Archive for October, 2003

Spineless Books

Just had one of those “small world” moments. Via Nick Monfort of Grand Text Auto, I was happily reminded of the fantastic work being done by William Gillespie in his “Spineless Books.”

I once met William through a mutual friend and enjoyed the opportunity to discover what he was doing with online publishing. Especially enjoyable for me was revisiting William’s Newspoetry, some of which I had the opportunity to hear on his show, Eclectic Seizure, on WEFT, Champaign-Urbana’s amazing community radio station, a fantastic example of local grassroots radio.

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Ghettos in the Wireless City

I’ve mentioned William J. Mitchell a few times on my blog, usually with some degree of skepticism, but Anne recently raised an important critique of his brand of techno-utopianism that I think I’ve been neglecting:

His talk was far too utopian for me – there was absolutely no critical awareness or discussion of the social implications.

I asked him: If we are to focus on people rather than technology, which people are we talking about? If being mobile is the way of the future, what will happen to people who are not? And what will ghettos look like in the wireless city?

He had no answers. Well, actually, he said that all technologies have raised these same issues, that these are policy problems …

Um, okay. Thanks.

More later, perhaps, but I’ve got a full plate today–I’m moving towards drafting my paper on blogging.

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Conference Paper Accepted

Just had a paper on The Ring accepted to the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts. Fort Lauderdale in March–not a bad gig at all.

The paper will focus on the film’s treatment of video as a “haunted technology,” something I’ve been working on in other contexts. I’m also intrigued by the content of the videotape. The Surrealist imagery, including references to Un chien andalou and Meshes of the Afternoon (not properly Surrealist, I know), seems really signifcant.

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Template Games

I’ve just taken a few cautious steps towards playing with the appearance of my blog. I like the changes that Jason and Anne have recently made to their blog templates. The privileging of the calendar on my blog by placing it at the very top of the right column has always bothered me conceptually, especially since recent entries and recent comments seem more relevant to frequent (or even infrequent) visitors to my blog. The original placement of the calendar also felt a little impersonal, but I think my template seems impersonal anyway (in part due to my lack of confidence in my own HTML skills). I don’t really like having the “contact” section so near the top, so perhaps I’ll add a short self-introduction. The bottom now looks a little cluttered to me, but I’m still thinking about what I want to do with the calendar and the archives sections. Any suggestions about changing the “look” of the chutry experiment?

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Heist Movies

Just a very tentative gesture toward a potential future project: I’ve been fascinated by the recent popularity of heist films (Heist, Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, The Score, and the popular re-release of Le Cercle Rouge, just to name a few). I’m not sure if I can offer a clear definition of the genre that I’m trying to describe, but these films usually align our identification with a crew of master criminals who are trying to cash in at the end of their careers, whether out of desperation, exhaustion, or some other need. Given the amount of money involved these films are almost always about get-rich-quick fantasies, and our identification with the criminals is partially a desire to share in their cleverness, their ability to “control” the narrative of the crime, as well as the narrative of the film itself (in this regard, The Usual Suspects might be seen as a complicated cousin of the heist film, especially given the revision of our identifcation with the Kevin Spacey character over the course of the film).

More significantly, I think that heist films are about the symbolic power of money in the age of digital reproduction. In a conversation with Mike this afternoon, he mentioned Walter Benn Michaels’ argument about the decline and end of the gold standard (which produced a previous generation of heist films), but I’m beginning to think there might be another representational question at stake in the more contemporary cycle of these films, one based on the “virtualization” of money associated with ATMs and day trading, for example. I’m not sure how yet, but I’m also hoping to distinguish these heist films, which usually entail some physical risk, from hacker films, which usually involve only mental dexterity (although I think there are some connections).

This idea has been simmering for a few weeks and came back to the surface when I was re-reading William J. Mitchell’s City of Bits while working on another paper, specifically when he discusses e-commerce. I’m still sorting these ideas out, but if anyone has any suggestions (books, movies, connections), I’d love to hear them.

