Monthly Archives: October 2010

 
 
 

Magic Lanterns!

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The thing that really stuck with me after Paul Monod’s magic lanterns presentation was the point he made about how cultural notions of “realism” can change.  To people witnessing magic lantern projections in the 19th century, it didn’t matter that the drawings were crude and even childish — the mere fact that they were being projected had a sort of magic and mystery about it that translated to a feeling of these images being “realisitic”.  I think that this gets at the notion that the very way our brains are structured can be affected by the technologies at our disposal.

This summer, I read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson; one of the key points in this book is a way-out-there hypothesis that he makes (it may not be grounded in real science, but fuck it, it’s cool as hell) that ties together semiotics, neuroscience, Sumerian mythology, and Biblical stories like the exile from Eden and the Tower of Babel.  Basically (and I’m not going to make it sound as convincing as him), he puts forth the Sumerian language as the sort of most-basic-level programming language for the “operating system” of the human brain, and says that if the human brain is coded using linguistic, semantic blocks, then a certain spoken phrase could potentially act as a “virus” that would “crash” our brains.  In the story, one Sumerian god whose name I forget somehow invents some protection against this virus — this protection is the fragmenting of our coding into a number of higher-level languages; in other words, the Tower of Babel.  So modern languages are more like, say, C++, where Sumerian is closer to binary.  Or something.

Obviously this doesn’t map perfectly on to the more modern magic lantern thing (which I’ll come back to in a second), but it’s certainly a well-documented idea that our technologies (and keep in mind I’m calling language a “technology”) can fundamentally alter the way we communicate and, therefore, the way our very thoughts are structured.  Think Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy”.

Now I think the genesis of technologies that allowed images to appear without being there in a tangible way (as in, painted or drawn or carved there) may have gradually caused some changes in the way our brains work.  This leads to this changing idea of what makes something realistic (I think?).  I’m starting to second guess myself now, but as Bazin says, cinema is a language just like speech or writing (well, not just like them…), and we had to collectively learn to “read” it — that’s why narrative cinema didn’t appear full-formed as soon as we could record things onto celluloid.  But even those little moving lantern slides are like the earliest stages of the embryo of narrative in moving images.  Weird metaphor, sorry.  I just couldn’t help but thinking, as he talked about how people “went wild” for the moving dancers, of, say, Avatar — probably the most technologically new-ish-y moving image thing that people have gone wild for.  Will Avatar someday seem as simplistically crude and unimpressive as those slides do now?  It’s hard to imagine.  But I guess it’s probably true…provided humans haven’t wiped ourselves out by then.

#18 – Manovich / Remix documents

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Just before fall break, I submitted my thesis proposal for an essay in the spring that I’d like to focus on remix culture, primarily, among other things.  So I’ve given a fair bit of thought to the topics we’re running through in our course material right now, but even though a lot of it is rehashing stuff I’ve already run into in one place or another, I still find it endlessly compelling and get sucked in very easily.  For one, it’s good to keep those ideas stewing around in my head as I’m starting to do research, but that’s not all there is to it.  Having read Remix, I was familiar with most of the ground Lessig covered in his “Wireside Chat”, but I still was rivited throughout (in no small part because his style is so compelling and digestible — how great it would be to make a thesis as smart, snappy, and passionate as that!).

