Archive for December 2007
(I’ve been having trouble getting the videos to embed correctly in this one. They work for me if I push play. I wonder how they work for you. If you have trouble, leave a comment and I’ll keep working on it!)
I read a graduate student’s seminar paper today (finally – but hey, at least I read them!) where Freud’s definition of the uncanny was trotted out in just the way that I used to trot it out back in my graduate seminar papers. You remember the bit about the collapse of the heimlich and the unheimlich, the “something added” that makes the merely unfamiliar or familiar qualify for full uncanniness and the great stuff about fiction (“in the first place a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and in the second place that there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life”), and the disappointing “solution” presented at the end (“whenever a man dreams of a place or a country and says to himself, while he is still dreaming: ‘this place is familiar to me, I’ve been here before’, we may interpret the place as being his mother’s genitals or her body”)
It’s a great essay, and it’s understandable why we love to rehearse the description – even though everyone is already familiar with it – in our student papers… But the ending is too pat to really serve as a good explanation of anything at all. It is easy to deploy it, like so many canonical theoretical moments, as a surrogate or placeholder for analysis. (Which might be what I am doing here – we’ll see.) And thus we’re left with a feeling of “uncanniness” and an excellent formulation of the question from Freud, but we’re at a bit of a loss to describe the answer.
So I’ve been preoccupied tonight with what makes uncanny things uncanny – the special whatness that triggers the deep shiver.
For instance, for me any way, I find ambient television noise in the background of video recordings (whether my own or those that I find on-line) at once deeply disturbing and totally alluring. Please don’t laugh at the video that I’ve found it in tonight.
I remember when I was a kid – back in the having-a-bedtime portion of my life – I would fall asleep almost every night to the dull murmur of whatever baseball or hockey game my father was watching downstairs. The audio portion of these two sports – and not any others – still mesmerizes me a bit, gives me a great sense of comfort. But advertisements are far more disturbing when they register only ambiently. This is especially true (as in the video above, from what I can tell) when it comes to sleazy-local ads for strange products. (I find these disturbing even when they’re not only half-heard, only ambient. One of the recurrent episodes when I find myself most disturbed by the fact that I no longer live in NYC is at dinnertime, when the TV streams ad after ad for the local shit jewelry shop, some disgusting looking suburban Italian restaurant, the law offices of Pinchcash and Chasebody and so forth…)
There are even few cultural artifacts that come to mind when I start probing this topic. The infamous video game series Grand Theft Audio brilliantly, to my mind, features a very realistic “radio” function that plays while you drive around in your boosted ride, and one that trades heavily in inane talk radio noise and ridiculous but mimetically accurate local ads. This feature is demonically well-attuned to the foreground work that you’re doing in the game: crunching over bystanders, trolling for drugs and prostitutes, scanning the roads for another driver to rage on etc…
More distantly, there is Orwell’s 1984 and in particular the movie version of the book. This clip not only starts with a scene in which we hear the murmuring background from the TV and the foregrounded interior monologue of Winston Smith, offers at the 2 minute point an uncanny turn on the uncanny, where the screen addresses Smith directly (imagine the talk radio ad that mentions you by name), and, at four minutes, has an extended section where that metallically strident female voice, so influential to later dystopian flicks, rattles on and on about victories military, industrial, and ideological….
The easiest answer – and like most easy answers for nebulous questions of culture and aesthetics, an insufficient answer – to the key to the effect that this ambient auditory fill has on me is one that would be true to Freud’s findings in his essay. In this reading, the ossified vitality of the ads, just now obsolete as they appeared yesterday, the day before, in which we can hear the pitch-punch of a previous right-now, is a marker of finitude and death. It capsulizes the presentness of the past – the bath of this-after-that that fills our rooms even when we are not paying attention – and in doing so exposes its transitory nature, the fact that the machine just keeps talking, talking, talking the slip of the now under the curtain of just now away from our attention. There is, perhaps, nothing so everyday – and no everyday so touched with the absurd violence of the rapid passage of time – as the ad chatter preserved in the amber of digital video. Time seems to pass so quickly now that “amber” doesn’t seem at first the wrong word to use to describe the preservation via digital video of a moment that likely occurred within the last few months.
But this answer, the Freudian answer, is insufficient in the way that most hardline Freudian answers tend to be. It structuralizes that which is undeniably historical. A characteristic effect of the times emerges as a symptom of life in general, a universal of representation and the feelings that representation provokes. The avatars of Freud’s uncanny – the double, for instance – have always been and will always be avatars of the same effect. But when it comes to something like the background noise of the television in user-produced video clips, we can be sure that we’re dealing with something a bit more specific to our particular moment in time, in history, in the sweep of technological development. Another example will perhaps make this clear. Think of the redoubled strangeness and fascination of certain media moments that we keep replaying – the allure of watching and rewatching the CNN footage just before the news broke on 9/11. Check out this clip, which renders the whole effect as vividly as is perhaps possible, as we break, without transition, from a ditech.com ad, so familiar yet so dated now, into The End of the World.
