BOOK REVIEWS (2013): T. Ott’s (2006) Cinema Panopticum

14 May 2013

Summary (in One Sentence)

The fact is, the facts aren’t.[1]


cinemapanoptLast year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These reactions will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to that when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reaction I offer for a book is a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it is further up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever it is we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you can’t be bothered to take up your end of that bargain, that’s part of the problem to be solved.

A Reaction To: T. Ott’s (2006)[2] Cinema Panopticum

As a first note, more than one edition of this book seems to exist.[3]

gorey_westwing_13This is a wordless, but not worldless, “text” with a black-and-white “wood-cut” type of look reminiscent of Edward Gorey’s work, or the eighteenth-century woodcut morality pieces (often on the dangers of alcoholism) that he drew inspiration from.

About those, briefly: sensitive people know now the cruelty (accidental or otherwise) inflicted on the native people when Puritan interlopers introduced hard alcohol onto the continent. A less repeated part of this story describes a similar epidemic in England with the introduction of gin.[4]

For many reasons, beer provided a liquid mainstay for the European diet. Beer did not have necessarily so high of an alcohol content as we now know it, but being made from boiled water, it often proved eminently safer to drink. Beer made an otherwise impossible crossing of the Atlantic by the pilgrims, much less their survival in New England, possible. Before that, however, the introduction of gin into England created massive social problems. Attempts were made to suppress the stuff (early prohibition), to tax it, and the like, but its relative inexpensiveness and addictive qualities created an environment that ultimately led to the times’ equivalent of PSAs, in the forms of woodcuts or etchings showing the disastrous and tragic effects of alcohol. As morality plays, these connect as well to television shows like Twilight Zone and Outer Limits (though often the morality of these stories had tweaked outcomes) as well as Tales from the Crypt, which enthusiastically got downright conventional in its doling out of deserved comeuppance.

Woodcut-students' drinking boutGorey obviously took inspiration from the look of those old-timey woodcuts, yet Ott’s piece (though a series of morality plays itself) resonates with one of Gorey’s more anomalous pieces, The West Wing, notable for its lack of text as well. Ott frames the narratives in terms of a doleful girl with only a few pennies to spend at a carnival. In the cinema panopticum, she finds coin-operated tales, and watches each morality tale with a twist play out. The last one, called “The Girl,” we do not see, but since Ott calls the first chapter (prior to entering the cinema panopticum itself) “The Girl,” even though we only see the girl’s horrified reaction to (the beginning of) the morality tale, we may infer a circular or recursive element in the book. In its best or most effective incarnation, this might generate a Borgesian sense of vertigo as the story repeats to infinity inside of itself, but there seems little reason to let that surprise or shock (exemplified by the surprise and shock Ott depicts on the girl’s face) really carry us that far.

In Toppi’s (2012) Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights (reviewed here), the sequence of tales has n entrapping and cumulative effect.  The conceit of the Persian/Arabic original involves the heroine’s continued survival by entertaining her listener with tales, so that he remains intrigued to hear another tale the next day. In Toppi’s arrangement of the material—I do not know if he has composed original Tale-like stories or has culled a handful from the massive body of stories associated with One Thousand and One Nights—the first story, for instance, emphasizes the cruelty and inhumanity of ingratitude; a clear message on the part of the storyteller that should her Prince murder her at daylight then he deserves scorn as cruel and inhumane, and especially ungrateful. One may say that the storyteller’s strategy involves stinging the Prince’s conscience so she may live, and it works. Subsequent tales she tells articulate this theme further, except that they begin to introduce supernatural elements: the possibility that what appears as a snake in reality possesses a wish-granting nature, or that the destruction of something may preclude ever accessing again one’s most heart-felt desire. It dawns on the listener, gradually—even though the storyteller gives no grounds to truly believe it—not only that the Prince should act generously toward his storyteller that that, in fact, he dare not harm her.  Given enough nights, she has spun a web to catch the spider who might have otherwise destroyed her.

