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Reviewed by:
  • Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment
  • Theodore Gracyk
Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment, by Angela Ndalianis. Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 2004, 323 pp., $34.95 cloth.

Like the cliché about not judging a book by its cover, the prominence of the term "aesthetics" in a book's title is no indication of what one will find inside. Has the term become so elastic that it will now cover everything cultural? Or is it the case, as in Angela Ndalianis's discussions of theme park rides and computer games, that the term applies to anything that has a parallel in earlier practices covered by this rubric? Ndalianis may be stretching it too far, for the book in question emphasizes parallels with baroque practices that predate Alexander Baumgarten's 1735 proposal to use "aesthetics" as the name of an emerging discipline concerned [End Page 115] with perception. We are alternately informed that the book explores the poetics, semiotics, and the "logic of contemporary media." But because Ndalianis holds that recent visual media involve a "specific system of perception" that arises from a "radical cultural transformation" (22-23), the term "aesthetics" may be as good as any other in conveying her purposes. For she is not concerned with artistic style—presumably the province of art historians. She is theorizing broadly about visual media by examining an assortment of media strategies found in the two eras and aims to identify their common "morphology" (19). Her sources are Fredric Jameson, Walter Benjamin, and Gilles Deleuze rather than, say, Kendall Walton, Noël Carroll, or Gregory Currie.

Ndalianis's main idea is that there is a strong but not exact parallel between our own times and the visual forms favored in the seventeenth century. (For Ndalianis, the baroque period stretches from 1492 to the 1680s.) The two epochs involve similar cultural sensibilities and artistic practices, so if we understand baroque art and visual media, we will better understand what is going on in contemporary media. In short, the framing assumption is Shelley's dictum that art is the expression of the spirit of its time. More specifically, the design of modern entertainment media is argued to be very similar to a wide range of baroque entertainment and representational practice. But the similarity is not due to either awareness or imitation of baroque style. Each "logically emerged as a result of systemic and cultural transformations" peculiar to its own time (17). The similar "logic" of each period is thus seen as evidence that there are parallels in the "general tendencies" and consequent "dominant cultural sensibilities" of the two periods (17-21). Because hindsight is more reliable than precognition, a backward glance at the baroque may help us to better grasp our own historical and cultural context.

Having outlined these proposals in a lengthy introduction, Ndalianis offers five chapters, each devoted to a specific parallel. All five chapters share a similar strategy. A different aspect of neo-baroque communication is highlighted, and one type of baroque art or entertainment is compared and contrasted with its neo-baroque counterpart, with at least one neo-baroque example explored in considerable detail.

The introduction focuses on Jurassic Park (both the film and the theme park ride). Chapter 1 focuses on neo-baroque "narrative strategies," as first Don Quixote and its sequel and then the palace at Versailles are compared to the various Alien films and comic books. The main focus is "serial" art as an outgrowth of capitalism, generating "an aesthetics of repetition" enriched by its "rampant self-reflexivity" (69). Chapter 2 shifts to the baroque love of labyrinthine structure, with its "enforced circuitousness, planned chaos, choice among paths, intricacy, complexity, and an invitation to the audience to engage reflexively" in exploring the labyrinth (84). Ndalianis's baroque case is Pietro de Cortona's elaborate painted ceiling for the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. The neo-baroque counterpart is the Doom video game and its sequel, Doom II. Inexplicably, for a book with numerous illustrations, there are no visuals to display Doom for those unfamiliar with such games. Chapter 3 examines baroque cartography as a background for discussing geographic discovery and colonization, leading to the neo-baroque...


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