on the visceral power of media

I’ve been reading your excellent posts on Galloway’s chapter on first-person perspective and wanted to give some historical perspective. As you know, we have had first person narratives in literature for a long time. Robinson Crusoe, considered by many to be the first “novel” in English, was written in first person, so we have long understood the affective power of putting an audience, viewer, reader, or player in the eyes of the main character.

I wonder if we would attribute the same visceral power to first-person novels that we do to first-person shooters? I don’t think we would. I don’t think we worry so much about violence in novels as we do in video games. We don’t worry that obsessive literary readers, like English professors or students, are going to be adversely affected by what they read. Yes, we still ban books in some school districts, but it’s far less common.

So here’s my take on this.  I think it is very hard to imagine what the experience of reading a novel was like prior to the development of cinema. I imagine that when you read a novel, you create filmic images in your head.  In your mind, you have panning shots, close-ups, etc: the grammar of film and television is your media grammar.  In some respects this is the reverse of Marshal McLuhan’s famous observation that ever new medium take a prior medium as its content (e.g. film takes the novel as its content, and the Internet takes video, image, and text as its contents).

Today we experience film very differently as going to the cinema is only one of many options. With Netflix, movies become the content of the Internet and the kinds of indexical controls that computers give us change the viewing experience. Not only can we pause, fast forward, and rewind, we can select from 1000s of films in the first place. There’s this well-known apocryphal story about Lumiere’s Arrival of the Train that when it was shown in 1895 all the filmgoers were panicked. They responded viscerally to the train as if it was there. No one knows if it really happened that way, but it gives us a way of thinking about our visceral response to video games.

Perhaps soon we will respond to film as we now respond to novels as a kind of distanced medium, seen through the lens of video games.


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