gorey 29 west wingWith Gorey, his works typically got published in small, stand-alone books, and when collected into larger volumes—such as (1972)[5] Amphigorey, (2002)[6] Amphigorey Also, or (1977)[7] Amphigorey Too—no more conceit strung the pieces together of necessity than the various strips collected in Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes books or Matt Groening’s Hell books. But Ott’s piece supposedly (or should) propose a series, not simply a random collection of pieces, but something more like the ingenious trap of Toppi’s book; this, especially as Publishers Weekly insists (on the back of Ott’s book), “Ott’s storytelling moves at a slow but steady pace, making his protagonists’ extreme reactions more believable when they, and the readers, are caught in Ott’s imaginatively conceived, masterfully executed traps.”

6914853251_7bc54ba8be_bOtt provides six chapters, five of which comprise tales in the cinema panopticum: “The Girl,” “The Hotel,” The Champion,” “The Experiment,” The “Prophet,” and “The Girl.” Importantly, though one likely does not register this the first time through, the protagonists in chapters 2 through 4 appear in the opening chapter, prior to the girl entering the cinema panopticum; and, of course, this implies also that the girl herself supplies the protagonist for the last chapter and has of course appeared in the opening one. So one sees a sort of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz kind of presaging or framing of the story, and the girl in fact has braids reminiscent of Dorothy (in the movie) though without quite the bushy ends Judy Garland sported. We might then wonder, as at the end of Wizard of Oz, did the whole narrative constitute a feverish hallucination but also, as in the movie, such speculation seems rather empty and beside the point. Perhaps we want the wish-fulfillment of Oz, as somewhere over the rainbow, badly enough that taking it as unreal, however populated by difficult witches and flying monkeys, becomes too undesirable. With Ott’s world, however, the world proposed as an alternative to the Kansas-dreary world of the girl’s carnival seems less desirable.

wizard_of_oz_dorothyWhatever the real or unreal status of Dorothy’s experiences, she seems changed however; she betrays excitement at seeing her friends and relatives again; the experience has changed how she sees them. With the (implied) recursive structure in Ott’s work, if we might identify any such change, then it becomes an input to the very question that the girl did in the first place to find an entertainment her meager few coins allow. The desperation of poverty opens a doorway to horror and chaos, which one then seeks escape from by the same hopeless method as before.[8]

A central problem in Ott’s text involves his insufficiency of inspiration. The first morality play, “The Hotel,” by far offers the most satisfying narrative. A man enters a hotel, finds no one there, creeps around the effectively spooky interior, finds a free meal and eats it, then becomes violently ill in the night. As his symptoms worsen, he stumbles about the hotel looking for relief finding corpse after corpse, obviously similarly poisoned. Already a moral has crystallized: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Per the classical tenets of tragedy, the man’s hubris—in eating a meal he should not have—has unleashed the forces of retribution upon him, whether deserved or not. At last, he stumbles out of the hotel only to die near its steps, and Ott pulls the frame back to show that the hotel is apparently some kind of small box on the floor with seemingly Japanese wording on it. I peered at the frame for some time before abruptly realizing this was a roach hotel, and turning the page confirms this, as Ott provides a drawing of a giant roach at its stove, cooking.[9]

I found this last frame unnecessary, though only because I deciphered the punchline prior to turning the page. And if Ott’s point serves no other purpose than to make the twist clear, then he might have stopped one page earlier. All the same, the presence of a giant cockroach all but automatically evokes Kafka’s Metamorphosis but, like the circularity at the end of Ott’s book, it remains unclear—or perhaps just unconvincing—that one might make more of this “symbol”.

