Monday, January 31, 2011

The Museum of You (4): Favourite Things

In a recent, slick television ad created by Colenso BBDO for State Insurance, people from different walks of life are seen carefully wrapping their most treasured possessions and putting them into boxes. A tiny box for a single toy truck; a regular box for a collection of porcelain figurines; a comically large box, for an entire house.

You can watch the 60-second ad here.

Love your stuff, says the slogan. And: ‘Your favourite things are worth protecting. Tell us yours at, and help us do things differently’.

Sharing intimate information with an insurer is not the thing one does the most freely of care, and with very good reason, but these days companies want you to talk to them, it’s become a customary part of the set up. Call us on this number; text us your choice; go on our website, and tell us what you think. Now I’m not sure when it was that the campaign was discontinued – the ads were showing as late as last week – but if you do bother to go to, this is what comes up:

Whatever information you or others might have communicated to State Insurance, it’s been securely locked away, and whether it has helped the company do things differently is not clear at this time. Here is the eponymous policy, if you wish to take a gander. 

So what are these favourite things? Few of the items shown in the ad are of likely monetary value: a couple of motor vehicles, a small art collection, plus the house itself. Mostly they are objects primarily if not solely imbued with social meaning: personal photographs, of course, as Louisa Jaggar had predicted in the book that inspired this occasional series, but more generally items handled and talked about with the kind of tender care that one reserves to that which is irreplaceable and therefore would be largely pointless to insure. The owner of the vintage bright red Fiat Cinquecento might get some money paid to her if the car was lost or stolen, but one feels that it wouldn’t be the point. And then there are the little toy truck, the much loved figurines, the items that require explanation in order to be understood: the point of all of these is precisely that they are uniquely meaningful to their people and cannot be adequately accounted for by their exchange value. The ad of course is a clever acknowledgment of this: if misfortune should befall you we’ll give you some money, but we’re ultimately powerless to replace those objects and what they signified. However we understand this and we care. Feel the love of the brand.

It’s emotional manipulation with a light touch, and frankly there’s a lot worse on the air, plenty of ads that are more insidious than this. Nor is our emotional attachment to objects being newly exploited here, every second advertiser does it in every second campaign. But the imagery is perhaps worthy of a second look.

First of all… where are these people going, that they need to make sure they have packed the house? I’m being too literal, no doubt, the packing is just there to signify how much we care, and how much State Insurance cares that we care. But how is this for literal?

A giant shoebox, right in the middle of Wellington’s Civic Square. You can peep inside it – it has holes, as if for letting the air in. The obvious association is with the works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, albeit in an utterly impoverished form: in spite of the appeal for the public’s input, there is no meaningful social dimension here, no way to make a mark. The shoebox sits there like an alien construction, as if abandoned by an absent-minded colossus. And that’s what makes the ad visually and conceptually intriguing, that incongruity of scale: we wrap things that are too small and things that are too large, things that do not belong in a shoebox. We displace them, we close them in. In order to protect them, we fundamentally alter their nature: you cannot live in a house that sits in a shoebox, nor drive a car inside of one.

This is all done for comic effect, but then so was Buster Keaton’s drowning life preserver, discussed last year by Evan Calder Williams in a brilliant post over at Socialism and/or Barbarism. The wrongness of objects in Keaton’s Steambot Bill, Jr., their refusal to behave as we expect of them – so perfectly captured by the life preserver that sinks like a stone towards the bottom of the river – was put on that occasion at the service of Calder Williams’ newly-minted hostile object theory, that is to say
a conviction that objects aren't just indifferent to us, aren't just coherent beyond our intentions, aren't just darkly resistant to correlating with the world as it is for us. Far worse for us, when we can glimpse even a shadow of how they are not for us, they reveal themselves, with a faceless sneer, as fundamentally hostile, uncertain, dangerous, and incommensurable with the purpose for which they were designed.

There is no such apparent malice in the relationship between the objects and their owners in the ‘Favourite Things’ ad, or if there is it goes the other way – it is the objects that get mistreated, put to the wrong use. Yet one should bear in mind that the primary function of these objects is to serve as mediators, carriers of memory: that’s the significance of the shoebox, which is also – not by coincidence – the key metaphor in José van Dijck’s seminal study on mediated memory. Photographs, documents, small keepsakes: those are all things that bind us affectively with our past, and help us give it coherence. They are the key exhibits in the museum of us, to a not insignificant extent they are us. But the comically oversized shoebox casts a peculiar shadow over this. Look, it says, there is no limit to your capacity to love stuff. You can save everything, keep everything, in the dark, in an attic, forever.


