Narratives: Familiarity and Strangeness

on 27 January 2009 at about 22:05

This item was originally posted on CEMP's Interactive Media Portal on 27 January, 2009.

Notes from the third keynote in the Narratives series. This lecture deals with rationality and inevitability, Aristotle and Brecht, structuralism and formalism, mimesis and alienation.

Notes from the third keynote in the Narratives series. This lecture deals with rationality and inevitability, Aristotle and Brecht, structuralism and formalism, mimesis and alienation. Previous lectures: Introduction followed by Stories and Structures. Whoah… TL;DR? This week's shoutometer (warning – may cause offence).

Doing it for effect

As I’ve pointed out above, the shoutometer for this lecture was a little offensive. I took that offence further. I told you all that you are pathetic, lazy and unimaginative. I accused you of having no ideas, and that all the work you submit is entirely derivative, unoriginal and, frankly, boring.

I don’t know how convincing you found my rant, but I did reveal my words were part of, in effect, a performance – one designed to alienate you. It was my intention to make you feel a little uncomfortable, to make you wonder why I was breaking the usual conventions of the lecture format and the traditional confidence and good humour of the teacher – student relationship.

I was doing it for effect, and ‘doing it for effect’ is the simplest way of thinking about the subject of this lecture.

Right to reply

I gave you the opportunity to tell me what was wrong with my introduction. You said:

I had some prepared ideas about why my introduction was inappropriate:

And it’s possible, (and this was my hope), that by ‘breaking the rules’ in this way, I was making you think about why I might be saying the words I was saying: whether what I was saying was true (do you contribute enough to your own learning, or do you expect teachers to inject knowledge into your heads?), but also I wanted you to think about the teaching situation. What should our situation be like? Why should it be like that? Why are things the way they are? And maybe, somewhat optimistically, I hoped that you might rise up against me, and rebel against my patronising rant – depose the tyrant teacher.

These questions are fundamental to the subjects of this lecture: the idea of alienation; Marxism and politically motivated thought in general; the agenda of artists and theorists interested (broadly-speaking, and at the risk of over-simplification) in formalism

Recap: science, structuralism and story

So let’s recap where we got to last time. We said that structuralists were interested in understanding the internal structure of story using what they thought of as a scientifically rigourous method. We can think of them laying out the entire diegetic story and looking synchronically at all of its components (diachronic and intertextual) as ranged around a set of binary oppositions such as good/bad, friend/foe, familiar/strange, etc. This analysis will surely tell us (so say the structuralists) what underlying logic ‘governs’ the story.

There are some very strong reasons for thinking that the structuralists’ approach is useful. Saussure’s analysis of language has bequeathed us with an entire discipline (semiotics) and a body of knowledge which looks in depth at how communication works, (though we should do well to remember that not everyone subscribes to the tenets of Saussurian semiology). But we can also note some problems with it. Structuralists have tended towards trying to ‘universalise’ their findings – this is a consequence of ‘scientistic’ thinking which can be criticised for its reductionism and positivism (recall last week’s man in the tree). Or, to put it another way, do we really want to risk going after one-truth-for-all ideas (structure), at the expense of forgetting to celebrate and explore the uniqueness of individual experience (texture)?

I’m just going to bang this point home a little harder: critics of adopting scientistic approaches to understanding human culture and human nature point out that things like eugenics, euthanasia, Nazi gas chambers, phrenology and anti-semitism have all found justification in science and rational thought. While scientists would argue that the knowledge they pursue is “value-free”, that doesn’t stop people with extreme values trying to co-opt scientific thought.

What story?

At a far more trivial level, we saw in the last lecture that the very subject which structuralists want to analyse disappears like mist dispelling before our eyes if we look at it too hard. Memento showed us that the diegesis is pure illusion. We begin the film, with Lenny, trying to piece together the puzzle of his revenge, and we assume that the story that we see, provided to us by the film camera, is reliable, and that at the very least, even if Lenny might be mistaken, we can still solve the puzzle. But the repetition of a scene in which we see, first, Lenny inject his wife’s leg with insulin, and then secondly, Lenny pinch his wife’s leg between his finger and thumbs, tell us that nothing we have seen is reliable. The entire ‘coherent diegesis’ of the storyworld we have seen may be nothing but hallucination. There is no ‘story’ independent of plot, available for structuralists to study.

