Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Net.control, climate politics and a defense of angels

Isn't it wonderful what goverments can do when they set their minds to it? The UK govenrment (Tory wing) are stumbling over their dif for net surveillance while the BRICK countries move once more to get the ITU to take over the running of the internet (ITU being a UN body is responsible to nation-states; but given the deregulation of telecoms is now also subject to the will of corporate members). For some details check New Scientist, the daring if clumsily named WCITleaks and internet governance consultants nxt who have published the restricted documents from the discussions. Avaaz have also started a petition, and there are more links from their site. So there is always the possibility of getting political movement when enough power is brokered through UN agencies. But what about issues where nation states don't want top change? The Doha meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change just broke up with almost nothing to show for istelf: a pitifully small fund, marked by foot-dragging in actual payments, for poor regions devastated by weather whose probabilities are reckoned to be increased through emissions from the welthy. And, er, that's about it. The Irish Times has a suitably downbeat account from one campaigner: “We lobby and campaign so hard to move things forward, but all we get are crumbs from the table.” Apparently more US citizens believe in the existence of angels than accept the reality of climate change. They may have something there. The internet may not be the engine of wisdom we once hoped it might be; but an internet censored by the Saudis will be an engine of stupidity. We might need some angels: our politicians are clearly failing at anythng useful, wise or good.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


The oil rush precipitated by the lowest levels of Arctic ice-fields on record: you might as well warm up the bathtub by slitting your wrists. Except it is our wrists that are bleeding to warm the jacuzzis of the mega-wealthy.

The Hour of the Great refusal

from a talk at the Digital Aesthetics 3 event held in Preston earlier in October 2012. The talk was an angry rant about waste in digtial media which gradually turned into a meditation on the intense, poetic essay that is John Akomfrah's film The Nine Muses.

Digital media, and perhaps especially digital visual media, are time-based arts. The shutter opens, light pours in, but from that moment on the CCD and CMOS chips organise light by sampling and sub-sampling, organising the emitted electrons in channels before applying the clock-function to drain them into store. Like the scanned display, the electronic image is already temporal; but unlike older tube cameras, the Red One and similar HD digital cameras operate like film in the first instance – the open shutter, the chemical reaction to the presence of photons – and like film has its moment of latency when the tiny electrochemical response is amplified. But then the new internal temporality of the frame distinguishes them: there is no complete image in electronic media.

This incompleteness is beautiful. It denies the wholeness of the unified commodity, embracing the unstable movements of demand. The ancestors inhabiting the machine crowd out wholeness. As In his recent book on What Cinema Is, Dudley Andrew approvingly cites Serge Daney: 'The Cahiers axiom is this: the cinema has a rapport with the real, and that the real is not what is represented. And that's final'. Unlike some film scholars, he does not distinguish on the basis of digitality, but on the ambition to capture realia that do not give themselves to vision, like the holocausts haunting Resnais' Night and Fog and Hiroshima Mon Amour. Electronic images are incomplete so that they can escape the universal: they must inhabit time.

. . .

The intimate ecology of everything which I call mediation had to be ripped apart to constitute communication. Communication at this first moment is the means by which domination and expropriation are secured. At the same time, communication makes explicit, precisely by separating, the interdependence of people, albeit to the exclusion of things and world (techne and physis). As automation expands from the factory organisation of humans and ancestors to the internet of things and the ubiquitous surveillance of natural processes, it begins to reopen the world closed by the universality of the commodity form and probabilistic management of populations. The vast statistical warehouse of indifferent data begins to yield to the specificity – irreducible and im-mense (immeasurable) – of the anecdote. The new crowd is no longer population as indifferent mass but peer-to-peer mutuality of singularities, particles aligned by the magnetism of their shared desires.

