Wednesday, May 20, 2009


What's with the number 9? I just spent some time looking at movie trailers on the Apple website, and I noticed that this year (2009) we will have movies titled Nine, 9, $9.99, and District 9. What's more they're in my favorite genres: Nine is a musical, 9 and $9.99 are animated, and District 9 is sci-fi. Also Nine is a remake of an art film (Fellini's 8 1/2). And, judging from the trailers, at least two of the movies (9 and District 9) have political themes and the other two are about the meaning of life (Nine and $9.99). It looks like 2009 will be a great year for lovers of film as well as lovers of the number 9.

Friday, May 8, 2009

"To progress by moving backwards"

I was walking down the street the other day and saw someone pushing a Bugaboo Cameleon stroller. Bugaboo is one of the hippest brands of stroller, largely (I think) because it is the most expensive brand. Personally I prefer both Stokke and Quinny strollers. (Both are only slightly less outrageously priced than the Bagaboo. We were lucky enough to get a gently used Quinny for Maggie at half the list price.) But if I had to buy a Bugaboo, I'd go for the "Cameleon" model. In one of its configurations it transforms into an old-school British-style pram. (The Cameleon is pictured to the left, and an antique pram is pictured to the right.)

This is great example of retrofuturistic design. I discussed retrofuturism in my earlier post on the movie Steamboy. By the way, the current Wikipedia article on retrofuturism has got it wrong. That article limits the use of the term "retrofuturism" to nostalgic representations of what past eras thought the future would look like. For example, if Old Navy started selling silver jump suits, that would be retrofuturistic. And that is definitely one common use of the term. But, as Wikipedia itself notes, the term was originally coined by conceptual artist Lloyd Dunn who used it to mean "the act or tendency of an artist to progress by moving backwards." Dunn was an early practicioner of what has come to be called mashup in which parts of several existing artworks are combined to form a new artwork. Here is an excellent article about the history of the term, written by people who worked with Dunn. The article explains that:

Retrofuturism is an idiom in which expressions are constructed, as in any natural language, out of pre-existing conventional elements. The machine arts (photography, xerox, audiotape, video, etc.), like the work of the contemporary language poets, coin new "words" like no other media in history. Because they are mechanistically reproductive, they also conventionalize and codify information. Conventionalized material, like the cliché (a form of verbal shorthand which collapses entire narratives, often into a few syllables) becomes the raw material for for the construction of new metalogic expressions. Artworks are also complex, like real words, which have an internal syntax all their own. Retrofuturist artworks do them one better by being like sentences, recursive collections of (themselves) recursive words; all parts of which exhibit syntactic structure (and play with it) to express new thoughts (and old ones in novel juxtapositions).

So in its broadest use "retrofuturism" is just another name for "mashup". In its more common use, retrofuturism means the use of design conventions and clichés from past artistic periods to present something that looks modern, even futuristic. This is the way the Museum of Contemporary Art used the term when it applied it to a show of car designs by J Mays (the artist who designed the new VW Beetle, Ford Mustang, and Ford Thunderbird). (You can read more about the show and see some pictures here. And you can get a good sense of what Mays is doing if you compare the 1955 Thunderbird seen here with the 2002 Thunderbird seen here.) And this is what the Bugaboo pram is doing.

Seeing this retrofuturistic pram also made me realize that this is what the emerging church is doing, too. (See my earlier post on the emerging church and/as avant garde.) Having realized that the church's links to philosophical modernism has left it theologically bankrupt, emerging theologians are attempting to return to premodern ancient and medieval theology for resources in constructing a postmodern theology. (Hence such formulations as "ancient-future faith".) In other words, they are looking to the past to find a way to move forward. In still other words, the emerging church is retrofuturistic religion.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"BSG expressed what we really are: all messed up and barely hanging on."

It's been about six weeks since Ronald D. Moore's remake of Battlestar Galactica (Moore et al, 2003-2009) ended its television run. I have to admit that, depite its defender's hyperbolic claims of greatness, the series left me cold. While I am a fan of science fiction, but I don't feel the need to watch every sci-fi show on TV. I only watch the good ones. And all I can say for Battlestar is that, while it certainly isn't one of the bad ones, it doesn't quite reach the level of the good ones. In that category I would include The Twilight Zone, Star Trek (especially The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine), Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Lost, and Dollhouse. When compared to these shows, Battlestar is just mediocre.

Battlestar is only a "brilliant" sci-fi show when you compare it to lesser shows such as Stargate, or Heroes. It took me a while to figure out that that's what Battlestar's defenders were doing. Hard core sci-fi geeks are so amazed when a sci-fi show doesn't absolutely suck that they tend to overpraise it. A comment by Geoff Holsclaw over at the Church and Postmodern Culture blog helped me realize what was going one. Holsclaw writes:

Once Firefly was canceled (which still remains unrivaled in my opinion) I thought there would never be redemption for televised science fiction. I thought I was condemned to watching Andromeda or Stargate forever. I thought that I would eternally dwell in a universe created by Gene Roddenberry.

Holsclaw admits that Firefly is far better than Battlestar but then declares the latter great in comparison to crap like Andromeda and Stargate.

But I can't let him get away with his denigration of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Holsclaw's reason for thinking that Battlestar is better than Star Trek is that the latter was "really just a liberal, multi-cutlural fantasy giving us an image of what we aspired to be as a society without calling us out everything that hindered us." Now, the first half of this statement is true. Star Trek is a fantasy of why liberals aspire society to be. But I disagree that Star Trek didn't criticize liberal society's failings. On the contrary, every alien society the Starship Enterprise encountered was a thinly veiled metaphor for 20th Century Earth. While the future Earth as Star Trek envisioned it was perfect, each of the alien planets had some problem that the Star Trek writers saw in America. The show was specifially designed to critique the failings of our society and point us toward an idealized vision of the future.

As a postmodern Christian I see much to criticize in Star Trek. I think what Holsclaw is Star Trek's liberal assumption that the ideal society would be perfectly godless and secular. But that's not what he explicitly criticizes in Star Trek. He does not criticize its particular vision of the idealized society, rather he attacks the aesthetic of idealization itself:

As someone said, Star Trek was a symbol of what we hoped to be while BSG expressed what we really are: all messed up and barely hanging on. For the most part BSG unflinchingly dealt with the tragic aspect of humanity, that we are simultaneously cylons and humans, uh, I mean sinners and saints.

But I reject his premise that only realistic (as opposed to idealistic) art can be good. Art has both realistic and idealistic functions. Take 80s sit-coms, instead of sci-fi. While it might be important to have sit-coms like Roseanne or The Simpsons which show us a realistic portrait of a messed up family, it is just as important to have sit-coms like The Cosby Show and Family Ties which give us idealized families. An idealized TV family gives us something to aspire to and helps form our moral imaginations with images of what is possible rather than leaving us stuck with our current problems. Maybe no father is as perfect as Bill Cosy's Cliff Huxtable, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to live up to that standard.

Note: I blogged about this issue before in my post on Thomas Hibbs's idea that recent Christian artists have failed to imagine a world where goodness is attractive.