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…

When housekeeping becomes researching

Cleaning out my office, I found a book of poems from the Grenada revolution, Freedom Has No Price; an anthology of poems, printed 1980. The anthology has a forward stapled in, that opens with a quote:

I
must be given words
to refashion futures
like a healers hand…

E. Brathwaite

This little collection, without so much as an ISBN number or a named editor, has the actual words of the actual people who hoped that the revolution would change their lives, and it certainly did.  The book was published for the “Festival of the Revolution March 1-13 1980” it says on the front cover.  A year into the revolution.  Its contributors are listed on the back, a fourteen-year-old student, Alice Paul.  A poem of Mildred V. Julien that particularly speaks to me.  “There is nothing, nothing at all.”  I look her up at the back of the book:  “71 year old housewife of St. Pauls”  is all it says, but that is something.

I repeat:  I’m not trying to tell the story of the Grenada revolution. in my novel.  They tell their own story, as they do in this book of poetry.  This little revolution that lasted just three years and a bit, that the US Government decided to crush entirely after it imploded anyway.  I am writing a novel.  I make shit up.  Still, I went there twice, sat in the press box through weeks of the trial, and now I find this chapbook of their poetry that speaks to me.  Mildred, there is something here, not nothing, nothing at all.  I’ll make plans to go back.  The rum factory where we delivered some big pieces of the still in the back of a pickup is now part of a tour I can take for $240 once I get there.  The black sands beach, of course, is still there.  Some things don’t change.  Now… to get back to the novel.  I need to finish this and only the first part is set in the Carribean.

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.

“This part is history, but life is not just memory…”

Actually, no one except Vida has any idea what Mrs. Williams thinks about Vida and her children, let alone about the revolution and its leader.   The church has one idea, Mrs. Williams another about some things.  Vida knows that.  Mrs. Williams said as much.  A breeze was blowing in the window, filling up the white curtains that swell like clouds into the room, and time was swinging back and forth, the curtain so much like the white lace that hung in Vida’s dining room in the old house where she had grown up, curtains that swelled like clouds until her own mother went over and tied a knot, and Vida sat amazed to see Mrs. Williams do just what her own mother had done, to tie up a cloud.  Vida understood, while Arthur would draw her attention back to Raymond sitting there at the table, Arthur scolding him, teasing the head of state, even in front of the children.

– Your manners are worse than the babies’.  Wait your turn.  Mary, take your time there … You’ll choke on your cake if you run with it in your mouth… It will catch in your throat… Listen, Mary, in such a hurry…  Remember, home isn’t the place you stop by at; it’s the place you’re coming from…

The cake was warm and wet in their mouths.  This part is history, but life is not just memory.

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.

Maurice Bishop and Fidel Castro speak

Reading Maurice Bishop Speaks, now twenty-five years after his death, Bishop’s optimism is striking, just months and even days before he was killed, the revolution crashed and then the US invaded this small island nation.  It’s heartbreaking.

Fidel Castro’s words in the appendix are equally startling to read all these years later, when the level of political discourse here in the U.S. is so low that one seeks comedy send-ups for relief.  There’s no comedy here, though, certainly not in this slim volume.

It would be arrogant and wild to presume that I could depict the scope of heroism and tragedy that unfolded on that tiny island nation, one of the smallest countries in the world.  I write fiction.  For history, I recommend the letters, speeches, and public records in Bishop Speaks; The Grenada Revolution 1979-83.

… “She must consider strategies…” Back to the novel:

 

Arthur.  Last seen with Theodore.  Wounded.  Vida will have to reach Theodore’s wife, Claudia.  Claudia will know what must be done.  So much must be done, and there are so few options, so little that can be done.  Vida walks on.

Just a few months ago they were all sitting there, Claudia and Theodore with Art and Vida at Mrs. Williams’ house.  Mrs. Williams had cooked a big Sunday supper.  Vida’s two kids were running away from the table, and Vera, to whom Vida is both sister and mother, is in the hospital so she couldn’t be there, but she is remembered in the grace.

It used to be that Theodore and Claudia joined them most Sundays for supper and, before Theodore married Claudia, he, Vida, and Arthur would come, scarfing up as much food as Mrs. Williams put on the table.  Lately it was only Arthur, Vida, the kids, and sometimes Raymond, the leader, that Mrs. Williams invited.  She was proud to host him, but didn’t completely approve of the leader, wasn’t sure how she might vote if it were ever to come to a vote.  And this woman, Claudia, built like a stump and with such mouth, wearing those men’s pants here to dinner and not much caring what people thought of her language.  In front of the children.

In fact, Mrs. Williams doesn’t completely approve of what any of the children are doing, but she was content to have them here, to feed them, particularly Vida and the children, these grandchildren, Mary and Jimmy, who have finished their plates of fish and potatoes.

Most of the food, the walnut salad, potatoes and dasheen, all the vegetables Mrs. Williams grew herself.  What she is most proud of in her garden is the walnut tree that has been bearing nuts since Arthur was born.  It was given to them as a wedding gift.  There are walnuts in the salad and stuffing the meat for a feast like this.   Mrs. Williams only has to buy a bit of meat and some plantains to boil and some rice, or she can even pluck one of the yard fowl.  She does this despite the times that are changing and moving so fast it makes the old woman’s head shake, she says, shaking her head.

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.

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.”