We’re closer now to the world first imagined in the movies, a world here the self is “decentered” and dislocated, in multiple places at once. Complaining about this new form of “subjectivity” is a waste of time. It’s neither better or worse: it’s a new paradigm.
The other day I taught a class on early 20th century film and the evolution of movie narrative. I wanted to start with a modern example of “classical” movie narrative and chose the D-Day landing scene from Saving Private Ryan, which students usually see as extremely “realistic.” After showing it once I replayed it, stopping at multiple places to ask “who are you and where are you now?” The point being that there’s nothing even close to realistic about the movie, because a single person can’t be in all those places: real life isn’t like that. I’ve blogged about this before.
Early film theorists–I mean really early, before 1920–used to argue that it’s true, real life isn’t like that, but real life wants to be like that. Movies might not depict reality as lived, but they depicted what we wanted reality to be: a space where we could move around freely in three dimensions, where we were close to omniscient and enjoyed a self which could be in and see from multiple perspectives. In that sense movies were “more true” than real life8.
As a historian, I’d always found this argument irritating. The movies create a form of “subjectivity” that didn’t exist in real life, so movies about, say, the Revolutionary war starring Mel Gibson were always already grossly inaccurate, regardless of costume details.
But you could easily argue that we live now the world the movies imagined, the world of the decentered self. A constant stream of text messages/tweets, video from multiple places at once: music stored in a “cloud” rather than on shelves, equals a decentered subjectivity that’s in multiple places at once, everywhere and nowhere. You can watch the clip from Saving Private Ryan while texting people in France and ignoring texts from your Mom and streaming sports results from ESPN. You can have a video feed of yourself doing these things and watch it while you send it out. And all the while you can track yourself from above via GPS. You’re like the magical moving camera in Saving Private Ryan.
On any street, in any public place, people messages constantly—some for work, some for leisure, but the phone is always coming out. I’ve played gigs where the horn player is texting between solos. If I had a cell phone I’d be doing the same thing, because I’m the same way with my laptop. It’s a form of subjectivity made up of multiple “nows.”
Comment on this phenomenon generally takes the form of scolding, as in “people today have no attention span,” or lack focus and willpower, etc.
That kind of scolding commentary shows that a new kind of subjectivity has emerged, and it’s in tension with the old one. It is a problem, if your goals and methods grow from and depend on a different, earlier form of subjectivity. In the classroom, for example, I typically demand a different form of subjectivity and attention than the one presented daily life.
As much as I require students to stop texting and “pay attention,” I want to resist the curmudgeonly moralistic critique. The compulsion to expand subjectivity isn’t a sign of “declining virtue,” it’s something more like a paradigm shift. Moralizing lectures won’t stem it, any more than they stemmed the Copernican theory. It’s not a decline in brain power, or a loss in the ability to pay attention, it’s a new form of attention-paying. There’s no reason why, as in the case of movies, it can’t be knit into a compelling narrative.
Did the movies foster the desire for this kind of subjectivity? Or did we always have it? I think it’s the former—the movies as art encouraged us to see ourselves and the world in different ways. As is often the case, the technology to produce that effect followed.
Ironically, it’s gotten really easy for me to analyze movies in class at precisely the point where movies are losing their iconic power. Movies are less and less experienced on a huge screen, in a crowd sitting silently in a dark room, and more and more experienced at home, on computers or phones: less and less experienced in full, and more and more in clips. [1. It’s true the big screen blockbuster still exists, Avatar for example, but it’s more and more rare. 3-D movies, like Avatar, are an attempt to galvanize a flagging industry.] And at the same time, the form of subjectivity movies invented–the multiple, omniscient perspective shown in Saving Private Ryan– is now close to ubiquitous.
My ability to easily analyze movies parallels the rise of a new form of subjectivity the movies made possible. It’s not just a phenomenon of student distractibility, it’s a structural phenomenon of modern life
It’s probably happened before. For example, the profession of “English,” of literary critic, arose roughly at the same time as mass print, the 1860s-1870s. It’s the period when printed matter went from expensive to disposable, from mystified and exotic to common and unremarkable, and it’s at that point that a whole discipline arose to subject novels and essays to formal critique. Most of what the profession of English claimed to do, in its origins, was sort out the good from the bad: this is good literature, this is junk: this is art, this is trash. In other words, the profession’s questions and methods were appropriate to a sudden explosion in cheap print, and to a change in the technology’s meaning. It arose to make that world sensible.
The rise of “movie narrative” as a normative experience of daily life challenges people like me, steeped in a different form of attention, to reimagine how we work. I’m frankly not sure how to do it, or if I’m capable of doing it. Jeremiads are fun. But the life of the mind should be engaged in the real present, not pretending it’s twenty years ago.