Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Triumph of the Dandy

"Harking back to a time when people really believed that splendour and refinement were states of the soul, not mere acts of display" - Mick LaSalle, The Spectator

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film that presents a dandy in immaculate proportions. The cologne aficionado extraordinaire and lover of mature women Monsieur Gustave H. is played by Ralph Fiennes. Gustav H. is a study in Libertine Dandyism. Exactly how it is so I would like to explain here.

Firstly, the film The Grand Budapest Hotel is a work of fantasy and escapism, but it has two clear  underlying concepts that are steel-hard in a fluffy glove of old-world class, etiquette and delicate pastries. Firstly is the idea of tolerance. The film is laced with tension points that seem to show the cruel injustice of intolerance. Violence is never far behind when someone judges someone else as being 'wrong' in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Secondly, the film features a Europe that is imagined by people who do not live here (i.e. Americans). In the film Europe is a place where disfigured but beautiful young women make pastries by hand in ancient buildings, it is snowing all the time, fluctuating war is constant between almost indistinguishable ideologies (all based on cruelty), the aristocracy are remote, aloof and dazzling and eccentricity is widespread. Its a bit like if Baron von Münchhausen took over Disneyland during a particularly long and bitter winter in the Bavarian Alps and made it an adults only theme park. This is the cynical version of what is a charming and due to the underlying message of tolerance, brilliant film. But I am most interested in the return in these barren times of the dandy.

M. Gustav H is the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel and his word is law in the establishment. 

Concierge: 1640s, from French concierge "caretaker, doorkeeper, porter" (12c.), probably from Vulgar Latin *conservius, from Latin conservus "fellow slave," from com- "with" (see com-) + servius "slave" (see serve (v.)). 

M. Gustav H likes the ladies, old/er rich blonde ladies. Gustav H also enjoys tailored clothes, perfumes, food, drink and the society of his peers. He lives alone in modest circumstances within the hotel, eating his meals (often simple affairs of bread and soup, alone. But society is important for Gustav H. Apart from his women, workers and friends he belongs to a secret society, The Society of Crossed Keys, a network across Europe made up of the concierges of the best hotels. The members of The Society of Crossed Keys assist each other regarding their concierge work and get help regarding any difficulties they may find themselves in. Gustav H. is loyal to his values and colleagues (preserving an order of class and occupation). He twice risks his life for "my lobby boy" who is an immigrant is menaced by fascist thugs. Gustav H. also states he "goes to bed with all my friends" and is of the view that "there still are faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity." This civilization is the code of the Dandy.

A gentleman is cultured to the point of refinement, but a dandy is cultured to the point of decadence. To alleviate his boredom, he will often grow overstated, perverse, toying with vulgarity. The dandy is responsible to no one other than himself. Being consistently well-mannered is far too bourgeois for the dandy: he holds to the more aristocratic character, in that he often feels himself above such workaday concerns as manners and accountability. In order to avoid being thought banal or trite, he becomes impossible to predict: tender and kind one moment, cold and cruel the next. He has transcended any dowdy middle-class notions of what 'refinement' is. There are good reasons why the dandy was reviled: he was a self-absorbed, egotistical, useless prick. Nineteenth century books are rife with this dandy vs. gentleman distinction, even having adjoining pictures of each species for clarification. (The Dandy as Libertine)
The inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel is the work and reputation of Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist, letter writer, biographer, socialite, commentator and essayist. George Prochnik, the author of the forthcoming book, “The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World” reports that early on, when the writer resided in his first bachelor-pad in Vienna, he enjoyed entertaining guests. Zweig served them “liquors sprinkled with gold leaf in rooms that were buried in books and painted a deep red that one friend described as the color of the blood of 4,000 beheaded Saxons. Rich, handsome, a dreamy sensualist who chain-smoked Virginia cigars and once had an essay he penned about Handel printed entirely on silk, Stefan Zweig was the quintessential dandy cosmopolite.” (From Greg Archer)

The Grand Budapest Hotel’s production notes contain an essay, entitled “The Cosmopolitan Apocalypse of Stefan Zweig,” by George Prochnik, which may help explain—more than the film itself—why Anderson is attracted to Zweig. It argues: “Today, when governmental surveillance and the official documentation of every aspect of existence are once again multiplying so aggressively that many people feel their core individuality to be threatened, Stefan Zweig’s impassioned pursuit of personal freedom seems more relevant than ever. His anguished existence of exile has lessons for us all about the values of civilization that we should be fighting to save in our own time” (From Joanne Laurier).

