Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Flow of Culture: Response to Friedberg

Like all cultural movements, the current of the movement flows past all parts of culture. Be it the visual arts, music, entertainment, or personality, once a theme appears and begins to be spread, all aspects of life are infected, almost like a virus. The Romantic era, for example, saw a return of fantastical, medievalist elements in literature, an increased use of dissonance and chromaticism in music, and a revived obsession between art and expression. This movement influenced the people at the time and, through art we are able to see what kinds of lives people led. In the reverse fashion, as well, the people of the time, because of the influence art and entertainment has on them, will also facilitate the current of the movement and continue the virus’s path to mass contamination.

That’s what I thought of as I read Anne Friedberg’s The Virtual Window and its claims about multiplicity. While the Romantic era was characterized by an increased return to medieval and gothic characteristics, our current era, starting in the early 20th century, is one focused on the transformation of the individual into one of a multiplicity. And, like all other cultural movements, a recurring theme in culture is never without its affected counterparts. It’s flow and current will carry it past the personalities and lives of people, and into the art and entertainment. As Friedberg argues, multiplicity is appearing everywhere, on TV, in the movies, in art, in music.

On TV, the mere fact that there are hundreds of channels to choose from is an example of this multiplied quality of entertainment. Coupled with the remote control, the television becomes a formidable force for discovering the world and learning about everything. The ability to view a sequence of channels and shows opens up the world. One can find out about French food, exotic animals, and find out the latest happenings around the world just by pressing a single button on the remote.

In movies, as detailed by Friedberg, beginning some time around 1900, special effects involving splitting the screen to offer two or more perspectives of an image became more and more prevalent. Then came the obsession of frames within frames, then multiple screens, then Time Code, and 24, and suddenly movies were used to describe multiple stories of multiple people, moving away from the linearity of older more orthodox films.

In computers, the concept Windows created involving GUI and multiple windows open on a desktop is another clear example of the multiplicity of digital media that is now bombarding us. In a sense, the computer has become a sort of digitalized metaphor for our lives. In one big window, the screen, there is the taskbar, an organizing method to make sure we don’t get too carried away and lost under the deluge of windows and information. And there are the windows, that are limitless in the sense that a hundred windows can be opened, all on the same screen, so that we can have easy access to all of them. Like the split screens and multiple screens of film and TV, the computer offers us with multiple perspectives, bombarding us with information, but also allowing us to choose our own path, and read things our own way. This is strangely reminiscent of the writerly text. Perhaps, the very concept of television, split screen movies, and the computer are what Barthes would call the writerly text.

Finally, this transition from the singular to the multiple can be seen in the rise of the middle class, and the literature that was written after 1945. As the middle class began to grow, what Peter Drucker would call the inner compulsion began to give way to the outer will. In essence, the inner compulsion that used to drive individuals began to morph into the outer will, in effect replacing it despite the belief that the inner compulsion still existed. Ralph Ellison writes about this in the Invisible Man, as does Patrica Highsmith in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and countless other literary masterpieces.

It is interesting how all of these forms of media coincide and tell the same story. Perhaps it is only appropriate that the message is so strongly conveyed. Ironically, this is what our society has created.

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