It is my modest conviction that the failure to truly question the simple, appealing narrative of the shoebox is one of the key problems of contemporary memory studies. Saying that memories are not created independently of culture, nor independently of mediation, but exist in a dialectic relationship with them is satisfyingly descriptive, but fails to answer for the anxiety, the tensions, the dysfunction, in short what we might call – warping the title of Daniel Miller’s anthropological study of Stuart Street, London – the discomfort of things.

There is ample scope, for those who should seek to remedy this failure, to establish a branch of hostile object theory dedicated to studying the contents of those mutant, abnormal shoeboxes – the photographs that obscure their subjects, the diaries that forget what’s written in them, the recordings that misconstrue their content, not to mention the proof artefacts that keep faithful record of things that never happened so dear to Philip K. Dick. These are the hostile objects that will betray our trust and make us reliant on false pasts, false histories, sometimes to the point of neurosis and death. They succeed in doing so precisely because we are naturally predisposed to trust in everyday things and in their capacity to carry concrete, objective meanings within coherent and authoritative narratives, as opposed to social meanings within competing and contestable ones.

There is another piece of advertising that caught my eye last week. This one:

It is, somewhat perplexingly, a road safety ad, urging us to get off the road if we’re too tired to drive, or else a giant hand will close on us and destroy us. Closer inspection reveals the demonic appendage to be made of a clutter of grey and indistinct household objects.

These are like the spectral double of State’s favourite things: unbranded, unloved and unlovable, they are the consumer objects that we are forever doomed to accumulate, working ourselves into life-threatening levels of exhaustion. They are malicious, Calder Williams would say, because they instantiate ‘the antagonism… that drives capital.’ They are therefore
built records of a labor that wishes it did not exist. That abhors the conditions that demand it and which, conversely, it demands as the guarantee of a continued recognition that this labor meant something.

That they mean something: it’s what we ask of our things, so as to give meaning to the labour we exchange in order to purchase them, and the work necessary to care for them. We may take some comfort in the notion that this affective and symbolic content is furnished by people and not inherent in the objects themselves, and opine that agency rests therefore solely with us. But in fact the meanings that we can attach to things, and the kind of memories that they can mediate, are culturally codified and predetermined to a very significant extent; and even that doesn’t account for the murky undertow of anxiety and fear – of death, of there being no future, therefore no sense in memory – that is always pulling down on our desire to find simple comfort in things.

The application of hostile object theory to the study of mediated memory would lead us into those depths, where subjectivity doesn’t coalesce according to orderly and normative patterns of behaviour but rather explodes into a fitful incoherence, eroding our faith in personal as well as collective histories. At the very least, this should help us realise that there is no safety in wrapping our favourite things and placing them in shoeboxes, for there’s no guarantee that when some day we go back and open the lid, those meanings – if not the objects themselves – would still be there for us to read.

Evan Calder Williams, 'The Drowning Life Preserver (Hostile Object Theory)'. Socialism and/or Barbarism, 16 June 2010.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Golden Days

I used to enjoy our national museum. It opened not long after my arrival in the country and I knew right away what all the fuss had been about. Having grown up in Italy and visited but a handful of European countries, I had simply never encountered a museum of cultural history. The concept was entirely new to me, and in those early days – when comparing New Zealand to the old country was something of an obsessive habit – I found myself wishing that we had institutions of that sort to better understand our art as well as our history.

Of course even back then you could see the flaws in it. The ambitious design of the museum’s main art exhibition, the Parade, where politically-charged artworks such as Colin McCahon's A Grain of Wheat were displayed side by side with pieces of Kiwiana or iconic consumer objects such as the Kelvinator Foodarama 7 refrigerator, was in equal part intriguing and manipulative, and I distinctly remember recoiling a little the first time I came across that particular centrepiece. But it was ambitious, and you could see the value in it, and its potential as a teaching tool and as a text that contained elements of its own critique. What made the design daring was in fact that the displays would so obviously require an enormous amount of intellectual energy to be sustained. Those curated paths, which were themselves art installations, would need to constantly change and find ways to somehow integrate the response of the public, in order to sharpen their capacity to generate helpful contexts as opposed to ultimately closed readings as in the case of the pairing of the McCahon with the Foodarama.

