'The arts require witnesses,' Marmontel once said. A century later Auguste Rodin asserted that it is the visible world that demands to be revealed by means other than the latent images of the phototype. In the course of his famous conversations with the sculptor, Paul Gsell remarked, apropos Rodin's 'The Age of Bronze' and 'St John the Baptist', 'I am still left wondering how those great lumps of bronze or stone actually seem to move, how obviously immobile figures appear to act and even to be making pretty strenuous efforts.
Rodin retorts, 'Have you ever looked closely at instantaneous photographs of men in motion? ... Well then, what have you noticed?'
'That they never seem to be making headway. Generally, they seem to be standing still on one leg, or hopping.'
'Exactly! Take my "St John", for example. I've shown him with both feet on the ground, whereas an instantaneous photograph taken of a model performing the same movement would most likely show the back foot already raised and moving forward. Or else the reverse — the front foot would not yet be on the ground if the back leg in the photograph were in the same position as in my statue. That is precisely why the model in the photograph would have the bizarre look of a man suddenly struck with paralysis. Which confirms what I was just saying about movement in art. People in photographs suddenly seem frozen in mid-air, despite being caught in full swing: this is because every part of their body is reproduced at exactly the same twentieth or fortieth of a second, so there is no gradual unfolding of a gesture, as there is in art.'
Gsell objects, 'So, when art interprets movement and finds itself completely at loggerheads with photography, which is an unimpeachable mechanical witness, art obviously distorts the truth.'
'No', Rodin replies, 'It is art that tells the truth and photography that lies. For in reality time does not stand still, and if the artist manages to give the impression that a gesture is being executed over several seconds, their work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific image in which time is abruptly suspended. ...' Rodin then goes on to discuss Gericault's horses, going flat out in the painting 'Race at Epsom', and the critics who claim that the photographic plate never gives the same impression. Rodin counters that the artist condenses several successive movements into a single image, so if the representation as a whole is false in showing these movements as simultaneous, it is true when the parts are observed in sequence, and it is only this truth that counts since it is what we see and what impresses us.
Prompted by the artist to follow the progress of a character's action, the spectator, scanning it, has the illusion of seeing the movement performed. This illusion is thus not produced mechanically as it would later be with the snapshots of the chronophotographic apparatus, through retinal retention - photosensitivity to light stimuli — but naturally, through eye movement.
The veracity of the work therefore depends, in part, on this solicitation of eye (and possibly body) movement in the witness who, in order to sense an object with maximum clarity, must accomplish an enormous number of tiny, rapid movements from one part of the object to another. Conversely, if the eye's motility is transformed into fixity by artificial lenses or bad habits, the sensory apparatus undergoes distortion and vision degenerates. ... In his greedy anxiety to achieve his end, which is to do the greatest possible amount of good seeing in the shortest possible time, the starer neglects the only means whereby this end can be achieved.
Besides, Rodin insists, the veracity of the whole is only made possible through the lack of precision of details conceived merely as so many material props enabling either a falling short of or a going beyond immediate vision. The work of art requires witnesses because it sallies forth with its image into the depths of a material time which is also our own. This sharing of duration is automatically defeated by the innovation of photographic instantaneity, for if the instantaneous image pretends to scientific accuracy in its details, the snapshot's image-freeze or rather image-time-freeze invariably distorts the witness's felt temporality, that time that is the movement of something created?
The plaster studies on show in Rodin's atelier at Meudon reveal a state of evident anatomical breakdown — huge, unruly hands and feet, dislocated, distended limbs, bodies in suspension — the representation of movement pushed to the limits of collapse or take-off. From here it is only a step to Clement Ader and the first aeroplane flight, the conquest of the air through mobilisation of something heavier than air which is followed, in 1895, by cinematography's mobilisation of the snapshot, retinal take-off, that moment when, with the achievement of metabolic speeds, 'all that we called art seems to have become paralytic, while the film-maker lights up the thousand candles of his projectors'.
When Bergson asserts that mind is a thing that endures, one might add that it is our duration that thinks, feels, sees. The first creation of consciousness would then be its own speed in its time-distance, speed thereby becoming causal idea, idea before the idea.5 It is thus now common to think of our memories as multidimensional, of thought as transfer, transport (metaphora) in the literal sense.
Already Cicero and the ancient memory-theorists believed you could consolidate natural memory with the right training. They invented a topographical system, the Method of Loci, an imagerymnemonics which consisted of selecting a sequence of places, locations, that could easily be ordered in time and space. For example, you might imagine wandering through the house, choosing as loci various tables, a chair seen through a doorway, a windowsill, a mark on a wall. Next, the material to be remembered is coded into discreet images and each of the images is inserted in the appropriate order into the various loci. To memorise a speech, you transform the main points into concrete images and mentally 'place' each of the points in order at each successive locus. When it is time to deliver the speech, all you have to do is recall the parts of the house in order.
