Recent & Forthcoming Presentations
The Illusion of Control: Considering Mr. Robot
SCMS, Toronto, 2018
This presentation, co-written with Joanne Morreale, examines Mr. Robot as a puzzle narrative that illustrates how new forms of serial television and modes of viewer engagement engender a “postlinear” subjectivity. Mr. Robot, like other forms of storytelling, helps us work through complicated situations elliptically. Its dystopian narrative highlights anxieties about the surveillance state, runaway technology, and institutional corruption; moreover, like traditional narratives that promise coherence and closure, its conspiracy theories appear to posit that there is some hidden order and meaning to a disorienting, alienating, and chaotic world. But Mr. Robot is, as Thomas Elsaesser writes with regard to puzzle films, “a node that sustains a particular form of floating discourse.” Its formal and paratextual strategies work to challenge traditional narrative—and the notion of coherent meaning—by performing rather than alleviating disorientation, and by distancing rather than immersing viewers in the text. Viewers are alienated from Mr. Robot’s protagonist, Elliot, who is revealed as an unreliable, mentally imbalanced narrator, just as formal devices such as framing and shot selection maintain a sense of disorientation. Moreover, rather than identification and immersion within the narrative, viewers seek meaning through its paratextual elements—Easter Eggs, embedded clues, websites, videogames, and even a publication of Elliot’s diary. In this way, Mr. Robot channels anxieties into the pleasure of the game—viewers scan for points of information and interact with a range of transmedia data points rather than become immersed in a linear narrative. But meaning, like the narrative, is dispersed and the search for coherence is endlessly deferred. While both Benjamin and Kracauer describe how cinema soothed and helped spectators to make sense of modernity, transmedia puzzle films, exemplified by Mr. Robot, heighten rather than assuage anxieties and produce fragmented and distracted viewing subjects. The presentation also addresses the alignment of the shock doctrine—in which collective trauma is exploited as an opportunity for corporate accumulation and the privatization of public services—with complex- or puzzle-narratives in which characters and viewers alike are continually disoriented, severed from history, and convinced of an underlying order to the chaos. Both the shock doctrine and the puzzle-film are endemic of the networked control society, where power and meaning are no longer centered, regulated, and legible, but, rather, thrive in a paranoid mediasphere of conspiracies where little can be trusted but nevertheless seduce the user with codes to decrypt, and screens to swipe away.
Living Death: Replay and Redeployment in Source Code
SCMS, Chicago, 2017
This presentation analyzes the temporality of trauma, as a collision between cinematic and database narrative, in relation to the contingencies of terrorist attacks and the total control of the preemptive simulation featured in Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011). Terrorism and counter-terrorist surveillance alike challenge conventional modes of representation and their relation to time. Such attacks evoke terror because they are both spectacular and unpredictable. Counter-terror surveillance and simulation, aligned with ubiquitous monitoring, big data, and videogame culture, either preempt or replay (and thus signify) apocalyptic violence. I argue that both, however, regulate and annihilate life, and that the film’s signature narrative tropes of replay and preemption, relying upon a cyborg veteran protagonist suspended between life and death, speak to the desires for security, the anxieties of information, and embodied stakes of servicemembers. Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011) depicts US Army helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhall) as an agent inhibiting the body of a terrorist victim named Sean Fentress, who died earlier that day in a train explosion. Stevens is able to replay and alter the last eight minutes of Fentress’s life on the train, as an “echo” of the dead man’s mind becomes the “source code” for the simulation. While solving the mystery of the attack, Stevens discovers that he effectively “died” in Afghanistan and is now a living-dead cyborg subject of a military counterterror operation. I examine the disembodiements, or rather split embodiments of surveillance and command and control (enacted through remote viewing and replay) and its counterpoint (through preemption or enaction) of apocalyptic violence as they conflict with they conflict with—but are ultimately contained within—the narrative demands of conventional cinema.
