Electronic Realism_E
InterCommunication No.10 1994


Electronic Realism

Translation:Indra LEVY

Go Japanese
The Questions
The Reorganization of "Realism"
Fascism in the Age of the Electronic Brain?
The Absence of Inversion
"The most idiotic..."

The Questions

Does the high resolution technology of "hi-vision" have the capacity to revolutionize our senses like the camera obscura VERMEER of Delft brought to painting? Is it possible that the synthetic digital processing of "multimedia" will reorganize information culture with the same force as the Gutenberg press? Will the refinement of "virtual reality" ultimately effect the overthrow of the very concept of "reality" we embrace today? Does the plan for an "information super-highway" based on optical fiber nets have the capacity to bring about fundamental changes in the very formation of communications society? In a word, is the "image" culture of the 21st century, now being prepared by technology, already in the process of effecting an irreversible break from the "modern" history of the image whose starting point can be located in 1880's Western Europe?
Whether one answers in the affirmative or negative to these questions, they are of a variety that consistently turn people into pop prophets. Yet to view the future through quasi-intellectual prophecy in this day and age would amount to nothing more than dragging out the leftovers of 19th century Romanticism. Our purpose here is simply to distance ourselves from both affirmative and negative answers in an attempt to surround these questions with language from which prophetic tones have been stripped away to the greatest degree possible. What follows is merely a modest attempt to sketch out the contours of a few issues raised by the current state of visual media.
First of all, the "modern image" that originated in 1880's Western Europe to become a dominant force throughout the 20th century can be summarily characterized by three terms: "realism," "contingency" and "perversion" (I have discussed this in some detail in Heimenron, Iwanami Shoten, 1994). The image that has cultivated our visual senses for roughly 100 years since MALLARMÉs publication of La Dernière Mode and the LUMIERE Brothers' invention of the cinématographe can surely be described as "real," "contingent" and "inverted" - though of course none of these terms should be employed in the absence of a detailed explanatory note. A "realness" that cannot be reduced to mere verisimilitude; a "contingency" which, as MALLARMÉ asserted, can never be discarded by a throw of the dice; an "inversion" which, averse to the transparency of the image, forever compels the sign to deviate towards the exterior of its direct meaning: it was in the space where these traits intersected that the 20th century image established the locus of its power. It was in this space that JOYCE's Finnegan's Wake, HITCHCOCK's "Vertigo", WARHOL's "Campbell's Soup Can" and RIEFENSTAHL's "Triumph of the Will" exchanged ambiguous glances. The question today is whether or not this space is being surpassed and rendered obsolete by current developments in the technology of looking and showing.
I believe the customary concept of "reality" holds the key to this question. The machinery and systems currently being discussed as the visual technology of the 21st century, or at least as its preparatory apparatus, advocate a certain type of "realism." It would seem that the "interplay of multiple media," "interactivity" and "bi-directionality" all aim to make "reality" even more "realistic." One must therefore ask whether this "realization" of "reality," once it has progressed beyond a certain point, will bring about an irreversible change in the very concept of "reality" itself. The vector of this "realization of reality," then, must be discussed on the basis of three standards.

The Reorganization of "Realism"

