Discorrelated Images by Shane Denson

This book was my first (purposeful) departure into cinema studies since reading Lynda Nead in undergrad. It is also a book about new media (useful for my other work as a freelancer writing about new media), and about the affective and aesthetic potential of invisibilized technology. Its central focus is how the move from cinema to post-cinema has been a move from visual culture to post-visual culture; from visible technologies like animation to seamless, microtemporal, non- or post-visual concepts like compression video that cause viewers to have an affective response without being aware that they are, in fact, having a response. The sub-processual nature of discorrelated images is what makes them different from regular, visible images, and worth distinguishing from them.

The first half of this book is spent defining and exploring the concept of discorrelated and/or dividuated images and their importance in separating cinema from post-cinema/new media (chapters 1 and 2), and explaining how post-cinema’s discorrelated nature has meant a change in media’s temporality (chapter 3). Discorrelated images are images (within cinema or other new media) that

1) confuse the typically stable subject and object of media,

2) remove images from their previous correlation with human subjectivity, or with norms of human perception and embodiment

and 3) separate images (or affective phenomena) from sensory perception– aka a dividuated image.

New media is future-oriented and able to anticipate, though not predict, and make multiple plans based on predictions; this contingency has changed media’s relationship to time. As the temporality of media has changed, its relation to individual subjectivity has also changed, making us anticipate without realizing it, and exerting forces (i.e. Netflix) that purport to offer customization but in fact standardize our experiences to be like those of others.

This all builds to what Denson calls the metabolic model of systems, his way of explaining how new media works in relation to human subjectivity. The interplay between technical substrates and aesthetic forms in media, or previsual things that influence you/ontology vs phenomenological experience, means that the image becomes separated from the visual or perceptible (68). This separated image (deviduated image) is pre-visual, technological, substrate; its relationship to the organized visual form is not separate, nor is it a one-way street. Denson uses the Luhmannian example of the ear, which is a substrate (tool) to tone (“I heard the sound with my ear”), but a form to music (“I have a good aesthetic sense”). Form can be influenced by substrate; you can be influenced by something even if you can’t see it. The opposite is also true, as substrates can be reshaped by and anticipate reactions to forms. “Experience is not on the side of form”, Denson writes, “as opposed to a technological substrate on the other side; rather, experience is precisely that which is at issue in the difference between substrate and form” (65). His question of whether imperceptible affects– glitches, compressions, microprocesses– “belong” to form or substrate (experience/subject or technology/object) is refuted by the nature of discorrelated images as images that defy traditional subject/object and pre/post-visual binaries. This is where the metabolic model comes in; Denson imagines a mutually-impactful model that reshapes the input/output, consumption/production, digestion/excretion binaries of traditional media through the destabilizing of the subject/object and substrate/form. This destabilization allows him to put to rest theories that separate substrate and form, and those that privilege substrate over form and “material knowledge over phenomenological experience” (62). It also places discorrelated images within the ecosystem of technology as a whole, emphasizing their creation (and often dissemination) by and between machines rather than humans. If cinema is all about conscious visuality, post-cinema is pre-visual and sometimes non-visual, and felt at the level of the body rather than the conscious mind; post-cinematic metabolism is not perceptible and changes over time, affecting how we experience our ecosystem and the discorrelated social, political, and environmental agencies of our wider lives (50).

The second half of this book aims to explore parables about technology in the new stages of cinema, attempting to make sense of discorrelation’s impact on the world. Chapter 4 is about robots and posthumanism, and the role of edge detection (“seamful” productions where we, or a computer, can see the “edges” of things) in mediating between human perception and invisible tech processes happening around us, moving us from a visual to a non-visual culture. Chapter 5 argues that the shock of post-cinematic horror comes from discorrelation, using glitches and surveillance tech as well as social media and other familiar technologies to transmit our collective anxiety about the discorrelation of subjectivity and image (and the resulting lack of faith in the fidelity or fixedness of images in general). Systems like unmanned drones, which encourage the separation of individual from their actions (what Denson calls “drone logic”), have invaded all our psyches, and it is only by imagining a more collective existence that we can push against it.

Chapter 6 is about the end of the world, and was the most interesting digression for me. Denson begins by claiming that “post-cinema is involved centrally in the mediation of an experience of ‘the world without us’…anticipating and intimating the eradication of human perception, post-cinema is therefore ‘after extinction’ even before extinction takes place” (194). Discorrelated images are therefore suited to make sense of events with too many micro-temporal parts to be consciously dissected; namely, the Anthropocene, but also (potentially) the end of capitalism. If the apocalypse is an image without an observer, then it is the epitome of discorrelation. And the “absolute presence” abstracted from subject/object temporality (Sobchack) of new media is also the subjective experience of discorrelation, a sense of mismatch between human capability and machinic images and their temporalities. Therefore, the space (expanded to be global) and time (contracted to be fractions of a second) of post-cinema combine into an interest in issues of planet-level importance, where images become discorrelated from human perception and redirected towards a global scale.

This is also where I take the most issue with his argument, specifically with the points he offers to defend the discorrelated image as *uniquely* apocalyptic. For instance, that the photograph began to commemorate death in the nineteenth century (though paintings, books, etc. did so for a long time before that) before moving toward the “anticipatory” frame of new media. To be clear, my problem is not that discorrelated images have a unique take on apocalypse narrative, but that they are based in a lineage of film that is essentially post-cinema or even post-eighteenth century. This gets at a larger question that I have for the whole book: can discorrelated images be retrieved in non-modern sites, or are they always married to computer technology? After all, Denson frequently talks about things like stones and paintings being “tools” or having non-cognition (Hayles). It’s clear these are different from post-cinema because they’re not invisible or instantaneous, but are there examples of tools that are? Denson explicitly says that the post-cinematic media infrastructure must be tied to the geologic period of the Anthropocene and industrialization, but is this true?

Weirdly, I think about the medieval “Disputation between the Body and the Worms”, which is concerned with noticeable and sub-perceptual change as well as normative discourses on the body. Processes of decay are obviously visual, but they are also previsual and metabolic, and in a way they are naturally future-oriented, though in a way that is tied to nature and not technology. One of my questions going forward is whether the aesthetics of discorrelated images must always be confined to new media and computer technology (dividuated drone cameras, robots, etc.) or whether there is a place in premodern thought to consider pre-visual processing of information. I also see a lot of Mark Fisher in the discussion of “lossy” formats that disintegrate individual film strips into continuous images, and of the “Seances” film series that produces micro-films only made for one viewing before they disappear.

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