6914862007_11b8b94584In “The Champion,” a courageous luchador (a Mexican wrestler) receives a challenge to wrestle Death, and accepts. And while he gradually prevails over his opponent, his daughter has opened the crumpled challenge left behind by her father, inside of which rests a scorpion that stings her to death. A Pyrrhic and bitter victory. With this story, the twist of unambiguous morality of “The Hotel” (whatever we might make of the man/insect axis of the story, the man gets punished as a stealer of goods not his)[10] gets twisted. Has the luchador committed the sin of pride, believing he can best Death, or does Ott propose (simply) to disconnect cause and effect—that whether one acts well or poorly, whether one wins or lose, you still lose. Firing up the grey matter or staring very closely at the imagery, one might come up with something more than the “simple” mechanism of pride as hubris—the very act of believing one may defeat Death already goes too far, and (once again) the inevitable working out of retribution for that act ineluctably occurs.[11]

In the next tale “The Experiment,” a man with extremely poor vision takes an experimental drug from an ophthalmologist, loses all his hair, and comes to sport numerous bulbous protrusions all over his head. The ophthalmologist, with a very gleeful look, takes a scalpel to the bumps, which get revealed as eyes—development that delights the patient. Besides have a squeamish touch of ick to it, this story operates largely as an anti-morality play. Here, the mad scientist turns out not so mad after all, and the usual victim of such experimentation finds his life improved, rather than diminished. The patient, no doubt, may experience difficulty at social gatherings if he wears nothing to cover the Argus-like spectacle of eyes all over his bald head, but if grim bitterness haunts his future, he shows no intimation of it yet.

In the first story, classical hubris meets a classical retributive end; in the second tale, we might read a proposed dissociation between hubris (as pride) and the retribution that follows; here, the hubris (of tampering with “nature”, which receives a scathing critique in any number of books, and very famously in Shelley’s Frankenstein) gets no retribution at all, except perhaps that the reader gets squicked and thinks things went too far. In the next tale, the classic image of homeless, vagrant prophet who declares “the end is nigh” proves correct after all, and gets whisked away by aliens on their flying saucer before the Earth detonates.

scanThis narrative provides one of the least satisfying in the collection, if only for seeming so banal. One cannot detonate the Earth, much less in a context (satirical or not) that includes a disregarded prophet, and not have at least the appearance that the humans deserved it.  Whether the aliens deliberately destroy the Earth (because we have morally forfeit the right to exist or because an interstellar space-way has been planned through the region for decades) or whether the destruction amounts to accidental or incidental, we cannot without more explicit information safely interpret the act as random. I mean, if Ott intends to disconnect the usual moralizing familiar to this kind of narrative, the narrative requires more. Turning the conventional divine retribution into aliens does not ultimately offer much of a transformation; for a long time now, that aliens comprise our gods has provided the premise for science fiction both clever and penny-dreadful. As space-faring creatures, any aliens sufficiently advanced become indistinguishable from gods. Such creatures become the vehicle for human authors to pass judgment on all of humankind.

So, in any hypothetical arc of declining moral efficacy—i.e., a sequence of narratives where the premise or conceit of moral comeuppance further and further disintegrates—this sudden return of the prophet who gets the message, even if for wholly accidental reasons, return us squarely to the original, classical universe of conventional morality. Try as Ott might to make the vagrant only at the very best accidentally saved, i.e., that he completely by accident hits upon the right message, in fact, may not even understand the message as the right message, does not get Ott into a metaphysical terrain where “accident” or “random” remains meaningful. In other words, the destruction of the entire human race cannot get equated to “meaninglessness,” not even in the most scientifically rationalist universe where entropy overtakes us some billions of years from now.

demon-rum-5But let me entertain the notion that it might, for the sake of a theoretical arc in Ott’s book.

