The machine makes us ashamed of man’s inability to control himself, but what are we to do if electricity’s
unerring ways are more exciting to us than the disorderly haste of active men and the corrupting inertia
of passive ones?
Saws dancing at a sawmill convey to us a joy more intimate and intelligible than that on human dance
For his inability to control his movements, WE temporarily exclude man as a subject for film.
Our path leads through the poetry of machines, from the bungling citizen to the perfect electric
The new man, free of unwieldiness and clumsiness, will have the light, precise movements of
machines, and he will be the gratifying subject of our films.
Dziga Vertov, WE: Variant of a Manifesto
Anti-humanism is necessary even when not used by filmmakers as a conscious concept.
Dziga Vertov didn’t have a word for the ‘new man’ he was creating through representation, but his contempt for the imperfections of the human body and his lust for machinic existence might today be described as ‘posthuman.’ Indeed, the social and political contexts of futurism and constructivism from which he drew inspiration would have new relevance if reexamined in light of the Utopic/dystopic binary that undergirds much of contemporary popular discourse on the changing relationship between humans and technology. In How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles theorizes this relationship as ‘posthuman,’ part of an emerging cultural discourse that “configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines.” The crux of her argument is that “although in many ways the posthuman deconstructs the liberal humanist subject, it thus shares with its predecessor an emphasis on cognition rather than embodiment […] to the extent that the posthuman constructs embodiment as the instantiation of thought/information, it continues the liberal tradition rather than disrupts it.”
This inherently contradictory nature of posthumanism, as both humanist and anti-humanist, is the subject of its own theory. As Neil Badmington puts it, “humanism never manages to constitute itself; it forever rewrites itself as posthumanism.” By implication, posthumanism is nothing new, but as Catherine Russell shows of experimental ethnography, may be ‘newly visible.’
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Russell’s reading of Las Hurdes (Buñuel, 1932) suggests the historical presence of anti-humanist strategies in documentary film. Michael Renov further implicates documentary history with the scientific project. In fact, to the extent that vestiges of Cartesian subjectivity and semiotics can be deconstructed by film texts that complicate their aesthetic or ideological relationship to realism, documentary and posthumanism share a dynamic political relationship.
Some critical points of intersection between non-fiction film and posthumanist theory would include the cinéma vérité desire for invisibility of the filmic apparatus/process in documentations of the pro-filmic world, which corresponds to the posthumanist erasure of embodiment, and the ‘right to know’ as a foundation of documentary ethics and as a Western semiotic that holds all knowledge to be representable and all representation to have a referent. Trinh T. Minh-ha has criticized “the habit of imposing a meaning to every single sign” and its implications for pulling the Other into discourse. Most significantly, a posthumanist consciousness would contribute to the existing body of feminist, postmodern and postcolonial critiques of normative subjectivity and representation present in contemporary documentary. The contemporary hybridization of documentary form parallels this hybridization of human subjectivity, which a posthumanist consciousness would expand to include the relationship between human and machine – denaturalizing the human body as well as the autonomous self.
Russell points out that experimental film and ethnographic film discourse, born from modernism and anthropology, take on new cultural roles within the contemporary contexts of postmodernism and postcolonialism. I would thus suggest, as does Rosi Braidotti, that the new cultural climate of unprecedented technological innovation – and its necessary posthumanist critique – must necessarily have new cinematic forms. What kinds of strategies can non-fiction cinema employ in representing and negotiating a future that greets artificial wombs, reproductive cloning and the birth of robot rights? In keeping with the critiques offered by Hayles, Rosi Braidotti, and Trinh T. Minh-ha, two measures by which one could evaluate posthumanist film would be the extent to which it is complicit with or critical of realism as an epistemology, ideology and aesthetic; and how it addresses the issue of (dis)embodied subjectivity in relation to biotechnological change and the tendency in documentary to privilege what Bill Nichols describes as ‘disembodied knowledge.’
