Last summer (2012), I participated in a roundtable discussion with Therese Grisham and Julia Leyda on the subject of “Post-Cinematic Affect: Post-Continuity, the Irrational Camera, Thoughts on 3D.” Drawing on Steven Shaviro’s book Post-Cinematic Affect, and looking at films such as District 9, Melancholia, and Hugo, the roundtable appeared in the multilingual online journal La Furia Umana (issue 14, 2012). For some reason, the LFU site has been down for a few weeks, and I have no information about whether or when it will be back up. Accordingly, I wanted to point out for anyone who is interested that you can still find a copy of the roundtable discussion here (as a PDF on my academia page). Enjoy!
Below you’ll find the full text of the talk I just gave at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago, as part of a panel on “Post-Cinematic Affect: Theorizing Digital Movies Now” along with Therese Grisham, Steven Shaviro, and Julia Leyda — all of whom I’d like to thank for their great contributions! As always, comments are more than welcome!
Crazy Cameras, Discorrelated Images, and the Post-Perceptual Mediation of Post-Cinematic Affect
I’m going to talk about crazy cameras, discorrelated images, and post-perceptual mediation as three interlinked facets of the medial ontology of post-cinematic affect. I’ll connect my observations to empirical and phenomenological developments surrounding contemporary image production and reception, but my primary interest lies in a more basic determination of affect and its mediation today. Following Bergson, affect pertains to a domain of material and “spiritual” existence constituted precisely in a gap between empirically determinate actions and reactions (or, with some modification, between the production and reception of images); affect subsists, furthermore, below the threshold of conscious experience and the intentionalities of phenomenological subjects (including the producers and viewers of media images). It is my contention that the infrastructure of life in our properly post-cinematic era has been subject to radical transformations at this level of molecular or pre-personal affect, and following Steven Shaviro I suggest that something of the nature and the stakes of these transformations can be glimpsed in our contemporary visual media.
My argument revolves around what I’m calling the “crazy cameras” of post-cinematic media, following comments by Therese Grisham in our roundtable discussion in La Furia Umana (alternatively, here): Seeking to account for the changed “function of cameras […] in the post-cinematic episteme,” Therese notes that whereas “in classical and post-classical cinema, the camera is subjective, objective, or functions to align us with a subjectivity which may lie outside the film,” there would seem to be “something altogether different” in recent movies. “For instance, it is established that in [District 9], a digital camera has shot footage broadcast as news reportage. A similar camera ‘appears’ intermittently in the film as a ‘character.’ In the scenes in which it appears, it is patently impossible in the diegesis for anyone to be there to shoot the footage. Yet, we see that camera by means of blood splattered on it, or we become aware of watching the action through a hand-held camera that intrudes suddenly without any rationale either diegetically or aesthetically. Similarly, but differently as well, in Melancholia, we suddenly begin to view the action through a ‘crazy’ hand-held camera, at once something other than just an intrusive exercise in belated Dogme 95 aesthetics and more than any character’s POV […].”
What it is, precisely, that makes these cameras “crazy,” or opaque to rational thought? My answer, in short, is that 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. More generally, they deviate from the perceptual norms established by human embodiment – the baseline physics engine, if you will, at the root of classical continuity principles, which in order to integrate or suture psychical subjectivities into diegetic/narrative constructs had to respect above all the spatial parameters of embodied orientation and locomotion (even if they did so in an abstract, normalizing form distinct from the real diversity of concrete body instantiations). Breaking with these norms results in what I call the discorrelation of post-cinematic images from human perception.
With the idea of discorrelation, I aim to describe an event that first announces itself negatively, as a phenomenological disconnect between viewing subjects and the object-images they view. In her now-classic phenomenology of filmic experience, The Address of the Eye, Vivian Sobchack theorized a correlation – or structural homology – between spectators’ embodied perceptual capacities and those of film’s own apparatic “body,” which engages viewers in a dialogical exploration of perceptual exchange; cinematic expression or communication, accordingly, was seen to be predicated on an analogical basis according to which the subject and object positions of film and viewer are dialectically transposable.
