Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Monoform: An Introduction


This post is meant to serve as a companion piece to some of the ideas presented by Gene Youngblood in my previous entry on Expanded Cinema.

[Another post related to the Monoform can he found HERE.]


"I think that the historical resistance by many activists to actually challenging the mass audiovisual media is a very serious problem. My personal belief is that until this subject is pulled up level with the other subjects being protested, I genuinely do not believe that the anti-globalization protest will ever reach its true fruition. If we leave the cinema and television and the radio in the present position they're in, we will never get there."
--Peter Watkins




Above: Two excerpts I uploaded from the documentary The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins (2001) - directed by Geoff Bowie.

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Below: Excerpts from Peter Watkins' incredible essay The Media Crisis. The essay goes into much greater detail concerning the Monoform, the hegemony of the mass audiovisual media (MAVM), and why all of this is crucially important to our lives. (Watkins is also one of the world's great filmmakers. For a good introduction to his work, see Punishment Park).

* * *


"This latest information from the media on the global environmental crisis does not, however, mention another crucial question mark - one which is also related to human activity, but which is never discussed publicly: the role of the mass audiovisual media in the current state of affairs.

Society at large still refuses to acknowledge the role of form and process in the delivery and reception of the mass audiovisual (MAVM) output. By this I mean that the language forms structuring the message contained in any film or TV programme, and the entire process (hierarchical or otherwise) of delivery to the public are completely overlooked, and are certainly not debated. In turn, this lack of critical public debate means that over 95% of all MAVM messages delivered to the public are now structured by the Monoform.

- the Monoform is the one single language form now used to edit and structure cinema films, TV programmes - newsbroadcasts, detective series, soap operas, comedy and ‘reality shows’, etc. - and most documentaries, almost all of which are encoded in the standardised and rigid form which had its nascence in the Hollywood cinema. The result is a language form wherein spatial fragmentation, repetitive time rhythms, constantly moving camera, rapid staccato editing, dense bombardment of sound, and lack of silence or reflective space, play a dominant and aggressive role.

[...]

George Orwell said that if we cannot command the way we speak, we cannot command the way we think. We are now rapidly losing that capability, for we are losing the essence of the very language we use; and since language is an essential part of how we describe (and thus perceive) the world, the corruption within the MAVM is grave indeed.

[...]

At the most fundamental level, what MAVM professionals have accomplished over the past 20-30 years, is to effectively imbed into contemporary society a psychological ‘climate’ underpinning the consumer ideology. A climate wherein the subversion of language, and the relentless standardisation of how we perceive space, time, rhythm and process in human communications (both audiovisual and personal) are perceived as ‘normal’. In other words, the agenda of consumerism which saturates the MAVM’s output is reinforced at many subconscious levels by a hidden, hierarchical process - with its own subterranean social discourse which we appear unable (or unwilling) to identify or acknowledge.

This carefully inculcated climate - injected into our very psyches by the restless and fragmented language forms of the MAVM, and by the whole apparatus of the world commercial cinema - has led to seriously reduced attention spans; to a lack of tolerance for sustained process or for any form of communication that takes longer than ten seconds; to a growing loss of history (especially among young people); to an increased need for constant change. All of which has helped to shape a society visibly ever more privatised, insecure, and restless. A society where competitive thinking, egotism, personal gain, and an indifference to violence and suffering are increasingly the ‘norm’ - where genuine plurality and community interaction are vanishing into the past.

[...]

In an attempt to differentiate their work, a number of filmmakers are even elevating their own assault on the audience. A study of recent documentaries (The Corporation, Supersize Me, Michael Moore's films[1], others critical of George Bush and the Iraq War, etc.) reveals a style and pattern wherein the personality of the filmmaker is often as important as the subject of the film itself. And once again, the audience encounters a tornado of rapid editing; fragmented talking heads; twisting and cork-screwing camera work; clever digitized animation; and a theatrical in-your-face disrespect for the nearest corporate figures. All of which is heralded as cutting edge, radical and relevant - but which in fact barely masks a disingenuous and authoritarian relationship to the audience. Some of these films even claim to be critical of the media - but not only is their own language form centralised and hierarchical (a double-irony in the case of Manufacturing Consent, which features Naom Chomsky), they also never actually critique the form and process of the MAVM (including in their own films).

[1]: This reminds me: Godard famously criticized Moore for unwittingly supporting Bush through his use of form. "Moore doesn't distinguish between text and image. He doesn't know what he's doing."

