Post-Cinematic Artifacts at Media Fields Conference

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Next week, on April 7, 2017, I’ll be giving a talk titled “Post-Cinematic Artifacts: Digital Glitch and the Ruins of Perception” at the 2017 Media Fields conference, “RUINS,” at UC Santa Barbara.

Building on recent work I’ve been doing, I’ll be arguing “that new forms of sensibility and collectivity may become thinkable in the spaces opened up by post-cinematic media – that new ways of being and relating to the world may arise from the ruins of perception.”

The full conference program is posted on the conference website.

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Post-Cinematic Affect, Collectivity, and Environmental Agency #scms16

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Full text of the talk I presented at the SCMS conference today:

Post-Cinematic Affect, Collectivity, and Environmental Agency

Shane Denson (Duke University)

The computational and broadly post-cinematic media at the heart of contemporary moving images are involved in a massive transformation of human agents’ phenomenological relations to the world. Digital imagery has long been held accountable for effacing the indexicality of cinema’s photographic base, while post-cinematic images more generally might be thought in terms of what I call their “discorrelation” from viewing subjects. However, there is a flip-side to these negative determinations that I want to highlight: if the microtemporal and subperceptual operations of post-cinematic media bypass and hence displace subjective perception, they also serve to expand the material domain and efficacy of sub- and supra-personal affect. What this amounts to, ultimately, is a radical empowerment of the nonhuman environment, the agency of which becomes tangible in sites and forms ranging from the Fitbit to “big data” and the computational modeling of climate change.

In this presentation, which is divided into three sections, I want to take this thought a step further. I want to show, ultimately, that new forms of collectivity may become thinkable and, hopefully, actionable in the spaces opened up by post-cinematic media.

Part 1: Irrational Cameras. Let me start by summarizing an argument I have made elsewhere about the transformation of the camera and its images in a post-cinematic media regime. Post-cinematic cameras – by which I mean a range of imaging apparatuses, both physical and virtual – seem not to know their place with respect to the separation of diegetic and nondiegetic planes of reality; these cameras therefore fail to situate viewers in a consistently and coherently designated spectating-position.

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Take the example of the digitally simulated lens flare, which a phenomenological analysis reveals to be riddled with perceptual paradoxes. On the one hand, the CGI lens flare encourages what philosopher of technology Don Ihde calls an “embodiment relation” to the virtual camera: by simulating the material interplay of a lens and a light source, the lens flare emphasizes the plastic reality of “pro-filmic” CGI objects; the virtual camera itself is to this extent grafted onto the subjective pole of the intentional relation, “embodied” in a sort of phenomenological symbiosis that channels perception towards the objects of our visual attention. On the other hand, however, the lens flare draws attention to itself and highlights the images’ artificiality by emulating (and foregrounding the emulation of) the material presence of a camera. To this extent, the camera is rendered quasi-objective, and it instantiates what Ihde calls a “hermeneutic relation”: we look at the camera rather than just through it, and we interpret it as a sign or token of “realisticness.”

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The paradox here, which consists in the realism-constituting and realism-problematizing undecidability of the virtual camera’s relation to the diegesis – where the “reality” of this realism is conceived as thoroughly mediated, the product of a simulated physical camera rather than defined as the hallmark of embodied perceptual immediacy – points to a more basic transformation of mediation itself in the post-cinematic era. That is, the undecidable place of the mediating apparatus, the camera’s apparently simultaneous occupation of both subjective and objective positions within the noetic relation that it enables between viewers and the film, is symptomatic of a more general destabilization of phenomenological subject- and object-positions in relation to the expanded affective realm of post-cinematic mediation. Computational, ergodic, and processual in nature, media in this mode operate on a level that is categorically beyond the purview of perception, perspective, or intentionality. Phenomenological analysis can therefore provide only a negative determination “from the outside”: it can help us to identify moments of dysfunction or disconnection, but it can offer no positive characterization of the “molecular” changes occasioning them. Thus, for example, CGI and digital cameras do not just sever the ties of indexicality that characterized analogue cinematography (an epistemological or phenomenological claim); they also render images themselves fundamentally processual, thus displacing the film-as-object-of-perception and uprooting the spectator-as-perceiving-subject – in effect, enveloping both in an epistemologically indeterminate but materially quite real and concrete field of affective relation. Mediation, I suggest, can no longer be situated neatly between the poles of subject and object, as it swells with processual affectivity to engulf both.

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Part 2: The dilation of affect. What I have been describing here is a decentering of human perception and an empowerment of the larger environment. In order to account for this transformation, it will be helpful here to invoke Mark Hansen’s notion of “atmospheric media,” a concept that Hansen develops to explain the experiential impact of computation, but which builds upon Maurizio Lazzarato’s theorization of an affective dimension of video technologies.

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According to Lazzarato, the video camera captures time itself, the splitting of time at every instant, hence opening the gap between perception and action where affect resides (in the metaphysics of Henri Bergson). Because it no longer merely traces objects mechanically and fixes them as discrete photographic entities, but instead generates its images directly out of the flux of sub-perceptual matter, which it processes on the fly in the space of a microtemporal duration, the video camera marks a revolutionary transformation in the technical organization of time. The mediating technology itself becomes an active locus of molecular change: a Bergsonian body qua center of indetermination, a gap of affectivity between passive receptivity and its passage into action. The camera imitates the process by which our own pre-personal bodies synthesize the passage from molecular to molar, replicating the very process by which signal patterns are selected from the flux and made to coalesce into determinate images that can be incorporated into an emergent subjectivity.