This is to say that while even a supporter might concede that Hamish Keith’s disparaging ‘theme park’ comparison was not completely out of place, Te Papa nonetheless offered the promise of a more open, more inclusive museum, and that was something to hold on to, and that made you look past some of the most glaring shortcomings, such as the truly embarrassing history room above the Treaty exhibit. Over time some of these spaces – including that particular room I just mentioned – have indeed been overhauled or refined, but others have simply disappeared, while others still have suffered from remaining exactly the same. Nothing to my mind exemplifies this last category more than the Golden Days exhibit.

Inside Golden Days, January 2011

For those of you who have never been to Te Papa, Golden Days is a 10-minute montage of various New Zealand historical events shown in a small theatre resembling a curiosity shop whose wares include several animatronics artefacts that ‘come to life’ contextually during the screening. It doesn’t get a lot more 'theme park' than that, and the sense of vague euphoria generated by the piece as it segues from national tragedies to random infants to sporting victories is straight out of a handbook on postmodernity for beginners. Yet back when Te Papa first opened, in 1998, Golden Days sort of worked. To the extent that it was balanced by other, more challenging exhibits, it fit in – only just – with the overall texture of the place, and played a role.

Thirteen years later, Golden Days has become strident, irredeemably awful. The original project that it was designed to complement has been abandoned: Te Papa has lost all of its original edge, and is no longer at the forefront of international museum practices – worse, it has gradually undone as much of that work as it could short of torching the place and starting from scratch. This culminated in the closure of the Parade followed by the opening on level 5 of the Toi Te Papa section, where art is once more the thing on the wall next to a plaque with the artist’s name on it, and no attempt is made to illuminate the circumstances of its production or its possible meanings, nor is any of it is ‘lent’ to the other exhibitions where it might perform such a function. Likewise the temporary and often truly challenging exhibitions by emerging Māori artists from the Iwi charged with custodianship of the museum have been discontinued and replaced by an informative but hardly demanding long-term exhibition on pounamu.

Yet Golden Days keeps on keeping on, resolutely unchanged, stubbornly popular with tourists, and in doing so has become a museum piece of itself: visually dated, inexplicably stuck in time – the absence of anything to do with The Lord of the Rings from the montage, however merciful, is going to puzzle many an international visitor – and finally embodying everything that is wrong with Te Papa, and that was wrong from the start: its populist as opposed to popular side, its crudest, almost propaganda-like efforts to reduce the social and historical complexities of the nation to a unified and unproblematic narrative of ingenuity, achievement and seamless biculturalism.

Carving on the entrance gate of the NZ Woolpacks and Textiles factory, Foxton

A little over one hundred kilometres north of Te Papa along State Highway One, straddling the boundary between the Horowhenua and the Manawatu districts, lies the town of Foxton. With a population of 2,700 souls (not counting the adjacent resort of Foxton Beach), it too seems stuck in time, or rather in multiple times, its several layers of early colonial and industrial pasts looming in murals or trompe-l'œil form outside its buildings and replaying themselves inside of an almost baffling number and variety of small specialist museums, including the National Museum of Audio Visual Arts & Sciences (or MAVTech), the Trolley Bus Museum, the local history museum (naturally) and my personal favourite, the Flax Stripping Museum. In the midst of all this, the town’s undisputed landmark: De Molen, a full-size working windmill built in the 17th Century Dutch style and inaugurated in 2003.

To find so many attractions in a town of this size – and that’s not even counting the erstwhile dolls museum and the Little Theatre on Main Street – almost smacks of tacky excess, but then you don’t have to explore Foxton very long before its plight becomes apparent. Behind the counter at the café in the main square, a 6x4 group photograph of Feltex workers (not dissimilar from the last image on this page) serves as a clue, as do the large empty smoke-blackened buildings of the NZ Woolpacks and Textiles complex on Duncan Street, and the For Lease/Sale sign on the more modern adjoining facilities on Robinson Street. Back in the main square, the panels of Foxton’s Fantastic Festival of Murals remind you that the town was originally a bustling river port. In one of these ‘temporary murals’ (the artworks exhibited at the festival are for sale), this past is conflated with the present by incorporating the windmill in the old cityscape, in a confoundingly plausible anachronism.

Elsewhere the outside of buildings is made transparent to reveal past lives within.

While the flank of a commercial property recalls the fire that destroyed the hotel that stood in its stead.

Inside the Flax Stripping Museum, you’ll find this relic:

Whilst another temporary mural blames the factory effluents upstream and the associated commercial interests for the ailing state of the Manawatu river by the time it loops towards the town.

