Reviews

in Screen Bodies

Alice Maurice, The Cinema and Its Shadow: Race and Technology in Early Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 288 pp. + 30 b&w photos. ISBN 978-0-8166-7805-1 (paperback, $25), 978-0-8166-7804-1 (hardback, $75).

Reviewed by Peter Lurie, University of Richmond

At the end of Alice Maurice’s far-reaching book The Cinema and Its Shadow: Race and Technology in Early Cinema (2013), she gathers the terms of her discussion with an account of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). In so doing Maurice raises questions about the film’s novel technique of performance capture in connection with its treatment of racialized characters, actors, and themes, above all the ways that Cameron’s claims for the film and the studio’s marketing of it emphasized its various fidelities: to movement, to the story’s purported social meanings, and to its supposedly “pure” treatment of racial and species otherness, epitomized in the movie’s famous tagline, “I see you.”

Seeing generally, and seeing not only a racially defined other but seeing through their topical difference from a character (or the viewer) to an interior essence or “true” being is at the heart of Cameron’s film; such a conceit, Maurice claims, in fact subtends all of cinema. At the heart of her incisive rendering of film history and its intersections with racial representation is an issue that Maurice uses André Bazin to highlight: the question of the viewer’s faith in the image—here, the racialized image—to compel our belief in its transcendental power. Racial representation informs the mystifications of cinema at key points in its development, and in ways that Maurice shows aided the medium in its initial forays into narrative and other major junctures in its technical history. At each such pivot point, she demonstrates, the racialized body served to cover threatening gaps in the capacities of the filmic apparatus and to ensure a more complete bonding of the audience with the cinema’s truth-claims—often because of, and not despite its concurrent insistence on the extra-material dimension of film’s aesthetics. Maurice’s readings are so apposite to understanding film that it is a marvel that her book has not appeared before now. Yet appearing when it has, it is able to summon the cinema’s entire past and link it to its potential future in several of that pattern’s troubling implications.

The interplay between the visible but absent image—the shadow that provides Maurice’s title—of an actor’s body and its screen projection demonstrated an inherent property of the film medium. Indeed, as Maurice points out, the earliest movies were understood as a “shadow” of the objects or phenomena, including—and above all—bodily phenomena, they depicted. As a result, “In the earliest motion pictures, the powers of the body and the powers of the apparatus were closely linked” (2). And that body was often a racialized one. Maurice shows how this was true in the earliest films through some of the most recent, with this history repeating a gesture of aligning the constantly renewed power of the apparatus with the bodies it utilizes.

Her first chapter opens with a reading of the ways that the earliest, pre-narrative cinema often depicted scenarios of bodily action that highlighted the relation between those bodies and their screen depiction as images. This chapter looks at several one-shot, pre-narrative films that utilized race to effect what the new medium already sought to confront: early limits on the ontological property of the cinema, motion. Maurice shows how racialized situations and gags introduced an impression of movement, one that often suggested motion by way of a changed position. Such “race films” as What Happened in the Tunnel (1903), offered a way to suggest motion within the still frame and, importantly, use literal bodies to effect metaphorical expressions of meaning (about race, social position, and gender) (49). Although the film is shot with a static camera, the characters’ changed positions within the frame, as well as the train’s implied passing through the tunnel, effect the impression of motion on which many early films depended and that cinema would utilize more and more fully as it developed more genuine motility. Similarly, rudimentary chase scenes in films like The Subpoena Server (1906) are aided in one-shot, static camera films by early examples of blackface and other “race gags” that convey both motion (the illusion of movement in and beyond the frame) and stasis (the fixity of an identity racialized as black).

The Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa figures prominently in Maurice’s discussion of the transition period from single-shot, non-narrative “attractions” to multi-shot films that evolved into narrative. Hayakawa’s role in films like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915) were important, Maurice points out, because his status as an Asian performer allowed contemporary viewers (and, Maurice shows, later theorists such as the photogenie school as well as certain contemporary film scholars) to read his presence—above all his face—as impenetrable, “mysterious.” At issue throughout this portion of Maurice’s discussion is her reading of the homology of screen and race: both phenomena functioned also as concepts that, despite—or, in the case of race, because of—their surface aspect revealed meaning and “depth.” As Maurice claims, early films about race utilized received notions of a particular character’s type to connote “essential” characteristics, but ones based on the linking of shared surface elements: pigmentation and screen. The affinity of the immobile face with the planar surface of the screen itself (Deleuze’s concept of the affection-image) conferred an “eloquence” and a “more silent silence” (112) on film that helped distinguish it from the theater. Such qualities, often in combination with the racialized figures such as Hayakawa played, emphasized the cinema’s uniqueness (and encouraged viewers’ fetishizing of its apparatus) while relying on notions of a displaced embodiment and presence.

Repeatedly, Maurice shows where and how the early cinema used race to mediate its poles of materiality and abstraction. Even at what she suggests would have been a supreme moment of self-assurance, when in 1922 the medium and silent film were ascendant (and possessed of a new and hard-won cultural prestige), the paradoxes and instabilities of filmic modes were evident in the production and distribution of Preferred Pictures’ Shadows (1922), an adaptation of Wilbur Daniel Steele’s short story “Ching, Ching, Chinaman.” At stake in this film’s reception was the increasing cultural work of audience formation. Not unlike other signal moments in film history, and working in a manner that resembles the effects of Griffith’s watershed Birth of a Nation (1915), Shadows offered a model in which “the film audience is imagined and idealized as a group identity, and [in which] ‘race’ defines and reinforces that identity as a distinct group bound by belief in the image” (120).

