Review of The Digital Image and Reality: Affect, Metaphysics and Post-Cinema
Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, NL, 2019
248 pp., illus. 20 col. Trade, $115
The Digital Image and Reality: Affect, Metaphysics and Post-Cinema probes the philosophical questions, cultural anxieties, ethical implications and aesthetic possibilities around digital cinema’s unique relation to notions of “the real.” That cinema’s illusion is now made of bits that can be analyzed, copied, transcoded and altered in a granular way, means that the digital capture of physical phenomena (how our senses take in the world) can be sculpted into novel forms that do more than copy perceptual reality. Bringing together studies in perception and brain neuroplasiticity, the philosophical critiques of technology by Stiegler and Heidegger, the media theories and speculations of Benjamin and McLuhan, and the affect and embodiment theories of Deleuze and Massumi, Strutt explores how popular digital cinema is not only altering our collective and individual ideas of the real, but also stretching the boundaries of what reality can be.
As evidence, Strutt draws on examples from the movies “Interstellar,” “Tron: Legacy,” “Enter the Void,” “Avatar” and “Source Code”, all with digital effects and processes that combine scientific inquiry, mathematical simulations, and imaginative speculation to represent phenomena normally unavailable to human perception. For Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” the special effects depicting black holes, wormholes and alien planets were derived from scientific data and calculation. How do such naturalistic simulations change cinema as a worldbuilding technology? Most movies use editing techniques and storytelling codes to assist the viewer in making a believable whole out of fragments. “Suture,” the film theory term for this cognitive stitching together of image and sound, becomes an important concept in Strutt’s inquiry into the ethical and metaphysical implications of what he calls the “new digital naturalism.” Of course, pre-digital movies also used special effects to depict boundaries between say reality and a mental flashback, but these were often codes or metaphors (the wavy dissolve) for signally purposes only and not attempts at representing actual phenomena. The boundaries or “border zones” between the real and virtual (Tron: Legacy, Avatar), between a stable reality and quantum flux or multiple dimensions (Source Code, Interstellar), between sanity and psychosis (Enter the Void) are depicted as visceral phenomena, “transformative, embodied and affective experience[s].” Strutt is less interested in how these new visualized dimensions fit within their respective story-worlds, than in the aesthetic forms used to depict “an altered dimension at the threshold of intelligibility.”
Strutt writes that his book “is to be read as a series of trains arriving at a station – a collection of metaphysical shifts arriving at the platforms of our collective consciousness.” Referring to the famous Lumiere brothers’ film that stunned audiences with its three-dimensional illusion of a train coming off the screen, Strutt implies he wants us to consider the new extra-dimensional effects of digital cinema on the brain’s plasticity and on how it synthesizes an embodied reality from vast datasets given by the senses. How do these new images of hidden realms get stitched back into our collective sense of the real? Questions about the end of cinema and the loss of a stable photographic index to the world is reframed as the struggle of cinema art to break free from the purely spatial modeling of reality. This is not necessarily a paradigm shift in cinema art, but rather a continuation of Deleuze’s idea of the “Time-Image,” a Post-war, modernist shift away from the conventions of spatial continuity towards the associational and multi-temporal flux of conscious experience and thought.
The “affective synthesis” of a simulated reality has always been the direction in cinema’s evolution as an art and technology. Fragments of recorded movement, edited with spatio-temporal logic and synchronous sound, and projected in a darkened room, produces a remarkably cohesive experience for a viewer to settle into a simulated world. To extend this power of cinema with digital processes that “stitch” together believable simulations from recorded datasets, whether it is astronomical data, measured facial movements, weather patterns or neural processes, raises ethical concerns about what we take to be real (deep fakes), but also what we believe reality to be. We are already seeing runaway effects of digital media in how desires are manufactured and conditioned, destabilizing a shared sense of values and perspectives. For a path out of these digital disenchantments, Strutt looks to Stiegler’s notion of technology as “pharmakon,” as both a poison and potential remedy. A “Digital pharmakon” is using the tools of digital technology attentively, ethically and creatively to resist its own potential toxicity. Strutt also invokes Heidegger’s concept of “enframing” by which technology frames the world as a resource or reserve to be measured, segmented and categorized for a purpose.
“The ‘saving power’ within Heidegger's view [of technology] is that we come to see this process of enframing at work. This requires salvaging and reconnecting with that other mode of revealing which does not impose a rational system on the world, and through which we can reveal and confront this true ‘essence’ of technology: the arts.”
Digital arts are the remedy to the potential poisons within the digital pharmacology. Digital technology in the hands of artists, can engender new strategies of resistance to the systematizing effects of all technology by revealing the inherent plasticity of any world view. The popular, big budget movies discussed in this book demonstrate “visual experimentation with notions of the body, of matter, of sensation and the possibility of action within a reality which is defined only by its plasticity.” These same techniques will likely be available to any creator in the near future, and it is Stutt’s convincing optimism that sees in this powerful world-shaping tool an empowerment and a potential “ethic of exploration in an unstable, virtual, and sublime world.”