Film & TV Reading Group (Winter 2012/13)

(Click on the image for a larger view)

As indicated on the flyer above, the Film & TV Reading Group will have its first meeting of the semester on Wednesday, November 14 (4:00 pm in room 613, Conti-Hochaus), where we will discuss Walter Benjamin’s famous “Artwork” essay. The topics for the following meetings have not been determined yet, so if there is anything you would like to discuss, please let me know. Tentatively, the following dates have also been reserved: December 5 and January 16 (also 4:00 – 6:00 pm in room 613). New participants are always welcome!

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M: Movies, Machines, Modernity. A Film Series

This semester the Initiative for Interdisciplinary Media Research at the Leibniz Universität Hannover will again be organizing a series of film screenings. We have decided to show public domain versions of the films so that we can make the screenings free and open to all. (Feel free also to bring along snacks and refreshments.)

The topic this semester is “M: Movies, Machines, Modernity”:

From the beginning, movies have presented themselves as the preeminent machines of modernity. On the one hand, they have served as a medium for imagining and envisioning modern landscapes and machinic cities. On the other hand, the movies were involved directly in the making of said modernity. The image of a machine is often a movie’s reflexive image of itself, or of that which it imagines itself to be…

Screenings will take place in the rooms of the English Department / American Studies (room 615, Conti-Hochhaus — all screenings begin at 6:00 pm). The schedule, put together this time by Felix Brinker, Ilka Brasch, and Shane Denson, includes the following four films:

November 8, 2012: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

November 29, 2012: Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

December 13, 2012: M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (Fritz Lang, 1931)

January 17, 2013: Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)

[UPDATE: See here for a brief video introduction to the topic of our series.]

Animation and the Delimitation of Cinema

What is cinema? This question has been posed innumerable times, and innumerable answers have been offered in response — some of them good, some less satisfying, but most of them in some way biased, partial, and in any case less than comprehensive. If I wager an answer of my own, it will surely suffer from the same incompleteness — and how could it be otherwise, unless the cinema had ceased evolving, been frozen in time, or superseded and relegated to the junk pile of “dead” media? This is hardly the case, I think, even if the material infrastructure of cinema has been radically transformed in its transition to digital production and playback technologies.

Nevertheless, attendant changes in the cinema, as part of the larger media environment in which we live and breathe, have been momentous enough to warrant discussion of “post-cinematic affect” (in Steven Shaviro‘s term) as the emergent episteme or “structure of feeling” informing life today. And the film historians of the past several decades (chief among them Tom Gunning and Miriam Hansen) have demonstrated with sufficient clarity that early cinema, far from being a “primitive” version of “classical” cinema, was indeed a different beast altogether. Together, these perspectives suggest that cinema — classical (and post-classical) cinema: cinema proper as the dominant medium of the twentieth century — can be approached as a (relatively) bounded object, not neatly encapsulated but nevertheless defined by some fuzzy borders near the beginning and the end of “its” century.

In an attempt to understand this object better, we might consider that a wide variety of attempts to define cinema suffer from a common shortcoming: they marginalize or otherwise fail to account for “animation.” But perhaps there is something essential about this marginalization, and maybe we could say — knowing full well that any such categorical pronouncement is surely guilty of a similar selectiveness — that animation provides the frame within which cinema in its dominant form has been defined. In order to serve as such a frame, it would therefore not be by accident but indeed as an enabling condition of “cinema” that animation should be pushed thus to the margins. (In this context it is perhaps important, though, to recall Derrida’s meditations on the frame qua parergon…).

What would it mean, though, and what reason is there to say that cinema is “framed” by animation as a border condition? The idea, in short, is that “cinema” (a normative construct historically instantiated in both discursive and material forms) is bookended, delimited historically and conceptually by an initial and an ultimate indistinction of animation and live-action film — such that cinema is defined not as live-action film, narrowly and in exclusion of animation, but on the grounds of the distinction between, or via the more basic distinguishability of, animation and live-action film. For it is precisely (though not solely) this distinction that is at stake in the transition from early to classical and again from cinematic to post-cinematic forms or regimes.

