Category Archives: Media

In Memory of Robert Morris, 1931-2018

W. J. T. Mitchell


Robert Morris, one of the founders of the “Great Generation” of American minimalist artists in the 1960s and a frequent contributor to this journal, passed away on 28 November 2018. The New York Times (30 November) devoted a full page to his obituary, complete with photos of some of his iconic pieces in felt, plywood, and other humble industrial materials. Over the last twenty-five years, Critical Inquiry published many of his essays on art—its history, its many worlds, its follies and frustrations.  In honor of his long relationship with CI, we will be temporarily opening public access to all those essays soon.

Morris was also a longtime personal friend, mentor, and inspiration to the editor of this journal. We enjoyed a running conversation about art, politics, and culture, along with specific discussions of the essays he sent to us. He introduced me to contemporary art in the late 1980s, which probably jaundiced my normally hopeful eye. I wrote an essay (“Wall Labels for Robert Morris”) for the catalogue of his 1993 Guggenheim retrospective based on a dream diary entry that he sent to me.  He was also an occasional visitor to Chicago for exhibitions of his work at the Art Institute. And on 13 November 2013, when he was in somewhat precarious health, he agreed to come to Chicago to give a lecture/performance. He packed the 474-seat Logan Center Auditorium, dazzling the audience with four screens, two large ones with automated images, and two smaller ones that he controlled from two lecterns. Images from throughout the history of art cascaded forth as he proceeded, in steadfastly deadpan Morris fashion, to give two parallel lectures, the combination entitled “A Few Thoughts about Bombs, Tennis, Free Will, Agency Reduction, Museums, Dust Storms, and Labyrinths.” As I recall, one lecture was emphatically more negative than the other. Neither was what you would call positive or affirmative. From the lectern on stage right, Bob declared his refusal

to talk about art that I made half a century ago; minimalism does not need to hear from me. I do not want to talk about art that I made yesterday; contemporary art is making enough noise without me. I do not want to be filmed in my studio, pretending to be working. I do not want to participate in staged conversations about art, either mine or others, past or present, which are labored and disguised performances. I do not want to be interviewed by curators, critics, art directors, theorists, aestheticians, aesthetes, professors, collectors, gallerists, culture mavens, journalists, or art historians, about my influences, favorite artists, despised artists, past artists, current artists, or future artists. A long time ago I got in the habit, never since broken, of writing down things instead of talking. It is possible that I was led into art making because art making and being in the presence of another person were not requirements.

Moving over to stage left after a reflection on free will and determinism  (“Now comes the hard part”), Bob switched from sardonic monologue to a Samuel-Beckett-style dialogue between two mysterious interlocutors:

One:  “Ever hear the expression, ‘I have reached bed rock and my spade is turned’”?

Other:  “Maybe. Why?”

One: “What do you think it means?”

Other:  “Metaphors don’t have meanings.”

One: “Really?”

Other: “They just lead us to see one thing as another.”

One: “Hmmm.  So where is the spade and rock leading you? Not the rock or the spade but the turning. The turning after it hit the fucking rock.”

Other: “OK, the turning. Where is it leading you? Something about going on without reasons.  You never have reasons anyway.”

One:  “There is more.”

Other:  “Oh, no.”

One: “The way it goes is to begin with a qualification.”

Other:  “Let’s hear it.”

One: “It goes, ‘I’m inclined to say,’ and then you get to the rock and spade.”

Other:  “Well, that changes everything.”

At the end, Bob agreed to answer exactly ten questions from the audience, no more, no less. The answers were all quotations from famous philosophers written on slips of paper drawn out of Bob’s hat. In answer to the question, “what are you really trying to say in this performance?” Bob luckily pulled out a line of John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing”:  “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.”

I won’t try to make sense of all this for you. Bob’s critical intentions always seemed directed at puncturing the clichés of “artspeak” and the mystique of artist “personalities.” He loved labyrinths of thought, continually weaving metaphysics and everyday language. His sensibility was unrelentingly pessimistic, ironic, and quietly jocular, poised somewhere between Buster Keaton, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and George Carlin. In private, he was a gentle, considerate friend, with a deep reservoir of rage at cruelty, injustice, and pompous hypocrisy.

The first time I met him was at his invitation, sometime in the late 1980s. He had read my recently published book Iconology and wrote me a short note telling me that he liked it and would be  happy to meet me if I ever came to New York. He mentioned in a PS that he had a show at the Art Institute of Chicago, which I duly attended. It was the debut of one of his numerous departures from his minimalist origins into a maximalist exploration of apocalyptic firestorm paintings laminated onto heated lead plates, framed in hydrocal structures riddled with impressions of body parts—fists, penises, skulls.

Robert Morris, Untitled, 1984.

I suspect that I pissed Bob off when I said that “they look like ornaments suitable for Darth Vader’s boudoir,”[1]but he seems to have forgiven me. I felt that the firestorm compositions were staging a paragone or debate between sculpture and painting, “insisting on the frame as an equal partner in the work”:

The hydrocal frames with their imprinted body parts and post-holocaust detritus stand as the framing ‘present’ of the works, trophies or relics encrusted around the past event, the catastrophe that left the fossils as the imprints in which it is enframed.  Frame is to image as body is to the destructive element, as present is to past.[2]

On my next trip to New York, I arranged to meet Bob for coffee at 4 PM at a café in Soho.  We didn’t stop talking until midnight. For the next twenty years, every trip to New York included a meal with him. When he moved his studio to upstate New York, he let me use his top-floor loft on Greene Street as a crash pad, and I spent many lovely evenings there sitting out on the fire escape watching the crowds on Canal Street and the sunset over the cast iron buildings of Soho.

Most of our correspondence over the years dealt with his writing, but twice I was able to commission works of art from him. One was an illustrative cartoon for a lecture at MoMA entitled “How the dinosaurs broke into the Museum of Modern Art,” which dealt with issues such as neglected and deaccessioned holdings in the museum, as well as (naturally) Robert Smithson. MoMA’s director politely suggested that the museum would be happy if I were to give them Bob’s drawing as a gift, and I just as politely declined to do so.

Cartoon by Robert Morris and the author.

The other, more serious commission was my request in 2008 that Bob make a drawing that would show the famous multistable image of the Duck-Rabbit with a body. He provided a straightforward sculptor’s answer to the challenge by resorting to the time honored technique of contrapposto, turning the creature’s body so that the rabbit is facing forward while the duck is twisting his body 180 degrees.

Robert Morris.

