Presidential Lecture Series
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SPECIAL EFFECTS


HUMANITIES AND ENGINEERING SYMPOSIUM:
FEBRUARY 11-12, 2000

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HUMANITIES AT STANFORD
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Special effects, usually considered a spectacular distraction from the serious business of modern life, can actually be redefined as the very paradigm of contemporary life today. We live increasingly in a world that can be understood­and perhaps needs to be understood­as a kind of special effects spectacle. Technological environments envelop or immerse us in the worlds of work and leisure, and these environments exemplify the most pervasive cultural phenomena as well as the philosophical rhetorics of modernity and postmodernity. To what extent has the human environment, or indeed the human itself, become a special effect?

Industrialization brought about new levels of urban concentration­the city is a special effect of a sort (and it is figured as such in the writings of Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire and Georg Simmel). For nearly a century World's Fairs were showcases for urban planning and technological achievement. Paradigmatically, cinema inherited from a whole history of visual spectacle (including the enclosed railway car as well as panoramas and magic lantern shows). In recent years, with the advent of electronic information technologies, special effects have become newly pervasive, shaping our experience of the world well beyond the boundaries of cinema through computer interface design, theme park technologies, and other forms of spectacular media.

The task before us is to understand this proliferation, which has been understood at once as sunnily benign or darkly sublime, both utopianly user-friendly and dystopianly dehumanizing. The symposium at Stanford University will provide a unique opportunity for communication among the various specialists and analysts of contemporary technological culture. The symposium might consist of three sections, informally emphasizing (and continually cross-referencing) IMPACT/IMMERSION/INTERFACE (aka IMPACT/DWELLING/COUPLING):

IMPACT: Impact as in implications, collisions, media proliferation, carpal tunnel syndrome, advertising and design, impact on bodies/genders. Impact as in explosions, military simulation and virtual battle training.

IMMERSION: Living within a world defined by special effects (or perhaps as a special effect?): immersive media (theme parks, ridefilms, IMAX films, virtual reality, 24 hour networks, pervasive interactivity.

INTERFACE: Coupling. The interpenetration of systems. Special effects, prosthetics and sexuality. Penetration and immersion? Community? Reproduction?

As the author J. G. Ballard has noted, "Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute." Can the fields of the humanities and engineering, working in tandem, provide a useful sense of the history, production and consumption of special effects.


Organizing Committee:

Terry Winograd (Computer Science)
Scott Bukatman (Film Studies)
David Hannah (Art)
John Bravman (Material Sciences / Engineering)
Helen Tartar (Stanford Press)
Jeffrey Schnapp (French and Italian Literature)
Hans Gumbrecht (ex officio)
Sabine Wolters (ex officio)



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