Personalization, as exemplified by the popularity of music services like Pandora, has become a defining characteristic of a 21st century American musical sensibility; with an increasing number of Americans gaining access to on demand content, it would seem that the creation of a contemporary Great American Songbook is not only unlikely but quite possibly unwanted. And yet, despite the growing insularity of listening habits, it would seem that American popular culture continues to present individuals with auditory cultural touchstones in the form of viral singles. For better or for worse, creations like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” have become entities that we organize around, forming taste communities grounded in our reaction to the song.
The importance of music in personal history and the construction of identity became oddly salient recently with the broadcast of HBO’s Phil Spector. It is, I think, all too easy to get caught up in ridiculing the appearance of Phil Spector. A notable recluse in his later years, Spector was thrust into the spotlight while on trial in 2003 for the murder of Lana Clarkson; somewhat given to eccentricity in both lifestyle and presentation, publicized images of Spector lent themselves to commentary that, more often than not, almost necessarily included mention of Spector’s hair.
And although we might criticize the movie for overacting and underdeveloped characters, upon reflection what struck me as particularly poignant about the film was the way in which it reminded me that Phil Spector songs have had a memorable influence in my life.
Using Spector as a jumping off point I began to think this week on the relationship between music, technology, and American social history; although it is tempting to look back and claim that landmark songs “changed” American culture, I instead want to pick up on the idea from this week’s readings that technology and culture (both in the form of music and more broadly) are mutually constitutive processes.
It is, for example, difficult to talk about the impact of Phil Spector’s songs without referencing The Wall of Sound. Born out of a (in retrospect) rather stubborn refusal to embrace stereo sound, Spector engineered a technique wherein sound from the musicians was piped down into echo chambers and then recorded, in effect creating a metaphorical “wall” of sound.
Having not studied music extensively as an academic subject, I find myself still struggling with some questions and concepts. Does the Wall of Sound provide an example of Simon Frith’s (building on Andrew Chester) assertion that Western popular music absorbed Afro-American forms and conventions, producing an “intentionally” complex artifact? As Firth notes, an intentionally complex structure “is that constituted by the parameters of melody, harmony and beat, while the complex is built up by modulation of the basic notes and by inflexion of the basic beat.” (269)
More importantly, however, I wonder how Spector’s technique builds upon conventions that had long been established in African American gospel music and to what extent it was really “new.” Consistent with a larger move in rock music at the time, I marvel at how Phil Spector’s early songs helped to elevate ethnic minorities into the spotlight but also, at the same time, claimed their cultural practices for mainstream America.
Music, History, and Bioshock Infinite
Consistent with Phil Spector, what I am most interested in is the way in which we use fiction to look back on a past that is both imagined and real. How do we make sense of things in retrospect and what does our thought process tell us about the way that we understand the present? Although my thoughts are not fully formed on the subject, I am curious about how pieces of our cultural past are strategically deployed to foreground certain parts of our cultural history while obscuring others.
Bioshock Infinite is a video game premised on a many worlds theory, presenting an alternate history of America in the form of the utopic/dystopic floating city of Columbia. Reflecting sentiments from early 20th century America, the city evidences strong tones of nationalism, theocracy, and jingoism. And, given our continuing struggle with race (see “Accidental Racist”), I wonder about how something like Bioshock Infinite speaks to the way in which we see ourselves in relationship to our own history.
To be sure, the game plays fast and lose with history as it incorporates musical easter eggs throughout the world. “God Only Knows,” a song influenced by Spector’s Wall of Sound technique, makes an appearance early on in the form of a barbershop quartet.
Although rather charming, there is a way in which this type of action reflects a modern sensibility that songs (or perhaps moments in history in general) can be divorced from their surrounding context and transplanted as discrete units. Given the game’s logic I am fully willing to concede that a composer could have peered through dimensions and lifted this song but it seems unlikely that he would know why such a song was popular in the first place. This move seems to be much more about the developers trying to establish a relationship with players than creating a world (which is fine), but the way in which they have gone about it makes me worry that our understanding of cultural artifacts ignores the way in which they are part of systems.
As a parting gift, Bioshock Infinite also features this…
 This is, to be sure, an intentional on the part of writer/director David Mamet who even has Phil Spector suggest at one point that his song was playing the first time that his lawyer was felt up.