But he added to the image an internal framing structure based on the Greimasian “Square of Opposition” used by linguists to visualize the structures of negative statements, and later used by Jacques Lacan to produce his famous “L-Schema” depicting the relation of the subject with the Other. He mused about fabricating the Duck-Rabbit (with body) in glass, but I don’t know that he ever did.   

After he sent me the embodied Duck-Rabbit drawing, Bob launched into a set of reflections on this “quadratic diagram” in a letter that will forever tantalize me with its plunge into a world of abstractions rendered concrete, visible, and structural, driven by his inveterate “Kunstwolling,” his drive to make ideas into things and vice versa:

12 December 2008

Dear Tom,
I hope your talk went well.  Your visit here gave me a real lift. Our visits are too infrequent.
I was thinking about how to expand the quadratic ideogram to something like a quadratic equation; something which moves from a static map to a mapping of 3-D force fields. Desire gets expanded from just directional arrows-Eros to the animating axial force. So let Desire be the force moving from below where it transits first the Quadratic Ideogram of space-object and image-language. Here predilection, imagination, tropism cross the first filter/screen of the material.  The next level-screen-filter is that of the Other where the dream of private language perishes, where Desire encounters existing models, where the Oedipal resistance of that which is “always already” in place intimidates. The third passage is Desire’s move through the triangular filter of Peircean signs of concrete material means where one seizes the stuff of forming (am I just Kunstwolling along here below a big mental model which I want to grasp?). The fourth and final filter to be crossed is that of Rhetoric/Logic. Here I do not have a clear memory of how you articulated this opposition. I can see it partly as taking the form of a Klein group (x-not-x; x-not-y;x-not-x or y, etc). This fourth level is also that of format and revision and where revenge is taken on the Other by means of signing and presenting the work-thought-object-art .
All this is extremely tentative. I don’t know the geometry of the four levels–squares? triangles? circles?
I thought you might be able to (a) play/expand/refine this quadratic equation,or (b) rip it to shreds.

As Morris’s apprentice, editor, and friend, I found these exchanges endlessly delicious and inconclusive, a wonderful meal that left me with renewed appetite for more. The idea that there will be no more conversations of this sort left me desolate and blue all day, until I received the following note of condolence from my old friend and former student, John Ricco, quoting from Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo’s book Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship:

No end, I swear by all that is holy, only the silence in between the movements. You know those silences in which the educated audience members at concerts don’t applaud? Because they know it is a ‘movement’ that’s just ended and not the end of a song? I think or hope that’s what death is. The silence between movements; those who don’t know any better applaud, but those who know music more intimately sit in silence and wait for the next movement to begin.









[1]Actually, I was quoting my wife, Janice Misurell Mitchell, who didn’t like them nearly as much as I did.

[2]W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago, 1994).

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Filed under Arts, Critical Inquiry, Media, Uncategorized, WJT Report

The Seductive Killing Screen

Rachael Thompson


In 2008, the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) uploaded a video of a missile strike conducted by an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to The one minute 18 second video has 2.7 million views as of May 2013. Anyone with an internet connection can watch short, tightly edited videos that include munitions strikes resulting in death. A typical UAV video is a low-contrast dark grey video image in a small video window. The subject of the video is an incomprehensible mass of swirling pixels that vanish in a flash. For example, watch this video: An interested audience member can follow links to more videos of strangers being blown up by Predator, Reaper, and Apache helicopters. Over and over again, I can watch little rectangles dissolve in clouds of black. Devoid of narration or text, the videos are ambiguous. The formal qualities of the videos produce a sense of texture and little else. If many people thought the events of 11 September 2001 felt more like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie than real life, UAV videos are more like the peeping tom’s camera shoved in a hole in a bathroom wall that seduce the viewer to looking closer at scenes of killing.

In her description of haptic cinema, Laura U. Marks describes a way of viewing that “puts the object into question, calling on the viewer to engage in its imaginative construction. Haptic images pull the viewer close, too close to see properly, and this itself is erotic.” The pixelated textures of UAV videos obscure the gruesome imagery of people being blown to pieces. There is no blood, no body parts, no fire.  Instead, the viewer sees incomprehensible shapes and textures that appear, disappear, and swirl around in a sea of grey pixels. In this seductive way, UAV strike videos pull the viewer in, face close to the screen, and seduce him or her into watching intimate scenes of horrific violence. UAV kill videos are a dirty thrill that can be accessed from the comfort of your home. 

Drones operate in a curious space of both distance and proximity. The distant war is brought incredibly close to drone operators and image analysts. In a Benjaminian sense, drones are the ultimate form of mechanical reproduction. Drones bring their subjects closer but completely remove the authenticity of the subject. Benjamin calls the “aura” of movie stars the “phony spell of the commodity.” The subjects of drone strikes often have the “spell of the terrorist.” For long shifts, drone operators and image analysts watch video feeds from areas where the US government has decided there might be terrorists. The operators may observe the same family over the course of several days or weeks watching for suspicious activity or waiting for the women and children to leave before a strike is ordered. Watch the video again. How do the operators on the kill chain know what they are looking at? How do operators sort through the hours and hours of collected footage to determine with the certainty that allows them to end a life that the person they are looking at is a terrorist? The interpretation of the images is already partially determined by the controllers of the image-making technology.

The United States is engaged in multiple conflicts where the use of UAVs is, as Leon Panetta famously quipped, “the only game in town.” Much has been written and said about the use of UAVs, including investigations of the moral and legal implications of fighting wars from a distance, the benefits to United States military personnel, and, to a much lesser extent, the physical and psychological impact on drone-monitored communities. One comparison that is frequently made is that operating UAVs is like playing a video game. The implication is that UAV operators can behave like video game players and detachedly kill enemies. While the apparatus of a UAV does share similarities with a video game such as screens, buttons, and joysticks, the experience of looking is quite different.

UAV operators resist the comparison between their job and video games. Instead, they comment on the closeness they experience in the course of performing their jobs. In the New York Times, UAV operators talk about watching families for hours, getting to know their routines, and perhaps even coming to identify with them a little. In addition, UAV operators feel a sense of closeness with their deployed counterparts. UAV camera technology allows the operator to have a strong sense of being-there through visual proximity. They watch over troops. They communicate with troops on the ground during take-offs, landings, and strikes. While people on the ground have a limited view, a UAV operator appears to have unlimited visibility. From their seats in remote US locations, UAV operators appear to have access to an all-seeing eye, but instead, they actively participate in the imaginative construction of terrorists.

