Archive for November, 2007

Virtual Citizenship and New Technologies Symposium

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

Virtual Citizenship and New Technologies Symposium
Friday 30 November 9:15AM
Undergraduate Library, Bernath Auditorium
Wayne State University, Detroit

Technologies such as text-messaging, Facebook, del.icio.us and Second Life are transforming our notions of community membership and the exercise of power. This symposium explores intersections between communications technologies and the practice of citizenship and asks how the new technologies might be used in the interests of social justice and civic engagement. To help us understand the transformation, the symposium will feature expertise from a wide range of inter-related fields: Russell Dalton’s studies of citizenship among young people, the Fred Stutzman’s research on Facebook and civic engagement, Wendy Chun’s studies of “imagined networks,” and the speculations of mathematics professor and noted science-fiction-writer Vernor Vinge on the future of political power. This event launches a broader research, teaching, and service project to help students, staff and faculty understand what citizenship means now and what it might mean in the future. Wayne State’s Center for the Study of Citizenship, Office for Teaching and Learning, Honors Program, and the DeRoy Lecture series are the event co-sponsors. To register or for more information, please visit: http://www.lib.wayne.edu/virship/.

Control

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

Anton Corbijn’s Control, about the life and death of Ian Curtis, the singer for Joy Division, is a film that is fully worthy of its subject. Control is beautiful and bleak, affectively compelling because of (rather than in spite of) its reticence and downbeat everydayness. It’s shot in a high-contrast black and white, which effectively conveys — even as it also aestheticizes and beautifies — the bleakness of its 1970s-working-class (or should I say, lower middle class?) settings. The performances, especially those of Sam Riley as Curtis, and the always-great Samantha Morton as his long-suffering wife Deborah, are utterly compelling in their understatedness. There is no psychologizing here; we only see Curtis from the outside, and are given no clues as to his motivations. This even remains the case when we get voiceovers of his poetry, or at one point even of his internal monologue (as a bandmate attempts, unsuccessfully, of course, to relieve his torment through hypnosis).

But I need to be more specific about this. There’s a certain international-art-film style that works to convey a sense of desolation through the rigorous avoidance of any interiority. These films are shot mostly in long shots and long takes, with a camera that either remains entirely still, or moves slowly, in order to continually but discreetly reframe. The acting is generally low-affect, or entirely affectless; the plot is sufficiently elliptical, oblique, and estranging, as to prevent us from assigning any motivations, or even emotional qualities, to the characters. There are great films in this style (like the works of Bela Tarr, which make us feel like we are seeing the world in an entirely new way), as well as a lot of less successful ones that come across as strained, pretentious, and desperately arty (I’d prefer not to finger any specific bad examples; anyone who watches lots of international art films will have their own sense of this).

Now, what’s great and surprising about Control is that it does not fit into this paradigm at all, even though it shares some of its superficial characteristics. The film’s reticence doesn’t come from distance or an objectifying tendency. In fact, for all its visual austerity, Control is quite an intimate film; it often expresses its characters’ moods with closeups, shot/reverse shot setups, and other conventions of more straighforward narrative cinema. What this means is that Control doesn’t in the least distance us from Ian Curtis; rather, it reveals reticence and distance as Ian Curtis’ own inner experience of himself. We are unable to parse his inner emotional life, only to the extent, and exactly to the extent, that he is unable to parse it himself. Curtis, as portrayed by Riley, is sufficiently out of touch with his own emotions that he even experiences depression only, as it were, at second hand. He seems both vulnerable and soulful, and even a bit annoyingly sorry for himself: but these qualities are also always muffled, as if they were not quite there, or as if Curtis couldn’t understand these sides of himself either. Portraying Curtis in this way makes for a film that is quite melancholy, but that cannot be accused of miserablism, or of kitchen-sink depressive naturalism.

