The Virtual Human and Johannes Vermeer

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Inside the Virtual Human

When I began thinking about the challenges of writing an essay on the new human of the 21st century, I was struck by the weight of the concept. I was also confronted by the question, what do we mean when we talk about newness and human identity in the 21st century?

This is as much a question about the present as it is a question about the future. It seems clear that one of the most important common factors for human beings in the 21st century will be the digitization of nearly all aspects of human culture. As a result of this shift we will discover new processes of communication and interaction and new ways of defining fundamental concepts like community, country and nation. My approach in what follows will be to ask a number of questions about subjectivity within this evolving context. I want to stress the word evolution here, because nothing that I will say should be viewed as fixed. The present as I see it is very fluid and it is that fluidity which I find both attractive and seductive. Fluidity also poses methodological challenges in the writing of cultural history. My references for this notion of fluidity have been articulated in the work of Michel Serres in a dialogue that he had with Bruno Latour in 1990. [1]

I would like to start with a commentary/fictional exposition about a Johannes Vermeer painting as a way of exploring one crucial aspect of this “newness.” I have chosen to begin in this fashion because for me, if the category “new human” is to work at all, it will have to be centered on the role and influence of mass-produced images in our culture and their effects on human subjectivity. And my feeling is that at least within western culture, we have only recently begun the long-term exploration of the physical, spiritual, psychological and social changes that images have produced over the last century and a half. When I speak of subjectivity in what can best be described as a transitional phase of Western culture, I am talking about a range of human characteristics and not a process that can be described as fixed or static. I have chosen Vermeer because his exploration of light and materiality in painting and his concern for accuracy and detail has provided modernism with one of its most important foundations, the assumption that there is a link between images and what they depict.

Put another way, the documentary impulse in Vermeer gives great credence to the idea that images are as much about representation as they are representations in and of themselves. This impulse, which suffuses surrealism and realism and forms the basis for abstract expressionism, treats the painted canvas as a material example of desire and intention. I would like to discuss why images are never representations in the sense exemplified by that term. The minute that an image finds a spectator (that is, from the moment its creator casts a wary eye upon his or her creation) we are no longer talking about the “object” but are rather in some middle zone between seeing, materiality, understanding and feeling.

To varying degrees, images have always been an ecological phenomenon. They have always formed an environment and as images have become more and more prevalent through mass production, they have redefined human action and subjectivity. These shifts will require new models of analysis and critique, as well as new ways of thinking about history. Although Vermeer painted well before the invention of photography, I would like to reclaim the following painting in order to explore the new ecology. My own use of this term is related to the work of Regis Debray, but also to the foundational work of people like Gene Youngblood, Italo Calvino, Bruno Latour and Michel Serres. This is an eclectic mix, but is at the heart of my approach to writing. As we shall see, this approach is characterized by a willingness to dispense with genre and an effort to break down the distinctions between the essay form and fiction. My approach is also characterized by a celebration of pastiche as a form of exposition, as a way of exploding the order of writing and the presumptions of knowledge and authority that often govern reading. To me, this is a necessity in an age that is dominated by images in all of their forms and in a period when images have become digital and consequently have transformed the meaning and direction of writing and authorship. The transformation of images into data for information and communication has shifted the very basis upon which our culture can judge its own orientation and the ways in which it chooses to see itself. In a sense, the relationship between writing and reading has finally reached that point of connection that will change the foundation upon which we have defined production and meaning. This has the potential to democratically expand the way texts are written and the audiences who read them. The same process will also happen with images. To some degree the advent of the World Wide Web is a crucial marker of this shift.

A Girl Asleep at a Table (Johannes Vermeer)


1. I would propose that the “new human” or as Katherine Hayles has suggested, the post-human is characterized by a lack of concern for the differences between fiction and reality. This makes it possible to cross genres, styles and strategies in a hypermixture of approaches to everything from writing to everyday experience. In that spirit, I offer the following way of thinking about Vermeer and the world of fantasy and reality in which his paintings operated.