When you are looking for terrorists, everyone can be a terrorist. The choice to send drones to a particular place to look for particular behaviors constrains what can be apprehended by drone operators. In one particularly vivid account recounted by Gregory in his 2011 article “From a view to a kill: Drones and late modern war”, drone operators who were providing air support for ground troops identified a group of people as militants, possibly Taliban. A strike was authorized. In the aftermath, the targets turned out to be women, children, and families. Jonathan Landay (2013) utilizes US intelligence reports to sharply contrast the Obama administration’s discourse of precision with the deaths of people who were inaccurately identified as terrorists. Landay identifies the following inconsistencies of precision: groups targeted were not on a list of terrorist groups prior to the 9-11 attacks, many who are killed are unidentified individuals, approximately half of the people killed in attacks Landay reviewed were not al Qaeda but simply determined by the US military to be extremists, and finally, drone operators have difficulty making identifications when men dress similarly and openly and routinely carry weapons. 

Mechanically recorded images are not mere documents; they are framed in multiple ways. Drone images are framed first by the choice of where to deploy them. The images are then framed by what the administration and military hope to find. The operators of drones are on the hunt for terrorists and therefore they find terrorists everywhere they look. Viewers are drawn into the seductive killing screen to see whatever they want to see in these mechanically produced and reproduced images of more anonymous deaths conducted by an increasingly barbaric state.  

Rachael Thompson is a MA candidate in communication at University of Colorado Denver. Her research interests include media erotics and vernacular media texts. She is particularly interested in texts that cross boundaries and create discomfort.

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June 17, 2013 · 8:43 pm


“If I knew what the picture was going to be like I wouldn’t make it. It was almost like it was made already… the challenge is more about trying to make what you can’t think of.” – Cindy Sherman

“The writer is entitled to his boomboom.” – Tristan Tzara

What follows is intended to distinguish videopoetry from poetry films, film poetry, poemvideos, poetry videos, cyber-poetry, cine-poetry, kinetic poetry, digital poetry, poetronica, filming of poetry and other unwieldy neologisms, which have been applied, at one time or another, to describe the treatment of poetry in film and video but which have also developed different and divergent meanings.

The democratization of the medium realized by the introduction of video technology has, in the last 25 years, only sharpened the initial art vs entertainment debate; in particular, the movement of poetry to the “big screen” has exposed two conflicting positions – one demystifying the poem by complementary “visuals”, the other augmenting the suggestive power of poetry by unexpected juxtapositions.

The underlying dichotomy opposes videopoetry – I envision the measured integration of narrative, non- narrative and anti-narrative juxtapositions of image, text and sound as resulting in a poetic experience – to works which publish poems (voiced or displayed on-screen) in video format. While the latter are to be commended for bringing a new audience to poetry, their use of imagery as embellishments to (if not direct illustrations of) the text, their preference to employ narrative over self-reflexive sequences, their rejection of contrast, fragmentation, the incongruous and the dissonant, prevent these works from being considered as models for a new genre of technology-assisted poetry.


“Transformations in expression and in modes of communication cannot exist without influencing the transformation of poetry itself.” – Jean-Marie Gleize

Of its definition.
Videopoetry is a genre of poetry displayed on a screen, distinguished by its time-based, poetic juxtaposition of images with text and sound. In the measured blending of these three elements, it produces in the viewer the realization of a poetic experience.

Presented as a multimedia object of a fixed duration, the principal function of a videopoem is to demonstrate the process of thought and the simultaneity of experience, expressed in words – visible and/or audible – whose meaning is blended with, but not illustrated by, the images and the soundtrack.


“Progress in any aspect is a movement through changes of terminology.” – Wallace Stevens

Of the term.
Videopoetry is one word; it is not separated or hyphenated. As one word, it indicates that a fusion of the visual, the verbal and the audible has occurred, resulting in a new, different form of poetic experience. As one word, it recognizes that a century of experiments with poetry in film and video – poems introduced to motion pictures as intertitles, then as kinetic texts, as images illustrating voiced texts (some excluding visual or voiced text entirely), poems performed in front of a camera, poems as text superimposed over images – is the narrative of a gradual movement from the tenuous, anxious relationship of image and text to their rare but perceptible synthesis, i.e., from poetry films to film poems to poetry videos to videopoetry.
As an amalgam of Latin (video) and Greek (poetry) origins, “videopoetry” combines the best of two classical traditions: making poetry with technological innovation.
As a closed compound noun, “video” not only functions to modify “poetry”, it alters its meaning. Therefore, videopoetry is more than a term of convenience; it asserts that a poem is being created without the linear story-telling style of many “poetry videos” (which are made primarily to promote poems in print, using images directly representing the descriptions and actions in the text and are assembled in the conventional narrative form of movie-making). While a videopoem is, in fact, a “movie”, its intention is to provide an alternative that is non-narrative, sometimes anti-narrative, even ante- narrative.

Of its constraints.
Text, displayed on-screen or voiced, is an essential element of the videopoem. A work which does not contain visible or audible text could be described as poetic, as an art film or video art, but not as a videopoem.
Imagery in a videopoem – including on-screen text – does not illustrate the voiced text.


“I tried constantly to find something which would not recall what had happened before.” – Marcel Duchamp

Of narrativity.
Videopoetry recognizes that narrative moments – whether presented as individual elements or a combination of text, image or sound – encourage the viewer’s engagement; to sustain the poetic experience, some narrativity is necessary as a structural device. (A non-narrative element juxtaposed with another non-narrative element for an extended period of time may result in distancing the viewer from the work.) From scene to scene, narrativity propels the work forward, providing context for the viewer during the process of the poetic experience. The distance traveled, the time elapsed, the voices heard, the images seen, are measured out with what best suits the poetic direction of a particular moment – the awareness that when the narrative moment has reached its usefulness, a deliberate disruption must occur, must appear, must sever the forward movement toward which the narrative will always conspire. The viewer’s expectations of eventfulness are, by turns, satisfied and subverted; meaning is eventually derived from the effect of the repeated movement from the narrative to the non- narrative elements of the work.

