I started thinking more critically about the selfie, last time I was teaching on theology and media culture. The Institute of Network Cultures has a small book you can download by Brooke Wendt entitled, The Allure of the Selfie. Given the pervasiveness of selfies and their culture-shaping contributions to body image/focus/obsession, it might be a worthwhile read for many. It's less than 60 pages so not going to be too big of a commitment but will be beneficial if you are thinking about this stuff.
I've been teaching a class on theology and media, focusing primarily on television and digital media, exploring the acceleration of change and the theological implications of living mediated lives. As I come to this class every eighteen months or so I am aware of how quickly things shift and change. We now find ourselves in the era of 'cloud' technology, the digitality of the present/future seems to be this strange notion of the cloud-our information, our lives, disappearing into internet vapour and no longer living on our computers.
Surely one of the more interesting dynamics of digital living is the growing disconnect with materiality when it comes to our stuff--our music library is made up of files rather than tape or vinyl, our photos are digital, our letters and communications are e-mail, text, tweets-seldom tangible, mediated via machines--mobile devices, laptops, ipads etc. And then there is the cloud-we are intensely suspicious of this sudden appearing, because like much of digital technology it appears to us in a finished form and we are caught up in it before we even know what's really go on and our thoughts about it are usually retroactive-it's only when it works against us rather than for us that we realize its dark side--the recent leak of celebrity nude pics, hacked from the cloud basically--you might delete something from your phone, but it's not gone, nothing is ever 'gone', it's stored in the cloud which surrounds us, consumes, subsumes us in its vaporous nothingness.
Now it seems to me that there is something of a connect here with some forms of theological reflection. There is a history of 'cloud theology,' be it works, like The Cloude of Unknowyng, the anonymous Middle-English book on contemplative prayer, or Nichols Cusa's 'cloud of impossibility' which addresses the concept of learned ignorance (not-knowing to put it in contemporary terms perhaps), a sort of return to Socratic inquiry.
Cloud computing places everything within our reach but removes it from our grasp-we have to access it through a process, it doesn't live on our devices, they become tools of access.
The interesting thing about cloud technology is that it’s not a place or location, it’s a highway system. Look at the Google data center in the image above-it's all tubes and pipes. The Cloud contains loads of information and files, but that reality only articulates itself when I go to my computer, launch a programme and resume work on something at the point I left it on my ipad earlier. And we are not really supposed to be thinking about this very much, even though every digital outlet from Apple to Google to Amazon is championing its benefits, we’re simply meant to realize that we can have our data where we need it, when we need it.
Socrates declared that "All I know is that I know nothing," which was the inspiration for Cusa's move to learned ignorance, the premise being that what we know is contingent and we cannot know things precisely because what we know of anything is through relations. For Cusa, the cloud is defined by blindness, darkness and ignorance (an apt metaphor it seems to me for our understanding of the digital cloud), and it is this cloud that we must deal with when we consider the sacred--the darkness itself, if you like, is illuminating.
The cloud confronts us with contradictions-both the theological cloud of unknowing and the digital cloud---we don't know enough but we are in relation, and we need to reflect on our not-knowing, our ignorance rather than jump to conclusions and simplistic answers.
In his wonderful book, Nudities, Giorgio Agamben writes,
"The ways in which we do not know things are just as important (and perhaps even more important) as the ways in which we know them...it is possible, in fact, that the way in which we are able to be ignorant is precisely what defines the rank of what we are able to know and that the articulation of a zone of non-knowledge is the condition and at the same time the touchstone of all our knowledge...The act of living is, in this sense, the capacity to keep ourselves in harmonious relationship with what escapes us."
It's virtually impossible not to enter the digital cloud these days, unless one opts out of all connectivities related to the Internet, but avoidance and resistance has seldom seemed the right move to me, and when it comes to digitality I think it is not possible, better then to take some time to frame our ignorance. The same would be true for me when it comes to issues of the sacred-a learned ignorance, and informed not-knowing might just be the pathway not only to fresh understandings but also out of old cul-de-sacs.
I've seen four movies of late--none of them have been particularly enjoyable experiences, which is not to say that they are not good films, but with all of them I left the theatre with a singular unease, which must mean something.
I saw Gone Girl in London when my brother and I were trying to hide out from a rain storm. I didn't read the book, nor did I have any idea what the film was about. I liked it a little, it was a sad and sorry tale if you ask me, playing on cultural fears about secrets, abuse, and the games we play as humans taken to extremes.
Gone Girl is David Fincher's highest grossing movie to date. I like Fincher, he is always dark and stylish-things I enjoy. The film plays with American notions of gender roles and, by initiating this story of a murder/disappearance tale, kicks them off balance and plays with all our fears about the secret lives of those we live with.
It's dark and violent and a bit nuts. The book apparently teels the tale from each of the couple's perspectives, a trope the film avoids mostly, presenting it instead as a more traditional procedural drama, but one with unexpected twists and turns.