Inside daydreams: there are images, words, darkness, and the shadows of the mind, playing.

Oblivion tastes like a sweet lime.

Johannes created his paintings as if they were tapestries. He wove his ideas onto canvas by observing the people he loved and picturing them in his thoughts, with a perfection that was almost photographic. Light dancing off fruit on her table.

Vermeer made extensive use of a camera obscura (literally “dark room”) in organizing his compositions. The camera obscura, a precursor of the modern camera, was a box with a pinhole in the front and mirrors (used to reflect an image onto the top of the box) at the back. It was used to achieve a high level of focus in a certain limited area, but it caused a hazy distortion outside this limited range, as well as “circles of confusion”, or random spots of light in non-focused areas. All of these results— a clear, detailed focus, blurry distortion, and circles of confusion— are depicted in Vermeer’s work.

Inside daydreams light stops moving — anxieties released…. Reflections bend and twist, turn inside out, lose their shape and then recover. She is anonymous, but certainly not asleep. Her tiredness comes from serving others. Her eyes are closed because she is looking for refuge. A carpet falls off the edge of the table where she rests and a door is ajar. Her master is asleep upstairs, and so, for Johannes, the owner must be pictured as the one whose dreams have died. Oblivion tastes like a sweet lime and in the darkness cries can be heard. For it is Dante who sits behind the painting, a witness to the traces of life, the fragments of history. Sometimes, when the light is not brilliant enough, when the sun is about to set, Johannes gazes from his window and thinks about heaven and earth and the afterlife. Although brought up as a religious man, his creative work has made him doubt the simplicity of religion. “My inspiration comes from within and from God, but in what proportion?”

There is an empty wineglass on the table and a jug. During and after the meal, her master drank and drank, silent except for the occasional belch, all the time staring at her.

She managed to avoid his eyes.

And in so doing defiantly raised the question that so many women before her had asked of men, does he know who I am? In front of her, a porcelain jug with feather cracks running up and down its rounded shape — cracks leaking, seals broken by the constant rush of liquid, like a stream which over time carves a path through the wilderness.

The carpet on the table betrayed the many uses to which it had been put, from the stairs it had covered, to the wall on which a covetous owner had once placed it. Hidden inside the design of the carpet were the animals, flowers and shapes of a long-lost civilization — worshippers of images, believers in icons, people for whom the glance of a woven face suggested the presence of Gods and mighty warriors. A pelican looks at her. His beak is a rich pink color, laced with brown, hues of yellow and blue. In her dream, he speaks as if a lover: “… my darling, you are made for more than this life offers you, more than a servant to the whims of an arbitrary man. I know you bear him no ill will, at least in your heart, but must you run at his every command? Do not the days pass by swiftly without content, as if night bleeds into day and afternoon into evening? The rising sun has no more meaning than when it sets. Only the flowers which occasionally adorn the kitchen table speak to you of the seasons and even then, their smells are drowned by the demands made upon you.”

She has heard the pleas many times. They come from a place deeper than any man-made well, for she knows that her mind is never at rest, it seethes with thoughts and desires. “I am your servant, yes.”

Beside her elbow lies a knife and at an angle, improperly placed a silver fork. These utensils are the jewels of his collection and she must keep them clean.

The room behind her hides all of the secrets which a man of honor and standing demands not only of himself, but of others. There is one window in this room and very little light flows through it. An oil lamp that she tends flickers against a wall that is stained and darkened by smoke. Many generations of his family people this room. The objects they so covetously hoarded and passed on sit in jumbled piles, a testament to the shortness of human life and also its fragility. Who remembers his great grandmother?

“The lace, my dear.” As she aged, even as her eyes failed, the lace grew in size until there seemed to be a thousand shapes knitted together. The skin on her fingers was cracked and the hardened scars on her arms decreased her mobility, but still, day after day, she worked.

“This is for my daughters and their children. It will be passed on until God sees fit to destroy my handiwork.”

