Part I: Despair. Mourning and Viral Displacement / Catalina Segú

sad cat.

Part I: Despair

November 22, 2021, 11:00 PM: Part I: Despair, a 27-minute film by sadcat045 collective was published for the first time in Twitter.1 Based on Chris Marker’s La jeté, the film was distributed over Twitter by sadbot, an automatized distribution system programmed to post a link to the film every time a tweet was published under the hashtag #crisis. This bot is expected to function permanently and systematically over the coming months, enabling the circulation of the film throughout increasingly larger and heterogeneous audiences, circumstantially reunited under a single, yet all-embracing hashtag. Performing the contagious, unpredictable and transnational movements of the virus, this mode of circulation situates the film within the pervasive logics of TikTok videos, Twitter bots, GIFs, and memes that became a particularly visible coping mechanism—a grieving-in-public in the digital sphere, as Penelope Papailias puts it2—during the Covid-19 pandemic. Part I: Despair entails the turning of La jetée into a long-duration meme as well as a spam, whose primary materials—a collection of randomly assembled, excessive, and saturated videos and images taken from the internet—as well as its aesthetic and affective strategies appropriate one of the foundational texts of postwar European cinema3 in order to address the economies of viral circulation, affect and visuality emerging in the contemporary moment of global crisis.

As a member of the sadcat045 collective, I offer this essay as a textual correlate of the film; an alternative script, a curatorial commentary, an art manifesto, that will operate in frictional conversation with the film and its circulation and spreading over the web. In their referential bond, and in the midst of their bot-driven wanderings, both film and essay are meant to affect one another, producing low and fleeting encounters with unknown audiences that will eventually and rapidly get lost. The bodies that are meant to encounter them in their relation—bots, images and media landscapes, publics—are understood to constitute a complex assemblage of affectively-mediated human-machine networks,4 bodies that participate in the ever-spreading digital reverberations and viral proliferations that modulate, in this case, the affective intensities of pandemic mourning and crisis.

  1. Despair

We are sad. This is our grieving. Our bodies became sad cats in the way that sad cats appear and proliferate in this media environment. Our crying eyes are exaggeratedly big. They contain the tears we are unable to release—an accumulation of tears, the sedimentation of liquid eyes over our eyes, collectively produced, remixed, and distributed over the network. Our sadness doesn’t cry but retains, it doesn’t move forward but accumulates, and our vision is blurred by this operation. We are stuck in the moment that precedes catharsis, and we don’t seem to find a way out. Hence our mourning consists in a suspended condition: we are permanently on the verge of tears. And yet we often elicit something funny and ridiculous. After all, we are fundamentally cute,5 and thus the gravity of our sadness presents itself as self-cancelling. We don’t understand the weight of tragedy. And yet we are in the middle of a tragedy.

Fig. 1 Two versions of a “sad cat.” Images found on the internet.

The sudden death of bodies, lives, and horizons at a global scale—the interruption of it all—and the deepening of the necropolitical strategies, which distinguish the bodies that count as grievable from those that are not,6 is contested here with an overflowing current of internet productivity. Videos, trends, viral content, spam testify the conditions of sudden confinement and catastrophe. It is, it could be said, the workings of contemporary mourning culture in the digital age,7 in which “new ephemeral networks are constantly being generated through intimate interactions of unrelated users around public grief of unknown others.”8 For Papailias, the grieving-in-public occurring in this mediated environment consists in a performative type of mourning, in that the images that circulate on the web are not just observed by a passive audience but are rather “produced by, and productive of, a massive, dispersed corporeal network.”9 This relation with images, she suggests, promotes a form of embodied witnessing, a sense of “corporeal presence” and “affinity” with the events, that propel users to “remix the traces and remains of dead bodies into new assemblages.”10

It is precisely the generation of a grieving corporeal network, constituted and produced by millions of bodies simultaneously experiencing the sudden loss of the pandemic, that we think underlies the proliferation of videos, memes, and GIFs on social media right after the covid-19 pandemic was declared. It is, in other words, the proliferation of people working out, cooking, crying, dancing, mimicking, and remixing one another the mode in which collective mourning took place, and the way in which the ghosts of a life suddenly interrupted persisted. By becoming sad cats, we thus respond to the modes of mourning emerging in this particular assemblage. A mourning in suspension, unable to envision its end, stripped from the weight of tragedy, slightly comic.