The Nine Muses never suggests that “the immigrant” is a viable category of knowledge or experience: each fragment opens onto another world, another story. The specificity of each is maintained, but without sacrificing what is common to them. To stand in a world that refuses, and yet which is home; to travel hopefully.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


The eudaemonist believes in happiness as a good, indeed the Good. The judicious eudaemonist Aristotle weighted various claims and decided that the life of the mind was the greatest happiness. We might like to say: beauty, love, the contemplation or cultivation of plants, animals and landscapes . . . Our happinesses are idiosyncratic, but everyone recognizes that some are more trustworthy or (not necessarily the same thing) longer lasting. Things we buy rarely make us happy in the same way dappled shade or embracing your beloved do.

Politics should be no less than the quest for happiness, for the conditions of happiness. The US Constitution backs down here: the right to the pursuit of happiness is not the same as happiness as the pre-eminent goal of the polis.

How are we to be happy? The question has two terms: who is this 'we'? And what is this common happiness (or should it be happinesses?)? I take from Adorno the principle that neither I nor we have the right to demand that anyone – not I, not we, not, certainly, they – should sacrifice happiness for some higher goal: there is no higher goal. We should suffer no unhappiness in ourselves or in others, no matter what pretense of greater or deferred good.

Happiness is not a right but a duty. Something we must strive for. Happiness as Agamben notes in his little essay on Magic (in Profanations) is never deserved or earned. It comes to us by luck or by magic, but it never comes if we – this still mysterious we – remove the condition of its possibility. One of the myriad ways we can do that is by destroying our environments, urban or natural, or for that matter cultural. A poisoned environment reduces the chances of happiness, and for that formal reason alone is to be fought against.

Happiness is not a personal goal. The persona is a mask, a performance for an audience – for mother, lover, child, boss, employee, student, teacher . . . Today we perform our multiple personae on blogs, microblogs, social media sites, SMS . . . each performing a facet and perhaps some kind of truth about our selves leaks out, but we know that in each instance we do not and cannot put out into the world everything we are, have been and can become. We are traversed by joys and fears that are not our own: a sporting win, a fiscal crisis. We are perpetually other than ourselves, and so cannot be selfish in looking for happiness.

Nor can we be happy in the presence of pain. Though we have inured ourselves to beggars, and learned to triumph at another's cost, the toy snatched form another child is always a poisoned chalice, and we scarcely know how to enjoy what we fail to share. If each of us is equipped with instinctual drives to survive, reproduce and shape the immediate environs to our comfort, we have learned that these ends are worst achieved alone: in this at least Hobbes was right. Our happiness is framed and formed in the need for the other, to make babies, prepare food, and build worlds, and as the necessary audience for our performances of self. Happiness is framed and formed again by our participation in the other's survival, reproduction, comfort and performance. The illimitable demand of the Other is not ethical, as Levinas stipulates, but political: the polis of the human that requires absolutely the happiness of others in order to find the happiness that is mine.

Our desires are not ours alone. Great tides of need sweep us up, sweep through our very veins and synapses. The same forces that make us individual make us social. Each of us is a nexus of the same needs and desires that forms and frames our fellows. This is that becoming-human which, severally and in unison, we embark upon with our first cries, and which maps out the task of the polis, of politics as conducting towards the Good Life, and the associations and movements we create in pursuit of it.

Alas. The institutional politics of actually existing polities are machines for defining exclusively the 'us' who deserve happiness. Since happiness cannot be deserved, this mode of polity – ours, based on wealth as privation (property as the right to deprive another of the enjoyment thereof) – therefore both destroys happiness and makes it impossible (because such polities pretend that happiness is possible only for an 'us' at the expense of a 'them'). Debt is the invention of a future absolutely dependent on the past. To that extent, our economic system is designed to kill the future as the open possibility of magic and therefore to kill the very possibility of happiness.

Happiness cannot exist in the abstract but only in the concrete, specific instance. We give only 'selves' to surveillance and to electoral politics: performances couched in clichés that lend themselves to management. Such selves and their efficient aggregations define human yearning, joy and suffering as norms and deviations. But we live in unique situations and events, not averages. Whenever the study of people takes on a scientific style (taxonomic psychologies, the pseudo-science of economics divorced from politics) it fails in its duty to happiness. The only truthful evidence is anecdotal, just as the only credible ethics is one that decides each act on its own conditions, not those of a rule.

