Reviewed by Peter Valente
Semiotext(e) 272 pp.
I remember riding around New Jersey in my friend Tom’s small beat-up Honda with everything from the Buzzcocks to The Smiths playing on the car radio, as we talked and laughed with friends, on our way to the beach, to a live concert, or to a night club in New York. This was the summer of ’88. I was eighteen years old. I remember going to Tower records on Broadway in NYC to buy Billy Bragg’s Back to Basics or the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy. New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies was one of my favorite albums from that time and I played it constantly in my parents’ basement where the stereo was. I remember going out to The Limelight and various other clubs, dancing all night and drinking too much, and wandering the New York City streets at dawn on my way home to Jersey. I remember long hours alone, in my parents’ house, being simply bored, with nothing to do. I couldn’t sleep. So I read. I’d read for a while but then did nothing; maybe I talked on the phone a bit. But this sense of boredom, this sense of doing nothing, was not an oppressive feeling; I never felt, during this time, that I had to do something, that I had to be productive. This was before the Internet and cell phone deceived us all into thinking that every moment is precious and must be “saved”; there is now the illusion that something is always happening, that you may miss something: an email with urgent news, or some video on YouTube about the current political situation, or a friend’s “like” or comment on a Facebook post. Masha Tupitsyn, in her recent book, Picture Cycle, writes: “Simply put, Facebook isn’t significant because everyone uses it. It is significant because we are it. Perhaps like Bowie we are aliens, allowing our bodies to be invaded by the digital.”
With the Internet, human beings are materialized (and monetized) as data; the virtual is given substance, or rather, the illusion of it. In our media-saturated culture, a prime importance is given to our visual sense: the visual starts becoming primary, first in the United States, with photography; it continues and expands with film, then with TV. The digital computer is its most recent incarnation, undoubtedly the most powerful, dominating and time consuming. We did not watch films every day; we did TV; and we do now using the computer and through Facebook, etc. even more; we are bombarded with images via the Internet or on our cell phone (I haven’t owned a television for almost ten years; I didn’t switch to digital back when you were forced to do it and never had cable growing up). We think there is always something new that we must focus our attention on; we are literally bound to a screen, waiting for something to happen. Expectant. When fabricated images become so much a part of our lives, it is necessary to ask the question of whether anything is authentic anymore. Images on our phone can be manipulated, photoshopped; everybody knows that. But still we look and look and look, scrolling up and down Facebook, for example. Masha Tupitsyn suggests in such a media-saturated culture, with movies generating images for our consumption on a monumental scale, that these images have seeped into our consciousness to inform how we act and who we are; life itself is nothing now, but a proliferation of images and noise in surround sound; people are not who they once were—unique and with an inner life—but actors in the great drama of life,starring in their own movie, informed by what they have seen on the screen, fearing or relishing exposure.
The world is not the World anymore; it is simply a collection of images, data points, saved messages, selfies, on a computer screen or iPhone; the lack of duration, due to hyper-proliferation, creates the lack of substance. If video killed the radio star, then the Internet killed the video star: everyone is a star on the Internet!
The way we live now is a matter of speed and productivity; we have internalized the over-worked production scheme at the basis of capitalism and become willing subjects. The average length of a shot in a typical Hollywood action film is two seconds. We are in a rush. I’ve noticed on certain articles online there is the provision: a three-minute read. Because an article longer than that makes a demand on our time to think, and we are not willing to accept that. We are in a rush. Going where, exactly?
Digital space is immaterial and pure; time in the digital world is theoretically infinite; but there is never enough time in a twenty-four-hour day to get what you want done, done. Where has the time gone? Our sense of time and space is completely destabilized with the creation of a seamless digital world where there is no loss, no time wasted, no decay. A Facebook post will appear, and then, in a split second, another image is produced to replace it, on and on, according to an algorithm; there is almost no delay and no loss as the posts are relegated into a kind of digital oblivion. We fear losing time. Having nothing to do. Not being productive. Being good servants. Being good capitalists.
We talk of actors and actresses, comment on their lives, their performances in movies, the way they dress; we think they are just like us, at least, we act like we do; as young people we learn about love on the screen; we dream of lovers based on image we’ve seen in the movies (in the ’80s, John Hugh’s teenage romances were important to me and my friends) until we are just like them. Just like the advertisements on the Internet that give us a model of life to live up to, or at least we thought it was something possible or even desirable. Tupitsyn writes, “If acting is a condition of life, it is hard for any of us to know not only what is real and what is fake, but the relation between the two. In today’s surround-sound media culture, the real question is: where and when does acting happen? And: is it ever not happening now?”
