[iDC] Periodizing cinematic production

john sobol john at johnsobol.com
Mon Sep 14 22:34:43 UTC 2009

Hi Jonathan,

I expected you'd come out swinging after my last post and certainly  
you legitimately nailed some of the ambiguities in my position as I  
expressed it; and though you cast them in somewhat extreme terms, it  
is no less than I have done in my previous post, I am sure. So I  
agree: we disagree.

But I will say (no more after this on the subject for a while, I  
promise) in defense of my position, and of myself, that you are  
mistaken in suggesting that I 'despise' theory or theoreticians. I  
merely do not think they walk on water. I also have never disavowed  
the power of literacy, nor my own deep indebtedness to it. As I've  
said before on this list, both my parents are writers and that's what  
I have been for most of my professional life too. I love the written  
word just like you, as I hope you can tell. But I do see certain  
oppressive limits of literate culture as clearly as I see the wonders  
it has precipitated, and if I insist on dragging them out into the  
light it is not hypocritical, just critical. If you happen to want to  
understand where I am coming from, these memoirs document parts of  
that journey:


Finally, I do not believe that one thing causes everything else. This  
was intended as a simplification. However, the core of my thesis is  
the insight (not by any means only mine) that hegemonic  
communications technologies are killer apps that enable and give  
shape to all other forms of social and psychic organization in every  
culture and era. They are the water in which we swim. The medium that  
is the message. And there have been three such linguistic killer  
apps: the spoken word, the written word and the networked word. I  
feel that while causation may be difficult to prove on a meta-level  
(though easy on the micro) it is apparent by subtracting. Take away  
cinema and do we still have industrialism and most of our modern  
technical, cultural and social apparatus? I say yes, though there  
would obviously be some holes of decent size, possibly huge, possibly  
not. But take away literacy from industrialism, or from cinema for  
that matter, and there are no blueprints, no mechanical specs, no  
silver nitrate, etc.etc. That is one easy shortcut to seeing that all  
of our systems are dependent on print. Try it with academia, with  
modern government, with law, with architecture, with science. Then  
substitute any other technology for print. There is none but print  
that makes every system vanish so completely when subtracted from it.  
As a pragmatic person, that is highly significant to me. I will also  
say, anecdotally, that I have discussed this theory with many people  
of all colours and creeds, and no person of colour has ever failed to  
find it of relevance to their experience. (Though surely some would,  
of course). The fact that so many members of oppressed oral cultures  
have told me it accurately reflected aspects of their experience in  
the face of literate hegemonies is also highly significant to me. And  
I also test a lot of this stuff in the lab of my professional life.

Look, I know that what I am saying is entirely incompatible with the  
central traditions and thrusts of recent communication and technology  
theory. Obviously I can live with that, though I have no desire to be  
an outcast and would rather these ideas gained traction. (Anyone want  
to publish my 5th book: 'The Interactivist Manifesto', a sequel to  
'Digitopia Blues - Race, Technology and the American Voice'?) But it  
recently took me only a year or so in a doctoral program to realize  
my perspective had nothing in common with anyone else; and working  
through the canon i found most literate theorists to be blind to  
their allegiance to print, with deeply distorting effects on their  
analyses of language and thought. Of course everyone else saw me as a  
crackpot, and a pain in the ass to boot, as perhaps you do, but I  
simply have the nerve to assert that in certain respects I feel the  
emperor has no clothes.

Of course it could be me standing naked in the spotlight. It wouldn't  
be the first time. It can be an illuminating position.

John Sobol

On 14-Sep-09, at 4:45 PM, Jonathan Beller wrote:

