I had the most curious dream.

Now– before you start clicking away, this isn’t your usual recounting of some bemusingly vivid decoupage of pop culture and personal psychology that usually accompanies someone’s desire to tell you their dream.

It’s more about a certain tendency I’ve noticed within media studies. Something that started itching in the back of my brain when I was writing my thesis in 2008, and which emerged from my head fully formed a couple weeks ago during my MA exams.

In the dream I was browsing through a website that was participating in yesterday’s SOPA/PIPA blackout web protests. The website had left up most of its text articles but taken down most of its multimedia, such as embedded video, replacing them with a brief encyclopedic description of their function, development history, and appearance. Each format was given a Latin name with genus and species.

It was the perfect illustration of an argument I had made repeatedly in my MA exams, which is that we have a tendency to imagine all the various media -especially new media, but any time texts speak about media “in transition”- as on its way to becoming some particular thing, as if we know its destiny. On the contrary, history is full of examples of divergent yet coexisting media “species,” each adapted to the specific habitat in which it developed.

My favorite example of this are the benshi, the in-person narrators who would stand to the side of the projection screen of silent movie theaters in Japan. These benshi would narrate the events for the audience, crack jokes, assume character voices, and so on. The benshi developed a strong fan following in their own right as regional performers and are cited as a chief reason for the Japanese cinema industry’s reluctant, much-delayed embrace of sound technologies.

[The benshi] seem to have acquired a considerable say in the actual production of films. If the finished work seemed in some way unsuitable to their talents, they demanded cuts, the shooting of new scenes; they wanted existing scenes lengthened to allow for development of their discourse (e.g. touching farewells). Above all, they fought bitterly against the introduction of new narrative structures such as the flashback.

[...]

We may, in fact, consider the benshi‘s entire discourse as a reading of the diegesis which as thereby designated as such and which thereby ceased to function as diegesis and became what it had in fact never ceased to be, a field of signs. The most ‘transparently’ representational* film, whether Western or Japanese, could not be read as transparent by Japanese spectators, because it was already being read as such before them, and had irrevocably lost its pristine transparency.

(Noel Burch, To the Distant Observer, 1979.)

I like using the benshi for illustration because they offer a useful little window into an alternate world of film most have forgotten or never realized could have existed. Here was a branching species of the moving image that was developing to more resemble performance art, before being unceremoniously wiped out by sound technologies.**

Yet despite case studies like the benshi, and despite the fact that media scholars should really know better, there seems to be a persistent belief in academia that film was designed to be “read” in a specific fashion. But what became known as the Hollywood style -continuity cutting, eyeline matching, certain ways of composing the frame- did not come to dominate cinema because it “naturally” subsumed the ways we were already seeing things; it managed this because it was the most pervasively effective in re-training us to read the moving image how it wanted us to. Because Hollywood movies had the big budgets, the slick production standards, the beautiful clothes, the glowing starlets. Are we at all surprised that one national cinema after another imposed import quotas, some of which remained on the books for decades, so their domestic cinemas wouldn’t become completely overrun by that seductive Hollywood style?

So the Hollywood film became the global way of doing film. We can agree that, to extend our evolution analogy, it was a uniquely successful species able to dominate multiple environments. But that still, under no circumstances, means film was meant to turn out that way. Evolution does not have a plan. If the Hollywood style had not taken root, perhaps another effective style would have predominated instead. Or perhaps cinema would continue to diverge into smaller subspecies, flourishing in particular climates but practically unheard of outside their respective ecological niches.

Pressures of capitalist imperialism aside, there is no reason all these subspecies could not co-exist.

What galls me most is when this naive notion of media creationism makes its way into my corner of academic interests, interactive media. Without reproducing either the exam question or my 18-page essay of a response here, the final portion of my MA exam posed, essentially: “Story and interactivity are diametrically opposed. Discuss various attempts to fit this square peg and round hole together.”

To which I almost replied, “Screw you. I paid $100,000 for this?”

Because no, “story and gaming” (as the question put it) are not opposites, nor should they be erected as such for the purposes of education. How dangerously irresponsible of any academic institution to do so. I don’t care if you consider yourself a staunch proceduralist or a narratologist; I think we can all agree that the last thing videogames need is for Hollywood to decide what makes a story and how we can shove more of that into interactive media, which clearly all behave in the same way and can accommodate such a worldly deposit of the collected wisdom of a century of filmmaking, right?

How shortsighted and egotistical. As though print media, visual and performance art don’t have much longer histories and as much to offer, if not more. And how disgustingly superior one must be, to assume new media need develop along any prescribed path.

My point here with describing my exam is to illustrate how pervasive this sort of cultural imperialism really is, that rhetorics of “stories and gaming” really mean “how can Hollywood shove what it knows best into a new market?” In the question my department posed, “story” is not “story.” “Story” is the Campbellian hero’s journey monomyth dreck we think of when we hear “story.” And that is at best a very small fraction of what stories are and can be.

You should hate this guy and all screenwriting departments who teach him.

My dream was one in which the web’s diverging ecology of media formats and practices all were allowed to coexist in the absence of some presumptuous “higher power” imposing a lockdown. This is how technology wants to be, because technology is the child of the human mind and humans are endlessly innovative. There is never only one of anything, nor are any two the same, and to assume that there should be is pretty frightening and dangerous.

