The Aesthetic Turn: How Media Translate, or, Why Do I Like Chase Scenes?

November 6, 2013
By | 4 Comments

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.


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4 Responses to “ The Aesthetic Turn: How Media Translate, or, Why Do I Like Chase Scenes? ”

  1. Eric Dienstfrey on November 6, 2013 at 11:57 PM

    I hope it is okay to admit that I find this post extremely difficult to follow. On the one hand you are mixing many metaphors (for instance, a chase scene is a *sign* that has *gaps* and *doubts* and this sign can *move*), and on the other hand your very assumption that this chase scene is a sign appears to undermine your greater intentions to theorize our “experience of a media object that is prior to language.”

    Maybe you can clarify the following:

    1) How are you defining “sign,” is this Peirce’s definition, de Saussure’s, or something else entirely?
    2) What specifically do you mean when you say that a gap opens up between a sign? What is this gap separating, and is the audience the entity that doubts when inside this gap?
    3) Why is a chase scene a sign? How is this different than calling it a text?

    I have other questions, but these three+ seem like a good place to begin. Again, I apologize for my confusion. I empathize with your struggle to find the right words to describe these matters, as obviously I find this discussion intriguing. However, I’m curious why you haven’t chosen to appropriate or build from the terms and concepts that already exist in the large corpus of aesthetic philosophy that deals specifically with questions of *experience* with respect to music, film/tv, theater, novels, and even painting. Perhaps that would be my 4th question for you.

  2. Kyle Conway on November 7, 2013 at 10:37 AM


    Thank you for your excellent questions. I think I tried to do too much in too small a space here, and your questions reflect that. This post began as a presentation with a performative dimension — the chase scene from Casino Royale played on a screen above and behind me as I read a version of what I posted here. Mine was one of a number of presentations with similarly performative aspects, and it benefited from that context. I think it suffered in the adaptation here.

    I’ve been experimenting with form lately as I try to find ways to describe forms of experience that defy description. I rarely get to the objects I study or the approaches I use directly — I start with the question I think I want to ask and discover that, to ask it well, I need to work backward to something more fundamental. In this case, the initial question was about how viewers in different cultural contexts react to the same text. Tim Havens’s work on Cosby is an excellent example of what prompted the question, but I found I wanted to describe something more fundamental. The tools I’ve already got, especially related to translation, get me part of the way there, but only part.

    One of my experiments with form involves finding ways to talk about dense and abstract concepts without using technical language. The semiotician I draw from most is Peirce, who raises obscurantism to a whole new level. What I want to do is describe experiences of “firstness” — signs that are unmediated and unreflected upon (qualisigns, if you’re familiar with Peirce). Such signs can exist only as an abstraction, because language (our main tool for describing them) operates on a plane of “thirdness” — signs are both mediated and reflected upon, and they constantly point to other signs (words are examples of “legisigns” while signs pointed to by other signs are “interpretants”). If you’re willing to go down Peirce’s terminological rabbit-hole, I want to describe rhematic iconic qualisigns but have only the tools of dicentic symbolic legisigns or argumentive symbolic legisigns. Those more complex signs pull us away from the unmediated nature of the simpler signs.

    I think the last paragraph illustrates the problems with Peirce’s vocabulary. Another problem is that, even in using his terms, I have to read against his broader semiotic theory if I want to talk about what I called gut reactions in my previous post. Peirce was invested in an early 20th century notion of rationality that can’t account for gut reactions.

    Hence my experiment here. I wanted to try to evoke the experience that I can’t describe. That approach raises another set of problems, one of which is that it breaks with expectations about conventional academic writing. I doubt you were the only one who found the post hard to follow.

    Hence also my newfound interest in aesthetics. Part of the impulse for this series came from my desire to see how other people use what appears to me to be a promising vocabulary for tackling questions for which, simply put, I lack a vocabulary.

    I don’t know whether I’ve answered your questions, but I wanted to say I found them valuable.

  3. Eric Dienstfrey on November 7, 2013 at 5:42 PM

    I appreciate your reply and I’m glad you found my questions helpful. And yes, having written a post for Antenna once before I know that it is difficult to expand on anything substantial in a space that’s roughly equivalent to two cocktail napkins.