The same kind of training is still used today by stage actors and barristers at court. It was members of the theatre industry like Kammerspiel theorists Lupu Pick and the scenarist Carl Mayer who, at the beginning of the 1920s, took the whole thing to ludicrous lengths as a film technique, offering the audience a kind of cinematic huis clos occurring in a unique place and at the exact moment of projection. Their film sets were not expressionist but realist so that familiar objects, the minutiae of daily life, assume an obsessive symbolic importance. According to its creators, this was supposed to render all dialogue, all subtitles superfluous.
The silent screen was to make the surroundings speak the same way practitioners of artificial memory made the room they lived in, the theatre boards they trod speak, in retrospect. Following Dreyer and a host of others, Alfred Hitchcock employed a somewhat similar coding system, bearing in mind that viewers do not manufacture mental images on the basis of what they are immediately given to see, but on the basis of their memories, by themselves filling in the blanks and their minds with images created retrospectively, as in childhood.
For a traumatised population, in the aftermath of the First World war, the Kammerspiel cinema altered the conditions of invention of artificial memory, which was itself also born of the catastrophic disappearance of the scenery. The story goes that the lyrical poet Simonides of Chios, in the middle of reciting a poem at a banquet, was suddenly called away to another part of the house. As soon as he left the room, the roof caved in on the other guests and, as it was a particularly heavy roof, they were all crushed to a pulp.
But with his sharpened memory, Simonides could recall the exact place occupied by each of the unfortunate guests and the bodies could thus be identified. It then really dawned on Simonides what an advantage this method of picking places and filling them in with images could be in practising the art of poetry.
In May 1646 Descartes wrote to Elizabeth, 'There is such a strong connection between body and soul that thoughts that accompanied certain movements of our body at the beginning of our lives, go on accompanying them later.' Elsewhere he tells how he once as a child loved a little girl with a slight squint, and how the impression his brain received through sight whenever he looked at her wandering eyes remained so vividly present that he continued to be drawn to people with the same defect for the rest of his life.
The moment they appeared on the scene, the first optical devices (Al-Hasan ibn al-Haitam aka Alhazen's camera obscura in the tenth century, Roger Bacon's instruments in the thirteenth, the increasing number of visual prostheses, lenses, astronomic telescopes and so on from the Renaissance on) profoundly altered the contexts in which mental images were topographically stored and retrieved, the imperative to re-present oneself, the imaging of the imagination which was such a great help in mathematics according to Descartes and which he considered a veritable part of the body, veram partem corporis. Just when we were apparently procuring the means to see further and better the unseen of the universe, we were about to lose what little power had of imagining it. The telescope, that epitome of the visual prosthesis, projected an image of a world beyond our reach and thus another way of moving about in the world, the logistics of perception inaugurating an unknown conveyance of sight that produced a telescoping of near and far, a phenomenon of acceleration obliterating our experience of distances and dimensions.
More than a return to Antiquity, the Renaissance appears today as the advent of a period when all intervals were cleared, a sort of morphological 'breaking and entering' that immediately impacted on the reality-effect: once astronomic and chronometric apparatuses went commercial, geographical perception became dependent on anamorphic processes. Painters such as Holbein, who were contemporaries of Copernicus, practised a kind of iconography in which technology's first stab at leading the senses astray occupied centre stage thanks to singularly mechanistic optical devices. Apart from the displacement of the observer's point of view, complete perception of the painted work could only happen with the aid of instruments such as glass cylinders and tubes, the play of conical or spherical mirrors, magnifying glasses and other kinds of lenses. The reality-effect had become a dissociated system, a puzzle the observer was unable to solve without some traffic in light or the appropriate prostheses. Jurgis Baltrusaitis reports that the Jesuits of Beijing used anamorphic equipment as instruments of religious propaganda to impress the Chinese and to demonstrate to them 'mechanically' that man should experience the world as an illusion of the world.
In a celebrated passage of / Saggiatore (1623), Galileo exposes the essential features of his method: 'Philosophy is written in the immense Book of Nature which is constantly before our very eyes and which cannot be (humanly) understood unless one has previously learned the language and alphabet in which it is written. It is written in mathematical characters... .
We imagine it (mathematically) because it remains continually before our very eyes from the moment we first see the light of day. If, in this parabola, the duration of the visible seems simply to persist, geomorphology has disappeared or is at least reduced to an abstract language plotted on one of the first great industrial media (with all the artillery so vital to the disclosure of optical phenomena).
The celebrated Gutenberg Bible had by then been in print for nearly two centuries and the book trade in Europe, with a printing works in every town and a great number of them in the capitals, had already disseminated its products in the millions. Significantly, the 'art of writing artificially' as it was then called, was also, from its inception, placed at the service of religious propaganda, the Catholic Church at first, then the Reformation. But it was also an instrument of diplomatic and military propaganda, a fact that would later earn it the name thought artillery, well before Marcel L'Herbier labelled his camera a rotary image press.
A connoisseur of optical mirages, Galileo now no longer preferred to form images in the world directly in order to imagine it; he took up instead the much more limited oculomotor labour of reading.
From Antiquity, a progressive simplification of written characters can t>e discerned, followed by a simplification of typographical composition which corresponded to an acceleration in the transmission of messages and led logically to the radical abbreviation of the contents information. The tendency to make reading time as intensive as speaking time stemmed from the tactical necessities of military conquest and more particularly of the battlefield, that occasional field of perception, privileged space of the vision of the trooper, of rapid stimuli, slogans and other logotypes of war.
