air line of word” (William S Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded 49) Not simply the carrier of the human, language and the word for Burroughs is not even human in origin, but rather something nonhuman, even inhuman in its violence. Tarde’s flat ontology allows for a view of language as one part of an assemblage of the human, where the body becomes another part; the human is thus both body and word as interwoven being.

The word, of course, remains on the one hand the medium of connectivity which binds human society together, but this connectivity comes at the price of parasitism: “The word may once have been a healthy neural cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.” (William S Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded 49–50) Tarde phrases the same understanding differently, arguing that society holds together through microrelational forces of imitative encounters — in other words, through the figure of a virus. (Sampson 19) Repetition and the spread of this repetition is what makes society into a coherent assemblage. These viral forces follow, according to Tarde, three laws: imitative repetition, opposition, and adaptation. (Sampson 20) These three laws together make up the important fact that “the social is not given, it is made.” (Sampson 21) Different objects radiate imitative repetition, that other objects will begin to imitate based on either opposition or adaptation. Neither opposition nor adaptation should be understood in a Darwinian fashion, emphasizes Sampson, but are rather antagonistic forces which arouse inventiveness and stimulate adaptation. Both forms of modified imitation are located in desire, whether that desire is biological or cultural. (Sampson 23) Burroughs regards viral imitation in much the same way, although with a definite pessimistic slant:

The virus attack is primarily directed against affective animal life – Virus of rage hate fear ugliness swirling round you waiting for a point of intersection and once in immediately perpetrates in your name some ugly noxious or disgusting act sharply photographed and recorded becomes now part of the virus sheets constantly presented and represented before your mind screen to produce more virus word and image around and around it’s all around you the invisible hail of bring down word and image. (William S Burroughs, Nova Express 72–73)

Burroughs emphasizes how the word (and image) controls affects and emotions, which we can correlate with the bodily aspects of the human (”affective animal life”) and we see how Burroughs regards all affects as tied to negative aspects and issues of control. The negative affects, for Burroughs, become how we are controlled. This view of human society here is not far from Tarde’s vision, except that Tarde also allows for positive affects, such as love, which is a non-entity in Burroughs’ writings. What Burroughs would substitute for love is the algebra of need, in other words desire. Because of the word virus, the human has two main desires, which Tarde describes as the continuum of biological need and cultural need. In the Nova trilogy, this continuum consists of two parasites: “Well these are the simple facts of the case and i guess i ought to know – There were at least two parasites one sexual the other cerebral working together the way parasites will – That is the cerebral parasite kept you from wising up to the sexual parasite” (William S Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded 144–145)

We immediately see how the sex parasite equals the body and thus the nature pole for Tarde, while the cerebral parasite equals the word and thus the culture pole. We can also recognize how language maintains control over the body. This is emphasized by Burroughs in Nova Express: “What scared you all into time? Into body? Into shit? I will tell you: ‘the word.’ Alien Word ‘the.’ ‘The’ word of Alien Enemy imprisons ‘thee’ in Time. In Body. In Shit. Prisoner, come out. The great skies are open.” (William S Burroughs, Nova Express 4)

The human emerges as an assemblage of the two virus parasites, cerebral and sex. As we are told in Nova Express: “These colorless sheets are what flesh is made from – Becomes flesh when it has color and writing – That is Word And Image write the message that is you on colorless sheets determine all flesh.” (William S Burroughs, Nova Express 28) ‘Determine all flesh’ reveals the control aspect inherent in the word, that way that we are formed by the word, made in its image, so to speak. The insight that Burroughs brings to the entanglement of word and body is that this contagion is not only what Sampson calls affective contagion although certainly Burroughs emphasizes the negative affects as part of this bodily control. Burroughs underlines that this affective contagion is also one of affective control; the word spreads through affective contagion, following the three laws set forth by Tarde (imitative repetiton, opposition, and adaptation), and exerts control in this manner. Control and affect are inextricably linked for Burrougs and linked precisely through technologies, language being the primary technology.