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This dilation of affect, which characterizes not only video but also computational processes like the rendering of digital images (which is always done on the fly), marks the basic condition of the post-cinematic camera, the positive underside of what presents itself externally as a discorrelating incommensurability with respect to molar perception. As Mark Hansen has argued, the microtemporal scale at which computational media operate enables them to modulate the temporal and affective flows of life and to affect us directly at the level of our pre-personal embodiment. In this respect, properly post-cinematic cameras, which include video and digital imaging devices of all sorts, have a direct line to our innermost processes of becoming-in-time, and they are therefore capable of informing the political life of the collective by flowing into the “general intellect” at the heart of immaterial or affective labor. Again, this is because the individual’s capacity to perceive is decentered, discorrelated from the perceptual object, and offloaded onto an environment of diffusely “atmospheric” media – including the many screens and cameras, but also the invisible networks and data streams, that surround us everywhere.

Part 3: Post-Cinematic Realism. Paradoxically, these arguments suggest that post-cinematic media – precisely those media widely credited with destroying the index and thus evacuating the political promise of realism – might in fact be credited with a newly intensified political relevance through their institution of a new, post-cinematic realism.

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Whereas Bazin privileged techniques like the long take and deep focus for their power to approximate our natural perception of time and space, Lazzarato and Hansen emphasize post-cinematic media’s ability to approximate the sub-perceptual processing of duration executed by our pre-personal bodies. The perceptual discorrelation of images gives way, in other words, to a more precise calibration of machinic and embodied temporalities; simultaneously, the perceptual richness of Bazin’s images becomes less important, while “poor images” (in Hito Steyerl’s term) communicate more directly the material and political realities of a post-cinematic environment.

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Consider the 2015 horror flick Unfriended, which is presented as the screen recording of one of the characters’ laptops. Reflecting what Francesco Casetti calls the “relocation” of cinema from the big screen to a variety of little ones, the movie’s sense of “realism” is especially heightened when you watch it on your own laptop. We witness everything on this single screen, through Skype conversations, Facebook chats, email, and web browsing. And it’s essential for the movie that it’s presented in “real-time.” This adds to the temporal urgency and speaks to the reality of our own online communications today, thereby establishing a sense of realism despite the fantastic/supernatural elements at play, and articulating this reality despite—or precisely through—the use of digital glitches. These might otherwise be taken to signal the interruption of realism by the intercession of digital processing that breaks the indexical continuity between image input and image output, but such glitches are a familiar reality of online communication (on platforms like Skype), and our involvement in the images is increased by their use; for example, we might wonder whether the glitches are diegetic, or whether they are produced on our own machine during playback, either due to the buffering processes of online streaming platforms, or because we downloaded a faulty torrent file from some dubious website. Realism here is constructed through an immediacy and direct exploration of the new media-technical conditions of life, to which we can all more or less relate. But in the process the glitches also expose the movie’s singular screen as, in fact, double: the site of playback, traditionally a passive “screening” surface, the screen is also revealed as a newly active site or space in which images are processed and generated before our very eyes. The glitches point up the perceptual paradoxes of post-cinematic cameras, as I’ve described them with respect to CGI lens flares, but they additionally implicate the post-cinematic screen, which becomes ontologically indistinguishable from the camera in its execution of the same material processes of microtemporal and subperceptual image generation.

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These glitches, and their relation to our contemporary media-technical realities, call attention to what Hito Steyerl has called the “poor images” that circulate in digital networks. Following Steyerl, these images provide an important context for thinking about the political realities of moving-image media today—and an important context for thinking about post-cinematic realism more generally. In Steyerl’s words: “The poor image is an illicit fifth-generation bastard of an original image. Its genealogy is dubious. Its file names are deliberately misspelled. It often defies patrimony, national culture, or indeed copyright. It is passed on as a lure, a decoy, an index, or as a reminder of its former visual self. It mocks the promises of digital technology. Not only is it often degraded to the point of being just a hurried blur, one even doubts whether it could be called an image at all. Only digital technology could produce such a dilapidated image in the first place.” These poor images are close in spirit to the “imperfect cinema” called for in the name of Third Cinema movements, in that they register social marginalization processes while also creating publics of their own. But they also outline the dark side of a “participatory culture,” whose democratic promise is compromised by the hierarchies of value that remain and by the exploitation of unpaid fan labor that is enlisted in the ongoing production-consumption circuits of networked images. Without extracting themselves from these conflicting political trajectories, according to Steyerl, poor images might nevertheless—or precisely for this reason—create what Dziga Vertov called “visual bonds” capable of subverting official and mainstream valuations by expressing what Steyerl terms a “link to the present.” In this way, degraded, glitched-out images might fulfill the political promise of realism precisely through their material connection to the post-indexical infrastructures of moving-image media. In Steyerl’s words: “The poor image is no longer about the real thing—the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities. It is about defiance and appropriation just as it is about conformism and exploitation. In short: it is about reality.”

