Tuesday, April 30, 2013

On Soderbergh and Present Shock

I'm kind of fascinated by the beginning of Steven Soderbergh's piece on the current state of cinema, in which he talks about that moment of paralysis when you feel like every framework, every intelligible construct of ideas, is all collapsing on itself. He describes feeling this way on a Jet Blue flight:
"I get this wave of – not panic, it’s not like my heart started fluttering – but I had this sense of, am I going insane? Or is the world going insane – or both? [...] Something is going on – something that can be measured is happening, and there has to be. When people are more outraged by the ambiguous ending of The Sopranos than some young girl being stoned to death, then there’s something wrong. [...] So I think that life is sort of like a drumbeat. It has a rhythm and sometimes it’s fast and sometimes it’s slower, and maybe what’s happening is this drumbeat is just accelerating and it’s gotten to the point where I can’t hear between the beats anymore and it’s just a hum."
This is just quoted for quick reference... you should really read the whole thing, in which he spins out this story of feeling lost in the feedback of the current moment. It's sort of like I feel when my blood sugar is low, and all the external stimuli starts to get dim and disconnected, and my inner monologue gets distorted and amplified into a sort of dizzy paranoia. Soderbergh refers us back to Douglas Rushkoff, who spoke of something called Present Shock:
" 'When there’s no linear tie, how is a person supposed to figure out what’s going on? There’s no story, no narrative to explain why things are the way things are. Previously distinct causes and effects collapse into one another. There’s no time between doing something and seeing the result. Instead the results begin accumulating and influencing us before we've even completed an action. And there’s so much information coming in at once from so many different sources that there’s simply no way to trace the plot over time'. That’s the hum I’m talking about. And I mention this because I think it’s having an effect on all of us."
I feel this more and more frequently, as the discourse gets more discordant and amplified, and I let myself get caught up in it. I especially feel it in any situation where people tend to have really strong opinions... politics is a good example, especially when I let myself get perversely, voyeuristically drawn to the distorted universe of right-wing blogs and MRA activism and stuff.

I also feel this dizziness when I fall into the cacophony of reviews that follows any major game or film release that I care about. I'm thrown off balance by the way people I very much respect -- activists, intellectuals, friends -- can see the same things I see, but be affected by them in the opposite way. What makes it even stranger is that these are always people with whom I share a fundamental premise: that art/media can be legitimately judged according to some higher standard, that there's some accessible criteria for what makes something "good art." If I didn't feel that way, I would end up in a relativistic world, where I saw every opinion as subjective, and never had any reason to listen to what anyone else said about... well, anything, I guess.

So we all believe it standards, in the noble act of criticism and assessment of art, in the higher value of beauty and meaning. Yet, when we consider the middlebrow films and games, I find that so many of these people hate the things I love, and they seem to have arrived at their opinions by focusing on things that I feel are unimportant, and waving away the things that I feel are the soul of the work. And on some level, I don't know what license I have to say, "Those are not the things that are important. You are wrong." On some level, I contain a relativism fights against my own ability to form an opinion.

Of course, it doesn't help that so many opinions in modern media (especially bloggy media) are wrapped in sarcasm and self-righteousness shields. The strongest voices, the ones that now completely dominate the discourse, are the ones who laugh at disagreement, who mock the opposition, who treat the whole world like it's their own echo chamber. When I read their writing, it no longer feels like I live in a shared world... it feels like the world is a tiny elevator that a hundred people are competing for. The way all these opposite and adverse opinions overlap... the way the discourse is distorted by disruptive acts of rage and mockery and sarcasm... the way everyone seems to react defensively to any threat of a challenge or disagreement... the way every minor point of contention flares up into anger and cruelty in a flash, with no escalation whatsoever... it turns everything into noise.

It's a weird topic, almost too personal for me, despite its cerebral nature. I'm glad Soderbergh gave me something to read about it, something to relate to, so I could write this rambling blog post... it lets me approach that ocean of intellectual vertigo, without quite letting myself fall in.

For the record -- and this is relevant to this post, even if it sounds like a non sequitur -- I will dearly and desperately miss Roger Ebert's writing.