So, a disclaimer: This is not a lesson plan, not precisely. I did in fact teach Harun Farocki’s Parallels series for the final class session for my SAIC writing seminar “Moving Images and Arguments.” But since it was the final class, and since we were in a phase of the course in which my top priority was guiding students during revisions of their final essays, our discussion of the videos wasn’t nearly as detailed and rich as what you see reflected here.
Really, these are notes toward a future lesson, delivered under ideal circumstances. Although it was outside of the scope of my “Moving Images and Arguments” course, what I am most interested in about the Parallels videos are the connections Farocki draws between the videogames’ imperfect simulations of reality and the problem of philosophical skepticism. Although present to some extent in Parallel I (2012), the specter of skepticism is most pronounced in Parallel II (2014) and Parallel III (2014). I was deep in the midst of writing my dissertation in 2014, and didn’t end up seeing II, III, and IV until 2016. This was a shame, because problems of skepticism actually play a large role in the first chapter of my dissertation, and it turns out that I missed the chance to incorporate an analysis of these videos into that discussion. Parallel II and Parallel III form the main inspiration for this post, as a way of making up for that lost opportunity.
I have taught André Bazin’s essay “Ontology of the Photographic Image” in two very different contexts: once in the “Image” portion of the University of Chicago’s Media Aesthetics sequence in their Humanities Core, and once in a writing seminar at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago entitled “Moving Images and Arguments,” on cinematic rhetoric. Surprisingly, both times I taught it, large portions of my lesson remained the same: the main difference was that I spent more time discussing the philosophical groundings of Bazin’s piece in Media Aesthetics, whereas I used the extended course time in “Moving Images and Arguments” to show and discuss a wider variety of things.
Both times I taught this, I used Timothy Barnard’s translation, from the Canadian Caboose edition of What Is Cinema?. When that translation first came out, it got a lot of buzz, although its hallowed status might have had a lot to do with it just being notoriously difficult to get your hands on across the border in the US. I’m not going to take an official stand on the volume’s alleged superiority, although I will say that there’s at least one turn of phrase that Barnard gets right that Gray doesn’t, and that alone is enough to tip the scales in Barnard’s favor.
Consider this another addendum, this time to my previous post on teaching the concept of procedural representation. These are two more of my favorite case studies to use for that topic—ones that, however, fall outside the designation of “games about squares.” As with the games outlined in my previous post, I teach these via small group work, assigning students to first play these games, and then present to their classmates on them. For these presentations, I direct students to not simply say “this game is about xtopic,” but instead say things like “when you do y in this game, z happens.” My aim is to get them to specifically lay out how rules shape player behavior, and provide consequences for that behavior, and how this combination of rules/behavior/consequence can make claims about the how the world works.
The first time I taught a unit on the concept of procedural representation, it was in my course “The Moving and Interactive Image” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The theme I wanted to explore that week was the limits of thinking about games as moving images, at all. Are there some games that get such a large percentage of their meaning from rules and interactions that it is not even productive to think about them as images at all anymore? To this end, I assigned students the chapter “Art” from Ian Bogost‘s book How to Do Things with Videogames, where he lays out the idea of what he calls the “proceduralist style” in art games. Bogost characterizes this style of games in the following way:
In these games, expression arises primarily from the player’s interaction with the game’s mechanics and dynamics, and less so (in some cases almost not at all) in their visual, aural, and textual aspects. These games lay bare the form, allowing meaning to emanate from a model.[i]
I also set up a unit on proceduralist games in my Intro to Mass Communication course at DePaul University, which I taught three times, in the Fall 2015, Winter 2016, and Spring 2016 quarters. As I repeatedly taught this unit, I segued away from using Bogost’s “Art” chapter from How to Do Things with Videogames. (I found that the chapter’s engagement with the tired “are videogames art?” debate was too much of a lure, pulling student attention away from the core issues I wanted to address.) Instead, I subbed in “Procedural Rhetoric,” the first chapter of Persuasive Games, with very heavy excisions. (It really is a shame that, at 64 pages, that chapter is so unreasonably gargantuan. It definitely makes for some headaches when deciding on reading assignments.) And, over time, I gravitated toward some specific games to play in-class: a group of games I affectionately refer to as “games about squares.”
Here’s the second week in my “Ironic Narration and Lying Photographs” section for my course “Moving Images and Arguments.” Below the fold: Mitchell Block’s …no lies (1973), Luis Buñuel’s Land without Bread (1933), and Jia Zhanke’s 24 City (2008). Let the beguilement commence!
In my fall 2016 course “Moving Images and Arguments,” a survey of rhetorical techniques across cinema (including plenty of documentaries and essay films), video art, and videogames, I devoted two separate class sessions to the theme of “Ironic Narration and Lying Photographs.” What follows is the first. (I’ll be posting the second later.)
One learning objective for this week was to get students thinking critically about where, exactly, the “lies” come from in photographs that we consider untrustworthy. To this aim, I assigned “Two Futures for Electronic Images,” a chapter from D. N. Rodowick’s The Virtual Life of Film, as reading. I also directed students to the website for “Altered Images,” the Bronx Documentary Center’s exhibition of manipulated documentary photography, to peruse the images and stories collected there. My second learning objective, though, was to slide away from issues of documentary and “lying,” toward issues of humor and irony. Where do we draw the line between lies that are meant to deceive, and lies that are meant as entertaining winks?
In the spring of 2016, I taught two concurrent sections of a seminar on Avant-Garde Film and Video Art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When I tallied up the 25 final papers across my two sections, I received two papers on Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), two papers on Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971), three papers on Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1967) … and six papers on Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1989). Clearly, the video had struck a nerve, above and beyond anything else I had shown in the course had managed to do.
I have subsequently integrated the video into my course “Moving Images and Arguments,” on cinematic rhetoric, and I definitely plan to teach it again in the future, across a variety of possible contexts. I like to take a relatively hands-off approach when teaching Tongues Untied, privileging student conversation over lecture. However, I do have some notes on things I have found it productive to turn to while leading discussion, based primarily around clips I find to be especially rich.
Bruce Conner’s A Movie is one of my favorite films to teach. I’ve taught it while covering theories of editing in an Introduction to Film course, I’ve taught it for a course on cinematic rhetoric, and I’ve taught it in courses on the history of American avant-garde cinema. I’ve been lucky enough to teach at a school that had a good-quality 16mm print of it in its collection, and since then I’ve made frequent use of a MPEG-4 rip of a VHS copy of that print (formats upon formats!). It’s less than ideal, but the poor image quality never seems to diminish students’ fascination with it.