The Aesthetic Turn – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 “Television Aesthetics” versus Formal and Stylistic Analysis Wed, 08 Apr 2015 12:15:19 +0000 Mad MenIn the inaugural post of this series, Kyle Conway reminded us that our term aesthetics  “derives from αἰσθάνομαι, which refers to perception or experience.”  From the perspective of television studies it is hard to imagine reclaiming this original meaning, given the welter of connotations that envelops the term today.  In this post I shall suggest that there is an urgent need to sift the divergent meanings for “aesthetic” currently in play in television studies, and ideally to limit usage in the interests of clarity.

In particular, I want to reflect on the fact that when we talk of the aesthetic of a particular text or textual set—e.g. “the Mad Men aesthetic,” or “the Sherlock aesthetic”—the word aesthetic is really just a conventionalized alternative to the term style. Looking back on recent scholarship on television aesthetics (including my own work), I find unacknowledged tensions between the adjectival form of “aesthetic”—used in formations such as aesthetic judgment, aesthetic attitude, aesthetic object and aesthetic category—and the singular nounal form, which connotes the cluster of formal and stylistic properties that define a particular text or textual set.  These two usages are now routinely yoked to one another in the literature of television studies—as in the recent collection Television Aesthetics and Style—in spite of the fact that they represent very different kinds of engagement with texts, and have very different academic histories and profiles. Sherlock 2In television studies and elsewhere, the adjectival form of “aesthetic” almost invariably points to an evaluative project that has its roots in Enlightenment debates about the nature of taste and the ontological status of art.  Such debates, which not only address the difference between categories (such as the beautiful and the sublime), but also account for the pleasures of art and distinguish art from non-art, have had considerable influence.  Over the last two hundred years, Enlightenment aesthetics has profoundly affected the critical study of literature, music and the fine arts in the academy, as well as journalistic artistic criticism and the rhetoric of the art markets.  One of its most enduring effects has been the formation of artistic canons – and corresponding exclusions.  Of late, scholars such as Jason Mittell, Jason Jacobs, and Sarah Cardwell have championed this kind of evaluative approach in television studies.[1]  Thus, Cardwell feels able to claim that certain television programs “are more likely than others to proffer aesthetic qualities valuable to the television aesthetician,”[2] while Mittell more bluntly speaks of identifying a given program not only as “great” but also “better than others.”[3]  This approach has inevitably been controversial in a discipline historically driven by the imperatives of cultural studies, which does not recognize absolute or transcendental values and always seeks to locate value judgments in discursively specific contexts.

The nounal form of “aesthetic,” on the other hand, tends to be used in analyses of different formal and stylistic elements within a given medium and text, not in arguments concerning excellence or its absence.  Engagement with “an aesthetic” in this sense ought to be less contentious for television studies than evaluative aesthetics à la Cardwell and Mittell.  Articulating elements and principles of design and style, and considering how or why they might be discernible in a given text or cluster of texts, does not per se constitute a value judgment about that text’s relative status.  Indeed, I would argue that formal analysis should not be considered a function of aesthetics at all: connections between formal analysis and aesthetic judgment were only ever historically contingent, not inherent, in humanistic disciplines such as art history and literary studies.  My initial academic formation was in art history, where analysis of form and style has always been a crucial disciplinary tool.  Its usefulness as such has not dwindled as old models privileging connoisseurship, narratives of “great men,” and the autonomous history of style have given place over the last half-century to studies informed by Marxist social history, feminism, semiotics, reception theory, and so on.  At no point, from the time of Wölfflin and Riegl to the present, has formal or stylistic analysis in art history required aesthetics as a justificatory prop.