Two recent works offer pertinent and contrasting treatments of some of the social issues emerging in the 21st century. Cyberman (Peter Lynch, 2001) explores one man’s bionic activism against the growing widespread use of surveillance technologies on public space and privacy, raising issues of control through vision and knowledge. The Settler (Rian Brown, 2000) recasts issues of environmental exploitation in the context of extraterrestrial landscapes, inviting postcolonialist readings of space colonization. Both are complex, contradictory texts that question humanist subjectivity and realist representation and thus help to problematize the ideological foundation of the posthuman subject as “an amalgam, a collection of heterogenous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction.”
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(Cyber)man With A Movie Camera
Cyberman is a multi-layered portrait of Steve Mann, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Toronto who is recognized for his innovations in wearable, computerized cameras. The film reflects on Mann as both subject and cinematographer, whose footage forms part of the film we watch. But Cyberman also deepens and deconstructs traditions of cinéma vérité and the participatory ethnography of Rouch and Asch, as the nature of his wraparound ‘videographic’ sunglasses presents a radical new paradigm for documentary and embodied subjectivity. However, this deconstruction is somewhat undermined by the centralization of Mann in a network of apparatus, vision and environmental control. As I will suggest, Cyberman remains complicit with the construction of the liberal humanist subject as outlined by Hayles, despite the emancipatory potential for selfhood and representation that its subject’s technology may provide.
Because Mann’s own cinematography is used in the film, it is necessary to consider the nature of his invention in relation to the film’s form. The videographic sunglasses are an application of what Mann terms his ‘EyeTap’ technology – a wearable camera, or WearCam, that fits over the head like a hat and directs a laser reproduction of pro-filmic imagery into the eye. Mann has developed the EyeTap into a highly sophisticated, covert recording system that serves both as a digital camera and sensory filter – allowing Mann to view, create, record and broadcast the pro-filmic world in real time as he experiences it.
Moving dialectically through a Foucaldian signifying order that equates vision with knowledge and power, the film heroizes its subject for the degree to which he embodies all three. As the film’s title indicates, Mann is both cybernetic and (hu)man – a male cyborg. Using his WearCam to record himself being recorded, he writes for the viewer, “see me < be me.” Director Lynch and cinematographer Blahacek follow Mann into a variety of commonplace and spectacular settings – from Times Square to his parents’ backyard – that demonstrate both the eccentricity of the WearCam apparatus and the universal ‘humanity’ of Mann’s character.
A trip to Wal-Mart provides a striking visual and ideological mise-en-abîme of the film. Mann displays himself as a self-reflexive spectacle, exemplifying Catherine Russell’s description of the auto-ethnographic subject rather than a traditional one. Evoking the confrontational, catalytic interview style of Michael Moore, Mann lingers innocently inside the entrance and aims a handicam at the black dome on the ceiling. A customer service representative dutifully appears and demands that Mann turn the camera off.
I asked management why they were taking pictures of me without my permission. They would typically ask me why I was so paranoid and tell me that only criminals are afraid of cameras. Of course, I was covertly recording this response using my own hidden EyeTap video camera. Then I would pull an ordinary camcorder out of my satchel and give them a chance to define themselves…Oddly enough, the same people who claimed that only criminals were afraid of cameras had an instantly paranoid (and sometimes violent) reaction to my camcorder.
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In Griersonian fashion, Mann likens his EyeTap to a Colt 45, as a weapon that forcefully illuminates the social conditions into which it enters. When Mann systematically offers the same indignant response, a supervisor and manager are summoned to the scene. The Wal-Mart employees become increasingly unsettled as they notice Mann’s wife wandering around with a camera-like device on her head, and moments later see the film crew in the distance.
The editing conveys the self-reflexive nature of the film and its cybernetic subject. A split-screen technique provides three alternating views of the event: as seen through his WearCam; through his wife’s WearCam; and as recorded by the crew from two separate locations. When the Wal-Mart supervisor notices a third camera pointed in his direction, he turns his attention away from Mann, who follows the action through the viewfinder of his handicam. Through the WearCam, we thus see a doubly mediated image of the event, which is simultaneously shot from a 180º perspective outside the store.
