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Is the Medium the Message? Avatar’s Avatar

Box 3, Spool 5 has some commentary up in response to my own take on Avatar, emphasizing the contradictory nature of a big-budget Hollywood film and its proposed criticism of Capitalism. First though I want to address his thought that not all of the message is found in the medium (which leads to his larger point):

The technical feats Kvond explains are interesting, but only in the sense that here the most ‘natural’ is reached by way of the most artificial, an irony which mirrors deep ecology’s unavowed projections onto nature. It is on one level impressive what the capitalist spectacle can do with (or perhaps as) technology, though the film’s implicit reflections on subjectivity are to me less intriguing than the political message the film tries to convey; not all message is medium.

Just to be clear as to the reading I was making of Avatar, it is not strictly that the medium is the message so much as the modes of communication enact the very relationships (and values) that the film was attempting to forward in a very specific fashion. This is to say, there is, or can be, an enactment of avatarship in the very experience of watching a film on Avatar ethics, really almost a Brechtian involution. One need only take your glasses off for a minute during the film to realize the differences brought to bear. That this is accomplished through a new severing of affect from space, and then its restitching, yes, this is a powerful metaphor or even mode of analysis for society and personhood, but the medium is not the message to the degree that the message is dis-associated from the medium in a manner that leaves Box 3, Spool 5s point untouched.

If one is looking for performative contradictions that disqualify the ideologically critical position Cameron takes, one might ask as well whether Box 3s own participative purchase of 3D glasses and expensive movie, and her/his use of the commercially simulative blogged medium also disqualifies a critical engagement with the all-encompassing thread of Capitalist relations (the octopus arms are everywhere!). I rather take a different position. Capitalism is not “the enemy”, huge spectacle productions are not simply or reductively pacifications. The location of critical change does not really come outside of relations, but is immanent within them. Oppositional thinking is often weak and relatively impoverished, fueled by counterproductive angers, fears and projections. The idea that “Copenhagen debating hall” was something more than Avatar the movie, more than a spectacle of specific device…yes, from where are our freedoms to spring? In a certain regard I find “hegemony” boring.  That is not because I don’t believe that hegemonies exists, but rather that I believe that questions of hegemony are more complex than is often appreciated. It just is too easy a word. The importation of hegemonic values is always integral to the exaption of those human forms for new and different uses, and the concept of radical break is, frankly, over-rated.

If there was a “radical break” in Cameron’s message, it was the innovation of new aesthetic experiences of some very old themes, it was the affective way that the (political) consciousness of the viewer was regrafted onto her or his very skin, engaging the verities of space itself. It was Kantian from the inside out, where the categories become twisted and externalized through performative construction. Does this mean that Real 3D is inherently liberal, or even ecological? No, though I have argued that there are suspensions that were accomplished in that film that do have strong ecological content or possibility. It may very well be that this is because Real 3D, as we in a historically contingent fashion experience it, is metaphysical. And from that displacement into metaphysics, an ecology of persons and planet can be argued. And because aesthetically expressed, felt.

Two Vectors of Avatar’s Cinematic Achievement: Affect and Space Interface

There were two primary technological achievements that guided the transmutive possibilities that mark out what made James Cameron’s Avatar special innovations organized around aesthetic problems, and here I just want to sketch them out to give greater depth to my other thoughts about the film: Avatar: The Density of Being,  Avatarship and the New Man: Reading Ideology, Technology and Hope. Each of these two indicate the very dimensionality of human aesthetic avatarship – the ability, or path to reading worth through inhabited subjectivity – or at least suggest a landscape for future digital and so-called “virtual world” aesthetically culled interactions.

