Future Cinema

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

Flow – a steady continuous stream of something…

Thoughts on “The Aesthetics of Flow and the Aesthetics of Catharsis”

“What Csikszentmihalyi describes is not a new phenomenon. Flow can be evoked by activities that are common to many ages and cultures, and the flow state has something in common with states induced by forms of meditation or religious experience. But it does seem that our current cultural moment is pursuing the aesthetics of flow with special enthusiasm.” (Butler)

Bolter puts forth the premise that the aesthetics of flow and the aesthetics of catharsis both compete and cooperate in today’s media culture. I would agree with this concept. It is clear that an ongoing, uninterrupted, ‘flow’ like state is gaining traction within media consuming cultures. Whether it constitutes the end of desire vis-a-vis catharsis is another question entirely. Can cinema and games have both catharsis and flow? Are the two mutually exclusive? One could likely mount an argument that world building TV shows like Lost and Game of Thrones are an attempt to have both. Are momentary, cathartic, narrative plot points – that continually build and release, build and release, without end ‘flow’? It would seem in some respects that they are. Coronation Street, the Young and the Restless the WWF. These all seem to share unending narratives that could be described as ‘flow’ in some respects. Yet when game developers discuss ‘flow’ they are referring to a state of complete, immediate, mental immersion. Maybe a simple way of understanding its effects is can be found from the definition above. Perhaps the ‘something’ from this definition in narrative form could be ‘catharsis’ itself – repeated again and again. In game play the ‘something’ seems to heavily involve feedback loops.

“Flow is the negation of desire, as it has been represented in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century narrative and drama, because it does not move toward its own repletion.” (Butler)

I’m not sure flow is the negation of desire? Is not the state of flow, as described in Butler’s essay, the quintessential desire – it must keep going, without interruption. This is a desire is it not? What flow seems not to desire is resolution. Resolution is by definition the end and this is clearly not what ‘flow’ brings. From my perspective all of this talk of ‘flow’ is in many ways another way of engaging in the long understood spiritual concept and human want to ‘live in the moment’. Csikszentmihalyi, when speaking about ‘flow’ and sports, describes this autotelic engagement as one “of the most enjoyable and meaningful human activities”. Athletes often speak of being in the zone, a hard to describe level of human cognition, dancers often speak of connecting mind and body in this way too. ‘Flow’ is even a style of yoga now. My experience listening to top-level athletes is that there motivation often does not involve the resolution of winning (although clearly for some it does). I once had a discussion with an Olympic gold medal athlete about the use of drugs and musicians. My theory was that players like John Coltrane become addicted to drugs because they bridged the gap between when they are not ‘living in the moment’ (playing) and taking out the garbage. He shared with me the story of how during his gold medal performance he was full of what we might understand as ‘flow’. Nothing was in his mind except what he was doing. He describes it as a state of bliss in some respects. No peak, no valley. As Butler states, “Flow is emotionally monochromatic, and there is no lack to be filled: all the user wants is for the current state of satisfaction to be prolonged.” Then, at the moment he crossed the finish line (he won gold) he became instantly depressed. What he really wanted was for the moment, the bliss to continue. And for me this is the dichotomy of what is happening in our media landscape. ‘Flow’ does create desire, the desire to maintain a state of being. Perhaps one isn’t aware of this desire until it is gone but one could argue that the want still exists. Butler identifies how the concept of ‘flow’ is similar to many religious and meditative states. Perhaps within our growing secular society two seemingly opposing forces are at work – capitalism (a ‘flow’ like state of consumption) and this deep spiritual desire to ‘live in the moment’ are responsible for our current, cultural media landscape. In the end it would appear that the real answer and question lie in the ‘something’?

Mon, February 3 2014 » FC2_2014

One Response

  1. paskal February 6 2014 @ 12:13 am

    A flow by my opinion could be rather defined as a continuous desire to maintain an accomplishment of the desire.

    Because the desire is a state of mind (or state of body) that drives us to an accomplishment of the desire, (i.e. to its own end), while flow wants to maintain itself eternally. Maybe that is what Butler meant when he said that desire is negation of flow: the desire is in a way self-destructive, while the flow wants to auto-regenerate itself, it is desire to maintain the desire/accomplishment cycle.

    In state of hunger, when we are hungry we wish to end it though we wish to eat. The flow would be like hunger for hunger or hunger for the moment when we are about to accomplish our desire. A constant regenerative hunger for satisfaction. Or addiction to satisfaction. Or why don’t we put it more simple – the flow could be defined as a sort of gluttony. A gluttony for now, in case of video games. Because the ‘now’ state of mind is often good escape from tomorrow’s worries in a well defined/designed world where player’s efforts are appreciated and prized immediately.

    And if we accept that the flow is a gluttony , then no wonder why it is addictive. Because it is in its core an addiction to satisfaction.

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