Flatness

 

Flattening of Affect

Duncan Marquiss

 

Schizophonia is a term coined by the sound ecologist R. Murray Schaefer to describe a state of confusion caused by hearing a sound disconnected from its source. This uncertainty is experienced when the listener is unable to pinpoint the origin of a sound. As information foragers on the Internet perhaps we suffer from a similar species of anxiety when we encounter material that has been estranged from its origins. I felt something of this disquiet recently whilst listening to several audio interviews with the writer Philip K. Dick on You Tube. The limited details provided on the circumstances surrounding the interviews lend them an enigmatic quality. This sense of obscurity is amplified by the murk of distortion and interference that cloud the recordings. Dick’s disembodied voice is immersed in an opaque haze of ambient noise out of which familiar sounds sporadically emerge. A phone rings inside an unseen house, a car roars past outside, a tape recorder halts suddenly with a muffled crunch. These accruing clues build a dimly lit scene inside the listener’s mind of a space where the recording could have been made. And yet this tenebrous quality seems appropriate to Dick’s idiom, reminiscent of the phone call between a man and his deceased wife in Ubik (1969). Or the Glimmung, an alien deity from Galactic Pot Healer (1969) that speaks by playing a vinyl record containing its voice. In Dick’s stories social interactions are often mediated through technological apparatus, but what elements of the signal are lost in such extended communications? In A Theory of Play and Fantasy the anthropologist Gregory Bateson discusses the abstract levels of verbal communication, or meta-communications, that tell us the register in which a message should be read. These signs allow us to discern the differences between literal statements and metaphors. When videos are uploaded to You Tube they are re-contextualised within the generic interface of the website. Considering the importance Bateson places on the framing elements of dialogue, is the flattening of context occurring on You Tube analogous to a loss of register in conversation?

 

In the first interview that I listened to with Dick, the author discusses the transmigration of his novel Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) to the cinema screen as the film Bladerunner (1982). In the novel characters are interrogated to determine whether they are humans or uncanny androids. This examination method is known as the Voigt-Kampff test and consists of a series of questions designed to provoke emotional reactions. A polygraph-like apparatus gauging physical responses is used to monitor the test-subjects. The examiner is looking for a negative result; if a test-subject appears unusually indifferent to the charged questions they are identified as androids. Dick describes the detached automatons as suffering from a ‘flattening of affect’. This phrase refers to a symptom of schizophrenia known as ‘flat affect’; characterised by muted or inappropriate emotional reactions. However, deciding what constitutes an appropriate emotional response is a relative matter as social and cultural circumstances often affect an individual’s emotional displays.

 

The You Tube interface offers the viewer an opportunity to display their feelings about a video by using the rating system provided to make a value judgement. This scale has two options: ‘like’ or ‘dislike’. In a lecture posted on Stanford University’s You Tube channel the web analyst Peter Pirolli describes how simple rating systems encourage more web-user interaction than scales with a graduated range. Fewer options reduce the time and mental effort required for the viewer to make an assessment, so less choice means more clicks. Ultimately binary scales like the YouTube rating system induce a reductive or exaggerated response. Perhaps such black and white scales flatten the dynamic range of criticality, burning out ambiguous grey areas. This recalls one of Josef Albers’ observations on the deceptive nature of perception in his book Interaction of Colour (1975). In a passage on scales of grey Albers describes how the eye perceives a gradual increase in tonal depth as occurring in equal steps, yet the increase of tone is actually exponential. This means that the difference, or step up between two dark greys on the scale is a far greater leap than the step between two lighter greys. This logarithmic relationship between stimulus and perception, known as the Weber-Fechner law, demonstrates a gap between our perceived world and material reality.

 

Dick defined reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” In an interview from 1979 he describes the Jungian notion that we each inhabit a private world. Or rather, an individual’s perception of the shared world is a projection of his or her own psyche. For Dick then the invasion of a person’s world-view by another’s values is an authoritarian crime. To coerce someone into thinking as you do ‘damages the contours of their psyche’ by reshaping it in the image of your own. Indeed, the automatons from Do Androids Dream… are manufactured with implanted memories so their psyches are already colonised by mediated content. Dick’s 1981 novel V.A.L.I.S. (Vast Active Living Intelligence System) presents the notion of a universe made of living information, pre-empting the informational environment of the Internet. Pirolli’s Information Foraging Theory proposes that we explore databases by following ‘information scents’ in an abstracted version of hunter-gatherer foraging. The online universe is a glut of simultaneous information, requiring us to optimise our internal filters to shut out the irrelevant data. This creates an evolutionary arms race between the user’s mental filters and the attention-traps set by websites vying for our browsing time. As we approach data saturation point we suffer from impoverished attention. Considering the Weber-Fechner law again, does our sense of perspective also distort at the extremities of information processing?

 

The last P.K. Dick interview that I watched on You Tube featured an illustration of the author added as a visual to accompany the audio. The still portrait is animated by fine undulating scratches and swarming grains that imitate the material quality of degraded film footage. Contemporary video editing programs often include filters to mimic antecedent media by simulating their signature flaws and artefacts, as though traces of the software’s ancestors are built into its special effects menu. This technological animism recalls a scene from Dick’s Ubik when the character Joe Chip sets out on a journey in a 1939 LaSalle automobile that regresses into a 1929 Ford coupe, metamorphosing through atavistic memories of its predecessors. In another lecture on Stanford’s You Tube channel, the neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky describes a symptom of schizophrenia known as concrete thinking, characterised by a difficulty with abstraction. According to Sapolsky the schizophrenic cannot help but take metaphors literally. The nostalgic old-film effect applied to the portrait of Dick could be read as an attempt to historically situate the interview by mimicking period signifiers. But what happens if we take these simulated glitches literally? Will we find ourselves caught in orthogonal time like Joe Chip in Ubik, surrounded by technological anachronisms and cultural vestiges? Perhaps You Tube vindicates Robert Smithson’s warnings on the dangers of ‘ultimate movie-viewing’ in his essay A Cinematic Atopia, in which he imagines the condensation of cinema history into an indiscriminate celluloid sludge. If every entry in a video archive is disconnected from its contextual framework then that collective memory bank risks being levelled into a wilderness of elsewheres, filled with scrambled signs from nameless locations and unidentified time periods.

 

‘Midday’ 2011 by Duncan Marquiss was shown in the A Movement’ screening as part of the ‘Flatness: Cinema after the Internet’ thematic programme for Oberhausen Short Film Festival 2013.