As the World recedes, we are given in its place a seamless digital copy, a simulacrum; where Life was once discontinuous, boring, joyful, and sad, we now have the eternal hope for a kind of digital paradise, where there is no loss, where one is constantly preoccupied, obsessed, but with sense of mourning, a sense of something missing, a lack. Tupitsyn quotes Baudrillard, from The Consumer Society: “You have to try everything, for consumerist man is haunted by the fear of ‘missing’ something, some form of enjoyment or other. It is no longer desire, or even ‘taste,’ or a specific inclination that are at stake, but a generalized curiosity, driven by a vague sense of unease.” Everywhere you look there is something to occupy your time with. Look at your cell phone, at your email, go on Facebook or Twitter, post something on Instagram, check the news, etc. The hours pass and pass with no sense of duration; it’s as though no time has passed at all. But you look at the time and really five hours have passed. Where has the time gone?
Reality itself has changed into something else. The virtual has now become real. People no longer look at each other on the subway, or even in the street. And they don’t have to. New York City is no longer the “dangerous” place it used to be, where you had to look in front of you and be more aware of your surroundings. More conscious. Awake. Danger was connected to being more alive. Consciousness has altered in the digital age. We have become less aware of our surroundings, less conscious of the people we encounter. The virtual can be bullying, domineering, manipulative. The digital world ends up being an extreme version of the possibilities in the real world, particularly the ones related to power.After all, virtual love (or virtual sex) will always remain virtual unless it leaves that space (which is hard to do now) and though virtual manipulation may remain subliminal, that does not make it any less real. You’re less in control of your environment online. But you ask yourself what or who is real. Tupitsyn writes, “Now more than ever, with aesthetics, fame, technology, and identity in such radical flux, who’s really who, and what’s really what, continues to be the great mystery?”
We live in an eternal present now, with no before or after. There is no tomorrow on the computer screen. It is on all the time: sites on the web used to disappear/shut down; now, integrated, and taken over by corporate giants, they go on for much longer but at the pleasure of and under the control of those non-virtual, “real” corporate institutions. It knows us better than we know ourselves. It is us. By knowing our past better than ourselves, the other manipulates us, “satisfies us,” giving us what we wanted in the past. Unlike radio, and even Television, there is no break in the continuous rush of images:
When radio first came into the world, sound came on and off like that too. Radio did what TV did. Said goodnight. Radio had a time you couldn’t just catch any time. Couldn’t just hear again. Couldn’t repeat. The radio would turn on. You would turn off … The 70s are like vinyl. They had a texture. They sputtered. There was a silence that startled the music. The music had scratches. The circle got worn, in time. By time … You had to be careful not to wear the needle or the record out, but you don’t have to be careful anymore.
Now you could have the music on continuously: a playlist on your computer that repeats and repeats. But taking a vinyl record out of its sleeve, placing it on the turntable, and then carefully placing the needle on the groove, took time; time passed, and where there was silence there is now sound. Time was not continuous; there were gaps, and these gaps made the experience human.
Tupitsyn speaks of our present world as the “postsexual techno-world” where “desire is everywhere and nowhere at all. For everyone to see but no one to actually have. You desire precisely because you don’t have any real desire for the real world.” The discourse on love is everywhere present but nowhere seen for real. Think of the movies. Where love is almost always present in one form or another. But for Tupitsyn, as a young woman in the 80s, there were no images she could relate to:
Nora and I thought images belonged to men. We thought images were the road to adulthood, agency, and independence. We thought boys could be what they wanted to be. Images taught us—even if our parents didn’t—that men, not women, were independent. Romantic. Creative. Passionate. We didn’t see the girls we wanted to be onscreen, so we thought being some kind of boy was to be some kind of image of a man. But everything is an image now and the image is now everything. Not just part of who you are and where you came from, the image is now the thing you see, the thing you are, before you do anything. Think anything. Want anything. There is no you first, only a me that performs; that is a commodity, a notion that comes from a culture of images that are meant to act for and instead of us.
And this virtually cancels difference. Cancels the individual, what is unique in an individual, what differentiates him from the crowd. The sameness of things is a function of the digital world. There is really no depth or substance to an image on a screen’s surface; life is all about the surface of things. What is visible and what is hidden. It is also about easy access. Everything, they tell you, is on the Internet. You can find everything there. It is more satisfying than the real World. But then, what is the real World now? And who are we? Tupitsyn writes: “how can you keep your distance from something or someone if you don’t know who or what that thing is? If that thing looks like you and you look like that thing. If you can’t tell anything apart. You can’t, and since you can’t, you don’t, and when you don’t, difference and distinctions are eroded. Yuppies go below 14 Street. Sometimes a book is a cover.”
Tupitsyn’s Picture Cycle contains a number of brilliant examinations of gender in film such as her discussion of Albert Serra’s Story of My Death, a film where the aging lover, Casanova, encounters Dracula, during a journey to Transylvania. During the trip, Tupitsyn notes, Casanova asks his manservant if he “likes the ‘half-light’ that befalls them.” He answers, “Not much.” But Casanova surrenders to its melancholy: “It’s like undergarments.” Tupitsyn continues:
Romanticism, the birth of the repressed (it’s here that Freud appears, as does cinema) is the psychosexual undergarment that lies beneath the ‘civilized’ dress of rationalism. Just as Dracula lies beneath the century that is Casanova. While Casanova is familiar with a calculated narrative of the bottom—he’s tried it all—Dracula’s chaotic vision heralds something else, something total—beyond discourse and pleasure: the unconscious … Dracula’s polyamory in the face of Victorian hypocrisy is a cover for power lust. His castle of women recalls Charles Manson’s family in the 1960s LA. Serra’s somber Dracula is a beguiling, manipulative rogue who will appear throughout history again and again.