Redefining the 'us' so that it includes non-humans redefines the human and the nonhuman, and happiness as what can only be achieved in common, in future, and in particular. We do not save a forest by starving its inhabitants; nor do we save the inhabitants by destroying the forest. Unlike freedom, which Mandela claimed to be indivisible but which is everywhere divided between the freedom of the rich and the debt-slavery of the poor, happiness is indivisible; but it is also (unlike freedom) multiple. As long as the happinesses of the forest and its inhabitants are mutually exclusive, we have failed.

This is where the real work begins

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Going for Goldsmiths

It is the First of August 2012 and the official start of my new post as professor of film and television in the School of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, where I'll be teaching on the MA in Film and Screen Studies, working on PhD admissions, and developing new and old research avenues with colleagues across the best centre for my kind of work in Europe, and one of the best in the world.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Landscape (etym. dub.)

Further Thoughts on the Moving Image Research Network seminar

Landscape: the land's kip. (1) kip, a place to lay your head; a doss house, but in earlier times without the negative connotations; poor man's hotel; the land where Piers Plowman stretches out to dream pestilence and revolt, belling the cat and the harrowing of Hell. (2) sleep, as in the sleep of the Giant Albion, or the Sleeping Lord, who with his knights drowses the centuries under many hills. The land sleeps, and we who walk it are its dream

Landscape: the land escapes (1) when we try to seize it with our maps, satellites, geographic information systems and Street Views, land is what evades our surveillance (2) land is the terrain of escape

Landscape: the land wandered by the scapegoat, the wilderness beyond the pale where sins go to be absolved

Landscape: the land's a cape: a stylish but always out-of-fashion garment we wrap around ourselves to keep our icy anti-migrant feelings warm

Friday, June 22, 2012

Moving Image Research Network

A great final seminar for the Moving Image Research Network established by Cate Elwes: Patrick Wright quizzed Englishness via Patrick Keillor's Robinson in Ruins (currently subject of a show, the Robinson Institute, at Tate Britain); Cate Elwes spoke on what, at the end of the day, Rachel Moore would describe as the embarrassment of landscape. I wonder if the problem might be expressed like this: that the embarrassment right-thinking liberals feel in the company of skinheads is that, by the logic of possession and rights which defines our polity, they do possess more rights. For other citizens, the citizenship claimed by indigenous people is excessive and therefore embarrassing. In the case of indigenous Australians, especially, the obvious truth that they have been mugged, violently robbed and abandoned by the wayside without land or standing, the embarrassment is tangible: we know we cannot "give it back", as the old Midnight Oil song has it, but we know we have it - immorally, and only legally because we wrote the laws.

Eu Jin Chua gave a great paper drawing on classical film theory and emphasising the centrifugal in Bazin and the endless in Kracauer to argue for a rethinking of WJT Mitchell's claim that landscape is unavoidably imperial. We discussed whether the antagonist of landscape film (La Region Centrale, for example, or Chris Welsby's work) isn't 'classical' landscape but, today, geographic information systems, satellite imaging and Google's Maps and Street View; so that the value of pictorial acounts is precisey that they are not (no longer) the dominant visual technology for dominating worlds (probably that function was the map anyway, in its various forms, especially since Cook's voyages). Susan Collins gave us a brilliant view of what happens when an artist takes on the technologies of pictiral landscape and turns them towards that endless centrifugal role Eu Jin described.