The other key period Maurice treats is the early sound era. After mainstream movies oriented themselves by way of the close-up and the move into feature length narrative, the film industry faced its next major technical challenge: the advent of synchronized sound. Here Maurice focuses on the approach to sound and in two representative texts, Twentieth-Century Fox’s and MGM’s all-black musicals, Hearts in Dixie (1929) and Hallelujah (1929). The latter film’s story of the rural South incorporated faith—both the characters onscreen in their dawning religious devotion and the viewers’ in the image—into its plot and its workings, using a widely-held belief in the authenticity of black voices and spirituality to compensate for the as-yet unproven mastery of sync sound. In the case of the former, black bodies and movement were seen as the mark of an “authentic” material presence in what contemporary reviewers saw as a still essentially artificial medium.

A similarly racialized materiality attaches to the bodies of the actors portraying the Na’vi characters in Cameron’s Avatar. Maurice notes the lengths to which Cameron and the marketing team behind the film went to claim an authenticity to performance capture, one that once again sought to make up for technological difficulties—in this case, the move to a thoroughly digital cinema. She points out the curious casting fact that the actors whose bodies we do see on screen portraying both human and blue-skinned avatars are white. The performers who only appear as Na’vi, however, are played by actors of color. Once again, as with the sound era, a rhetoric of racial presence and corporeality contributes to the film’s perceived realism: a convincing portrait of “real” characters that viewers will accept along with the film’s patently false (computer-generated) images.

Maurice’s readings of the cinema’s history are incisive and deft, and she forcefully links the medium’s deep past to its current moment, as well as its anticipated future. Yet her approach is vulnerable on two fronts. One is the book’s particular emphasis on American cinema. While the models Maurice cites from the earliest movies and from key junctures in film history are largely American, as the global influence of Hollywood has often been, there are many other national industries and filmic practices that may offer very different thematizings of race, including indigenous and ethnic film, Third Cinema, and a range of non-Western traditions. Another potential charge is that the book effectively leapfrogs a vast span of film history, even in the United States. Moving from two early sound era musicals to Avatar across the space of two chapters is a broad reach. And, while the following are not examples of technical transformation or key points of industry restructuring, like the examples Maurice treats, movements such as Blaxploitation, New Black Cinema, or even so-called independent film broadly defined might yield a different paradigm. Other approaches may consider how non-white, alternative, or non-Hollywood cinema makes use of technology for its own ends and with perhaps very different outcomes.

That said, The Cinema and Its Shadow does what it sets out to do, and its approach is indeed ambitious while being both selective and representative of American cinema broadly speaking. The future of digital media is not clear; yet neither, quite, is the cinema’s past, particularly at the junctures Maurice treats and whose ideological fault lines she reveals. Maurice reveals a more complicated and, indeed, more troubling version of film history than earlier scholarship has often assumed. Moreover, she links those complications to cinema’s equally troubling present (as least, in its still-dominant commercial mode). As much of Avatar’s popular reception attests, and as ongoing challenges to the mainstream cinema to celebrate women filmmakers and directors of color reveal, the problematic valences of “shadow” that define US film across its history and that Maurice so skillfully renders will not soon be diffused by light.

Filmography

Jan Olsson, Hitchcock à la Carte (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 272 pp. + 55 illustrations. ISBN 978-0-8223-5804-6 (paperback, $24.95), 978-0-8223-5790-2 (hardback, $89.95).

Reviewed by Antonio Sanna, Independent Researcher

Jan Olsson’s Hitchcock à la Carte is focused mainly on the director’s work on the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955–1962) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962–1965), which were broadcast respectively on CBS and NBC. Olsson argues that Hitchcock’s investment in the bodies appearing on the screen, during the stories that he hosted, is strictly linked to the use of the image of the director’s own body. According to Olsson, Hitchcock voluntarily and playfully created a discourse around his body—he turned himself into a cultural commodity—in order to sanction the brand bearing his name and transform himself into an icon. His was indeed a marketing brand-building strategy constructed through the creation of an intricate and cross-medial presence, which was also established by his appearances on the (big) screen through cameos and surrogate characters. Such a (literally) robust presence was consolidated by the English-turned-American director’s public appearances, especially his cocktail and launch parties. All of these occasions were documented by photographs in which Hitchcock’s eccentricities and penchant for jokes and for posing emerged. His physicality, “expanding and protruding in all directions” (22), was therefore not only the logo for his body of work, but it also became a fundamental part of his artistic reputation in the contemporary press and in the opinion of the public at large, especially because it was constantly associated with his conspicuous appetite. Indeed, “his self-styled identity as food connoisseur, fatso, and film director were inimitably intertwined” (6).

Olsson considers such corporeal marketing of the franchise within the historical and cultural context of pre-and post-war America, and it is weighted against the puritanical culture of food sobriety and health consciousness of the period. The book minutely follows Hitchcock’s personal life from his first visit to New York in 1937 (specifically, his dinner at the Jack and Charlie’s 21 Club), and relates it to the portrayal of his figure by contemporary columnists. The latter’s words are quoted in detail both ridiculing the obese body of the “300-Pound Prophet”—which was suggestively compared to a “Macy balloon” or a penguin—and wondering about his periodical dietary regimes. Olsson thus illuminates the director’s intention “to entertain journalists while eating and turn his culinary propensities into a prime selling-point for his creative persona” (13): his private life and bizarre television persona were part of an elaborate mise-en-scène intertwining the private and the public. By also reporting many of his contractual vicissitudes in Hollywood, the author recreates the evolution of the director’s name into the adjective “Hitchcockian,” naming a style that was—and still is—immediately identifiable. Most importantly, many of the director’s collaborators are mentioned and their subjective contributions are accounted for, from the scriptwriter for the facetious and carnivalesque prologues and epilogues of the TV show, James B. Allardice, to his wife, cook, and script supervisor Alma Reville.

