|InterCommunication No.10 1994|
Toward a Transparent Vision:
Between Two Forms of the Image
"The everyday world, of solid bodies that are unambiguously located in space and of sequences in a linear time, corresponds to what could be called the explicate or unfolded order. But this explicate order can now be seen as a manifestation of an unfolding from the deeper implicate order. An analogy may serve to illustrate this point. The fountain in an Italian square maintains its shape by virtue of the wave that flows through it. In this way its explicate shape is an expression of the constant flux of folding and unfolding. In a similar way the vortex in a river is an expression of the total flow of all the water, and its structure is constantly supported by the dynamics of the river as a whole. In a deeper sense the orders of matter, space, and time are all explicate manifestations of the underlying implicate order."*1
The same point can be demonstrated more easily by contrasting the mechanisms of photography and holography. For example, in an ordinary photograph, light from each part of an object is brought into focus on a corresponding position of the film. Since the shape of the image bears a clear corresponding relationship to the shape of the object, if one detail of the photograph is removed, the information contained within it will comprise only a part of the whole object.
However, in holography, since light from every part of the object is folded onto the total surface of the film, no matter how small the part removed, it will nevertheless contain information from the entire image. The result is that in holography, the relationship between the object and the photosensitive body matches the relationship between the explicated order and the hidden order, so that the image is reconstructed by converting this hidden order into information.
A related issue also emerges in the case of human vision. Here it is necessary to make a distinction between sight, as the image optically reflected upon the retina (the raw, unprocessed image) and the visual world (humanized, signified) that humans see. Sight can be referred to as a continuous pattern of perpetually changing lightrecorded on the retina. Humans process this data, and from it create their own visual world. It is important to recall that the definition of the word "to see," contains the multiple meanings of cognition, judgement, and observation. Seeing, therefore, is forever mediated by an act of recognition. "Seeing" is always pursued by the fact that via the eye, there is knowledge that can be acquired. Seeing begins with the simple subjective experience of sensing the visual elements of color, light and form. After these are assembled, composed, and perceived, we try to recognize what the thing is to us. Seeing is constructed from a far more complex system than we customarily realize. Operation of this system produces a context for meaning.
As a result, if a person who has been blind from birth acquires sight through a cornea transplant operation, it may take months or even years before they can actually perform what can is generally defined as "seeing." They open their eyes, learn to recognize light and dark, differentiate colors, gain a vague grasp of the existence of things, and vision then moves on toward consolidation. This implies learning to distinguish discrete objects from their background, i.e., field from ground. It is not until later that they can attain a clear grasp of the broader configuration of things. When they have reached this stage, it becomes possible for the first time to realize the subjective/objective separation of their own existence from the things they are seeing. It is important to point out that at earlier stages, the sense of "inside" and "outside" remains extremely vague. Although the eyes may be open, one is still not seeing. This is because even though the retina is seeing, there is not yet proper communication between the nerves of the eye and those of the brain, and thus the brain is not seeing. Is it plausible to say that the image in the eye is not properly connecting with the image in the mind? We tend to say that we see with our eyes, but basically, it is the mind and the brain which generate that consciousness we term vision. Seeing is established through the processing of this visual information. Vision is a process whose graded cognitive structure is deeply connected to issues of human evolution and the creation of consciousness. One might in fact say that vision results in a gradual process of development beginning at birth by which the eye eventually evolves from an animal to a human level.
It is in this context that one must place the invention of perspective and the camera obscura. In tracing the development of visual devices and visual media from the unraveling of the mechanism of the human eye in the fifteenth century through the present day, one hits upon a startling fact. Namely, that the extremely brief period of a century which has passed since the invention of the camera represents a distinct aberration from the long visual history of the human race.
William J. MITCHELL, in his book entitled The Reconfigured Eye*2, refers to the present era as the "post-photographic age" analyzing the uniqueness of the coming visual age and attempting to distinguish the photographic age from the periods which succeed it. Viewed from a broader chronological perspective, however, it might be said that it is only now that we have entered the "post-photographic age" that the characteristics of the "photographic age" (i.e., the era lying between the pre- and post- photographic eras) are becoming apparent.