Fig 2. “Proliferation of people working out, cooking, crying, dancing,” in Part I: Despair, (sadkatzz045 films, 2021)

The dead bodies whose remains we are mourning, carrying and remixing are not only the actual bodies that are lost due to the virus, but also the corporeal configurations of a life that is no longer possible—what Sigmund Freud described as “the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as fatherland, liberty, an ideal, and so on,”11 that leads to mourning in the same way that the loss of a loved person does. We are mourning the loss of the so-called “normal life,” which haunts us in all our digital endeavors. We persist in this life, despite its sudden disappearance, as the mourning person clings to the lost object “through the medium of hallucinatory psychosis,”12 turning away from every other effort that is “not connected with thoughts of the dead.”13 For Freud, what differentiates grief from a “morbid condition” that requires “medical treatment”—specifically, melancholia—is the certainty that “after a lapse of time it will be overcome.”14 The overcoming of grief implies for Freud a return to normalcy—a return to “the normal attitude of life”—in which the ego becomes “free and uninhibited again,”15 succeeding in detaching its libido from the lost object and transferring it to something else.

Yet this certainty can be said to be troubled in a situation in which the events of death and loss are ongoing. The dying of the ‘normal life’ presents itself as an unfinished, ambivalent business. In its agony, the force of its spectrality inflicts the production and circulation of grieving images and bodies with the ghosts of a life that is not entirely gone yet impossible to return to. Like the accumulation and remixing of tears in our non-cathartic eyes, the ghosts of the recent past are perpetually accommodated in this ephemeral, grieving network, unable to be released. We remain in the stage of hallucinatory psychosis and there is no way back.

Hallucination plays a central role in La jetée. Understood as an experience that involves the “apparent perception of something that is not present,” it is the medium through which the man, in captivity and subjected to a series of painful experiments, is able to travel in time to rescue the historical present from a nuclear holocaust. As D.N. Rodowick notes, “whether this passage [in time] is actual or physical, or mental or spiritual, is ambiguous.”16 The man’s body remains painfully still, surrounded by his captors and the medical prosthesis with which they are experimenting, while at the same time a movement over time is enabled. This ambiguous movement, Rodowick suggests, pulverizes “the thread of chronology where present, past, and future are aligned on a continuum,” rendering chronological time not only fragmented like a “shattered crystal” but also turning it “into distinct series, discontinuous and incommensurable.”17 This reading aligns with other formal approaches that emphasize the relationships between stasis and cinematic time as they operate in the film’s fragmented and discontinuous grammar. For Bruce Kawin, for instance, time travel functions in La jetée under the premise that “all instants are simultaneous” and therefore accessible, positing an analogy between the film’s construction of cinematic time and the way in which the reel contains “thousands of frames [that] maintain their images of potential instants, all together and retrievable.”18 The narrator’s assertion towards the end of the film, that “one cannot escape from time,” is for Kawin analogous to the realization that “one cannot escape from film,” as both event-time and film-time become indistinguishably conflated.19

Fig. 3 “Collapse of chronological time,” in Part I: Despair, (sadkatzz045 films, 2021).

The collapse of chronological time into a fragmented, discontinuous, and simultaneous temporality, and the inescapability from the medium these formal approaches suggest,20 acquire an entirely different, though resonant, consistency in more recent analyses focusing on the film’s historical and political content. Establishing a connection between Marker’s film and Henri Alleg’s La question21—a book that introduced the repressive mechanisms of France’s military operation in Algeria to the French intellectual audience at the time—Matthew Croombs reads the time-travel mechanisms depicted on the film as a direct representation of torture, largely conditioned by Alleg’s book. The ‘ambiguous’ passage over time would be determined, in this reading, by Alleg’s testimony of his time as a political prisoner in El Biar, an underground, laboratory-like detention center “where daylight never entered” and where prisoners were subjected to severe methods of torture. Here, Alleg writes of the various forms of pain he was subjected to, from “being blinded by the electrodes placed over his eyes, and of tightening his jaw on a rag used to muffle the sounds of his screams.”22 Most strikingly, he describes episodes of hallucinatory states, losing all sense of time, and “experiencing interior bodily sensations as living forms from without.”23 As Croombs notes, one of the episodes that most closely evokes the film’s depiction of the experiments is when Alleg is injected with Pentothal during an interrogation, “find[ing] himself displaced from the infirmary to a series of sites across Paris, spaces that appear to him like disconnected ‘pictures’.”24