The film is thus also about itself as a medium and the technological processing of the image. The vision/apparatus/ body trinity is celebrated endlessly in a pastiche of freeze frames, stills, stock footage, digital, underwater photography, 35mm footage of Mann on television, frame-by-frame displays of the film in a web browser, at a lower frame rate fast-forwarded through the WearCam lens and ‘dusting’ (Mann’s own cybernetic colour technique). A visual and musical montage sequence showing Mann in the dusting process throws together voice-over, superimpositions, flash photography and slow motion toward a climax in the symphonic style reminiscent of sequences in Man With A Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929).
A scene of the OCAP protests at the parliament buildings in Toronto clearly shows how Mann’s WearCam gear furthers the technical and philosophical evolution of cinéma vérité practice. Mann and his students use the ENGwear to document and instantly broadcast rioting between police and students. Wired through a computer, the ‘wearable production studio’ can effectively post-produce its images before recording or exhibiting them, eliminating the need for any crew. Mann describes the filming process that formed the entirety of his 1996 documentary ShootingBack:
This process is a form of “personal documentary” or “personal video diary.” Wearable Wireless WebCam challenges the “editing” tradition of cinematography by transmitting, in real time, life as it happens, from the perspective of the surveilled.
Although the EyeTap presents many new possibilities for the production, distribution and exhibition of documentary footage, it is important to note that it is constructed from the same epistemological assumptions about the world that produced the rational Enlightenment subject, on which cinéma vérité and ethnographic film practices have depended. Trinh T. Minh-ha provides an incisive critique that characterizes the projects of both Mann and Lynch:
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With the development of an increasing, unobtrusive technology, the human eye is expected to identify with the camera eye and its mechanical neutrality. The filmmaker/camera operator should either remain as absent as possible from the work, masking thereby the constructed meaning under the appearance of the naturally given meaning, or appear in person in the film so as to guarantee the authenticity of the observation. Such a boldness or a concession (depending on how you interpret it) denotes less a need to acknowledge the subjectivity of an individual’s point of view (if it does, it is bound to be a very simplistic solution to the problem of subject and power), than a desire to marry impersonal observation and personal participation. This happy synthesis of the “universal scientific” and the “personal humanist” is thought to result in a greater humanity and at the same time a greater objectivity. In the progression toward Truth, it seems clear that one can only gain, never lose. First, conform to scientific demands, then show scientists are also human beings.
This is a rational subject who comes to know and control his environment through vision. It is not vision as a sensory modality in itself that is problematic, but its equation in documentary with the dissemination of knowledge links subjectivity to a Western semiotic – what Trinh refers to as “the totalistic quest for the referent, the true referent that lies out there in nature, in the dark, waiting patiently to be unveiled and deciphered correctly.” To the extent the visual specificity of film is conceived to be making an iconic or indexical claim about a real-world referent, it has an inherently oppressive capacity that has been attacked using counterstrategies offered in Reassemblage (Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1983) and Daughter Rite (Citron, 1979). Cyberman’s use of the first-person voice over represents Mann’s knowledge as subjective and situated. However, its use in conjunction with the shaky, uncut, sync-sound aesthetic of his WearCam also puts it in an objective, omniscient relation to the material he is filming. This is unfortunate to the extent that Mann asserts the increasing ‘cyborgization’ of identity as the only subject position available in the coming future.
In addition to linking its signifying system to a referential reality, Cyberman and its subject operate from a Cartesian mind/body dualism in which the body (as apparatus) is made into an Other by the mind (equated with vision). The body is both denied and considered inadequate. To the degree that Mann’s WearCam is considered to offer an enhancement of human vision and personal power, it is fetishized. But to the extent the apparatus is considered to be ‘too visible,’ it is denied or designed smaller in size. Editing and structuring techniques aside, cinéma vérité films like Don’t Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967) and the films of Frederick Wiseman displayed the trend to keep the techne of film invisible, defended in the name of an aesthetic coded as reality or ‘truth.’