I hope that this will suffice to make it apparent that the history made visible and variously glossed upon almost everywhere you turn in Foxton is a far more challenging text than the clockwork performance of nostalgia at the Golden Days exhibit. It too relies on fictions – of which the ersatz antiquity of the Dutch windmill is the most obvious – but they soon become lived realities, further dimensions in which to appreciate and evaluate the social project that is the transformation of Foxton from an industrial town into a historical playground. And it is a grand design: plans are afoot to establish a fully-fledged museum, Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom, dedicated to Dutch settlements in New Zealand and the Māori and Pākehā history of the town, and to restore the river loop to its former glory. These plans are on display at the local library and in the windows of a former carpet showroom on main street, along with an appeal to interested parties to share their skills and join a project team. In a town where most attractions are currently staffed by volunteers, the visitor gets the sense that the community will be deeply involved in how these stories get to be told – which incidentally reflects how some of the best exhibitions, notably the ones on immigrant groups, come together at Te Papa.

None of this is to say the living museum that is Foxton is uncomplicated, or wholly transparent, or immune from critique. Indeed the ease with which the old town overlays itself onto its slightly dejected post-industrial shadow is troubling, as it always is when the past can be read too readily into the present. A quick glance at the two-part historic walk up at Kete Horowhenua might confirm this, but then visiting the website will also highlight the deeply sympathetic philosophy that informs that work of memory that is undertaken at Foxton.

Kete Horowhenua is an initiative of the Horowhenua Library Trust that offers a very appealing model – based on the idea of the basket of knowledge, or kete – for researching and presenting local histories through the involvement of local individuals and groups. It’s like the Wikipedia of social history, if one may draw so bold a comparison, and like on Wikipedia the entries are open to editing, which allows for this history to remain contestable. So too walking around Foxton one doesn’t get a sense of pre-packaged, artificial nostalgia for unspecified and questionable golden days, but an echo of the tensions and the hardships, of the painful loss of jobs and livelihoods, of the resilience of those who made the difficult decision to stay and who continue to work so that the community can remain viable and carry forward its heavy past. There is a lot to be admired and a lot to learn from in that.

Detail from the mural dedicated to Rangimahora Reihana-Mete

There is a wealth of entries on Foxton at Kete Horowhenua, for instance on its murals or the history of the flax industry. A stroll through the postings tagged under Foxton Historical Society can also be instructive.

Oh, and naturally if you get the chance do visit Foxton.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The World Will Be Tron

The passage from postmodernism to virtuality involves a shift from copying to simulating the world, from the reproductive practices of photography and film, to post-reproductive or simulation technologies such as telepresence, advanced digital imaging, virtual reality and other immersive environments.

(Darren Tofts, ‘The World Will Be Tlön’)

Entonces desaparecerán del planeta el inglés y el francés y el mero español. El mundo será Tlön.

(Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’)

The grand design of Clu, the villain in Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy, is to take over the world at the head of an army of software constructs magicked into being by a laser printer, and then rid it, genocidally, of its imperfections. The apocalypse will be heralded by the message ‘New updates are available’, and what gets updated is us.

How long has cinema and popular culture more generally been recycling this idea? Yet at least the first incarnation of Tron came up with a striking and original aesthetic for it, and one that has the not insignificant merit of having dated quite well. I’m not just talking about the perennially cool light cycles, but also the sepia complexion of the characters on the grid, resembling actors in a silent movie, set against the far more well-defined and colourful, ultimately real-, concrete-looking uniforms and scenery. The object of imperfect simulation, inside a computer, is the human flesh.

And then, yes, there were the light cycles, and those memory discs that doubled as weapons, because the (il)logic in the digital world was one of gladiatorial entertainment, a cruel arcade game in which everyone gets only one life, and in which the prize was control of information necessary for the functioning of the post-Fordist society. In Tron: Legacy, the corporation has moved from selling games and running an unspecified informational infrastructure to exerting a de facto monopoly on the world’s operating systems, and the prize has become the control of its boardroom, a birthright that young Sam – the son of Tron’s hero Kevin Flynn – seems uninterested in assuming. In the meantime his old man, having disappeared from this side of the computer screen in mysterious circumstances, is stuck on the grid and locked in an extenuating positional war with the Codified Likeness Utility, or Clu, the programme he had designed a quarter of a century earlier to run the place.

Thus the premise of the sequel, but so tired is the script, so derivative most of its visuals, that the story becomes that of another remake, another recycling.