Fig. 4. The protagonist is treated with beauty procedures in Part I: Despair, (sadkatzz045 films, 2021)

  1. Displacement

The painful stillness of a body in confinement is superimposed with spaces and images from another time. Lived ambiguously and simultaneously, these spatiotemporal multiplicities imply not only the displacement of the physical body into other bodies in different times (it’s being thrown into different ‘pictures’), but also the displacement between the consumer society of early 1960s France (plastic, museums, ‘fascinating materials’) and the colonial violence happening at the time. As I have discussed, these dislocations can be said to constitute a fundamental mechanism of mourning, as the ‘hallucinatory’ passages through which the mourning person stays with the lost object entail a spatiotemporal dislocation from the present in which that object is no longer there. It entails, in other words, the blurring of binaries between absence and presence, life and death—a coexistence with past and future ghosts, as Jacques Derrida noted25—that, in the case of La jetée, involves the mourning of personal and collective trauma (war, the image of childhood) as well as the remediation, via superimposition, of colonial death and violence.

Departing from this set of temporal, political, and historical displacements in La jetée, we appropriate Marker’s film, transporting it to our time, remixing it with our images, and hence displacing it into its own, uncertain future. Turning it into a ghost within ghosts, we keep the soundtrack intact—a kind of echo from the past that enables movement and continuity—and we superimpose the film’s still images with other images (stock and spam images, Instagram stories, beautiful influencers), establishing a bridge between two moments of nuclear and viral crisis and letting the force of their spectrality reverberate.

Part I: Despair tells the story of a man marked by an Instagram story of his, or any, childhood. He remains trapped in the placeless space of Google images, where a series of standard ‘white hospital backgrounds’ are offered by the search engine as potential sites of inhabitation. After a viral catastrophe that left the surface of the Earth lethally uninhabitable, this ambiguous site of hygienic images became his prison. Here, an indeterminate number of spam doctors, all reasonable men, experiment with his memory. Their medical tools comprise a sophisticated set of beauty products and procedures, such as peeling techniques, fillers, Botox injections, and LED light therapy masks for rejuvenation. Through layering and superimposition, the spam doctors exert a series of painful interventions over the man’s image, attempting to send him to other spaces and other times—other placeless environments where visions, gardens, airports, and museums still existed. Perhaps his memory.

Fig. 5 and 6. White hospital backgrounds in Part I: Despair, (sadkatzz045 films, 2021) Fig. 7 and 8. Rejuvenating mask and spam doctors in Part I: Despair, (sadkatzz045 films, 2021)

In his beauty-product-induced hallucinatory traveling, the man looks for a woman (the face of happiness) who he once saw at the airport, any airport. A fleeting encounter archived as an Instagram story, a memory that would haunt him forever. The image of the woman, a young flight attendant (an average 2020 influencer) becomes increasingly stronger and stable as the experiments progress into ever painful interventions. Once the experiments reach their final stage, the man is able to remember their now gone love story, the moments of warm affection they shared over videocalls, the conversations they had about bitcoin, the time they almost touched through the walls of their profiles.

