What is the post-cinematic?

I’m currently engaged in a round-table discussion (conducted via email) with Therese Grisham, Julia Leyda, and Nicholas Rombes, concerning the two Paranormal Activities films. The entire discussion among us will be published in the online film journal La furia humana. But I thought it might be worthwhile posting here, in advance, the first part of my contribution — since it summarizes my overall sense of what is meant by the term “post-cinematic” — as I used it in my last book, Post-Cinematic Affect.

My sense of the “post-cinematic” comes first of all from media theory. Cinema is generally regarded as the dominant medium, or aesthetic form, of the twentieth century. It evidently no longer has this position in the twenty-first. So I begin by asking, what is the role or position of cinema when it is no longer what Fredric Jameson calls a “cultural dominant,” when it has been “surpassed” by digital and computer-based media? (I leave “surpassed” in quotation marks in order to guard against giving this term a teleological meaning, as if the displacement of one medium by another were always a question of logical progression, or of advancement towards an overall goal. While André Bazin’s teleological “myth of total cinema” is certainly worth considering in this regard, there are many other factors in play as well; the situation is a complexly overdetermined one).

Of course, if we are to be entirely strict about it, cinema was only dominant for the first half of the twentieth century; in the second half, it gave way to television. But for a long time, a kind of hierarchy was still in place: the “big screen” continued to dominate the “small screen” in terms of social meanings and cultural prestige — even if the latter generated more revenue, and was watched by a far greater number of people. Already in the 1950s, movies achieved a second life on television; it wasn’t until much later that anyone had the idea of doing cinematic remakes of television shows. It’s true that television news, or live broadcast, became important pretty much right away: think of Nixon’s Checkers speech (1952), the Nixon-Kennedy debates (1960), and the coverage of the Kennedy assassination (1963). But it’s only been in the last decade or two that television drama has been seen as deeper and more relevant than cinematic drama. (In the 1970s, the Godfather films and Taxi Driver were cultural landmarks; for the past decade, the similar landmarks are shows like The Sopranos and The Wire).

The movies only gradually lost their dominant role, in the wake of a whole series of electronic, and later digital, innovations. Theorists like Anne Friedberg and Lev Manovich have written about many of these: they include the growth of massively multichannel cable television, the increasing use of the infrared remote, the development of VCRs, DVDs, and DVRs, the ubiquity of personal computers, with their facilities for capturing and editing images and sounds, the increasing popularity and sophistication of computer games, and the expansion of the Internet, allowing for all sorts of uploading and downloading, the rise of sites like Hulu and YouTube, and the availability of streaming video). These developments of video (electronic) and digital technologies entirely disrupted both the movies and traditional broadcast television. They introduced an entirely new cultural dominant, or cultural-technological regime: one whose outlines aren’t entirely clear to us as of yet. We do know that the new digital technologies have made the production, editing, distribution, sampling, and remixing of audiovisual material easier and more widespread than it has ever been before; and we know that this material is now accessible in a wider range of contexts than ever before, in multiple locations and on screens ranging in size from the tiny (mobile phones) to the gigantic (IMAX). We also know that this new media environment is instrumental to, and deeply embedded within, a complex of social, economic, and political developments: globalization, financialization, post-Fordist just-in-time production and “flexible accumulation” (as David Harvey calls it), the precarization of labor, and widespread micro-surveillance. (Many of these developments are not new, in that they are intrinsic to the logic of capitalism, and were outlined by Marx a century and a half ago; but we are experiencing them in new forms, and with new degrees of intensity).

Such is the context in which I locate the “post-cinematic.” The particular question that I am trying to answer, within this much broader field, is the following: What happens to cinema when it is no longer a cultural dominant, when its core technologies of production and reception have become obsolete, or have been subsumed within radically different forces and powers? What is the role of cinema, if we have now gone beyond what Jonathan Beller calls “the cinematic mode of production”? What is the ontology of the digital, or post-cinematic, audiovisual image, and how does it relate to Bazin’s ontology of the photographic image? How do particular movies, or audiovisual works, reinvent themselves, or discover new powers of expression, precisely in a time that is no longer cinematic or cinemacentric? As Marshall McLuhan long ago pointed out, when the media environment changes, so that we experience a different “ratio of the senses” than we did before, older media forms don’t necessarily disappear; instead, they are repurposed. We still make and watch movies, just as we still broadcast on and listen to the radio, and still write and read novels; but we produce, broadcast, and write, just as we watch, listen, and read, in different ways than we did before. 

I think that the two (so far) Paranormal Activity films are powerful in the ways that they exemplify these dilemmas, and suggest possible responses to them. They are made with recent (advanced, but low-cost) digital technologies, and they also incorporate these technologies into their narratives, and explore the new formal possibilities that are afforded by these technologies. As horror films, they modulate the affect of fear through, and with direct attention to, these digital technologies, and the larger social and economic relations within which such technologies are embedded. The Paranormal Activity films in fact work through the major tropes of twentieth-century horror. First, there is the disruption of space that comes when uncanny alien forces invade the home, manifesting in the very site of domesticity, privacy, and the bourgeois-patriarchal nuclear family. And second, there is the warping (the dilation and compression) of time that comes about through rhythms of dread, anticipation, and urgency: the empty time when the characters or the audience are waiting for something to happen, or something to arrive, and the overfull time when they are so overwhelmed by an attack or an intrusion that it becomes impossible to perceive what is happening clearly and distinctly, or to separate the otherworldly intrusion from the viscerally heightened response (or inability to adequately respond). The Paranormal Activity films take up these modulations of space and time, but in novel ways, because their new technologies correspond to, or help to instantiate, new forms of spatiotemporal construction (one might think here of David Harvey’s “space-time compression,” or of Manuel Castells’ “space of flows” and “timeless time”).

18 thoughts on “What is the post-cinematic?”

  1. Steven, I have been long time follower from Seattle and PMC-MOO, this post inspired me to buy my first kindle book, Post-Cinematic Affect.

    Thanks for provoking me to think over the years.

  2. Steven, also a long-time follower (living in Hannover, Germany). Very thought-provoking post, as always. Thought you might like to know that I linked to it on the blog that I’ve set up for the “Initiative for Interdisciplinary Media Research” at the Leibniz University of Hannover, here: http://medieninitiative.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/151/.
    Very much looking forward to reading more!

  3. I think a fruitful area of thought on this particular issue might well be to look at what has changed between the Paranormal Activity films and the Blair Witch Project.

    Blair Witch is also post-cinematic and, in many ways, it laid the ground-work for the medium-awareness tropes that are mined by the Paranormal Activity series but Blair Witch pre-dates the cultural dominance of the internet and digital media and so its ontology is not one of digital cameras and home editing suites but film canisters and (most importantly) cable TV as the cable TV documentary is very much a part of that film’s universe in that it uses the tendency of such documentaries to masquerade myth (Bigfoot, UFOs, lost cities, secret weapons of the Reich) as fiction, which is partly what Blair Witch is all about.

    I think that focusing on the differences between Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity might allow you to really drill down into what is special about the post-cinematic in the digital era (given that, as you say, we’ve been post-cinematic in the strictest sense since TV).

  4. @Jonathan M

    But “Blair Witch” doesn’t pre-date the cultural dominance of the internet and digital media. The brilliant marketing campaign for the movie, which made it the legendary film it is, was executed online. The Hi-8 format that a lot of the film was shot in, though not a digital one, was probably edited on a computer. The thought of a post-cinematic digital era must include “Blair Witch” in consideration.

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