“Bringing together two things into a previously untried juxtaposition is the surest way of developing new vision.”– Andre Breton

Of poetic juxtaposition.
In the assembly (editing or “montage”) phase, syntactical decisions are made to render image-text-sound juxtapositions as a metaphor for simultaneous “meanings” which the viewer interprets as a poetic experience. These decisions are based on presenting the 3 elements as distant realities (often arrived at through chance operations) whose relationship strikes the viewer as surprising, as always new. It is imperative that the juxtapositions be consistently perceived as suggestive of indirect relationships – mysterious, oneiric.
The success of each syntactical decision is achieved when the distant realities – the ambiguous or enigmatic relationship of a particular image to a portion of text, for example – are not so distant as to cause disengagement with the work. The key to a successfully executed poetic juxtaposition is balance, the weighing of image-text relationships for their suggestive, rather than illustrative qualities, the determining of durations, the positioning and appearance of text, the treatment of colour, the layering of the soundtrack, the acceleration or deceleration of elements, etc. Balance, in this scheme, is the demonstration of control over the narrative impulse.


“In film, poetry is opposed to reality.”– LuisBunuel

Of the poetic experience.
Videopoetry recognizes the power of video for producing and communicating unprecedented and unlimited associations between image, text and sound.
The viewer is presented with non-illustrative juxtapositions of image, text and sound. As the work gradually unfolds, it is perceived that the visual (image and/or displayed text) and audible (sound and/or voiced text) elements are fragmented expressions of the artist’s imagination, suggestive of meaning, yet denying clarification of the purported meaning – a teasing, vertiginous exploration of desire.
When the introduction of these fragmented expressions causes an impediment to the narrative flow, the viewer will either surrender to the symmetry of the disruptions – and participate in the adventure – or disengage and “tune out”. Provided that the image-text-sound juxtapositions exhibit a pleasing balance between narrative and non-narrative moments – achieved through strategic, self-referential disruptions, a demonstration of awareness of the spatial and temporal relationships between elements, intentional repetitions, etc. – a viewer will experience their sense of time suspended or blurred.
Tension and repose, the “ebb and flow” of narrative and non-narrative moments, may also be interpreted by the viewer as simultaneity made manifest, while the complexity and significance of relationships between the presented elements – as in dreams, for instance – may have to wait to be resolved.


“Always the precious repetition for the joy of recognition.”– Oyvind Fahlström

Of rhythm.
The poetry in a videopoem is characterized by a discernible rhythm, but it is different from the traditional written or oral form of poetry: it’s not limited to an attribute of the text element.
Rhythm is the effect produced by the introduction and the subsequent duration of a new portion of image, text or sound in the process of assembling the work.
Videopoetry also exhibits internal rhythms; enveloped in each appearance of a series of images, on- screen text or sounds, the viewer discerns patterns specific to the element presented.
Repetition – as a visual or audible device – produces the most effective signalling of the presence of poetry. Its many functions include emphasis, self-reflection, division, regulation or suspension of time, even a hypnotic quality (especially when prolonged); it is most useful in sustaining the rhythmic structure and the poetic experience of a work.

“The purpose of art is to ask questions.”– Lawrence Weiner

Of illustration.
To see an image as a representation of the audible text or to hear the words as they are displayed on the screen violates the premise that poetic juxtaposition is the presentation of distant realities; inevitably, the viewer is prevented from forming their own imaginative associations between the elements presented, resulting in the demystification of these associations, diminishing the poetic quality and experience of the work.

Of collaboration.
The videopoet is a poet, filmmaker and sound artist combined.
Videopoetry recognizes that production logistics sometimes require a team of individuals to cooperate during the creation of a work; the genre accommodates both individual and collaborative work, provided that the work exhibits a unified vision.

Of duration.
Whether composed of multiple scenes or one continuous shot, a videopoem longer than 300 seconds faces the challenge of sustaining the poetic experience of the viewer. The videohaiku (approx. 30 seconds) uses a few words of text attached to the shortest duration of images.


“Plotless film is poetic film.” –VictorShklovsky

Of categories.

Differentiated by their use of text, there are 5 major categories of videopoems:





KINETIC TEXT is the animation of text over a neutral background.
Continuing the ongoing experimentation with text as an aesthetic object, these works owe much to concrete and patterned poetry in their style – the use of different fonts, sizes and colours, strategic spatial positioning, self-referentiality – simultaneously presenting text as image.
By virtue of its equal acceptance of the semantic and non-semantic, as well as its ability to demonstrate the destruction, reconstruction and transformation of static words or letters into “characters” which move (in both senses of the word), the category represents the “prototype” of a videopoem.

SOUND TEXT presents the text on the soundtrack.
Juxtaposed with the video images on the screen, it is expressed through the human voice.
Of the five categories of videopoetry, this form (with or without music) – is the most popular, due to the facility of working within the traditional form of video/film, i.e., using the voice as the chief mode of text presentation and juxtaposition with images and other sounds (e.g., music, chant, sound effects, etc.) – without the additional difficulty presented by visual text.

VISUAL TEXT displays the text on-screen, superimposed over images captured or found.
Charged with leading the genre, this category presents the most significant challenge to videopoetry.
For the engaged viewer, the complex relationships and multiplicity of meanings suggested by juxtapositions of on-screen text with curious, non-illustrative images make extraordinary imaginative leaps not only possible, but automatic.

PERFORMANCE is the on-screen appearance of the poet, or designated poet (actor), speaking directly or indirectly into the camera. Of the five categories, it is the most problematic: the poet/performer is perceived as the intermediary between the viewer and the poem, possibly demystifying the process of presentation. (Excluding the form of sound poetry, there are many excellent, emotionally moving representations of “verbal art”, but they are only that – re-presentations of poems, not the poems.) In a videopoem, on-screen appearances only succeed by virtue of their visual expression (i.e., eccentric body language)and their juxtaposition – within the image frame – with a background suggesting a unique, unusual “setting” for the performance.

CIN(E)POETRY is the videopoem wherein the text is animated and/or superimposed over graphics, still or moving images that are “painted” or modified with the assistance of computer software, e.g., Photoshop, Flash or the 3D modelling and animation features in Second Life, the online virtual world. It closely resembles VISUAL TEXT, except the imagery has a computer-generated or modified appearance. The parenthesized “e” (electronic) was introduced by George Aguilar, who works most often in this form.

Individual works may overlap and exhibit combinations of categories.

Of image and the displayed (on-screen) text.
Videopoetry does not differentiate between camera-captured and found images (appropriated from another source or format); the genre accommodates both.
Videopoetry does not differentiate between concrete (representational) and abstract (non- representational) content in images; the genre accommodates both.
Abstract images – extreme close-ups of objects, details of hand-made or computer-generated paintings, out of focus or gel-covered lens shots – enable text elements to be placed almost anywhere on the screen; the more the text stands out in contrast to the image, the more it receives the viewer’s immediate attention, takes precedence over and assigns to the abstract image a supportive role, that of the background, moving or not. The more the text is blended with an abstract image, the more the viewer is required to consider a more subtle relationship between the two.
Concrete images require a different approach to displayed text: a still object in a motionless frame provides surfaces and edges, horizontal, vertical, oblique and curved lines as potential text-spaces; a moving object in a motionless frame restricts text-space to empty areas.

