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Cartographic Instruments, Narcissist Illusions

Sean Cubitt

From Millennium Film Journal No. 34 (Fall 1999): The Digital

By now, Komar and Melamid’s Most and Least Wanted Paintings is pretty widely known. Through the intermediary of a commercial market research company, the New York-based Russian émigrés built a statistical profile of preferences among US citizens on colors, subjects, sizes and other variables they most or least liked in paintings, and then produced two paintings to match. As virtually every commentator has noted, the result is a painting no-one would actually want to buy. It is also clear that it is not really a painting that anyone would choose to paint in other circumstances. But then, again statistically, one presumes that a significant proportion of respondents would not buy, and even fewer would be likely to commission, an original artwork. That the most wanted is in some sense an illusionistic painting, while the least wanted is more or less abstract, seems to prove something, but it is not entirely clear what. This lack of clarity is somewhat dispelled if we look at similar paintings made as a result of similar projects in other, more diverse countries, Kenya, China, Turkey, and Germany among them.

One possibility, explored by a majority of critics, is that the artists are enjoying a postmodern and ironic joke about the divorce of contemporary art practice and public taste, a joke in which neither comes off very well. This line of analysis held good, despite the artists’ protestations, as long as only the US project held the limelight. But the addition of further national surveys diminishes the initial certainty of this description of the two dépaysés Russians commenting on the culture of their adopted home. How, for example, are we to understand in any similar way the relation between market research and Kenyan society in the context of an economy bypassed by globalization, and a polity which has difficulty with elections, let alone consultation and preference surveys.

So a second possibility proposes itself: that the artwork is undertaken quite seriously, and that its object, therefore, is neither public taste nor contemporary painting, but the structure which public taste acquires when viewed through the lens of statistical sampling. This has the virtue of allowing us to accept at face value the artists’ statements of the seriousness of their undertaking, and removes the necessity to imagine an elite in-group of ironist snobs. It also allows, given the curious similarities between some national surveys and the equally curious oddities and asymmetries of other aspects of the resultant paintings, both for pseudo-scientific surmises concerning genetic predispositions in color preferences, social-scientific theses on the cultural formation of taste, and statistical queries concerning the differences in sampling techniques in different countries. Certainly Komar and Melamid’s project asks that rare question about audiences which perhaps only Pierre Bourdieu and his colleagues have addressed in the critical discourse of contemporary art. 1 This fascinating aspect of the project, however, I want to hold in the background of the current paper, by looking at the last of the artists’ surveys (in order of presentation), the most and least wanted paintings as polled on the Internet.

The concept of polling the web – and therefore inviting a self-selecting sample – breaks both the controlling mechanism of representative sampling, and the geographical basis of the earlier findings. It would be relatively straightforward to argue, that since the site was hosted by the Dia Art Foundation, many of those responding would be those familiar with the institution and its reputation as a center of excellence in contemporary art and the critical discourses on it. But then again, the web is a rumor-mill of staggering efficiency, and word of an entertaining or clever use of net technologies will attract a lot of attention from hackers, students, and devotees of bulletin boards and listservers. Then again, it is also the case that the net is the favored medium of an extremely reflexive culture, one well aware of sampling techniques and their place in the Internet, and who are therefore likely to respond to the questionnaire in that sense of ironic detachment which critics had at one point ascribed to the artists. In short, we are getting a profile not of the net, but of those visiting the site; and the profile is not necessarily that of the preferences of that group, but of the answers which they gave to the questions. So we are dealing with a representation, but one in which the represented have had a creative say in their selection and in the ways in which they can be depicted.

This is not, of course, the usual trajectory of market research, whose normal function is to portray, more or less accurately, the mood of a selection of a population, and to extrapolate from it the likely behavior of the population as a whole. Inaccuracy is, of course, a risk which such research always runs, especially, as was the case with polls run shortly before John Major’s victory in the British elections which predicted a landslide victory for his opponent. But accuracy is at least measurable, as a plus-or-minus percentage, and by comparison between predicted and actual behavior. In the case of the British election, it remains unclear whether the researchers gathered an unrepresentative sample, whether the sample was embarrassed to admit to its real voting intentions, or whether those intentions changed between the poll and the election. Alternatively, all of these factors and others besides might have been in play in the move from one result to another, as indeed might the announcement of the poll result in the newspapers prior to the election.

My point is not that market research is, therefore, somehow unscientific, nor that its methods are flawed in some curable way, but simply that opinion polling is a mode of depiction. Controlled sampling seeks to depict in a small survey the constitutive elements of the whole population – to represent it in microcosm. The data extracted from questionnaires and focus groups is also gleaned less for its own sake than for the way in which it offers a way of representing opinions and behaviors for the whole population. Like any representational system, then, it operates by exclusion of irrelevant information, and by constant comparison between the observable phenomena in front of the researcher, the actual (statistical) portrait being drawn, and the norms which guide any representational practice so that the portrait produced matches the purposes for which it has been commissioned. What Komar and Melamid add to this process is the form of their final presentation of data: not tables or diagrams but paintings. In this sense, both the illusionistic and the geometrical paintings are representational. And both are abstract: they represent a statistical result, which in turn represents the stated preferences of a sample, which in turn represents the taste of a population; and those phases of representation indicate a process of abstraction from individual response to statistical aggregate.

