The database and the essay understanding composition as articulation

Video and television tend to bring sound into greater prominence. In these electronic media, the soundtrack takes the initiative, and establishes meaning and continuity. Images now provide an uncanny surplus, subliminally guiding the ways that we interpret a foregrounded soundtrack. In the passage from cinema to television and video, therefore, audiovisual relations are completely inverted. Chion also argues that electronic scanning, the technological basis of television and video, changes the nature of visual images themselves. All this leads to yet more paradoxical inversions.

In other words, where classical cinema subordinated sound to image, and modernist cinema made sound into a new sort of image, in television and video visual images tend rather to approach the condition of sound. The ratio of the senses—the balance between eye and ear, or between images and sounds—has also been altered by the massive shift, over the course of the last two decades, from analog to digital media. Digitization undermines the traditional hierarchy of the senses, in which sight is ranked above hearing. On a basic ontological level, digital video consists in multiple inputs, all of which, regardless of source, are translated into, and stored in the form of, the same binary code.

This means that there is no fundamental difference, on the level of raw data, between transcoded visual images and transcoded sounds. Digital processing treats them both in the same way. Digitized sound sources and digitized image sources now constitute a plurality without intrinsic hierarchy.

They can be altered, articulated, and combined in numerous ways. The mixing or compositing of multiple images and sounds allows for new kinds of juxtaposition and rhythmic organization: effects that were impossible in pre-digital film and television. These combinations may even work on the human sensorium in novel ways, arousing synesthetic and intermodal sensory experiences. Digital technologies thus appeal to—and also arouse, manipulate, and exploit—the fundamental plasticity of our brains Malabou.

Digitization reduces sounds and images alike to the status of data or information. Images and sounds are captured and sampled, torn out of their original contexts, and rendered in the form of discrete, atomistic components.

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Additional components, with no analog sources at all, may also be synthesized at will. All these components, encoded as bits of information, can then be processed and recombined in new and unexpected ways, and then re-presented to our senses. In their digital form, no source or component can be privileged over any other. All the elements deployed in the course of a narrative must first be present simultaneously in the database.

The database therefore pre-defines a field of possibilities within which all conceivable narrative elements are already contained. The temporal unfolding of narrative is subordinated to the permutation and recombination of elements in a synchronic structure. This structural logic of the database has several crucial consequences. For one thing, digital sampling and coding takes precedence over sensuous presence. Not only do all sounds and images have equal status; they are also all subordinated to the informational structure in which they are stored.

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Images and sounds are stripped of their sensuous particularity, and abstracted into a list of quantitative parameters for each pixel or slice of sound. As a result, sounds and images are not fixed once and for all, but can be made subject to an indefinite process of tweaking and modulation.

In addition, sounds and images can be retrieved at will, in any order or combination. Even in the case of older media forms like classic films, digital technologies allow us to speed them up or slow them down, to jump discontinuously from one point in their temporal flow to another, or even—as Laura Mulvey has recently emphasized—to halt them entirely, in order to linger over individual movie frames.

Databases allow in this way for random access, because their underlying order is simultaneous and spatial.

In digital media, time becomes malleable and manageable; Bergson would say that time has been spatialized. The movement from narrative organization to database logic is just one aspect of a much broader cultural shift. This shift has been widely noted by social and cultural theorists. Any audiovisual aesthetics must come to terms with this new social logic of spatialization. How do relations between sound and image change when we move out of time and into space?

In the first place, it is evident that images are predominantly spatial, whereas sounds are irreducibly temporal. For even the smallest slice of sound implies a certain temporal thickness.

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These syntheses correspond to what William James famously called the specious present :. The practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time.

The unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration. We seem to feel the interval of time as a whole, with its two ends embedded in it. The logic of spatialization would therefore seem to imply a media regime in which images were dominant over sounds. Many distinct sounds may overlap in each thick slice of time. In contrast, images cannot be added together, or thickened, in this way. We can easily hear multiple sounds layered on top of one another, while images superimposed upon one another are blurred to the point of illegibility.

In addition, cinematic images imply a certain linearity, and hence succession, because they are always localized in terms of place and distance. You have to look in a certain direction to see a particular image. It may come from a particular place, but it entirely fills the space in which it is heard By entirely filling space, sound subverts the linear, sequential order of visual narrative, and lends itself to the multiplicity of the spatialized database aesthetic.

Chion similarly notes that sound promotes the effects of simultaneity and multiplicity in post-cinematic media. In cinema, sound temporalizes the image; but in post-cinematic, electronic, and increasingly digital forms like music video, the sound works to release images from the demands of linear, narrative temporality.


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The movement out of time and into space has crucial ramifications for cinema as a time-bound art. In his recent, beautifully elegiac book The Virtual Life of Film , David Rodowick mourns what he sees as the death of cinema at the hands of electronic and digital technologies. That is to say, the space of the film is indexically grounded in a particular span of time past, which it preserves and revivifies.

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Moreover, cinematic space is actively assembled through the time-dependent processes of camera movement and montage. For both these reasons, cinema presents to us the pastness, and the endurance in time, of actual things. But according to Rodowick, digital media no longer do this. Where analog photography and cinematography preserved the traces of a preexisting, profilmic reality, digital media efface these traces, by translating them into an arbitrary code.

The impression of movement is really just an impression. I do not think that Rodowick is wrong to suggest that time plays a different role in electronic and digital media than it did in the cinema.

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I take it as symptomatic, however, that Rodowick only discusses cinema as a visual medium; his book has almost nothing to say about sound. This is a problem; for even in the indexical, realist cinema valued by Bazin, Cavell, and Rodowick, sounds work quite differently than images do. Images may be understood as indexical traces, or as perceptual evidence of a former presence, [8] but sounds cannot be conceived in this way Rodowick Virtual Even the simplest and clearest sounds resonate far beyond the bodies or objects that have produced them, and thus can easily be separated from their origins.

Also, as Chion reminds us, even the most direct or naturalistic cinematic sound is rendered rather than reproduced For these reasons, cinematic sounds can never be indexical traces, and warrants of profilmic reality, in the way that analog cinematic images are. The sparse, and mostly synthesized, instrumentation is dominated by an organ-like keyboard sound, whose repetitive minor-key chords reinforce the clap-like beat of the percussion.

A second, more dissonant synthesizer line plays in the upper registers. The skeletal melody is carried by male vocals that scarcely go above a whisper. Its steady pulse implies stasis, despite the steadily increasing chaos of the dissonant upper synthesizer register. The song refuses both the dynamic churn of polyrhythmic dance music, and the forward movement of anything that has a narrative. The sound just drifts; it never reaches a climax, and it never really gets anywhere.

I would argue that, while this is descriptively correct, it is not a bug, but a feature. It stands on the verge of incipient change, but without actually yielding to it. It seems to be poised at the moment of impending death, barely holding on in the face of oblivion. The video is entirely computer-generated, and almost entirely in grayscale. It implies a narrative, without explicitly presenting one.