In his recent post “Where Are Our Bright Science-Fiction Futures?” Graeme McMillan reflects on the dire portraits of the future portended by summer science fiction blockbusters. Here McMillian gestures toward—but does not ultimately articulate—a very specific cultural history that is infused with a sense of nostalgia for the American past.
“There was a stretch of time — from the early 20th century through the beginning of comic books — when science fiction was an exercise in optimism and what is these days referred to as a “can-do” attitude.”
McMillan goes on to write that “such pessimism and fascination with future dystopias really took hold of mainstream sci-fi in the 1970s and ’80s, as pop culture found itself struggling with general disillusionment as a whole.” And McMillan is not wrong here but he is also not grasping the entirety of the situation
To be sure, the fallout the followed the idealistic futures set forth by 60s counterculture—again we must be careful to limit the scope of our discussion to America here even as we recognize that this reading only captures the broadest strokes of the genre—may have had something to do with the rise in “pessimism” but I would also contend that the time period that McMillan refers to was also one that had civil unrest pushed to the forefront of its consciousness. More than a response to hippie culture was a country that was struggling to redefine itself in the midst of an ongoing series of projects that aimed to secure rights for previously disenfranchised groups. McMillan’s nod toward disillusionment is important to bear in mind (as is a growing sense of cynicism in America), but the way in which that affective stance impacts science fiction is much more complex than McMillan suggests.
McMillan needs to, for example, consider the resurgence of fairy tales and folklore in American visual entertainment that has taken on an increasingly “dark” tone; from Batman to Snow White we see a rejection of the unfettered good. Fantasy, science fiction, and horror are all cousins and we see the explorations of our alternate futures playing out across all three genres.
In light of this it only makes sense that the utopic post-need vision of Star Trek would find no footing; American culture was actively railing against hegemonic visions of the present and so those who were in the business of speculating about possible futures began to consider the implications of this process, particularly with respect to race and gender.
Near the end of his piece McMillan opines:
That’s the edge that downbeat science fiction has over the more hopeful alternative. It’s easier to imagine a world where things go wrong, rather than right, and to believe in a future where we manage to screw it all up.
Here, McMillian demonstrates a fundamental failure to interrogate what science/speculative fiction does for us in the first place before proceeding to consider how its function is related to its tone. I would stridently argue that this binary about hopeful/pessimistic thinking is misguided for a number of reasons.
First, it is evident that McMillan is conflating the utopic/dystopic dimension with hopeful/pessimistic. While we might generally make a case that the concept of utopia feels more hopeful on the surface this is not necessarily the case; instead, I would argue that utopia feels more comforting, which is not necessarily the same thing as hopeful. To illustrate the point, we need only consider the recent trend in YA dystopic fiction which, on its surface, contains an explicit element of critique but is often somewhat hopeful about the ability of its protagonists to overcome adversity. Earlier in his piece McMillan refers to this type of scenario as a “semiwin” but I would argue that it is, for many authors and readers, a complete win, albeit one that focuses generally on humans and individualism.
The other point that McMillan likely understands but did not address is that writing about situations in which everything “goes right” is not actually all that interesting. In his invocation of the science fiction of the early 20th century McMillan fails to recognize the way in which that particular strain of science fiction was the result of a very specific inheritor of the notion of scientific progress (and the future) that dates back to the Enlightenment but was largely spurred on by the 1893 World’s Fair. Additionally, although it is somewhat of a cliché, we must consider the way in which the aftermath of the atomic bomb (and the resulting fear of the Cold War) shattered our understanding that technology and science would lead to a bright new world.
Moreover, the fiction that McMillan cites was rather exclusive to white middle class amateur males (often youth) and the “hope” represented in those fictions was largely possible because of a shared vision of the future in this community. Returning to a discussion of the 70s and 80s we see that such an idyllic scenario is really no longer possible as we understand that utopias are inherently flawed for they can only ever represent a singular idea of perfection. Put another way, one person’s utopia is another person’s subjugation.
I would also argue that it is, in fact, easier to imagine a future where everything is right because all one has to do to engage in this project is to “fix” the things that are issues in the current day and age. This is easy. The difficult task is to not only craft a compelling alternate future but to consider how we get there and this is where the “pessimistic” fiction’s inherent critique is often helpful. Fiction that is, on its surface, labeled as “pessimistic” (which is really a simplified reading when you get down to it) actually has the harder task of locating the root cause of an issue and trying to understand how the issue is perpetuated or propagated. Although it might seem paradoxical, “pessimistic” is actually hopeful because it argues that things can change and therefore there is a way out.