Olsson also argues that Hitchcock’s voluminous and grotesque body became the very embodiment of his thrillers, in which suspense is intertwined with black humor and ridicule. Hitchcock’s identity is therefore scripted onto the body of the host of the TV programs as much as on the obsession with the body that is typical of his films, in which (vulnerable or macabre) bodies become spectacle, need to be disposed of, or are presented as simulations, as replacements of the real—as is the case in Vertigo (1958). Olsson offers illuminating analysis of the films (including masterpieces such as Psycho [1960], The Trouble with Harry [1955], and Frenzy [1972]) and the TV episodes—from “The Case of Mr. Pelham” (whose prologue exemplifies the director’s multiplicity by presenting two rival Hitchcocks) and “Arthur” (whose title character feeds the detectives with the chickens that had been fed with his girl’s dead body) to “Banquo’s Chair” (in which the killer’s feeling of guilt emerges during a dinner) and the cult episode “Lamb to the Slaughter” (which shows the detectives feasting on a leg of lamb that was actually a murder weapon). The analysis of the TV episodes is accompanied by reference to the biographical details of the actors and actresses, whose frequent and anthological casting across the director’s oeuvre stimulated the viewers’ expectations as much as it reinforced the possibility of multiple readings by means of what Gerard Genette defines as “celebrity intertextuality” (quoted in Verevis, 20). A very interesting part of Olsson’s analysis is dedicated to the frequent mention of food in the TV episodes and its association with the characters’ murderous intentions and violent acts. The analysis of the episodes includes the rigorous examination of single frames, the soundtrack, the editing, the vertical/horizontal axis, the roles and power of the characters, the themes (such as guilt and the encounter with the double), the use of voice-overs, clothing and props (especially, of course, murder weapons) and the proportion between male and female murderers across the various seasons of the show. Unfortunately, the latter issue is only superficially examined, although the book could have further benefitted from an in-depth gender study of Hitchcock’s work on TV.

Hitchcock à la Carte presents a rich and dense vocabulary which could probably create some difficulties for laymen of film studies. However, the text is visually accompanied by a wealth of pictures from the photo-essays published in journals such as Life and Look and from the journalists’ works documenting the social occasions involving the director and his family. According to Olsson, photos were indeed a fundamental part of the director’s strategy to extend his body discourse for brand recognition and dissemination. Furthermore, the text demonstrates a very active and rigorous engagement with the scholarly debate on the subject. Indeed, on the one hand it frequently includes the reviews and even the smallest comments of the critics on Hitchcock’s oeuvre and his biography from the 1940s to the contemporary moment. On the other hand, with its focus on the TV series and the ubiquity of food scenes in them, Hitchcock à la Carte can be considered as an excellent and original companion to previous studies such as Robert E. Kapsis’s Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation (which briefly examines the director’s efforts to reshape his reputation, but focuses mainly on the reception of his works), Jonathan Freedman’s The Cambridge Companion to Alfred Hitchcock (which examines almost exclusively the cinematic works), and Thomas M. Leitch’s The Encyclopedia of Alfred Hitchcock: From Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Vertigo (which is one of the few recent book-length publications that focuses on the TV shows). Olsson’s book shall certainly arouse the interest of both the director’s fans and younger generations of neophytes, prompting them to “taste” the films and TV episodes again.

References

  • Jonathan Freedman ed. 2015. The Cambridge Companion to Alfred Hitchcock. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • KapsisRobert E. 1992. Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • LeitchThomas M. 2002. The Encyclopedia of Alfred Hitchcock: From Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Vertigo. New York: Checkmark Books.

  • VerevisConstantine. 2006. Film Remakes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press2006.

Filmography

Ian Bogost, The Geek’s Chihuahua: Living with Apple (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 88 pp. + 7 b&w photos. ISBN 978-0-8166-9913-1 (paperback, $7.95), 978-1-4529-4970-3 (e-book, $4.95).

Reviewed by Hansen Hsu, Computer History Museum

Smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, and other mobile devices have become a pervasive feature of contemporary digital life, and no company has been as influential as Apple in constructing this new technological lifestyle. Media scholar and game developer Ian Bogost comments on this new reality, taking Apple as emblematic of it, through a collection of essays published together as The Geek’s Chihuahua. As most of the essays were originally published in The Atlantic, Bogost is writing as a public intellectual and critical theorist for a highbrow journalistic audience, and the essays are speculative, philosophical, and intentionally provocative, especially to enthusiasts of Apple products. Given my background as both a Science & Technology Studies (STS) researcher and a former Apple employee, this review comes from a hybrid perspective, that of an Apple partisan wrestling with, yet perturbed, by Bogost’s provocations, and an STS scholar intrigued by, but often disappointed with, his philosophizing.

Bogost’s critiques of Apple and its products often suffer from being superficial, overly general, lacking in historical context, or being based on anecdotal observations. By not drawing on empirical work, Bogost misses out on exploring the affective reasons why so many people choose and love Apple products. The result is that, to Apple users, Bogost’s observations are either obvious or do not ring true to their experience.