    Two more lingering points, and then I promise to let you off the hook…

    First, Peirce seems like the wrong choice for your inquiry, being that he is more interested in the media (or mediating) object than he is in experience. Semiotics in general is too closely related to language-based approaches to offer a new means of unpacking the pre-linguistic components of media. When you are dealing with Peirce’s *firstness* or *qualisigns* you then seem to be trying to fit square pegs into round holes, for if Peirce can’t account for gut reactions then why use him? You may also run the risk of needlessly over-mystifying audience experience when drawing from literature that is already overly complicated and often incoherent.

    When it comes to the question of experience, wouldn’t it be more helpful to begin with some definition of who it is that experiences, let alone basic conditions for how they experience? From a more sociological/theoretical perspective Julian Hanich’s ongoing work on the group dynamics of audiences might offer you a useful entry point as well as a decent lit review. And as you are likely well aware, there are an infinite number of academics who approach this issue from a psychological/theoretical perspective, many of whom privilege the very pre-linguistic emotional, intellectual, and physiological components of audience experience that you want to discuss. The cognitivists and the phenomenologists, for instance, offer practical terminology when it comes to dealing with matters like the ineffable, and there’s certainly no shortage of scholarship that have applied their concepts to questions of media and new media (such as Murray Smith’s work on the emotional responses to a German television series, or Diana Raffman’s work on the problem of separating qualia, schema, and language when listening to music). Of course, Torben Grodal’s Embodied Visions and fellow UW alumnus Carl Plantinga’s Moving Viewers are just two of the more obvious monographs which speak to your inquiries with greater clarity than might a semiotic approach along the lines of Peirce.

    Second — and perhaps most importantly — I obviously recognize the limitations of this scholarship, and I definitely wouldn’t claim that the questions you are asking have already been answered. However, the questions you’ve posed in your two blog posts seem far from new enough to be characterized as the “aesthetic turn” in media studies. If there was a turn, then it happened several decades ago, if not centuries. Your claims that this aesthetic focus is just now happening seems to inadvertently (and wrongly) diminish the ongoing and important work of many of your colleagues — even if a significant percentage of media scholars have chosen to either ignore or disregard this area of scholarship.

    These two points aside, I hope that your questions (and this blog series) are able to encourage many more scholars to reconsider the extent to which they’ve prioritized the role of language/readings in their study of media, a feat which others before you — for one reason or another — have only partially succeeded in accomplishing.

  4. Kyle Conway on November 7, 2013 at 9:25 PM

    Thanks again, Eric, for your thoughtful reply. I really value your engagement and your insight.

    In my work, I operate largely in two fields — media and cultural studies and translation studies. I frequently attend translation studies conferences where we talk about media, and the translation studies scholars often present things that appear new to them but represent controversies we resolved in cultural studies thirty years ago. I suspect the questions I’m posing here are analogous — they feel new to me, but only because the relevant literature is not well integrated into the scholarly touchstones that shape the subfield of cultural studies.

    All that to say, if my questions appear naive, it’s because they are. Hence the value of your suggestions — I’ve got my reading set for winter break. (In many ways, I’m an odd choice to organize a series on aesthetics. I proposed it not because I have something interesting to say, but for more selfish reasons — I wanted interesting stuff to read, and this seemed like a useful approach.)

    As for Peirce — it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve tried to fit a round peg in a square hole. But I’m not ready to give up on him yet, in part because he provides tools for answering other questions I ask, especially in relation to media and translation. I’m also not convinced that reading against his conclusions is a problem — there is a lot of potential in his work that went unrealized because of the intellectual environment in which he was working, in addition to his troubled personal life. What matters to me is that the potential is there, and it’s worth exploring.

    I suspect, though, that it will be most fruitful to explore it in conversation with the people you mention in your post. I’m at that point where I’m feeling my way through an unfamiliar literature, which is what makes your insight so valuable.

    (And don’t be surprised if you receive an email from me in the next couple of days soliciting a post in this series. I’m eager to hear more of what you have to say!)