"Judgement of Paris," Joseph Hauber (1819, Neue Pinakothek, Munich)

“Judgement of Paris,” Joseph Hauber (1819, Neue Pinakothek, Munich)

So why do some scholars of television feel the need to invoke aesthetics, rather than being content with the less portentous terms form and style?  I wonder if the urge does not stem from a collective desire to lend gravitas to a project that for some is still a questionable distraction from the “real” work of television studies.  Perhaps we are too used to the now-automatic legitimation conferred by the politically informed, latently activist ethos of cultural studies, and feel exposed when we fear we are operating outside its ambit.  If so, the irony is that by taking refuge under the aegis of aesthetics, scholars of television risk creating a false dichotomy.  When formal and stylistic analysis are lumped with aesthetics, as opposed to being understood as tools in their own right, it is easy to lose sight of the fact they can inform a wide array of interpretive engagements with television – including the work done by those of us whom Cardwell would class as “aesthetics skeptics.”  In other words, unlike aesthetics-as-evaluation, formal and stylistic analysis need not cut and cross with the longstanding concerns of television studies.

I’m grateful to Eliza Rodriguez y Gibson and Paul Booth for the conversations, critique and suggestions that helped shape this post.

[1]  See, for example, the introduction and the chapters by Cardwell and Mittell in Jacobs and Peacock[2] Jacobs and Peacock, p. 38. [3] Ibid., pp. 3-4.


]]> 2
The Aesthetic Turn: Toward a Television Aesthetic (Again) Thu, 06 Mar 2014 14:30:39 +0000 DSC_0304In the context of a course I’m teaching for the second time, Film and Television Aesthetics, I have been thinking a great deal about not only how to teach television aesthetics, but also what it means to analyze or evaluate television aesthetics. As evidenced by this series, The Aesthetic Turn, this is again something that scholars and television audiences want to discuss. It is not that television aesthetics has been an afterthought in the last twenty years; rather, somewhere along the way I think it was pushed aside for other important and topical research.

My own interest in writing this piece was sparked when I read Fred E. H. Schroeder’s 1973 essay “Video Aesthetics and Serial Art,” in the first edition of Horace Newcomb’s edited anthology Television: The Critical View (1976). The articles contemplating television aesthetics, such as Schroeder’s and Newcomb’s “Toward a Television Aesthetic,” disappear in later editions of this book. As Jonathan Gray and Amanda Lotz note in their book Television Studies, “the contents of the volume shifted considerably from journalists to academics over the first few editions” (18). Indeed, Gray and Lotz make a “gentle call” for a “more successful reintegration of aesthetics and critical analysis” as a “key frontier” for the future of television studies (53). This type of work exists, even if it does not explicitly call itself that: Julie D’Acci’s Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney & Lacey, Jeremy Butler’s Television Style, and a whole section of essays in Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell’s How to Watch Television. But why hasn’t there been a bigger return to this analytical area?

I think there are a few factors that complicate this issue. For one, in the last decade there has been a clear shift in the public perception of television from the denigrated also-ran to a medium taken seriously by viewers as a prominent art form, a reputation that films and filmmakers have enjoyed for several decades. Likewise, aesthetics seems more clearly or naturally articulated in discussion of film than it does with television. Does this speak to a tension in television studies and television scholars, who may want to continue to distance themselves from film studies in regards to carving out its own disciplinary boundaries?

From another perspective, David Thorburn writes about this issue, rooting the problem less in the medium and more in terms of language. In his 1987 paper “Television as an Aesthetic Medium” he writes that “the adjective ‘aesthetic’ is problematic, I realize. But I know no other word to use for the qualities I wish to identify in our popular culture and specifically in our television system” (162). Despite the complicated nature of this term, he notes that he wants to employ it not as “a valuing of aesthetic objects” but rather for use as “a designation of their chief defining feature—their membership in a class of cultural experiences understood to be fictional or imaginary, understood to occur in a symbolic, culturally agreed upon imaginative space” (162).

In yet another way perhaps the early writing set the stage for a complicated relationship between television studies and aesthetics. Some articles from the 1960s and 1970s focus more on what television in this era couldn’t do rather than what it could do. Schroeder writes at length about the smallness of television image and television’s inability to transform “televised” arts within its at-the-time technological parameters. Evelina Tarroni’s article “The Aesthetics of Television” spends considerable time debating whether television is “art” or “merely a technical means of transmission which adds nothing to, and introduces no change, in the subject matter transmitted” (437). These aesthetic contemplations, while worthy of continued examination, are very much products of their time. Articles like this at their core were defensive arguments that had to first convince readers that television is art, and that television isn’t film. Since this line of thinking is less necessary for contemporary audiences, there is no longer a need to differentiate between the ideas that were at the center of these early television aesthetic discussions. These lines have been largely erased, between television actors and film actors, or between television texts and film texts.Mad Men set

