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The Eternal Present

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

“No one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.” — the master computer Alpha 60 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965).

There’s an interesting piece in Forbes this morning by Anthony Wing Kosner on the Harlem Shake meme, a massively duplicated performance piece which is spreading virally over the web, and which, by now, has probably peaked. Kosner offers a succinct summary of the meme, noting that “ the Harlem Shake meme has a simple form: with the first 30-seconds of the song Harlem Shake by the DJ and producer Baauer in the background, a single person does something in the presence of others (who act as if nothing is happening), and then all of a sudden everyone is doing something together. The sound snippet is divided equally between the electronic tropes of the ‘build up,’ and the ‘bass drop,’ and the juncture between the two is punctuated by a deep, pitch-shifted voice commanding, ‘do the Harlem Shake.’ Unlike the video response parodies for Gangnam Style, Call Me Maybe or Somebody That I Used To Know, making a Harlem Shake requires very little preparation. This is not only because of the short duration, but also because the ‘’something’ that ‘happens’ doesn’t matter. It could be anything.”

Kosner intriguingly links this phenomenon to Douglas Rushkoff’s soon-to-be-released book Present Shock, adding that “before you accuse me of taking this class of 30-second trifles too seriously, consider them in relation to Present Shock, the soon-to-be released book by Douglas Rushkoff [see Kosner's review here.] The book, subtitled When Everything Happens Now, is a follow-up to Alvin Toffler’s 70s touchstone, Future Shock. Where Toffler argued that the pace of change was radically accelerating, Rushkoff finds that time itself has now metastasized to the point that all we can see is the present moment.

This ‘presentism’ effects every corner of our lives from finance to politics to entertainment. And the meme, whether it be an image plastered with ironic type, an animated gif or, as in Harlem Shake, a short video, is the perfect cultural expression of Present Shock. We don’t have time for the five-act play—give me the 30-second video! [. . .] Rushkoff explains, ‘Essentially, this is a presentist society’s equivalent of mass spectacle [ . . .] We don’t have overarching stories that we’re a part of, no national narrative really—just lots of opinions.”

To [an] audience of publishers he made the point that as much as we want to give our audience what they want, the impatience of the readership and the desire for everything to be à la carte, changes the way we now write non-fiction books. Instead of the grand five-act play structure of previous tomes, we have a series of chapters that essentially say the same thing about different topics.

Like a fractal, you can ‘get the picture,’ at any point. And Baauer’s song is just that way. Undoubtably Harlem Shake has sold a bunch of downloads since the meme took off, but most people have only heard the first 30 seconds, and the rest of the tune adds no significant development. Once you get it, that’s all there is.

Rushkoff continues, ‘So something like this stands in for the centralized broadcast spectacle. It’s interactive, in that people actually ‘make’ one of these things. And being in one, or knowing people who are in one, or even just knowing this phenomenon exists ‘when it’s happening’ is a form of connection. In some ways, the brevity of the fad makes it all the more tempting to participate in. It’s going to be over so soon that you want to get in on it before it’s not cool anymore.’”

But this “eternal presentism,” which I agree certainly exists, is certainly not a new concept, and both Rushkoff and Kosner instantly put me in mind of Jean-Luc Godard’s brilliant vision of the future Alphaville, made way back in 1965. In the 21st century (actually then-contemporary Paris), a master computer, Alpha 60, rules society with an iron hand, and issues dictates which must be followed upon pain of death. Everything is informed by consumerism; genuine emotion is outlawed. A man is executed in a swimming pool spectacle for  the “crime” of weeping when his wife dies; vending machines instruct consumers to insert a coin for some unspecified product, only to receive a token marked simply “thanks” — nothing for something, the hallmark of 21st century imagistic commerce.

In short, everything that both Rushkoff and Posher notes is absolutely true — as Alpha 60 says to private Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), who is sent from the “outerlands” to destroy the massive computer, ”No one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.” Lemmy responds, “I refuse to become what you call normal.” Alphaville ends on an optimistic note, with Alpha 60’s destruction, but the present offers us no such panacea; the computers have won. Everything is available online, but no one really wants anything of substance; they just want the latest fads and trends, tailored to their own tastes.

When this happens, we forget what the past has taught us, and thus the future becomes dependent solely upon the fad and whim of the moment, instantly disposable and utterly without consequence. It’s interesting that as Godard has cut down on his output as a filmmaker in recent years, his most recent films have developed a strong link to the past — to the culture of another era, in books, music, art, films — which Godard obviously mourns and celebrates simultaneously. But Godard knows that the past is gone, and irrecoverable, and the future is unknowable; we are all forced to live, whether we like it or not, in the eternal present.

No one remembers the past any more. And that’s precisely the tragedy of the present.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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