Modern Love?

by: Judith Halberstam / University of Southern California

A Trainer with his Student

A Trainer with his Student

Every Sunday when my New York Times arrives, I tell myself that this week I will not read the column that always, but always drives me crazy. I read the whole newspaper making a careful detour around the Style section but then, every week, having promised myself not to, I turn to the hideous weekly commentary on “Modern Love.” This column records the ups and downs, the byroads and hidden paths of contemporary romance for urban, mostly white, mostly heterosexual men and women. Time after time, a young or middle-aged writer/lawyer/doctor/researcher will write about a recent experience with a spouse/partner/girl-friend/boy-friend/ex that shakes the writer’s faith in modern love but that ultimately confirms the rightness, the unmitigated decency, the oh-so human foibles of hetero intimacy. A boyfriend may be arrogant, self-centered, ungenerous; a husband might stray, pray or be gay; a girlfriend may be too critical, too self-deprecating, castrating; a wife may ail, fail or assail. But at the end of the day, the irresistible course of true love flows directly from trouble and confusion to understanding, new found depths of connection, marriage, kids and wholly unsurprising forms of family.

In recent weeks then, a hetero male has told of the girlfriend who tried to make him hipper by shopping with him; a second marriage in which the second husband is haunted by the first; a former wife coming to terms with her former husband’s homosexuality; a straight woman who falls in love with a gay man; a heartbroken straight woman who learns a lesson in modern love from her plumber, and so on. Week after week the disappointments, the regrets, the conflicts are countered by the unexpected surprises, the joy, the depth of commitment that rewards those who wait and believe and invest in the fantasy of modern, heterosexual love. This is a triumphant narrative, a heroic narrative, and it is one completely at odds with the harsh realities of today’s world of divorce and separation. The column, in short, is propaganda for heteronormativity. Let’s see how this works.

In one of the most popular ever of the “Modern Love” columns, “What Shamu Taught Me About A Happy Marriage,” Amy Sutherland describes how she adapted animal training techniques that she had learned at Sea World for use at home on her husband. As I said, while the “Modern Love” column purports to offer a location for the diverse musings of postmodern lovers on the peculiarities of modern love, it is actually a primer for adult heterosexuality. Occasionally, a gay man or a lesbian will write about his or her normative liaison, its ups and downs, and will plea for the right to become “mature” through marriage, but mostly the column is dedicated to detailing, in mundane and banal intricacy, the roller-coaster ride of bourgeois heterosexuality and its supposed infinite variety and elasticity. The typical “Modern Love” article will begin with a complaint, usually and predictably a female complaint about male implacability, but as we approach the end of the piece, resolution will fall from the sky in the manner of a divine vision, and the disgruntled partner will quickly see that the very thing that she found irritating about her partner is also the very thing that makes him…well, him! That is, unique, flawed, human and lovable.

Sutherland’s essay is true to form and after complaints about her beloved husband’s execrable domestic habits, she settles upon a series of training techniques for him by placing him within a male taxonomy:

“The exotic animal known as Scott is a loner, but an alpha male. So hierarchy matters, but being in a group doesn’t so much. He has the balance of a gymnast, but moves slowly, especially when getting dressed. Skiing comes naturally, but being on time does not. He’s an omnivore, and what a trainer would call food-driven.”i

The resolution of the problem of “Scott” in this instance depends upon the hilarious scenario within which Sutherland brings her animal training techniques home and puts them to work on her recalcitrant mate. Using methods that are effective on exotic animals, Sutherland manages her husband with techniques ranging from a reward system for good behavior to a studied indifference to bad behavior. Amazingly, the techniques work and, what’s more, she learns along the way that not only is she training her husband, but her husband, being not only adaptable and malleable but also intelligent and capable of learning, has started to use animal training techniques right back on his wife. Modern marriage, the essay concludes in line with the “modern love” ideology, is an exercise in simultaneous evolution with each mate adjusting slightly to the quirks and foibles of the other, never blaming the structure, trying not to turn on each other and ultimately triumphing by staying together no matter what the cost.

Amusing as Sutherland’s article may be, it is also a stunning example of how, as Laura Kipnis puts it in Against Love, we maneuver around “the large, festering contradictions at the epicenter of love in our time.” And as Kipnis’s book argues, we tend to blame each other or ourselves for the failures of the social structures we inhabit rather than critiquing the structures (like marriage) themselves. Indeed, so committed are we to these cumbersome structures and so lazy are we about coming up with alternatives to them that we bolster our sense of the rightness of heteronormative coupledom by drawing on animal narratives in order to place ourselves back in some primal and “natural” world. Sutherland, for example, happily casts herself and Scott as exotic animals in a world of exotic animals and their trainers; of course, the very idea of the “exotic,” as we know from all kinds of postcolonial theories of tourism and orientalism, depends upon an increasingly outdated notion of the domestic, the familiar and the known, all of which come into being by positing a relation to the foreign, the alien and the indecipherable. Not only does Sutherland domesticate the fabulous variation of the animals she is studying by making common cause with them, she also exoticizes the all too banal setting of her own domestic dramas and in the process, she reimposes the boundary between the human and non-human.

A Family Shares a Kiss

A Family Shares a Kiss

The essay as a whole contributes to the ongoing manic project of the re-naturalization of heterosexuality and the stabilization of relations between men and women. And yet, Sutherland’s piece, humor and all, for all of its commitments to the human, remains in a creative debt to the intellectually imaginative work by Donna Haraway in Primate Visions; Haraway, of course, reversed the relations of looking between primatologists and the animals they studied and reminded us that, first, the primates look back and second, that the stories we tell are much more about humans than animals. She wrote: “Especially western people produce stories about primates while simultaneously telling stories about the relations of nature and culture, animal and human, body and mind, origin and future.”ii Similarly, people who write in the “Modern Love” column for the NYT, these vernacular anthropologists of romance, produce stories about animals in order to locate heterosexuality in its supposedly natural setting. And in Sutherland’s essay, the casting of women and men in the role of trainer and animals also refers indirectly to Haraway’s reconceptualization of the relationship between humans and dogs in her Companion Species Manifesto.iii While the earlier cyborg manifesto had productively questioned the centrality of the notion of a soft and bodily, anti-technological “womanhood” to an idealized construction of the human, the later manifesto decentralizes the human altogether in its account of the relationship between dogs and humans – and refuses to accept the common wisdom about the dog-human relationship. For Haraway, the dog is not a representation of something about the human but an equal player in the drama of evolution and a site of “significant otherness.” The problem with Haraway’s vivid and original rewriting of the evolutionary process from the perspective of the dog is that it seems to reinvest in the idea of nature per se and leaves certain myths about evolution itself intact.