In this sense, we might read the Komar and Melamid project as an inquiry into the epistemological bases of Western democracy, parliamentary democracy, and specifically representative democracy. Both the market and the polity of the Western democracies are founded on the realist assumption that electoral and purchasing behaviors accurately depict the wishes of the public. Of course, this presumes the existence of the public (as well as the basis of choice in reason rather than determination, contingency, or constraint), but if we can take that presumption on trust for the moment, what we have installed in the West is a strategic instrument for the measurement of the public, and for depicting the results of that measurement in the make-up of parliaments or in the branding of products. Such creations represent back to the public the public’s own attitudes and choices. Komar and Melamid, then, might be seen as celebrating, in a curious way, a transition from socialist realism to the social realism of empirical study of public taste.

Thus far, I have allowed two presumptions: of the concept of audience and of the concept of the public. Clearly the Komar and Melamid project indicates the seriousness of the attempt to provide a statistically normative account of ordinary taste, and one which applies to aesthetic choice the same rules that apply in other, perhaps more fundamental areas of human activity. Yet their attempt also indicates that there is an immense distance between the observer and the observed in market research, a distanciation founded in the need to produce objectivity and, therefore, an object for the scientific account. As object of knowledge, the public and the audience take on a very specific shape and structure: here, very specifically, the structure of the questionnaire, and the production of a representation – the paintings – which will figure their choices. But one further element shapes the public as depicted here: geography. As a group of tabulated results presented in the form of pairs of pictures, the Most and Least Wanted Paintings provides us with a data set correlated with geo-political boundaries. What we are looking at is a map.

Cartography has a special place in the study of contemporary media. It not only provides the metaphors for the postmodern revaluation of space over temporality; not only does it have intense links with the discourses on surveillance, orientalism, and globalization; not only is it itself in the process of becoming an extraordinary tool in social sciences as mapping becomes geographical information system. But the map is in some ways the most powerful of modernity’s tools for representing the world. I have argued at length in a forthcoming book 2 that perspective – the butt of extensive critical research from Panofsky, through the cinematic apparatus theories of the 1970s, to the work of Damisch 3 and WJT Mitchell – has always been a special effect, a contribution to spectacle, rather than a mode of representation peculiarly suited to realist accounts of the world. The brilliance with which illusionism is accomplished will always stand between spectator and depicted reality, a matter of marvel. But the map proposes to us a coded and meticulous account of the world exactly as it is. Moreover, the map is directly an instrument: its accuracy can be checked by walking the territory of which it gives an account; and its usefulness can be assessed in warfare or policing. The point, I suggest, of a realist account of the world is not to make us marvel, or to content us with our lot, but to provide the means for control and controlled change. In that sense, perspective is purely an entertainment medium, while the map is a tool.

A second quality of the map seems striking in the present context: its unembarrassed crossing of the apparent boundaries between media. Mixing pictorial and pictographic with alphabetic and numerical systems, qualitative with quantitative accounts, cartography has little respect for the problems of the ekphrastic, 4 the Enlightenment disputes over the relation between image and word that still power the modernist canon of the painterly painting or the cinematic film. Nor is the medium of cartography hamstrung by a hierarchical relation between its parts, in the sense that imagery does not illustrate text, and text does not comment on image: there is no subordination of one to the other, but a code in which number, lettering, and graphic symbols can relate spatially to one another and to the depicted territory without the artifice of hierarchy. The combination of different media within a single artefact without damage to any of the elements is an extremely rare achievement in the 20th century. It is as if we were still uncomfortable with the talking picture – where either script or visuals dominate, or occasionally, as in Godard, their conflict provides the motive force for the production. Several colleagues in interactive arts complain that the Internet is still an illustrated library: a textual universe with subordinated pictures and sounds. Their point is well-taken. The history of modernity is one of Kantian aesthetics: the address to separated and organically redefined senses (hearing is the ear, not the feet; seeing is the eye, not light-sensitive skin) in autonomous and to that extent disinterested media. What makes the map exceptional, even within the visual arts, is its ability to combine letters, numbers and images into a seamless whole. It is, to this extent, a model of multimedia.

Perhaps this achievement is a result of the subordination of the map as artwork to its purposes. Cartography is in no sense a Kantian art: it boasts its appetite for description, for usefulness, for instrumentality. In this sense, the art of the map-maker is itself, and as a whole, subordinated to the purpose of the map and its uses. Although there is a feedback loop – maps enable travellers to go and return with additions to the sum of knowledge about the territory – the long-term purposes of cartography and travel are shared. This becomes increasingly apparent in contemporary geographical information systems (GIS).

