Tele-nausea: losing the presence
Image technology is built into communication tools on many levels – technical, ideological, diagnostical, etc. Providing visibility and audiovisual exchange amid the “war” against the “invisible enemy” however, organized by a global megastructure conglomerate of old school public television and radio ont the one hand and platform capitalism’s gated, paywall protected uber-architectures of “social” media and “content” delivery services on the other. Everything’s new, but it’s also dead and rotten. As Keller Easterling plainly states, “The smart city maintains the shine of the new, even while it centralizes information in ways that violate privacy, with a network that is primitive and crude.”
The longer the lockdown, the more people become aware of the limits of audiovisual connectivity. For they experience these screen-based provisions increasingly as the opposite of what they claim to be, i.e. as separation. I have been talking to many friends over the past few days who have developed phobic reactions to their own dependence on tele-presence. They regret and criticize the relentless condensation, compression, constriction of reality into (and by) the (handheld, desktop) screen. At any rate, the advantages of Skype and Zoom, of videochats and streamed media content have begun to recede. At least they are being seriously re-evaluated.
A friend was sent the Zoom joke above she had found on Twitter – a re-edited and updated version of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.
The doctor is now isolated from his students and colleagues, who observe the surgery from a safe (and, arguably, social) distance. Only the corpse, spread out on the table in front of him, shares Tulp’s quarantine. Translating the anatomy lesson into the condition of the tele-lecture appears to work quite smoothly, the entire group of bearded, white, collared men seems in full consent. The altered scene, reminiscent of already established multi-modal robotic tele-presence systems in the health sector and care environments (assistive robotics) thus anticipates its general implementation in a future of universal quarantine and compulsory remote learning. For that very reason Dr. Tulp himself appears oddly redundant.
Icon of “Isolation,” from the website of NASA’s Human Research Program section on the “5 Hazards of Human Spaceflight”
Consequentially, rather than the incommunicado detainee, it is the distressed, numbed, info-overdosed solitary astronaut in her/his deserted spaceship, one of the subjects of NASA’s Human Research Program, who is now the running candidate for the role model of post-Corona distancing cultures.
In terms of the theory of the image, however, this is not exactly news. As André Gunthert, a leading French visual culture critic, reminds us in a blog entry on the “triumph of the images,” uploaded today: “We rediscover it every day in our digital exchanges: the image is not presence. Countless pragmatic pixel and numbers separate the experience of face-to-face encounters, which are not or poorly reproduced by the wired tools, from those of audiovisual mediation. I cannot touch or hug my virtual interlocutor. And the mosaic of screens in a videoconference only offers a disembodied and distant emulation of the physical meeting, with its varied levels of communication. But the image is no less irreplaceable when circumstances prevent direct contact. It is precisely this capacity for substitution that one of the first theoreticians of painting, Leon Battista Alberti, points out when he illustrates the powers of the image by evoking the most absolute of separations. ‘Plutarch says that Cassander, one of the captains of Alexander, trembled through all his body because he saw a portrait of his King’ [Plutarch, The Life of Alexander, LXXIV,4] (On Painting, 1435). When Alexander was alive, his portrait was only a copy, necessarily inferior to the model. But in the absence of the living body, the image becomes a remnant of presence. It is the conditions external to the representation that define its value. […] Images are not transparent vectors of information, and their limits or manipulations must be constantly recalled. But spectacles are only superfluous or redundant if we cannot freely access what they contain. When circumstances take us away from them, we do not hesitate to resort to substitute forms.”
Gunthert adds for consideration that there is “a good chance that the large-scale experimentation with telepresence, which has long met with much resistance, will encourage its lasting adoption. The repetition of epidemic episodes, the resulting hygiene pressure, not to mention the rise in ecological awareness, are combining to reduce traffic and reduce opportunities for gatherings. Telepresence applications are therefore destined to become established in a society whose codes will be profoundly transformed.” Such transformation of societal codes certainly is taking place right now. Only the extent to which it will gain (and maintain) a foothold that remains to be seen. Recent research on Communication in the Era of Attention Scarcity may well come in handy here. TH
April 3rd, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02
Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”
Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”
Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”
Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”
Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”
November 7th, 2020
David Graeber (1961-2020) on What Would It Take (from his The Democracy Project. A History, a Crisis, a Movement, 2013, p. 193): “We have little idea what sort of organizations, or for that matter, technologies, would emerge if free people were unfettered to use their imagination to actually solve collective problems rather than to make them worse. But the primary question is: how do we even get there? What would it take to allow our political and economic systems to become a mode of collective problem solving rather than, as they are now, a mode of collective war?”
September 7th, 2020
T.J. Demos on why cultural practitioners should never surrender, via tranzit.sk: “For artists, writers, and curators, as art historians and teachers, the meaning-production of an artwork is never finished, never fully appropriated and coopted, in my view, and we should never surrender it; the battle over significance is ongoing. We see that battle rise up in relation to racist and colonial monuments these days in the US, the UK, and South Africa. While the destruction of such monuments results from and is enabling of radical politics, it’s still not enough until the larger institutions that support and maintain their existence as well as the continuation of the politics they represent are also torn down. This is urgent as well in the cultural sphere, including the arts institutions, universities, art markets, discursive sphere of magazines and journals, all in thrall to neoliberalism, where we must recognize that it’s ultimately inadequate to simply inject critical or radical content into these frameworks, which we know excel at incorporating those anti-extractivist expressions into further forms of cultural capital and wealth accumulation. What’s required is more of the building of nonprofit and community-based institutions, organizing radical political horizons and solidarity between social formations.”
August 21st, 2020