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Published on October 21st, 2012 | by Thompson


Culture Sucked Through the Lens

Everything this week seemed to be written specifically for me.  I enjoyed reading things that are so pertinent to what I know and do.  Kress and van Leeuwen’s investigation into image form, particularly advertisements, was like a review from my ad classes when I was pursuing my Bachelor’s in marketing, and Manovich’s discussion of the human-computer interface and operations made me feel a lot better about the value of my film degree.  Anyone who thinks “the Gutenberg galaxy turns out to be just a subset of the Lumières’ universe” (80) is OK in my book…despite their diction.  “Rather than being merely one cultural language among others, cinema is now becoming the cultural interface, a toolbox for all cultural communication, overtaking the printed word” (86).  Manovich is finally starting to grow on me, but how could a film nut resist?

I’d like to say I agree with Manovich’s assertion that cinema is becoming “the cultural interface,” but I have my doubts.  I agree “the language of cultural interfaces is largely made up from elements of other, already familiar cultural forms,” and cinema is certainly on the up and up (71).  All you have to do is walk into a local public library and watch what the kids are doing (and not creepily).  Most of them are watching YouTube videos and very few of them are reading words from books…or even on screens for that matter.  “[C]inematic ways of seeing the world, of structuring time, of narrating a story, of linking one experience to the next, have become the basic means by which computer users access and interact with all cultural data” (78-79).  It seems cinema has a hold of the nation’s youth.

Manovich’s coverage of the video game industry really supports this notion of cinema being “the cultural interface.”  I never had a video game console as a kid.  My dad always said that shit would fry my brain, and I’m kind of glad my dad never gave in.  I did get a GameBoy from my godmother one Christmas, though I hardly played it.  Had I been hooked as a kid I’d be just another example of the strength of the gaming industry like my friends, but I don’t play games.  I still prefer regular-old cinema…maybe because I don’t want to be sucked into an alternate world and act within that world.  I go to a movie to avoid acting.

Manovich made me realize that I was drawn to web design because of my film background.  The opportunity presented by the medium was unavoidable.  “The interface shapes how the computer user conceives of the computer itself.  It also determines how users think of any media object accessed via a computer.  Stripping different media of their original distinctions, the interface imposes its own logic on them” (64-65).  Though I had no instruction in web design, after I graduated MSU I wanted to prove that self-education was just as effective as university education, so I decided I would teach myself how to design webpages.  In three months I had created my first website, and since then I have worked on many others, but it wasn’t until I read Manovich that I realized my interest in web design was motivated by my interest in cinema.  “Just as in cinema, ontology is coupled with epistemology: the world is designed to be viewed from particular points of view.  The designer of a virtual world is thus a cinematographer as well as an architect” (82).  I think this notion of cinematographer/architect really called to me.  I wanted to create something in digital space that would never go away.  “[I]f in ‘meatspace’ we have to work to remember, in cyberspace we have to work to forget” (63).  I wanted to post the films I had made in college on my website and create web videos to share with like-minded people all over the world.  The web is an ideal means of distribution for amateur filmmakers, and “as ‘professional’ technology becomes accessible to amateurs, new media professionals create new standards, formats, and design expectations to maintain their status,” which forces the professionals to make the medium even better and more versatile (120).  The medium also gets infused with the culture of the “users,” and changes as users’ goals change.  “[W]e are no longer interfacing to a computer but to a culture encoded in digital form” (70).  It’s as if we looked into the camera and our culture was sucked through the lens and onto the hard drive.

“Film theorists have hailed the look at the camera as a daring, Brechtian, ‘self-reflexive’ style figure, but in television newsreading the look at the camera is commonplace and, we would think, not exactly ‘self-reflexive’ – at least for the presenters: an interviewee who looks at the camera in a television news programme breaks the rules in an unacceptable way.  Not everyone may address the viewer directly,” (126) but Ferris Bueller can.  I’m a big fan of breaking this convention of not looking into the camera.  I think every movie I’ve made has had a look-into-the-camera shot, and it’s generally my favorite shot in all my movies.  Why?  Power.  He who looks into the camera and addresses the audience has power over that audience.  I loved that Kress and van Leeuwen covered this topic.  “When, for instance, the mass media (or automatic teller machines) begins to use ‘demand’ pictures, those educated in the linguistic and visual genres of objective knowledge and impersonal address may feel patronized, ‘addressed below their class’.  Those not so educated (or those who contest the value of such an education) may feel that communication has become more effective (and more fun) than was the case in the era of more formal and impersonal public communication” (127).  It’s a dangerous game to ‘demand’ attention, but when it’s done right, it can be very powerful.