But, according to Sobchack, this basic perceptual correlation is endangered by new, or “postcinematic” media (as she was already calling them in 1992), which disrupt the commutative interchanges of perspective upon which filmic experience depends for its meaningfulness. With the tools Sobchack borrows from philosopher of technology Don Ihde, we can make a first approach to the “crazy” quality of post-cinematic cameras and the discorrelation of their images.
Take the example of the digitally simulated lens flare, featured ostentatiously in recent superhero films like Green Lantern or the Ghost Rider sequel directed by Neveldine and Taylor, who brag that their use of it breaks all the rules of what you can and can’t do in 3D. Beyond the stylistically questionable matter of this excess, a phenomenological analysis reveals significant paradoxes at the heart of the CGI lens flare. On the one hand, the lens flare encourages what 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.” The paradox here, which consists in the realism-constituting and -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 problem: namely, to a 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.
Compare, in this connection, film critic Jim Emerson’s statement in response to the debates over so-called “chaos cinema”: “It seems to me that these movies are attempting a kind of shortcut to the viewer’s autonomic nervous system, providing direct stimulus to generate excitement rather than simulate any comprehensible experience. In that sense, they’re more like drugs that (ostensibly) trigger the release of adrenaline or dopamine while bypassing the middleman, that part of the brain that interprets real or imagined situations and then generates appropriate emotional/physiological responses to them. The reason they don’t work for many of us is because, in reality, they give us nothing to respond to – just a blur of incomprehensible images and sounds, without spatial context or allowing for emotional investment.” Now, I want to distance myself from what appears to be a blanket disapproval of such stimulation, but I quote Emerson’s statement here because I think it neatly identifies the link between a direct affective appeal and the essentially post-phenomenological dissolution of perceptual objects. Taken seriously, though, this link marks the crux of a transformation in the ontology of media, the point of passage from cinematic to post-cinematic media. Whereas the former operate on the “molar” scale of perceptual intentionality, the latter operate on the “molecular” scale of sub-perceptual and pre-personal embodiment, potentially transforming the material basis of subjectivity in a way that’s unaccountable for in traditional phenomenological terms. But how do we account for this transformative power of post-cinematic media, short of simply reducing it (as it would appear Emerson tends to do) to a narrowly positivistic conception of physiological impact? It is helpful here to turn to Maurizio Lazzarato’s reflections on the affective dimension of video and to Mark Hansen’s expansions of these ideas with respect to computational and what he calls “atmospheric” media.
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 (in Bergson’s metaphysics) resides. 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. 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.
The Paranormal Activity series makes these claims palpable through its experimentation with various modes and dimensions of post-perceptual, affective mediation. After using hand-held video cameras in PA1 and closed-circuit home-surveillance cameras in PA2, and following a flashback by way of old VHS tapes in PA3, the latest installment intensifies its predecessors’ estrangement of the camera from cinematic and ultimately human perceptual norms by implementing computational imaging processes for its strategic manipulations of spectatorial affect. In particular, PA4 uses laptop- and smartphone-based video chat and the Xbox’s Kinect motion control system to mediate between diegetic and spectatorial shocks and to regulate the corporeal rhythms and intensities of suspenseful contraction and release that define the temporal/affective quality of the movie. Especially the Kinect technology, itself a crazy binocular camera that emits a matrix of infrared dots to map bodies and spaces and integrate them algorithmically into computational/ergodic game spaces, marks the discorrelation of computational from human perception: the dot matrix, which is featured extensively in the film, is invisible to the human eye; the effect is only made possible through a video camera’s night vision mode – part of the post-perceptual sensibility of the video camera that distinguishes it from the cinema camera. The film (and the series more generally) is thus a perfect illustration for the affective impact and bypassing of cognitive (and narrative) interest through video and computational imaging devices. In an interview, (co)director Henry Joost says the use of the Kinect, inspired by a YouTube video demonstrating the effect, was a logical choice for the series, commenting: “I think it’s very ‘Paranormal Activity’ because it’s like, there’s this stuff going on in the house that you can’t see.” Indeed, the effect highlights all the computational and video-sensory activity going on around us all the time, completely discorrelated from human perception, but very much involved in the temporal and affective vicissitudes of our daily lives through the many cameras and screens surrounding us and involved in every aspect of the progressively indistinct realms of our work and play. Ultimately, PA4 points toward the uncanny qualities of contemporary media, which following Mark Hansen have ceased to be contained in discrete apparatic packages and have become diffusely “atmospheric.”