I didn't like it. Why? don't know, just didn't-i found it a little too slick and clinical for its own good.
I did like the music.
BIRDMAN: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
Alejandro Innaritu's latest film catapaults Michael Keaton back into the cultural spotlight in this film about the vicissitudes of fame, celebrity and social media. Ketaon plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who has been stereotyped by the superhero role he played 22 years before and is now trying to break that perception and limitation by starring in a stage play of Raymond chandler's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Like many of Innaritu's films, there is a surreal feel to everything. Essentially a critique of celebrity-obsession, the film is witty, biting and dark--melancholy ooozes from everywhere, and Thomson's desperate efforts to break out of the box that fame has put him in is tragic. Keaton blazes, and deserves all the accolades he is receiving. But again, I left the theatre with a sadness wrapped around me--the world feels fucked when you step out of a film like this.
I lasted about 20 minutes. I shouldn't have gone, I never do well with war movies--Saving Private Ryan, Born on the 4th of July etc., all traumatize me a little. This focus on the human story, it feels so right, but I can't help but feel that deep down, it's actually a bit manipulative and has a kind of pornographic voyeuristic element to the human aspect of war and violence. Don't get me wrong, I doubt that the film over-estimates the graphic and horrific nature of conflict, it probably doesn't do enough, but something troubles me quite deeply about this 'realism' and I suspect that it is not 'real' but hyperreal in a sense--I have to think about it a little.
But as I said, I left after 20 minutes because I couldn't take the graphic nature of the onscreen stuff---wish I had a stronger stomach but it made me so nervous and agitated that I decided it was best for me to leave.
Weird, that's what I felt about this film from Dan Gilroy. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a man living on the fringes of society, who lucks into a job as an amateur cameraman using his eye and his nerve to create a niche for himslef with a local news station as the go-to guy for crime and violence. The tv station has low ratings and the night-producer, desperate to keep her job, becomes a willing accomplice to Blooms sadistic and callously artful capturing of human depravity. She is, in some way, his mirror--desperation and being on the edge mark them both. Gyllenhaal plays Bloom to full and complete strangeness--bug-eyed and seemingly devoid of any human feeling or emotion, he self-educates via the Internet and turns himself into a twisted sort of self-help psychopath, all the while pushing the limits of what is acceptable fare to be shown on the morning news.
There is a critique of news--that it creates and promotes fearfulness, particualrly among the rich white communities and ignores or uses everyone else. This is a relentless and exacting film-there are no wasted scenes or words or characters-everything is minimalized to play on the anxiety of both the central characters and we, the viewer. And again, I left the theatre with a deep sense of unease.
So what have I learned? Well, I think this unease, which all these films left me with, reflects a tone in cinema today, an expression of the inner-despair and concern many have about the state of affairs for all of us living in the early decades of the 21st century. whether it's technology, social media, the media and news services, crime, violence or war, we are continually and constantly being reminded that all is not well and we would do well not to forget that and to pay more attention. None of these films seem to offer up any alternative or any answer, and I am not saying they should, but the critique is seldom strong enough in my mind--if that is the intention of any of these films and filmmakers-I wonder about that, but I don't generally trust the remedies that cinema provides-the usually present a binary opposition which I think is very unhelpful.
I forgot to mention Denzel washington's latest, The equalizer, a remake of a UK TV series, violent, gory and forgettable.
In the foundations of color, vision sees the
Universe; in the foundations of the Universe, it
sees man; in the foundations of man, it sees
The Earth, the World, the Universe have to do
with man: the Earth a little, the World a lot, the
Universe passionately. The Universe is the inner
passion for the Remote.
Man works the Earth, lives in the World, thinks
according to the Universe.
The Earth is man’s ground, the World his
neighbor, the Universe his secret.
The Earth is the strait through which passes the
light of the World; it is the tongue made of sand
and water upon which, standing, man strides
against the World.
The World is everything too vast and too narrow
for the Earth, and again too narrow for the
Man gropes around the World and the World
floats in the Universe unable to touch its borders.
I've been reading a lot of the philosopher Simon Critchley lately and via him stumbled across Eugene Thacker and his marvellous book, In the Dust of this Planet: The Horrors of Philosophy, which, in my mind, is a must-read (not least for any fan of HBO's True Detective-it was a foundational text for the writer of the series).
Last year Thacker and some others hosted an event at Recess Arts in NYC-a four night exploration of laruelle's four-stanza poem, Du Noir Univers (dark nights of the universe). Here is one of the audio recordings of the sessions--really worth sitting down and giving the rest of them a listen.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are featured on Austin City Limits tonight--appropos perhaps that they are airing the show on the Day of the Dead because Cave's music might form the perfect context for that particular celebration. This version of Stagger Lee not surprisingly isn't going to be on the televised version. Cave has become one of my favourite live performers over the year and I hear this is regarded as one of the best live performances on ACL.