> On Sep 14, 2009, at 12:04 PM, john sobol wrote:
> Linguistics (proper) is of little relevance to the crux of our  
> disagreement. Its evolution neither proves nor disproves anything  
> about the advance of visual society, still less about the evolution  
> of cinema.
> Hi John,
> I think I am going to agree with you about our lack of common  
> ground on these topics. While I am not quite sure why you display  
> such a contempt for theory while blithely going about writing your  
> own, it is, for me too laborious on this ocassion to contend with  
> so much a priori negativity with regard to intellectual labor -- as  
> if, by virtue of being intelligent, the work of Debord, Adorno,  
> etc. were somehow to be discounted. For me to make a real answer to  
> you, I feel like I would have to convince you that your position,  
> in which you look at empirical reality and just tell it like it is,  
> while I draw on bullshit philosophers and confabulate mirages, is  
> disingenuous, and I don't think I'm up to that task. However, I  
> will say that your refusal to recognize that changes in visual  
> technologies may impact linguistic practices, forms and the  
> theories thereof, is tantamount to saying that language/literacy  
> evolves/changes in a vacuum, and everything else is the consequence  
> of that. But I guess you do say that: in your words, "the world has  
> been visualized (by literacy) and industrialism is a consequence  
> and not a cause." Few would argue that the history of literacy is  
> bound up with technological and economic changes but I can't recall  
> having met anyone, scholar or poet, who thinks that everything is  
> caused by any one thing, excepting of course, if that cause is God  
> himself.
> If I were to try to get one point across, it would simply be an  
> attempt to reiterate what I said in a prior post -- the tools you  
> use to represent literacy are themselves the consequence of socio- 
> historical transformations that include the rise of visuality,  
> meaning to say that, poet or not, your language isn't transparent.  
> Unless you recognize the historicity of your terms, there is no way  
> to perceive that some formulations of your own, such as  
> "specifically I refer to the psycho-social experiences of orality"  
> are anachronistic. "Psycho-social" is a modern perhaps even a  
> postmodern (sorry) construction, that posits a template for the  
> resolution of variables that would have been mostly unavailable to  
> pre-modern/pre-individual speakers. So in constructing your bedrock  
> realities you import both the very theory that you seem to despise,  
> as well as the history that gives rise to the emergence of these  
> theories. Not acknowledging this situation means that you erase the  
> very media through which you see, as well as the historicity of  
> your position.
> One consequence of that is precisely the syndrome which you disavow  
> at the end of your last post.
> Peace,
> Jon
> Jonathan Beller
> Professor
> Humanities and Media Studies
> and Critical and Visual Studies
> Pratt Institute
> jbeller at pratt.edu
> 718-636-3573 fax
>> Hi Jonathan,
>> although I respect your attempt to find common ground in our  
>> positions I am afraid you mistake my basic points, which are not  
>> particularly compatible with your analysis below. Briefly:
>> You say: "I see the industrialization of the visual world as the  
>> water-shed for a new mode of production".
>> I say: the visual world has never been industrialized. On the  
>> contrary, the world has been visualized (by literacy) and  
>> industrialism is a consequence and not a cause.
>> What I find interesting here is that if we were to extrapolate  
>> this argument in more detail, I am reasonably certain that it  
>> would play out along the following lines: You would defend your  
>> theory mostly by referencing other theories. I would defend my  
>> theory mostly by referencing what people do and have done with  
>> their communication tools on a very mundane level. I do not doubt  
>> that you would reference some historical examples, but like many  
>> academic theorists, your arguments appear to gain much of their  
>> credibility by explicitly positioning themselves in relation to  
>> one or more theoretical traditions; whose value, in my skeptical  
>> opinion, often lie less in the authority of unimpeachable  
>> usefulness than in the usefulness of unimpeachable authority. As  
>> below:
>> "It is, in short, the overcoming of what Kittler almost poetically  
>> calls "the bottleneck of the signifier," that creates the crisis  
>> for language, representation, the modern subject, and, I would  
>> want to add, a new set of crises for political-economy. The  
>> industrialization of the visual brings with it a radical  
>> marginalization of language function's purchase on the world, all  
>> of which is itself part of a complex picture that must factor in  
>> both the falling rate of profit and the legitimation of  
>> imperialist wars by purportedly liberal-democratic societies.  
>> Following Orwell (as well as Horkheimer, Adorno, Debord), I have  
>> come to think that a short-circuiting of the lived experience that  
>> was (enlightenment) logic is a pre-requisite for sustaining the  
>> contradictions of the modern-capitalist superstate. In other  
>> words, the elaboration of visuality was a socio-economic  
>> necessity, whose earliest signs were to be found in the pyro- 
>> technics (and psycho-logistics) of commodity-fetishism."
>> Despite the erudition evident in this paragraph I must admit that  
>> I think that your arguments about language are a mirage. You go on  
>> to say:
