The irony isn’t lost on me here: I’m talking about how digital media allows us to recognize how the narrative structure of the story, and even of our lived lives, is something we make up. There’s nothing absolutely real about it (and we’ll try to unpack what absolutely real might mean) except in our perception that is structured narratively – and only because we’re alive. It has a beginning, middle and end we perceive just as we perceive ourselves as having a beginning middle and end. The thing is, we make all this shit up.
There’s a rich intellectual analysis of this with respect to the social revolution that occurred with the invention of the printing press, that parallels the ongoing social revolution that occurred with digital media. Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Elizabeth Eisenstein and Neil Postman all identify the transformation of “manuscript culture” to “print culture” with the invention of the printing press. In manuscript culture every copy is an original in its own right/rite, a kind of performance of the word, copied and yet one-of-a-kind. Illuminated manuscripts make the distinctive quality of each copy obvious; another scribe might illuminate it differently. The embellishments point to the possibility (really a fact) that there are also errors and omissions, so that each copy is unique.
Each copy is an imaginative variation on that which is copied. It strives to preserve and inevitably transforms that which is copied.
Animation has that in common with the older technology of copying printed material and carries into the present these practices of copying/illuminating. I’m not asking you to pardon the pun; the bifocal expression is exactly the point and that’s what these ancient texts are called – illuminated manuscripts.
Even the rules of physics give way to imaginative variations, what becomes known as cartoon physics. The huge boulder falls on the roadrunner, he gets smashed, but the force isn’t enough to kill him. It just has to work for comedic value, not according to normal laws of physics. The comedic principle is made explicit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) when Roger squeezes out of handcuffs while Eddie is trying to free him, in order to help Eddie out with the task. Eddie asks, “Do you mean to tell me you could have taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?” and Roger explains, “Not at any time. Only when it was funny!”
So Marshall McLuhan’s famous edict, “the medium is the message” makes intuitive sense, it’s a catching meme, and he just seems to forget half of the communication in this expression: the audience’s perception is a vital part of the medium. It has to strike us as funny, scare us, or touch our hearts, and we have to think about it, no matter how shallow it is and how shallow are our thoughts. Our interpretative faculties are engaged even when we’re spaced out in front of the television or our computer screens. Whatever happens when we watch a program only happens because we are watching. It only makes sense because we make sense of it.