These values are emphasized and exemplified in the dandy. The dandy personified in contemporary times is Sebastian Horsley, recently deceased. Ladies and gentleman, I give you Horsley;

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Close Reading Space in Interactive Digital Literature (Thesis Extract Chapter One - Methods and Background)

Close reading  cannot be applied equally to all media as a single method of analysis. For example, the difference between close reading a novel and a digital work can be grounded in the roles of space and interaction and how both contribute to narrative. David Ciccoricco examines this compatibility between close reading and the interactive potentials of digital literature, concluding “we are left with an inherent contradiction for close reading digital literature: one simply cannot close read digital text in the New Critical sense, for reading a text as a text does not work when you can no longer take the "text" to be an idealized abstract site of formal interplay” (Ciccoricco 2012 np). However, Ciccoricco does go on to answer this challenge by referencing I. A. Richards’ famous statement, “a book is a machine to think with” (Richards 1). By developing a close reading that includes the material Ciccoricco proposes a re-evaluation of it as a method of analysis that is related to the re-creation that takes place in all reading. This close reading of digital literature includes a focus on the meaning-making machine that is the material work. It is the contention of the following study that the material specifics of the digital work as a text are dominated by the spatial in a system that is both interpreted and interacted with, for the purposes of narrative formulation.

Close reading can explain the interpretive possibilities as well as the changes brought about by reader interaction with  the spatial and multimodal dimensions of digital works of literature. In order to analyze such interaction and interpretation, my close reading follows Jan Van Looy and Jan Baetens’ method whereby

Reading is always an act of dismembering, or tearing open in search of hidden meanings. ‘Close’ as in ‘close reading’ has come to mean ‘in an attentive manner’, but in the expression ‘to pay close attention’, for example, we still have some nearness […] when it comes to close reading the text is never trusted at face value, but it is torn to pieces and reconstituted by a reader who is always at the same time a demolisher and a constructor (9-10).

Van Looy and Baetens’ material metaphor of dismemberment combines design and address in the creation of narrative. “The text is never trusted at face value” and reading follows a process of interpretive interaction (“pay close attention”) and physical process (“torn to pieces”). Opening the digital text and its interpretation include a presence for the reader within its spatial structures, searching for an epiphany in its “hidden meanings”. In opening up these works as spaces, and studying closely how they can be navigated and re-arranged, it is the material components that guide interpretation. The material elements combine in the design of space in perspective and the emphases of the monumental. This process is a combination of “a pre-digital historical conception of close reading and the sort of materially-conscious hermeneutics that digital textuality requires” (Ciccoricco 2012 np). I demonstrate the combination of traditional close reading with an interpretive awareness of the material in my attention to the spatial possibilities of the digital works.

My close reading combines the material components of the digital texts in its focus on the spatial. David Ciccoricco describes such a reading as the “close analysis of the individual components that comprise its topology” (Ciccoricco 2012 np). Ciccoricco argues “scholars of digital textuality are determined to move away from the dominant paradigm of a textual topography, and instead speak more accurately of textual topology” (2012 np).  This contrast between topography and topology is important for understanding how I apply close reading to the spatial dimensions of the digital works. Topography "originally meant the creation of a metaphorical equivalent in words of a landscape. Then, by another transfer, it came to mean representation of a landscape according to the conventional signs of some system of mapping. Finally, by a third transfer, the names of the map were carried over to name what is mapped" (Hillis Miller 3-4). Thus topography represents space, but is not spatial of itself, with the three examples cited by Hillis Miller (i.e. metaphorical equivalent, representation and the name of what is mapped) being instances of  symbols standing-in for a physical entity. Thus topography is not interactive in the sense space is in the digital works, where the search for Van Looy and Baeten's "hidden meanings" demands a level of interaction that does not operate just on the level of the symbolic. Rather, it is necessary to combine interaction and interpretation in a close reading of the digital texts on the level of topology.