But the day belonged to John Akomfrah, who showed one short film and part of another - Call of the Mist and The Genome Chronicles, both distributed by LUX. As skilfully interviewed by Pratap Rughani, the extraordinary quicksilver mind there, the shift from personal grief to the politics of production to aesthetics to postcoloniality, with constant shards of oblique insight. In his films, like Collins' motion-stills, grain and grading and the fine separation of modernity into romance and hardware provoke wonderful imaginations of a world hung between the pre-Christian and the post-human. Beauty is not only a refusal of the present: it is a wound in the fabric of the world where the future's light can flash, however dimly, in. The whole series has been illuminating and enchanting, and makes you hopeful for the future of its firstborn, the MIRAJ journal

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Revolution Earth

We have epublished our novel Revolution Earth through Amazon. It's a kindle version: there are apps for reading Kindle for iTunes and Android etc; to read on Mac or PC, Amazon do free downloads of Kindle readers. The book is available for download from Amazon worldwide. For the traditionalists, we're hoping to to a print-on-demand version when we can For updates and news, check @lambertnagle on Twitter or visit http://lambertnagle.com/

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Photo Of Roland Barthes' Mother

Every visualisation is a predication, which presumes as anterior to it an object (or event) of which it is predicated. But it is only a predicate: the real of which it is predicated is produced as Real by the fact of its absence from its predication. It is not simply that representation somehow misses its goal, but that in representing we constitute the object of representation (the referent) as missing.

The famous image of his mother that Barthes adduces in his plea – much repeated – for the privileged indexicality of the image is pointedly excluded from his book. It is a classic case of the fetish; that which stands in for the impossible sight which itself is evidence of an absence of that whch one may be but not possess, or possess but not be. The union of image and Real which would constitute the object as true (as statement of the truth, as indexical union of symbol and Real) is the fantastic resolution of the absent body of mother, site of the primal absence on which not only the fetish but the impossible origin of originary separation constitute the “I” as subject of the object – the Real – for which it never ceases to hanker, and of which, in consequence, it makes, in consort with its symbolic media, its endless representations.

In the escape of the real, and even more so in the perpetual assertion of an I from which it has escaped but which nevertheless perpetually names it as its own lost Real, lies the origin of the split subject who needs what it cannot possess – its originary and imaginary unity – and who therefore creates fetishes that not only stand in for what has been lost but unify the proliferating symbols surrounding it.

The photograph, as a crystallised form of time past, is absolute in that it is time that has fulfilled itself. In so doing, it is no longer a temporal object but spatial, time become space at the moment it fulfils itself. A photograph is thus evidence of an ending and a completion. Such absolute completion is inimical to life in the sense that life is intrinsically temporal because it is unfulfilled. What Barthes' photo give him is an image of a life fulfilled, as it can never be for the living. Life is divided and unfulfilled: the image offers itself as whole and complete. What is whole and complete cannot do – it can only be (It is actual). If Barthes is right, and the photo of his mother exists as a whole and complete image, and is thus an index, then any other effect it has is supplemental. Yet Barthes affirms specifically what the image is for him (and underlines it by denying his readers the chance to see it, so cancelling any proliferation of readings). This 'for him' of the image is an action, an effect of a cause. But if the photo causes an effect, it no longer 'is' in its absolute fulfilment. The photograph of his mother desires to reach out to the son, with a desire that is only possible because it is unfulfilled, reaching across time to fulfil the lack in the son. In their mutual need, Barthes and the photo of his mother must exist together in a cycle of desire and lack; and Barthes clearly felt that circle needed to be exclusive: a monad constructed of mutual absence constructed as co-presence, and a co-presence that divides the unity of the image in the necessity of its presence to its uniquely privileged but equally bereaved and abandoned viewer. That which is unity cannot act on itself (this is why it was necessary to construct the Holy Trinity); and that which is whole and complete has no resources left to become other than it is (that is, to become a cause) nor any reason to seek a fulfilment it already possesses.

So we must recognise that the photo of Barthes' mother is incomplete. It must be so in order for it to function as it does for Barthes, as evidence that 'she was there'. It can serve as a fetish, as unitary image that disguises lack, because it is itself divided and lacking. Only thus can it have the effect of truth, the subjective effect caused by the photograph as agent. The truth of the image depends on its not being the whole truth.

