The All-Too-(in)Visible (Part 1: New Spaces, Creatures and Opportunities?)
One of the major changes to the cultural landscape of the West, especially in metropolitan areas, or ‘imagetropolis’ is the presence of digital imagery and technologies of digital image dissemination. These are coming to comprise the image-environment, the flora and fauna that most city dwellers trudge through on a daily basis. While Jean Baudrillard’s later works describe this influx of digitalizing and virtual technologies as a nihilistic sign that we are approaching the “hypertrophy of the virtual arriving at an implosion” I have reason to suspect that this may not be entirely the case. Here we take the Baudrillardian ideas of ‘implosion’ and ‘hypertrophy’ of the virtual as a point of theoretical departure. But we ask whether the tremendous force associated with this hypertrophic implosion possesses less of a degenerative force than it does a generative one.
We take a cue from cultural theorists such as bell hooks for whom nihilism has less to do with a concern about “the binary [of the virtual], the alternation between 0 and 1 … the ultimate form of exchange, in its most abstract form, its limit-form, close to impossible exchange” than it does with the inability of certain races and classes to create counter-hegemonic identities. Strangely enough, both hooks and Baudrillard are concerned with impossibility; hooks sensing the impossibility of creating counter hegemonic imagery and identities and Baudrillard worrying about the virtual as the point where exchange reaches its limit-form and becomes nearly impossible.
While both theorists recognize the problems that our image-culture poses, Baudrillard’s nihilism, while acute and on target, shipwrecks us on the rock of pessimism. We can wisely heed the dangers he outlines without lapsing into lethargic soothsaying. It may be that a tremendous potentiality for image creation (and identity creation) has been engendered by the often maligned condition of virtuality. But this is a potentiality: whether we concentrate on the possibilities of virtuality, sink into a nihilistic lethargy, or do nothing at all, is ultimately in our hands.
Over the next series of posts I want to consider whether it is possible that virtual technologies can offer a site for counter-hegemonic imagery and if there are new forms of subjectivity that are developing amidst the tremendous pressure associated with the ‘virtual arriving at an implosion’. After all, we find the strangest creatures, extremophiles, in the harshest of environments. The most alien and unsettling of beings dwell thousands of feet underwater amidst tremendous pressure and deadly toxicants.
The caption of one of Goya’s most famous works reads: ‘El sueño de la razón produce monstruos’ “the sleep of reason produces monsters”, yet we wonder what he means by it? Ambiguousness marks the caption. Sueño can mean either ‘sleep’ or ‘dream’. Goya can mean one of two things. Does he mean that without rationality (symbolized by wakefulness in his drawing) monsters are free to lurk around him or does he mean that reason is itself a kind of sleep? Let us for a moment entertain the second possibility of Goya’s caption, that reason is itself a kind of sleep, one that produces monsters. What monsters do we find in our midst? What strange creatures are being produced by the highly rationalized network structures that are coming to increasingly comprise contemporary social relations in the developed world?
Our task is to focus specifically on one facet of this immense and burgeoning issue. We are concerned here with the potentialities of image-bodies, that is, the relationship(s) that (digital) images have to the new ‘monstrosities’ emerging from the virtual and networked (and now wirelessly-networked) structures that characterize our ‘pathological transitional stage’. We consider that the dangers, for example, that Martin Heidegger warns of in the Age of the World Picture in the context of his fairly cryptic remarks in The Question Concerning Technology, that where the danger grows so too does the “saving power”. The saving power grows because technology does not simply offer us new ways of interaction, but new ways of comprehending ourselves and the world. We might find new self identities and new values. And this is really what is at stake, for as Nietzsche reminds us: “attempts to escape nihilism without revaluating our values so far: they produce the opposite, make the problem more acute.”
The technologies of digital imagery and the networks of digital image dissemination created and sustained by the lifeblood of the media industry and instruments of technical rationality, contain the ability to undermine challenge essentializing logics and categories. Whether or not we can recognize how and why in order to unleash the potentiality of a ‘politics of difference’ capable of fostering counter-hegemonic identities and challenging essentializing identity logics and categories is, at the end of the day, in our hands.
THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE: Let’s begin with a brief discussion of the forms that images have taken in the present day. The images we tend to encounter can be considered virtual as opposed to chemical. At some point they have been converted into the highly abstracted 1s and 0s of binary code. Those who dwell in large cities are often surrounded by digital imagery, from the immaculately airbrushed faces in subway terminals reminding us of our own blemishes to flashing advertising towers that bombard our senses.
Perhaps there is nothing strange about this, after all, epicenters and concentrations of capital tend to be ornate in their own unique ways, from the intricacies of the palace at Versailles to the sleek shininess of most corporate skyscrapers. Our modern cities, are ornate image-tropoli;, not only are they filled with a thick abundance of images, but many of the denizens of the imagetropolis are busy, as we shall see in later posts, cultivating an image-body.
Digital images are transmitted across channels and networks such as Facebook and Flickr that are designed and constructed to benefit corporate entities. In a way, the wide reach and complexity of these channels and networks could only have been constructed by an entity with a tremendous amount of financial resources. And the investment these entities have made has been well returned as digital images are not only an integral part of the entertainment economy, but the ownership of the modes of down and uploading of digital images has created and sustained communication empires.
Images can be transmitted around the globe instantaneously via networks and channels borne by these empires. Yet the tremendous potentiality of this flirtation with the instantaneous dissemination of information can, under the right sets of conditions, have an adverse effect on the empires that build and sustain the networks and often create the dominant images that are transmitted across them.
What has the ability to transmit images instantaneously done to subjectivities of the ‘prosumers’ who use these networks. There certainly have been changes. The communications companies that had (and have) the capital to build and sustain these networks and channels could very well be in jeopardy. Capital, it seems, has produced the conditions for a series of strange aberrations within the very networks and channels that sustain its largest stakeholders.
We recall Donna Haraway’s claim in The Cyborg Manifesto that “the main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.” Yet, as we have been arguing, the domain of these creatures is also where the media corporation amasses its profits. The creatures could only have evolved amidst expensive and intricate technical networks. Often we find that the worst of drug resistant bacteria emerges from the most sanitary conditions.
To be continued…