In “Postscript to Societies of Control,” Gilles Deleuze traces the origins of a new kind of society superseding Foucault’s disciplinary society. Deleuze explicitly draws the term ‘control’ from Burroughs and views Burroughs as the first theorist of this new society. In a brief outline, Deleuze emphasizes two aspects of control societies: code and modulation. (Deleuze 4) Modulation first. Sampson’s virality thesis is evident in the transmutation and continuous change of a control society. Modulation is close to the adaptive law of virality. None of this is exactly surprising, since Deleuze (both alone and in his collaborations with Guattari) drew on Tarde, while Sampson, in his turn, often reads Tarde alongside Deleuze. However, it makes explicit the relation between affective contagion as a means of control, in how affect is modulated. Brian Massumi remains one of the main authorities of modulated affect, so let us turn to him to get a sense of how moduation works.

In his dense Parables for the Virtual, Massumi argues that “Affect holds a key to rethinking postmodern power after ideology.” (Massumi 42) Postmodern power is for Massumi equal to Deleuze’s notion of societies of control, and we can easily see how Sampson’s virality thesis connects to societies of control in the emphasis on affective contagion as the diffusion of postmodern power. Massumi emphasizes the potentialities of affect; the presocial which cuts across and colors the social. Burroughs, never one to mince words, has the appropriate response:

I would like to sound a word of warning – To speak is to lie – To live is to collaborate – Anybody is a coward when faced with by the nova ovens – There are degrees of lying collaboration and cowardice – That is to say degrees of intoxication – It is precisely a question of regulation (William S Burroughs, Nova Express 7)

As long as we are caught in the webs of signification, we are exposed to the cerebral parasite, we are still part of the control society. Language, of course, is much older than control societies, and here we should stress that Burroughs’ concept of control is ahistorical. As soon as we have language, control follows. Language, for Burroughs, does not simply mean spoken language, but all forms of written codes across time. Control is a deeper, much more ancient effect: “I have explained that the Mayan control system depends on the calendar and the codices which contain symbols representing all states of thought and feeling possible to human animals living under such limited circumstances – These are the instruments with which they rotate and control units of thought” (William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine 91) Here we see code entering the discussion, which is Deleuze’s second characteristic of a control society, understood as a password which grants or rejects access to information.(Deleuze 5)

For Deleuze, the emphasis on code, password, and access to information correlates with information society and the computer. Burroughs, indifferent to the constraints of history and time, is clearly of the same opinion that code (for him, that equates language), passwords and access to information are the tools of control. He simply projects this perspective back through time as a case of control always already having existed. The word was the first method of control.

While there have been many different views of how the control society has been brought about and maintained, the role of media has always been prominent. As Richard Grusin points out, “media practices […] are techniques of power in a control society.” (Grusin 76) Burroughs reveals exactly the same position, with his interest in how language is used “to discipline, control, contain, manage, or govern” the human animal. (Grusin 79) Burroughs’ writing is thus a modulation which attacks the code, while at the same time employing the code of language. Burroughs prose is itself a forceful modulation of affect, its semantic shocks and grammatic inconsistencies generate run-away feelings uncontainable as merely literary prose. There is wildness, randomness, and chaos at work as a kind of splicing in itself, evident everywhere in Burroughs’ writing. Here we also find the common theme of resistance and rejection of power in Burroughs, which is what Grusin refers to a biopower from below and connects to Sampson’s virality thesis in the dispersal of power’s direction — no longer does power flow only from the top down, it also pushes up from below. What acts as the means of dispersal here, are of course media. While the word is Burroughs’ primordial medium, we can take the tape recorder to be a metonymic image for all forms of technological media:

Get it out of your head and into the machines. Stop talking stop arguing. Let the machines talk and argue. A tape recorder is an externalized section of the human nervous system. You can find out more about the nervous system and gain more control over your reaction by using a tape recorder than you could find out sitting twenty years in the lotus posture. Whatever your problem is just throw it into the machines and let them chew around it a while. (William S Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded 163)