From my perspective, what makes the conversation about aesthetics so productive, and instructive, is the reconnection of analyses that consider the form, content, and context of television programs, and relinking cultural studies and television aesthetics in a multitude of texts: old and new television programs; cult, popular, or unpopular programs; particular seasons or series as a whole; special episodes; mythology or monster-of-the week episodes; serial or episodic programs; groups of programs on networks or cable channels; “online” television, etc. In this regard, writers might also want to consider the ways in which different modes of distribution, reception, availability of texts, and their historical trajectories might inform aesthetic analysis.

From my own teaching perspective, I came to these questions and concerns from reading television studies research from the 1970s, but also from what felt like a classroom problem: why is it so easy for my students to talk about the form and content of films I show in class, when they have such difficulties connecting form and content in our analysis of television programs? Is it because television programs are devoid of form? Of course not, so let’s figure this out together.

This is the sixth post in Antenna’s series The Aesthetic Turn, which examines questions of cultural studies and media aesthetics. If you missed any of the earlier posts in the series, they can be read here.


Google’s Aesthetic Turn: One Simple Beautiful Useful Google Mon, 13 Jan 2014 20:15:00 +0000 As tech blogs circulate lists of not just the most popular apps, nor merely the best, but the most beautiful, stunning, and even “drop dead gorgeous,” it seems an apt time to consider how cultural studies’ concern for aesthetics might inspire more critical engagement with the experiences and artifacts of digital culture.


Everyday life is so awash in explicitly aesthetic appeals (ie, “the most beautiful way to check weather”) that I can instantly imagine an eye-catching infograph that helpfully orders app attributes as values of sensuous desire. We might need to revise Susan Sontag’s famous call for an erotics of art: “in place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of apps!”

How does the technocultural installation of some “gorgeous” layer between internet users and the cycles of life (e.g., sleep, fertility, seasonal, fiscal) shape the way we come to experience and know the world?  And of course, what is “beautiful” anyway? Who gets to define what it looks and feels like? These are questions of aesthetics, though not in the classical sense of pondering the philosophical problems of beauty and art. Once assumed to correspond with universal human values, perceptions of beauty have since been understood as mediated by taste, class, and racial and gendered cultural hierarchies that govern legitimacy.  Cultural studies expanded the field of what counted as “aesthetic” by turning from high art to the literature and popular culture of the working classes. As Raymond Williams puts it, “Culture is ordinary.” How might we probe what’s at stake in the digital beautification of everyday life? In this post, I examine the ambitious 2011 redesign of top global website, Google (Google+, Google Search, Maps, etc.)

Google’s First Aesthetic: Transparency

Built from the start with users in mind (mantra: “focus on the user and all else will follow”), the early Google Aesthetic presents simplicity, technology, usability, and engineering as a form of transparency. When the stark white Google search was introduced in 1998, it must have seemed positively un-designed compared with the bloated portals of the time. No, Google cut the crap by delivering nothing but fast, relevant search results. For a decade, using Google Search was kind of like using a calculator, which is to say, you just used it and expected it to work. With its famous suite of PageRank algorithms under lock and key, Google balanced its technical opacity with a transparent communication style that emphasized openness, accountability, informality, and playfulness, all of which felt algorithmically generated but human-inflected. This aesthetic of transparency isn’t confined to the giant white home page, of course. We catch another glimpse if we approach material like Matt Cutts’s “How Search Works” as an aesthetic performance as much as an instructional one.

Google’s Aesthetic Turn: One Simple Beautiful Useful Google

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

There are plenty of advanced technologies here, but the tech layer is mediated through a veneer of “(expert guy)” friendliness: approachable, direct, playful, and above all, crystal clear. From the expansive white space to the affable sketchy wireframes, this Google Aesthetic is presented with such ease that we’re not meant to question this explanation (or indeed, understand this as an aesthetic) at all.  Of course, transparency equally conceals the white dudes’ in casualware who serve as interfaces to certain visions of computing. Ensconced in white space and doodles, Cutts becomes an aesthetic expression of what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls Google’s culture of Aptocracy, a world that rewards merit based on technical competence and quantifiable forms of achievement.


