Reframing Subjectivity: An Autobiographical Preface


The very same split-brain research that exposed shocking differences between the two hemispheres also revealed that the left hemisphere contains the interpreter, whose job is to interpret our behavior and our responses. The interpreter constantly establishes a running narrative of our actions, emotions, thoughts, and dreams. It is the glue that unifies our story and creates our sense of being a whole, rational agent.... It builds our theories about our own life, and these narratives of our past behavior pervade our awareness.
Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Mind's Past (1998)

I am a storyteller, for better and for worse. I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.
Oliver Sacks, On the Move (2015)
Our lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative, with the stories that we tell and hear told, those we dream or imagine or would like to tell, all of which are reworked in that story of our own lives that we narrate to ourselves in an episodic, sometimes semi-conscious, but virtually uninterrupted monologue. We live immersed in narrative, recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions, anticipating the outcome of our future projects, situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed.
Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (1984)

I have been writing this book, piece by piece, my whole adult life. Not as a neuroscientist but as a narrative theorist who has written about narrative forms in a wide range of media—novels, poetry, and theater; history, memoirs, and dreams; photography, movies, and television; installations, websites, and games. Despite my past transmedial moves—and presumably those still to come—the through-line for me has always been narrative, a cognitive and affective system essential to human experience. As historian Hayden White (1990) puts it, “Narrative is a metacode, a human universal on the basis of which transcultural messages about the nature of a shared reality can be transmitted.” But in this era of neuroscience, the time has come to use a new framework to explore our conception of narrative.

The focus of this book is the interplay between narrative and neuroscience. I am arguing that the dramatic advances in brain research help illuminate some of the most difficult and intriguing questions in narrative theory. Why is narrative a significant form in every human culture we’ve ever heard of or encountered? How is narrative related to survival and natural selection in an evolutionary sense? How does narrative help distinguish us from other species? How is narrative related to dreams? How do the structure of the brain and mechanisms of memory affect the kinds of stories we tell and understand? Why is serial autobiography (from traditional diaries and memoirs to the collection of contemporary “selfies”) a privileged narrative genre? How do facial recognition and the reading of facial expressions and other physical gestures contribute to our narrative competence? What role does narrative play in the emergence and development of human consciousness? As I see it, the process of illumination moves in both directions. Not only does neuroscience enrich our understanding of narrative, but the ability to generate and understand stories also helps us understand the brain and its role in the development of human consciousness.

Narrative Moves in the Sixties

I started my academic career at UCLA in the mid-1960s, studying eighteenth century English literature and writing a dissertation on Henry Fielding’s experimentation in the theater and its impact on his approach to the novel. In 1965, while still an ABD, I was hired by Occidental, a liberal arts college in Los Angeles, as their specialist in 18th century literature. Joining the Department of English and Comparative Literature, I taught the history of the English novel and critical theory. In 1967, a few months after completing my doctoral degree, I published my first essay. It was not on eighteenth century literature. Titled “Antonioni in Transit” (Kinder 1967), it focused on Blow-up, a new film made in London by Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. Since the article appeared in the British film journal Sight and Sound, I suddenly became an international film critic. Although one of my colleagues at Oxy accused me of having “betrayed” literature and the eighteenth century, I was thrilled with this new identification.

This early transmedial move (from literature to film) was partly inspired by a question asked at my doctoral defense, a question I couldn’t answer at the time: what is the link between British novelist Henry Fielding and Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein? The question was asked by the outside member of my doctoral committee, British film historian Hugh Gray, best known for translating the writings of French film theorist Andre Bazin into English. What Gray wanted me to say was that although Eisenstein credited British novelist Charles Dickens for his use of a series of sensory compelling images to create a visual narrative sequence, a literary version of editing that influenced the filmmaker’s own conception of dialectic montage, Dickens had actually learned that technique from Fielding, who, in turn, had learned it from Homer. In fact, Fielding’s modular “art of comparison and contrast” was precisely what I had described in my dissertation.

Gray’s provocative question drove me not only to move across borders of genre, nation and century, but also to connect the modularity of narrative and its reliance on discrete sensory images, both of sight and sound, with the creative powers of montage and remix. His question also led me to study Eisenstein, who soon became a recurring figure in my work, particularly given my growing interest in montage and in both the emotive and ideological power of dialectic combinations. Part of this process was a new interest in (what I call) “serial autobiography,” which led me periodically (as in this preface) to reframe my understanding of what I was doing and why. i

Thinking about Gray’s question, I soon realized that Fielding and Eisenstein had far more in common than he had imagined. For, both began their narrative experimentation in the theater with strategies designed to overcome what they had perceived as the limits of the stage. When they transferred those strategies to a new narrative form that was just emerging at the time—to the novel in the case of Fielding, and to cinema for Eisenstein—those experimental strategies enabled them to develop a boldly distinctive approach to the new medium. Surprisingly, it did not make the new medium more theatrical as one might predict, but, on the contrary, it helped emphasize the unique narrative capabilities of the new form and their differences from those in the theater.

These were arguments I had developed in my dissertation on Fielding’s experiments in the theater, where, instead of creating a linear plot, he introduced comparison/contrast structures, on-stage narrators in the text commenting on the action, and a miscellany of events, all of which led to a conception of modular narrative. But what I now realized in light of Gray’s question is that despite their radical differences in medium, culture, and period, Fielding and Eisenstein had used the same dynamics for their innovative approach to a new form. And it was that realization that justified my own transmedial move to film studies, despite any charges of betrayal.

