Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment

Angela Ndalianis,
Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment.
Cambridge, Mass. & London: The MIT Press, 2004.
ISBN: 0 262 14084 5
336 pp
US$34.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by MIT Press)

Angela Ndalianis has provided a fascinating exploration of profound parallels between baroque art and culture and contemporary entertainment media. She identifies her principal subject as the “continuous and contiguous links between the two eras [of the baroque and contemporary, or ‘neo-baroque’]” evident in essential features of neo-baroque poetics (5). A “refusal to respect the limits of the frame that contains the illusion” is highlighted as “the central characteristic of the baroque that informs this study” (25). This refusal also characterises Ndalianis’ book inasmuch as it disrupts the conventional framing of the historical sequence that leads to contemporary audio-visual culture. A key factor here is the way the book is able to interrupt the habitual resort to the Romantic prerogatives underlying modernist aesthetic tenets such as the avant-garde “original”, the artist as unique creative instance, the dialectic of subjective realisation through liberation from convention and so forth, that informs much cultural criticism of the contemporary “postmodern” moment. By exploring the relevance today of the baroque’s extension and exacerbation of classical aesthetics of proportion, symmetry and orderly transcendence, Ndalianis replaces standard critiques of postmodern appropriation, pastiche and simulation with analyses of the inventive dynamics of contemporary entertainment forms.
This extensive study, breathtaking in the scope of its scholarship across baroque and contemporary art and culture, presents numerous insightful dialogues between analyses of baroque works and contemporary entertainment forms. These analyses are too numerous to document adequately in this review, and include engaging and perceptive readings of the reflexive promiscuity of the Evil Dead series (d. Sam Raimi), the multi-directional labyrinthine composition of Pietro da Cortona’s Divine Providence/The Glorification of Urban VIII (1633-1639, a.k.a The Barberini Ceiling), and of the Doom (id software) series of computer games as a virtual, meta-labyrinth. These three studies themselves are presented in series as an accumulating meditation on the (neo-)baroque parallels in Chapter Two, “Intertextuality, labyrinths and the (Neo-)baroque” , where Ndalianis is able to demonstrate the productivity of bringing to the interpretation of contemporary media works, critical concepts drawn from scholarship on baroque aesthetics such as “coextensive space,” “bel composto” and Leibniz’s notion of “compossibility”.

In Chapter One, “Polycentrism and seriality: (Neo-)baroque narrative formations,” Ndalianis brilliantly elucidates the baroque preference for a serial form of composition that promises a future coherence instead of providing a single, unified form for contemplation. She finds a parallel in the “franchises” of contemporary media corporations such as the Alien series of films, comics and computer games. Like the baroque’s emergent forms of serialised popular culture such as mass-printed literary works and religious images, each instalment of the Alien series reiterates elements from already well-known predecessors in constant variation and innovation across sequels and media forms. Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s analysis in The Origin of German Tragic Drama of the baroque predilection for fragmentary compositional form, Ndalianis identifies an “internal logic” consistent across baroque and neo-baroque aesthetic constructions. The fragment does not equate to a loss of coherence or meaningfulness. This loss of coherence would be one reading of a postmodern aesthetic of quotation, often associated with Jameson’s notion of postmodern “pastiche”. Rather, Ndalianis argues convincingly that this (neo-)baroque poetic implies an ongoing (re)construction of a more complex, polycentric, labyrinthine order. She will suggest that while baroque seriality allegorised the extent of an absolute monarch’s influence – as she demonstrates with a beautiful reading of the treatment of the Apollo myth in the garden statuary of the palace of Versailles under the Sun King, Louis XIV – the contemporary serial proliferation of forms is an allegory of the cross-media, cross-cultural reach of the multi-national media corporation.

This performative dimension of the aesthetic of seriality is not “read off” reductively as the ultimate, material(ist) significance of either the baroque or the neo-baroque series. Her sensitivity to the specifics of her chosen examples, including her account of the particular dynamics of formal developments in particular works, means that her analyses opens many dimensions of the (neo-)baroque parallel. For example, the constative significance of seriality is taken up as part of the discussion of the different spirituality signified in works of the baroque and neo-baroque in the final chapter, providing another and to some degree contrasting perspective on the significance of the aesthetic processes under examination here (to which we shall have cause to return below).