For example, the conceit underlying the book’s title, the subject of chapter 1, is that iPhones are like geeks’ accessory pets, partly because their interfaces respond unpredictably, giving them a life of their own. Not only is this not original, reminiscent of Sherry Turkle (1984), but it could be argued that non-Apple smartphones misbehave similarly or worse. Bogost’s provocation that Steve Jobs was a “fascist” in chapter 7 is barely fleshed out, based on Jobs’ known authoritarian attitudes and a connection between fascism and modernist design. It would be more interesting to explore why Apple users, who often knowingly acknowledge Apple’s authoritarianism, are so willing to accept benevolent dictatorship in the name of better design. Bogost’s point in chapter 4 that Apple products have become fashion accessories is spot on but obvious; this has been well observed since Apple first released iMacs in multiple colors in 1999.

The problem with many of these early Apple-focused chapters is that, by immediately turning off less generous readers, they are likely to throw out the baby with the bathwater. And this is a shame, because Bogost has some very interesting things to say in the rest of the book. For example, in chapter 3, “Pascal Spoken Here”, Bogost contrasts the experience of today’s iPhone with the early years of the Apple II personal computer, when users not only had to be programmers to use their machines, but this activity was actively marketed and promoted by Apple. This is a compelling argument, drawing on readers’ nostalgia for the days in which users were encouraged to “look under the hood,” a sentiment likely shared by tech-savvy readers who see themselves as hackers or makers. Bogost decries the black boxing of today’s Apple products, which makes customization and appropriation of these devices difficult, reflecting the control Apple wants to have over the use of its products. Nevertheless, this critical stance privileges a technical proficiency, culturally coded as masculine, that the majority of users may not have or want. Bogost’s claim that “learning to program has become harder rather than easier” (13) is also debatable. Programming at what level of proficiency is harder or easier? Apple II BASIC was more accessible to users of the late 1970s, but it was a student and hobbyist language. Bogost’s own evidence shows that, even in 1979, Apple was moving in a more professional direction, introducing Pascal for Apple II so that “programs can be written, debugged, and executed in just one-third [of] the time” (20). While today’s Java, Python, or Swift languages might be significantly more complicated to learn, they also allow more complex programs to be written that are easier to maintain. In addition, the progress of tools and infrastructure, from free IDEs to source control management to the App Store has made it far easier for even hobbyist programmers to develop, publish, and distribute their programs directly to consumers than was possible in the late 1970s. Bogost is correct when he notes that “Back then [in the 1970s] owning a computer entailed being a programmer” (27), but this was true for early mainframes users too. In fact, this is a common pattern among technologies, where early open designs requiring expert users become progressively black-boxed as they increasingly sell to consumers. Chapter 2, where Bogost unfavorably compares today’s single-function, isolated apps to similarly single-function, yet composable Unix programs, similarly privileges the skilled hacker over the naïve consumer by denigrating the “gloss of the GUI and its promise of user-friendliness” (11).

Bogost’s arguments are more compelling when he discusses mobile computing more broadly rather than Apple specifically. For example, Bogost’s “smartphone as cigarette” metaphor in chapter 5 works on two levels, firstly in its addictive nature, but secondly as a way of displaying executive privilege and social status, enabling one to rudely interrupt a conversation by saying, “I have to take this” (42). This dovetails nicely with chapter 6, which introduces the notion of “Hyperemployment.” This is the idea that we are being increasingly inundated with unpaid administrative work via managing the deluge of digital communications, even if we are unemployed, where the anxious precarity of whether any individual message is actionable mirrors the precarity of employment itself. The increase of such technological busy-work, and the associated rise of solutions to manage them, has been of intense interest to information and media scholars in recent years. However “hyperemployment” itself has been critiqued as reinforcing the gendered public/private divide of the work of production/reproduction (Helen Hester 2015). Nonetheless, the concept of hyperemployment can usefully allow us to recover the visibility and value of this pink-collar work, now that it is being distributed to everyone, men included, even as technologies are increasingly replacing the women who used do it.

The Geek’s Chihuahua is uneven, with some brilliant and some banal chapters. From the perspective of some academic readers, depending on their discipline, many of the essays may come across as overly unempirical or speculative. However, others may find Bogost’s critiques refreshing, since they are highly successful as provocations, whether the reader agrees with Bogost or not. In this sense, the book’s unsatisfying and unfinished nature could be its strongest asset, as it provides useful starting points for more nuanced, contextualized, and empirically researched discussions.

References

  • Helen Hester. 2015. “01 Inhuman Symposium – Helen Hester.” (“Technically Female: Women Machines and Hyperemployment.”) Presentation at the Inhuman Symposium, Fridericianum, Kassel. YouTube video. Filmed and posted 10 August. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSBefHq7C_o (accessed 30 November 2016).

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  • TurkleSherry. 1984. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon and Schuster.

A Comparative Book Review of Vilém Flusser’s Gestures (2014) and Into the Universe of Technical Images (2011)

Reviewed by Ella Houston, Lancaster University

Vilém Flusser’s Gestures (2014) and Into the Universe of Technical Images (2011) illustrate how identity and bodily performance is informed by and makes sense of the outside world employing a theory of symbolic interactionism (Mead 1982). This comparative book review of these recent English translations suggests that Flusser’s philosophy on creative expression and bodily performance provides a nuanced framework from which social interactionist theory can be applied to intersections of oppression and identity formation within society.

