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“we just saw the ground, you know what’s goin on?”

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Was just now talking to a student about inverted, negative ways of making meaning. Actually two students in a row – Victorian nonsense verse, Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. And now I’m listening to the ATC communications from the flight that crashed near Buffalo. Technical chatter, formalized language of the professional and the breaking of form. That’s not a sentence, I know. The ghoulishness of proximity – how are we hearing this already?

Another guy, pinned against the wall of the “reception center” that they set up for the “relatives of the victims,” narrates in front of cameras and reporters with notebooks what it was like to call his mother in Florida and tell her that his sister and her daughter was likely dead. “To tell you the truth I heard my mother make a noise on the phone that I have never heard before.” It is a convention of the genre, to say it like this, but we also know what he means and we believe him. The tag on the video, woven into an article on, reads: “Watch victim’s brother discuss delivering the tragic news to his mother.” The imperative verb at the start, which is just stylebook stuff, how they make the links, nonetheless disturbs, grates. Feels pimpish, toutish. Watch a woman with no arms tie her corset with her teeth! Watch the epic battle of an Egyptian crocodile and a Russian Black Bear! Watch these scenes of tragedy and pathos, all in one act!

It feels a bit belated now to watch an airplane crash and think about the presentation of it, the language and images. Feels obsoletely pomo, mid-DeLillo, past due. Especially since we’ve apparently outlived the period of jolting catastrophe and have moved on to ecological pacings, the slow impact, the incremental collapse. We are back in a period of slowly sinking ships rather than the slip and burst; our thoughts and dreams are scored in the slow time of the lifeboat without food and fresh water rather than the uncanny break of the tailwing speared into the suburban backyard. But still, apparently, the planes will keep crashing, whatever our hopes and nightmares have to say about it.

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February 13, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Posted in catastrophe, teevee, uncanny

in the future, everyone will be world-famous (except for me)

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Here I am at the university on Sunday, alone with the CCTV display that guards our hallway, taking pictures of myself during breaks from writing my lecture. Not necessarily visible in this picture (sorry) but I noticed at one point that I’m maybe cuter on TV than I am in real life.

Yes, it started to get a wee bit The Shining there on Sunday. And the snow hadn’t even started to fall… I’ve been working too hard lately, and it’s starting to show.

Last week, I was asked by a producer at a Major Global News Network to come on and talk on Live TV Broadcast to a Worldwide Audience about a certain recently deceased white guy from small-town Pennsylvannia, you know the one. One of my refrains, back before kids and when my wife and I used to watch a lot more TV news and pseudonews together, was that neither of us, no matter what happened, should ever go on TV to talk about stuff that we really don’t know anything about. It’s like the least you can do, but of course no one ever follows that rule, from the looks of the stuff that they put on tv. She’s done a bit of radio work, and some prerecorded talking-headery. (One occassion of which included, don’t know the technical term, generating sort of run-up filler about “her life” which involved the three of us forcibly playing in a playground in Toronto for several hours. Was a great playground, the one right in the shadow of cow-spotted OCAD, but truly sucked making the footage. At one point, I forgot that we were mic’ed, and started muttering over and over again “fuck these tv douchebags, fuck these tv douchebags, fuck these tv douchebags” until my wife silently mouthed, yep, “THEY CAN HEAR YOU IDIOT” at me. Hmmmm. I tried to turn it into some sort of children’s song that I was presumably singing to my daughter in case they hadn’t quite made out what I was saying, “fuck these tee veee dooo-ooo-sh-bags, my faaaair lay-dy…” but I’m pretty sure, from the looks I got after, les jeux sont faits already…)

Anyway, my wife, she always knows what she’s talking about when she does media stuff, but the thought of talking about a guy that, really, I probably know less about than you – no matter who you are –  in front of a Worldwide Audience (media types do that caps thing unironically, from what I can tell…) seemed like a perfect opportunity to live up to my word for once. Or at least to an opportunity to avoid vomiting on myself in front of viewers in Indonesia, Bahrain, Sweden, and Columbia and all points in between. Funny, Benjamin never brought up that up when he dissected the surgical violence that the camera commits upon the actor in front of it.

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February 2, 2009 at 10:36 pm

Posted in news, teevee

what’s on teevee

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From the IHT yesterday:

For example, Nanabhay said that Al Jazeera planned to announce this week that all its video material of the war in Gaza would become available under a lenient Creative Commons license, which effectively means it can be used by anyone – rival broadcaster, documentary maker, individual blogger – as long as Al Jazeera is credited.