Professionals within the MAVM might challenge my apparent intolerance for the Monoform, claiming that I lack an understanding of the ‘nuances’ of the role of the MAVM in our society. As I write in the book, I am perfectly aware that the MAVM has - on occasion - produced interesting and significant films using the Monoform. But the problem is not only within the structure of the Monoform itself (at least when used in moderation), since it is just one filmic language-form amongst many other possibilities; the crisis arises when this language-form is applied in a repressive, all-consuming, undebated and mandatory manner, and when we centralise the production and reception of nearly all audiovisual media around this one closed and rigid form.

[...]

In 1993, Mexican media tycoon Emilio Azcarraga Milmo, who publicly supported the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and who referred to himself as a "soldier of the president", openly stated that a television company's responsibility is to "entertain the poor and distract them from their sad reality and their difficult future." Referring with gratitude to the tranquilizing effect of Azcarraga's soap-operas, a ruling member of the PRI stated: "It's better to use tear-jerkers than tear-gas."

13 comments:

the curator said...

In addition to Michael Moore & co., this is why I dislike Adbusters and similar organizations. Although they try to provide a message consistent with human values and in opposition to plugging mindlessly along, the extent to which they are actually reinforcing the illness nearly matches the potency with which they fight it. The Monoform is so clear in their Production of Meaning DVD, part of which can be seen here: http://www.ubu.com/film/adbusters_meaning.html

I don't know to what degree this is still the case, but 6 or 7 years ago, when I was an Adbusters subscriber, the magazine had a tendency to publish completely unedited ads, usually from fashion companies etc., right alongside their content. Any good advertising agent knows that this is still publicity for the product, and would probably thank the magazine for the free adspace.

Appalled by this, I sent an e-mail to Kalle Lasn (the founder of Adbusters) about it. His (very dismissive) reply explained that the intent was to cause some kind of dissonance by the juxtaposition of the ads with the content of Adbusters. But he of all people should know that even the readers of Adbusters mostly only look at the pictures! And even if that weren't the case, the magazine would still be employing the very format it claims to be trying to undermine. This same point applies to the blackspot sneakers they sell. They claim that buying into the Adbusters logo is a protest against buying into other logos. They don't tell us to stop buying, they tell us to buy something else.

Additionally, the same point about the Monoform can be applied to garden variety environmentalism and political activism. People try to use the same channels and tools used by their enemies to usurp power over the minds of the masses, turning it into nothing more than an ordinary power struggle, which is what people expect. This could potentially result in control shifting to the side of moral righteousness, but how morally good can anything really be if it still won't let us think?

The degree of "radicalism" that people will tolerate in media has been so watered down that things like Michael Moore and Adbusters are seen as radical when they are really just different flavors of the same candy. Anything that goes beyond that, breaking the Monoform, is just nonsense. People have no patience for it because they know no way of understanding it.

Hectocotylus said...

I think I'm having such a hard time responding to this because I don't see a good answer to the problem of challenging the monoform. Even if a unique work was widely distributed, would it matter? As you rightly said: "Anything that goes beyond that, breaking the Monoform, is just nonsense. People have no patience for it because they know no way of understanding it." The MAVM cultivates a taste that causes people to dislike and disregard everything outside of it.

I started a response that was partially a defense of Adbusters but half of me disagrees with it. Here is some of it:

Yes, and the fact that Adbusters thinks they need to spell out this juxtaposition so blatantly to their readers is as appalling as creating free ad-space for the companies they're satirizing. But I think we have to be careful here. I watched the video you linked to, and while I did find it 90% worthless, I can see how there might be some value in it. If I think back on how I arrived at where I am now in terms of understanding how the dominant culture shuts out opposing beliefs and prevents people from thinking, I can only assume that part of this is due to my being exposed to things very similar to Adbusters in the past. Even in light of your spot on criticism (the shoes especially) I think it's wrong if you're suggesting that Adbusters is totally worthless. The potential exists for it to build a bridge to new ways of thinking about things, and I also think it could be argued that Adbusters is capable of making people aware of the monoform by perverting it to such an absurd degree. (Or, if not perverting it, making the perversion of the monoform itself evident.)

* * *

I have too much to say about this topic; most of what I typed out is a long mess that makes no sense at all. I can't think of a good place to begin the discussion, so I'll start by asking a question.