In Toppi’s (2012) Sharaz-De, the storyteller uses a pre-Islamic metaphysics—where retribution and moral comeuppance occurs with absolute reliability—to sting the conscience of her (Muslim) listener. The images and discourse of morality she presents has no literal reality. It belongs to a previous era deemed, by the current Islamic civilization, as egregiously barbaric. Precisely for that reason “faith” in supernatural retribution offset the injustices of that world, just as Yahweh in his retributive form sometimes gives solace to the down-trodden or disenfranchised of the Earth: yes, rich man, you rich bastard, you may hold all the cards and laugh now, but come the afterworld, I’ll be the one laughing, &c. The storyteller, then, uses a (fictional) image of perfectly realized justice to inspire her listener to a higher moral path than he might otherwise follow (by killing her out of selfishness, ingratitude, or basic barbarity and indifferent cruelty).

With Ott’s progression, the storyteller (in this case, technically the cinema panopticum itself) uses the domain of fiction to present a deconstruction of the conceit of perfectly realizable (or perhaps even negligibly realizable) justice to inspire the viewer—the girl, and by extension the reader—not simply to a dismal realization over the destruction of the entire Earth, but to the girl’s own horror at seeing herself in the cinema panopticum.[12] As may be read to some extent out of de Sade, destruction becomes elevated and privileged as the dominant “fact” of existence. However, this fact—one may recall that the word fact etymologically derives from the Latin ut faceret  “to make” and/or facere “to do”—constitutes no given of the cosmos, but rather a (fictional) human description of the humane experience of the cosmos. The assumed givenness in the (absolute) lack of morality or meaning “in” the cosmos doesn’t require (or deserve) treatment as a given. Even when Ott provides a frame (on page 97) after the Earth’s destruction of nothing but space and stars, this precisely constitutes something —a cosmos without humans, however one feels about that—not nothing. Just as the sentence “life is meaningless” negates itself by asserting a meaning to the sentence, the assertion of a morally empty universe negates itself as a moral (and political) gesture in the social realm.[13]

Cinema-panopticum-2If this constitutes an “imaginatively conceived, masterfully executed trap,” then it springs first and foremost on itself, and just as the girl runs away from the screen showing her recursive entrapment in a theoretically and endlessly reiterating visual cycle of horrors, we too may (with horror or not) step away from the penny-dreadful we’ve put our coin in to view. If we empathize with the girl’s plight, we needn’t identify with it, &c.

Two last points. First, that I ascribe and describe a specific arc of “increasing nihilism” in Ott’s book gets qualified at least somewhat by the apparently different—in fact, the exact reverse—sequence in other editions of the book, bearing in mind also that the tale here called “The Experiment” may differ from “The Wonderpill” in the other edition. I leave it to the reader to tease out the change in significance such a reversal proposes, but the most obvious effect is the movement from total nihilism (as a satire on the religious pretense of prophets) to the morally unambiguous and absolute comeuppance in “The Hotel” (with the added man/insect element).

Second, a word about “cinema panopticum” itself. The canny reader may suspect “panopticum” partly tempted me—the blogger of panopticonsRus—to take a look inside. I don’t know enough Greek to decipher if cinema panopticum offers (deliberately or accidentally) a meaningful phase, doggerel, or gibberish; it seems to me ill-formed and more properly Latin than Greek.[14] As an all-seeing structure, the panopticon since Foucault’s construction of it in his (1977)[15] Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, has become a symbol and sign for oppressive surveillance. The temptation arises to take “cinema” as “eye,” but cinema etymologically derives from movement or motion and in its convention sense points to both the place of imagistic projection and the projection itself, i.e., what which we watch. Here, the projection goes straight to the screen of our consciousness (i.e., into the girl’s mind and into the reader’s). A specific irony of this involves that the panopticon in its typical guise remains invisible; this constitutes the source of its power.[16]