At a conference in the film, a corporate buyer tells Mann that there is “too much apparatus going into your technology.” Mann echoes this concern in his remarks on the tendency of camera technologies to shrink in size as they grow in surveillance power. Having exposed the image of what he sees to millions of viewers through his website, Mann says “the central object of my exploitation wasn’t my physical presence, it was my interior, my mental unconscious, a terrain arguably more valuable than the exterior.” Thus it is only Mann’s mind on display, and constructed in clear opposition to, or in absence of, its biological substrate. Mann says, “I’ve stepped out of my body, in a sense. I was walking into my own world like I was walking into myself and it’s this kind of cybernetic feeling to be in the canvas that I’m creating as a visual art.”
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Another scene from the film illustrates the view of the body as apparatus “neither wholly human, nor just an organism.” Mann and his engineering students take part in a wearable computer fashion show that powerfully illustrates the intersection of apparatus and body as gendered scopophilic technophilia. Against a wall-size screen in the background that rolls through shots of Mann, the men sport such techno-gear as the ‘ShootingBack Pack’ and ‘ENGwear: the wearable production studio.’ In a textured mix of gaze, spectacle and fetish, both the men and gear are on display for a network of cameras. Later in the film, we see similar fashion photography images of Mann on his website, modeling the stylistic evolution of his WearCams. Here the biological retina is considered insufficient in itself, in need of an appendage to compensate for its limitations. The WearCam is flaunted for its visual omnipotence, instantiating what Braidotti refers to as “the final stage in the commodification of the scopic.” Mann conveys to what degree his invention has become synonymous with his own body as a viewing machine when he writes, “eye am a camera,” and admits to feeling naked without his gear on. Explaining what he perceives to be his “role as a camera,” Mann reveals that twenty years of wearing the WearCam has changed his behaviour:
I changed my way of walking so that I was always conscious of framing the shot, ensuring that I was moving down the center of corridors and sidewalks in order to provide a cinematographic perspective. I was, essentially, optimizing my gaze to give the viewer the best possible view of the ‘scene.’ Even on those rare occasions when I wasn’t wired (when I went swimming or took a shower) I persisted in this behaviour, unwilling or perhaps unable to imagine the unconnected life.
The important point in both cases here is the negation of the body – conceived as an instrumental interface between ‘mind’ and ‘reality’, or a circumstance to escape from – and the ability to experience the world without or in spite of it.
This “flight from the body,” as Braidotti calls it, “confirms the most classical and pernicious aspect of Western phallocentrism.” It thus points to the challenge that posthuman representations must overcome: “identified with the rational mind, the liberal subject possessed a body but was not usually represented as being a body. Only because the body is not identified with the self is it possible to claim for the liberal subject its notorious universality, a claim that depends on erasing markers of bodily difference, including sex, race and ethnicity.” Braidotti offers a reading that can complicate the view of Mann as a technologically enhanced human. Although she is referring to the cyborg as it appears in popular culture, her criticism of this conception of machinic existence reinforces Hayles’ comments.
The hyper-masculinity of the militarized aggressive cyborg is another panic response of the male human trying to counteract his growing obsolescence. It is also a misogynist reaction against the potentially threatening role of electronic technologies that induce a sort of passive consumption which is culturally coded as feminine or feminized. The impenetrable metallic body defies the blurring of boundaries, is impenetrable and uncontaminated: a sort of techno-fascist fantasy of self-sufficiency. Constance Penley (1985) has argued that this reconfiguration of masculinity as an aggressive cyborg-killer indicates that patriarchy is more willing to dispense with human life altogether, than with masculine superiority. In other words, a culturally enforced paradigm such as the cyborg is structurally ambivalent in terms of gender, but quite traditional in its politics. Braidotti thus importantly contextualizes the desires of posthumanism within an existing network of social relations, preventing a blind, euphoric reading of its claims to ‘biological emancipation.’ Contributing to Hayles’ feminist posthuman critique, Paula Rabinowitz wonders if, “in claiming space for the posthuman are we erasing yet again women’s lives and stories?”