>>  The entire discipline of linguistics (like its big-brother  
>> psychoanalysis) does not really get off the ground until the age  
>> of cinema. One could argue about this (drawing perhaps on the  
>> philological tradition), but I would say that it is only with  
>> Saussure, and the formalization of the split between signifier and  
>> signified, that one gets linguistics proper. This formalization  
>> depends upon two things -- first the conscious recognition that  
>> language functions like an image (the signifier is an image of the  
>> signified, and indeed this relation is itself graphically  
>> figured), and second, the unconscious recognition that language is  
>> one medium among many. In short, linguistics marks the denaturing  
>> of language, its fall from its status as an ontological formation.  
>> All of this, as well as the development of theories of literacy  
>> and the retrospective considerations of the huge historical and  
>> sociological consequences of the printing press, follows from this  
>> moment of disenchantment
>> Again briefly: Linguistics (proper) is of little relevance to the  
>> crux of our disagreement. Its evolution neither proves nor  
>> disproves anything about the advance of visual society, still less  
>> about the evolution of cinema. But digressing for a moment to  
>> address it, I reject your assertion that "language functions like  
>> an image". This is tautological thinking, mistaking a culturally- 
>> specific truth for a universal one simply because, as members of  
>> that culture, its advocates perceive no other option as  
>> legitimate. But language does not function like an image at all  
>> times. Text functions like an image, true. But there are other  
>> forms of language, far more ancient than print, whose modalities  
>> are in no way captured or successfully dissected by linguistics,  
>> or by textual analyses, and that do not function in any way like  
>> images. Specifically I refer to the psycho-social experiences of  
>> orality.
>> Thus I do not think that linguistics marks 'the denaturing of  
>> language, its fall from its status as an ontological formation'.  
>> Linguistics has little to do with this fall, which was not a fall  
>> at all but a transformation from one ontological condition to  
>> another, a bloody and brutal transformation over millennia, still  
>> underway in some respects, though now largely mature, from orality  
>> to literacy. The illusion that literate theorists are not  
>> themselves today as dependent upon - and blindly devoted to -  
>> their own ontological gods (a pantheon crowded with countless  
>> minor deities among whom are those responsible for certifying,  
>> classifying and otherwise fixing supposedly 'contingent' knowledge  
>> in peer-reviewed publications - that least contingent medium of  
>> all) is to my mind absurd. Yes there was/is an assault upon the  
>> bodies of oralists and their psycho-social architectures,  
>> resulting in most cases in their extinction and the rise of  
>> economies, governments, universities and other systems given  
>> meaning and form exclusively within literate epistemologies. And  
>> yes this was in one sense a fall from a state of nature to a state  
>> of denature (we agree there) but it was not a fall from naive  
>> ontological wholism to enlightened individualist critique. Each  
>> system has its own unshakeable ontology, its own faith, despite  
>> the range of post-modern titles in college bookstores (if not as  
>> proof of it!).
>> Your final point, that 'theories of literacy and the retrospective  
>> considerations of the huge historical and sociological  
>> consequences of the printing press, follows from this moment of  
>> disenchantment' is a little closer to the mark, though again off- 
>> kilter. Yes, it was only in the 20th century that theories of  
>> literacy emerged. But not as a result of 'disenchantment', and  
>> certainly not as a consequence of the appearance of linguistics or  
>> cinema's industrialization of the visual. It occurred because  
>> literacy was entering the networked age, and MacLuhan was there  
>> far before the rest of his peers, in his visionary mind, (a poet's  
>> not a scholar's) and was thus one of the first to feel himself  
>> bumping up against it, and measured himself and his world  
>> accordingly. And it happened because a few backward-looking  
>> scholars such as Lord and Ong were able to bridge those divergent  
>> oral and literate ontologies, to master in certain respects the  
>> modalities and mysteries of each, and to explore their  
>> interrelationship.
>> Anyway, I too have work to go to too, so will go do it. I imagine  
>> that some people must think that since I tend to always reference  
>> the same argument and position that I must have a one-track mind,  
>> but this is not the case. Understanding oral, literate (and  
>> digital) values and how they clash is as fundamental in my view as  
>> understanding that gender, race and class politics play critical  
>> roles in shaping our identities and our world. And not  
>> understanding them as incomplete and as destructive. I believe  
>> that in the developed world we live almost entirely according to  
>> literate social architectures, that oral epistemologies are  
>> utterly misunderstood by most of us – especially intellectuals who  
>> are most completely devoted to literacy – and that there are  
>> serious consequences to this misunderstanding. That's why I keep  
>> reiterating the same perspective. Not because I am an egomaniac,  
>> but because I think it matters.
>> John Sobol
>> www.johnsobol.com

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