The battlefield is the place where social intercourse breaks off, where political rapprochement fails, making way for the inculcation of terror. The panoply of acts of war thus always tends to be organised at a distance, or rather, to organise distances. Orders, in fact speech of any kind, are transmitted by long-range instruments which, in any case, are often inaudible among combatants' screams, the clash of arms, and, later, the various explosions and detonations.
Signal flags, multicoloured pennants, schematic emblems then replace faltering vocal signals and constitute a delocalised language which can now be grasped via brief and distant glances, inaugurating a vectorisation that will become concrete in 1794 with the first aerial telegraph line between Paris and Lille and the announcement, at the Convention, of the French troops' victory at Conde-sur-1'Escaut. That same year, Lazare Carnot, organiser of the Revolution's armies, recorded the speed of transmission of military information that was at the very heart of the nation's political and social structures. He commented that if terror was the order of the day, it could thereafter hold sway at the front just as well and at the same time as behind the lines.
Some time later, at the moment when photography became instantaneous, messages and words, reduced to a few elementary signs, were themselves telescoped to the speed of light. On 6 January 1838 Samuel Morse, the American physicist and painter of battle-scenes, succeeded in sending the first electric-telegraph message from his workshop in New Jersey. (The term meaning to write at a distance was also used at the time to denote certain stagecoaches and other means of fast transport.)
The race between the transtextual and the transvisual ran on until the emergence of the instantaneous ubiquity of the audiovisual mix. Simultaneously tele-diction and television, this ultimate transfer finally undermines the age-old problematic of the site where mental images are formed as well as that of the consolidation of natural memory.
'The boundaries between things are disappearing, the subject and the world are no longer separate, time seems to stand still', wrote the physicist Ernst Mach, known particularly for having established the role of the speed of sound in aerodynamics. In fact the teletopological phenomenon remains heavily marked by its remote beginnings in war, and does not bring the subject closer to the world. ... In the manner of the combatant of antiquity, it anticipates human movement, outstripping every displacement of the body and abolishing space.
With the industrial proliferation of visual and audiovisual prostheses and unrestrained use of instantaneous-transmission equipment from earliest childhood onwards, we now routinely see the encoding of increasingly elaborate mental images together with a steady decline in retention rates and recall. In other words we are looking at the rapid collapse of mnemonic consolidation.
This collapse seems only natural, if one remembers a contrario that seeing, and its spatio-temporal organisation, precede gesture and speech and their co-ordination in knowing, recognising, making known (as images of our thoughts), our thoughts themselves and cognitive functions, which are never ever passive.
Communicational experiments with newborn babies are particularly instructive. A small mammal condemned, unlike other mammals, to prolonged semi-immobility, the child, it seems, hangs on maternal smells (breast, neck ...), but also on eye movements. In the course of an eye-tracking exercise that consists of holding a child of about three months in one's arms, at eye level and face to face, and turning it gently from right to left, then from left to right, the child's eyes 'bulge' in the reverse direction, as makers of old porcelain dolls clearly saw, simply because the infant does not want to lose sight of the smiling face of the person holding it. The child experiences this exercise in the expansion of its field of vision as deeply gratifying; it laughs and wants to go on doing it. Something very fundamental is clearly going on here, since the infant is in the process of forming a lasting communicational image by mobilising its eyes. As Lacan said, communication makes you laugh and so the child is in an ideally human position.
Everything I see is in principle within my reach, at least within reach of my sight, marked on the map of the 7 can'. In this important formulation, Merleau-Ponty pinpoints precisely what will eventually find itself ruined by the banalisation of a certain teletopology. The bulk of what I see is, in fact and in principle, no longer within my reach. And even if it lies within reach of my sight, it is no longer necessarily inscribed on the map of the 'I can'. The logistics of perception in fact destroy what earlier modes of representation preserved of this original, ideally human happiness, the 'I can' of sight, which kept art from being obscene. I have often been able to confirm this watching models who were perfectly happy to pose in the nude and submit to whatever painters and sculptors wanted them to do, but flatly refused to allow themselves to be photographed, feeling that that would amount to a pornographic act.
There is a vast iconography evoking this prime communicational image. It has been one of the major themes in Christian art, presenting the person of Mary (named Mediator) as the initial map of the Infant-God's 7 can\ Conversely, the Reformation's rejection of consubstantiality and of such close physical proximity intervenes during the Renaissance, with the proliferation of optical devices. ... Romantic poetry is one of the last movements to employ this type of cartography. In Novalis, the body of the beloved (having become profane) is the universe in miniature and the universe is merely the extension of the beloved's body.