"People try to use the same channels and tools used by their enemies to usurp power over the minds of the masses, turning it into nothing more than an ordinary power struggle, which is what people expect."

It's a precarious situation because the dominant (capitalist) way of life has assimilated nearly every possible alternative. How then can it be anything more than an ordinary power struggle? What should be done?

Also, two quotes I found that relate to this post (the first, ironically, was on Adbusters website):

“I suspect that many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic.” --J. G. Ballard

“World War Three will be a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.” --Marshall McLuhan

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Hectocotylus said...

Thanks for the comment.

I'll give your blog a try. My friends will be indebted to you if it makes me friendly.

the curator said...

Since systems like the monoform that make up the status quo are dominant largely because they are adept at assimilating alternatives, challenging them in a meaningful and lasting way, is, I agree, very difficult.

But I think an important part of the challenge is empowering people (rather than usurping control of them, thereby creating a power struggle) with the vocabulary and concepts they need in order to recognize the existence of the MAVM, recognize that there are alternatives, and appreciate those alternatives. This is part of what Watkins is doing, and what you are doing by making this post. I suppose it's easy to think it doesn't matter or is hopeless from a day to day perspective because changes happen too slowly for most of us.

----

With regard to Adbusters, I have often thought about the argument you present, but I am wary of any argument that, to me, sounds like a version of "That painting is excellent, for a monkey." In other words, I think we should stubbornly hold ourselves to the highest standards we know, even if it means Adbusters, with its one or two merits, has to go. But, yes, on the list of things to be eradicated in this world, Adbusters is very low priority.

Hectocotylus said...

Peter Watkins agrees. He urges communities to band together, educate one another, create alternatives, etc. But I'm not so sure this will work. The majority of people want comfort most of all, and in pursuit of this they conform to whatever system or morality is dominant. If I have to beg my own mother to read an email of substance I send to her, I don't see many people joining groups and collectives that will undoubtedly make their lives more difficult and challenging. What am I missing?

On an even more basic level - and using films as the example - people will say: "But I like Hollywood movies!" They don't want alternatives because they're quite happy with what they have. If you try to talk about the Monoform, or even ask them to read something, most people tend to get annoyed with you rather quickly. So how do you educate people into wanting to be educated? And isn't this still a power struggle in a sense? It's the struggle to get people to see by helping them think for themselves, yes, but it's a power struggle from their point of view because the assumption is that you know something they don't, and you are trying to make them receptive to it.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that Huxley was right about the future and Orwell was wrong. No Big Brother is needed for oppression because "people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one."

the curator said...

Forgive me for the delay in replying. You raise some excellent points, and while I stand by my original position, it's difficult to come up with an answer for you that elevates itself above scattered individual comments lacking cohesion. (So that's what you're getting.)

You are right that many, even most, people simply don't want to know better. You are also right in your implication that if people aren't receptive to the alternatives, there is little hope of converting them peaceably. Nevertheless, I think it's crucial to maintain a strength of principle that refuses to fight fire with fire.

Perhaps one way of doing this is to focus on those who do want to know better, or those for whom it isn't too late. In societies that we Americans generally consider to be more cultured/advanced, a receptivity for culture is taught to children at a very young age, sometimes to the point of being required. In the United States, children rarely make it past the age of 10 before they are are sucked into the MAVM, and if they haven't seen beyond the veil by 18 there is a small likelihood that they ever will. So, rather than trying to convince people not to love their oppression (although it would be nice if we could), it's perhaps more useful to work on getting rid of the processes by which people come to love their oppression in the first place.

Another point I'd like to make is that there's a difference between utilizing "for good" the same media/technologies utilized by the MAVM, on the one hand, and merely shifting the content of the monoform, on the other. The French/German television channel Arte is a good example of how to use media for good. Nothing I've ever seen on that channel uses any of the techniques of mind-numbing brutalization that other TV channels (yes, even in Europe) thrive on.

And there are, of course, people above age 18 who are still receptive to new things. Although it may be extremely difficult for them to abandon Hollywood altogether, they can be made to appreciate other things if they are allowed to take it slowly. Admittedly, I can't see any other way to handle this than on an individual level. Recommend to people films that are perhaps only slightly better than what they are used to, that challenge them but don't leave them in the dust. Watch interesting films while other people are around, letting them attain background exposure to what is possible without being under pressure to like or understand it. That sort of thing.