Between Mesh and Flesh: Pygmalionesque Desire, Curiosities, and Visual Effects in Ex Machina
SCMS, Atlanta, 2016
This presentation examines the digital visual effects used to create the gynoids of Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015), and places its processes and themes of artifice and unmasking within the long history of narratives about man-made women. In Ex Machina, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a billionaire inventor of the world’s largest search engine, invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an unwitting employee, to conduct a form of Turing Test with his AI/gynoid Ava (Alicia Vikander). Unlike the blind, text-based test, Ava is placed on display in a glass enclosure, with several parts of her body a transparent shell that reveals the elegant mechanisms beneath. Nathan indicates that he wants Caleb to be fully aware of Ava’s artifice, yet become convinced that she possesses consciousness. His ultimate motives, however, is to determine if his AI can seduce a man and then use him to implement an escape. In addition to examining the motifs of surveillance (the house is filled with closed-circuit cameras; Ava’s mind is developed by accessing cell phone and search engine data), transparency (of the house and artificial body alike), and duplicity, this presentation pays particular attention to the body mesh of Ava. Vikander wore a tight grey mesh suit designed to shimmer in certain lighting conditions, and to allow the erasure of certain parts of her body in postproduction. This net-like, ambiguous, and uncanny body is both a trap to its fascinated victim as well as a matrix upon which Ava subsequently layers clothing as well as, ultimately, artificial skin. As Garland explains in a featurette on the making of the film, “the mesh follows the contours of a naked girl, so you get this sort of sense of a girl flickering in your periphery vision while you’re looking at a machine.” The mesh suit is also a means by which the filmmakers preserve actual, indexical, face-to-face performances, as this freed them from the use of green screens and conventional motion capture. Along with Ex Machina, recent films such as Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015) reassure fans that actual characters, settings, and practical effects are integral to the production. I argue that the assertion of the “actual” is indicative of an interest in a return to “authenticity” and “weight” of place and performance, that notions of the indexical and digital are often gendered (although, perhaps, in contradictory and ambiguous ways), and that the visual fascination of the artificial woman in cinema may entail something beyond fetishistic scopophilia: curiositas, a drive to see beneath the flickering, seductive surface, and unmask the technologies of computation and cinema.
The Information Affect: CG Worlds and Fantasies of Transcendent Cognition in The Matrix, Limitless, and Lucy
SCMS, Montreal, 2015
This presentation examines the alignment of CG effects with the contemporary aesthetic and trope of superhuman perception and cognition of chemically- and/or computationally-enhanced protagonists. In particular, I consider the ways in which the virtual camera as a mode of revealing physically impossible and/or invisible perspectives (“bullet-time” slow motion, extended and weaving tracking shots, “fractal zooms,” microscopic and macroscopic perspectives, animations of computational code woven into the fabric of reality, etc.) conveys notions of technologically-transcendent consciousness—as well as, perhaps, transmits to the audience itself an affect of post-cinematic perception. As CG animation disregards or transforms indexical cinema, it tends to break from the conventions of representation, continuity, and identification with human characters on screen. Applying Deleuze’s notion of the time-image to such effects, the presentation considers the perhaps paradoxical notion of a Deleuzian “becoming digital” that nevertheless enfolds the enhanced brain in computational control systems. I examine recent films that express (rather than simply represent) the digital plasticity of the medium as well as mind, that embody what Steven Shaviro characterizes as a “post-cinematic affect”: films imbued with a kind of ambient, free-floating sensibility that permeates a culture of pervasive technology and neoliberal economic relations, yet cannot be attributed to any subject in particular. Beginning with The Matrix (Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, 1999), as a seminal film that depicts the brain and world as computer through CG effects, I primarily discuss Limitless (Neil Burger, 2011) and Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014), two films in which the protagonists enhance their cognition through drugs. Limitless evokes the enhanced reality experienced by Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) while under the influence of a secret drug called NZT through a number of multiple camera and computer generated effects, including a number of “infinite” or “fractal” zoom shots that project an out-of-body experience of penetrating and/or collapsing space and time. In Lucy, which has been broadly panned as aggressively (or perhaps satirically) simple-minded about its neuroscience premise, the eponymous heroine (Scarlett Johansson) “levels up” the percentage of her “brain capacity” by absorbing the drug CPH4, which has been implanted in her abdomen. Among her various superhuman powers, Lucy is able to perceive and access streams of telecommunication as they trickle through the atmosphere (like the lines of code in The Matrix) as well as scroll through time with the swipe of her hand as if at an iPad. While these films are representations of enhanced cognition (yet often posit such notions in limited ways), I focus on the ecstatic affects of the transcendent mind as enabled through the medium. The motion picture camera has always reveled in inhuman perspectives, yet digital cinema entirely frees film from its dependence on history and the physical world, and thus invites notions of the brain and screen as infinitely malleable. The CG effects in such films that explore these fantasies of transcendent cognition imply that the mind and world alike—as nodes of information—are legible and thus ultimately programmable and perfectible.