Google’s Aesthetic Turn: The OSbug

Google’s engineering-centric culture had a long reputation for downplaying design in favor of speed and efficiency. Who cares about beauty when your computer is a hulking beige box? But there’s a huge industry surrounding tablets and smart phones, now marketed as aesthetic objects aligned symbolically with gourmet chocolate, fine jewelry or luxury cars. Google was simplicity, technology, usability, engineering… but not beauty.

When Larry Page became Google CEO in April of 2011, he immediately made design Google’s top priority with the mantra: “One simple, beautiful, useful Google” (the “OSbug” for short). For the first time, Google set out to design and engineer a cohesive aesthetic experience that would unify the “look and feel” of the Google universe. It’s worth noting, then, that in the pursuit of “beautiful” interaction, Google designers were drawing inspiration not from the realm of the visual, but from the legacy of “ubiquitous computing” (ubicom) and the aesthetics of invisibility and seamlessness that were a hallmark of that vision.

Designers’ were asked what beauty means to Google and concluded it “involved the idea of simplicity, and deeper than that, of invisibility.”  For ChromeCast users, for example, “the beauty comes from the fact that it delights you and you don’t see it.” This disappearing act represents a downgrading of the primacy of the visual in favor of haptics, feedback, sound, navigational cues, etc., that work to create a cohesive sensation of a unified space (the OSbug). The shift to seamlessness or “invisibility” is not necessarily a bad thing: who wants to feel frustrated by devices and interfaces? But seamless is a double-edged sword. UX designers are thinking carefully about how users are embedded not just in the apps we use, but complex social framework of daily activity.

But it also raises some crucial questions: if we can no longer feel the seams, do we risk becoming so comfortable in our skin that “beautiful”  layers between us and the world begin to seem more and more like common sense? How might different users feel oriented (or disoriented) within information space? What kind of gendered or racial assumptions might “beautiful” interaction uphold or challenge? Whose needs and desires are being optimized by this particular expression of “beauty”?

This is the fifth post in Antenna’s new series The Aesthetic Turn, which examines questions of cultural studies and media aesthetics. If you missed any of the earlier posts in the series, they can be read here. Look out for regular posts in the series (most) every other Wednesday in January and beyond.


]]> 2
The Aesthetic Turn: In Search of the Pictorial Intelligence Wed, 18 Dec 2013 15:14:23 +0000 For all its benefits, the now widespread fashion of interpreting makers of moving images like Jean-Luc Godard as philosophers—as thinkers of and through the image—has yet to adequately confront a paradox which a media aesthetics can address. If film auteurs, showrunners, installation artists, and videographers produce thoughts in moving images, then why has the scholarly discourse favored verbal models of thinking to express how they philosophize in pictures?

Kyle Conway began this series by wishing to explore that part of “our experience of a media object [that] exists prior to and outside of language.” In my contribution, I would like to take up the question of language from another angle.

Film and media critics tend to privilege the conceptual work of the moving image-maker when the visual image can be grounded in a linguistic or verbalized idea—an idea, so the reasoning goes, which the media artist used representational forms to express. This inferential process (fig. 1) in effect relies on a extended commutation test, whereby one imagines the images of a film or TV show (1) as philosophical words on a page—a representation of a system of ideas, an argument or a ponderous statement (2)—in order to ascertain the distinguishing features of moving image-maker’s motivating intentions (3).

Fig. 1. The verbal model of moving image intelligence.

Fig. 1. The verbal model of moving image intelligence.

The maker of moving images is taken as a writer. The caméra really does materialize as a stylo. But is this all there is to the image-maker’s intelligence?

What if media critics were to acknowledge that some of the intellectualizing that filmmakers and showrunners and video artists do results in pictorial concepts? Can moving images not be intelligent—abstract, puzzling, profound, astute, quick-witted—without acting as surrogates for a discursive intervention?

