The Glare of Images, and the Question of Value
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There’s no turning back the cinematic clock. New directions in film production and film scholarship will doubtless expand and flourish rapidly in the years ahead, following new production and distribution mechanisms associated with our digital age and new critical and theoretical positions embracing those technologies across the diversity of the globe. From cellular narratives to ecocriticism, these directions will certainly energize film and media studies for years to come, and frequently provide exciting and challenging perspectives on film and media and how we understand them. Indeed, one of the most dramatic and significant changes in these practices and theories over the last decade has been the emergence of what has been deemed a “convergence culture.” A product of the digital revolution that has transformed film production, distribution, and exhibition since the 1990s, the new convergence cultures have reconfigured traditional relationships with the technological image, so that now the experience of films and other media events takes place as part of a continual, broad, and interactive “circulation” of information and material, a circulation that, for many, has leveled the fields of aesthetic, social, and historical value. In this new landscape defined by the Internet, iPhones, and other digital devices, hierarchies of value and worth have, if not fully disappeared, dissipated across presumably more democratic and more inter-active personal and societal engagments. Within this proliferation and celebration, there is, though, a major concern. For me at least, that concern is that films and their extended heritage into new media can and do sometimes seem to mean anything—and consequently perhaps nothing.
Without discounting the impact of this new age, it might be time to step back and reconsider the digital celebration. It may be time to ask how and where films, filmmakers, critics, and scholars might rediscover the contemporary terms of value within a cultural circulation that sometimes seem antithetical to such measures. Value systems have of course been a main current within film history since 1895: from production and cult values to moral and ideological values. Today, however, the very notion of film and media value needs to be dramatically renegotiated, and because of its historical purview and its ability to straddle old and new media culture, film criticism may be one the most incisive and flexible ways to analyze and access the expanding world of contemporary images.
Jonathan Crary has pointed out in somewhat extreme terms an unsettling state of affairs: “The most important recent changes concern not new machine forms of visualization,” he claims “but the ways in which there has been a disintegration of human abilities to see, especially of an ability to join visual discriminations with social and ethical valuations. With an infinite cafeteria of solicitation and attraction perpetually available, 24/7 [technology] disables vision through the processes of homogenization, redundancy, and acceleration. ...Glare here is not a phenomenon of literal brightness, but rather of the uninterrupted harshness of monotonous stimulation in which a larger range of responsive capacities are frozen neutralized.” Within this context, it seems time for film critics and scholars to rigorously discrimminate: to demonstrate how certain film practices and filmmakers work to reclaim a place for value within the dissipating circulations of contemporary information systems.
I’d therefore advocate a film and media criticism that begins with the question of what counts in the sea of what we see, how in the glare of contemporary media we might find and urge formal and ethical distinctions. I realize that this might sound a bit old fashioned or retrograde, but the tendency to celebrate re-appropriations and inventive engagements as important in and of themselves strikes me as borderline narcissism. As film scholars, critics, and historians, maybe we should review, rather than turn back, that historical clock to remind ourselves that through the excitment of twenty-first-century film and media we have an obligation, more so than ever perhaps, to decide what matters and why it matters. At another one of those key transition points in the history of film and media, in 1931, Ken Macpherson offered some advice that we might take seriously today: “Films need to be carped at. ...Need an awfully firm hand. Need snobbism. Need to be sneered at, that is to say, need standards of value.”
Timothy Corrigan is a Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Books include New German Film: The Displaced Image, Writing about Film, A Cinema without Walls: Movies and Culture after Vietnam, and The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker, winner of the 2012 Katherine Singer Kovács Award for the outstanding book in film and media studies. In 2014 he received the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Award for Outstanding Pedagogical Achievement and the Ira H. Abrams Memorial Award for Distinguished Teaching in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.