Saturday, 21 November 2009

Questions and Children - it's all in the way they're raised.

I went to see Michael Haneke’s film "The White Ribbon" last night.

The film paints a bleak and brutal portrait of an early 20th century German village and asks us to consider a number of savage acts and to speculate on the motives and identity of the perpetrator/s. At the end of the film we are presented with the shocking but compelling suggestion that the village's children are in fact responsible - as a direct consequence of their parents widely abusive and irresponsible treatment, which we have variously witnessed throughout the film.

Michael Haneke has been quoted as saying:

"Films that are entertainments give simple answers but I think that's ultimately more cynical, as it denies the viewer room to think. If there are more questions at the end, then surely it is a richer experience."

I certainly came away from seeing The White Ribbon asking myself one overriding question: whodunit? - and the more I thought about this, the more convinced I became that it was indeed the children. However, I think Haneke has missed a subtle point here, because there's a significant difference between questions which simply require a solution (and the more Occam's razor-like the answer, the more resolved - and therefore put to rest - the initial question) and questions which lead to considerations of complex and challenging issues eg: the corruption of innocence which is such a profound and haunting underlying theme of this excellent film.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

A Poetics of the Digital

What I would like to read is a poetics of the digital - a phenomenology of the electronic - reflections upon copper and silicon, aluminium and lithium - a treatise on the caress of digits and luminescent phosphors, rippling codes and fluctuating voltages. Something in the order of Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space.

The Mexican poet and writer Octavio Paz has written similarly about how objects gain meaning and significance through use and familiarity.

“The pitcher of water or wine in the middle of the table is a point of convergence, a little sun that invites everyone present. But my wife can transform into a flower vase that pitcher pouring forth our drink at the table. Personal sensibility and imagination divert the object from its ordinary function and create a break in its meaning: it is no longer a recipient to contain liquid but one in which to display a carnation. This diversion and brake link the object to another realm of sensibility: imagination.”

Later, when comparing this relationship with our use of technology Paz is scathing:

"Technology is international; its constructions, methods, and products are the same everywhere. By suppressing national and regional particularities, it impoverishes the world. By spreading all over the globe, technology has become the most powerful agent yet of historical entropy. The negative character of its action may be summed up in a phrase: it makes things uniform but does not unify. It levels the differences between cultures and national styles, but it does not do away with the rivalries and hatreds between peoples and states. After transforming rivals into identical twins, it arms both of them with the same weapons. The danger of technology does not lie solely in the death-dealing nature of many of its inventions, but in the fact that it threatens the very essence of the historical process.”

These are damning words indeed. And in the shadow of their and multiple other critical opinions it's very difficult to seriously consider a poetics of the digital when technology is universally either despised or wantonly and obsessively pursued. But surely someone is able to look into Medusa's eyes and capture a glimpse of something more nuanced and revealing than a petrifying enraging danger or menace? Surely a mirror can be held up that can reflect something other than a phobia or philia of this Gorgon we call the digital?

Which is the more terrifying, the Gorgon or the dazzling shield and sharpened sword which severs the monster's head? Digital technologies are in many ways a conflation of the two; the mirror which mediates fearsome imagery whilst being simultaneously fed by a slithering tangle of cables, each with a different head and its own potent but indecipherable venom.

In some versions of the Greek myth, Medusa's severed head is mounted upon the polished shield whereupon it continues to petrify all foes. This is a more telling vision of technology: an image of terror and captivating attraction, of wild nature harnessed and encapsulated in seamless, reflective, impermeable and understated alloy. It's an image that either fascinates or repels, but little in between. But if we are to truly understand digital technologies we need to step aside from these opposing positions. An entirely different approach is needed: one that brings together an understanding of materiality and myth, phenomenology and history into a scholarly but poetic dialogue which is as formidable and potent as the subject under discussion.