It’s that time of year – Fall break for this writer. Just a few weeks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…)
… 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:
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…
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 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
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.
Try this: Think about your own future: What’s the chances of that actually happening? We might not be responsible for what actually happens in the future, but certainly what we think might happen is all in our imagination, therefore partly in our control. Yes, possibly it’s informed by logic, careful planning, or maybe it’s just a leap of faith but we have to will it (in time) and leap (in time). And by the time we will and leap, that action is past.
Similarly, and more obviously, the past, rooted in actual historical occurrences, is brought back to consciousness through memory, a construction, our own construction of what happened, and we forget a lot. (This proves particularly annoying to Kenny – that his friends don’t seem to remember that he died, again and again and again…) Kenny remembers, and we can check his memory (if a cartoon character can have a memory) by scrolling back through past episodes, but even then…
I’m being ridiculous here – you remember. But you might also forget, like Kyle… Or you misremember. In any case, memory is a process of re-creating the past from traces.
So this crazy animation represents a point I am belaboring. Just to get to the present moment…
Which is already past….
It’s way past by the time I cut and paste this text into the blog, but it was already past by the time I thought of it, even before I wrote anything, even in the present moment by the time I thought of it as present, or as a moment.
And not just because I’m slow. If you were thinking about your own past, present and future… well, think about it. There it goes, you just thought about it in the present moment, and it’s past now. By the time the present is brought to conscious awareness it’s over. That’s my point, and I’m sorry if I’m belaboring the obvious.
I just love Kenny.
When Kyle objects that maybe it’s not so bad that Kenny can’t die, that maybe it’s a good thing, Kenny loses his temper. The point isn’t about being dead; it’s that dying hurts. “It fucking hurts,” Kenny shouts and pulls out a gun. “See? Try to remember this time,” he shouts at his friends and then shoots himself.
Here’s where Kenny really isn’t a Christ figure: “Accepted death on the cross” is a phrase used in creeds, that can be misleading. Jesus didn’t embrace the cross; he was nailed to it. Jesus didn’t kill himself; he was murdered. And once was enough, and it wasn’t suicide; it was murder. It’s a lot different.
But there are some similarities to Kenny’s reality is all I’m saying… that the present moment may not have any structure in consciousness. It certainly doesn’t have a narrative structure: past, present and future. So, like Kenny, we live in infinity even if we die. Even if we’re born again (like Kenny) or rise from the dead (like Jesus.)
We live in infinity, this unstructured timeless present/presence, unlike Kenny. He’s just a comic character, but he makes this much clear which is only one reason why I love him.
[Check out this tribute video:
Here’s the thing (if you can refer to time consciousness as a ‘thing’) that makes Kenny such an ingenious character:
We can’t represent the present moment as we actually know it, so linear time has gaps – the gaps being our inability to represent the present moment to our knowing. We each have a past, pretty much represented in our consciousness as a figment of our imaginations according to the findings of neuropsychologists (more about this later) as well as to many filmmakers and artists. Maybe most of what we remember is true, but something that didn’t happen we can believe did happen. Watch Get Out (2017) and there are a lot of other good movies and also good science to back it up. The past is a construct of our imagination. It might be what happened, or not.
The future, of course, is entirely a feature of our imagination; it hasn’t happened yet so we just make that shit up too.
So the present is all we can know for sure, but we can’t know it really because as soon as we represent it to our minds, in our minds, it’s past. It’s here and now, life as we live it, so logically speaking it’s got to be. Yet, in the nanosecond it takes us to process what’s happening now, it’s already become past.
We live in the present. We can figure that much out. We can represent it, but that’s an act of our imagination. We make up the present moment that’s already past.
Then we configure it into a narrative thread, as having a narrative structure: a beginning, middle, and end. Like Tray and Matt and all the South Park kids with their beginnings, middle, and end (except the series goes on season after season, while the characters don’t seem to age, and then there’s Kenny …)
Only Kenny doesn’t die. Here with Kenny’s immortal being we have represented what is present (without the narrative structure of beginning, middle and end) and generally unimaginable (the kids can’t even remember Kenny has died, over and over again.)
It just happens to be true: we, logically speaking, live in the present but the present has no narrative structure and our brains create a narrative anyway. We, like Kenny, live in the present, outside that narrative structure of our own life and death. We construct the narrative in our heads, certainly: our remembered past (that is a figment of our imaginations) and our anticipated future (again, a figment of our imaginations). It’s in the present where we actually do our living, we just can’t imagine it. It has no narrative structure. It just is. We just are.
Again: that is-ness doesn’t have the structure of narrative time (past, present, and future). Like Kenny, (though he’s being shaped into a confounding narrative) we just are. Without a narrative structure – without a beginning, middle and end – we must exist.
This being with no structure is presented tonally as silence, which of course we can’t actually experience – just try to meditate to find out how noisy silence can be. It is presented visually as a blank space, the horizon, a Rothko painting … or as Kenny in the vortex of death and rebirth.
(Just to be clear: we’re talking about time consciousness, not necessarily physics. But we can only try to understand physics as conscious beings, so that’s hardly an aside.)