Paranarrative, Postcinema, and the Unheimlich Glitch
by Michael Betancourt
Mere materiality, the recognition and identification of the “substance” of digital media as an encoded, electronic signal only becomes a critical engagement through a leap from this immanent identification of substance to significance, requiring more than just an acknowledgement of the “ontology” of digital facture. Digital media is rendered for humans by an apparatus operating invisibly, continuously, and autonomously; however, interrupting the normative operation of the device is an insignificant challenge—lapses, drop-outs and other computer failures are commonplace, as are the slight “errors” familiar from the resolution, compression, and sampling apparent in the aesthetics of the movie. These transient electronic misfunctions, “glitches,” are ignored or elided from consideration, demonstrating the aura of the digital in operation. The ideally-conceived digital signal transcends its particular, immanent encounter (always distinct from the perfection of the immaterial digital ‘object’) in a separation of digitality from its materiality that is a fantasy of transcendent perfection. Conceiving the digital as independent of its presentation blocks the identification of materialist significance: the identification qua glitch as noise (a non-signifier) ends any further need for engagement, but also demonstrates that all interpretations are dependent on their lowest level identification as requiring consideration and attention; the audience’s internalization of this condition is the aura of the digital. Emergent post-digitality presents basic difficulties of conceptualization.
Signification proceeds as two parallel, divergent modes that understand the immanent work either through the intratextual organization of its enunciations (the normative mode), or via the imposition of intertextual indexicality to create contextual analyses (the critical mode). These historical approaches proceed from distinct types of knowledge. Although both normative and critical modes rely on the same enculturation, they are antithetical in elaboration. In shifting attention to the intertextual, the critical reading externalizes signification from the movie being analyzed, potentially neglecting the intratextual order to address its intertextual quotations and conceptuality. Each mode’s foundations in how this consideration relates to the audience’s a priori knowledge distinguishes them: (a) the normative reading is closely linked to the immanent encounter, an intratextual engagement that remains primarily fixed upon the enunciations and order arising from accepting its articulation; or (b) the critical reading that challenges these immanent elaborations through intertextual information absent from the immanent work—the critical identification of quotations, reiterations, and variations on schemas requires analysis, and relies on indexical recognition and lexical expertise for its application. Critical modes arise from an autonomous decision to shift between accepting and questioning or challenging both the contents and articulation. The change from intratextual organization to intertextuality defines Modernist ‘critical reading’ (the centrality of past experience and established expertise is fundamental to Modernist criticality—any insistence on the primacy of materiality over indexicality or intentionality is a concern with “purity” common to Formalist Modernism), a demonstration of an implicit hierarchy that devalues the acceptance of normative engagement. However, audiences typically employ aspects of both approaches simultaneously, engaging and anticipating critically in even the normative mode; which approach dominates the primary subject of analysis distinguishes between them—both modes are active—the attention to internal (intratextual) versus external (intertextual) analytics is simultaneously a distinction between attention to aesthetics and formal order (normative) and concern with connecting a work to established iconography and lexical orders (critical).
The critical antipathy to the normative mode arises in its apparently solipsistic attention to the internal ordering that is not a denial of externality; the consideration of morphology and structure (formal engagement) in the internal enunciation requires the same encultured lexicon of past experience to render interpretations coherent, but does so ‘transparently.’ The understanding of story (fabula) and narrative embraced by normative analysis concerned with the “content” is the most apparent and typical demonstration of this internal primacy. The explanations offered for events shown, justifying the interpretation by the coherent result is normative engagement. In addressing the progression and organization of the immediate contents, normative interpretation offers a formal description where the articulation is ignored in an embrace of what it presents. This ‘transparency’ can become a denial of context, aesthetics, and cultural significance.
When a glitch breaches or violates the expected morphology and structure of normative engagement, it converges on Bertolt Brecht’s proposal of Verfremdungseffekt (distancing or alienating effects, an uncanny sense of violated rules and conventional expectation) where interpretation disengages from the fictional, dramatic events to offer a criticality that is implicitly an aesthetic one, derived from formal relations and operating within familiar articulation:
The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place. […] The artist’s object is to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely at himself and his work. As a result everything put forward by him has a touch of the amazing. Everyday things are thereby raised above the level of the obvious and automatic.