GIS is a method for adding to the range of physical descriptions of the earth by including in map data the results of statistical information about the area’s human geography. GIS maps of York, currently being accessed in the production of Anno Mitchell’s Golem website, include data on energy use, pedestrian and traffic flows, water and drainage, hospital and police data; and could easily also accommodate electronic point of sale financial transactions, datastreams from urban surveillance cameras, stock replenishment databases from retailers, and the results of market research (were not some of this data, however generalized, considered sensitive or proprietary by its generators). One of the advances made possible by the use of sometimes massive computer facilities is the mapping of many data sources over one another in real time, allowing not only the possibility of correlating, for example, traffic flows and shopping patterns, but of adding to the map the temporality which has always eluded it. It is this additional dimension of time in cartography that indicates genuine novelty.

The inclusion of human geographical data into mapping dates back at least to Dr. John Snow’s famous dot map illustrating deaths from cholera in relation to parish pumps in the Soho area of London in 1855. Norman Thrower observes that “Dr. Snow’s maps illustrate the highest use of cartography: to find out by mapping that which cannot be discovered by other means.” 5   The connection with the emergent science of statistics seems clear. The founding efforts of Laplace, Bernoulli, Stimpson and Bayes in the latter half of the 18th century formed part of a wider mathematicization of knowledge of the external world, inspired, according to Barbara Stafford, by a Neo-Platonic faith in the absolute purity of number, and the fallen state of the visible and tangible world. At its origins, she argues, “Statistics calculated mathematical probability to assess uncertainty and to turn inferences into coherent wholes . . . together with Neo-Platonism, the misuse of statistics fostered an oversimplification of such concepts as norm, type, ideal, perfection, deviation, defect . . . It epitomized the belief that uncertainty was decreased as the number of observations was increased.” 6 Moreover, as Stafford argues at length in Body Criticism , the pursuit of the invisible matched the astronomical beginnings of statistics to the pseudo-science of physiognomy, and to the advancing visualization technologies of the human anatomy which form the centre of her study. Statistical information and its visualization of the invisible grows as medical imaging grows, sharing the fascination with the unseen, and with the cartographic successes of imperialism in the same period. Captain James Cook’s charting of Terra Incognita belongs to the same movement as Lavater’s statistical physiognomy or the écorchés of the Enlightenment painting academies, the skeletons in the surgical colleges.

The visualization of what is by nature hidden from sight is imbricated in the history of sight, in its process towards its contemporary domination of the senses. But it is also constantly alert to the ways in which visualization technologies available at the time operated exclusively after the event. Only vivisection offered the possibility of seeing with one’s own eyes (autopsy). Otherwise, imaging, even the passionately followed art of the silhouette, was always only ever the imaging of the past. It is this temporality which lies at the heart of Borges’ much-quoted fable of the map the same size as its territory, the map which eventually decays back into the earth it had attempted to describe. What we encounter today in contemporary real-time animated maps is the capacity to assimilate contemporaneous data into continually refreshed and redrawn charts, only the most familiar of which is the combination of satellite and ground-station data in TV weather maps.

To this preliminary account of contemporary cartography we need to add the self-mapping function of Internet. Komar and Melamid’s remarkable account of the taste of the web (or at least of a sample of 3001 visitors to the Dia site) is even more intriguing because it makes explicit the statistical account of themselves which most websites are capable of providing, and which are themselves the object of significant enquiries into mapping technologies. The rates and directions of activity of the web as a whole, of specific areas of the web, or of specific sites, are of considerable interest and importance. Social scientists and cultural critics make use of their accounts of net traffic to point up global inequalities. Advertisers are sufficiently convinced by them to design their interventions into network communications accordingly. And the maps themselves can be artefacts of great beauty. Maps of such invisible traffic are by nature statistical: the sheer scale of interaction is too great to allow of individual surveillance. The great tides and the major eddies are visualizable; the minor threads and one-off communications are marginalized and discounted. The statistical process of normalization, in our epoch, with its concern for chaotic systems and its profound individualism, decreases in accuracy as it increases in persuasiveness. In this, the statistical sciences, while they continue to provide the visualizations of information needed by policy makers and commerce, have lost some of the faith which they attempted to establish in themselves during their first flush of success.

Yet the visualization of the invisible remains a vigorously appealing aspect of the cartographic imagination. Real-time datastreams allow of maps of the present in a way that has never been possible before. The memory capacities of supercomputers allow likewise vast correlations of databanks on geographical bases. Moreover, the speed of operation of such systems has allowed a further development in cartography, based in the capacity of computers to act on any kind of data, real or imaginary. Computer simulations extend the capacity of the cartographer into realms of the imaginary. By altering a parameter in the spirit of exploration and experiment, maps can be designed to respond not only to the various existing sources of empirical data, but also to fictional data designed to test the consequences of particular courses of action. Such, for example, is the use of models to project the consequences of fossil fuel consumption for global warming into the early decades of the next millennium. It is, then, not only the animation of the map in real time, allowing the mapping of the present, that is at stake, but the ability of computer modelling to extend the powers of mapping towards a cartography of the future.