The first of these was the problem of the Uncanny Valley, the way in which approximations of human beings, if too proximate, create a disturbing sense of alienness such that one cannot (or should not) identify with the portrayed subject. (I thoroughly reject a Fruedian or even Lacanian reading of the Uncanny, for both its essentially optical and repressive analogies, but certainly the effect of the Uncanny Valley is an epistemically important one.) The problem that Cameron faced was that no matter how much tweaking was done to motion capture, the actorly performance, the emotionality, one might want to say its reality, was lost within this valley. The Pandorans were both too human, and not human enough. In short I would say this reality involves a kind of temporal and physionomic threshold of reflection, the way in which internal events (taken to be subjective and expressed facially) within certain thresholds of timing and intensity, can be read as expressing both the states of being, as well as their causal relationships to a shared and external world. The reality of this causal interface is one in which something like the musicality of the actor (emphasizing both the structure and expression) allows internal events to enforce the reality of external ones, confirming the appropriateness of our own internal events-experiences, the three of them forming a data-rich, self-supporting resonance. The overcoming of the uncanny valley in faces was achieved by the actors wearing small cameras which hovered over their facial expressions, along with painstaking, algorithmic conversion of that capture into the avatar’s digital “rig” (a framework of facial representations). A feedback loop of Cameron’s aesthetic approval and technique adjustment fine-tuned the effect such that actorly experiences and expressions found their proper topological space within a virtual and artistic world.

The second problem answered was that of Cameron’s own directorial powers, the ability to author directions to actors in the realtime context of the imaginary enviroment itself. This was achieved through a lens-less “swing camera” which in low-resolution allowed Cameron to drift through the volume (virtual environment) in such a way that his vision and actor performance was granted a threshold of interface which surely imbued communications between them with a specific vital co-expression. The result was that the actor’s spontaneous expression driven by character was melded through the director to an unseen environment, in real time.  The actor could express and m0ve with a certain watery autonomy, and her or his director could side by side focus the actor’s attention to this or that, viewing the sythesized result. Intersubjective triangulation  attained a kind of spatial freedom never before in human expression, we might risk,  a ring of Gyges vector of invisible yet corporeal cohesion holding together the creative agents. It was as if Van Gogh could enter his painting and talk to his paints (which is something artists “do” in one way or other all the same). An odd product of this technology of performance and capture was that the actors no longer had to act TO the camera (or even the space), but rather could lock onto the narrative itself, almost with stage purity, freed from even makeup and costume (this freedom is not entirely new, but it is linked to a new communicative assemblage). The volume in a sense, came to be enveloped around them, directed in real time, back upon the narratological thread which inhabited the actors, through the intersubjective creativity of the director. In this manner, narrative and characterization acquire a near novelistic isolation, appearing at the surface of the actor’s affective skin and muscular terminus, forming a layer, sewn back into a wider fantastic perspective come out of the technological and auteur armature, through which the actor is guided. A final remarkable aspect of this artistic process is that the director, after a performance, can then move back through the volume and performance and rephotograph it, in the real time of the performance itself, allowing the performance and volume to dictate to the camera in unanticipated catalysis with the director’s experience of both the space and the emotion. And this synthesis becomes that of the audience member as well, threading the affect and space interface into its final product, aesthetic avatarship proper.

What is sure is that these new capacities: actor freed from camera and costume, director freed to create volume and actor counterpoint, the intersubjectivity of the communications between the two resewing narrative (and character) to volume in a different way, and lastly the emotional richness of a facialized register (a plane on which it all can cohere and appear to emanate), create a synthesis beyond thresholds previously conceived, wrenching out a powerful redistribution of what can be done with the twins: affect and space.

The above produced out of information found at Popular Mechanics: How James Cameron’s Innovative New 3D Tech Created Avatar

[click on either for larger image]

Here in diagram and example are the two registers of space and affect which Cameron’s techique worked to free from each other, an aesthetic freedom of camera/eye selection which both can coordinate performance amid the fantastic environment (volume), and also select out a framing of that performance with temporal autonomy. The actor is given relative narrative freedom from staging, the director becomes inter-subjective toggle, and the facialized plane grounds the emotional and volume real.

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