Hyperrhiz 13 is out now. The special issue on “Kits, Plans, Schematics” includes the Duke S-1 Lab’s contribution “Manifest Data,” along with a variety of other great projects utilizing data, physical computing, bodies, and other living and nonliving things. Check it out!
In my book Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film and the Anthropotechnical Interface, I follow Robert Spadoni in arguing that James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) harnessed the energies of the recent transition to sound cinema, focusing them in the menacing figure of what Spadoni calls an “uncanny body.” I contend that Whale’s “capture” of these energies manifests itself,
above all, in the face of the monster, which, beneath the iconized veneer familiar to us all, undermines self-reflexivity of the conceptual sort with a non-reflective surface that refuses subjective correlation; the facial image, I wish to say, harbors a Teflon-like substrate to which phenomenological intentions just won’t stick. It is this substrate, this non-iconizable material excess of the monstrous facial image, that, in 1931, mediated the molecular force of transitionality.
To recover an experience of that visage, which would bring us face to face with the alien agency of Frankenstein’s filmic body, requires that we peel back the layers of popular-cultural associations that have accrued upon it over the years, that we rewind all the subsequent Frankenstein films and return to a situation prior even to Bride of Frankenstein’s melodramatic/ironic humanization of the face as the source of articulate words and expressive tears. We must try to imagine how terrifying the monster’s face was to its first audiences, who did not even have the comfort of a fixed genre label “horror” at their disposal with which to categorize, process, and thereby mitigate the disturbing nature of their experience. Indeed, this pre-stabilized horror film’s particular power to frighten was linked directly to the pre-iconic perception of the monster; as Spadoni points out: “How scary the film was on its first release is suggested by the fact that at that time, and unlike any time since then, the view of Boris Karloff’s monster as a sympathetic figure was not unanimously taken for granted” (93).
Clearly, there is no question of actually recovering the experience, or of seeing these images with the eyes of a spectator at a 1931 screening of the film. But, then again, I’m not quite sure what that would mean even if it were possible. For part of my argument about the “molecular force” of the image, which at some level “refuses subjective correlation,” is that horror was created here by bypassing conscious registration altogether. In this sense, then, there simply is no model spectator against which to measure my own experience of the images. Instead, if what I am suggesting makes sense, there is an experiential gap around which these images revolve and which they serve to invoke.
Thus, despite the monstrous facial image’s almost immediate degradation to a ubiquitous marketing gimmick, and despite the seemingly total transfer of its uncanny monstrosity to the diegesis (upon which basis Frankenstein served as a shining example for the subsequent generic stabilization of horror), it is possible, I maintain, to locate a gap in the net of textuality cast upon the image. In this gap, which is also a sort of hole in the narrative, the monster assaulted his first viewers with a physical shock, subject only to a visceral sort of processing, but which was just as quickly forgotten. Ground zero, where the impact of this experience is the greatest, and which marks a point of contact with an alien agency, is reached in the scene when the newly animated monster makes his first appearance onscreen.
All we can do, in other words, is circle around this “gap,” which I have done repeatedly in my work on Frankenstein, revisiting this scene over and over to think about it from all possible angles. But a “gap in the net of textuality” implies rather straightforwardly that, at least in certain respects, any textual description of the scene will necessarily be inadequate.
This is why, more recently, I have turned to videographic explorations of the images. My video essay “Sight and Sound Conspire: Monstrous Audio-Vision in James Whale’s Frankenstein” takes no fewer than three passes at the monster’s first appearance — without, however, stopping to dwell very long on the monster’s face and the breakdown of spatiotemporal relations that, I am suggesting, are occasioned by its first appearance. For my point, again, is that the forward motion of the film and its narrative is halted in its tracks, and a seemingly timeless space (or a non-spatialized duration) opens up and engulfs me, the viewer — though it all happens in the blink of an eye, so I may not be aware of anything beyond some vague feeling of dread or what we call “the uncanny.” Clearly, the seeming timelessness of the experience resists the linear exposition of the video essay as well, thus making repetition all the more necessary.
I want to suggest, then, that perhaps the closest approximation of this experience of timelessness is to be found in the form of the animated gif, the repetitive looping nature of which quite literally rips the images out of their diegetic contexts, helping us to understand how
this scene establishes the very possibility of [the head’s] detachment by first exposing the head from all sides, thus turning it into an object per se rather than a flat image, and the cut-in to the close-up seals the deal by making the head emerge from the screen, separated from the monster’s diegetic body. This non-diegetic decapitation stubbornly resists integration as pertaining to “one diegetic subject,” but the experience also lays the necessary groundwork for its retroactive textualization. This, then, is the very genesis of the monstrous face’s iconicity, the initiation of a process that will turn that face, seen from whatever angle and from whatever distance, into a sort of eternal close-up.
