Nonhuman Turn: Curricular Guide

The conference organizers for the upcoming “Nonhuman Turn” conference in Milwaukee (where I’ll be giving a talk called “Object-Oriented Gaga”) have posted a “Curricular Guide,” which includes all the abstracts for the conference. As with the preliminary schedule before, I am embedding it here for convenience.

Dylan Trigg, Digital Media, and Phenomenology

Over at Figure/Ground Communication, there is a new interview up with Dylan Trigg (whose blog Side Effects you’ll find linked in the sidebar here). The whole interview is well worth your time, but especially interesting (and relevant to the focus of this blog) is the following question and answer:

Is phenomenology still relevant in this age of information and digital interactive media?

Phenomenology is especially relevant in an age of information and digital media. Despite the current post-humanist “turn” in the humanities, we remain for better or worse bodily subjects. This does not mean that we cannot think beyond the body or that the body is unchallenged in phenomenology. Phenomenology does not set a limit on our field of experience, nor is it incompatible with the age of information, less even speculative thinking about non-bodily entities and worlds. Instead, phenomenology reminds us of what we already know, though perhaps unconsciously: that our philosophical voyages begin with and are shaped by our bodily subjectivity.

It’s important to note here that phenomenology’s treatment of the body is varied and complex. It can refer to the physical materiality of the body, to the lived experience of the body, or to enigmatic way in which the body is both personal and anonymous simultaneously. In each case, the body provides the basis for how digital media, information, and post-humanity are experienced in the first place. Phenomenology’s heightened relevance, I’d say, is grounded in the sense that these contemporary artefacts of human life tend to take for granted our bodily constitution.

But phenomenology’s relevance goes beyond its privileging of the body. It has become quite fashionable to critique phenomenology as providing a solely human-centric access to the world.  This, I think, is wrong. One of the reasons why I’m passionately committed to phenomenology is because it can reveal to us the fundamentally weird and strange facets of the world that we ordinarily take to be clothed in a familiar and human light. Phenomenology’s gesture of returning to things, of attending to things in their brute facticity, is an extremely powerful move. Merleau-Ponty will speak of a “hostile and alien…resolutely silent Other” lurking within with the non-human appearance of things. For me, the lure of this non-human Other is a motivational force in my own work. It reminds us that no matter how much we affiliate ourselves with the familiar human world, in the act of returning to the things themselves, those same things stand ready to alienate us.

(The image at the top of this post, by the way — and lest there be any confusion about the matter — is not a picture of Dylan Trigg but of body-augmentor extraordinaire, performance artist Stelarc.)

Batman Live?

Several weeks ago, my family and I were able to catch a performance of the touring stadium show Batman Live (English site here, German here) in Hamburg. All in all, it was lots of fun. And it also happens to tie in with my current research on plurimedial serial figures. I had planned, therefore, to write a sort of review of the show, but as I can’t foresee finding the time to do so anytime soon, here are a few scattered thoughts.

As the title Batman Live indicates, the show is all about “liveness,” but the cultivation of the latter, which might be said to constitute the show’s main conceit, involves the performance in all sorts of paradoxes. One might, of course, say (with reference to Derrida, perhaps) that all performance, insofar as it involves the iteration of a script, renders “liveness” problematic, as the present is bound up in the pastness of the patterns and discourses that it repeats. But the paradoxes of Batman Live are much more concrete than all that…

By what means does Batman Live contrive to make Batman live? Naturally, by employing a live actor to embody the figure on a physical stage. “Live” is here contrasted with “recorded,” and it would seem that film, which also employs live actors (at least sometimes) but preserves their actions for later playback, is the particular medium of reference here. (Incidentally, film serves a double role here, as the show undoubtedly seeks to profit from the popularity of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, while defining itself against them with the implicit claim that “more live” = “more real” or more spectacular.) But, at least, in the German-language version I saw, this claim to liveness is undermined with the very first words uttered on stage, as the actors quite clearly lip sync a pre-recorded soundtrack.

Furthermore, the stage/screen dichotomy as a basis for the claim to liveness is unsettled by the presence of a gigantic digital display behind the stage. We’re used to this, of course, from big-budget musicals and, increasingly, even smaller-budget theater productions, but the backdrop in this case is used to make constant reference to other media (especially to comics and video games), the pre-existence of which must be seen to complicate the purported “liveness” of the performance.

For example, when Batman and Robin race away in the Batmobile, exiting the stage through one of the many discreet passageways that open up when necessary to allow traffic onto or off of the stage, their high-speed journey to Arkham Asylum is continued onscreen, framed quite obviously in the visual forms typical of digital racing games. (The layout of Arkham Island and the interior of the asylum, as depicted on the screen, in fact seemed to be pulled directly from the console game Batman: Arkham Asylum; an uncanny sense of recognition, an identification of the digital backdrop with my own TV screen hooked up to a PS3, transported me momentarily out of the arena and into my own living room.) The backdrop is also used for the purpose of narrative ellipsis, as a means of summarizing the events that occur between on-stage scenes; significantly, this takes place in the idiom of graphic narrative: we see digitally animated comic book pages flipping, the virtual camera zooming from panel to panel, revealing what happens “in the meantime.” Indeed, one might claim that the “meanwhile” is the temporal register that superhero comics in particular have perfected more than any other medium; such direct recourse to it, though, radically unsettles the here and now of the “live.”

