January 15, 2010

cinema and post-representation

A conversation I had the other day turned my thoughts to post-representation. This post is about post-representation. Actually, these are more like preliminary notes on a subject I want to explore more. There will be little substance to this post and lots of disconnected musing (in other words, worth skipping*).

So, on to representation: most (all?) of film/art theory rests on representation; the image is approached as a representation of something, whether a personal artistic vision (auteurism), a broader cultural aesthetic (national cinema/artistic movements/so on), a symptom of a cultural context (multiculturalism/identity politics/so on), &c. The image itself is a representation of what is photographed (a face or a landscape or whatever happens to be in front of the camera). And so on. Art and symbolism and hermeneutics and it's all representation.

Well and good. What is post-representation? Let me describe how this subject came up: Dusty and I were debating. He said Brakhage's films were pre-linguistic; I said they were post-linguistic. No, Dusty argued, they are before language, they are before thought, they just are! Brakhage himself, I concede, will most likely consider himself pre-linguistical; his writing expresses his wish to achieve the magic of experience before language and all the surprises that the senses were in for. But no! I respond, Brakhage's films are only possible after language and after representation. Without language, how could we yearn for that time before language? Without representational cinema, how could we imagine a non-representational cinema? As you can see, I am obviously right, but we fought bitterly over it nonetheless.

Post-representation is about experience. Language is a representation of consciousness. Words name experiences (which include sensations and emotions and thoughts and probably more stuff). Understanding this gap between language and the inner-experience it represents teaches one to consider the experience rather than the representation. And consciousness is a far more broad, fluctuating, uncertain thing than representation.

Film (and art and pears and sex and everything, actually) is both representational and non-representational. When one consumes an image (in one's mind), one naturally analyzes it as and through representation, building on to it all sorts of meanings and contexts and things. But before that, beyond that, all around that, is the immanent conscious experience of the image -- the sensations one sensed and the feelings one felt. These experiences are what is turned into representation.

Your mind without thought -- that is experiential non-representation.

Now about cinema: the earliest theorists worked, for the most part, to describe what was experiential. Eisenstein, Epstein, Clair; montage, photogenie, cinema-pur -- these are theories about cinematic rhetoric, about which formal qualities create the most thrilling and awesome cinematic experiences. Although theories of representation were appearing in other arts and seeped into film theory, cinema was still young, still innocent. Theories of representation, however, sprouted like weeds with the emergence of semiotics and post-structuralism and psychoanalysis and other things many and absurd. Film (+art) became increasingly self-conscious about its representational qualities. Artists no longer created art -- instead they crafted feminist or Marxist or post-colonial critiques.

We are still in this paradigm today. It has grown up a bit, and has expanded alongside cultural criticism. With cultural criticism and identity politics, however, there has been a peculiar shift back to the experiential. Note this. Cultural criticism focuses on how the interpretation of a film (+art) is shaped by a person's cultural experience. It is still representational insofar as experience represents a cultural/historical context, but cultural criticism is looking once again at the non-representational.

Following my crude history, I ask the question: Will post-representational theories emerge?

I want to answer "yes" to this, considering it sounds like a fine project for a fellow like me, but I am not sure what a post-representational theory would look like. I list some observations below and hope that within them is a base to begin with---

Observations on post-representation

-if the emphasis is on conscious experience, description of this experience will be most important. Descriptions of experience must include descriptions of what is experienced (the film). I, who have always had a distaste for symbolic and representational readings of art, have noticed that in my own writing I strive for the detached and empirical -- jettisoned are the subjective descriptions (as in: "this film is sad") and totalizing overstatements (as in: "this film is a masterpiece" (blech)). One becomes scientific when dissecting one's own soul.

-this in mind, it seems there should be a renewed interest in film form and its various rhetorical effects.

-the representational and non-representational always intermingle. As language is shaped by experience, so too does language shape it. One's representational analysis of a film is just as important as one's non-representational experience of it. Representational film readings will not vanish; on the contrary, they will be important tools for shaping and expanding one's own conscious experience.

-artists, hip to the new post-representational phenomenon, will be freed from self-conscious representational critiques. They will explore new forms of perception. Filmmakers will be less intellectual (but don't have to be) and more physical -- a cinema-of-the-gut.

*You have now skipped my post. Thank you for stopping by!


Patrik said...

My perspective is that a post-representational experience is when you take an experience to it's subtlest state and then transcend that state. This results in leaving the experiencer with only himself to experience. Another way of expressing this is to call it transcendental consciousness, since one transcends everything relative.

I would also claim that it is possible to retain this transcendental consciousness along with waking consciousness, if one's physiology would become attuned to it.

Relating that to film... I would say a film that creates post-representational experiences, or transcendental consciousness, in the people who watches it, would be revolutionary.

Ian said...

Someone bites after all this time. Cool.

I am picky with words and am cautious, in particular, about using "transcendental" to describe anything. So I will ask you just what you mean when you talk about transcending a personal state/experience. Or, perhaps the better question to ask: What exactly is this state of experience one is transcending?

Throwing in my own response: insofar as our consciousness is defined by language, symbols, patterns, and meaningful abstractions, it is representational consciousness. Is a post-representational experience something which strips us of these abstractions? Are we then left with only the non-representational aspects of consciousness (emotions, sensations, &c.)? Are our non-representational aspects shaped and molded by representation (thus shaping a post-representation consciousness into something different from a pre-representation consciousness)?

Personal experience tells me that the representational and non-representational aspects of myself interact. Words shape my emotions, emotions shape my words.

I am musing too much, and responding to you too little.

"Relating that to film... I would say a film that creates post-representational experiences, or transcendental consciousness, in the people who watches it, would be revolutionary."

I don't know if any film can be designed in such a way; the differences in people are too great, and their responses to a film (whether they have post-representational experiences or not) is hard to predict.

But, if we say a film mimics conscious experience, one can make a film which does not directly speak to the representative aspect of the self. A film can remove language, sound, recognizable objects, &c. which would immediately be turned into representative correlations in a person's mind.

Which brings us back to Brakhage.

I am sorry for the long reply. I haven't really said anything, but just enjoy typing my ideas it seems (thus the blog). I am glad you have dug up an old post for me and hope you respond again. ^_^

Anonymous said...

Good post! Although I sometimes come across the term 'post-representation'(describing the contemporary experimental theater),I didn't find a good text about it so far.

I mostly agree with you. Just have one question. At the end you said:
'artists, hip to the new post-representational phenomenon, will be freed from self-conscious representational critiques. They will explore new forms of perception.'
Why do you oppose search for new forms of perception and self-consciousness? Do you think they exclude each other? If the narrative and representation are excluded from a work of art, does it mean that the questions about self-consciousness and (more generally) self-understanding become inappropriate/meaningless in the critique of such a work?

Thanks for the post and for the answer!

Ian said...

I want to say you misunderstand me on this point, but I am not completely sure I understand myself. As best as I can remember, this line at the end was a jab at tendencies in modern art, which is hyper-aware of its representational trappings. Artists, so my logic went, try too hard to shape the representational boundaries of their art.

In other words, I would rather an artist (a filmmaker for my example) focus on the nonrepresentational impact of his art (the immediate, emotional/physical reaction to the image) than the representational aspects of his art (what the image means within a broader narrative, any symbolism the image may have, any social critiques the image may try to make, any artistic boundaries the image may try push, &c.). To say it more broadly, I was sick at the time of artists who tried to "say something" with their work.

I do hope that clears up any questions you may have (although I am puzzled myself by my own post). I was not aware of "post-representation" being used to describe theater, and would be interested in hearing more about the subject.

Thank you for reading and commenting.