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In relation to Cyberman, the effacement of the body also lies in the unquestioned, endless reproduction of the cinéma vérité aesthetic and its equation through the WearCam with Mann’s ‘mind.’ This is strengthened by the fact that, as Mann says in the film, he feels the apparatus represents reality more faithfully than his own “naked” eyes. His friend says, “we all take our camera away to see truth; he puts the camera in front of his eyes to see the truth.” This recalls Jeanne Hall’s observation that Bob Dylan’s notion of the truth as “just a plain picture” both saved Don’t Look Back from having to make the same argument itself and reinforced the cinéma vérité methodology. In the case of Cyberman, the film’s style and its subject arguably support each other in declaring technology’s superiority over the body.
Flesh and Blood Explorer: The Settler
Whereas Cyberman equates vision with knowledge and remains ideologically complicit with the realist aesthetic normalized by cinéma vérité, The Settler rejects this equation and enables a critique of the ideology of realism itself. Its ignorance of referential reality through the use of fictive forms and a refusal to fix meaning within the text itself make a space in which the humanist subject can be deconstructed to an extent not achieved by Cyberman.
As a hybrid or experimental fictional ethnography, The Settler blends the conventions and strategies of autobiographical, fictional and surrealist film in its effort to represent future events and extraterrestrial landscapes. To this end, it uses dramatization, first-person voice over, flashback and digital image processing techniques to represent dream and memory. The film presents an account of one man’s emigration from California to Mars to help with a space colonization project. Years after its development is complete and urban life flourishes, The Settler (played by Jean-Pierre Gorin and Baba Hillman) reflects on a dream that has continued to haunt him since his first night on the new planet.
The dream begins with a medium close-up of a woman holding a contact print of an enlarged film frame. Behind her, a woman wrapped in white cloth collects coconuts while she simultaneously appears in the contact print performing a series of gestural movements. This is followed by black and white, handheld shots of a rocky horizon across which a woman walks examining the ground. In a voiceover, she questions progress, evolution and species-definition, considering whether interplanetary travel is not just another form of human conquest. She stumbles through computer-generated sandstorms that blow across barren landscapes of blue, purple and red. Stop motion photography animates rocks on the ground, and the dream ends with the woman walking into the distance.
The film thus celebrates the expressive capacities of vision, freed from a connection to knowledge and reality, and uses it instead to express an estranged subjectivity. Elsewhere in the film, negative prints and colour-treated images are juxtaposed on film and video, enhancing its unreal affect and indexing the film as ‘fictional.’
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Indeed, the voice of The Settler speaks from the year 2097 about events in his own past – still today’s future. Russell notes, however, that such fictive representations are valid strategies for documenting the self through memories, which “forsake the authenticity of documentary realism for a fiction of forgetting. The filmed memory situates the filmmaker-subject within a culture of mediation in which the past is endemically fictional.” Russell’s point reinforces Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s view that a distinction between factual and fiction film becomes insignificant since they both depend on an assumed relation to “the real world: so real that the Real becomes the one basic referent.” Moreover, I would argue that the Future can be understood to be as much of a discursive construction and interpretation as is History. As such, representations of both sit equally in their relative claims to referential reality and, in this case, can be equally critiqued for a relative compliance or resistance to ideologies that uphold the universal, unified human subject in relation to an Other which it is not. Russell’s characterization of the autoethnographic subject suggests how the dichotomies of self/Other, real/unreal are dissolved in the figure of The Settler, who “blurs the distinction between ethnographer and Other by traveling, becoming a stranger in a strange land, even if that land is a fictional space existing only in representation.” In addition, Paula Rabinowitz suggests that in contrast to the “feminist-humanist project of truth-telling,” a posthuman feminism may depend on “fantasy, exaggeration and lies.”