First of all, the reproduction technology based on electronic media, ever more precise and high in resolution, now aims to provide a sense of presence that is actually tactile. This relates to the issue of the reorganization of the "reality" of the image itself. Secondly, rather than just passively receiving doled out images, the consumer of today's images is able to actively participate in them, changing them or otherwise causing something to happen in them. Furthermore, this "interactivity" goes beyond the simple manipulation of a computer monitor. Parallel to the process by which the image attains the kind of tactile pulpability that invites us to actually reach out and touch it, it becomes possible for this participatory experience to be elevated to the level of a full body experience charged with emotions of a religious nature. The issue here is surely the "reality" obtaining in the relationship between the subject and the image - the "reality" experienced at the site where the subject forges a relationship with the image.
Thirdly, this experience of the image directs itself outside of the individual's private room to enter into a community network. Whether that network employs optical fibers or the live transmission of satellite, it may in any case be described as a network of machines joined together by mass communications circuits; between these machines, images are rapidly exchanged, transformed, circulated, consumed, then retransmitted anew and released onto the circuits of electronic communication in their reborn forms. Within this play, the distance between one player and another (or others) is instantaneously straddled and transcended, thus fictionalizing the earth's geography. A vast electronic community emerges ("vast" in a sense altogether distinct from any concept of physical "size" ) to gently subsume all who belong to it. Despite all physical distances, the people peering into the monitors are all present at the same time in a "place" with no directionality and no center; they establish a transient relationship that lasts as long as the duration of their presence there, and when this is over they suddenly disperse like iron sand after the magnet has been taken away, everyone returning to their separate individual entities. Needless to say, this sort of community is not a substantial entity, existing only as a whole that integrates innumerable "interstices" - the interstices between individuals, and the interstices between computers. What is experienced in this interfacing space is the transformation of the "reality" that occurs - via images - in the relationship between self and other.
As electronic media evolves and spreads, the three hitherto accepted levels of "reality" for the image begin to waver. First, the reality of the image itself ; next, that of the relationship between the subject and the image; and finally, that of the relationship between self and other as mediated by the image. It appears that a new kind of realism is being pursued at all of these levels. What, then, is this "realism"? I will attempt to grasp the transformation of "reality" at all three of these levels as the amplification of "immediacy" and the "absence of mediation." Immediacy - in a word, this means the absence of "mediation." To strip away the "mediation" of media to the greatest possible degree, to instantaneously link one term to another. It seems that the prospects for the reorganization of "realism" for the 21st century can be found within this paradoxical tendency by which media denies its own nature as mediation.


