Virtual Spaces and Incorporative Logics: Contemporary Films As "Mass Ornaments"
by Constance Balides

"Think about it. What did you really see?
It's all special effects . . . like in the movies."
Christine to Nicholas Van Orton, The Game

Computerized special effects are becoming the norm in contemporary Hollywood cinema. These effects are most notable when most spectacular, for example, the running Gallimimus dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the anthropomorphic expressions on ants, caterpillars, and roaches in Antz, the menacing shadows over Washington D.C. in Independence Day, and the insertion of Jabba the Hutt in the 1997 rerelease of Star Wars. Computer graphic images (CGIs) are also used for more mundane purposes such as generating crowds in Forest Gump, eliminating wires supporting stunt actors in Cliffhanger or a flying Robin Williams in Hook, and erasing unwanted scratches, shadows, telegraph poles, and sound booms from shots in other myriad films. As the director, James Cameron, comments on the subject of computerized special effects, "We're on the threshold of a moment in cinematic history that is unparalleled." [1]

This paper focuses on spectators' experience of immersion in technological film spectacles associated with some of these computer generated special effects and more generally, on the implications of immersion as a cultural logic of consumption in various contemporary media forms and leisure practices. My discussion draws on Peter Lunenfeld's argument for a "digital dialectic" in media theory, one that acknowledges the hybrid character of new media forms and that takes account of technological as well as cultural issues. Lunenfeld's suggestive characterization of the operating paradigm of virtual reality as one of "immersion in (synthetic) experience," in particular, is the starting point for this paper. [2]

Computer graphic images (CGIs) in films are the most direct inheritors of Lunenfeld's sense of the hybrid and paradoxical status of virtual reality as effecting a real but synthetic experience. For a number of media theorists including Lev Malovich and Stephen Prince, hybridity is a constitutive feature of computer generated film images, which are photographically realistic but unlike photographs, are not connected in a causal or existential way to their original object. This debate acknowledges the indexical character of the photographic sign, which bears the physical trace of its referent through a causal relationship such as the wind in the case of a weathervane or a person in the case of a fingerprint. Photographs are indexical signs in the sense that the film stock with its light sensitive emulsion coating registers the presence of real objects or people who were once literally in the scene and who blocked sections of light going into the camera lens thereby producing negative images that are later developed into positive images. Digital computer images, by contrast, are symbolic signs whose relationship to their referents is conventional not causal involving the numerical language of a binary code based on the symbols or digits of 0 and 1. Computer images as a digital medium, moreover, also involve a numerical translation or conversion of information stored as "formal relationships in abstract structures" as opposed to the analogue medium of photography, which involves a transcription of information from one physical arrangement of material to another analogous arrangement. [3] The resulting conceptual dilemma for computer film images is, as Malovich comments, that they have "perfect photographic credibility, although . . .[they were] never actually filmed." Prince similarly identifies a paradox in such images which are "referentially unreal" but "perceptually realistic." [4]

Immersion As a Spectatorial Logic

While immersion in the synthetic reality of computer graphic images in films carries the precise implication of a curious--or hybrid--ontology, an issue to which I will return later in the paper, immersion in a synthetic real also characterizes spectator/consumers' relationships to simulated experiences generally. The "'sense of immersion'" resulting from the "'tight linkage between visual, kinesthetic and auditory modalities" [5] in virtual reality discussed by Brenda Laurel extends beyond virtual reality as well as computer graphic images to include a wide range of cultural technologies such as computer games, motion simulator theme park rides, and "movie ride" films, which are films containing scenes approximating the experience of theme park rides.

Immersion is also often a trope for contemporary spectatorship per se and for the logic of consumption in a world in which everyday life is mediated through computers. In 1995, the cover of a special issue of Time magazine entitled "Welcome to Cyberspace" featured a receding image of several blue circuit boards cut open like picture frames. On the left hand side of each of the frames, the repeated words "Enter here" enjoin the viewer to "enter" the images, whose rectangular shapes produce a vanishing point marked by a bright white circular image. This planetary image coupled with white dots like distant stars against the blue background of the boards invests immersion with the sense of infinity in the association of cyberspace with outer space. More recently, in channel identification spots for Fox Kid's TV and CBS's Kidshow, children's relationship to television is represented as one of being immersed in animated scenes. In television ads such as one for Intel pentium processors, viewers are positioned in a way that mimics movement into the shot through a tunnel of blue spirals and rectangles until the slogan "inside pentium processor" is reached. On The Tonight Show, which aired on September 30, 1999 on NBC, Jay Leno took a trip inside his computer. While sitting in front of his home computer he was sucked into the screen, transformed into an animated caricature of himself, and then downloaded by Richard Simmons who was sitting in front of his computer. Erkki Huhtamo is right to argue that immersion has become a "cultural topos." [6]

