FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Vol. 4 No. 9, April 2000

 


 

Nina Zimnik

Media Histories and Digital Futures

 


 

 

 

 

_Cinema Futures: Cain, Abel or Cable? The Screen Arts in the Digital Age_

Edited by Thomas Elsaesser and Kay Hoffmann

Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1998.

ISBN: 90 5356 282 6 Hb; 90 5356 312 1 Pb

312 pp.

 

This anthology attempts to provide answers to questions that have for long been asked by film and media studies: 'Do cinema, television, video and digital media belong together at all? When one compares them, on what basis and by which criteria? If there is a family resemblance, what are the bonds keeping them together as well as the feuds that keep them apart?' (Elsaesser 10) These various 'bonds' and 'feuds' provide material for 22 case studies.

 

Godard's work presents a historic landmark in this discourse because he was the one who conceived of cinema and video as Cain and Abel. However, the subtitle of this book poses the conjunctive alternative: 'or cable', indicating that, historically, it was the specific relationship of cinema and video that interested scholars -- but new analytic and creative paths have been ventured in response to the rise of other media and overall technological and socio-political developments. The relationship between the two media did, of course, not end in slaying but, again looking back a few years down the discipline, seemed to beg for more complex differential comparisons instead. Contemporarily, it is has given way to studies involving a broad spectrum of medial as well as social and cultural parameters. The editors' thesis is that convergence and synergy between cinema, television, video, and digital media are mostly an effect of capitalism: 'what is holding the audio-visual, print and electronic media together is first of all their common social base: the mass-market-consumer, targeted by a huge and still hugely expanding service industry' (12). Other publications in Media Studies support this trend of thinking as well -- compare, for example, a recent call for papers by the journal The Velvet Light Trap. [1]

 

The book divides into four sections: Media Archaeologies, Cinema and Television, Documentary: The Digital Stage's First Casualty?, Digital Futures for Cinema.

 

In the first essay, 'Towards an Archaeology of the Computer Screen', Lev Manovich discusses all sorts of empirical screens, and comes to the conclusion that screens, though they neatly divide into three different forms, have always 'presented visual information for centuries' (27): the 'classical' screen, e.g. that of painting as well as that of computer screens, separates two spaces, the physical and the virtual; the 'dynamic' screen of television, video, and cinema can 'display an image changing over time' (28), and in virtual reality the screen has vanished. However, as descriptive as it may be, this essay is inscribed in a context where I feel film theory should matter to some degree. Yet, the author proceeds as if there had not been decades of elaboration of the status and function of the 'screen'. Christian Metz, Jacqueline Rose, Joan Copjec et al. have written about it, and have by no means just construed statements about the medium film. To Lacan and much of film theory and media philosophy, a screen simultaneously functions as a mirror and a veil, and Manovich's text calls up the story of Zeuxis and Parrhasios and their paintings that Lacan used to tell in order to show how you dupe a subject by presenting him with a screen: 'what one presents to him is a painting of a veil, that is to say, something that incites him to ask what is behind it'. [2] As Manovich writes: 'a screen is still a screen' (43).

 

In short, in the case of this anthology, I sometimes felt as if I was presented with intellectual trompe l'oeils. One is given information, frequently couched as 'theory' (some authors love the gesture of 'this is what I call '. . .''), but many pertinent arguments by philosophically oriented research were simply eclipsed. The book is also marked by a lack of awareness of current academic ethics of representation (none but 'class' ever enters the picture -- under the form of the monolithic force of 'capitalism').

 

It nevertheless does offer some well-wrought discussions, contextualizations, and genealogies of certain technologies, as well as a mix of innovative historical research and intelligent speculation -- of which the next text is an example. Thomas Elsaesser, one of the editors, writes about Louis Lumiere, asking whether he was 'cinema's first virtualist'. The text operates on various levels. For one, it is a contribution to early cinema studies, a field that has grown considerably over the past few years. Elsaesser throws the cudgels at film historians who still try to tell you 'how it really was' -- and yes, they have not died out after years of constructivism and poststructuralism. Elsaesser makes a case for 'a view prepared to think into history all those histories that might have been, or might still be'. (50). Film history must give substance 'to all kinds of other possible universes and alternative histories which human beings have imagined and tried to make real' (50). For two, film history is 'inconceivable if we cannot find in it the appropriate space that recognizes cinema's place in our dreams as well as in our industries' (50).

 

Traditionally, Lumiere has been seen as a realist and was studied with reference to documentary; it was the avant-garde of the sixties that did justice to his aesthetics, pointing out Lumiere's structural achievements and thus how early cinema differed from 'classical' norms. Elsaesser wants to make yet another step, namely by trying to put the aesthetic analysis into techno-historical perspective. He argues that Lumiere's 'way of looking . . . may have the simplest explanation in the presence and persistence of stereoscopy, which would therefore provide the historical-materialist basis for the formalist obsessions that the avant-garde filmmakers and critics 'recognized' in the films' (59).

