A discourse of differentiation


The following text by C.W. Winter was originally published in TOO MUCH #2 (Summer 2011, p.81-89), accompanied by a series of photographs by Anders Edström. C.W. Winter is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles, and Anders Edström is a photographer and filmmaker from Sweden who lives in Tokyo.


Exterior: Topography (Text by C.W. Winter)

'Landscapes are mental states, just as mental states are cartographies, both crystallised in each other, geometrised, mineralised.' —Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image.

Last night a friend of mine returned to Los Angeles after some time spent in the rural Rocky Mountains. In our local bar, over a beer, he spoke of a slowness that he felt out in that wilderness. He spoke of a sense of time for reflection. And he spoke of an anxiety about getting back up to the speed of the city. Cities are epicentres of distraction. Of innumerable stimuli vying for our absorption. And even our homes, the former sanctuaries in these cities, are now infiltrated by digital portals to even further reaches of unfocused attention.

There's been a fairly healthy discussion of late about the aesthetics of slowness. Of slowness in art, in music, in food, in sex. A fundamental reconsideration of the meaning of the simple acts of listening, seeing, speaking, reading. And certainly one of the most robust of these conversations is taking place on the fringes of cinema. As a society of spectacle gives way to an age of participation,* we're witnessing a recalibration of participatory roles: the generally venal, fairly dominant role of prosumerism (the favoured m.o. of the indie set) and the more active, resistant role of rigorously focussed attentiveness, among others.

But too often the conversation seems to be drifting towards slowness as a destination. As an accomplishment. As an end sufficient to the urgencies of our time. But as we trace a lineage of the iterative from the actualities to Ozu, to the Italian neo-realists, to minimal composition, to conceptualism, and on to structuralism, we can begin to see slowness, in and of itself, as a kind of trop vu or a non-radicality.

Speed is a degree. It's a quantitative measure of looking at and relating to images and spaces. But, on its own, it isn't necessarily qualitative. It isn't necessarily a different kind of relationship. And in the current criticism around the observational in cinema and in photography—conversations that overwhelmingly value story over the act of image-making—we're witnessing a paucity of differentiation. Films and art-making of a certain speed are being lumped together in discussion. And almost invariably from there, the classical language of entertainment—as opposed to engagement—takes over.

Not too long ago I did an informal study of the language of criticism. Over the course of one calendar year, I counted every word that was written in reviews of narrative film in three of the leading English-language journals of international cinema. And I divided the words into various categories. I found that approximately 92% of the words were used to discuss story. Around 2% of the words were used to discuss performance. 5-6% of the words were used to discuss exophoric matters—information about the directors, the actors, the productions, etc. And less than 1% of the discussion was used to consider images, sounds, economics, politics, and the entire non-literary history of aesthetics combined. Less than 1% of the conversation was devoted to the matters that I would argue ought to matter most. While I had a hunch about the results going in, I was still pretty startled to find results that were this stark. And I was reminded of a quote from Michel de Certeau from his The Practice of Everyday Life: “The more limited the discourse of a given practice, the less, in its proliferation, that it will obey the laws of discourse. But rather it will follow that of production, the ultimate value of commerce... Favour is then inevitably given to two things: narrativity and 'perfection' that aims at technical optimalisation.”

So then what would a discourse of differentiation look like? If we're to take slowness itself as a matter of degree, as insufficient alone to looking and making, what might then constitute a different kind of prolonged looking? What might we begin to see as approaches to looking that cut through the strata of images in a way that is sufficient to the urgencies of our time? And, in a digital age, how might we begin to think of the simple acts of seeing and listening as acts of resistance to the dromological dynamics of our current topography?

With these questions in mind, what I'll propose here is less an essay than a beginning of a conversation—one that will be continued in forthcoming essays and will hopefully be added to with feedback from others. It's the beginning of a look at the work of certain contemporary makers—Jean-Marie Straub, James Benning, Pedro Costa, Mark E. Smith, Morgan Fisher, David Rosenbloom, Harley Gaber, Eliane Radigue, and Anders Edström, among others—whose work, I would argue, constitutes a different kind of protracted looking and listening.

And I'll propose a set of qualities of such looking and listening—engagements with: intuition, topology and time, pure presence, non-fiction narrativity, ostensiveness, and the non-commodity gesture. Taken together, it's one set of measures for an age of participation. Measures that take into account the aforementioned histories but with a hypermodernity that is specific to current problems of sustained attention.

We can think of our durational relationships to our cities from any number of angles. We can think of the war model of the modern city proposed by Paul Virilio. The intuitive flâneur model proposed by Henri Bergson. Or the descriptive cartographies of Robbe-Grillet or Michel Butor. But what interests me more are the personal models of the makers mentioned above. Makers who, in their own ways, have set out to describe their views of the intolerable. And, hopefully, this can be an angle not just into means of making but into a means of being that is perhaps best summed up by Steven Wright: “I bought a new camera. It's very advanced. You don't even need it.”

thanks to Lucas Quigley


* Diedrich Diederichsen's “Music—Immateriality—Value,” e-flux #16, May 2010.