What I discussed above as a kind of superadded "realization" of "reality" was perhaps not an entirely appropriate description. Rather, we should attend to the fact that a certain type of realism has emerged which is defined by superadded immediacy. This does not constitute the strengthening of some kind of universal "realism." The boast of a "realness" which is immediate/unmediated is nothing more than a single mode within the multiplicity of possible realisms - a single mode characterized by its historical limitations. It is also entirely possible for a sensibility to exist which in fact apprehends as "unreal" that mechanism of the image created, exchanged, circulated and consumed by completely by-passing "mediation" - though of course this sensibility is also historically conditioned. In other words, we are faced with the question of a difference in sensibilities - a problem of what feels more "real," for instance Edward G. ROBINSON's performance as the old man in Fritz LANG's RKO (Radio Keith Orheum) film "The Woman in the Window", or the computer graphics representing dinosaur movements in Stephen SPIELBERG's "Jurassic Park". Exactly half a century separates "The Woman in the Window" (1944) and "Jurassic Park" (1993); should we see a decisive historical dislocation within the flow of time over this half century? For now, let us give the name of projectional realism to that optical mechanism in "The Woman in the Window" which creates the sense of "reality" in the delicate play of shadows on men's and women's faces. On the other hand, let us use the term electronic realism for the vivid quality of the dinosaurs' movements in "Jurassic Park", attained by realistic computer graphics produced at a tremendous financial cost. Since I have already discussed in detail the former type of realism elsewhere (as mentioned above), here I would like to focus mainly on the form assumed by "immediacy" in the latter type of realism. First and foremost, the immediacy of electronic realism emerges as the texture of the image itself.
In fact, there is something most bizarre about the "verisimilitude" of the movements of the Jurassic dinosaurs, supposed to have been brought back to life by genetic engineering. This verisimilitude is not based on a great similarity between the "image" and the "thing itself" (for who has actually seen a "real" dinosaur?). Nor is it a verisimilitude generated by the power of emotion (as a psychological drama, this film is completely inept and lacking in substance). Nor, again, does this verisimilitude derive from the evocation of "artistic" or "aesthetic" emotion. It is the "verisimilitude" of "immediacy" - of that which, free of mediation, abruptly attacks the skin, the pupils and the ear drums. This is not an absence of mediation between "reality" and its reproduction in the "image." In the first place, no one believes in the "reality" of a world that has reproduced the physiognomy of creatures from the Jurassic Era. At issue here is the immediacy of the image being presented as nothing but the image itself, a condition which Ibelieve to be distinct in nature from the visual experience particular to the projectional environment in which light is reflected onto a screen in order to bounce back out. Rather than the screen of a movie theater, this kind of image has a texture that seems more appropriate to video, in which light comes directly out of the screen.
The second issue, of immediacy in the relationship between the subject and the image, surely doesn't require a great deal of elaboration. "Interactivity" and "bi-directionality" are both qualities which enable the subject to participate and intervene in the image without mediation. As the processes of searching for and displaying information based on computer processing are accelerated, this kind of immediacy will surely intensify. The shift from sequential to random access - one of the natural consequences of the shift in storage device from film and tape to disk - has already tremendously increased our information-searching capabilities. At this point, through free accessibility, people enjoy a feeling of oneness with the information storehouse, and they increasingly receive the impression that they are directly in touch with all. The information storage device has little sense of resistance as matter, gradually allowing us to touch the image "directly".
The third point is the issue of community. First there is a simple physical issue - the electronic network that comes up on the monitor screen nullifies distance, "directly" and "instantaneously" linking together people on different continents. However, immediacy in this case is not limited solely to the issue of geography. Indeed, we must attend to the issue of immediacy as it pertains to the very quality of communication itself. Due to the free search capabilities into RAM, the computer is already coming to resemble an "extension" of our brains. Among other aspects, the functions of searching, writing onto and rewriting the computer's memory, and the processing format that allows multiple files to be opened and closed, come close to being an externalization of part of the functions of the brain. When people stare at the monitor, type signs into it or read signs from it, one might say that they are peering at an externalization of the inside of their own brains. At that point, computer communication transforms into something resembling an "immediate/instantaneous" link between brains. Herein lies the distinctive paradox of the electronic community: the other in the electronic media link, despite the fact of being mediated through machines, for that very reason in fact becomes an immediate and much closer presence.

Fascism in the Age of the Electronic Brain?

One more issue requires our attention. In this form of communication, no matter how "immediate" it may be, once the "place" of communication is closed, all members of the community instantly disperse, returning to their individual entities, and they certainly embrace no warm feelings of "home" with respect to this community. "Immediacy" here bears little relation to any emotional sense of solidarity, and in that sense, we should state that no matter how immediate and instantaneous the links between individuals in this communication space, it is an unlikely breeding site for the kind of fascism that emerged in the 20th century (HITLER, STALIN, KIM Il Sung). The connection here constitutes a dry relationship resembling an arrangement of machines. In that sense, the nature of the unmediated community now emerging on the basis of electronic realism is highly distinct from that of the masses that gather in the movie theater. Unlike the members of the electronic community, the masses of the movie theater, who share a powerful image experience based on projectional realism, are not really linked together in an unmediated manner. To the contrary, people in the movie theater are isolated in the darkness, and should their eyes happen to meet the eyes of another, they inadvertently look away - everyone appears to be submerged in their own narcissistic Imaginary. Nevertheless, they are ultimately mediated by an image-as-other, which cannot be reduced by any of their narcissistic egos, so that a certain lyrical solidarity emerges among them, one thickly colored by emotion. When the film ends, they leave the theater and disperse to their own various destinations. In spite of this, however, the sense of solidarity once generated among them does not lend itself to such easy dissolution. When we place the "Führer" in the position of this "image" as absolute other, we recognize a certain seemingly inevitable and powerful historical link between projectional realism and fascism. What I have in mind here is not particular films like RIEFENSTAHL's "Fest Der Völker", for instance, or CHAPLIN's "The Great Dictator", an attempt to organize an emotional anti-fascist campaign in a manner no less fascistic than that of RIEFENSTAHL herself. Rather, what I wish to point out is that the very mechanism of projectional realism, which forms the foundation for film, takes the same form as fascism. For instance, Elias CANETTI's theory of the crowds sought to describe and analyze this kind of projectional community. With regard to the electronic community in which dispersion and absence of mediation co-exist without contradiction, we can say with certainty that it is a condition that cannot be properly treated on the basis of CANETTI's method and style (Crowds and Power).
If the 1880's constituted a period of transition from the bourgeoisie to the masses, then are we now witnessing, at the end of the 20th century, a break away from the masses towards the electronic community? Even should this be the case, we are left wondering whether this constitutes evolution, or, briefly put, a certain kind of devolution. Indeed, we should perhaps turn our thoughts here to the fascism particular to the space of the electronic brain - the emerging form of 21st century fascism, based on electronic realism.
Be that as it may, this search for a different form of realism will cause an amplification of immediacy at the three levels discussed above. When that occurs, strangely enough, the shadings of "inversion" fade away from the experience of the image, which has become highly immediate. We mentioned "realism," "contingency" and "inversion" as the three distinguishing features for the 20th century mechanism of the image. Among those, as I roughly outlined above, we can see that the search for a different "reality" carries on, but the different "realism" - electronic realism - presumed therein seems oddly incompatible with the concept of "inversion."