Here’s another way of thinking about it. As viewers, we look for the ‘foundational’ diegesis. At first we think that maybe Lenny is a justified avenging killer. Then we suspect he may have been ‘played’ by somebody trying to persuade him to kill Teddy. Then we think that maybe he’s been fooling himself in order to give his own life meaning. Then we wonder if his wife really is dead and perhaps she survived? Then we wonder if Sammy Jankis really exists, and perhaps Lenny is actually Sammy Jankis? Then we wonder if, actually, maybe the whole film was a hallucination in an institutionalised man’s head.

This entire sequence of wonderings is a search for the foundational diegesis or ‘underlying’ truth. But even given the usual caveats that the film is supposed to be fiction, the storyworld presented by the film (a solitary hallucination) cannot possibly have any ‘foundational diegesis’ at all, since it can only be a contradiction (there was no hallucination for us to see in order to realise that it was all hallucination). There is no story!

There is no ‘story’ without ‘plot’.
Story is a function of plot.
Story is the product of plot.
We start with plot and we make story.
There is no ‘diegesis’ without ‘framing’.
Diegesis is a function of framing.
Diegesis is the product of framing.
We start with framing and we make ‘diegesis’.

To understand this problem more clearly we’ll try to use the idea of mimesis as a way to think about the storyworlds we experience. Mimesis is a key idea when considering what ‘story’ might do. In order for us to believe that a storyworld is possible, it must be believable – and mimesis capture this idea of believability.

Before we get to mimesis, though, we take a detour through this week’s screening, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A metaphor for what?

A mysterious monolith enters the diegesis at various times in Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its first appearance occurs during the sequence called ‘The Dawn of Man’, in which we see ape-like creatures, whom we take to be the ancestor of homo sapiens, discovering this unfamiliar object. Immediately thereafter, we see one of the proto-human apes sitting and looking at a piles of bones. We see the outline of the monolith, and return to the ape, who continues to look at the bones, as the non-diegetic soundtrack of Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra plays, until eventually the ape grasps what looks like a femur and starts smashing the other bones with it like a hammer. Kubrick intercuts shots of a boar falling to the ground as the ape smashes the white bones and skull on the ground before him. Shortly afterwards, we see the first murder committed, as the apes who have learned to use bones as tools compete for the water resources with other apes. In a triumphant gesture, the victorious ape hurls his bone weapon into the air. As it falls back to earth, Kubrick makes one of the most famous cuts in film: from an image of the bone in mid air to a spacecraft drifting through space.


Of course, I would not wish to suggest that the interpretation I offer here is the only one, the best, or the right one. The only thing I will say about the interpretation I offer here is that it helps to illustrate some of our ideas in these lectures, and might help us to grasp some of the concepts.

The monolith is rather abstract in form. It seems entirely unnatural given its formal properties – rectangular, composed of sharp right angled corners, standing on its end as if painstakingly placed, indeed, as though it were man-made and carefully constructed. Given that the diegesis of the film tells us that we are observing the dawn of man, then clearly the monolith cannot be a man-made object. Alien then? Perhaps the monolith is an alien artefact, and Kubrick simply wants to tease us by not showing us the the aliens who placed it there as the apes slept. But in these sorts of assessments we are trying to assume that Kubrick’s story is figurative – that what we see on screen is supposed to be an accurate representation of some kind of coherent diegesis, when we might more profitably understand Kubrick’s story non-figuratively, abstractly – the very abstract nature of the monolith perhaps hints that it should be interpreted conceptually rather than naturalistically.

We might also read the monolith’s presence at the dawn of the apes’ use of a bone as a hammer and a weapon as being a causal factor. The figure of the monolith represents in this reading the evolutionary leap that has just occurred – from an ape which is prey to big cats and other apes, to an ape which has tools (and we should remind ourselves that, etymologically, the word ‘technology’ simply refers to the human acquisition of tools and crafts). The monolith is present at the dawn of man – when man ceases to be an animal, and becomes a reasoning, rational, thinking being. The ape’s intent staring down at the bones as he sits on the ground suggests precisely that these are the first moments in which what we could recognise as human thought occurs. The newly acquired ability to think leads directly to the killing of another ape, and then, in the cut from the bone-tool to the space-craft tool, perhaps we can read the utter inevitability of the technological future.