Flusser’s writings have a more accessible style, offering precise examples and analogies to specify key concepts. For this reason, the work of Flusser, especially Gestures, eclectically engages with deconstructive paradigms of philosophy at a level accessible to undergraduate students and academics. Students of media studies would benefit from Flusser’s illustration of ‘gestures’ and embodied performance as endlessly open to analysis. Specifically, in a media studies class, the analysis of certain gestures in cultural texts, for example advertisements, could be critically developed through interdisciplinary engagement with studies of oppression (for example, feminist or disability studies). To understand a gesture, its “meaning must be discovered”; a problematic part of this interpretative process is that our readings of our own or someone else’s gesture can never be validated (Flusser 2014: 3). By bringing analysis of power relations in society, for example, in the context of how certain identity groups have been historically marginalized, human behavior can be further understood as firmly situated in the environmental context and deeply influenced by insidious power relations existing within society.

This essay focuses on the recent English translations of Gestures and Into the Universe of Technical Images, originally published in German, in 1991 and 1985, respectively. A central purpose of the former text is arguably to compel the reader to reflect on their own sense of embodiment and situation within the world and realize how they exist within the surrounding environment, “why do I do what I do?” (Flusser 2014: 13). The latter text hails a critical awareness of how technical images and storing of an influx of new information carries both positive and negative implications for humans and society. Foregrounding this inquiry is the question as to whether such a technical future is actually coming to being or whether it is merely “mythical” and an “imaginative state of mind” (Flusser 2011: 13).

From my own personal experience, Flusser’s concept of gestures as not having “a satisfactory causal explanation” leads me to reflect on the common gestures that I am most aware of performing on a regular basis. For example, I could not imagine being part of a conversation without nodding my head frequently—even when talking on the telephone when this gesture cannot be read in order affirm my interest or agreement to another person. According to Flusser’s perspectives, I may analyze this gesture as part of my perception of myself in another person—I search for the meaning that other people are listening when I am talking and are actively participating in the conversation, so I demonstrate this effect for others also. Opportunity and involvement with personal reflection on gestures is perhaps one of the strongest points in Flusser’s Gestures, since the audience is invited to reflect on passivity in social spheres, such as my own behavior as nodding to demonstrate assent, thus enriching understanding of how humans recognize and perform their positions in the social order.

Flusser’s philosophical background is prevalent in both Gestures and Into the Universe of Technical Images. The central thesis in Gestures is that people communicate with the world and co-construct new ways of being and structures of knowledge through gestures (Flusser 2014). The primary message of each text is to navigate human bodily gestures as conveying a specific layer of consciousness. Specifically, Flusser rejects the notion that human consciousness may be grounded or explained in thematic terms. Rather, he places ambiguous focus on how the human subject mediates contact with the world, either through bodily gestures or through interaction with technologies (Flusser 2011, 2014). Within this analysis, Flusser (2014) expands the phenomenological perspective of ‘knowing’ as in situ and aligned with the cultural context by explaining gestures as a human way of expressing the art of ‘being’ in the world.

Flusser’s writing on bodily performance, in the form of ‘gestures’ further advances the philosophy of phenomenology by insisting that people must align ways of ‘knowing’ and making sense of the world from a superficial starting-point (Hanley 2014). Through using the term gestures Flusser describes various performances that depend on bodily interaction with outside objects, for example, writing on a piece of paper. Flusser states that personal thoughts no do have a place in reality and existence until transferred onto paper through the gesture of writing, “there is no thinking that has not been articulated through a gesture” (2014: 24). Flusser’s extended analysis of gestures poignantly expends the creative act of leaving a personal mark on an object. Specifically, in Gestures, Flusser highlights the juxtaposing theme that whilst bodily performance fixes a person into existence and underpins the structures of human knowledge, the person performing the gesture is not necessarily aware of an explanation or effect of the particular movement. In his own words this difficult dilemma means “one way of defining ‘gesture’ is a movement of the body, for which there is no satisfactory casual explanation … But we have no theory of the interpretation … No criteria for the validity of our readings” (2014: 3).

Comparatively, Flusser’s earlier work Into the Universe of Technical Images (2011) focuses on the foundation of personal and collective consciousness, integrating bodily performance and its engagement with structures of human “knowing.” Taking a different focus from Gestures, Flusser muses on the future of collective creativity and bodily expression from the perspective of technical images and the development of digital media. In clear terms, Flusser explains this future in which “our state of mind, our existential mood, will take on a new and strange coloration … We live in a utopia that is appearing” (2011: 3). For Flusser, the heightened prevalence of technical images forecasts innovative ways that humans can creatively engage with consciousness. He describes them as burgeoning “surfaces where information is produced and through which people can enter into dialogue” (2011: 85). For this reason, Into the Universe of Technical Images offers a progressive route for phenomenological perspectives into creativity and structures of human knowing. Specifically, from a phenomenological consideration of consciousness as being aware of an actuality, commonly referred to as the “intentional object,” Flusser highlights how digital media images, for example, advertisements, can blur or define a person’s engagement with their cultural context.

Flusser’s theorization of digital media within Into the Universe of Technical Images is well-suited to an audience that is invested in exploring both the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary potential of digital culture and disciplines that are invested in social justice issues, such as disability, feminist, and cultural studies. Flusser offers unique perspectives towards digital media and the implications that technological advancements may have for future society and culture. An excellent point raised by Flusser relates to the cultural revolution that is imminent alongside the gaining momentum of technical images, this concept refers to the halting of “waste.” Instead of producing information that eventually decomposes, a “flood” of information will be stored in culture as a result of technological advances and implication for vast data storage (2011: 110). The argument that Flusser makes centers on the development of digital media as a medium that dissipates linear understanding of interpretation and meaning making into surface concepts. Flusser uses the term “technical images” to denote visual images that can be described as a composition of digital “particles” (2011: 6).

