Shane Denson’s ‘Post-Cinematic Bodies’ redefines art’s role in the age of algorithms

On Monday, room 426 of Margaret Jacks Hall was packed to the brim with people eagerly waiting to hear Shane Denson celebrate the launch of his 2023 book, “Post-Cinematic Bodies.” Denson, an associate professor of film and media studies, recalled how this environment was a far cry from the pandemic-muted response to the release of his previous 2020 book, “Discorrelated Images.”

Denson’s “Post-Cinematic Bodies” advises readers on navigating the saturation of modern society with technology, data and computational algorithms.

“This book is a major kind of shift for me,” Denson said, adding that the book is “not about film at all.”

“Contemporary artists and artworks combining algorithmic technologies including AI, VR and robotics with the metabolic processes of embodiment via heart rate sensors, ECGs and EEGs offer means to imagine a practice of correlative counter-capture,” he said, describing art as a means of resistance against the invisible algorithms that underpin our lives.

As a part of his presentation, Denson shared Rafel Lozano-Hemmer’s “Pulse Index,” an artwork that invites participants to place their finger on a custom sensor and observe their fingerprint and pulse registered on a massive screen with thousands of others who did the same before them.

“The spectacular display of pulsing fingerprints, progressing from the close up of my own print … to those of the anonymous masses about to recede into the black box provides a dramatic — perhaps even sublime — view of the otherwise invisible correlations and discorrelations that drive our metabolic society,” Denson said.

Denson’s presentation was followed by remarks from Annika Butler-Wall, a feminist, gender and sexuality studies lecturer, and Scott Bukatman, a professor of film and media studies. Both spoke to how “Post-Cinematic Bodies” was situated in the broader context of their respective fields of study.

Butler-Wall challenged the audience to think about how the questions of bodily autonomy raised by Denson projected onto the realm of feminist theory and ideology. “How does a post-cinematic media regime impact traditional feminist understandings of bodies and representation?” she said. “And what does resistance look like in this regime?”

Bukatman spoke briefly about his own novel “Terminal Identity,” identifying the technological lineage that most recently includes Denson’s “Post-Cinematic Bodies.” Bukatman’s novel traced the evolution of the computer terminal and its role in connecting the user to cyberspace. When that terminal became “miniaturized out of existence,” he said, the user was united with the data.

“As described in the science fiction novels, the cyberspace cowboys were able to jack in and ride the data like a cowboy or a pilot,” Bukatman said. “They could investigate it like a detective, they could raid it like a crack commando, and they could pilfer from it like a sneak thief.”

What distinguishes Bukatman’s “Terminal Identity” from Denson’s “Post-Cinematic Bodies” is that in the latter, Denson believes the computer terminal has become disembodied and now permeates the environment around us, often unseen by us, in the form of sensors that constantly register our data.

“Identity: it’s important for all of us, but it’s not important for Facebook, for Meta, for any of these companies,” Denson said. He brought up allegations of Netflix promoting shows to Black viewers with thumbnails of people of color, even if they were minor characters. Netflix has denied possessing information on the race or ethnicity of its viewers.

But Denson said that data can be more revealing than expected. In his view, these big tech companies have no concept of identity. Their conception of you comes down to the statistical correlations in the data extracted from your monitored behavior — where you go with your phone, what you click on and even what you look at, according to Denson.

Though Denson admitted that the picture he painted may seem bleak, he stressed that the uncertain note on which he ends his book is an invitation for inquiry rather than disillusionment.