Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Cinematic Life

“My aim then is to trace the history of this reconfiguration of the body through scientific techniques of motion recording and analysis—techniques that were used to put forth a model of the body as a dynamic, distinctly living and moving, system.”

Lisa Cartwright, 4

One of the themes emergent in Lisa Cartwright’s Screening the Body:  Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture is the way in which the ideas of Science, the cinematic, and Life are intertwined. Reading through Cartwright, I found myself continually referring back to a core set of questions:  How is life represented visually? By whom and why? How does the visual construction of life go on to influence popular understandings of the concept?

Although Cartwright decides to focus on the cinematic—a term that has less to do with actual film than a mode of seeing, observing, and projecting—I found myself thinking through how similar functions are performed by science/speculative fiction, natural history museums,  and science journalism as interfaces between scientific communities and the public. For me, the power of these spaces is very much tied to the way in which they allow Life to be visualized and, in so doing, influence the way(s) in which Life can be imagined.

Indeed, the very definition of what constitutes or comprises “life” at any given moment in history—which, I would venture, is not quite the same thing as the notion of being “alive”—has long been tied to what Science has been able to see. In an article for the digital magazine Aeon, Phillip Ball wrote the following about the impact of the microscope in early modern culture:

The 17th-century philosopher Robert Hooke echoed [Aristotole’s] wonder at nature’s invisible intricacy. It was his book, Micrographia (1665), that put microscopy on the map. Crucially, Hooke’s volume was not merely descriptive:  it included large, gorgeous engravings of what he saw through the lens, skilfully prepared by his own hand. The power of these illustrations was impossible to resist. Here were fantastical gardens discovered in mould, snowflakes like fronds of living ice and, most shockingly, insects such as fleas got up in articulated armour like lobsters, and a fly that gazes into the lens with 14,000 little eyes, arranged in perfect order on two hemispheres.

Sketch of a Flea by Robert Hook

Sketch of a Flea by Robert Hook

Although Hooke is a fascinating figure, Ball’s anecdote gestures toward the way in which the visual representation of life forms a key link between the observations of the scientist and the communication of those ideas to others.

Extending Cartwright’s analysis of graphic representations of life, I began to think about the ways in which contemporary culture has elected to represent life in visual media. One branch, I think, is aligned with immersive media and the trend for medical visualizations to become increasingly interactive. Recalling the ways in which the moving image challenged thinking based on microscopy and photography, it seems prudent to consider whether understandings of life will again be reconfigured in the age of 3-D and real-time.

For me, however, it is another form of life’s visual representation that presents a more pervasive and potentially insidious change:  linked with the rise in the “quantified self” that has been mentioned in class, concepts of Life have come to be increasingly characterized, not in terms of motion, but in terms of data streams.

IBM’s “Data Baby” (2010)

Sprint’s “I Am Unlimited” (2012)

I will admit to being particularly upset at the way in which the Sprint ad suggests that “the human experience” can be fully represented by pixels but I do think that it makes a rather interesting visual connection between essences of life and data. On one level, the commercial is fairly upfront about its message to sell consumers on a “truly” unlimited data plan but, watching the ad, I couldn’t help but think about Kara Keeling’s invocation of Deleuze in The Witch’s Flight. Here Deleuze speaks to an analytical framework that attempts to identify the dual manifestations of illusion within the cinematic.

The political challenge for filmmakers, according to Deleuze’s analysis, is to reveal that which has been hidden in the image by rediscovering “everything that has been removed to make [the image] interesting” or by “suppressing many things that have been added to make us believe that we are seeing everything.” (18)

Detail of artery from Gray's Anatomy

Detail of artery from Gray’s Anatomy

There is a certainly a reductive quality in the Sprint ad that simplifies the ambiguous concept of Life down into (less vague?) data. If we ascribe to Deleuze, this process of removal is a restrictive political act that, I think, ultimately constricts the way in which concepts of life can be imagined. Yet, instead of immediately blaming the practice—which seems analogous to the illustrations used in texts like Gray’s Anatomy to help young medical students learn about the body—it seems far more sensible to interrogate why we choose to augment or depress the representation of life in the first place.

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