(The paper formerly know as Good Vibrations: Time as Special Effect)
Keynote address for “Honey Your Digitalia Are Showing: A Symposium on the Cultures of Time and the Everyday,” organized by Public Access in conjunction with the Images Festival of Independent Film and Video, Innis College, University of Toronto, April 15, 2000.
1. Why digital realism is not indexical
I’ve been discussing time and digital media for a while now. It strikes me that alongside arguments we need to make about, for example, the crash as a specifically digital temporality that brings the ephemeral to centre stage, we also need to understand what history means, no longer as a mode of monumentalisation, but as a coming to terms with the kind of loss that confronts us everyday when a freeze or a crash takes our hard work away. As it happens, I bumped into an essay a few days ago that provides the opportunity to think over the larger scale implications of transience as a characteristic of digital aesthetics.
The essay appears in a new publication from the Edinburgh College of Art, TwoNineTwo. In the opening essay of the launch issue, Paul Willemen asks some searching questions about the risks that emerge as the digital media alter the indexicality of the analogue. In the process of analysis he returns to Eisenstein, because of
the suspicion that sooner or later, some techno-fetishist is bound to invoke, abusively, Eisenstein’s name in a celebration of the internet or computer-based art. I suspect that for this abuse of Eisenstein, his particular notion of mimesis, commented on by Misha Yampolsky in Eisenstein Reconsidered, will be invoked. Yampolsky quoted Eisenstein’s speech to the filmmakers of La Sarraz in 1929: “The age of form is drawing to a close. We are penetrating behind appearance into the principle of appearance. In doing so we are mastering it.” Yampolsky then went on to argue that for Eisenstein, the issue was to represent “the essential bone structure” underpinning and shaping reality rather than its surface appearance. No doubt some techno-fetishist will latch on to that formulation to claim that this is precisely what digital imaging and ‘new media’ enable. This claim may be further elaborated with reference to Eisenstein’s emphasis on drawing, painting and the iconic quality of the cinematic and the photographic image (Willemen 2000, 7–8).
My interest is piqued, since I quoted this rather obscure article from a 1988 volume of conference proceedings in my book on Digital Aesthetics a few years ago. This was how I deployed the quote in a chapter on Virtual Realism, part of whose mission was to establish that mechanical perception in both analogue and digital forms retains its indexical quality through the relationship established among images, a relationship which, I argued, forms a ‘society’ which enables a socialised mode of communication otherwise disenabled by the hyperindividuation characteristic of accelerated modernity.
In his debates with the radical Kino-Eye director Dziga Vertov, Eisenstein replied to criticisms that his story-films were in hock to the fictionalisations of the entertainment film by critiquing Vertov’s espousal of the documentary. Raw reality, unorganised, could never achieve maximal effectivity, and could never form part of the overall subordination of the film’s moments to its architectonics, its montage (Eisenstein 1988). Instead, Eisenstein argued the case for a cinema which would escape the magical powers of mimesis through an emphasis on composition, on the mise en scène, the frame, the shot, the editing and the whole film. Documentary was mere imitation. Like the sympathetic magic that drives a betrayed lover to destroy photos of the philanderer, or the symbolic objects surrounding a dead pharaoh, or the stock markets trade in “objects that only exist on paper,” for the documentary, “The difference between form and reality is non-existant” (Eisenstein 1993, 68). The speculative regime dreams of managing reality through formal manipulations. But these magical administrations, in mirroring form alone, ape events without grasping their structure. In their place Eisenstein argues for a vision that pierces the secrets of matter, that reveals what lies beneath the surface, the bones beneath the skin (see Yampolsky 1993). He declaims “Mastery of principle is the real mastery of objects” (Eisenstein 1993, 67), and in an early draft even speaks of “Man as means.” Not even the human is sacrosanct in the demand for a visual art dedicated to unearthing the paucity of the present and the immanence of the future... Eisenstein’s purpose as pedagogue and practitioner was to move from [the] purity of autonomous illumination to a social relation between filmmaker and audiences through the establishment of a social relation between shots, a relation which would transform the contents of the individual frames or the sequence. In place of the economic model of exchange, Eisenstein aims for the social model of dialogue between frames. Unlike Baudrillard’s succession and erasure of every image by the next, Eisenstein creates a society among his images. However, the internationalist ambition of Eisenstein’s cinema bred a sense of cinema as universal language, or more specifically, a universal translation machine, whose purpose, to join human to human in the revolution, transcended and subordinated the claims of images to their own reasons for being. In the attempt to make a generalisable technique, montage falls prey to rationalist universalism (Cubitt 1998, 43–4).
The model in the back of my mind was that proposed by Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Task of the Translator,” which offers a metaphor which seems as apposite to the transitions between analogue and digital as it is to both the problem of translation and the ethics of interpretation:
Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a larger vessel (Benjamin 1969, 78).
The great difference between the Eisenstein and Benjamin is that the latter believes the universal language is made in the process of translation, while for Eisenstein it is already presumed as a Leninist class faculty that needs only to be mobilised in the machinery of the Party.
One of the problems with Willemen’s approach is that it defines its aesthetic in terms of indexicality: in terms of visual coding. This is already weak as a way of understanding some key codes of cinema, especially editing but also music. It is entirely too parochial a view for digital aesthetics, which is only partially visual. It is also, very obviously, sonorous. Crucially, it is also dependent on a set of practices which humanist intellectuals have become loath to discuss: practices associated with the workplace, notably cartography, cataloguing and double-entry book-keeping. In geographic information systems (GIS), statistical data is arranged in correlation with spatial data to provide maps for scientific and marketing purposes; the database is an extended catalogue that adds record-keeping, filing and complex, multi-dimensional records to the old index card, and uses early twentieth-century concepts of library information retrieval to power search engines and bots; while the accountancy procedures became the Lotus 1-2-3 definitive killer app for the first desktop machines. In this context, trying to define digital media by analogy with storytelling and realist depiction is like trying to define an ocean liner by means of its furniture.
Most of all, however, the humanist approach advocated by Willemen misses entirely what Gelernter (1998) calls the aesthetics of computing: the specific elegance, simplicity, effectiveness and sheer aesthetic pleasure of software design. Why is Windows 2000 so much less attractive an environment than Mac 1984? Why is Word 98 the clumsiest of all possible word-processors (with the exception, of course, of the next version of Word)? Gelernter uses Ted Nelson’s term, “featuritis.” Critical Art Ensemble (1996) use the phrase “redundant functionality” for the same phenomenon: the excrescence of features and functions added on to the basic programme, ostensibly to increase its usefulness but actually to get it to do useless and unwanted actions that eat memory and clutter the screen with pointless objects and unnecessary advice (I particularly dislike Word 98’s desire to correct my English and its presumption that I want to edit whole words rather than individual letters––yes I know I can turn it off, but it takes fifteen precious minutes burrowing in appallingly nested sub-menus to find the button, and meanwhile I can’t even preview the font menu).