Ndalianis identifies the key parallel between the baroque and neo-baroque as the fact that both periods are transitional, evidencing major cultural, economic and techno-scientific changes. The baroque was a time of the emerging crisis of monarchic, Catholic Europe due to the increasing significance of mercantilism and venture capitalism, the beginnings of mass-mediated popular cultural forms (via printing press technology) and the emergence of modern scientific discoveries undermining religious metaphysical orthodoxies. The contemporary moment is one of late capitalist globalisation, where techno-scientific innovations in communication, information systems and virtualisation transform social, political and cultural dynamics. These moments of the baroque and neo-baroque frame modernity and are viewed as the origin and end of modernity in this book – to the extent that the baroque is seen as a transformative exacerbation of Renaissance aesthetic and cultural developments and the neo-baroque is cast as a similar transformation of the modern. This is implicit in Ndalianis’s characterisation of the parallel between the two transitional periods, as well as in her ongoing dialogue in the book with postmodern critical approaches (Jameson and Jim Collins most notably), and most acutely in the final chapter’s discussion of the “Spiritual presence of the technological”. This both ante- and post-modern notion – inasmuch as modernity is characterised as the era of reason, empirical science and the secular state – is discussed in relation to the comparison between the baroque aesthetic of explicit technical virtuosity and the contemporary reflexive performativity of special effects display in films and theme park rides.

In the baroque, argues Ndalianis, the artwork “seeks to make concrete or give representation to that which is unrepresentable (the spiritual)…” (223). Her chief example here is Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila (1645-1652) a work which utilises the aesthetic technique of “bel composto – the beautiful union of multiple media” (216) – to evoke and enact the transcendence of the physical in the passage from the limits of one medium (sculpture) to the next (painting, and then architecture). This is both likened and contrasted to the neo-baroque work which (in the second part of the sentence quoted above, “…seeks to make the concrete (the technological) unrepresentable by imbuing it with a spiritual quality” (223). Ndalianis’ prime example here is Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (US, 1977) which concludes with a prolonged celebration of special effects technology’s ability to “realise” the optimistic vision of humanity’s redemption from material immanence by technologically superior others. Ndalianis accurately identifies the new age spirituality animating this vision, comparing it to similar manifestations of a transcendent techno-philic spirituality such as the Raelian movement, Eric von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods and other popular alien salvation theories of the 1970s context of Close Encounters.

The point is well made and Ndalianis goes on to develop a sustained meditation on special effects in cinema and the contemporary bel composto of theme park rides that extends her insights into the paradoxical coupling of material technology and technique in virtuoso self-display with evocations of magical, transcendent and spiritual events or experience. This provides a valuable alternative to the usual critical framework in which special effects are taken up as displays which either suspend or hijack serious thematic exploration in film narratives. [1]

While the baroque bel composto of Bernini’s St Teresa can be analysed as a technical/aesthetic achievement with a spiritual, religious significance that is relatively unproblematically assigned to a realm of belief separate from the core empirical faith of secular modernity, the evocation of a transcendental dimension of technology, that is, making “the concrete unrepresentable,” engages with fundamental epistemological premises of the contemporary milieu. [2] This book is patently aware of this and the last chapter represents a rich meditation on the special effect as a theatricalisation of that which haunts the materialist conception of technology, modernity, and history. For Ndalianis, the special effect stages with acute insight the present moment in which a cyborgian merger of the human and the machine is achieved:

During the neo-baroque, the ultimate composto has been created. Human has merged with the machine, we have folded into technology and it has folded into us. Beyond the overt image of human-machine interface in the cyborg of science fiction, society requires our increased interaction with technologies. When we access our computers, use our mobile phones, switch on our televisions, or play games on our Play Station 2 or Xbox units, we participate in the process of evoking the sacred monster. (250)

The “sacred monster” here is the human become quasi-divine master of this organic-technical merger. The book concludes with what appears as a voluntarist gesture toward the future realisation of this cyborgian transcendence:

The future experiences that neo-baroque spectacles will provide us will be limited only by the technologies that drive them. Where these journeys will take us, one can only guess. If, however, as Fisher states, “True wonder is a phase of the alert mind, of the mind in its process of learning,” then one thing is certain: I will definitely go along for the ride (256).