New Frameworks in May ’68 and Beyond

Of course, I was not writing in a vacuum. I published my first essay on film exactly one year before the watershed year of 1968, when film studies was suddenly politicized worldwide in the wake of the May ’68 uprisings in Paris which brought filmmakers, students and workers together in opposition to DeGaulle’s government. That was also the historical moment when film studies was beginning to enter academe in the USA, recruiting young scholars like me from many different fields—English, French, Art History, Communication, Photography, History, Political Science, and Philosophy—and transforming this mélange into a new area of study that was transdisciplinary from the start. In fact, in May ’68 I was not demonstrating in the streets of Paris with Godard but was attending a month-long conference at the University of California/Santa Barbara for those teaching film in the USA at any level—from grade school to graduate studies. Hosted by the newly formed American Film Institute headed by George Stevens Jr., the conference was designed to create a national curriculum for the teaching of film in America. Though it proved to be an impossible goal, it made all of us who attended think long and hard about what was possible, particularly since we were aware of what was simultaneously happening in Paris. For me it meant exploring not only what I was going to teach but what I was going to write.

In 1969 I published two essays in Sight and Sound dealing with the transcultural move of two European auteurs making their first film in the USA—one on Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (a follow-up to my original piece on Blow-up) and (with my good friend Beverle Houston) the other on Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. During the 1970s I wrote several essays as well as two books ( Close-up: A Critical Pespective on Film, 1972, and Self and Cinema: A Transformalist Perspective, 1980) in collaboration with Houston, another scholar in eighteenth century English literature whom I had persuaded to join me in film studies. While I wrote on Fielding, she worked on satirist Jonathan Swift (whom I would later use to guide my reading of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel) and on novelist Laurence Sterne (who provided a compelling early model of non-linear narrative that was greatly admired by Freud). For our second book, Self and Cinema, we chose an epigraph from Doris Lessing’s modular novel, The Golden Notebook (1962), which claimed the best way to deal with the “problem of subjectivity” was by “transforming a private experience... into something much larger.” At least two of the six key assumptions of our “transformalist” approach still remain crucial to this book: the necessity of attending to the emotive qualities of the work, and using multiple conceptual frameworks—an on-going process of reframing vital issues, which is precisely what I am doing here. In Self and Cinema, Houston and I applied multiple conceptual frameworks to the films we examined—depth psychology, behaviorism, existential psychology, phenomenology, Marxist-feminism, structuralism and cine-semiotics—many of the fields that had been combined within the post-structuralist synthesis of the 1960s and 70s, which was then the prevailing critical discourse in the West. Reading against the grain, we demonstrated how each approach generated a different reading and showed how the choice of film and conceptual framework depended on our own personal emotive responses. For, we shared Northrop Frye’s (1957) assumption that “criticism is a form of autobiography,” which we considered a privileged narrative genre that drives both individual and cultural change.

As a consequence of these assumptions, we drew on depth psychology when writing on the films of Ingmar Bergman—a Swedish filmmaker who specialized in exploring his own subjectivity in a series of interwoven narratives that became increasingly rigorous in their form, increasingly powerful in their emotional impact, and increasingly similar to dreams. We focused especially on his use of huge facial close-ups and his reading of the human face, and on his remixing of concrete modular images to generate a network of recurring dreams. Later I would trace one recurring nightmare (its images, structure, and narrative content) through his entire canon (Kinder 1981). Despite this visual emphasis on dreams and reliance on depth psychology, I was still using a literary framework. What I needed was a new frame that would help me better understand the underlying structure and emotive power of these works.

First Encounters with Neuroscience

My first encounter with neuroscience occurred in the 1970s, when I participated in a transdisciplinary faculty-development seminar at Occidental College, where we read and discussed two ground-breaking works in brain research that were accessible to the general public. Both were based on experimental brain surgery performed on patients suffering from an extreme form of epilepsy. The first was Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga’s 1967 essay, “The Split Brain in Man,” published in Scientific American, research which ultimately led to Sperry’s 1981 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine. Building on the “split-brain” experiments he had earlier performed on cats, Sperry and his doctoral student Gazzaniga deliberately cut the corpus callosum, the structure that joins the two hemispheres of the human brain. This bold procedure not only reduced the patient’s most severe epileptic seizures but also enabled their research team to distinguish the functions performed by each hemisphere. In the process, they also observed the brain’s amazing plasticity as each hemisphere compensated for functions ordinarily performed by the other.

The second work we read was Wilder Penfield’s The Mystery of the Mind: A Critical Study of Consciousness and the Human Brain (1975), which was based on brain research he had been doing since the 1950s but was now being summarized for the general public. While performing his pioneering brain surgery on patients suffering from epilepsy or brain injuries, who remained awake and totally conscious during these surgical procedures, Penfield stimulated specific locations in their brains. These stimuli immediately unleashed amazingly detailed, intact memories, which he called “flashbacks.” In the process, Penfield gathered empirical evidence for mapping discrete memories and other functions related to consciousness in specific locations of the brain. Citing some of Penfield’s earlier scientific studies from the early 1950s, Antonio Damasio credits him as one of the “small band” of pioneering investigators (along with Herbert Jasper, Giuseppe Moriuzzi, and Horace Magoun) who “pointed with astonishing certainty to a brain sector that is now unequivocally related to the making of consciousness—the brain stem—and identified it as a critical contributor to consciousness.” (Damasio, 2010, p. 7). Despite these discoveries, Penfield remained committed to the Cartesian dualism of material brain and immaterial mind, for his religious beliefs made him reluctant to give up the soul or accept the brain as synonymous with consciousness or mind.