Here, finally, is my attempt to “visualize” this experience — where the “objecthood” per se of the head as a detachable thing (abstracted from the narrative and made available as a three-dimensional image, instantly destined to become a Halloween mask) is rendered visible through the subperceptible durations of a “flicker” gif. Look closely, for a little while, and (barring some negative physiological or psychological reaction, for which I cannot take responsibility), you’ll see the monster’s head start to assert its autonomy, to separate itself from the space around it, and to protrude outward from the screen to approach you. Still only an approximation, perhaps, the looping repetition of these microtemporal images intimate to us materially what takes place in the imperceptible “gap in the net of textuality”:
Originally posted on The New Krass:
The first two pictures from the opening of the Hyperrhiz exhibit at the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University-Camden. Opening Reception October 15, 4-6pm.
Six Data gnomes, data portraits, and other physical and augmented elements of Manifest Data, a project of the Duke S-1 Speculative Sensation Lab (with Amanda Starling Gould, Karin & Shane Denson, Luke Caldwell, Libi Striegl, and David Rambo), will be on display alongside other contributions to a special issue of Hyperrhiz on “Kits, Plans, and Schematics.”
Sneak preview: “Post-Cinema: 24fps@44100Hz” — Acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 24″, augmented with digital video and Markov chains…
Check out the cool video Robert Emmons put together for the upcoming exhibition at Rutgers Camden’s Digital Studies Center, which will launch the new issue of Hyperrhiz. Both the journal and the exhibit — and now also the video — feature work done by members of the Duke S-1: Speculative Sensation Lab, in collaboration with Karin Denson. Very happy to see the data gnomes enjoying some sunshine up in New Jersey!
Originally posted on The New Krass:
Finished my latest piece, “Post-Cinema: 24fps@44100Hz”
(Acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 24″)
The painting will have an animated, augmented reality overlay when scanned with a smartphone or similar device. It will be featured on the cover of
Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film,
edited by Shane Denson and Julia Leyda (forthcoming soon!)
Today, Oct. 2, 2015, the Franklin Humanities Institute, the Wired! Lab, the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, and HASTAC@Duke will be presenting “Conversations in the Digital Humanities,” the inaugural event of the new Digital Humanities Initiative at Duke University. More information about the event, in which I will be participating alongside colleagues from the S-1: Speculative Sensation Lab, can be found on the FHI website.
Also, all of the 10-minute “lightning talks” will be live-streamed. The first block of sessions, from 2:15-3:45pm EST, will be streamed here, and the second block, from 4:00-5:40pm, will be viewable here. (Apparently, the videos will be archived and available after the fact as well.)
Here is the complete schedule:
2:00 – 2:15
Welcome and Introduction to Digital Humanities Initiative
2:15 – 3:45
Session 1 (10 minutes per talk)
- Project Vox (Andrew Janiak, and Liz Milewicz)
- NC Jukebox (Trudi Abel, Victoria Szabo)
- Visualizing Cultures: The Shiseido Project (Gennifer Weisenfeld)
- Going Global in Mughal India (Sumathi Ramaswamy)
- Israel’s Occupation in the Digital Age (Rebecca Stein)
- Digital Athens: Archaeology meets ArcGIS (Tim Shea, Sheila Dillon)
- Early Medieval Networks (J. Clare Woods)
3:45 – 4:00
4:00 – 5:40
Session 2 (10 minutes per talk)
- Painting the Apostles – A Case Study in “The Lives of Things” (Mark Olson, Mariano Tepper, and Caroline Bruzelius)
- Digital Archaeology: From the Field to Virtual Reality (Maurizio Forte)
- The Memory Project (Luo Zhou)
- Veoveo, children at play (Raquel Salvatella de Prada)
- “Things to Think With”: Weird DH, Data, and Experimental Media Theory (S-1 Lab)
- s_traits, Generative Authorship and the Emergence Lab (Bill Seaman and John Supko)
- Found Objects and Fireflies (Scott Lindroth)
- Project Provoke (Mary Caton Lingold and others)
5:40 – 6:00