The Absence of Inversion

Originally, inversion is an ethic of life which strives to be thoroughly "indirect." Instead of progressing immediately from the arousal of desire to its fulfillment, inversion is that which attempts to forever defer the fulfillment of desire by interposing something - fetish, language, performance, narrative - in between. Not necessarily limited to sexual endeavors, inversion can also come to life in the magnetic field surrounding the operation of meaning in signs. The "inverted" sign - a sign which refuses to allow its meaning to be immediately consumed - obscures the operation of representation, which should be transparent, willfully obstructs its smooth advance forward, and agitates the gaze directed towards it in an attempt to constantly defer the moment in which the desire to read is fulfilled. Images belonging to the category of projectional realism often carry within them this inversional tendency, which abhors the transparency of representation. The 20th century image, by remaining completely indirect, functions as a mechanism of deferral and indirection that keeps desire in a permanent state of suspension. This form of inversion first becomes apparent as something contained within the image itself, then as a relationship between the subject and the image, and finally, in the community mediated by the image. In the last case, the image itself performs the role of mediation which creates the site of inversion between one individual and another. This is not a mediation for the purpose of "immediately" linking people together. Of course the contrary is the case - this is a mediation which obscures immediacy for the purpose of ever deferring the attainment of a harmonious bond.
As a matter of course, the concept of electronic realism is diametrically opposed to inversion. Aiming for the minimalization - and ultimately, the nullification - of the mediating middle term, electronic realism does not allow for the enjoyment of desire in its suspended state. Rather, it can be said to scorn and actively exclude such meaningless indirection. The computer graphics of "Jurassic Park", coming suddenly to the eyes and ears, do not allow for the psychological stance of the inverted enjoyment of the image. For these images support their claim to being "realistic images" on the sole impact of their suddenness.
Inversion refers to the highly persevering psychological stance which presupposes an intractable condition which can only be encountered through the mediation of its presence as something opaque and resistant, and then finds pleasure in the slow process of getting to know the presence of that which cannot be moved even with the lever of such mediation. In a word, one might call this the pleasure of "being mediated." Here we have the opaque presence of meaning which prevents direct encounter with the sign, the distance and various physical restrictions which prevent direct attainment of a bidirectional engagement with the image, and the play of the raw image and the weighty presence of both physical bodies which also, in the same manner, prevent intercourse with the other. And there is pleasure to be found in gradually becoming intimate with the very sense of resistance displayed by this kind of intractable, opaque presence. This is the kind of pleasure we lose with the emergence of "immediate" media. Yet it also seems that electronic realism is often stuck with the label of "inversion" in its common usage. For instance, the term comes into play when a person loses the ability to deal with people in actual society as a result of becoming overly accustomed to computer dialogue, or when a person indulges in bizarre sex crimes as a result of holing up in the privacy of a closed room for total immersion in adult videos, whereby the border between the real and the represented becomes hazy. But in such cases, inversion occurs only at the level of the individual's psychological pathology. Surely the cause of such illnesses lies in that form of realism which accelerates "immediation." Because electronic realism surpasses the reality of daily life that surrounds the subject, the subject's psychological equilibrium collapses, and perspective breaks down. The subject can no longer endure the sluggishness of representational functions in the everyday world, and the stop-brake on the impulse to "immediately" surpass that world ceases to operate. However, even if this process results in behavior and psychological states that bear an external resemblance to inversion, this use of the term here refers only to a psychological illness. It does not reflect an inversion contained within the image itself, nor an inversion that occurs in the relationship with the image. It is merely an illness caused by the image; it is not the inversion of the image.


