Performative Ontologies

Curator's Note

One important task for contemporary film criticism is to confront the digitality of moving images, to analyze what digital images are telling us in their medial and cultural fabulation. This mission can only be accomplished by leaving behind the fatalism of digital ontologies. By the latter term, I mean a renewed version of modernist shock, wherein today’s technological base-structure of (re)production dictates fully the terms of our on-screen cultural superstructure. In this discursive construction, computer-generated digital images and liquid-crystal screens change the narrative demands and spectatorial experiences of cinema once and forever—we speak then of “database logic,” “post-cinematic affect,” and “discorrelation,” in other words. The flow of images, like its unseen pixelated constellation, bypasses our cognition to tap into our neuro-synaptic network of information—linearity is replaced by latent parallel processing. On the other hand, digital cinema presumably severs the umbilical cord—film theory’s “indexicality”—between record and reality. The images themselves are becoming too plastic and malleable, too irreparably distorting of profilmic reality—digital infrastructure’s mediations severing all commitments to worldy affairs, forestalling all intervention in lived actuality. In cinema now, all life is “virtual.” What these scholars have in common is this totalizing belief in cinema’s technological construction—how it renders the final verdict on not just screen images’ formal operations but the destiny of aesthetic consumption.

Yet, no matter how much we want to insist on the automatism of cinema—an influential tradition represented by Bazin, Cavell, and most recently, post-cinema theorists—moving images are second-order phenomena. They never arise naturally from the apparatus, digital or otherwise; they only appear to do so in the moving of images. What we see on the silver or computer screen is made moving, made by us. This material intervention—one not just technological, but social and cultural—is crucial to the supposed ontologies of cinema. In short, to make cinema matter again, filmmakers incorporate new technological affordances into the sociocultural negotiations of media competition. The digital hype is appropriated by film industries to stake a claim on the unique character of cinematic experiences. What cinema does is maximize and expose digitality in all its righteous ostentation.

In my view, digital cinema does not spell an epistemic break or medial revolution; instead, it performs the ontological discourses that are materially instigated and culturally settled. That is to say, we tend to cling to what seems to be the defining characteristics of digital cinema—swarming pixels, multiplied interfaces, streaming archives, and more—and extrapolate these traits’ ontological properties and their revolutionary consequences for film aesthetics and consumption. However, none of these characteristics are essential for all digital cinema or proven to be the pivot for a paradigm shift. These lessons should be clear from media archaeology and its insistence on history’s zig-zagging intersections of techniques and technologies. These revolutionary energies, however, are not wasted; they impel us to imagine what cinema can do with digital potentiality: in order to become digital, cinema performs what we believe to be digital. This approach helps clinch a nagging feeling that, despite proclamations, cinema does not appear to have changed that much in terms of phenomenological experiences, even when we recognize its skeuomorphic simulation. Cinema transforms digital ontologies’ discursive construction into the performance of stylized spectacle or an arrested reflection on cinema’s position within the contemporary media landscape. In short, we must locate the digitality of moving images in the global cultural market.

To give just one example: the pixel, in these performances, is the operator of a ground-breaking figuration. It is both singular and multiple. Singular because, by itself, it seems to have no referent but pure variation. Multiple because when we think about pixels, we rarely just think about one pixel; in imagination, it is always multitudinous. Its creative multiplicity supposedly obliterates the distinction between figure and ground. Cinematic space, once perspectival or multiplanar, is now said to be leveled by the raster grid. Amidst this great leveling, it is as if one can see how elements in their molecularity congregate and emerge from their multitude to become some property of the constituted object. Emergence enables pixelation to become a sign of omnipotence. In contrast, some filmmakers in the art cinema tradition believe that deploying pixelation in this manner espouses an ideology of total representation. This totality is an unconditional visibility that renders the world absolutely operable. This belief however neglects the fact that, even with special effects labor, visibility always has a representational threshold. When what needs to be represented is as trivial as an individual pixel, its myth for elucidating and remaking the world breaks down. Pixels in their representational capacity must be interrogated.

The analysis of pixels as performance demands that we explore how cinema’s changed technological base instigates new discourses of medium specificity. (Such histories were traced by both Sean Cubitt in Practice of Light (2014) and Jacob Gaboury in Image Objects (2021).) Nevertheless, how pixels are technologically channeled matters much less than how filmmakers, audiences, critics, and industries construct their performative potential on and for the screen. Hollywood, represented by films such as Avengers: Infinity War (2018), pursues pixelation for the maximalization of screen spectacle in infinite figuration. Art cinema, exemplified by Zhao Liang’s apocalyptic documentary Behemoth (2015), disintegrates the ground of image into dusty pixels for an interrogation of image transparency as well as ecological and humanitarian crises. Both deliver a kind of digital ontology: either pixel as generator of digital reality or as limitation of the visible world. Both strive to make cinema important again. This performative ontology is consequently situated between the materiality of the cinematic apparatus and the narrative construction of the world on screen. As such, the aesthetic engineering of these tiny dots and squares produces a captivating performance that defines what the cinematic medium is and will be. Whether we are convinced by the stories they tell is another matter—but at least we can disentangle from a critical distance, the ontological hype from the worlding of moving images.

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