The Horrors of Visuality


Rob Coley

 

PART I

[T]he supernatural has returned – not in the guise of answered prayers or divinely sanctioned holy wars, but via the panoply of media objects that satellite us and that are embedded into the very material fabric of our bodies, cities, and lives.
Eugene Thacker (2014: 95)

Monstrous media

In his terrifying essay-cum-horror-story on the then nascent logic of ‘control’, Gilles Deleuze (1992: 7) warned of a power that writhes and flexes like the ‘coils of a serpent’. Speculating on the transformative implications of the digital, he told of an ontological power, an adaptable power performed in complex systems of mediated communication, a power no longer restricted by the space-time of modern institutions. In this story, a monstrous control operates in the form of computational stimuli, functioning socially and biologically, infiltrating bodily relations so as to cultivate an addiction to its influence. The aim of such a power is not to fix or restrict radical energies but to manage or generate such processes by massaging relational potential, by mediating the becoming of the world.

Here, in three short essays, I briefly consider how the 21st century actuality of such a monster might demand an adjustment in the study of visuality. To begin, it is important to stress that this does not mean supplementing ‘visual culture’ with ‘new media’. Indeed, the apparent newness of new media, so highly venerated by the culture industries, is a problematic designation, to say the least. There is often nothing particularly new about new media – media continually rework their older forms, continually revisit and transmute their own past. Instead of asserting claims to newness, the role of the digital should rather be seen as lying in its tendency to refocus attention on what media do, on the transformative powers of media, on the ability of media to invisibly affect the overall ‘conditions of possibility’ (Galloway et al., 2014: 1). In a society of control, any study of visuality must therefore also be a study of media, and this means taking on ‘media and mediation as conceptual objects in their own right’ (Galloway et al., 2014: 2).

In doing this, the canonical issues and concerns of photography studies, and visual culture studies more generally, do not suddenly become irrelevant, but the way in which these issues are approached must change. This is precisely because the fundamental paradoxes of mediation make the task of theorizing visuality today so challenging, to say nothing of the disappearing possibilities for ‘countervisuality’. Specifically, though visuality is understood here, with Nicholas Mirzoeff (2011), as a matrix of power that is undoubtedly visual in its expressions and symptoms, it is also now clear that the activities of visuality are enacted prior to, or beyond, representation. Moreover, in the 21st century, contact with, and experience of, visuality can be increasingly understood to function on the basis of what, in Deleuzian terms, we might call a ‘disjunctive synthesis’ of the pure immediacy and total opacity of mediation. In cultivating this relation between materiality and abstraction, it is a power that domesticates and exploits paradox.

In this context, mediation is something that cannot be examined discretely, in the way that media objects tend to be studied. This is to insist on a departure from studies of media long preoccupied with an opposition between technological determinism and social constructivism. In this opposition, agency is understood to lie either with technical machines which causally determine the future form and function of society, or with the humans who produce and use technologies to wield such power through various representations. It is on the basis of such disciplinary investments that, even in recent attempts to radically reassess the concept of visuality, media is still understood as a series of technical objects that maintain and uphold dominant ideologies. However, with the increasingly seamless integration of such objects into the social habits of everyday activity, it seems that any act of countervisuality must begin by addressing ‘modes of mediation that refuse bi-directionality, that obviate determinacy, and that dissolve devices entirely’ (Galloway et al., 2014: 10). Beyond representation, this is a question of belief – belief in what psychical researcher William James called ‘the reality of the unseen’, belief in the communication of something incommunicable, in a truth which exceeds the conventions of rationalism. The digital prompts us to reconsider our belief in a realm we had long since given up on. And so, to confront the monster, countervisuality must tactically aspire to make flesh creep (James, 1982: 63).