Immersion characterizes a particular kind of investment in computer technologies, one mode of contemporary film spectating, and a general tendency in mass cultural consumption. To be sure, there are important differences between immersive experiences, which include varying degrees of sensory intensity and varying levels of imbrication of real spaces with virtual spaces. Contemporary film spectating, for example, involves neither the actual effects of motion on a physical body in theme park rides nor the physical interactivity of the user's body in virtual reality, [7] and while the use of head-mounted displays in virtual reality attempts to elide the distinction between real space and virtual space, film viewing retains a sense of the real place of spectating in a seat in a cinema theater or on a sofa in a domestic setting. Mainstream contemporary films, moreover, do not involve an interactive and literal intervention in the development of the story line, which is the case in various projects associated with the Movies of he Future research project at the Media Laboratory at MIT. [8] While the increasing popularity of the new trend of reinvigorated 3-D films may change the implication of immersion as a dominant practice in years to come through a more intense perceptual transformation of the spectator's literal position, [9] the dominant immersion-effect in mainstream film now works through an imaginary emplacement of the spectator in the world of the film achieved through textual strategies such as the placement of the camera in the physical position of a character (a point of view shot) or his or her placement in the spot where a character might be as well as special effects zoom shots created with the use of an optical printer and/or involving computer graphic images suggesting movement inward into the image.

While there are specific ways to characterize immersion as it is associated with different cultural practices, the general presence of immersion across disparate practices supports an argument made by Henry Jenkins at the "Media-in-Transition" conference held at MIT in October 1999 that new technologies require models of cultural consumption that take account of a convergence of media forms as distinct from earlier models that foregrounded the specificity of particular mediums. Both Jenkins and Malovich see this convergence or hybridity as a shift away from a modernist aesthetic which is concerned with the specificity of a particular medium, an approach that was important in establishing film as an object in contemporary semiotic and psychoanalytic film theories. The hybrid nature of digital films images, the borrowing of technologies across different media, and an increasing intertextuality between films, films on video, video games, and computer games based on films support the notion of convergence as a dominant media strategy.

The "movie ride" film is the most literal film example of immersive strategies and is also the most explicit example of a convergence between films and theme parks rides in which rides borrow not only film themes, images, and characters but also draw on special effects technologies developed for films and employ personnel working on those effects. [10] As Variety notes, in the "movie ride" film "imperatives of pure sensation" leave "audiences stagger[ing] back into daylight like passengers unsteadily exiting Coney Island's famous Cyclone." [11] While a version of this kind of film can be traced back to early cinema when cameras were mounted on the fronts of railroad engines, Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) is often cited as the originating moment of the movie-ride film, especially the penultimate scene in which Luke Skywalker navigates his aircraft through a narrow trench in the Empire's battle station of Death Star before blowing it up. [12] This is a scene to which Independence Day pays homage and which is endlessly mimicked in children's television programs and advertisements. Jurassic Park also contains a number of movie ride scenes including the initial T rex attack on a barely escaping jeep containing Ellie Sattler, Ian Malcolm, and Robert Muldoon in which shots of the dinosaur in the jeep's rear view mirror also bear the warning "objects may be closer than you think" producing an ironic and self-referential nod to the spectator; the stampede of Gallimimus dinosaurs in which Alan Grant, Lex and Tim find themselves in the middle of a group of these dinosaurs who are running away from a T rex; and Lex's near fall into the gaping mouth of a Velociraptor at the end of the film. In these examples, spectators are offered a place in the fictional world of the film through various textual strategies that produce a kinesthetic effect similar to the visceral sense of an amusement park ride.

An imaginary immersion in the movie-ride film is, in effect, the plot of The Game, a psychological thriller which involves an elision between real life and a fantasy experience tailored to the psychological profiles of client/participants. Physical thrill is imbricated in psychic rehearsal for the main character, Nicholas Van Orton, who replays his father's suicide, which took place on the father's 48th birthday, by seeming to commit suicide himself. In the film's penultimate thrill, Van Orton jumps from the top of a skyscraper through a glass roof only to find that he has unwittingly participated in a special effect in his game, replete with an inflated cushion to soften his fall. He is still alive after the fall, and this last move in this game enables Van Orton to make a spectacular entry into his own 48th birthday party reversing the fate of his father. In this scene and throughout the film, the spectator's knowledge is restricted to that of Van Orton, who can't see what is coming next. This narrational strategy effects surprises for the spectator like those the main character experiences, and in both cases, restricted knowledge is produced by the fact that the marks of the game are erased.

Van Orton's ride is also the spectator's ride through the literal conflation of his point of view with the spectator's view in a movie ride scene in which Van Orton, who is a passenger in an out of control taxi, careens down a hill and plunges into the San Francisco Bay. The opening section of the credit sequence in the film economically captures the logic of immersion that characterizes the spectator's relationship to the film generally. In this opening section, a series of infinitely receding puzzle pieces break apart and come out toward the spectator while (what appears to be) a digital zoom pulls the spectator's look further into the space of the shot. This assaultive strategy is emphasized by the sound of breaking glass, and the spectator's restricted knowledge throughout the film is matched by the blankness of the puzzle pieces as they tumble outward toward the spectator. [13]

While The Game links film immersion with a psychological theme park ride blurring the distinction between everyday life and simulated reality, Hackers (Softley, 1995) ties the movie-ride film to the experience of being a computer hacker. Joey, one of the students in a Manhattan high school, tries to demonstrate his proficiency by hacking a Gibson in order to gain entry into the "Elites," a group of hackers at his school. Joey's success in hacking a computer at Ellinson Mineral Corporation from the computer in his bedroom is represented through a series of optical and digital zoom shots that propel the spectator into the computer, along a Manhattan city street, past surveillance cameras in a lobby, down a hallway, past a control panel in the lobby of Ellinson Mineral Corporation, and into the mainframe Joey was able to invade. Shots inside the mainframe literalize the logic of simulation as an elision of physical reality and virtual worlds by representing computer hardware as a cityscape.