Of image and special effects.
Advancements in graphic design have refined image-text relationships to the degree that videopoetry, in terms of innovative juxtapositions, has followed the latest “cutting-edge” commercial/advertising methods with interest; while some effects, such as floating text or text crawl are still useful, other “high- end” flip-swoop-wrap-zoom-spin-shake dynamics so clearly refer to product promotion that they have acquired a secondary symbolic value: the commodification of society.
As alluded to above, videopoetry accommodates both modified and unmodified images; whether an image is to be modified or not will always depend on the effectiveness of its juxtaposition with text and sound.
Of the countless effects in post-production (the editing and assembling of the work), two transitions have proven invaluable: the dissolve and the fade. Both affect the viewer’s perception of time.
The (cross) dissolve – the superimposition of one image over another – presents two scenes (one ending, one beginning) simultaneously; as one of the most common transition effects, it is used primarily to indicate that a period of time has elapsed between the two scenes.
In videopoetry, when the superimposition is prolonged, it produces a sustained experience of time suspended while simultaneously signalling the uncontrolled state of dreaming. (Related to these, a freeze-frame can also be seen as a device that “stops” time, while the split-screen effect enables the viewer to follow two scenes on the screen simultaneously; yet both are of lesser poetic value than the dissolve or the fade.)
The fade (or fade-to-black) is used to indicate an end to a scene, usually followed by a fade-in to introduce the next scene; in videopoetry, we can interpret this effect as the blink of an eye or – when it’s prolonged – the shutting of the eyes, followed by “re-awakening” to a new “world” (or at least a new context/scene in the videopoem).

Of image and motion.
In the process of filming, the camera is either locked in position (the still shot), moving with a fluid, tracking motion or is hand-held. Of these three, the still and fluid-motion shot will not cause a disengagement with the work; the hand-held camera shot is more problematic.
The unstable image of the hand-held shot becomes a constant reminder of the operation (and operator) behind the camera; every possible accident of the moment becomes magnified, leaving the viewer unsure whether drawing attention to camera movement is an oversight or an intentional ‘self-referential disruption’. Of these accidents, it can be argued that an element of chance should be always brought into play, as it may produce the most unexpected trophies of “found” imagery. The final decision to include or exclude hand-held shots is determined by their function in the balance act of poetic juxtaposition. Accelerated motion is often associated with a comic scene; in a videopoem, depending on whether the action recorded is for atmospheric or illustrative use, the time-lapse effect can be more forgiving.
Slow motion appeals to videopoetry for a number of reasons: the effect suggests a gradual suspension of time; a dream-like state is evoked; action unfolds like a painting; a perception of reality is emphasized. In the structure of the videopoem, it functions as punctuation.

“Words would be redundant in film if they were used as a further projection from the image. However, if they were brought in on a different level, not issuing from the image, but as another dimension relating to it, then it is the two things together that make a poem.” – Maya Deren

Of text.
Videopoetry recognizes that text has the unique capacity to deliver the signs of abstract objects (ideas) as well as concrete objects to the viewer; as such, it performs the most essential function in a videopoem – to provide the ideal counterpoint to the elements of image and sound.
Videopoetry recognizes that text – due to its capacity to be displayed on the screen (i.e. freed from its fixity on the page), found in a captured image or voiced on the soundtrack – is in the propitious position of enabling the viewer to experience poetry in a time-based visual form; it is the essential catalyst in the transformation of a work from “poetic” to poetry.
Typically, text is written for the videopoem; in some cases it is “found” and repurposed for the videopoem.
Used in a videopoem, a previously composed/published poem represents only one element of the videopoem, the text element. The “poetry” in videopoetry is the result of the judicious juxtaposition of text with image and sound.
When the text is borrowed from a previously composed/published poem, it must be that the artist has discovered a new function for the pre-existing text, based on its juxtaposition with certain imagery, or a certain soundtrack.
In its visual/displayed form, text is “looked at” before read.
The looked-at text applies the strategies derived from concrete poetry, typography, graphic design and motion graphics. Fonts, the characters of type, are selected for their clarity and suggestiveness, always in relation to the image presented on the screen. Positioning, motion, duration and method of appearance (positing by dissolve, pop or typewriter effect, for example) are similarly considered in relation to the image presented on the screen.
While the demonstration of the variety and versatility of text treatment is proof that new ways of seeing words performs a poetic function, effects are not prerequisites of videopoetry.
In the relentless manipulations of the appearance of text – from the textured to the malleable, from the casually handwritten to the finely-chiseled 3-D reflective surfaces – there is a tendency to be preoccupied with the materiality of the written word, sometimes at the expense of “meaning”.
Read or meaning-driven text, wherein the appearance of words is of lesser importance, narrows the context of the moment, favouring interior effects over superficial effects. It is the strategic balance of appearance and meaning – in addition to the ‘judicious juxtaposition’ with images and sound – that produces the “poetry” in a videopoem.


“Where you have music that doesn’t imitate what’s on the screen, but goes against it… is far more interesting than anything imitative.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Of sound.
Videopoetry recognizes that the use of a “soundtrack” significantly augments the sensory perception of the work; as such, it provides the ideal counterpoint to the elements of image and text in assisting the viewer to process the effect or meaning of juxtapositions.
The soundtrack is not a prerequisite of videopoetry (silence is an effect and a syntactical decision), but its presence contributes to a richness of effects and meanings.
The three “branches” of the auditory capacity of the soundtrack are: voiced text, music and sound effects. Videopoetry does not differentiate between voiced and displayed text; the genre accommodates both. Voiced text intensifies the videopoem with its range of expression: the “real” voice of the poet provides an authentic connection to the creator of the work; affected or natural, loud or soft, slurred or modulated, metallic or cloyingly sweet, passionate or dull, nasal or throaty, the voice of a nightingale or the filtered voice on the phone, the human voice colours the text with nuance.
On the sound track, the bridge between voiced text and music is occupied by what is commonly termed sound poetry. Of all the various “imports” or repurposed forms of poetry, these vocalizations emphasize more aural than semantic qualities and have proved most compatible with the non-narrative objectives of videopoetry: the declamations, the chants, the recitations of “nonsense words” provide a natural counterpoint when juxtaposed with abstract images.
Music is a considered, measured “device” in videopoetry; it can be used minimally or sporadically, overlapping or underlying selected segments. In certain cases, it can be assigned the more demanding task of delivering the entire soundtrack of the work, from beginning to end, in the form of a score.
Prior to, at the point of, or immediately after a juxtaposition (the introduction of a new element – image, text or voice), music’s primary function is to intensify, diminish or eliminate the emotional content of a particular “scene”, thereby altering the viewer’s interpretation of the meaning of the content.
Music which happens to be present during the shooting (diagetic music) serves to identify the content of a scene as narrative content.
Use of music segments exemplifying specific cultural associations provides cues for the viewer to identify supplemental meanings in the work.
While music tends to emphasize, accent and generally support narrative scenes, sound effects in videopoetry are more often than not isolated, disruptive gestures used to highlight incongruous image- text juxtapositions while contributing dissonance to the internal rhythm of the soundtrack.