Economies of Motion: The World War I 'Crippled Soldier Problem,' and Rationalized Images of Ability
Symposium: World War One and the Making of American Culture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2014
This presentation analyzes the post–World War I discourses of disability, masculine agency, and human-machine systems primarily through the films and photographs of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. During the war, Frank Gilbreth served as a motion study expert for the US Army, creating films that included bayonet training, techniques of mule grooming, and studies targeting the optical unconscious of disloyalty or malingering. More than 200,000 Americans were disabled in the war, and a large number had lost limbs. Unlike many of the professionals whose rhetoric evoked pity or sentimentality for the “poor veteran,” Frank Gilbreth positioned himself as the veterans’ manly champion, a fellow cripple disdainful of the rehabilitation experts’ feminizing concern. For the husband and wife team, photographic testing, managerial analysis, and ergonomics took precedent over the artificial limb itself, and was essential to the systematic discernment and display of the “one best way” to perform a task, which would require the worker “to act as nearly like machines as possible.” Such rigid and precise optimization contributed to the notion of disability as a difference of degree, and that every individual possesses an underutilized faculty. Along with publicized images of amputees enabled through mechanical prostheses and optimized work stations, these modes of recording and analysis helped to counter the stigma of “the cripple,” to integrate veterans into the workforce, and contributed to the notion that bodies could be systematically quantified and engineered—that the human was not a singular and whole organism, but rather already partial and part of a larger body of labor and mobilized mass. I present these motion studies as a predecessor to the cybernetic approach of Norbert Wiener’s artificial limbs after World War II, and ultimately to the motion capture recording of contemporary veteran amputees at medical centers such as the Walter Reed Gait Lab, where sensors are placed on points of the body and prosthesis alike, and motion is abstracted to a series of data points that can be isolated, tracked, and modified. Such process and images, I argue, are a foundation of the contemporary imperatives to quantify the body not only in the military and medicine, but also within athletics, the workplace, and personal health.
'Every one of Us Is In Some Way a Cripple': Frank and Lillian Gilbreths' Engineering of the World War I Veteran
SCMS, Seattle, 2014
This presentation considers such processes through which the disabled veteran in particular has been broken down, quantified, and visualized in human-machine systems designed not only for economic efficiency, but also to serve the rhetorics of masculine agency, national recovery, social responsibility, and technological possibility. I focus on Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s work with World War I amputees, their systematic recording of human movement and capacities, and their engineering of workspaces and processes. Through this, I hope to reveal some of the ways in which information technologies coalesce on wounded warriors, how this figure is shaped by the anxieties and economies of wartime America, and came to redefine dialectics of lack and wholeness, ability and disability, individuals and systems. Against the Gilbreths’ imperative for universal optimization, contemporary rhetorics of disabled veterans emphasize individual autonomy and perseverance. While the image of recovery a century ago was the worker, the image today is the athlete. Nonetheless, deviations from a narrowly defined norm remain pathologies to be modulated. In these aesthetics of efficiency and control, the patient appears liminal, an uncanny image between flesh and phantom. And these imaging systems seem particularly haunting because they overwrite the damaged body marked with past traumas and insist upon new and normalized parameters of possibility. Motion capture reconstitutes the amputee as a functional whole by erasing material presence and any distinction between body and machine. Such images assert technological mastery by fracturing lived duration; but they also promise to reanimate the wounded warrior into embodiments of overcoming.