Taking this interpretation of Flusser’s earlier work further, technical images as a product of human performance and expression within the world initially appears to fit well with his later notion of bodily gestures as revealing layers of consciousness and knowledge forming activities. However, a comparative review of the two texts suggests that Flusser’s later work Gestures (2014) better fits the notion of creativity in personal and collective gesture. In Into the Universe of Technical Images, the notion that digital media is an expansive way of authenticating ‘being’ in the world is slightly misguided. This is mediated by Flusser’s understanding that technical images, produced as a means of articulating engagement with an object, eventually lose the essence of the meaning they purport to convey by becoming a “projection … that captures meaningless signs” (2011: 48). For example, digital advertisements that purport to “connect with” reality and embodied desires and emotions (in order to meet consumerist ends) are exposed as “sketches of calculated concepts” (2011: 43). Flusser’s navigation of human creative expression and interpreting layers of consciousness is further clarified by his later theme of bodily gestures (2014). Human experience and interpretation of ways of “being” and existing in the cultural context may be more authentically realized through non-digital gestures, such as making a mark on a physical object. It is true that this consciousness-making act can still obscure original meaning, however it appears that there is less room for manipulation than in the emerging technical world that is dominated by media imagery.

The theoretical complexity of symbolic interactionism, a term that denotes how people react to events and objects based on the meanings they have already attributed (Blumer 1962), is consolidated by Flusser in both Gestures and Into the Universe of Technical Images. In the aforementioned text, Flusser’s theory of human movements—“gestures”—and the role they play in creatively expressing degrees of consciousness provides a dialectical perspective towards the understanding that processes of meaning making are invested in bodily performance alongside cognitive interpretation. In basic terms, critical awareness of human interaction and personal/collective meaning making is performed through the gestures used by humans to “facilitate” layers of consciousness (Flusser 2014). Flusser’s nuanced study of human consciousness and acknowledgement of the vague and interpretative ground on which reality is understood evolves through a comparative analysis of both texts. Through saliently developing insight into how our interpretation of both gestures and technological images is increasingly abstract and reliant on a mirage of understanding and reality, Flusser capitulates that the embodied art of interpretation is one that cannot be understood through a single lens. Instead, Flusser states that “with all these improbable possibilities … I have still not yet come to the core of my universe … I play with images not to exist in a particular way but to coexist” (2011: 127). Indeed, the art of studying both gestures and technological images is articulated as the study of embodiment—how a person interacts with their own understanding of a movement or image is at the locus of our future and structures of coexistence within society.

References

  • BlumerHerbert. 1962. “Society as Symbolic Interaction.” In Human Behaviour and Social Process: An Interactionist Approach ed. Arnold M. Rose. Boston179192: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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  • FlusserVilém. 2000. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Trans. M. Chambers. London: Reaktion Books.

  • FlusserVilém. 2005. “Thought and Reflection.” Flusser Studies 1: 17.

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  • FlusserVilém. 2014. Gestures. Trans. Nancy Ann Roth. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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  • HanleyFiona. 2014. “X: The Gesture of Essaying.” Flusser Studies 18: 119.

  • MeadGeroge. 1982. Mind Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dance the Image Away: A Philosophical Reading of Michiel Vandevelde’s Antithesis: The Future of the Image

Reviewed by Kristof van Baarle, Ghent University

The young Belgian choreographer Michiel Vandevelde’s performance Antithesis: The Future of the Image (2015) could well be described as a choreographic essay. Permeated with thought and text, his body and movements communicate a strong desire to tell something to the audience. Combining text and body to develop thoughts, Antithesis is clear example of what performance philosophy can be. An interview and a booklet with several essays, texts, and images accompany the performance and deepen its reflections. However, to consider Antithesis a purely intellectual project would not honor Vandevelde’s work, since it also speaks to the spectator’s affects and emotions. Anger, sadness, abandonment, shared despair and finally, hope, touch the attentive spectator in subtle ways. So let us “read” this choreographic essay and unfold its many layers.

The audience is seated on stage, facing the theater stage and auditorium, which is completely empty, only empty seats and the architecture of the theater hall. We are greeted by Vandevelde, who briefly introduces his performance. A blackout indicates the start of an organ arrangement of pop songs such as Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” or Adele’s “Someone Like You.” A projection screen comes down in the middle of the auditorium and text is projected. Through this format, we are informed about the evolution of images and news media in our times. The critical tone of the text compels the spectator to read and shows the urgency with which Vandevelde wants to involve us in this topic. Referring to Neil Postman (1985), Vandevelde’s text warns us: “We are amusing ourselves to death, unaware of the fact that technology has become a tool for surveillance and the image a mere tool for seduction. We are ignorant about the apparatuses that increasingly take over control.”