 

The next text in the 'archaeology' section is by Edgar Reitz, the German filmmaker who will forever be remembered as the one who (only a few years ago!) constructed a German Heimat without Jews. (I still vividly recall attending the New York City screening at the Joseph-Papp-Theater in the early nineties -- i.e. days of this soap -- and some of the public being shell-shocked by the implications of the filmmaker's fantasies). Here, Reitz explains to you why 'the two major topics of the cinema are crime and sex' (64), and that Heimat, metaphorizing 'the deep-rooted dimension which is our private perception of reality' is an 'alternative concept' to 'cyberspace' (72).

 

In other texts, German art historian Siegfried Zielinski argues that 'classical television is historically obsolete' (73) and calls attention to the remarkable experiments of Alexander Kluge who managed to find a loophole in German private television channels to broadcast politically and aesthetically challenging projects. And the section closes with an essay by Vito Zagarrio, who offers an archaeology of the many other kinds of television we nearly had or might have had during the forties or fifties.

 

Section II deals with the relationship between cinema and television. It starts with an impressionistic text by 'an independent producer and media consultant' who has his own ideas about the definitive features of television and cinema, and shares his theses about what 'works' in these media.

 

Next comes a piece by Pierre Sorlin who compares the frequency and function of the close-up in cinema and television. Regrettably, this is yet another text without footnotes, although much of media theory in Sorlin's immediate academic environment, Paris, has long dealt with the issues of distance and closeness that are precipitated by television's heavy use of close-ups, see e.g. Jacques Derrida's _Echoes de la television_ or Sam Weber's _Mediauras_. The editors change perspectives on this piece: 'Sorlin's reflections . . . seem to point to the fact that European cinema's near-total dependence on television for funding, for primary distribution as well as for its cultural survival might imply that European art-cinema will have to engage more directly and more vigorously with Europe's diverse popular cultures' (19).

 

John Ellis presents a text that, in the words of the editors, 'moves beyond certain positions that have become obsolete' (19) in the television vs. cinema debate (why does this volume still offer them a forum?). What Ellis emphasizes is the fact that television and film create different (public) spaces.

 

In the Western world and, as far as I know, in much of Asia as well, television has profoundly affected cinema. Few feature films have been made in the last years without television directly financing, co-producing, or putting down an advance on the rights. Michael Eaton, a British writer who works for the television and film industries, contributed a funny, unpretentious, well-written text that, via examples from the UK media landscape, clearly relates the increasing mutual interdependence of these two institutions, a state of affairs caused by economic forces and leading to 'parasitic hybridisation' (142).

 

In his second contribution to the volume, Elsaesser discusses the US television series _Fantasy Island_. It is a playful, witty text that identifies 'dream logic' as the series' 'logic of production', notably engaging psychoanalysis to analyze the convergence of an economic regime and a regime of pleasure and, qua its theoretical sophistication, suggesting broader organizational principles of serialization beyond this particular case study.

 

The following section, 'Documentary: the Digital Age's First Casualty?', rehearses many arguments about representation and its truth value that have been asked a propos the documentary, but it also offers interesting case study material. I liked the article by media historian Brian Winston on the history of documentary. Winston focuses on the British situation and its strong tradition of the socially committed documentary, arguing against the view that 'television is responsible for making documentaries disappear from the movie theatres' (22). The second editor, Kay Hoffmann, a German who runs an institution devoted to documentaries, discusses a few new documentaries that use digital images in ways that serve to enlighten the viewer. In further texts, the only woman allowed into this volume, Joyce Roodnat, a Dutch journalist, writes about the differences in reception and production of documentaries (television vs. cinema); Stan Lapinski and Rene van Uffelen 'offer some complementary reflections about the documentary's brief history on the big screen in Europe' (22); and Lev Manovich closes the section with an article on representational technologies: older technologies were limited by the materiality of viewer's body; newer technologies, e.g. smart bombs and medical optics, provide 'the ability to remotely manipulate physical reality in real time through its image' (196).

 

'Digital Futures for the Cinema' is the last part of the book, and opens with Elsaesser's third text. His main argument is that 'the digital has come to function less as a technology than as a 'cultural metaphor' of crisis and transition' (202). If you consider, for example the narrative feature film, digitization 'is not what regulates or disrupts the system, whose logic is commercial, entrepreneurial or capitalist-industrial' (203). As a way out of the old debate about images and their truth claims, Elsaesser suggests to follow Lev Manovich, who called digital representation a 'graphic' as opposed to a 'photographic mode', and George Lucas, who likens his work to sculpture -- the idea is to undo ties with 'realism' and get away from the structures of indexicality. True to his intention to pave the way for multilayered entries into film and media history, Elsaesser argues that the truth status of the image does not depend on digitization per se, but could very well be a function of deregulation, i.e. of the fact that television is perhaps no longer trusted as a medium of record. Further, he reminds us that 'vision is only part of what makes the moving image 'real' to a viewer' (209) -- its 'reality' depends on the affective reception which, in turn, requires specific temporal structures of presencing. The article contains many thoughts on the refiguration of television and cinema as new media and the cultural implications of the changing status of cinema.

