Imperfections (Part 1: Simulations and Reproductions)

“This gigantic enterprise of disillusionment – of, literally, putting the illusion of the world to death, to leave an absolutely real world in its stead – is what is properly meant by simulation” (Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime)

A few years ago I developed an uneasiness toward large bodies of water. I've traced this to a kayaking incident. While kayaking I begun noticing the intricacy of the waves and the complex ripples on the water. For a split second the lake exceeded my ability to think about it. And this caused me to become very frightened. Perhaps I was thinking too much of Schopenhauer’s principium individuationis and, of course, Nietzsche’s Apollonian? Perhaps it was the influence of Schubert’s song cycle, Die Schӧne Müllerin, about the river that sings a lullaby to a heartbroken and suicidal miller? Or was it too much thinking about Kant's Mathematical Sublime? Influences, and all jest aside, I was truly perturbed by the incident. I reflect on my memories: Looking out into the lake, sitting low in the canoe, my eyes almost level with the waves. Frozen in place, unable to comprehend all the individual trajectories before me: the ripples large, small, and infinitesimal. And here I am, as “man wrapped in the veil of maya” (Sanskrit for ‘Illusion’). And “Just as in a stormy sea that, unbounded in all directions, raises and drops mountainous waves, howling, a sailor sits in a boat a trusts in his frail bark”, I sat in my kayak. I felt intoxicated. I felt as if I would slump over and let the waves devour my body. That was, if I may put it this way, the realest the world has ever made itself known to me. Ever since, I’ve found myself repeatedly thinking: “Reality lingers in the imperfections”.

I’m thinking of a photograph of the Ocean taken not long ago, but representative of bygone days. In the picture are my friends, although all I can focus on is the unbounded Atlantic Ocean in the background. This is not the ocean I am used to seeing in vacation photographs. It is far too grainy, and due to some developing mishap, the photo is cut off on the right side. One has to squint to make out the details of the water. Is there a coral reef of some sort, is there a sail boat, and are those ‘white caps’ off in the distance? I must say that I enjoy this photograph immensely. It leaves me with a sense that the vast body of water is truly something over which we have little control. It eludes the total capture my senses. It is something mysterious, it is something untranslatable. It is imperfect, and therefore it bears some semblance to reality.

What might this mystifying paragraph have to do with media technologies? The photograph is not digital, it is film. This explains the dark ring around the figures in the foreground, the general graininess, the inability to make out details and, of course, the imperfection on the right side that has caused nearly a quarter of the image to turn a ghostly white.  I need not explain, by contrast, how perfect the near simulation of a digital image is. There is something disturbing going on here, something evocative of a larger and stranger problematic than one might realize.

What is the difference between film-as-a-reproduction and digital-as-a-simulation? Reproduction does not simply mean to make an accurate copy of something. A better definition would emphasize that a reproduction bears a close resemblance to its object yet is not entirely identical. We think of sexual reproduction, the offspring of which are both identical and un-identical from its parents. In other words, reproduction is concerned with the process of duplication (in the case of sexual reproduction a duplication of certain, but not all of, the parents’ genetic make-up). Walter Benjamin, for example, was concerned with the process of reproduction – his premise is not that the object is copied in its entirety, but rather, as in the case of sexual reproduction, that new genetic combinations result from new types of reproducible images.

The near-perfection of a digital image

Simulation differs from reproduction. To simulate is to strive toward making a replication, evoking terms such as: identical-model, imitation and duplication. Yet all the traditional definitions of simulation, if we check our trusty dictionaries, stress aspects of ‘falseness’. How can we resolve this paradox? If a simulation is an identical model, an imitation and a total duplication, how can we maintain the binary of truth and falsity? Simulation has been defined as ‘the mathematical representation of the interaction of real-world objects’. So, our world, increasingly saturated by simulations, is no longer one simply awash in reproductions. Simulations, under our working definition, are mathematical. They are codified. They obey a strict set of rules and formulae, from which they cannot deviate – lest the entire fabric of their ontology collapse. (And mathematics is obviously the product of a long and rich history that far exceeds the scope of this, or any, series of blog postings. Yet we can note that the journey of mathematics, the science which supports the binary underlying digital simulation, is one with a history.) In our current time we have come to simulate and we are increasingly simulating. We must, and this I contend is of dire consequence, inquire deeper into this phenomena.

There are theorists who speak of the ‘virtual’ as a site or space of radical freedom and possibility, Such claims bombard us on two fronts: One, from more academic – post structuralist – theorists such as Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway; and another from computer scientists such as Ray Kurzweil, Marvin Minsky and Hans Moravec. Both sets of theorists need to be taken with a grain of salt. I suggest working with the former group, and rejecting the later outright as a dangerous and negligent form of anti-humanism.

We can’t afford to act as if technologies-of-simulation are identical with technologies-of-reproduction. They aren’t. For example, mechanical reproduction and the politicization of art is a means of combating the aestheticization required for fascism and the fuhrer cult, but in the era of the digital, where digital simulation – not mechanical reproduction – is king, we need to rethink the application of our ‘liberatory’ attitude toward virtual technologies.  ….to be continued…


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~ by dccohen on February 14, 2010.

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