Johannes paints her with just a hint of earrings — sharp contours of her face brought to life by black hair — cheeks flushed. She wears a red satin dress offset by the strawberries and tangerines in a bowl on the table.

It was said of her master that he was one of the strongest advocates of the Dutch colonial adventure in the East Indies. He anticipated the wealth of the colonies, knew they would make Holland rich and powerful. He felt little remorse when told of the peoples who lived there. Like so many of his generation he was driven by a desire for material wealth. A merchant, he sold the spoils for many times their worth to traders from Germany and England.

Of Johannes, little is known. He and his wife, Catherina Bolnes had eleven children. Three died at a young age. They lived in Delft in a house paid for by Catherina’s mother. Johannes worked on perhaps two paintings a year. He died at the age of forty-two and quite suddenly, at the peak of the war between the French and the Dutch.

Who then is this sleeping woman? Why did he work on her image for such a long time? Is she as anonymous as the painting suggests?

These questions came to occupy one of Johannes’s children whose name was Ter.

In conversation one day, fourteen years after the death of his father: “His belongings were all over the house. He was not an orderly man. However, I did find a camera obscura. It had a sophisticated lens built into it and showed all of the marks of extensive use. I have concluded, reluctantly, that my father painted under the influence of a mechanical device. He projected the image onto wax paper. And the image itself was always upside down, although a large mirror in his workroom suggests he solved that problem.”

Ter’s comments should be thought about carefully. They suggest a heightened desire for realism on Johannes’s part, and a need to make use of whatever means was available in order to create a representation that reproduced and documented reality. Details were important, the placement of an object, the physical shape of the human bodies, the fall of a dress, even the silent look of a face in slumber.

Eyelids closed. How can there be a look emanating from that face? This is perhaps the great irony of Ter’s statement. As Johannes struggled with the setting for his painting, as he adjusted the camera obscura and asked his model to wait patiently, he stared at her eyes. Slowly, she became more than a model. She became his companion as he worked upon the scene. There are eyes everywhere in the painting and this makes it possible to see from her perspective and from his. Ter was upset by the realism, but Johannes was able to achieve it because he understood the way light plays with objects, the human face and therefore with time.

Johannes wanted every detail of the dining room included in the painting. This is why when the model left he stared at the empty space of his studio and wondered out loud about the light, the way it struck the floor and the geometric patterns of the tiles. To him, the painting was about a quiet and tired face, a woman in repose. It bore few traces of the energy that he had put into it, although he was intrigued by the color of the pitcher. Johannes touched the canvas and traced his fingers over its soft surface. “To some, the eye is all,” he muttered.

  1. Modernity began when Vermeer used the camera obscura to create images which eyes could enter as if the mind were within the canvas and not gazing from a distance. The point of departure for the viewer was an incision, a way of dividing reality into parts and reconstituting it, a living point at the edge of oblivion, and yet it must be said, the precipice has kept us alive, if not entertained and informed for many years. As we have entered the image, we have also shed the accoutrements of a civilization that depended on the paradoxical concreteness of the spiritual to guide it. From the moment that god became reproducible, new versions of life on earth appeared everywhere. The sciences exploded and the social sciences became the markers for understanding the phenomena of daily life. Images became highways into worlds hitherto imagined by the few to the detriment of the majority.

Then one day, the author of this essay says to himself:

“There are words that are attached to our emotions and there are metaphors that release a never-ending stream of images. But none can capture the stillness of a painting.”

In his heart, the writer wants to address this central issue. If the painting is still then what happens to us when we look at it?

Many theorists of images have examined this problem and for the most part they conclude:

“Either we are what we see or we are so moved by the sight of an image that we incorporate ourselves into it, become one with the experience, absolve ourselves of responsibility and blame the entire process on the unconscious and on the painting.”