Experiencing a wide range of reactions, the participants in our faculty seminar were asked: how could this new information about the brain affect our own research within our own diverse fields. Since I had already been convinced by my mentor in eighteenth century English literature, Ralph Cohen, that the best way to come up with innovative ideas in literature was to look at new break-throughs in other fields, especially in science, I was ready to take on this task. What immediately struck me was that both works evoked comparisons with literature and film. The split-brain studies made many of us think of the horror genre, particularly a story like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which was based on an actual nightmare by the author Robert Louis Stevenson and which challenged Cartesian dualism by showing how a material substance can trigger a transformation in the allegedly non-material mind. In Penfield’s mapping of detailed intact memories, I was troubled by his use of the term “flashback,” which in traditional narrative usually triggers a break in linearity, but which he uses to identify a special kind of memory that is extraordinarily linear. This conflict raised doubts about whether these recitations were actually based on authentic memories—doubts that would later be addressed by many researchers. In any event, I was convinced that I should explore the implications of these cinematic metaphors and realized I had a lot to learn from this field.

Dreams and Database Narrative

In the late 1970s, my literary colleague, Kenneth Atchity, and I were preparing to launch a new experimental journal called Dreamworks, a name we had lifted from Freud and which Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen later lifted from us for their new Hollywood studio. ii Designed to explore the relations between dreams and (what we called) “the waking arts,” our interdisciplinary journal was to combine “dream reports” from artists working in a wide range of media—painting, poetry, dance, performance, cinema and fiction—with essays by scholars in an equally wide range of fields—psychology, anthropology, religion, literary criticism, art history, and film theory.

The faculty seminar on Sperry, Gazzaniga and Penfield made me realize that we also had to include neuroscience—because that’s where the most challenging new ideas on the brain were being generated, ideas that would transform our understanding of dreams. Before publishing our first issue in Spring 1980, we assembled an Advisory Board that included not only an impressive list of artists (e.g., avant-garde composer John Cage, installation artist Gordon Wagner, sci-fi writer Ursula LeGuin, novelist John Fowles, poets Denise Levertov and W.S. Merwin, and independent filmmakers Pat O’Neill and Chick Strand), but also anthropologist Robert D. Bruce, ethno-psychologist George Devereux , dream content researchers Robert L. Van de Castle and Ann Faraday, and two of our nation’s leading neuroscientists working on dreams: William C. Dement, who founded Stanford University’s Sleep Research Center, the first laboratory devoted to sleep; and J. Allan Hobson, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, who had recently developed (with Robert McCarley) a new activation-synthesis model of dreams.

I met Hobson in 1978 at a conference on “Dream and Film” organized by East European film scholar Vlada Petric at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Hobson and I both presented papers on the dialogue between dream and film in the work of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman--papers that were later published in a volume edited by Petric titled, Film and Dreams: An Approach to Bergman (1981). Hobson was very interested in my observation that vertigo played a key role in the genesis of Persona, one of Bergman’s most dreamlike films. According to Bergman, the germinal image for the film was an internally generated illusion (a feeling of dizziness caused by his inner ear) rather than a memory or sensory percept coming from the outside world. Hobson found this fact intriguing because it made the film more like a dream, at least according to his new “activation-synthesis” model, which claimed dreams were triggered by the random firing of electrical signals in the primitive brain stem, which were then linked to visual (and other sensory) images selected from memory by the advanced frontal lobes of the cortex. I was particularly intrigued with the role played by the brain stem in generating dreams, particularly since, according to Penfield, this part of the brain was also involved in ”the making of consciousness.” It made me wonder whether dreams were an earlier form of serial autobiography (recurring every night), a mechanism shared with other warm-blooded species but ultimately replaced by the later development of human consciousness, particularly as theorized by Gerald M. Edelman in Neural Darwinism (1987) and Antonio Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999) and Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (2010).

This conference on Bergman enabled me to present the first version of my own work on dreams—ideas I had developed while preparing our first issue of Dreamworks and while teaching an experimental course at Occidental College called Dream Styles (a class in which Dement gave a guest lecture on REM sleep and dreams in cats and humans). In my conference paper I focused on Persona as a model of (what I would later call) “database narrative”—an open-ended form of storytelling, which exposes the dual processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all narratives. By deliberately choosing specific story elements (characters, actions, props, settings, etc) from underlying paradigms within a narrative field and combining them to generate a particular tale, the database narrative challenges the ideological power of so-called master narratives in which the choice of characters and events is traditionally made to appear “natural “or inevitable—or just telling it the way it is! Instead, like the digressive Tristram Shandy and modular Golden Notebook, these experimental narratives deliberately reject the linear plot with its reassuring narrative closure. In fact, Persona opens with a montage of sensory images from Bergman’s personal database of memories and more broadly from his Christian, Swedish, post-World War II culture, reshuffling them into a new combination that resists narrative closure. This remix bears striking similarities to some of his prior films—The Magician/The Face, 1958, Through a Glass Darkly, 1961, and The Silence, 1963— as well as several to come—Hour of the Wolf, 1968, The Ritual, 1969, Cries and Whispers, 1973, and Face to Face, 1976. This obsessive repetition with subtle variations enables us to see Bergman’s open-ended films as a series of recurring dreams. For dreams are the ultimate autobiographical genre, generated internally by signals from the brain stem and clearly demonstrating that the dreamer embodies multiple roles as the creator, the characters, the objects, the setting, and the critical interpreter. Yet, they also draw on (what I call) the “cultural dreampool,“ absorbing and mixing in images from the outside and thereby (as Lessing put it) “transforming a private experience into something much larger”.

