Blank Solitude: The Alien Gaze of Under the Skin

Somehow over the past decade or so, Scarlett Johansson has emerged in film as the ultimate human. She shook Bob Harris (Bill Murray) out of a late-life lull in Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). She repeated Logan’s Run in The Island (2005). She’s the voice of the artificially intelligent operating system in Spike Jonze’s her (2013). She transcends her own brain and body in the woefully disappointing Lucy (2014). And she is rumored to be starring in the live-action version of Ghost in the Shell, which is currently in production. In short, when we think of machine-aided human perfection, Johansson is what we picture.

Scarlett Johansson: Under the Skin

The photographic lens makes you immediately indifferent to yourself — you inwardly play dead. In the same way, the presence of television cameras makes what you are saying seem alien or a matter of indifference  — Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories IV

Johansson begins an interview with Tim Noakes at Dazed & Confused magazine reading from Jean Baudrillard‘s America, his collection about feeling an alien in a foreign land. It’s a famous quotation about smiling from page 34. Further down that same page, Baudrillard (1988) writes,

The skateboarder with his walkman, the intellectual working on his wordprocessor, the Bronx breakdancer whirling frantically in the Roxy, the jogger and the body-builder: everywhere, whether in regard to the body or the mental faculties, you find the same blank solitude, the same narcissistic refraction (p. 34).

Under the SkinJohansson plays a man-eating alien visitor in Jonathan Glazer’s stunning 2014 film, Under the Skin (A24), what Lucy Bolton describes as “a viewing experience that is mediated by the emotional, moral and corporeal alien eye” (p. 1). While Glazer’s adaptation is an intriguing interpretation, Faber’s original novel (Harcourt, 2000) is versatile, lending itself to many others. Taken in tandem though, they inform each other. “[The Book] was a jumping-off point,” Glazer tells Chris Alexander at Fangoria. (p. 43). “Under the Skin is trying to represent something kind of unimaginable—this infinite and alien entity,” he says. “It’s not something for words, really. It shouldn’t be explained away. Our intention was to protect its alienness” (p. 45).

Johansson often feels an alienness herself. “When I finish work,” she tells Dazed, “I just want to get as far away from it as possible. It’s like, ‘Okay, we’re done, let me try to regain my sense of self!’… I’ve certainly had roles which have become all-encompassing, when I’ve been like, ‘Whoa, where’s my life?’, and felt like the floor had been swept from underneath me. But the more experience you have, the less carried away you get.” (p. 128X). As one review parenthetically notes, “The film is nothing if not a knowing, subversive use of Johansson’s celebrity and screen persona.”

Glazer says of her performance, “When she saw the film she said to me that she didn’t recognise what she was doing in it… she said she had no idea what was going on in her mind at any point” (p. 130). In a film so focused on alienation, it’s interesting that Johansson felt it as the actor, as the alien, and as the viewer of this film. Through the lens, the narcissistic refraction: The alien gaze turned in upon itself.

Baudrillard (2003) continues, “When some future scientist expresses the idea that the generations of clones and artificial beings that succeed us are descended from man [sic], it will be as terrible a shock as when Darwin announced that man was descended from the apes” (p. 107).

References:

Alexander, Chris. (2014, May). The Skin He’s In. Fangoria Magazine, #322, pp. 42-46.

Baudrillard, Jean. (1988). America. New York: Verso.

Baudrillard, Jean. (2003). Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000. New York: Verso.

Bolton, Lucy. (2014, January). Under the Skin and the Affective Alien Body. In Film-Philosophy Conference 2014: A World of Cinemas.

Noakes, Tim. (2014, Spring). Under the Skin of Scarlett Johansson. Dazed & Confused, p. pp. 118-131.

Gaming the Change: Cyborgs and Representation

At the onset of network culture, the online dream of the 1990s was a world without gender, a cyber-sidestepping of patriarchy’s reign on the body, Foucault’s biopower re-imagined through integrated circuits. Though this vision was only tangentially related to gaming, one look at the multiple controversies involved in Gamergate is enough to declare the dream of the 1990s long dead. In A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway (1991) writes, “Some differences are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of domination” (p. 161). Parsing the layers of these embedded systems is a start.

