GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 17, 2019

Media as Scene

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:00 am

It seems to me we have a very simple way of speaking about “media” in a way consistent with GA: the “media” is whatever enables the constitution of a scene. A sign directs participants on a scene’s attention in a particular way and thereby constitutes the scene; but, reciprocally, relying on the elements of the scene makes the sign possible. I think of the originary scene as having a circular structure, because that would maximize the power of the sign: everyone on the scene would see both the object and the others, so they could see each other seeing the object. In that case, the circular configuration would be the medium, or the condition under which the sign could be effectively issued. At the same time, the bodies of all the participants are media—or are the bodies part of the sign? After, what functions as a sign here is not obvious: if we assume a pointing gesture, the sign, most minimally, is the extended fingertip—but, of course, the fingertip functioning as a sign might depend upon how the hand is held, and the gesture as a whole would depend upon posture. So, where does sign end and media begin? Sign shades off into its medium, and the medium is concentrated in a particular sign. What is important is not to draw a line separating the two, but to bring into focus whatever is necessary for a particular inquiry.

Writing is a medium—it generates scenes around a text; film is a medium—it generates scenes around a screen; radio is a medium—it generates scenes around broadcast sound; and so on. Are pen, typewriter, microphone, projector, DVD, large darkened room, also part of these media? Yes, but the various elements, settings or implements of the media are more or less contingently associated with or necessary for that medium. When is it the “same,” and when is it no longer the “same,” medium? Again, it’s best to avoid the trap of using concepts to establish classifications, but we could say the following: the originary media, upon which the subsequent ones are modeled, is the singular irreplaceable scene upon which participants shape the scene reciprocally. So, let’s say, a speech scene. This can be contested—is, for example, sending signals into space meant to be picked up and understood by some alien form of intelligence out there a medium modeled on a speech scene (which, for GA, is ultimately modeled on another scene, but on most occasions there’s no need to insist on this)? I think so—when speaking about other media, no matter how technologically advanced and no matter how much temporal and spatial distance they put between the users, we always, I think, use terms from a speech scene (“conversation,” “dialogue,” “discuss,” etc.—even “transmit” presupposes the same kind of reciprocity and replicability).

Seeming exceptions, but I think really complements, are terms used to refer to media that generate a series of scenes: terms such as “broadcast” or Derrida’s favorite, “disseminate.” Writing, to take the most obvious example (but why do we still say that the “author says…”?) generates innumerable scenes. The scenes of reading, commentary, and discussion generated by a text all, at least, share that text as a center—so, if I read a poem by Juvenal, do I have a scenic relation to an ancient Roman who read it? We’re not looking for yes/no answers here: if we take that as a genuine question, we would try an answer it by expanding our conception of “media” to include the process of preservation, canonization, translation and publication (all media, or part of the medium of “writing”) that made it possible for me to read a text that is at least in some sense the “same” as that read by an ancient Roman. The discipline of hermeneutics understood the transmission of texts to be an ongoing dialogue between readers and the text, and readers amongst themselves—hermeneuticists wouldn’t have a problem saying that “my” Juvenal and some 1stcentury Roman’s Juvenal were the “same.” Post-structuralists would dispute this by drawing attention to all the historical differences, registered in all the cultural, philological and critical discourses that “produce” the text for me. But, if the name “Juvenal” is not just a complete mystification, there must be some continuity, some “sameness.” Knowing all the cultural forms that mediate the text for me in ways unimaginable for that 1stcentury Roman might itself be a kind of “dialogue” with him.

That the model for any medium is the speech scene, with bodies and voices all put to work in the signifying act, is an insight David Olson makes regarding writing, and which I have extended to all media. Olson, as I have discussed many times, sees writing as supplementing everything in the speech scene that can’t be directly represented in writing. “Good” writing induces in us forgetfulness that we are not sharing a scene with the writer, and whomever or whatever he is writing about. A “good” movie or TV show, by the same logic, “draws us in” and makes us feel like we are observers present on a scene. I think reading most movie and TV criticism would bear this observation out—“bad” movies are those in which we can’t believe the events are actually happening, in which a sequence of events doesn’t play out the way we would expect it to in the real world, in which characters aren’t “relatable” or sympathetic, i.e., we wouldn’t want to imagine ourselves on a scene with them. The same with radio—we have to feel we are, and are happy to be, in the same room with the host. The other possibility always exists, and is sometimes exploited—that of foregrounding precisely what is unique in the medium you are using, that which makes it different from the speech scene and all other media. This involves abstraction and the generation of thought experiments, like, what, exactly, makes film, film? What’s interesting in this case is not, say, using the scenic medium to supplement what would be expressed differently in a novel (preserving the “same” content), but to show precisely what couldn’t be expressed in or mediated by a novel. This has been the position of the avant-garde which has never, needless to say, occupied the center of culture, but is always retrieved by those with a low threshold of tolerance for clichés, and this is fortunate because some kind of direct attention to the mediumistic conditions of any sign is necessary for their intelligent “consumption.” The implication of my argument here is that even experiencing the most avant-garde works is modeled on the speech scene, but with the possibility of recognizing all the ways we contribute to constituting that scene.

