With every chapter, Gargantua serves up a concentrated dose of commodity images, most of these glossy and seen on a screen.footnote＊ Under Stallabrass’s direction, the commonplace artefacts of our daily lives impose themselves like actors in a technological drama. The computer screen perched on desk or lap, captures our gaze and focuses our concentration in ways that no previously existing office technology ever achieved. For instance, a typewriter imposes itself as a physical reminder of work to be done; and it shapes the typist’s body, mental, and perceptual apparatus to fit the task. But it does not absorb the eye as does the computer whose screen dances with a hypnotic space saver. Nor does a typewriter impel us to work as does a computer whose menus and files dictate choice as an obligation.
Like a giant contact lens, the screen has become a necessary prosthesis to visual and mental functions. And we don’t relegate it to work alone or leave it in the office at quitting time. Instead, we bring it home for amusement and for work’s after hours’ seepage into domestic life. Computer games are marketed for fun, hence they are all the more fascinating and compelling. Actually, the fun belies the instrumentalization of the gaze and the assimilation of everything that presents itself as random to the implicit program. The erasure of spontaneity progresses apace as the game player hones hand/eye coordination. Amidst the panoply of ever more slick and life-like game figures, Stallabrass bids us recall the sketchy and imperfect ur-figure of video gaming: Pac Man. The equivalent of Mickey Mouse’s Steamboat Willy, Pac Man’s movements were halting and jerky. He could hardly be taken for real. By comparison, Stallabrass points to today’s technologically advanced games and game settings whose approximation of reality is only apparent in the fact that the militarized superheroes never seem to have to bury the bodies of their slain victims. I, too, appreciate those moments when texts reveal themselves as texts, when imperfections and disjunctions point to the fact and features of their production. But we shouldn’t be too quick to resurrect antiquated video technologies as sites for critical leverage into today’s culture. As my students point out, many eighteen and twenty year olds develop nostalgias for the technologies of their not long distant youths. They collect Pac Man, Star Wars action figures, even 8-track country music tapes. And they don’t necessarily use these to
But I agree that for a great many people in the United States and Europe, the screen dominates the visual field and influences perception. Stallabrass makes this abundantly clear when he suggests that the computer screen has the power to embrace, and in so doing assimilate to its aesthetic, all other sorts of screens that pre-date the computer: most notably, the television monitor and the automobile windshield. This line of reasoning is analogous to the proposition in economic theory that once capitalism came into being it redefined all concurrently existing modes of production—including slavery and serfdom—according to its market-driven logic. Similarly, television once had a life in a different cultural order. Initially viewed as a curiosity that brought six inch high, black and white people into middle-class homes, it supplanted radio and redefined auditory consumption as no longer primary, but ancillary to the visual object. However, now, in the post-computer domestic setting, television is an unremarkable site for talking heads, drama, and mayhem. It plays to an often absent audience of ambulatory image consumers who move from snack to snack and screen to screen.
Apprehending the home and office dominated and crowded with screened images is nowhere near as disturbing as Stallabrass’s reckoning that the embrace of the aesthetic includes our last enclave of freedom: the automobile, whose windshield is yet another screen. I’ve spent the weeks following my reading of Gargantua obsessed by the way my car’s windshield frames the landscape and gives it back to me on its bug-encrusted pane of glass. Towns, cities, farms: all have a four foot span; and like a televised image, their denizens take on the quality of figures in a news broadcast.
Frame and screen articulate the visual and the commodity form. Overly abundant and densely omnipresent, the visual commodity object stuffs us full like a society of greedy Gargantuas whose food is simulacra. What we see and how we see it is part and parcel of consumerism. Stallabrass’s scrutiny of images portrays the diversity of our world collapsed into the homogeneity of the visual commodity object. He produces a disturbing
As an art historian, Stallabrass recoils and casts his eye about for alternatives to the glossy but hollow images that fill our daily lives and bloat and dull our senses. Besieged by aestheticized mass culture objects, he seems poised on the brink of wishing to reinvent high art, or at least its possibility to produce antithesis. Impossible, and not necessarily desirable, the high art impulse is relocated in more mundane figures and objects. One of these is the amateur photographer who Stallabrass depicts embarking with 35mm film and single lens reflex camera into a world where frame, light, and object can be perceived as if for the first time. This is the practitioner whose control over medium and image does not yet preclude the unexpected and whose images may still ‘speak straightforwardly’. The portrayal may be naive but I hear students using the same terms to express their belief in video as a form and practice that resists both the mass commodity and high art. Sadie Benning, who began her career as an independent video artist with a Fisher Price toy camera, is held up as comparable to the amateur photographer. What makes the amateur interesting is not completely explained by the in-between nature of the art (neither high nor mass) nor the technology of the production (mechanical rather than computerized), but resides also in the deformation of the legacy of genres that the amateur inherits but imperfectly replicates. Moreover, amateur production is a practice whose counter-hegemonic meanings are experienced in the process of doing rather than consuming.
This is not altogether the case with graffiti—another visual point of reference that Stallabrass sees as alternative to the mass culture object. In an era devoted to privatization, tagging reclaims the public. At a time that demands product clarity, its messages are often indecipherable. Moreover, graffiti makes no claim to a life-time guarantee; but like the reality of our consumer objects, proclaims its built-in obsolescence. And contrary to the fetishized commodity object that negates its producer’s hand, graffiti recognizes its author and the collectivity of its mode of production. With 22 per cent of the children in the usa living in what the government defines as poverty, graffiti may be the only means by which excluded individuals can consume and circulate the culture. Graffiti stands to benefit as globalization expands poverty in the First World.