Over at CineMadeson Dan Sullivan has a brief yet INTERESTING POST up on the significance of Object-Oriented Ontology for film theory. Dan writes:
As I’ve mentioned here before, I think the recent work of Bryant and Graham Harman contains the seeds for a conceptual framework capable of engaging with the non-human aspects of cinema, something that I think film theory will have to address sooner rather than later. So check the posts out (Bryant is an excellent and very lucid writer, so they’re hardly tough-sledding); they inspired me to scribble the following in my notebook after a brief bout of meditation on my fire escape:
“All of the elements of a shot’s mise en scène, all of the non-relational objects within the film frame, are figures of a sort. The figure is the likeness of a material object, whether that likeness is by-design or purely accidental. A shot is a cluster of cinematic figures, an entanglement. Actors and props are by no means the only kinds of cinematic figures—the space that they occupy and navigate is itself a figure. The cinematic figure isn’t just an image of the human body, a translation of the body’s form from spatio-temporal materiality to the ambiguous cinematic mode of being: the cinematic figure is, in Bryant’s terms, a local manifestation of an object situated among other local manifestations of other objects within the film frame. The relations between the figures situated in the frame are also objects in their own right, but these objects aren’t themselves figures. The figure—cinematic or otherwise—is nothing uniquely human; a breast framed in close-up is no less figurative than a cherry red Alfa Romeo Spider framed in long shot. Furthermore, no representation is necessary for figuration—a process that always precedes the presentation of a shot—to take place.”
While I very much appreciate what Dan here proposes, I think it still remains too closely wedded to the domain of what Deleuze and Guattari call the plane of expression. Dan’s references all pertain to what takes place within the frame, the scene, and the shot. That is, the analysis is dominated by what takes place on the screen.
While not at all hostile to what Dan is here talking about, it seems to me that object-oriented philosophy, when it evokes the role played by nonhuman actors in collectives, is above all talking about what functions outside the plane of expression or the cultural artifact. In the context of film theory, the nonhuman will not appear on the screen at all. The screen is a domain of images and signifiers. The nonhuman, by contrast, will refer to all those elements that go into the production of particular cinematic artifacts.
In this context, in addition to the plane of expression, the object-oriented ontologist, when wearing the hat of film theorist, would be interested in what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as machinic assemblages as they pertain to cinema. Unlike the plane of expression or collective assemblages of enunciation, machinic assemblages are relations among bodies or objects. Here the emphasis would not be on what takes place on the screen per se, but rather on different camera technologies, different acoustic technologies, different computer technologies, and so on. For example, an object-oriented ontology might ask how film becomes something different with the introduction of digital technology and CGI graphics. How is cinema transformed with the emergence of Talkies? And above all, how are new effects of meaning and new collective social relations between humans are made possible as a result of the introduction of these new technologies? Quite literally we’re talking about things that do not appear on the screen itself, but which nonetheless have a massive impact on what does appear on the screen. The point here is that the theorist should learn something about the craft of producing and distributing films.
In certain respects, Deleuze already approached this form of analysis in Cinema I and Cinema II, though I think he is there still two focused on the regime of the image or the plane of expression. In Cinema I Deleuze talks about how cinema allowed for the de-suturing of the image from the constraints of embodied perception, generating a new inhuman view from anywhere quite different from the way in which our human perception is analyzed by Merleau-Ponty. Take the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s Shining:
Far from the sort of embodied perception described by phenomenology and, in particular, the Husserl of Ideas III and Merleau-Ponty in The Phenomenology of Perception, we instead have a gaze or perspective divorced from the embodied structure of the body, allowing the family to be witnessed or seen as if from the perspective of the mountains themselves. It is through the de-shackling of the camera from its earthly constraints that this sort of image becomes possible. Here the content becomes an effect of something that is outside the screen, something that doesn’t appear on screen, something that is not itself a matter of what is filmed.
We find a similar de-suturing of image from the constraints of lived embodied perception in the closing scenes of Men in Black, where images zoom from our familiar level of scale to enormous scales, suggesting that our universe is but a marble played with by unimaginably large alien children (the sequence starts around 6:53):
These images only become possible with the emergence of CGI technologies allowing for the production of entirely new and unimaginable images. Would it be an exaggeration to suggest that cinematic technologies such as this have played an important role in the rise of the anti-humanisms that have characterized the last few decades of philosophy? Does not cinema fundamentally challenge the Urdoxa of lived phenomenological experience by de-suturing the image from the constraints of the body?
It is not that object-oriented ontology wishes to dispense with the analysis altogether, but rather that OOO wishes to broaden the horizon of what’s analyzed in cultural artifacts. Predominantly this analysis has focused almost entirely on content, on what is there on the screen. Object-oriented ontology would not only raise questions about content or semiotic actants, but also about less obvious things such as camera technologies, whether texts are reproduced by hand or by the printing press, what effects type-face has on content, etc., etc., etc. Here one could take a page from the work of Ian Bogost. When Bogost analyzes computer games he does not set out to simply analyze their content, but he also pays attention to the platforms that the game employs. How does the Atari platform, for example, constrain and afford certain sets of possibilities. How does it work? In what way does this structure contribute something to the evolution of Atari games, and so on. Here it is not simply what appears on the television that is important in understanding the video game, but rather objects that are completely withdrawn from that screen.