The best article I read during the blackout was John Walker’s “Why People Are Still Failing to Accept the True Horror of SOPA/PIPA”. In it, he criticizes Stephen Totilo -who is generally a very forward-thinking guy- for not only refusing to darken Kotaku during the protest but to write an editorial suggesting we’re all worrying our silly little heads for nothing. On the contrary, Walker reminds us that this is a very familiar tactic of old media, and it’s one they’re keen to keep playing right up until the Sun dies or capitalism implodes.

Convergence (the idea that all technology and media will eventually flow through a single channel) is a mythological revision of history, a fantasy propagated by the richest assholes in the world who want to control everything they can and, if possible, more than even that. This is not the hysterical whine of the academic leftist in a smog-stained ivory tower. This is what we’re dealing with. No media executive is ever going to say “Eh… that’s enough.” They’d stamp brands into our skin cells if they could get away with it.

(Wait, wasn’t that the premise of Metal Gear Solid 4?)

Look, I love the Internet. Every grubby inch of it, even if I gripe about it constantly. Just a few years ago when I was in high school I tended to think of it as the new Wild West. Well, now we’re living in a West that’s in the process of being settled, and the new management is quite keen to run all the current residents out. There go the wood bison. There goes the California condor. There go the Sioux. How long before the American capitalist empire’s manifest destiny to cover the Web from server to shining server wipes out any actual ingenuity we have left? Because that’s what’s at stake here. SOPA/PIPA aren’t the real problem. The real problem is that even if we kill these two bills, there will be a thousand more just like it tomorrow.

In my dream I understood that the multimedia were only temporarily gone and would all be back up the next day. But what if they weren’t? What if it was a taxonomy of a hundred formats all wiped out in a sudden mass extinction? What will it say under the headings for Encyclopedia wikipedia or Videoshare youtube for the reasons for their abrupt and tragic disappearance from the archeological record? Did a comet hit them? Or was it just the dying American empire, which was on its way out itself?

Excuse me while I quote Walker at length:

[Media corporations] are so desperate for control in a world that is increasingly recognising their irrelevance that they are attempting to shut down and dominate everything they can. To believe that the RIAA, BPI, etc would not charge you for humming as you drive if they could is to idiotically misunderstand the sheer bat-shit lunatic desperation we’re dealing with here. Yes, ha ha, what a silly notion. But to think it any more silly than their attempts to sue the creators of the first mp3 players, or huge efforts to ban the home VCR, is to woefully miss the point. These are the same people who bullied the world into accepting ridiculous crippling region codes on DVDs, and are able to force manufacturers to not allow customers to skip their nonsensical threatening messages at the beginning of every legally purchased film. They are the people asking us to spy on our fellow cinema goers, and turn them in if we see them filming. They are the reason your HDMI cable is capable of stopping you from watching content they decide they don’t want shown.

We’re dealing with archaic industries that were built around the impossibility of that which is now possible. Their time is up, and they know it. But they are so massive, so enormously powerful, that they are going to do everything imaginable to defend their fortunes. And that’s why we have SOPA and PIPA. They know it won’t beat piracy, because it’s immediately obvious to anyone with half a clue that it cannot. But it will give them power over the internet, that all history shows they will abuse to the most ludicrous degree.

This right here is 100% rock-solid truth and anyone who writes it off as improbable doesn’t know their history.


*Burch is here using theatrical terminology for stagey (“presentational”) and realistic (“representational”) conventions of production and performance. His argument is that the Hollywood style of replicating reality is opposed to the more deliberately abstract and stylized approach of Japanese performance art and cinema. In game reviewer parlance, we could potentially pose this as “gamey” and “immersive.”

**There are modern-day benshi, in the same way that in major cities in the US you can find silent movie theaters with live accompaniment. But they are not the dominant form they once were.

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Comments

  • circadianwolf  On 01.19.12 at 8:05 am

    This is wonderful, Kris. Or, you know, horrible.

    I’m amazed that you would see a question about the opposition of story and games today–isn’t the narratologist/ludologist thing supposed to be long dead?

    Although I’m not sure you should hate Campbell–at the very least, the way his work is used by screenwriters is not at all what it was intended for. (You can certainly hate him for being astonishingly sexist.)

    “They’d stamp brands into our skin cells if they could get away with it.”
    Which, of course, doesn’t seem too far off–lots of people already have branded machines inside of them, and Monsanto and other biotech companies brand the GM organisms they create. DX-style mechaugs aren’t very far off, and I’m sure the corporations will DRM the shit out of cyborgs and threaten to shut down their limbs from across the country if they do something they don’t like. And obviously there’s a long history of branding people…

    Oc ultimately convergence (in the sense you’re using it and that media types use it) is just another word for enclosure, the same drive to centralize everything that’s going on everywhere. After all, “archaic industries that were built around the impossibility of that which is now possible” describes the entirety of capitalism–an economic system that only functions well (or at least, as well as it can) under conditions of scarcity, conditions which, ironically, have been steadily disappearing since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (and the roughly concomitant beginning of capitalism).

    Anyway. Great little essay. :)

  • Zach  On 01.19.12 at 8:46 am

    excellent stuff. this reminds me of Tim Wu’s “The Master Switch” and how over the past few decades new technology has popped up, creating wonderful new forms of expression, before someone steps in and exerts such fabulous control over it that the innovative effects are effectively squelched. He talks about movies and hollywood, as you do, but also talks about radio, cable and the beginnings of the end for the internet.

    https://kindle.amazon.com/work/master-switch-information-empires-ebook/B003A49PHC/B003F3PKTK

    anyway. i’m going to live by your point about hollywood defining what is and is not a story.

  • Holly  On 01.19.12 at 12:59 pm

    This is probably my favourite essay you’ve ever written.

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