This goes in particular for the post-cinematic camera, which has shed the perceptually commensurate “body” that ensured communication on Sobchack’s model and which, beyond video, is no longer even required to have a material lens. This does not mean the camera has become somehow immaterial, but today the conception of the camera should perhaps be expanded: consider how all processes of digital image rendering, whether in digital film production or simply in computer-based playback, are involved in the same on-the-fly molecular processes through which the video camera can be seen to trace the affective synthesis of images from flux. Unhinged from traditional conceptions and instantiations, post-cinematic cameras are defined precisely by the confusion or indistinction of recording, rendering, and screening devices or instances. In this respect, the “smart TV” becomes the exemplary post-cinematic camera (an uncanny domestic “room” composed of smooth, computational space): it executes microtemporal processes ranging from compression/decompression, artifact suppression, resolution upscaling, aspect-ratio transformation, motion-smoothing image interpolation, and on-the-fly 2D to 3D conversion. Marking a further expansion of the video camera’s artificial affect-gap, the smart TV and the computational processes of image modulation that it performs bring the perceptual and actional capacities of cinema – its receptive camera and projective screening apparatuses – back together in a post-cinematic counterpart to the early Cinématographe, equipped now with an affective density that uncannily parallels our own. We don’t usually think of our screens as cameras, but that’s precisely what smart TVs and computational display devices in fact are: each screening of a (digital or digitized) “film” becomes in fact a re-filming of it, as the smart TV generates millions of original images, more than the original film itself – images unanticipated by the filmmaker and not contained in the source material. To “render” the film computationally is in fact to offer an original rendition of it, never before performed, and hence to re-produce the film through a decidedly post-cinematic camera. This production of unanticipated and unanticipatable images renders such devices strangely vibrant, uncanny – very much in the sense exploited by Paranormal Activity. The dilation of affect, which introduces a temporal gap of hesitation or delay between perception (or recording) and action (or playback), amounts to a modeling or enactment of the indetermination of bodily affect through which time is generated, and by which (in Bergson’s system) life is defined. A negative view sees only the severing of the images’ indexical relations to world, hence turning all digital image production and screening into animation, not categorically different from the virtual lens flares discussed earlier. But in the end, the ubiquity of “animation” that is introduced through digital rendering processes should perhaps be taken literally, as the artificial creation of (something like) life, itself equivalent with the gap of affectivity, or the production of duration through the delay of causal-mechanical stimulus-response circuits; the interruption of photographic indexicality through digital processing is thus the introduction of duration = affect = life. Discorrelated images, in this respect, are autonomous, quasi-living images in Bergson’s sense, having transcended the mechanicity that previously kept them subservient to human perception. Like the unmotivated cameras of D9 and Melancholia, post-cinematic cameras generally have become “something altogether different,” as Therese put it: apparently crazy, because discorrelated from the molar perspectives of phenomenal subjects and objects, cameras now mediate post-perceptual flows and confront us everywhere with their own affective indeterminacy.
At the upcoming conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (March 6-10, 2013 in Chicago), I will be participating in a panel on “post-cinematic affect” with Steven Shaviro (who, literally, wrote the book on the topic), Therese Grisham (who organized a great roundtable discussion on the topic in La Furia Umana, which I was also proud to be a part of — and which can alternatively be found here if La Furia Umana is down), and Julia Leyda (who also participated in the roundtable and will serve as respondent on our SCMS panel).