Suddenly one night, the author dreams the name of the woman in Vermeer’s painting. She was known as Elizabeth. Her family had come from England when she was very young. They had pressed her into the service of the owner at an early age and she had grown up as a servant. Still, she was haunted by the desire to know more than her master or the situation allowed. When Vermeer came upon her in the house, he knew that her sadness made her the perfect model. He negotiated her release for one day a week and paid a great deal for the privilege. He set about rebuilding his studio so that it would be the equivalent of a theatrical set. Vermeer anticipated that Elizabeth would not be a good model unless she found herself in a natural setting. Her sense of place was ill developed and Vermeer understood that a comfortable room would relax her and facilitate the hours of stillness that he needed.

  1. Stillness. Behind the canvas is a history of time. Dante was obsessed with his impending death for most of his life. He could not remove the images of decay — the rotting corpse, the earthly enclosure — from his mind. He created a journey that remains as modern as it is medieval. The inferno is finally, a country of the mind. Imagination is not spatial. There are no dimensions to a world of unanticipated connections — where stories are found in the blank spaces between words and images. Yet, is this not precisely why pictures are so attractive, so seductive? Is this not what we have learned in order to accept the manner in which images have become central parts of our psyche? And is this not at the heart of what we mean by the new human?

I am a bricoleur, I think to myself. I am also a librarian. I can connect a line from Baudelaire to Bertrand Russell — I can snatch a thought from Paul Bowles and link it up with Walter Benjamin. These are fragments that grow in number as I age — mix with memories and dreams and fantasies — a flimsy contraption — collage in constant motion.

Memories are like elastic bands that we have pulled into strands that wrap themselves around the brain until we can’t find a point of origin. When we speak, our memories are like the strings of a violin.

I was recently looking at a large picture book on world history — it has the standard photographs which texts of this kind use and reuse. I came upon an image of a Bhuddist monk praying in a temple in Nepal. His face was serene — but the placement of the photo in the book and the caption beneath it (“Monk in traditional dress praying to Bhudda”) devalue its meaning.

The monk is looking inward with an intensity, which his physical position cannot express, which the photograph can neither probe nor expose. I reflect on this paradox. Without the book very few people would ever have had the chance to cast their eyes on a monk in Nepal. The photo offers evidence of prayer yet it can provide no confirmation that the monk is actually praying.

I think: the monk has consented to the photo; he hears the click of the camera; he decides to act just a little bit; his thoughts are on how he will look and whether the emptiness that he searches for in his meditations will be communicated.

Thus both the subject of the photograph and I struggle with the same problem. Can we change the frame and its geometry? Can the private act of prayer rearrange itself into a metaphor with enough power to overcome the meditative stillness of the image?

  1. I laugh to myself. The image is as still as what the monk searches for inside of himself — a timelessness with the kind of inward harmony which few humans ever attain. This is the stillness that Vermeer discovered and why his paintings have survived so long and retain their vibrancy, their charisma and their depth. Yet, what has not been understood about this depth is that it is the result of centuries of looking. Vermeer, as much as the image of the monk, provides us with the tools that we need to explore our own imaginaries and our own identity. This is the space in-between that I mentioned earlier on in this piece. It is a space profoundly located within a process of exchange among a variety of elements for which images are simply the platform and not the cause. When we rid ourselves of the primacy of the object and examine the complexity of object and subject as one, as organically interrelated and dependent, then our sense of who we are changes.

Images are the “face” of technology at work. Images are evidence of our needs, and windows into our history. They are the tools that we use to explore the world around us. From the start, the power of the television image has been dependent upon our need to explore its surface, not only at the level of form and content, but through touch and smell and sound. The best example of this process at work are music videos which bring image and ear into contact with bodies at work dancing, shouting, singing and all this in the context of the home. Remember however, that most groups perform live and most “viewers” go to shows. A scene of concert goers throwing themselves all over the place is evidence of the physicality which the music engenders and which aficionados need. Musicians play to the audience, move and gyrate — a communion that stretches the video screen from the virtual into the physical and back again, suggesting that both processes are essential for the entire experience to be effective.