In fact, Donna Haraway herself seems to be invested in the “modern love” paradigm of seeing animals as either extensions of humans or as their moral superiors. As Heidi J. Nast comments in a polemical call for “critical pet studies,” a new disposition towards “pet love” has largely gone unnoticed in social theory and “where pet lives are addressed directly, most studies shun a critical international perspective, instead charting the cultural histories of pet-human relationships or, like Haraway, showing how true pet love might invoke a superior ethical stance.” iv Nast proposes that we examine the investments we are making in pets and in a pet industry in the twenty first century and she calls for a “scholarly geographical elaboration” of who owns pets and where they live and what kinds of affective and financial investments they have made in pet love and finally who lies outside the orbit of pet love. As she remarks: “Those with no affinity for pets or those who are afraid of them are today deemed social or psychological misfits and cranks, while those who love them are situated as morally and even spiritually superior, such judgments having become hegemonic in the last two decades” (896). Like adults who choose not to reproduce, people with no interest in pets occupy a very specific spot in contemporary sexual hierarchies. In her anatomy of pet love, Nast asks “why, for example, are women and queers such central purveyors of the language and institutions of pet love? And why are the most commodified forms of pet love and the most organized pets-rights movements emanating primarily out of elite (and in the US, Canada and Europe) “white” contexts?” (898). Nast’s account of pet love indeed registers the need for new graphs and pyramids of sexual oppression and privilege, new models to replace the ones Gayle Rubin produced nearly two decades ago in “Thinking Sex” to complicate the relations between heterosexual privilege and gay oppression. In a post-industrial landscape where the size of white families has plummeted, where the nuclear family itself has become something of an anachronism, where a majority of women live outside of conventional marriages, the elevation of pets to the status of love objects certainly demands attention. In a recent song by radical rapper, Common, he asks: “Why white folks focus on dogs and yoga?/ While people on the low end tryin to ball and get over”? Why indeed…it’s all for modern love.

i Amy Sutherland, “What Shamu Taught Me About A Happy Marriage,” “Modern Love” Column in The New York Times, Sunday June 25, 2006.

ii Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science (NY: Routledge, 1990): 5.

iii Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003).

iv Heidi J. Nast, “Critical Pet Studies” in Antipode (2006): p. 896.

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Mommy, Is That a Boy Text or a Girl Text?

by: Jonathan Gray / Fordham University

A Gendered Ad

A Gendered Ad

How does a text become a boy or a girl? The supplying or withholding of Y chromosomes is not a key task of a show-runner, nor is it the power granted to a network by winning in the Nielsens; therefore, how is it that television shows so quickly become known as “guy’s shows” or “chick flicks?” In this column, I want to argue for the significant role of promotional materials and surrounding paratexts in giving us virtual ultrasound scans, telling us gender before a text is even born, so that, to carry the metaphor further, by the time the text arrives, many have already ordered the blue or pink wallpaper, and readied their vocabulary for talking about the text.

To say this is not to deny that texts aren’t at times gendered beyond the promotional, paratextual material–-given the long history of certain genres attracting much of their audience from one gender, television shows will often be quite prominently gendered. Thus, for instance, Gilmore Girls is about a mother and daughter relationship, focusing on their respective romances and talk, hence gendering it female in terms of generic history. 24, by contrast, is about a guy who needs to kill, torture, run a lot, cause explosions, and scream very loudly, all on a tight timeline, hence gendering it male in terms of generic history. And let me be clear from the outset that individual viewers can of course read a text against gender, but as I will explain later, even that act often requires the assistance of paratexts to “re-gender” (or to queer) the text.

Case in point regarding promotional materials, though: Six Degrees. If you’ve seen it, forget that you have for a moment. And join me as we go back in time to New York City in August 2006, before it was released. ABC plastered numerous subways with provocative ads that hovered above one’s head, saying things like “The man by the door will someday be your boss” or “The girl across the aisle is flirting with you” (see image below). While an ad lower down in the subway car explained the connection to a new show from ABC, a car-full of people (as is normal for New York) would obscure the ad for most. Instead, the higher-up ads offered a web address: At the website, more oblique references to fated connection appeared (see opening photo) before it asked six questions so that it could help one “find a connection.” Questions answered, eventually the site suggested a personality likeness to one of the primary six cast members, then advertised the show with a clip.

An ad for Six Degrees

An ad for Six Degrees

This campaign, I would suggest, gendered Six Degrees female. The ads’ references to fated connection in New York City alluded to a mainstay of the romantic comedy genre – namely, serendipity in Manhattan (think Sleepless in Seattle, Kate and Leopold, When Harry Met Sally, and Serendipity), while they simultaneously drew from the rhetoric used to sell online dating sites (of which “” certainly sounded like one) to busy urban women. The questions on the website were written in classic Cosmopolitan questionnaire-speak, such as, “Who Are You? I am my work; I am the sum of my experience; I am my future; or I am my contribution.” And the promise to link one to a character referenced the Sex in the City “I’m ….” craze (see image below), thereby promising to grab that show’s baton and run away with it as the show for sexy, urban, chic young women, and suggesting that Six Degrees would similarly place its thumb directly on the lived experience of such women. Thus, the advertising heavily referenced “female” genres and texts – the romcom, Cosmo, Sex in the City.

An ad for Sex and the City

An ad for Sex and the City

Equally important, very little about the ads called to straight men. The attractive female cast, for instance, was muted in the ads, ghosted behind the ads’ lettering, but looking more like happy customers from a dating company than lures for male viewers or even male customers (compare to the below ad from Lavalife, also prominent in the New York subway). And though the lower-down (ie: often hidden by people) ad mentioned producer J. J. Abrams, the mastermind behind the very guy-friendly Lost and Alias, nothing more was made of his role. Television ads that mentioned Abrams alluded more directly to his past Felicity, thereby once more hailing female would-be viewers.

An ad for Lavalife

An ad for Lavalife

When it finally hit the air, Six Degrees struck me as a little confused as to what it was or what it wanted to be in general, and not just at the level of gender. But it certainly did not seem unequivocally “female,” making me wonder why the ads tried so hard to gender it as such. For my purposes here, though, what it is, was, or could’ve been is beside the point. Rather, I propose that with its promotional materials ABC made the show “female” before it was released.

Yet it is by no means alone. Recent subways ads for Showtime’s The Tudors similarly hailed a female or gay male viewer. Jonathan Rhys Meyers looks seductively at the camera, while the wording and posing of the ads allude almost exclusively to romantic intrigue, with little more than the presence of King Henry VIII’s sword to suggest any action (though, of course, in Freudian terms, a man with a big sword represents much more than action), and little to suggest political maneuvering. Perhaps, though, Showtime felt the need to insist upon The Tudors’ female-friendliness, given their earlier success in framing the show as Rome-with-more-wives, and given Rome’s prevalent male gender coding.

