Category Archives: practice

Endings (part one)

Softcopy is a material change to writing, perhaps the most significant material change to writing since the rise of popular literacy and the printing press in western Europe. The specificity of this change matters, for what I’m particularly interested in is the implications of this for writing largely because for humanities academic research it is surely the possible changes for how we write that has the most significant implications for us as scholars.

Writing, to repeat a refrain that appears to run my work much like the hook in a pop song, is the site of my research as a practice. It is where the complexity, density, and messiness of ideas and thought and the world happen and are negotiated. As a non-fiction writer (for this is what academic writing is) and a critical theorist I recognise that the traditional academic essay, the sorts of things we normally write and publish (and for that matter read) are as formulaic as those science papers we sometimes mock, and apart from the odd pun and sometimes playful alliteration, a lot of effort is expended (well perhaps not) to tame our writing and thinking so that thought becomes singular and well composed, which in many instances simply means it deports itself in ways that lets it, as writing, stay polite, and calm, and, well, utterly domesticated. We tame or let thought become subdued in our writing as the clamour of ideas–in–themselves get politely sent to, on a good day, a footnote, even in writing that argues for and advocates some sort of multiplicity or other acentred view of some content area.

Humanities academic writing in our traditional but oh so very usual way is then, as in the sciences, a reporting upon what has been found, of what we already know, and in this domestication, which is a mix of the self policing of an academic milieu and the hegemonic reification of the a particular notion of the rational that print (Ong, Stafford) instantiates, we reduce the complex to the simple (even where we use long words and innumerable clauses).

Such a writing, and its form, is intrinsically teleological. To this extent what I’m almost parodying as the canonical humanities academic essay shares this quality with classical realist fiction, in both literature and cinema, for here, too a ‘good’ story is one that simultaneously presents the illusion that it could really have been, and also that how it ends and its means of arrival are inevitable, ‘natural’, and rationally understandable. Stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, do not have to do this. That they do this is a consequence of the linear finitude of their material substrates, to wit because there is a last page, because there is a last frame, they have to end. Because they have to end the ending becomes a problem (much like beginnings).

On Last Pages, Work In Progress

Books, and even page based essays, have last pages. Surely, this is not only simple, but also obvious and trivial? It is, and it is not. It is surprising, at least to me, how many people think the last page is the last page because it is where the essay or story ends. As if this is what confers and establishes the authority of the last page as a particular thing. However, surely this is what we might (to appropriate and possibly bastardise a phrase from Meillassoux) want to recognise as narrative correlationism. This, and its presence is surprisingly widespread and pernicious, is where the presence or evidence of a story (fiction or nonfiction hardly matters) is treated as an originary cause or thing that, in some sort of odd way, lies outside of material practice. It is well understood and unproblematic to understand that stories take a material form (though the traditional distinction between story and plot, between what the story is thought to be about, and how it is told, also reintroduces that Cartesian split between the specificity of a particular body — that particular telling — and this other, more abstracted and generalisable description that lies outside of any particular instantiation) but this material form is secondary to the story as non material event or experience.

Hence books have last pages because this is where they end. But the reality is, very simply, the reverse. Because a book is a finite thing that consists of pages it must, by material definition, have a last page. It has no choice not to. Hence it is simple to have books that don’t have endings (Kafka), books that play with duplicitous or multiple endings (The French Lieutenant’s Woman), books that have a variety of possible reading paths (choose your own adventure and that south african novel…), and so on, precisely because there will be a last page. It is this presence, this necessary simple fact, that allows all these other possibilities to be. The material necessity of the last page is what grounds the presence and demand of closure that narrative seems to be unnecessarily reliant on, not the other way round.

This is what narrative correlationism does, and how it performs itself. In the case of the book and the page it ‘flips’ a material given, again, simply and dumbly, there must be a last page, into mere contingent accident so that nearly every person thinks the last page arrives because that is where the story (or in nonfiction, perhaps argument) ends, yet we must manufacture endings, neat and tidy, because our media ends. In this way story or narrative or whatever we might want to call this sort of discursive telling, has been domesticated externally, by the material specificity of our media substrates, the stuff that, except for modernist moments of formal reflexivity, most stories, most of the time pay no attention to. That is to say that most books pay no attention to their pages (let alone their typography or design), films generally work diligently to conceal their celluloid media, and video, outside of video art, is not particularly interested in its electronic signaletic condition. Which is also to say that each media form, particularly when viewed from within the fabled milieu of fiction, subjugates its materiality to mere handmaiden to story, yet, as I am suggesting, this is, at best, smoke and mirrors for our stories must end because their physical media has to end.