To grasp with the ear and the eye is an embodied act. And this is why it matters little whether the image is opaque or transparent. In fact, it is the opposition of opaqueness and transparency (sometimes translated into mirror/window), a culturally dominant contrast, which keeps images at a distance, albeit that any image once seen and/or heard is no longer at a distance from the experience which we have of it. Music videos combine the many different elements of sound and picture into images. The videos represent the music, they picture bodies that dance — they display not only the physicality of musical creation, but also the potential of audience performance. Music videos, especially the good ones by groups like R.E.M. bring music into the foreground, neither a prop for sight, nor just an aural experience. They create a space for the performance of meaning, which exceeds and often undermines the mediating layers of image projection. It is the dancing body which music videos call out to, that body which twists and turns, sweats and laughs. It is the body on a vast dance floor that from a distance appears to be one of many, just a cog in a machine, the stuttered movements of Janet and Michael Jackson. But, taken down to the individual, to the release of energy, the release of the body from its everyday constraints, there is suddenly an explosion of sexuality. This is the haunting look of rock star after rock star straight into the camera, into the living room, beckoning, almost begging for the bodies who watch to join the scene, the stage, the studio. Join us as we dance! The ritualization is so intense that the television screen cannot contain what it shows. Out of this explosion comes the energy of Lolapalooza, the community of Deadheads, the swaying seemingly uniform rhythms of thousands of audiences the world over. Embodied and empowered.

What can we make then of the claim that these sounds and images are some foreign ground within which unsuspecting innocents have been trapped? This is the argument of the V-chip, a place where desire must be charted before it is experienced, censored before it has been sensed. It is also an expression of the fear that images and sounds, the products and productions of the very places and spaces that we inhabit and share are antagonists in a never-ending narrative of good and evil. These stories push all ambiguity to the margins. They are the stories of theologians who must invent a world perversely lost in an ocean of images. But, think for a moment of the last time your body rocked and moved to the sounds of a song that lifted your spirits and somehow allowed you to transcend the moment, the dance floor, and the bar. The mystery is in the “somehow,” in an unmediated expression of your body. Your body as image and sound, as bone, mass, liquid, thought — simultaneously idea and expression, you, brought into the foreground as a mixture of many identities — this is the excitement, the orgasmic pull of those many instances when mediation drifts away (and is rebuilt with unpredictable intensity). The jouissance comes from our ability to shift around within and outside of the images and sounds which to varying degrees become the representations of the space and time we inhabit. Many of the distinctions which we use to elaborate upon those perceived differences between images and self are also the ground upon which we so carefully construct our fantasies of self and other.

  1. This then is one of the foundations upon which a new sense of the subjective can be suggested. Vermeer links the camera obscura to painting and through that to a highly sophisticated notion of representation. When photography makes its appearance as a medium, it reinforces the idea that there is a link between reality and image. Now, as we traverse a new era of digitization, the next phase of human interaction with images will be centred on the virtual. It will also be centred on our struggle with embodiment, with the irony that our bodies have become vehicles of communication. The fluid shifts between data, emotion, self-awareness and information.

It can be argued that the accelerated relationship between humans and machines began with the industrial revolution. It then coalesced in the early years of the twentieth century (around the technologies of the cinema, airplanes, cars, electricity, the telegraph and so on), foreshadowing what we are now experiencing with computerized technologies. Early descriptions of airplanes echo what we are presently saying about cyberspace. In fact, the metaphors of transportation which locate movement through space and time as “virtual” became increasingly prevalent as the twentieth century progressed to faster and faster forms of human transportation. The best examples, however, come from telecommunications. The advent of satellite technologies and the convergence of television and communications in the 1960’s are the foundation upon which we have built our notions of virtuality.

  1. The concept of instantaneous transmission; the ability to move images all over the world in real time; the capacity to watch and experience the news from everywhere; the “idea” that time (and different contexts) can be shared, contributed to the intuition that we were not “living” these events within our conventional definitions of time and space. Images may be instantaneous but the sharing of experiences is subjective.

