May 27, 2015
[This post constitutes me thinking out loud in a forum not as ephemeral as social media. If you want to start a fight, the comments here or elsewhere would not be the place to do it. E-mail me instead.]
In 2008, this scholar Timothy Murray published a book on the “digital baroque,” in which he’s arguing for a Deleuzian connection to early modern aesthetic forms in contemporary art films by Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and Peter Greenaway, among others. Murray argues that cinema has both helped structure modern perceptions and has simultaneously “folded in on itself” along with other, earlier art forms such as painting. This has led to a shift in cinematic and new media creations toward manic, quasi-mystical meditations that conflate technology and spirituality in a glorious aesthetic mess.
In 2015, there was this Australian/American/Namibian/South African co-production called Mad Max: Fury Road that – in my mind – actually exemplifies what I’m calling the “digital baroque” Maybe one could call it the “21st Century baroque?”
Anyway, this Mad Max film is an absolutely important entry in our contemporary film-theoretical discourse, crossing between media history, nerdy world-building, and socio-political activism without sacrificing its own integrity as a simple production that remains legible to any audience. It stands next to sci-fi works such as Dredd (2012) and Snowpiercer (2013) in this respect…. though we can debate as to how.
It bridges between the paranoid and socially critical sci-fi of the 1970s such as the Parallax View (1974) and Silent Running (1972), the greatest of American and Italian westerns, and the possibilities afforded by digital painting and editing tools. It models rigorous, consequential writing and storyboarding, even though many of the names and visual concepts might very well have come from a 14 year-old boy or girl’s private sketchbook.
I am aware that many posts have been made on Mad Max: Fury Road, especially with regard to its aesthetics and openly feminist social politics. It has been called “the future of pulp.” Our massive data aggregators Google and Twitter have been so bombarded with information about this film made by 70 year-old director George Miller that even they are struggling to keep up with The Conversation about this film. My speculation is that the film is re-opening specific debates that were shut down in the transition between the wild and weird Hollywood experimentations of the 1970s and the blockbuster-formula quests of the 1980s: How much punishment can be dealt to male figures? Is there world-building that transcends the marketing of products? Should women link together into a grand sisterhood with their male allies to fight the heteropatriarchy? Questions, questions.
Or one could frame it like this: Most audiences do not remember or discuss the 1st or 3rd Mad Max films, but rather Road Warrior (1981), which this popular fourth entry most resembles. The first film is filled with male-charged sexual violence in the same way as its predecessor A Boy and His Dog (1975), while the third film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) has been continuously accused of being “clunky” and ambiguous at best. This Australian film series has incited thoughts and discussion about societies of absolute scarcity, but has also received askance looks from the film community for its bizarre qualities. Simply put, Miller has (rightly) turned toward a more “baroque” pulp production aesthetic and unambiguous political program in order to bring the woolly elements of the 1st and 3rd films into the blockbuster formula of the 2nd.
Wikipedia tells us baroque things use “exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur.” Mad Max: Fury Road is a film relentlessly edited and adjusted to fit a lay audience, with frame-rates tweaked on individual shots and careful attention paid to continuity and physics of otherwise utterly ridiculous car creations. Exaggeration and excess pour out of every pore of the skin of this film, but care has been taken that the basics – can I see this character’s eyes? what is happening in this shot? who is in control here? – are not overwhelmed. The gender politics, which have received a well-deserved heap of attention, at least give us a breath of fresh air with regard to the agency and capabilities of specific marginalized groups. (Although don’t get me started on the race politics of the film.)
Such technique is how a film so batshit crazy on so many levels can also seem cool, collected, disciplined. Moreover, Mad Max: Fury Road makes many of its peer genre films seem ponderous, phoned-in, mired in artistic and fiscal conservatism.
How are Dredd and Snowpiercer also related to Mad Max: Fury Road?
Well, for one thing – Hollywood seems less involved in their creation than usual. Dredd is a British / South Africa co-production, Snowpiercer a South Korean / Czech co-production. Such sci-fi films have permitted their directors and crew relative free rein over their resultant content, meaning creative experimentation beyond the Hero’s Journey-driven, Chosen One SFX vehicles that any film budgeted above $150 million usually become. Another aspect would be their direct, careful engagement with the basic tools of filmmaking. These are serious films that do not take themselves as deadly seriously as those of Christopher Nolan or J.J. Abrams, who pride themselves on adding random plot twists to otherwise pat genre narratives. They reference earlier productions without screaming from the hilltops like Tarantino that THEY KNOW EARLIER FILM HISTORY DAMMIT. The lay viewer can “get” the film – and be challenged by it – without previous fan buy-in or loads of film-history background. This is a good thing for a culture genuinely ignorant of such meta-level details and expecting their apps, hotel-room-ordering and video-game tutorials alike to be immediately user-friendly. All three films structure their action around a concrete dystopian scenario that a 5 year-old could get, and then pack them full of immediately persuasive cinematic details. Slo-Mo makes your life like an awesome, colorful music video. There’s an Ax Gang protecting this train. Nux has a V-8 engine tattooed on his chest. The redundancy becomes both necessary and an art form in of itself. Finally, each film offers a genuine digression from dominant paradigms of gender and social representation: Curtis and Edgar can have a queer relationship, Furiosa can be competent in charge, Dredd can sincerely respect his female colleague. Racial and ethnic diversity as found in several of the recent Fast and Furious films has become increasingly visible across these productions, although this area is need of improvement.
