Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Thinking in Dualities: Media, Social Space, and Cinema

Although I have touted off about cinematic form and style for months here on this blog, seemingly ignorant to issues of narrative structure and design, I would like to set the record straight. I often emphasize my belief in what can simply be deemed a "form over content" approach to media and cinema mostly out of reaction to what seems to be an overwhelming emphasis on narrative and the medium's relation to it. It is true that I favor form over content insofar that the manner in which a story is told greatly influences the nature of the story itself. Emphasizing the medium and its relationship to content, in my opinion, takes into account a far greater capacity for understanding the relationships between storyteller and audience, between image and spectator. But since I often speak of it as such an extreme alternative to the dominant tradition of favoring story first, my argument may come across too harshly, as if story/content is irrelevant. I do not believe this to be true, nor do I hope to sustain the split between the two (style and substance, medium and message). My belief is that they are inseperable, impossible to discuss individually without accounting for the other. The two act upon each other; therefore, discussing the "identity" of each is inconsequential. I do however believe that analysis of storytelling should be just that. Often, storytelling is confused with story. Even when the two are not confused, narrative studies tend to focus exclusively on story rather than storytelling. Which would explain the current focus in film criticism on story, rather than the telling. It is my belief that an approach geared towards the "telling" end of it would yield a far greater understanding of storytelling and cinema as a medium.

One of the reasons why it remains such a struggle to define the medium is that cinema in its very form is a culmination and coming together of so many technologies and narrative media, which is why a) it's often not viewed in the same respectful light as other more artistic media (this is greatly helped by the fact that filmmaking a strong commercial enterprise), and b) we do not have the appropriate terms with which to define what it is, as I have pointed out before. Cinema has been with us for more than a century now and it too has grown as a medium, along with progressing other forms of media, which have since influenced it. It has ushered us into a new realm of the electronic age, an age of visuality. Now, as the analog becomes replaced with the digital, it is more relevant than ever to challenge and question our conceptions of what cinema is and what storytelling is in the digital age.

I resist calling it a revolution because, like all other things, it is a logical "next step" to the progression of electronic media. Media are and always have been "extensions of ourselves," to quote Marshall McLuhan, and digital images are the next logical step in the evolution of media and technology. but let us not forget that we constitute and shape such media and technologies according to our understandings of them. In his book, Exploring Technology and Social Space, J. MacGregor Wise points out the tendencies to see these matters in dualities, to see humans as being separate from media. But he observes that such a tendency, which spawns notions of technological determinism and social determinism, is more reflective of socialized modern thought than of the media we claim to critique. The problem is in the separation. These media constitute our very existence, our relationships to the world outside and to each other. They dictate the course of social institutions and cultural progress. And let us also note that they didn't just emerge from anywhere. One could claim that such technologies can be traced to the birth of produced electricity or a particular scientific discovery, but each one of those was preceded by concepts and inventions from which others have worked. We like to think of language and technology as being so separate, but they define each other.

The point I am attempting to make is that if we focus on ourselves, i.e. "humankind", and then position technology and media in relation to us, cultural ideology is bound to be locked into dualities of thinking of technology as "other" and seemingly less important. This would be much like focusing on story in attempting to understand storytelling. It creates a linear system within which to work that never really addresses the importance of storytelling and the simplifications of merely focusing on story. However, if we emphasize the "telling," or the media and technologies, and understand "ourselves" in relation to it, we open a whole new realm of thought; one not bound to a single plane of thought but many. Issues of gender, race, media, and culture will be forefronted and understood differently in how they influence each other and are constitutive of human lived experience and ideology.

Cinema, as stated above, is an important medium from an artistic, narrative, social, and technological standpoint. It is the coming together or the collision of so many media (not to mention language and technology) to which its schools of criticism must be attuned in order to provide a criticism it deserves. I may be optimistic in claiming that criticism is important because it provides the bearings through which spectators are introduced the studies of the medium and its other associations. It is utterly important that we as critics address the more crucial issues of media, social space, and ideology that are projected and reflected in cinema. There are so many different avenues through which critics can do this. But they key is interdisciplinarity. Communication studies enhance cinema studies in every regard and vice versa. Within these and other disciplines, such as psychology, philosophy, anthropology exist many other critical perspectives that are grasped differently depending on the discipline: gender studies, media and cultural studies, interpersonal relations, cognitive theory, power relations.... the list goes on and on. I cannot even begin to penetrate the surfaces of the many disciplines and areas of study that are relevant in matters of technology and social space. But the key is that they interact with one another, because only with a truly interdisciplinary approach will we yield new paradigms and planes of understanding, which may therefore shape a greater perspective of media and social relations.

While I would hold that this remains true for the advancement of any of the above specialties and disciplines of study, cinema is at a unique juncture because it precisely is a medium of many media, a narrative of many narratives, an image of many images.

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