Like Steyerl, Lazzarato also refers to Vertov and his idea of the “visual bond,” which is seen as a materialist alternative to the critique of ideology, the expression of a practice that addresses the ontology of media directly and prior to the level of content. Essentially, by resisting reduction to human perception, the images of Vertov’s kino-eye are discorrelated from molar experience but thereby opened to the molecular processes by which duration is processed both biologically and technologically, thus getting to the heart of the process by which subjectivities and social collectives are produced. If Bazin described a cinematic realism that draws for its political power on an approximation to perceptual experience, then Vertov marks the path towards a post-cinematic realism that takes aim at the process by which the subject of that perceptual experience takes shape in the first place. It does this, according to Lazzarato, by means of the pre-personal affect that is marshaled and modulated by the increasingly fine-grained “time-crystallizing machines” of cinema, video, and digital processors. Accordingly, the video art of Nam June Paik is seen as a Vertovian answer to television, not because it counters the ideological content of TV but because it probes the machinic time itself of the apparatus, freeing it from the exclusive control of state and corporate interests. The latter, according to Lazzarato, contribute to the production and regulation of political subjects through their control of technical standards (like the PAL and NTSC standards that regulate image frequency, color spectrum, and aspect ratio); because the power to modulate the speeds and images dictated by such standards is “withdrawn from social praxis” (78), our affective powers are impoverished, and we are left with what Lazzarato calls a “‘poor’ perception” (78). The ontology of time-crystallizing machines thus gives way to an ethics or politics of the standards, codes, or protocols upon which images or perceptual objects are formed and synchronized with emergent subjects and social collectives. And because they expose the materiality of digital file formats, video codecs, and compression algorithms, today’s poor images harbor a significant political promise, a potential for resistance that can be deployed creatively against the impoverishment and standardization of perception.

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It is debatable, finally, whether a movie like Unfriended actually succeeds in this respect. Certainly, at the level of its narrative, it apparently fails to articulate anything like a model of social-political resistance; if anything, its teenage drama of betrayal, suicide, and revenge, all mediated by the networks and interfaces of social media, and leading to the death of the entire group of “friends,” serves as a critique of contemporary socialization processes – an ideological critique that takes aim not only at online bullying, for example, but that exposes an infrastructure of communication and of intersubjective relation that has rendered the term “friend” itself highly unstable in the age of Facebook. But beyond this more overt political critique of today’s highly mediated forms of collectivity, the movie’s use of glitches serves to focus attention, and to channel affect, at a deeper level, where subjectivity itself is being produced and modulated in an environment of microtemporally operating machines and protocols. Glitches serve at times like micro-cliffhangers, causing us to wait for the image to buffer or clear up so that we can see what’s going on. In this respect, the movie simulates the familiar and yet always disconcerting experience of network lag, e.g. in our own Skype conversations, when the temporal continuity of protentional-retentional experience is interrupted, giving rise to a feeling like that of a cartoon character who has gone over the edge of a cliff, but remains suspended, floating momentarily between the certainty of solid ground and a realization of the situation’s gravity. These micro-cliffhangers focus our attention on the material infrastructure of experience itself, causing us to see pixels as the components but also as material obstacles to vision, blocky screen objects that, despite ourselves, we try to look around to see what’s on the other side. And in this space of the screen, seemingly unitary but, as we have seen, doubled and in fact multiplied even further by the machinic and social networks in which it participates (both diegetically and materially), our vision is dispersed, divided. We are forced to scan the screen for relevant information; our gaze is not sutured, not directed, and to this extent we are hailed not as an integral subject, but as a bundle of affects engaged in a collective effort to perceive—an effort that is both enabled and hindered by the protocols and agencies of the media environment, out of which our subjectivities are wrought. Unfriended may or may not ultimately facilitate our efforts to take control of this experiential infrastructure, but perhaps it succeeds in gesturing towards the fact that this effort must be a collective one, aimed at constructing collectivity in the first place, and that it must be mounted around and in relation to the affective technologies of our post-cinematic environment.

Post-Cinema at SCMS 2016 #scms16

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At this year’s conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (March 30-April 3, 2016), I will be involved in two post-cinema related panels.

First, on Saturday, April 2, 2016 09:00AM-10:45AM (panel N9), I will be giving a talk as part of a panel on affect, collectivity, and contemporary cinema:

N9: “Affect, Collectivity, Contemporary Cinema.”

Chair: Claudia Breger (Indiana University)

Shane Denson (Duke University), “Post-Cinematic Affect, Collectivity, and Environmental Agency”

Anders Bergstrom (Wilfrid Laurier University), “On Dissipation: The Loss of the Movie Theatre as Affective Site in “Goodbye, Dragon Inn””

Jecheol Park (National University of Singapore), “A Counter-neoliberal Collective to Come: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing”

Claudia Breger (Indiana University), “The Epic Aesthetics of Ruptured Collectivity in Fatih Akın’s “The Cut” (2014)”

Then, on Sunday, April 3, 2016 11:00AM-12:45PM, I will be responding to panel T19 on “post-cinematic control”:

T19: “Post-Cinematic Control”

Chair: Lisa Akervall (Bauhaus-University Weimar)

Respondent: Shane Denson (Duke University)

Lisa Akervall (Bauhaus-University Weimar), “The Truth of Auto-Tune: Voice Modulations in Post-Cinematic Media-Ecologies”

Viviana Lipuma (North Carolina State University), “Semiocapitalism: the production of signs as the production of desire in the media”

Gregory Flaxman (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), “Left of Conspiracy”

You can view the complete conference program here (opens as a PDF).