Attack of the Drones: Science Fiction Terror and Combat in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
SCMS, Chicago, 2013
This presentation considers the convergence of science fiction, combat video games, and national security in Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 2—in game as well as in production and publicity. Much of the game, to be released November 13, depicts the year 2025—an era defined by robotics, cyberwarfare, and unmanned vehicles—in which “a new cold war” has broken out between China and the United States. Initial gameplay and “documentary” trailers, which feature P.W. Singer and the game’s special consultant Oliver North, emphasize the ubiquity of combat drones and the West’s increasing dependence on computer networks, which inevitably render the US vulnerable to apocalyptic terrorist attacks. As a character notes over the spectacle of drone swarms devastating Los Angeles, “technology got stronger while we got weaker.” Addressing the backlash against Activision’s appointment of North, who seems to justify his actions with spectacular fear mongering, I also note the conflation of the blockbuster comic book film with the political sphere through the game’s writer, David S. Goyer, and one trailer that apparently incorporates footage from V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005) in order to depict the hacker group Anonymous—in their iconic Guy Fawkes masks co-opted from the film—as an enemy of the US. Above all, the presentation considers the broader implications of the science fiction combat genre which manages to fetishize technology as an extension of human agency while spectacularizing it as a monstrous other that can and must be overcome by the underdog American soldier.
Animating Absence: Digital Motion Capture and Transposition in Amputee Rehabilitation
SLSA, Milwaukee, 2012
This presentation examines phantasms in contemporary motion capture technologies used for gait animation and therapy for veteran amputees, as well as in one of its analogues, the long-exposure photography, or “chronocyclegraph,” of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. Under the Gilbreths, light traces of workers in motion were transposed to wire models that could then be streamlined and emulated for the utmost efficient gesture. At medical centers such as the Walter Reed Gait Lab, sensors are placed on points of the body and prosthesis alike, and motion is abstracted to a series of data points that can be isolated, tracked, and modified. Both systems are designed to register motions that are otherwise too small or fleeting for the human eye to apprehend, and to then represent how the body’s movement through space can be optimized. With the wire model, the body is erased; duration is spatialized and contained; and prosthesis, tool, and flesh are rendered equivalent and modifiable parts of a system. Likewise, the computational animations reveal the body’s vitality through its absence, while also representing the amputee as a functional whole. I consider how these contemporary animations might help integrate the prosthesis to the patient’s body schema and even counter phantom limb pain. Against this, I note the fantastic phenomena of the phantom limb and the trope of its haunting, which is echoed in the apparitions of the Gilbreth photos, and even in the animated motion capture skeletons of the digital danse macabre.
The Sets of The Set-Up: Framing the Boxer's Fight
SCMS, Boston, 2012
This paper examines boxing spectatorship and the trope of the aging palooka as an embodiment of postwar masculinity in The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1949), a film which transpires in real time and condenses broad social conflicts into the cinematic actions and affects of the ring. Addressing the popular cycle of boxing films from 1947–1957, which—like films noir—wrestle with ambition and corruption among the urban underclass, I consider the “the set-up,” on two levels. First, in terms of the explicit conflict between boxer and organized crime, as the protagonist’s manager conspires with gangsters behind the scenes to profit from his failure—which leads to the climactic confrontation of the boxer against the crushing power of capital. Second, in terms of the “setups” of the ring, the boxing venue, and the streets of Paradise City—studio constructions for the spectacular display of masculine labor and leisure. Boxing films are typically structured like an hourglass: the broad situation spiraling into a narrow and specific action, which broadens out again to a new situation. The thematic and visual nexus of such films is the ring itself, where the protagonist is matched with and collides against an antagonistic force. While the boxing match is a closed and measured system—conforming to the Queensberry Rules of three-minute rounds with one-minute breaks, a 24-foot ring, etc.—cinematic fights cut between boxing action, affections of pain in close up shots, and various perception shots of the spectators who typically mirror or counter the affects on display. The film’s opening and closing shot of a public clock emphasizes the actual time that unfolds within the confined milieu. Like the opening and closing bell of a fight, it temporally frames the narrative—a conflict that transpires in crowded streets, back alleys, arcades, and auditoriums—and a space setup to reveal the decline of postwar urban spaces populated with cynical gangsters and aspiring boxers.