While this scene reproduces the logic of immersion in a synthetic real for the spectator, the film also represents the enthusiastic relationship between hacker and computer as immersive. Despite the fact that Joey gets a shock when he kisses Lucy, his computer, suggesting the inappropriateness of treating the computer as if it were a real person, a subsequent shot in which a phantasmagoria of algorithms is superimposed on Joey's face as he looks into the computer literalizes his own immersed investment. In Hackers, moreover, immersion stands in for spectating generally. In a subsequent scene toward the end of this sequence, a character named The Plague, who is the Ellinson Corporation's computer expert (and also a conspirator in a scam to defraud the corporation of large sums of money) and a co-worker sit in front of a large screen image of the company mainframe which resembles a cityscape as they prepare to trace the hacker. These shots are followed by ones inside the mainframe as the camera careens up and down rectangular shapes that look like skyscrapers and moves along horizontal paths that look like streets. In this scene, immersion in the technological spectacle of the virtual world of computers is a trope for spectatorship generally. [14]

The Cultural Logic of Immersion

Why is the phenomenon of immersion interesting? What does it say about contemporary culture? Beyond the anodyne argument that assessing the cultural significance of immersion involves broader theoretical assumptions about culture, it is important, from the perspective of this study, to foreground one problematic assumption that often figures as an unquestioned logic in discussions of the significance of computer technologies. Technological determinism presumes an inherent and inevitable logic by assuming that the uses of technologies are a consequence of their physical characteristics and that technologies evolve in a teleological manner toward the fulfillment of an essential nature. By contrast, the assumption in this paper is that the meanings of technologies are produced through cultural practices whose social significance and political consequences are negotiated in public debates. Another way of saying this is that technologies are embedded in a range of discourses and the meanings of technologies are largely produced by those discourses.

It matters, too, how the consumers of technologies are put into discourse. In the case of immersion, for example, the consumer of immersive cultural practices enters into public debates about the status of interactivity in VR and about the nonlinear and associative pattern of information retrieval associated with hypertext and with the internet. Two key issues characterize the terms of this debate. On one hand, a user's ability to shape experience in VR or his/her access to a vastly expanded base of information on the internet is viewed as having a democratizing potential. On the other hand, the interactivity associated with such practices is characterized as a disguised form of hegemony in which choices that appear to be freely made are already circumscribed in ideological and political ways. While a utopianism associated with the former position is problematic for underestimating the relations of power that invest computer practices, a determinism associated with the later position underestimates the capacity of individuals to use information for their own purposes. Both are insufficient positions, and they obscure more strategic functions for criticism that would avoid both boosterism, on the one hand, and doomism, on the other hand.

Simulation in the Public Sphere

Before I pursue one such strategic line of argument that hopefully eschews both pitfalls, I would like to problematize another key way that the spectator/consumer of immersive strategies enters into public discourse, namely, through the back door of a debate about the meaning of simulated forms of leisure and knowledge. Urban theorists and architecture critics focus on the negative implications of contemporary mass cultural consumption, especially simulated environments throughout the social fabric epitomized by the theme park. These places are viewed as symptomatic of a decline in the quality of public life. More precisely, the issue of consumers' investments in simulation is linked to a de facto and problematic view of immersion as a lack of critical distance, an approach that misconstrues the proximity involved in immersion with the impossibility of critical self-reflection.

In The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, Louise Huxtable, former architecture critic for The New York Times, assesses the phenomenon of themed environments in which real places are reproduced as simulated versions of themselves, for example, in the reproduction of the original Las Vegas strip, Fremont Street, and in "New York, New York," a hotel and casino complex comprised of a pastiche of famous New York buildings. For Huxtable, "surrogate experience and synthetic settings have become the preferred American way of life." [15] As a consequence, there is a loss of the connoisseurship of original works of art and an erosion of authentic experience. In this argument, the popularity of simulated spaces involves a diminished capacity for critical judgement and a lack of concern to distinguish between simulated and real spaces. An example cited by Huxtable is the equal popularity of the imposing Alamo building made for a film and the smaller and less impressive original Alamo building nearby. To counteract this predisposition toward simulation, Huxtable suggests a return to former cultural logics in which the hierarchy between the original and the reproduction is maintained. She argues, furthermore, that high culture institutions should return to their traditional role as "defenders and keepers of authenticity" in contrast to the masses and to misguided academics who prefer simulation. By contrast, for Walter Benjamin writing in the 1930s, the technologies of mechanical reproduction such as photography, the phonograph, and cinema embraced by the masses and producing proximity by "enabl[ing] the original to meet the beholder halfway" have a positive effect of shattering the authenticity of the original work of art based on its unique existence (that is, in Benjamin's well known formulation, "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art"). [16] While I am not suggesting that Benjamin's analysis of the implications of proximity is appropriate for technologies of simulation and immersion seventy years later, his essay, which invokes similar terms to those used by Huxtable, is a de facto critique of Huxtable's presumption that the project of cultural critique is necessarily a defense of the aura of original works of art and of critical distance as the desired mode of consumption.

