Narrative Illiterates

Notes on Artists’ Literacies Part I:

HOW MODERN CULTURAL DICTATORS EXPLOIT COLLAGE COGNITION

Detail from Cut With the Kitchen Knife, Hannah Hoch (1889–1978)

There are countless frustrations to the Trump era, with its nonstop chaos in the news, the fear and tragedy delivered on a daily basis, complete with absurdity and outrage that make satire impossible (or makes satire the only thing possible?). One of the most frustrating aspects for me, however, is how much people keep talking about being surprised, about not being able to understand how it can go on because of how absurd it is…

There are some folks to whom the Trump era makes perfect sense, and I’ve found in general that among them it makes a lot of sense to artists. I’ve wondered why this is. For the past two years I’ve worked with a lot of artists to try and make use of their instincts for anticipation, and capacity for synthesizing complexity, and thought a lot about artists’ implicit abilities in systemic and dynamic thinking.

But I wonder if it might be simply a matter of artists’ ability to understand collage.

The art of the 20th century gave us lots of things, from abstraction to readymades to ‘happenings,’ but perhaps the most transformative thing modern art gave us was collage. “Collage became the predominate, all-pervasive device of 20th-century arts.” (Ulmer, 1983) “Collage is the central principle of all art in the twentieth century in all media.” (Barthelme, 1997)

The elevation of the collage process into the fine arts at the beginning of the 20th century, and subsequently into the mainstream visual vocabulary of the West could be considered a transformative development in modern culture, because it has forced us all to adopt an entirely new process for understanding the world — a high-speed cognitive reflex that makes meaning out of the ‘silent gap’ between elements of collage (Garoian/Gaudelius, 2002).

“Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?”, 1956, Richard Hamilton

To a layperson collage usually refers to the juxtaposition of magazine-clipped images on a single page — and it should be noted that the widespread adoption of collage as a child’s activity in schools and nurseries is testament to the revolutionary spread of the form. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that at the beginning of the 20th century, artists’ juxtapositions of the suddenly-ubiquitous photographic reproductions made possible by late 19th and early-20th century printing advances were avant-garde. Pasting two disparate images together, artists discovered, would jolt the viewer’s mind to new thoughts that aren’t themselves pictured — a process of coalescing comprehension that could be called ‘disjunctive synthesis’ (Deleuze and Guattari). It’s a kind of cognitive catalysis, a fundamental shift in the modern thought process. It’s surely revolutionary in that children now do this as common grade school practice.

But the concept which made collage function isn’t only active on static pages of clipped photo reproductions. This juxtapositional cognition was active in a whole array of new artistic and visual modes, which grew and matured through the 20th century to the point where they are now foundational modes of thought. Which brings us to the 21st century, when the world presents itself almost entirely through disjunctive synthesis, and juxtapositional thinking is second nature, as we can see in the form of collage that became most prevalent and definitive to our age: the edited moving image — movies and tv.

The edited moving image represents collage not only in two or three dimensions, as the glued-down magazine cuttings do — but also collage across time.

Children younger than two years or so can’t make sense of edited moving images — their developing brain doesn’t have a mechanism for understanding the hard cuts between visual scenes (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2011). In a more developed brain, we can create the implicit connection, we can jump across the silent gap, and draw a new understanding from doing so. But this isn’t innate, and it’s fair to state that in our earliest formative years, we need the world presented to us in whole, full time and space.

Reckoning with time-based collage is complex processing. It is a language, and it is learned (and learnable). Importantly, like any language, it is first a sign-system, and for most people, comprehension never develops beyond fundamental sign-recognition.

What I mean by this is that by age 3 or 4, anyone can pretty much watch a video and make some sense of it. The disjunctive synthesis occurs as we leap across those silent gaps, and fill in the spaces with our own understandings — we can ‘follow the plot,’ so to speak. But this doesn’t mark fluency in the language, only comprehension of the signs. Because when we are fluent, or ‘literate’ (Apkon, 2013), not only can we read the signs, but we should also be able to write them, and make new meaning from them. And I can assure you, after almost 20 years of teaching film students, nobody can just ‘naturally’ make a film and have it make sense the way they want it to, without rigorous training, practice, and literacy building.

Detail from a Cognitive Process Study of the opening scene of “No Country For Old Men” (Joel and Ethan Coen 2007), conducted by the author

In my work as an arts-based and cinema-based researcher I’ve begun to call this bi-directional fluency ‘Narrative Literacy.’ Because of the extent to which we take collage-thinking for granted, it is easy to forget that it is something taught to us, and something we then sharpen through our own work. Like writing and reading any language, there are degrees of fluency to be attained, and when that fluency is achieved, we gain the ability to translate the world in new ways. Filmmakers who identify their narrative literacy and use it to discover new things about the world are suddenly capable of doing more than just spinning tales — they can also conduct deep research into complex human systems.

