Metamodernism and 21st Century Media
Part 6: Post-Cinematic Affect
Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker make little reference to media theory in their conception of metamodernism – a strange omission considering the impact that new forms of media have had on contemporary culture. They observe that:
“The proliferation of information, and communication technologies, and of its associated plethora of screens large and small, is ushering in a network logic that is decidedly different than the television logic of postmodern times”. (1)
But they fail to elaborate on the relationship between the metamodern structure of feeling and the emergence of this new ‘network logic’. In order to understand this relationship fully, a comprehensive analysis of 21st Century media theory is needed.
The media theorist Steven Shaviro also notes that “television […] has given way in recent years to computer- and network-based, and digitally generated “new media””, (2) but unlike Vermeulen and van den Akker, goes on to analyse the implications of this development in greater depth. Shaviro claims that “digital technologies, together with neoliberal economic relations, have given birth to radically new ways of manufacturing and articulating lived experience” (2), using the term ‘post-cinematic affect’ to describe the operational logic of this new media regime. Shaviro also uses the term ‘post-continuity’ to describe tendencies in post-cinematic media, primarily in reference to visual media in which continuity rules have “lost all their centrality and importance”, moving beyond classical continuity so that “their energies and their investments point elsewhere”. (3) He cites various technological, economic and social reasons for these shifts, and claims that:
Electronic technologies have replaced mechanical ones, and analogue forms of coding, storage, and transmission have given way to digital ones. These developments are correlated with new ways of seeing and hearing, and of combining seeing and hearing. We have contracted new habits, and entertained new expectations. A new audio-visual aesthetic is now emerging” (4)
For Shaviro, post-cinematic works “do not just passively trace or represent, but actively construct and perform, the social relations, flows, and feelings that they are ostensibly “about””. (2) He suggests that the task of these works is, following Gilles Deleuze, “to render visible these invisible forces” of neoliberal capital. (2)
Shaviro describes post-cinematic media works as ‘machines for generating affect’- affect in this sense is not merely a synonym for emotion, but is described as “primary, non-conscious, asubjective or presubjective, asignifying, unqualified, and intensive […] whose flows swamp us, and continually carry us away from ourselves, beyond ourselves”. (2) The prominence of affect is a defining attribute of post-cinematic media, and likewise affect theory plays an essential role in the development of media theory, in fact, for Shaviro – asignifying affect is the only possible way of expressing “a world of hypermediacity”, a world that “cannot be represented, in any ordinary sense”. (2) Further to this, Shaviro asserts that “digitization reduces sounds and images alike to the status of data or information” (4), which he describes as non-hierarchical in nature. Digitization alters the primacy of traditional narrative structures, reducing them to a “secondary or derivative” role. Brian Massumi has observed a similar relationship between affect (or intensity) and narrative::
“Intensity is beside that loop, a nonconscious, never-to-be-conscious autonomic remainder. It is outside expectation and adaptation, as disconnected from meaningful sequencing, from narration, as it is from vital function. It is narratively de-localized, spreading over the generalized body surface, like a lateral backwash from the function-meaning interloops traveling the vertical path between head and heart.” (5)
The media theorist Shane Denson introduces the term ‘metabolic’ (seemingly synonymous with both affect and intensity) to demonstrate the peculiar way in which post-cinematic images operate “beyond the visual or even the perceptual” (6), giving further weight to the assertion that affect plays a key role in the shift from “narrative organisation to database logic” (4), or in Vermeulen and van den Akker’s terms- the shift from ‘television logic’ to ‘network logic’.
For Shaviro, post-cinematic media, and in particular “computer generated three-dimensional modelling systems” present a formulation of “space that is no longer governed by and no longer anchored to, any particular point of view” (4). It is asubjective, “there is no longer any implicit ideal observer”. (4) This demonstrates a move away from the “Renaissance perspective” and Immanuel Kant’s ‘transcendental subject’, towards the more fluid conception of subjectivity advanced by Baruch Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Shane Denson echoes this shift in perception, stating that:
“post cinema’s screens and cameras […] serve not as mere “intermediaries” that would relay images neutrally between relatively fixed subjects and objects but which act instead as transformative, transductive “mediators” of the subject-object relation itself”. (6)
This transformation situates “spectators in an unprecedented relation to images”. (6) Denson describes this as a ‘discorrelation’, a separation of images from traditional human subjectivity and “phenomenological, narrative and visual” perspectives- going as far to suggest that post-cinematic media forces us to rethink “the mediation of life itself”. (6)
Shaviro has also observed that many post-cinematic works are “more weighted to the sonic than the optical”, with the “multiplication and fragmentation of visual sources lead[ing] to a certain destitution of the eye, and a constant emphasis towards the ear”. For Shaviro these changes have “instituted a new economy of the senses”, causing our bodes to be “altered- extended or “amputated”- as we activate new potentialities, and let older ones atrophy”. (4) This view is also shared by cultural philosopher Robin James, who states:
“Paintings are traditionally representational, and cinema is conventionally indexical- they re-present objects. Post-cinematic works are “sonic” because they, like music, are not objective; instead of presenting an object (or fragments of an object) that is or was statically present in space, post-cinematic media presents a process, a logic or experience that unfolds in time” (7)
James, like Shaviro, insists that there is a relationship between post-cinematic media and the “computing-and-information technology infrastructure of contemporary neoliberal finance”. (7) Both Shaviro and James attempt to formulate new forms of resistance to neoliberalism, namely accelerationist aesthetics and the ethos of ‘uncool’. The effectiveness of these forms of resistance will need to be examined in due course.
