Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

The aesthetics of flow and the aesthetics of catharsis

The aesthetics of flow and the aesthetics of catharsis

by Jay David Bolter

The primary thesis of the paper by Jay David Bolter is that there is a clear and critical distinction to be made between conventional linear narrative (film, television, etc.) and that of interactive narrative forms. I would like to argue the contrary, that there is in fact very little difference between the two forms in question. At least with regard to the experience for the viewer/participant. I would in fact go as far as to suggest that they are both elements of a feedback loop.

While gaming environments allow for interactive engagement, as opposed to pure transmission and subsequent (immediate or not) reception model of conventional narrative, they do still fall well within the traditional paradigm of conventional storytelling, and their content is guided by the well-proven conventions of traditional, linear narrative. The example of the film Inception was used by the author to illustrate the way in which gaming environments can inform contemporary filmmaking, thus creating the feedback loop. The situations that the user will encounter are, for the vast majority of interactive games, based on classical storytelling models, ie. protagonist, antagonist, physical challenges or obstacles to overcome, conflict between protagonist and antagonist, etc. In some cases, however, the user has the option to choose the role of antagonist, a lens of viewership that is in contrast to most traditional narrative. The vast majority of traditional narrative situates the viewer in the state of sympathizing with the protagonist. Interactive environments allow the participant to buck that convention by choosing the opposing role. Although a film viewer could experience the events on screen from this viewpoint, the storytelling often makes it difficult for him to naturally fall into this mindset.

If “Flow is the negation of desire”, as stated by the author, then could the same not be said about watching an episode of The Simpsons, a Fiona Apple concert, or a presidential address? Indeed, there will be an eventual completion, but it is never the end. The content presented could create subsequent scenarios purely within the mind of the viewer, creating his own epilogue to the recently completed experience. While watching any of the aforementioned events the viewer could be lost in the content with little or no thought to the inevitability of the completion ahead. Such flow is possible in any situation, real or digital. Flow, as characterized by Csikszentmihalyi, seems to be less about participation and more about spectatorship. The participant is not authoring her own experience as much as she is navigating a limited set of pre-ordained variables. The flow free-flow of creative writing or improvisation of any sort, would surely be closer to the height of such a state.

The Sturm und Drang of pop songs, video games, film, and television, although not congruent with the notion of flow, must exist contemporaneously in order for any invocation to exist that is compelling enough to hold the viewer/participant in flow. The music of minimalist composers such as Philip Glass, although repetitious, does contain sufficient variety of rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic content to create cadential imperative essential for any sort of forward motion. Even a repeated middle C on the piano, with careful listening, would contain a plethora of variations that could in essence become the Storm and Stress of the musical event. Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, although repetitious, is most certainly not repetitive. There is never a sense of inertia, rather a constant movement toward something. That something is the variable, the determinant, of which we are the authors during the process of experiencing the event.

Tony Vieira

Wed, January 16 2013 » futurecinema2_2012

5 Responses

  1. mkyork2013 January 16 2013 @ 11:29 pm


  2. Bartlett January 17 2013 @ 12:45 am

    I think you make some great points Tony. I’d like to follow up and mention a few things. When you mention the concept of gaming following the same notions of film/television, with respect to narrative. I can’t help but think of some more recent games released that stick to a strict storytelling format, playing out almost like an interactive movie. Most notably the PS3 game, Heavy Rain. For anyone not familiar with the game, watch the trailer.
    It definitely evokes a cathartic response while also maintaining some sense of flow.

    I would also like to pose the question does recognizing engagement negate flow or further solidify it? Bolter makes the comment about channel surfing as being the most common form of flow. While the action is still taking place, does recognizing being in that thus take you out of it and or further into it? I can’t help but think about an athlete in flow. For example, Michael Jordan’s now classic shrug moment.
    After getting into this area of flow, Jordan acknowledges to his teammates and fans that he is in flow. For Jordan it seemed to only build that continuing moment of flow. However I would argue, for the majority of people the recognizing of flow, in turn breaks it up and brings you back to another emotional state, or catharsis. IE recognizing a television show you want to watch while channel surfing and stopping on it.