Two things arise from this of note. The first is that, courtesy of modernism, it is simple to build a catalogue of exceptions and this catalogue then becomes one of the best places to look for ideas, concepts, propositions and provocations for how narrative, or story (or even if narrative and story are even the terms we still need) can do when our material media no longer must have a last page, frame, or track. The second is that it simply begs the simple (or naive even stupid depending on where you have come from) question of what sorts of stories happen when our media does not need to end, and even more elegantly, how do we make, or let be made, such stories? [Affective assemblage engines is one answer, for example Cowbird.] My preliminary catalogue would include Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and some children’s books.

Poetics of Networked Video

Abstract for an essay that is underway:

Much writing on online video uses a media and cinema studies tradition that relies upon a tripartite separation of critical theoretical frameworks that considers either audiences, institutions, or the texts themselves. In the specific case of critical writing on online video these three broad models have remained largely untroubled, epistemologically, as they have been used to examine online video. As a consequence much scholarly attention in regard to online video has looked to the ways in which it challenges, disrupts, or reconfirms what has already been said about cinema and TV more broadly.

This is unfortunate, as these traditional approaches risk missing the specificity of digital video including its engagment with the formal properties of the World Wide Web. Networked digital video has a material thickness and obdurate recalcitrance that is neutered when the digital is treated as immaterial and virtual, or merely as an avatar of earlier media.
This essay will develop a series of propositions for a poetics of networked video. It will begin with Deleuze’s concept of the ‘minor’ as something that makes a major language ‘stutter’. Networked video will then be seen as a stuttering media in itself that, in turn, also makes traditional institutional forms of cinema and TV stutter. This stuttering of network video will be literally and figuratively described, much as Latour’s actor–network theory advocates, to critically articulate the things that networked digital video can do.

This descriptive method evades the acculturation of online video to existing theoretical frameworks. It wil not account for what happens through the lens of audiences, institutions or the texts in themselves. Such description allows us to approach digital networked video in the manner advocated by recent scholarship in speculative realism (for instance Ian Bogost’s work) and materialist media studies (Jussi Parikka) and will eschew the correlationist impulse to elevate story and narrative as an explanatory deity.

The terms of a poetics of minor video are that networked video no longer has ownership of the screen, as has been the historical case with film and TV. The screen is now personal, owned and controlled by its user, and subject to local and minor affective action. Hardware, software, and an economy of codecs and protocols aligns to network characteristics of an algorithmic making, while glitch, compression artefacts, interruption and pause are features (and not bugs) of a network specific practice that, as in lo–fi music, offers its own aesthetic autonomy. In relation to TV and cinema’s traditional literal occupation of time, digital video offers new paradigms for cinematic duration and, finally, cinema’s immanent granularity — it’s ability to be cut and rejoined through editing — shifts from a historical subservience to narrative toward other, machinic, associative, poetic, and relational ends.

IDFA DocLab Academy 2014

From their blurb (see http://www.idfa.nl/industry/idfacademy/about-idfacademy.aspx):

More and more, our reality is entwined and submerged in digital technology. While the consequences are both far-reaching and disturbing, these technologies have also led to an explosion of new ways to tell stories and create documentary art. But how do you tell a documentary story well? What artistic opportunities are opened up by new technologies such as virtual reality and the Oculus Rift? How do digital pioneers such as the National Film Board of Canada and ARTE utilize the internet without getting lost in its boundlessness? How do you finance an interactive documentary, find the right partners and reach your audience?

IDFA’s new media program DocLab and interdisciplinary arts center De Brakke Grond present, in cooperation with the Netherlands Film Fund and the Flanders Audiovisual Fund, an exclusive talent development program for 20 innovative documentary makers and interactive storytelling talents from The Netherlands and Belgium. The DocLab Academy takes place November 20-26 and offers a comprehensive and adventurous program on the cutting edge of documentary storytelling and interactive media.

Same old, same old.

Embedding

WordPress 4.0 now has improved media embedding. It relies on the oEmbed protocol that lets a site ask for media content from another site and for the correct HTML to be delivered. I don’t know if oEmbed works for video stored already in a WordPress install (it can talk to wordpress.tv so presumably?) and if it can then it also means embedding video becomes elegantly trivial…

Once upon a time to embed video I would make a single frame poster movie, embed that using a lot of embed code, including the URL that the poster needed to link to, and so on. Ah, the good old days.