However briefly, it is important to indicate here that the development of modelling as futurological mapping is not restricted to geographical imagery. Similar processes are involved in the major map-making activities of some of the major Big Science projects occupying so much of the world’s research and development budget: mapping the further reaches of the cosmos with the Hubble Space telescope, mapping quantum events in superconducting supercolliders, mapping the brain, mapping the human genome. Moreover, these maps involve not only the visual presentation of spatial data. They also include an element of futurological simulation. The Human Genome Project is the clearest case in point. Maps of the genome seem to suggest, despite the counter-arguments of important bio-scientists, 7 that biology is once again become destiny. A spate of Hollywood movies – Phenomenon (1996), Good Will Hunting (1997)– speak on behalf of a widespread belief that ‘it’s in the genes’: that one’s fate, one’s future, is mapped into the spiralling DNA; much as our forefathers believed, it was written into the constellations, at the time of our conception. Moreover, simulation is proving a vital technology in mapping possible future genomes for biotechnology and biomedicine. Once again, the futurological chart makes itself felt among the empirical tools of rationalist science.

Indeed, at some point, one feels that there is an unresolved dialectic between empiricism and rationalism, between observation and extrapolation, between the meticulous descriptive account and the normative and abstracting function, and between realism’s glance towards the past, and simulation’s glance towards the future. Yet, there is something that pulls the two together: the visualization of the invisible. If the one seeks to reveal the unseen pressures of class, poverty, pollution, and infection, the other seeks to give form to the unknown in the very core of its existence, for the future is, by definition, what not only cannot be seen, but that which does not (yet) exist. All the same, at its most ambitious, cartography turns towards just this act of giving shape to the non-existent, whether that non-existent take the shape of an ecology without greenhouse gases, a society with inflation at two percent, or an organism with a novel combination of amino acids coding its development. At this point, one wonders whether realism sacrifices its claim to truth in favor of an instrumental role in the designing of the future; and whether cartography has sacrificed its claim to knowledge on the altar of science fiction.

There are certain attractive features to the conundrum of contemporary maps. For one thing, although they come from the legacy of divine overviews associated with the imperial gaze, the map has never become as wholly naturalized as illusionistic portrayals. Although I believe it is the case that we are always aware as spectators of the spectacle of illusion, even as we are enticed into permitting ourselves to enter it, there is a sense in which the illusionistic, by its effective approximations to the ordinarily occurring physics of perception, permits a sense of familiarity and the charm of surrender. Maps on the other hand are clearly coded, and demand that we learn the skills of decoding them. They have acquired a literate class of interpreters in the scientific disciplines, a fact scarcely true of perspectival vision, even if it is of iconographers. Even the silent cartography of false-color geo-observational satellite imaging, deprived of the words and symbols that keep paper maps in the ambit of the library, is surrounded with the hubbub of technical manuals, digital conventions, and interpretative legends.

This collegial nature of map-reading may, in contemporary conditions, lead to closed shops, elitism and exclusion. But it is nonetheless also extremely social. The same, it appears, is less true of our responses to illusionistic modes of representation. It is my contention that while only some maps are fictional, to some degree all illusionism is fictive. This is not to say that fiction is incapable of carrying some mode of truth; rather it is to assert that there is a limit to the kinds of truth available to illusionism. Perhaps the most persuasive of all realists, André Bazin, wants cinematic realism to reveal and complete the as yet incomplete objectivity of objects, a process hampered by the habits of vision which cinema, with its ontological destiny of mechanical vision, is able to achieve through its combination of recognition and unfamiliarity. But there is a flaw in Bazin’s concentration on the objectivity of the pro-filmic as a quality exclusively of what lies in front of the camera. For the pro-filmic, what exists for the camera, includes not only what is in front of it, but what is behind it – the design of the technology, the mind-set of the operator, the economics of production; and indeed, what lies to either side in terms of context of the act of photographing. Bazin’s realism is illusionistic because it tends towards the exclusion of these elements of the pro-filmic in order to produce the lonely fiction of the object, and consequently the lonely fiction of the subject that contemplates it in its objectivity. This spectacularization of the object is captured in Bazin’s account of Umberto D: “De Sica and Zavattini are concerned to make cinema the asymptote of reality – but in order that it should ultimately be life itself that becomes spectacle, in order that life might in this perfect mirror be visible poetry, be the self into which film finally changes it.” 8