We must recall that it remained common, until well into the 1910s, to refer to film generally as “animated film” — in distinction to static photographs, which had become associated in the nineteenth century with death (an association that was not purely philosophical but practically instantiated in the Victorian-era memento mori). The movies brought these images back to life — animated them: an idea that motivated corporate names such as Biograph and Vitagraph (while the connection might seem even more palpable to us today in a hand-cranked flip-book machine like the Mutoscope). And it was the camera/projector apparatus itself — the main “attraction” of early cinema — that was the life-giving force: “animation” was thus an apparatic spectacle, something that inhered in the very machinery of the movies, not in a certain type of film (see also Paul Ward’s instructive article, “Defining ‘Animation'”).

This is not to say, of course, that early audiences were so bedazzled by moving pictures that they couldn’t tell the difference between live-action sequences and “animation” in its narrower (and later) sense. Rather, the point is merely that this distinction was relatively unimportant in the “cinema of attractions” — where “enchanted drawings,” trick effects, and stop-motion spectacles were widespread. The meaningfulness of the distinction, which emerges in the transition to classical film, depends on the marginalization of animation, which is no longer seen as the essence of film but as an exceptional kind of it. The trick effect becomes a “special effect.” More generally, “life” is no longer given by the apparatus but is merely recorded, witnessed by it in the case of live-action filmmaking, which it now makes sense to distinguish from animation; life, in other words, is located in front of the camera, as a pro-filmic property of actors that filmmakers can at best harness and pass on to their diegetic characters. The once central operation of film — animation — henceforth occupies a subordinate position as the apparatus of classical cinema undergoes its disenchantment.

Again, though, it is less this subordination than the sheer separability of animation that I think might be seen as a defining factor, a framing condition, of cinema in its dominant or proper form as the central medium of the twentieth century. And one of the key developments marking our transition to a post-cinematic era is precisely a reversal of this process: most obviously, CGI and digital compositing render the distinction between apparatically animated and pro-filmically animate images again indeterminate. (But surely the anima at stake is not just a narrowly technical agency, but also the life we call our own, the parameters of which are radically revised by global communications technologies, through microtemporal encounters with the digital, and in the imbrication of our affective lives with the algorithms of global finance). Such indeterminacy, the indistinction of animation, therefore constitutes the initial and the ultimate state, while the cinema is defined in/as the space between.

Seen from this (undoubtedly biased, partial, and perhaps even perverse) perspective, Winsor McCay — whose comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland premiered 107 years ago today, on October 15, 1905, in the pages of The New York Herald — was not only a pioneer of animation (as it is more conventional to claim on the basis of his filmic work with Nemo and the later Gertie the Dinosaur), but in fact a pioneer of cinema proper, which he helped to define by wresting it from animation, from an indistinction of life — from an indistinction into which we plunge again today…

Crazy Cameras, Discorrelated Images, and the Post-Perceptual Mediation of Post-Cinematic Affect

[UPDATE March 7, 2013: Full text of the talk now posted here.]

Following our recent roundtable discussion in La Furia Umana (alternative link here), Therese Grisham, Julia Leyda, Steven Shaviro, and I have submitted a panel proposal on the topic of post-cinematic affect for next year’s conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. If the proposal is accepted, I hope to develop in a more systematic way some of the thoughts I put forward in the roundtable discussion, particularly with regard to the role of the “irrational” camera. Here is the proposal I submitted for my contribution to the panel:

Crazy Cameras, Discorrelated Images, and the Post-Perceptual Mediation of Post-Cinematic Affect

Shane Denson

Post-millennial films are full of strangely irrational cameras – physical and virtual imaging apparatuses that seem not to know their place with respect to diegetic and nondiegetic realities, and that therefore fail to situate viewers in a coherently designated spectating-position. While analyses ranging from David Bordwell’s diagnosis of “intensified continuity” to Matthias Stork’s recent condemnation of “chaos cinema” have tended to emphasize matters of editing and formal construction as the site of a break with classical film style, it is equally important to focus on the camera as a site of material, phenomenological relation between viewers and contemporary images. Thus, I aim to update Vivian Sobchack’s film-theoretical application of Don Ihde’s groundbreaking phenomenology of mediating apparatuses to reflect the recent shift to what Steven Shaviro has identified as a regime of “post-cinematic affect.” By setting a phenomenological focus on contemporary cameras in relation both to Shaviro’s work and to Mark B. N. Hansen’s recent work on “21st century media,” I will show that many of the images in today’s films are effectively “discorrelated” from the embodied interests, perspectives, and phenomenological capacities of human agents – pointing to the rise of a fundamentally post-perceptual media regime, in which “contents” serve algorithmic functions in a broader financialization of human activities and relations.