The human nervous system, the human sensorium, or our embodied subjectivities. All words for the same thing and peculiarly something overlooked in much work on control societies. While Deleuze has always been attentive to bodies, they are peculiarly missing in his essay on control societies. There is even a tendency in Burroughs studies to understand Burroughs’ writing and his concern with language as an immaterial concern with information which ignores the body. Yet, no one who really reads Burroughs can believe that the body — or the sex parasite, more properly — is ignored. It is the locus of control, the host of the word virus and the subject of the algebra of need. In fact, the word virus is inherently physical since Burroughs uses the metaphor of parasite and in The Ticket That Exploded B.J. realizes what he (and the rest of humanity) is up against: “I know now when it is too late what we are up against: a biologic weapon that reduces healthy clean-minded men to abject slobbering inhuman things undoubtedly of virus origins.” (William S Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded 5) Word is virus, but it is not an immaterial, intangible thing because its effects are real, physical and material, in other words affective and bodily.

What Burroughs insists on is the bodily aspect of the word. When the word is a virus, it is a physical being with physical effects, what Rotman has called the “ongoing bio-cultural-technological ‘writing’ of the body’s meanings, expressions, affects, and mobilities.” (Rotman 4) We are written by the word, as long as ‘written’ is understood to as produced and the word as the assemblage of language, alphabet, and subsequent media. That is the truth of the control society as presented by Burroughs: it is not only a matter of access or non-access to information but a complete wiring of our sensorium. Writing is a remediation of speech, although words must take the place of gestures, intonation and other emotive expressions. Writing, for Burroughs, repurposes the human but in the same movement constitutes and produces the human. The sex parasite and the cerebral parasite is what makes the human animal, meaning that we are splicings of technology and nature.

The human-media symbiosis is not a new argument as such, although Burroughs probably got there first. What is significant about Burroughs’ word virus is the fact that control is integral to this assemblage. As Burroughs puts it: “look around you look at a control machine programmed to select the ugliest stupidest most vulgar and degraded sounds for recording and playback which provokes uglier stupider more vulgar and degraded sounds to be recorded and play back inexorable degradation look forward to dead end” (William S Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded 215) Control becomes a matter of which (negative) affects are played back by the assemblage; the modulation and code, in other words. This playback is the affective contagion of the word virus and it is why the future bleeds out of old recordings and why we can program our own playback.

Splicing, mixing, cutting up are all methods of attacking the word virus by forcing it to mutate. Burroughs does not offer an escape from the word virus, there is no such thing, there is only the Tardean opposition which simply introduces new organizing principles added to the repetitions of the existing playbacks. Wising up the marks is a strategy based on complicity, because there is no other option. To speak is to lie but to keep silent is impossible. Contesting biopower from below becomes a matter of creating a new, different strain of virus.

As Burroughs scathingly affective prose proves, meaning and sense always emerge from whatever is cut up and spliced together. If we are machines, playing back recordings, then splicing and cutting up media are techniques of power from below. There is therefore a distinctly nonhuman component in Burroughs’ concept of the human: we are a viral assemblage of language and media, cerebral and sex parasites, but there is no doubt that there is a strong sense of the physical body and the control media may have on the human body. As Rotman points out, technology does not represent an escape from embodiment. (Rotman 103) Instead, the implicit and sublimal effects of technology’s material effect cannot be separated from human bodies. To argue that we can move beyond corporeality, that language, writing, or even thought could be immaterial, is utterly wrong. Rotman continues;

From the perspective here the antibody to the illusions of the post-human is the recognition of the ‘para-human,’ since the condition in question is one of horizontal movement, not upwards or forwards but sideways; not linear or sequential but dispersive and parallel; not going beyond but an expansion, a multiplication, and intensification of what was always there; a new realization of the past and its futures, and with this a recognition of the incipient plurality of a psyche in the process of becoming beside itself. (Rotman 103)

Rotman’s concept of the parahuman in the context of Burroughs’ word virus teaches us an important lesson: any evolution due to technologies does not necessarily further the human in the sense of uplift towards a more transcendent state of being. Burroughs would deny such uplift as utterly naïve and foolish, while at the same time he would agree that technologies change us. What many have neglected to take properly into account, is the fact that both language and writing are technologies. The liveliness of the word must simply be seen as a precursor of much later writing on the agency of technology. When Bruno Latour sees ANTs and Jussi Parikka sees insect media, Burroughs sees viral parasites but the point remains the same: the lateral evolution of the technologically mediated human.