In addition to the compellingly low-key acting, the film stands out by its visual stylization. Corbijn edits anti-dramatically and anti-climactically; that is, he shows us the lead-up to, and the aftermath, of emotionally important moments and turning-points, but often does not show us those moments themselves. There’s never a sense of climax or explosion; in that respect, the film is intriguingly anti-melodramatic. The exceptions to this are Curtis’ epileptic seizures, which are shown to us at uncomfortable length; and also the many performance scenes. Riley entirely captures what I imagine to have been Curtis’ on-stage charisma (as he killed himself shortly before what would have been the band’s first tour of the United States, I never got the chance to see him live). He stands stock-still as the band begins to play, breaks into jerky motions that are not quite dance moves, then grabs the mic with a sort of controlled avidity and intones (rather than shouts) the songs’ lyrics.

Curtis’ dancing/singing style, as expressed through Riley’s body language, is also the visual style of the film as a whole. Corbijn is famous as a still photographer (in fact, his photos of the actual Curtis, back in 1979/1980, did a lot to cement Curtis’ image, and to give a face to the stifled depressiveness and anguish of he music); so it is perhaps not surprising that Control’s luminous black-and-white often takes on the aura, and arranged beauty, of arty still photography. (Indeed, it is often a stock complaint about either still photographers, or cinematographers, turned filmmakers, that they present images that are merely pretty, without being cinematically compelling. Further discussion of this will have to await Rosalind Galt‘s forthcoming theorization of the problem of the “pretty” in film). But again, part of the brilliance and power of Control lies precisely in the way that it is organized around the play of stillness and motion (much as Curtis’ performance style, at least as portrayed by Riley, is organized around such a play). Many shots begin by looking like stills; we have to wait several seconds before a body or head in frame moves a bit (when Riley or Morton open their eyes, or light a cigarette, or whatever). The life of the film is a matter of these moments of stillness and motion, and of the discontinuous transitions between them. The film has a lot of empty time in it: Curtis is just lying in bed, smoking, or sitting on the sofa with a whiskey bottle, watching the telly. Minimal motions sometimes disrupt or modulate this stillness, and beyond that there are all sorts of degrees of motion in-frame, up to the spasmodic motions of the epileptic attacks. Also, although there are lots of shots of people in cars (the band going to a gig, etc.), there’s never really a sense of getting anywhere. We are always either in-between or back at the starting point. No matter how popular Joy Division becomes, the film never gives us any sense of (either literal or metaphorical) arrival. Control is a film that leaves us with a lot to ponder, but very little to say; and this inconclusiveness, applied to the fatality of Curtis’ tragically short life- and career-trajectory, is precisely what the film means, and how it makes us feel (or at least, how it made me feel).

Deleuze’s Aesthetics

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

I have been in Chicago the last few days, attending the annual meeting of SPEP (The Society for Phenomenological and Existential Philosophy). I gave a paper this afternoon as part of a panel on “Deleuze’s Aesthetics.” The talk will probably never be published as an article, since it is basically a patchwork, cobbled together from various passages taken from several chapters of my in-progress book on Kant, Whitehead, and Deleuze. But for what it’s worth, I am posting it here (pdf).

Copyright matters.

Friday, November 2nd, 2007

I have found myself recently wondering about the copyright terms for academic publications. Whenever an article of mine has been accepted for publication either in a journal, or in a book of essays by various authors, I have to sign a contract, or perhaps just an agreement on the assignment of copyright (I am a bit hazy on the legal distinctions here, which is one of the problems). I used to just sign these things without really paying attention to what they said — since “publish or perish” was the overriding concern. But recently, I have started to pay attention to such things. Partly because, having tenure, I don’t really need to worry about the “perish” possibility. And partly because, thanks to the Net, I can get my work out there where people can read it anyway — it is no longer the case that, without official publication, what I wrote would just languish on my hard drive.

So I have started reading the copyright agreements that I am expected to sign — and I have been appalled by the terms. For instance: I received such a form just this week, from a publisher that I will only call “C”. The text of the agreement stated (among other things):

The Contributor hereby grants the Publishers during the legal term of the copyright the exclusive right and license to produce, publish, and perform his/her contribution to the Work or any abridgement or portion of it in all editions, languages, formats including film, microphotography, photocopying, electronic medium and any other form of transmission or reproduction throughout the world.