Like pieces of a temporality that was never clear in the first place (what was history, after all, during those decades of pacified future that preceded the viral catastrophe?), the protagonists  remembered who they used to be: the contemporary family of men and women, the dream team of hypercapitalism.26 They never walked away from visual representation—they disagreed with Hito Steyerl’s assertion that the image is a dangerous device of capture and disappearance, that people are now “represented to pieces.”27 From the very beginning, they believed, there was nothing to be represented of them but pieces, and so they let their pieces be shattered into ever more filtered, fragmented, shiny and contagious images. Until it absolutely mattered who they were and what they did—this is how they became influencers. A category, a cliché, an excess of legibility, completely replaceable. They embraced spam aesthetics—enhanced, horny, flawless— without knowing that one day they would find themselves lost, that their only breathing chamber would be this network of viral visuality, that spam would take over in its most extreme medical aspirations, and that they were going to become part of La jetée, displaced in a future that was impossible to envision.

Fig. 9 and 10. Man and woman touch each other through the walls of their profiles in Part I: Despair, (sadkatzz045 films, 2021)

Whether their encounter took place in the life previous to the virus or in this placeless constellation of windows and ghosts—the current life in confinement—remains ambiguous. The only certain thing is that man and woman are reunited, in the film, through the non-consensual appropriation of their public images—the same images they enthusiastically produced and shared every day in order to feed their profiles with an increasingly larger number of followers, likes, and reactions. Where, and to whom, do these images belong? According to Instagram’s Terms of Use, when users upload content to the platform, they do not forfeit their copyright. Instagram is granted instead a “non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free transferable sub-licence to use the content,”28 but the image’s copyright ultimately belongs to individual users. The ways in which these publicly available materials can be used by third parties—particularly artists—remains, however, in the grey terrains of fair use, in which a number of exceptions against the use of copyrighted material is specified. Namely, “research or study; criticism or review; parody or satire,”29 among others.

It is thus in the name of parody and satire, above everything else, that we take their faces and insert them in this stolen narrative, that we cut the surface of their flawless, filtered skin away from their well-constructed profiles and remix them with documents of the viral crisis, spam, memes, and other low-resolution garbage. It is, in other words, in the name of Chris Marker’s famous quote—that he might or might not have said—namely, that “humor is the courtesy of despair,”30 that we allow these images to become malleable, infectious puppets through which our particular mode of mourning is enacted. We thus enter, with them, in the logics of the viral and the meme: the becoming of texts, bodies, ghosts, and corpses, not in separation from or as represented (or supplanted) by, but through their relations with images. The mutation, transformation, and alteration, via infection, of their original meaning, their sense, their density, into fleeting, displaced, and ambiguous forms of parody.

Fig. 11. Meme with art in Part I: Despair, (sadkatzz045 films, 2021) Fig, 12. “The world right now, anyone want to buy a painting?” in Part I: Despair, (sadkatzz045 films, 2021)

The bodies interacting in the parodic network that constitutes Part I: Despair—from Marker’s film to the collection of stock images and the particular influencers and profiles we take—are in this way turned into hosts for a particular form in which the viral is enacted. As Zach Blas suggests, the viral can be primarily defined as an imitation of the virus—a metaphor, a poetics, and a “creative opening into fictions.”31 The viral, in other words, entails a particular representation of the virus, which “typically hinge on rapid spreadability and mutation”—an entity that “quickly generates copies of itself and infectiously breaks through barriers or quarantines.”32 For Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, replication and cryptography are the two operations that primarily define the virus, as its reproductive activity can be described as a mode of “never-being-the-same.”33 Replication and difference: the propagating activity of the virus consists in taking advantage of the host in order to replicate itself, while maintaining its ability to continuously mutate its code. For Blas, this definition of the virus based on action and code overlooks the crucial fact that viruses not only cannot survive without a host, but also change “their embodied contexts.”34 Understanding the virus as a mere mathematical abstraction, he writes, “leaves unanswered questions of a virus’s affects, sensations, and desires,” as well as of its affective interactions and embodied mutations with and within the host organisms.

Enabling the emergence of another viral—another poetics and politics of the virusone that considers the relational and affective interactions between virus and environment, would therefore entail a consideration of the host environment as a vulnerable, mutable and embodied entity. This consideration would diverge from paranoid accounts that fear and resist the contaminating capacities of the virus, the alien, the intruder, imagining instead the desiring and affective intensities with which the environment is reciprocally constituted and transformed in its relationship with the virus. To think of the poetic and fictional dimensions of the viral from this stance—to imitate the virus in this way—thus renders the various bodies, images and texts that constitute our film hosts that desire to be permeated and infected, as well as touched and displaced by viral activity.

