- Captivation and the Work of Art. A review of Rey Chow, Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking about Capture
In the introduction to Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking about Capture, Rey Chow draws our attention to two senses of the word “entanglement.” While the “most obvious sense” is that of a “relativization” or blurring of conceptual boundaries and “stable categories of origination and causation such as author, owner, actor, mind, intention, and motive” (10), “entanglement,” Chow reminds us, also “carries the more familiar connotation of being emotionally tied to a person or an object, from whom or from which one cannot extricate oneself” (11). These two senses, then, speak to two distinct and, in many ways, contradictory tendencies: one toward a “democratization of society” and “elimination of elitist distinctions” and another toward an “affective or aesthetic form of capture and captivation” that “bear the persistent constitutive markings of hierarchical distinctions (such as domination and submission)” (11). Each of the essays gathered in Entanglements stages and attempts to think through this double-movement within and across an extraordinarily wide range of discourses, disciplines, and media to illustrate the extent to which each of these tendencies often entails its opposite. At the same time, it may not be too much to say that Chow’s book most often calls on the affective dimension of this same double-movement in order to question more conventional accounts of the “democratization, indistinction, and liberalization of social boundaries,” as well as of capture and captivation themselves (11). Ranging over a wide array of media (including film, literature, photography, and digital work) and theory from several traditions and periods, Entanglements also suggests that focusing attention on the subject’s experience of captivation—as prey, as audience, and even as object of representation—would play an important role in the transformation of concepts like art, freedom, sacrifice, and visibility.
Chow’s essays regularly return to a set of overlapping issues that create what she describes as a “topological looping” or “loops” woven into and between individual essays (1, 2). Thus, the operation of “enmeshing,” to which “entanglement” also refers, not only appears on the level of content but structures the relationship among the concepts, sections, and chapters that comprise the book on the whole (1).Recurrent questions concerning the relationship between mediality and reflexivity, capture and captivation, mimesis and its relation to violence, victimization and forgiveness, and the role of East Asian cultural production in the globalized Western academy today are brought to bear on each other in order to modify the reader’s engagement with concepts as they move between discourses and across medial forms. Importantly, however, “entanglement” does not refer to the effort to think sameness, but on the contrary, to “linkages and enmeshments that keep things apart” and “the voidings and uncoverings that hold things together” (12). Entanglement, in this sense, becomes a refusal to read these issues as expressions of the logic of a unifying whole.
The significance for Chow of transmedial thinking is already apparent in the opening essay, where Chow’s primary interest is reflexivity, or the “process in which thought becomes aware of its own activity,” and the manner in which thinking through (rather than simply about) medium has long been central to the staging of any reflexivity as such on the part of the artwork (18). Of course, as Clement Greenberg suggested long ago, modernism may just be another name for the moment when medium emerges both as the artwork’s central concern, and as a means to stage its reflexivity, though the point here will be to underscore the extent to which such staging “materializes as an intermedial event” (18).1 Thus, in a perceptive discussion of Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect [Verfremdungseffekt], Chow not only shows that, in his hands, reflexivity is a “conscious form of staging” that “far exceed[s] the genre of drama,” but that the aims of such reflexivity—what Walter Benjamin described as the “uncovering (making strange, or alienating) of conditions”—are no less at the heart of the enterprise known as “theory” (18, 13). Accordingly, if Brecht’s theater asks how...