In The Reconfigured Eye, MITCHELL sites a passage from Marcel PROUST's Remembrance of Things Past in which the narrator, upon viewing a photograph, feels himself transported back to a precise point in time to his grandmother's room where he is standing in the exact position of the photographer, and for an instant, becomes that very witness, dressed in a hat and coat.
For an instant, the narrator actually senses with his own body that this third person (who is both photographer and witness) has definitely existed and lived in that place. He accepts with a certain shudder how the third person of the photographer had actually seen his object, drawn the event into his camera, and locked it inside. The image penetrates deep into the recesses of his body. The event occurred in the flash of an instant. The viewer of the photo is transported back to the time, the space, and the existence of that moment. This experience comprises the very essence of the photograph. The viewer is always transported back to the instant of the photo without any disruption of the time series.
By contrast, it is pointless to search for the photographer, witness, or any other such third party in the digital images of the "post-photographic era." The object one seeks is lost from the start. Even if the viewer attempts via the image to return to the phase of the photographer, the image resists. Vision comes into being without the act of looking. Given that there is no photographer, such a point may appear obvious, but it is the viewer's subconscious that takes note of the enormous discontinuity being divulged.
Images that have been digitally coded for computer processing differ vastly in quality from conventional images. At the time that photography was first invented, it was viewed as a kind of variation on painting. On the 100th anniversary of the invention of photography, MOHOLY-NAGY pointed out that photography had attempted to emulate the formalism and aesthetics of painting since its inception. Now, even as the digital image becomes increasingly widespread, it too is being forced into existing categories of photography or painting through the use of terms such as "digital photography" or "digital camera." Yet such phrases reveal absolutely nothing about the unique features of these new images. On the contrary, they serve to conceal the impact of the new visual forms of information upon the human senses and consciousness.
Simply speaking, digital images are created by assembling mathematical points, each of which is defined according to rectangular coordinates of X and Y. In the case of color digital images, each point consists of components of red, blue and green, which according to their relative brightness, are capable of producing any color. This positive two-dimensional array can be preserved in computer memory, transmitted electronically, displayed on a variety of devices, or printed out. A digital image is the image that is reproduced each time from this digital data. It is not the image of a thing, but the image of a performance. It is not an artificially produced image that has been equipped with durability and individuality. Rather, it is the image as an intangible, non-material phenomenon devoid of any physical continuity. The etymology of the term "perspective" is "to view from afar." As illustrated by DURER and HOLBEIN, who used a glass perspective device, and CANALETTO and VERMEER, who peered through the camera obscura, the principle of perspective has always been based on the application of some device or material framework through which to perceive, recognize, and grasp the world.
In one sense, the visual order of the modern Western era can be defined as an inherent "order of reproductive representation." This order bears an intimate connection to the optical technologies founded on the principle of the camera obscura, beginning with its emergence in the fifteenth century, its transformation based on the invention of the photography in the nineteenth century, and then its mutation in the twenthieth century with the development of film and television.
However, in the case of the digital image, there is no need for this intermediary device through which to capture the world, and there is no attempt to represent anything. The digital image is not an optical reproduction of an original object, nor does it coexist with an object which it itself is depicting. It does not present an actual object which already exists. It is just a screen filled with program language that lies somewhere between the object and the image. For the person viewing this computer language, it is an unapproachable, intangible, invisible thing, and creates no form of linguistic communication.
As Edmond COUCHOT points out in his "The digital systhesis of the image,"*3, digital images exist within a separate temporality and spaciality, and unlike analogue images which reproduce and represent, they do not deliver the viewer to a present that "once was," but rather to a phase of something which "might be." This is the digital image in which we are being continually enveloped.
