"An Overview of Cultural Expression: The Arts"
By David Daw
A Note from the Author: This review is meant simply to be a quick thumbnail sketch of the work in question. I have provided links to more background information rather than delving deeply into these topics directly. I am working on a more formal academic review of the work that addresses these topics as my master's thesis.
Origins of the Overview:
Most of you have probably never heard of the work I'm reviewing today. An Overview of Cultural Expression: The Arts is the formal title of a work supposed time traveler Michael Brune claims to have brought back with him from the 22nd century. Brune, like John Titor and Andrew Carlssin, provided several extraordinary claims about our future before disappearing altogether but unlike Titor or Carlssin, Brune did not claim to be the author of his texts. Instead he provides The Overview as an important academic work that was "widely read in the future."
The work itself is an incomplete text of a review of the status and nature of cultural expression in what Brune claims to be his home century. Brune posted on his Web site that he was transcribing the text as he was unable to convert his copy to a format compatible with our technology. He only completed the transcription of the third chapter on the arts, which he claimed to be the longest and most easily understood, before he and his site disappeared. Brune left us with no index, but references to a sixth and final chapter on popular collective intelligences, as well as a first chapter on advertisements as well as an introduction, lead to a conclusion that we have only a third to a fifth of the theoretical complete text.
The work is almost universally believed to be a hoax due to the unsubstantiated nature of Brune's claims and the fairly impenetrable nature of the text and the fact that it is not widely circulated. The Overview can, however, be found on various Usenet channels and a few online forums, and a small collective has formed of readers who believe the work is authentic. What I'm presenting here is the most popular interpretation of the text but by no means the only one. I apologize to the proponents of Strong AI and post-apocalyptic interpretations of The Overview and promise that greater attention will be paid to their arguments in the future, no pun intended.
The Three Axis Theory of Mediums of Expression:
The chapter begins with a review of the work's "Three Axis Theory of Mediums of Expression." The theory states that distinct mediums have broken down (though the exact date of this breakdown is not stated) and that it is now more accurate to think of works as existing within fields of expression. A work's field is evaluated by examining if it is realistic or representative along three axes: the visual, the narrative, and the temporal. The chapter contains no graphic of these axes, referring the reader instead to the un-transcribed introduction where the theory is fleshed out in more detail. However, a rough approximation could be made without much effort by simply creating a graph of a three dimensional field and labeling each axis.
As you travel in a positive direction on any axis a work is considered more realistic, in the negative direction it becomes more representative. But how do we define these terms along each axis? While it's difficult to define them exactly when we have only a brief review of the theory, the work does provide several examples of realistic and representative works on each axis allowing us to work backwards toward a definition of terms.
The visual axis is very simple. Realistic works show reality as it is. The most visually realistic work we have today would be live performances; what we see visually is reality. Real people doing real things. As we move towards the representative end of the axis we pass realistic art such as renaissance paintings, though a whole continuum of more symbolic art, and finally arrive at the ultimate in symbolic representation, the written word.
Narrative realism is the way in which the universe of the work conforms to reality. Tolstoy for instance is an extremely narrative-driven, realistic author. Brecht on the other hand is narrative representation at its most extreme. This axis may well be considered the genre axis, as the narrative reality of a work tends to define its genre more broadly. Science fiction and fantasy are less realistic than westerns or other fantasy plays of the past and these in turn are less realistic than serious fiction that tells stories that can take place in our real world.
Temporal is probably the most difficult of the three axes to understand. The author describes it not as the ordering of events as you might assume. (Works with a jumbled series of events such as Memento would be at the same point along this axis as movies with a straight A to B time progression and would instead be distinct along the narrative axis.) Instead, the position along this axis is determined by how the audience experiences time during the performance. Live performances such as plays and movies are realistic because time passes naturally in the performance. Representative works are books and works of art where the audience is forced to create its own sense of the passage of time as no external time-frame is forced upon them. In a sense it may be easier to understand this axis if we rename realistic and representative as passive and active experiences of time. The more we are forced to create our own sense of time when experiencing a work of art the more representative it would be along the temporal axis. We do this so naturally, even in highly temporally representative forms of art such as books and comics, that we don't make this distinction, and the necessity of this axis is one of the Overview's hotly debated topics.
Although this system may at first seem complex, applications of it by members of the Overview "community" have yielded interesting results. The system already seems to model art accurately just as the theory predicts. Mediums tend to progress from representation to realism in each axis as they mature and then, upon reaching the height of realism in any catagory, they rebel against it, seeking the primal expression of symbolism. This can be seen most prominently in painting where realism gave way to expressionism and other visually representative art movements but the first hints of it can be seen in many mediums. Film, television, and sequential art, having reached narrative realism fairly quickly, are all beginning to put out works that rebel against that realism.
The "Lost Presentation Axis and the Post-Singularity Theory of The Overview"
The main flaw in this system is also its single greatest mystery. No distinction is made for a work's presentation. Most of us today think of a work we are viewing ourselves to be very different from a work recorded by someone else and transmitted to us. The Overview readers dub this "the presentation axis" and it's absence may be the key to understanding 22nd century society. In The Overview, provided the story and sets remain the same, a play - and a movie of that play - are considered the same work on the three axis theory."