So in spite of all this machinery of transfer, we get no closer to the productive unconscious of sight, something the surrealists once dreamed of in relation to photography and cinema. Instead, we only get as far as its unconsciousness, an annihilation of place and appearance the future amplitude of which is still hard to imagine. The death of art, heralded from the beginning of the nineteenth century, turns out to be merely an initial, disquieting symptom of this process, despite being unprecedented in the history of human societies. This is the emergence of the deregulated world that Hermann Rauschning, the author of The Revolution of Nihilism, spoke about in November 1939 in relation to Nazism's project: the universal collapse of all forms of established order, something never before seen in human memory. In this unprecedented crisis of representation (bearing absolutely no relation to some kind of classic decadence), the age-old act of seeing was to be replaced by a regressive perceptual state, a kind of syncretism, resembling a pitiful caricature of the semi-immobility of early infancy, the sensitive substratum now existing only as a fuzzy morass from which a few shapes, smells, sounds accidentally leap out ... more sharply perceived.
Thanks to work like that of W. R. Russell and Nathan (1946), scientists have become aware of the relationship of post-perceptual visual processes to time. The storage of mental images is never instantaneous; it has to do with the processing of perception. Yet it is precisely this storage process that is rejected today. The young American film-maker Laurie Anderson, among others, is able to declare herself a mere voyeur interested only in details; as for the rest, she says, T use computers that are tragically unable to forget, like endless rubbish dumps.'
Returning to Galileo's simile of deciphering the book of the real, it is not so much a question here of what Benjamin called the imageilliteracy of the photographers incapable of reading their own photographs. It is a question of visual dyslexia. Teachers have been saying for a long time now that the last few generations have great difficulty understanding what they read because they are incapable of re-presenting it to themselves.... For them, words have in the end lost their ability to come alive, since images, more rapidly perceived, were supposed to replace words according to the photographers, the silent film-makers, the propagandists and advertisers of the early twentieth century. Now there is no longer anything to replace, and the number of the visually illiterate and dyslexic keeps mutliplying.
Here again, recent studies of dyslexia have established a direct connection between the subject's visual abilities, on the one hand, and language and reading on the other. They frequently record a weakening of central (foveal) vision, the site of the most acute sensation, along with subsequent enhancing of a more or less frantic peripheral vision - a dissociation of sight in which the heterogeneous swamps the homogeneous. This means that, as in narcotic states, the series of visual impressions become meaningless. They no longer seem to belong to us, they just exist, as though the speed of light had won out, this time, over the totality of the message.
If we think about light, which has no image and yet creates images, we find that the use of light stimuli in crowd control goes back a long way.
The inhabitant of the ancient city, for instance, was not the indoors type; he was out on the street, except at nightfall for obvious safety reasons. Commerce, craft, riots and daily brawls, traffic jams. ... Bossuet was worried about this chronic lightweight who could not keep still, did not stop to think where he was going, who no longer even knew where he was and would soon be mistaking night for day. At the end of the seventeenth century, police lieutenant La Reynie came up with 'Lighting Inspectors' to reassure the Parisian public and encourage them to go out at night. When he quit his post in 1697, having been promoted chief of police, there were 6,500 lanterns lighting up the capital which would soon be known by contemporaries as the city of light for 'the streets are ablaze all through winter and even of a full moon', as the Englishman Lister wrote, comparing Paris to London which enjoyed no such privilege.
In the 18th century the by now rather shady population of Paris mushroomed and the capital became known as the New Babylon. The brightness of its lighting signalled not just a desire for security, but also individual and institutional economic prosperity, as well as the fact that 'brilliance is all the rage' among the new elites - bankers, gentlemen farmers and the nouveaux riches of dubious origins and careers. Whence the taste for garish lights which no lampshade could soften. On the contrary, they were amplified by the play of mirrors multiplying them to infinity. Mirrors turned into dazzling reflectors. A giorno lighting now spilled out of the buildings where it once helped turn reality into illusion — theatres, palaces, luxury hotels, princely gardens. Artificial light was in itself a spectacle soon to be made available to all, and street lighting, the democratisation of lighting, is designed to trick everyone's eyes. There is everything from old-fashioned fireworks to the light shows of the engineer Philippe Lebon, the inventor of the gaslight who, in the middle of a social revolution, opened the Seignelay Hotel to the public so they might appreciate the value of his discovery. The streets were packed at night with people gazing upon the works of lighting engineers and pyrotechnists known collectively as impressionists.
But this constant straining after 'more light' was already leading to a sort of precocious disability, a blindness; the eye literally popped out of its socket. In this respect the delegation of sight to Niepce's artificial retinas, took on its full meaning. Faced with such a permanent regime of bedazzlement, the range of adaptability of the eye's crystalline lens was quickly lost. Madame de Genlis, then governess to the children of Louis-Philippe, pointed to the damage caused by the abuse of lighting: 'Since lamps have come into fashion, it is the young who are wearing glasses; good eyes are now only to be found among the old who have kept up the habit of reading and writing with a candle shaded by a candle guard.