Alternatively, we might consider how the language of the apocalypse is linked to that of nature. On one axis we have the adoption of the apocalyptic in reference to climate change and, on a related dimension, we are beginning to see changes in the post-apocalyptic worlds that suggest the resurgence of nature as opposed to the decimation of it. McMillan laments that we should “try harder” if we can’t imagine a world that we have not ruined but I would counter this to suggest that many Americans are intimately aware, on some level, that humans have irrevocably damaged the world and so our visions of the future continue to carry this burden.
Science Fiction as a genre is much more robust than McMillan gives it credit for and, ultimately, I would suggest that he try harder to really understand how the genre is continually articulating multiple visions of the future that are complex and potentially contradictory. The simplification of these stories that takes place for a movie might strip them down into palatable themes and McMillan needs to speak to the ways in which his evidence is born out of an industry whose values most likely have an effect on the types of fictions that make it onto the screen.
If I were feeling generous, I might be inclined to argue that the conflicted nature of Admission (Weitz, 2013) is a purposeful gesture designed to comment on the turmoil present in the process of admission (in both senses of the word). Unfortunately, however, I suspect that the movie simply lacked a clear understanding about its core story, relying instead on the well-worn structure of the American romantic comedy for support. Based on a 2009 book by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the movie adaptation focuses on the trajectory of Princeton admission officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) after the Head of School for the alternative school Quest, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), informs her that one of his students, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), might be her son. Confused as the movie might have been, it was startlingly clear in its reflection of current cultural themes; evidencing a focus on the individual in a neoliberal environment and various manifestations of the sensibility of the post-, Admission remains a movie worth discussing.
Individualism and Neoliberal Thought
Although the decision to anchor the story in the character of Portia makes a certain amount of narrative sense, the focus on the individual at the expense of the process represents the first indication that Admission is driven by a worldview that has placed the self at the center of the universe. But, to be fair, I would readily argue that the college admission process itself is one that is driven by individualistic impulses as high school students learn to turn themselves into brands or products that are then “sold” to colleges and universities around the country. In large and small ways, college admission in its present form demands that American youth mold themselves into a somewhat elusive model of excellence. (Let’s be honest, we all know parents who teach their toddlers French or insist on lessons of various kinds in the hopes that these skills will place children on track for a “good” school.) In short, college admission sets the rather impossible task for students to, as Oprah would say, “Be your best self” while remaining authentic and not presenting as packaged (although that is secretly what is desired). The danger here, I think, is failing to realize that what is deemed “authentic” is, by its very nature, a self that has been groomed to meet invisible expectations and therefore is understood as natural.
Tracing one factor in the development of the current primacy of individualism Janice Peck performs a close analysis of Oprah’s Book Club in her book The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, illustrating how Winfrey’s continual insistence on the self-enriching power of literature is reflective of the situation of the self as the most relevant construct for individuals immersed in a culture of neoliberalism (186). Through her examination of Oprah’s Book Club Peck suggests a manner in which culture has reinforced the adoption of particular values that are consistent with those of neoliberalism. Admission is not exempted from this reflection of a larger sensibility that judges worth in relationship to self-relevance as we see the character of Portia only really advocate for a student once she believes that he is the son that she gave up for adoption. Although I am willing to give Portia the benefit of the doubt and believe that she has been an advocate for other applicants in the past, the choice of the movie to conflate Portia’s professional and personal outreach grossly undercuts the character’s ability to effectively challenge a system that systematically promotes a particular range of students to its upper echelon.
Moreover, having previously established the influence of the 1980s recovery movement (7), Peck then suggests that for those who ascribe to the ideals of neoliberalism the therapeutic self—the self that is able to be transformed, redeemed, rehabilitated, or recovered—is of utmost importance. As example of this sentiment’s pervasiveness, although it would appear to be a clear conflict of interest, in discussing the merits of her applicant son Portia stresses the way in which Jeremiah has blossomed in the right environment and thus exemplifies the American ethic of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Here Portia urges her colleagues to overlook the first three years of high school that are riddled with Ds and Fs and to focus on Jeremiah’s transformative capacity.