Inky

As Ian Bogost puts it,

Videogames are an expressive medium. They represent how real and imagined systems work. They invite players to interact with those systems and form judgments about them. As part of the ongoing process of understanding this medium and pushing it further as players, developers, and critics, we must strive to understand how to construct and critique the representations of our world in videogame form (p. vii).

Videogames employ what Bogost calls procedural rhetoric, “The art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures” (p. ix). Distinguishing videogames from other media, he adds, “In some sense, videogames both are and aren’t other media. They do what other media do—and some things they do not—but they do them differently.”

Gaming at the EdgeIn Gaming at the Edge (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), Adrienne Shaw writes that “the discourse about representation (from industry and academic points of view) is what needs to be transformed, not just the representation of particular groups in game texts” (p. 15). Quoting Stuart Hall, Shaw sees representation of marginalized groups as a discursive device, “which represents difference as unity or identity” (p. 16). How identification in videogames differs from identification in other media an entire chapter in Shaw’s book, as is one on when and why representation matters to players. As one interviewee puts it regarding a player character, “He could be a bunny rabbit for all I care!” (the subject of Chapter 3). In addition to these many important questions and issues, she also spends a chapter investigating if anyone actually identifies with Tomb Raider‘s normative Lara Croft.

Gaming at the Edge is about out how marginalized gamers engage with game content, identify with players and characters, and see themselves within these systems. It’s about using new models where the old ones have failed.

Uncertainty in GamesWhere we need to reduce theoretical uncertainty in one aspect, Greg Costikyan argues in Uncertainty in Games (The MIT Press, 2015) that games need uncertainty to hold gamers’ interest. “In a sense,” Costikyan writes, “‘game’ is merely the term we apply to a particular kind of play: play that has gone beyong the simple, and has been complexified and refined by human culture” (p. 7).

Though there’s nothing in here about representation as discussed above, Costikyan’s book is not entirely apolitical because it is written for procedural rhetors (game designers). This fun, little book is a guide to using uncertainty to engage players. It’s a smart, serious look at current game design.

“Some things have gotten better,” Shaw writes in her conclusion to Gaming at the Edge, “but others will not get better unless researchers, activists, and designers change the way they think about why and how representation matters” (pp. 201-202). In order to revive the cyborg dream, we need not just to represent more marginalized groups but also to reexamine the details of our default settings, to interrogate the systems themselves. Haraway (1991) ends her Cyborg Manifesto, writing, “It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” (p. 181).

References:

Bogost, Ian. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Costikyan, Greg. (2015). Uncertainty in Games. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Haraway, Donna J. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Shaw, Adrienne. (2015). Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Scanning the Skies for Daylight Deities

Belief in aliens is often used as a trope on television and movies to signify instability or insanity. The hundreds of accounts available consist largely of unverifiable evidence and arguments that are shaky at best. Many of the reporters of alien phenomena seek to find them. Their seeking is “wishful thinking” in the words of Carl Jung (1964, p. 69). Yet, in his one book on the subject, Jung (1978) admits that “a purely psychological explanation is illusory, for a large number of observations point to natural phenomenon, or even a physical one” (p. 132). “Something is seen, but we don’t know what,” he adds (p. 136). The witnesses fall into a few distinct categories: those prone to fantasy and self-delusion (of course), those who are awake and outdoors at odd hours (security staff and police officers), and those attuned to the skies (pilots and air traffic controllers). My dad is one of the latter:

Me: How long have you been working in air traffic?

Dad: 43 years total.

Me: Have you ever seen a UFO?

Dad: Not that I can document, but I’ve seen a couple of things I had no other explanation for other than maybe a reflection of light.

I want to believe.