That transformation of life into art, which cinema is to accomplish through the eventual erasure of montage and parallel triumph of the long take and deep focus, is not only belied by the rise of just these techniques in the cross-fades, and obsessive detailing of CGI blockbusters, IMAX and Showscan spectaculars and immersive virtual reality. It is in any case betrayed by the question of spectacle for whom. On one reading, life becomes its own spectacle, and in that moment achieves its apogee of self-reflection in the mirror of art. In this reading, the process of mediation is a process of stripping away the inessential and habitual in order for life (the audience?) to gaze upon itself (the pro-filmic?) as that essential self into which the cinema transforms it. Here, where one would least expect it, in the work of one of the most generous-hearted of critics, we find an image of the narcissistic, self-involved dialectic of the mirror that inhabits illusionistic art. Unlike the map, which offers itself to the critique of reality and history, even when at its most normative, and which speaks to the invisible college of cartographers and travellers, illusionism addresses only the self-reflection of the isolated viewer’s (mis)recognition of him/herself in the depicted. This quality of recognition, whether comforting or shocking, is always, first and foremost, a recognition of the fact – as it appears in the self-reflective dialectic – of selfhood, in identification with the on-screen voice or image, or in the yet more fundamental illusory miscognition of the visual image as an environment in which it is possible to belong without social engagement. Illusionism is in this sense sentimental: enjoying without incurring responsibility.

Moreover, despite the frequently narrative structure of illusion, the movement of illusion towards narcissism in the mirror of art is formally a movement towards stasis, the annihilation of time. The formal perfection of the classic Hollywood narrative structure, as handed down in scriptwriting manuals like those by Armer, Segal, Potter, and Field, in the end prove not only more normative than cartography, but specifically tend towards the stasis of achieved perfection, the stillness of closure and completion, the rendering, in the conclusion, of all and only what was implicit in the opening. The symmetries are those of the mirror, the endless loop of reflection in which Narcissus has forgotten whether he is the self or the image.

Such, I believe, is the fate of the illusionistic in the age of hyperrealism. of spectacular, immersive entertainments. It is not, I believe, that we are duped by illusions, but that the formal perfection of them entrances us, because they appear to have been created so specifically and thoughtfully for me alone. Their turns and revelations seemingly respond to my mobilized whims and wishes. As both spectacle and representation, they give me the impression that I am at their centre, their core, their reason for being. And such indeed is the case: illusionism addresses the audience as individual, even as hyperindividual, because that is the surest mode of address to reach an audience convinced increasingly of its anonymity, and clinging the more desperately to the myths of freedom.

This is, after all, the age of the crisis of liberalism. The fall of the Wall and the events of 1989, were only ostensibly about the failure of socialism. Since the exile and assassination of Trotsky, socialists have given up on the USSR as leader of the international proletariat. No: the crisis brought to a head by the collapse of the Eastern European regimes was the crisis of liberalism: of free-market economics, which turned Russia especially into a warlord economy; of the sudden loss of sparring partner to be scapegoat for US imperialism abroad and totalitarianism at home; and perhaps, most of all, of the suddenly general realization of ecological interdependency. But the more we come to understand the self-contradictory nature of liberal freedom, the more impressed we become with the isolation of self from self in a selfish society. The sociology of this drift is complex, but might be described as the implosion of the private sphere and the end of that privacy, which, in any case, was always a privilege of a small proportion of the population, even in the West. As the private sphere contracts, the interface between the public and the intimate takes its place, at the site of what Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen once called “the politics of the unconscious” (‘what would the politics of the unconscious be like?’ 9 Capital has always relied on the perversion of communication into financial transactions. Today, that drive against the communicative is most clearly stated in the cultures of self-involvement and the narcissistic dream of being the centre of the world. Such is the upshot of the spectacularization of illusion, once a sacred art of perspective, now a coded habit of subjection.

If it is true that information is money (a commodity), and that money itself is information, and since money, as information, can be hoarded as well as spent, it is no surprise to assert that money is a poor mode of communication. Data ceases to be that which is given (the self-presentation of the world), and becomes that which can be amassed. But the massing of data and money in banks, the restriction of its free flowing by the laws of property, demands of us a recognition that neither money nor information are any longer capable of that freedom with which they have been so closely identified (‘Information wants to be free’). Information, like money, wants to be owned. Information is the mediation fetishized to the point of stasis.

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All communication is mediated: to say as much is almost tautological (all relationships are relationships). But the fetishization of the medium of exchange takes its place in the logic which determines that relationships are antedated by their terms: A and B exist before A=B, so severing the equals sign from both A and B as a third term to the relation. But this relationship, which we can use as an expression of representation (B is a representation of A) leads through the logic of infinitesimals to stasis. The equality of A and B is a quality additional, supplementary, and external to A and B, becoming a third object, to which A and B must relate. Their relation with equality, then, becomes a further additional relation between A and B and the medium of representation. Let’s symbolize it as •, giving the equation A•=•B. But this, in turn, requires a further relation to the new relation, so that A*•=•*B, and so on, multiplying the mediating objects into a bad infinity, especially since every subsequent relation must be considered as logically prior to the initial statement. What we get is an indefinite postponement composed of an indefinite history of the actual relation of representation. The equality of the terms is only achievable if all prior conditions are met, but since these conditions are infinite, it will take an infinite time to achieve them. This version of Zeno’s paradox announces that representation cannot occur: similarly, it can be used to demonstrate that addition or causality or social relations are indefinitely postponed (Achilles cannot catch the tortoise). One must then assume either that there is a prime mover (Aquinas’ cosmological proof of the existence of God) or that the world we experience has no causality, but is constructed as an illusion from the basis of the will. Yet, since there can be no proof in this logic of sociality, there can only be the individual will or mind. All objects are, then, the outpouring of the sole, unique and solipsistic ego, be it of God or of the individual subject.
These postponements arise from the truth conditions of logic, and it is difficult to see how logical truth conditions can result in anything else. One must then accept limitations to logic (truth?) – for example by adopting the deconstructive mathematics of Gödel’s Entscheidungsproblem – or one must act from a premise other than truth. There are benefits: the fatalism of the believer, and the justifications for violence which truth provides, can be dispensed with.