So if we grant that Kubrick is being free with the mixing of diegetic and non-diegetic material (the monolith is just as metaphorical and non-diegetic as the Strauss soundtrack), and we see the presence of the monolith as being causally related to the evolutionary development of rationality in man, then it seems reasonable to suggest that the monolith itself represents man’s newly acquired attribute: ration – the ability to engage in abstract reasoning, illustrated figuratively and metaphorically by the abstract form of the monolith. The advent of rationality in man leads immediately to murder (and by extension, war) and in the longer term, the inevitable and unavoidable technological extension of man into space. The dawn of ration in man sets in chain a sequence of events which inexorably propels mankind forward into his destiny.

Of course none of these interpretations necessarily discount other suggestions as to the meanings intended by the monolith – such as that it represents the cinema (having similar dimensions as a cinema screen turned on its side). Rather I just want to hold onto some thoughts about the problematic nature of looking for an internally coherent diegesis, and the notion of the apparent inevitability, the deterministic, technological inexorability of human ration. Meanwhile we return to our exploration of mimesis.


Let us consider notions of believability and mimesis. Traditionally, mimesis is what grants a story the ability to be believed – the audience agrees to suspend its disbelief in return for a few promises from the story:

It is by adhering to these criteria that stories become susceptible to a rigorous structural analysis. Since structuralism assumes the fundamental explicability of narrative, so narratives must be coherent, rationalisable and explicable. Such assumptions can be said to flow naturally from an Aristotelian approach to describing narrative.

Aristotelian narrative

While much of the analysis of narrative (or narratology or narrative theory) that we encounter casts itself as a way of understanding the phenomenon of story-telling, there was a time when thinkers saw themselves as advising and prescribing the remit and practices of story-tellers, rather than simply analysing their products. Aristotle’s work makes sense if you consider that this ancient Greek philosopher saw his work as much more didactic than simply critical. Hence his writings on drama often read like rules for creating good drama, rather than just describing what dramatists produce.

Some of his key ideas include:

A key point Aristotle makes is that if the drama is not a complete unified whole, the work will be disjointed or ‘disturbed’.

Mimesis and diegesis

Clearly the Aristotelian view of the necessary unitary nature of diegesis relies on mimesis. So trying to think about a film like Memento in terms of mimesis may be illuminating.

Memento is an interesting case since on first viewing it is initially somewhat confusing – the opening scene disobeys the laws of gravity (it runs the recorded film in reverse), and the subsequent scenes undermine our generic expectations by overlapping and repeating, until we realise that the scenes are unfolding in reverse order, and the repetitions act as a formal part of the grammar of this particular narrative, signalling how we should be decoding its formal system.

Once we have worked out how the syntax of the film works, the story then becomes somewhat more transparent as we are able to piece together the narrative, and engage with the puzzles of the film. Once we’ve become familiar with the storyworld, though, confusion strikes again, since, as we’ve already seen, the diegesis disintegrates.

One way of thinking of these changes in the penetrability of the story of Memento could be to think in terms of mimesis: the mechanisms of the story are non-mimetic, anti-mimetic, non-imitative … whatever the opposite of mimesis is (and take a moment to think about what the opposite of mimesis might mean – is it ‘fantastic’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘non-sensical’, ‘illogical’, ‘unnatural’, or in the Aristotelian sense, ‘disturbing and distracting’?). Since we’ve already established that Memento‘s diegesis is unstable and logically incoherent, where does that leave us? Well, it tells us that at least in the case of Memento, focussing on the content of the diegesis in order to ‘comprehend’ the nature or meaning of narrative is counterproductive. The diegesis is an illusionary property of the act of story-telling – the plot.

Here we see an extremely good reason, then, to move our examination away from story and onto plot – the framing devices used to conjure and encircle the diegesis. This is exactly what formalism is all about.


We’ve already encountered formalism in the shape (form?) of Vladimir Propp, who analysed folk tales and distilled them into their discrete essential and interchangeable components (or functions). Indeed, Propp, along with other influential thinkers like Saussure, are considered to be the ‘fore-fathers’ of structuralism, since the analytical approach to understanding story which structuralism adopts has inherited some of the methods of the formalists.