Smart, that. Al Jazeera is only available, according to the article, in the following US cities: Burlington, VT; Washington, DC; Toledo, OH. (Toledo, OH?) It’s replaced CNN International as our nightly dinnertime TV fare. (Yes, we eat in the living room! Yes there’s a tv in our living room! Yes it’s a big tv!) And while I’m sure we’re all well practiced in US/UK entre les lignes work with US/UK TV news (oh, that falling bomb likely caused death on the ground, even if we’re not going to see it), I must say it’s rather startling to watch the coverage on AJ.

(By the way. If you happen not to have a TV and live in the UK or selected countries in Europe, you might want to download this. You can only watch Al Jazeera in Arabic as of now… Which isn’t all that helpful for most of us. But you can, you know, watch a lot of other things slickly and without trouble… It’s a pretty amazing service….)

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January 13, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Posted in teevee, war

ads denied the product (hdtv)

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The task before us, it has just occurred to me, is deeply analogous to the problem faced by those who make ads for high definition television sets and services – ads that will be seen on the very low definition sets that they wish to replace… The problem, of course, is that you can’t really show the virtues of the product that you’re trying to sell – the high d become low d on the viewer’s set.

They try metaphor, jokes and metaphor…

Denied the ability to present the thing itself, at other times they present instead the viewer, the viewer’s engrossed apparatus of sight. Didn’t Deleuze, in his work on the cinema, call shots like this “affect images”? If we cannot see what they are seeing, we can at least see them seeing what they are seeing, and feeling what they see….

One of the more sophisticated tricks is simply to suggest that you actually are seeing the new image – to hyperbolize what is already possible in order to give a sense that the change has momentarily arrived…

…but of course, this can lead to conceptual distortion and the problematic suggestion that it’s not the set that needs changing but simply the programming available for it. If we stuck with what we have no, but filled it with neon-piping and just the right sort of chiaroscuro, perhaps we might save ourselves a trip to the electronics store after all.

It is odd. Obviously, I’ve not seen every hdtv ad ever made. But one would think that someone would figure out that it would be far easier (wouldn’t it?) simply to demonstrate the deficiency of the screen that the viewer has rather than to suggest, indirectly, what the viewer does not yet have. Hold a page of text in the middle distance, and ask them to read it. Fill the screen with a painting, and ask the viewer to examine the brush strokes. But, on the other hand, it is also easy to understand that the promise of the new and better, even if it remains invisible, only promised but not yet delivered, would have more hold that the exposure of what’s missing now.

It is our problem as well – how to relate to the apparatuses of communication and representation, how to deal with the fact that they may well be ill-equipped to represent what needs representing.

More to come…

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May 22, 2008 at 1:07 am

Posted in ads, aesthetics, teevee

a way of seeing ways of seeing

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Almost hesitant to post, lest someone notices and I won’t be able to finish, um, archiving these, but all four episodes of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing are up on YouTube. Here’s the first of 16 separate slices:

I’ve never been able to get or see a full copy before. I’ve called libraries, specialists stores, trolled the distant reaches of the p2p world. And now, finally, here it is…. Happy May Day to me, and to everyone. Couldn’t have asked for more…

(via wood s lot, where you can find a link to a site with links to the rest…)

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May 1, 2008 at 12:35 pm

Posted in aesthetics, berger, teevee, video

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Beyond even Mr Centerpiece here, just the look at the shot. I remember, back when I was in college and we did the eurail-pass thing, we ponied up for a deluxer room in Roma once because we wanted the air conditioning. Deluxe came with a tv too. The shit on it though – Berlusconi’s channels, I suppose, or maybe RAI too. All guys in chicken-suits surrounded by bimbettinos, all chortling, and a dude in a bad suit serenading a pig with the spotlight on. Forty midgets in a phone booth, my secret secret talent, look at what my neighbors dog or daughter can do.

Felt like the end of everything, watching it. The final lurch back in to the marsh. 

And now that’s home and everywhere. Except, in the US, the president begs onto it rather than simply owning the network. Or I guess it depends what the definition of “own” is.  

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April 22, 2008 at 1:46 am

Posted in america, distraction, teevee

ambient uncanny

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(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 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.

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December 21, 2007 at 9:45 am

Posted in distraction, teevee, uncanny