 

In the final texts of the volume, Ed Tan looks at the potential of television, suggesting, with regard to its limited aesthetics and technological shortcomings, that television is still a 'spoil-sport', which with 'a bit of computer intelligence' (226) could become a real 'game-maker' in the future. Then artist Grahame Weinbren describes interactive works of two kinds, 'the first based on the possibility of random access to material in a database [his own work], the second on digitization which leads to the computer's transformation of material in real time' [the work of electronic artist John F. Simon Jr] (239). In the twenty-second and last text, Martin Emele picks up on one of the interests of one of the funding institutions of this volume: the establishing of an integrated database that will enhance 'scientific understanding of archaeological sites' (257), namely of an excavation site in Turkey.

 

A few summary remarks are needed here about three areas. For one, we should not forget that this is an anthology, and therefore suffers from the typical problems endemic to this kind of publication. Coming from various levels of discourse, the contributions are uneven. Some pieces offer cursory overviews of the topic they treat, some -- and those were mostly the texts I appreciated -- treat very specific topics (and, except for a few pieces with a theoretical impetus, are at their best when they refrain from generalizations). Given the scope and thrust of the majority of the texts, one is tempted to say that part of their methodological commonality consists in fencing off media philosophy (and identity politics, see below). This book bespeaks the trend to historicist research in Film and Media Studies. Some of the texts are well-written, well-researched, and present original and intelligent contributions to media theory and/or film history.

 

Secondly, for a publication that is part publically financed it should certainly have allowed more voice to female perspectives: out of twenty-two contributions, only one was written by a woman. Why, we may ask, does the editor Thomas Elsaesser, who has after all contributed significantly to the development of feminist film theory (think of such pieces as 'Lulu and the Meter Man'), support such politics? Looking at the bibliographies, Elsaesser seems to be almost the only one who reads the relevant publications of women in the field, i.e. standards such as E. Ann Kaplan's and Patricia Mellencamp's anthologies on television.

 

Thirdly, in stark contrast to the call for a film history that includes 'all kinds of other possible universes and alternatives histories which human beings have imagined and tried to make real' (Elsaesser 50), this volume is Eurocentric, sometimes to the point of idiosyncrasy. Most texts abound with ontologies of television and cinema that belie the fact that media studies is a discipline in touch with the structures and technologies of global communication, and thus ought to know better than universalizing its local wisdom. Some of the contributors modestly circumscribe their intellectual endeavors, yet most of them have no sense about (their) speaking positions and, despite their affinity to semiotic conundrums, seem out of touch with the politics of representation. For instance, the forms of reception and production of the world's largest film industry, India (a country that has also been catapulted into the so-called digital age), are not part of the consciousness of the authors. Neither is Black Africa, where films are received under conditions that do not resemble Western screening conditions and contradict sweeping, putatively universal remarks about 'cinema in the age of . . .', or ''the' public space of cinema'. At times the reader might wonder whether they and the author live on the same planet at all: The fact that a white European man (still) sets forth the thesis that 'TV is characterized by use in private space' means he has never been to, say, a US sports bar; never watched a US show that presents this setting (most curious for a television scholar); i.e. never been to places in this world where watching television is a public affair, and never read up on secondary literature on the topic -- alas, stayed in his own, private 'Heimat' . . .

 

Foucault has taught us that -- despite claims to the contrary, ignorance of one's speaking position, or references to biblical ethics -- writing archaeologies or histories is not about truth, but articulates first and foremost effects of power structures. Add Paul de Man, who so eloquently described the space beyond old-fashioned, commendable research as a poetics of arbitrariness marked by 'blind and violent passion' [3] that structures desire, and you get a sense of the ideological energy underpinning much of this volume.

 

University of Hamburg, Germany

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. The call for papers was for an issue called: Diverse Audiences, Changing Genres: The Evolving Landscape of Film and Television in the Age of Specialized Audiences.

 

2. Jacques Lacan, _The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis_ (Norton: New York, 1981) p. 112.

 

3. Paul de Man, 'Heidegger's Exegeses of Hoelderlin', in _Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism_ (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 263.

 

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000

 

Nina Zimnik, 'Media Histories and Digital Futures', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 9, April 2000 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n9zimnik>.

 

  

 

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