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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.

An Analog/Digital Philosophical Repository

Corry Shores emails me a link to a wonderful directory for the philosophical dicussion of the Analog/Digital distinction, with a particular Deleuzian flavor.


He also mentions that this weekend he is set to begin a project concerning Analog and Digital consciousness, and has just recently posted an abridged copy of his paper:

Posthumanism and Pixels, Condensed Version

As I told to him, and to others below, my interest in the Analog/Digital distinction was primarily in concern over Hoffmeyer’s biosemiotic use of the two in his life-defining concept of Code Duality, something I have found problematic (a criticism I have not written yet).

I look forward to Corry’s work. It sounds exciting. There is from Corry even the suggestion that his project may find some correspondence points to my research on Spinoza and optics, which would be intriguing.

Peaks and Troughs of Intensity: From Digital to Analog Embodiment

The above two illustrations, from Shores’ Deleuze’s Analog and Digital Communication; Isomorphism; and Aesthetic Analogy,  which show the translation/transmuation of an analog signal (continuous) into a digital one (discrete), give me room for some (very) lose musings. The first is that we tend to polarize these two kinds of forms. For instance emulsion photography is thought to be analog (as opposed to pixelated digitalization), yet the presence of film grains in an emulsion image tells us that the suspended silver halides indeed do pixelate to some degree.

In such cases the structure of the recording material simply falls away composing differences that make no difference. On the other hand, the pitting in a cd’s material, the consitutent thresholds that make up the recording material, also fall away as differences that make no (additional) difference.

What I want to say is that the discrete elements which are thought to make up digital copying, elements that under some defitions are linked through syntactical (not temporal) powers, are themselves materialized events subject to analogical relations which hold them together. A brain’s neurons which may exhibit something of a binary on/off digitalization, or a computer’s circuit which also expresses on/off threshold states, is part of a structural matrix of other temporal thresholds. Parameters of felt limits contain these peak/valley alternations, conditioning them and orienting them.

Additionally, if we are to ask, Is there a digital-like relationship between discrete elements and syntactical joinings which marks out the behaviors/capacities in abiotic world? Are not the features, lets say in a protein, that mark out differences that make a difference in its production (as a kind if peak or valley), also as discrete joined by the syntax of its structure, giving a protein molecule a digital status, of a kind? And are not the temporal unfoldings of this molecule (or any molecule), when in interaction with its environment, of a continuous and therefore analogical nature? This rock I hold in my hand is exerting discrete differences (joined in a structural/syntactical array) upon the threshold centers that make up the perception field of the hand, (these thresholds also linked through a structural/syntactical array), such that to ultimately separate out the digital and the analogical is to lose their essential interaction and really parallel development. The rock analogically “feels” and records the discrete differences that make a difference of my hand, just as the hand does the rock.

When we construct codified, syntactical wholes (linguistic, conceptual for instance), we are not just abstracting. We are creating new feeling bodies, analogical bodies which reveal their on diachronic expression and recording upon results.

Analog and Digital Intellect: Threshold Intensity, or Either/Or


Analogical Co-munications

I came across (now twice, but this time investigated) this wonderful collection of Deleuze-inspired writing and exhaustive explications, Pirates and Revolutionaries. Some of the very best stuff on the internet for instance on Spinoza’s concept of infinity. This article though on the difference between Analogical and Digital thinking is immensely clear and open-ended, for any of those who have not considered deeply the two modes of intellect. Below is one small snippet in a wide-ranging summation and positioning:

We will first address the research on animal communication that Gregory Bateson discusses in his Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a text that Deleuze cites when distinguishing analog and digital language. According to Bateson, the ‘messages’ that animals convey refer not to objects but to their social relations; for example, the cat’s mewing does not mean milk, but ‘dependence.’ A more compelling illustration is his story of a wolf-pack leader catching an inferior male who broke the code of hierarchies, and achieved coitus with a female, which involves being locked-in with her. Bateson explained previously how an adult wolf weans young puppies by crushing them down with its jaw. Then, in the case of the leader finding his subordinate infringing upon his mating prerogatives, instead of attacking, the leader simply crushed the male down as though weaning him. This communicates their social relationship by analogy: ‘just as a father is to a puppy, I am to you.’ In general, most animals normally convey their interrelations by means of such an analogical language, which consists of paralinguistic and kinesthetic expressions (body language) that communicate magnitudes of social relations (such as being more or less dominant) by means of analogous changes of magnitudes in bodily expression. Deleuze himself defines analogical language as one of relations, which consist of “expressive movements, paralinguistic signs, breaths and screams, and so on.