That perverted peasant and Paris pedestrian, Restif de la Bretonne, observing life with the rustic's sharp eye, soon gave way to a new, anonymous, ageless character who no longer took to the streets looking for a man, like Diogenes with his lantern burning in broad daylight. He now sought light itself, for where there is light there is the crowd. According to Edgar Allan Poe, our man no longer inhabited the big city strictly speaking (London, as it happens), but the dense throng. His only itinerary was that of the human stream wherever it was bound, wherever it was to be found. All was dark yet splendid, Poe wrote, and the man's only terror was the risk of losing the crowd thanks to the strange light effects, to the speed with which the world of light vanishes. ...' For this man, frowning furiously, shooting frantic looks here, there and everywhere towards all those swarming round him, drowning in the flood of images, one face constantly being gobbled up by another, the endless surging throng permitted only the briefest glance at any one face. When, having pursued him for hours, the exhausted author finally caught up and planted himself right in front of him, the man was pulled up short for a second, but looked straight through the author without even seeing him, then immediately flitted off on his merry manic way.
In 1902 it was Jack London's turn to come to London and he too followed, step by step, the people of the abyss. Urban lighting had by then become a torture for the mass of social rejects of the capital of the world's most powerful Empire. The vast mob of the homeless represented more than 10 per cent of London's population of six million. They were not allowed to sleep at night anywhere, whether in parks, on benches or on the street; they had to keep walking till dawn, when they were finally allowed to lie down in places' where there was little danger of anyone seeing them.
No doubt because contemporary architects and townplanners have no more than anyone else been able to escape such psychotropic disorders (the topographical amnesia described by neuropathologists as the Elpenor Syndrome or incomplete awakening), one can say, with Agnes Varda, that the most distinctive cities bear within them the capacity of being nowhere ... the dream decor of oblivion.
So, in Vienna, in 1908, Adolf Loos delivered his celebrated discourse Ornament and Crime, a manifesto in which he preaches the standardisation of total functionalism and waxes lyrical about the fact that 'the greatness of our age lies in its inability to produce a new form of decoration'. For, he claims, 'in fashioning ornaments human labour, money and material are ruined'. Loos considered this a real crime 'which we cannot simply shrug off. This would be followed by Walter Gropius' 'industrial-building production standards', the ephemeral architecture of the Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero, the Berlin Licht-Burg, Moholy-Nagy's space-light modulators, Kurt Schwerdtfeger's reflektorische Farblichtspiel of 1922. ...
In fact, the constructivist aesthetic would forever continue to hide behind the banalisation of form, the transparency of glass, the fluidity of vectors and the special effects of machines of transfer or transmission. When the Nazis came to power, busily persecuting 'degenerate artists' and architects and extolling the stability of materials and the durability of monuments, their resistance to time and to the obliviousness of history, they were actually putting the new psychotropic power to good use for propaganda purposes.
Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, organised the Nazi Zeppelin Field festivities and advocated the value of ruins. For the party rally at Nuremberg in 1935, he used 150 anti-aircraft searchlights with their beams pointing upwards, making a rectangle of light in the night sky. ... He wrote: 'Within these luminous walls, the first of their kind, the rally took place with all its rituals. ... I now feel strangely moved by the idea that the most successful architectural creation of my life was a chimera, an immaterial mirage.'18 Doomed to disappear at first light, leaving no more material trace than a few films and the odd photograph, the 'crystal castle' was especially aimed at Nazi militants who, according to Goebbels, obey a law they are not even consciously aware of but which they could recite in their dreams.
On the basis of 'scientific' analysis of the stenographic speed of his various speeches, Hitler's master of propaganda had invented, again in his own estimation, a new mass language which 'no longer has anything to do with archaic and allegedly popular forms of expression'. He added: 'This is the beginning of an original aesthetic style, a vivid and galvanising form of expression.'
At least he was good at self-promotion. Such declarations recall those of Futurists such as the Portuguese Mario de Sa-Carneiro (d.1916) celebrating The Assumption of the Acoustic Waves:
Aaagh! Aaagh!: The vibrating mass is pressing in. ... I can even feel myself being carried along by the air, like a ball of wool!'
Or Marinetti who, as a war correspondent in Libya, was inspired by wireless telegraphy and all the other techniques of topographical amnesia besides - explosives, projectiles, planes, fast vehicles - to compose his poems.
The Futurist movements of Europe did not last. They disappeared m a few short years, nudged along by a bit of repression. In Italy they were responsible for anarchist and fascist movements - Marinetti was a personal friend of II Duce - but all were quickly swept from the political stage. No doubt they had come a little too close to the bone in exposing the conjunction between communication technologies and the totalitarianism that was then taking shape before 'Newly annointed eyes Futurist, Cubist, intersectionist eyes, which never cease to quiver, to absorb, to radiate all that spectral, transferred, substitute beauty, all that unsupported beauty, dislocated, standing out. .. .'
With topographical memory, one could speak of generations of vision and even of visual heredity from one generation to the next. The advent of the logistics of perception and its renewed vectors for delocalising geometrical optics, on the contrary, ushered in a eugenics of sight, a pre-emptive abortion of the diversity of mental images, of the swarm of image-beings doomed to remain unborn, no longer to see the light of day anywhere.