While formalism and structuralism sound as though they ought to be similar things (what is the difference between form and structure?), they are in fact focussed on different things. Historically, it is true that structuralist approaches to culture (language, story, the subconscious) followed from, grew out of, and owes a large debt to formalism which is precedes structuralism. The key difference (and remember that I’m simplifying and generalising here in order to make a point) is that formalism is interested in the mechanisms of representation (plot, sjuzet, framing, story-telling, practices and techniques) and how the content of representation (story, fabula, diegesis) is conjured, rather than the content of representation itself, and what the internal structure of that content tells us about universal truths.

narrative as formal system


In practice, of course, structuralists can very easily incorporate formalist ideas into their rationalised schematic analysis of stories, and formalists are often also concerned about the content of stories, which is precisely why they are keen to understand how those stories are told. The point for our purposes is simply to understand the different ways that these schools of thought have approached the understanding of story and narrative.

The tale and the telling

Let us remind ourselves of the distinction between what a diegesis ‘contains’ and how it is framed, through an example: in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a space hostess traverses a circular, cylindrical corridor in a space craft carrying a tray. She approaches the foreground as we view her, collects an extra tray from a dispenser, turns around and returns to the corridor entrance. Before she leaves the corridor by way of the entrance through which she entered, she turns to the side and starts to walk up the side of the corridor’s circular wall. The camera remains static throughout this sequence, such that the hostess eventually ends up upside-down as we view her.

In the next shot, we see the hostess reappear from the other side of the doorway. Just as we left her, she is upside-down as she enters the cabin to bring the contents of the trays to the pilots. As she enters, though, the camera itself spins around and ‘corrects’ itself so that the hostess appears to be standing upright on the floor, rather than walking upside-down on the ceiling.


We infer from this sequence of course that gravity in the space-craft is mutable enough that such bizarre contortions of space and shape can be connected together to form a liveable and apparently normal transport service. So far so good. What happens though is that our attention is drawn away from the diegesis to the presence of the camera. The divergence of the ‘gravity’ of the diegesis and the ‘gravity’ of the camera is the device through which Kubrick ‘tells’ us of the nature of the storyworld.

For just a moment the illusion is broken; the mimesis falls away; the diegesis is punctured. We are pushed away, distanced, estranged: alienated.

Formalism and anti-mimesis?

If, as we’ve seen from Aristotelian approaches to narrative, the believability and purpose of a story is best served through mimesis, then deliberately paying attention to the form (as formalist critics do) or experimenting with formal systems (as formalist artists do), must undermine mimesis, and believability. Why would we want to be suddenly pushed out of the storyworld? Let’s look at some examples from 20th century art history.


Apollinaire said of cubism that “what distinguishes it from the former way of painting is that it is not an imitative but a conceptual art which aspires to raise itself to the level of creation”. What can he mean?

According to art C20 DVD (Hazan, 2005), cubism is a part of “the unending process of research by painters into space, perspective and the expression of volume on the two-dimensional picture surface”. In the act of pictorial representation, the three-dimensional world, moving inexorably through time, is fore-shortened and flattened into a snapshot in two dimensions. The cubist might argue that mimetic approaches to art which aim for ‘realistic’ or ‘naturalistic’ depictions of an external reality are actually attempts to disguise the manufactured nature and the actual process of artistic work – to encourage the suspension of disbelief, to make the spectator forget the artifice in the art. Such disguises and sleights of hand are literally and morally speaking – illusions.

Picasso - Trois Femmes
Pablo Picasso, Trois Femmes, 1908


However, were a painter to attempt to capture something of the lost dimensions what might that painter depict? Multiple perspectives, and captured severally over different moments in time, forced together onto the same canvas? What jumble and confusion might arise? We would look at such depictions and wonder what they might mean, wonder what kind of creature could really look like that, perhaps even wonder what sort of lunatic might see and paint in such a way. Spectators entrenched in traditions, with interests in the status quo, and reputations built on the mainstream, might recoil and decry such works, proving themselves to be reactionary and conservative. More forward-looking progressives might think more about what such work might mean: their attention drawn to the form of the work, they question the nature of the work and the whole enterprise itself. Aren’t such people dangerous? The young thousands rising unremittingly from the fountain of youth with diamonds in their mouth, ready to throw over the old order?


The futurist art movement which emerged mostly in Italy in the early 20th century was self-consciously forward-looking and overtly denounced tradition, prefering instead to celebrate modernity and the triumph of technology. According to art C20 DVD (Hazan, 2005), futurism reflected a “rejection of the past and the advent of a new aesthetic that suited the world of speed, machines and the modern city.” The anti-mimesis and formal experiments of the futurists was a conscious effort to capture modernity, with its speed and movement.