During the text projection, there are no other visual stimuli; the audience is ‘forced’ to focus on the text and its content. Only the organ versions of pop songs occasionally smooth the collective reading moments, which are alternated with dance scenes by Vandevelde. Naked, he enters the stage and dances a series of movements quoted from Beyoncé, “Gangnam Style,” Nicki Minaj, and other comparable global pop culture phenomena. Vandevelde relates with the audience, looking at us, sometimes with a glance of boyish innocence; at other moments, anger and determination speak from his facial expression and eyes. The dance moments allow us to reflect on the projected text and are closely related to what is being told. The omnipresence of images, their technicality and embeddedness in a neoliberal economy, deeply influences the human body (Mulder 2004: 7). Media not only alter the way we communicate through language and physical signs, but also act as a decisive tool in our political potential, a tool that is thwarted and taken away from citizens by addressing them only as consumers. Vandevelde embodies these rather theoretical reflections through his choreographic practice of quoting and appropriation. Apparently lacking its own movement material, this fully commercialized and controlled body is the result of the advanced Society of the Spectacle Vandevelde protests against. His body is like a puppet executing the movements that characterize the culture and economic-political system on whose strings it is attached. A body consisting of quotes presents a figure of bare life—Giorgio Agamben’s notion indicating the reduced life forms produced by totalitarian systems, of which hypercapitalist democracy might be one—which in contemporary democracies is a very recognizable body, one that performs pop dances and that cannot stop moving. This might be the performative image of what Agamben described when he stated that humanity has lost its gestures (2000: 49). We have lost them to popular culture, to commodification, and have lost the ability to “move” outside this spectacular plane of representation. All has become an image, changing our social relations (Debord 1967: 10) and turning democracy’s citizens to docile bodies or bare life (Agamben 1998: 9).

However, Vandevelde’s facial expression does not express merely victimhood; there is protest, daring, and control. A resistance grows throughout the performance and an evolution from slavish adaptation to the imposed movement towards consciously adopting and thus appropriating movements, occurs.1 Consciously quoting is a different practice than being passively composed of representations. In a very Agambenian style—which could be summarized as a constructive deconstruction, the search for opportunities for saving when all seems lost—Vandevelde seizes the contemporary condition in the Society of the Spectacle of a bare life oppressed by representation as an opportunity to unveil the working of this apparatus and as such rendering it inoperative. Vandevelde exposes through his body (and for that matter also in his use of music) and practice of appropriation the apparatus of Spectacle. In this way, he creates what Agamben (2000: 58) has called a true gesture, by showing “the mediality of the medium.” The practice of quoting leads to a “being in representation,”2 a subjectless being, which is no longer entangled in the Spectacular apparatus but nevertheless does not cease showing it. Both the text and the choreography are after the same goal: showing and dismantling the oppressive system of images in the late capitalist age of Spectacle. This is what is at stake in “Thesis,” part 1 of the performance. Consciously taking on the straitjacket of commercial representation, Vandevelde creates a figure, a radical form of the homo sacer, someone who could be killed but not sacrificed, the ultimate bare life between subject and object, between oppressed and ungraspable, which leaves its oppressors powerless (Agamben 1998: 104).

The quotation practice connects to another reflection on contemporary Spectacle as well. Agamben (and also Byung-Chul Han, among others) have pointed out that today we have become our own exploiters, indicating a shift from a disciplinary society to a society of control (a shift announced earlier by Gilles Deleuze). On social media, users upload their most intimate data and expose themselves to a Spectacle that no longer works top-down (as described by Debord), but grows in grassroots manner. Vandevelde’s appropriation can also be read as a critique of this self-inflicting condition, adding a layer to the already complex combination of oppression and resistance at work in Antithesis. The simultaneity of oppression and resistance in one body and in one set of movements resembles a dialectics at standstill, a moment in which both thesis and antithesis are present and which might lead to redemption. “The dialectical image is … an unresolved oscillation between estrangement and a new event of meaning” (Agamben 2013: 29). Vandevelde creates a bipolar tension (Agamben 2013: 30) between docile and resistant body, between bare life alienated from itself and gestures reclaiming a singular identity.

The second part of the performance, “Antithesis,” proposes a radical shift in our dealing with images. In the “Thesis,” a philosophical and corporeal framework was presented in the text and worked out in the choreography. Part 2 leaves this behind and seeks for new ideas. Vandevelde chooses once more to build his argument from a selection of quoted texts and fragments. The principle of text alternated with movement remains in the beginning and evolves towards a simultaneous dialogue, where projection and bodily presence coexist. Quoting Jean-Luc Godard, Vandevelde points at how images and media have a profound and destructive political impact. Not only have we lost our own personal potential because of the dictate of the image, it also causes harm and death to the vulnerable bare life it creates. But ‘Antithesis’ does not reside in despair; there is hope. Quoting another text, this time by documentary maker Adam Curtis, Vandevelde presents us the anarchistic Marxist politics of Kurds in Rojava, resisting the (mediatized) violence of Daesh. Amid all the chaos and destruction, something new and hopeful is blooming. Here, the focus of Antithesis starts to shift towards new opportunities. Following Curtis’ text, other quotes and images are projected. The images are distortions of publicity images of Levi’s that where shown at the beginning of the performance. Their content is blurred, or rather deconstructed by showing and enlarging the pixels in the digital image—a glitch. This intervention operates thus simultaneously on the level of the technical and the content, showing once more how these two dimensions are closely intertwined. The gap between image, technicality, and meaning is opened up and the articulation between them is revealed—a second Agambenian gesture showing the medium’s mediality.

Whereas Vandevelde’s body in the “Thesis” is moving franticly, infused by pop culture’s and neoliberalism’s representations that are described in the accompanying text projections, it becomes a body at rest in the second part. A touching parallel occurs between the resistance and alternatives presented in the text and voiceover and the calmness that comes over the dancer. As though he no longer has to fight, no longer has to perform to keep up with an inhuman system, Vandevelde can let his body be washed over by the words and darkness in the theater. The lights dim, and his body becomes a silhouette. At the moment when there is a more positive message being developed, Vandevelde remarkably creates himself an image with his own body, using theatrical means. Lying down at the far end of the stage, in near darkness, his body seems to hover. The image thus created remains ambiguous, between peaceful inactivity and death.