Brecht’s transformation/violation of expectations is neither automatic, nor is it an autonomous effect, but depends on aesthetic ruptures with enunciation and articulation: it is a formal effect that must originate in the unfamiliar, arising spontaneously and unexpectedly (thus corresponding to an Unheimlich experience), but at the same time derives from analysis—both the expectations established in the work (normative) and through its context (critical). However these interruptions come as violations of the interpreted order of historical cinema rather than simply in the formal nature of the device producing that cognitive shift; the mere presence of a glitch will not produce the essential defamiliarization. It is an aesthetic, thus formal, dimension of articulation. The convergence between glitch and Verfremdungseffekt in the materiality of the digital—the renderings of encoded data—is complicated by its contradictory and paradoxical challenge for the unmasking of artifice implicit in the Verfremdungseffekt. The revelation of contingency and artifice for interpretation becomes an Unheimlich disabusal of anticipated progression, morphology, and structure. The disruptive effect that “shocks” depends specifically on a normative acceptance of the internal articulation, one that is readily challenged by any unanticipated deviation from the expected ordering. Aesthetic apprehension of materiality and physical form is an awareness of both normative and critical modes as contingencies created by specifically social, economic and political factors. Unlike critical interpretation the defamiliarized is an encounter with alterity that renders existing orders as ambiguous potentials within a range of possibilities. This experience is explicating the Unheimlich—a conversion from the familiar, comfortable relations to a threatening and capricious modality where articulation becomes a self-evident force structuring and creating an imposed order.
The aura of the digital reverses these unmaskings by returning to the Heimlich, a counter-revelatory engagement which precisely undermines any potential for ruptures. “At homeness” forecloses on potential opposition—this term, Heimlich, is precisely appropriate: the safety and familiarity of an unquestioned and expected order. The aura of the digital protects normative analysis by maintaining the transparent articulations and the fantasy of transcendent digital media perfection, separate from the mere materiality of its presentation. The challenge offered by defamiliarization of Verfremdungseffekt transforms this transcendence into an Unheimlich encounter with an alien and ambivalent technical product. To return to a familiar and stable conception of movies requires a disavowal of postcinema’s violations: recoding the glitch either as irrelevant (noise) or as a material sign for the technology that can be accepted as a novel, but syntactical part of enunciation, much like fades, dissolves and other graphic, visual effects can serve as transitions or markers within the enunciation of more familiar cinema sequences.
Devising the eruptions of materiality to be an autonomous interference with the normative progression-interpretation of movies converges with the Modernist aesthetic of Verfremdungseffekt: these approaches to critical media are dependent on conceiving their audiences as passive, as needing to be ‘shocked’ out of their complicity. The historical, over-determined protocols for Verfremdungseffekt are not necessarily productive of defamiliarization. All the historical techniques have become a commonplace element in normative articulation:  direct address;  the quotation or intrusive non-sequitur;  breaches of the “fourth wall” between mediation and reality;  works whose internally organized contents are specifically critical (and which return to a normative engagement in their presentation);  drawing attention to the interpretive schema and its artifice, (potentially recuperated as an alternative mode, or dismissed as incompetent organization, but normalized in both cases);  the intrusion of non-mediation, such as “noise,” that disrupts its progression, (ignorable as external to the media). Each aesthetic protocol stands apart from established, normative engagement, yet can be assimilated back to it—a transformation from Unheimlich to Heimlich, alienation to everydayness—giving their roles an ambivalent character. All six aesthetic types are well-known and familiar, yet only the responses to  and  do not necessarily entail a return to a normative, uncritical, ‘transparent’ engagement. Materialist defamiliarization attacks denotation and primary identification of content, thus cannot be reinscribed back into historical cinema;  and  must be expelled as insignificant to reassert normalcy.
However, the Unheimlich glitch arises from an emergent recognition of contingency—shifting from material process to the identification-acknowledgement of its semiotic role; it depends on particular, perceivable morphologies and structures. The transition between normative and critical modes always has an intertextual character: the audience identifies aesthetic (formal) features as directing their attention towards another level of complexity not apparent in the ‘event’ shown, but arising from their past experiences and established expertise with the serial nature of interpretation. The change from immanence to experience is an autonomous decision. Yet what is of critical interest are those situations where this changed approach can be considered a specific feature, an aesthetic attribute, rather than simply a decision made independently by the audience, as semiotician Umberto Eco explained about critical engagements with serial forms:
It is evident that even the most banal narrative product allows the reader to become by an autonomous decision a critical reader, able to recognize the innovative strategies (if any). But there are serial works that establish an explicit agreement with the critical reader and thus, so to speak, challenge him to acknowledge the innovative aspects of the text.
