SCMS 2012: We Have Never Been Digital

March is here — in fact, it arrived three days ago, and I’m only just now noticing it like a UPS box left on my doorstep — and the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference is only three weeks away. Depending on where the dial is set on your own personal Procrastinometer®, you will find the following sentence either (A) shockingly lax, (B) remarkably foresighted, or (C) just about right: time to start writing the paper.

It’s even more important that I compose my essay in advance, because this year my wife and son are coming with me to Boston. My days, er, nights of sitting in a hotel bathtub with a pad of legal paper, pulling together presentations at the last minute, are done. And while I would like to believe there is a certain Keith-Richards-style glamour to such decadent showboating — beneath the surface of this mild academic beats the heart of a Lizard King — I do not miss those days. Empirical testing verifies that it is much, much, much less stressful to work from a script, even a script that contains such stage directions as “MAKE JOKE HERE.”

So by way of jumpstarting my process, here is the abstract I submitted as part of a panel on “Archaeologies of the Future: Popular Cinema and Film History in the Age of Digital Technologies,” organized and chaired by my former IU colleague Jason Sperb (whose highly recommended blog can be found here).

We Have Never Been Digital: CGI and the New “Clumsy Sublime”

Digital visual effects have been hailed as a breakthrough in the engineering of screen illusion, generating new forms of filmic phenomenology and spectatorial engagement while fueling a crisis discourse in which the very indexical foundations of the medium are said to be dissolving into their uncanny, computer-generated replacement. Both as an assessment of current aesthetic trends and the larger narrative of technological and stylistic change in which they are embedded, such accounts fall prey to the historical amnesia implied by the term “state of the art” – accepting, as a kind of discursive special effect, the alleged superiority and perfection of digital imaging while neglecting the way in which all special effects age and become obsolete (which is to say, visible precisely as compromised attempts at simulation). Exploring the temporality of special effects, this essay presents a brake and counternarrative to the emerging consensus of alterity dividing digital and analog eras of special effects, by drawing on Laura Mulvey’s concept of the “clumsy sublime,” which suggests that the passing of time lends classical Hollywood special-effects methods such as rear projection their own particular charisma as ambitious but failed visual machinations. Scrutinizing key “breakthrough” moments in the recent evolution of digital visual effects films and the critical discourses that both celebrate and condemn them as decisive breaks with a flawed analog past, I argue that today’s special effects are as susceptible to dating as those of the past – that, in fact, we are always witnessing the production of a future generation’s clumsy sublime.

Borrowing its title from a subheading in my lengthy post on Tron: Legacy, this project is intended as a polemic and antidote to a cinema studies that too often accepts as transparent given the idea that digital image creation, and the larger colonization of film production, distribution, and exhibition by digital technologies, marks the arrival of perfect photorealistic simulation and undetectable manipulation on the one hand, and the extinction of the index on the other. Digital special effects are a linchpin of arguments for a fundamental shift in the ontology and phenomenology of cinema, hence a menacing metonym for an epochal, irreversible transit across a historical dividing line between analog and digital. It’s much like the singularity, a supposed event horizon we can’t see past. Yet we continue to fantasize ourselves on the other side of the terminator, describing what-will-never-arrive in the verb tense of it-already-happened.

Much like the month of March.