FIG-1Fig. 1 The ODNI unveil the NROL-39 logo. Image from ODNI Twitter account, original available at: https://twitter.com/ODNIgov/status/408712553179533312, accessed February 4, 2014

From beyond

McKenzie Wark (2012: 68) gives shape to such a tactic by calling for the identification of weird moments, anomalous irruptive events, when the paradoxes of control reveal an ‘after image’, a peripheral glimpse of the monster. One suitably weird moment occurred in December 2013, when a now infamous image was made public via the official Twitter account of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), an agency headed up by retired lieutenant general James Clapper, principal advisor to Barack Obama on issues of national security. Set against an emblematic starfield, the illustration depicts a giant cephalopod seizing hold of the planet Earth (fig. 1). One of its arms, or tentacles, grips hold of the planet, while others stretch and unfurl. The creature glowers, which is to say, in anthropomorphic terms, that it wears an evil expression. Emblazoned below it is the motto, ‘Nothing is beyond our reach’. As revealed by follow-up photographs tweeted from the ODNI account, this menacing creature is the official insignia of the latest in a series of spy satellites launched under the auspices of the National Reconnaissance Office, the US government agency responsible for satellite intelligence (fig. 2). Further tweets gave updates on the favorability of rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, along with a link to a gallery of images produced by the organization which provides space launch services for the US government. A video of the launch itself was later posted on the Facebook page of the 30th Space Wing. ‘Anyone stay up late to watch?’ asked the ODNI in a tweet.

FIG-2Fig. 2 The NROL-39 payload, ready for mating with an Atlas V booster rocket. Image from ODNI Twitter account, original available at: https://twitter.com/ODNIgov/status/408715995008598016, accessed February 4, 2014.

The oblique announcement is at once transparent and opaque, open and secret. In this odd exercise in public relations, in which something that remains invisible is branded, the announcement publicizes and draws attention to an event – a blast off – while revealing only that the event is classified. The same paradox is central to artist Trevor Paglen’s Symbology series. Traversing restricted landscapes and tracking classified objects, Paglen’s work attempts to map what his sources and informants call the ‘black world’. Symbology is an ongoing project to collect the heraldic patches and insignias designed for secret military units. Among these cryptic logos (or ‘gang colors’, as one of Paglen’s sources puts it), there are tongue-in-cheek references to popular conspiracies concerning Area 51 (as seen in the bug-eyed faces of alien ‘grays’), together with examples of frat boy humor (as seen in the recurring presence of a character from MAD magazine). But there is also a dominance of occultural iconography – the wizard, the serpent, and the all-seeing eye familiar to mystical practice. Moreover, the evil world-dominating cephalopod also appears in Paglen’s series of patches (fig. 3).

FIG-3Fig. 3 Image by Trevor Paglen. Original available at: https://twitter.com/trevorpaglen/status/390580113840283648/photo/1, accessed February 4, 2014.

The real paradox of this image lies not only in its communication of something that must not be communicated, but also in its communication of something that cannot be communicated. It is weird because it provides a creeping glimpse of a power ‘from beyond’; as an image, it ‘works too well’, it communicates ‘more than we bargained for’ (Thacker, 2014: 102). This is, however, the paradox that conditions all mediation, and to consider it more closely we must grasp the monster’s tentacle.

Problematized ontology

For novelist China Miéville, the tentacle is ‘the default monstrous appendage of today,’ and it ‘signals the epochal shift to a Weird culture’ (2008: 105). Today, weird fiction, once relegated to the status of supernatural pulp horror, is accorded classic status and revered by a new generation of writers, fiction and non-fiction alike. Indeed, in contemporary cultural theory, references to the work of H. P. Lovecraft – the key proponent of what Miéville calls haute-weird – are so widespread as to practically constitute a field in itself. The genre’s earlier form came in something of a radical break from the conventions of Gothic storytelling, with monstrous cephalopods, and their multiplicity of suckers, first taking hold of the pre-Weird writings of Jules Verne and Victor Hugo. While myths and legends of monsters have always been a part of the collective imaginary of the sea, in the 19th century major technological developments altered the way in which the sea was represented, and in which it reflected new anxieties about a changing world (Grant, 2013: 24-30). It was, though, only in the 20th century, with Lovecraft’s Kraken-inspired Cthulhoid creatures, that an emergent media culture began to be conceived as a Weird culture, a culture in which the human’s centrality and dominance over the nonhuman was increasingly thrust into a state of crisis.