The Manifestation of the Post-
And yet perhaps Portia’s insistence on the power of change makes a certain amount of sense given that she is the female lead of a romantic comedy and embodies transformation herself. Initially portrayed as a bookish middle-aged woman whose life is characterized by resigned acceptance, Portia inevitably has her world shaken by the introduction of a new male presence and proceeds to undergo the transformation that is typical of female leads in this scenario. Indicative of a postfeminist sensibility, Portia’s inner growth manifests as a bodily makeover in fashion that mirrors Rosalind Gill’s reading of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2007).
The most telling way manifestation of the logic of the post- in Admission is, however, the film’s express desire to “have it both ways” with regard toward attitudes on female identity/sexuality and race. In her article “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility” Gill argues that the deployment of irony to comment on social issues is a central feature of the post- mentality and a practice that is ultimately damaging as it reinforces inequalities through its insistence that difference has been rendered innocuous enough to be rendered the subject of a joke (2007). In this vein, Admission introduces Portia’s mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), as a second-wave feminist only to undercut the power of the message that she represents. Although not expressly stated, the presentation of Susannah is suggestive of a radical feminist but also features a scene in which Susannah exemplifies postfeminism’s connection between the body and femininity by electing for reconstructive surgery after a double mastectomy and later ultimately admits that Portia’s conception was not an act of defiance but rather simply a mistake made by a young woman.
Admission also demonstrates ambivalence towards issues of race, not broaching the topic unless it is specifically the focus of the scene. To wit, John’s mother is a one-dimensional stereotype of a New England WASP whose articulations of racism (despite having a Ugandan grandchild) ostensibly indicates that she is not a “good white liberal.” This scene is indicative of the way in which irony has infiltrated popular media, going for the easy joke as it winks to the audience, “We all know that racism is awful, right?” Insultingly, Admission then fails to comment on the way in which John’s son Nelson (Travaris Spears) perpetuates a very specific presentation of young black males in popular culture as rascals and/or the way in which issues of race continue to be a very real point of contention for the admission process as a whole. Similar to issues of feminism, Admission exemplifies the sensibility of the post- in that it expresses a desire to gain approval for acknowledging social issues while not actually saying anything meaningful about them.
Problematizing Irony as Social Critique
How, then, do we go about unseating irony as a prevalent form of social critique when the response to challenges is often, “Can’t you take a joke?” I was surprised to see, for example, a response to Seth MacFarlane’s opening Oscar bit that argued that the feminist backlash was misplaced—according to Victoria Brownworth, MacFarlane was using satire to point out the inequalities in the Hollywood system. Although Brownworth fails to recognize that acknowledging a phenomenon without providing critique or an alternate vision only serves to reinforce the present, her reaction was not an isolated one.
One of the things that I have learned thus far in my life is that it is almost impossible to explain privilege to a person who is actively feeling the effects of that position and so a head-on confrontation is not always the best strategy. (This is, of course, not to say that one should allow things to pass without objection but merely that trying to breakdown the advantages that a party is experiencing in the moment is incredibly difficult.) If we recognize that the logic of neoliberalism constructs individuals who primarily understand importance in relationship to the relevance to the self—or, worse yet, do not think about interpersonal and structural forces at all—and that irony can be used as a distancing tactic, how to do we go about encouraging people to reengage and reconnect in a meaningful way?
Ronald Walter Greene
Greene, R. W. (2011). Pastoral Exhibition: The YMCA Motion Picture Bureau and the Transition to 16mm, 1928-39. In C. R. Acland, & N. Wasson (Eds.), Useful Cinema (pp. 205-229). Durham: Duke University Press.
Greene’s research interests include Rhetorical Theory, Cultural Policy and Moving Image Studies. Greene work in rhetorical theory is approached with a materialist perspective that focuses on how rhetorical techniques and technologies are enlisted as means of governance and production. Additionally, Greene’s work in moving image studies emphasizes the distribution and exhibition practices of the YMCA Motion Picture Bureau in the first half of the twentieth century.