Drawing on films such as District 9, Melancholia, WALL-E, or Transformers, the presentation sets out from a phenomenological analysis of contemporary cameras’ “irrationality.” For example, virtual cameras paradoxically conjure “realism” effects not by disappearing to produce the illusion of perceptual immediacy, but by emulating the physical presence of nondiegetic cameras in the scenes of their simulated “filming.” At the same time, real (non-virtual) cameras are today inspired by ubiquitous, aesthetically disinterested cameras that – in smartphones, surveillance cams, satellite imagery, automated vision systems, etc. – increasingly populate and transform our lifeworlds; accordingly, they fail to stand apart from their objects and to distinguish clearly between diegetic/nondiegetic, fictional/factual, or real/virtual realms. Contemporary cameras, in short, are deeply enmeshed in an expanded, indiscriminately articulated plenum of images that exceed capture in the form of photographic or perceptual “objects.” These cameras, and the films that utilize them, as I shall argue in a second step, mediate a nonhuman ontology of computational image production, processing, and circulation – leading to a thoroughgoing discorrelation of contemporary images from human perceptibility. In conclusion, I will relate my findings to recent theorizations of media’s broader shift toward an expanded (no longer visual or even perceptual) field of material affect.

Bibliography:

Bordwell, David. “Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film.” Film Quarterly 55.3 (2002): 16-28.

Hansen, Mark B. N. Feed-Forward: The Future of 21st Century Media. Unpublished manuscript, forthcoming 2013/2014.

Ihde, Don. Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990.

Shaviro, Steven. Post-Cinematic Affect. Winchester: Zer0 Books, 2010.

Sobchack, Vivian. The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

(PS: The crazy mobile camera collection pictured above, the “cameravan,” belongs to one Harrod Blank, whose website is here. The image itself was taken from a website (here) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.)

Required Reading: Graeber on Nolan’s Batman

More required reading for anyone interested in popular culture, film, comics, media generally, Occupy, politics generally, the financial crisis, global capital, or life generally: David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist and author of Debt: The First 5000 Years, has a thought-provoking piece in The New Inquiry on superhero comics and their recent film incarnations (with special reference to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films). The piece starts provocatively enough:

Let me clarify one thing from the start: Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight Rises really is a piece of anti-Occupy propaganda.

From there, Graeber goes on to explore (perhaps not altogether unproblematically, but importantly) the politics of superhero comics from the mid twentieth century to the age of digital filmmaking and media convergence.

Dark Knight Rises offers an opportunity to ask some potentially enlightening questions about contemporary culture. What are superhero movies really all about? What could explain the sudden explosion of such movies—one so dramatic that it sometimes seems that comic book-based movies are replacing sci-fi as the main form of Hollywood special effects blockbuster, almost as rapidly as the cop movie replaced the Western as the dominant action genre in the ‘70s?

Why, in the process, have familiar superheroes suddenly been given complex interiority: family backgrounds, ambivalence, moral crises and self-doubt? And why does the very fact of their receiving a soul seem to force them to also choose some kind of explicit political orientation?  One could argue that this happened first not with a comic-book character, but with James Bond. Casino Royale gave Bond psychological depth for the first time. By the very next movie he was saving indigenous communities in Bolivia from evil transnational water privatizers.  Spiderman, too, broke left in his latest cinematic incarnation, just as Batman broke right.

This is an important piece, framed by consideration of Nolan’s latest Batman film, but really about the framing function of constituent power and the popular means for channeling, negotiating, and ultimately re-imagining it.

Ludic Serialities and the “Parergodicity” of Game Studies as Media Studies — #Flow12

Here’s my position paper for the “Game Studies as Media Studies” panel at the FLOW Conference 2012 in Austin, Texas (November 1-3).

Ludic Serialities and the “Parergodicity” of Game Studies as Media Studies

Shane Denson, Leibniz Universität Hannover

The topic of this panel, “Game Studies as Media Studies,” challenges us to stipulate relations (however tentatively) between two fields of study that are themselves in many ways intersectional, cross-disciplinary, and thus to a certain extent undefined. Indeed, by broaching this topic we are returned to the (self-proclaimed) inaugural moment of game studies: to the debates raging as Espen Aarseth famously announced, in 2001’s premiere issue of the online journal Game Studies, “Year One” of computer game studies. In his attempt to stake out the terrain for “a new discipline” and protect it from “colonising efforts” from film and literary studies, Aarseth declared games’ independence from “old mass media, such as theatre, movies, TV shows and novels.” Already eleven years ago, then, Aarseth rejected the idea of game studies as media studies, writing: “Some would argue that the obvious place for game studies is in a media department, but given the strong focus there on mass media and the visual aesthetics, the fundamentally unique aspects of the games could easily be lost.”

