The Phantom Zone

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The boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.

Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto (1991) [1]

This is no fantasy... no careless product of wild imagination. No, my good friends.

The opening lines of Richard Donner's Superman (1978) [2]

In a 1950 film serial entitled Atom Man vs Superman [3] television executive and evil genius Lex Luthor sends Superman into a ghostly limbo he calls "The Empty Doom." Trapped in this phantom void, Superman's infinite powers are rendered useless, for although he can still see and hear the "real" world his ability to interact with it has all but disappeared. Over the following decades this paraspace [4]—to use Samuel Delany's term for a fictional space, accessed via technology, that is neither within nor entirely separate from the 'real' world—would reappear in the Superman mythos in various forms, beginning in 1961. Eventually dubbed "The Phantom Zone," its back story was reworked substantially, until by the mid 60s it had become a parallel dimension discovered by Superman's father, Jor El. Once used to incarcerate Krypton's most unsavory characters, The Phantom Zone had outlasted its doomed home world and eventually burst at the seams, sending legions of super-evil denizens raining down onto Earth. Beginning its life as an empty doom, The Phantom Zone was soon filled with terrors prolific enough to make even The Man of Steel fear its existence.

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GIFABILITY

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Last winter, Dan Harmon, who was then the executive producer of the television sitcom Community, shared that he tried, “many times a season” to put star Alison Brie “in a situation, wardrobe-wise, that I know is going to end up as an animated GIF file!”[1] Those GIFs, which circulate on Tumblr and other social media networks that traffic in images, are frame-capture GIFs. Unlike other GIF types, frame-capture GIFs plainly collect and endlessly repeat a single pop cultural moment from movies, TV shows, sporting events, political occasions, newscasts, cartoons, or even video games. As GIFs are silent, text is used to share dialogue or help shepherd the meaning of a GIF. Frame-grab GIFs are low-quality, incessantly mobile things, they can be awkwardly cropped and their focus is always obviously legible. Somewhat counter to this are what Daniel Rourke has termed art GIFs,[2] which, while also frequently sourced from movies or television, contain higher resolutions and have a self-consciously highbrow pretention, usually focusing on subtler, “artistic” moments.

A frame-grab GIF

Writing in the early 1990s, Susan Stewart observed that “with the advent of film, interpretation has been replaced by watching … Here we see the increasing historical tendency toward the self-sufficient machine, the sign that generates all consequent signs, the Frankenstein and the thinking computer that have the capacity to erase their authors and, even more significantly, to erase the labor of their authors.”[3] Stewart's diagnosis of the filmic watching-state returns, in a modified form, with the frame-grab GIF. These GIFs are in some sense the ultimate in self-sufficiency, not merely in the eternal return of their endless loop, but also within what Rourke has called the co-ordination of “their own realm of correspondence.”[4]

The quality of the frame-grab GIF is important. Borrowing insights from Hito Steyerl’s analysis of the poor image, the creation and distribution of frame-grab GIFs “enables the user’s active participation in the creation and distribution of content, it also drafts them into production. Users become editors, critics, translators, and (co)authors of poor images.”[5] Perhaps due to their quality and size, frame-grab GIFs have necessarily abstracted authorship. They are deployed in variable contexts, as reactions, illustrations, or expressions. Art GIFs, on the other hand, are circulated to be admired. Their authorship is also more consistently policed, as their authors demand credit for their work.

 

An example of what Daniel Rourke terms an "art GIF" (via)

While Stewart’s description of “the sign that generates all consequent signs” is one that erases authorship, the vernacular of frame-grab GIFs does something different. Instead of completely erasing authorship, the creation of frame-grab GIFs rearranges its tenets. Generally centered on a performer, framing the actor/actress in a context removed from the narrative flow of their source media. With their behavior on display, they carry a kind of performative authorial focus within the GIF. While the GIF is not by them, it is of them...

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Wavelength: "The Paris, Texas of the Second Empire" by Lawrence Kumpf

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The Paris, Texas of the Second Empire

Compiled July 2012 by Lawrence Kumpf

The flâneur is someone abandoned in the crowd. He is thus in the same situation as the commodity. He is unaware of this special situation, but this does not diminish its effects on him, it permeates him blissfully, like a narcotic that can compensate him for many humiliations. The intoxication to which the flâneur surrenders is the intoxication of the commodity immersed in a surging stream of customers. -- Walter Benjamin, 1938

A phantasmagoric journey through mid-20th century Country-Western music inspired by Walter Benjamin’s "The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire."

Like the poet as flâneur in Benjamin’s essay, the country singer holds a position as the susceptible vessel that embodies the incongruities and ruptures characteristic of modern life. Neither an active symptom nor proprietor of a solution for the social ills, the singer finds himself drawn into the intoxicating world of empathetic relations to, with and as commodity. We hear, perhaps more clearly then in Baudelaire, a voice speaking not from the elevated position of a social commentator or critic, but as the desire of the commodity and commodified. Connoisseurs of narcotics sing empathetic odes to inanimate objects and intoxicants, fortifying themselves in homes that are really bars. Hobos, trashmen and ragpickers walk the street collecting and picking through the worn out, exhausted items that have escaped our economy of exchange: the antiques of modernity, the images of obsolescence. The perpetual peregrinator, a rambling man, heroically stripped of the comforts of modern life finds himself stalking graveyards and mourning a loss that has yet to occur, the final refuge of his own death. In a way these songs embody the last gasp of a failed American politics, the moment before county western music slips into an emphatic listing of personal property as banal as Rick Ross’ "Trilla." The tragedy of our era is that the latent revolutionary desires present in Hank Williams Jr.’s "Fax Me a Beer" (not included in this mix) are forever doomed to find their outlet in an inane fantasy of endless technological advancement.

1.Porter Wagoner - The Wino
2.Jim Ed Brown- Bottle, Bottle
3.Porter Wagoner – Shopworn 4.Hank Williams – Men with Broken Hearts
5.Leon Rausch – Glass of Pride
6.Don King – Live Entertainment
7.David Allen Coe – Sad Country Song
8.Don Silvers – Play me another Hank Williams
9.Porter Wagoner – Bottom of the Bottle
10.Merle Haggard – Swinging Doors
11.Porter Wagoner – I Just Came to Smell the Flowers
12.D. Sheridan – Don’t Make Me Laugh (While I’m Drinkin’)
13.The Willis Brothers – Gonna Buy Me A Jukebox
14.David Frizzell – I’m Gonna Hire A Wino to Decorate our House
15.Frank Lowe - "Trash Man"

Lawrence Kumpf is a curator at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, NY.

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