And here, finally, is the abstract for my paper:

Post-Cinematic Affect, Collectivity, and Environmental Agency

Shane Denson (Duke University)

The computational and broadly post-cinematic media at the heart of contemporary moving images are involved in a massive transformation of human agents’ phenomenological relations to the world. Digital imagery has long been held accountable for effacing the indexicality of cinema’s photographic base, while post-cinematic images more generally might be thought in terms of their “discorrelation” from viewing subjects. There is, however, a flip-side to these negative determinations: if the microtemporal and subperceptual operations of post-cinematic media bypass and hence displace subjective perception, they also serve to expand the domain and the material efficacy of sub- or supra-personal affect. What this amounts to, ultimately, is a radical empowerment of the nonhuman environment, the agency of which becomes tangible in sites and forms ranging from the Fitbit to “big data” and the computational modeling of climate change.

Drawing on Steven Shaviro’s account of post-cinematic affect, and supplementing it with Mark B. N. Hansen’s recent work on the “feed-forward” mechanisms by which biofeedback and environmental sensors serve to expand worldly agency, this presentation argues that new forms of collectivity may become thinkable in the spaces opened up by post-cinematic media. In the reconfiguration of agency, that is, by which digital media bypass the individual and transfer its powers to perceive and to act onto the nonhuman environment, the “dividuality” that Deleuze saw as a correlate of the control society may open onto a more positive conception of collective power. Maurizio Lazzarato’s provocative Bergsonist-Marxist “video philosophy” will serve as a catalyst for conceptualizing this new collectivity and its relation to moving-image media, while the work of independent filmmaker Shane Carruth (Primer [2004], Upstream Color [2013]) will help to focus the interplay among post-cinematic affect, environmental agency, and the mediation of collectivity in the micro- and macrotemporal intervals of contemporary media.

Bibliography:

Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59 (1992): 3-7.

Denson, Shane. “Crazy Cameras, Discorrelated Images, and the Post-Perceptual Mediation of Post-Cinematic Affect.” Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film. Eds. Shane Denson and Julia Leyda. Sussex: REFRAME Books, forthcoming 2015.

Hansen, Mark B. N. Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2014.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. Videophilosophie: Zeitwahrnehmung im Postfordismus. Berlin: b_books, 2002.

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

Not Yet Titled: Alles in Ordnung

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This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, which is currently showing an exhibit called “Adjusted,” comprising a range of works by the American “Pictures Generation” artist Louise Lawler, alongside an all new permanent exhibition called “Not Yet Titled: Neu und für immer im Museum Ludwig” [Not Yet Titled: New and Forever in Museum Ludwig]. Apparently, the latter is less a permanent exhibition in the traditional sense, and more a semi-permanent configuration of museum space whose contents are scheduled to change; accordingly, it is not so much the artworks on display at any moment that constitute the object of the exhibition but rather the museum itself, its spaces and practices of exhibition, so that “Not Yet Titled” seems to defer closure in the interest of staging a quasi-permanent exhibition of flux. That’s a fairly self-reflexive undertaking, as are many of the works on display, so it’s especially refreshing to see that the museum manages to combine all this heady cross- and self-referencing with a material lightness, an architectural and visceral deferral of (en)closure that is all too often lacking in exhibitions of postmodern and semiotically complex works.

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One of the exhibition’s centerpieces, Barbara Kruger’s large-scale untitled installation from 1994/1995, which you see at the top of this post (but which you also have to hear in order to appreciate fully), is a case in point: the dense commentary on our media culture, its reflexive irony and intertextuality, are embedded in a space that is at once overloaded and threatening and yet therapeutically soothing as well. The ecstatic sounds of a crowd cheering at the absurd acceptance speech for some unnamed award, where the awardee thanks his God and plays with dictatorial slogans, brainwashing tactics, sexist stereotypes and racist claims of superiority — all of these we register cognitively and appraise their political significance, but the applause enervates us directly, dangerously, on this open stage that seems as if it were designed to highlight the problematic political phenomenology of contemporary spaces: While immersed in the installation, we are able to feel the rich ambivalence of its space, which invites us both to recognize the coded nature of experience while also experiencing something that feels like a space for reflection; but the most surprising aspect of the space can only be grasped later, in a snapshot like mine above: Kruger’s installation, which positively begs to be remediated in the form of a photograph (while flaunting the fact that it can never be captured or encompassed in one), immediately collapses into a flat background, against which the human figure inevitably seems to have been added in later with Photoshop. (I swear, the picture above has not been retouched!)