“Deleuze’s Analog and Digital Communication; Isomorphism; and Aesthetic Analogy”

Analogical/Digital Oscillation

What is interesting for my processes is that here in the treatment of the analog and digital I am finding the confluence of two divergent studies. Last month I found myself troubled by Hoffmeyer’s notion of the life-defining Digital and Analog concretizations of an individual, touched on in my review of Morten Tonnesson’s essay on Bio-morality Bioethics, Defining the Moral Subject and Spinoza. I very much wanted to write a piece on the kind of distortion Hoffmeyer was performing when reducing the individual into an almost entirely digital (DNA) state, a capacity he felt that was only something that living things could achieve. I had a strong intuition of what I wanted to say about what was problematical in this, but time and circumstance dragged me away.

My objection to Hoffmeyer stemmed from my Spinozist position of the parallel postulate that the order of things and of ideas is the same, and that, at least from a Spinozist position, it was nonsensical to say that an individual existed in primarily a digital state. If Spinoza is correct, one can never have a primarily digital state of an individual, as the material, bodily dimension follows it explicitly. At the time of my original intuition I simply roughly equated Spinoza’s “idea” with digitality. But in the long loop I’ve run into discussions with Eric Schliesser who is organizing a paper to be presented on Spinoza’s skepticism towards mathematical capacities to describe Nature (at first a counter-intuitional position given the mathematic-like forms of Spinoza’s reasoning, and his dependent use on mathematical examples). Our talks gave me to look closer at Spinoza’s letter 12 to Meyer (which Corry Shores does an incredible job of summarizing in cross-reference fashion, treatment I would like to return to). There, famously, Spinoza puts numbers and mathematics to be the products of the Imagination, the lowest forms of knowledge in his coming trinity of knowledges, found in the Ethics). There is no space/time here to go into these investigations, though it is good to mention that they touch on Badiou’s deep misreading of Spinoza and Badiou’s Ontology of Mathematics. It is enough to say that Spinoza denies the Substance itself cannot be discretely divided, and that even the discrete operations of which mathematics specialize fail at capturing the infinity of the taken-to-be finite modes. The order and connection between ideas (and things) is not a numerically ordinal connection. Mathematical discretions are imaginary constructs by Spinoza’s reasoning, as must be the digital reductions/abstractions that much of conceptual philosophy concerns itself with.

In this sense any digital abstraction of analog expressions/relations itself must be materialized. This makes Hoffmeyer’s digital/analog oscillations that are supposed to define life in further jeopardy, at least from a Spinozist perspective, for digital discretion does not even correspond to the notion of “idea” ordering. Rather, Spinoza’s take on infinities under which a maximum and minimum are known, turns digital processes into extreme analogical ones.

This leads me to minimize the entire latter portion of Corry Shores appreciation of Deleuze’s digital/analog analysis of modern painting, on Spinozist grounds. Even the most binary reductions are not “safe distance” processes, but rather are products of the imaginary under specific thresholds. They are felt in topographies, as any viewer can attest. The digital is always felt. The calculation is ever an impression on the material of the body seen through the discretion of its organized thresholds. One can see that there is a certain “faculative disorder” in the (digital) peak tracing of diagrammic representations, but, following Spinoza, these can only be analogical, which is to say continual, conjoinings. If Spinoza’s treatment of the infinite which disjoins the imaginarily discrete (mathematical) infinity from the real, expressive causal infinity, tells us anything, it is that diagrammic dis-organization and re-organization are imaginary processes which ever seek a continuity in the body itself, the body an infinite expression of magnitudes which press nestled upon each other. But unlike Deleuze’s pursuit of the chaotic elements (and this may only be an aesthetic difference), looking with the Intellect, as Spinoza would, is seeing-through these connections, not as bound, but as continually out-flowing and unitary. In this sense the ordering of numbers is a pale, imaginary imitation of the density of continuity in all things, a mechanism for our continual re-orientation.