The more precise question of the logic of spatial relations in simulated environments is taken up by Edward Soja and by Michael Sorkin in their essays in Variations on a Theme Park. For Soja, the problem with various simulations in the public spaces of the contemporary exopolis--or city without a center--is that "the disappearance of the real is no longer revealingly concealed." [17] Examples include the University of California campus at Irvine, the city of Costa Mesa and other "scenes from Orange County," the subtitle of his article "Inside Exopolis." The exopolis is opposed to the metropolis, which is an image of the city associated with modernity, and as Sorkin further suggests, an arrangement of geography that involved a clarity of spatial relations, one that also made social relations legible. [18] The social purchase of such arrangements for Sorkin lies in the connection between the spatial centeredness of traditional cities such as agoras, piazzas and downtowns and the capacity for public debate engendered by such physical arrangements. Traditional spaces are contrasted to the departicularized contemporary city with its absence of a center city or its fragmentation associated with suburbanization involving a lack of a sense of place epitomized in the image of theme park. For Sorkin, such a spatial arrangement mitigates against a democratic public realm. [19]

For these critics, immersion associated with simulation has an unremittingly derogatory connotation. For Huxtable, consumption should involve proper training in matters of taste and discrimination, and the problem with the contemporary consumer epitomized in a logic of immersion is a lack of critical judgement. The analyses of Huxtable, Soja, and Sorkin, moreover, assume that the spectator/consumer is phenomenologically naive. For this consumer, the absence of clear spatial markers between the real and the simulated in themed places, and the lack of clarity in the spatial organization of contemporary cities generally produce a confusion over the nature of real experience.

Literate Consumers and the Synthetic Real

These assessments produce a critical bind. On the one hand, high cultural modes of distinction valorizing critical distance (Huxtable) and critical approaches presuming a clarity with regard to social relations in previous historical periods (Sorkin) keep cultural criticism tied to a past moment by which the commercialism and simulation of the present day will always be wanting. On the other hand, it is inadequate to defend the commercialism and simulation of cultural artifacts and practices because they are popular as if their popularity is in itself a mark of their democratizing potential. Another way of approaching the implications of immersion as a cultural logic is to acknowledge something like a literacy on the part of consumers and spectators when they participate in immersive and simulated environments. In the case of films, one site of literacy is the intertextual reception context that is now part of the way films circulate more broadly in the culture. Manovich, for example, points to a "new minigenre" of programs and videos about how special effects are created, namely, "'The Making of . . .' videos and books.'" [20]

These programs contribute to the expanding availability of information on the production of special effects for consumers who know how simulated environments were made. Consumer literacy can also be extended to include the general issue of subcultural knowledges of contemporary popular forms. For example, Jurassic Park's status as a "synthetic reality" is enhanced by the dense network of secondary texts that include the details of how special effects were achieved in popular news magazines such as Newsweek and Time; periodicals such as Cinefantastique geared to specialist film interest groups; a television programs such as the Making of Jurassic Park for PBS; references to the film in talk shows and cable channels; museum displays that linked the making of the film with educational projects; promotional publicity directly related to the film; a best selling book about the making of the film; access to information about the film on the internet as well as chat rooms and subcultural interest groups. While cinephilia in the 1960s was associated with auteur criticism and New York literati, an important strand in contemporary cinephilia is the amateur's interest in technical detail, and especially the film officiandos gaze at special effects technologies. To be sure, an increased access to such information reinforces the specialized market niching (or segmenting of highly differentiated market groups) that characterizes contemporary consumption in a capitalist post-Fordist economy. But it also makes it hard to be a naive spectator.

A second sense of literacy relates to the question of the curious status of the digital image on film. As I have already noted, digital images have a different ontological status than photographic images and a different status as signs. Another way of saying this is that digital images do not have an obligation to reality in the manner of a photograph. An extreme example of this difference is the new phenomenon of "synthespians," which is a term copyrighted by the Kleiser-Walczak Co. referring to computer generated characters that replicate dead film and television actors. [21] While most special effects are apparent as special effects, that is, as spectacular images that are the product of technical effects rather than a purported capturing of real events, in the case of the synthespian, which involves a moving image of a known to be dead actor, the explicit absence of an authenticating original foregrounds the status of the image as a technical effect.

The same is true of the moving dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and of the combination of 20th century people with moving dinosaurs in many of the computer graphic images in the film. In the Gallimimus scene in Jurassic Park, for example, Alan Grant, Lex, and Tim are making their way back to the Visitor's Center in the open spaces of the park when they find themselves in the midst of a stampede of Gallimimus dinosaurs. In this scene, film characters are conjoined in the same shots with computer graphic images of running dinosaurs, a technical achievement for CGIs due to solving the problem of realistically reproducing blurred motion. Grant, in particular, looks over his shoulder a number of times at the dinosaurs which surround him. After Lex, Tim, and Grant leave one of these shots from the left foreground, the camera remains in the middle foreground of the shot in the midst of the scene with Gallimimus dinosaurs running out the frame to the right and left of the camera position and past the spectator's position via the camera position. This strategy produces a de facto position of immersion for the spectator, one that also includes a kinesthetic effect of dinosaurs hurtling toward this position. In the case of Jurassic Park, moving images of dinosaurs invite spectators to take up a position of immersion in a represented real that is clearly marked as an illusion.