So go the ads pre-release, but we might also consider the role of promotional, paratextual material in determining gender after release too. Here, the seminal example is Star Wars’ army of toys, all for boys (see below). The old FAO Schwarz in Manhattan required one to walk through a corridor of G. I. Joes before arriving at the Star Wars action figure section, fully decked out with blue and black, and showing battle-scenes all around. On the face of it, Star Trek would seem no more or less male or female, even though its female fan following is well known – if anything, the slightly effeminate Luke Skywalker and the bold Princess Leia may have been expected to rope in more women than Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. But Star Trek never had a male-focused marketing blitz as did Star Wars.

A Star Wars Toy Ad

A Star Wars Toy Ad

Of course, what Star Trek did have–as all cultural studies scholars know–is slash fiction writers, who made Kirk and Spock lovers (see below), therein showing how paratextual gendering, queering, and–dare I say–Butlerian performances of gender, can become embedded in paratexts. At the textual frontier of the paratext, audience members can and occasionally do resist a text’s apparent “sex.”

A scene from Star Trek

A scene from Star Trek

To return to the metaphor with which I began this column, as this column hits FLOW, we’re now at the end of the first trimester of the upcoming Fall season’s pregnancy; and thus the ultrasound scan will soon start to become more decisive: summer ads will be starting soon, telling us whether new texts are boys or girls. Yet just as I find it somewhat depressing when soon-to-be parents run out to buy the Tonka trucks and Thor’s Hammer or Barbies and Little Princess’ Tea Set, it will also be somewhat depressing to see paratexts and promotional material similarly gender the new shows before they’re born.

Please, I welcome comments.

Image Credits

1. Screenshot from

2. Personal photo taken by author.

3. Image from

4. Image from

6. Image from

Adieu to The Sopranos; What Next for HBO?

by: Kim Akass and Janet McCabe

This year will see the last ever episode of The Sopranos. It all seems a far cry from the days when HBO was riding high and our favourite mobster drama was at the forefront of a distinctive roster of groundbreaking and original series. Chris Albrecht, now former CEO of HBO, confirms how these shows made the cable company’s reputation when he says, ‘We’ll never have anything like that experience again, because between The Sopranos and Sex and the City and Six Feet Under all happening in that short period of time [1998-2001], we came of age in a way we hadn’t before[1].’

With The Sopranos ending it leads us to ask: What has the show done for HBO, and how will the company survive without it?

The Sopranos

The Sopranos

Viewers and TV journalists have long come to expect provocative subject matter and thought-provoking television from HBO. But, we contend, original programming like The Sopranos has not so much changed television as much as said something important about how the institution of television has changed. In 1996 the Telecommunications Act was ratified in both Congress and the Senate, an Act intended ‘to provide maximum economic and content freedoms for the broadcast industry[2]’. Increasingly the television industry, and supported by Washington, placed emphasis on diversity, innovation and competitiveness, which, in turn, made visible the TVIII era, defined by Mark Rogers, Michael Epstein and Jimmie Reeves[3], as driven by niche markets, consumer demand, and customer satisfaction.

New broadcasting regulations, far from resolving the question of cable’s status in the public sphere, in actual fact initiated a succession of struggles over precisely that question. A great deal of uncertainty still remains as to the future of cable, as evidenced by the 2006 Congress hearings on the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) involvement in regulating pay-for-view channels. In this context, the audacious tagline, ‘It’s Not TV. It’s HBO’, seems about more than just the company’s intention to place itself in another league, but as somehow making visible – and possibly redefining – what we mean by television in the post-1996 era.

HBO has instituted a discourse of quality based on creative risk-taking and artistic integrity as well as original tele-literary products that emphasise smart writing, compelling stories told in an innovative way, high production values and a unique creative vision behind each project. But the company has surely not invented any markers for defining quality, and neither has it discovered any new ones. It has, nonetheless, defined new rules for talking about and understanding what we mean by quality TV in the post-1996, post-network era. HBO has imposed itself as a model for producing quality TV, enforcing those ideals, and spawning new forms of television culture, new opportunities for transformation in creative practices and business strategies.

Doing differently, setting itself against what is prohibited on network television, has emerged as a crucial institutional strategy for HBO. The station has long made a virtue of its autonomy from the constraints and restrictions limiting network television. With no commercials to interrupt and no advertisers to placate, no FCC to censor, and an institutional status that places them beyond the reach of industrial regulation, HBO stakes its reputation on consciously violating codes – how it defies, resists and scandalises. Nothing approaches the levels of free expression and explicit sex and violence that the cable company can include. But to break any taboo is no easy matter; and what HBO did with its original programming was to insert the illicit into a system of values, institutionally managed and regulated. Latitude to tell stories differently, creative personnel given the autonomy to work with minimal interference and without having to compromise, has become the HBO trademark – how they endlessly speak about and sell themselves, how the media talks about them and how their customers have come to understand what they are paying for.

Yet, this notion of creative autonomy is not random but a continual struggle for institutional survival and market leadership. Pushing the limits of respectability, of daring to say/do what cannot be said/done elsewhere on the broadcast networks, is entwined with being esoteric, groundbreaking and risk-taking. Assuming the mantel of industry pioneer has led Albrecht to go as far as to liken the company’s position ‘to the Medicis of Italy, the Renaissance patrons of the arts[4]’. Evoking the powerful and wealthy Florentine merchant family who sponsored a revolution in art is a bold statement. But it suggests nonetheless that HBO takes great care to be seen – but more importantly insists we never forget to think about the company – as benefactors of a television revolution that is experimental and searching out the new.

So what of the future when the show that best defines HBO bows out.

Interviewed in April’s Vanity Fair, Albrecht said: ‘Now people go, “What’s next? Where’s the next Sopranos?” There is no next Sopranos[5].’ Such a comment, for us at least, suggests that this is not a matter of producing another Sopranos, but that another can never be made. With a zeitgeist show this successful, a phenomena that even HBO could never have anticipated, the series, we would argue, represents an age of television now passing. As The Sopranos draws to a close its conclusion may say more about the end of a particular era of television drama than anything else. In short, The Sopranos may have been named the best drama ever, but is it not the case that it made visible what drama was at this particular historic moment.

It maybe that other network and cable channels are now emulating the original programming formula – for example, the FX network has consciously modeled itself as the HBO of basic cable and produced controversial and risqué shows like Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, The Shield and Huff! (And let’s face it – there would be no Desperate Housewives without Sex and the City.) It maybe the mob-hit along with other HBO signature shows helped the channel come of age as nothing before, and HBO maybe lamenting its passing, but as Albrecht has recently said, it is also ‘the beginning of something else[6]’.