That recognition of critical aesthetics is a distinction made by the audience, and a mode of address produced by the articulation generally, (and for media specifically), is well known. “Critical glitches” require a specific identification of signification at more than just the immanent level of encounter, ‘signaled’ to the audience by formal elements of postcinema apart from their materiality. The most apparent ‘provocations’ arise in the thoroughly and completely glitched movie (or static image) where the “technical failures” are not occasional interruptions, but the entire substance of what appears—this constancy of presence gives these glitches the superficial appearance of an inherent criticality. Theoretical analysis that specifies a set of factors for criticality is the problem. The assumption that their materiality is a signifier of criticality mistakes the conclusion for its syllogism; errors of this type lead to the false belief in signs with specific, inherent meanings—thus creating precisely the same normative engagement challenged by the critical mode. It is precisely this modal overlap that makes the aesthetics of defamiliarized articulation neither representative of general rules, nor the unique properties of singular works. They reflect the role of past experience in framing analysis, a precise demonstration of ambivalence: signs are neither necessarily critical, nor essential non-critical, but are defined through their use/re-use. The assimilation of glitches in/as a conventional demonstration of materiality is a normative reflection of the audience’s autonomous facility to adapt, recoding critical ruptures as structural and expected features of the movie—their aesthetic nature returns any novel morphology to the realm of the Heimlich, and so denies any disruption it might produce. This recoding of materiality as conventional “criticality” precisely shifts from defamiliarized to familiar, a transition that does not preclude an additional critical semiosis, but does make the ambivalent role of articulation and the analytic reversibility of glitches apparent. Ambivalence is essential to these shifts. Only aesthetics that have already-known and internalized codes offer the potential for disruptive and transformative ‘shock’—defamiliarization of their enunciation—by creating a mismatch between their articulation and interpretation.
Aesthetic qualia apparent in the morphology and structure of postcinema have a gravitational effect on novel and alienated forms, drawing them back towards familiar and established frameworks. The ambivalent challenge of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt apparently creates a conceptual problem by conceiving of its impacts as simultaneously liberating and capturing its audience, which is resolved if these potentials are not considered antithetical but an ambivalence that ungrounds established expertise. This sudden violation of normalcy-bias in audience engagements (even for critical approaches there are “normative” procedures) has a history of assumed criticality in Marxist analysis; yet the problem is not the a priori meaning. While acknowledging the contingency and the artificiality of interpretations serves an important clarifying function in understanding the development of critical modes for glitches—the revenants of historical Modernist aesthetics are still powerful distractions—these disruptive ‘shocks’ are the unanticipated transformation of encoded rules during the postcinema movie’s progression. The Unheimlich eruption precisely challenges expectation. A frission between expected order and immediate encounter violates the established, intratextual aesthetic—making the artificial and contingent nature of normative codes apparent. This normative interpretation further collides with the critical meanings offered/established in/by past experience, leaving both in question: the defamiliarized rupture demonstrated by the Verfremdungseffekt.
The teleological and totalizing force of Modernist aesthetic forms (and their ruptures) has given the six familiar protocols an extended reach into the present. Digital technologies offer potentials distinct from the stable and discrete media-forms employed in the twentieth century; the emergent structures of post-digitality undermine oppositions of realism::abstraction and narrative::non-narrative in historical cinema. Digital imaging reveals these separate, established potentials as existing in dynamic ranges where the familiar positions are points of maximum difference with a continuum of intermediary positions being the substance of actual experience and encounter. Post-digitality challenges historical media by making the fluidity of these ranges central to the aesthetics of postcinema, i.e. in the use of glitches and related processes: the contingency of interpretation for basic issues of denotation and connotation emerges in the digital articulation. The instability of glitched, processed, and compressed materials engages fundamentals of perception, thus making the audience’s initial and proximate decisions to resolve ambivalent denotation apparent in their higher level comprehensions. These playful possibilities are always paradoxical, challenging the revenant Modernist aesthetics of cinema. Mutually exclusive positions establish impossible alternatives, identified by points of maximum difference—which simultaneously lie within the same range—that all remain true, revealing how enculturation establishes articulation: lower-level interpretations are the foundation for the higher-levels, a recursive progression from perception to interpretation. Movies composed entirely from glitches superficially normalize their glitched materials, re-imposing the established order of “cinema,” but the instability of the representational and ontological ‘content’ of glitches can shift the historical dynamic of naturalism::stylization. Distinguishing post-digital imagery from traditional realism allows it simultaneously to be graphically patterned abstraction and familiar representation, an ambivalent doubling that undermines stable interpretations.
