I’m currently engaged in a round-table discussion (conducted via email) with Therese Grisham, Julia Leyda, and Nicholas Rombes, concerning the two Paranormal Activities films. The entire discussion among us will be published in the online film journal La furia humana. But I thought it might be worthwhile posting here, in advance, the first part of my contribution — since it summarizes my overall sense of what is meant by the term “post-cinematic” — as I used it in my last book, Post-Cinematic Affect.
My sense of the “post-cinematic” comes first of all from media theory. Cinema is generally regarded as the dominant medium, or aesthetic form, of the twentieth century. It evidently no longer has this position in the twenty-first. So I begin by asking, what is the role or position of cinema when it is no longer what Fredric Jameson calls a “cultural dominant,” when it has been “surpassed” by digital and computer-based media? (I leave “surpassed” in quotation marks in order to guard against giving this term a teleological meaning, as if the displacement of one medium by another were always a question of logical progression, or of advancement towards an overall goal. While André Bazin’s teleological “myth of total cinema” is certainly worth considering in this regard, there are many other factors in play as well; the situation is a complexly overdetermined one).
Of course, if we are to be entirely strict about it, cinema was only dominant for the first half of the twentieth century; in the second half, it gave way to television. But for a long time, a kind of hierarchy was still in place: the “big screen” continued to dominate the “small screen” in terms of social meanings and cultural prestige — even if the latter generated more revenue, and was watched by a far greater number of people. Already in the 1950s, movies achieved a second life on television; it wasn’t until much later that anyone had the idea of doing cinematic remakes of television shows. It’s true that television news, or live broadcast, became important pretty much right away: think of Nixon’s Checkers speech (1952), the Nixon-Kennedy debates (1960), and the coverage of the Kennedy assassination (1963). But it’s only been in the last decade or two that television drama has been seen as deeper and more relevant than cinematic drama. (In the 1970s, the Godfather films and Taxi Driver were cultural landmarks; for the past decade, the similar landmarks are shows like The Sopranos and The Wire).
The movies only gradually lost their dominant role, in the wake of a whole series of electronic, and later digital, innovations. Theorists like Anne Friedberg and Lev Manovich have written about many of these: they include the growth of massively multichannel cable television, the increasing use of the infrared remote, the development of VCRs, DVDs, and DVRs, the ubiquity of personal computers, with their facilities for capturing and editing images and sounds, the increasing popularity and sophistication of computer games, and the expansion of the Internet, allowing for all sorts of uploading and downloading, the rise of sites like Hulu and YouTube, and the availability of streaming video). These developments of video (electronic) and digital technologies entirely disrupted both the movies and traditional broadcast television. They introduced an entirely new cultural dominant, or cultural-technological regime: one whose outlines aren’t entirely clear to us as of yet. We do know that the new digital technologies have made the production, editing, distribution, sampling, and remixing of audiovisual material easier and more widespread than it has ever been before; and we know that this material is now accessible in a wider range of contexts than ever before, in multiple locations and on screens ranging in size from the tiny (mobile phones) to the gigantic (IMAX). We also know that this new media environment is instrumental to, and deeply embedded within, a complex of social, economic, and political developments: globalization, financialization, post-Fordist just-in-time production and “flexible accumulation” (as David Harvey calls it), the precarization of labor, and widespread micro-surveillance. (Many of these developments are not new, in that they are intrinsic to the logic of capitalism, and were outlined by Marx a century and a half ago; but we are experiencing them in new forms, and with new degrees of intensity).
Such is the context in which I locate the “post-cinematic.” The particular question that I am trying to answer, within this much broader field, is the following: What happens to cinema when it is no longer a cultural dominant, when its core technologies of production and reception have become obsolete, or have been subsumed within radically different forces and powers? What is the role of cinema, if we have now gone beyond what Jonathan Beller calls “the cinematic mode of production”? What is the ontology of the digital, or post-cinematic, audiovisual image, and how does it relate to Bazin’s ontology of the photographic image? How do particular movies, or audiovisual works, reinvent themselves, or discover new powers of expression, precisely in a time that is no longer cinematic or cinemacentric? As Marshall McLuhan long ago pointed out, when the media environment changes, so that we experience a different “ratio of the senses” than we did before, older media forms don’t necessarily disappear; instead, they are repurposed. We still make and watch movies, just as we still broadcast on and listen to the radio, and still write and read novels; but we produce, broadcast, and write, just as we watch, listen, and read, in different ways than we did before.
I think that the two (so far) Paranormal Activity films are powerful in the ways that they exemplify these dilemmas, and suggest possible responses to them. They are made with recent (advanced, but low-cost) digital technologies, and they also incorporate these technologies into their narratives, and explore the new formal possibilities that are afforded by these technologies. As horror films, they modulate the affect of fear through, and with direct attention to, these digital technologies, and the larger social and economic relations within which such technologies are embedded. The Paranormal Activity films in fact work through the major tropes of twentieth-century horror. First, there is the disruption of space that comes when uncanny alien forces invade the home, manifesting in the very site of domesticity, privacy, and the bourgeois-patriarchal nuclear family. And second, there is the warping (the dilation and compression) of time that comes about through rhythms of dread, anticipation, and urgency: the empty time when the characters or the audience are waiting for something to happen, or something to arrive, and the overfull time when they are so overwhelmed by an attack or an intrusion that it becomes impossible to perceive what is happening clearly and distinctly, or to separate the otherworldly intrusion from the viscerally heightened response (or inability to adequately respond). The Paranormal Activity films take up these modulations of space and time, but in novel ways, because their new technologies correspond to, or help to instantiate, new forms of spatiotemporal construction (one might think here of David Harvey’s “space-time compression,” or of Manuel Castells’ “space of flows” and “timeless time”).