The condition of confinement and the stillness it entails—the underground prison, the chamber of white hospital backgrounds—is thus contested and put into friction with a movement that is both spectral and viral. Spectral in that it enables a spatiotemporal displacement in which the ghosts of the past and future simultaneously appear, haunt, and coexist in the present. Viral in that these spectral bodies have the capacity and the desire to infect and be infected by the environments they inhabit. Part I: Despair can thus be said to be embedded with the spectral potencies of the viral. Its texts and images contain the traces of previous, multiple, and often imperceptible bodily contacts—paths, users, publics, machines, and other images and sounds with which they have been remixed, superimposed and put into contact. In these trajectories and interactions, they continuously mutate into other things—constantly displaced, transgressed, disintegrated—becoming part of an increasingly larger and complex network of viral intimacies.

  1. A brief note on pandemic mourning / method.

Our sadness doesn’t end here. It propels our desire to be somewhere else, to propagate over countless placeless networks where we encounter and assemble with other orphan, floating bodies, all stripped from their original sources. Being locked down due to the pandemic, as Mary Ann Doane notes, “makes it easy to accept screens as an entryway to another place.”35 She argues that this displacement as a mode of living, a not knowing of where we are despite the accuracy of GPS, satellite imaging, and face recognition systems, was already being negotiated in pre-pandemic times through our relations with other experiences of immersion.36 We’ve worked, played, and paid to be displaced. We met the interruption of the Covid-19 pandemic in this condition.

And so, we move, in the middle of our stasis, and our movement doesn’t push us any forward. We move and we remain here, never resolving where this ‘here’ actually is. Our movement follows the direction of our tears: something flows from the inside of our bodies through the surface of our retinas to remain there, in the threshold, unable to be released. Our action is reduced to the accumulation of water, pixels, and tears. Our disproportionate, silly eyes, our soft, cute bodies, our low-resolution surfaces function as alleviating devices as well as sad bodies to be propagated.

It is impossible to talk about our mourning, to pinpoint exactly how it functions and how it unfolds. We are only able to enact it. And we do so by performing these ambiguous modes of movement, by deliberately throwing our bodies into disconnected pictures, engaging in this interplay of frictions and superimpositions with which our mediated habitats are constantly being constructed. We mourn and rehearse our sadness by refusing directness and straight explanations. We refuse those modes of understanding and critique. We prefer instead the tangential approach: to remain always a little bit off-place, a little bit to the side, as unnoticeable as possible. We encounter immersion with this distance. We create this distance not by turning away, not by choosing disappearance, but by putting things together, enacting the ways of an assemblage. We use humor, not too dramatically, in order to negotiate our place. We become sad cats to be in this place, this unnamable place in which we all suddenly are. We mourn in the intersections of the bodies that constitute this network. These are the most fitted mediums, we think, to grasp, even if for a moment, the density of our loss.

