Rethinking “Incompleteness”

Nick’s concept of “Incompleteness” overlaps nicely with a recent discussion of the DVD version of Lodge Kerrigan’s haunting film, Keane, which includes a “director’s cut” or re-mix of the film not by Lodge Kerrigan but by friend and colleague Steven Soderbergh (for more see the Washington Post). Sodebergh’s reworking of Kerrigan’s narrative would seem to illustrate perfectly Nick’s principle of “incompleteness,” the idea that “there is no properly finished product any longer; nothing is complete.” Nick’s right to add that no film or work of art or text was ever truly complete, and I’m curious to explore the implications of this notion of incompleteness even further.

Such a principle is clearly present in the deleted scenes that are now included on many DVDs, often with actor and director’s commentary tracks expressing regret that a scene could not be included in the theatrical release of the film. Often, DVDs will even include alternate endings (one significant example is The Butterfly Effect, which with its time-travel plot, adds a new wrinkle to the question of alternate endings). Even director’s commentary tracks themselves can explode the idea of a final version of the film, but just as often the commentary track might also serve to reinforce the cult of authorship with the director’s vision as, in some sense, final.

But Nick’s discussion of “incompleteness” with regards to the digital archive also has implications for art that is archved digitally on the Web. Nick points to the constantly-updated art isntallations available on a site such as, noting the “sheer abundance” of art projects, many of which are concerned with “a sort of madness of indexing, a madness of database.” Even blogs, of course, might participate in this “madness of indexing,” especially entries that detail, sometimes quite painstakingly, the everyday experiences of their authors (or their results on countless personality tests or their weekly iPod shuffles). And I think that Nick’s right to suggest that the incompleteness can allow for a perpetual recontextualization or rethinking of what is already there. Again, blogs offer a useful model here: the constant updates recontextualize what comes before.

An even more interesting example might be Day-to-Day Data, an art exhibition that “exhibits the work artists who seek inspiration from insignificant details in their own or the publics’ everyday lives,” with Adele Prince’s Trolley Spotting, for example, taking an interest in abandoned trolleys (or shopping carts). Miranda July shows a similar interest in the quotidian in her on-going web project, Learning to Love You More, which invites others to contribute to her site by responding to certain “assignments.”

But while blogs offer one useful model, I think Nick is right to point towards wikis, most famously Wikipedia, as a more useful model for illustrating this notion of incompleteness. As he points out, wikipedia entries change rapidly, especially when the definition of a term or concept is under intense scrutiny or deliberation (see, for example, this discussion of the September 11 wiki). This incompleteness, the instability of a site such as Wikipedia, certainly introduces a number of questions about the degree to which these terms are constantly being contested and the difficulty of achieving consensus on the meaning or significance of certain terms.

I do have some reserveations about the historical novelty of this notion of “incompleteness.” Nick notes that Lev Manovich has argued that “Historically, the artist made a unique work within a particular medium. Therefore the interface and the work were the same; in other words, the level of an interface did not exist” (Database as a Genre of New Media). IManovich’s comments echo Benjamin’s discussion of the aura, and while the institution of art certainly valorized unique works of art, I think it worth noting that there is a parallel history of incompleteness. One might make the case, for example, that scribal culture fostered a version of incompleteness, with scribes often making imprecise copies of prior versions, whether out of boredom, exhaustion, or out of some other motivation. Even marginalia could be seen as a form of “revising” what comes before. Hollywood studios often had multiple versions of the film they made, with scenes cut (or deleted) either appease local censors or, later, to remain in compliance with the Hays Code. I certainly agree that digital media offer a new way of thinking about incompleteness, a concept that Nick’s blog entry unpacks quite effectively.


  1. marc Said,

    April 14, 2006 @ 4:20 pm

    This is actually one of the topics I’ll be tackling in my dissertation, Chuck, as it seems (to me at least) that not only do we see particular narratives being revised within their initial medium but also, crucially, across disparate media (comics, games, TV, web, etc.). I call it ancillary revisionism, and I’ve spoken before at conferences (including SCMS with you!) about how our traditional signals for narrative closure just don’t really apply or, at least, adhere anymore. Relatedly, I’m also interested in “in-betweeness”, the notion that narrative is increasingly composited (i.e. Keane doesn’t exist as either Kerrigan or Soderbergh’s cut but as an in-between blend of the two) and not sustained through any single instantiation. Good to see others working with these thoughts as well….

  2. Chuck Said,

    April 14, 2006 @ 4:30 pm

    Marc, if I had been a little more alert when writing this entry, I would have mentioned your work. I’m certainly very interested in your work on “ancillary revisionism,” which we’ve talked about with regards to Donnie Darko, for example.

    Given that Kerrigan’s cut of the film is liekly regarded as “primary” in some way (he worked with the actors and his version is the one that appeared in theaters), does that shape interpretation in a any way? With something like Darko, it seems clear that the narrative is a composite, but wondering how authorship plays out in the Soderbergh-Kerrigan collaboration?

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