Paul VIRILIO has touched upon this new directionality in his "Externalization of the Mental Image." According to VIRILIO, there are two types of image, one being the optical, visual, objective image, and the second being the latent, imaginary, mental image. The optical image is actually contained in the latent image. VIRILIO suggests that this latent space is extremely close to the realm of the digital image which is enveloping us. In the words of F.D. PEAT, the optical image represents the explicated image, and the latent image the stored image. VIRILIO goes on to assert that the combined speed and technology in contemporary research into the effect of subliminal images or cognitive representation is attempting to define the shape of the "image of the mind," rather than the "image of the eye." He indicates that approaches to the image are currently undergoing a shift away from an emphasis upon the mechanism of the human eye or retinal vision and rather moving toward a focus on the conscious or mental mechanisms of vision.
VIRILIO says as follows:
The transformation from film and the video camera to visual devices like CG takes us back to the debates at the beginning of the century. This was the debate over whether the character of the mental image was objective or subjective. Having been cast off into the realm of idealism and subjectivism, the mental image had for a long time evaded scientific scrutiny. Strangely, through the rapid development of photography and film, this new variety of images began to compete with the world of the imagination to which we had been so accustomed, and began to show unprecedented signs of growth. People had to wait until various projects were carried out using electronic engineering and CG in America in the 1960s before serious attention would be given to psychology of visual perception. In the same way, research in France in neural physiology brought a change in status for the mental image. J.P. CHANGE in his recent works talks not of the image, but of the mental object, even going so far as to say that we will soon enough be looking at the mental object appearing on a screen. Within just under a century, this philosophical, scientific debate has moved from arguing whether or not the mental image is something objective to whether or not it is real. The next question will not stop at the issue of the appearance of the mental image in consciousness, but at the paradoxically real quality of the mechanical image produced using scientific technology. In my opinion, it is at this very point that it will become possible to move to the most important stage of synthetic perception using images and electronic engineering.*4,
It is indeed within this shifting context of the image that the "photographic age" can be seen as an anomaly. The digital image is thus recreating and reconstituting the very bedrock of this one particular stratum of the "photographic age."
However, examined more closely, the arguments of VIRILIO and COUCHOT are at odds with the almost uncanny faith in the unshakable objectivity and realism of the photograph which has endured over the last century and a half. The creation of the photograph is based on a precise causal relationship, in which it is highly regarded as an objective, exact recording of things or phenomena in the real world. There is a strict distinction drawn between images which are optical, visual and objective and those which are latent, imaginary, and mental. Clear divisions have been drawn to distinguish the factual record and the imaginative creation as two separate visual categories.
However, as digital technology has increasingly come to be mediated in photography, these firm borders and distinctions are beginning to erode. It is instead becoming increasingly apparent that only extremely delicate and fleeting existential distinctions separate the imaginary or mental from that which is real.
It may well be, as Pierre BOURDIEU has pointed out, that "when society acknowledges that the photograph preserves realism, it does no more than reveal its faith in the tautology that the image which is taken for reality according to traditions of objective expression is itself truly objective."*5, Man invented the photograph out of the desire to record and reproduce fragments of the visual reality reflected in his eye, but it should not be forgotten that it is the photo, on the contrary, which in the last century and a half or so has constructed from the exterior inward the subject that we perceive to be the core of our beings.
The systematization of vision began with the introduction of perspective and the accompanying framework it necessitated. They attempted to make the world material, and to comprehend the world consistently through vision. The first visual world for humans possessed a fluidtopography. It was warped, and was therefore conceived of using cognitive notions such as continuing, neighboring, succeeding, and overlapping - concepts that were completely divorced from any precise method of measurement or schematic completeness. Even that to which we ordinarily refer to as "normal vision" is but one select vision, and the earth itself is shaped far more fluidly and abundantly that we tend to recognize. Yet perspective attempted to fix and systematize this world through the power of science.
After the fifteenth century, painting was freed from the constraints of religious otherworldliness and the supernatural. The breeding of a new rational mentality based on faith in natural law and a natural order of things permitted the spirit of science to take root, and painting gradually advanced its enterprise of casting a system of single-point coordinates over the real visible world. This in many ways reflected the search for a method of using light to grasp the world visible to the human eye.