As I noted earlier, theorizing the implications of a spectator's investment in immersion presents a challenge to theories of signification. At the same time, the literacy associated with computer images that foreground their illusory status also presents a problem for influential theories of spectatorship in film studies. Christian Metz in "The Imaginary Signifier" identifies a tension in the cinematic image involving its status as presence that is also an absence. While the theoretical implications of this formulation involve a Lacanian psychoanalytic understanding of the imaginary phase, Metz also outlines a more literal sense of this presence/absence, namely, the full perceptual presence of the film image that employs various sensory registers and the absent quality of the represented real implicit in recorded image. For Metz, one experiences this paradox through a psychoanalytic disavowal, and Metz refers to Octave Mannoni's definition of disavowal in relation to castration and the concomitant fetishism of the women's body because of the lack of a penis as "'I know very well . . . .but all the same.'" [22] In relation to the presence/absence of the cinematic signifier, disavowal can be rephrased as I know very well that the film image is absent but all the same, I experience it as if it were real. The digital image in film is not precisely characterizable by the this logic of disavowal because that logic depends in part on the possibility that the image was once real, that is, that the recorded image bears the trace of the real in the manner of the indexical sign.

More generally, in media theory the problem of the status of the digital image often gets posed as an ontological problem: what is the nature of the digital image? As a way of extending the notion of consumer literacy to digital images that foreground their status as unreally real, I would like to shift the question away from ontology toward history: what is at stake in its logic of immersion? Or more precisely, why does immersion as an aesthetic strategy associated with the use of digital imagery in film and as a trope for spectatorship and mass consumption appear in the present historical moment?

This reformulation of the question also points to the inadequacy of simply rehearsing a high culture prejudice against immersion as a mass cultural strategy. Critiques like the one by Huxtable effect a homology between proximity as an aesthetic strategy and naivete as a spectatorial mode. I have been suggesting, however, that digital images foreground their status as illusion, which militates against the presumption of "naivete" of various kinds, whether a lack of critical judgement or the more psychologically nuanced suspension of the linear logic of mutually exclusive beliefs through embracing the both/and sensibility of a disavowal that holds together contradictory beliefs.

Or more bluntly, spatial dislocations in cultural forms are not necessarily equatable with an inability to comprehend those forms. To be sure immersion, especially in the movie ride sequences in films, produces a spatial and temporal dislocation, one associated with their kinesthetic effects. In the essay on the contemporary exopolis discussed earlier, Soja argues that is necessary to formulate "new postmodern modes of criticism and confrontation" and he has consistently argued throughout his work that we need to look to the "spatiality" of social life for the hidden consequences of relations of power. [23] For the purposes of this paper, one can turn Soja's critique of simulated environment in a more useful direction by pursuing his suggestion about the importance of space in relation to the issue of immersion. More precisely, I will do so by locating the dislocation of space associated with immersion effects in relation to an argument about relations of production in the contemporary period. This involves a different way of theorizing consumption, especially looking to the mass cultural forms as symptomatic of relations in the sphere of production.

Workers Subjectivity and the Contemporary Mass Ornament

In "The Mass Ornament," Kracauer analyzes the phenomenon of the Tiller Girls, a synchronized dancing troupe in Berlin during the 1920s resembling the Rockettes in Radio City Music Hall in the United States. Kracauer is particularly interested in the regularity of the movement of the womens' bodies, which he likens to working on an assembly line, and especially the standardization of bodily movements associated with the efficiency discourses of Taylorism. In addition, the mechanical and geometric pattern produced by the mass of dancers is symptomatic of the abstract rationality of the capitalist economic system in which, for example, the worth of workers in measured by the wage. For Kracauer, the phenomenon of the Tiller Girls is a "surface manifestation" of real underlying social conditions, and his approach to social critique focuses on the way this surface manifestation functions as a "sign" of the "prevailing economic system" within which it exists. Or more precisely, the mass form bears the marks of the productive realm as "an aesthetic reflex of the rationality aspired to by the prevailing economic system." [24] Intellectuals who "dismiss" the mass ornament of the Tiller Girls and who continue "to edify themselves at fine arts events" are less in touch with the real conditions of society than the masses "who so spontaneously took to the pattern." [25] For Kracauer, these intellectuals take the view that "whatever amuses the masses . . . [is judged as] a diversion of the masses." By contrast to this view, Kracauer argues that for the masses:

the aesthetic pleasure gained from the ornamental mass movements is legitimate. . . .The masses which are arranged in them are taken from offices and factories. The structural principle upon which they are modeled determines in reality as well. . . .No matter how low one rates the value of the mass ornament, its level of reality is still above that of artistic productions which cultivate obsolete noble sentiments in withered forms. . . . [26]

The popularity of the Tiller Girls troupe is a "legitimate" pleasure because it makes visible in the aesthetic realm the circumstances of work life experienced by the spectating masses. In the mass ornament, spectators recognize the conditions of their reality. Kracauer is not arguing that the Tiller Girls is therefore a progressive phenomenon; rather, he develops a nuanced assessment of the terms of the investments of a mass audience linking their experience as workers with their experience as consumers. [27]