This would require us to revise our thinking about moving image intelligence—to reimagine the relationship between pictures and ideas. We might acknowledge that some media artists speak in images alone, directly in representational forms. In short, some moving image-makers may not make intellectual or conceptual contributions to the viewing experience by committing themselves to preformed verbal systems of thought prior to producing an image and then using the image to communicate it to the viewer. It might rather involve theorizing a prior verbalized puzzle or deep conundrum by making images, using light and shade, color and tone, varieties of movement and stasis, compositional line and depth.

This involves making some concessions. Principle among these is that we might want to consider how we program ourselves for verbalized notation when we call media objects “texts.” In Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence (1994), the art historians Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall write of the Venetian painter: “…there is a sense in which painting like Tiepolo’s, in sharp contrast with what a text is able to do, lets us re-experience the process by which we first come to make sense of the world” (p.15). The authors skewer a dominant textual bias in Western aesthetics: “It has been a feature of European aesthetics…that painting does something roughly similar to what literature does.” Citing Lessing and others, they note that “the criteria of the comparison between painting and text have been textual ones” (p.2). The limits of the Lessing position are flaunted in Tiepolo, for he provides an example “of pictorial creativity from premises that are not literary” (p.3). “Instead of trying to tell,” they note, “Tiepolo shows” (p.40). One contribution to thought is the painter’s grand Treppenhaus ceiling, which makes a specifically pictorial “argument” about the “relation of the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional” (p.130) (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Treppenhaus ceiling (Tiepolo, 1752-3).

Fig. 2. Treppenhaus ceiling (Tiepolo, 1752-3).

We need not look to the fine arts for examples of the pictorial intelligence, of the penetrating image. It’s on display in the French blockbuster. The digitally composited two-minute long take that opens District 13 (Morel, 2004) might be read “textually” as a statement relaying the social problems that afflict the French banlieue (in 2004, or in 2010, when the film is set), the same problems the film’s protagonist, Lëito (David Belle), a master of parkour (fig. 3 and 4), wishes to combat.

Fig. 3 and 4. District 13 (Morel, 2004).

Fig. 3 and 4. District 13 (Morel, 2004).

On some level, the roving camera of the opening shot analogizes the ghettoized space with the notion of an imploding prison system, where the exterior walls still manage to contain the inhabitants but the barriers within have crumbled, the legal and social order has collapsed into vagrancy, intoxication and gang violence (Fig. 5, 6 and 7).

Fig. 5, 6 and 7. District 13 (Morel, 2004).

Fig. 5, 6 and 7. District 13 (Morel, 2004).

From this standpoint, the film opens with a blunt statement, little more than a string of clichés.

But the image, by Pierre Morel, warns that this is merely a verbalized projection. There is pictorial intelligence here working on its own terms. Morel, trained as a cinematographer, doesn’t offer a list-like collage of cut-together, typical views. Conceived as a fluid movement along an axial trajectory, the shot mounts a pictorial argument, contrasting the sluggish, feckless, repetitive forms of ambulation, posture and rest with graceful and nimble mobility that remains possible even through the various frames and apertures—abandoned cars, bullet-riddled windows—of this decaying space (fig. 8 and 9). Through the moving image, parkour, itself a non-verbal, bodily form, is expanded as a directly pictorial concept of creative and improvisatorial motion.

Fig. 8 and 9. District 13 (Morel, 2004).

Fig. 8 and 9. District 13 (Morel, 2004).

An image like this accommodates projections of verbal paraphrase even as its specifically visual concept recommends that we taken some distance from them.


The Aesthetic Turn: Media Aesthetics: Color for the Where and How Wed, 04 Dec 2013 15:00:52 +0000 The Antenna blog has recently expressed an interest in exploring the “Aesthetic Turn” in media studies, or more specifically, the relationship between media and aesthetics, and where and how one can articulate such a theory. In this brief essay, I explore the provocative question of a theory of media aesthetics by way of the central yet paradoxical issues at the heart of color studies. Insofar as color is a primary tenet of visual studies – and media is here considered exclusively through the framework of the visual – then color may provide a fresh and unique lens to articulate a theory of media aesthetics. I begin with an anecdote that summarizes the complexity of these color problems.