Not only in Kruger’s installation, but throughout the permanent and temporary exhibitions, it was space that, for me, constituted the true attraction. Lawler’s highly self-reflexive photographs of other artists’ artworks (de- and re-contextualized to highlight the significance of exhibition practices and spatial orders) vacillated between a challenging semiotic complexity and a pleasant, almost banal decorative quality within the large open spaces of the Ludwig. Particularly refreshing was the newly commissioned Tracings series, which carries Lawler’s self-reflexive and intertextual tendencies further but abstracts them, reduces, and contributes to a clear open space. In this series, Lawler’s photos of other people’s art are reproduced again, but now in the simplified form of black contour lines upon a white background, thus transforming the high-resolution photographs and rendering the works more iconic and approachable. These oversized coloring-book pictures, which we survey upon exiting the smaller exhibition rooms in the wide monochromatic space in which we access the stairs, refer, of course, to the images we saw downstairs, but they also seem happy enough to slip into the background and assume a more functional, properly architectural role that does not force any sort of dialogue or commentary. Likewise, Lawler’s new Stretch images, which take Andy Warhol’s famous Brillo boxes as their “subject,” blown up to gigantic proportions to occupy two complete walls with anamorphically stretched photos, emphasize the space of the museum — both as an institution and as a material environment.

All in all, the current showings at the Museum Ludwig offer lots of food for thought — for reflection on the politics, history, and institution of contemporary art, for theoretically guided musings on the relations of art to mass media and our changing media of reproduction, and for thought about our own place within these configurations. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re sure to be happy here. These exhibitions do more, though, as well, and something that many museums fail to do as they aim for more “interactive” forms of engagement (while misunderstanding “interactive” as “overstuffed and preemptively overladen with information”): namely, Lawler’s “Adjusted” and the (quasi-)permanent “Not Yet Titled” grasp the space of their own staging, clear it out for our experience, and remind us that we are bodies moving through space and time. Architectural space becomes affective space, and this affective space collides ambiguously with the content of the artworks displayed. The latter may make us know, on a cognitive and political level, that everything is not OK, but even just registering that in this wonderful space imparts a (not unproblematic) feeling, a not yet titled affect: “Alles in Ordnung” (irgendwie, vielleicht)…

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Counterpoint: Game of Thrones, Narrative, and Affect

The Internets are all abuzz still following the kickoff this past Sunday of the third season of HBO’s flagship series Game of Thrones. There was a great deal of online anticipation in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to the season premiere, fed in part by a set of trailers (above, as well as here and here, for example) that circulated on Youtube, in the twitterverse, and beyond. And following the actual airing of the show, records were allegedly set for the most illegal downloads of a television episode, while discussions, analyses, and reviews continue to proliferate across fan sites, blogs, and news media.

(As a preliminary note to those who are either weary of reading such pieces or who are avoiding them due to spoilers — fear not: this post is neither concerned directly with the latest episode, nor will I give away anything that could ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it.)

Instead, I wanted to take the opportunity to comment on an aspect of the series that I’ve been thinking about (and which I recently wrote about in the more general terms of serial complexity and affect theory as applied to contemporary television). Specifically, Game of Thrones derives much of its momentum, I think, from an interplay between a continuing, complex narrative (in Jason Mittell’s sense of “narrative complexity”) and relatively discontinuous, punctuating moments of affective appeal — a directly corporeal, often visceral, sort of appeal that constitutes momentary “lines of flight” from the story’s ongoing line of development. Like much of HBO’s serial fare, these moments of affect often concern violent and/or sexualized body images which, while not completely devoid of narrative relevance, also exhibit a sort of surplus value as images. In other words, they not only serve the representational functions of depicting significant events and contributing meaningfully to characterization, etc.; over and above that, they also assert a strong presentational and extra- or para-narrational facet, the function of which is to engage the viewer’s body more than his or her interpreting, cognizing brain. Such body images — for example, in narratively gratuitous sex scenes, images of painful injury, torture, or beheading — resonate with the viewer’s own bodily sensibilities, serving to titillate or to arouse a sense of physical vulnerability, anguish, panic, or disgust.

Seen from afar (so to speak), in the overall context of a television series like Game of Thrones, the interplay between narrative development and these moments of bodily affectivity results in what I have described as a “contrapuntal” relation between the two: narrative continuity is punctuated, interrupted by body images that exceed any dramatic motivation, thus constituting more or less insular, episodic forms in the midst of the serial stream; but these islands of affect are (at least potentially) themselves elements in a serial progression that exists in parallel to that of the narrative (and following a very different temporal logic). Repetition and variation of body spectacles can thus be just as important as narrative suspense as a means of ensuring viewer attachment over the course of long serial arcs.

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Of course, some series are more successful than others in their employment of such contrapuntal seriality, and there are certainly a wide variety of styles and modes of implementing the counterpoint. Some series are anything but discreet as they shift gears between narrative and body-based affective appeals (and in this regard, they resemble musicals or pornographic films as they move from one more or less self-enclosed “number” to the next). And certainly, some of this can be seen in Game of Thrones, but my overall impression of the series is that it works with a relatively tight integration of affective and corporeally self-reflexive appeals into the informationally complex storyworld and the unfolding tale of rival houses, subtle intrigue, and uncertain outcomes.