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Soderbergh’s Solaris

I’ve delayed watching Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (IMDB) for a few months because I had originally planned to revisit both Stanislaw Lem’s novel and Andrei Tarkovsky’s haunting film, but I decided to watch it tonight. Like Steven Shaviro, I enjoyed the film’s ability to create a contemplative, claustrophobic atmosphere, with its dark lightling and use of blues and grays and its slow pacing. I’m not familiar enough with the earlier versions of Solaris, but I think Shaviro’s description seems about right. I was also disappointed by Soderbergh’s ultimate affirmation that “love conquers all,” reflected in both the film’s conclusion and the repeated reference to Kelvin’s (George Clooney) favorite line of poetry.

The film opens with an interesting sequence focusing on Kelvin at work on earth as a pstchiatrist. Despite the prominent use of earth tones (brown and yellows), there is a certain sense of decay or decline, partially reflected by the rundown spaces where we sometimes see Kelvin. Kelvin is running a group counseling session involving a married couple, and their responses to the various artifacts or souvenirs of their relationship diverge completely, suggesting an inability to relate to or know the other person. These scenes initially seem detached from the rest of the film, but they ultimately reflect on Kelvin’s relationship to his dead wife Rheya.

After staying out a bit late last night, I’m not sure that I can really develop a clear reading of the film. I liked the use of the flat, almost immaterial “screens” used for communication in several key scenes–they helped to reinforce the overall coldness of the film. I do think Sodebergh was picking up on some of the interesting strands from the original text regarding the limitations of human memory, especially in the sequence in which Kelvin is confronted with the flaws in his memory of his dead wife, Rheya. Significantly, this memory “problem” is situated around a single photgraph of Rheya that Kelvin has prominently displayed on his refrigerator door, calling attention to the ways in which photographs capture partial, fleeting images, rather than providing us with complete experiences, but the weight of the “love conquers all” ending overshadows this particular focus on memory.

The more I think about this film, the more it has grown on me. It’s certainly impressive that Soderbergh managed to get such a reflective, cerebral film produced within the Hollywood system, and I am disappointed that it will likely be forgotten or neglected because it doesn’t conform to the expectations of either an art house or a high-gloss science-fiction sensibility.

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All Publicity is Good Publicity

Check it out: my use of blogging in my freshman composition courses was prominently featured in an article in the Georgia Tech newspaper, The Technique, the south’s liveliest college newspaper. One of my students, Jeff Wei, wrote the article, and I think it generally turned out quite nicely. Enjoy.

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Destination Digital: Where do You Want to Go?

I’m not sure how to relate this entry to my previous one other than to link them and to comment that I read both essays this afternoon and evening…

At any rate, I came across Andrew Utterson’s essay, “Destination Digital: Documentary Representation and the Virtual Travelogue,” in QRFV, in which Utterson argues that Internet webcams and virtual tours offer a useful means for addressing several key issues pertaining to the status of the documentary image. Utterson drwas the comparison between virtual tours and the actuality films of early cinema, which I think is a useful move, especially when he ties the “generic aesthetics” of early cinema to the “introduction and marketing of new technologies” (194). I argue the experimentation with time in early cinema is intimately bound with the marketing and reception of these early films, especially in the “trick” films of Melies, for example.

But when Utterson turns to digital technologies, to webcams and virtual tours, I become suspicious of his claims. He writes:

An infinite series of remotely situated cameras gives us instant access to multiple, simultaneous sites of geographical actuality. Negotiating the limits of physical travel, the webcam’s immedaitely relayed streams of images, like the cinema before it, begin to break down the primary constraints of physicality. However illusory or hypothetical, the sense of global connectedness associated with the webcam arouses the possibility of existing simultaneously within multiple locations, as we logon to a transglobal, hyperreal alternative to everyday life and domesticity. (194 emphasis mine)

Perhaps I’m being picky (it’s been known to happen), but I don’t feel like his description of the illusion of immediacy offered by webcams sufficiently distinguishes itself from television’s appearnce of immediacy, especially the satellite systems that offer hundreds of channels and convey themselves as “live” transmissions. Of course, there is the matter of “control,” in that webcam surfers may be able to control the direction of the camera, whether it pans, tilts, or tracks across a given space, but I don’t think that the liveness of the digital per se can be seen as crucially different than the liveness of television (at least as it is explained here).