On the other hand, though, we might say that these intermedial references are not so much at odds with, but in fact an integral part of the performance’s cultivation of “liveness,” which consists not only in the present-ness of the actors and their actions in a physical space shared by us, but precisely in the act of “bringing to life” the places and events depicted in film, video games, and comics — effectively imbuing these media with life by expanding them onto the stage, where Batman, Robin, the Joker, and others relate to the (intermedially determined) screen as part of their (diegetic) world.

Furthermore, this permeability of the screen, which alternates between embodying an expansion of diegetic space and an extra-diegetic, specifically narrative function (with concrete references to the narrative/representational techniques of other media) is caught up in paradoxes much like those informing the deployment of 3D techniques and technologies: they, too, oscillate between a) claims of establishing an intensified immersive experience that would bring represented characters and events to life for us in an unprecedented manner, and b) an emphasis on the unprecedented nature of the whole affair, a celebration of the technological infrastructure that enables such spectacles, and hence a foregrounding of the event itself in a manner that is radically at odds with the notion of “immersion.”

Indeed, the discourse of “immersive experience” is referenced in the video clip embedded here, where the “physicality of the stage” plus the awe-inspiring technology are foregrounded, but purportedly “wrapped up” in an immersive “package.” I am inclined to believe that this kind of equation never adds up — and that it’s never in fact meant to: from the “sensational melodrama” of nineteenth century stages and early-twentieth century screens (as explored by Ben Singer) to 3D techniques and “immersive” video games today, the attraction of all such spectacles consists in the maintenance of tensions between realism and a feeling of awe at the sight or spectacle of realism (itself no longer beholden to the impression of realistic-ness), for example, or between immersion and amazement at the power of a medium to involve us (recognition of which takes place outside the space of immersion). Batman Live is above all a spectacle of this sort, and the paradox of its “liveness” is — for those who take pleasure in such paradox, at least — not so much a shortcoming as a productive element of the attraction, which itself is inextricably bound up with the fragmented dispersal and plurimedial lack of coherence that characterizes Batman qua serial figure.

Well, in any case, it was all good fun…

Meanwhile, in Hannover…

An interview with me on the subject of memes, conducted by Manuel Behrens, appears in today’s Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung as part of a full-page spread on Boromir, Philosoraptor, Admiral Ackbar, and Rage Comics. True story! Check it out here: Was sind eigentlich Memes? (The interview, “Jeder kann mitmachen,” is at the bottom of the page.)

Kara: Digitally Rendered Frankenstein

Frankenstein films have always been as much about the technological animation of a monster as they are about the medium’s own ability to animate still images. In all of its renderings, Frankenstein also carries traces of the gendered struggles encoded by its first creator, the novel’s author Mary Shelley, who describes the creation of the famous monster — the visual centerpiece of every Frankenstein film — in far less detail than she devotes to the assembly and violent last-minute destruction of its would-be female companion. Films such as James Whale’s classic Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Terence Fisher’s Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), or Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein  (1994) consummate this forbidden act of female creation — i.e. the creation of and not by a woman. They oscillate then between their represented storyworlds and a sort of “frenzy of the visible” (as Linda Williams puts it in her classic study of pornography), consisting in these cases of both a filmic objectification of the woman and a foregrounding of the extradiegetic, medial means of her animation.

Quantic Dream (the French game studio most famous for Heavy Rain) follows in this tradition with their recent demo video “Kara,” shown at the Game Developer’s Conference 2012 in San Francisco (March 5-9) and embedded here. The artificial woman’s body is the vehicle by which the technology itself of animation — the realtime rendering of audiovisual content on a PlayStation 3 — can be made the object of attention. The shifting figure/ground relations between diegetic and non-diegetic levels are made concrete in their correlations with the game of peek-a-boo played with the female android’s body: we see right through her, into the deepest recesses of her artificial anatomy, but a hint of clothing prevents any indecent sights once the envelope of her skin is complete.

The — unseen — engineer marvels, “My God!,” as he reflects on the implications of Kara’s unexpected development of sentience, and on the fact that, despite his better judgment, he refrains from dismantling her and allows her to live. Standing proxy for the spectator in front of the screen, the engineer’s exclamation is also centrally about directing our attention towards the visual surface of the screen — both towards the erotic attraction of Kara’s (supposedly) breathtakingly beautiful body, and towards the assemblage of machinery and code that is capable of bringing it to life.

According to Quantic Dream, the program code/video demonstrates the emotional depth that video games are capable of generating. Clearly, though, it is designed above all to demonstrate technological sophistication — and recalling that the spectacle is rendered in real time on a PS3, it is indeed quite impressive. But if emotional maturity and depth were really at stake here, would it be necessary to instrumentalize the female body in this way? Finally, though, we see here a further demonstration of the continued persistence of the Frankensteinian model — with all its problematic intertwinings of biological, technological, sexual, and media-oriented questions and themes — in shaping our fantasies and imaginations, both for better and for worse, with regard to our visions of the (near) future and the possibilities it holds for novel anthropotechnical relations: whether in the field of android-assisted living or in the space of our living rooms, where in the name of “playing games” we have rapidly grown accustomed to interacting with nonhuman agencies.