The Shield

The Shield

HBO has long been at the forefront of Video on Demand. In fact, we would argue that the company pioneered it through box-sets which not only allow non-subscribers to view programmes exclusive to HBO (thereby taking television out of established schedules). But also appealing to what Mark Lawson has called a core audience that is demographically likely to include the ‘income rich, time poor viewers that like to believe they are in charge of their own lives[7]’. (Exactly the demographic that HBO imagines for its original programming). In fact the box-set replicates Video on Demand with its notion of self-scheduling: in this case the prospect of viewers downloading from a central menu programmes that are no longer divided by time-slots or channels. (It is also worth noting that The Sopranos is the first ever series to be available on HD-DVD. Once again demonstrating how HBO announces the new through its flagship series.)

HBO on Demand now accounts for about 10 percent of the viewing for most HBO programmes; and this figure is set to rise, as the service becomes more readily available including in the UK via Virgin Media. Jeff Bewkes, now President and Chief Operating Officer of Time Warner, has even touted HBO on Demand as the way for the cable division of HBO to compete with Apple iTunes and other emerging forms of digital distribution. According to him, one of its main advantages is that programmes are delivered directly to televisions rather than being downloaded and watched on computer – one of the major stumbling blocks for the networks in their attempt to convert to digital delivery.

September 2006 and HBO again tried something new in an effort to keep the small but loyal fan base for The Wire, its drama about the Baltimore drug trade. In an unprecedented trial, the network put each episode out on its On Demand service six days before its regular Sunday night broadcast. In its first week the programme was viewed On Demand over 188,000 times. By the fourth week the number had already grown to over 430,000, which, in turn, helped boost The Wire’s viewing figures up by 200,000 over the previous season’s total. Albrecht cites this as a success story for the future of HBO by saying, ‘We have always been about the quality of our work and the convenience of watching it. In a world where kids are downloading Lost or whatever they want to download – that is the HBO model, and it has been for a long time[8].’

The Wire

The Wire

HBO’s latest venture is HBO Mobile. The company is for example producing original mini-episodes of the series Entourage for Cingular Video customers who subscribe to their service. In addition, HBO Mobile distributes full-length episodes of The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Deadwood and Da Ali G Show.

HBO has also recently launched an Internet channel to rival YouTube. Reaching out to a younger audience – particularly university students who will mature into the key demographic targeted by HBO – is a smart investment in the future.

For a company once known for its portfolio of niche programming attracting a loyal subscriber base, what we are now seeing is HBO developing a portfolio of niche delivery platforms that will retain that base.

HBO have typically been immune to traditional forces governing broadcast networks especially when broadcasters assembled large audiences around a few prime-time shows and sold those audiences to advertisers. For half a century this model has proved the unquestioned leader in profitability and ratings. Not any longer. In an increasingly fragmented market, the networks are now struggling to maintain profits during their conversion to digital delivery. HBO has long made a virtue out of being subversive, defying established network powers (although HBO is part of the Time Warner empire that also owns NBC). Their subversion is based on their ability to conjure away the present and appeal to the future, suggesting that that future will be hastened by the contribution they are making – despite it being a future without The Sopranos.

[1] Carter, Bill. ‘After “Sopranos,” a Need for a Hit’. New York Times. 22 March 2007.
[2]Rowland Jr., Willard D. ‘The V-Chip’. The Television History Book. Michele Hilmes. Ed. London: bfi Publishing, 2003: 135.
[3]Rogers, Mark, Michael C. Epstein and Jimmie Reeves. ‘The Sopranos as HBO Brand Equity: The Art of Commerce in the Age of Digital Representation’. This Thing of Ours: Investigating The Sopranos. David Lavery. Ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002: 42-57.
Epstein, Michael M., Jimmie L. Reeves and Mark C. Rogers. ‘Surviving “The Hit”: Will The Sopranos Still Sing for HBO’. Reading The Sopranos: Hit TV from HBO. David Lavery, Ed. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006: 15-25.
[4]Johnson, Ted. ‘Risks and Rewards’. Variety. 25-31 August 2003: A6.
[5]Biskind, Peter. ‘An American Family’, 198.
[6]Carter, Bill. ‘After “Sopranos.”’
[7]Lawson, Mark. ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably?’ The Guardian (G2). 2 November 2006a: 7.
[8]Chaffin, Joshua. ‘HBO adjusts to programme in world of choices’. Financial Times. 21 November 2006.


1. The Sopranos.

2. The Shield.

3. The Wire.

Please feel free to comment.

Hutto’s Children: Maddening Structures of Absence

by: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University

Children, including toddlers, are incarcerated in the Hutto Detention Center, in Taylor, Texas, a small community a few miles from Georgetown, where I teach. Not since the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II has the U.S. Government jailed children. As it did then, these shameful policies and quasi-military actions come at a time when it is culturally acceptable to express the most xenophobic views about immigrants. Fear, hatred, and ignorance rule the day. The United States government is fully aware that in jailing children they are breaking the Human Rights Charter of the United Nations, and has cynically denied access to Dr. Jorge Bustamante, a UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights of Immigrants.

Recreation yard at Hutto Detention Center

Recreation yard at Hutto Detention Center

These events have not gone unmediated, but their mediation has been structured by a system willing to reduce issues of immigration to debates by politicians over how to reform immigration policy in a way that better benefits the nation and its citizens. During these debates, Latino voices are less likely to be featured than voices from the business community, which is interested in the economic benefits of immigrant labor and who — ironically — often end up representing the pro-Latino side. An issue such as the Hutto Detention Center is essentially absent from mainstream media. Consider this: when I conducted a LexisNexis transcript search, I was able to retrieve 23 television and radio news transcripts mentioning Hutto. (In contrast, my search was interrupted when I entered “Lohan” because the search engine had found more than one thousand entries.) Of the 23 items retrieved, 20 were either from Texas media sources or Spanish-language television (Univision and Telemundo), three were from NPR, and one from Canadian television. Most of these mentions are brief, though some are poignant (for examples, listen to NPR’s All Things Considered on Feb. 9 or watch Univision’s Despierta America on Feb. 23).

Given the huge amount of television and radio news in America, the results of this brief search are evidence of a structured absence in national news organizations, which have often turned a blind eye to abuses of power involving foreigners in general and immigrants in particular in this post-9/11 America. The only national media that has addressed Hutto is CNN, where Lou Dobbs, CNN’s most xenophobic voice, has talked about the detention center in his own powerful, ethnocentric, and racist voice. The children, he claims, are better off in this prison than at home, where abject poverty is the norm. The humanitarian and civic organizations speaking on behalf of the children, he continues, are colluding with pro-immigration forces to get amnesty for those whom he calls “illegals.”

Art drawn by one of the children in the Hutto center

Art drawn by one of the children in the Hutto center

The overall effect of this lack of media coverage is that for most Americans, Hutto is not in the radar. Big media shape the majority’s sense of ethics and justice through the systematic repetition of nationalist and ethnocentric agendas (e.g., the honoring of soldiers and reporting of pro-military issues) and also–perhaps more poignantly–through their silences, the elements of life and reality that never make it to the evening news.