Good old Henry Jenkins’ article was fine for a brief read.  Also, I hadn’t thought about the idea presented in the youtube video — that “remix” can extend to the very way we now structure our social interactions.  (As far as reading the comments, were we supposed to just notice how negative all of them were?  But the hatred found in youtube comment sections is as dense as neutron stars, so that wasn’t too surprising.)  I definitely got the most, though, out of the chapter from Manovich’s book.  I think I’ve read the chapter previous to it, about the Graphical User Interface, in the past, but I thought this chapter was brilliant (despite having an absurd number of typos).  It’s hard to write about techonology now in a way that doesn’t quickly become outdated, but his writing is grounded enough in deeper theory that this, clearly written nearly ten years ago, is still relevant.  He writes about the more abstract, cultural stuff — his section about how post-industrial life presents us with a series of “menus” is AMAZING — and then ties it in with some really crunchy technical stuff.  I found myself trying to discern his position about whether this state of things (in which art, identities, and culture are constructed from “pre-assembled parts”) is positive or negative — I’d have to say he seems more pessimistic than euphoric.  But overly rapturous, idealistic paeans to digital culture are usually a bit grating, so I appreciated Manovich’s moderate voice here.  I think I’ll definitely have to investigate this book a little more, because nothing else I’ve encountered so excellently shows the way our techonologies shape the way we create, and even the way we think.

#17 – “DJ Spooky’s Pretentious Ramblings”

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Paul Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky quotes a lot of people in his “In Through the Out Door” essay for Sound Unbound; after all, as a DJ, quoting (one form of “sampling”) is his bread and butter.  He closes his essay with a gorgeous excerpt from Don DeLillo, and I think he’d like to believe that his “far out” writing style sounds like DeLillo’s lucid prose.  But it actually ends up sounding more like someone else he quotes earlier in the essay: George Clinton.  That is, a stoner rattling off pages of faux-“meaningful” nonsense that doesn’t make much sense outside his own head.  At least with the P-Funk mastermind, it was not meant to be taken as serious scholarship — Miller, on the other hand, is dead serious about things like “an ecosystem of hunter-gathers of moments suspended in a culture founded on a world where information moves only because someone invented and shared it.”  Read into that as much as you want.  The problem isn’t that I’m glossing over it too quickly.  It just doesn’t mean anything.

I’m really interested in this stuff, so I was disappointed that Miller’s essay was such a gigantic pile of horseshit.  I thought his online interactive remix experiment might redeem his writing, but it was almost equally pointless in its willful obtuseness.  For one, the web design was simply awful, and most of the interface didn’t even really let you remix anything at all, but merely change the size and velocity of various rotating discs.

Let me point you attention towards a couple of much more compelling pieces of remix creativity on the internet.  Kutiman is a youtube artist who creates music consisting only of elements pulled from other youtube videos, mostly of people playing an instrument solo.  He creates remarkably coherent music out of these patchworks; here’s one of my favorites, titled “I’m New”.  If you visit his own website (linked to in the video’s description), you can use an interactive interface to see all the original videos from which he culled his samples.

This next example is very near and dear to my heart.  I think it’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of how digital media can foster creativity and inspiration in unexpected ways.  The site is called “in Bb” (as is b-flat, the musical note), and in building it, the creator asked people to submit brief videos of them playing something simple, ambient, and non-rhythmic in the key of bflat.  As you can see, he then pasted his favorites into an array of videos, all on one page, that you can overlap, creating your own beautiful, textured remix.  It’s definitely worth checking out.

“The Social Network”, sort of

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I went to see The Social Network in Burlington a couple of nights ago, mostly because you apparently need to see it to be able have conversations, but also partly because I wanted to approach it from the standpoint of this class (see how it made me feel as a frequent user of Facebook, I guess) and hopefully write a blog post about it.

Well it turns out the movie isn’t really about Facebook, so much.  At least, I thought the role of this technology in the past few years would be more of a concern for the film, but Aaron Sorkin being a character dramatist and not a tech head / cultural scholar, it was really a movie about one messed up and (mostly) made up dude and how all his social psychoses would drive him to create a technology that ostensibly “brings people together” but has an ambivalence built into it that makes it potentially alienating.  Sorry, that sentence was too long.