Although Ronald Walter Greene’s Pastoral Exhibition is, on one level, a story about the development of a 16mm film network in early 20th century America, the piece also fundamentally speaks to the way in which audiences are constructed as part of economic markets. Having introduced this connection between audiences and economies via a reference to Antonio Gramsci’s view of the YMCA as “professional, political, and ideological intermediaries” for Fordism, Greene essentially goes on to outline the way in which the development of the 16mm film network by the YMCA Motion Picture Bureau and Exhibits (MPB) was intertwined with the dissemination of a particular brand of ideology.
As an example, Greene notes the relationship between the ability of the MPB to distribute free movies because of corporate donations, non-traditional settings for movie showings that resulted from the YMCA’s interest in urban outreach, and Steven Ross’ observation that “the companies most active in crushing unions…were also the most aggressive in producing nontheatricals…shown at local YMCAs.” In essence, a simplification of this process suggests that a company was able to spread its ideology in the form of films using the YMCA network of 16mm distribution.
However, the key point in Greene is not just that the YMCA provided distribution channels for films (corporate-sponsored and otherwise) but that the very philosophy of the YMCA acted to cultivate audiences and thereby shape modes of seeing. Using the term “pastoral exhibition” to describe the YMCA’s position that films should work to “care for an individual’s well-being while harnessing the practice of movie watching to alleviate social, political, and moral problems of a population,” Greene speaks to the way in which the very experience of watching a movie was designed to frame the viewer as a particular type of audience member. As opposed to the theatrical/Hollywood model, the films of the YMCA were educational in tone and reinforced the necessity of a cultural authority to guide audiences into correct modes of interaction with the film. Understanding the development of the 16mm network in this way, we see how the distribution network of films contributed to the generation/reinforcement of a power dynamic between laborers and film producers.
Finally, given the invocation of the pastoral, it is only fitting that Greene mentions Foucault’s reading of the term and the way in which the movement of groups is managed through networks and markets. Given that Greene notes that “the mobile character of 16mm may have been difficult for the pastoral mode of exhibition because it proliferated in the sites and genres of non-theatrical exhibition with or without the cultural authorities deemed necessary to instill the proper moral disposition,” we might also think through the implications for this model in the current age of digital distribution. Who are the new cultural authorities and how does the film industry continue to construct us as audiences?
The show is not the show,
But they that go.
Menagerie to me
My neighbor be.
Both went to see.
Although the second chapter of Lisa Duggan’s The Twilight of Equality? focuses on an examination of neoliberalism’s campaigns in the culture wars, there is something profound about the choice to concentrate on education and housing as two domains of change in the latter half of the 20th century. Following World War II, both education (in the form of a college degree) and a home were part of the democratic dream of the American citizen. Surveying the current landscape, however, we see that what once was bright has turned dark as both the housing industry and higher education have increasingly become privatized industries that are almost inextricably linked with debt. Encapsulating a force that contributed to this shift, Dugan writes:
Rather than support the idea that resources were adequate for broad-based public sharing of the fruits of prosperity, business activists promoted the idea that resources were scarce, and fierce competition among groups and individuals would be required to secure a comfortable life. (36)
In some ways reminiscent of Lauren Berlant’s work in Cruel Optimism, we find that the very thing that purports to offer us light is the very thing that causes us to be further bound to a system that ultimately drags us down.
Additionally, we might consider how the neoliberal impulse mentioned in Duggan also manifests in reality television programs like House Hunters. Ostensibly a 30-minute program on HGTV that details a couple’s search for a new home, House Hunters sticks to a formula that essentially includes the prospective buyers surveying three prospective properties with the help of a real estate agent, making an offer on one of the properties (that is almost always accepted), and moving in at the conclusion of the episode. Aside from an unrealistic portrayal of the home-buying process, House Hunters works to solidify and normalize the privatization of the domestic space through its promotion of home ownership.
House Hunters television promo (2010)
House Hunters also makes abundantly clear just how intertwined race, class, sexuality and politics really are with its portrayal of viewers and the lingering comment, “I thought they were brothers.” More importantly, however, the home, in some ways the most private of cultural spaces, has now become a site for spectatorship on multiple levels as viewers see the innards of the house themselves but also experience a measure of voyeurism vicariously through the featured couple. Indeed, the format of the show as reality television makes explicit Clay Calvert’s phenomenon of the “voyeur nation” as “a nation of watchers performing their verification practices with an eye to the gaze of an imagined other, in order to avoid being seen as a dupe” (in Andrejevic, 239). The flip side, then, of reality shows’ democratizing promise that “everybody can be a judge” is that we are, in some ways, expected to have an opinion about the latest thing to be scrutinized; feeling the ever watchful gaze of others we examine the house just as ardently as the featured couple, knowing that we might be called upon at any moment to render our opinion.