Kracauer assesses the meaning of mass culture in relation to broader determinations in the economic organization of society in a way that avoids an economistic understanding of culture in which culture simply reproduces the relations of production and a the same time, he refrains from a mass culture boosterism in which cultural forms are valorized because they are popular. His orientation toward the Tiller Girls can be used to assess the cultural implications of immersion. To be sure, Kracauer is writing in a very particular historical period and about Fordism, which is the prevailing economic system associated with mass production and mass consumption to which Kracauer alludes. In this last part of my paper, however, I will suggest a more contemporary homology along the lines of Kracauer's analysis. " [28] A number of theorists have characterized the present time as post-Fordist or neo-Fordist. [29] In contrast to Fordism, a term derived from Henry Ford and the moving assembly line for making Model T cars introduced to the Dearborn, Michigan factory in 1913, economic and industrial developments since the early 1970s have been referred to as post-Fordism or neo-Fordism, which designates a move in western economies toward flexible patterns of production (flexible specialization), economies of scope (small batch production of a wide variety of products and retailing organized around integrated product ranges), service and knowledge industries in which computerization figures as a major development, and a new priority to consumption that, as noted earlier, targets highly differentiated groups (market niching).

More precisely, for Eric Alliez and Michel Feher writing in Zone, neo-Fordism involves a mode of incorporation in which workers and capital are more intimately bound up with capitalists' interests. Rather than asking workers to be "reasonable," which was a Fordist strategy involving trade union wage bargaining and the arbitration of the Keynesian nation state, workers [in neo-Fordism] are "led to feel 'responsible' since the profitability of the business . . .is considered to be in the interests of both owners and wage earners alike." [30] Various factors contribute to this change including the decline of trade unionism. A key factor is the emergence of data processing in which, according to Alliez and Feher, workers and machines are like equal relays in electronic circuits of information. Computers, moreover, contribute to a temporal and spatial decentralization of work that involves the overflow of the workday beyond delimited time periods and the diffusion of the workplace beyond the factory and offices.

Unlike work in a Fordist regime, work in the post-Fordist era fills all time and previously non work spaces. It is bounded neither by the factory gate with its clear spatial boundaries between factory and home nor by the factory whistle and its sharp temporal distinction between work and leisure.

The destabilization of spatial relations in the films discussed above, especially in relation to their movie ride scenes, is a trace at the level of culture of the broader structural shifts in space and time discussed by Alliez and Feher. The equivalence between worker and machine is expressed in Hackers in Joey's relationship to the Lucy, his computer. And the logic of capital as a spectacle in the scene in Hackers in which The Plague and his co-worker watch the spectacle of technological immersion.

More precisely, the popularity of immersion in virtual spaces that I have been describing is understandable as a contemporary reworking of Kracauer's mass ornament. The prevailing contemporary economic system involves an incorporative mode of subjectivity, one that finds its trace in the realm of leisure as an aesthetic of immersion in contemporary films and as the representation of immersion as a trope for contemporary spectatorship. One way to speculate on the meaning of technologies of immersion is that their popularity is partly a consequence of an oblique recognition on the part of the contemporary mass audience of the real conditions of work associated with computer technologies as they are implicated in post-Fordist social relations of production. Characterizing spectator/consumer's investments in this way extends the notion of literacy discussed earlier in the direction of broader cultural meanings of technologies, and it suggests a particular view of the realm of consumption as offering a refracted visibility to consumers of the realm of production and their position as workers. The next step in the argument and in the practices of critical media discourses is to politicize that sense of recognition in the direction of a critique of the underlying shifts in these social relations. And the space for doing this is a public debate about the implications of technologies--the space in which the meanings of technologies are produced.


[1] Cameron is quoted in Paula Parisi, "The New Hollywood Silicon Star" Wired (December 1995): 144. Paul Karon in Variety echoes a similarly apocalyptic view: "The digital effects revolution is the most profound change to hit the film industry since the movie camera: it's a completely new way of getting images onto celluloid." See Paul Karon, "H'wood Dreads Tech Wreck: Summer Pix Stalled by F/X Costs, Glitches," Variety (April 6-12, 1998): On computer generated insects, see Ellen Wolff, "Insect Armies lead Global Animation Revolution," Kemps (Supplement to Variety) (December 21-27, 1998): 16-17; On the effects in Independence Day, see Ron Magrid, "The End of the World As We Know It: Traditional Models and Miniatures Are Mixed with Digital Wizardry to Tell Independence Day's Tale of Alien Aggression," Variety 77.7 (July 1996): 43-49 and Rex Weiner, "'ID4' F/X hit the road: Mobile 'Mother Ship' Runs Independence Day Post-Production," Variety (June 17-23, 1996): 48. On the remaking of Star Wars, see Edward Rothstein, "'Star Wars' Salutes a Brave Old World," New York Times (1/31/97): B1, B16 and Mike Snider, "Director Says Film Is Now 'As Good As I Can Make It," USA Today (1/31/1997): D1, 2. On digital film repair work, see Bob Fisher, "Digital Cinematography:" A Phrase of the Future?" American Cinematographer 74.4 (April 1993): 50-53 and Bob Fisher, "Digital Cinematography: A Phrase of the Future?" American Cinematographer 74.5 (May 1993): 31-32. On the ways in which computer generated images are replacing special effects techniques associated with optical processes, matte paintings and miniatures, see Ron Magid, "CGI Spearheads Brave New World of Special Effects: Okay, CGI Leads the Revolution. Where Will It Lead?" American Cinematographer (December 1993): 26-27,28,30,32. Other useful articles on computer special effects in films include Christopher Probst, "Future Shock: Director James Cameron and Director of Photography Russell Carpenter, ASC Are Joined by a team of Experts to Tap the Third Dimension in Terminator 2 3-D," American Cinematographer 77.8 (August 1996): n.p.; Ron Magid, "Digitizing the Third Dimension: Digital Domain Assaults Audiences with an Array of 3-D Effects Methods," American Cinematographer 77.8 (August 1996): n.p.; and Bob Fisher, "Meteor Man Gest His Digital Wings: Digital Special Effects Take Another Step Towards Fulfilling Their Vast Potential, in Service of a Goofy Superhero with a Message," American Cinematographer 74.4 (April 1993): 42-44, 46. return