Fortunato Depero - Fulmine Compositure
Fortunato Depero, Fulmine compositore, 1926


Once again, the avant-garde can be seen as politically oriented, but in the case of futurism the optimism and verve that came with embracing modernity, mechanisation and technology also had a nationalistic edge verging on supremacism. Some might say it was playing into the hands of fascist tendencies which became prominent in the ultimate clash of ideologies – the two world wars.


The surrealist trick was to experiment not so much with the signs of craft (as did cubism and futurism) but to push the suspension of disbelief in the opposite direction – rather than puncture illusion and estrange the spectator through drawing the attention to the artifice and mechanics of the work, they instead pushed realism to breaking point – to become, literally, more than real. Impossible and phantasmagoric dimensions not of space or time, but of imagination and hallucination, were depicted with the utmost verisimilitude – pseudo-photographs of the subconscious. This technique was designed “to liberate the mind by emphasising the unconscious mind and the attainment of a state different from, “more than”, and ultimately truer than everyday reality: the ‘sur/uber/super-real’.

Rene Magritte - Le Double Secret
Rene Magritte , The Double Secret, c1927


Ironically, given the surrealists’ revolutionist manifesto, their work is one of the avant-garde schools which has been most easily embraced by the mainstream, resulting in countless Dali prints adorning the walls of student accommodation, and Dali himself ending up as a pale caricature of the revolutionary vision which surrealism first embarked upon. Surrealism is quite normal, now – another indication of the way in which the mainstream of popular culture is as happy eating any challenges to it as capitalism is happy to co-opt any counter-cultural activist movement it encounters… embrace and extend, indeed.


The idea of defamiliarisation, dehabitualisation, distantiation, ostranenie, estrangement and alienation – of seeing the world anew – can be traced back to Russian formalists such as Victor Shklovsky who wanted to ‘defamiliarise’ the products and techniques of art and culture. We could see Propp’s analysis of the folk tale as a way of making folk tales look unfamiliar: laying bare the device, because the device is ideological. The subject of ideology is explored in this online lecture.

Bertholt Brecht (1898 – 1956) was a profoundly influential German poet and playwright and a Marxist through and through. We might even see his entire body of work as directed, relentlessly, at furthering his political ideals. He’s particularly known for his theories of estrangement.

The German word “Verfremdungseffekt” is better than any of the English translations for it, which all carry negative connotations which aren’t necessarily appropriate: alienation or estrangement . It literally means: the effect of making something seem foreign or strange. Brecht used it in his theatrical discipline in a very specific way: to break the illusion of the diegesis, or draw the audience’s attention to the fact that they were watching a fiction.

Brecht’s biographer, Esslin, describes Verfremdungeffekt thus:

"the audience must be discouraged from losing its critical detachment by identification with one or more of the characters: the opposite of identification is the maintenance of a separate existence by being kept apart, alien, strange" (Esslin, 1959, p115)

Brecht’s techniques to "make strange’ included informing the audience of the outcome or denouement at the start - thus shattering any chance of suspense; encouraging the actors not to act ‘naturalistically’; and structuring the play in an episodic fashion, rather than as one Aristotelian whole sweeping towards an inevitable climax:

"The construction of the plays [...], which rejects the logically built, well-made play, is free from the need of creating suspense, loosely knit, and episodic, instead of mounting to a dynamic climax, the story unfolds in a number of separate situations, each rounded and complete in itself." (Esslin, 1959, p118)

The normal, Aristotelian, emphasis normally placed on ideas of identification, catharsis, and mimesis, is repeatedly criticised by C20th Marxists like Brecht. Theodor Adorno was also critical of film for the same reasons: by immersing oneself in the illusion of fiction, and allowing oneself to be swept along in the diegesis of the story, one loses one’s critical faculty; one’s imagination is silenced; one is not able to question the actions and events that take place - they are inevitable. This is one of the key aspects of Brecht’s rebellion against the theatrical conventions that were traceable back to Aristotle: the rejection of inevitability.