If we abolish truth, and with it the idea that certain visual or verbal statements can represent the truth; if we abandon representation, we are left with the problem posed by the experience that tells us that certain statements are, if not true, at least correct. In their different ways, La règle du jeu (1939) and a geological survey do describe aspects of the world, and in some senses predict – as Renoir’s film seems to predict the fall of France the following year, or geo surveys predict the sources of oil. What, then, becomes necessary is an extended conception of realism uncontaminated by truth, or perhaps, better, a materialism uncontaminated by truth; a weak theory of representation which recognizes the consensuality of agreements about the nature of the world, combined with a Jasperian or Kuhnian understanding of the fallibility of such agreements as seen from a putative future vantage point, the vantage of postponement and posterity, but now in the belief that posterity will not be the bearer of truth either (as we are not the final court for those who looked towards us from the 18th century to justify their actions and judge their faiths). In a sense, the correctness or incorrectness of statements then depends not on the correspondence between statement and object, nor on communicative rationality (or its correlative irrationality), but on the future, which, as Levinas says, is other: “the very relationship with the other is the relationship with the future,” 10 a relationship which he characterizes as erotic, as “a relationship with alterity, with mystery – that is to say, with the future, with what, in a world where there is everything, is never there . . . with the very dimension of alterity.”11 As philosophers do, Levinas still clings to the individualistic authenticity of the subject, but he does open the way to an understanding of what it is that allows us to condemn the Holy Office, slavery, the Shoah, or the death penalty, and to imagine how posterity will judge our addiction to the internal combustion engine. In this sense, modelling has a certain ethical role as a kind of empirical futurism. The problems arise when it devotes itself to diagramming the future as a means of controlling it.

Narcissistic illusionism recognizes illusion for what it is – mere and pure spectacle. But it offers up for the delectation of the narcissist the proposition that the world is not the product of their solipsistic invention, but exists in order to please him or her; or to challenge or hamper him or her, but in every case for her or him alone. It is this that comforts, and adduces the only reason to continue with illusion as a solution for the terrible loneliness of individualism. Yet, its price is the closure of the future in return for the habitation of an endless present. Thus, CGI tends to present us with adverts, graphics, and quasi-narratives in games which exchange space for time, drawing on infantile and childlike colors and forms, and emphasizing the sheen and symmetry of surfaces, promising, in Intel commercials and the graphic displays of Scientific American, the future today. This self-enclosure and stasis of illusionism permeates the hyperindividualistic milieux of corporate bureaucracy with the belief that nothing alters, that history is over, that there is nothing left to do but look out for number one. Too much of CGI responds to and reinforces this transformation of the contemporary subject in the collapse of work into leisure, of private into public, and the loss of that futurity which, in its unknownness, uniquely offers us the chance of change. Modelling and simulation, with their attempts to map and control the future, function differently but to a similar end: towards closure by definition of the terms under which the future can emerge. It remains then to discuss the possible forms of a cultural practice which pries open the narrow gate through which the messiah might arrive.

It is true, perhaps, that we are a visual society, but only to the extent that we have lost the power of vision. We are a verbal society, but have no time for language. Attempts to popularize art and poetry are doomed to success, to the formal success of the well-made piece, because the history of the arts in the 20th century is not only the story of the pursuit of a lost audience,12 but the history of a search for lost cohesion. The popular arts, as the name suggests, have had no problem finding audiences, but they have been driven by the need to provide a formal coherence which has become the Grail of popular criticism. The word-image relation is only the beginning of this problem, born of the autonomy of media, the demand for attention to the specificity of the matter of art. In billboards, photo-journalism, film, and television, as Arnheim 13 and Panofsky14 argued in the early years of the talking picture, text, speech, and image have been in unhappy collaboration. The instability of that relation comes from the dispersal of its elements in their Kantian autonomy, as writing, recitation, the still, and moving depiction of the world are driven towards their separate and independent destinies, while the hybrid forms succumb to hierarchization or failure. Multimedia has yet to add to the roster of effects available to the challenge of cross-media communication, such that the only coherence that is available is that of the encyclopaedia or the atlas. To this extent, multimedia fail to produce coherence beyond that history of divergence or hierarchy.

