The presentation of a story is made of two components: the elements of presentation and the element of the story itself. Rigorously speaking, this can easily become a recursive formula (the presentation of the presentation…. of the presentation of the story), and experimental storytellers have long been trying variations of this scheme. Still, in the most common cases, the story is most often (structurally) large enough that it constrains the span of the presentation.
In what’s known as the Classical Narrative film, the final presentation of this large-enough story is given the name of diegesis. Film is the interesting case because it brings a quantitative explosion of non (or rather extra)-diegetic storytelling tools; whereas in previous forms out-of-story storytelling elements were inextricable from the fact of the storyteller (Proust and Kafka swallowed by their work), in Classical Narrative film the storyteller was pulverized.
In other words: diegesis replaces the storyteller in favor of the conditions of storytelling; at the very least, this vibes with our current strategy of replacing truth for ambient condition of truth, banal actions with quability conditions, social praxis and legitimacy with axiologies, seduction itself with scenarios of ecstasy. But there’s an additional component to the scenario of diegesis that interests me: the conditions of storytelling are heavily technical. And you know how giddy we are in the presence of any conceptual breakthrough bearing a technical implementation.
There are rules for for disappearance encompass a fine control of tempo and duration; depth-of-field and focal length dynamics; scene geometry, rules for bringing sound in and out of diegesis. It would be an impressive achievement of mankind if, like computing, these rules had gradually evolved throughout maybe two to four decades. But it’s weirder than that: almost everything of this disappearance technology comes up, as if whispered by aliens, at once — the era of silly pie-in-the-face shorts of uneven duration suddenly stops with a single (extremely racist) generations-spannning three-hour epic about the Ku Klux Klan — which interrupts the age of trivial shorts and introduces in one master brush stroke the entire language of Classical Narrative film. Poet James McAgee said – “To watch [t]his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel…and to realize that this is all the work of one man.”
This almost poses a trolley problem — hey, the KKK has caused untold death and harm, but would you rather not have had the miracle of diegesis?
It’s hard not to spend an entire essay detailing the sheer discontinuity — the magic leap in technical power gifted to the world by the Klan through the artistic genius of D.W. Griffith. It’s also practically unnecessary, since otherwise nonwrongthinking film theorists and critics have had no choice other than lionize it and explain it in their classes. Suitably depersonalized: there has been no conflict between the small-axiology-of-antiracism-contained-within-the-large-axiology-of-common-mores (from now on we might just say “small axiology” and assume a sufficiently large axiology around it) and the small axiology of aesthetics — possibly a number of parallel aesthetics, one of rapture and sublime, another of technical astonishment, etc.
Indeed in some cases this conflict of axiologies is set up in interestingly nonconflicting ways — consider the critical trope that Griffith created diegesis in order to give truth-content to his racist lies. We do not discuss such horrible words as “lies” (it’s either within or without the truth-rain “which shall save you”) but can pivot that trope to focus on the disappearing storyteller. This is the Zizekian picture of ideology: the racism inherent in wanting to tell that story is dissolved in a technology of non-authorship. Therefore a hundred years later a bank heist set in an odd version of the 1930s where blacks have been erased can be made more exciting by music that is explicitly the historical complaint of slavery. Note the explosion of the frame — in this case it’s diegesis that resignifies an extradiegetic tool; the beast has swallowed its own “frame”.
Diegesis may have the potential of becoming a hearty, nutritional version of what Scott Adams calls the persuasion filter. From what I’ve been able to gather (for a cartoonist Adams is very wordy and roundaboutly and who says this is someone who reads Derrida on his lunch breaks), the persuasion filter is an outlook on the world that foregrounds the fact that no one really thinks all the time and most people very rarely do so; from that fact, it should follow that reality is best understood if we understand that people don’t understand reality. (The author, of course, flatters his readers as the select few that do…)
We need, of course, to begin by effacing the idea that there’s people and the twin possibilities of rationality and irrationality to arrive at something sufficiently generic and able to flow through the various layers of theory to absorb it. But on its own, diegesis eliminates some of the cowlickier ideas of the persuasion filter: it is the effect of a demiurgic technology that vaporizes the demiurge; it needs no “master persuader” (more on that soon). More subtly, it does away with the dependence on truth-as-nonfalsehood that underlies the idea of “truth as one possible narrative” — diegesis is ultimately the effect of presenting of a scenario, which can be anything from the metaphysical characterization of capital as an alien invader to a 10-second loop of beautiful college-aged girls making out.