  3. Radojka January 17 2013 @ 2:35 am

    “The Aesthetics of Flow and the Aesthetics of Catharsis” by Jay David Bolter

    Tony’s review of “The Aesthetics of Flow and the Aesthetics of Catharsis” by Jay David Bolter has brought up very interesting points and opened up space for more discussion on the main hypothesis of the text, namely, the differentiation between the linear – or ‘cathartic’, and interactive – or ‘flowing’, narrative forms.

    Even though the author, David Bolter, offers the film Inception as an example of how the concepts of ‘catharsis’ and ‘flow’ meet and blend into each other, in regards to their workings within the text and spectatorial reception, he prefers to position the two notions as independent theoretical entities for the purpose of achieving more freedom in finding their different inter-mutual relations. For example, while constituting the terms as theoretically ‘opposed’ to each other, he hopes to find examples of how the concepts operate, in either separated or combined form, within the different narrative methods.

    While seeing most of Hollywood films as an ‘embodiment’ of the cathartic storytelling principle, he perceives the world of video games as manifestation of the ‘flowing’ narrative mechanism. In a similar way, he sees the romantic tradition in classical music as being guided by the ‘cathartic’, while Baroque music by the ‘flowing’ musical organization. The main argument for his thesis comes from the presupposition that the romantic music from the 19th century relies heavily on the use of cadences and tonally oriented structures, while Baroque music uses counterpoint as the main tool of expression. While being theoretically ‘correct’, this viewpoint has to take into consideration the fact that most music, regardless of its stylistic orientation, has both the ‘tonal centre’ and ‘counterpoint organization’. For example, while Baroque composers indeed had a habit of creating a non-stop ‘monotonous’ rhythmical flow, the melodic component of their music didn’t lack neither a tonal centre nor a cadence. The Picardy Third is the best example of the ability of a cadence to establish a tonal centre and provoke ‘cathartic’ feelings in the audience. Given the fact that most of the music from that era had a strong religious inclination, the notion of ‘catharsis’, acquires even more weight. Therefore, even though the most lucid trait of Baroque music was its monotonous rhythmical ‘flow’, the harmonic quality of the cadence used to establish the tonal centre, revealed religious underpinnings behind its musical expression and hence, added a ‘cathartic’ dimension to its language.

    Whether the ‘flowing’ character of the music has a dominance over its build or its ‘cathartic’ element, depends on the judgement of a spectator. By using textual analysis, knowledge, investigation, basing his methods in his own cultural and social identity, a spectator decides for himself what the ratio of catharsis and flow within a narrative is. For example, the reduced presence of the ‘emotional climax’ in video games, seen through the eyes of a spectator raised on Hollywood films, can have a completely different intensity for someone who has never experienced emotional climax of a Hollywood film, or for someone that has never played a video game before. An audience that has never heard of the concept of the Picardy Third will have less engagement with the Baroque’s catharsis than Bach himself, who used it.

    Therefore, putting the concepts of ‘catharsis’ and ‘flow’ one against another, in an opposing fashion, can be a helpful method for clarifying and naming the distinctions that separate texts one from another. However, given the fact that the text is not a fixed entity that stands independently from the observer, and therefore, cannot keep a permanent status of its ‘cathartic’ and ‘flowing’ elements, the theoretical expansion towards the issues of spectatorship and its variables seems mandatory.

    Radojka Vrabac

  4. Radojka January 17 2013 @ 2:51 am

    As a follow up on my own response, I have several questions in regards to the same topic.

    In the same essay, Jay David Bolter, states that “contemporary audiences encounter film differently than in the past, because they are now accustomed to receiving media in what has been called a “polyaesthetic” fashion”. To which kind of audience is he referring to? Which part of it receives media “polyaesthetically” and to which extent?

    Radojka Vrabac

  5. cowboymoses January 17 2013 @ 11:52 am

    Just to add to the “flow” discussion, here is a list of six factors/elements of “flow.”

    Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi identify the following six factors as encompassing an experience of flow. [3]
    intense and focused concentration on the present moment
    merging of action and awareness
    a loss of reflective self-consciousness
    a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
    a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
    experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
    Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination they constitute a so-called flow experience.
    Wikipedia, 11:52 am, January 17, 2013