So there arises the necessity to produce an incoherent mode of production, inchoate and unformed, in a sense one more accurately expressing market capitalism than the illusory coherences which so characterize its more typical cultural products. We have to consider that each system – language, imaging, recording – has suffered from its own damaged integrity, product of the trauma that tore them from some historical whole prior to modernity. The attempt to draw the elements back together after the trauma of hypostasis is as fraught as the struggle to reunite high art and popular culture. If, in the latter instance, it will be necessary to question and perhaps abandon the concepts of art and culture in order to heal the rift between high and low, so the pretended purities of language, image, and sound must be prepared to be bastardized, their greatest achievements radically devalued, and their new assemblage into new cultural forms judged on standards other than those to which we have become accustomed. It is not simply that we do not have the criteria to apprehend what a genuinely integrated multimedia might be like – as it was once difficult to hear music that was not governed by the laws of melody – but that the unification of already decomposing elements into a new system will of necessity lead not to integration but to disintegration. Either one accepts the struggle toward coherence, and either its inevitable collapse, or its indefinitely postponed achievement, which would be worse; or one pursues the hyperreal anarchy of the unstable media. Such a disintegrated, divergent, incoherent, and unstable multimedia – one thinks of examples in the online work of Alexei Shulgin, Heath Bunting, and Jodi – gain their importance for the ways in which they confront the impossibility of imagining the future in which they exist and from which they derive their mandate.
The global crisis of liberalism might motivate some new degree of seriousness in approaching those Eastern philosophies which teach that ego and illusion are cardinal errors. This is not to suggest that Western materialism should pursue the cosmic nothingness from which we arise and to which we return, but in response to the problem of representation and narcissism. But Vattimo 15 is right to insist that part of the lesson of the death of God, and more specifically of His murder, is that secularization must take the form of the killing of a very specific God, which means, for us, the God of Truth. Secularization is not a uniquely positive advance: it is formed also by its negation of very specific beliefs. As demythologization, secularization retraces the shapes of the myths its erases. The Absolute has arranged His own slaughter by condemning the worship of the false: it is His own truest believers who have carried out the deed. So the ghost of truth haunts them – and us – still, like the memories of the unmourned.

The following circulated during March of 1998, purporting to have been posted on the McDonnell Douglas aircraft manufacturers’ website for a brief period before the company removed it.

Thank you for purchasing a McDonnell Douglas military aircraft. In order to protect your new investment, please take a few moments to fill out the warranty registration card below. Answering the survey questions is not required, but the information will help us to develop new products that best meet your needs and desires.
1.    [_] Mr. [_] Mrs. [_] Ms. [_] Miss [_] Lt. [_] Gen. [_] Comrade [_] Classified [_] Other

First Name: ______________________  Initial: ___
Last Name: ______________________

Password: ______________ (max 8 char)
Code Name: _______________
Latitude-Longitude-Altitude: _____-______-______

2.    Which model aircraft did you purchase?
[_] F-14 Tomcat
[_] F-15 Eagle
[_] F-16 Falcon
[_] F-117A Stealth
[_] Classified

3.    Date of purchase (Yr/Mo/Day): 19__ / __ / __

4.    Serial Number: _____________________

5.    Please check where this product was purchased:
[_] Received as gift / aid package
[_] Catalog showroom
[_] Independent arms broker
[_] Mail order
[_] Discount store
[_] Government surplus
[_] Classified

6.    Please check how you became aware of the McDonnell Douglas product you have just purchased:
[_] Heard loud noise, looked up
[_] Store display
[_] Espionage
[_] Recommended by friend / relative / ally
[_] Political lobbying by manufacturer
[_] Was attacked by one

7.    Please check the three (3) factors that most influenced your decision to purchase this McDonnell Douglas product:
[_] Style / appearance
[_] Speed / maneuverability
[_] Price / value
[_] Comfort / convenience
[_] Kickback / bribe
[_] Recommended by salesperson
[_] McDonnell Douglas reputation
[_] Advanced Weapons Systems
[_] Backroom politics
[_] Negative experience opposing one in combat

8.    Please check the location(s) where this product will be used:
[_] North America
[_] Central / South America
[_] Aircraft carrier
[_] Europe
[_] Middle East
[_] Africa
[_] Asia / Far East
[_] Misc. Third World countries
[_] Classified

9.    Please check the products that you currently own or intend to purchase in the near future:
[_] Color TV
[_] VCR
[_] ICBM
[_] Killer Satellite
[_] CD Player
[_] Air-to-Air Missiles
[_] Space Shuttle
[_] Home Computer
[_] Nuclear Weapon

10.    How would you describe yourself or your organization? (Check all that apply:)
[_] Communist / Socialist
[_] Terrorist
[_] Crazed
[_] Neutral
[_] Democratic
[_] Dictatorship
[_] Corrupt
[_] Primitive / Tribal

11.    How did you pay for your McDonnell Douglas product?
[_] Deficit spending
[_] Cash
[_] Suitcases of cocaine
[_] Oil revenues
[_] Personal check
[_] Credit card
[_] Ransom money
[_] Traveler’s check