If, however, the emphasis on home ownership demonstrates how the intersection between economics and the domestic is subject to privatization, the manifestation of House Hunters as a reality television show also indicates ways in which the overlap between the domestic/family and culture is increasingly made more public in service of economic gain. The issue here is one of privatization and privacy as the logics of neoliberalism turn privacy into a commodity.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself leading an exercise on marketing ethics for an introductory marketing class in the Marshall School of Business. Structured more as a provocation than a lecture, we covered basic concepts of persuasion and manipulation before proceeding to engage in a discussion about whether particular marketing practices were considered ethical (and how such a determination was ultimately made). During the course of our discussion many of these students expressed an opinion that it was, generally speaking, the responsibility of the consumer to know that he or she was 1) being marketed to and 2) potentially being tricked. I recorded this sentiment on a whiteboard in the room but didn’t comment much on it at the time. However, toward the end of the session I presented the class with a thought experiment that was designed to force the students to struggle with the concepts that they had just encountered and to push their thinking a bit about ethics.
Case (A): Smith, a saleswoman, invites clients to her office and secretly dissolves a pill in their drinks. The pill subconsciously inclines clients to purchase 30% more product than they would have had they not taken it but otherwise has no effect.
Case (B): Smith, a saleswoman, hires a marketing firm to design her office. The combination of colors, scents, etc., inclines clients to purchase 30% more product than they would in the old office but otherwise has no effect.
Question: Are these two scenarios equally ethical and, if not, which one is more ethical?
After running this session multiple times a clear pattern began to emerge in students’ responses: the initial reaction was typically that Case B was more ethical than Case A and, when pushed, students typically reported that their decision resulted from the notion that individuals in Case B had a measure of choice (i.e., they could leave the room) while individuals in Case A did not.
Although I didn’t think about it as such at the time, the notion of choice situates itself nicely alongside the empowerment of the self that Sarah Banet-Weiser writes about in Authentic. The takeaway that I had from working with students in this exercise was a profound realization about how choice was construed for them and how, generally, marketing was considered unethical only when it impinged upon an individual’s ability to make a choice.
Linking this back to the earlier statement that the burden of responsibility largely rested upon the consumer, I tried to incorporate examples from popular culture to suggest to the students that, for me, the most insidious effects of marketing are exemplified by its ability to limit or remove choices that you didn’t even know you had.
Because I am old, I invoked a scene from The Matrix Reloaded but drove the point home with a discussion of The Cabin in the Woods, a movie that, among other things, prominently evidenced philosophical questions of agency and free will.
Without spoiling anything, there is an interesting line in the movie where a character essentially argues that the free will of potential victims is preserved because outside forces can lead individuals to an open door but cannot ultimately force them to walk through it. Reflecting the idea that an individual is ultimately responsible for his or her fate, The Cabin in the Woods was particularly helpful for urging students to consider that they tended to focus on choice as an individual transaction instead of taking a step back to look at how behavior was permitted/controlled within a larger system of actions.
After the exercise concluded I found myself talking to the professor of the course about how I was slightly nervous for the future of business if these students held onto their mentality that consumers always acted rationally and were largely responsible for their own fates (to the exclusion of marketers taking responsibility for their campaigns). Now, as I muse on the prominence of the individual and the self in this cohort, I am reminded of an essay written by Kathryn Schulz about the prominence of self-help culture in America and the development of the concept of the self. As I reread the Schulz piece, I found myself revisiting Authentic’s chapters on consumer citizens and religion as I thought through the examples in terms of self-help rhetoric.
 For the record, I initially considered both of these cases to be equivalent in nature and suggested to students that part of their abhorrence to Case A had to do with perceived influence crossing the body/skin boundary and becoming physically incorporated into the self. Invariably students raised the notion of the pill causing some sort of change in brain chemistry and the thought experiment is designed to suggest that marketing’s true power does not lie in the realm of the directly observable.
“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.
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)
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.