James Turrell, Aten Reign (2013).

James Turrell, Aten Reign (2013).

In 1980, American light artist James Turrell’s solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, “Light and Space,” reportedly caused “injury” not to one but to several spectators, resulting in two lawsuits filed against the Whitney. The first lawsuit was filed in Federal Court in 1982, by retired judge of the Oregon State Supreme Court Ralph M. Holman, on behalf of his wife, Louise, who charged that Turrell’s show created an “illusion” in which she became radically “disoriented and confused” and, as a result, was “violently precipitated to the floor.” The lawsuit sought an unspecified amount of damages from the artist. Also in 1982, a second suit was brought in front of the New York State Supreme Court by Mrs. Blanch Robins of New York, who charged that Turrell’s same exhibition caused her, after “stepping back against what she thought was a wall, to fall and permanently injure her right wrist.” Robins requested $250,000 compensation from the Whitney Museum. As extraordinary as these cases seem, they are not isolated incidents. In 1999, a pirated clip of Turrell’s artwork was inserted into a Pokémon cartoon which was then played on television in Japan, reportedly “setting off a rash of seizures and nausea that sent more than 700 people to the hospital,” many of whom were children and elderly people. Moreover, Turrell’s work with the medium of colored light is not alone in eliciting such responses.

In these examples, where does liability rest? Is the artist responsible for causing these injuries; the museum; or the spectator? The question is key not only because it forces a consideration of liability but also of the problems that lie at the heart of theorizing media aesthetics. Where and how do we begin to speak about media artwork? Where does it begin and end, and where and how does the subject fit into it all; extending from it (McLuhan), or rather, defining himself or herself against it? If a media artwork remains exclusive to a physical art-object, then one could argue that the artist or museum is responsible for the content they put on public display. But on the other hand, perhaps responsibility falls on the spectator, which is to say that art and aesthetics reside in subjective experience. Certainly this has been the answer for many in art and science since Goethe’s 1810 Theory of Colors.


Josef Albers, from Interaction of Color (1963).

These polarized positions delineate the two general ways in which color has traditionally been theorized in Western art and culture. On the one hand, it is argued that color inheres in things in the world, as an objective, physical, or quantifiable phenomena. For instance, “this oil pastel is yellow,” or “this apple is red.” Followers of this school tend to include theorists like Aristotle, the classical opticians (including Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton), factions of modern science, technology industries, chemistry, physics, and certain industrial color ordering systems. On the other hand, it is argued that color is a subjective phenomenon that alters according to the physiology of the perceiver. For example, in the above image from 20th century colorist Josef Albers, he showed how the same neutral brown changed its hue and value based on its surrounding colors. Traditionally, artists, modern philosophers (including Goethe), and certain sub-sections of modern science, like psychophysics and psychology, tend to follow this view.

At the same time, as a phenomenon of subjective experience, color becomes strange and estranged; inconsistent, unreliable, and, for some – a deceptive simulacra. Such a fear and distrust of color dates back to the origins of Western metaphysics. Sophists, rhetoricians, and painters – i.e., those who write with color – deemed “creator[s] of phantoms,” Plato argued; “technicians of ornament and makeup.” But by far the most poisonous of simulacra is color: a cosmetic and false appearance that, like the sophist’s “gaudy speeches” and “glistening words” seduce the listener with their ambiguity and sparkle, but unlike words, carry no representational value beyond itself. Color holds to nothing and to no one. This elusiveness has given numerous philosophers license for its romanticization, from Goethe to Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Barthes, Baudrillard, Derrida, and even Adorno. (Benjamin in 1914: “The imagination can be developed only by contemplating colours… pure vision is concerned not with space and objects but with colour”; Heidegger in 1935: “Color shines and only wants to shine. When we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone”; and Baudrillard in 1995: “No analysis of the vibrations of light will ever explain the sensory imagining of colours…”). In short, the denial of subjective responsibility in aesthetic experience no doubt contributes to the problems with a theory of media aesthetics (not to mention legal liability).

