Printed books are the new media that still fascinates me – new if your perspective includes hieroglyphics. Mine does.

Marshal McLuhan and friends identified how the Guttenberg Bible, the first printed book, created a social and political revolution known as “the Reformation”.  Once everyone could own their own copy of the Bible, hold it, interpret it themselves, it wasn’t a big leap for Jesus to become their “personal Lord and Savior”.  Jesus was less a man of the crowd, feeding the crowd; now Jesus was a friend there in the privacy of one’s own home, helping everyone who can read to understand the Word up close, personal. The priests and pope are not­ so much mediaries as meddlesome.

The media is the message, was McLuhan’s catchphrase. (Understanding Media; The extensions of Man, 1964)  Moveable type and mass printing changed everything. Then came the radio. Franklin D. Roosevelt used that well with his fireside chats, taking politics out of the public square and into everyone’s living room.  Then movies, brought faraway places into every small town.  Then television, with white people learning more and more about themselves in the privacy of their living rooms, while African Americans often gathered and watched white people, laughed at them, critiquing their lifestyle.  It was a different experience for racially segregated new medium, as Bell Hooks has so brilliantly identified. (Reel to Real; Race, class and the Movies, 2008)

Now digital media.  Now South Park, created using 3D animation but taken back to 2D animation in its look, media moving backward, reversing its progress, time’s arrow bent backward.  Why.  That’s a question for the creators, why use a more advanced technology to create an older aesthetic appearance?

Obviously, it’s just a tool.  The use of 3D as the first step, computer-generated technologies make animating the characters a faster, if more expensive process.  Yet, the real advance is the aesthetic appeal of the characters, not the process, taken even further into a primitive paper cutout look with South Park’s Canadian characters.

McLuhan was just half-right.  The medium extends our ability to imagine and create, but one medium doesn’t supplant another and there’s a dialectical relationship between medium and message.  Some call it art.  Modern graffiti artists may use spray paint, the gesture and motivation akin to a cave painter and Davinci painting a fresco.

McLuhan saw progress as time’s arrow but it isn’t anything without our imagination.  We make time; rocks don’t.  Only living things can conceive of a narrative structure.

But that’s not nothing.  We do make time, a narrative.  Time might be one of the great inventions of biological beings.  History.  The notion of progress or regression.  Making sense of sunrises and sunsets, days ‘passing’, birth and death.  We make sense.

I’m running out of time here.  To be continued…

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Digitize this…

Yesterday I was trying to explain this to some students.  They work with digital media. They create it.  So I thought they’d get it if I could just get it out. It didn’t go well.

Here, let me try again here.  Let me start by defining time consciousness.  It’s different than time.  It’s our consciousness of time, how we experience it, that is not as absolute time (whatever that is) but as a human being in time experiences time.

Digital media makes the structure of time consciousness clear.

The structure of time consciousness, as the German philosopher Edmund Husserl pointed out over a century ago, (and taught Heidegger but that’s another story) goes something like this.:

Think about a bell ringing.  You might anticipate the bell ringing, then someone rings the bell but you hear its reverberation and process it in your mind at least a nanosecond after it actually rings, and then you enjoy the reverberations.

So the structure of time consciousness is:

  • the anticipated future which doesn’t exist yet, just as the past and the specious present don’t exist anymore.
  • the “specious present”, specious because in the moment it takes to register the present sound in consciousness it’s already past, and
  • the remembered just-past….

We exist, we know (rehash Rene Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am”) because, if I wasn’t in existence I couldn’t be thinking. But there’s no ‘now’ to this conscious existence.  Like the sound, there is anticipation,.  Then there’s the sensation or thought that occurs,  but as we sense it and think it and it is registered in consciousness it’s  just-past.  Then there’s recollection.  It has a narrative structure: a beginning, middle, and end, but this is constructed around a present that we can’t actually bring to consciousness.

There may even be the thought of the ‘now’ but, like sound, we anticipate it, we think about it in time and that is a process, thus taking time and in time, time passes.   There’s no now in this that is actually present.  It’s already past, a reflection on what we refer to as now, that has already past.  It exists as an idea we had, we might still hold, but the experience itself of the thought is past as soon as we think it.

What is actually present doesn’t share this narrative structure.   It just is.  That’s where we live, or so we assume.  That’s where we have the experience, but we can’t think about that without it already being past.

The time that we are conscious of, that’s all just what is remembered or anticipated.  There’s no ‘now’ now because in the thinking about it it’s already past.