The background, of course, was the so-called narratology-versus-ludology debate. And though that debate has since subsided (to the point, even, that some question whether it ever took place at all; cf. Frasca 2003), many of the central points of contention inevitably arise again when we undertake to reassess the relations between game studies and media studies. The crux, of course, is the ludological idea that the defining feature of games as a medium, and hence the core concern of game studies, is the interactive or, in Aarseth’s (1997) term, “ergodic” situation of gameplay – where ergodics combines the Greek ergon (work) and hodos (path), thus positing nontrivial labor as the aesthetic mode of players’ engagement with games. From a ludological perspective, narrative then appears as marginal, subordinate, or at best supplementary or parallel to gameplay – hence para- or “parergodic,” as I propose calling it. And not just narrative, but many of the aspects that might interest media scholars occupy this marginal or framing field of parergodics: from visual forms on screen, for example, to the social and cultural formations they give rise to in the wider world, outside the games themselves.

But parergodicity, a term which combines Aarseth’s “ergodics” with Derrida’s (1987) “parergon,” is not clearly distinguishable from the core of ergodics; on the contrary, the parergodic enacts a logic of supplementarity, a multistable oscillation such as Derrida ascribes to the picture frame: standing outside the work and serving as its background, the frame can also shift and become part of the figure when seen against the background of the wall. Parergodicity, I propose, defines a broad space for media studies research on games, allowing us more generally to rethink the relations between media studies and game studies so as to avoid both extremes of incommensurability and of colonization: “game studies as media studies,” conceived as a field of parergodic inquiry, aims at once to acknowledge the medial specificity of games, their resistance to paradigms established by studying dominant media like film and TV, without thereby ignoring the many empirical and conceptual points of contact that exist.

A key field of parergodic phenomena that demonstrates this potential is the widespread but undertheorized seriality that characterizes games at virtually every level of their material, cultural, and intermedial expression. While the serialization practices that generate ever new iterations of Mario, Zelda, or Lara Croft might seem to be clearly extraneous to the ergodic activity of gameplay, this is far from obvious. In the context of a joint project entitled “Digital Seriality: The Serial Aesthetics and Practice of Digital Games,” Andreas Jahn-Sudmann and I have identified three levels across which seriality can be seen to resonate. Most basically, seriality informs gameplay directly through formal-algorithmic structures of repetition/variation and the intra-ludic seriality of progressive game “levels” (which often repeat, and vary, the basic representational but also actional structures established in earlier levels, thus establishing both episodic closure and continuation). Sequels, remakes, and other explicit serialization practices constitute inter-ludic serialities that are operative between games, but not without consequence or relation to gameplay proper and its infrastructure (the modularity of game engines promotes inter-ludic serialization, for example, essentially repeating the serial patterning of intra-game levels). Moreover, fan practices and transmedial phenomena beyond the games themselves instantiate extra- or para-ludic serialities, which tie gameplay into larger networks of media consumption and exchange. As parergodic phenomena, ludic serialities therefore cut across the divisions that were taken to separate narratological and ludological positions. Finally, then, these serial structures offer both a broad basis for cross-media comparisons (from dime novels, film serials, TV series, etc.), as well as the means for identifying salient differences of digital interactivity, thus articulating a field of parergodics as the site of overlap, complementarity, and mutual advantage for game studies and media studies.

Works cited:

Aarseth, Espen J. 1997. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.

Aarseth, Espen J. 2001. “Computer Game Studies, Year One.” Game Studies 1.1 (July 2001): <http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/editorial.html&gt;.

Derrida, Jacques. 1987. The Truth in Painting. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: U of Chicago P.

Frasca, Gonzalo. 2003. “Ludologists love stories, too: Notes from a debate that never took place.” Level Up Conference Proceedings. Utrecht: University of Utrecht. 92-99. <http://www.digra.org/dl/db/05163.01125&gt;.