A remake, because Legacy doesn’t really bother to become another film: it is more interested in playing around with the cult iconicity of the original than doing something interesting with it and – the employment of Jeff Bridges’ zen master buddy notwithstanding – it never seriously entertains pretences of spiritual or philosophical depth (unlike, say, Avatar or The Matrix). So one is left to contemplate its ways of rememory: its poster is a replica of the Tron poster; its opening sequence morphs the lines on a microchip into an urban landscape, just like in Tron; the memory disc duels and the extended team light cycle battle get replayed more or less blow by blow; the long, slow journey towards the portal mimics a similar scene on the old grid. It’s one long and frankly at times barely sufferable cinematic déjà vu.

And then there is Kevin Flynn himself, who appears as a young man in the form of Clu thanks to the magic of digital performance capture whilst the finely aged Bridges gets to play the older version straight. Here, like in the case of the untalented Mr. Gollum, we get schooled again in the blindness of the filmmaker to the limits of a new technology: the (barely) animated Clu gets a whole rousing speech and extended close-ups as if he could measure up to real actors, whereas he’s exactly what it says on the box: a codified likeness, what a person may look like after extensive facial reconstruction surgery or a series of strokes, and then only so long as you choose to suspend disbelief and trust in the code. Yet while China Mieville's critique of CGI remains valid and current, we must concede that it has become genuinely difficult to tell some digital effects from their more traditional in-camera counterparts, and digital backdrops from concrete scenery. It is therefore possible for performance capture to lay some claim of genuine future viability, in which case Legacy could just be heralding a new era of remakes in which you actually get to use the original, since-aged or deceased actors. In a film in which nothing is original – the few new locations, Flynn’s hideout on the grid and Castor’s bar, are baffling pieces of Kubrickiana – this is just about the overt theme of Legacy, pace PKD: we can remake you.

This particular mode of recycling requires an almost casual meshing between the simulated and the actual, the virtual and the real, that reminds us of the extent in which these slippages have become ingrained, integral to entertainment and storytelling. In this respect the old Tron seems, yes, different and far more naïve. You couldn’t imagine a contemporary film sporting this laugh-out-loud intertitle,

nor one featuring the sequence of Flynn’s digitisation, line by excruciating line.

In Legacy, Sam gets blasted by the same laser beam but the effects are instantaneous. This neatly circumvents the need to represent the transformation, which also happens to be at the heart of the extropian immortalist project: how is the you inside the machine still you, if the digital copy doesn’t just replicate but in fact replace the analogue, flesh-and-blood original? In lieu of coming up with the requisite pseudo-science, Legacy speeds up the process to the extent that it cannot be visually apprehended if not as a conventional transition, much like a fade out.

In fact the greater speed of the action sequences is another and wholly predictable difference between the old and new Tron. Greater speed as we know in computing terms means more power, more bandwidth, that is to say a better experience. This is something that Pat Cadigan liked to play with in her Dore Konstantin novels – to have faster access to artificial reality meant for her characters having greater, richer access to it. 

Another thing happens in the transition from the ‘real world’ onto the grid: namely, the film goes 3D. This is just about the only interesting idea in Legacy: to have made the simulated world more real than the real, in at least one aspect – its visual depth. And for once the third dimension adds value to the mise-en-scene, thanks to some quite nifty direction and a smattering of suitably grandiose vistas. If nothing else, the grid seems vast, capable of fitting a specular world. This may be what we want to take away from Tron: Legacy: a couple of frames, the odd half-sequence, in that they do a passing job of representing that other world that so preoccupies us, cyberspace, and thus may be deserving of a place in the catalogue of our imaginings.

In his short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, first published in 1940 in the magazine Sur and then in 1941 in the collection above, Borges tells of a world imagined in so much detail that it comes to replace the real one. The creators of this world, first organised as a secret society in the sixteenth century, proceed in their design – not unlike Clu – under the guidance of the philosophical doctrine of idealism (Berkeley himself was a member), and let their mindchild intrude upon reality a little bit at a time, initially via the mischievous inclusion of an entry on the Tlönian country of Uqbar in a few copies of volume XLVI of The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia of 1917. These incursions culminate in 1937 with the delivery to one of the adepts of a complete set of The First Encylopaedia of Tlön, which coincides with the appearance in various world locations of objects that appear to come from Tlön as described in the encyclopaedia. Then come the objects with unlikely material properties, seemingly not of this world. And by the time the story draws to a close, the fiction is poised to take over.
Contact with Tlön, the habit of Tlön, has disintegrated this world. Spellbound by Tlön’s rigor, humanity has forgotten, and continues to forget, that it is the rigor of chess masters, not of angels. Already Tlön’s […] “primitive language” has filtered into our schools; already the teaching of Tlön’s harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has obliterated the history that governed my own childhood; already a fictitious past has supplanted in men’s memories that other past, of which we now know nothing with certainty–not even that it is false.