Yet we live here; we just can’t experience it consciously or think about it in the now of narrative structures because we exist as bodies.  Bodies (us) do have a narrative structure.  We are born, we do exist now, and we live on until we die.  We can make wild imaginative variations on that structure.  But it’s gapped.  We are conscious of the structure but the ‘now’ that is the epicenter of the structure is like a black hole only more so (really less so – there’s not even dark matter there.)  The gap is the present, but as soon as it’s brought to mind it’s not ‘now’ now.

Digital media takes us back to this ancient truth.  There’s ‘now’ now that is the imagined narrative that the media presents, but it is riddled with gaps in the code.  Between the x and the o in our digital reality nothing exists, except we exist.

Without a beginning and middle and end in itself, this gap in the code has infinite breadth and width and depth, insofar as it doesn’t share the narrative structure.

We might picture it as a gap but the gap has external dimensions.  The very idea of a gap is my lame way of bringing what is infinite into the narrative of this expression, this text, that also has a beginning, middle and end. (I’m almost done here.)

So my students create code.  They make out of this infinite-lived space an  image, a game, a storyline.  They give it worldly dimensions.  A narrative.  But they just make this stuff up, out of nothing.  Really.  Infinite nothing.

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Nicholas Carr writes…

Ten Years ago, when Nicholas Carr wrote a prophetic article for Atlantic Monthly “Is Google Making us Stupid?” my students were all on it.  They often express concern about their media use, which I find frankly heartening:  They are using their critical faculties to critique their own practices.: One way or another they are all creating websites and are online many hours a day.

I’ll paste in the links to Carr’s article below, in case it’s true:  we’ve become so stupid we have to have the links provided or it’s just too much work.  I know I feel this way today, and it’s only 10 a.m.  I’ve already been clicking away on my laptop for three hours.

Then Carr took on the neuroscience of it all with The Shallows; What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2010).  Way before the Russian Investigation.  OMG Obama was still president.  A hundred years ago.

So here it is: his book lying on the keyboard of my computer.  I’m going back to print media more and more, as are some of my students, even as they’re creating video games for the rest of us.

That’s what struck me as entirely reasonable, thinking about why Parker and Stone use 3D animation techniques to create a 2D animation look.  New media doesn’t supplant old media.  The old becomes more artfully practiced and preserved, bookmaking a treasured skill, as are illuminated manuscripts.

Nostalgia?  I think not.  Carr writes: “For some people, the very idea of reading a book has come to seem old-fashioned, maybe even a little silly – like sewing your own shirts or butchering your own meat.” (p.8)   Silly?  Tell the good people who’ve organized the alternative-currency TimeBank online, they regularly hosts events that teach you how to sharpen your own knives, not just design and sell your handmade clothes.  You’ve got Etsy.com for that.

http://echoparktimebank.blogspot.com/

Mend your clothes.  A little silly?  Don’t dismiss these young eco-friendly craftspeople; they are deadly serious and just might help save the planet stitch by stitch.

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Cartoon Physics and what’s really real

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.

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Who Cares?

I stayed up binge-watching a season of South Park, a story about penis sizes, men’s anger management issues, with riffs on Canadians including racist stereotypes of indigenous people.  Sometimes my mind wandered and I’d be thinking about… what?  I remember these plots and forget what I was thinking about.  Who cares?

Perhaps care is beside the point.  We aren’t meant to care.  We are meant to escape our cares, to be distracted.  Friday night, I’m home late, and this is great.

Proximate Experience – this isn’t 

There’s this pact between the creators and the audience.  It’s true of live action and animation, an alliance.  It might hold strongest when we all are unaware of it, are transported in the experience of creating or screening an episode, painting or viewing a painting, preparing or eating a meal.

Why It Takes Popcorn to Make Movies a Sacrament

An aside: this might be more obvious in Babette’s Feast (my favorite all-time food film) than in South Park.  It’s rated #2 in one line-up of great food films, a genre:  check it out at https://www.seriouseats.com/2013/02/favorite-food-movies-slideshow.html  The absence of smell and taste in film and television experiences made me think it takes popcorn to make movies a sacrament.  Being transported in the experience requires all our senses activated, totally here and not here.  That was my underlying theme: that it takes popcorn to make movies a sacrament.

Escapist entertainment, even tedious episodes of South Park opens us up to the other; what is other than ourselves, other than the present situation, even Other in Levinas’ sense which is God.  We’re escaping ourselves to find ourselves fully present in this unitive experience.