So yeah, “baroque” is the word I’ll continue to use and develop.
21st Century baroque?
As a German instructor and an alumnus of the Iowa City School District (’00), I feel obliged to post this open letter of protest against the closing of the German program in the Iowa City Schools.
April 11, 2014
Dear Superintendent Stephen Murley and the Board of the Iowa City School District,
We the undersigned request that you cease plans to phase out the German program in the Iowa City School District starting in the 2014-2015 school year. We understand that the district has a temporary budget shortfall, but can assure you that the disastrous effects of phasing out German would be permanent.
German is a language widely recognized as a foundation for excellence. There are economic, cultural and historical reasons for this fact. Germany remains not only one of the most robust economies in the European Union, for example, but also one tied into a productive international network of innovations and ideas. Over 1 million Americans work for German companies. A March 11, 2014 editorial in The Economist argues that students who choose to learn German are better positioned to supply their skills in a market over-saturated with Spanish and French-language speakers. German-speaking cultures have significantly contributed to modern thought and, with only 3-5% of contemporary German works being published in English translation per year, volumes of new research and fiction are being overlooked by an English-language-only market. Given the fact that not only 15% of Americans are of German ancestry but also that German is the fourth most frequently spoken language (other than English) in American homes, the relevance of German to our local and national heritage is indisputable.
Phasing out German is akin to directly denying economic and academic opportunities to your students from the Iowa City area. Numerous German-speaking alumni have gone on to successful careers in academia, law, medicine and finance. The primary author of this letter has just become an assistant professor in German Studies at a research I university. Alumni have been able to immediately major in the language in institutions of higher education, and create active intercultural connections while studying abroad on grants or other programs. These opportunities simply would not have been available, had the Iowa City School District not provided the baseline support for German language education from 7th through 12th grade. Students learning German in middle school, high school and college have an incredible advantage in securing a job in our global society over students who possess no foreign language skills. It is a well-known fact that the study of German at grades 7-12 exposes students to numerous higher-order thinking and study skills they urgently need to prepare them for a successful college experience and an enhanced quality of life. All evidence points toward this program remaining a good investment.
Lean times usually cause us to re-assess priorities. Yet German language education remains a fairly inexpensive and reliable way of keeping the Iowa City School District “child-centered” and “future-focused,” as advertised on the website. Indeed, money should be invested in opportunities for children and their future, and keeping German is a solid investment. Canceling the language signals a move within the district toward other priorities, namely the support of the administration over the needs of the students. It also signals a most regrettable neglect of foreign language skills needed by our students to stay competitive with the worlds’ economies. In many, if not most, countries outside the USA, most children start learning foreign languages at age 10. The US simply cannot afford to deprive our children of the same advantages most students receive in most European countries as well as in China and many other countries.
Thank you in advance for considering our letter, and we hope you make the right decision to maintain support for German language education in the district.
Dr. Evan Torner
Dr. Johanna Schuster Craig
Dr. Glenn Ehrstine
Dr. Vance Byrd
Dr. Dan Reynolds
Dr. Berna Gueneli
Dr. Sigmund Barber
Dr. Jennifer Michaels
Dr. April Eisman
Dr. Mary Larew
Dr. Lauren Stefaniak
Dr. Felicia Kruse Alexander
Ben & Carolyn Van Zante
Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba
Sonia and Ronald Ettinger
Jeneane O’Toole Stepan
Dr. Jonathan Skolnik
Dr. Larson Powell
Dr. Henning Wrage
Jenny Gringer Richards
Dr. Caroline Kita
Jenny Hilsenrad Graff
Lisa Anne Scism
Dr. Erin Alice Cowling
Dr. Carrie Shanafelt
Sarah Karniski Rasch
Stanley P. Nuehring
Sara Neymeyer Eisenberg
Horst R. Jordan
Mary Jo Hockmuth
November 25, 2013
Facebook is what you might call a vulgar expression of that network, a vast human information-gathering service that interpenetrates business, art, personal, and public spheres with equal impunity. In this respect, Facebook is not unique: Google, Microsoft, Apple — these are all companies that have built business models around the harvesting and control of global information flows. The recent NSA scandal has only sharpened global interest in these for-profit surveillance industries, but only the naïve could have earlier thought that all the personal information supplied to these industries was simply being tucked aside somewhere, unexamined and encrypted. On the contrary, the dot-com crash of the late 90s more-or-less drove market models specifically toward the following end state: users are brought in with “free” products, and then the users themselves become the product. James Schirmer has recently described such “services” as “institutionware.” Here I excerpt his argument:
Institutionware is software that supports and maintains traditional ideas under the guise of providing a service. … The aims of institutionware: decrease user agency, increase user dependency, preserve market dominance, contain “features” … Institutionware decreases user agency and increases user dependency by demanding and reinforcing user compliance. … Institutionware preserves market dominance through a blanket of equivalence in systems and users. Even limited use propagates further use. … Instititutionware is about preserving the institution as it is and has been, enhancing/supporting rather than challenging/threatening.