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  1. The sadcat045 collective is a partially anonymous and fluctuating art collective from Chile. It first came together in 2019, with the intention to reflect upon modes of discursive, aesthetic, and artistic appropriation in the digital age, amidst the dystopian political and social landscape of post-pandemic era. Part I: Despair is its first public project.
  2. Penelope Papailias, “(Un)seeing dead refugee bodies: mourning memes, spectropolitics, and the haunting of Europe,” Media, Culture & Society, (Vol. 41(8), 2019), 1048–1068.
  3. Matthew Croombs, “La jetée in Historical Time: Torture, Visuality, Displacement,” Cinema Journal, (Volume 56, Number 2, Winter 2017), 25.
  4. See James Ash (2015), Carolyn Pedwell (2017), and Penelope Papailias (2019).
  5. Sianne Ngai describes the contemporary cute as an “aesthetic of accentuated helplessness and vulnerability,” that elicits a “desire to fondle and squeeze the object,” thus “drawing out ‘small- sized adjectives and diminutive ejaculations’ for those who perceive it in others.” Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 2012), 57–60.
  6. Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture, 12 (1): 11–40, (2003). Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, (London: Verso Books, 2004). Tony Sandset, “The necropolitics of COVID-19: Race, class and slow death in an ongoing pandemic,” Global Public Health, 16:8-9, 1411-1423 (2021).
  7. See Michael Arnold, Martin Gibbs, Tamara Kohn, et. al. (2018); Moreman and Lewis, (2014).
  8. Papailias, “(Un)seeing dead refugee bodies”, 1057.
  9. Papailias is using the specific example of the memefication Alan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian refugee whose dead body was photographed in the shore of the mediterranean sea, becoming a massive phenomenon in social media (“(Un)seeing dead refugee bodies”, 1057).
  10. Penelope Papailias, “(Un)seeing dead refugee bodies”, 1057.
  11. Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in Collected Papers, vol. IV, trans. by Joan Riviere, (New York, London: The International Psycho-Analytical Press, 1924–50), 153.
  12. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” 154.
  13. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” 153.
  14. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” 153.
  15. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” 154.
  16. David Norman Rodowick, Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 4–5.
  17. Rodowick, Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine, 4–5.
  18. Bruce Kawin, “Time and Stasis in La jetée,” Film Quarterly, (Vol. 36, Iss. 1, Fall 1982), 51.
  19. According to Matthew Croombs, “La jetée anticipates the apparatus film theory of the 1970s by emphasizing film’s ‘impression of reality’ rather than its privileged relation to the real. “The protagonist-seer has the illusion of an unanchored mobility through time and space when his physical body remains chained to authority” (“La jetée in Historical Time.”)
  20. These formal approaches generally consider La jetée a paradigm of cinematic modernism, in that it marks the “postwar European cinema’s shift away from the formal decorum and character- driven storytelling epitomized by Hollywood illusionism toward a film grammar governed by principles of discontinuity, ambiguity, and reflexivity” (Croombs, “La jetée in Historical Time”, 29). See Raymond Bellour, “The Film Stilled,” Camera Obscura 8 (3 24) (1990): 98– 123; Peter Wollen, “Fire and Ice,” in The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells (London: Routledge, 2003), 76–80; Roger Odin, “Le film de fiction menacé par la photographie et sauvé par la bande-son (à propos de La jetée de Chris Marker),” in Cinémas de la modernité, films, théories, ed. Dominique Chateau, André Gardies, and François Jost (Paris: Éditions Klincksieck, 1981).
  21. Henri Alleg, The Question, trans. John Calder (London: John Calder, 1958).
  22. Croombs, “La jetée in Historical Time”, 28.
  23. Croombs, “La jetée in Historical Time”, 28.
  24. Croombs, “La jetée in Historical Time”, 28. See also Patrick French, “The Memory of the Image in Chris Marker’s La jetée,” Film Studies 6 (2005).
  25. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, (New York: Routledge, 1994).
  26. Hito Steyerl, “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation,” e-flux, Issue #32, (February 2012).
  27. Steyerl, “The Spam of the Earth.”
  28. Legal Vision, “Who Owns the Copyright in an Instagram Image?” Lexology, (April 6, 2017). https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=0e178580-108a-4394-9fa0-1c6c2f5a6b41
  29. Legal Vision, “Who Owns the Copyright.”
  30. According to goodreads.com, this quote is attributed to Chris Marker. However, by googling the quote there are several sites that attribute it, variously, to Ionesco, Marcel Duhamel, Kierkegaard, Boris Vian and Chris Marker.
  31. Zach Blas, “Virus, Viral,” Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 1/2, (Spring/Summer 2012), 30.
  32. Blas, “Virus, Viral,” 31.
  33. Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
  34. This approach can also be found in Jussi Parikka, Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses, (New York: Peter Lang, 2007).
  35. Mary Ann Doane and Doron Galili, “Unreal Time: A Conversation on Film Theory, Media Historiography, and the Scales of Pandemic Catastrophe,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, Volume 62, Number 2, (Fall 2021), 181.
  36. Doane and Galili, “Unreal Time,” 181.