Hobson’s “activation-synthesis” model encouraged me to think of dreams as our earliest model of database narrative, reshuffling images and percepts in new modular combinations night after night as if projecting new, possible pathways for the future, or (as Edelman would later argue) recategorizing stored images, a process also performed by memory. Dreams function as a serial form of autobiographical narratives that mediate between biological programming (the complex system that makes us dream between 90 and 120 minutes every night) and cultural imprinting (the millions of images from our culture that we re-categorize and store in our systems of memory). Drawing on the dreamer’s growing database of memories and of internally generated signals, dreams generate new scenarios for the survival of the individual, the culture, and the species.

Based on our discussions at the Bergman conference, I knew that Hobson would be an ideal member of our Advisory Board. His appreciation for the interplay between art and science had already been demonstrated in his 1977 Dreamstage installation (subtitled, “An Experimental Portrait of the Sleeping Brain”), which was on display during the conference at Harvard. Winner of the Benjamin Rush Gold Medal from the American Psychiatric Association for the Best Scientific Exhibition, it was developed in collaboration with photographer/filmmaker Theodor Spagna and experimental composer Paul Earls. The piece displayed a live dreamer, who was enclosed within a small room with glass walls, while his brainwaves were being monitored during REM sleep. This data was connected to an amplifier that generated edgy electronic music on the fly. Conceived as a preliminary step toward the mythic “dream machine,” which one day may be capable of recording and displaying our dreams, this installation shared a crucial goal with our new journal: moving beyond the codified dream-style of surrealism to explore a broader range of connections between the neurobiology of dreams and the creative arts.

The conference also enabled me to recruit other contributors to our journal Dreamworks from other cultures and fields. Two of these recruits were from the former Yugoslavia—film scholar Vlada Petric, who hosted the conference, and filmmaker Dusan Makavejev, who was then a visiting artist-in-residence at Harvard. Makavejev performed his conference paper in drag, wearing a large hat and cape, as he spoke in front of his own montage of huge facial close-ups from Bergman’s films. Identifying these faces with Bergman’s conception of the mother, Makavejev insisted that their huge size positioned us, the viewer, as the vulnerable fetus. This spectator position led me to think that perhaps the facial close-ups were so powerful because in infancy our life partly depended on our emergent ability to read the mother’s face, particularly if she was as cold and rejecting as she appears in Bergman’s films.

When I spoke at length to Makavejev, he asked about my family’s cultural roots. When I told him my maternal grandmother was from Riga, he wanted to know how old she was and when she left Latvia for the USA. “She must have known Eisenstein,” he said. “Riga’s a small town and there weren’t that many Jews.” I was thunderstruck because although I knew that Eisenstein was from Riga and so was my grandmother Becky, I never thought of them inhabiting the same universe, let alone the same city. Once again, I was surprised by the emergence of Eisenstein in my serial autobiography.

When our first issue of Dreamworks, was published in Spring 1980, it featured a ground-breaking essay by Hobson called, “Film and the Physiology of Dreaming Sleep: The Brain as Camera-Projector.” Not only did it introduce his activation-synthesis model to film studies, but this article also launched an ongoing dialogue with other film scholars that continued in subsequent issues.iii Even within the first issue, we initiated a productive conversation on the relationship between non-linear films and dreams by positioning Hobson’s article alongside dream reports from an array of filmmakers known for their experimentation with non-linear narrative structure—Federico Fellini, Dusan Makavejev, Paul Mazursky, Stan Brakhage, Paul Sharits, Ed Emshwiller, Jules Engel, Bruce Conner, Chick Strand, and Pat O’Neill. That first issue of Dreamworks won a Pushcart Award —an American literary prize... that honors the best poetry, short fiction, essays or literary whatnot published in the small presses over the previous year.” Now that our dream journal was launched, I was ready to make my next move.

Plasticity and the Picaresque: From Child’s Play to Blood Cinema

In 1980 I moved from a Department of English and Comparative Literature at a small liberal arts college (Occidental) to the School of Cinematic Arts at USC. My first class was a graduate seminar on the films of Ingmar Bergman, a course that was originally to be taught by the filmmaker himself. When Bergman baled out at the last minute, I was asked to take over. Though the students were clearly disappointed, the fact that none of them dropped the course was a test I fortunately passed.

The 1980s began with the birth of our journal Dreamworks and ended with the death of my two closest collaborators, media theorist Beverle Houston and Spanish and Latin American film and literary scholar Katherine Singer Kovacs. It also proved to be my most productive decade—when I married my second husband, had two children, and simultaneously wrote two books that drove me in new directions. Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Videogames: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1991) was dedicated to Beverle Houston and her passion for television and to my son Victor, the best videogame player in our household. Blood Cinema: The Reconstruction of National Identity in Spain (1993) was dedicated to Kitty Kovacs, who persuaded me to write on Spanish film and culture. Both books were published by the University of California Press, and each had a companion work of media. For Blood Cinema, it was a bilingual, interactive CD-ROM (the first scholarly CD-ROM in English language film studies), with excerpts from many of the films discussed in the book, with commentary in English and Spanish. For Playing with Power, it was a video documentary featuring interviews with kids playing the TMNT arcade game on Santa Monica pier, my son Victor and his friends playing the domestic version at home, and youngsters at USC’s daycare center watching episodes from the animated TV series. Although Playing with Power and Blood Cinema were in radically different fields, the primary through-line for both was still narrative theory.