A particularly poignant example of contrapuntal integration is provided by episode 7 of season 1, “You Win or You Die,” where we see the following conversation between Jamie and Tywin Lannister:

Set in any other situation, this conversation — which neatly exemplifies the informational complexity of the series — would have a completely different impact. Sarah Hughes, writing in The Guardian‘s TV & Radio Blog, sees the “skinning and disembowelling [of] a deer” here as a “heavy-handed bit of symbolism given the deer is the sign of [rival] House Baratheon,” and I think she’s right to see the visual component of the scene enacting a layer of complexity beyond the content of the verbal. It’s not only a symbolic dimension, though, that is here overlaid upon the Lannisters’ discourse; in addition, I suggest, a dimension of visceral and dermic appeal spreads itself out as the very milieu within which the characters’ words sound out materially. The innards of the deer are more than just a sign: they are matter, and their material image transmits an affective force, establishing a material relation with our own viscera. The forceful separation of the animal’s skin from its muscles emphasizes, moreover, both the stubborn durability and the ultimate finitude of the organic body, arousing a diffuse affective awareness of the corporeal basis upon which our discursive subjectivities are erected. And all the while, royal politics are being discussed in detailed, lofty, and eloquent language. The scene conveys a sense of the unconscious drives that lend momentum to conscious pursuits and political “plots,” conveys a sense of the base and physical “will to power” animating social conflict. And it communicates this “message” by way of a tight contrapuntal integration of narrative information and bodily affect, thus self-reflexively exemplifying the series’ own larger strategy of instrumentalizing affect, infusing the complex (at times, overly complex) narrative with an appeal to animal nature, and in this way crafting a form of serial complexity that partakes equally of the discursive and affective.

Serial Bodies

Below you’ll find the full text of the talk I delivered today at the “It’s Not Television” conference in Frankfurt. Unfortunately, I had to leave the conference early, so I didn’t have time to discuss the talk in any detail following the brief Q & A. I’m hoping, then, that some of those people who expressed an interest in discussing my ideas and proposals further might take the opportunity to comment here. And, of course, even if you weren’t there today, comments on this early-stage work are very welcome!

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Serial Bodies: Corporeal Engagement in Long-Form Serial Television

Shane Denson

In this talk, I want to consider the possibility and the purpose of an “affective turn” in television studies. I’ll try to explain what such a “turn,” or refocusing of scholarly attention, might entail, and I’ll consider some of the grounds for making such a move.

First of all, the “affective turn” as I’m using the term describes developments going on in various disciplines, including philosophy and media and cultural theory, since about the 1990s. Following theorists such as Deleuze and Guattari, Steven Shaviro, and Brian Massumi, the “affect” in question here refers to a domain of pre-personal feelings, not subjective emotions but raw intensities that transpire below the threshold of consciousness, as functions and correlates of non-voluntary processes: for example, the not-quite-conscious sensations associated with visceral, proprioceptive, and endocrinological changes in one’s overall body-state. Thus, affects are diffuse material forces and sensations, whereas emotions are their more narrowly focused correlates; affects precede consciousness and envelop the mind, while emotions can be seen to involve the subjective “capture” of affect, the yoking of affect to consciousness, or the filtering and processing that takes place when pre-reflective affect becomes available to reflective conscious experience. Theory and criticism undertaken in the wake of an affective turn seek to uncover the material and cultural efficacy of affect prior to this filtering.

But why would television scholars want to make this turn towards a subterranean domain of pre-personal affect? Briefly, I want to propose that an affective turn would help to highlight the richly material parameters of the televisual experience, to focus attention on embodied interfaces and non-cognitive transfers, thus providing a counterpoint to the dominant celebration of cognitive effort in recent television studies. In other words, the context for an affect-oriented intervention is the tendency, widespread in popular and scholarly accounts alike of recent television, to intellectualize the medium, to focus on complex narrative structures in an effort to redeem TV from long-standing prejudices and stereotypes that cast the bulk of programming as culturally inferior trash produced for a passive, undiscriminating, and distracted mass audience. Foregrounding the emergence of a new televisual “quality,” many recent critical approaches have focused particularly on contemporary serial television’s demanding textual forms, which seek to engage viewers with complex puzzles and intricately orchestrated plot developments – thus breaking with the formulaic repetition characteristic of simple episodic programs and providing mental stimulation in exchange for viewers’ long-term investments of attention. As early as the 1980s, the advocacy group Viewers for Quality Television had defined “quality” in the following terms: “A quality series enlightens, enriches, challenges, involves and confronts. It dares to take risks, it’s honest and illuminating, it appeals to the intellect and touches the emotions. It requires concentration and attention, and it provokes thought.” In short, quality TV does what good literature is supposed to do, namely: to engage the viewer/reader and make him or her think. And popular criticism has continued to pursue this tack in the effort to make television respectable, e.g. by comparing newer series to the nineteenth century novel – The Wire, for example, has been called “a Balzac for our time”, thereby suggesting that this paradigmatically complex series distinguishes itself by a heady sort of appeal that rewards the sophisticated viewer. Steven Johnson has famously claimed that such complex television provides its viewers with what he calls a “cognitive workout.” And Jason Mittell, who has probably done more than any of these people to explore the mechanics of complexity, has noted the way complex series reward viewers who assume the role of “amateur narratologists.”