Revolutionary Theatre

A key aspect of the kind of theatre that Aristotle described is the privileged position of the audience. Dramatic irony - when you know something a character in a narrative does not - depends on the audience’s ability to see all the action. The audience has the comfort of having a kind of omniscience – being informed of the disparate events that characters are not party to. Those events have causes and effects, which unfold as causes and effects do – and try as they might, the characters are unable to circumvent their fate: the outcome of the narrative is inevitable, inexorable – the way of the world or the will of the Gods.

So Brecht wanted his audience not to ‘immerse’ themselves in the diegesis of the story. Rather than avoiding ‘disturbance’ as Aristotle advised, Brecht wanted to encourage disturbance. He wanted his audience to retain their critical faculties, to retain their disbelief. This way, perhaps they might concentrate on why and how events unfolded before them, instead of blindly accepting them as the inevitable destinies of mankind. If destinies are not inevitable, then destinies can change; we need not look to the Gods or to fate to determine the future: we can act and make the future ourselves.

For a revolutionary socialist, these ideas are profoundly meaningful – Brecht, in short, wanted to make a kind of theatre that would foment revolution: by challenging preconceptions, complacency, ideology. More online lectures on Ideologies and Marxism, if you need them ….

Estrangement today

Of course, many of the techniques of estrangement end up being co-opted as normal dramatic techniques. The ‘breaking of the fourth wall’ in which characters address the audience directly are often used as another device in the story-tellers toolkit.


Tyler Durden looks straight at us, as the edges of the film quiver in and out of the scene behind him, and tells us we are the all-singing all-dancing crap of the world. Indeed, Fight Club is full of classic estranging techniques, such as drawing attention to the ‘cigarette burn’ spot, showing us Ed Norton’s inner penguin, superimposing the Ikea catalogue onto the dream apartment. Hell, Fight Club even tells us a story about how we could destroy the entire vampiric capitalist machine without having to kill a single innocent human being. Clearly, though, despite being confronted with the possibility of changing the world, neither Brecht’s playgoers, nor the Fight Club audiences walk out of theatres and cinemas ready to start a revolution.

Understanding the world or changing the world?

I hope that what is starting to emerge here is a contrast between the goals of different kinds of theory. Structuralist theory, I have argued, assumes that human beings, culture, the subconscious, language, etc, are fundamentally explicable, and adopting a rational and scientific approach offers the promise of providing those explanations. Formalist thought, meanwhile, is concerned less with trying to explain the world, but more with trying to render it inexplicable or surprising, to demonstrate its malleability and ultimately to persuade us that we can affect and change it. Instead of a rational, deterministic universe in which outcomes are causally connected and inevitable, we are offered a world of potential, openness and possibility.

In the lecture I suggested that, for me at least, Brecht was one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century. I find his political approach to his craft inspiring. But I also think his intellectual ideas have a much broader relevance.


If the politically committed artistic act of drawing attention to the artifice of representation might make us see the world anew, then perhaps one aspect of that process is puzzlement. When Brecht makes his audience think, when he pushes them out of the diegesis and forces them to wonder about the alternatives, he must puzzle them. “Why is this character breaking the fourth wall?” “What else might happen to avoid the inevitable tragedy of fate?” Why is the world the way it is?”

This act of ‘enpuzzlement’, the presenting of a puzzle*, is a nuance of narrative that provokes a host of new questions. Where does play fit into narrative?

‘Play’ will be the subject of the next lecture in this series.

Too Long Didn’t Read

Structuralists want to make the humanities into a science. Science deals quite well with material matters, but there are problems when it comes to imaginary things like minds, ideas and stories. Formalists want to understand the devices humans use to tell stories and communicate ideas about the world, and they often do this because they want to change the world. Aristotle prescribed techniques for story-telling that emphasise mimesis, verisimilitude and ‘suspension of disbelief’. Brecht prescribed techniques for story-telling that emphasise alienation, political action and suspension of the suspension of disbelief. Is being puzzled by a story a good thing or a bad thing? Tune in for the next installment to find out!!!!!

[Original] Comments

Thanks for sharing these.

great to see you here Paul :-)

What happens though when all is fragmented, alienating and estranging? When all characters are actors that also present their out of character traits? When all TV and film is preceded and followed by interviews and explanations about how it was made? When we expect non-linear stories? When it is the endless interruption of commercial messages and product placement that breaks the dramatic tension and draws attention to he constructed nature of the media? When facebook/Tiwtter/ebay/Google/wikipedia/Digg/Youtube/Myspace jumble the world into something hyper-real? Something with no plot? When there can’t be suspension of disbelief, because there is no belief.