The lateral evolution of the technologically mediated human shares a conceptual debt to Deleuze and Guattari and their notion of the rhizome. Let us mutate Deleuze and Guattari and say that our viruses cause us to form a rhizome with other technologies. (Deleuze and Guattari 11) The human, in other words, is a verb to be conjugated. Technologies will deterritorialize and reterritorialize the human over and over, and so Burroughs urges us to participate in those lines of flight and lines of articulation. More importantly, Burroughs allows us to understand that the changes in the human nervous system do not represent liberatory trajectories, only new modulations of control.

Mar 14, 2013

Texture and Time in Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu

The following is the full text of my talk at the excellent Texture in Film conference at St. Andrews that I attended last weekend. Many thanks to Lucy Donaldson for organizing the conference and to all the participants for making the conference so engaging.

I believe that cinematic texture is the desire to touch and be touched by the film, which opens up a question of immediacy and haptics. The sensation of texture is one part of our affective engagement with the film. Theoretically, I position myself within the tradition of cinema as sensation, drawing here primarily on Mark Paterson’s notion of a felt phenomenology and the workings of haptics in our aesthetic experience. Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu (2006) provides a good example of how texture works as a way to ground our experience, as well as a way of talking about how sensation becomes haptic through the density of texture. Scott’s time travel film is signficant for its use of diegetic screens; screens which remediate the human body through texture understood as light, graininess and flatness.

We find many images of Carlin and Carrie overly in the same frame but due to their temporal separation although it is a twoshot they do not share the same camera-subject distance, so that although we in these shots have Carrie often in extreme close-ups, Carlin is more often in a medium shot or a medium-long shot.

The compositional nature of these shots inevitably lead us to consider the facework discussed by many film theorists from Béla Balász to Deleuze and onward. This relation and its representational practices are clear enough and we see how Carlin becomes infatuated with Carrie in these shots, thus proving Balász’s argument that one perceives the close-up with the heart not the eye. (Balázs 1970, 56) In much the same vein, Gilles Deleuze argues for a strong sense of affect in any close-up, which is always the face for Deleuze. (Deleuze 2005, 90) The difference in Deja Vu is the clear fact that the close-up is mediated through the time window and its screen which Carlin watches intently and the audience through him.

The time window, however, expresses a desire for immediacy, which means that the purpose of the media technology is to disappear as Bolter and Grusin put it in Remediation. (Bolter and Grusin 2000, 21) The desire for immediacy is always a desire to conflate to temporalities into one — that of the audience’s time and the image’s time. This desire is literalized with the time window device, as is the case with much science fiction, but it is also narrativized as the desire for immediacy becomes integral to solving the terrorist act as well as Carlin’s desire to be with Carrie. The desire for immediacy is thus the desire to reach out and touch Carrie, to be in her presence, to have access to her as an immediate experience. Much of the explanation of the time window centers on the fact there is actually a co-presence in space as well as time, thereby tying this desire for presence neatly together.

Yet for all the desire of immediacy and presence, Carrie’s face is mediated and quite clearly so. The time window is clearly an example of hypermediacy, remediating the computer desktop metaphor of windows onto the cinematic image. Spatial montage is employed to bring Carlin and Carrie close together in two-shots and same-frame relations, despite their temporal distance. The mise en scene of the time window scenes thereby encapsulates both spatial distance, temporal distance and desire for immediacy. Taking an embodied view of spectatorship reveals how aspects of image grain, light and flatness become signficiant elements for a felt phenomenology of the tactile image. Such a view proceeds from the argument that the emotional intensity of the images cannot be separated from the emotional intensity of the response, but rather insists that there is a porous boundary between cinematic image and spectator body — we feel the image, we do not simply see it.