The linearity of topography can be contrasted with textual topology, or  “the material form of network narrative” (Ciccoricco 2007 57), as my focus of close reading the digital interactive works. Hanjo Bresseme qualifies this network as how “structure, texts, images and sounds can be mapped onto and inserted into each other […]. The various media are no longer framed in and thus framed off from each other”  (34). The interdependent framing results in an interactive space

The hypermedia topology is characterized by a conflation of and oscillation between surface and depth, because although the textual traces always appear superficially on the user’s screen […], hypermedial space consists of a multiplicity of levels and layers that are successively folded onto this surface that is, furthermore, used for both reading and writing purposes that thus conflates not only the surface and depths but also the active and the passive onto one spatial plane (Bresseme 34-35).

It is precisely the movement between surface and depth that is realized in reading perspective, focus and the monumental in the digital works of my study. I contend that like all forms of space, the hypermedial is profoundly material in its “multiplicity of levels and layers that are successively folded” (35).[1] I combine the interpretive materiality of surface and depth, levels and layers with the dismemberment of Van Looy and Baetens to create an interactive form of close reading that interprets spatial dynamics in design and address.

By combining topology with the dismembering of the text I devise a close reading that includes the written word and image as well as the spatial dynamics of the navigable, interactive and ergodic in the digital texts. In this way my close reading follows the idea that any analysis of interactive narrative works “must consider the formal, material, and discursive elements of each work as at once distinct and inseparable, each integrated toward the production of meaning” (Ciccoricco 2012 np). The formal is present in the prefaces to the digital texts as prescriptive guides and authorial instructions for reading. The material is made a part of the interpretation of the text in its design. The discursive operates in addressivity and indicates the limited range of responses that can be made to them by the reader. The spatial provides a frame for the integration of these “formal, material, and discursive elements of each work”, and this is what my close reading takes up. I argue throughout my study that the spatial represents a juncture between the materiality and the interpretive possibilities of the digital works. The point of Ciccoricco’s argument, that "digital media do not dispossess us of an interpretive reading practice" (np), strengthens my approach that finds the spatial as interactive and dominant in the formation of narrative. 

In my close reading of the digital works I analyze formal, material and selected discursive elements according to how they are produced by the spatial. Both material and addressive criteria are parts of close reading in the “consideration of the formal, material, and discursive elements of each work as at once distinct and inseparable, each integrated toward the production of meaning” (Ciccoricco 2012 np). The monumental, place, addressivity and perspective are ‘the individual components that comprise its topology’ in my close reading of the spatial. My focus on these elements aligns with Ciccoricco argument that, “it is also necessary to extend discourse of 'spatiality' as it pertains to reading and rereading. It is necessary, that is, to move over and away from the ‘Line’ and into the space of the network ” (Ciccoricco 2007 44). It is precisely this movement from the line of conventional narrative discourse, into the governance by the spatial of interaction with the digital works that is the subject of the following close readings. The shift in analysis from “the ‘Line’” to networked and interactive elements is accomplished through my adaption of the spatial theories of Henri Lefebvre. Space in the digital works is coded according to Lefebvre's concepts of representation of space and representational space.

[1] Bresseme references the “immateriality of the texts” (35), but this seems to contradict the concept of hypermedial space characterized by surface, depth, levels and layers.

Works Cited

Bresseme, Hanjo. 'One Surface Fits All: Texts, Images and the Topology of Hypermedia”. Text and Visuality: Word & Image Interactions 3. Martin Heusser, Martin Heusser, Michèle Hannoosh, Leo Hoek, Charlotte Schoell-Glass & David Scott (Eds.). Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 1999. 33-43. Print.

Ciccoricco, David. “The Materialities of Close Reading: 1942, 1956, 2009”. Digital   Humanities Quarterly, 2012 Volume 6 Number 1. 16 August 2012. Web. 25 August 2012

Ciccoricco, David.  Reading Network Fiction. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007. Print.

Hillis Miller, Joseph. Topographies. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1995. Print.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford: Basil-Blackwell, 2007. Print.

Richards, I.A. The Principles of Literary Criticism. London: Trubner, 1926. Print. 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

History on Digital: Simulation and Distributed over the Internet

An assertion is made, "All war is a failure" and the 61 countries that were involved in World War One (1914-1918) is reduced to just 4 states and one empire. A series of tweets follows that could not be called a discussion, with a re-tweet and a counter assertion running parallel to each other. Is this public history (i.e. the creation of knowledge from and for historical paradigms in the public sphere)?