[2] Peter Lunenfeld, "Digital Dialectics: A Hybrid Theory of Computer Media," Afterimage (November 1993): 5. In this essay, Lunenfeld identifies two key paradigms of the new computer media, namely, immersion associated with virtual reality and extraction associated with hypertext. Also see Peter Lunenfeld, Introduction, "Screen Grabs: the Digital Dialectic and New Media Theory," in The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, ed. Peter Lunenfeld (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press) xiv-xxi. In this introduction, Lunenfeld stresses the implication of a digital dialectic in the fact that "it ground the insights of theory in the constraints of practice" (xix). return

[3] Timothy Binkley, "Refiguring Culture," in Philip Hayward and Tana Wollen, eds., Future Visions: New Technologies of the Screen (London: British Film Institute, 1993) 96. Also see Tony Feldman, Introduction to Digital Media (London: Routledge, 1997). return

[4] Lev Manovich, "What Is Digital Cinema?" in Peter Lunenfeld, ed., The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999) 175 and Stephen Prince, "True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory," Film Quarterly 49.3 (Spring 1996): 35. Also see, Lev Manovich, "The Paradoxes of Digital Photography" in Hubertus v. Amelunxen, Stefan Iglhaut, Florian Rotzer in collaboration with Alexis Cassel and Hikolaus G. Schneider, Photography After Photography: Memory and Representation in the Digital Age (Overseas Publishers Association: Amsterdam and Munich, 1996). return

[5] Brenda Laurel is quoted by Lunenfeld in "Digital Dialectics," 6. return

[6] Erkki Huhtamo, "Encapsulated Bodies in Motion: Simulators and the Quest for Total Immersion," in Simon Penny, ed., Critical Issues in Electronic Media (Albany: State University of New York, 1995) 160. Also see Time 145:12 (Special Issue, Spring 1995). return

[7] Of course there is a history of experiments with more visceral forms of spectating including 3 D films during the 1950s and their reincarnation in the contemporary period. return

[8] See the work being done at the Media Lab at MIT, see Frank Beacham, "Digital Artists: Reinventing Electronic Media: MIT Media Lab Symposium Looks to the Future of Entertainment and Expression," American Cinematographer 76.3 (March 1995): 59-61 and Frank Beacham, "Movies of the Future: Storytelling with Computers," American Cinematographer LXXVI.4 (April 1995): 36-44, 46, 47-48. return

[9] The New York Times heralds 3-D films as the latest major development in filmmaking. See Matthew Gurewitsch, "The Next Wave? 3-D Could Bring on a Sea Change," The New York Times (January 2, 2000): 11, 28. return

[10] There was a planned theme park in Osaka using the animated T Rex from the film and "Jurassic Park: The Ride" opened at Universal Studios, Hollywood, a water ride that takes a raft through a jungle filled with dinosaurs and ends with the raft going down a steep eight story slide. "Jurassic Park: The Ride" is one of several film based rides at Universal. There are others at Disneyland, Universal Studios in Florida, and Six Flags America. These rides point to a general shift in the theme park industry from "real-estate intensive rides" to "electronic or special-effects intensive entertainment," which means that rides also now draw more directly on movie-ride sequences in films. See Ray Bennett, "Theme Parks Fix on F/X from Pix," Variety (June 14, 1993): 10. return

[11] Bruce Handy, "Hold on to Your Popcorn," Vogue (June 1993): 76. return

[12] For a discussion of these early "phantom ride" films see Huhtamo, 168-171. While Huhtamo draws a long historical trajectory from the phantom rides film to Cinerama and Imax, I am more reluctant to construe them as having an analogous function in terms of spectatorship since the early period works on a different logic explicitly structured around spectacle. On the visceral thrills and attractions of early cinema and its implications for spectatorship in the context of modernity, see Tom Gunning, "An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator," Art and Text 34 (1989): 31-45; and Tom Gunning, "The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde," Wide Angle 8,3/4 (1986): 63-70. On the importance of Star Wars as the first instance of the movie ride film, see Handy, "Hold on to Your Popcorn." return