The appearance of Trump on the stage of history is an example of such a man, who has abused women, and tried to cover it up, and manipulated an entire country into believing his lies. And he has done that partly by using Twitter! Which leads to an aspect of what Tupitsyn calls the post-cinematic age, “where vulgarity, excess, and corruption move from off-screen to on-camera.” There is a new “paradigm of criminality: the exposure of (and public outcry over) crimes in place of actual justice … a terminal phase of ‘enlightened self-consciousness’ whereby all forms of power have been unmasked with no change in behavior.” This is a perfect description of the world under Trump. Here I’m also reminded of Tom Savage’s poem “Punk Capitalism”:
Everybody talks about the environment
But nobody does anything about it.
What has posterity ever done for us?
Equality was a great word, wasn’t it?
This is not a generous society, buster.
We have abandoned a zeal, our special attention.
Individualism is a pejorative in French.
What happened to our small town socialism
Used to raise barns and build schools?
Television has happened to language.
The use of adjectives for everything
Poisons the minds of small children.
Speaking of the ’80s film The Karate Kid, Tupitsyn writes:
[T]he individual male, ethnic, and working-class body itself is the Achilles heel of the larger national, masculine body, and in order to understand it, Daniel’s is deconstructed and slowly reassembled like an old car. He is a body that garners strength through the deliberate, menial, and symbolic: sanding floors, waxing cars, painting houses and fences. It learns, trains, and becomes (emotionally, not necessarily technically) “skilled” via general tasks (labor) whose spiritual significance is slowly unveiled. This, the film points out, is the one thing the rich blonde villains in the movie never had to do. For them, the body is a playground, a joyride, like every other machine they cruise around.
When reading this passage, I thought of the status of immigrants in the Trump administration; how they are demonized (thought of as rapists or criminals) just like those who are gay or lesbian or Muslim. When Trump says the only immigrants worthy to enter the United States should be “skilled” in order to contribute to the economy (physical training), he is really only thinking of himself, or those who are wealthy (also blonde racists, white workers etc.; both Daniel and his mother have darker skins, suggesting a Mediterranean, Italian origin.) like him, so they can keep the capitalist wheel turning with no benefit to the poor. When reading Tupitsyn’s brilliant interrogation of male power in Kubrick’s The Shining, I kept thinking of the MeToo movement, and especially of Trump’s attempts to cover up his sexual escapades, as well as Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct, and that of many others who you wouldn’t expect to be capable of such things, such as Charlie Rose:
While Freud notes that the neurotic is our ‘best source of knowledge,’ despite experience, most women do not ‘suffer’ from enough expectant anxiety when it comes to their fear of men. For fear of men, especially cis white ones, is treated as neurotic (invented). The wrong fear to have if you want to be/feel “right.” It is Wendy and Danny who experience fear from the threat of Jack’s neurotic violence (he can’t write, he can’t father, he can’t take care of the Overlook) turned real (he tries to kill his family because he cannot find successful substitutes). Men are the external world and the horror genre is predicated on the contract between women doubting their fears and the world doubting women.
Speaking of Albert Serra’s Birdsong, Tupitsyn writes that the movement of the film is slow and that “distance is not tracked, progress not made.” Furthermore, “the term ‘slow cinema’ here reflects more than contemplation—it suggests the time to think about what we are seeing and hearing without the rush of cuts setting the pace.” Here, the visual, in which time is slowed, becomes a gateway to the spiritual.
Masha Tupitsyn’s Picture Cycle is one of the best books on our contemporary culture; she is a brilliant film critic and one of the most important and innovative writers of our time; her examination of gender in film is one that is urgently needed; and her studies of male power are some of most powerful and important that I’ve read. In a time when LGBTQ+ people are under attack by a right wing that is absolutely out of control, her insights are truly illuminating and speak to the essential problems of our heteronormative narratives, destabilizing their allegories of male power. Her use of autobiography in her critical essays is what makes them both tender and beautiful. I didn’t get a computer until about seven years ago, and just typed most of my own work on an electric typewriter; I didn’t get a cellphone until about five years ago. Since I only recently entered the digital world, I was profoundly affected by Tupitsyn’s work. She is a light in the growing darkness, and for that I am thankful her books are in the world.
Peter Valente is a writer, translator and filmmaker. He is the author of eleven full length books, including a translation of Nanni Balestrini’s Blackout (Commune Editions, 2017), which received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. Forthcoming is a collections of essays, Essays on the Peripheries (Punctum, 2020), and his translation of Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2021). He is presently working on editing a book on Harry Smith. Twenty-four of his short films have been shown at Anthology Film Archives.