Virtual forms are like containers. The computer is after all just a box, yet it pulses with electricity and information, with interactions that are neither self-evident nor even related to the initial input. Perhaps the words we use, input — output for example simply cannot account for the complexity here. Why make use of a term like programming? Programs, creativity, the creation of scenarios, scheduling, writing, structure, organization, all these words and many others are part and parcel of the conceptual base which makes programming possible as a vocation. Programming is like poetry with all of the details necessary to read and interpret the texts. Knowledge is organized along a grid of predictability, although the end use may prove itself to be quite unpredictable. Nevertheless, the machinic qualities here encourage a model that tries to tame the technology and make it readable. It introduces literacy into a process that may have no signs to begin with. Think of it this way, we have never needed notes to appreciate and interpret the music which we listen to — do we need to be “literate” to understand our relationship to images and computerized information?

Interestingly, virtual technologies rely very heavily on inferential thinking. They do not so much make the real come to life as they create an awareness of the many different planes on which our perceptions of the real depend. One of the best examples of virtual technologies is a sound CD player and the CD’s themselves. One may infer that a particular CD will play a certain sound and that inference will have a great deal to do with the experience. The properties of that inferential process are not physically apparent either on the CD or even when the CD disappears into the player. In other words, we begin the act of listening within a virtual space of expectation devoid of sensory stimulation yet flush with internal dialogues and feelings. The laser that helps to generate the sound is invisible. The electric current that energizes the music, gives it a shape and broadcasts it to us is also invisible. Much can go wrong here, but our faith in the virtual allows us to continue inferring that once turned on, sounds will emanate from the player. It could be argued that virtual is simply being used here as a replacement for expectation, and that it is conveniently updating human and cultural processes with which we have always been involved. To some extent, that is exactly the point. To varying degrees the virtual is about surrogacy and about the ways in which human beings engage with and comprehend the machines which they create. Crucially, the machine does not act as a mediator between itself and subjectivity. Rather, the machine is a site of mediation in which “it” can play the role of subject, just as a human can play the role of object.

  1. The convergence of so many different technologies around images one hundred and fifty years after the introduction and development of photography into a mass medium, suggests that our subjective and cultural obsession with images is rooted in our very being, as fundamental to our bodies as language, smell, touch and sight. The very notion of the virtual as a space may not be able to account for this kind of unity because it suggests once again that we need to search outside of ourselves for some explanation for our intense desire for images and the experiences which come with them.

Yet, what about the ‘other’ senses? The beautiful colours of television don’t come close to the swish of my hand through sea water. Images of the ocean cannot compare to the sounds and smells, the rush of sensations that often overwhelm me when I walk along some of the beaches that I have visited. In other words, there is a difference — not so much between reality and image, but between the senses and these may not be oppositions, they are certainly not simple binarisms. Our senses slide around and collide with each other. Our bodies integrate all of these ‘parts’ or at least keep control of and follow the way the parts interact. Images are not foreign to this endless process. They are an integral component of everything which we define as sensual, which is not to say that images are equivalent to our senses. Rather, “to see an image” does not have to mean that the “it” is outside of or beyond vision. No sooner seen than a part of the seer. And strangely, yet also wondrously, images form as well as deform in a circular fashion within and outside of bodies, marking us in a variety of ways which are sometimes predictable and often times, not.

It would be inconceivable for example, to divorce our knowledge of time from our experience of time. Although time is a human and cultural construction, although the temporal is relative and marked by a system which may vary from society to society, our ‘sense’ of time is irrevocably linked not only to the way in which we live, but to the very roots of everyday life. I use ‘roots’ with caution here. But, to some degree, the manner in which we define our personal histories is bound up with the sway of the temporal. In much the same way, but from a different vantage point, images mark us and we mark the world through images. Whether it be the deep sense of devotion which a religious icon provokes or the profound nostalgia which overcomes us as we gaze at our baby pictures, I would make the claim that images are as foundational as the temporal in providing us with the ‘sense’ that we are human, that we have histories, that who we are is both within and outside of us. As we shall see, however, this rather wholistic view is not generally applied to the image experience. On the contrary, images are ‘framed’ as if they act upon us from the outside, as if they are foreign, as if they cause both harm and good through processes which are external to subjectivity. It is this ambiguous cultural assumption, which I would argue affects all social configurations, which locates images in a world not controlled by the viewer, not so much an interaction as a constraint (we can watch images of an exotic country but not visit — we are therefore unlikely to have a “real” experience of place, space, even time) not so much a process of becoming as reactive and passive. In other words, the experience of images is somehow not pro-active and yet has an impact!