Concept videopoems.
Concept or conceptual videopoems focus on the materiality of language, exclude narrative and tend to hold little of intentional semantic value; “meaning” is attributed to the process of presentation, which follows a pre-conceived formula (the idea), often executed in a methodical technical manner.
The dominating element is text; its content is gathered from sourced information: found phrases, statements, lists, etc.
The text element in these works is strong on context but stripped of emotive value.
The viewer may not perceive development or change of perspective throughout the work, as heightening or diminishing effects are superseded by the intention to present an object of examination – the process of presentation – in a pure self-referential state.

Of translation.
Texts in videopoems should be provided in multiple languages; in DVD format, the viewer should be able to select the preferred language. SOUND TEXT videopoems should provide translation as subtitles, optimized for legibility: white, sans-serif font on a separate display below the screen or yellow with black outline at the bottom of the screen.
In the subtitling process, the accurate synchronization of audio and subtitle is essential.
VISUAL TEXT videopoems should provide translation on a separate display below the screen; if the visual text is one or two words, the subtitle should be positioned close to the side of the on-screen text. The subtitles should be synchronized to appear with the on-screen text.
In cases where the foreign language uses both SOUND TEXT and VISUAL TEXT, the subtitles of the VISUAL TEXT should be synchronized to appear with the on-screen text, using a colour different from the SOUND TEXT subtitles.

© 2011 Tom Konyves


Grateful thanks to all who made this possible.
In the spring of 1978, my friends Endre Farkas and Ken Norris, of our ‘group of 7’ – The Vehicule Poets – for their participation in my first videopoem, Sympathies of War. Herman Berlandt, Director of the San Francisco Poetry Film Workshop, who drew a line in the sand when he informed me that he wouldn’t look at Sympathies of War because ‘We don’t recognize video. We work only in film.’ Michael Konyves, aged 7, who performed as General Misunderstanding in Ubu’s Blues and held signs in See/Saw. Steve McCaffery. Stephen Morrissey, who published my essay on videopoetry in The Insecurities of Art, 1981. Heather Haley, Vancouver media artist, Visible Verse festival curator, faithful supporter for many years. Vancouver videopoet Susan Cormier, for her confidence in this work. Dean of Arts, Jacqueline Nolte, whose encouragement led to Word and Image, a course in visual creative writing at the University of the Fraser Valley. Brad Whittaker, Research Office, UFV. Kin spirit, George Aguilar, whose archive of video poems and cin(e)poetry in San Francisco was invaluable to my research. David Jhave Johnston, multimedia/digital poet of the exquisite short, for his funnybone and suggestions for order. Chicago video artist, e-poet and theoretician, Kurt Heintz, for the endless hours of inspired discussion. Richard Kostelanetz, for access to his home and his many works in and on this genre. Javier Robledo, organizer of the Videobardo Videopoetry Festival and Archive in Buenos Aires, for VIP hospitality and five days of screenings. William C. Wees, Professor Emeritus of English at McGill University in Montreal, editor of The Canadian Journal of Film Studies, for his generosity to discuss some aspects of this at length and introducing me to David Foster’s work on adapting poetry to film, Toronto filmmaker Richard Hancox’ Waterworx, Peter Todd, filmmaker and curator of the London Film Poems Series, and Arthur Lipsett’s Very Nice, Very Nice. Al Razutis for Visual Essays. Thomas Zandegiacomo Del Bel, for access to the vast archive at the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. The Hungarian connection, Tibor Papp, Paul Nagy and George Galantai’s amazing documentation and research centre, Artpool in Budapest. Eduard Escoffet, for his work in sonorous poetry in Barcelona. Lionel Kearns, a pioneer and friend, and Jim Andrews, vispo, for rescuing bp nichol’s First Screening. George Bowering, for his performance in Lost in the Library. Michael Snow, for So Is This. Toronto Intermedia artist, W. Mark Sutherland, for his encouragement from the start. Eric Cassar, for inventing the videohaiku. Visual poet and meta-blogger, Geof Huth, for asking all the right questions. Ron Silliman, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, critic, Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere, for the kick-start to this. Tony Trehy, for the Text Festival evening of videopoetry in Bury. UK artwriter extraordinaire, Tamarin Norwood, for her near-translations and in-sightful comments. Portuguese video artist, Rui Silveira, for translating Oyvind Fahlström into a one-sentence videopoem. Finnish videopoet, Jani Sipila, for spreading the word. Eduardo Kac, multimedia, communications and biological artist, for including E.M. de Melo e Castro’s essay on videopoetry in MEDIA POETRY, Poetic Innovation and New Technologies. Fil Ieropoulos and Chris Funkhauser for historical analysis. Chicago poet, Francesco Levato for works from the Split This Rock Festival. Linden Ontjes, Larissa Moore, for access to Reel to Real, Seattle. Bart Testa for feedback and guidance concerning issues related to screen text. Alex Konyves, for his continued technical assistance. Martin Borycki, for mind-bending distractions. Jack Velvet, CITR, for providing hypnotic musical support. Gary Hill, whose early experiments were most instructive. Mel Vapour, East Bay Media Center, Berkeley. Enzo Minarelli, 3ViTre Archivio di Polipoesia, Cento, Italy. Parisian poet, researcher, Jean Pierre Balpe, for La Poésie Vidéo ou Vidéo Poésie. Dave Bonta, for the Moving Poems forum. Sarah Tremlett, for her continued support. German filmmaker Ralf Schmerberg, who proved that 19 poems from the German literary canon can be brought to the big screen as a feature film, Poem. Nico Vassilakis. Jérôme Game. Manuel Portela. Juan F. Egea. John M Bennett/Nicolas Carras. Gary Sherwin. Gary Barwin. Joel Baird. Caterina Davinio. Hubert Sielecki. Victoria Messi. Eric Gamalinda. Nick Carbo.
Special thanks to my wife, Marlene, my terra firma.


