Beautiful handwritten affect

Her is the kind of film I didn’t like, but would like to teach. Given the number of excellent critical reviews already out there, I don’t so much want to add to them as to use the film as a node from which to lay out a network of ideas from several visual studies texts.

I. In Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (2004), Vivian Sobchak writes that “many people describe and understand their minds and bodies in terms of computer systems and programs (even as they still describe and understand their lives in terms of movies)” (137). I’ve come to think of this split and disconnect metaphorized in different media as Her‘s central drama. Theodore has all these cinematic desires and needs and can’t figure out which circuitry inside himself they connect to; instead of film programming his own mind and body cum computer system he channels all of his efforts at connection and narrativization into a store-bought one.

II. Like the beautiful, handwritten letters Theodore gets paid to squeeze out, Jonze churns up all sorts of affect in Her but only succeeds in moving those spectators who confuse affect with emotion. For the rest of us, as Marie-Luise Angerer has so succinctly put it, this “enthusiasm for the affective, then, conceals an actual fear of affect, the fear of having (and being) nothing more than the need to dissolve oneself (one’s ego).” (“Feeling the Image: Some Critical Notes on Affect,” in Imagery in the 21st Century, Oliver Grau and Thomas Veigl, eds., 219)

III. Re: character names and their tells: Theodore (Roethke?) (Cy) Twombly? The perfect mash-up of sad macho confessionalism and epic unfinishedness. Samantha should have been named Dolores, I think. All of the actresses cast in the film were such purposefully underage-looking nymphs that this name would have given us a matching impression of Theodore’s Tinkerbell/girlfriend.

IV. There were plenty of aspects of the future in Her for which I found I could not suspend my belief: the universal wealth, climate change apparently being a complete non-issue, the nonexistence of anyone outside of the 25-45-year-old demographic. Most intriguing and unbelievable, though, was the centrality of the voice to cutting-edge technology. Leaving the theater and looking around me at all of the humans in silent communion with their devices, I wondered: how would Jonze have us go from an instant message and photo culture where people no longer feel able to leave voicemail to a culture in which early adapters thrill to the grain of the cybervoice?

V. The majority of the dialogue between Theodore and Samantha is replete with the “working on myself” vocabulary of contemporary theraputic culture. In Her, the perfect woman is not virgin nor whore but mental health care professional.

VI. In “Death Every Afternoon,” André Bazin wrote,

Like death, love [i.e., making love] must be experienced and cannot be represented (it is not called the little death for nothing) without violating its nature…I imagine the supreme cinematic perversion would be the projection of an execution backward like those comic newsreels in which the diver jumps up from the water back onto his diving board. (reprinted in Rites of Realism: Essays in Corporeal Cinema, edited by Ivonne Margulies, 2003. 30, 31)

I thought of backwards executions as Jonze made us listen to the sounds of Theodore and Samantha’s virtual sex in the dark. Perhaps fading the screen to black during this was supposed to be a romantic discretion? It only made the sequence more voyeuristic and lonelier, like listening to the couple next door through a motel wall.

VII. Several critics have commented on the retromoding of Theodore’s smartphone. In Artforum, Melissa Anderson compares it to “an index-card-size daguerrytype camera.”

I don’t see the camera similarity, but I, too, thought of daguerreotypes in their protective Union Cases while watching Her. Indeed, the dominant atmospheric color in the film could be called “Daguerreotype crimson” in honor of the soft protective lining in these mid-nineteenth-century cases.

Daguerreotype, circa 1850. Image accessed at

Impossible not to be reminded here of Walter Benjamin and his writing on the metonymy of plush cases for the nineteenth century:

The nineteenth century, like no other century, was addicted to dwelling. It conceived the residence as a receptacle for the person, and it encased him with all his appurtenances so deeply in the dwelling’s interior that one might be reminded of the inside of a compass case, where the instrument with all its accessories lies embedded in deep, usually violet folds of velvet. What didn’t the nineteenth century invent some sort of casing for! Pocket watches, slippers, egg cups, thermometers, playing cards and, in lieu of cases, there were jackets, carpets, wrappers and covers. (The Arcades Project, 221)

If for Benjamin, the twentieth century had lost its cushy protection, Jonze’s after-the-twenty-first century restores that bourgeois coziness in the form of clothing as well as technological accoutrements.