A small number of people have demonstrated their concern about the ongoing events at Hutto by using small media and employing the guerrilla tactics that are expected of activist citizens. Many of these activists assemble daily at the entrance of the prison to protest Hutto’s detention practices. Most are local. Others come on weekends, bring their cameras and banners, record, and post their footage on YouTube is one of the few relatively public and general forums that allows for events like Hutto to be videotaped and distributed to a wider audience. Through its almost nihilistic way of organizing its contents, YouTube provides space for an array of different video genres, contrasting viewing traditions, and counter-publics. The range of videos depicting Hutto that can be found on YouTube includes some in which the camera is used as a simple recording device, in its rawest power, without editing or artifice, a la the Lumieres: (link)

Typically shot by people not heavily involved with activist organizations or media, these videos are filmed outside the prison and record the protests themselves and the surrounding landscape. The filmmakers, clearly, do not have access to the prison or to officials involved with the detention center. Other videos are formal, traditional mini-documentaries that use documentary conventions to produce powerful narratives that attempt to engage our emotions and reason. In Children Confined-Immigrant Detention Center at Hutto (the most viewed of the Hutto videos), the filmmakers interview a child and her mother to harness the emotional force that will make the listing of UN provisions rhetorically powerful. In two-minutes, this video sponsored by the ACLU shows the perspective of immigrants and of the UN and locates the government actions as violations of American basic ideas of justice: (link)

As powerful as Children Confined is, I found T. Don Hutto-Footage from ICE to be the most eerie of all. The video is an unusual documentary shown by Docubloggers, a video initiative sponsored by KLRU, Austin’s public television broadcasting station. According to text accompanying the video, Docubloggers requested footage from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE gave them this footage, which Docubloggers presents without editing and without sound, as it was delivered to them. Although I am sure the footage was provided by ICE as a way of addressing criticism and to show the world the quality facilities and positive living conditions of Hutto, the effect is quite the opposite. For four minutes, we are allowed to see inside Hutto silent images of clean children in prison garb while they play, eat, and color. The only faces shown are blurred or at a distance, providing just enough visual information to learn that these are brown bodies, brown families, and brown children: (link)

Docubloggers decided to show the footage as it is, in part because they believed in the power of the visuals to communicate much more than ICE intended. They were right. There is something about the video that is excessive, that which images cannot seem to contain, information that is unruly and subverts the makers’ intentions. Two instances stand out: there is a point (1:26) when the video shows a series of people walking in front of the screen on an extremely clean floor, with extremely clean green prison garbs, and with brand new shoes. We only see them from knees down, an adult followed by several small set of feet. I found these seconds of footage quite unsettling and could not immediately point to the reason. Yet I realized that these images of disembodied feet are disturbing because they remind me of prison movies set during WWII in which prisoners are meant to be rehabilitated through the rigors of fascist uber-discipline, which is shown through rhythmic images, repetition, and obsessive cleanliness, just like in the ICE video. In a similar excessive fashion, later we see the aseptic reality of a cell (2:21) that includes four items: a toilet, a sink, bunk beds, and a crib. This image, empty of life, is intended to convey “humane” living conditions to viewers; instead, it reminds us of a morgue, its emptiness becomes scary, its cleanliness absurd. The overall effect of the video is partly reached by intertextuality, either by referencing fascist images or the codes of war or criminal videos, which often blur the faces of the subjects or cover them with hoods. Because of this intertextuality, the video seems more inhumane and indicting of the actions of the Federal Government and ICE.

I must make a last point about these wonderful videos and the counter-publics they serve. As powerful as some of the videos are, they have been viewed only a few thousand times. The ICE video has been viewed 23 times at the moment of this writing. These activists are so marginal that they have no chance whatsoever to impact our nation’s mainstream culture. They are in the fringes of our video culture, barely existing. They are marginal to the nation’s political pursuits, their goals irrelevant, their voices dim. To the great majority of Americans, the children of Hutto will remain safely an absence.

Image Credits:
1. Latina Lista

Everything is Under Control

by: Daniel Chamberlain / USC

Much of the promotional and popular discussion addressing the current televisual landscape emphasizes the concept of control, usually celebrating the ease with which a television viewer can select, adjust, and display desired content. The word “control,” often modified by “total” or paired with the marketing-friendly “freedom,” is used to describe an engagement with television through handheld remotes, time-shifting systems, or place-shifting technologies. In the ahistorical rhetoric of new media hype, what was once the passively-viewed province of the couch potato is now the dynamically-managed terrain of the techno-savvy. As usual, the effusive deployment and embrace of liberationist terminology is working hard to cover up the contradictions accompanying great change. In the case of contemporary television, the dominant references to viewer control figures as the ideological stalking horse masking the simultaneous functioning of control in other registers, notably in the consolidation of distribution and inherent systems of surveillance.

To be fair, individuals really do exert control over their television experiences through their engagement with and customization of televisual interfaces. One can watch an entire season of a program in a day, catch missed episodes on-demand or online before the next is aired, and stream recorded programming to a mobile phone or distant computer. In examples like these, control figures in popular discourse as a promise of empowerment, of consumer sovereignty over technology, information, and consumption.

Yet even such popular narratives of viewer control belie a subtle complexity. As the gadgets we use get more complex, so do the registers of control At its most fundamental, baseline control follows a logic of connection: turning on a television; powering-up a mobile phone; subscribing to cable, satellite, or broadband service. Low-level control follows a logic of selection: picking a channel to watch; entering a url; conducting a search or scanning through clips. Mid-level control follows a logic of personalization: setting preferences with a remote control; programming a digital video recorder; creating lists of favorite channels or blocking those deemed uninteresting or unsuitable. High-level control follows a logic of adaptation: TiVo recording programs it thinks its owner might like; Netflix’s collaborative filtering software selecting television programs to mail out; a mobile phone providing alerts regarding the availability of a new episode. The lower levels of control are governed by an ideology of participation, whereas the higher levels are governed by an ideology of efficiency, even to the extent that participation is sacrificed to technological agents rather than exercised directly.

The Slingbox

The Slingbox

Alongside all of this viewer controlled consumption are new forms of viewer controlled production. Television viewers have long produced eyeballs for sale by networks to advertisers, but the increased degree of control is resulting in more nuanced forms of production. The avid time-shifter or online video viewer, for example, produces his or her own televisual flow in a manner that consistently and instantly avoids undesirable elements of the programmed flow. Through tightened and networked feedback loops, acts of televisual consumption also produce new patterns of viewing for both the individual viewer and those participating in the same network. That is, my TiVo habits can become your TiVo suggestions, and YouTube videos soar in viewership when linked to, rated highly, or ranked into the “most viewed” lists. Going beyond the surface of the screen, televisual display devices increasingly move both within and outside of the home, producing media spaces out of offices, commutes, parks, and coffee shops. And, of course, certain new television technologies allow for the sharing of self-produced content alongside programming traditionally considered televisual.

