Details Details

It’s important, I think, when you are in the publishing business, to open a piece in a catchy and compelling way, accompanying it, if appropriate, with an arresting image of some sort. So…


I was walking along the road the other day looking at the kerb and I thought “There’s dirt in the dimples in the kerbstones.”

Then I thought:

There is never dirt in any niche, crevice or depression in Virtual Reality (a popular idea from the mid 1980s). In ‘real’ Virtual Reality (the one with the goggles) you’re lucky if you get texture, let alone detritus. Even these days, when they can do hair really well (see CGI hair overview here) and texture has come along, nobody does dirt. It’s just too much work. They’ll do it as a laminate, of course, an aspect of surface, as in ‘soiled garment’ or ‘begrimed window’, where it replaces rather than lies upon that to which it adheres.


If it is there it’s because it’s a narrative requirement (see ‘Wall E’), not because it would be there anyway. In fact, and this is to jump the gun, its broad stroke depiction actually taunts the viewer, as if to say “Yeah, we have dirt but, like, do you really want it?”

Which, to embrace the gun, is the nub. What’s the point of a simulated reality if it has bad things in it? I can get that just by going out. The point of virtual reality is you never have to go out again.

I was in Manchester twenty years ago to see some people about some television. I was in the canteen. Someone said “Stand on that chair and look out of the window.” So I did. There, right outside, was Coronation Street.


I was near the end where the pub, The Rover’s Return, was located. It was very realistic. I remember looking at the kerb. No dirt. That’s why it was called The Rover’s Return. Because the Rover has seen enough dirt and now wants to go back to where there isn’t any. What’s the point of television if it has dirt in it? Come on!


The cleanest surfaces on television or, indeed, in their original cinema habitat, are to be found in cartoons, especially the short ones. Visit well-stocked showrooms from John Lewis to Richer Sounds and it is the cartoon channels whose wares radiate from most of the screens on display. Ask any salesperson and they will say this is because cartoons show the TV’s colours at their greatest intensity or brilliance or brightness or vibrancy, whatever it is.

The sulphurous yellows and barely stable reds demonstrate that the television set is really good. At first such a yammering, ferocious palette may induce migraine or the involuntary tightening around the eye of its orbicularis oculi muscles, a sphincter set which acts to narrow the eye opening and close the orbit of the eye. The promise of a dirt-free environment, however, is generally sufficient to accelerate the process of adaptation, after which the nursery colour range will increasingly stand for the world at the same time as making its predecessor – the world – seem rather lacking in gaiety.


The only problem with this is sport. People know what grass should look like and there is a fundamental disparity between cartoon candy settings and those that render the football or cricket pitch credibly. Sport is the most popular TV salesroom display content after cartoons and the grass usually looks okay, suggesting that cartoons shown on the same apparatus may look…what? Lifelike? No – cartoons can’t look lifelike (unless they have CGI hair).

Anyway, behind all this lie the excitements of mania and its surly associate, depression. Take a look at Donald, Daffy, Porky, Sylvester or Stimpy – mood swings de luxe! It is as if the lack of dirt i.e. detail, is the most marvellous lightener of being. Untrammelled by detail, the little fellows experience minimal emotional traction and thus need never tarry in the grey scale. They move, like quantum particles, from light to shade and back without covering the space that is conventionally seen as separating two points.

The cartoon character, in his chronic bi-polarity, reminds us what a drag life is. It really ties you down.

In an earlier post, part of a series, Strength Weekly referred to the notion of the ‘schizogenic society’ laid out by the anti-psychiatrist R.D.Laing. In his stirring and merciless new book ‘Capitalist Realism – is there any alternative?” Mark Fisher (blogging as k-punk) writes about psychological conditions that achieve wide social distribution in the context of particular economic systems:
‘With its ceaseless boom and bust cycles, capitalism is itself fundamentally and irreducibly bi-polar, periodically lurching between hyped-up mania (the irrational experience of ‘bubble thinking’) and depressive come-down. (The term ‘economic depression’ is no accident, of course). To a degree unprecedented in any other social system, capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations. Without delirium and confidence, capital could not function.’