This idea of the ‘demand’ and ‘offer’ image is a way of giving all texts form, whether it is objective or subjective, all writers have to make this decision regarding the presentation of their texts.  Shall I demand or offer?  The question brings form to the text, though “[t]here is no ‘image act’ for every ‘linguistic act’.  But this need not be so forever.  What can be ‘said’ and ‘done’ with images (and with language) does not derive from intrinsic and universal characteristics of these modes of communication” (129).  So I guess it’s our job to investigate the many modes available to us as writers and how we can alter those modes to serve our needs.  I think our multimedia project is a great way to investigate and discover an appropriate form for our arguments.  Cinema truly does allow us to do so much more, and many of us aren’t familiar with the medium, which allows us all to bring a different view of the potentialities the medium has to offer.

With that, I guess I’ll throw some Bernhardt out there.  “If teachers would begin to look at naturally-occurring discourse forms which have evolved outside the classroom, they would begin to develop a descriptive base for visual design.  A preoccupation with conventional essay format allows little attention to visual features.  Instead of helping students learn to analyze a situation and determine an appropriate form, given a certain audience and purpose, many writing assignments merely exercise the same sort of writing week after week, introducing only topical variation” (77).

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About the Author

When Thompson isn't busy writing for Go Gonzo Journal, you may find him drunk at the movie theater with Professor Heinous or stirring up trouble in a bar with his attorney. Thompson also enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and watching and betting on baseball and football.

3 Responses to Culture Sucked Through the Lens

  1. Erica says:

    Antonio. Me gusta tu blog this week. Reading this tied everything together more tightly for me. Where to even start.

    Your line, “It’s as if we looked into the camera and our culture was sucked through the lens and onto the hard drive” creates a really interesting mental image. I’m on a “cyclical connectivity” kick this week, but it’s fascinating. So the culture that is created by someone in the ‘real world’ dwells in a virtual world as well. We then consume the culture through HCI and interpret it through codes. It makes me wonder what effect cinema and the branches that stem from it has on us, and think of how it shapes our culture.

    It also draws to mind the “disjunction between context of production and context of reception” that Kress and van Leeowen talk about. They say this disjunction, “causes social relations to be represented rather than enacted . . . The relation is only represented. We are imaginarily rather than really put into the position of the friend, the customer . . .” (121). Your specific examples of ‘demand’ and ‘offer’ in regards to film made me realize how powerful the gaze is, even when it’s viewed/received through multiple layers of representation. In fact, these layers of representation, or maybe I should say interface, create their own mode of rhetorical control that is different than a gaze received face-to-face. These topics of the visual, cinema, HCI, etc. are fascinatingly complex and interesting.

  2. jenny thornburg says:

    Being a film major, I thought you would love Manovich from the get go! His esoteric manner is a bit difficult, but he surely has much to say. Glad he’s growing on you. I can’t say I love him entirely, but I do find many of his ideas fascinating and I like his artist’s eye. I, too, liked the discourse on left/right, given/new, etc., only it was not entirely review to me. We covered some of these concepts in Writ 371, but not in this detail. To analyze art in these terms is intriguing. It makes me wonder if artists painted this way consciously. Wait… “Such dispositions are probably largely unconscious, just as the dispositions of elements in handwriting are largely unconscious. Yet there is clear regularity”(Kress, 201).
    So there’s my answer. I doubt the painters made those choices each time they sat down to paint, and yet, here we are. When we look at their work we can easily see the consistency of design and form in an era. And that means something.