The best way to prepare for the future is to keep an eye on the sky. That’s where everything else is not. Meanwhile, information pours invisibly across its friendly expanse, and it is up to us to absorb as much of it as our systems can tolerate. — Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets

The descriptions in the many reports I’ve read seem either embellished or evasive, imbued with insistence depending on how much the witness wants to believe. There’s just no way to tell if anyone has actually seen anything. The very designation “unidentified flying object” is so ambiguous as to be nearly useless. The Condon Report (1969), the culmination of all of the Air Force’s investigations into so-called sightings (e.g., Project Sign, Project Grudge, Project Blue Book, etc.), defines a UFO as follows:

An unidentified flying object is here defined as the stimulus for a report made by one or more individuals of something seen in the sky (or an object thought to be capable of flight but seen when landed on earth) which the observer could not identify as having ordinary natural origin, and which seemed to him [sic] sufficiently puzzling that he [sic] undertook to make a report of it… (p. 9).

In filing the report, one is saying that the sighting was “sufficiently puzzling” enough to file the report. It’s not so much defining what a UFO is as it’s defining what filing the report means. The Air Force either took the reports seriously enough or just received so many of them that they had to make them the subject of several official projects. Ex-Project Blue Book member Fritz Werner (not his real name) said in an interview that Blue Book existed because the Air Force “was getting too much publicity and there were too many people, other than official people seeing things and reporting them” (quoted in Randle, 1995, p. 58).

Heaven's GateSome such reporters, as in the case of cults like Heaven’s Gate, build religions around their search for truth. Balch and Taylor’s germinal 1976 Psychology Today article “Salvation in a UFO” describes Heaven’s Gate members as “metaphysical seekers”: “Before joining [Heaven’s Gate], members of the UFO cult had organized their lives around the quest for truth. Most defined themselves as spiritual seekers” (p. 60).

In Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (NYU Press, 2014), Benjamin E. Zeller concurs. In and out of other such groups before settling with Heaven’s Gate, the founders and members could all be described as seekers. Zeller’s study of his subject is through religious scholarship. Contra the media’s reports of Heaven’s Gate’s mass suicides in March of 1997, Zeller writes, “Heaven’s Gate emerged out of two theological worlds: Evangelical Christianity and the New Age movement, particularly the element of the New Age movement concerned with alien visitation and extraterrestrial contact. The movement’s leaders and members certainly drew from a broad array of influences, including secular ufology, science fiction, and conspiracy theories, in addition to their religious influences. Yet ultimately the group’s theology was a Christian one, as read through a New Age interpretive lens” (p. 65). The New Age aspect included the belief that in synchronized suicide, they were to board a UFO following the Hail-Bopp comet to salvation.

Where Jung saw the UFO phenomenon as seekers longing for a more complete life, Michael Heim (1998) sees it as “technology sickness” (p. 182). Heim (1993) posited Alternate World Syndrome (AWS): The switching between virtual and real worlds highlights the merging of technology with the human species, an extremely alien feeling we have yet to assimilate. It’s the ontological jet lag that comes from visiting or envisioning another, alien world. Heim (1998) writes, “The fascination and pain of the UFO phenomenon shows us only the first glimpse of our ultimate merger with technology” (p. 197).

The Secret Space AgeFrom merging with technology to escaping the end of the world, The Secret Space Age (Adventures Unlimited Press, 2014) tells the story of a parallel space program bent on abandoning Earth before the Apocalypse. The book follows the controversy behind Alternative Three (1977), a film that supposedly shows the development of alternative settlements on the Moon and Mars. Written with the language and excitement of a senior thesis, The Secret Space Age is a fun romp through conspiracy theories of all kinds. It’s less about aliens coming here and more about our leaving. As Michael Heim (1998) puts it, “What a thrill to feel the tug of war on the thin thread of shared belief!” (p. 174). A tug of war indeed: Out for some person-on-the-street verisimilitude on the reported sightings at O’Hare International in 2007, WGN Reporter Juan Carlos landed a minute and a half with this seeker of truth:

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References:

Balch, Robert W. & Taylor, David. (1976). Salvation in a UFO. Psychology Today, 10(5), 58-60.

Heim, Michael. (1993). The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heim, Michael. (1998). Virtual Realism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jung, Carl G. (1964). Man and His Symbols. New York: Bantam.

Jung, Carl G. (1978). Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mooney, Ted. (1981). Easy Travel to Other Planets. New York: Ballantine Books, p. 74.

Philips, Olav. (2015). The Secret Space Age. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press.