In terms of its potential for a political foregrounding of posthumanist issues, The Settler is significant for its fractured, incomplete, non-identificatory structure which enacts Trinh T. Minh-ha’s advocation that “meaning should be prevented from coming to closure at what is said and what is shown.” The most salient example of textual ambiguity in the film concerns The Settler himself, whose name we never learn and who never comes to be fully situated socially or historically within the text. Through voiceover he refers to other members of the colonization team, ‘Zuburich,’ and ‘Mulholland,’ whose absence and relative insignificance mirror the detached tone found in chains of disparate, subjectless images of generic locales. We hear the voice of The Settler, but do not see him until a close shot at the end of the film, where his voice continues to speak on behalf of his silent image. The disjunction between his disembodied voiceover and the uncontextualized significance of its utterance destabilize and incite a re-reading of the text. The identity of this man, why his bones are broken, what he is waiting for, and the significance of the dream for him are not addressed.
As Trinh suggests, however, these apparent gaps of meaning are actually positive openings that allow a plurality and maximization of meaning. Trinh speaks about the importance of such ambiguity: “If life’s paradoxes and complexities are not to be suppressed, the question of degrees and nuances is incessantly crucial. Meaning can therefore be political only when it does not let itself be easily stabilized.” The Settler has not yet figured out the meaning of his dream, in which an unidentified female figure speaks on his behalf. The dream returns for reinterpretation. The Settler’s relationship to his own past and future is incomplete – an open text that is in the process of becoming and can be written over, as his speechless image suggests. His identity is not fixed, but is in a process of being determined. Trinh suggests that this layering of subjectivity allows its illusion to come into question and “may therefore help to relieve the basic referent of its occupation.” In refusing to commit to referential meaning, the contradictions within the subjectivities in the text allow the realist ideology to come apart.
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Although it largely typifies Russell’s description of autoethnographic film in its use of fragmented, dispersed subjectivity for cultural critique, I would suggest that its hybridity can also be read as an attempt to express the contradictions/ limitations of organic identity and relationship in a transition to a posthuman era. The Settler deconstructs the human subject into a hybrid self that encompasses sexual difference, cultural displacement and organic inadequacy. The disjunction between voice and its speaker(s) throws the Enlightenment idea of embodiment as an autonomous, unified self into question. The only unified, speaking subjects of the text – the NASA engineer and the science teacher – stand in detached relation to imagination of The Settler as part of a past on Earth that has no relation to the future in space. In making such a transition, the human body is attacked as an ineffectual or incomplete organism, in need of redefinition to adapt to an extraterrestrial environment.
Despite its radicalization of subjectivity, The Settler upholds a view that the body is incompatible with existence in a technologically advanced era. In his dream, The Settler’s body is compared with those of machines, and becomes the only connection to a world that is not fully knowable through vision and sound.
They called me a flesh and blood explorer. All the other missions have only brought rovers. I bite my lip hard to draw blood…it reminds me that there is plasma and saline surrounding a nucleus in my cells as they course through my veins, a cyclone of pushing and pulling through arteries and flaps, to bring the dwindling available oxygen to a brain that recognizes that its chemistry and tissue aren’t equipped to continue here.
The body is thus seen as inadequate and untrustworthy. The Settler continues to question the emigration to space as a conscious, rational endeavour, and wonders instead if it might be a ‘natural’ continuation of humanity’s biological evolution. Through the figure of The Settler as he looks back on the years following his dream, the film puts forth the argument that such colonization attempts only transfer the problems of post-industrialist society from Earth to Mars.
Formally and in the subjects they treat, Cyberman and The Settler appear to be diametric opposites. But a posthumanist reading reveals shared themes of escape (from the body or from the Earth) and the need to protect the body or self against corporate control of private or public space. Steve Mann’s motivation for developing the EyeTap and its applications was to subvert surveillance technologies through the use of more surveillance technologies. Similarly, The Settler speaks of the smog and the “big wigs” that pushed him to leave planet Earth and colonize Mars, “creating a super greenhouse gas effect to hold in the heat and pressure-cook up a prosthetic atmosphere.” In both cases, there is a sense of entrapment leading to the need to escape, and a sense of capital interests taking over the spaces of the body or the planet. These themes become posthumanist to the extent that the body is considered as “the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born,” in the case of Steve Mann; or in the case of The Settler, where “embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life.”