Defamiliarization arises in encounters where established codes and interpretive schemas suggest contradictory (if not mutually exclusive) understandings of a singular subject. For example, the ambivalences of abstraction/realism, glitch/not-glitched, and narrative/non-narrative can be a starting point for this defamiliarization process: the ruptures offered by postcinema are specifically aesthetic, derived from an ambiguous morphology and structure that destabilizes established categories—an ambivalent intertextuality that cannot conclusively decode the encounter. Past experience misleadingly invokes familiar tropes—postcinema creates paranarratives employing only the rudimentary essentials for their recognition, relying on their audiences to supply the significant links and organization—the apparent fabula (plot), justifying the interpretation by the result—a circularity of cause and effect that distinguishes the paranarrative from other, more familiar, complete, and self-sufficient narrative forms. It is parasitical on established, normative interpretations without expanding on them, making the paranarrative an ambivalent enunciative device. However, the recognition of a paranarrative requires a familiarity with its intertextual Ur-source; an insufficient knowledge may result in a paranarrative that remains ambivalent or entirely unidentified. This dynamic between recognition::ignorance makes the serial dimensions of narrative constructs obvious. Audiences must identify the absent-schema to understand the paranarrative, as Eco notes in “Interpreting Serials”:
It must achieve a dialectic between order and novelty, in other words between schema and innovation. This dialectic must be perceived by the consumer, who must grasp not only the contents of the message, but also the way in which the message transmits those contents.
By drawing from past experience to understand the immanent order, the audience must use their already existing lexical expertise to decode/invent its implied (but absent) connections. Paranarratives are a synthesis of immanent organization and audience anticipation and recognition, generating coherence equally from the emergent convergences and differences with the intertextual schema. This fusion of externalities does not necessarily render a critical result: the progression remains linked to the normative mode. While the quotation of a particular use directs attention to the absent source, only a return to the immediate presentation makes it coherent, an affirmation of its internal organization. A quote recognized does not eliminate the normative analysis of an immanent work, it complicates it. The morphology thus recognized in Verfremdungseffekt becomes a structural principle that deepens without challenging the meaning ‘transparently’ offered by normative articulations.
The paranarrative exploits these enunciative relationships, but unlike the clear causal structures generating fabula in narrative movies, the recognitions of schema “fill-in” the missing or entirely absent narrative details, producing the paranarrative in which coherence spontaneously emerges as the audience’s invention, tangential to the actual materials encountered. Coherence is the result of audience identification: the schema explains the events, but this familiar order can then be challenged or undermined by the actual progression, with defamiliarization and reflexivity as potential responses to any mismatch between applied schema and novel (immanent) ordering; this link to narrative interpretations returns defamiliarization to the normative mode’s intratextual analysis. This differential of schema::novelty is exactly the function identified by Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, and its Unheimlich impact arises from its aesthetic ordering and anticipations of progression, a direct reflection of who the audience is. The complex instabilities of paranarrative forms is only accentuated by their use within glitched materials, enabling mutually exclusive interpretations to emerge for the same movie, (such as it being narrative and non-narrative), demonstrating the audience’s particular engagement and lexical expertise with identifying the particular schema being employed.
The postcinematic aspects of the Unheimlich glitch cannot be under-emphasized. It is precisely a product of post-digitality violating the established ontological order of cinema—the differentiation between Modernist conceptions of medium-specificity and the convergent break-down of those boundaries by computer technology—coupled with the expansion of its dispositive by the emergent identifications of ambivalent meaning posed by a metastable articulation. The specifically Unheimlich dimensions of digital materiality for cinematic ontology (as demonstrated by the glitch) resides in displacements of established lexical expertise that become apparent in defamiliarization. It is not mere materiality, but its role in interpretation that is essential. Connections to the formal medium masks the ideological and lexical dimensions of post-digital challenges, effectively emphasizing materiality to the exclusion of both critical and normative modes’ adaptation to immanence and maintenance of familiar order.