But the actual functioning of control is more complex than a blind focus on time-shifting or remixing suggests. These celebrations of viewer control display a marked historical shortsightedness, reveal a familiar deployment of gendered discourse, and raise questions about inequality of access in a rapidly tiering television environment. Moreover, the emphasis on viewer control masks the preponderance of control exercised by the media conglomerates that own the broadcast networks, cable and satellite channels, television production companies, and financial interests in the primary new television-related companies. While the number of programs, channels, and modes of viewing may be multiplying, the source for a large part of the content – and certainly that programming which commands the majority of viewer attention – is still controlled by a small number of large corporations. On the one hand, this means that the benefits of time- and place-shifting should be understood as still working largely with the programming supplied by the recognized gatekeepers of television. It is well and good to watch a commercial-free episode of Lost in a cabin over the weekend, but we should not pretend that this act represents a wholesale transfer of control from Disney to viewers. On the other hand, these same interests exert a significant amount of control over most emergent televisual developments. TiVo, for example, counts America Online (Time Warner), DirecTV (News Corp.), NBC, Sony, CBS, and Disney among its equity investors. Google-owned YouTube has partnership deals with CBS, BBC, and NBC, among others, and competitor Joost has announced both content and financing deals with Viacom and CBS. Even in those examples where a major new player enters the market – like Apple selling television programs through its iTunes store or Google serving up both commercial television and user-generated video – the influence and control of the entrenched television distributors remains paramount.

TiVo Remote

TiVo Remote

Beyond the contradictions between viewer and distributor control, emergent televisual hardware incorporates control into new registers of power. Most of the latest technologies are inherently underwritten by surveillance, as in most cases it is required for a technology to function appropriately. Compare broadcast television with digital cable and a DVR. In the earlier mode, the broadcast station sent its signal out but had no sure means of knowing who was receiving it. The digital cable operator, on the other hand, is expected to respond to user requests – made through the interface – and thus has more data on user viewing habits than it knows what to do with. Not only does its set top box provide a premium user experience, it also has the capability to capture user preferences and viewing patterns. The ability to track and measure user behavior is now the foundation of TiVo’s current business model, and the TiVo-to-go system, like the iTunes Store, relies on digital rights management software that tracks which devices are authorized to access purchased content. Such hardware and the programming code that drives them set limits on what viewers can do, monitor actual behavior, and potentially induce surveillance-aware behavior patterns. Enter the control society.

The surveillant nature of such systems and devices suggests that control is the organizing logic of power whenever and wherever the flexibility and mobility of television interfaces are connected to a network. Data is gathered every time someone downloads a video to a mobile phone, rates a program using a digital video recorder, or visits an even moderately sophisticated website. As beloved companies like Google, Apple, and TiVo continue to roll out new services customized to individual user’s preferences, they further become information warehouses. Taken at their word, such vast stores of data will be used to improve technology, services, and the user experience, but this massive centralization of data should be noted by anyone concerned with privacy rights. To judge by the millions of mobile phone, digital cable, and digital video recorder users, the tradeoff of privacy for perceived empowerment is worth making at most any level.

Image Credits:
1. Slingbox screen shot from Sling Media US home page

2. TiVo remote control from TiVo accessories page

Complete control
DVR Death Match
Logitech Universal Remote Control
Gain control over your entertainment experience
Watch and control your living room TV from anywhere
Jason Mittell column describing watching Veronica Mars via bittorrent in a week
YouTube most played list
TiVo Equity Partners
Ray Cha column on network and web-based television

Please feel free to comment.

The Edwardian Country House: An Exegesis

by: Alan McKee / Queensland University of Technology

Sometimes, television producers are more intelligent, more informed, and present their ideas through more convincing forms of argumentation, than academics studying the same area. Take the example of The Edwardian Country House.

The Family and Staff

The Family and Staff

In this 2002 British reality series, 21 people live in an Edwardian Country House, just as they would have done in the first decade of the twentieth century. Six of them take the role of the family who own the house. Fifteen take the role of the servants. And they live those Edwardian lives – strictly – for three months. The servants have to get up before dawn, working all day for 120 hour weeks. They have no regular days off, and their behaviour is rigorously controlled by the housekeeper and butler. The family of the household are dressed by the servants, spend their days reading and relaxing, going out with friends, being fitted for dresses, and hosting dinner parties for politicians and other ‘great men’, for which, of course they do none of the preparation.

Produced for Britain’s upmarket minority channel, Channel Four, it’s a series that takes its research and its advisors very seriously, drawing on the expertise of a range of historical consultants in order to cover every aspect of life from etiquette to household management to the practice of cookery. And it provides a fascinating insight into cultural history.

We all have some understanding of what working class life was like in previous decades. We know the conditions of life for the poorer members of society were appalling compared with those in current forms of social organisation. To be working class now means to live longer, with better health, to be better educated, to have more control over all aspects of one’s own life, more free time and more choices about what to do in that time, to live in a more equitable world and to have more say in its running that at any time in the last four hundred years (to stick only to the period of modern Western history with which I am familiar). We know this – but all the same, to see it played out so vividly, and to see and hear what twenty-first century humans make of it, of living it – is a revelation.

In the final episode, the participants leave the house. There is passion, regret and sadness. The participants speak out about the experience as they leave. And what is inescapable is just how differently the two groups – the upper class and the servant class – feel about their time in the house, and what these differences in experience tell us about cultural change over the last hundred years.\

Becky, the first housemaid

Becky, the first housemaid

The servants – who in the real world hold working class or middle class occupations, who are shop assistants and secretaries – are clear. After three months of waking before dawn and working relentlessly until after dark, of having every aspect of their lives, including romantic relationships, work, pleasure, eating, and sleeping, routinised, scrutinised and controlled by authority figures, with no regular time off and no control over any aspect of their lives – after this, the working class participants are desperate to return to the twenty first century.

Antonia has been the kitchenmaid in the Edwardian House – in 2001 she’s a telephone operator in a police emergency room. As she considers leaving, she notes: ‘Here you can’t vote, you can’t speak to who you want, go where you want, just everything’s cut off, all the options we’re open to, they’re just not in existence, you think, gosh, you know, we’ve come a really long way since then’. Rebecca, the first housemaid (who works in tourist information in the real world), is amazed at just how hard servants had to work, compared to the working classes in the twenty first century: ‘My grandma was in service… I just thought, how could she have worked that hard that she [literally] wore her fingers down? And now I know how’. Rob the footman (currently looking for work) notes that: ‘Since I’ve been here I’ve lost 22 pounds. The food is enough for sustenance, but that’s all. If you’ve got a bit of a health regime you’ve just got to throw it completely out of the window’. Charlie, also a footman (sales manager) delights in regaining the simply physical freedom of movement, rejoicing in being able to sit outside to eat his lunch – which he has not been allowed to do for three months. ‘Rob and I have got a little room, and it’s ever so tiny, with our little straw mattresses, and we don’t get a wall, we just see a bit of wall about four feet away from the window, and occasionally we’ll see daylight for about two hours a day’. For all these people there is no question – they desperately want to return to the social and cultural forms of the twenty first century.