I'm afraid this sort of gradual improvement is all I can really offer you in support of the other way. I'd be interested to hear how you justify what seems to me to be an obviously flawed--even wrong--process of re-brainwashing the brainwashed!

Hectocotylus said...

I'm not advocating that, I'm advocating any and all means necessary. Justifying this is very simple: there isn't enough time left to make every single one of our decisions the most ideal. (For more on this, see Derrick Jensen's ENDGAME.)

Calling it brainwashing is too simplistic. Michael Moore is a household name. He uses the Monoform. Frederick Wiseman -- one of the greatest, if not the greatest, documentary filmmaker -- is unknown to most people. Why? He doesn't use the Monoform.

One can use the Monoform without brainwashing people (e.g., Punishment Park), and it should be used in many cases because it gives your film the chance to be seen and understood by many. You simply cannot combat the juggernaut that is the MAVM with only your well aimed slingshot.

Would you argue against using guns to fight an oppressive government because the government uses soldiers and guns for their oppression?

Sartre's slogan is true: "I was not the one to invent lies: they were created in a society divided by class and each of us inherited lies when we were born. It is not by refusing to lie that we will abolish lies: it is by eradicating class by any means necessary."

Hectocotylus said...

PS: As I was falling asleep I realized the flaw in the guns analogy, so for the time being think of it more as a general question.

Hectocotylus said...

Not that anyone cares at this point: I just read over this conversation again and would like to add that I don't mean to suggest that Wiseman's films are largely unknown to the public solely because he doesn't employ the monoform, but it's certainly a very large hindrance. Likewise, there are also other reasons why Moore is a household name; the monoform is just a single (and crucial) contributor to his popularity/fame.

Hectocotylus said...

I just read over this once more and I'm not sure that I agree with myself completely. It's a very complex issue, of course.

Wiseman is the world's greatest documentary filmmaker largely due to the fact that he does not employ the monoform. In light of this, it seems strange for me to argue for its occasional use. (Though it is possible, I think, to make masterpieces which utilize the monoform.)

Is the monoform needed to ensure that certain kinds of important and/or "stepping stone" films reach a mass audience, or is it always harmful? Does the harm outweigh the good? Do important films (or works of art) ever directly reach a mass audience? Still thinking...

Tyler said...

"And there are, of course, people above age 18 who are still receptive to new things. Although it may be extremely difficult for them to abandon Hollywood altogether, they can be made to appreciate other things if they are allowed to take it slowly. Admittedly, I can't see any other way to handle this than on an individual level. Recommend to people films that are perhaps only slightly better than what they are used to, that challenge them but don't leave them in the dust."

Here you are making the same pro-Adbusters argument I made earlier. ("If I think back on how I arrived at where I am now in terms of understanding how the dominant culture shuts out opposing beliefs and prevents people from thinking, I can only assume that part of this is due to my being exposed to things very similar to Adbusters in the past. Even in light of your spot on criticism (the shoes especially) I think it's wrong if you're suggesting that Adbusters is totally worthless. The potential exists for it to build a bridge to new ways of thinking about things, and I also think it could be argued that Adbusters is capable of making people aware of the monoform by perverting it to such an absurd degree. (Or, if not perverting it, making the perversion of the monoform itself evident.)"

the curator said...

It's not remotely the same argument. What I take issue with in Adbusters is its hypocrisy and self-contradiction, which it justifies by pretending that it's only doing it to bring people to the light. I don't think this level of hypocrisy is present in the type of middle-of-the-road film I was talking about. But just for the record, I agree with your old comment that it's perfectly possible to dress great things in uniforms (or monoforms, as the case may be).

At some point over the past two years, though, I came to the conclusion that there's no such thing as a mainstream masterpiece. Part of what makes great art great is that it is challenging. Part of what makes the mainstream popular is the fact that it is not challenging, it meets expectations, it caters to the maximum possible audience, it is milktoast. This is built into the structure of culture, and I don't think it's ever been any other way. Even if every 13 year old begged their parents to go see the new Kiarostami instead of the new [? I don't even know what 13 year olds go to see these days. Bieber 3D?] (which would be amazing and great) there would be something else more challenging and held to be of higher value by those of us who are gluttons for cultural pain, and that something else would be underground, underappreciated, unknown.

(I realize that this could be misconstrued as having some pretty alarming political implications, so I would like to make it clear that I care very deeply about the pulsating throng of humanity and I absolutely don't advocate any kind of Platonic oligarchy! So there!)