Both films step toward fulfilling what Braidotti sees is the need “to deconstruct myths of wholeness and organicism,” but they don’t equally refuse the “technocratic take-over of the body.” Nevertheless, I would argue that the higher degree of semiotic complexity present in The Settler offers a more politically effective aesthetic for negotiating a posthuman future than does Cyberman. Its refusal to simplify what is complex has also been identified as a necessary representational strategy by Braidotti, Trinh T. Minh-ha and Donna Haraway.
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It is necessary to point out, however, that it is the filmic treatment of Steve Mann’s device that is complicit with a realist ideology, and not necessarily the WearCam itself. Indeed, Mann is quite aware and concerned to highlight the contradictions and complexity of his wearable camera project.
Due to the covert nature of the device, for example, the potential to ‘capture’ the images of unconsenting, unknowing bystanders increases exponentially, strengthening Vivian Sobchack’s account of the violating potential of direct cinema. But if the WearCam exploits the objects of its gaze, Mann suggests it equally exploits the wearer’s subjectivity: “in allowing so many people into my head to see what I see I was whittling away a little of myself, giving myself up for free.” Mann’s position challenges the idea of the autonomous subject in itself by suggesting the possibility of shared autonomy: “what we want out of the new ever-shrinking wearable technologies is the right to violate our own privacy for the sake of entering the larger feedback loop of the media/cyborgspace.”
As it raises many more questions that recast issues in documentary and subjectivity, Mann’s technology could be considered further in particular relationship to Dziga Vertov’s kino-eye; Tom Gunning’s “cinema of attractions;” the “neoconservative nostalgia” current that Linda Hutcheon identifies in postmodernist representation; Baudrillard’s simulacra; and the extent to which Mann’s device verifiably challenges representation “on a level of substance, not surface.” Indeed, Braidotti cautions against the negative impact of the postmodern privileging of the morphology of the signifier at the expense of the signified:
one of the risks of the ‘hype’ that surrounds the meta(l)morphoses of cyber-culture is that of a re-creation of a hard core, unitary vision of the subject, under the cover of pluralistic fragmentation. In the language of philosophical nomadism, this would produce the deception of a quantitative multiplicity which does not entail any qualitative shifts.
In a posthuman era, there is thus the danger of flagrantly reproducing the humanist ideology through new forms, be they aesthetic, machinic or displaced in new environments. The challenge for documentary representation of these issues would be to inhabit old forms and deconstruct their meanings from within, as Citron’s Daughter Rite did with the home movie aesthetic.
Michael Renov has explained how documentary in the late twentieth century experienced a shift from the politics of social movements to those of identity. Arguably, this “effusion of subjectivity” will continue from self-definition to the politics of body-definition and ownership rights, down to the level of the gene. New issues will need to be represented, but the strategy will continue to be the dismantling of Enlightenment subjectivity by – as Trinh suggests – releasing the sign from its referent, and then ‘linking the semiotic to the material.’ Such representational attempts must therefore encompass feminist and material film strategies if they are to create and maintain a necessary critical distance from emerging conceptions of biological subjectivity and autonomy/collectivity, and from conceptions of the posthuman itself.
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Chronique d’un été. Dir. Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin. France, 1960. 90 min.
Videocassette. Corinth Video.
Cyberman. Dir. Peter Lynch. Additional Photo. Steve Mann. The Nature of Things. CBC
Television Network. Canada. 2001. Videocassette. CBC, 2003.
The Man With A Movie Camera. Dir. Dziga Vertov. USSR, 1929. 70 min. Videocassette.
Reassemblage. Dir. Trinh T. Minh-Ha. USA, 1981. 40 min. Videocassette. Women Make
The Settler. Dir. Rian Brown. Perf. Jean-Pierre Gorin. USA. 2000. Videocassette.
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© 2004, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique