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THE SERIAL MACHINE
Toward Figures of Time
The Machine at Work
To begin thinking about the aesthetic experience of temporal complexity through the concept of the figural, I would like to start with an example. What stands out, still, after more than two thousand minutes of Damages is the opening sequence of thirty-five seconds:
A solemn symphonic score sets in on a black screen, each musical phrase measured by the single ring of a triangle. The scene opens to a crisp Manhattan morning, the grainy image washed in a hue of pale yellow (see figure 1.1). Pedestrians cross the street, walking backward. Cut to a cab waiting at a red light. Enter smoke — wafting in reverse: instead of billowing from its source into an extended haze, it concentrates and intensifies into a dense fog returning to where it came from. Following is a shot of the star-spangled banner waving backward in time, then more smoke gathering in front of a grid of scaffolding (see figure 1.2). Cut to the entrance of an apartment building (see figure 1.3). A biker passes by, driving forward. Time has changed directions. Then stillness, as movement seems to have left the image. And silence almost: the score fades out into an eerie, vibrating hum. After an interval of two or three seconds measured by the triangle, cut closer to the same building entrance. Stillness again. The triangle rings: cut to a closed elevator door (see figure 1.4). There is no motion in the image yet but the ring of the triangle, which is now the bell of the elevator and signals imminent action. "Something's doing" behind the image (Massumi 2011, 1). Eventually, the elevator door opens. Adjust focus. There she is: a young woman, covered in blood, shivering, fleeing from the building we have only just entered (see figure 1.5). Follow her.
Or rewind. Go back. (Because you can.) What has just happened? Certainly, this opening scene establishes the setting for the story. It sets a certain mood. Its slowness creates suspense. The very absence of human action in an urban setting suggests that something is astir. However, while there is no human action in this opening scene, there is movement everywhere: movement in and of the image. What is at stake here from the very beginning is a set of linkages between the various (abstract and concrete) components of the image: time, perception, and media technology. These connections can be traced individually.
Consider the smoke — or any kind of foggy, gaseous accumulation. Such mist is at no two moments identical to itself. In this sequence as anywhere else, smoke continuously differs in shape, density, and opacity. Moreover, it blurs the contours of the environment it fills. Mist "betrays, completely fills the environment with potential things" (Serres 2008, 70). Here, it covers and uncovers the orderly scaffolding, makes visible and invisible. For Michel Serres, this is how "mist disturbs ontology" (70). What it foregrounds instead is onto genesis, or becoming. The smoke in Damages is a first rendering of time. It figures the continuous differentiation that lies at the heart of a concept of duration: "Duration is what differs from itself" (Deleuze 2004a, 37). If there is creation and novelty in the world, this is not only because things change in time but first and foremost because time itself "is invention or it is nothing at all" (Bergson 2007a, 341). The smoke in Damages confirms this: there is no precomposed body here that moves through a determinable sequence of poses. Rather, mist is generative of itself at every instant of its becoming. It is a topological figure: drawing on its potential for variation, it creates its next now by folding forth into the world. This smoky figure connects with another element of the imagescape, the grid of scaffolding. The two contrast in many ways: The grid of scaffolding is a stable, regular construct of horizontals and verticals intersecting at right angles. As a support structure, it literally allows for construction. It is order for the purpose of efficient action. But, lacking human action, it is also where nothing happens in these images. Smoke, as we have seen, is quite the opposite: it continuously self-differentiates. Its very instability allows it to happen to the orderly grid. Blurry as they are, mists edge into the world, spill over contours, and consume color. But, while blurring ontology, mists do not undo it. What we get with the fuzzy texture of fog is a sense of topology, of becoming-with our environment as we move through it. Self-variation according to one's own potentials and in relation with the world is duration. This is the importance of the first performer in Damages, smoke. Its frayed hues of pale yellow give us a sense of time as creative becoming that is first of all relational and nonhuman — "nonhuman" because it goes beyond the human without excluding it, because it introduces the human to a world that is already becoming. In this way, Damages sets a first challenge to conventional notions of time.
In another linkage, this first experience of time in Damages is immediately captured by the temporal order of reverse motion. The simplicity of this technique should not belie its experiential complexity for a reverse sequence is not simply the mirror image of the original sequence. Smoke wafting backward is not the mere "opposite" or "inversion" of smoke wafting forward; it is qualitatively different. The eerie, forceful beauty of Damages' opening scene suggests an unnatural control over time as the sequence reverses the irreversible, as it captures the smoke and contains its spillage. Note that this process of containment is different from the first linkage between smoke and grid: the movement of the smoke within the image is captured by the movement of the image itself. The technique gets hold of becoming and, in so doing, foregrounds the technological mechanism by which television articulates time: the regular (but reversible) succession of contingent frames. This does not mean that we consciously see the superposition of frames in time, let alone that the experience of time in audiovisual narrative is necessarily "unnatural." The important aspect here is that technique calls upon technology to feed into an experience of time. This inevitable coupling of technique and technology is a technic. What this technics achieves in the present case is to make felt the quality of technology, to make it an integral part of the experience of time that the sequence gives. This feltness or "qualitative experience of technology" is the sequence's "technicity" (Lamarre 2009, xxiii). The second linkage then suggests that television as a technic can powerfully yet effortlessly and beautifully get a hold on duration. It can homogenize, linearize, and manipulate time. The concept that enables this process is one of chronological, metric, scientific time. It is profoundly human. Thus, while the smoke conveys a sense of becoming in nonhuman terms and places the human within it, reverse motion complicates this movement by manipulating it from without. This sequence is a preview of one of the main concerns in Damages as well as the other TV series discussed in this book: the technics of manipulating perceptions of time.
But, on yet another level, this technical capture is also a resistance. The third linkage of Damages is that it is a television series that starts by going backward. It swims against television's current. Or better yet: it wants to get out of the current, get rid of it. This current has been famously described by Raymond Williams as television's "flow." This term designates the various and interwoven "series of timed units" that obliterate the unit as such. These series include (1) the programs to be broadcast, (2) commercial breaks, and (3) trailers advertising subsequent programs. Williams rightly observes that the time interval for commercial breaks and trailers at the same time interrupts the individual program and connects one program to others. Ultimately, the effect of this broadcasting technic is to relegate the continuity of individual programs to the background and to foreground continuity at another level, that of a program sequence as "planned flow." Insisting on its never-ending presentness, network television pulls the viewer into an anesthetizing current of indeterminate and self-obliterating contents: "Television thrives on its own forgettability" (Doane 1990, 226). Television's flow, Williams concludes, is "perhaps the defining characteristic of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a cultural form," that is, as a technic.
Perhaps this is no longer the case. If one of Damages' main concerns is to decompose metric time, the opening scene of the show signals that this project is also one of breaking out of television's broadcasting flow. Instead of flowing carelessly ahead, each coming frame in this reverse-motion sequence folds back on its own immediate past. The image does not distend and wear out time into a shallow and continuous flow. As a technique in this sequence, reverse motion folds the moving image back on itself; it creases time and makes it dense, intense. When the image cuts to the entrance/elevator shots, time almost seems to halt — almost, because the passage of time is still felt through the jitter of the grainy image and the ring of the triangle/elevator bell. Each toll of the bell signals the completion of an interval of time that seems to be devoid of action. But as we hear the extremities of intervals and the lack of efficient action, we also sense the grainy rustle of the image. The richness of these shots lies in their foregrounding of the duration between measured points of time. What is felt is the quality of time as it slows down without thinning out. Here, time is felt as both extensive and intensive at the same time.
This opening sequence speaks to the new potentials of fictional television for going beyond plot-driven narrative, technology as a mere material support, and flow as a mode of indifferent consumption. Over the last twenty years or so, television has fundamentally changed both "as a technology and as a social practice," to use Williams's phrase. As a technology, television no longer passes through the TV set exclusively: it has incorporated recording devices like VCR, DVD, and, more recently, video-on-demand (VOD) platforms such as Hulu or Netflix; it has gone online to official homepages, episode guides, fan forums, smartphone applications, and social media. As a social practice, the television experience is no longer confined to a sequential flow of broadcasting. Experiencing television henceforth passes through practices of rewatching, blogging, tweeting, gaming, rating, speculating, and many more. Part and parcel of what I call the serial machine, these practices are also techniques for resingularizing individual programs. Six years after its first airing, the opening sequence of Damages is not forgotten because digital archives create the possibility for qualitatively different ways of watching and studying TV. Finally, the numerous shifts in serial production have created a remarkable variety of narrative temporalities: speeds and slownesses, extensions and intensions, loops, intervals, anachronisms, and so forth.
It is not evident how these changes and their relatedness might best be addressed. Returning to the example of Damages' opening scene, so far we have three linkages that make for three potentially contradictory arguments on time depending on which components of the experience one pulls out: (1) the smoke that veils the grid and renders duration supplanting metric time; (2) the technique of reverse motion, which captures the smoke and conveys the opposite: cinematic time containing duration; and (3) the technics of this sequence, which resist television's flow as a "social form" or practice. While all these arguments address one aspect of Damages' opening sequence, none of them can sufficiently describe these thirty-five seconds of felt time. The reason is that none of experience's components — image content, technique, technology, social practice — can be separated out without reducing the complexity of experience. Nor can this complexity be grasped by a single conceptual pair. As we have seen, the terms of apparent oppositions — such as grid/smoke, human/nonhuman, technique/technology, technology/social practice, and percept/concept — overlap and fold into each other to create a singular sensation of time. What opposes in thought composes in experience. Therefore, rather than as stand-alone oppositions, it may be more useful to think these pairs as functional linkages that are themselves connected among each other. These interconnected linkages create a dynamic constellation whose effects are transversal to the neatly separable, structural levels of, say, "content," "discursive articulation," "material support," "social relations," and so on. The opening sequence of Damages creates a machinic assemblage in a very conspicuous way, imbricating various temporalities into one another toward experiential effect. The effect that Damages' opening sequence composes for is a sensation of time, if only in germ. Time is experienced as a heterogeneous movement of creation, inflected by a variety of processes feeding into one another. This effect is not a representation of time; it is what will be called a figure of time.
Figures of Time
In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Gilles Deleuze conceives the figural as a way of going beyond the "figurative, illustrative, and narrative character" of art (2004b, 6). Going beyond is not the same as leaving behind: working toward the figural is to work with the figurative. In this sense, the figure "extracts" from the figurative (6, 10). This extracted figure is abstractly lived. Consequently, it should be read as a provocation when Deleuze writes that, in art, "it is not a matter of reproducing or inventing forms, but of capturing forces. For this reason no art is figurative" (48). Why this denial when figuration has previously been proposed as the ground from which the figure extracts? Where does Deleuze want to push thought? In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari write: "No art is imitative, no art can be imitative or figurative. Suppose a painter 'represents' a bird; this is in fact a becoming-bird that can occur only to the extent that the bird itself is in the process of becoming something else, a pure line and pure color. Thus imitation self-destructs, since the imitator unknowingly enters into a becoming that conjugates with the unknowing becoming of that which he or she imitates. One imitates only if one fails, when one fails" (1987, 304–5). Before art represents and signifies (say, a fictional world), it operates as a productive force in this world. Art cocreates a relational field in which materials, colors, textures, painters, spectators, birds, and so forth coevolve and invent what each becomes.
This notion of art as a creative force in the world is a major consistency in the thinking of Deleuze and Guattari: in his own writing, Guattari suggests that, if we think of moving images as part of a machinic assemblage, then "we are not in the presence of a passively representative image, but of a vector of subjectivation. We are actually confronted by a non-discursive, pathic knowledge" (1995, 25). Such knowledge is not preconstituted and contained in narrative; it is first of all produced in the encounter, the "confrontation" with the image. It is this pathic or embodied mode of thought that the concept of the figure pushes us toward. The figure is a wager for thinking through the body, through sensation. In the present context, this means that there is more to narrative than story, representation, and content. If Deleuze and Guattari repeatedly deny the figurative aspect of art, it is because they write at a time when structuralist theories and "narratology" in particular reduce narrative to the double articulation of discourse and story. They provokingly refute figuration and mediation to challenge these theories and draw our attention to the more-than of art, the immediate sensation of the encounter with art, including narrative, as a lived experience. This, then, is what the concept of the figure, defined as "the sensible form related to a sensation" without "the intermediary of the brain," attempts to grasp (Deleuze 2004b, 31). The figure is a narrative movement directly felt before reflection and without signification. It is the viscerally felt gesture of a work's relational form-taking. As such, it emerges eventfully and does not express anything but itself. It is asignifying.(Continues…)
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Table of ContentsIntroduction. Preemptive Narratives and Televisual Futures 1
1. The Serial Machine: Toward Figures of Time 38
2. Three Representations and a Figural: Bergsonian Variations on Metric Time, the Virtual, and Creative Becoming 73
3. Loop into Line: The Moral Command of Preemption 109
4. Damages as Procedural Television 142
Afterword. Anarchival Television 176
Works Cited 203
What People are Saying About This
“Figures of Time is an exciting book—what a rare feat to bring together a committed reading of television with a deep curiosity for all that makes the televisual what it is becoming! What makes this book unusual—and exciting—is that it risks thinking across, bringing into resonance the quality of a close reading with the political urgency of what else lurks in the interstices of a medium that moves across culture, aesthetics, and politics. With careful attention to the politics of preemption, to questions of futurity and how these, together, shape narratives to come, Toni Pape weaves a book that produces a theory of televisual experience that asks how aesthetics orients the very question of living.”
“Providing a highly original contribution and a compelling televisual study, Toni Pape positions contemporary television as simultaneously aesthetical and political. He gives us an entirely new approach to thinking what media might be as an assemblage in motion while demonstrating how affect and representation, narrativity and movement, and immediation and mediation function relationally. An invigorating book.”