Monday, March 10, 2008

Capturing lives in liquid modern times

The Necks performing LAW [pdf file of performance poster]

Ross Gibson’s essay ‘The Rise of Digital Multimedia’ in Cultural Studies Review (12:1 Mar 2006) sets out a useful and brief thumbnail sketch of two moments in the historical sociology of cultural forms which he uses to buttress his claim that his co-composed digital multimedia project Life After Wartime (LAW) is perhaps a cultural form suited to our transnational-globalized moment.

The first moment in the history of cultural forms for Gibson, Ian Watt’s 1957 The Rise of the Novel is ‘a classic of cultural history’, whereby
In seeking to understand why the novel emerged so quickly and with so much influence during the early eighteenth century, Watt started from the premise that artistic forms often mimic the psychological, social, and political conditions prevalent in the particular era that gives rise to them. He contended that early novelists such as Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding developed literary techniques for dramatising the emergence of the bourgeois individual, with its private sensibility, its responsibility to create opportunities for itself and its need for self-reflective interior monologues with which to access the relationship between self and the world.(141-2)

For Gibson, following Watt, the study of new cultural forms like the novel affords ‘insight into periods of psychic, political and philosophical flux.’

‘Cultural forms tend to get invented and become popular at exactly the time they are needed.’(142)

Next Gibson, rightly I think, argues that the novel’s capacity to perform the work that it did for reading publics in the c18 and c19 became exhausted perhaps because of the limits of its potential to innovate being reached, but more importantly because it was superseded by the kinetic cultural medium of cinema, which was better equipped and suited to mimick the experience of urban modernity and its time-space compression:

With the machine age and the urban explosion it caused, the modern world was being newly defined by the way energy was expressed urgently within a newly compressed world of speedy, mechanical rhythm. And cinema mimicked this shift in impetus.(143)

If for Gibson the novel’s emergence occurs alongside that of the Western Bourgeois individual-self, and it’s forms of privacy/ private property (following Benedict Anderson in his Imagined Communities nationalism should really be added to the social-forms that Gibson lists as emerging with the novel), then the emergence of cinema accompanies that of the social masses and the c20 national-popular nationalisms:

Consider Australia circa 1901, at the inauguration of the federal government: cinema enabled people in Gympie, Sydney and Adelaide, let’s say, to share a perceptual and a conceptual frame where they had previously been dissociated. (143)

So, Gibson argues that these cultural forms are reflective of and help to create ways of making sense of the epochs in which they are put to work:

But cinema has its limits. Understanding this, we can start contemplating the rise of digital multimedia systems in our own era. A definitive characteristic of the movies is the way they ‘lock off’ their several dynamic parts into a final version, the ‘release print’. This ultimate inflexibility of cinema is similar to the way most national-scale communities responded to the turbulence of modernity by insisting that their societies first synchronise energetically to the machine world and then stabilise permanently once the new political state was realised. (143-4)

As cinema is to nationalism, DM (Digital multimedia) is for transnationalism (or globalisation) because DM is unfinished, not locked off ‘explicitly provisional’(144).Gibson:

Because of the dynamics of its file structures and the integrating, evolving codes that get applied to those files, any digital multimedia configuration is a contentious event in a continuous process rather than a completed, content-full object; it is always ready to be dismantled and reassembled into new alignments as soon as the constituent files have been federated in response to momentary prevailing ‘world conditions’. (144-5 emphasis added)

Digital Multimedia (DM) then, in this case Gibson's collaborative project Life After Wartime (LAW), is a form for our transnational-globalised moment, or so Gibson argues.

Responding to an extraordinary collection of crime scene photographs belonging to the New South Wales Police, LAW is a ‘story-engine’ or speculative ‘conjunction-machine’ that restlessly combines still images plus haiku-like texts plus musical sound files plus stimulus from the interactive user. The original archive is a jumble of evidence associated with actual people who have been caught in painfully real outbreaks of fate, desire or rage. (145)

The conclusive texts (verdicts, prosecution and defence case etc) are withheld. The ‘user’ is operating as an 'investigator', rather than 'reader or receiver': to engage is to compose with found materials. Encouraging ‘a forensic rhythm in the imagination, the intellect, the spirit.’ (147)

While it's interesting and even persuasive that he invokes something like a polyrhythmic function for DM, I find the social-historical homology between the form of this multimedia and our putative transnational moment to be undertheorised: that the effects of 'transnational-globalisation' might be experienced unevenly, that glocalization might be experienced as time-space de-compression, or that the forms of DM might be what we use to solve or live with a contradiction, or to provide a means of living with asynchronies - all these considerations are not entertained by Gibson's essay.

I want to come at this issue of form-history another way. Two Australian novels published last year, Andrew Hutchinson’s Rohypnol and Malcolm Knox’s Jamaica portray a hyper-masculinized ruling class (and its nouveau bourgeois contestant) whose power is not practised solely in the exercise of accumulated cultural capital, nor completely in their use of financial capital, but rather their class dominance resides in the practice and capacity to control time-space: to be able to evade capture - to not get caught - when Others are after you (effectively to compress time-space, to fly out at a moment’s notice); and inversely to decompress time-space: to languidly luxuriate in the opulent no-places of resort cultures and the entertainment fortresses of private homes.

These sociological concepts are from Zygmunt Bauman's Liquid Modernity:

Domination consists in one's own capacity to escape, to disengage, to 'be elsewhere', and the right to decide the speed with which all that is done - while simultaneously stripping the people on the dominated side of their ability to arrest or constrain their moves or slow them down. The contemporary battle for domination is waged between forces armed, respectively, with the weapons of acceleration and procrastination . . .Light modernity let one partner out of the cage. 'Solid' modernity was an era of mutual engagement. 'Fluid' modernity is the epoch of disengagement, elusiveness, facile escape and hopeless chase. In 'liquid modernity', it is the most elusive, those free to move without notice, who rule.(120)

Now, Gibson's historical sociology of cultural form - here DM - would seem to be only a celebration of transnational-globalisation (also cosmopolitanism) rather than also being a critique of its rationalities. And yet the dominant operational genre of LAW is investigation: piecing together (or what J Attali in Noise names the fourth order of musicking - composition) narratives from fragments of text, photographs etc. The goal or game here is to generate assemblages composed of technique, evidence, narrative, hunch, hypotheses, mood so as to catch or nab the perpetrators of the crimes these archival photos from 1945-60, and archival text, are evidence for and in.

Is the operational goal, then, of LAW (investigating and generating a narrative of a crime, using DM) to provide us with, potentially, the skills of capture in a liquid modern globe? If getting caught is a crime in neoliberalism then playing the LAW-game might help us develop both the formal skills of composing captures, but also of making evasions.

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