Narrative literacy is a means of reading collage with something beyond intuitive understanding. It’s an articulation of the connective tissue between two disparate images/concepts. It’s describing the silent gap. By and large, narrative literacy is an ability to both read and write in the language of perceived causation.

What does this all have to do with Putin, Trump, and an era of authoritarian mass-manipulation?

Beyond the edited moving image, our whole experience of the world comes to us through media that rely on collage. Clicking from link to link, page to page, looking from screen to screen, all rely on the same connective cognitive process as watching an edited movie. The movement of our eyes and our body create ‘hard cuts’ between disparate elements, and our brain does the work to connect them into a ‘story.’

To be clear, narrative is not synonymous with story. Narrative is the mortar, a connective form of knowledge, a logic system. The story made out of narrative is the whole brick building. We know a good building when we see one, just like we know a good story when we hear one. But they’re both made out of and held together by the same sticky material.

The condition of the individual in the 21st century is that we each live within a story of our own construction, held together by a narrative formed of screens and snippets and posts and tweets, the raw materials of which are bits and pieces of reporting, opinion, and primed thought*. One might think that this vast array of ‘inputs’ is so great and jumbled that it’s impossible to control in the same way that, say, a filmmaker controls our narrative path through an assembly of footage. And yet efforts at this level of individualized influence on each of us were central to the social control experiments of the 20th century (the Red Scare, Reefer Madness and the Drug Wars, family values, etc) as well as of course the engine of capitalism itself, advertising. The only thing that has changed is that we each now experience the world not through broadcasts and the televised social experience of a general public, but through hyper-personalized, algorithmically-driven, tightly controlled channels of input. It’s not only an advertiser’s golden age, because they can speak directly to YOU and ONLY YOU — it’s a golden age for anyone who wants to put our learned patterns of narrative thinking to work to paint a picture of the world as they’d like it viewed.

The same cognitive tools and tricks that filmmakers (high-tech collage artists) use to bend and shape our comprehension of the storyline within a film can be used to paralyze democratic involvement and hoard political and economic power. This is why the Trump/Putin era isn’t a surprise to me and other artists — because it’s essentially a movie.

Control of our perceptions, and a shaping influence into our deepest beliefs must seem tantalizingly within reach to the aspiring social engineers of Silicon Valley, Washington, and Moscow. These questions of narrative and causation are at the heart of many of the most advanced research initiatives of the day, including large-scale behavioral economics and the development of artificial intelligence. One must wonder and inquire into its deployment within the collage-scape of our daily media experience.

Observing Russian involvement in global politics, for example, it surely looks as if they’re using narrative logic to seize a position of hegemonous political power in the midst of a competitive global landscape. (These initiatives are present in the US, of course, but here they seem to have been used largely to improve our commercial products and feed a new generation of consumer behavior.)

We have all seen Russia employ methods of information dispersion in its foreign policy consistent with a state-embrace of narrative-literacy theory. Subsequent to that, the Trump campaign and administration has gone on to use identical modes of information control. And to be clear — this isn’t about ‘constructing a media narrative’ in any conventional way. There are no dots to connect, because that’s not actually how we process collage. The discrepancy between how we believe we understand the world (linearly and rationally, following the line between point a and point b) and how we truly understand the world (by making several different kinds of cognitive leaps, consciously and unconsciously, within the deluge of stimuli and snippets of information) is how new global orders are able to be shaped right before our eyes.

After Malaysia Air Flight 17 was shot down over the Ukraine by a Russian missile in 2014, and the missile was found and the witnesses were interviewed, Russia released a statement that was nothing short of the international-relations version of shouting ‘fake news.’ They denied it, and in the all-important court of public concern, the matter was dropped. After a Russian missile destroyed a Medecins-sans-Frontiers hospital in Syria in 2016, they did the same thing. At this point you have to be something of an expert on Syria to realize that following that, Russia has bombed over 300 Syrian hospitals since. These are catastrophic atrocities, acts of war on civilian populations outside of their own borders. Outside of our collaged-experience, these would be outrages met by unified fury — but the simple act of saying (just once, after a calculated delay) that it never happened is so disorienting and preposterous that it plays as a jump-cut in the edited sequence of our understanding of the world.