From the "James Turrell Installation at Crystals" in Las Vegas, 2013.

From the “James Turrell Installation at Crystals” in Las Vegas, 2013.

Moving forward, Turrell’s work (alongside others in this genre that must be discussed at length elsewhere) embodies the paradoxical tensions between subject and object at the heart of media art. Many factors – an artist’s intention and conception, installation, audience reception, the relation to the museum architecture, the number of people in the museum, and the cultural and physiological background of the viewer, which shapes their perception and color vision – all count. All of these factors work together in what must be called “media aesthetics.” Future theories of media aesthetics need to note such ambivalences and crossovers.

This is the third post in Antenna’s new series The Aesthetic Turn, which examines questions of cultural studies and media aesthetics. The first two posts were written by series guest editor Kyle Conway. If you missed either of those, they can be read here. Look out for regular posts in the series (most) every other Wednesday in December, January, and beyond.


]]> 2
The Aesthetic Turn: How Media Translate, or, Why Do I Like Chase Scenes? Wed, 06 Nov 2013 15:00:28 +0000 Casino Royale

In my first post in the “The Aesthetic Turn” series, I spoke of the part of “our experience of a media object [that] exists prior to and outside of language.” I asked whether we could use language to describe it without denaturing the experience itself, and I concluded we can’t, at least not directly. But that doesn’t mean we can’t describe it at all, and in this post, I’d like to suggest how to approach it obliquely, through metaphor and translation. (This post began as a “Digital Lightning” talk I gave as part of a series put on by the University of North Dakota’s Working Group on Digital Humanities. As I spoke, I played Casino Royale in the background.)

I’m a sucker for a good chase scene. I love the elegant excess of the parkour chase at the beginning of Casino Royale, where James Bond (Daniel Craig) pursues a criminal who careens off walls and catapults through improbably small windows.

I love the silly excess of the freeway chase in The Matrix Reloaded, where one pursuit is layered on top of another (in cars, on top of cars, and in motorcycles on top of cars). My favorite right now is the four-deep chase-within-a-chase (and dream-within-a-dream) that marks the climax of Inception.

I want to ask a question about chase scenes that is really a question about something else. In a sense, I want to force two things together in an unlikely metaphor. What do chase scenes reveal about media and translation? I mean “translation” in a broader sense than linguistic recoding, although I mean that, too. The English word translate derives from the Latin transferre, meaning “to carry across.” It implies movement. Other languages (such as Finnish and Japanese) use words that emphasize mediation and transformation, rather than movement. Both, I think, are key: movement implies transformation as signs leave one sphere to become meaningful in another.

How do media shape the phenomenon of movement-transformation? What happens when, say, a TV show travels from one geographic or technological space to another? Few questions are more fundamental in media studies, and few have been asked as often, although we tend not to phrase questions in terms of translation. In the era of “new media” (whatever we mean by that), we frequently speak in terms of remediation: what happens when we view newer media through the habits of thought instilled by older media? This question has grown ever more urgent as media converge. What happens when a fan remixes a show, which then goes through YouTube, and then through a link on Facebook, before it gets to us? I want to shift the focus, however, from the media platforms and technologies to the “through,” the movement-transformation.

What happens at the point of “through”? Is there a logic to “through-ness”? Can we see everything that is happening, or are things hidden from sight? Here is my initial answer: In the process of transformation, a gap opens up between a sign before its movement and after. The original sign and its “translation”—the sign we substitute for it—do not evoke the same things. They might evoke similar things; in fact, translation as we have traditionally understood it—a form of rewriting in a different language—is premised on that appearance of equivalence. But we need to pay attention to the gap, which is a place of doubt and ambiguity. It is also a place where we can observe an experience of a media object that is prior to language. Still, our observation is oblique: how does it feel to enter this place of doubt? Does this ambiguity provoke unease? Something else?