The status of the spirituality of the neo-baroque – as read in the contemporary special effect – oscillates in this discussion between a new age mystification that can be quarantined from the core propositions of secular, materialist modernity, and this cyborgian post-humanist vision of a mind learning to live in a new cyborg body.

The (neo)baroque re-framing of modernity in Neobaroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment represents a provocative reposing of the cultural and aesthetic history of (post)modernity. For this reason, and aside from its rich payload of comparative analyses of artworks and media forms, it represents an important, innovative position on contemporary audio-visual culture. My major criticism would be that, in her historicial/historiographic passages between the baroque and the contemporary, Ndalianis could have tarried longer in the space of Walter Benjamin’s melancholic German baroque, or counterposed the aesthetics of wonder (Fisher, after Descartes) with the feelings of terror evoked by Blaise Pascal’s response to the newly discovered infinite, labyrinthine cosmos of western science. Both of these encounters with the baroque moment are mobilised by Ndalianis, but without exploring fully their implication for her crucial discussion of “spiritual presence” in the concluding chapter. Benjamin says of the German baroque milieu that “The religious disposition remained, only the religious solution was denied it by the century, or order in its stead to demand or to impose a worldly, secular solution”.[3] According to Samuel Weber, Benjamin identifies what is mourned in the German Mourning Plays as a perceived loss of transcendence in the baroque era:

Nothing one can do, in any sort of deliberate or planned manner, can alter the terrible truth that imposes itself upon Baroque immanence: the enigma of death.

With the loss of transcendence, death both confirms the finitude of life, its “secular” aspect, and at the same time poses acutely the question of its significance. [4]

Weber sees in Benjamin’s characterisation of what is original in the German Mourning Play a genealogy of modernity, one in which the problem of transcendence and the question of death are already announced in the mournfulness of the baroque theatre. What of the considerable dystopian currents of science fiction cinema, cyberpunk, computer games and anime? Whether or not the “enigma of death” remains unsolved by either the new age mystification in Close Encounters or the post-human cyborgian transcendence evoked by neo-baroque effects spectacle is something that Ndalianis’ discussion of the “spiritual presence of the technological” could have profitably addressed in furthering the comparison between the two periods. Similarly, Pascal’s sublime terror in the face of the newly discovered, infinite universe of cosmic matter has fostered a tradition of Romantic response to the optimistic subject of wonder. A theory of neo-baroque aesthetics, while legitimately looking beyond the Romantic as sole progenitor of the contemporary, cannot nonetheless pass over its challenge to the aesthetics of wonder. Such considerations might have provided other fragments for the (neo-)baroque order under construction out of the multiple fragments of the two eras in communication in the book, fragments which could counterpose the concluding ambivalence about the neo-baroque spirit, or at least further complicate its harmonic oscillation.

Patrick Crogan,
University of Adelaide, Australia.


[1] See, for example, Geoff Kings’s discussion of the special effect in “serious” war movies in Spectacular Narratives: Hollywood in the Age of the Blockbuster (London & New York: I.B. Taurius, 2000), p.130-132.
[2] R.L. Rutsky, in High Techn?: Art and Technology from the Machine Aesthetic to the Posthuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), explores several modernist artwork’s interrogation of the unresolved problem of the spirituality in/of technological modernity. In particular, see his brilliant analysis of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in relation to Nazi themes of spiritual renewal in the face of industrialisation in “The Mediation of Technology and Gender”.
[3] Benjamin quoted in Samuel Weber, “Genealogy of Modernity: History, Myth and Allegory in Benjamin’s Origin of the German Mourning Play,” MLN, no. 106 (1991), p. 465-500 (quote from p. 493). Note Weber’s alternative translation of Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, and his alternative translation of the sentence cited above from that in the standard English version of Benjamin’s study, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. George Steiner (London: Verso, 1977), p. 79.
[4]Weber, p. 493.

Created on: Monday, 6 December 2004 | Last Updated: 6-Dec-04

About the Author

Patrick Crogan

About the Author

Patrick Crogan

Patrick Crogan teaches in the Bachelor of Media program at the University of Adelaide. He writes on film, animation, computer games and critical theories of technology.View all posts by Patrick Crogan →