The primary mode of felt sensation in Déjà Vu is the grain of the image which is evident in the time window. The texture of the time window’s image is what reveals that we are looking back into time, that what we see is not present but viewed across time and not as is usually the case with surveillance cameras across distance. This material dimension of the image, the way the resolution cannot quite match the rest of the cinematic frame is how the mise en scene crafts and shapes the temporal distance, yet it is also the way that the spectator engages with the two different images in the frame. As Mark Paterson points out, “In that space where material ends and sensation begins, tangibility arises.” (Paterson 2007, 96) The image of the time window has a different tactile quality due to its lower resolution, the way we sense that it is a mediated image.

The textural, material change in the image produces a set of intensities and sensations that shape and modulate the spectator’s experience of the bodies passing through it. The extreme close-ups of Carrie are always with Carlin in the same shot, giving us not simply a sense of scale but also a difference in texture; the texture of presence and the texture of distance. The graininess and low resolution of the time window’s image suggests a sense of depixellation, a disintegration of the image. Although Carrie is visible, she is also slowly disappearing which is evoked through a change in texture. On a narrative level, Carrie is disappearing, of course, since time is slipping away from Carlin and his team

This tactile sense of image grain becomes a way of opening up the concept of mise en scene from being not simply the objects and bodies put into the frame but how these objects and bodies pull us as spectators into the frame in a corporeal way in what Anne Rutherford calls a move of “sympathetic vibration or resonance.” (Rutherford 2013) we feel Carrie’s body different due to the image grain, which we know evokes time running out — this is part of the intensity of the time window’s texture. The materiality of the image therefore relates to the corporeality of the spectator, which we also see in Carlin’s reaction to the images of Carrie. The image grain should be seen as parallel to what Paterson argues for in terms of painting, where every brushstroke and touchmark on the canvas are physical points of the translation of sensation, of affect. (Paterson 2007, 88) The image grain is a physical encounter with the world, and carries a sense of conflation, a desire for Carlin to reach out and touch Carrie, much in the same way that she physically touches him.

There are several shots of Carlin where Carrie is superimposed over him or where the light from the time window plays over Carlin’s face like a caress. This becomes a way for the film to bring the two future lovers together in a way that suggests intimacy. Not only does this create a same-frame relation pre-empting their relationship, the light spilling over Carlin’s face is the equivalent of a touch. From the point of view of an embodied sense of haptics, we can literally see how light is not simply a means of linking sight and visibility, instead light is a medium of sensation. We are literally touched by light and Carlin is touched by Carrie in this manner.

It is the texture of light that is particularly significant for Carlin and Carrie’s relationship, primarily the color yellow. Consider the fact that Carlin looks at Carrie at a moment when they are spatially and temporally co-present; in the morgue. While he agrees with the coroner that she is beautiful, he does not respond to her face. This necessity is underlined by Carrie’s father who gathers up a collection of photographs of Carrie that he gives to Carlin. Carlin protests that it is unnecessary but it is important for the father — he needs her to matter to Carlin. Significantly, all these images have a distinctive yellow tone to them.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the texture of Carrie’s images which become signficant for Carlin, the yellow light becoming part of how he sees her. Notice how the morgue photograph has a yellow shade about it that we do not see in the morgue scene itself. At the end of the film, when the non-time traveling Carlin meets Carrie after his time-traveling self has died, we see the same yellow color shine on them in their only same-frame relation in this last scene of the film. The golden tone bring them together again, and we know that they will become lovers again. Again we find the material dimension of the image, its texture, is what generates an embodied sensation for the spectator. Not only does the narrative suggest that Carlin and Carrie will be together, the texture of light reinforces this mood.

We find here a tactile association in our apprehension of the image, even if it works subliminally. As Paterson argues, “That texture, color and light are interwoven into the fabric of perception, a continual synthesis of sensory modalities, is an unremarkable everyday occurrence for the aesthetic (touching, feeling) body.” (Paterson 2007, 94) Light and color consistently play a part in our apprehension of the world, and throughout the film, the warm yellow color is associated not only with the past but also with the shots where Carlin and Carrie are close together. When Carlin travels back in time and rescues Carrie from the terrorist Oerstadt, we find the same yellow color when Carrie nurses Carlin’s wounds. We even find a similar play of the nested images and frames within frames that we found back in the sequence with the time window, thus creating a distinct spatial relation as well that I will return to shortly.