To return to the idea of the network: there is an overdetermined quality to how we are seen today as being “plugged in.” What if the voluntary nature of our being interpenetrated by digital networks is fundamentally flawed? That is, Facebook would rather see us never log out, than see us engage in other forms of networking (face-to-face conversation, letter writing, reading each other’s books, etc.) What if, given our consent to be plugged into just a little, we have consented to a whole-scale strip-mining of our digital identities for profit? But this is not Facebook’s fault; it is, rather, a company “merely” trying to survive in an exceedingly regressive, reactionary business climate that privileges only establishment ideas and passes the consequences of “social change” onto the consumer, as per Ian Bogost’s idea of hyperemployment.
So many of us depend on Facebook, not only for information but also employment and familial contacts. So much of Facebook relies on such co-dependency, and our present-day obsession with the service (before it is replaced by something even more megalomaniacal) should give us pause about the kinds of drugs peddled here in the 21st Century. Why rely on chemicals, when the digital can give each and every one of us our fix for free?
Free for a price, of course.
September 18, 2012
How ephemeral is that which we type with our thumbs?
And if it’s so ephemeral, why do we commit so many moments of our limited lives to entering such text?
Importance itself, so it seems, has been awarded too much importance.
Ever wonder how, for example, Coca-Cola possesses so much clout in the world? Remember that their chief product is a sugary beverage that contributes little to human well-being and much to tooth decay and diabetes.
Coca-Cola gained its power by cornering the market on triviality.
Or in other words: in a system that privileges exchange-value, the winners are those who maximize this aspect of their product regardless of its use-value. Expenditures that might’ve been made to increase a trivial product’s use-value to the broadest possible demographic (I.e. making Coke products healthier) instead endeavor to increase the exchange-value in the minds of the target demographic. Triviality itself – the communication of Coke as a leisure product – becomes an asset in maintaining this exchange-value. And so the trivial takes on the thickness of hardened clay, a coldness worthy of finance capital’s indifferent gaze.
The heavy attention traffic flowing through the weightless center confers upon it the illusion of weight. Partaking in this illusion activates us, stimulates our social and sensorial instincts. We drink our Coca-Cola, tap out our messages with our thumbs, post on Facebook, precisely because the stakes on such activities have been set so low for us. The paradoxical effect of our involvement actually investing these trivial products with meaning does not become visible at the moment of contact, but only afterwards as metrics.
One spends 2 hours a day “on” Facebook.
One drinks 2-3 Cokes per week.
One taps out a single message on an iPhone over the course of 45 minutes.
Numbers heavy as lead, for an activity light as air.
Sent from my iPhone
September 13, 2012
[I have written a series of blog posts on paper entitled “Gedankenspiel” that I am entering verbatim into WordPress. The thought is that I write differently by hand than via computer.]
The pen is not only mightier than the sword, it’s mightier than the COMPUTER.
When I confront my students with the task of research, I usually present to them their mightiest tool:
Why this, in an age of smartphones, micro-cameras and ubiquitous information?
First of all, information is neither neutral nor ubiquitous.
It is invested, complicit, contextual, and throttled.
Invested, in that powerful interests support only certain information flows
Complicit, because the flows themselves impact the information available (McLuhan, Kittler)
Contextual, in that it cannot convey but a partial view of the given story
Throttled, because access even to the permitted information is part of someone’s profit model
You use your pen to invest in your own, simple information flow
The pen allows us to be selective about reality, because we by nature have to be.
No circuitboards or touch screens or operating systems stand between us and the comparatively simple algorithms of writing.
Pens afford a mastery over language, which is itself not only a means to power over others, but also over one’s own thoughts.
Should our notebooks be set alight, our memories, narratives and control over them blown away as ashes into the wind, then we shall use our pens to once again inscribe power – via the written word and image – into the personal realities we perceive.