While many say this proves that Brune himself hastily pasted the work together to support his claims of time travel, believers in The Overview's authenticity have invented several theories to reconcile this apparent flaw. The most popular is that The Overview is a post-singularity
document and that whatever future Brune comes from no longer finds the presentation axis to be significant. While this may seem hard to believe, consider how much more emphasis we put on the presentation axis just twenty years ago before the Internet was a widespread part of our lives. So just what is this post-singularity society like? Well, The Overview provides us with several other holes similar to the lack of a presentation axis that can be read as clues. Here, I must again stress the differences of opinion among readers of The Overview as explanations for the work's flaws are almost as numerous as the work's readers. Again, I confine my discussion only to the most popular theories. A common theme in many proposed models of The Overview's future is the idea of a hypertextual society. A hypertext document, such as the one you're reading right now, is a relatively recent innovation. Previously, to reference another work a reader would have to physically go and get that other work; this took time and effort on the part of the reader. Hypertext tools instantly link these documents together. In recent years we've seen this idea extended to other parts of our lives such as our friends and our photographs. A hypertextual society is one in which all data is tagged and linked to other related data. The idea of a hypertextual society may explain why The Overview is so impenetrable. The text almost constantly throws complex and obscure academic and theoretical terms at the reader and at several points the author seems to invent a term and then move forward without explanation. The idea is that the reader of the document in its intended format/time frame is able instantly to access those definitions as he or she reads making is unnecessary to bog down the text with explanations of terminology. So in order for us to make sense of the lack of a presentation axis we might assume that all of this data is instantly available to the society's members in a form that is so visceral it makes the distinction of presentation totally insignificant. Taking this to its logical extreme would mean that not only does this future society no longer differentiate between live and transmitted performance, it no longer differentiates between its own experiences and the experiences of others. Whole books could be written on how other areas of society would function in such a system but I wish to confine the discussion to art, as that is where our limited clues on the workings of this future society lie. Status of the Arts in the 22nd Century Here we arrive at the meat of the text, where the author actually discusses the various arts in 22nd century society. We find that our hypertextual presentation independent society has led to changes in the arts, the most startling being the shift toward dance. Fully forty of the chapter's pages, over a third of the text, is dedicated to an exploration of the explosion of dance as an artform. Indeed, though the author rejects the term, dance may be considered the future's dominant medium. Although dance is still often viewed as it traditionally has been, the ability to record the experience and transmit it to others provides an experience that is hyper realistic along all three axes and which provides the audience with an unprecedented sympathetic experience, the audience literally IS the performer for the work's duration. This causes the medium of dance to explode with performances taking over what we currently call "thrill seeking behaviors" as well as many other activities dance purists do not currently consider part of their medium. According to The Overview's author, this is a debate that is still raging among members of the dance community at the time of the work's publication. Downloadable experience also seems to have transformed the performance of dance in other ways. Site specific works seem to have become central to the medium now that the audience need not travel to the location themselves. In fact, location along with the actual dance being performed seems to be a key criteria for criticism of a work. The final and most startling change to the medium is the idea of identical works being performed by people with different body types. It is considered vital in a performance not only to have the ideal body to perform any given work but also to have the ideal body to experience it, with critical debate raging along this previously unexplored avenue of criticism. Although I promised only an overview I would be remiss in leaving the work without listing a few of the other future transformations in art. The lack of a distinction between the theatrical and the recorded performance mediums seems to have transformed both significantly, as one might imagine. The written word strives for ever more symbolically pure representations of the world but little follow up is given within the text as the author refers to it as an extension of a movement begun in advertising and therefore covered in that chapter. The visual arts moves toward greater realism along the temporal axis in what seems to be a complex extension of today's locative art movement. Again, all of these topics will be covered in more detail in my forthcoming thesis. Conclusion I have treated The Overview as a genuine work for the purposes of this article and many academics may view this as a mistake. The complex "hoop jumping" I have done to explain inconsistencies in the text might just as easily be explained by seeing The Overview as the ravings of a madman. I am forced to admit that there is no evidence to claim that The Overview is a work of non-fiction. The only claim I can make is that one cannot prove it's not a work of non-fiction, either. This claim, I know, is anathema to the rational deductions upon which most serious scholarly work is based. The Overview itself has nothing to say about non-fiction; any chapter on this topic is, in a unique way, lost to history. I myself am somewhat curious on what, if any, axis its author would place reality and fantasy. Though it superficially conforms to the narrative axis it may be that this is yet another distinction in which Brune's future has no interest. Even today the fact that we are not overly married to the idea of finding a great deal of truth has slipped into our fiction. If The Overview is lies then it is, in my opinion, a series of fantastic and fascinating lies that say interesting things about our future. I have become acutely aware over the research and writing of this article that lies have a unique and interesting truth to them that make their own unusual demands of a scholar.
Please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave us a message at 718-475-6134