Here is a description of our panel, which is scheduled for Thursday, March 7, from 3:00 – 4:45 pm (Session H):
Post-Cinematic Affect: Theorizing Digital Movies Now
If cinema and television, as the dominant media in the twentieth century, shaped and reflected our cultural sensibilities, how do new digital media in the twenty-first century help to shape and reflect new forms of sensibility? Continuing from roundtable discussions on “post-cinematic affect” in the online film journal La Furia Umana, this panel explores the emergence of a new “structure of feeling” (Raymond Williams) or “episteme” (Foucault) in post-millennial film, one that is evident in new formal strategies, radically changed conditions of viewing, and new ways in which films address their spectators. Contemporary films, from blockbusters to independents and the auteurist avant-garde, use digital cameras and editing technologies, incorporating the aesthetics of gaming, webcams, and smartphones, to name a few, as well as Internet media. For this reason alone, we argue, the aesthetic boundaries between art-house film and blockbuster have become blurred. Moreover, the aesthetic elements of contemporary film do not just simulate the environments created by digital technologies and media, but break more radically with the geometry and logic of films in the twentieth century. In this way, they reflect or transmit the effects, not only of digitization, but also of economic globalization and the financialization of more and more human activities. But these changes have only begun to be theorized. In this panel, we continue the work of theorizing a critical aesthetics of film culture today. The papers take as their critical starting-points David Bordwell on “intensified continuity,” Matthias Stork on “chaos cinema,” and Steven Shaviro on post-cinematic affect and “post-continuity.”
The papers explore key critical issues for analyzing post-cinematic affect, in terms of the ambivalent aesthetics of recent films exhibiting a longing for cinema as the lost object of desire (Therese Grisham on Martin Scorsese’s Hugo), post-continuity stylistics (Steven Shaviro on Tony Scott’s films, particularly his 2005 Domino), and philosophical and technological approaches to the contemporary camera (Shane Denson on images “discorrelated” from human sense ratios in a variety of recent films).
Bordwell, David. “Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 3. (Spring, 2002), pp. 16–28.
Grisham, Therese, with Julia Leyda, Nicholas Rombes, and Steven Shaviro. “Roundtable Discussion on the Post-Cinematic in Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2.” http://www.lafuriaumana.it/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=385:roundtable-discussion-about-post-cinematic&catid =59:la-furia-umana-nd-10-autumn-2011&Itemid=61
Shaviro, Steven. “Post-Continuity”. Blog posting: The Pinocchio Theory, March 26, 2012, http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1034
Shaviro, Steven. Post-Cinematic Affect. Winchester: Zer0 Books, 2010.
Stork, Mattias. “Video Essay: Chaos Cinema: The Decline and Fall of Action Filmmaking.” IndieWire, Press Play, August 24, 2011. Retrieved on August 30, 2012.
Finally, here are links to the individual abstracts:
Here is the abstract for Therese Grisham’s paper on the panel “Post-Cinematic Affect: Theorizing Digital Movies Now” at the 2013 SCMS conference (Session H — Thursday, March 7, 2013, 3:00 – 4:45 pm):
Martin Scorsese and Hugo (2011): Our Reluctant Contemporaries
If our filmmakers now employ digital technologies that give rise to new aesthetic forms, reluctant stragglers long for a lost cinematic object. In 2011, a spate of movies was released whose aesthetic structures exhibit a yearning for earlier, cinematic forms, using digital technologies to “make them new” for contemporary audiences. While many of these movies digitally re-create older genres and styles, the acclaimed Hugo and The Artist re-create founding moments of cinema itself. This fact alone underlines our definitive entry into the episteme of the post-cinematic. Meticulously re-creating and re-staging the life and work of Georges Méliès, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is unabashedly at once a “nostalgia film” (Jameson), an ode to the cinematic, and a pastiche of pre-cinema and cinema history. Much of this history is deliberately anachronistic, which can be seen clearly in light of Scorsese’s decision to employ digital 3D technologies to refer not only to the early fascination with three-dimensional images, but to the pervasive 3D movies in the 1950s — the most privileged moment figured in American nostalgia films. It can be argued that this pastiche provokes thought about the history of cinema (Sprengler); it can perhaps more pointedly be argued that the film offers up cultural stereotypes of the past (Jameson), its cinema history belonging to an obsolete, patriarchal textbook.
Hugo‘s digital techniques of production and post-production are at odds with its formal properties. I argue that Hugo combines innovations in digital 3D technologies with a classical narrative, a love of paraphernalia presaging cinematic motion (automata and wind-up toys, e.g.), and a “hyperrealistic” aesthetics of movement, space, color, and pattern. I borrow the term hyperrealism from painting, as a style that focuses on details and subjects, veering into the fantastic. Digital 3D is at its optimum when presenting (“real” or “imagined”) spatial detail and close-ups.
