Thursday, January 21, 2010

Up in the Air on Omnitopian Method

I knew I'd eventually reach this point, and now it has happened: a colleague has invited me to contribute to a panel about the movie Up in the Air. And yep, I'll be using an omnitopian framework in my analysis. I said I was done with omnitopia for a while, but I just can't resist.

This opportunity raises a number of challenges, most importantly related to the creative use of omnitopian terminology. In City Ubiquitous I outline an omnitopian framework according to five components: dislocation, conflation, fragmentation, mobility, and mutability, illustrating each with the aid of two films, Jaques Tati's Play Time and Steven Spielberg's The Terminal. In Chapter Three of City Ubiquitous, I was less concerned with how the components relate to each other, focusing more on simpler matters: what they mean and how they work.

Larger issues of their deployment - of method - were saved for the book's Section Two introduction that proposed localization as a way of going beyond description toward the goal of omnitopian analysis. To my way of thinking, localization is a sort of counter-reading - that is, "offering an interpretation that both explains and confounds omnitopian practices through engaged observation" (p. 84). Though less a method than a perspective, I found this approach to be useful in connecting otherwise disparate ideas that had guided my writing from the beginning of this project.

In my description of localization, I therefore borrowed Walter Benjamin's concept of the flâneur gaze, a term that bubbled up from his Arcades Project, to animate my perspective on omnitopia. Localization enacts a method of observation that is both keenly aware and mildly intoxicated with the modern scene, a performance of semi-consciousness that seeks to convey a sense of place not otherwise found in formal architectural or rhetorical analysis (with thanks and apologies to Michael Bowman for his recommendation that I re-read Benjamin's writings on intoxication). Put more directly, while I generally am a critic of omnitopia (at least from the position proposed in my articulation of the term), I see little insight to be gained by merely criticizing it. To unmake omnitopia, one must live it first.

For me, this method has proven to be useful, and the articles that ensued fleshed out a skeleton of ideas into a book that said what I wanted to say. Even so, I think a more rigorous and precise method needs to be explored, and I plan to use the invitation to write about Up in the Air as an opportunity to propose a more purely rhetorical form of omnitopian analysis. Ideally, this method can be employed by folks not otherwise inclined to try my idiosyncratic performances of localization. Right away I'm fairly certain I'll need to read Walter Kirn's original book, from which Up in the Air is loosely adapted, if only to think about omnitopia more textually. From there, I hope that something useful emerges: a method that can be expanded beyond the application of cookie-cutter terms toward the goal of analysis that delivers insights on technique and implication.

Despite my occasional announcement of plans to advance past omnitopian musings, to tackle new writings, this project seems worthwhile, and I'm genuinely excited about seeing it through (hoping that the panel proposal for this fall's National Communication Association conference in San Francisco is accepted). It's a chance to wrap up some unfinished work and, best of all, hang out with cool people and chat about a fascinating film. Still, I admit to flashing back to Michael Corleone's line from another movie, the third Godfather, that speaks to my situation today: "Just when I thought I was out - they pull me back in!"

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