Previous to this, most painters never conceived of attempting to link the internal mental world with the visible world outside of them. It was common to express the spiritual, imaginary, reality using more flexible techniques with their own autonomous forms such as dance and music. Yet in the fifteenth century, painters suddenly connected the expression of this spiritual reality with what had to be nearly complete imitation of the external world. Interior and exterior were connected as recognizable, visible things, as painters attempted to grasp the object world visually. In the end, however, seeing came in reverse to reign over interior reality. It is crucial that one examine this process by which visual perception came to usurp for the other senses.
The invention of the camera obscura stimulated the development of perspective, the emergence of which in turn excited interest in the mechanism of the human eye, and both seeing and depicting were viewed in a new light. The very technique of "structuring of sight," called perspective, advanced to an extreme degree systems of perception and cognition in two dimensions. This unique technology acted as a kind of interface between the viewing of exteriors and the depiction of interiors. It was eventually to link up with the creation of photography and help form the basis for the way that we see. Modernity began when this phenomenon of "externalizing" the mechanism of the eye via perspective and the camera obscura came to weave the world of human vision.
In the Renaissance, when the camera obscura and perspective were not yet perfected, painters supplemented these imperfections with their own visual training and imagination. As these techniques matured, painters employed them enthusiastically, and they came to guide both landscapes and portrait painting. In other words, a number of painters after the Renaissance were in a sense striving for the same combination of camera obscura and perspective which resulted in photography, so that the spirit of realism permeated the period extending up until the nineteenth century. Painters aspired to portray things just as they eye saw them, exactly as the real object appeared. This unique intellectual environment formed the basis for the birth of photography, "drawing with light" as a method of closing the distance between seeing and depicting, itself perhaps an inevitable product of the visual era of the nineteenth century. The invention of photography and the astounding rapidity with which it spread is closely connected to the fact that perspective and its specific corresponding intellectual structures had been pervasive since the Renaissance. Photography reflected in its lens the perspective-oriented vision that was born from the consciousness of observing the external phenomenal world, with a direct connection to the desire to stabilize it.
In fact, the appearance of photography introduced a level of objectivity that surpassed anything ever experienced by humans. Photography opened a window on the consciousness which had previously been trapped in the cycle of subjective seeing, and it underwent an enormous transformation. The photograph took the painting space which had been confined to the consciousness, destroyed it, and paved the way for a space permeated by the unconscious which could not be reached through introspection. The photograph was the product of a specific pursuit for objective vision, but then also served as a method of completely overturning human consciousness. Through its mechanicalness, the photograph led the dismantling of the tradition of visual cognition extant since the fifteenth century. Photography was "the eye of the thing," the objective image of the external world as seen by the material eye of the lens. Even while this represented the extension of the cognitive system promoted by perspective in painting, its basic principles differed from the spacial and temporal continuity of painting. It was this unique characteristic of photography that brought about a transformation of human consciousness and feelings toward things. As André BAZIN has commented, in contrast to painting, the uniqueness of photography lies in its essential objectivity. The lenses which comprise the eyes of the camera, and which replace the human eye, can be said to be objective in the true sense of the word. This was the first time that absolutely nothing stood between the object and its expression. Obeying a rigid determinism, it was the very first time that the image of the external world could be formed automatically without the interference of the human imagination.*6, André BAZIN has referred to the development of photography as the most important development in the history of the plastic arts. The reason he gives for this is that through photography, people ceased rationalizing the existence of painting based on its relationship to the natural world, and learned to admire painting in and of itself.
Now, however, doubt has been cast upon the notion of photography as something self-evident, and of its objective relationship to something in the natural world. At the time that the daguerreotype was invented, it was referred to as a "mirror with a memory." Yet, as William J. MITCHELL has pointed out, the digital image, which has reconstructed the perception of the photograph, repainting it as something entirely different, might be described as a "memory with a display." With the digital image, if one selects one of the prepared display processes and adjusts the parameters, it is possible to process it into a number of shapes, and transform the image. This shows that our relationship to the image has essentially changed. Furthermore, it is not necessary for us to submit to the position of merely looking at the image, but it has now become possible for us to actively participate in the image, to relocate it, even to converse directly with it.
