Engaging the Post-Cinematic

I’ve been mulling over Steven Shaviro’s fascinating blog post, in which he seeks to define the concept of the “post-cinematic.” The post serves as a response to a conversation between Steven,├é┬áTherese Grisham, Julia Leyda, and Nicholas Rombes about the first two Paranormal Activity films, and their exchange will be published in the online film journal, La Furia Umana. But given its widespread implications in offering a map (however tentative) of our current media moment, it has truly challenged me to think more carefully about my own attempts to work through what is happening to the concept of cinema, much less the practical changes to the movie industry in a time of rapid media change.

Steven starts by asking what happens when cinema is displaced by digital and computer-based media as a “cultural dominant” (to use Frederic Jameson’s term). Steven is careful to complicate the idea that cinema has been surpassed by digital media, but as he notes cinema’s dominance has faded, even while mass audiences continue attend Hollywood movies in theaters or watch them on a variety of smaller screens, whether a big-screen TV set, a computer, or even a cell phone. He goes on to note that this declining dominance functions economically–TV is watched by more people than cinema–and arguably in terms of prestige, as TV shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire, and more recently Mad Men and (maybe) Breaking Bad have begun to receive acclaim normally reserved for films. I’ve used the term “cinema” rather loosely here to refer to the institutions of movie production, under the assumption that “film,” especially in the material sense of celluloid passing in front of a lens, no longer describes most of the movies we see, either at the level of production or at the level of projection, a shift that has only been reinforced by the enforced popularization of 3D. But the more crucial point here is that movies appear to no longer have their dominant role within media culture, even if some movies, such as Avatar, are capable of attracting enormous levels of attention.

But I’m most interested in thinking about Steven’s arguments about the changing place of movies and television “in the wake of a whole series of electronic, and later digital, innovations,” starting with tools that are now taken for granted (or even apparently obsolete) such as VCRs, remote controls, and more recently, DVD players, iPads, and even distribution platforms such as Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube. As Steven notes, movies and TV shows are now (apparently, at least) available in a wider range of platforms and contexts than ever before, although this distribution process remains uneven and often quite perplexing, especially outside the the United States. I’m told, for example, that renting a video from a Blockbuster in Italy costs approximately ten euros. And certainly Netflix, Hulu, and Redbox have only recently begun to move beyond U.S. borders, complicating any claims to media ubiquity (unless, of course, you go to pirate websites). So, one of the questions that has come up for me as I write is how to engage with this mythology of digital plenitude, especially when issues of digital rights management and geo-blocking arise.

Steven’s comments also helped to frame some of my recent reflections on the implications of digital production, delivery, and exhibition for social, economic, and political developments. As he points out, digital delivery can be linked to the processes of “flexible accumulation” (David Harvey’s term), while also making media labor more precarious, and enforcing more intrusive forms of surveillance (think of the elaborate terms of service agreements that many of us sign when joining social networks). In my own work, Steven’s discussion of the “precarization” of media labor seems especially acute in the independent film sector. No matter what, as Steven points out, our experience of movies changes considerably, as the cinema increasingly becomes available to us at home, on our computers, or even on our phones.

In my own work, I’ve been thinking about this in the space-time vocabulary cited by Steven (he mentions the work of David Harvey and Manuel Castells, in particular), specifically, for me, the concept of mobility. Texts, screens, and people now appear to be increasingly mobile. We are always “on-the-go” to use a phrase common to contemporary advertising discourse. We can watch anywhere; we can start a movie on one device and finish it on another; we can also gain temporal flexibility, watching a TV show on our own schedule. There are a number of factors impinging on this mobility: geoblocking, digital rights issues, some networks limiting access to their shows on Hulu until a week after they originally aired.

On a related note, media are more personalized, with all of the resulting implications. With all of the personalized screens in our household, my wife, stepchildren, and our exchange student could all theoretically watch something different while ostensibly being together. This combination of personalized mobility is often portrayed in terms of the specter of the iPad-watching commuters on the subway, alone together, but this fragmentation often takes place within the home, and in some cases feeds into more effective forms of target marketing. Personalized Netflix queues, for example, might make it easier to sell to the different tastes of multiple family members within the same household. To be sure, this personalized media mobility is often depicted as empowering (Charles Acland has a wonderful essay about this in The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry), although in reality, it is far more complicated than that.

There is, of course, a massive bibliography of boks and essays that have sought to make sense of this new mode of media consumption, many of which have tried to come up with terms that unite the combined experiences encompassed by the idea of the user, viewer, spectator, consumer, something I’ve been struggling with in the current draft of my book. In short, we need a better vocabulary for thinking about the idea of media mobility, one that accounts for this combination of textual, platform, and personal mobility and that acknowledges the range of viewing practices that encompass film and television culture today. We need to think about this not just in terms of the possibilities for interactivity and movement but also in terms of surveillance and marketing. Texts and screens have always been mobile, but our current moment offers an intensification of this process, and it is well worth engaging with the discourses of personalized mobility.

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