Not surprising that students want lectures to be like Aristotelian narrative? Suddenly our problem becomes too little structure. We become paralyzed by the meaninglessness of change itself. We want to make sense, but can’t.

Thanks Joe, that must have taken f**king ages. Appreciated :)

Cheers Joe. I’m trying to get my thinking head screwed on again and this is the best place to do that :)

Mike, I think the construction of new meaning and narrative is facilitated through the open invitation of social media to participate in what we consume. By revealing the mechanics behind the constructed nature of media and allowing us to tinker, people are encouraged to cluster together around shared values or interests and form social bonds. It is these object-centered relationships that shelter individuals from estrangement and alienation. As an example I would add online gaming clans to Mike’s list, as I have experienced the sense of spontaneous communitas that can develop through this form of interaction and the combination of liminal/liminoid play. Within this space all characters are actors and all may freely present their OOC traits and experiment with alternate identities. I also think that it is a quest for narrative and identity that leads the drive to consumerism, as we seek to find meaning in our consumption.

Maybe, but are there consequences if ‘political’ engagement, rebellion, and consciousness raising are reduced to a guild in a game or a group on a social network? One way I read Joe’s lecture is a call for ‘meaningful’ media that transform by forcing the viewer/user into some sort of dissonance. But in a society that already contains too much fracture, the problem might be that this isn’t so easy, or even possible. The thing with Fight Club (the film not the book), is that we don’t leave questioning the pointlessness of our consumer society. We don’t leave wanting to be like Tyler Durden, we leave wanting to be like Brad Pitt. I could list other films. THe children’s film ‘Robots’, contains a strong message of sustainability – a ‘mend and make do’ approach to consumption. It mocks the strap line of a large corporation that asks ‘Why be you when you could be new’. But kids then leave wanting the latest Robot toys (as product placed carefully in the film).

Addendum: a brief bibliography at Biblipedia

Also see Michael Berube on the flaw in formalist thinking as outlined by Shklovsky:

“before you know it, you're asking about the social and cultural norms that art seeks to illuminate or violate, and presto, you're not a Formalist anymore.”

I guess my point of contention revolves around the concept of fracture and its negative undertones. The forms of communication and social interaction you listed, although fragmented, are networked, which could be viewed as increased (though less linear and static) structure. Real agency has on many occasions transitioned from the virtual world and (optimistically) perhaps in part as a consequence of the experimentation with OOC traits that these more ludic forms of media space provide. I accept your point however, as a warning that these spaces can so easily and perhaps inevitably become co-opted and commercialised. The transformative power of any media to inspire dissonance (and thereby gain meaning), is only ever going to be fleeting and limited. Your example of Fight Club illustrates this well and Tyler’s efforts to transcend the oppressive sterility of contemporary consumer life immediately reminded me of Cohen’s Escape Attempts ( you can buy Fight Club action figures too by the way). It also made me think of how quickly punk lost it’s potency. It’s hard to argue that something is not a pipe when you can buy it on Ebay.

Joe, after that teaser, I hope you’re going to share that lecture on play :)

I recognize the hope that the web provides for new ways of being and experiencing and new forms of community, but if that means Facebook….

Lecture archive

  • Media & The Body Readings
  • The Use of Theory
  • Play
  • Production - [Critical Media Concepts and Contexts]
  • Narratives: Endlessnesses and Existence
  • Narratives: Endings, Meaning and Morals
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Familiarity and Strangeness
  • Intro to Media and Participation 2008 - 2009
  • Narratives: Stories and Structures
  • Narratives: Opening and Introductions
  • The Writerly Text: Part 1
  • Media & Participation: Identity
  • Media & Participation: Truth
  • Media & Participation: Citizenship
  • Media & Participation: Culture
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 2: The History of Copyright
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 1: The Romantic Author
  • Bournemouth Soundseeing: collaborative authorship
  • Marx's Critique of Capital: 101
  • Key concepts: Ideologies ...a historical view
  • Narrative and Structuralism and the brothers Grimm
  • Intro to Digital Media at BU
  • Small Print

    Joe Flintham 2000 - 2015

    Long form: Menticulture

    Professional Services: Fathom Point