The warm golden yellow becomes an integral part of the film’s sensation; we associate the color yellow with a haptic sense of the past, the way the past feels in other words. So when Carlin and Carrie have their last same-frame two-shot, all the emotional and affective sensations of the entire film are brought into that one shot. This shot becomes overdetermined in the way that it resolves the tension of whether or not the two lovers will remember each other and be together in the future. We can constrast this sense of yellow with the hard, bright light of Carrie’s sorrow over having lost Carlin as he is pulled under by the car, unable to escape because he saved Carrie. The color of the image colors our mood and so yet again ties together the materiality of the image with our corporeal response.

The last aspect of texture I will deal with here is that of depth. The use of digital video to film all the time window sequences create a distinctive flatness of the image, which is not simply a matter of shallow depth of field and a lack of deep, vibrant colors but also a completely different sense of distance and relation. The entire concept of the time window is that we can surveil time rather than space; indeed space becomes trivial as long as we are within the range of the time window. Inside this zone, space becomes surmountable and in this sense flat — every point in space is next to every other point in space. That is even the scientific explanation of the time window: time is bent together spatially.

Space is consistently overcome by the movement of the camera which seems to have no limits in terms of where or how fast it can go. Wherever they want to look, the time window can take them there within seconds. In this sense, the Newtonian laws of physics are rendered meaningless — there is no sense of spatial distance for the time window, only temporal distance is a limit. Instead, we are transported into a post-cinematic space of intensive affects. What matters is not a coherent, stable sense of self or even a sense of point of view. Any point of view may be achieved at any time. The time window creates what Steven Shaviro has termed a possibility space which can only be mapped cognitively and affectively. (Shaviro 2010, 135)

Precisely such a possibility space reveals how sensations are generated through the texture of the film’s image. It is not a question of an extensive spatialty of measures and distances which is the optical regime but rather a question of an intensive spatiality of affects which is the haptic regime. Closeness is no longer a matter of distance but a matter of intensity, a sense of touch. We find such a sense of touch and collapse of difference in the mise en scene itself, in the way that the frame is dominated by screens and how temporal relations are expressed spatially. This is what Lev Manovich has termed spatial montage, where several images appear on the screen at the same time. (Manovich 2001, 322) The montage becomes a matter of conflating different temporalities into one, which is what we can define as immediacy but also disturbs the typical foreground-backgrund relation of cinema.

Antonia Lant discusses foreground-background relations as a way of creating a haptic cinema. She points to a sensuality of emergence (Lant 1995, 63) an animation of the picture plane into volume in early cinema. For Scott’s film we see how this emergence into volume becomes a form of hypermediacy, the sensuality of mediation, the sensuousness of touching the image of the other. The procedural part of Deja Vu, where Carlin and the FBI team investigate the past through its images are filled with extreme close-ups of Carrie with Carlin in the foreground obsessively looking at her and her environment.

Rather than the flatness of early cinema based on photography, we find in Deja Vu a move towards the post-cinematic of basing cinema on the multiple windows of the computer desktop; like many other of Scott’s films screen proliferate and dominate the diegetic frame, obviously suggesting surveillance extantly but certainly also speaking to a culture immersed in multiple windows of engagement at the same time.
We are woven into in Déjà Vu because of the insistence of attraction and presentation over a stable representation; the devices for this fragmenting representation are many – fluid camera work, blending of frames and spaces, spatial montage, juxtapositions and superimpositions. All these devices converge in a sense of haptics, a desire to reach out and touch the images — both for Carlin but also for us. The explanation of the time window is precisely the folding of space in touching itself across time.