It may seem a little extravagant to get Borges out of bed to account for a film as pedestrian as Tron: Legacy, unless we were to read into it the symptoms of a growing inurement – and blindness – to simulations. That humans may be digitised, or software constructs made flesh, as in the case of the female protagonist at the end of Legacy, is a trope that no longer requires justification. But then so is hyperspace, right? Yet nobody believes in it. True. Except here the realities are beginning to nest – which, as Darren Tofts has observed in his masterly essay on Tlön, was the point of Borges' story: a calling into question of the boundary between fiction and reality, which is not just the overt subject of the story but also deployed in the way that it is told, by the first person Borges, leaving a trail of clues that could be traced to actual persons, places and publications, as in the act of manufacturing a myth (we would say a hoax). Writes Tofts:
As a synthetic reality, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" draws us, the readers of Borges the writer, the people outside-text, into its perplexing ontological orbits. That is, our experience of the world is affected by our involvement in the story. Like the inhabitants of Tlön, we find ourselves engaging with metaphysics as if it were a "branch of fantastic literature" […] Borges defiantly teases the readers' desire to believe in the reality of the discovered world, secure, as they are, in their assured, known world outside-text. He tests, in other words, the extent to which readers are prepared to forestall their exit strategy, to explore the outer limits of credulity to do with this previously unknown world.

The use of virtuality in film has presented us with a number of Borgesian knots in the last two decades. Recall for instance how in The Matrix the cityscape of Sydney, Australia, was used as the palimpsest for a digital set that stood in the diegesis for a real place but was later revealed to be a simulation – which, in a perplexing convergence of fantasy and reality, is exactly what it was. And what about Toy Story 3, what of those Thinkway replica toys, modelled with neurotic precision from Woody and his friends, some fifteen years after the fact, doing exactly what the toys do in the film, and more. Are they not real?

On the face of it, Legacy offers no such intricate puzzles. The replica light cycle paraded around at the launches doesn’t fool us: it is a fake. We know that Jeff Bridges has aged. There are no meaningful intrusions, no persistent blurring of the ontological distinctions. Except we forget that it all started with gaming: Tron was an actual arcade title, its release by Bally Midway set to coincide with that of the original film. It had its own sequels, the latest of which, Tron: Evolution, paved the way for Legacy. It was proof of ownership of a game that enabled Flynn to gain control of the corporation, Encom. And what is a game if not a world imagined in enough detail as to become real? When you can socialise, study, achieve status and work in a game environment, how can you say that it’s not real? And if you were still inclined to, could you tell with ease which parts of a game are not real, and which part are your life? Is there a threshold that you can step back through, signalling that you've abandoned the fantasy?

Tron: Legacy doesn’t cogently explore any of these dimensions, it just happens to be immersed in them, like in a soup. The franchise itself is shorthand for the conflation of gaming and cinematic narrative: it paved the way for all the crossovers and the reciprocal adaptations – films into games (was ET the worst of them all?), and games into films (Final Fantasy, surely, the lousiest). Several generations of the Tron games are remediated in the course of the film. And then there is the question of Flynn senior: what should we make of his twenty-year absence? Was he really digitised, or did he rather choose retire to live in the game, yet at the same time refusing to play it according to the rules (‘removing himself from the equation’, in zen fashion) precisely in order to defer closure, and seal off the exit strategy of the virtual?

Answering some of these question is as difficult as it is, ultimately, boring, but the dullness of Legacy may just remind us that virtuality is at its most insidious not when it is spectacular and seductive and filled with surprise and pleasures, but rather when it is repetitive and tedious, always remaking and recycling itself, near-indistinguishable from life and work. Contact with Tron, the habit of Tron, is poised to disintegrate this world.

Jorge Luis Borges. 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius'. Tr. Andrew Hurley. In Collected Fictions (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1998), pp. 68-81.Available online in a different (and uncredited) translation here, and in Spanish here.

Darren Tofts. 'The World Will Be Tlön: Mapping the Fantastic onto the Virtual'. In Postmodern Culture, Volume 13, Number 2, January 2003. Paywalled here.

For a study of Borges' story in relation to gaming, see chapter 7 of Gordon Calleja's doctoral thesis, Digital Games as Designed Experience: Reframing the Concept of Immersion (Victoria University of Wellington, 2007), available for download here.