Writing Philosophy: The Unclear Clarity

The Book “I Want to Write”

Levi at Larval Subject mourns that a student had bought his book on Deleuze, knowing that without training in the obscurities of vocabulary and concept the book is pretty much useless (except one might suggest, as a small tome of incantations, not a measure to be undervalued in the genre of the philosophical). He yearns, genuinely yearns, to write a different kind of book…

I would like to write a book that anyone could pick up, regardless of whether or not they have a philosophical background. When I fantasize about writing such a book I am not fantasizing about writing a book that is “easy” or “clear”. Rather I am fantasizing about a book that could function as an element of other assemblages or networks without the reader already having to be linked in to a pre-existent and extensive network characterized by the history of philosophy. The adventure of such a book would be premised not on maintaining its identity or the sameness of a message throughout all of the possible relations it enters into among readers, but would rather function as an element, like lavender in the region of wine grapes, contributing to the production of new productions. Here the history of philosophy wouldn’t be absent or ignored, but would be, as it were, virtual or in the background. Philosophy wouldn’t proceed through the activity of commentary as is practiced in Continental thought today, but rather there would be direct ownership of one’s writing and appropriation of the history of philosophy. Just as the peppers in my garden are borne of the soil, the water, and air out of which they grow without displaying these elements in any recognizable sense, such a writing would be willing to take direct responsibility for how it has “prehended” or integrated that history without thematically making that history the issue or question of the writing. Is it possible, today, to write in the fashion of a Descartes, Spinoza, or Hume?

The book that comes to my mind is Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I have taken a critical stand against some of the thought-positions that seem to underlie its eliptical arguments (and the apostlary devotion of some to its text), but if one leaves behind one’s already assumed position upon the supposed notion of “language game” or ordinary language philosophy or Private Language, and simply engage the book, as a book, it is remarkably and precisely the kind of thing that Levi yearns to write. And while Levi is concerned with the leadened, commentary entrenched Continental traditions, and Ludwig’s freedom was composed against a very different style of thinking, there is something to be learned here. What makes the Philosophical Investigations so free?

It comes I believe from Wittgenstein’s notion that there are pictures of language (and therefore of the world, ourselves, and everything in it) that largely govern the way we see and think about things. For him these are very elementary things, simple compositional, almost building-block analogies that bring everything into view, making our explanations about explanations work. And so he presents another one. A different one. And he attempts to do so at the simplest level, without jargon, in self-conversation.

It is interesting that Levi wants to not necessarily write something that is “clear” because his writing seems at times overburdened with a kind of Herculean effort to make things that he takes to be very complicated, clear. In fact, his powers of explication of Lacan or Deleuze are quite admirable, leaving behind the firm trace of the the explicable. But for the unclear clear that Wittgenstein attempted, a different sort of tact is needed, a grasp and re-grasp of the “picture”. Perhaps to write philosophy in the genuine sense that Levi means one has to be a child about it. Just as Levi is moved by the anticipated incomprehensibility of his Deleuze book for one of his students, Wittgenstein was stirred to his philosophical awakening by his teaching of small children, noticing how children see and learn things.

The Unclear Clear

In this way, if we are to write philosophy of the unclear clear we have to paint the picture of it, and not just talk about the concepts. We have to compose the moving parts and turn the shaft to rotate the gears so that others can see it. It might be a complicated machine, but its parts must be made to touch, to be felt.

It challenges me to think of the same. I’ve spent a long while holding certain concepts in my mind, turning them about as a infant turns a building block and even sticks it in his mouth so as to feel its shape. What would it mean to write like this without lapsing into poetry so as to escape the shape/picture? I am thinking lately on a critique of Hoffmeyer’s Code Duality, and how I can just feel that it works out. I can almost synesthetically put my mouth around the two concepts “digital code” and “analogical code”. What would it mean to express them as a picture, a child-picture that makes the whole thing turn?

A (digital) code is a rhythm of discrete parts, joined by a syntactical governance.

The truth of it is not found in either the rules for their joining, nor the elements that are joined, but in their mutuality.

An analogical code is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

An “analogical code” is a continuous stream of material recording, the scratching of one thing upon another, (so that there is revelation and memory).

Every digital code necessarily performs analogical powers of impress. DNA has a body.


Something like that…