But note the effect — the magic of movies is not that a frame exists and influences the content, is that the frame has vanished and what you see is what you get. This is how we’re able to take the scenarios of Blackbeard or our so-oft-mentioned faux-lesbians without worrying for their frame — sure, maybe it’s sexist, in general axiology sexism will have been redefined for something that you want.
Most important of all: it introduces into our vocabulary the question — is this diegetic?
One problem about writing stories about Jair is that it’s very difficult to acquire a theory-of-mind about him. Being lifelong public figures, each previous president of Brazil (possibly excluding goofball Jânio Quadros) have had clear public personas on which they had to campaign — even during the military intervention of the 60s and 70s. But as we’ve said before and will carry on repeating, what is most disconcerting about Bolsonaro is his embrace of the very idea of truth-rain. By the story local media increasingly fails to tell convincingly, Bolsonaro is erratic, moody, changes his tune every time; I have seen him on TV reasoning like a trained philosopher and stuttering like a 20-year old dummy. A reasonable question that the local media has yet to pose would be — is this man on drugs?
There’s an alternate hypothesis — one that appears to have a far greater explanatory power and simultaneously much, much deeper implications for the scenario of Brazilian crisis and for theory as a whole: maybe Jair Bolsonaro is extra-diegetic. Maybe he’s not of the story; maybe he’s part of the dizzying array of lenses and sound effects and camera movements that tell the story of the great Brazilian meltdown.
The sticking point of Scott Adams’s “persuasion filter” theory is the figure of the Master Persuader. In his book, this role is played by Donald Trump, but it may as well have been Osho: through a combination of a heightened intuition about other people’s cognitive biases and incessant, shameless A/B testing (and maybe more, I didn’t finish the book), the Master Persuader captures the frame and proceeds to “urinate on the press corps. from a great altitude“.
But the novelty of this is not that the Master Persuader has destabilized a dominant frame like a critical theorist and brought on the onset of postmodernism — this is a distraction, each time an element of diegesis “breaks the fourth wall”, the self-awareness is reabsorbed into the diegesis. To function, Adams’s Master Persuader would have to be nondiegetic, i.e. almost invisible. And of course, what enables diegesis is a pulverized array of nondiegetic technologies that fully displace the Master.
What does it mean “to be nondiegetic”? Osho is close to a paradigmatic case. Physically absent most of the time, he’s best understood not by his own movements (despite his brush with la Migra in the 80s) but by the brand-name hysteria. It’s not important whether he was could confabulated into existence or manipulated by his secretaries or men behind the curtain: Osho is but the point of capiton (the crochet “button”) that aligns all the the pulverized technologies that comprise the Osho movement. This is how he remains a notably prolific author long after his body was incinerated in his ashram, his flesh commemorated by a plaque stating that he was/is “OSHO – NEVER BORN. NEVER DIED.”
For American authorities who might wanted him for tax evasion might look at a biological man with persuasion powers who exploits… but oh my god, who even cares. Likewise in the scenario of the faux lesbians, feministologists may argue that the dudes who stare in delight are somehow agents of a social structure that push the girls into this, but none of this matters, not in light of swimming upwards toward larger and larger axiologies: within the context of the party scene there is enough power in the scenario where two girls start making out that the dudes, problematic as they may be, recede into the background — and most importantly they become the extra-diegetic technique by which we recognize this as a scenario of ecstatic desire.
This is a critical point: are you, patient reader, into watching faux-lesbians make out? Diegesis won’t work if we have to assume fetishes and secret desires and other small-axiological features; the extra-diegetic cloud of alien technologies tells you what is sacred and despicable and sexy, thus establishing diegesis-wide axiology. And this is how a scenario is constituted: a bubble of axiological sustained by alien hypnosis.
To recapitulate — in those scenarios desire and sacredness were diegetic. They worked through an array of self-effacing non-diegetic technologies. What is their net effect (in whatever axiology you have at hand while reading this)? If you had the firm conviction that kairos had come for revolution and the realization (meaning: a perception brought back from reality) that you had to be the initiator, would you rather be inside or outside the diegesis?
What do you think happens to the diegesis in general axiology anyway?