In the Epistemological-Critical Introduction to the Origins of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin distinguishes origin from genesis. Origin, he insists, is historiographical: as Agamben notes, origin 'manifests itself only through a double structure of restoration and incompleteness' (Potentialities 156), only to be completed inits own history, its trajectory through time and the accounts given of it retrospectively. For Benjamin, the past is the object of redemption, but a redemption which must rip the elements – events, ives, deaths, things – out of the hands of heritage to allow them to stand again naked to Judgement. Origin is not that nakedness: it is the unredeemed ascription of existence to what is actually the effect of the very historicisation that constructs its particularity, peculiarity, even singularity. Every claim of origin, every cathexis we build with origins, is a fetish: an absolute symbolic unity cast over the radical incompleteness of every moment of life, human technical or physical, today, millennia ago, last week. 'Origin' constitutes the living, striving, desiring and dying past as fact: as the actual in which action is exhausted by completion, that needs nothing but its description to be resolved, absolved and effectively refused in its untidy becoming, turned instead into the datum, the Aeschylean horror of “What is, is”.

The absent image on which is built the theory of indexicality is absent because it is both holy and abject. It is a picture of his dead mother, birth, death, desire, prohibition, the tangle of emotional identifications and veilings of the maternal in any son, gay or straight. The image is an index and whole because it cannot be seen, and only on that condition, a condition which, by making the image invisible, ensures that bizarre twist: that in order to exist as evidence of his mother's existence, the index itself must not exist. It is not therefore that Barthes mother did not exist, nor that the photo didn't or doesn't, nor even the poetic absence of the image that intends to prove the indexicality of all images. It is instead that, as index, an image flickers constantly between its own non-existence and that of its referent. Either the image predicates the truth of the object it constitutes as object, or it confronts its own existence as constitutive predication. Since it cannot do both at once, it oscillates around the polarity of its own temporality, its performance of history as heritage, its refusal to be merely data. It is only on condition that we abandon the concept of image as truth that we can truly love an image.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Luxuries we have to afford

Given the failure of politics to secure the good life, we are convinced that we should take on such matters at the level of individual action: ethics, for example the ethical choices we make as shoppers. Alas, we then discover (or are told) that ethical choices are a luxury that the poor cannot afford. We return to the politics of TINA: there is no alternative to the market, or to electoral politics, except worse things, and so we must accept things as they are, and hope that the experts will provide us with technical solutions to the problems they generate, and the continual flow of new things that will ensure that essential feature of capital, growth.

There should be a major discussion on why the state is the patron of arts, science and sport, the three big recipients of cultural funding (I exclude technology form science: I refer here to the pure sciences like astronomy, which have little chance of repaying investment through patents). The terms of that debate will illuminate how migration, the movement of people, has been allowed to take the form of a cultural issue, excluded from the sacrosanct trans-border economic flows of money, goods and data. Migration is spoken of as an economic issue, from time to time: we cannot afford migrants, they are a luxury. But then even the economy is spoken of in economic terms, as if there were no other way to describe or analyse exchange, even though, once again, we recognise that economists are in the large, especially those in charge of governments and the instruments of the Washington Consensus, have failed us abjectly in recent years.

The Western Code (described by Walter Mignolo in The Darker Side of Modernity) can be thought of as software that, like a user's agent on a site like Amazon, exists, as Jaron Lanier once had it, to hide the user's profile from the user. We speak of human rights and mean only the rights of citizens. We speak of citizens' rights when we know that nazi Germany and James Callaghan's Labour government of the 1970s both rescinded citizenship, from German Jews and Ugandan Asians respectively, and that such denial of responsibility is indeed integral to the project of modernity, because whoever is not a citizen has no rights, except the rights we elect to give them under the terms of the CRSR, which are the rights of those that have no rights, that is, no rights at all.

