Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts

Lecturers || Beatriz Sarlo Home || Excerpts




Beatriz Sarlo: Post-Benjaminian

Channel Surfing

Disloyal Syntax

[Channel surfing] is a procedure that the technology, relatively simple, of remote control has made possible. With [channel surfing], an uncertain syntax threatens the syntax of any film or television program. It matters little how much some one has thought about the relation between one image and another, [channel surfing] is capable of rupturing that relation and installing a new one, unforeseen in the moment when the film was edited. But [channel surfing] isn't only possible for technical reasons, nor is its only origin in a gadget such as the remote control.

On the contrary, [channel surfing] also presupposes spectators accustomed to the high impact velocity of television and video images. In the same instant that those spectators feel that the intensity of the impact is insufficient to maintain their interest, they press a button and organize a new syntax of images. Only the desire of the spectator, who flees from boredom and demands to be permanently entertained, organizes from the household remote control a technological usage that replaces both film editing and the on-off switch of the television camera in a studio.

With [channel surfing], one pursues an intensity of images that will never appear sufficient, branded by a velocity of shot successions that will never be considered excessive. The attention-span does not tolerate any delay nor does it accept the idea of waiting for a meaning. On the contrary, distractedly, one pursues a meaning that is nowhere. The last technical recourse from the desperation inspired by the flow of time, [channel surfing] is the interactive invention that no engineer of the audio-visual industries intended to invent. The market, which needs a faithful audience, has found itself, paradoxically, with distracted but disloyal critics.



Film

Film and Clip

Images need time: so that we can visually scan a fixed field of view; so that a shot-sequence can show us time in its narrative movement. There is a threshold of time that is indispensable to cinema; portions of time that fall under this threshold destroy the possibility that, as much in classic films as in modern ones, in Eisenstein or Ford, in Godard, Jarmush or Chantal Ackerman, a meaning will emerge.

The filmic images had to follow one after another in order for a film to exist, and they had to follow one another while administering time in its duration. Cinema (including the most trivial products that the major studios distributed throughout the screens of the planet) requires that each shot be recognized as a shot: if the spectator didn't see John Wayne deciding whether or not to follow the caravan that was abandoning the threatened fort, s/he lost a precise clue as to the nature of the character. The shot wasn't complicated, but it required a viewing time to scan it and its meaning was not exhausted immediately. Rather, it had to be recuperated later, in the course of the film, where this meaning would eventually be complete. As "distracted" as the spectator may have been, s/he had to realize these operations when viewing great films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or Río Bravo, but also lesser productions. From this point of view, classic cinema (including action films) was slow. As is, also, a film by Jarmusch, wherein extremely long journeys over completely banal landscapes oblige us to withstand the duration of time. Cinema was time and presented time as its narrative material.

That was cinema, whose complex and temporal nature Benjamin was not able to see in its totality. His observations are prophetically applicable to post-cinema.

There, things are different. Vision has been modified, because time has ceased to count as a fundamental composite and syntactic element. Naturally, post-cinema continues to transcur in time: it uses time as a support and a medium, but it has abandoned the aesthetic and philosophical problematic of time that characterized cinema. Post-cinema is not interested in the duration of shots, but in their accumulation, because the duration of the shot is something that is already decided almost before the filming has begun. The shots should be in between short and really short. Post-cinema is a high-impact discourse, founded on the velocity with which one image replaces another. Each new image should supersede the one preceding it.

For this reason, the best works of post-cinema are commercials and video-clips. These two genres found their aesthetic on erasure: image A should be erased when image B appears, which should be erased when image C appears, and so on. On the one hand, without erasure, the images would show in too obvious a way their nature as stock-shots. On the other, if there weren't an immediate erasure of image A with the appearance of image B, there would be no possibility of reading, since the velocity of the succession of images is greater than that of a mental construction of meaning. Only a computer could read a video-clip like film viewers used to read a Chaplin film. No one is that quick.

Cinema could not be seen then with a totally "distracted" disposition: even the simplest plot of a thriller or a comedy required the recuperation of images that had transcurred a half hour or an hour before. In contrast, the art of the clip and the commercial demands that previous images be debilitated, compacted, superimposed and that they leave open space for the images that follow.

The attraction of incessant novelty is displayed in the power of icons that anchor the novelty in a recognizable cultural space: Madonna or Bono suture the meaning of the hundreds of shots in a video that, because of the iconic force of Bono or Madonna, is not only a fleeing forward. The spectators can go on erasing images as if their eye lids were windshield wipers, because they know the icon will remain, reassuring them with the illusion of a continuity that the syntax of the video has fragmented infinitely.