"Computed perspectives can displace us further. They can take us beyond the boundaries of the real world and insert our disembodied viewing presences into modeled fictional worlds - three dimensional worlds that once were, might have been, will be, or are projected forward by designers, imagined by film directors, sought by visionaries, proffered by dissimulators. In hyper-Cartesian fashion, our perceiving faculties are pried apart from our corporeal exsitence and sent to places where our bodies cannot follow.
By exactly matching the projective conventions of photography, computed perspectives adjoin these constructed fictional worlds to the actual three-dementional world that photography so assiduously and convincingly records. To the extent that computed perspectives can be shaded in photorealistic fashion, so that computed perspectives and photographs become graphically indistinguishable (an issue that we shall consider in the next chapter), the borders between the actual world and these fictional worlds will be increasingly difficult to identify and maintain. Without knowing it, we may cross those borders and step into the shoes of phantoms."*2,
The eye which in the past was incorporated into humans as the single circuit of the body system is being distanced from humans, and is acquiring an entirely new vision through scientific technology and precise mechanisms of expression.
The Euclidian space upon which we have come to rely in our daily lives is in fact a type of complexly woven, conditional hallucination supported by our biological equipment, and represents nothing more than one image which we have constructed. There will be no need for us to submit to the rigid spaciality and biological laws which bind the real world. The formation of a stream of illusory yet extremely realistic visual images will almost give us the sense that we are inside a dream.
The middle of the nineteenth century saw a major change in the visual world of human society centering around the emergence of the graphic media of photography. However, with the passage of over a century, it is impossible to know precisely what kind of change was wrought by this new visual device, including how it changed the relationship between the image of the mind and the image of the eye. Expressions popular at the time that described the photograph as something which "stole the mind" or acted as "the shadow of man" convey little more than a faint sense of what this change might have meant. Yet the important point is that the revolution in the relationship between the mental and visual image was triggered by the invention of photography, and that over the brief space of the last decade, we too have been exposed to an equally monumental change in visual consciousness. Seen from the perspective of the history of visual devices, a review of the last two hundred years of graphic media shows that exactly two centuries have elapsed since the development of the optical device of the panorama, itself a matrix for the photograph. It is interesting to note that in intervals of fifty years, key new visual devices were conceived and developed-beginning with the photograph, then film, then commercial broadcasting of television. Throughout this period of two centuries, countless visual machines were created, and as Walter BENJAMIN has pointed out with the appearance of the "panoramic" person that accompanied the development of the panorama, each one of these new visual media has produced a change in the structure of human consciousness, as well as rearranged the structure of previous media. The new graphic media of CG and VR are carrying us to the next step in this process.
The panorama, photograph, stereoscope, film, tv, video, CG, VR-these tend to appear transparent to us, but actually, each of these visual media contains its own unique order and structure. These media alter the contemporary consciousness of the people who receive them, not only changing their cognition and recognition, but also altering their sense of space and time.
Visual devices reveal the human desire or will to see and depict. It is our desire or will that creates visual devices, and conversely, it is via the penetration of these devices into our desires that we give ourselves over to our desires, and that our own intentions are laid bare. It is in this context that we discover the history of how humans have hoped to see the world, to change the world and at times, to transfigure their own perceptions and emotions.
What we need to look at now is what, within the history of transition in visual devices over the last two centuries, have been the inevitable ruptures caused by the largest of these changes. We are confronting a massive rift. This will mark a decisive break-the emergence of a technology that will create, control and diffuse new images demonstrates that the rearrangement from the bottom up of our vision is already underway. Remaining strongly conscious of these ruptures should make it possible to arrive at a clearer, more precise sensitivity to the historical process of the shifting visual consciousness already underway. It is in the intervals between the changing faults, the gaps, and the swaying of these changes that we may be able to see clues of the very interior of seeing itself. We must first return to seeing and think of what method will be required to reexamine it if we are ever to get to the bottom of how the way in which we commonly see things came into being, how it has changed, and in what direction it is heading. These are the questions now being posed by the dizzying transition in visual media that has taken place in recent years.
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