This problematic was beyond scientists and researchers for a long time. The work of the Vienna School, such as that of Riegl and Wickhoff, addressed the implied relations between modes of perception and the periods when they were on the agenda. But for the most part research remained limited to the investigation, de rigeur at the time, of the socio-economics of the image. Throughout the nineteenth century and for the first half of the twentieth, studies of humanmemory processes were also largely functionalist, inspired in the main by the various learning processes and the conditioning of animals; here too, electrical stimuli played a part. The military supported such research and so, subsequently, did ideologues and politicians keen to obtain immediate practical social spin-offs. In Moscow, in 1920 a Russian committee was set up to promote collaboration between Germany and the Soviet Union in the area of racial biology. Among other things the work of the German neuropathologists sojourning in the Soviet capital was supposed to locate man's 'centre of genius' as well as the centre of mathematical learning. ... The committee came under the authority of Kalinin, who was to be president of the praesidium of the Supreme Soviet Council from 1937 to 1946.
This was the real beginning, technically and scientifically speaking, of power based on hitherto unrecognised forms of postural oppression and, once again, the battlefield would ensure rapid deployment of the new physiological prohibitions.
As early as 1916, during the first great mediatised conflict in history, Doctor Gustave Lebon had remarked: 'Old-fashioned psychology considered personality as something clearly defined, barely susceptible to variation.... This person endowed with a fixed personality now appears to be a figment of the imagination.
With the relentless churning up of the war's landscapes, he noted that the personality's alleged fixity had depended to a large extent, till then, on the permanence of the natural environment.
But what kind of permanence did he have in mind, and which environment? Is it the environment Clausewitz refers to, that battlefield where, beyond a certain threshold of danger, reason thinks of itself differently? Or, more precisely, is it the environment which is constantly targeted, intercepted by an optical arsenal going from the 'line of sight' of the firearm - cannons, rifles, machine guns, used on an unprecedented scale - to cameras, the high-speed equipment of aerial intelligence, projecting an image of a de-materialising world?
The origin of the word propaganda is well known: propaganda fide, propagation of the faith. The year 1914 not only saw the physical deportation of millions of men to the battlefields. With the apocalypse created by the deregulation of perception came a different kind of diaspora, the moment of panic when the mass of Americans and Europeans could no longer believe their eyes, when their faith in perception became slave to the faith in the technical sightline [line of faith]: in other words, the visual field was reduced to the line of a sighting device.
A little later the director Jacques Tourneur confirmed the truth of this: 'In Hollywood I soon learned that the camera never sees everything. I could see everything, but the camera only sees sections.'
But what does one see when one's eyes, depending on sighting instruments, are reduced to a state of rigid and practically invariable structural immobility? One can only see instantaneous sections seized by the Cyclops eye of the lens. Vision, once substantial, becomes accidental. Despite the elaborate debate surrounding the problem of the objectivity of mental or instrumental images, this revolutionary change in the regime of vision was not clearly perceived and the fusion-confusion of eye and camera lens, the passage from vision to visualisation, settled easily into accepted norms. While the human gaze became more and more fixed, losing some of its natural speed and sensitivity, photographic shots, on the contrary, became even faster. Today professional and amateur photographers alike are mostly happy to fire off shot after shot, trusting to the power of speed and the large number of shots taken. They rely slavishly on the contact sheet, preferring to observe their own photographs to observmg some kind of reality. Jacques-Henri Lartigue, who called his camera his memory's eye, abandoned focusing altogether, knowing without looking what his Leica would see, even when holding it at arm's length, the camera becoming a substitute for both eye and body movements at once.
The reduction in mnesic choices which ensued from this dependence on the lens was to become the nodule in which the modelling of vision would develop and, with it, all possible standardisations of ways of seeing. Thanks to work on animal conditioning like that of Thorndike (1931) and McGeoch (1932), a new certainty was born. To retrieve a specific target attribute, it was no longer necessary to activate a whole array of attributes, any single one of them being able to act independently. This fact once again begged the frequently asked question of the trans-situational identity of mental images.
From the beginning of the century the perceptual field in Europe was invaded by certain signs, representations and logotypes that were to proliferate over the next twenty, thirty, sixty years, outside any immediate explanatory context, like beak-nosed carp in the polluted ponds they depopulate. Geometric brand-images, initials, Hitler's swastika, Charlie Chaplin's silhouette, Magritte's blue bird or the red lips of Marilyn Monroe: parasitic persistence cannot be explained merely in terms of the power of technical reproducibility, so often discussed since the nineteenth century. We are in effect looking at the logical outcome of a system of message-intensification which has, for several centuries, assigned a primordial role to the techniques of visual and oral communication.
On a more practical note, Ray Bradbury recently remarked: 'Filmmakers bombard with images instead of words and accentuate the details using special effects. ... You can get people to swallow anything by intensifying the details.'
The phatic image — a targeted image that forces you to look and holds your attention - is not only a pure product of photographic and cinematic focusing. More importantly it is the result of an everbrighter illumination, of the intensity of its definition, singling out only specific areas, the context mostly disappearing into a blur.
During the first half of the twentieth century this kind of image immediately spread like wildfire in the service of political or financial totalitarian powers in acculturated countries, like North America, as well as in destructured countries like the Soviet Union and Germany, which were carved up after revolution and military defeat. In other words, in nations morally and intellectually in a state of least resistance. There the key words of poster ads and other kinds of posters would often be printed on a background in just as strong a colour. The difference between what was in focus and its context, or between image and text, was nevertheless stressed here as well, since the viewer had to spend more time trying to decipher the written message or simply give up and just take in the image.