Antithesis calls for a radical change in our relation to images. Vandevelde summons us to return to reflection and thought. Not in a purely rational, logocentric way, but implying the body and perhaps even more, the time and space of the theater, as a free space, an antidote for the Spectacular outside. This is not a claim for sterile intellectualism, but for a more empowered and informed position vis-à-vis the technologies and media surrounding us. The world lies not in the image, it lies in us, in our potential. The empty theater space is up for discussion itself in Antithesis. The premiere took place in a former socialist theater in Ghent, Belgium, where the slogan “art ennobles” adorns the stage. Is art still empowering? Does it succumb to a society of images, production, positive messages, fun, and pleasure? Or can the theater turn its black box into a space for alternative worlds again? Creativity might be the only way out of the tautological loop of late capitalism and its corresponding politics and entertainment. Antithesis deconstructs the necessity of Spectacle in the first part, to open up for contingency in the second, suggesting another way. This reads as a plea for potentiality as opposed to actuality. Potentiality goes against necessity and opens up new possibilities—possibilities for our relation with images and technology, for politics and economics and for new uses of the body. Agamben characterizes potentiality as the ability not to do something (1999: 186), such as the ability not to show images, the ability to not have to move or copy existing gestures, and the ability to adopt, to consciously quote in a free manner.3 The choreography in Antithesis claims the theater as a space for this potentiality to develop. First by turning the gestures of Spectacle into a decontextualized repertoire one can move through consciously, then by returning to peaceful inactivity. In a final scene, Vandevelde lowers the projection screen, uncovering the strong light of the projector behind it. It is a beautiful moment, which holds a profound aesthetic and political encouragement, which might sound like the Godard quote used in the performance: If you want to see the world, close your eyes.

Notes
1

I refer here to Bernard Stiegler’s notions of adaptation and adoptation, the first indicating an unconscious, submissive relation toward an object, the second a conscious understanding and controlled relation with the object (2013: 101–102).

2

This is also a notion of Agamben, stemming from The Coming Community, an elaboration of which would take this review too far.

3

Building on Aristotle’s notion of dynamis, for Agamben, potentiality is always impotentiality, the possibility-not-to. In the final volume of the Homo Sacer-cycle, Uso dei corpi, he investigates a mode of action—“use”—which could be described as action in potentiality. (Im-)potentiality, thus, does not merely imply inactivity as resistance, it opens up new ways of doing.

References

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  • AgambenGiorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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  • AgambenGiorgio. 1999. Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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  • AgambenGiorgio. 2000. Means without Ends: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vinccnzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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  • AgambenGiorgio. 2013. Nymphs. Calcutta: Seagull Books.

  • DebordGuy. 1967. La Société du Spectacle. Paris: Éditions Buchet/Chastel.

  • MulderArjen. 2004. Over mediatheorie: Taal beeld geluid en gedrag. Rotterdam: V2 NAi Publishers.

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Contributor Notes

Peter Lurie is the author of Vision’s Immanence: Faulkner, Film, and the Popular Imagination (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) and of American Obscurantism: History and the Visual in U.S. Literature and Film (Oxford University Press, forthcoming), as well as the co-editor with Ann J. Abadie of Faulkner and Film (University Press of Mississippi, 2010). He is Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Richmond and in 2015 was the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Warsaw. His current research project is provisionally titled Black Evanescence: Cinema’s Racial Ontology from Analogue to Digital.

Dr. Antonio Sanna completed his PhD at the University of Westminster in London in 2008. His main research areas are English literature, Gothic literature, horror films and TV, epic films, and cinematic adaptations. His publications include articles on Beowulf, Jane Austen’s novels, Dracula, Victorian ghost stories, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and The Lord of the Rings. He has also published articles on films such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Batman films, the Alien quadrilogy, the Harry Potter films, and the Twilight, Underworld, and Terminator sagas. He has contributed to the compilation of four encyclopedias.

Hansen Hsu is a Curator of the Center for Software History at the Computer History Museum. Hsu received his PhD in Science and Technology Studies from Cornell University in 2015, with a dissertation titled “The Appsmiths: Community, Identity, Affect and Ideology among Cocoa Developers from NeXT to iPhone.” From 1999 to 2005, Hsu worked at Apple, Inc. as a Quality Assurance Engineer on Mac OS X. Hsu received his BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of California, Berkeley in 1999 and his MA in History from Stony Brook University in 2007.

Ella Houston is currently completing a PhD at Lancaster University, focusing on the representation of disabled women in Anglo-American advertising, from a feminist disability studies perspective. Her research interests include the following: cultural disability studies, feminist disability studies, advertising, and subjective well-being. She also teaches disability studies in the Department of Disability and Education at Liverpool Hope University.

Kristof van Baarle is a research scholar at Ghent University with a PhD fellowship of the Research Foundation, Flanders. His research focuses on critical post-humanism, Giorgio Agamben, and Kris Verdonck. Kristof has published about these topics in several journals, including DOCUMENTA, Performance Research, Etcetera, along with book chapters in edited volumes. He also works as a dramaturge for Kris Verdonck/A Two Dogs Company and is an editor of the Belgian theater journal Etcetera.

Screen Bodies

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Experience, Perception, and Display

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    • Export Citation
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