Randle, Kevin D. (1995). A History of UFO Crashes. New York: Avon Books.

Zeller, Benjamin E. (2014). Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion. New York: NYU Press.

On the Grid: Nice New Notebooks

If there’s anything I’ve learned definitively about the creative process, it’s that you can’t skimp on tools. Computers, software, and tablets are great and useful for many tasks, but notebooks are the tools I can’t work without. To that end, Princeton Architectural Press puts out Grids & Guides (2015), lovely sets of notebook paper with lines of all kinds.

Grids pads

There’s also the super-good Grids & Guides hardback notebook. Subtitled “A Notebook for Visual Thinkers,” this one has the periodic table of the elements, the planets, the human skeletal system, basic geometry, screw types and sizes, wood joints, alternative alphabets, and 144 blank pages of lines and patterns, some of which I’d never seen before. It’s the coolest thing bound since O’Reilly’s Maker’s Notebook. See below.

Grids & Guides

The Solar System

Grids paper.

Grids.

These lovely Grids & Guides are available from Princeton Architectural Press. Get on the grid!

Kim Gordon: Femme Fearless

When I started discovering music on my own, Sonic Youth was already a band with records out. In that sense, I don’t know a world without them. I once wrote that they weren’t a band, that they were an institution. One could say the same about Kim Gordon. Her presence in the band and her relationship with Thurston Moore showed us what was possible—and not only that it was possible but that it was also sustainable. Writer Elissa Schappell said that they’d shown an entire generation how to grow up. And then it ended.

Kim Gordon in controversial t-shirt (according to MTV).

Gordon’s is such a singular story, and her memoir, Girl in a Band (Dey St., 2015), tells it in perfectly placed prose. From art to music and back again, she’s been at the center of so much important work. It feels so good to see her emerge as a force of her own through the book. Her sociologist dad coined the vocabulary for the high-school social groups that we still use: geeks, freaks, preps, jocks, and other members of the Breakfast Club. Her mom contributed her sense of fashion: a love of thrifting and mixing styles into something unique. Her brother’s shadow unfortunately loomed over much of her early years, and until reading this, I didn’t even know she had a brother.

Girl in a BandLong-time friends with such creative souls as Dan Graham, Cindy Sherman, Kurt Cobain, Tamra Davis, Chloë Sevigny, Spike Jonze, Kathleen Hanna, Gerhard Richter, William Burroughs, Danny Elfman (whom she dated in high school), and many others, Gordon came into her own as an artist when it meant the most. At five years old she knew art would be the center of her life. “Nothing else mattered,” she writes: “Sometimes I think we know on some level the person we’re going to be in our life, that if we pay attention, we can piece out that information” (p. 67). As a dear old friend once said of our own high-school years, “Who knew we were already who we were going to be?”

When Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, Dave Grohl asked Joan Jett, Annie Clark, Lorde, and Kim Gordon to sing renditions of Nirvana’s songs. Seeing Joan Jett sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Pat Smear (whose first band‘s only record she’d produced in 1979), Krist Novoselic, and Grohl is its own kind of amazing, but Kim Gordon’s unhinged version of “Aneurism” is the absolute shit. She writes of the performance,

I sang ‘Aneurism,’ with its chorus, ‘Beat me out of me‘, bringing in all my own rage and hurt from the last few years—a four-minute-long explosion of grief, where I could finally let myself feel the furious sadness of Kurt’s death and everything else surrounding it (p. 272).

kSUncPXtE9k

I saw her walking up the sidewalk on California Avenue in Chicago last summer. We made eye contact, and her expression seemed to say, “Please, don’t recognize me.” I just smiled and nodded, and she did the same. The following passage from the book reminds me of that day:

One day I caught a glimpse of Warhol himself crossing West Broadway—the blond-white wig matching the white of his face, the black-framed glasses. It amazed me how in New York celebrities felt free to roam around the city with no one ever hassling them, in contrast to L.A., where famous people hid out in hidden gated hilltop communities. New York felt so much more real (p. 91).

Kim Gordon has helped define the art of her time, but she hasn’t been limited by it. Her art, performance, and writing all feel completely fearless. After reading this book, I can’t help but think that her story is just getting started.