Thursday, February 24, 2011

How Images Think: A Report on Common Knowledge

I'm really just not sure to start with this book. Perhaps I'll start with a series of rhetorical questions that I won't really address: Why were we assigned this book? Why did I actually read all of this book? Why didn't a stop after I realized I wasn't learning a damn thing? How did Ron Burnett get this past the publishers? Why did I ever think I was a bad writer?
     Well, these are obviously very complex questions that we should research further. But for now, we'll just say that involves a complex set of relationships between my mind, the book, and Western culture.

Anyone who has read this book should recognize my deliberate parody of Burnett's style. The series of questions that Burnett thinks make up a paragraph, a point, or even an argument is pathetic. Furthermore, he uses more useless passive voice constructions than most of my freshman students.

I apologize for the harshness of this blog post, but I really feel like I could have been doing something else better with my life. There were brief glimpses of text where I thought "ok, he'll elaborate this/define it better later"--but no, he never does. I call the book a report on common knowledge because Burnett doesn't seem interested in making any strong or unique arguments. Of course one could argue that much of my favorite French Theorists also tend not to make arguments. That may be true, but at least Baudrillard, Bachelard, Derrida, and Foucault define their terms well and at length. They not only offer a new language to describe reality, but they also make subtle distinctions rather than leaving it to the cop-out (argument?) of reality and illusion are "on a continuum." This move is how he pedantically avoids binaries. . .good for him, but i'll take binaries over useless descriptions.

I will now list all of the things that piss me off about this book. With each complaint, I will reference specific moments in the text as evidence.

1.) Reductive readings and considerations of major thinkers (who are not only better writers, but better thinkers than Burnett.

Exhibit A: "It is precisely because images are the product of a particular moment that more must be added to them than is ever present in the images themselves. This excess, which is often seen as somehow interfering with the meaning of the image, is a necessary staging ground for interpretation and analysis (Deleuze 1986; Eco 1984)" (Burnett 15).

Now, before you get angry, I realize that he is using a different citation style than MLA, but WHERE is this in Deleuze and Eco? Its such a general statement anyone could have said it. Barthes says a similar thing in Image Music Text about obtuse meaning. I think Burnett just wanted to cite Deleuze and Eco. Deleuze is never quoted at all in the rest of the text--which is a shame because he is a much better writer than Burnett.

Exhibit B: "Ironically [we'll return to this constantly misused adverb] it is also why so many new technologies and new media have been criticized for being artificial than extensions of existing mediums of expression that allow the exploration of new image terrains (Baudrillard 1990). In addition, for Baudrillard (1996) the virtual is described as "something that doesn't happen" as if mediated experiences negated or reversed the relationships between the real and the artificial" (Burnett 113).

So B (1990) is cited in the bibliography as Fatal Strategies. I just read Fatal Strategies in its entirety, taking detailed notes for Ulmer's course and I'm not sure that one can ascribe the position of critiquing new media to Baudrillard. Like Burnett, he seems to be making broad sweeping generalizations about the loss of the "scene" to the "obscene" that occurs with news media, but Baudrillard's position cannot be so easily pinned down. Baudrillard is just as generalizing, but he is aware that his philosophy is "poetic"--Burnett tries to cite both french theory and scientific studies to fool people into thinking that he is more 'credible' and 'interdisciplinary'. This is the approach he calls for and I presume what he thinks he's doing, but I think he lacks any rigorous argumentation and evidence.

2.) The use of the adverb "ironically" without any elaboration of why something is ironic. Furthermore, no one should use "ironically" as much as it appears in this book.

pg 113, above
pg 137: "Ironically, so much of what happens in the human body is not in anyone's control"
pg 139: "It is an irony that machines, particularly computers, are allowing researchers to rewrite the underlying codes for the natural world"
pg 164: "Ironically, as the pipes have grown larger and as more and more people have connected to them, there has been increasing pressure to develop additional content"

(you get the point--this is annoying as hell).

3.) The juvenile use of barrages of rhetorical questions never addressed subsequently; other meta-language indicators that are useless due to his use of headlines.

(explained above)

4.) His relentless insistence that we not describe the mind as mechanical, but offering us a vague alternative he never elaborates on called "reverie" and "imagination"

"Reverie is often referred to as 'suspension of disbelief' with respect to viewing films and television shows, reading novels, listening to music, and so on. But the process is more complex than that. Reverie is one of the foundations for all these activies, one of the fundamental ways in which humans are able to activate the relationships among their own thoughts and daydreams and the requirements of viewing and listening experiences. Reverie permits and encourages empathy" (Burnett 53).

