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Reviewed by:
  • Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment
  • Jan Baetens
Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment by Angela Ndalianis. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2004. 336 pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 0-262-14084-5.

With Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment, Angela Ndalianis has written an important book. Although the relationships between Neo-Baroque and postmodern culture (here represented by the entertainment industry) have been stressed by many scholars (Calabrese still being the best-known of them [1]), Ndalianis succeeds in broadening the discussion in significant ways. But how does the author "outperform" (to quote one of her favorite expressions) the achievements of the existing scholarship on the Neo-Baroque/postmodern issue? [End Page 71]

On one hand, one might have the impression (which is false) that Ndalianis's book offers nothing more than a systematic, complete, up-to-date, popular culture-oriented view and reworking of the Baroque's posterity in today's mass culture: She documents thoroughly issues such as "polycentrism and seriality," "intertextuality and labyrinths," "hypertexts and mappings," "virtuosity, special effects, and architectures of the senses," "special-effects magic and the spiritual presence of the technological," without saying anything that Calabrese and others have not already said. Yet on the other hand, Ndalianis also introduces a set of very new insights and approaches, which transform dramatically the very terms of the discussion, and this is what makes Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment a real landmark publication.

Ndalianis, who accepts the use of baroque and classic as transhistorical categories and who accepts equally the current definitions of both concepts (following Wölfflin and others, she thus opposes both as open versus closed, or dynamic versus static, etc.), emphatically rejects any binary analysis of their opposition. First, the author positions the relationship between the two poles of classic and baroque in terms of their continuity, instead of the split between them: The Neo-Baroque era in which we are living is neither the result of a refusal of the classic, nor the outcome of a degenerative process. Neo-Baroque's "chaos" is not the contrary of classicism's "order"; the former is, on the contrary, to be analyzed as a more complex instance of the latter. This reconsideration of the relationships between the two major tendencies in our culture is a crucial shift that Ndalianis also transfers to other dichotomies, such as modernism versus postmodernism, in which the author manages to break with the too-easy identification of postmodernism and Neo-Baroque: Neo-Baroque is, for her, part of the larger whole of postmodernism, not a simple synonym for it.

Second, and this is a very logical step in the author's argument, Ndalianis's refusal to oppose classic and baroque in an absolute way helps her to re-establish the fundamental historicity of each form taken by the two tendencies. In a more concrete manner, Ndalianis, while permanently foregrounding what links contemporary entertainment to the 17th-century Baroque, illustrates no less systematically the differences between those two cultures. Taking her inspiration from Bolter and Grusin's remediation theory [2], Ndalianis demonstrates convincingly that given the differences at the economic, social, political, ideological and scientific levels, Baroque culture and Neo-Baroque culture cannot be the same, despite all of the forms, techniques and goals they undoubtedly share (Baroque's Catholicism, for instance, is something very different from Neo-Baroque's New Age sympathies).

Yet, the renewing force of Ndalianis's book is not limited to the discussions on the meaning, use and scope of the notions of (neo-)baroque and classic. Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment also makes an important contribution to the field of cultural semiotics as well as to the theory of contemporary culture as visual culture. In this sense, it is not exaggerated to claim that the stances defended by the author deserve to complete the theoretical attempts to define "visual culture" in the wake of W.J.T. Mitchell's famous visual turn [3]. Taking as a starting point the cultural semiotics of Lotman [4], Ndalianis tries to give a more concrete interpretation of his very abstract boundary theory of culture. Culture, for Lotman, is based on a double mechanism of...


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