Jazz

Let's consider jazz. The technical reproduction of the session, almost contemporaneous with this music's first historical phase, made possible the transmission of a tradition, first within the black minority community, repressed and discriminated against; later, its transference to white society, which took this music and, submitting it to aesthetic and marketing operations, converted it, in the forties, into the epitome of an "American sound." It is impossible to listen to Jazz (Armstrong or Miles Davis, Parker or Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans or Cecil Taylor) without harkening back, in the act of listening, to the previous jazz tradition. That tradition is present even in the absences, in the silences of the tradition, in its gaps. The sound of the instruments in jazz, which is different from the sound of those instruments in all other music, is constructed in continuity or in debate, in homage or in criticism of this tradition. Every great jazz musician listens to all the previous sounds of his instrument before finding the one that will be uniquely his.

Jazz is, possibly, the music in which dialogue with tradition attains a form. Improvisation and quoting were the two procedures on which jazz imprinted its originality. Jazz is, therefore, a music against oblivion. One plays an instrument, one composes, one improvises on the indispensable assumption that the musicians as well as the public are capable of recognizing the quote, working with the memory of what is missing, and discerning the differences between the quote and the music quoted.

On the other hand, the pleasure of jazz lies in the recognition of the quote not as a dead fragment of the past, nor as an indifferent recurrence, but rather as a living element of the new composition. To listen to jazz is to remember jazz as it was listened to; to make jazz is to presuppose the aesthetic potential of this remembrance.

The technical reproduction, on disk or tape, of a session or of an original studio recording, permitted the building of the foundations of a cultural tradition: the disk or the tape reinforce the presence of the quote, they communicate the present with the past of jazz, and allow us to see how a musician dialogues within that tradition, whether trying to affirm it or to destroy it. One truly revolutionary aspect of jazz is its disposition to give cultural continuity to a music which, in its origins, seemed to be destined by society to fragmentation or to mere entertainment.

The force with which jazz superseded the limits in which white society tried to enclose it forever (even by way of the "white" use of jazz in the great swing orchestras) had one of its impulses in its resistance toward forgetting the cultural tradition from which it emerged. The sound of each great jazz musician is one of his personal marks of originality, a mark produced in his listening to the cultural tradition. Without a solid anchoring in that tradition there is neither innovation nor rupture. Precisely in this case, technical reproduction did not function as a solvent of cultural ties, but rather as an imaginary space of identification.

The same occurs with its public: jazz reaches throughout the twentieth century. To listen to it today supposes that one appropriate a few decisive moments of this century, which would otherwise be irremediably silent: happenings befallen once and for all time, if technical reproduction had not made it possible to know the past of a music, private for many decades, of scores, of conservatories or of academies.



Shopping Malls

Trees in the Shopping-mall

Shopping-malls are a decisive chapter in the technologization of the city. The bluster of the streets allows fleeting visions of the sky, cascades of natural light between buildings, shadows inspired by light breaking against figures rising in relief from their facades, reverberations of light over the smooth curtain-walls of the modern architecture, veduttas connecting the buildings with trees in some park, nature invaded by cement, iron and bricks. The streets remind us, though in an intermittent way, that the storms exist: rain can soak us, heat smothers us, wind accosts us as we turn a corner. Not everything is under control. In the scenography of the streets, the architecture exhibits the historical temporality of its different aesthetics, even if the passersby consume it in a "state of distraction."

Shopping-malls, on the other hand, are the most recent invention of a technology that is becoming definitively severed from both temporality and the intemperate. Like a spaceship, the shopping-mall anticipates all the needs of its crew members: there exists neither cold nor heat, there is no random montage of mechanical and natural sounds, no improvised play of lights, no conflict between facades or styles. Above all: there exist no national differences. Shopping-malls and Club Med unify their form on a planetary scale because they scrupulously repeat a typology that is a computer design and an allegory of the market. This can be proven in each of the assembled bits that form the shopping-mall, but let us pause over one example: bushes and plants.

In Pentagon City, Washington D.C., and in down-town Miami, in Sao Paulo and in Buenos Aires we are confronted with the same plants: shrubs that aren't quite miniature, but neither are they of the same size as "natural" species. Rather, they are characterized by an intermediate size, frankly artificial, unforeseen not only by nature, but by any gardener preceding the invention of the shopping-mall. They are monstrous not because they differ from nature, but because they try to imitate it while hiding precisely the fact of their imitation. A Baroque garden works on nature as if it were meant to be destroyed and replaced by the garden's art. A shopping-mall shrub, on the contrary, tries to intensify its "treeness" but in doing so transforms the "tree" into a monstrous plant, whose leaves are greener, brighter and more perfect than those of any tree we have ever seen. The shopping-mall's landscaping wants to reproduce the tree, adapting it to the scale of the commercial galleria.

In this it is responding perfectly to a spirit of the age that, in the midst of the most delirious technological expansion, feels a nostalgia for nature (a relationship which has probably been lost for good and, what's more, never existed as a "good" or spontaneous relationship). This nostalgia is resolved in the quotation: the overly lustrous leaves of the botanically engineered trees quote the "tree."