[13] Huhtamo's description of a trend of such shots in films nicely describes this opening credit scene in The Game: namely, there is a "proliferation of 'subjective' steady-cam shots, computer-generated 'virtual zooms' and 'ride' sequences along the depth axis of the image--often combined with their 'counter-tropes,' objects 'flying towards the spectator a sensation of plunging straight through the screen into the diegetic world of the film" (160). On this point Huhtamo draws on and quotes from a conference paper delivered my Margaret Morse entitled "Television Graphics and the Body: Words on the Move," (Society for Cinema Studies, Montreal, 1987) in which she characterizes a new language of cinema that is similarly appropriate to The Game, namely, "' The spectator is out of balance, grabbing his/her fellow spectator in fear. The camera has to absorb him/her all the time. This is a novelty'" (160). return

[14] The scene also refigures Guy Debord's image of the society of the spectacle of images in the direction of spectatorship as immersion in technological spectacle. See Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red, 1983). return

[15] Ada Louise Huxtable, "Living with the Fake, and Liking It," The New York Times (March 30, 1997), sec. 2, p. 1; Sorkin, "Introduction," xiiii; and Soja, "Inside Exopolis," 122. Huxtable's article is an excerpted chapter from her book, The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion (New York: The New Press, 1997). return

[16] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969) 220, 221. return

[17] Edward Soja, "Inside Exopolis: Scenes from Orange County," in Michael Sorkin, ed., Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space (New York: The Noonday Press, 1992) 121. return

[18] The film, Metropolis, in which there is an underground city of workers who provide the infrastructure for the above the ground city of the bourgeoisie, is an example of the spatial clarity Sorkin describes. return

[19] Soja, 122; and Michael Sorkin, "Introduction: Variations on a Theme Park," in Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space (New York: The Noonday Press, 1992), xv. As both Deutsche and Nancy Fraser suggest, however, nostalgic constructions of past public spheres are problematic because they mask the exclusions of social groups, including women, in those spheres. See Deutsche in "Agoraphobia," in Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, Mass., 1996) 269-327; and Nancy Fraser in "Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy," in Bruce Robbins, ed., for the Social Text Collective, The Phantom Public Sphere (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1993) 1-32. return

[20] Manovich, "What Is Digital Cinema," 178. return

[21] See Katherine Stalter, "Mirage Making Magic: Firm's Synthespians Searching for a Niche in L.A.," Variety (January 20-26, 1997): 43; Katherine Stalter and Ted Johnson, "H'wood Cyber Dweebs Are Raising the Dead," Variety (November 4-10, 1996): 1, 103; Chris Jones, "Who Owns Your Face?" Sight and Sound 6.3 (March 1996): 33; and Kirby Carmichael, "Beyond Jurassic Park," Popular Mechanics (March 1994): 35-37. There are interesting legal and insurance issues regarding ownership of such images. As of 1996, there were various lawsuits over the necessity of obtaining permission from the estates of deceased stars. Statler and Johnson also speculate on whether film insurance companies will make performers have themselves digitally scanned in the event of their death during the filming of a project, an issues raised by the death of Brandon Lee in the case of the film The Crow. return

[22] Christian Metz, "The Imaginary Signifier," (excerpt) Screen 16.2 (Summer 1975): 74. return

[23] Soja 122. return

[24] Siegfried Kracauer, "The Mass Ornament," New German Critique 5 (Spring 1975): 70. return

[25] Kracauer, "The Mass Ornament," 75. return

[26] Kracauer, "The Mass Ornament," 70. return

[27] A number of Kracauer's cultural analyses are compiled in Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, trans. and ed. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995). For a useful discussion of the importance of Kracauer's view of cultural forms for film studies, see Patrice Petro, "Modernity and Mass Culture in Weimar: Contours of a Discourse on Sexuality in Early Theories of Perception and Representation," New German Critique 40 (Winter 1987): 115-146 and Patrice Petro, Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). For an equally useful general assessment of Kracauer's writings, see David Frisby, Fragments of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer and Benjamin (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986). return

[28] See my article entitled "Jurassic Post-Fordism: Tall Tales of Economics in the Theme Park," forthcoming in Screen (Spring, 2000) for an elaboration of some of these points in the context of an analysis of Jurassic Park. return

[29] David Harvey, for example, uses the term "flexible accumulation" rather than post-Fordism to characterize a new "regime of accumulation" and modes of social regulation since 1973, ones that also exhibit continuities with Fordism. For Alliez and Feher, who use the term "neo-Fordism," the contemporary period is marked by a rupture with Fordism and differences in the representation of capital, organization of space and time, and logic of workers' investment in capital. Later in this paper, I analyze the film in relation to these points by Alliez and Feher and use the term post-Fordism to foreground these characteristics as different. While I agree with Rosalind Deutsche's critique of Harvey, which I discuss below, both Harvey's and Alliez and Feher's studies are very useful accounts of the contemporary economy. See David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1990), Eric Alliez and Michel Feher, "The Luster of Capital," trans. Alyson Waters, Zone 1 and 2 (1987): 315-359. Also see Robin Murray, "Life After Henry (Ford)," Marxism Today (October 1988) for a useful discussion of post-Fordism and especially of market niching as a strategy of consumption, and for the way the debate has been conducted on the left in the U.K., see Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, eds., New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s (London: Verso, 1990). For a problematic conservative U.S. assessment of contemporary developments that conflates developments associated with post-Fordism with an argument that capitalism has now been superseded, see Peter F. Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society (New York: Harper Business, 1994). return

[30] Alliez and Feher, "The Luster of Capital," 347, 339.