Enunciation arises in the identifications of articulation—the use of glitch does not change this formal role, even if the materials being articulated proceed in atypical ways different from those of historical cinematic orders: the normative mode is a flexible adjustment accommodating the specific (immanent) morphology, whether it is organized in familiar or unfamiliar ways. The Unheimlich can arise from either the novelty of the immanent morphology, or from the emergent structure that morphology produces; the first type will fade with familiarity, while the second depends on the lexical design, rather than the novelty of form. Both converge on the same formal protocols, employing them in distinct, diverging ways. Postcinema uses the morphologies and structures particular to the capabilities of digital systems in ways that transform the assumptions of historical cinema into one set of conventional uses, offering alternatives that challenge the ontological claim of a link between the imagery shown on-screen and the mechanism of its production, alienating these foundations.
Resolving the problem of the Heimlich and the Unheimlich is internal to the aura of the digital. In eliding the disruptive aspects posed by digital technology this return to familiarity simultaneously makes rupture a liberating re-engagement with the materiality of digital facture: the generative and autonomous production becomes apparent as a screen articulating the encounter with its (normally transparent) enunciation. The situation of the audience in relation to this presentation reverses the aura of the digital, an unmasking of technical operations that elicits a critical response through its delayed (double) articulation first as materiality then as enunciated contents.
Although the historical type of critical-working that Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt offers reflects a Marxist dialectics, the defamiliarized dimension opens away from the easy duality of class and political economy, or a heightened consciousness ‘shocked’ into being critical. This evasion is more than a minor ambivalence or contradiction, it is the essence of its critical potential, and is what gives defamiliarization an after-life apart from historically Marxist uses—themselves an attempt at a redirection of the Unheimlich disruption into a specific and limited critical framework. Shifting between familiar/defamiliar does not concern the thing perceived, but the perceiving-process: it undermines and counters any particular function (use) for defamiliarization, linking it to earlier conceptions of sublimity and transcendence already established in the term “unheimlich” (uncanny). This protocol subverts any and all established systems: an identifier for the revelation of artifice. The ‘critical’ engagement offered is categorically distinct from the critical mode, an activity that produces knowledge-awareness of contingency—and so of alternatives as equally possible and valid.
The role that intertextuality plays becomes apparent when audiences must confront their a priori beliefs as determinate, constructive factors in interpretation. Paranarrative’s descriptive functions depend on this tentative imposition of a causal order reflexively constructed from past experience and prior knowledge. Paranarratives act as decoding matrices, allowing the audience to suddenly perceive the meaning, but without the fixity and stability common to normative analysis. This awareness of meaning defined in advance and left unquestioned makes the sudden insight metastable, a transient contingency revealing the illusion of a singular order; thus, their aesthetics come into consciousness as inventions only when the audience’s imposed order becomes a factor of its interpretation—reiterating the role of defamiliarization in the Unheimlich glitch and Verfremdungseffekt as articulations.
This defamiliar consciousness is not ‘critical’ through recourse to a predetermined analytic protocol, instead emerging from the awareness fostered by the contingency of that process. These results, while related to the Modernist aesthetics of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, will always exceed them: the Unheimlich is a transitive experience, one that morphs over time, remaining the same and continuously changing to meet the demands of a changed situation beyond his Modernist aesthetic of critique that relies on a Marxist dialectic for its ordering. Defamiliarization remains constant: without the violation of expectations (whatever they have become) the rupture does not take place—a demonstration of how this process escapes containment as a historical protocol, or isolation within a particular aesthetic, or even the particular critical framework of Marxism. The destabilization of established signifiers will necessarily challenge whatever comfortable assumptions make them appear familiar and unquestionable; the links between glitch and the destabilizations of postcinema originate with this same violation of established belief. The Unheimlich adapts to novel situations, taking on appropriate formal characteristics that identify the margins and resentiments of the status quo, bringing their contingency back into conscious awareness—this protean shifting is definitional. The defamiliarized is an excluded and uncomfortable limit whose rejection and displacement (erasure by the aura of the digital) maintains the coherent, existing order; returns of the excluded and elided unground accepted orders because they reveal their imposed nature as artifice. The development of the Unheimlich glitch in postcinema reflects the challenges posed by post-digitality generally, a self-referential encounter for the audience—resulting in a ‘criticality’ that challenges both critical and normative modes’ totalizing and teleological analyses, fully opening them to radical change.
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