12.    Your occupation:
[_] Homemaker
[_] Sales / marketing
[_] Revolutionary
[_] Clerical
[_] Mercenary
[_] Tyrant
[_] Middle management
[_] Eccentric billionaire
[_] Defense Minister / General
[_] Retired
[_] Student
[_] Other (specify)  ___________________

13.    To help us understand our customers’ lifestyles, please indicate the interests and activities in which you and your spouse enjoy participating on a regular basis:
[_] Golf
[_] Boating / sailing
[_] Sabotage
[_] Running / jogging
[_] Propaganda / disinformation
[_] Destabilization / overthrow
[_] Default on loans
[_] Gardening
[_] Crafts
[_] Black market / smuggling
[_] Collectibles / collections
[_] Watching sports on TV
[_] Wines
[_] Interrogation / torture
[_] Household pets
[_] Crushing rebellions
[_] Espionage / reconnaissance
[_] Fashion clothing
[_] Border disputes
[_] Mutually Assured Destruction

Thank you for taking the time to fill out this questionnaire. Your answers will be used in market studies that will help McDonnell Douglas serve you better in the future – as well as allowing you to receive mailings and special offers from other companies, governments, extremist groups, and mysterious consortia.
Comments or suggestions about our aircraft? Please write to: McDONNELL DOUGLAS CORPORATION, Marketing Department, Military Aerospace Division, P.O. Box 800, St. Louis, MO.

The McDonnell Douglas example is funny in part because it mixes suitable and unsuitable questions under the same rubric, and because, under the guise of political satire, it also raises questions about the kinds of knowledge such a questionnaire would provide. In another example, prepared for students in Media and Cultural Studies at Liverpool John Moores, the point is more to produce a self-enclosed loop as parody of the market research paradigm:

Preliminary Techniques in Qualitative Data Analysis
Please answer as honestly as you can.

1.    Do you prefer questionnaires that are
_ aggressively personal
_ intimidatingly erudite
_ ingratiating
_ bafflingly abstract
_ short

2.    Would you prefer to fill in this questionnaire
_ indoors
_ in biro
_ in bed
_ incompletely
_ inaccurately
_ twice

3.    Are you filling in this questionnaire
_ reluctantly
_ outdoors
_ with a fine camelhair brush
_ with religious fervor
_ not at all

4.    Which qualities do you most enjoy in a questionnaire?
_ texture
_ weight
_ shape
_ colour
_ scent

5.    Which describe you most accurately
_ no opinion
_ don’t understand
_ answer withheld
_ don’t know
_ insufficient time to respond

6.    Would you say that questionnaires are
_ sociological techniques for gathering data
_ sheets of paper covered with questions and tick-boxes
_ feedback loops of cybernetic capital
_ a surrogate for genuine democracy
_ the quantum hiccups of a random universe

7.    Would you like this questionnaire to
_ be more decorative
_ have longer questions
_ recommend answers
_ succeed
_ be handed directly to the appropriate authorities
The reference to the Borges parable quoted in Foucault’s well-known preface to The Order of Things 16 alluded to in question 3 gives away the game in the second example: the play is on categorical knowledge. Neither of the two humorous examples is capable of more than resistance to a dominant paradigm, and indeed, in offering that resistance, confirms the dominant in its domination. It is the revenge of the weak, and can only mock the acquisition of knowledge, but cannot provide a sense of where else or in what other mode knowledge might be acquired. Perhaps the same ought to be said of the Komar and Melamid project with which we began, save that there is a delightful conflict between the advanced form of the research and the archaic form of the data presentation (as paintings) recouped, once again, in their publication online. This divergence – between the contemporary and the historical modes of research – is interesting especially because it exemplifies the sense of the collision of media, and because it provides a new kind of knowledge without being able to let us know unambivalently what kind of knowledge it is that we have acquired. One possibility is that no one visitor will recognize his/her own data image in the aggregated results, so restoring to cartography a certain individualism. But then the cartographer in GIS is often included in the data set, without the operation becoming self-reflexive or inoperable as I have argued is the case with illusionism.

There is a residual realism in the world of simulations, which cannot be undone by claims of metaphoricity. To argue that metaphors cannot provide knowledge would be to say that language cannot speak of language, or more generally put, that humans cannot talk about humans, when that is manifestly the bulk of all we ever talk about. What becomes apparent, as we are increasingly surrounded by computer-generated images which are invariably more finished, more complete and more futuristic than reality, is that the grounds on which realism can be tested, the grounds of the future, are being colonized by the present. Like the great crop of Hollywood films devoted to the depiction of destiny – Titanic (1997) is only the most opulently self-indulgent of them – interactives give us only the impression that all routes have been navigated and all options pre-planned. Genuine interactivity – and here I hold up the example of good software, Kai’s Power Tools perhaps – is a device for building the future as opening of possibility. The further challenge will be to de-professionalize the production of the future, and to throw it open to the amateurs, whose name means lovers, and whose art is the art of charity.

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this article was printed in: Millennium Film Journal No. 34 (Fall 1999): The Digital