Imperfections (Part 4: The Horizon of the New)
“With virtual reality and all its consequences, we have passed over into the extreme of technology, into technology as an extreme phenomenon. Beyond the end, there is no longer any reversibility; there are no longer any traces of the earlier world, nor is there even any nostalgia for it. The hypothesis is much graver than that of technological alienation or Heidegger’s Gestell.” – Jean Baudrillard
“But we are now in the process of inventing a fantastic general equivalent – the virtual. This presents itself as an enciphering, an encoding in which it will be possible to measure everything by the same extremely reductive yardstick: the binary, the alternation between 0 and 1. Here lies the ultimate form of exchange, in its most abstract form, its limit-form, close to impossible exchange.” – Jean Baudrillard
Consider the aesthetics of digital photography. The digital image is comprised of abstract (binary) Code. The virtual images we consume on our computer monitors operate on this principle. The first thing one notices is the digital photograph’s sharpness, its sharply defined lines and its vibrancy of its colour. This is in contrast to the now muddy hue of film. A distinction exists between (a) the ‘chemical’ world and (b) the world of ‘digitality/virtuality’. Film is located in the ‘chemical’, while the digital is located in the ‘virtual’. Both traditional ‘chemical’ and more recent ‘virtual’ photography share one important aspect: they both instantiate the world. One produces a flimsy negative, the other a string of binary code. Regardless, they both share the moment of instantiation. But one’s instantiation is subject to corruption and decay, while the other’s is not necessarily. One’s instantiation is imperfect, the other’s is – in a certain sense – perfect and unchanging.
This perfect and unchanging instantiation represents, in some ways, a break with the ontology of that which it has instantiated – that is to say, the real thing. The traditional camera creates a chemical instantiation of a chemical world, while the digital camera creates a virtual instantiation of a chemical world. This is why ‘virtual’ simulations of ‘chemical’ instantiations retain their mysteriousness. For no matter how many virtual simulations are made, the moment of initial instantiation remains located firmly in the ‘chemical’ world. It gives off the odour of corporeality – but nothing more.
I’m looking at an old photograph of the Atlantic Ocean that possesses a sense of mystery: the ocean is not afraid to hide itself. That is its nature: hidden-ness. Likewise, the tsunami waves that rushed ashore the beaches of Banda-Ache were unseen and unwelcome visitors – much like the horrifying chthonic forces in Lovecraftian horror. The Atlantic Ocean in the photograph I am looking at is not embarrassed to be caught off guard, without its make-up and its airbrushing. It bears the blemishes of flux and the sublimity that Code, in its requirement to know-all-in-order-to-function will likely never capture. The digital artist, for example, must know in advance (or be able to conceptualize) the algorithms that simultaneously depict the top and bottom of a table. And that code must compute or else there is an error, a mathematical excess, an integer overflow, and the fragile system crashes. Yet, in the imperfections of the photograph of the Atlantic Ocean, I am reminded of something hazy, something simultaneously frenzied and serene: I savour it while I can.
I know a number of wealthy young men who used the word “solid” as an adjective when discussing a person whom they admire. It is customary for them to colloquially say “He’s a solid guy!” or “that was a solid ‘flick”. I’ve always sensed a sort of sadness lingering about these young men who use this language of solidity: a late 20th century form of flattery, and one coming to liquefy and likely evaporate altogether. The contemporary sons of the captains of industry text “He’s a solid guy!” to one another through Blackberry, tattooing it to the epidermis of their Facebook image-bodies, or evoking it (“that was a solid play!”) while watching their favourite sports star skate around a rink on the other end of the continent via satellite. Here language betrays us, it speaks otherwise to the fact that the myriad relationships that engendered these linguistic tropes of solidity are slipping away.
The suspicion, the taste in the air, is a turn toward flexibility, openness and plurality. We sense it in the realm of subjectivity, industry and politics. But is it possible to harness the positive possibilities of these structural changes, despite them often being intricately linked to the condition of digitality and virtuality?
New Life: We glance across the horizon of the new. Dangerous clouds, the kind one runs and takes shelter from, thick and puffy, full of rain and lightening, race toward us. And yet, the child in us glares in wonderment at the raw energy such storms contain. If we are caught outdoors in such a dangerous torrent, our hearts beat faster, our adrenalin rises. We are capable of, for a time, running faster than we thought capable to find shelter. If we are indoors, we shake our heads at ourselves for being such children and finding such delight in the chthonic forces of nature. In both instances we demonstrate to ourselves some show of force – emotional or physical – that strikes us unsuspecting. The horizon of the new surely will produce the un-suspected: the unexpected.
Some of us will fall, engulfed in the storm, a few will be struck by the lightening, yet the storm, like any, will surely pass. How we weather it, what sort of defences we have, what sort of creatures we will be is what, in the end, will matter.
An Oedipal Dream?: I had a dream about the sea last year: I was with my family vacationing on a Caribbean island. Suddenly the locals began rushing about the beach, warning the resort guests that in a matter of minutes a treacherous wave was about to engulf the island. Vacationers began to scurry about, all desperate to find a mode of transportation inland. We could see the wave in the distance, slowly approaching, and ran to a boathouse suspended on stilts not far from the beach itself. Inside the boathouse there were families huddled together, clutching at one another and whimpering in the dark. Inside the boathouse my mother and I found a small Zodiac type boat, one normally used for search and rescue activities. We tied ourselves to the boat, binding our legs to it with string and wire. Without a moment to spare the water came bursting out of the boisterous ocean. After this I cannot remember what happened. Perhaps I woke up. The meaning of this dream becomes clearer to me now. For a long time I could not figure out the importance of why my mother and I bound ourselves, while inside of a suspended boat house, to the small rubber boat. I will add my own conclusion to the dream: The water crashes ashore, its might obviously exceeding the defensive capability of the suspended beach house where we have taken refuge. It happens so quickly. The crying eyes and limbs huddled together, the families content with simply hugging and grasping at each other are pulled apart, carried off and eventually drowned in the black ocean. For a moment I am under water, I see my mother is drowning. I try to free my legs from their binding to try and console or save her, yet she pushes me away. Everything is chaotic. The waves maintain their surge forth. Debris swirls around our heads, often knocking us out (and into) our senses. Yet we have two free arms and legs that, due to their binding to the flexible and light rescue craft, possess a buoyant will of their own. We become flexible, buoyant, able to wrangle through the water and end up atop it, riding each wave.
“We certainly do need to change our bodies and ourselves, and in perhaps a much more radical way than the cyberpunk authors imagine. In our contemporary world, the now common aesthetic mutations of the body, such as piercing, tattoos, punk fashion and its various imitations, are all initial indications of this corporeal transformation, but in the end they do not hold a candle to the kind of radical mutation needed here. The will to be against really needs a body that is completely incapable of submitting to command. It needs a body that is completely incapable of adopting to family life, to factory discipline, to the regulations of a traditional sex life, and so forth.”
The Question: How can we grapple with the tremendously positive possibilities that virtuality-digitality offers for our future, without falling into what Baudrillard calls “the same phantasy as that of the spelling of the names of God – a chimera in which we bury ourselves as though inside a metal sarcophagus, in a state of weightlessness, dreaming of living out all possible situations by the grace of the Digital.”?