Someone recommended that I see the film, One Hundred Foot Journey, a film set in an idyllic village in France that revolves around two restaurants--you guessed it-one hundred feet and a million miles from each other. It's a sweet film, nothing that profound, a light-hearted exploration of cultural difference, racism, bigotry, traditions and the benefit of learning from each other. An Indian family of cooks moves across the street from a Michelin-starred bastion of French culinary tradition-sparks fly and food is the medium.
As I watched the camera linger over eggs, the sheen of the yolk captured in a transcendental light and watched over and over as characters argued about, tasted, waxed lyrical about mushrooms, the five sauces of French cooking and the delight of Indian spices--I realized that I was watching a 90-minute food porn film! Now, I'm ok with food porn, although I must confess, much of it is lost on me, not sure if it is my lifelong fish-allergy or what, but when it comes to food it is probably the least adventurous part of my life-caution always prevails with me when it comes to food-I'm happy eating a very narrow set of foods, so food porn is watchable and enjoyable, but I am not that turned on by it and hardly a full-on particiapnt and not even much of a voyeur. I have a friend with whom I occasionally go to restaurants on her 'hot-list' and I love her reaction to the food she tastes as much, if not more than the reaction of my own taste buds.
But the film got me thinking about this love affair we are having with food. It's been building for years and in the past decade has poked above the surface of the culture and gone mainstream. it's not just the Food Channel, Cooking Channel, celebrity chef culture, there are magazines, there is a food-truck craze that shows little sign of abating, and so many other avenues down which our culture celebrates, no revels orgiastically, in food. One Hundred Foot Journey is at least the second film this summer that trades in food--Chef, Jon Favreau's homage to food truck eating opened the summer.
I have no issue at all with it, and in fact, I enjoy going to eat with people because it tends to mean that one is with people for whom you care and who care for you in return, and the occasion is usually a really enjoyable one, because food brings us together. I am just wondering what the current giddiness with food reflects about us and about culture at present.
There is no doubt in my mind that foodie-culture is connected to other shifts in our culture that are moving us more and more away from the modern world of utility and convenience. Food isn't just fuel, it is something to take delight in-it's about community, connecting with ourselves and others, connecting with the earth and with the material world in general. Cooking at home has become the new 'going-out,' building a list of go-to restaurants has become de-rigeur for many.
Slow-food movements, the increasing expansion of health food and organics into middle America (and middle-Britain for that matter), farmers markets, all these things point to a new relationship with food in our culture. And it is globally fuelled-food comes from anywhere and everywhere and the rules are broken almost everytime you go to a restaurant-in the 21st century, anything goes-old school, new school, in-between school, no school.
The other side of the equation is the counter to all this. We hear talk of food deserts, of large portions of our cities where there is little access to good food--processed and fast food remain the main diet of many poor and disadvantaged people, particulalry in the inner-city and un-gentrified parts of the urban landscape.
As always, a complicated picture, on the one hand you have a large section of the public enjoying food and exploring new eating and diet horizons in a manner that is mind-boggling, and on the other, people struggling to get access to affordable and healthy food. Food is always about access and economics-it's not that there isn't enough food to go around, it is that food, like everything exists within an economic horizon of profit and loss and it goes where the money is.
So what to make of it? Well, a couple of thoughts. Firstly, I think our new found devotion to food has something to do with a desire for a home, a sense of home anyway, that we have never had. I mean 'home' in the sense of a time in which everything felt ordered, organized and laid-out for us, in a way that we simply cannot experience in our digitally interconnected, globally shaped pluralized world. I think our time is longing, yearning even, for a rootedness and an anchoring--think about our retro-fascination for instance, and that food is a galvanizing place--all this cooking, eating, preparing, it reeks of home.
Secondly, I think it is about re-ordering the new world we find ourselves in by thinking about things that we haven't thought about for years. And food is central in that. Again, think about the 50s and 60s--processed food-tv dinners-fast-food culture-food on the run-colouring, additives, chemicals, dyes, living with little sense of where food came from, what it might represent beyond fuel for our working lives (work being another element of our world that we are reviewing). Now we are starting to think about food, enjoy it, savour it, prepare it, celebrate and take time with it.
As the modern worlds loses its grip on our lives, we are, as I just mentioned, taking the time to re-think many things and this is indicative of a huge cultural shift that we are all experiencing and we come toward the middle of the second decade of the 21st century we are beginning to re-frame our lives, our worlds, with new perspectives and ideas, letting go of ways that shaped us for much of the 20th century and finally finding our way into the 21st.
We seem to have moved past the age of mashups, those early experimentations in remixing. But the past few months have seen a couple of brilliant mashups via Amerigo Gazaway, mashing Mos Def and Marvin Gaye (hunt it down, you wont be disappointed).
The mashup of Smokey Robinson and Oasis at the top of this post works pretty well too.