In Blood Cinema, a book that took ten years to write, I returned to Hugh Gray’s question, for I realized Cervantes was the missing narrative link between Fielding and Homer. Spain’s tradition of picaresque fiction became an important area of research for understanding serial autobiography and its connections to biography, fiction and database narrative. I was interested in seeing how this narrative tradition could be pushed to new lines of experimentation by contemporary filmmakers. Whether working in exile like the nomadic Luis Buñuel or at home in Spain with total artistic freedom like Pedro Almodóvar, Spanish auteurs presented innovative models of database narrative, with ingenious strategies for mining the gaps in non-linear stories and keeping the narrative open-ended. Buñuel continued leveraging dreamlike structures, going beyond his commitment to surrealism and its codified conventions, which is why his Oscar-winning film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, is echoed in the title of this book. And Almodóvar’s hyper-plotted movies introduced what I call “retro-seriality”— using a new film to redefine earlier works as part of a trilogy through this act of retro-serial rereading, thereby re-opening “old” texts and showing they can never really be closed. iv

Blood Cinema took so long to write because I came to the subject as an outsider (as I am doing here with neuroscience), as one who lacked fluency with Spain’s language and culture. I had to catch up by seeing at least 200 Spanish films, reading the most important works in Spanish literature, and studying Spanish painting. Still, the primary challenge was to turn my outsider position into an advantage—as the only scholar in English language film studies (as opposed to a Department of Spanish) who was writing on Spanish cinema. I performed this reversal by cultivating a dual address: to those who already knew Spanish culture and Spanish film history but were unfamiliar with English-language film studies, and to those who already knew film studies and cultural theory but who were basically unfamiliar with Spanish history, culture, and cinema. In this way, I was bridging the gap between two quite different kinds of discourse with very different assumptions, which is also what I am doing here with narrative and neuroscience.

I was aided in this effort by Russian narrative theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, (1981) who claims that in intentional hybrids (such as Blood Cinema and Narrative and Neuroscience) the crucial activity is “the collision between differing points of view on the world that are embedded in these forms” and “the carving out of a living image of another language.” He claims this dialogic effect is more powerful when the linguistic forms are chosen from an alien culture, as was the case in Blood Cinema.

“This verbal-ideological decentering will occur only when a national culture loses its sealed off and self-sufficient character, when it becomes conscious of itself as only one among other cultures and languages. It is this knowledge that will sap the roots of a mythological feeling for language, based as it is on an absolute fusion of ideological meaning with language.
(Bakhtin, 1981, pp. 369-370).

The ideological implications of this comparative process are consistent both with Eisenstein’s dialectic montage and Fielding’s art of comparison/contrast, but the process also reveals the ideological drive of serial autobiography with its frequent reframings. Surprisingly it also applies to the clash between verbal and visual narratives designed for children on Saturday morning television.

In contrast to Blood Cinema, Playing with Power was a book that came very easily and was written very fast—in the interim between completing Blood Cinema and seeing it in print. This book not only made new transmedial moves by turning to television, electronic games and children’s media culture, but it also relied on a different conceptual framework: a cognitive model of narrative. The book focused on television spectatorship (expanding Beverle Houston’s theory of endless consumption) and featured an ethnographic case study of my son Victor’s interaction with popular media from birth to eight years of age. As part of this case study, it cited his own media theory, which assumed popular media were driven by the pleasure principle —the alleviation of boredom and pursuit of control. Everyone who reviewed the book quoted his account.

A long time ago there were no toys and everyone was bored. Then they had TV, but they were bored again. They wanted control. So they invented video games.
(Kinder 1991, p. 1)

In Playing with Power (1991) I argued that narrative performs two crucial developmental functions now associated with the brain: processing and contextualizing sensory knowledge, and shaping subjectivity.

As a means of structuring events within patterns of space, time, and causality, narrative creates a context for interpreting all perceptions. Narrative maps the world and its inhabitants, including one’s own position within that grid. In acquiring the ability to understand stories, the child is situated as a perceiving, thinking, feeling, acting, speaking subject within a series of narrative fields—as a person in a family saga, as a spectator who tunes in to individual tales and identifies with their characters, and as a performer who repeats cultural myths and sometimes generates new transformations.
(p. 2)

The book explored how this developmental capacity of narrative could be accelerated within children. It drew on a fascinating 1989 collection of essays titled, Narratives from the Crib, edited by Katherine Nelson, wherein eight cognitive theorists (including pioneering cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner) analyzed a series of pre-sleep monologues of a two-year-old girl and her sleep-bargaining dialogues with her father, which were recorded by her parents over a 15-month period. Not only did these recordings demonstrate a capacity for narrative earlier than most cognitive psychologists had previously assumed, but they also revealed the “special status” of narrative “in the integration of affect, cognition, and action”—a finding with which all eight contributors agreed.

I also relied on L.S. Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development,” an area of accelerated learning created through play where a child behaves beyond his average age and beyond Piaget ‘s fixed developmental model. According to Vygotsky, when play is guided by an adult or more capable peers, the interaction could function as an accelerant. I argued that interaction with popular media (like television and interactive games) could also fulfill this function, which is a basic premise of Sesame Street. Thus instead of echoing the dire warnings of many psychologists about the harmful effects on youngsters of watching television, I claimed TV could serve as an accelerant that taught youngsters a form of media literacy, which enabled them to bridge the gap between domestic and public space. For, ever since television became pervasive in the American home [a position now challenged by computers, ipads, smart phones and other digital devices], this medium had accelerated children’s acquisition of a fluid postmodernist subjectivity marked by constant change—a subjectivity that helped explain the popularity of transformer toys and pop heroes like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

My methodology was simple. I randomly chose a date to tape an entire block of Saturday morning television on the network that then had the highest ratings (CBS) and thus was presumably most popular with children at that time. I then analyzed how these dynamics of developmental narrative and transformative subjectivity were played out systemically. In show after show, I found little human and non-human creatures watching screens and manipulating dials and being transformed in the process, as they discovered how television mediates between the domestic space of the home and the world outside. This was a connection Beverle Houston had theorized and my son Victor had performed. One day before he was two, we were out driving and he recognized a picture of Bill Cosby on a billboard and said: “Jello!” By uttering that one word, he showed how TV was empowering him in the world outside and interpellating him as a consumer who was already cognitively prepared and emotionally eager to buy into the system.

