the death of the viewer

Stephen Prince argues that “To date, theory has tended to minimize the importance of perceptual correspondences, but the advent of digital imaging demonstrates how important they are and have been all along.” Things like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or the impossibly realistic landscape in True Lies each highlight problems with traditional film theory, exposing the realism/expressionism distinction is oversimplified or inaccurate.

Prince suggests that before we can subject digital film to a meta-critique, we need to develop a precise understanding of how film creates a “perceptually valid” experience for the viewer. However, the perceptual realism approach the Prince suggests still distinguishes between a theorist (film theorist), a creator (cinematographer, special effects artist), and the consumer (film viewer). Such a model also contains problems which digital media highlights, problems that have been been around all along.

A DVD allows the viewer to easily select scenes and view in different speeds. Most DVDs also include special features sections, which may contain deleted scenes and commentary by actors, directors, and film theorists. The viewer is able to experience, perhaps only vicariously, the experience of a film theorist or cinematographer. Scene selection and playback speeds aid the viewer in analyzing the film from as film theorist, rather than as simply a viewer.

Digital film also facilitates (co)creation in more active ways, as well. Video games, virtual worlds, and amateur video are all examples of content where an individual may easily and quickly shift roles between viewer (someone experiencing the artificial as real), creator (someone creating the artificial to be experience as real), and theorist (someone trying to describe and explain it all).

Many of the examples in Jeff’s presentation show how self-reference is pervasive in amateur multimedia art. References to things outside referents like the green-screen in the Colbert Video can disrupt the viewing experiencing. Hyperlinks are an important example of this type of disruption in the viewing experience.

With digital artifacts, it no longer makes sense to analyze the experience with the assumption that the user is purely a consumer; that they are experiencing (or approximately experiencing) a reality created for them by someone else, which in turn can all be understood from a theorist’s perspective. Not only do we switch roles more easily and frequently with digital artifacts, but our experience of the artifact in one mode affects are experiences in others. For example, my undertanding of the design process and tools for creating special effects (that I learned from watching the special features), allows me to rewatch the movie as a viewer, this time experiencing the effects from the viewpoint of the creator not the actors in the story.

Of course, under this model, everything seems to b a mess. A theorist has to seriously consider that there no clear boundaries between consumer, creator, and theorist. Furthermore, theory itself now seems more obligated to take into account it’s own theory, leading to an infinite regression. Prince’s agenda of understanding the viewing experience before we critique it may be impossible in the simplified way that he proposes.

So how is the theorist supposed to make sense of the whole thing? I think I can see how structuralism, with it’s emphasis on the artifact and meaning rather than the intentions of individuals, seems like it may be of help here. Structuralism seems like it can potentially avoid some of these complicated issues that arise when theorists have to consider recursive and shifting roles. Then again, at times I suspect that I still “don’t know dick” about structuralism.


  1. jeffreybardzell

    One way to help disentangle issues like the blurred boundaries among critics, viewers, and producers is not to focus on actual individual people as the unit of analysis, but rather the role they are playing at a given moment. Thus, it is possible for a critic to put down the pen and enjoy a movie as a viewer. Roger Ebert (the film critic) surely watches films without wearing his “critic hat,” and he probably has made films (e.g., home videos).

    So I guess the difference between a critic, viewer, and producer has more to do with the way she or he looks at a given film at a given time, rather than having to do with a single person being fundamentally a Critic, Producer, or Viewer all of the time. All of us participate in all three roles. I mean, every viewer has experience as a creator: As a kid, I used to draw a comic strip, made animations in the margins of book pages, wrote stories, and directed imaginary films of a great hero (played by myself, naturally) winning the Super Bowl (football championship). All of these pieces–even in the 1970s and 80s, long before the Internet and iMovie–can be said to filmmaker techniques. Likewise, we are all critics. “I don’t like Westerns”: think about what that statement really says. It presupposes that a collection of films can be grouped by generic features in such a way that everyone can recognize them; and further, it offers an abstract response. That’s theory. It’s simple, of course, but it’s still theory.

    In a way, it’s always been the case that the boundaries are blurred between producers, critics, and viewers. We all participate by being all three, even though obviously making a Pirates of the Caribbean is out of most of our reach. Nonetheless, don’t give theoretic short shrift to the viewers by privileging theorists and filmmakers. (This is even more important in HCI.)

  2. Dave Roedl

    “it’s always been the case that the boundaries are blurred between producers, critics, and viewers.”

    These are good points, Jeff. However I think Jimmy has also made a valid point in that with interactive media, the user has a different kind of role and status than the viewer of a film. While it can be argued than watching a film is in some sense ‘interactive’, I think we can all agree that watching a film is in another sense a drastically passive activity compared to using a mouse to manipulate objects or navigate an avatar though a 3D space. While I think the film theory we are reading can greatly inform HCI, I also think we need distinguish the differences among the film experience and the interactive experiences we are trying to create. In other words, notions of ‘realism’ and ‘perceptual correspondence’ surely apply to interaction design, but surely the ways that they apply are different than with film. I will have to try and post something to take a stab at this…

  3. jeffreybardzell

    I don’t disagree with your point that the viewer of a film is less actively engaged than the user of an interface. The point is well taken and the consequences you draw from it are valid.

    But my main point was slightly different. When I said that a viewer of a film was also a producer, I didn’t merely mean in the sense that the viewer “performs a viewing” (though that is true, to the extent you describe). I also mean that the viewer also likely produces film-like content just by participating in culture.

    In other words, I agree with you that the viewer inasmuch as she is a viewer is less active in film than interaction design; but my point was that the viewer inasmuch as she is a viewer is not the “person”; the “person” is in nearly all cases a viewer (sometimes), a producer (sometimes), and a critic (sometimes). I don’t know if this makes any sense. It will make more sense after I talk about Foucault’s essay, “What is an Author?” later this semester.

    All that said, I would love to see you do a proper post on this, even if you disagree with me (i.e., are Wrong). 😉


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