Polyaesthetics, Proprioception and Inception

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.


  1. You make a compelling case for the contrast between the filmic treatment of mind/dream of the Matrix and that of Inception. In fact, you are suggesting a nice historical development from the Freudian psychology of Hitchcock to the cognitive/AI/VR of the Matrix to the proprioceptive psychology of Inception. Inception really does have a different “feel” in the way it treats the senses of the dreamers and the way, as you note, that sound and touch penetrate the levels of the dreams.

    Isn’t it interesting to reflect on this filmic reversal between Matrix and Inception? In the Matrix the scenes that supposedly take place in the false VR world were more or less shot in live action. The CG effects in the Matrix are concentrated on the scenes in the desolated “real” world that Neo enters when he leaves the Matrix. The film seeks to convince us that what appears to be real (in terms of Hollywood’s live-action film techniques) is an hallucination, and what appears hallucinatory (the product of computer graphics) is real. Inception goes the other way: the dream worlds are subject to heavy CG effects. Of course, as you point out, in Inception we never know for certain whether the supposed real world (of Hollywood live-action) isn’t going to starting folding up on us and turn out to be a dream.

    So your contrast is compelling. My only qualification would be that this proprioceptive or polyaesthetic approach to the human mind does not seem to be replacing the AI/VR notion of mind. Instead, the two notions now seem to be coexist in the plenitude of our digital culture today. The cognitivism that lies beyond the Matrix, together with the reliance on vision as the unifying sense and the fantasy of a seamless VR world — all these remain powerful cultural ideas or representational strategies. They align nicely with popular beliefs in essentialism and proceduralism. The coming of a new polyaestheticism may now provide an important cultural counterbalance.

    1. You are quite right; if the polyaesthetic considers all of these different modes of representation (and reception) then AI/VR is part of this as well. I am not sure if the paradoxes of that “remix” is a problem to our culture, or if they simply exist side by side (which I tend to think). I quoted McHale in my first posting, and I find his use of “dominant” (in turn appropriating R. Jakobson’s concepts) a useful approach. Certain approaches or ideas find themselves slightly more in vogue, popular, or seemingly central, but only at a particular moment, or in reference to a specific section of culture. Perhaps polyaestheticism is as you say “an important cultural counterbalance,” one that previously was in the background and now is coming to the fore.

      And thanks for the comment about live action/CG. I will look into this more closely.

      1. Perhaps there are at least as many levels in our culture’s media representations of mind-body as there are levels in Inception. After all, even the Freudian psychologizing of early Hollywood films is not absent from Inception: Cobb’s guilt over the death of his wife is something that continues to emerge and find representation in his dreams.

    1. Thanks for the link! I agree that Escher is part of the cinematographic palette. Perhaps Dali’s psychological states are not visible in the architecture of the film, but rather in some characters’ behavior. Except without the humor.

      1. The film has too much of Batman’s plodding style of earnestness. “Syrup drips of Dalí” is perhaps misleading in that it hints at a rather sugared, sticky and slow approach. But Dali, like Hitchcock, is much more fleet footed than that suggests, and Nolan’s film might have benefited from some of their swift strokes and sharper wits. Although, to be fair, I did laugh at the running gag of the world’s slowest falling white van…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s