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Clearly, the critical reappraisal of the medium and its implied viewer is not without foundation, as it speaks to very real changes in television programming in the wake of industrial, technological, and cultural shifts. Over the past ten years or so, there has indeed been an unprecedented flowering of programs that would seem to encourage active and intellectually engaged viewing. At the same time, though, graphic scenes of sex and violence proliferate across contemporary television series, including shows widely valued for their sophisticated cognitive demands. In particular, bodies are now routinely put on display, violated, tortured, dissected, and ripped apart in ways unimaginable on TV screens just a decade ago. I want to be clear that I don’t think this in any way invalidates theories and analyses that foreground the cognitive appeals of narratively complex TV. But this explosion of body images – including images of bodies exploding – does, I think, challenge such approaches to reconcile intellectual and more broadly affective and body-based appeals. By advocating an affective turn, a turn towards a diffuse, inarticulate field of pre-personal affect, I am not urging a turn away from consciousness or a regressive turn back to the view of an unrefined, unintellectual viewer. Instead, I am asking for more thought about how cognitive and affective appeals coexist today, and specifically about how they might be seen to work in tandem to maintain the momentum of contemporary television’s serial trajectories.

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Seriality is the key word here: seriality is one of the things that’s illuminated particularly well by broadly cognitivist and narratological approaches, and it’s seriality, I think, that marks the real challenge for an affective turn in TV studies. Consider Brian Massumi’s definition of affect as “a suspension of action-reaction circuits and linear temporality in a sink of what might be called ‘passion,’ to distinguish it both from passivity and activity” (28). This conception, which Massumi associates with the thinking of Baruch Spinoza, accords also with Henri Bergson’s notion of affect as “that part or aspect of the inside of our bodies which mix with the image of external bodies” (Matter and Memory 60). And the Bergsonian image of the body as a “center of indetermination,” where affect is an intensity experienced in a state of “suspension,” outside of linear time and the empirical determinateness of forward-oriented action, corresponds to a major emphasis in film theory conducted in the wake of the affective turn – namely, a focus on privileged but fleeting moments, when narrative continuity breaks down and the images on the screen resonate materially, unthinkingly, or pre-reflectively with the viewer’s autoaffective sensations. Such moments figure prominently in what Linda Williams calls the “body genres” of melodrama, horror, and pornography – genres in which images on screen are mobilized to arouse pity, fear, or desire directly in the body of the viewer. In his now classic study, The Cinematic Body, Steven Shaviro explores extreme cases like the self-reflexive attunement between gory images of zombies dismembering and disgorging on-screen characters, on the one hand, and the embodied spectator affected viscerally by these images on the other. But these are moments of caesura, when narrative and discursive significance dissolves and gives way to an “abject” experience of material plenitude prior to its parceling out into subject-object roles and relations. These displaced or “utopic” moments, dilated experientially to allow for a poetic sort of tarrying alongside images, are of course already exceptional in narrative cinema, but they must seem even more clearly at odds with the vectors of serial continuation that pull television viewers from one episode to the next, engrossing them in a story-world and concerning them with the lives of its characters week after week, over the course of several seasons.

So if television studies is to make an affective turn, it will have to account for the medial differences between long-form serial television and closed-form film, and it will have to distinguish the role of affect in each. One place to start with this comparison might be the self-reflexive “operational aesthetic” that Jason Mittell, following Neil Harris’s work on P.T. Barnum, has attributed to contemporary serial television as one of its central mechanisms. For Mittell, the operational aesthetic is related to the cognitive operation of tracing and taking pleasure in the complexities of narrative twists. At stake is an enjoyment not only of the story told but also of the manner of its telling, and the operational aesthetic involves the viewer in what might be described as the recursive pleasure of recognizing a series’ own recognition of the complexity of its narration. But if television’s “narrative special effects,” as Mittell calls them, can be explained in terms of an operational aesthetic, it’s important to note that this mode of engagement has also been attributed to closed-form film to explain the appeal of special effects of the ordinary, primarily visual and non-narrative, sort. Tom Gunning has applied the term “operational aesthetic” to the body-gag spectacles of slapstick. In this view, Charlie Chaplin’s or Buster Keaton’s body gets implemented as a thing-like mechanism in a larger system of things, and the spectator takes pleasure in tracing the causal dynamics of the system, which is in a sense also the system of cinematic images itself; the cinema in turn reveals itself as a complex (Rube Goldberg-type) contraption for the transfer of material intensities from one body – Chaplin’s or Keaton’s – to another – my own, as the latter is affected physically and compelled to laugh. Similarly self-reflexive mechanisms are at work in sci-fi and horror films, where visual and visceral spectacles interrupt narrative flow and bedazzle or shock with an operational appeal to the body rather than the brain. Monumental explosions, monstrous sights flashed on the screen without warning, and show-stopping effects seek in part to bypass the brain and imprint themselves in the manner of the physiological Chockwirkung that Walter Benjamin took to be central to the filmic medium.

But is this corporeal sort of self-reflexivity, an operational aesthetic that arouses the body more than the brain, possible in long-form serial television? And, if so, can it be a central component of televisual seriality, a motor of serial development, or must it remain a mere side-show in a medium dependent upon the forward momentum of narrativity?

