[I’m posting some re-edited versions of my old blog posts to get some more content up here. This one is referencing an exhibit that I attended in Washington, D.C. in April 2015]
This Sunday, I went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition Watch This! Revelations in Media Art, “an introduction to media art and to the material and conceptual exchange with technology that is shaping artistic practice,” according to the Smithsonian website. Next to that, in slightly smaller type, we learn that the exhibit has been made possible by (among others) Altria– known until 2003 as Philip Morris:
In an exhibition about how human systems of meaning have been mediated and changed by technology and the image, it’s perhaps appropriate that an unsavory source of funding was obscured by a nonsense corporate neologism and pre-imagistic block of colors. Anyway.
The most spectacular piece on display was Nam June Paik’s Megatron/Matrix, a gigantic wall of tube televisions that had been transformed into an avatar of subjectivity in the information age:
The Smithsonian says:
“Megatron Matrix is roughly the size of a billboard and holds 215 monitors. The video – augmented by a loop of unrelated soundbites – mixes images from the Seoul Olympics with Korean folk rituals and modern dance. Smaller clips play simultaneously on multiple monitors, while larger, animated images flow across the boundaries between screens, suggesting a world without borders in the electronic age. Paik sorted the monitors into two distinct sections. The Megatron conveys the vast reach of the media, while the smaller section, the Matrix, emphasizes the impact on each of us.”
The larger section on the left (“the Megatron”), broadcasts fragmentary, disconnected loops of news footage, partially and sometimes fully overlaid by striking animated images such as the bird shown in the picture above, or manga-style human figures. On the right, in the Matrix, the images were more abstract – awkward, dancing CGI humanoids, or highly rendered human faces, flashing and rotating in patterns – always arranged to draw the viewer’s attention to the eye of the visual storm: a single TV in the center of the Matrix playing a continuous loop of softcore pornography. Two topless women writhe on a bed in a sharply illuminated room; the camera cuts and zooms erratically, lingering on the the obvious body parts, and briefly displaying the mock seduction on the models’ faces.
The description provided by the museum suggest that the nude women are meant to convey that “our bodies are our primal connection to the world,” and in fact the central screen suggests a substrate of animal desire beneath the sensory overload of the spectacle. Yet its telling that in this vision, even primitive sexuality is always already mediated by the image. Pornography represents desire, though in a thoroughly commodified, spectacular form. While true of all representations, it is especially true of porn that its status as representation calls attention to itself, assuming an independent significance outside of the reality – sex – of which it is nominally a copy. What does it mean that our ‘primal connection to the world’ is a secondary, artificial, socially mediated fantasy?
It seems clear that Megatron/Matrix depicts a basically Freudian model of the self: the Megatron is the ‘real’ world and the Matrix is our inner/subjective world, with unconscious sexual drives at its core. These divisions are formally maintained by the organization of the piece, and even at the level of content we observe differences – notably, the images in the Matrix are almost exclusively of other humans. Yet the overall effect is to efface these distinctions by emphasizing their sameness. The world and the self are simply different aggregates of electronic images, or packets of information. Sex is no different, essentially, from politics. History too collapses into a ubiquitious “now,” with Korean folk rituals side-by-side with modern entertainment in a timeless, repetitive world of pictures.
Paolo Virno has termed this sense of the collapse of history as déjà vu, a condition in which new experience is perceived as memory, and the present as a repetition of an illusory past. Déjà vu is a sort of colonization, by memory, of both the present and the future. It is at once the condition theorized by postmodern partisans of the End of History thesis – Virno names Kojeve and Baudrillard – as well as an actually existing mode of conduct in late industrial society, characterized both by fatalism regarding action, which is doomed to repeat the past (one is a performer playing out a role), and by a tendency to view one’s own life as would a spectator or tourist, “collecting” experiences rather than living them. TINA and Instagram. Virno maintains that this is fundamentally a misrecognition.
In déjà vu, our present action is felt to correspond to some identical action in the past. This past, however, is not an actual past event, but a “fictitious other-then,” an undifferentiated past in general that “accompanies every actuality like an aura – without, though, itself having ever been actual.” Because it is a purely formal past, containing no content of its own, every event or experience can be referred back to it, taking on the appearance of a repetition.
Déjà vu here is what Virno calls a “real anachronism,” because it really is an error in chronology – the appearance of repetition is an illusion. Yet this real anachronism refers back to, and is a confusion of, a “formal anachronism” that actually is found in human language and action. The past-in-general is an a priori form of anteriority, structurally attached to all presents, and pointing them back to itself. It refers all actuality to a prior potentiality. This structure is embedded within human language, understood not as a system of signs, but as the language faculty, or the capacity for speech. Language exists as “an inexhaustible potential, a potential that is perennial because it is never exhausted or attenuated by the ensemble of its realizations.” The actual instances of language as we experience it, in the form of concrete words and utterances, emerges from this language-as-potentiality, and both presuppose and refer back to it. This is an anachronism, because language-as-potentiality is always formally anterior to any concrete utterance, even though it only ever appears to us in the guise of these utterances, which then point back to the faculty that made them possible. Virno applies the same formula to all action, and thus labor and politics – our capacity to act always exceeds, and is presupposed by, our actions. As the gap between what is and what could be, this formal anachronism is thus the absolute pre-condition for all human action, communication, and History.
Déjà vu occurs when the formal anachronism is confused for a description of reality: our actions are nothing but repetitions of that which already exists, my speech is nothing but a re-arrangement of things that have already been said. In Virno’s words: “false recognition [i.e. déjà vu]… reconfigures today’s possible as a previously-existing real that we must now inevitably reiterate.” Thus Virno’s thesis that déjà vu’s illusion of the End of History is only possible as a misrecognition of History’s actual condition of possibility – the formal gap between our actions and our capacity to act.
This sense of déjà vu is on terrifying display in Megatron/Matrix: our reality is a looped repetition of previously existing realities, and distinctions between past, present, and future lose their meaning. The way out of this bind is suggested by another piece in the exhibit – Buky Schwartz’s Painted Projections:
Abstract shapes are painted on the wall and floor of a hallway in such a way that they appear as a cube when viewed from the correct angle. A camera and monitor are arranged so that any person walking through the hallway, when viewed on the monitor, appears to be walking in and out of this cube. For the viewer, ‘reality’ is limited to the view of the camera; insofar as every passerby is perceived in terms of their interactions with this illusory cube, this view entails a foreclosure of possibility – ’action’ can only be action within the confines of the frame, which in reality is no action at all. It is only when we remove our eyes from the screen that its ‘reality’ is shown to be nothing of the sort.