These concepts—sign/scene, speech scene/other media, unique scenes/iterable scenes—provide us with a powerful way of examining all media phenomena, and one that allows us to never lose sight of the central question: how does this sign, on this scene, defer more or less imminent mimetic violence? The complementary concept pairs allow us to oscillate between them, using what we identify in some case to be the “sign” to direct our attention to media conditions of that sign, or encompassing more and more of what we see as surrounding that sign (e.g., ownership of a particular station as part of the “medium,” or the scenic condition of those words coming out of that actor’s mouth), which in turn helps us refine our analysis of that sign. Academics like to use such concepts to systematize, but their real purpose is to open up discussions and move them in new directions, often in directions those “behind the scene” would prefer it didn’t. This is the kind of knowledge that goes, at least tacitly, into “meme-ing,” for example.

We could think of the media as the fractal conditions of whatever signs and discourses we produce. Any action you propose, or any imperative you obey, presents itself as a whole: so, for example, maybe you are determined to “challenge the liberal assumptions” of a prominent blogger who nominally rejects liberalism. Now, “challenge the liberal assumptions of” is one of those phrases that comes very easily and dissipates just as easily. What counts as a “challenge”? What counts as an unavowed “liberal assumption”? How could we tell that the assumptions have really been challenged—what are the “metrics” here? As soon as you start to break down “challenge the liberal assumptions of” into a set of practices, you start constructing scenes and models of the way others will respond to your “challenge” by stripping away some of the credibility of the putative anti-liberal—or, maybe, you envisage them questioning him in a new, friendly but forceful way. You would want the liberal assumptions, once they are exposed, to be replaced by genuinely non-liberal ones—not slightly less obviously liberal ones. You’d want to provide certain “scaffolds” that would enable your target to know where the line between liberal and post-liberal is to be drawn here. In other words, your discourse aims at peopling a landscape, as if you were modeling lots of little “challenges to liberal assumptions” to be extracted from your discourse. This is what I mean by “fractal”: explicating a practice asserted in strictly declarative terms that represent a reality without any firm referents by including the components of that practice as, simultaneously, its model.

When you think this way you’re thinking in terms of the media conditions of your utterances. “Challenging the liberal assumptions of” gets converted into a scene, or a series of possible scenes: someone saying this, someone writing that, someone broadcasting something else, a flurry of tweets following up in some way, etc. The purpose is to transform the “target” into a different kind of sign across various media. “Thinking” about media is equivalent to producing discourse that travels through various media. There’s something in your writing that will sound just right read aloud; a few things that are tweet-worthy; something that’s an implicit response in an ongoing dialogue with some other position; something that satirizes a TV personality in a way that can only be done in writing, and so on. The reason why phrases like “challenge the assumptions of” need to be fractalized is that they are completely logocentric: they “work,” i.e., go unnoticed, insofar as they generate the illusion of us all being on the same scene where we consent to “see” that “challenge” in front of us as vividly as we could see one boxer knocking out another (and, of course, people refer all the time—mostly somewhat ironically, though, I think—about people being “destroyed” by this or that tweet or meme). That logocentrism, that we see in concepts that construct phony simulations of battles between familiar opponents, is what is to be targeted most persistently. It’s not so much that specific “beliefs,” “principles” and “convictions” need to be dissolved as that the very concepts of “belief,” “principles” and “convictions,” among many others need to be dissolved into scenes that make them meaningful. What are you doing when you “believe”? If you “have” principles, where are they? These are just ways of saying, “you know that thing I just said—I’m not just BSing it”—which is the surest proof that that is exactly what they are doing. Better than believing and having principles is surrounding a discourse by leveraging media so as to interfere with its “wave structure.” The imperative is to embed the declarative in a scene, which in turn elicits its originary structure.

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