A Russian ground-to-air missile was fired at Malaysian Air MH17 in July 2014, via Twitter user @WowihaY

In a filmed, edited scene, it’s like a flash-frame in the middle of a rom-com, of some random, heretofore unannounced threat — a horde of zombies marching down the street, or aliens about to land. It’s ludicrous, but it holds us in the sequence with a new question: how the hell is this ever going to make sense?

We are compelled to make narrative sense of it simply because it’s there. And if it doesn’t work — if the film stinks and the story is a mess — well, we will have waited to the end to complain about it. Once a person has learned to read, when they are shown a word they cannot not read it. Similarly, we are unable to unsee things in a collage or montage. Collage, and the cognitive exercise of connecting its elements, holds us captives.

Russia did not succeed in deflecting blame — but in murdering hundreds of innocent people in the most outrageous possible way, and getting the rest of the world to stay in its seats, disbelieving, to see how the whole thing is going to play out. Sure, after the movie’s over, we’ll complain, write strongly-worded reviews, swear off this director’s work forever maybe. But as long as we’re in the audience, we have no control over how long this movie runs.

Formulaically it’s quite simple. The ‘media savvy’ modernite feels certain they can see right through it (again, because we think we’re actively, consciously ’connecting the dots’ in our experience of the world, online and in the real world, and not reliant on a thousand other subconscious inputs and cognitive processes that occur outside of our awareness).

These exploitative tactics actually look like media naivete on the surface. Trump’s tweets, Putin’s unabashed tyrannical bravado, — we may think to ourselves ‘they can’t be that dumb.’ And yet we are continually baffled by the use of these tactics and we come back for more. In very much the same way we keep going to movies, figuring out the ending before it’s over, complaining about the screenwriters, and then going back to the movies again. Not merely because there’s pleasure in the experience, in stretching these narrative-linking abilities of ours and enjoying some popcorn, but because there’s always something else we might have missed, or some nonlinear moment of collage-cognition that challenges us and invites more looking.

When Trump boasts that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any support (January 2016), he’s exactly right. All he’d need to do is claim he hadn’t done it, in spite of what the thousands of witnesses and cameras might have said. The sheer audaciousness of collaging that element into the narrative would paralyze our response. It’s happened hundreds, if not thousands of times already during his campaign and administration. Pointing out documentation of his lies and contradictions is meaningless, because he’s just weaving a ludicrous fantasy that is built to buy time and paralyze opposition while power is held, money is made, and institutions are dissolved.

Trump is no media genius. He’s a soft-headed individual who’s been embedded and embraced by media and narrative collage for so long that he’s internalized it. And seeing this, people who have studied how to use the collage-structure of contemporary information could have instantly recognized a natural instrument for their craft.

All the debates about truth in news, Trump’s lies, and Russia’s misdirection are perfectly predictable results of the art and science of narrative control. Ask any artist, ask any filmmaker. We spend so much time on these films, shows, and videos of ours, with which our audiences will spend just a few minutes — maybe an hour and a half — that every single audience response, cognitive reflex, suggestion or implication is considered and anticipated. Experienced filmmakers know what emerges from the silent gap.

Little things that flash through your memory when you stand in front of a painting or sit through a movie, things that you think are so deeply personal, individualized, and unique and fleeting — we’ve anticipated those, because that’s the whole function of our work. We’ve tried every variation, sought every response. The process of art is deep research into the human condition, and the artworks themselves profoundly informed by that research.

The only difference between making art and conducting this sort of collagist/narrative qualitative research is that the research-framework forces us to transit, as artists, from working from instinct to working with cognitive consciousness. When artists are trained to see their own unique literacies, they become incredibly powerful curators of human experience.

So with this tremendous potential power, and knowledge of the potent alchemy of collage and narrative to shape perceptions (and thus realities), what is it artists are actually doing in the age of politically weaponized disjunctive synthesis?

*Primed thought: — very few of our ideas are our own, or at least are entirely our own. Priming is a well-developed psychological experience wherein a subconscious stimuli — a word, an image, a sound — will become the seed of a thought that comes much later, and one which our conscious mind believes is original and unaffected. Advertisers, of course, try and prime our thinking all the time. The architects of malls and restaurants prime our thinking regularly. Priming is a challenge, though, because the effect of a glimpse or a peripheral notice can be disproportionately powerful on our thinking, and can have a lingering effect for several hours, which makes tracking down the ‘prime cause’ of our decisions and desires very, very hard to do.

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Andrew Freiband

Filmmaker, Teacher, Researcher, Founder and Director of the Artists Literacies Institute (artistsliteracies.org)