“Exclusive rights”: this means that I cannot publish or distribute the article in any other form than those the publisher approves. This includes the “electronic medium,” i.e. I cannot publish the article on my website without their explicit permission. I find this unacceptable. They are asking me to give up all control over my own work.

Now, the article that I gave publisher “C” is actually a part of my own book in progress, which I am currently trying to finish, and which hopefully will itself be published no more than six months after publisher “C”s anthology. However, the agreement “C” wants me to sign explicitly states:

The Contributor is quite free to reprint their contribution in a collection of their own work, provided that due acknowledgement is made to its first appearance and provided that its publication does not take place within a period of five years of its first publication.

In other words, I cannot publish my own book until five years after the anthology appears — which pretty much delays the publication of my own book from 2009 to 2013 or so.

Needless to say, I am refusing to sign the contract with publisher “C” unless the change the terms, and explicitly give me permission to a)make the article available on my own website, and b)publish the book of which the article is a fragment as soon as I can, rather than having to wait five years.

I am waiting to hear back from publisher “C”. If they don’t agree to my requests, I will simply remove my article from the collection of essays.

It’s been a busy week. I also received, this week, a similar contract or agreement from publisher “P”, regarding an article that is supposed to appear next year in one of their journals. This article, at least is stand-alone; it is not part of any of my books in progress. So, if I were to withdraw my text from them, it wouldn’t be “officially” published anywhere else. The issue about republication in a book I am currently writing doesn’t come up in this case. But still, I was taken aback by the language their agreement used:

You assign to us with full title guarantee all rights of copyright and related rights in your Article. So that there is no doubt, this assignment includes the assignment of the right to publish the Article in all forms, including electronic and digital forms, for the full legal term of the copyright and any extension or renewals. Electronic form shall include, but not be limited to, microfiche, CD-ROM and in a form accessible via on-line electronic networks. You shall retain the right to use the substance of the above work in future works, including lectures, press releases and reviews, provided that you acknowledge its prior publication in the journal.

The over-the-top language about inclduing electronic forms worries me a bit. Nonetheless, in this case, I signed. The reason was, that the language doesn’t use the word “exclusive,” as the contract from publisher “C” did. I am assuming, therefore, that what I am assigning to publisher “P” is non-exclusive rights to publish the article in all forms, etc. “Non-exclusive” means that I am not giving the rights only or exclusively to them. Which means that I can retain for myself the right to publish the article on my own website, for instance.

Of course, I am not a lawyer, so I may be mistaken in my interpretation of this contract. Maybe I oughtn’t to have signed the agreement from publisher “P” either. However, just to be sure of retaining my rights, I am making the article available here, several months prior to journal publication. Hopefully some people will find it of interest. It is basically a statement of why I so strongly dislike my 1993 book The Cinematic Body, even though it appears to be the work upon which my academic reputation, such as it is, is largely based. At this point, I would like to forget about The Cinematic Body altogether. Really, folks, I have written a lot of articles and books since then, nearly all of which I think are much better…

Anyway, my dealing with these copyright agreements has brought home to me how massively fucked up the whole publication and copyright system is in academic writing. (Of course, the same goes for all other sorts of writing, and of production of works in other media as well — what is of interest here is just the particular way in which it all works out in academic writing). And it demonstrates, yet again, that copyright does not generally benefit the author/producer; it has mostly to do with corporate profits and corporate arrangements. (Though the profits for academic writing are so meager that the whole set-up seems especially pathetic here. I don’t make my living from royalties on publications anyway; but rather, from the academic prestige that I am able to acquire on the basis of the non-financial prestige of those publications). In particular, it’s pathetic that acdemics in the “humanities” don’t have the sort of network for distributing their research online in the way that scientists and certain groups of social scientists do. Putting up pdfs on my own website will have to suffice for now.