These contradictions sustain themselves around the perceived necessity for images and the simultaneous often desperate desire to jump outside of the frame and find a place which has the ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of the real. Yet, at no point in Western history can the claim be made that images were isolated from reality. Of course there is a difference between the touch of water and a picture of water, just as there is a difference between reading about waves in Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino and watching waves at the edge of a beach. But, the differences are at best defined by a continuity that can never be marked by a slash or the simplicity of opposition. In much the same way, our culture has approached the experience of nature as if landscapes for example are the expression of activities beyond the control of human beings. Nature is the innocent precursor to what we do to it. Yet, the pristine look of the land, the majesty of the Rocky Mountains exists in relation not only to our use of it but to our transformation of the viewing experience through language and the senses. Thus, what I am suggesting is that there is not necessarily either a conceptual or a physical distance between the images which we use to describe the mountains nor need there be one in order to somehow make the mountains more real. Mr. Palomar’s sense of the waves comes through the power of language and my ability to “picture” what he is saying.

  1. The metaphoric intensity would not work were it not for the fact that I already share the images with the character and with Calvino. This sharing makes the Rocky Mountains image and reality at the same time. It is the combination that works upon our senses, which makes it possible to sense at all. It is this that is at the heart of the new human.

The modernist notion, so central to our cultural assumptions about how images work and why, that image and reality are divisible, creates levels of separation which turn on themselves. The category of the real somehow stretches the boundaries of nearly everything, yet the category of image does not. Images provoke and disgust even as they seduce. There is revulsion even as our bodies reach out and are transformed by sight and the seen. We dance as image and body, as symbol and as sensate beings. Language is not so much the foundation upon which these processes are built, as it is the expression of so many of the physical sensations which we feel when word and feeling somehow and rather mysteriously, match. At no point do images, of whatever form, hover beyond or outside of these rather wondrous and often momentary interactions. We are as much within images as we are their creators. We co-exist with what we picture and build hypotheses about the future and the past through our visualisations.

At the heart of image based processes is a strong attraction to and an equal fear of, mediation. Images are seen as opaque or transparent films between experience and thought. Those ubiquitous overhead projectors that have become standard in nearly all school classrooms are one of the best metaphors for this mediated division of experience into parts or layers. A thin acetate is placed on top of a light and the lens is focused. Part display, part teaching tool, the acetate on the projector represents and reproduces knowledge generally in the form of a text, sometimes through pictorial elements. It is like a movie, untouchable and can only be grasped by the ear and the eye. Knowledge is entirely mediated by the machine, words are enlarged or diagrams projected. The acetate is like a page, but plays a different role. The projection is a public act and so is the activity of reading it.

Arguments that join mediation, images and experience into some kind of unity generally overlook both the inventiveness of projection and the creative dominance of the imaginary. They do not anticipate the continual way in which we reinvent the very process of invention itself. The difficulty is that images fly by either on screens or as projections and because of this they seem to be beyond our grasp. This is why the term virtual is so ambiguous, but it is also why our culture cannot understand how images are internalized and how they transform what we mean by subjectivity.

  1. In that sense I would argue, by way of conclusion, that digital processes open up a new realm of possibilities. As we move into the image, we will discover that it is not an alien world but a new level of the physical and psychological environment that we have inhabited from the very beginning of human civilization.

[1] Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, by Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, The University of Michigan Press (traduction Roxanne Lapidus), 1995.