I follow history online. From the twitter account Real Time WWII to the spatial experience of Rome Reborn. Between these two examples are the millions of documentaries on YouTube (I can recommend All History Buff). I also use social media to teach cultural studies from a historical perspective. My area of research expertise is narrative studies related to technology and spatial representations. In this post I want to discuss an aspect of public history online that occupies a lot of my thought. I propose that the 'real time' of mediating history with digital media poses potential problems for critical method as we understand it today. This problem emerges from a long tradition of reading as arguably the dominant form of media consumption in relation to history.

The mediation of culture is widespread today (8-9 Kaun and Fast 2014). Part of that mediation is the presentation of history, often in 'live' 'real-time' or participatory modes using digital media. Digital media offer offers specific temporal and spatial perspectives on the presentation of history that result in immersive experiences and a strong sense of identification with the subjects of mediation. It is in this way, of activating space and time in narrative that Social Networking Sites (SNS) "should not only be considered as infrastructures that allow for social interaction, but as emerging actors in their own right" (Kaun and Fast 51).  

Examples of history in 'real time' via digital media such as Real Time WWII, the Virtual Harlem Project and the London Museum's Street Museum app are examples of mediation of history using digital tools that place people in the visual and temporal field of their subjects.

Many times I have opened Twitter and read @RealTimeWWII with the feeling I am reading newspaper headlines for the day.

Another example of this 'live' feel to history is @kokoda1942LIVE, a Twitter account of the New Guinea campaign by the Australian army against the Japanese in World War II. As well I have roamed the streets of Harlem in the 1920s and visited an empty Cotton Club, with jazz playing.

The question I ask is did I learn anything from being in a space that simulates the events or time that is the subject of the history? My answer is, I do not believe that simulation alone is enough for the advancement of historical scholarship. The positioning of a viewer within the representation does not mean there is knowledge produced.I contrast the above image from Virtual Harlem with one taken from Harlem in 1920s.

Virtual Harlem, Street Museum, @Kokoda1942Live and @RealTimeWWII are examples of digital media in the service of history with a strong element of simulation added. The three examples provide a suggestion of sharing something of the time and space depicted. They do not necessarily stimulate questions, provide multiple points of interpretation or the polyphony that is so often found in well researched history, anymore than a photograph or a sonnet does.

There are however, examples where I do believe digital media can be used for effective historical scholarship. Examples include Dr. Heather Richards-Rissetto’s work in Copan in Honduras with gesture-based 3D GIS system to engage the public in cultural heritage (Richards-Rissetto 2012 2013). Another example is Dr Cecilia Lindhé working in Sweden on ‘Rethinking medieval spaces in digital environments’ (Lindhé 2013).

Cecilia Lindhe's keynote paper - Digital Scholarship ‘day of ideas’ - Thursday 2 May 2013 from HSS Webteam on Vimeo.

The Rome Reborn Project is further example that builds models using digital media that are then tested against evidence:

"Rome Reborn is an international initiative whose goal is the creation of 3D digital models illustrating the urban development of ancient Rome from the first settlement in the late Bronze Age (ca. 1000 B.C.) to the depopulation of the city in the early Middle Ages (ca. A.D. 550). With the advice of an international Scientific Advisory Committee, the leaders of the project decided that A.D. 320 was the best moment in time to begin the work of modeling. At that time, Rome had reached the peak of its population, and major Christian churches were just beginning to be built. After this date, few new civic buildings were built. Much of what survives of the ancient city dates to this period, making reconstruction less speculative than it must, perforce, be for earlier phases. But having started with A.D. 320, the Rome Reborn team intends to move both backwards and forwards in time until the entire span of time foreseen by our mission has been covered."
Like the work of Dr. Heather Richards-Rissetto the Rome Reborn project attempts to triangulate known facts against a three-dimensional model and the existing theory, to come to some new conclusions about how Rome developed as an urban space.

Kinect and 3D GIS for Archaeology from Jennifer von Schwerin on Vimeo.

The glaring conclusion here is that the powerful reach and popularity of digital media should be considered according to specific needs when practicing public history online. The feedback and interactive potentials of digital media should be separated from the popularity of digital tools. Each has affordances, but they are not necessarily in the service of each other. There are enormous opportunities and great possibilities to be gained from working in history with digital tools in the public sphere. But a literacy needs to be developed along the way, as well as distinct goals and methods too.