But what is really interesting is the perspective of the upper class as they consider leaving. John Olliff-Cooper – in the twenty first century a business owner, in the Edwardian era, the Lord of the house – is deeply upset. ‘It will be heartbreaking to leave’, he says. ‘The only people who will be diminished when they leave are my wife and I’. And Anna Olliff-Cooper – a doctor in the twenty first century, Lady of the House in the Edwardian version – is rueful. ‘It is one of these eternally difficult questions’, she says as she stands on the steps of the house where she has lived in luxury for three months. ‘If you level everybody out to the same level, you remove some of the highs of life. You also remove the lows. And I suppose each person has to make up their own minds about what they think is fair. You might think that in Edwardian times it was skewed too far one way. You might think, in fact, it’s skewed too far the other way now’.

It’s an arresting moment. It’s rare that you hear a voice on television explicitly claiming that democracy has gone too far … that people are treated too equally … a sense of nostalgia and loss for an era when hierarchy was more entrenched and servants laboured to provide the good life for the wealthy.

What this moment, and this program, makes clear is that cultural change has been good for some people and bad for others. For the working classes, it has clearly meant a huge improvement to their lives. To the upper classes, it has meant a massive loss. I think this is an important point. And it’s a point that academic writing has often forgotten or suppressed.

Sir John getting a shave from Edgar, the butler

Sir John getting a shave from Edgar, the butler

Academic analysis of cultural change tends to be stuck in a binary model – as I discuss in my book The Public Sphere (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Either you take the position associated ‘modernity’ – things have got worse, the public sphere is disintegrating, public culture has lost its golden age – or the ‘postmodern’ position – things have got better, public culture has become more open and thus improved. It’s a sterile debate, neither side ever managing to convince the other of its point of view. The producers of The Edwardian Country House offer a more nuanced, convincing and better researched position – that it depends on which social group you’re talking about. For the working classes, things have undoubtedly got better. Also for unmarried women of all classes. But for married upper class women, and upper class men, they have got worse.

These points are made in visceral, powerful and confronting ways. In order to keep upper class culture untouched, we must sacrifice the lives, the health, the sanity of the vast majority of the population who are not in that class. We see the servants trying to cope with these lives – the tears, the physical and emotional pain that they suffer. And we see the joy that it brings them as they appreciate just how much better life is now. Eva Morrison, the lady’s maid (in the twenty first century, a haberdashery shop owner) is strongly feminist, and throughout the series we see her reactions to reminders of just how much women were oppressed in the early twentieth century, and how far their rights have come in a hundred years. She reads the Daily Mirror from the 4 June 1913: ‘Woman rushes on the Derby course and snatches at the bridle of the king’s horse. The woman’s clothing was marked E W Davison and suffragette flags were found pinned under her jacket’. She holds it up to the camera. Tears are streaming down her cheeks. ‘Front page it made. But what a cost’. She looks at the paper, unable to speak, and taps the photograph with her finger. And nods, wipes the tears from her eyes, looks down. This matters. This is important. The changes are for the better. And when she leaves the house, her comments once again insist on this point: ‘We’ve came such a long way, women. I think we get loads of perks, don’t we? We get the babies, we get the careers, we get the education … Women are great, aren’t they?’

I have often wondered how academics can look back at the cultural and social change of the last few hundred years and see it as a decline. I can see how it would seem that way for the upper classes – but how could the massive improvement in the lives of working class people be invisible in theories about public culture? And The Edwardian Country House is such an intelligent piece of filmmaking that it proposes an answer to even this question.

Because of the way the hierarchy is managed, the upper classes think that everything is OK with the system – that it works for everybody. And this is because it is purposefully set up in order to protect them from seeing the reality of the working class experience. The family live in the house for three months and never see the servant’s quarters until the once-a-year servants’ ball – just as would have happened in the real world. The butler – along with the housekeeper one of the two people who act as the interface between the worlds above and below stairs – ruminates on this quite explicitly. On the final day, as the family say their final farewells to the servants, tears falling down their cheeks, the butler’s VO provides a commentary: ‘I knew the family to be genuinely fond of the staff, even though they did not really know them. When I have problems downstairs, I shield them from them. I never tell them. So what they hear always is the nice moments. So they do become fond of them. I don’t think that fondness is reciprocated towards the family’. And indeed, we’ve seen a bonfire where the servants made the guy in the shape of sir John, cheering as it burned to death. This perhaps is how it is possible for academics to genuinely believe that the cultural and social changes that have elevated working class citizens have been a form of decline – because the representations of working class life that were available to educated writers in the past deliberately misrepresented it. The system was set up so that the educated classes would have no knowledge of just how awful working class existence was, and to maintain the fiction that everyone was happy, that the system worked for everybody. The Edwardian Country House systematically and powerfully demolishes that fiction for us.

Sir John and family

Sir John and family

Which brings us back to where we started. Sometimes, television producers are more intelligent, more informed, and present their ideas through more convincing forms of argumentation, than academics studying the same area.

Image Credits:

1. The family and staff.

2. Becky, the first housemaid.

3. Sir John getting a shave from Edgar.

4. Sir John and family.

Please feel free to comment.


Dancing in the Distraction Factory: CGI, Captured Feet, and Box Office Magic

by: Anna Beatrice Scott / University of California, Riverside

The Backyardigans

The Backyardigans

I begin this article with a text, actually with the title of a text that mentions dance, but does not talk about it. When I first came across the book about MTV by Andrew Goodwin, I was excited by the possibilities, then after reading it, disappointed. What a waste of a great title, I thought through my dancer blinders! Too be fair, Goodwin was writing at a time when Dance Studies was more fragmented and less likely to concern itself with the banality of televisual dancing. It would have never occurred to him to actually investigate the ways in which the dancing body was being deployed in frame as his overall project seemed to account for everything by focusing on capital formations and networks. Yet MTV relied heavily on a proliferation of underpaid, anonymous dancing bodies.

Displaced, breathing, dancing bodies are the foundation of contemporary block-buster 3-D CGI animation. Now with screen credits, movement models enable the virtuosity of ‘animators’ to demonstrate the capacity for rendering reality and fantasy all at once. The rendered dance double is meant to draw our eye away from the objects on screen and into a sensorial experience of human story and song. A veritable wave of distracting choreography and gestures, 3-D CGI animation portends a shift in consciousness, not just capital.