"Culture", defined as that last remaining area over which states can still exercise some control, is not a luxury: it is the whole point of creating wealth. Like ethics and like the freedom to travel (which we grant so easily to objects and money), it is a luxury we must afford, because the pursuit of wealth for its own sake has created such poverty as to deny even what is necessary to an increasing proportion of the world – human, of course, but also that green and living planet which, if we are to believe economic imperialism, we also cannot afford.

More Noise

from a talk at the Lighting the Cave symposium, Central St Martins, may 2012

The noise of knowing, the chafing that wakes us up from contemplation of the pure and timeless entities of the Spirit: this is proof against two Platonic (and positivist and Heideggerian) principles – that it is an "I" that knows, and an exclusively human "I" at that (and from those humans the elect); and that the 'object' of knowledge can be, by the properly trained mind, known. That which we recognise as object is already misrecognised.

Against this the noise of doxa says: it is not I but we who know, a we which always precedes any I. And against the inherence of truth in the object rather than the relation, noise answers: there is no truth that is not already a collusion, and one that occupies and generates time. We can never confront, in a terminal moment, the ideal Being, because it and we are changed utterly in the encounter and will always change.

This is because knowledge is always mediated but also because knowing, the mediation of knower and known, is fundamentally environmental. As we construct ourselves and our order, we construct our environment, and the environment, far from passive, evolves in response. Knowledge is the co-evolution of polis and physis, mediated as ever by techne. Our long shadows lie across the landscape we have made, and its dappled shadows shape us in return. Skiagraphy, shadow-play, is our privileged medium and technique, not of discovery but of recovery, an ecology of shadows, the diffraction of rectilinear unity into its native, pulsing multiplicity.

Monday, April 16, 2012

sight and sound poll

one of the hardest things ever is choosing the best films ever made. Here's my desert island viewing.

Pyaasa - Guru Dutt

La Regle du Jeu -- Jean Renoir

Infernal Affairs -- Andrew Lau and Alan Mak

Closely Observed Trains - Jiri Menzel

The General -- Buster Keaton

Histoire(s) du cinéma - Jean-Luc Godard

Yellow Earth - Chen Kaige

Princess Mononoke -- Hayao Miyazaki

Mothlight -- Stan Brakhage

The Wild Bunch - Sam Peckinpah


So many others: Les Enfants du Paradis, Scorsese's The Departed, Makaveyev's Swtchboard Operator, Scott's Kingdom of Heaven . . . Cinema at its best has a fundamentally Romantic attitude, as in Goethe or Wordsworth: the effort to reconcile science, perception and the heart that makes it the defining medium of the modern.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Second Time as Farce

When Thatcher compared herself with Churchill and invaded the Malvinas, it was, as James Maxton said of Ramsey Macdonald, 'a bloody tragedy'. When William Hague compares his faltering party with Lady Finchley over a phantom fuel strike, it's a farce.

The crumbling Church of England already revealed that the vicar's trousers have fallen down. Now all we need is the au pair in the cupboard: at last a role for Sarkozy.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Rewind Italia Part One

From Laura Leuzzi, links to resources in the history of Italian Video Art

The opening convivium of this new research project is in Rome in April

You can watch some videotapes online:
Michele Sambin (artist who worked at Cavallino)'s films and videotapes at
Guido Sartorelli (artist who worked at Cavallino)'s videos at
some of Federica Marangoni (who worked at Ferrara with Lola Bonora)'s works

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Machine as other than Other

The following is a section form a talk I'm doing at the Digital Capital symposium at Johns Hopkins Tuesday-Wednesday 13-14 March 2012. Speakers include Wendy Hiu Kyong Chun, P{aul Goodrich and Paul Vanouze: worth tuning in to the live stream at https://connect.johnshopkins.edu/digitalcapital/