VIII. Her is not a cautionary tale or a dystopian sci-fi film. It’s not a romance, either–comedy or tragedy. It is a self-defensive diorama of interpersonal failure. Emily Maitlis nailed it with the term “fetish fantasy;” what feels safer than waxing moralistic on the taboo behavior in which one secretly wants to indulge, like falling in love with oneself via an all-knowing avatar?

The Angel of History

Here, four Dürer etchings from the catalogue of a show I saw this summer at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paris…

Albrecht Dürer, The Angel of the Apocalypse and the Dragon with Seven Heads, ca. 1497, engraving from "The Apocalypse," of 1498, wood engraving, 37.4 x 28.5 cm

Albrecht Dürer, The Angel of the Apocalypse and the Dragon with Seven Heads, ca. 1497, engraving from “The Apocalypse,” of 1498, wood engraving, 37.4 x 28.5 cm

These engravings were part of a portfolio that belonged to collector Jacques-Édouard Gatteaux (1788-1881). They were badly damaged along with other precious artworks and art objects in a fire occasioned by the Parisian communards in May 1871.

Albrect Dürer, Saint John devouring the Book of Life, ca. 1498, from "The Apocalypse," 1498, wood engraving, 37.3 x 29.2 cm

Albrect Dürer, Saint John devouring the Book of Life, ca. 1498, from “The Apocalypse,” 1498, wood engraving, 37.3 x 29.2 cm

The exhibition these damaged engravings were a part of was called “The Angel of History.”   Its curator-in-chief was Nicolas Bourriaud, of “relational art” fame. Bourriaud is currently director of the École des Beaux Arts.

Bourriaud’s newest art conceptual gambit is “the ruin.” The contemporary artists he assembled (among them, Haris Epaminonda, Rashid Johnson, Walead Beshty, Jospehine Meckseper) were, in his view, like Benjaminian angels of history, picking their way through fragmented piles of the past and forming new artistic narratives out of rubble.

Dürer’s singed Biblical images were on the exhibition’s second floor, amongst other artworks and objects from the Beaux-Arts archives and collections. There were models of Greek and Roman ruins, Romantic-era watercolors and sketches of ruins and photographs of destroyed buildings dating from the Franco-Prussian War and World War One.

Albrecht Dürer, Three Putti, ca. 1505, burin engraving, 8 x 7.2 cm

Albrecht Dürer, Three Putti, ca. 1505, burin engraving, 8 x 7.2 cm

It was moving and naughtily satisfying to look at damaged art, I admit. However, the interest of these engravings went beyond iconoclasm or pathos.

Blackened by revolutionary fire, each of these engravings was the kind of doubly-determined “dialectical image” that Walter Benjamin wrote about in “On the Concept of History.” Like all artworks, they tell a visual story, but they are also material culture. These engravings testify to the era in which they were created as well as the era in which they were damaged.

A pity, then, that Bourriaud and his team didn’t create a space for viewers to ask how their own reception in 2013 might constitute a further testimony of these engravings–can we see the present or the future in these images as well as the near and distant past?

The exhibition missed its opportunity to work dialectically because it enclosed its early modern and contemporary artworks within the limited parameters of universality, atemporality and the picturesque instead of delving into socio-aesthetic and institutional context.

Albrecht Dürer, The Annonciation, ca. 1510, from "The Passion," 1511, wood engraving, 12 x 10 cm

Albrecht Dürer, The Annonciation, ca. 1510, from “The Passion,” 1511, wood engraving, 12 x 10 cm

“The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”  – Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI, “On the Concept of History,” 1935