By turning our attention to the representation of figures in frame (I think we may have passed the moment where we can comfortably talk about “bodies”), tracking their location in the controlled space of the frame, but being cognizant of the wider sphere in which action is accomplished or said to be in the process of being/unbeing (here we would necessarily think about the meta-choreographies which circulate with, through and around a televisual and cinematic production) we can enter into a more robust analysis of the self-systemizing place of the projected and broadcasted in our daily lives. How are specific parameters set for our own movement through cultural concepts and performatives by the viral nature of an object moving in our visual field, whether or not it is “actual?” Working from Goodwin’s title, I would like to open a discussion about the wave of CGI animation across screens of all sizes, and the convergence of “real,” “performance,” “archival,” “action,” “computation,” and “liveness” in the manipulation of actual bodies for capturing movement (dance to be specific, though I find the gestural equally if not more mesmerizing in these vehicles) and the resultant effect of unsuccessful simulacra, meaning “copiedness” always functions as veracity; it absorbs, retains and creates surplus value which is extracted to create “brand equity” through tightly controlled and highly enhanced “real movement” of our habitual repertoire.

Finding Nemo

Finding Nemo

The branding of human gestural patterns and artistic bodily productions (which themselves are easily and readily “copiable”) creates the case for copyrighting sequences as intellectual property, but for whom? To be clear, to “repeat” the performance one once needed the “original” cast, but now with DVD technology, dance teams can “render” “live” versions of the “original” in frame, which is not the original after all, rather its representation; the “original” belongs to the first set of bodies, or even to the visualizing brain the choreographer.

Savion Glover as the \'Stunt Double\' in Happy Feet

Savion Glover as the ‘Stunt Double’ in Happy Feet

Dancing objects and human bodies pose a particular problem to the idea of “original” and “copy” real/unreal/surreal as to learn choreography, to establish parameters within which movement will happen is to necessarily copy someone else’s ideas/concepts about motion, time, space, rhythm, weight, and dare I say it, beauty and entertainment. I am suggesting that the added layer of “laying a dance track,” “being the dance stunt double,” as Savion Glover referred to his work for Happy Feet, obliterates the artistic laboring of breathing bodies as it is displaced by the “life-like” motion of the animated object. But dance dubbing (or body doubles, not a new concept at all, think Flash Dance) also confounds our interaction with movement itself: dance is assumed to be particular to the person doing it.

Future amelioration/translation or copying of the dance double’s work with the intention of repeating it as computation for an animated object/animal/stylized humanoid troubles our assumptions about the precession of the real and hence our perception, especially through tactility, respiration and vibration. Our eyes maybe looking at a screen of some sort with various mobile thingamabobbies on it, but our biofeedback would reveal an experience of dance: that quickened breathing, sympathetic heart rate, rhythmic twitching of large muscle groups, and the occasional unfounded sense of elation. We are not so inured to the copy

“That’s the song from Shark Tale!”

“That’s the song from Shark Tale!”

A dance performance can be copied by rehearsing it over and over, without any intention of “putting your flavor on it” as we like to say in the studio when learning a move through imitating it from someone else. Taking a representation of a dance performance that was captured on tape/film/gigabytes back into “live, real time” does not necessarily mean that the performer is not making a copy. Moreover, in this age of the Digital Millennium Act, said performers could very well be infringing on the copyright (real, imagined or explicit) of someone else. Choreography is, after all, sequencing. But whose copyright? The videographer’s, the choreographer’s, the composer’s, the dancer’s? Now add to this 21st century morass the computational thing called 3-D CGI animation and you get a copy that is an original.

“Tweening is an age bracket of 12-15 year old girls!”

This original exists not as a series of hand-drawn cells, created by a flock of artists paid a salary to “disappear” their style into the look of the company that pays them (Disney, Hanna-Barabrera, Nelvana, Nickelodean, etc.) but as an amalgamation of sketches, sculptures, photographs, drawings, and “renderings” or string upon string of code. There are pods and pods of people working on the various layers of the rendering of the film or show in order to evoke “realness” in the realm of the imaginary. Meanwhile producers carefully attend to the “real” need for the “vehicle” or “product” to be “leverageable”: i.e. interminably “copiable” to ensure specific rates of return on the “gianormous” investment required to work within such a global industry.

The preproduction of a 3-D CGI animated feature, for example, rivals the preparations for an Olympic Village in its international scope, levels of activity, players and expenditures (not to mention its displaced laborers, hidden local costs, disruptive business practices, and masked political turmoil with “art”). Factory-like, it is amusing that artistry reigns over or is the raison d’être for all the copying; that which we have assumed to be de facto unoriginality.

Jada Pinkett as Gloria the Hippo

Jada Pinkett as Gloria the Hippo

Heads are measured and copied. Voices are recorded, measured and copied. Bodies are made to move in sometimes unnatural sequences (how do you dance like a penguin after all?) while the effort, shape, and position of the joints are measured, captured and copied. Entire group performances are recorded, measured, and copied. Statistics are used to generate the probable parameters for the motion of the character which will be represented by the merge of all these measurements and then…ACTION!


Is the action on a sound stage where breathing bodies are paced through partial sets as they were in the pre-production of Monster House somewhere in California? Or is it in a New York dance studio where dancers were casted based on the choreographer’s interpretation of the script like Backyardigans? Is it in a motion capture lab in Emeryville where body measurements are taken of the voice actor’s face, and gait to capitalize on his/her as in Shrek, or full body motion captured/extracted as in Happy Feet. Is the action in the board room as tie-ins for video games, Happy Meals, and pharmaceuticals are negotiated? Is the action on a hard drive in a computer somewhere in Korea, or does it only arrive there for color correction and detail work like making “hair” look wet?

The truth is, when action is enacted, it is no longer after the slate has been marked and camera is rolling at speed. Nope. Action across digitized x, y, and z axes is non-linear, multifocal, transglobal, and beyond the biped. Action is math. Computation is labor. Motion is measured and accounted for. Yet, without a referent, most of this simply does not read as believable–even though there is nothing believable about singing or dancing penguins, kangaroos, lions, giraffes, angel fish, lemurs, sharks, ogres or donkeys. Without all of the copying and archiving of data, there is no original artwork. Without that artwork there is nothing to leverage and brand, no vehicle to support a bevy of tie-ins, product placements, synergistic partnerships and well-trained legal teams. An array of archival work deployed as live, life-like activity plied into virtual, mobile shapes, has 3-D CGI animation made it possible for a democratic departure from the meat behind in the chair? Or are we afforded an opportunity to acquire a new gesture: the morph? the radical, visceral subjectivity transformer? I’m not so sure, but I don’t have time to think about it; I’ve got to get to my Second Life…

Image Credits:
1. The Backyardigans from
2. Finding Nemo from
3. Happy Feet from
4. Savion Glover from
5. A Shark Tale video game still from
6. Jada Pinkett as Gloria the Hippo

Anna Beatrice Scott is assistant professor of Dance History & Theory at University of California, Riverside.