The eyes and the brain bond directly, without mediation. Or again, an "immediate" circuit of contact is set in place between one brain and another. Electronic realism, defined as the paradoxical attempt to wipe out mediation through the use of media itself, is a form of realism that lacks inversion. It suddenly surpasses all, and bears no connection to the pleasure of gradually getting to know the presence of that unmanageable opacity which confronts us as "media." Or perhaps it would be better to say that what is missing from electronic realism is "presence." It lacks the opaque presence of "meaning," the "image," "material," the "body" - in short, the "thing" (das Ding). Strangely enough, the realism of immediacy is "realism" precisely because it lacks presence. When NISHIGAKI Toru speaks of the need for "sensibility," perhaps he is proposing the return to electronic media of presence, and above all of raw bodily presence (Multimedia, Iwanami Shinsho, 1994). However, one also suspects that its reorganization as an event occurring at the level of opaque physicality would in fact cause electronic realism to lose the most stimulating and provocative aspect of its "newness."
What, then, is this "newness"? For instance, can we see in virtual reality - as a "reality" that abstracts the resistant quality of opaque physicality - the impetus for a 21st century form of creativity which in a single stroke surpasses the entirety of our projectional spirit, in terms of both sensibility and intellect? Virtual reality is also an "immediated reality," all the more realistic for its lack of presence. Yet we are also somewhat wary of the concept of "virtual" suggested here. Recalling the splendid reconstruction of Bergsonian philosophy on the axis of two concepts, the actualization of "plurality" and "virtuality," in DELEUZE's Bergsonism, we can conclude that what is "virtual" in "virtual reality" differs entirely from BERGSON's meaning of the term.
BERGSON rejects as a false problem the category of "potential" to be realized, and instead privileges the category of "virtuality" to be actualized. According to BERGSON, the "realization of potential" is only enacted according to the rules of analogy and limitation, whereas the "actualization of the virtual" is accomplished along the lines of creation and differentiation. In this case, it would seem that despite its name, the virtual reality based on electronic realism actually belongs to the category of "the potential" rather than "the virtual." For isn't the vivid quality of virtual reality guaranteed precisely by the "realization of potential" through the process of analogy and limitation?
The absence of mediation in virtual reality prohibits the intervention of opportunities for creation and differentiation. It only offers an "immediate" space, in which there is no room for the development of the creative process as a duration of lived time. BERGSON speaks of the "reality" possessed by the virtual as that which is virtual preceding its actualization, but it would seem that this has no connection whatsoever to the "virtual reality" achieved by our current electronic technology. The "immediacy" of electronic realism merely refers to the fact that the process of "realizing potential" is instantaneous, and that the operations of analogy and limitation are "immediate."
At this point, if I were to utter not prophecies but my own gut feeling , then as a member of the generation whose core "sensibilities" were raised on "projectional realism," I would find it impossible to deny the feeling of being unable to renounce a love for the richness of "media" in the fullest sense of the word. Putting aside the issue of how electronic visual technology, which is currently rearranging the very concept of "media" through its minimization of "mediation," will develop, spread and be refined in the future, my expectations for the experience of "newness" offered by "immediacy," meaning the nullification of media, ultimately tend to be surpassed by a retrogressive nostalgia for the age in which naive media made it possible to enjoy the pleasure of inversion. Rather than betting on the future of "multimedia," which actually fictionalizes "media" through its linking of multiple media, I cannot help giving in to a desire to encounter the moment in which the richness of "monomedia" resurfaces, along with a sudden vertigo, in a realm that transcends both intellect and sensibility. To reaffirm the leisurely pace of the "pleasure of media" as the practice of inversion - to what degree can this stance, with its undeniably anachronistic overtones, coexist with the optimism of those prophets who seek to enjoy the speed of im-mediate electronic realism?