Since the fifth century, Gerard Simon notes, the geometrical study of sight formed part of the pictorial techniques artists were bent on codifying. Thanks to the celebrated passage in Vitruvius, we also know that from Antiquity artists were at pains to give the illusion of depth, particularly in theatre sets.'
But in the Middle Ages the background came to the surface in pictorial representation. All the characters, even the most minute details - the context, if you like - remain on the same plane of legibility, of visibility. Only their exaggerated size, the way they loom forward suggesting pride of place, draws the observer's attention to certain important personages. Here everything is seen in the same light, in a transparent atmosphere, a brightness further highlighted by golds and halos, by ornaments. These are holy pictures, establishing a theological parallel between vision and knowledge, for which there are no blurred areas.
The latter make their first appearance with the Renaissance when religious and cosmogonical uncertainties begin to proliferate along with the proliferation of optical devices. Once you have smoke effects or distant mists, it is just a short step to the notion of the non finito, the unfinished vision of pictorial representation or statuary. In the eighteenth century, with the fashion in geological follies and the curling lines of the rococo and the baroque, architects like Claude Nicolas Ledoux at the Arc-et-Senans saltworks revelled in playing up the contrasts in the chaotic arrangement of matter, with untidy piles of stone blocks escaping the creator's grip on geometry. At the same time monumental ruins, real or fake, were very much in vogue.
Some sixty years later, chaos had taken over the entire structure of the painted work. The composition decomposes. The Impressionists deserted their studios and wandered off to catch real life in the act, the way the photographers were doing but with the advantage, soon to be lost, of colour.
With Edgar Degas, painter and amateur photographer, composition came close to framing, to positioning within the range of the viewfinder: the subjects seem decentred, segmented, viewed from above or below in an artificial, often harsh light, like the glare of the reflectors used by professional photographers at the time. 'We must free ourselves from nature's tyranny', Degas wrote of an art which, in his terms, sums itself up rather than extends itself ..., and which also becomes more intense. This goes to show how apt was the nickname given to the new school of painting when Monet's canvas 'Impression Sunrise' was shown: impressionist, like the pyrotechnists who created those eye-dazzling displays of flashing, flooding lights.
From the disintegration of composition we move on to that of sight. With pointillism, Georges Seurat reproduced the visual effect of the 'pitting' of the first daguerreotypes as well as applying a system of analogous dots to colour. In order to be restored, the image had to be seen at a certain distance, the observers doing their own focusing, exactly as with an optical apparatus, the dots then dissolving in the effect of luminance and vibrating within emerging figures and forms.
It was not long before these too disintegrated and soon only a visual message worthy of morse code will survive, like Duchamp's retinal stimulator, or aspects of Op Art from Mondrian.
With the same implacable logic, publicity-seekers pop up on the art scene. Futurism is upon us, notably in the form of Depero's promotional architecture, followed by Dada in 1916 and then Surrealism. In Magritte's view, painting and the traditional arts from this moment on lose any sense of the sacred. An advertising executive by profession, Magritte wrote:
'What surrealism officially means is an advertising firm run with enough nous and conformism to be able to do as well as other businesses to which it is opposed only in certain details of pure form. Thus, "surrealist woman" was just as stupid an invention as the pinup girl who has now taken her place. ... I'm not much of a surrealist at all, then. To me, the term also signifies "propaganda" (a dirty word) and all the inanity essential to the success of any 'propaganda'.
But the syncretism, the nihilism, of which the techniques of the pseudo-communications company are carriers, are also to be found in Magritte as anxiety-producing symptoms. For Magritte, words are 'slogans that oblige us to think in a certain preordained order ... contemplation is a banal feeling of no interest'. As for 'the perfect painting', this could only produce an intense effect for a very short time. With the industrial multiplication of optical equipment, the artist's human vision is no more than one process among many of obtaining images. The following generation would attack 'the very essence of art', thereby putting the finishing touches to their own suicide.
In 1968 Daniel Buren explained to Georges Boudaille: it's funny when you realise that art was never a problem of depth but one of form. ... The only solution lies in the creation — if the word can still be used — of something totally unconnected with what has gone before, completely unburdened by the past. This thing would thereby express itself just for the sake of it. Artistic communication is then cut off, no longer exists...
Well before this, Duchamp wrote: i have never stopped painting. Every painting must exist in your mind before it is painted on the canvas and it always loses something in the painting. I'd rather see my painting without the murk.'
The painter takes his body with him, Valery said. Merleau-Ponty added: it's hard to see how a Mind could paint'. If art poses the enigma of the body, the enigma of technique poses the enigma of art. In fact devices for seeing dispense with the artist's body in so far as it is light that actually makes the image.