west1-2Here, then, the “all-seeing movement” projects itself, becomes visible. Rather by definition, this makes it a representation of itself not a manifestation of itself per se, which points again to my analysis of the book as a (human-made) artifact and discourse; it constitutes a story we can tell ourselves, and that Ott has. But, in Foucault’s terms, what might it mean for the all-surveilling structure—that structure that gazes, that we have no access to gaze upon—to project itself? I would call this a show of strength.[17] As a spectacle of horror and nihilism, so to speak, it aspires to the production of paralysis or apathy, helplessness in the face of the enormity of the Machine, or what Foucault calls docile bodies. Canetti, an arch-nihilist and narcissist, offers in his (196) Crowds and Power a fantasy in the show-of-strength gesture (or bluff) in the statement “I’ll squash you like a bug”; an assertion of the greatest extent of mightiness on the one hand and the greatest extent of puniness on your hand, which Ott offers a reproduction of with the final frame of “The Hotel” and its ungeheueren Ungeziefer.[18] In this context, it seems the same kind of shameless showing off to blow up the Earth as Yahweh indulged in when her claimed to jerk Pharaoh around and rain down plagues on Egypt.

Ironically, horror movies scare us only because we let them, so to speak. All projections amount only to shadows on the wall, so that whatever air of showing strength they take on, we get caught in their trap only so long as we stay in our seats. Unlike Foucault’s panopticon, which involves considerably more elaborate maneuvers to evade the gaze of, we may evade the “assertion” of this projection by granting it only as much reality as saying, “This constitutes a fiction.” If Ott’s text successfully implies a sort of enclosing, inescapable recursion that takes us “down the drain,” at the same time it leaves open movement in the opposite direction, i.e., out of the vortex (and book) itself, just as the girl, albeit in a state of high emotional distress, leaves the tent where the cinema panopticum rests. She seems to have taken the experience as “more than a fiction,” and it seems Ott intends the reader to make the a similar mistake.

demon-rum-7I don’t mean for this to sound like a supercilious dismissal. The value or artistic accomplishment of Ott’s book doesn’t get utterly blown up like the Earth simply for the consequences of its narrative—assuming I have not hopelessly misread it. One may easily get ground down by the state of injustice in the world and seek, as humans have and will, some alternative or at least solace in the face of this. For one, we may then remember that any (dominant) emphasis on injustice constitutes a narrative choice—we may say, for instance, that war defines the human animal, but the overwhelming majority of us currently stand far more threatened by poverty than war per se. Peace constitutes more of a human norm than war. If Ott finds solace in a hopeless vision, we have no obligation to accept that as a fact for humanity generally but simply a narrative choice, one story to tell amongst many.  Eagleton (1989)[19] notes, in a passage I often cite often, there is:

absolutely no reason why the future should turn out any better than the past, unless there are reasons why the past has been as atrocious as it has. If the reason is simply that there is an unsavoury as well as a magnificent side to human nature, then it is hard to explain, on the simple law of averages, why the unsavoury side has apparently dominated almost every political culture to date. Part of the explanatory power of historical materialism is its provisions of good reasons for why the past has taken the form it has, and its resolute opposition to all vacuous moralistic hope (183, emphasis added).

This explanatory power of historical materialism, as in fact all discourses that oppose various feints that reify human discourse into stories about original sin, fallen human nature, inherent evil, and the like, all stand in opposition to the blustering show of strength that the panopticon would make. Such bluster invites us, cajoles us, even threatens us to believe the story that we have no alternative, precisely by obscuring the factifying—the human making into something taken as fact—of the current status quo, not as the product of specific historical conditions that led to the specific configurations of power in our current given culture, and thus the prevalence of the unsavoury side of human nature in political culture then n now, but as something that has always been trust, will always be true, and must always be true.

cinema1Whatever solace such a move might bring us individually, it condemns our neighbors (nearby an abroad) to the very privations, exploitation, and misery that led us to seek such solace in the first place. It proposes a Devil’s bargain we can’t really sustain a belief in ourselves, much less expect others to bear the consequences of it.


[1] Fact: n. 1530s, “action,” especially “evil deed,” from Latin factum “event, occurrence,” literally “thing done,” neuter past participle of facere “to do” (see factitious). Usual modern sense of “thing known to be true” appeared 1630s, from notion of “something that has actually occurred.” Facts of life “harsh realities” is from 1854; specific sense of “human sexual functions” first recorded 1913.