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The Arts of Occupation:  A Call for Crowd Sourcing

Critical Inquiry announces a call to assemble a virtual archive of the Arts of Occupation.  We invite our readers to send images in all media, as well as links, anecdotes, brief essays, reports, games, scripts for performance, and videos that will document the aesthetic as well as the tactical and political side of practices of occupation.  We are interested in the “creative” aspect of the global occupation movement, the ways in which it produces new forms of spectacle, space, face, and inscription.  We are asking for our readers’ aesthetic judgments, not just their political views.  What images and statements have impressed them as especially elegant, powerful, salient, eloquent, penetrating, and—well, yes—beautiful?   What specific images (both metaphors and visual images) have had the most impact, and why?    Is there a new image of the crowd  itself, as a bodily presence in a real place, and as a virtual entity, a mass  social movement?  Is there a new image of the individual, at once non-subject and non-sovereign?  How have the media, both old and new, from Twitter to the People’s Mic, produced and reproduced the emergent forms of democracy?   How is the “sensible,” meaning both sensuous and thinkable, re-distributed by the actions and images of the Occupy Movement?

We do not wish to limit the archive to 2011, though this year just past will clearly stand as the historical beginning of a new sense of the words and images associated with “occupation.”  After a half century of thinking of this word as invariably coupled with military occupation, and with landscapes of  conquest and colonization, a new meaning has suddenly imposed itself.   At the same time the image-concept of the camp and encampment has shifted from a site of detention and dehumanization to one of insurgency and non-violent resistance.  “Occupation” has turned from the sphere of power to that of weakness, disenfranchisement, poverty, as well as resistance, insurgency, and creative direct action.   What are the aesthetic aims and effects of lying down under a red carpet at the entrance to a Chamber of Commerce gala? Camping in a public park until the police remove you?  Erecting a tent city in the midst of Tel Aviv?  Shutting down harbors in Oakland, Long Beach, Portland, and Seattle?  Opening free clinics, libraries, clothing exchanges, media centers, educational projects?  Scribbling slogans, questions, declarations, accusations,  demands, and jokes?  Assembling as an embodied movement on symbolic sites—capitols, city halls, banks, museums, schools, and foreclosed homes.

And, finally, we invite critical and theoretical reflection on the Arts of Occupation.  There needs to be some recognition of the “black arts” of occupation (violence, exploitation, domination) that have mostly characterized the preceding era.  We want to know which arts, and which specific performances, have had the greatest effect in mobilizing this counter-movement?  What have been the failures and successes, and what can we learn from them?

Submit your entry simply by responding to this post.

And to follow Critical Inquiry contributors Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler on the Occupy movement, click on the following links:

Žižek  in the Guardian

Žižek  in the Observer

Žižek on YouTube

Žižek  on Verso Books

Butler on Salon

Butler on

Butler on Worlds of Change


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On Translating Panofsky

Jas Elsner and Katharina Lorenz

[Managing Editor’s note: In anticipation of the appearance of their translation (in conjunction with a substantial essay) of Erwin Panofsky’s “On the Problem of Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts” in the spring 2012 issue of Critical Inquiry, we asked Jas and Katharina for their thoughts on the project.]

Jas Elsner:  I got into the rather recherché business of translating Panofsky by an odd sidetrack.  As an expert in late antiquity, I decided I needed to know more about the critical historiography that brought this concept into being, and especially about the historical and cultural drives behind the invention of late antique art as a topic of scholarly interest in the late nineteenth century.  The key oeuvre for this is the work of Alois Riegl, one of the greatest of all art historians.  Little did I realize at the time that Riegl’s most acute and committed critic throughout the 1920s and early 30s was Panofsky in his German career.  The first key paper in Panofsky’s rethinking of Riegl (‘The Concept of Artistic Volition’, 1920) had been translated in the early 1980s by Kenneth Northcott and Joel Snyder in this very journal [Critical Inquiry], but the hugely important and difficult essay which developed Panosky’s scheme into a system of fundamental concepts for art history remained untranslated and virtually unread by non-German speaking art historians.  I approached Katharina Lorenz to help me (with what turned out to be one of the most difficult texts I have ever read and in one of the most difficult intellectual enterprises I have ever attempted), and we translated ‘On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory’ (1925) for Critical Inquiry in 2008.  However, as we worked, it became obvious that this piece was only the second stage in Panofsky’s most creative process of philosophical thinking in his German career, and that the brilliant, assured and much more readable essay (originally published in 1932) translated in this issue of CI [that is, the spring 2012 issue]—astonishingly never before translated into English and only rarely alluded to in English-language scholarship—was the culmination of that trajectory as well as the foundation of Panofksy’s theory of iconology.

Katharina Lorenz: I have to say ‘On Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts’ was much less of a brain ache than the art theory piece we translated earlier—with regard to its language and use of art historical jargon, but not least because for a classical archaeologist of German training it has the obvious attraction of opening with a piece by Zeuxis, and some en passant sneers against Lessing! Yet, what on the surface is seemingly much more straightforward and easier to grasp in the 1932 paper, in fact drills much deeper into how we deal with pictures than the earlier piece ever could, stuck as it is in its lofty binaries and abstract philosophizing. Indeed, what is amazing is how fresh and insightful the 1932 piece still remains as a meditation on both the problems of description and the limits on subjectivity in interpretation. And yet so many of the wild and wonderful things about it were later lost in the English emulations produced by Panofsky himself in his American career.

JE: Of course, it is precisely the distance between the German and the American models of iconology—both produced by Panofsky and claimed by him to be identical—that is so fascinating.

KL: Equally interesting is the paper’s relative insignificance in German scholarship—which is of course a result in part of the eclipse of Panofsky by Nazi-inflected art history after 1933, and of a subtle resistance to his ascendancy in America in the postwar discipline in Germany.  But even where people did use his work, many a time they refer to the later English versions of iconology (or German paraphrases of it), rather than the first German version, despite the palpable fact that the German essay is much more acute and propositional.

JE: Do you think that this is in part to do with the fact that the English versions of the piece— in Studies in Iconology (1939) and Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955)—are more general, as it were universally applicable, and without the rich empirical base of numerous specific visual examples from which the argument is constructed?