First, who the hell ever called reverie/imagination a "suspension of disbelief" and how exactly is that applied also to the other media he discusses. Second, we might think that we are going to get an elaborate discussion of what he can possibly mean by the connections between reverie, empathy, and daydreams. Indeed, I expected an engagement with Bloch, who talks at length about the importance of daydreams. Or at the very least, since reverie encourages empathy, we might expect a discussion of the ethical implications of this. However, Burnett will give us none of this. Reverie is referred to again and again with little elaboration on the concept--it is assumed we know what it means. 15 pages from the end, Burnett returns to reverie:

"Reverie is a crucial concept that explains how the experiences of interacting with images and stories of all sorts connect to listening and daydreaming. Reverie is a reflective process that allows for what I call 'waves of interaction.' This metaphor refers to the complex movements of waves on a beach as viewed by the human subject" (204).

He then goes on to connect reverie to "gaze" as opposed to "look," where he actually makes a clear distinction: "gazing is not the same as looking. To gaze is to scan, while to look means that an effort has to be made to focus on some features of the environment being observed [. . .] Gazing is more of a background activity" (204). So reverie is linked with gazing. . .

Ok, so he gives us a little blurb about reverie at the end, but if this is such a "crucial concept" why is it not explained earlier? Why doesn't it permeate the majority of the book? (oh god!! I'm beginning to ask rhetorical questions--his style has rubbed off on me and I am now yelling "Unclean!!!! unclean!!)

5.) His fetishism of technology--as if he is shocked or surprised by mundane objects; related: useless adjectives like "fascinating, interesting, interestingly, is interesting" etc. etc. Over and over again, it seems like he has taken our class's mode of engagement "hey, this shit is cool" and decided he was going to write an academic text in this manner.

Example: "The extraordinary thing is how ready users are to 'play' with these limitations and how so much energy has been devoted to conquering the problems that the interfaces pose" (Burnett 185)

6.) un-insightful comments on technology:

See "What telephones have done. . ." (Burnett 132)

And his reflections on word processors (insights that I made in my freshman year of college) (Burnett 114-115)

7.) His uncritical attitude toward his own concepts, terminology, and assumptions, preferring to endorse the 'virtual' as sites of interaction and relying on only one mode of posthuman thought (Futurism) that privilege the Mind over body (even though he tries desperately to talk about the body).

He cites McLuhan on telephones as 'extensions' of our body and says its only "partially correct" (134), explaining "The notion of extension still makes it seem as if the machine were other to the humans who use it. Clearly, incorporation is a better term to describe the breadth and extent of human-machine relation. Incorporation works both ways. And incorporation is, in my opinion, an ecological term" (134).

So incorporation (inc.) is an ecological term. Ok, I can buy that, but why does he say that "clearly" we have to make sure we don't represent the phone as other? Does he privately fantasize about Kurczweil and Moravec's dream of getting to the point where we can become disembodied--or that we basically morph into machines (but machines with "imagination"?). There are no extended reflections on the body. . .just some gestures toward Katherine Hayles and Donna Harroway. Also, what does he mean by "ecological term"? Does he ever really go into what he means by "ecology"? Not really. (damnit, there I go again with the questions).

8. A sort of teleological, "phase" approach to technology--believing that technology's progress is inevitable and mostly using the phrase "will be" to describe what he *knows* is goign to happen as technology develops.

"I regard the period of aesthetic experimentation in video and computer games to be in its early phase" (193).

9.) The random placement of blocked off text on the sides of pages, with no real rhyme and reason--some of them are quotes, some reflections. This seems like a cool idea, but they add nothing to what he is saying. Are these simply things he wished he could put in the book but didn't think he could fit them into his argument?

(pgs 193, 134-135, 130, etc.)

The text also seems "dated" somehow. How, we might ask, can Burnett's 2004 text seem more dated than Mitchell's written in the 90's? Well, this is a question I will attempt to answer: Mitchell's text uses subtle analytical and philosophical techniques located within a specific text and cultural/historical situation. Burnett's text relies on a cataloging of various technologies that he thinks have affected us differently.

Burnett never gets into questions about what technology is in its essence. This is the province of technics (which I'm becoming more and more sympathetic to these days).

I'll take Heidegger's obscure struggles and meditations on language any day to this mess of scholarship.

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