Welcome to the post-cinematic mediasphere, the timeless time of the space of flows, the neuro-affective flat ontology of smooth capital. Steve Shaviro’s new text, Post-Cinematic Affect (Zero Books, 2010), is many things. On the one hand, it is a guided tour of the mediascape to come, a futureflash of the way the world will feel once today’s emergent media formations reach their mature forms. On the other hand, it’s also a diagnosis, an attempt to understand the manner in which capital and the image will increasingly intertwine in the world to come. Both media analysis and critique of capital, Shaviro’s slim tome is understated in its presentation, but wide in its potential effects. It’s an important book, one at the cutting edge of the attempt to think the dark underside of the networked age to come.
Shaviro describes his enterprise as an attempt to perform an “affective mapping” of what, following James Cascio and Gilles Deleuze, he calls the “participatory panopticon” of the “control society . . . which comes from everywhere and nowhere at once” (8). In such a world, “personalities. . . [are reduced to] shells within which social forces are temporarily contained” (108), and all terrain is reduced to any-spaces-whatsoever (espaces-quelconque), monadicaly disconnected from each other, yet vague enough to morph at will in the timeless time, the “always being about to happen”-ness (86), of a mediascape which is purely relational, without exterior, and always in flux. Welcome to the smooth space of flows as a vision of hell.
What is left in a world in which the very categories of ages past, including space, time, subjectivity, agency, and community, even the boundaries between media itself, are dissolved in the disjunct unity of a fluid that percolates without end, yet always drains surplus elsewhere? Affect. Waves and waves of affect. Affect, for Shaviro, is counter-representational by nature, it is emergent, transpersonal, distributed, virtual. It is that which flows in the world in which humans used produce and consume commodities in factories and engage with the ‘real’ world. Now, instead, we have the near-completion of real subsumption, leaving us to scrounge for remainders or search for a way through to the other side. As the boundaries between cinema and portable computing, video-games, and websites increasingly begin to blur, as the Deleuzian time-image is drained of its duration by digital composition and post-continuity editing, and as we move to neuromodulatory media forms in which all pretense to plot and character dissolve into the affective high that a figure transmits, we find ourselves increasingly in the post-cinematic video-drome, the ambient wave-space of perpetual revolution, in which player and played are all played by a system that feeds itself on our ebbs and flows.
Instead of subjects and objects, what’s left is figures, and this is precisely what Shaviro works to map. The bulk of the text is made up of close readings of four recent media works, “diagrams” (6) and “machines for generating affect” (3), by Grace Jones/Nick Hooker, Oliver Assayas, Richard Kelley, and Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor. Shaviro intentionally goes after works dismissed by others as excessive or failed, for he sees in these overblown bits of detrius the trace of the futurescape to come. Shaviro is fascinated by the pooling of affect around celebrity, the currents that flow in and out of the “amnesiac actors” which replace what used to subjects, the shattered dividual subjectivities that play out on the virtual post-cinematic mediascape, and the virtual spacetimes carved out of the flows of affect by its own movement within itself. Like the figures he traces, the media texts he examines are merely traces of movement. What he’s interested in is mutation, the drainage of Deleuze’s time-image, and the production of a new hyper-circulatory paradigm which he prophetically argues is coming to dominate our age.
Shaviro tracks the manner in which many of the buzzwords valorized by contemporary Deleuzian inspired theory are ironicly most apt for describing the most terrifying aspects of today’s world, such that Post-Cinematic Affect can serve as a wonderful tonic to the celebratory sides of contemporary Deleuzian, network/complexity, and futurist paradigms. For Shaviro, contemporary space has become relational and virtual, morphing into anything at will, never committing to one form or another, so that it can always become smooth to serve capital’s needs to mutate and serve ‘just-in-time’ production and circulation. Where there used to be masters (and master signifiers), now there are icons, patterns of modulation, for “modulation is the process that allows for the greatest difference and variety of products, while still maintaining an underlying control” (15). In place of subjects, what remains are points of transfer of affect, figures which echo in simulated interiority the icons which direct them, each composed of the flows whose densities determine the spacetime terrain in which accumulation occurs, siphoned somewhere eternally off-site. Series of “affective constellation[s]” (73), the result feels “unspeakably ridiculous . . . creepily menacing . . . [and] exhilarating” (85). It’s the world of the perpetual music video, in which media sings just for you, in which distributed scapes of feeling wash over transfer points, and yet, one the need for perpetual flow keeps everything vague enough so one can “never leap from affect to concept” (73). And what of the much vaunted hope in networks and complex systems? Shaviro dryly slams contemporary complexity theory approaches: “actually existing capital is metastable. It functions as a dissipative system . . . . operating most effectively . . . at far from equilibrium conditions” (189), such that “networked manipulation works more effectively than a hierarhichal chain of command ever did” (107). It seems possible, however, that there are many types of metastable networks, a possibility that Shaviro doesn’t address.