“They are just movies!” Tom Perlmutter once complained to me, having trudged through my dissertation on this point years ago.  He’s a producer.  Documentaries.  He’s responsible for representing what is real. If anyone should care, he would.  Yes, Tom, only movies and maybe the more banal the better.  And now I’m not even talking about movies – just an episode of South Park.

He might be beside himself if he knew I was quoting him to support my thesis:  There is deep meaning in this season’s South Park.  On the eve of the Shabot, in the week leading up to Yom Kippur no less.  Invoking Emmanual Levinas to mine the meaning of South Park.

“Sin boldly.”

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Deceived

I’ve been deceived – by Kenny!  Innocent Kenny, who I’ve been comparing to Jesus, Kenny the super-hero but not, just a humble kid who opens us to understanding infinity – maybe even making Jesus makes sense.  That Kenny.

Deceiver!  Kenny has been created all this time in 3D animation and reduced to 2D since the first few seasons.    It’s faster to create him and all South Park in 3D, because of F*#king ‘workflow’ issues, more efficient to work in 3D and then transfer those images to 2D….

What does it matter?  Does this deception have metaphysical consequences?  It depends. I hadn’t finished working through the metaphysical implications of what I thought was going on when I learned what was really going on.

It’s like that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls back the curtain and it’s really a fraud wizard…

… and he points out that he’s a very bad wizard but that she’s going home anyway…

… and then she learns that she had what she needed all along, the slippers…

… and then that it was all a dream… “There’s no place

Yes, kind of like that.

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South Park games and metaphysics; Let’s back up first

So… we live in the present, the unmapped and unchartable present, that is past as soon as we formulate the experience – actually before we even ‘experience it’ which occurs in the conscious processes so already past, even if just a nano-second past.  We formulate experience as neurological phenomena.  We can only analyze media as a past experience.

Maybe gaming is not past-enough.  I’m still enjoying the metaphysical meat that old-school digital media gives us to chew on.

Early digital-era metaphysics

I first presented my analysis in a philosophy conference at the dawn of the digital media revolution, it was a “mind the gap” metaphysics.  I was pointing to the discontinuity that the media actual presents – gapped.  Someone I respected tried to explain how I was wrong.  My argument goes: digital media is gapped experience because there are open spaces within the code, similar to alphabetic texts, that we fill in because we are biological beings.  “Nature abhors a vacuum” indeed.  With photos and sound there is always something, even if we perceive it as empty space.  Not so with digital media.  It’s a code that represents, rather than presents, the experience that is decoded.

The gapped experience presented in digital media, unlike celluloid film and the imaging chemicals in photography, present us with nothing.  Really nothing.  We can’t take that in so we fill in.  We make up a continuous image, that we experience as present though it’s past.  (See everything I’ve said before about this…)

Mind the gap

My astute critic/collaborator told me I just misunderstood code.  The ‘o’ in the x and o is just another piece of code.  It could be (indeed) a ‘b’ or ‘c’ – but that is totally misunderstanding what I’m suggesting here.  I’m not suggesting that ‘0’ is like a donut with a hole in it.  I’m suggesting the gap within the code, the gap between any symbol and the next is what opens the code up to infinity.  Certainly, as biological beings, we have to fill it in.  We live as narrative beings and the narrative has to continuously unfold.  The continuity of our cellular interactions is absolutely necessary, just as continuity with our stories is necessary.  If the continuity is radically disrupted it’s called death.  With a story, it’s called ‘the end’.

Back to Kenny for a minute.  When he yells at his friends that they don’t get it, that it isn’t cool, as Kyle suggests, that he can’t die, he screams at them, “It hurts!”  He demands they pay attention to the pain – his pain.  He demands some comprehension, if not compassion, that he suffers his super-power.  Yet it’s the process of dying, not the actual death, that hurts.

Like Jesus on the cross:  “It is finished” meant that the pain stopped.

(I’m a priest; you must have known all along I’d get to this… and also if you read Vigil.)  It might be that God knew about death – as all-knowing creator actually created death – but for God to know what it feels like for a human to experience death Jesus had to do it, and even then it would only count as this experience o knowing if Jesus was indeed God.  There have been storms, fires, whole universes exploding, but no pain there.  Only biological beings experience pain, and only a human experiences human pain.)