This fluid nature of the image and the mobile frame means there is no immediately stable point of view for us to engage with the movie; texture becomes the way we differentiate between layers of time. These layers are not established in shot-reverse shot rhythms but rather through a texture of mediation; a grainy overlay for the images of the past, the color yellow to suggest emotional intensity and spatial montage to create physical proximity. Texture becomes a way into the cinematic image, a way to talk about affect, materiality and our relationship with the image which goes beyond narrative structure, composition and suture. Although this has been an excursion into only one film, I believe that the strength of texture as a concept has shown to be the way that its etymological origin as weave helps us realize how different aspects of a film unifies unexpectedly. For Déjà Vu this weaving together was the different temporalities into one affective stream but for other films this weaving will be different.

Mar 14, 2013

Tears, Affect, and Subject Trouble

What follows is a response to Sarah Juliet Lauro’s article on crying in the Huffington Post “Here Come the Water-Works: (Un)professional Tears.” Lauro asked for reactions and comments on Twitter and since I do have an interest in affect, I want to respond to her interesting article. Responding academically to what is obviously a personal article may seem like overkill but it is the only way I can work through the important last paragraphs of Lauro’s piece.

I find Lauro’s article admirable in its everyday application of affect theory, thinking through how we feel every day, in typical situations. Affect is often used synonymously with extreme, which I think is wrong. Lauro articulates well how our everyday experience is shot through with affect. For this reason, I recognize myself in what Lauro writes, although I do not find myself do easily moved to tears. This is more a result of gender differences, upbringing and cultural environment, I hope, than a lack of sensitivity on my part.

Lauro identifies, quite astutely, how our affective responses (in her case crying, but I think any response) comes from what she calls ‘border trouble,’ a difficulty in reconciling the outside with the inside, in either direction – ie. a situation does not conform to how I wish it would be, or that I do not match up to what the outside world expects of me. Lauro also points to the flawed nature of language, as well as feelings of the sublime. In my vocabulary, our immersion into the world is always already aesthetic and affects not limited to sublime objects or moments, but I think Lauro would agree with this point.

Border trouble is exactly right, then, and I think that Lauro’s distinction between real and fictional is also not necessary but more a force of habit, a cultural discernment which should fall by the wayside in most discussions of affect. It is only when we filter affect through our cognitive perceptions that emotions emerge which put our responses at odds with how we should feel. This ‘should feel’ is a cultural imperative, a demand that we distinguish not just between real and fictional but also act rationally in job interviews and do not cry in museums. Affect, however, designates what is beyond and prior to this cultural imperative, affect comes before thought, tears come before the judgement that tears are inappropriate. We are, therefore, not entirely ourselves.

Here we find the only niggle I have with Lauro’s otherwise insightful piece: she emphasizes the self too much. Her last paragraphs are filled with ‘I cry,’ ‘I feel,’ ‘my tears’ and so forth. Lauro’s argument is also that her self overflows its borders, in other words that there is an excess of self which extends into the world. I agree that affect is inherently excessive and that our own affects can overflow, but I also believe that we are overwhelmed by the affects of others. Lauro herself argues as much in her description of crying at her job interview, where “all these kids crowding into my head with me” – other subjects impinge on us, much like object impose on us and that is what I would call affect, when our subjectivity is overwhelmed by the Other subject or object.

In this openness, the ‘I’ is dissolved because there is no longer a distinction between ‘my’ feelings and ‘your’ feelings but instead a vacillation between two end points of a spectrum. While some may argue that this is a total dissolution of the subject, affect theory suggests more an inherent openness to the Other, which enforces a different view of people than the traditional liberal, individualistic conception so dear to Western thought. What affect theory teaches us is that some of my experience is not mine.

The strength of Lauro’s argument is that she points out the longstanding denigration of the body and emotions in Western culture and thought, where is it improper to be overcome with emotion. Even this expression ‘overcome with emotion’ reveals the possession associated with being emotional, suggesting the cultural antipathy we have against emotions and affects. I recognize that there in affect theory is a distinction between affect (pre-conscious) and emotions (cognitively filtered affects) but in the vernacular, there is no real distinction. Lauro points out this fundamental antipathy by revealing the prejudices and judgments that she encounters and yet insisting that we are all emotional and affective animals.