The Meaning of “The Footage” in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition
The Meaning of “The Footage” in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition
“The Footage” – a cryptic Internet video phenomenon and viral sensation – drives the plot throughout William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, sending Cayce Pollard on an international investigation to find the director. This series of non-linear, short video clips is best interpreted as both a rendering of high art (which cannot be commodified) and a metaphorical device indicative of collective trauma in the post-September 11th landscape. While “The Footage” functions similarly to viral marketing campaigns that are all too familiar in the digital age, its aura emanates from a mysterious beauty combined with artistic mastery. The production value of each clip is consistent with a virtuosic knowledge of cinema, driving “Footageheads” to obsess over different schools of analysis that stretch from the personal to global. Interestingly, the concept of personal and global explanation directly ties into the other side of meaning regarding these clips. The trauma of September 11th juxtaposes with Cayce’s obsession and eventual search for “The Footage” in the sense that both the clips and attack function outside of commodified culture. The clips fill a collective void left by both the World Trade Center attacks and the disappearance of Win Pollard that coincides with this tragedy (a personal trauma).
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First, the novel’s introduction of “The Footage” immediately implies the clips’ connection with high art. Gibson writes:
This is one of the sequences that generate comparisons with Tarkovsky. She only knows Tarkovsky from stills, really, though she did once fall asleep during a screening of The Stalker, going under on an endless pan, the camera aimed straight down, in close-up, at a ruined mosaic floor (p. 3-4).
Here, the “comparisons to Tarkovsky” imply “The Footage” is in the same artistic league as a master of cinema. Conceptually, “an endless pan” demonstrates a cinematographic device at odds with mainstream movies and is indicative of higher art based in manipulation of the medium rather than linear content. “Endless” implies a living artistic motive and creates a comparison to “The Footage,” as no one can piece together the true order of these clips, much less signify an inarguable beginning and end. The Tarkovsky comparison also juxtaposes with “The Footage” because the “camera [aims] straight down” – a suggestion that both pieces are resting on a pedestal, staring down at viewers from high artistic positioning. “A ruined mosaic floor” also transfers the complexity of Tarkovsky’s work onto “The Footage” through the image of a fractured floor that is “ruined” and removed from its original state to a distorted version of its former self. The word “ruined” can be applied to the grainy images present within the clips on “F:F:F” in the novel. Notably, the high art comparisons with other filmmakers are continued through the theory put forth by Parkaboy that implies the director is “the Garage Kubrick.” Gibson writes:
It had been Parkaboy, shortly after Ivy had started the site from her Seoul apartment, who had first raised the possibility of what he called “the Garage Kubrick.”… It is simply a part of the discourse, and a central one: that it is possible that this footage is generated single-handedly by some technologically empowered solo auteur… (p. 47).
Here, the images and techniques of Tarkovsky and Kubrick are both tied to “The Footage” by experts on the subject. The idea that a “solo auteur” is responsible implies another comparison to high art in the sense that personal touches of directors such as Kubrick tend to eclipse studio-produced cinema. Also, the notion of “possibility” connects to high art, as multi-layered interpretations are present in both Kubrick and “The Footage,” adding to the tendencies of fans to view both sets of work repeatedly.
The role of “The Footage” as high art is further reinforced during Cayce’s meeting with Huburtus Bigend when he proposes the project of tracking down the maker. Gibson details the protagonist’s reaction to Bigend bringing up “the kiss”:
Cayce instantly knows what kiss he’s talking about, but the contextual shift required to reframe Bigend as a footagehead is so peculiar, so vast a rotation, that she can only sit there, feeling her diaphragm responding slightly to the bottom end of the music (p. 64).
Here, Cayce’s shock that an advertising CEO asks her about “The Footage” demonstrates that the clips are disconnected from the world of commodities and exhibit elements of high art that cannot be turned into money. Notably, Bigend’s comment leads to “feeling in her diaphragm” – an implication that the advertiser has committed an invasion of privacy or attempt at physical entrance into a world where he does not belong. “The contextual shift” also suggests the separation of “The Footage” from the commodities that Bigend’s expertise surrounds. Later in the novel, when Cayce finally encounters Nora and Stella, a final comment on the pure artistic power of “The Footage” is implied. Cayce says: “Your sister’s art has become very valuable. You’ve succeeded, you see. It’s a genuine mystery, Nora’s art, something hidden at the heart of the world, and more and more people follow it, all over the world” (p. 307). Here, the protagonist concludes that Nora really does create high art that gets “at the heart of the world.” This function of art makes “The Footage” both personal and universally applicable to every human being. The clips are “very valuable” precisely because they eschew commodification and branding, yet the rareness of high art within the digital age provides ample explanation for why so many people are thoroughly interested in “The Footage.”
Furthermore, the establishment of “The Footage” as high art allows a theoretical progression to view the clips in the context of collective trauma – particularly in correspondence with the attacks on September 11, 2001. Gibson writes:
Cayce and the German designer will watch the towers burn, and eventually fall, and though she will know she must have seen people jumping, falling, there will be no memory of it. It will be like watching one of her own dreams on television. Some vast and deeply personal insult to any ordinary notion of interiority. An experience outside of culture (p. 137).
Here, the notion of the World Trade Center attacks as “an experience outside of culture” directly correlates with ‘The Footage.” Nora’s art thrives “outside of culture” – meaning, it has yet to be commodified and branded, instead remaining foreign to the system and traumatic to the normal order of things. Likewise, September 11th implies a collective trauma on both personal and global scales. “There will be no memory of it” for Cayce because of the personal trauma of losing her father as well as the universal trauma of having “seen people jumping, falling.” “The Footage” fills this void. It speaks to everyone’s trauma, filling in for the memories they have chosen to erase with something equally mysterious and foreign to their system of cognition. Earlier in the book, Gibson details Cayce’s mindset: “Eyes closed, she finds herself imagining a symbol, something water-marking the lower right-hand corner of her existence. It is there, just beyond some periphery, beyond the physical, beyond vision and it marks her… as what” (p. 78)? This passage pointedly correlates with the description of September 11th as well. The “something water-marking the lower right-hand corner of her existence” is both the Twin Tower attacks and “The Footage.” September 11th demonstrates an “event outside of culture,” yet the vocabulary of “The Footage” also goes “beyond the physical” as “it marks her.” The director’s unknown identity allows every viewer of the clips to fill their own void and cope with collective trauma, hence the interest in both “The Footage” and September 11th on a universal scale. Here, the universality of trauma suggests “The Footage” is symptomatic of humanity’s personal problems.
Ultimately, the combination of “The Footage” signifying high art and collective trauma provides conclusive explanation for Huburtus Bigend’s quest to commodify. The advertiser understands culture, and therefore searches for new trends that have yet to be branded and reappropriated in concordance with capitalism. In its pure state, “The Footage” is both indicative of high art and collective trauma – a cultural power that Bigend understandably wants control of. The clips appeal to him precisely because they remain “outside of culture,” and just as “The Footage” fills a void that is symptomatic of collective trauma, Bigend’s void is filled by the emergence a new product to market. Finally, Nora’s clips truly appeal to humanity because of their high artistic value and lack of commodification – a final catch-22 presented by Gibson to imply that anything which eschews marketing is exactly what characters like Bigend spend their lives searching for and eventually revealing. For Gibson, the conflicting identity between how “The Footage” purely functions (as signifier of high art and collective trauma) and how marketers can damage that purity represents a conflicting plight in our globalized world.
Gibson, William (2003). Pattern Recognition. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group.