These dynamics of empowerment and transformer subjectivity were embedded not only in the content of Saturday morning television but also in the form-- in the big talking heads with their direct address, and in the rapid cutting imposed by stations for commercial breaks and station IDs, and by viewers with their joysticks and remote controls. These techniques were brilliantly parodied in an episode of Garfield and Friends (a TV version of Buster Keaton’s silent film classic, Sherlock Jr), where Garfield gets trapped inside a TV set that keeps changing channels. They were also present in PeeWee’s Playhouse, where big talking heads were not only oracles bringing the news but also genies performing magical transformations.

These transformative dynamics were multiplied in the popular myth of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whose status as shifters operates on four different registers built into their names:

Teenagers: developmentally moving from childhood to adulthood;

Mutants: epigenetically altered by de novo (rather than inherited) mutations triggered by environmental pollution (radioactive goo in urban sewers);

Ninjas : culturally rooted in Japanese martial arts, but whose laid-back California lingo and artistic namesakes from the Italian Renaissance—Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Donatello--make them transnational super heroes; and

Turtles: zoologically amphibians evoking the evolutionary move from sea to land.

Given this hyper-plasticity, the only fixed aspect of their identity is their masculine gender, which depends on having the right toys and gear. This means kids can buy into the system. The turtles also acquired more cultural capital by becoming (what I called) a “transmedia supersystem,” whose fluid movement across many different media, made them even more powerful and more worthy of imitation.

In fact, you could find this transformative subjectivity not only in children but also in transnational CEOs of the time—like Akio Morita, the founding chairman of Sony, who said shortly after his company’s 1989 purchase of Columbia Pictures:

“We are more willing to act in the U.S. like a U.S. company, in Europe like a European company, and in Japan like a Japanese company. That’s the only way a global company like Sony can truly become a significant player in each of the world’s major markets.”

It was this argument about consumerism and buying into the system that led Mother Jones to include Playing with Power on a list of books that Bill Clinton should read before assuming his office of President. With hindsight I realize Playing with Power also accelerated my own movement across an adult zone of proximal development, for it pushed me into production and into working at the pressure point between theory and practice.

Producing Signature Genres: Runaways and The Labyrinth Project:

When working on the video documentary about kids’ playing TMNT, I asked them why they couldn’t choose to play as the journalist April O’Neil (instead of as one of the turtles). One boy replied: “Because the game’s made that way!” Realizing he was right and there were few games out there that enabled you to play as a female, I decided to make one exploring identity politics. Working in collaboration with Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris, we co-wrote and co-directed a prototype for a live-action game called Runaways (1997), which leveraged the subversive potential of melodrama to address issues of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity and to encourage players to explore their own identity. Though we never got the funds to finish the game, the prototype was featured at an MIT conference on gender and games and in the 1998 volume, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins.

I didn’t need to finish the game to realize that interactive digital media opened new possibilities for experimenting with database narrative. What I came up with in 1997 was The Labyrinth Project, a USC research initiative on database narrative that also functioned as an art collective, producing award-winning database documentaries and new models of digital scholarship. With a team of three media artists (Rosemary Comella, Kristy Kang, and Scott Mahoy), Labyrinth collaborated with filmmakers, writers, scholars, scientists, archivists and student assistants, to produce twelve multimedia projects. Presented as DVD-ROMs, websites, on-line courseware, and installations, these database narratives were featured at art museums, film and new media festivals, and academic conferences worldwide.

One of our earliest signature genres was the interactive memoir, which preserves the unique web of memories and associations that an individual builds over a lifetime and that inevitably unravels with old age, dementia, and death. These works encouraged users to interweave this personal material into a broader tapestry of historical narrative. Thus we chose vintage subjects who had complex relations with several different communities. Mysteries and Desires: Searching the Worlds of John Rechy features a gay Chicano novelist known as “the Sexual Outlaw” whose works purposely blur the line between autobiography and fiction. The Dawn at My Back: Memoir of a Black Texas Upbringing was the interactive version of a print memoir by Carroll Parrott Blue, an African American photographer from an independent black community in Houston. Three Winters in the Sun: Einstein in California explores the famous scientist’s contradictory interactions with six different communities— Science, Hollywood, Emigrés, Jews, the FBI, and his own Household—during his three brief visits to Caltech in the early 1930s.

Another early signature genre was the digital city symphony, which explored contested urban space through layers of time, deliberately eroding the line between documentary and fiction. In Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film by Pat O’Neill, the exploratory space was the Ambassador Hotel on the Miracle Mile in midtown Los Angeles, where the downtown powerbrokers and Hollywood entertainment moguls first mingled. It was also the site where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 and where other historical traumas, both personal and cultural, took place. In Bleeding Through Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986, documentary and fiction vied for control over this multi-tiered narrative. The contested space was a three mile radius in downtown Los Angeles, a neighborhood known for both its real-life ethnic diversity and fictional on-screen violence (as the site where more movie murders were allegedly committed than anywhere else in the world). In Cultivating Pasadena: From Roses to Redevelopment, the city was torn between competing drives for historical preservation and contemporary innovation.