The paper begins and ends riffing on the previous post about the Kelly Gang

The ethical question, whether boring and stressful, repetitive work should be done at all, even by machines, then concerns how we conceptualise the labour condensed into the design of our technologies. The Western industrial tradition has lost its grasp on the dead, whose accumulated knowledge and skills is massed and condensed into our tools. Where traditional societies reverence and dialogue with the ancestors who gave them the techniques they use today, the techno-rationalist approach of capital, reverencing nothing but the pursuit of profit, crams the ancestors into the black boxes of our 'intelligent' machines. Technology is where the West keeps its ancestors, and the question then concerns how right it is to enslave the dead, even after they have passed on, in the service not of the living but of the mechanism of capital. The question is more than hypothetical, because it is a synecdoche of the idea of freedom: the possibility of an autonomous machinic phylum is today not only the pars pro toto of any larger autonomy but the Levinasian ground on which we might confront, in the autonomy of our technologies and therefore their claims upon us, the very possibility of our own freedom.

After all, as Marx is at pains to demonstrate, workers found themselves subjected to the technologies in which were concretised their own skills, and forced to work to the pace dictated by the factory, alienated and oppressed through the medium of the labours of the past congealed in the machines they served. Today, if we work not to the clock but the key-stroke, nonetheless, and perhaps to a greater degree than in the last century, our time is accounted for in relationships mediated through and accounted by machines in which the communicative skills of our ancestors have been encased. The embedding of the human past in technologies should make them our allies: instead we confront them as slaves, in the sweatshops of the global South, or as masters in the global software and finance industries which, it could be argued, are only the first to adopt the new servitude of artificial life and intelligence. A new question then emerges, which we can call the Levinas question: do our constructions (a) of the parameters of a-lifes, and (b) of the systems we use to visualise them and their functioning, act as screens in the sense of folding screens or room dividers, to hide rather than open onto an Other or other way of being? Do our relationships, as either servants or masters, to machines never open us up to the infinite demand of the Other that would come from a face-to-face encounter with the ancestral dead? Are we, in that case, ethically impoverished by our constriction of this Other as other-than-Other, as that which places no demand upon us?

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Story of the Kelly Gang

I dropped in to ACMI's Screen Worlds exhibit. Included there is footage from the 1906 Story of the Kelly Gang (clips available from Australian Screen), transferred to video, preserving the distorting effects where the nitrate stock has melted, burned or otherwise reacted chemically with its environment prior to its restoration.

The result is a video which constantly oscillates between faithful reproduction of a filmed drama and the broiling deformations of the decayed filmstrip. The resulting video is a viscously attractive palimpsest of natural and historical process, a suture of fiction and material over which, once instigated, neither chemist nor filmmaker have no control. The telecine transfer must have proceeded frame by frame, given the deformity and fragility of the original, and therefore stands as a remediation which has as purpose to reconstruct an imagined ideal, reconstructing frame rate, aspect ratio, contrast levels and steadiness of illumination, so preserving as much as possible of the original while at the same time demonstrating both the archivists' art and the necessity and urgency of practicing it on the Australian visual heritage. Yet it is a profound and beautiful visual experience in itself, one is none the worse because, for want of an identifiable author and therefore of an identifiable intent, we cannot be justified in calling it a work of art. It is exactly that boundary of justification that takes us to the boundary of the 'uncanny valley' in a-life where rationalist conceptions of the posthuman meet its actuality, that marks a-life as significant even though it is a-signifying, or even (as chora) pre-signifying, even when post-human. It is the fact that the distortions in the ACMI Ned Kelly do not 'signify', in the sense of constructing meaningful differences inside an agreed system for the production and syntagmatic-paradigmatic management of signs. But this fact is itself significant, in Bateson's sense of 'a difference that makes a difference', that creates information, that occurs not within a system but at that boundary where system breaks out of its structural stasis and embraces the dimension of time. This is a proto-cinematic artefact of the uncanny imbrication of intentional human design (the 19th century realist drama and photographic record of the original Kelly) and processes unleashed (chemical or code) which operate in the medium, as medium, beyond the borders of human intent. It is an artificial life form, one that has evolved on a set of initiating chemical conditions according to its own un-human logic, remodelling one code in form of another, or to borrow from Metz, from a language without a code to a code without a language. There are lessons here for our understanding of the analog media.