"The most idiotic..."

In any case, it must be said that there is still much to be desired in the scenario revolving around "newness," wherein optimistic expectations and retrogressive nostalgia coexist to form a complementary balance.

One of the most idiotic things being said these days is that "this is the age of the artificial satellite" - so what of the artificial satellite? One surely could not claim that human beings have therefore stopped breathing, drinking booze, and getting entangled with the opposite sex.

(YOSHIDA Ken'ichi, "Yama hakobi," Kaiki na hanashi)

There is nothing "new" about the tendency for the discourse on "newness" to often sound "idiotic," as is pointed out in this passage from a short story written by YOSHIDA Ken'ichi in 1976. Yet can we therefore proclaim that YOSHIDA's conventional reaction to this condition escapes a similar "idiocy"?
It is certainly possible here to replace the term "artificial satellite" with "multimedia" or "virtual reality." If we were to do so, the very same paragraph would have more than sufficient currency today as one of the typical reactions to the 1990s version of the same kind of "idiocy." The problem, however, lies in the fact that not only is this kind of "idiocy" outmoded, but the mold of criticism which attacks it as "idiotic" and only responds with a "so what" is itself extremely outmoded - the point being that the very schematic of complementary balance formed by optimistic expectations and retrogressive nostalgia cannot escape being optimistically retrogressive, or retrogressively optimistic.
The dismissive expression of "one surely could not claim..."fully displays the composure of a person who believes it to be a self-evident fact, confirmed by common sense, that "human life" takes precedence over "technology." The arrogant tone of YOSHIDA Ken'ichi's language derives from the confident assumption that the youthfully adorned "outmodedness" beneath the mask of the "here and now" will have no choice but to retreat in shame before the wholesome common-sense of resituating oneself defiantly within the very bounds of the "outmoded." Needless to say, this generous dose of confidence is not capable of representing universal truth. People more often tend to live on "idiocy" than on the wisdom of life. Indeed, we might look to the lesson of YOSHIDA Kenichi's later writings, such as Jikan and Henka, as a case in point.
Hence the issue here is not to scorn, under the name of common-sense wisdom, protestations such as "this is the age of multimedia" or "this is the age of virtual reality," but rather to acknowledge the disappointing fact that, over the ages, there has been a great dearth in the types of discourse revolving around the "new." Ultimately, the normal course taken by the discourse on the "new" can be reduced to the impoverished binarism of either singing its praises or posing as a cynic, advocating "technology" or remaining defiantly on the side of "human life." It is no less difficult to avoid reproducing the same impoverished discourse when we take up the subject of the visual media said to be opening up new horizons for the 21st century. On the other hand, putting the issues of breathing and drinking aside, when it comes to the "entanglement of the sexes," in other words in the relations of love and eros, will we see the emergence of a scenario in which electronic realism brings about a decisive change in the nature of our "human life" itself? But here again, I want to refrain from making hasty prophecies.

(MATSUURA Hisaki, Cultural Critic-Issues of Representation)


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