The shopping-mall tells us that it doesn't renounce nature. Nevertheless, it separates itself from nature in a way that is both radical and completely new. In the shopping-mall we breath recycled air, the lights are always artificial and never blend with atmospheric light, the sounds from outside, for architectonic reasons, must not transgress the fortified walls of the enclosure; the absence of windows denies all contact with the outside. Nevertheless, in an infantile way and with a will to an effect of "ecological" scenography, the shopping-mall's courts cannot dispense with their trees, the same trees all over the planet, indifferent to the desert surrounding the shopping-mall, or to the 19th century city in which it has encrusted itself.

In the shopping-mall, the landscaping isn't looking for the wonderment evoked by artifice, nor the romantic inspiration of a rustic countryside, nor the abstract culmination of the miniatures in a Japanese garden. Far from these examples, its originality is based on the sought-after incongruity of architecture and "natural" decor. In the midst of the visual pollution of billboards, ads and signs, the shopping-mall trees are there to prove that, if a shopping-mall is the universe in the form of a market, nothing in the universe may be free from it. The technology of the shopping-mall must, in order to adequately accomplish its ends, expulse all reminders of the outside world and transform itself into an abstract and universal space (there is no better metaphor for a market than a shopping-mall). Nevertheless, since there prospers in hypertechnological society a "naturalist" ideology (a bland, romantic kind of ecologism) it needs the green of the trees as a guarantee, precisely, that technological universality leaves nothing outside it. Not even the trees that, crammed into their planters and arrested at half-growth, are a scenography of science fiction: emerald green leaves in a burlap landscape.



Museum-Shops

Museum-shops are a fundamental setting for investigating contemporary aesthetic practices. There, many people pass more time in front of the reproduction of a painting than in front of the original: one directs oneself toward the poster display, selects a work, takes it in one's hands, moves it closer then further from one's eyes, looks at it from the side; one puts it aside; one takes another work, repeats the same operation; returns to the first. Sometimes it has to do with an enlarged detail from the original work; with the estrangement that all blow-ups produce, this detail is perceived "better" than in the original that hangs on the walls of the same museum. Later, the visitor heads toward the stacks of post-cards. In some museums, these reproduce practically all of the important works that hang on its walls; many museums order them by period or artist, such that the visitor finds, in miniature, the sequence of paintings that s/he found in the galleries. S/he can, literally, touch those paintings; the difference of size and their reduced scale makes them "familiar." A historical tableau several meters long, whose upper regions are difficult to see, becomes a comic strip which can be read slowly and with no physical effort. The attributes of the characters in an allegory, which were indecipherable due to the patina or the obscurity of the palette, in the postcard are shown to be clearly illuminated and flattened out by the flash.

Agendas, notebooks for collecting recipes, telephone books, private diaries, family date books, decks of cards, coasters, place mats, all permit one to handle those untouchable pieces one has just seen in the museum, or knows are there. The fugacity of a direct vision of the original, that fugacity which always appears to be a threat to happiness, is trapped in reproductions. Visitors are comforted in the museum-shop because, through a clever intervention of the market, the originals give the impression that they will never escape from there.

The anxiety that the museum produces is quieted in the shop. The "aura" disappears but, in some way, the object deformed by the false lighting and the false proportions remains in the hands of the visitor. While the museum can be a simply intolerable place for the conflictive co-presence and over-determination of originalities, the museum shop is a place ordered according to logics accessible to all: it has to do with the order of objects of use, the order of size, the order of known materials (printed paper, cardboard, plastic), the order of exchange values.

The visitors are better acquainted with these logics (which are incorporated in their daily lives) than with those that organize the museum. They feel more comfortable when their vision is accompanied by other activities that are prohibited in the galleries where the originals hang: in the museum-shop, the visitors may touch what they see, even when that which they touch is not the surface on which the hand of the painter left his/her mark, but rather the ultra-smooth surface of a Bristol-board. In any case, they are not condemned to view only from a distance that the same museum establishes (at times with absurd misjudgment) in its galleries. The cultural terror that can assault the visitor before the originals which s/he knows to be irremediably remote, is attenuated before the reproductions which will attain, paradoxically, a banal proximity.

The museum-shop is a self-administered guided tour. The videos that the museums produce from their collections, once they have arrived at home, may become the sustenance of curious operations of homespun montage by means of the remote control: impressionists in Fast Forward, freeze frame for a Constable landscape, close-ups of Botticeiii goddesses. Finally, it has also been said of the restoration of Michelangelo's murals in the Sistine Chapel that it responds to a tele-visual aesthetic (in the strictest sense of the word, hence the hyphen) that has little to do with the aura.



© Beatriz Sarlo



DISCUSSION || CALENDAR || LECTURERS || SYMPOSIA || HUMANITIES AT STANFORD

Top of Page || Home Page || Stanford University Libraries || Stanford University

spacerLast modified: February 3, 1999