Our third signature genre was the archival cultural history, which was launched by an on-line courseware project titled, Russian Modernism and Its International Dimensions. Set at the 1896 Russian Expo in Nizhni Novgorod (where cinema was first introduced to the Russian public and the Tsar and his court were in attendance), this project provided students with three ways of engaging with these historical materials. They could explore a virtual 3-D model of the Expo and its pavilions, where they could play a game called Montage. The game enabled them to engage with experimental art, subversive politics, or new technology—the three forces that made modernism so distinctive in the Russian context. Or, they could visit GUM, (Glavnyi Universalnji Magazin), the “main universal store” in Moscow’s red square from the 1920s, which was based on the Upper Trading Rows, whose innovative glass-roof design was also featured at the 1896 Expo. Like consumerist flaneurs strolling through a modernist arcade, here users could stop at several shops, each presenting an illustrated interactive lecture on a range of topics by leading scholars both from the U.S. and Russia. Or, they could visit the archive in GUM’s basement, an extensive database of artworks that students could use in their own projects. Since the courseware was not finished, students were invited to help build the rest of it, as if they were constructivists from the period, learning by doing. The project was designed to show how aesthetic concepts from Russian modernism (such as, dialectic montage, constructivism, and synaesthesia) are particularly useful in developing our own era of digital multimedia. In retrospect, it also helps us understand why so many Russian thinkers from this era (Vygotsky, Luria, Bakhtin, Pavlov, and my old friend Eisenstein) are so crucial to advancing our understanding of cognitive development.

The other two archival cultural histories were designed primarily as large-scale museum installations, though they also had a life on-line. Relying heavily on home movies projected on multiple giant screens, they told stories of individuals and their families and gave historical accounts of specific locations, as if combining the interactive memoir and digital city symphony. The Danube Exodus: The Rippling Currents of the River, a collaboration with well-known Hungarian filmmaker Peter Forgács, premiered at the Getty Museum in 2002 and was exhibited worldwide through 2015; and Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage (2011-2012) was presented at USC and at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Both projects showed how home movies, a modest form of serial autobiography, could enrich, challenge or transform our understanding of larger historical patterns and events.

The most recent of our signature genres is health-science interactive education, which translates scientific information into accessible language for the general public. Although it was part of the mix in our Einstein project, it was not fully developed until A Tale of Two MAO Genes: Exploring the Biology and Culture of Aggression and Anxiety. Produced in collaboration with USC molecular biologist, Dr. Jean Chen Shih, this DVD-ROM presents thirty years of her pioneering molecular research on a crucial pair of brain enzymes, known as MAO A and MAO B (monoamine oxidase) that help control aggression and anxiety in mice and men. In both of these projects we combined information translated from science with material from the humanities that emerged out of the dialectic mix.

In Three Winters in the Sun, we emphasized not only Einstein’s great scientific accomplishments but also the contradictions in his complex relations with others. Although he didn’t speak until he was three (which greatly worried his parents), he claimed he thought primarily in visual images rather than words. In fact, his description of this mode of thinking sounds very much like Temple Grandin’s account of her own visual thinking and that of many others on the autism spectrum. According to psychologist Erik Erikson, this privileging of images actually proved to be an advantage to Einstein, for words sometimes mislead us into thinking “too early and too glibly” that we understand something we don’t really grasp, simply because we know what to call it.

In A Tale of Two MAO Genes we historicized many of the issues. For example, we included interviews with psycho-pharmacologists, who described how they were laughed at when they were in graduate school, when psychoanalysis was still the dominant approach, and then how those power relations were reversed when there were advances in brain research and neuroscience. Eventually we all get historicized, which means we keep having to reframe our arguments as we tell the next version of our emergent cultural narrative or serial autobiography. This process does not imply that culture is less important than we assumed, but rather that the changes it undergoes must constantly be re-negotiated.

Most important for this book, while working on A Tale of Two MAO Genes, I came to understand new dimensions of Eisentstein’s argument for the creative power of dialectic montage, especially when reframed through neuroscience and its attempts to explain neurodiversity. In a fascinating article in Scientific American by Gil Ast (2005), Chair of Human Molecular Genetics & Biochemistry at Tel Aviv University, he describes what he calls, “the Genetic Splicing Machine.” Here he reverses the analogy that Eisenstein had used in the 1920s (before the discovery of DNA), comparing the creative force of “dialectic montage” with the generative power of the human cell. But in 2005, Ast uses film editing as a metaphor to describe the generative power of genes, claiming we have only recently come to understand how widespread alternative splicing is in complex organisms: “The RNA transcripts of genes that encode a protein are ultimately ...translated into a corresponding linear sequence of amino acids (like building a sentence or narrative).” This editing ability, Ast argues, “significantly increases any gene’s versatility...and helps explain why, mice and men can have such similar genomes, and still be so vastly different.“ In other words, remix is another form of reframing, and it’s this recurring remix that generates new forms of plasticity in molecular biology, which is the basis of neurodiversity. One factor responsible for expanding neurodiversity is epigenetics, the interplay between genes and environment. When originally working on A Tale of Two MAO Genes, we referred to ”introns (the parts of DNA that didn’t code proteins) as “junk DNA,” but neuroscientists now consider those introns to be important regulators of gene expression, especially in triggering de-novo mutations and determining if and when certain genes are expressed. Clearly this material needed to be reframed.

Reframing Plasticity and Neurodiversity: From Playing with Power to Interacting with Autism:

These issues of reframing neurodiversity and epigenetics became even more central to our latest health science project, Interacting with Autism, a video-based website launched in September 2013. My collaborator and co-investigator Mark Jonathan Harris and I are frequently asked why we took on this project. What I realize is that this project enabled me to reframe several of my earlier ideas (especially from Playing with Power) through two new contexts: autism and neuroscience. These new contexts are important historically because of the increasing numbers in the former (now one out of 68 children in the USA is diagnosed as being on the spectrum) and the explosion of knowledge in the latter.