Fisher notes that other commentators have argued that ‘schizophrenia is the condition that marks the outer edges of capitalism’ and goes on to assert that, if that is the case then ‘bi-polar disorder is the mental illness proper to the ‘interior’ of capitalism.’

That cartoon characters, in the main, are emblems of capitalised mania and the risks pursuant to unanchored and tractable appetite, is not surprising nor, for that matter, is the notion that efficient communication is predicated on the winnowing out of detail. When I found myself musing on a dirty kerbstone, though, I did wonder if detail is under attrition in another way. In the the current glut of vampire entertainments, for example, analysis has been submitted hither and thither (here, for example) but the genre continues to offer a means of managing something that is not alien so much as enervating. Might this be related in some way to the death of detail?


Despite the rapacious and superhuman energies of the post-prandial vampire, he or she is also closely associated with pallor, listlessness and a suite of symptoms akin to chronic fatigue syndrome. This applies equally to the multiply pierced victim and their fanged immortal exsanguinator. Reduced affect, diminished detail – these effects are not tolerated in the everyday world where, if you give blood in a nice way, as a public-spirited donor, you get a delicious cup of sweet tea to build you up again afterwards. In this instance, however, sweetness is a reward for compliance in a transaction that otherwise leaves you languishing in lassitude.


Extended to the world beyond the Blood Donor Centre, sweetness may also be proffered in the form of bright colours, bright ideas or bright opportunities which no longer stand for the world but simply provide high contrast, conjuring a world before and after detail in which contrast replaces content.

In such a world transformation is instantaneous. There is no journey to be made, no interim state, you only have to wish. There are two ways of going about it: re-invent yourself or re-invent the world to suit yourself. Most of the difficulties previously associated with these operations have been significantly minimised thanks to the exsanguination of detail. Vampire narratives, from this perspective, offer an examination of the tribulations and rhapsodies that accompany the project either to increase or diminish detail. One bite delivers ecstasy. A few hours later you want another one.


You’d think that the world that delivers the box-set to your living room, the train timetable to your telephone and a comprehensive history of lighthouses to your computer screen would never run out of toothsome detail. Surely we live in a trainspotter’s paradise as far as detail goes. Even those with genuinely mild or benign attachments to particulars and specifics constantly run the risk of engulfment by small but enticing matters pertaining to their special interests. If bi-polarity is the psychopolitical disorder du jour then the manic could be sated and the depressed uplifted by a dose of train numbers. But it doesn’t work like that, it goes the other way.

That it is time-consuming to add dirt to the picture is accepted as a good enough technical excuse for the box-fresh look of animated imagery. What, however, if dirt were removed from the everyday, goggle-free world – so that this world started to acquire some of the characteristics of a manmade graphic artifact?

Despite the superabundance of data made available by digital technology, it is increasingly the case that paralysis and anxiety are as likely to compound our reactions as an enriching, vitalising celebration of unbounded opportunity. It is the fact of inundation that generates the contemporary bi-polar malaise. It’s the vastness of it. The sheer smothering unmanageability induces either suffocation or ecstasy. There’s too much to dwell on.

It is conceivable, if not provable, that a depressed public consumes less than a manic one. The yearning to alleviate depression is all very well but not much use to the economy if the subject can’t be bothered to get up in the morning. Mania is fun and risks – to the wallet , for instance – tend to be overlooked. Strictly speaking, mania is depression, insofar as it is, by definition, a flame doomed to gutter, for ever and ever. That said, mania is harsh on detail – it doesn’t need it. Depression finds solace in detail, it gives traction on the slopes.

Detail has peaked and is now disappearing. Everything is simpler now. At the moment this is a rather haunting, ugly feeling. Soon it won’t be.