Thanking Jake, as more or less customary.

Monday, January 10, 2011

More Than Able

Summer is my time for occasionally dipping into the collection of puzzle magazines. My father used to go through all of the main crosswords and the bridge and chess problems of La Settimana Enigmistica every week, mostly I believe while waiting for traffic lights to turn green. He never had a radio in his car, but did find ways to pass the time during the hours he spent in traffic every working day.

(Another popular pastime of his, which doubled as our version of 'I spy' during the holidays, was to spot car registration numbers that could be divided by nine, which you do by adding the digits together and seeing if the result is itself divisible by nine. This was spoilt over time by the gradual replacement of numbers with letters, although the new system gave way to the rather more challenging search for cars registered MI (for Milan) zero-D-one-zero, or MI0D10, that is to say ‘Oh My God’, of which – on account of the two further trailing digits – he knew that as many as 99 would be eventually matriculated throughout the province. He was very pleased to find one in the end.)

In the jargon of La Settimana Enigmistica, my father was a solutore più che abile, a 'more than able solver'. I am not nearly as assiduous or clever as he was, but I do have a precious boxful of those magazines, to which I subscribed for a year or so after leaving Italy thanks to a very kind friend who didn’t mind the trips to the post office. The vintage of those early and still largely unsolved issues is as old as my time in New Zealand, which would provide a sort of time-capsule experience of the trivia knowledge required to solve the puzzles back then, except I’ve since added to the collection the occasional magazine bought during subsequent visits and it’s hard to spot the difference. The model reader of La Settimana Enigmistica hasn’t in fact changed very much at all since I was a kid, and still appears to be as much into nineteenth century opera and early-to-mid-twentieth century cinema, theatre and popular music as ever. I don’t really have to keep up with the culture in order to be able to play.

So I dipped into the box earlier this week and chanced upon an unfinished Bertezzaghi Jr., by which I mean a crossword puzzle by Alessandro Bartezzaghi, son of the late Piero, who was a mainstay of page 41 of the magazine and made his way into the language itself (as in the expression, which frankly I had never heard but is documented by Wikipedia, ‘being as difficult as a Bartezzaghi’).

One thing I like about Italian crosswords – as compared to ones in English that I have seen – is that the words actually cross. You can tell from the picture above that my abandoned Bartezzaghi Jr. was just about to get interesting, as I had emerged from the top left corner into the classic central open space, all words a-crossing and few if any black squares. I had however gone as far as to venture that the ‘famous novel by Leonardo Sciascia’ beginning with IL would be Il giorno della civetta, and that would no doubt have helped a lot with the proceedings, had I persisted. Indeed, I make short work of it this year - voilà.

Much as it pleases me that ‘protest’ (37 below) ends in ‘upheaval’ (71 across), you wouldn’t bother to look for semantic connections between the words, just enjoy their contiguity, the near-miracle of their fitting together so densely. For pure aesthetic pleasure, I turn to the exquisite elegance of the ‘concentric frames’, where the words are not to be read across and below, but rather across and then clockwise within each frame (so for instance the last two letters of MOREAU at the end of the first line across become the first two letters of AUREOLA in the outer frame, while the first four letters of MARTEDI in the bottom line across become the first four of the word TRAMARE going the opposite way):

Occasionally, I’ll try my hand at the fiendish ‘forced crossings’, where you are given the definitions for across and below in no particular order, and are told how many black squares will need to be inserted (seventeen), with the mercy of a couple of black squares and a letter to get you started. Then you have to piece the whole thing together somehow.

My batting average with these puzzles is maybe one in two, if I'm lucky. In this instance the foreign Y supplied was the obvious fit for ‘the whale hunted by captain Ahab’ across and ‘The US state with Philadelphia’ below, so I muddle my way through.

Besides some even harder puzzles, La Settimana Enigmistica includes several elementary ones that are ideal for cutting one's teeth, and that's how I got to familiarise myself with the magazine before I could even read. There is the classic game where you have to join the numbered dots, and the one where you must spot the differences between two near-identical pictures. I've always liked the key at the back of the magazine for this one, consisting of details orphaned of the overall picture.

Then there's the shade-in picture puzzle that allows for very little guessing in advance.

Here's one from the issue I picked out of the box that appears to have been partly completed by my eldest son, also in his pre-literate years.

I apply the finishing touches, but still the picture remains somewhat hermetic.