[2] Ott, T (2006). Cinema panopticum. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic Books, pp. 1–103.

[3] If you like, you might read the plot summary contained here, which has the stories in this edition in a different order, and the story called “The Wonderpill” (here “The Experiment”) seems very different in arc and outcome. I have no further idea why or how these books differ.

[4] Rum likely didn’t help either, along with other hard alcohols.

[5] Gorey, E. (1972). Amphigorey. New York: Putnam.

[6] Gorey, E. (2002). Amphigorey also. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.

[7] Gorey, E. (1977). Amphigorey too. New York: Putnam : distributed by Berkley Pub. Corp..

[8] I would feel better asserting this if Ott’s narrative gave me more warrant to believe and assert it.

The_Invaders[9] In an episode of The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, an old woman living alone in a cabin finds her home invaded by very small aliens in space suits. Eventually, she manages to locate their flying saucer and destroys it with a hatchet, while a radio-voiceover says in English, “We are under attack,” and letter on the face of the flying saucer makes clear that the ship originates in the United States. Something of that twist echoes here.

[10] One might recall, vis-à-vis insects, that Gorey has an arthropod tale: The Insect God

[11] I no longer recall the details of Bergman’s (1957) The Seventh Seal, where a knight tries to bargain for his life by offering to play Death a game of chess—a premise hilariously spoofed in Peter Hewitt‘s (1991) Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. I must add also that the final frame of this tale, again after one turns the page, shows Death holding the daughter’s hand as they go into the light, so over against a classically tragic tale of hubris (on the part of the father) we may alternatively read the mysterious will of the divine as it engineers a happy ending, i.e., the daughter going to paradise. This argues against the “theme of increasing nihilism” I sense Ott trying to construct in the narrative generally.

the-seventh-seal-chess-game[12] Not everyone who appears in the opening chapter necessarily gets reprised in a later morality tale; more precisely, carnival employees seem immune to depiction in the cinema panopticum, except for the luchador. Conversely, not everyone who appears in the morality tales get presaged in the opening chapter. Two particularly notable (carnival worker) faces in the opening chapter include the man at the ball toss and a ticket-saleswoman, both of whom make very sour faces. Now, simply because Ott establishes that people from the opening chapter appear in the later chapters, we might readily assume an identity between the protagonist of the last chapter “The Girl” and the girl of the opening chapter. One might also imagine that the ticket-saleswoman from the opening chapter becomes the protagonist for the last chapter so that the girl’s evident shock or horror may arise from her realization that she will mature into that unpleasant woman. This seems something of a stretch, but nothing particularly rules out the possibility.

[13] To the extent that life at times becomes overwhelming, gestures like “life is meaningless” serve to mitigate that sense of engulfment, even as we cannot actually reach the point of “meaninglessness” (without being dead).

[14] Taking the phrase as possibly Latin, which hardly seems justified given that all the roots of the words presumably derive from Greek, then “cinema panopticum” might mean “the all-seeing movement”. I don’t find this gets me much further.

[15] Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon Books.

[16] Film studies and Richard Dyer’s (1997) White (see here) explore extensively what it means to exist as the one who gaze rather than to exist as the one gazed at.

[17] Putting this in a snarkier vein, one might call it a bluff.

033[18] From Kafka’s Metamorphosis, this phrase often gets translated as “gigantic insect” but might better be “monstrous vermin”. The insect image enjoys wide enough distribution that an artist wishing to make an allusion to it may do better to resort to “insect” (or even “cockroach”) more than “vermin”.

[19] Eagleton, T. (1989). “Bakhtin, Schopenhauer, Kundera” in K. Hirschkop & D. Shepherd (eds.) Bakhtin and cultural theory, pp. 178–88. Manchester, UK: University of Manchester Press.


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