In the wake of 9/11 and all of the other terrorist attacks and sudden catastrophes of whatever sort that have occurred during the last few years, we have all become astute anticipators of “breaking news” – of what used to go by the phrase “We interrupt to bring you a special bulletin…” It is hard to pinpoint the extent to which our very faculties of perception and anticipation have changed. What is it that we are waiting for when we keep the television on in the background, and how will we react to it when it arrives? Is all programming, even the benignly banal stuff that comes in the form of advertisements that no one intentionally listens to, that everyone hears, even when staring the set dead in the face, indexed to its potential (or is it inevitable) interruption?
One last video clip, this time the final scene of the Sopranos.
Chase and his writers struggled throughout the portion of the series that appeared after 9/11 to somehow speak to the psychic (and televisual) significance of the attacks. Tony’s cash flow tightens as the nation slips into recession, the attention of the FBI agents who had been assigned to his case is drawn away into counter-terrorism, characters chatter nervously about what might be coming in through the ports, and there is even a subplot, never brought to a conclusion, about some Muslim guys who are in the market for a huge amount of guns. But nothing in the show so successfully incorporated the immense of effect of the event more vividly than the formal moves in the last scene. While much ink and html has been spilled in panicked interpretation the “message” hidden in the jarring fade to black – which had, one imagines, hundreds of thousands banging their set top boxes thinking that their cable had gone out at just the wrong time – fewer have discussed the relationship between this sudden fade to black and the progressively foregrounded volume of the background noise in the scene, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” played through a tabletop jukebox, which gradually comes to swallow almost the entirely of the audiospace of the program as it plunges towards its inconclusive end. The writers’ dramatic ploy here, which trades on the audience’s anticipation that when heavy ambient sound is encountered, it is almost inevitable that the sound will cancel itself out in a sudden interruption of violence, presents a tacit theory of our relation to recorded ambient sound today. The background song comes to foreground; someone, we are sure, is about to get whacked. It is no wonder that, in the comment boxes of Alan Sepinwall’s Soprano’s blog for the N.J. Star-Ledger, the second most often advanced reading of the final scene, after the basic “Tony was killed by the guy who went into the bathroom,” was that the gun-buying Muslims had set off a nuke that faded the entirely of Northern New Jersey, rather than simply the space of the show, to black.
The paranoid anxiety that suffuses the American everyday thus comes around to meet Freud’s uncanniness at the pass, as does indeed seem to be death that, at least in this case, is responsible for the strange effect of these deployments of ambient audio superfluities. We begin to detect a certain circularity to the arrangement, in which the form of something like the final scene of the Sopranos is intentionally touching a nerve exposed on September 11th, which in turn was exposed in the “unexpectedness” of the event against the backdrop of all the floating tech-bubble placidity and end of history-ness in the air the time, a sense in turn informed by a certain narrative sensibility, which in turn was informed by various historical events and so on right down the chain. But despite the fact that the effect – or our sensitivity to the effect – comes from somewhere, it nonetheless is clearly a symptom of our times and marks a subtle but important shift in our sensibilities. If Roland Barthes famously described the “reality effect” that makes the realist fiction of the nineteenth century realistic as the situation in which certain objects in a narrative hold no purpose other than to announce, via their very purposelessness in the story, “we are the real,” today, what feels uncannily real has come to say something else, something like “we are, being what we are, bound to come to an abrupt end.”
Imagine the scene. You are flipping through the channels and land on a movie that you have never before seen. It is a recent movie, from the look of the characters and the space they are inhabiting. It is a family – a mother and a father, and two kids of school age – and they are getting ready for their day, eating breakfast, and the like. A television is droning on in the background. It is tuned to a news channel, and alternates between silly reports on celebrities in prison, “health updates” on the latest treatments for anxiety, financial reports on market turbulence, and advertisements for the newest idiotic blockbuster and sexual performance enhancement pills. It is, perhaps, a scene from a life not altogether unlike your own. Gradually, the sound of the blathering television rises up to overtake the happy household noises, the voices of the children, the loving back and forth of the parents, until it is all you can hear. The camera focuses in on the television screen – the talking heads, ads with middle-aged people walking on the beach, live reports from the stock exchange. Everyone is happy, or trying their best to be – everyone is safe and secure in the sense that today will be a day like any other day. And then…
What happens next? What do you anticipate? Savy-viewers would always have anticipated that something was about to happen – it is a fundamental imperative of narrative development. But you, living when you do and living as you do, know down deep what genus of experience will come with the next frame, what it is that the television on your television will bring into everyone’s living room all at once.
…. but I’m not quite there yet. Sorry I’ve been gone so long. Some of you who know me the flesh know that this has been at least a half-excused absence from the scene. But for the rest of you: wow, busy semester. Among other things, a big move – a really big one – is in the offing. Next couple of weeks. My books are in boxes – that always makes me nervous… and thrilled too. You’ll figure out where I’m headed once I start again on here. There’s been some writing too, and I’ll actually point you to some of that when it appears (though I won’t mention it’s me – you’ll just have to guess…) Even some blog-incubated material. There’s a certain sort of idea that I can only seem to work out on here, it seems. I like that sort of idea, and miss growing them this semester….
At any rate, thanks for not giving up on me and I’ll be back soon… Feels good even to type this in, so more to come I’m sure… And happy holidays if you’re so inclined….