Who is this wayfarer, and what is he up to? If I think really hard I can almost remember what it was like as a child to look at a picture like this not as a solution, as an adult most likely would, but rather as another problem. Rebuses too – of which La Settimana Enigmistica offers a delightfully illustrated bonanza (and that I already discussed here) – were just that for me for many years: cryptic vignettes to be interpreted, that is to say fantasised upon, outside of the rules of the game. I don't know what is going on here, but it wouldn't seem to have anything to do with the unique and no doubt correct solution that would satisfy an adult (namely, 'Paris gave the apple to Venus'):

Solution explained here

If you have conjured by now an image of yours truly as an impossibly nerdy child, consider that it wasn't always sunny outside, and that boredom still existed back then. I will however happily reinforce the perception that I may be the kind of grown-up for whom everything is an occasion to comment on new media, and wonder about the habits of mind that I might have formed on magazines like La Settimana Enigmistica, and how they might inform my reading and writing practices today. The perils of self-reporting notwithstanding, I don't find myself skimming essays and articles on the Net half as much as the likes of Nicholas Carr suggest that I must, but I wonder if it has something to do with having been conditioned from a young age to strive to exhaust the meaning potential of texts, ultimately futile an endeavour as that is. And perhaps what I'm trying to do with this blog, too, runs counter to the bias of the medium, which favours the readily accessible and the instantly enjoyable, or the encyclopaedic, but rarely the slow, the ruminative and the meandering – or at least so we are generally told.

I am in fact hardly alone in pushing back against those biases, as I've had occasion to note. I have also written about excessive focus on detail at the expense of the big picture as a native if marginal feature of electronic media, which would seem to contradict the above except insofar as I'm more interested in teasing out these aspects than making definitive statements about them. Time, detail, attention are elements that I intend to continue exploring in the coming months, for they are all crucial to how we apprehend and remember. But to illustrate the extent in which I may still think in puzzles, I'll admit to having written the Bruegel post linked to above half in the hope that somebody would 'solve' it by making the connection with Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup. Here's again the magnification of the 'corpse in the bushes' in the Landscape with the Fall of Icarus once attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, from the aforementioned post.

And here is the shooter in the bushes from Blowup,

as well as the corpse at the foot of the trees.

As Sarah Miles' character observes, 'it's like in one of Bill's paintings,' of which Bill himself had said this:
They don't mean anything when I do them. Just a mess. Afterwards, I find something to hang on to, like that leg. Then it sorts itself out and adds up. It's like finding a clue in a detective story.

When Blowup was released, a few months shy of forty-five years ago, the New York Times reviewer (paywalled here) spoke of its commentary on a frantic, 'jazzed-up, media-hooked-in world… cluttered with synthetic simulations', and perhaps Bruegel's contemporaries did too, for all I know, see in that densely symbolic imagery the manifestation of a society in flux, drained of its conventional signifiers, for these arguments have a remarkable tendency to recur. But the image that instead of revealing itself remains elusive, ambiguous, has arguably never ceased to unsettle us, and to pose difficult questions about the extent in which we ought to trust our perceptions, or the easy explanations, or the Real that shows itself on the surface of things, at first glance, purporting to be the key to the puzzle. And if it's true that images are the alphabet of memory – as Chris Marker might have said, but hasn't – then you can see how the idea of images in question is something I may want to return to from time to time.

However there is a post-scriptum to this, and it has to do with readers' commentary. I'm always deferring a conversation with a friend and colleague on the subject of what online comments in general and blog comments in particular are good for, amidst increasing calls for an overhaul of the whole thing since meaningful commenting is dead. That the news of this death appear not to have reached this space is likely due in equal parts to good fortune, some tending, the wonderful Megan and the fact that many of this blog’s early readers/writers hail from the Public Address community, where a positive culture of debate has been carefully established and remains strong. My occasional wish for narcissistic validation, or for the dutiful, school pupil-like discovery of the odd hidden reference, quite misses the point of all this, and I seldom have to wait long to be reminded of the fact. But then whenever a post is transformed by its commentary another issue crops up, and it is how to foreground those contributions, when the design and the conventions of blogging and feed readers either relegate them to a separate, ancillary space or ignore them altogether. While I continue to think of ways around this, and to more correctly frame authorship in this space, allow me to point you to the three poems by Megan, Keri and Marco that followed last year's final post, each illuminating the topic like I never could. Keri's wonderfully poignant lines about the 'uncanny undying which nourishes a wayward future hope' might be the epigrammatic solution of the post-as-puzzle, had I been clever enough to plant them in the text. They remain instead – like so many other comments, in poetry and prose – a reward for the more than able reader.