I am thinking about the relationship of bodily engagement with digital media, going through literature on reception theories, reader-response, and, soon, phenomenology. However, for now, my ideas about proprioception, reception, and my idea of the polyaesthetic are prompted by recently watching Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The film sets up a recognizable story with some shifts and novelties, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1375666 ; http://inceptionmovie.warnerbros.com. Admittedly, the state of computer graphics and, no doubt, Nolan’s own artistry in realizing his cinematic vision, make Inception visually arresting with some beautifully achieved special effects. However, what interests me more is the way in which Nolan sets up the relationship between physical senses, including hearing, vision, and proprioception, and the levels of the dream worlds of the film.
Reviewers have noticed Nolan’s obvious indebtedness to Hitchcock, Kubrick and Inception‘s relationship to other films like The Matrix (see e.g. A.O. Scott’s review http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/07/16/movies/16inception.html?ref=movies) and Nolan himself discusses his influences: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/07/04/movies/20100704-inceptioninfluences-feature.html?ref=movies). The dreamscapes in Inception have been called “clean” and “realistic” as opposed to the more surreal dreamscapes of, say, Dali’s psychological dreamscapes in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (Dali’s visions are scary, eerie, and highly visual). Inception is also compared to The Matrix, whose main conceit seems to center around the brain-in-a-vat hypothesis. The body in The Matrix is completely under the sway of the cognitive powers in the dream/computerized world. Inception seems to belong to a different conceptual line in that it gives prominence to certain physical abilities that transcend the dreamscape’s illusions, most prominently hearing and proprioception. I find it interesting that Inception relies so much on the embodied sense of falling which would catapult the dreamer out of his dream, or that hearing a song would enter into the dream world, and thus can be used to cut through the dream illusion. How to interpret this (in the rhetoric of the film) bodily prominence over the brain’s ability to generate images? One answer is that Inception is part of another trajectory in the cultural rhetoric that allows space and importance to the knowing body, rather than emphasizing the immersion of VR or reliance on cognitive/AI theories. This axis of narrative, then, was also always invested in investigating the boundary between the physical world as we know it (or think we do) and other imagined worlds, and how we pass from one to the other (and back), but whose answers differ from what one can call, perhaps, the purely cognitive track.
Another viewpoint is to read Inception as a reaction, in part, against the earlier dominant conception of a disembodied and immaterial cyberspace (or other similarly possible worlds in films, books, and theory). Inception’s interest in proprioception, then, signals that reaction.
Could one imagine a shift, then, from earlier films such as, say, Spellbound and their investment in psychology and a Freudian understanding of our subconscious to films such as The Matrix that emphasize cognitive theory, AI, and VR? The explicitly psychological concerns of films like Vertigo, Spellbound and I’m sure a host of others, are then replaced by cognitive concerns that are based in the brain, and the physicality of the brain. The neuro-psychological becomes a new boundary of sorts (in Inception dreams are induced by the chemist’s tricks and the machinations of the architect). Still, I am not sure where to place Inception on this spectrum. It seems to be more psychological, dealing with emotions like grief, love, and cathartic moments. The affective is limited, however, to the characters in the film. The viewer is not offered a true cathartic experience. Instead we are left with the realization that we leave Cobb in a dream without knowing the boundaries (in the story) of that dream. He no longer cares whether he lives in a dream or not, but the viewer is left with the nagging question: did we see any “reality” at all? Were all the characters in whose fate we have, presumably, been somewhat invested, only projections? These questions do not signal for me ontological concerns, a hallmark of the postmodern, nor do they revert completely to an epistemological concern of what it is that we know (which Brian McHale spoke of as a dominant of the modern, Postmodernist Fiction 1987). Instead, the affective and psychological is reintroduced alongside the concerns of what world we inhabit and how we know what we know, creating an interesting blend of all of these concerns. This signals perhaps what has been termed the post-postmodern, which I will return to in a later post.
It may be that the popularity of Inception this summer is just due to its relative sophistication compared to the usual summer fare, as one Swedish reviewer suggested (http://www.dn.se/kultur-noje/filmrecensioner/inception-1.1141727), but I find Inception is interesting because, although the script apparently was 10 years in the making, many reviewers and viewers see it as signaling something new, exciting, and different from the earlier sci-fi films of a similar genre.
So, what does all of this have to do with how I understand the polyaesthetic? Well, I am thinking about how the use of senses and the physical, alongside the by now well-known cognitive conceits, in a popular film such as Inception indicates a shift in popular culture, placed somewhere between the psychological, cognitive, physical, and affective, in a mix that I think of indicative of the polyaesthetic.