I’m equally skeptical of Utterson’s observation that webcams offer even the “illusory or hypothetical” experience of existing in two places simultaneously. When I click on (my originally word choice, visit, might undercut my own argument, BTW) EarthCam or Armchair Travel Company, I don’t have the sense that I exist in two different places. I am aware of the fact that my radio is playing in the background, that crickets are chirping outside my window. If I’m in the computer lab at school, I worry that someone might walk up and look over my shoulder and think that I’m being lazy by surfing to look at the webcam sites I just mentioned. I think that what Utterson describes is a useful and popular fiction, one that might be used to market web technologies (if I read correctly the Armchair Traveler requires a paid membership), for example.

His larger question about the ability of digital technologies to sustain the veracity of the image that is so important to documentary forms also needs to be challenged. Cinematic documentaries have always been prone to manipulation. Even the early example of The Execution of Czoglosz combines actuality footage with a re-enactment of the execution. Every cut, every movement of the camera, involves a choice to exclude something else.

I didn’t intend to be so critical of Utterson’s essay, and I’m still trying to articulate why I’m so resistant to these claims about the digital. I know that my resistance relies somewhat on my ambivalence about claims about the immersion and immediacy of the digital, but one answer might be found here in Jason’s discussion of studying games, specifically when he refers to the decision-making processes required in role-playing games. I don’t have much experience with RPGs, and the degree of identification one has with one’s character might indicate one version of this type of immediacy.

Andrew at Grand Text Auto also seems to be tackling the problem of “immediacy” in the gaming world (Wow: I didn’t realize GTA was affiliated with Georgia Tech).

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In the Ruins of the Future

Today has been devoted to getting myself back on track (to the extent that I imagine my life to be track or a course or whatever linear metaphor one can recall). With Fall Break approaching and a temporary respite from grading, I’ve had an opportunity to think in a slightly more focused way about my research than usual….

In that context, I flipped through the most recent issue of PMLA and came across Marco Abel’s article on Don DeLillo’s Harper’s essay on 9/11, “In the Ruins of the Future.” Abel’s essay emphasizes DeLillo’s preoccupation “with the question of how to narrate and thus see the event” (1240), noting that DeLillo’s account responds to the aftermath of 9/11 “without reducing it to simple explanation or meaning” (1240).

I haven’t yet read the DeLillo essay (available here in the Guaridan archives), but what I found more interesting about Abel’s essay was his attempt to read DeLillo’s essay through the lens of neorealism, the cinematic movement associated with post-World War II Italian cinema (The Bicycle Thief would be the most prominent example). Abel’s argument reminded me of my own discussion of Spike Lee’s post-9/11 film, 25th Hour, which I associated at the time with Deleuze’s crisis in the action-image. Deleuze identifies this “crisis” with Italian neorealism and emphasizes the inability of the neorealist characters to take decisive action, a connection that I made in my original review. The connection between a cinematic aesthetic and DeLillo’s writing never quite developed for me, but that may be my suspicion toward that kind of analogy. I simply don’t think that narration can be reduced to seeing or vice versa (but I wouldn’t mind being convinced otherwise).

But with that connection in mind, I’m thinking about expanding my blog entry on Hour into something larger, either a conference paper or something larger. I know there are some complications in terms of Lee’s rapid-fire editing (against the long takes associated with neorealism), but as Abel argues, “the neorealist mode of seeing emerged from the destruction permeating Europe at the end of World War II. DeLillo’s narrative begins with and responds to another, albeit different ruin” (1249). The shot of Ground Zero (which, if I recall, is relatively static) seems pertinent here, and I am still convinced that Lee succeeds in not placing 9/11 into a simple narrative, that, like DeLillo, he “avoids reducing [9/11] to a moralistic lesson” (1248). I wasn’t planning on going back to Lee’s film, but now I’d really like to revisit it.

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It Happened Tomorrow: Posting to the Future

It’s not quite time travel, but it still plays with time and memory in an interesting way. Via Jill: A fascinating website called FutureMe.org that allows you to send an email to yourself at some point in the future.

Jill found this website through Ratchet Up, a site that suggests using “Future Me” as a memory tool for building a vivid image of the here and now, with the goal of creating an eidetic image. I originally was going to promise to post my letters to my future self, but I think I’d rather send them and “forget” about them until I receive the emails later (update: in fact, I’m actually starting to find FutureMe strangely addictive).