    Kress goes on to say, “Profound, and profoundly metaphysical orientations to the world are or can be encoded in this particular feature, revealing aspects of affective states, ways of being in the world, at least as strongly as other, perhaps more readily apparent elements.”
    Then you said in your blog,
    “It’s as if we looked into the camera and our culture was sucked through the lens and onto the hard drive.” Bingo. Indeed, that is what happened, through the people who create and interact with computer technology. And the same thing happened with painting technology. I have made composition choices, as an artist and a photographer, and just gone with what instinctively feels ‘right.’ But having the language to analyze and describe the phenomenon, is handy. Shooting from above definitely gives the message that the subject is small, or in some way vulnerable or less important, central position gives permanence, given on the left/ new on the right, ideal above/real below…they’re all things I knew, without having verbalized. How did I know these things? Culture, I guess?
    How does this relate to writing…well…if one of the definitions of rhetoric is the ‘available means of persuasion,’ then the offer/demand concept is critical. Why can’t we borrow from cinema, advertising, and art, knowing that “all media work by remediating content and form”(Manovich, 89).
    I have to say, if you taught yourself web technology, you’ve done well. Your blog has an official look—I respect your gumption. I, too, am a fan of breaking the ‘do not look into camera’ rule. It’s why I love The Office. That, and there’s just no better character than Dwight Schrute. Except for maybe Ron from Parks and Rec.
    When we consider those two shows, they both rely on the device of ‘stepping outside the frame.’ It’s effective. And funny.
    Finally, if the culture is ‘sucked through’ the lens of our media, how will writing reflect our culture? Maybe we’ll look back and say, “Ahh….those were the days when universities were just beginning to wake up to the power of image in texts and intertexts. They didn’t realize what they were missing until they embraced the new technology completely. Only then could they see how inefficient the old ways were. They were slow, grasshopper, but they found their way. The way of Mu.

  3. Bret says:

    Got to say, I dug this. Way to use Broderick’s drawing me in to make a larger point that draws me into your musings. I do have to say though, I agree with your point about the risks of demanding attention. While I tend to agree that, when done correctly, looking at the screen in a flick can do wondrous things… I am curious about the lack of ease we feel when it’s done wrong… I’m not sure I buy the patronizing angle.

    I remember a Tyrone Power pirate flick — based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini — called The Black Swan…

    [side note: if you ever want to see a movie that oozes misogyny, check this flick out. It’s almost comical how badly women are treated in this film; at one point the main character PUNCHES HIS LOVE INTEREST IN THE FACE, and when she is knocked out he carries her away to safety… however, to get back on point]

    The beginning of the film opens with the king of England giving an address to his subjects that involves him delivering a monologue directly to the camera. It is very uncomfortable… I think it might be due to the fact that it is an undue and false intrusion. By which I mean that there is something about how, for Ferris, it is an invitation into his world and that seems to make it alright. Whereas the king in The Black Swan interrupts the flow, makes a stilted statement to the audience, and proceeds to maybe make them think about their presence in a way that never gets brought-up or resolved by the end of the film.

    Maybe it’s that fallacy of making the audience temporarily think about themselves actively, then just going back to being casual inactive viewers of another world. Ferris Bueller seems operate on an interesting different level, but I can’t quite encapsulate how. Perhaps it’s that Ferris Bueller seems to be tacitly acknowledging that his audience is perceiving his world, but never implies any obligation to act in his own world. Just as we are perceiving his world, he can perceive ours. If I’m not mistaken, Ferris might occasionally ask the audience what they’d do… or maybe even that they should consider how they could or should change their own life, but only from behind a barrier that he seems willing to be comfortable with its existence.

    The difference seems to be a bit wobbly still though, because of examples like Peter Pan (clap your hands so that the fairies… I can’t remember what… something about hand-clapping healing fairies, that’s the point). Admittedly, now that I think about it, the “clap your hands” bit is a hold over from live theater, and maybe that makes it more forgivable. You still have the frame/screen (or stage) that makes the clear divide between realities, but the two realities are butting up against each other in a way that is more expected, unlike the radar screens of Manovich where the realities have nothing to do with each other.

    I have gone on a really time here, and my train of thought has escaped me. Thank you for having such a thought provoking blog, my man.

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