On (im)Materiality and Film

Being that this is my last-ever semester of graduate school (!), I’m making a point this term to indulge myself academically. (Carpe diem, and so forth.) So, being the film lover that I am, I decided to take a course on film theory.

Already, I’m finding myself challenged and absorbed by the class readings. One piece, How We Became Posthuman by N. Katherine Hayles, considers the idea held by some that information can exist in a state of abstract disembodiment–separated from mind, from body, from flesh, from circuit–with no natural connection to physical reality.

Except it cannot, according to Hayles: “[I]t can be a shock,” she says, “to remember that for information to exist it must always be instantiated in a medium, whether that medium is [a] page from the Bell Laboratories Journal…, the computer-generated topological maps used by the Human Genome Project, or the cathode ray tube on which virtual worlds are imagined.” She continues: “Abstraction is of course an essential component in all theorizing, for no theory can account for the infinite multiplicity of our interactions with the real. But when we make moves that erase the world’s multiplicity, we risk losing sight of the variegated leaves, fractal branchings, and particular bark textures that make up the forest.”

Hayles’ article moved me on a number of levels. At its core, I find myself agreeing with her thesis–though I’m not sure how convinced I am by her apparent skepticism of virtuality per se. Here, my own lack of persuasion actually comes as a surprise to me. As a lover of traditional film craft (I adamantly prefer film to digital, practical effects to CGI), one would expect me to agree with the notion that, yes, the digitization of something actual, something physical and remotely tangible into something merely approximate entails an inherent loss, however quantified. Yet I don’t think this is always the case–or, at least, that it always matters.

Hayles contests the separation of materiality from information. This she ties to the concept of disembodiment, whose forms she traces through liberal humanist thought and eventually cybernetics. Early on she cites the seemingly science-fictional “dreams” of roboticists, who hail the possibility of distilling the essence of individual human Being into its binary elements. Their vision, apparently, is that humanity might someday exist virtually and infinitely, in digital form. Hayles likens the vision to something closer to a nightmare.

I empathize with Hayles’ view, specifically her belief that the reduction of something whole and fluid into something approximate and binary is both reductive and crude. Indeed, the conversion of something analog into something digital necessarily involves a disconnection from reality–a dumbing-down of the infinite into something both finite and quantifiable. (Here I think of the ‘uncanny valley’ phenomenon, and also the so-called ‘dead eyes’ quality often ascribed to digitally-rendered characters in film.) With this criticism in mind, Hayles poses a fundamental question: What do we lose when we distill something actual into something wholly less-than?

As I said earlier, I’m not convinced that whatever is lost always and necessarily matters, at least on an experiential level. Hayles’ impressive theoretical inquiry notwithstanding, the human body–bound as it is to the limits of its five senses and their respective capacities–is incapable of infinite perception. At certain extremes, for example, digital representations of sight and sound contain so much detail that, to our eyes and ears, they are not discernibly different from reality. In excess of certain frame rates, certain audio frequencies, certain degrees of chromatic intensity, we are rendered perceptually oblivious.

There is one passage in particular toward which I feel an unflinching sense of agreement with Hayles, though. She says: “In the face of such a powerful dream [that information is constructable and immortality thus achievable], [information] must always be instantiated in a medium….”

I believe this to be completely true. When I am moved by something onscreen, neither its disconnection from actuality nor the medium through which I experience it matter. In those rare and precious moments, and in countless remembrances thenceforth, its materiality is and shall remain manifest. It is “instantiated,” as Hayles is fond of saying, in my memory; it is made actual, having become part of my flesh.

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