Anyway, it didn’t really hail me as a user of Facebook in the way I thought it might (I almost thought I’d leave feeling implicated in some grand generational corruption).  But because of my starting goal, I did spend some time after the film thinking about the role of Facebook in my consumption of culture.  There are a few conspicuous examples: first, the message chain that I started to include all of my close friends who are fans of Lost that many of us actively tossed theories around in for seasons 4 through 6.  I much prefer this socially-based type of “forum” than the anonymity of most online forums I’ve bothered to check out, which I often find quite disturbing in the way they seem to be positively bursting with hatred.  Additionally, my main internet activity is related to keeping up with current music, and one of my primary ways of judging the buzz around certain bands or songs is in noticing them pop up in links or comments between various friends on my News Feed.  I think I have wide enough a variety of friends that I can get some reading in this way, and my knowledge of each of these people’s listening habits enables me to understand the likelihood of them listening to artists of varying obscurity in a way that reading anonymous blogs wouldn’t.  I think i could go on and on about this but it’s getting pretty late and I imagine I’ll post on related subjects in the future, so I’m gonna call it quits.  Probably go check Thefacebook before I go to bed though…

#16 – “Beyond the Box” Chp. 2 / “Blogging” Chps. 1 & 2

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As I headed over here to write my (forthcoming) post about The Social Network, I realized that this post was missing, and realized I’d posted it on my blog for Media Tech. and Cultural Change from last spring, which I’ve done several times but always caught myself.  When I log into sites.middlebury.edu it automatically takes me to that blog’s dashboard, but I finally realized that you can change your “primary blog”, so hopefully that won’t be happening anymore.  Anyway, here’s my post on the readings from the other day:

While Rettberg’s book is (or seems like it’s going to be) a comprehensive and accessible analysis of blog culture, it does not have the specific persuasive (or political?) bent that Ross’ book seems to have, and I guess this makes it harder for me to discuss it without just summarizing.  Basically she wants us to do something that a lot of the scholars we’ve read this semester want us to do: slow down and think more patiently about the phenomenon we are observing.  Blogging is neither the death of intelligent discourse as some academic luddites would have us believe, nor is it a completely new, revolutionary, democratic, ideal media environment as those on the other end of the spectrum might believe.  It has many precedents and takes many cues from earlier forms, and it has both great strengths and a few drawbacks.

I have a blog myself (besides the one for this class…it’s a mostly-music blog called theashtraysays.wordpress.com and I’ve been bad about updating it the past few months — this is about to change!), but I don’t consider it a replacement for the other forms of expression that I engage in, not by any means.  In terms of how it relates to me as an “audience”…well, I suppose it is there as a sort of encouragement for me to cohere my thoughts on the stuff I’m constantly consuming — even though this is usually music, not film. (Also, I suppose it lands somewhere between a filter blog and a topic-driven blog, in her terms).  But I’ll shut up about my blog now.  I’m looking forward to discussing all this in class.

The second chapter of Ross’ book, as I mentioned, has what I’d call a more explicitly “political” focus — she is looking at the relationships of power between the entertainment industry and the digitally-enabled fans of the (in this case) TV shows that come out of this industry.  I’m tempted to repeat my “fans really can’t complain; no one’s forcing you to be a fan” statement from a few posts back, though I suppose I’ll have to stop that kind of talk if this is to be a major theme as we proceed.  I guess I’d just also like to add that the idea of some industry control over extra-textual tele-participation is not inherently a bad thing.  Sometimes the industry possesses resources that allow fans to come together in more fulfilling and efficient ways than if the fans were, say, starting up a website of their own accord.  Of course, the industry is usually clumsy and a bit too greedy, but I’m still hoping that the current state of our media industries will eventually cause them to be a bit more humble and lower their expectations a bit.  But who knows.  Okay that’s all for now.

#15 – Felschow – “Cult Fandom in Supernatural”

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Thankfully, I found this essay much more compelling than the other one.  I think Laura Felschow indulges in a few lazy misinterpretations of the text in order to suit her argument — that the poor widdle fans, though they have more power now then ever before, still can be turned on by…um, the people who are SPENDING THEIR LIVES MAKING A THING THESE FANS LIKE.  Sorry, I guess I’m feeling a bit cynical today, I really did like this essay, but I’ve just read so much Marxist criticism at this point that arguments like this feel a bit inconsequential.  I get what she’s saying, but nobody should be complaining here!  The producers are getting paid (in money and admiration) to create a product of their own invention, and the fans are privileged enough to be able to afford the technology that allows them to consume this product.  Now, they even have the power to occasionally influence the direction of the show! So the producers turned around a poked a little fun at them on this episode of Supernatural? All I can say is: First World Problems, guys.

Anyway, the essay was at least clearly written, with no stomach metaphors.  I find shows like Supernatural quite interesting — shows that have a low enough budget, and a timeslot with little pressure for viewership placed upon it, that the producers feel comfortable taking risks and let the show head in strange directions.  I’m not sure whether or not Supernatural‘s creators anticipated its development of a cult fanbase, but it allowed them to do some things that I don’t think you see on your average cable TV network.  “Going meta” to the extent that they do, especially when a show is already in its fourth season, it definitely a bold move, because once you go meta, as they say, you can’t go back.  Whether or not the fans were “wronged” by this move (I’d like to see Felschow’s reaction to the fan convention episode we watched, which was much more derogatory…do I detect some thinly veiled homophobia in this show’s writing?) it was clever, and enjoyable to watch for a bunch of outsiders like our class.

#14 – Rowlett – “They’re Letting You Write Your Thesis About That?”

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Well, Kelly, I hope you do a better job on your thesis than you did on this essay.  I had some serious problems with this essay — not with its ideas, which were, well, familiar, but with the way they were presented.  Really, her ideas about internet fandom are sort of old hat, and the only original thing here was her metaphor, that if fandom is like a body, then fan fiction is its STOMACH.  Even at its relatively brief length, this essay was the very definition of a (WEAK) analogy taken WAY too far.

In some ways, I think Rowlett might have been watching too much Xena, because her cheesy writing is perfectly suited to describing Xena’s ridiculous, over-the-top cheesiness.  There are headings like “A Stomach Totem” and “A Stomach of One’s Own”, and we were treated to PRICELESS sentences like this: “Unlike the phyiscal stomach, but with the persistence of the flesh, fanfic devours its own components, and yet, the writers live to tell the tale.”  There’s a problem with your metaphorical writing when it’s commenting on NOTHING EXCEPT THE METAPHOR ITSELF.  At the end, she even asks: “Do metaphors of the organic incorrectly ascribe a connectness to human processes?”  I think you’re on to something there, OL BUDDY!!!  I fully agree with her assertion that high culture elitist and Marxist cultural critics have little respect for the intelligence and agency of the fan/”consumer”, but again, this isn’t really breaking news.  Basically I spent a lot of time laughing out loud at the silliness of Rowlett’s writing while reading this essay.

#13 – “At the Picture Show” wrap-up / “Beyond the Box” beginning

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Fuller’s decision to end her book with an account of the generation that grew up surrounded by movies both proved remarkably appropriate and provided a great way to link her ideas to the present day.  After all, a frequent focus of the media discourse about my generation is the fact that we’ve grown up with constant access to new information technologies, and that we consume all media differently because of this.  In the intro and first chapter of Beyond the Box, Sharon Ross certainly touches on this, noting that television is consumed differently now that many have widespread access to internet forums and fan sites and the like, and that this change in consumption likewise affects the actual production of these products.

The number of ways in which this chapter mirrors the story being told presently is remarkable.  I especially liked what she described as a “loss of local intimacy, flavor, and control…but gain of glamor, luxury, and higher production standards” that comes with the maturation of an industry/technology.  Also, it never occurred to me that movies “dying out” as just another “amusement fad” could have been a possibility, but it’s fascinating to think that a slightly less compelling version of moving picture technology might have just vanished, if it had never quite caught on in the public consciousness the way movies did.  Finally, this idea that even a generation of “born moviegoers” still had to be “educated” in how to view and understand movies was very compelling to me, because I’m very interested in the cause of teaching media literacy today.  Reading about how children and adolescents interact with and “learn to watch” movies was very interesting, and it also showed how their experiences defined the next generation of “fandom”…a word which has changed much since then, and the word which is the primary concern of Ross in her book.

In Chapter 1, Ross focuses on two shows generally considered as having a “cult” fanbase: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess.  But one thing that occurred to me is how, in some ways, the internet allows any show, no matter how mainstream, to have some core following that consumes these shows in a cultlike way.  Obviously, some shows simply don’t encourage this sort of fandom (I don’t know, Two and a Half Men always jumps to mind here), but the internet allows members of even the smallest and most dispersed cult to find each other and share their ideas.  I think this is linked (the cause and effect I am unsure of) to the trend in cable broadcasting that Ross mentions: more and more channels cater to specific demographics — think Lifetime, Sci-Fi, BET, N (which I hadn’t heard of before this), etc.  In an age where the cost of “broadcasting” or “publishing” (this applies to TV as well as blogs/fan sites) keeps going down, the capacity for splintering fandoms and niche marketing increases exponentially.

#12 – “Singin’ in the Rain”

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I’m not exactly sure what to say about this reading because it’s a pretty straightforward dissection of the film (not much you couldn’t discern on your own) but goddamn is that film great.  I haven’t seen it for quite some time and maybe it’s just because I’ve been watching two classes worth of classical Hollywood films and I’m just mentally embedded in that style right now, but I thoroughly loved watching Singin’ in the Rain just now.  It’s just so packed with clever little conceits for the scenes, and each number just packs in more and more spectacle when you think it can’t get any more extravagant than it already has.  And that “imagined” scene (within the “Broadway Rhythm” medley) with the expansive set and the super-long sash is insanely beautiful.

It’s really interesting to see that Hollywood could rather cleverly and insightfully comment on itself while still presenting that perfectly packaged, seamless, assembly-line entertainment that the classical era is known for.  And narrative here often halts for spectacle (they LOVE tap dancing), but it never feels jarring as in 42nd Street.  Now I loved that film as well, but it does something much more abstract and surreal (these aren’t the right words…I almost want to say subversive…at least against the norm), and Singin’ in the Rain presents copious amounts of dazzling spectacle without straying from it’s incredibly sense of craft and charm.  I realize this isn’t really a response to the reading, but mostly the reading is just an analysis of how the movie comments on history…so I think I addressed this.  Anyway, looking forward to writing a screening response on this one.

#11 – Fuller Chps. 7 & 8

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Perhaps what interested me the most in these two chapters were the themes of consumerism and marketing linked to the creation and evolution of the “movie fan”.  It’s obvious that these two would be linked — movie fans are consumers of movies, after all, and movies are a business.  But it was still thought-provoking to see how closely linked the two were, and how much fandom itself can even be determined by marketing, perhaps as much as the actual films.

I particularly noticed this in the first chapter, discussing “Motion Picture Story Magazine”.  In showing the ways this publication was partially responsible of te construction of the movie fan, one can see a potential chicken-and-egg cycle start to arise — obviously the advertisements appearing in this magazine are determined by who the publishers think the magazine is catering to, but could it be possibly that the very readership is actually determined by the advertisements?  Looking at ads is always the most efficient way to tell who a magazine (or a television show, or a website) is being catered to, but it never occured to me that perhaps those selecting the advertisements based on certain assumptions end up forming the demographic to fit those assumptions, whether they were correct in the first place notwithstanding.  This is especially important when said publication is essential in determining the very meaning and identity of something as broad as a “movie fan”.

It seems that James Quirk, who came on board as editor of “Photoplay” magazine, had a deep understanding of the way demographics and identities can be shaped, bought and sold.  He catered to an audience of moviegoers who considered themselves sophisticated and appreciative of “good” qualities in movies (innovative plots, snappy dialogue, strong acting), but he turned around and “sold” these fans to marketers as a mass of “perfect consumers” who were completely dependant on movies and would bend to his every whim.  Seems like he was quite the savvy dude.