Scorsese ultimately suggests that he is the “father” of the digital trick film, and that Hugo is his most elaborate example so far. Hugo is offered to us as a contemporary founding moment in the history of film; nevertheless, its aesthetics, despite their technical innovations, hearken back to a world in which older technologies — and older forms of social authority — persist in the face of newer ones still struggling to be born.
Cook, Adam. “Past/Not Past: A Tale of Two Cinemas.” In: MUBI Notebook, February 12, 2012. http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/pastnot-past-a-tale-of-two-cinemas
Evans, Seth. “Hugo.” In: Jon Fauer’s Film and Digital Times: The Journal of Art, Technique and Technology in Motion Picture Production Worldwide, November 11, 2011.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990.
Shaviro, Steven. Post-Cinematic Affect. Winchester: Zer0 Books, 2010.
Sprengler, Christine. Screening Nostalgia: Populuxe Props and Technicolor Aesthetics in Contemporary American Film. Oxford and New York: Berghahn Books, 2011.
[UPDATE: It appears that La Furia Umana is down right now. In the meantime, you can find the roundtable discussion here as well: http://www.academia.edu/1993403/_Post-Cinematic_Affect_Post-Continuity_the_Irrational_Camera_Thoughts_on_3D_]
Issue #14 of La Furia Umana just came out, and in it you’ll find a roundtable discussion between Therese Grisham, Julia Leyda, and myself on the topic of “post-cinematic affect” — Steven Shaviro’s term for the contemporary media environment, following cinema’s displacement as the twentieth century’s dominant medium. This is the second roundtable discussion on the topic, the first (involving Julia Leyda, Nicholas Rombes, Steven Shaviro, and Therese Grisham) having also appeared in La Furia Umana (here). While the first roundtable focused on the first two Paranormal Activity films, the discussion this time around touches on District 9, Melancholia, and Hugo, among others, and reflects on “post-continuity,” the “irrationality” of contemporary cameras, and the uses and abuses of 3D. In my own responses, I also connect these things to the topic of plurimedial seriality. Originally, Steven Shaviro was also scheduled to participate in the discussion, but he unfortunately had to withdraw due to other commitments (you can get a feel for how busy he’s been lately from his recent blog posts). Nevertheless, I think the discussion worked out quite nicely, and a further collaboration between Shaviro, Grisham, Leyda, and me is in the works. More on that soon…
[UPDATE: You can find the complete text of the roundtable discussion here.]
Currently, I am engaged in a roundtable discussion with Therese Grisham, Julia Leyda, and Steven Shaviro on the topic of the post-cinematic. The discussion, organized and moderated by Therese, is to appear in the excellent online journal La Furia Umana, where it will follow an earlier discussion of the topic (which focused on the first two Paranormal Activity films). I don’t want to give away too much right now, but I thought I’d offer a short preview here. What follows is the crux — and in this context, “the crux” is synonymous with “some marginal snippets” — of my answer to an excellent question posed by Therese. You’ll have to wait, though, to find out what the question was…
…whereas the characters in classical cinema provided the central focus and occasions for dramatic interest in a story-world that unfolds according to its own internally defined logics, and whereas the camera served alternately to disclose this world in the manner of a transparent window or, more exceptionally, to announce its own presence as an (uncanny or self-reflexive) object of perception, the radically indeterminate cameras of post-cinematic filmmaking serve … to displace the characters, to take them out of the center of perceptual attention and instead situate them marginally with respect to a total environment of inhuman image production, processing, and circulation – and to situate us as viewers accordingly.
…there is a reversible relation between the post-cinematic diegesis and the nondiegetic ecology of our post-cinematic world, and it is occasioned precisely by a camera that no longer situates us as subjects vis-à-vis the film-as-object, but instead institutes a pervasive relation of marginality, where everything is marginal or contiguous to everything else. This corresponds to a specifically post-cinematic mode of address: the camera no longer frames actions, emotions, and events in a given world, but instead provides the color, look, and feel of the film qua material component or aspect of the world – of our world…
The post-cinematic camera, in short, modulates the affective character of the wider world; it does not bracket that world out or substitute one of its own making – for it remains indeterminately contiguous to every level of the contemporary real, including the physical, the imaginary, and the virtual.