Radical disruption of the sequence, the narrative sequence with the beginning, middle and end, happens with every space within the code where one symbol ends and another begins, where one pixel breaks to allow the next, like the alphabet – we’ve been here before but perhaps failed to notice.  Digital media in this way is closer to the printed page than to photography.

The trajectory of a theory

Just as the invention of the printing press, that radically personalized western folks’ experience of scripture, gave way to the Reformation, the invention of digital media allows for the birth of a new spirituality, highly individuated yet shared… (to be continued…)

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A new frontier for Metaphysics and Media

… So once the South Park kids in 2D animation morph to digital characters, from drawings to pixels, then comes the new video game South Park; Fractured but Whole:

https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?fr=yhs-pty-pty_maps&hsimp=yhs-pty_maps&hspart=pty&p=review+South+Park+video+game#id=1&vid=18d29df277be61e7d99c889d55a02547&action=click

This isn’t the first South Park game.  The South Park franchise produced a first-person shooter game in 1998,  and this style of game is perhaps not the most challenging game for our metaphysics.  But even then, do our metaphysics keep up?  We haven’t come to terms yet with Shane Hipps’  “communities of individuals” identified in Flickering Pixels.  So how do we recognize communities reconstructing themselves as games?  They might refer to themselves as ‘virtual communities’ but they are very real.

Who recalls “Chose Your Adventure” books?  They are closer to these games than regular printed pages, inviting interaction.  The robust quality of modern games is matched by the communities they create – groups of people engaged, creating their own identities – go far beyond those children’s books.  And these programs overtake television and movies as the preferred medium, not just preferred by adolescent men but women of all ages as well.

At least for the purposes of philosophy, I want to crawl back to the printed page.  I don’t even own an Xbox.  Yet, I was one of the Pokemon Go traffic hazards.  I chased after virtually real objects which is a misnomer for sure given any metaphysics,  And am I now preparing to go where no metaphysicians have gone before…

… Just not yet.  Let’s get back to the concept of “virtual” as in “virtual reality” after taking the weekend off to play South Park, Fractured but Whole

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Kenny in Infinity – coming of age in the digital era

Kenny is produced as 2-D animation, old-school animation that is now largely superseded by 3-D animation.   Here’s a good video that explains some differences between 2-D and 3-D animation by “Bloop Animation” if you’re not clear on the difference:

The difference between 2D and 3D animation

The metaphysics I’m setting out are more evident with 3-D animation, where it’s all algorithms.  Kenny is not the code; the code points to Kenny, creates Kenny pixels, but that’s not Kenny.   The process of how computers make an image is described in some detail here:

http://How computers make images

http://graphicdesign.spokanefalls.edu/tutorials/tech/computerdisplay/Display.htm

Yet Kenny is more than pixels that present the idea of Kenny.  Kenny is encoded and we read the code, sort of the way an alphabet presents the sounds of a word we hear, a silent alphabet read as a spoken word.

So, while 2D animation is old school, 20th century techniques, the metaphysics of 21st century 3D are way older. Remember Plato’s cave, circa 400 BCE? Real old school.

Here’s the allegory for those who forget: Outside the cave, the freed slave finds what’s real – really real – which are the forms of everything, rather than the manifestations shown on the screen within the cave.  The stuff of the world is just a manifestation of the forms.  2D animations are those manifestations; 3D animations are the forms.

The difference between the metaphysics is manifest in the artistic practices of 2D vs. 3D animators:  2D animators work with stuff – pencils and paper, human and animal models. 3D animators work with code beneath screens, computer simulations, algorithms, the form of the human body, not bodies and not physical models, just computer models, again: the forms.

So 2D Kenny can die. The drawings can fade, celluloid film is notoriously fragile and disintegrates; the Buddhist principle of impermanence is painfully obvious with this medium.

Code, on the other hand, doesn’t deteriorate. It might get corrupted, but then it’s no longer the original code but a new code. It is represented by Xs and Os but those symbols are not the thing itself. They simply represent the thing itself – the code creating something entirely different than code, pixels we intuit as images.

Kenny was born in the celluloid era, but his reality as a super-hero, as a being who cannot die, is realized in the digital era.  We learn the truth about Kenny,  the real Kenny, Kenny as Kenny always was.  The audience just didn’t get it yet.  Kyle didn’t get it yet.  Maybe Matt Stone and Trey Parker didn’t even get it yet.  It wasn’t clear until the digital medium allowed it to be clear – manifest.

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