Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 11, 2008

Architectures of Reception

Filed under: Discussion — dfratini @ 9:52 pm

Having just returned from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference whose theme was: Architectures of the Moving Image, I can safely say that many of the ideas covered in this week’s readings are being addressed in our field as well, but from a different angle.

In the past 10 years or so, many film historians have revisited the era of early cinema — from the Victorian era’s pre-cinematic devices (magic lanterns, etc.) to the universalization of sound-on-film technology. In so doing, they’ve reconsidered cinema’s role in the formation and practice public sphere / private sector. There is a tradition of considering cinema as a solitary, isolating practice, in that one sits immobile in a dark theater, and although others are present, they are silent and immobile, so that the interaction is between each individual and the screen. This is very similar to the way Bull and others have described the paradox of being alone with a computer in order to be socially connected / networked. The psychoanalytic film theories really base themselves on this isolated spectator-to-film relationship. Miriam Hansen is one of the leaders in rethinking cinema as a part of the public sphere by situating it within the larger discourse of popular culture, as evidenced by the periphery texts of fan magazines, gossip columns, movie reviews, etc., as part of the modern experience. All of these things are instances of the public sphere appearing in private “reception,” that is to say, someone reading a fan magazine at home is still participating in the public sphere dialog.

Accordingly, isn’t media, in general, a permeable membrane between public and private? I wondered about Bull going back as far as cassette players in cars to show the portability of the private into the public space. Transistor radio predates that, and wouldn’t something similarly be happening when one reads a dime novel on a subway? Isn’t that very similar to adding one’s own soundtrack to the city via an iPod or carrying on a private phone conversation? I suppose I am being banal again in my backward glancing, for I realize a cell phone conversation has a “liveness” to its interaction with the absent other that the reading of fiction does not. I am not sure that this makes the activity any less private-bubble-forming.

As for “architectures of the moving image,” Anne Friedberg in The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft also looks back, to Renaissance perspective and the camera obscura, to trace forward a history of visual representation that conceive of the image a window to another space and time. In the context of a motion picture then, the physical architectures of movie theaters are built to enhance the metaphor of the screen as a window to an elsewhere. The “architecture of cinematic spectatorship” then is one in which the spectator is immobile in front of a window on the other side of which there is motion, and in the case of the filmic cut, the view itself “moves” to a different place / time. She points to the influence of this cinematic window on the architecture of actual windows and walls over the course of the 20th century.

So for me, when Mark Shepard recalling planning his Urban Computing course with Kevin Slavin, says “We knew, at the very least, this turn toward information processing in the environment was going to affect the ways in which we use and understand walls, windows, doors, sidewalks, streets….” I am hearing it in that context. That is to say, that for me, media as the interface between public and private has always affected the ways in which we understand walls, windows, doors, etc. Therefore the key term, for me, is “information” and accordingly its no surprise that he imagines “an extreme informatics regime… where all information loses its body…reducing rather than adding to the visual field of the street.”

His formulation has the information off-loaded to personal portable devices or ambient displays. This would be an extreme version of moving through the world in one’s private bubble, in which we’re each in our own private public. Would our facebook network of friends then provide some moveable feast of experience as our only means of “public” shared experience?

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