Shaviro describes post-cinematic affect as a contemporary ‘structure of feeling’, albeit in a different sense than Vermeulen and van den Akker’s use of the term. The metamodern structure of feeling refers to the prevalence of a certain attitude or sensibility, whilst Shaviro’s post-cinematic episteme enables us to ‘feel structures’, experience the articulation of global economic flows. Putting it in Shaviro’s own terms, we could say that Vermeulen and van den Akker’s concept of metamodernism focuses on the ‘semantic content’ of culture, its attitude or general sensibility, whilst Shaviro’s post-cinematic affect outlines the ‘formal structure’ of media, its composition, materiality and the nature of its articulations. The media theorist Mark Hansen provides us with a useful way of distinguishing between ‘semantic content’ and ‘formal structure’ when he defines ‘medium’ as an “environment for life”- in this sense we could say that post-cinematic media and its various techniques, form an infrastructure through which the metamodern sensibility can be expressed. It is important to note that understanding ‘semantic contents’ or ‘formal structures’ in isolation is insufficient, they need to be utilized together in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of contemporary culture.
Shaviro provides us with an example of semantic content and formal structure operating together in his examination of Richard Kelly’s film Southland Tales. Shaviro attempts to make sense of a film that on the one hand possesses a “powerful and moving sincerity” (semantic content) and on the other hand is described as a “multimedia barrage” (formal strategy). (2) Instead of acknowledging that the semantic contents and formal strategies of a work have a tendency to operate relatively independently of each other, he tries to resolve their differences and restore a unity between them by employing Graham Harman’s definition of sincerity, which is sufficiently vague to cover over any contradictions. It would have made more sense to insist that the semantic contents and formal structures of Southland Tales are independent of each other- modernist sincerity can exist within postmodernism’s “incessant flow of images and sounds” (2), a flow which maintains a certain semantic neutrality.
The exact nature of the relationship between the metamodernism structure of feeling and the post-cinematic episteme is yet to be fully explored, but one thing they have in common is a progressive shift in attitudes. If metamodernism allows the simultaneous expression of modern and postmodern attitudes, then engaging with post-cinematic works involves a change in attitude towards postmodern media itself. Shaviro outlines several ways of revaluating the formal structures of postmodernism:
“It is easy to deplore this situation on moralistic or political grounds, as high minded cultural theorists from Adorno to Baudrillard have long tended to do. And it is tempting to wax nostalgic, and mourn the passing of a more vital and more temporarily authentic, media regime […] but such responses are inadequate”. (2)
“They miss the aesthetic poignancy of post-cinematic media, with their “peculiar kind of euphoria” and mysterious “charge of affect””. (2)
“In order to come to grips with social and technological change, we need a constant revolutionising” of our methods of critical reflection as well. In this regard, cultural theory lags far behind actual artistic production”. (2)
Citing the work of Marshall McLuhan, Shaviro claims that we have reached a “critical point “of reversal and of no return”, when one medium transforms into another”. (4) It is impossible to reverse the postmodern shift from temporality to spaciality, but this “need not have such bleak consequences (homogenization, mechanization, reification)” as some have feared. Shaviro concludes; “it may well be that postmodern spatialization permits a fully audiovisual medium “worthy of the name” to flourish as never before”. (4) Shane Denson points out that wave of criticism aimed at new media is, in part, due to the failures of phenomenological analysis- which only provides a “negative determination “from the outside”: it can help us to identify moments if dysfunction or disconnection, but it can offer no positive characterization”. (6) The cultural theorist Xavier Aldana Reyes, also echoes Shaviro’s thoughts, stating that post-cinematic media has “a different impact from the one commonly found in assessments of postmodern culture”. (8) He offers a positive interpretation of post-cinematic media in his examination of contemporary horror films, describing them as “affect machines” that “instead of erasing the body or subjugating it to a kingdom of flattened images, they engage the body in novel procedures invested in intensity, excitation and excess”. (8)
Changing our attitude towards the post-cinematic media regime, in its accelerated and highly spatialized, hyper-postmodern form, enables us to positively engage with both the semantic contents and formal structures of 21st Century media- and in the process avoid the duel traps of stultifying cynicism and regressive nostalgia.
1. Art Criticism and Metamodernism, 2011, Vermeulen and van den Akker
2. Post-Cinematic Affect, 2010, Shaviro
3. Post-Continuity: An Introduction, 2016, Shaviro
4. Splitting the Atom: Post-Cinematic Articulations of Sound and Vision, 2016, Shaviro
5. Parables for the Virtual, 2002, Massumi
6. Crazy Cameras, Discorrelated Images, and the Post-Perceptual Mediation of Post-Cinematic Affect, 2016, Denson
7. Sonic Pleasures and Post-Cinematic Affect, 2013, James
8. Beyond psychoanalysis: Post-millennial horror film and affect theory, 2012, Reyes