We have all had enough of hearing about the death of God, of man, of art and so on since the nineteenth century. What in fact happened was simply the progressive disintegration of a faith in perception founded in the Middle Ages, after animism, on the basis of the unicity of divine creation, the absolute intimacy between the universe and the God-man of Augustinian Christianity, a material world which loved itself and contemplated itself in its one God. In the West, the death of God and the death of art are indissociable; the zero degree of representation merely fulfilled the prophecy voiced a thousand years earlier by Nicephorus, Patriarch of Constantinople, during the quarrel with the iconoclasts: if we remove the image, not only Christ but the whole universe disappears.'
1. Paul Gsell, Auguste Rodin. L'Art: Entretiens reunis par Paul Gsell (Paris: Grasset/Fasquelle, 1911). The quotation from Marmontel is adapted from his Contes moraux: 'Music is the only talent that can be enjoyed by itself; all others require witnesses.'
2. Aldous Huxley, The Art of Seeing (London: Chatto and Windus, 1943).
3. Pascal, Reflexions sur la geometrie en general, vol. Vll no. 33. The studies of Marey and Muybridge fascinated Parisian artists of the period, particularly Kupka and Duchamp whose celebrated canvas 'Nude Descending a Staircase', was rejected in 1912 by the Salon des Independants. Already in 1911, when Gsell's interviews with Rodin appeared, Duchamp claimed to show static compositions using static directions for the various positions taken by a form in motion without trying to create cinematic effects through painting. If he too claimed that movement is in the eye of the beholder, he hoped to obtain it through formal decomposition.
4. Tristan Tzara, 'Le Photographe a l'envers Man Ray' in Sept Manifestes DADA (Paris, 1992) - modified.
5. Paul Virilio, Esthetique de la disparition (Paris: Balland, 1980).
6. The important work of Norman E. Spear, The Processing of Memories: Forgetting and Retention (Hillsdale, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, 1978).
7. ATX 414. Descartes does not completely spurn the imagination as is too often claimed.
8. Paul Virilio, L'Espace critique (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1984) and Guerre et cinema I: Logistique de la perception (Paris: Editions de l'Etoile Cahiers du cinema, 1984; London: War and Cinema, Verso, 1986).
9. Jean-Louis Ferrier, Holbein. Les ambassadeurs (Paris: Denoel, 1977).
10. Oculomotor activity: the co-ordination of eye and body movements, especially the hands.
11. Jules Romains, La Vision extra-retinienne et le sens paroptique (Paris: Gallimard, 1964). First published in 1920, this work was ahead of its time and was re-issued in 1964. 'Experiments on extra-retinal vision show that certain lesions of the eye (strabismic amblyopia for example) cause the subject to reject consciousness: the eye keeps its qualities, the image manages to form on it, but this is repelled more and more insistently by consciousness, sometimes to the point of complete blindness.'
12. W. R. Russell and Nathan, Traumatic Amnesia (Brain, 1946). Studies of forms of traumatism suffered by returned soldiers.
13. M.-J. Deribere, Prehistoire et histoire de la lumiere (Paris: France-Empire, 1979).
14. Correspondence with Claude Niepce, 1816.
15. Edgar Allan Poe, The Man of the Crowd [First appeared in America in December 1840 in both The Casket and Gentleman's Magazine.}
16. Jack London, The People of the Abyss (London: Journeyman, 1977; originally published 1903). A report.
17. The Elpenor Syndrome, from the name of a hero of The Odyssey who fell off the roof of Circe's temple. Exercising normal automatic motor functions in waking up in an unfamiliar place, the subject was stricken with topographical amnesia. ... Because this often occurs on board fast transport, the General Secretary of the SNCF [French Rail], Vincent Bourrel, has called attention to the number of accidents resembling the historic one at the turn of the century when French President Deschanel fell from a train.
18. Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (London: Weidenfeld, 1970); Spandau: The Secret Diaries (London: Collins, 1976) [translation modified].
19. 'Pessoa et le futurisme portuguais', Action poetique, 110, winter 1987.
20. Gustave Lebon, Enseignements psychologiques de la guerre europeenne (Paris: Flammarion, 1916).
21. As Jean Rouch was later to write about the Russian film-maker: 'The Kino Eye is Dziga Vertov's gaze ... left eyebrow down a little, nose tightly pinched so as not to get in the way of sight, pupils open at 3.5 or 2.9, but the focus on infinity, on vertigo ... way past the soldiers on the attack.' In a few millennia, we lost 'that obscure faith in perception which questions our mute life, that combination of the world and ourselves which precedes reflection1. Merleau-Ponty, Le Visible et I'invisible (Paris: Gallimard, 1964).
22. Watkins and Tulving, 'Episodic memory: when recognition fails', Psychological Bulletin, 1974.
24 November 1987. 24. Gerard Simon, Le Regard, I'etre et I'apparance (Paris: Le Seuil, 1988).
25. Quoted by Georges Roque in his essay on Magritte and advertising, Ceci nest pas un Magritte (Paris: Flammarion, 1983).
26. 'L'art n'est plus justifiable ou les points sur les i', interview with Daniel Buren recorded by Georges Boudaille in Les lettres franqaises, March 1968. 27. Merleau-Ponty, L'oeil et I'esprit (Paris: Gallimard, 1964).
Paul Virilio/The Vision Machine/ Chapter 1: A Topographical Amnesia
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