As I noted before, there is certainly no shortage of body spectacles on contemporary television, and they seem in many ways to function like the cinematic spectacles I’ve been describing. Procedural, or what might more properly be called operational, forensic shows likes CSI or Bones, for example, resemble science-fiction film in their showcasing of technological processes – processes that are anchored in diegetic techniques and technologies but that serve to foreground medial technologies of visualization. These displays serve, like the special effects of science-fiction film, more to impress the viewer than to advance the story. Significantly, such digressive forensic displays revolve around bodies and their imbrications with medial technologies: corpses are subjected to analytical methods that issue not in cognitive but in visual and media-technological spectacles, thus providing the spectator with an affectively potent – but narratively rather pointless – formula that gets repeated week after week. The technological probing of bodies onscreen thus speaks to and motivates a doubling of the viewing body’s own technological interface with the television screen – the material site of affective transfer, which is crucially at stake in these biotechnical displays. A show like Grey’s Anatomy similarly problematizes the integrity of bodies and sets them in relation to technologies, both medical and medial, in order to establish an affective circuit between bodies onscreen and off. Bodies in pain, bodies injured, impaled, injected, or incised, bones sawed, organs exposed and removed: all of these things have their place in a narrative, but they also maintain an excessive autonomy as images, establishing in this way a relay between an affective awareness of one’s own embodiment and an emotional engrossment in a melodramatic story.

And while these shows may tend toward the episodic or the formulaic, their employment of body spectacles might be seen to illuminate a range of contemporary television, including shows widely recognized as qualitatively complex. Premium cable shows like Nip/Tuck, Six Feet Under, Dexter, or Californication, for example, revolve around a variety of corporeal explorations. And a series like True Blood manages to combine all three of Linda Williams’s “body genres” into a hybrid mix of soft-porn, horror, and melodrama. The Walking Dead positively obsesses over its media-technological ability to generate graphic images of all states of bodily decay, thus offering a series of visual and visceral challenges to the viewer that run parallel to and punctuate the story’s unfolding. And even a starkly serialized and celebrated complex show like Breaking Bad activates these mechanisms when it visualizes a scene of bodily destruction like this one:

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Here, there is a properly visual appeal, a showcasing of the image that involves the viewer by activating a sense of one’s own corporeal fragility – thus staging a deeply existential demonstration of physical vulnerability that culminates, and momentarily negates, all the narrative investment and development of character that has led up to this point. In other words, the affective force of this moment far exceeds its diegetic and medial temporality; with Massumi, we might say the image occasions “a suspension of action-reaction circuits and linear temporality in a sink of […] ‘passion’” or immersive involvement. But, I suggest, the scene demonstrates a synergistic or contrapuntal rather than strictly oppositional relation between narrative development and affective depth. The image of the exploded face retains a visual and affective singularity, an excess over and above the storyline in which it’s embedded, but its evocation of the viewer’s own delicate corporeality resonates as well with the series’ overall narrative focus on a protagonist whose body is under attack by cancer.

Finally, to generalize from these examples and wager a hypothesis about the contrapuntal function of such body spectacles in contemporary long-form serial television: I suggest that corporeal self-reflexivity, or the establishment of affective circuits by graphically opening up bodies for destructive, clinical, or sexual purposes, serves as a nexus for the formal hybridization of serial and episodic forms that Mittell makes central to his conception of narrative complexity. Not, of course, the nexus, but a nexus: in other words, a site where a certain sort of formal experimentation takes place, leading to an alternative form of “serially complex television” that activates an “operational aesthetic” for cognitive and corporeal means, in the process intensifying viewers’ investment in narrative developments by imbuing them with affective depth. I speak intentionally of “serial complexity” rather than “narrative complexity,” in order to account for the contrapuntal interplay between lines of narrative continuity on the one hand and moments of non-narrative affect on the other; by standing outside of series’ narrative temporalities, the latter moments punctuate continuity with discontinuity, but they also harbor the potential to establish an alternative seriality of their own, one that runs parallel to narrative development; this is an affective and corporeally registered seriality established through the repetition and variation of such poignant moments and images. Scenarios of the body-genre type serve then as fulcrum points for alternating between ongoing serial arcs and more episodically ritualistic engagements with affectively intense but narratively vacuous states of being: arousal by sexualized images, for example, or being moved to tears by highly melodramatic sequences (like the ritualized climaxes of Grey’s Anatomy, which employ music video techniques for a literally melodramatic presentation of bodily triumphs and defeats), or being shaken or disturbed by brutal violence and body horror (which can be occasioned by vampires, zombies, gladiators, serial-killers, or even health-care givers).

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At stake, then, in television studies’ affective turn is the discovery of a broad, material site of serial complexity, of a nexus where shifts occur between serial and episodic forms or between repetition and variation, serially modulated through alternating appeals to cognitive effort and to bodily stimulation. By engineering self-reflexive feedback loops between onscreen body spectacles and the bodily sensitivities of offscreen viewers, contemporary series cement strong affective bonds between their viewers and the very form of complex seriality – with its shifting of gears and contrapuntal rhythms internalized at a deep, sub-cognitive level as the rhythms of one’s own body. Engagement with form thus becomes the embodiment of temporal vicissitudes that are as much those of the show as they are the flowing time of the spectator’s own affective life. At stake is a sort of serial synchronization of affective potentials, over and above (or perhaps deep below) the cognitive recognition of formal complexity. Such affective interfaces materially support and encourage mental engagements with narrative developments, but they do so by cultivating deep material resonances that, at the farthest extreme, institute a corporeal (perhaps endocrinological) need, a serially articulated demand for bodily replenishment or a weekly affective “fix.” The serialized probing of diegetic bodies is reflexively tied to a complex serialization of the viewer’s own body.