KL: One thing that is really interesting here is how important are pictures to the argument. I am wondering to what extent the 1932 discussion of Grünewald and others, like Franz Marc (which are cut in the American versions of the piece), are essential to Panofsky’s argument. Would the essay have worked in the same way with other pictures? Certainly, his American focus, or entrée, not on an actual work of art but on an action event—the episode of greeting someone on the street, which opens Studies in Iconology—shifts the emphasis of his argument. In the 1932 German version, he had only used that type of social encounter to demonstrate some aspects of his notion of “intrinsic meaning”; but by the time he reformulated the paper in America, it comes to stand in for the interpretive model as a whole. The way Tom Mitchell dissects Panofsky’s use of this social event, and contrasts it with Althusser’s greeting parable, is indicative of the fact that Panofsky did himself and his pictorial enterprise no favours by moving from painting to event. This aside, on a personal level, one thing I find particularly exciting about the 1932 paper is Panofsky’s implicit insight into how thoughts are governed by language (and then again also by images), and how the use of specific choices in language bears upon both interpretation and argument. This, along with the comparison between his choices of language here and those he will adopt in English later, is much more telling of the process his thinking undergoes between German and English than his own statements on the matter later in the 1950s.
JE: I certainly agree with this. But it may also be observed that because the stakes are raised so high by what happened in Germany in the 30s and 40s, and by Panofsky’s choice to confront Heidegger in the 1932 paper, the problems of one’s choice of terms, one’s ethics of argument, the limits one should apply to willfulness in interpretation, are more acutely and pointedly raised by the 1932 paper than by most writing in the history of the discipline.

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In Memoriam: Friedrich A. Kittler, 1943-2011

Photograph by Isabell Schrickel

Friedrich A. Kittler, Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and Media Studies at the Humboldt University, died October 18th, 2011, following a protracted illness. He was 68 years old. In a career that spanned more than three decades and well over one hundred publications, Professor Kittler contributed to a profound reassessment of literary and media production. At the center of his work was the controversial claim that “media determine our situation.”[1]

The conventions of obituaries and elegies seem ill-suited to praising an author who consistently exhorted his readers to eschew the mirage of the author in favor of an empirical analysis of the apparatuses, procedures, institutions, and techniques that regulate discourse. Even so, a brief summary of the life and work attributed to the name “Friedrich A. Kittler is in order. Friedrich Adolf Kittler was born in Rochlitz, Saxony, in 1943. During his childhood, his mother would sometimes take him to visit the site where engineers had devised the V2 rocket, and he carried memories of World War II and subsequent occupation throughout the rest of his life. In his sweeping accounts of media and technological change in the twentieth century, both the war the rockets would return as protagonists. In 1958, his family fled to West Germany. From 1963 until 1972 he studied Romance languages, German, and philosophy at the University of Freiburg. He subsequently taught at his alma mater as a graduate assistant while completing his postgraduate studies.

Kittler gained international recognition for his 1985 book Aufschreibesysteme 1800/1900, originally prepared for his habilitation. The text proved so vexing and controversial that it had to be reviewed by a team of thirteen senior professors (instead of the usual committee of three) before finally being accepted—ruefully, by some accounts—as a worthwhile contribution to the study of German literature. In it, he proposed a radical reinterpretation of Romanticism and modernism as two distinct modes of discursive production whose style and logic derived from what could be translated as the “notational systems” or “discourse networks” peculiar to their epochs. He defined these networks as “technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and process relevant data.”[2] According to Kittler, in the early nineteenth century the universal alphabet, the techniques of maternal instruction, and the rise of widespread literacy were among the most decisive features of a discourse network that produced the techniques of authority and interpretation characteristic of the great Romantic works. Kittler argued that the authors of these texts—most notably Goethe—were artifacts or illusions of this system of textual production and reception rather than the immaculate origins and originators of meaning. Taking eccentric inspiration from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the madman Daniel Paul Schreber, Kittler argued that in the twentieth-century literature was dislocated within technical media systems that destabilized authors and psyches alike. Despite the lukewarm reception of Kittler’s thesis by some of his supervising professors, the book became a sensation in literary studies and a foundational text for the then-emerging field of cultural studies.

His subsequent book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986) elaborated and radicalized his earlier analysis to develop a new approach to media history based on specifying, in ever-greater detail, the networks of inscriptions, transmission, and receptions (what other critics might refer to as novels, movies, musical recordings, or psychoanalytic case studies) that developed in and around a host of modern media. Though often seen as a celebration of the end of the written word—Kittler claimed that media had shattered the monopoly of writing on modern culture—Gramophone, Film, Typewriter mapped out new methods by which literary criticism could extend its analysis to laboratories, factories, mathematics, circuit boards, or any other site for the recording, processing, or reception of inscriptions.

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Steve Jobs: What Is the Big Deal?

Steve Jobs and the Poetry of Gadgets

What is the big deal with Steve Jobs?  I have read my share of commentary on him, and tracked the phenomenal media attention that surrounded his death, but I still don’t feel that I get it.  Only the onset of war or some other catastrophe could have competed with the attention given to his death, the endless paeans to his extraordinary creativity and his boundless confidence in his vision of things.  The death of a president would have outstripped it.  But I can’t think of any other star in the firmament of mass culture whose death would have been covered so broadly (maybe Michael Jackson?).  Yes, I know he supervised the invention and marketing of the totemic gadgets of our time–call them our churingas–in the form of iPods, iPhone, iPads, and Macs.  Yes, I know he had a “storied career,” and was a complex person who could be a real asshole when he wanted.  Bullying, tyrannical, etc. are some of the labels that circulate around him.  But what precisely was the source of his celebrity?  Was it the money or the totemic aura?  Four billion and mounting, little of it so far, I gather, going to charity.  Is it the ruthless and relentless style, linking him with  earlier titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford—the visionary capitalist?  Who is he, in fact, comparable to?  Is it his early, tragic death?  Or is it just the things themselves, the merger of commodity fetish and pleasure principle, in these sleek, powerful portals into new social and psychological formations, awakening new new kinds of needs that these objects promise to satisfy.

I write this on the eve of the October 14, 2011 release of the new iPhone 4Gs (on my MacBook Pro…).  Why do I care one bit about this?  It seems completely irrational.  Can anyone explain to me what is the big deal?   Has somebody written a great essay on this topic?   If it hasn’t been published, send it to Critical Inquiry.

–W. J. T. Mitchell


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Report from Norway

Could Bergen’s Concord displace the Oslo Accords? Continue reading

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Filed under Criticsm, Media, WJT Report