So what does this have to do with chase scenes? I’m forcing a metaphor here, which is to say, I’m transposing a sign—chase scenes—from one context (movies) to another (translation and media). (Not for nothing does metaphor derive from the Greek μεταφέρω, meaning “to carry across.”) Through that metaphor, I’m opening a gap we experience (in part) by asking, why this weird juxtaposition? My purpose is to provoke a reaction—an “aha!” would be great, but a “what the hell” will do perfectly fine, too. The point is to use translation and metaphor to turn our attention away from the object (the chase scenes, the media platforms, the texts) toward our experience of the object. The move is admittedly quite “meta” (μετα?), but it is also potentially quite valuable, too.

This is the second post in Antenna’s new series The Aesthetic Turn, which examines questions of cultural studies and media aesthetics. If you missed guest editor Kyle Conway’s inaugural post last month, you can read it here. Look out for regular posts in the series (most) every other Wednesday into the new year.


]]> 4
The Aesthetic Turn: Cultural Studies and the Question of Aesthetic Experience Wed, 23 Oct 2013 14:36:25 +0000 This is the first post in “The Aesthetic Turn,” a new Antenna series on cultural studies and media aesthetics. Our purpose here is to pose an interesting question and invite people to respond, as series guest editor Kyle Conway writes about below.

The Uses of LiteracyOne of cultural studies’ preoccupations—and really, this goes without saying—is the audience. Works as early as Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy (1957) emphasized the value of asking what readers do with what they read (or listeners with what they hear, or viewers with what they see), rather than presuming to deduce their reactions from the texts themselves. From Hoggart to the CCCS to encoding/decoding to the Nationwide project to textual poaching to acafandom to spreadability—the through-line is clear.

In this context, I want to ask a pointed question about aesthetics. I have been teaching a graduate seminar this semester on production culture and aesthetics, a topic that was inspired in part by Shawn VanCour’s excellent Antenna post on the aesthetic turn in media studies. He argues for “the value of a specifically production-oriented approach,” and although I agree, I was more struck by his description of how the media effects researchers from radio’s early years were asking questions about aesthetics. They were concerned with media’s experiential dimensions, and thus they brought “aesthetics” back to its Greek roots (it derives from αἰσθάνομαι, which refers to perception or experience).

31047001Indeed, this question of experience is not new. Aristotle posed it in his Poetics, where he was concerned with tragedy’s ability to lead an audience to a point of catharsis. Rudolf Arnheim posed it in his book on radio, where he asked about the psychology of the listener, whom he assumed to be passive. David Bordwell posed it in the first section of The Classical Hollywood Cinema, where he proposed that people watching a film make and test a series of hypotheses as a way to make sense of its plot and structure. This list is far from complete—in fact, it’s really just a reflection of the syllabus from my media aesthetics seminar.

But there is at least one aspect of this experiential dimension that cultural studies scholars have largely neglected. It seems to me (and I’m hedging for a reason) that part of our experience of a media object exists prior to and outside of language. Let’s call it a “gut reaction,” but let’s take that metaphor at face value—it’s a moment when our body registers a response that we can’t quite capture in words. Language here does both too little and too much—too little in that we don’t have words to describe what we feel in our gut (at least not completely), and too much in that the words we do have always mean more than we intend. (When we use a word, we must account for how the people we are responding to used it, just as that they accounted for its prior uses. The effect is additive: words accumulate meaning in ways beyond any individual’s control.) We must translate from our gut to our mind (that is, from raw experience to an account that’s mediated by language) and we lose something in the translation.

So why do I hedge above? Why “it seems to me”? Even my assertion that we experience media this way is subject to the double bind of language, its simultaneous deficiency and excess. This is an idea we can intuit, but—it seems to me—we can’t describe it without denaturing the experience itself. So what is the analytical value of this intuition? Are there ways to observe this experience directly or indirectly? What insight can it provide into the broader range of phenomena related to audiences? What insight can it provide into the moment of production VanCour highlights? Finally, what does cultural studies stand to gain from examining the aesthetic experience of the media?


I’d like to invite other Antenna contributors to continue this discussion. I’ve contacted a handful of potential contributors already, but I want to extend the invitation more broadly. If you are interested, please feel free to email me (conway dot kyle at gmail dot com) or the editors. You needn’t respond to the questions I’ve posed here, although I’d love to hear others’ thoughts. I’m eager to encourage as rich and wide-ranging a discussion as possible.