You can send the message privately or post it publicly (but anonymously) on the Future Me website. It’s certainly worthwhile just to flip through some of the messages that people send to themselves, to see what they imagine they will find important in the future.

It also has the makings of a great Philip K. Dick-style story about someone who sends herself dozens of emails not knowing that she will eventually develop some form of amnesia….

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Spectacle in Atlanta

Anne Galloway’s comments on John Thackara’s discussion of the post-spectacular city remind me of Atlanta, specifcally my morning commute into Georgia Tech, when I glance out the window of the elevated train as it smoothly tracks over abandoned spaces (some of which are now being retro-fitted as loft apartments). The train window, with the dimensions of a movie screen (or, coincidentally, a postcard), frames the distant skyline much like a tracking shot in a film, creating a strange distance (aura) that always translates the city into an image. This sense of Atlanta as image originally became distinct for me in the mid-1990s, when Atlanta began “cleaning up” for the Olympics. An attractive facade along the Interstate highways hid the city’s disenfranchised populations, many of whom were literally displaced by venues for the Olympics. It still persists, especially as the city attempts to refashion itself through all of the city’s urban renewal projects.

Like Anne, I have serious doubts about how it is possible to get beyond the spectacle:

What remains most unclear to me is how all of this will create a “post-spectacular” city – one in which we move beyond commodified experiences

The “semiotic pollution” that Thackara describes has less to do with a so-called “creative class” than with a cultural logic hellbent on capturing and containing the attention of the individual subject. In fact, instead of saying that “the creative class has optimised the society of the spectacle,” it might be better to say that spectacular society has “optimised” the creative class. Atlanta, for example, continues to hide its own past (both recent and long term) as well as any city I know…

This concept of the spectacular city–and its “semiotic pollution”–comes back to me when I walk from the subway station to my office when I walk past a small tower, probably 8-10 storeys at most, situated beside the “downtown connector,” the interstate highway that runs through the center of the city. From the street, the tower offered the glorious dream of a visually fascinating city in its status as both object (the tower as object to be looked at) and subject (the tower as vantagepoint for looking at the city) of a gaze. The building now sits abandoned, a locked gate preventing admission. If you look carefully through the glass doors, you can still see the advertising fliers promoting various tourist attractions around the city.

What strikes me about the image of this tower is its status as a relic from Atlanta’s recent past, especially as it is connected to the Olympic dream of international harmony. I’m not quite sure how to bring these points back around to Anne’s discussion of the spectacle, which leads me to believe that I’m trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, but I think I see the tower as a small fissure in the city’s image, but it’s a fissure or gap that I might never see without the benefit of walking (rather than driving) past it every day on my way to work.

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Recommendation Letter Checklist

Matt offers a handy checklist for his students who have requested or will request recommendation letters. I’ve written a few recommendations in my very short career, and this is the information that I generally try to pass along to my students. The last point–letting me know how things turn out–is pretty important to me. Some of the letters I’ve written have supported students who were quite successful (which in all likelihood is not related to my letter writing skills), and it’s always satisfying to hear the good news.

In other news, I can’t stand the Cubs.

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Swimming

Still in the mood for low-budget, independent films, I rented Swimming last night. Swimming focuses on Frankie (played by Lauren Ambrose), a teenage girl who works in and co-owns a restaurant on the main drag of Myrtle Beach. The plot itself risks appearing to be a cliche coming-of-age story about the summer when everything changed (she meets an awkward stoner who sells tie-dyed t-shirts; she befriends a sexually confident woman who comes to work in her restaurant; and her old friendships are tested by these new relationships). But like Roger Ebert, I think the film is saved by Ambrose’s subtle performance in the lead role, and the script avoids simple moral platitudes about “growing up.”

Perhaps the most interesting detail about the film is that it was directed by film professor, Robert Siegel, from a script by one of his students, Lisa Bazadona.

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Comment Spam: Shock and Awe

More later, but I was hit by about 25-30 identical comments from someone advertising a company’s website. I suppose I should feel honored that they wanted to piggyback off my pagerank, but it really just ticks me off. It looks like I’ll have to find some way to police comments now.

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