More specifically, in the process of working on this autism website, I was able to reframe several key issues from Playing with Power that are also relevant to this study of narrative and neuroscience: the role of narrative in the emergence and development of consciousness and subjectivity; the privileged status of genres like case studies and serial autobiography; the function of dreams as models of database narrative; the relations between plasticity and neurodiversity; the connections between reading facial expressions and joint attention; the processes of historicizing and reframing—issues discussed at length in the chapters that follow. I also realized that this idea of an on-going process of historical reframing is analogous to serial autobiographya running narrative that repeatedly remixes old and new experiences together in new ways.

This is not the first time I included a version of my own intellectual autobiography in a paper I was presenting or publishing. In "Screen Wars: Transmedia Appropriations from Eisenstein to A TV Dante and Carmen Sandiego,” a paper I gave at Harvard’s English Institute in 1995 which was later published in Language Machines: Technologies of Literary and Cultural Production (1997), I concluded:

By now it may be apparent...that this essay reflexively traces the trajectory of my own career, which began thirty years ago with a dissertation on Fielding’s experimentation in the theater in relation to his novels, and then turned in succession through an ongoing process of “promiscuous” analogic thinking to movies, television, video games, CD-ROMs, and other forms of popular culture. While each new project was screened or reframed through my previous objects of study, they all remain deeply engaged with the ongoing process of transmedia appropriation and transcultural reinscription.
(p. 180)

No mention of neuroscience or brain research, which means this autobiographical account still needs to be reframed.


i I don’t mean to imply that you need to be an adult or an academic to engage in serial autobiography. Like Louis Althusser’s “interpellation of the subject,” this process happens to everyone and usually begins before you are even born, through expectations imposed by your family and culture which you are bound to accept or resist. I described my own engagement with this dynamic in an earlier autobiographical text that was included in Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, Intermarriage, a website and museum installation based on home movies and family memoirs.

When I was born in 1940, my maternal grandmother Becky (an immigrant from Riga) was convinced that the hospital had sent home the wrong baby. How else could my family explain my full head of black hair and dark eyes, which made me look so much like a Mexican? This racist suspicion was based on the fact that our family lived in Boyle Heights, right next door to Mexicans whom Becky made her four daughters avoid. Once we moved to a new neighborhood closer to LA’s westside, Becky accepted me as part of the family, but my older sister never forgot her earlier suspicion. Later, my sister gleefully reported it to me in order to prove I didn’t really belong in the family. But instead of making me feel bad, this information helped generate two of my favorite competing fantasies that demonstrated my unique ability of transforming my own identity. As if to disprove my grandmother’s suspicion, I used to pretend I was Anastasia, the mysterious relative of the Russian Tsar who somehow managed to escape from the Bolsheviks when they murdered the Royal family. Yet, I also embraced Becky’s false suspicion by pursuing a strong identification with Mexicans, particularly if they were perceived as down-trodden. It was as if I had internalized both sides of the Russian Revolution, playing out an inner class warfare. Yet, I wasn't the only one in my working-class Jewish community who experienced this kind of transcultural identification with Mexicans. In Bancroft Junior High, several of my Jewish friends had Mexican boyfriends, and we all used to wear black peggers, a stylized version of the tapered zoot-suit trousers worn by pachucos. And we took great pride in doing “the pachuco hop,” a popular dance craze at the time. My cousin Howard (who was a couple of years older than I) was known as "El Pachuco" because he pretended to be Mexican—adopting a fake Spanish accent and always wearing his black peggers. Howard grew out of this phase, but I never did.

This autobiographical episode helps explain why both my first serious boyfriend and my second husband were Mexican. And why, as you’ll see in the pages that follow, I am so drawn to Soviet writings —to the theories of Eisenstein, Vygotsky, Luria and Bakhtin and to the novels of Dostoevsky and Nabokov, especially The Idiot (whose extraordinary protagonist could be diagnosed with Asperger’s) and Palefire. (whose unfolding narrative footnotes compete with the main text). And why I am so fascinated by Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico and by Eisenstein’s !Qué viva mexico,!, his failed attempt to make a mythic movie in that land and Peter Greenaway’s fictional portrayal of that episode in Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015).

ii Since we had borrowed the name Dreamworks from Freud and had failed to trademark the title, we didn’t challenge the founders of the Hollywood studio that appropriated our name. Instead, when we moved the back issues of the journal on-line, we changed the name to Dreamwaves, a word that evoked both the brainwaves associated with REM sleep and the metaphor of surfing the oceanic worldwide web.

iii See, for example, “A Dream Dialogue” between J. Allan Hobson and Raymond Durgnat in the next Dream and Film Issue, vol. 2, no. 1, Fall 1981.

iv Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie . Ed. Marsha Kinder. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Also see my essays: “Hot Spots, Avatars and Narrative Fields Forever: Buñuel's Legacy for New Digital Media and Interactive Database Narrative," Film Quarterly (Summer 2002): 2-15.;“The Road and the Room: Narrative Drive in the Films of Luis Buñuel,” A Companion to Luis Buñuel.” Eds. Robert Stone and Julián Daniel Gutiérrez-Albilla, London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013: 431-453; “Reinventing the Motherland: Almodóvar’s Brain-Dead Trilogy.” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 5.3 (October 2004): 24-62. Film Quarterly 58.2 (Winter 2004-5): 9-25; “All About the Brothers: Retroseriality in Almodóvar’s Cinema.” All About Almodóvar: A Passion for Cinema. Eds. Brad Epps and Despina Kakoudaki. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, pp. 267-294.