Of course, the Lovecraftian Weird is itself paradoxical. On one hand, the writer’s unsettling narratives express an explicit desire to escape the mechanistic prison house of human space-time, while, on the other, this desire remains inseparable from ‘a loathing of the alien materialisms he conjures up in his fiction’ (Lockwood, 2012: 75). The sudden encounter with a cephalopodic monster offers an escape from meaning; it is, in Miéville’s terms, ‘unprecedented, unexpected, unexplained, unexplainable – it simply is’. Yet at the same time, this encounter threatens and overwhelms the stable aesthetic of the human. Such is the power of the humble octopus. Once identified by the pattern recognition procedures of human perception (having previously employed camouflage and mimicry to remain hidden in plain sight), the creature is recognized as a possible form. And yet this form is horrifying precisely because it transgresses the solidity and specificity we normally associate with being: ‘The octopus is problematized ontology’ (Miéville, 2008: 109). It expresses the potentiality of a weird world, a ‘cosmic outsideness’, as Lovecraft put it, in which the outside is immanent to – within and beyond – the human (Lovecraft, 1933).

In the 20th century, problematized ontology is central to the early development of a weird culture. As Dean Lockwood suggests, it is marked by the departure of the octopus from the sea and its institution within the network. In his account, the evolution of a ‘networked, tentacular’ horror is inseparable from the evolution of media. Specifically, ‘the affective core’ of Lovecraft’s writing took shape in the immediate context of ‘the new wireless traffic in media messages’, namely early commercial broadcasting (Lockwood, 2012: 80). The radio set, ensconced in the living room, is ‘invasive, tentacular and alien’, a whisper in the darkness (Lockwood, 2012: 81). The development of broadcast radio marks a shift from an oceanic model of media, one in which early wireless communication is conceived as a vast sea of noise, a roiling flux in which it is possible to become lost, to a network model of media in which radio captures and controls a mass audience. Yet, in harnessing the transformative ‘waves of forces’ that create and destroy, in subjecting the forces of a Dionysian world, Nietzsche’s ‘monster of energy’, to control, there is something about our contemporary network culture that retains the vastness of the ocean. Today, our relations with media can unmoor old dualistic certainties and produce an encounter with the systems of feedback embedded within everyday life. In such encounters, human life – previously understood as a separate determining force – is revealed as part of an assemblage of forces, a supernatural composition of processes both human and nonhuman. It is this ‘weird media’, as Thacker (2014: 133) puts it, that ‘indicates a gulf or abyss between two ontological orders’, between the natural and the supernatural.

In part 2, I will begin to outline how a horrifying encounter with such an abyss might be formulated in the critical practice of countervisuality.

 

PART II

Once again, the secret world won… And once again, the border between the black and the white dissolved. Everything became gray. It was hard to tell where one world ended and the other began.
Trevor Paglen (2010: 273)

Weird media

Trevor Paglen describes his practice of countervisuality in terms of adjusting attentional habits and perceptual tendencies. To identify weird glitches in the system of control, he emphasizes the need to remain attuned to its occlusions. ‘It’s difficult to figure out what goes on behind the restricted airspaces, the closed doors, the cover stories, and the official denials of the Pentagon’s black world’ (2008: 4). This black world is one of closely guarded secrets, a covert world that, for the most part, remains entirely hidden. From time to time, though, Paglen suggests, ‘the black world peeks out into the “white” world, and those paying attention can get a fleeting glimpse’ (2008: 11). This is not, however, a process of enlightenment, or simply a consequence of having seized the right to look. Indeed, Paglen’s black and white worlds seem all too dualistic for the soupy miasma of mediation and its weird paradoxes.

Let us instead imagine a countervisuality more directly inspired by supernatural horror. For Thacker, horror is the mode of thought most suited to an increasingly unthinkable world. It seizes upon the paradoxical moments ‘in which thinking enigmatically confronts the horizon of its own possibility’ (2011: i). As he describes it, dominant modes of thought and perception presume the world to be a human world: for us, governed by us. Alongside this subjective, human-centric world, we also acknowledge an objective nonhuman world-in-itself that exists in an ‘already-given state’, that is, until the very moment that we perceive it and transform it into a world for us (ii-iii). Arguably, these are the dominant terms by which visuality has been conceived up to now, that is, by focusing on the formation of a world picture, on a comprehensive representational object. For Thacker, though, horror confronts a third category beyond the subjective and objective world – a world without the human (2014: 113). This is a hidden, occulted world that cannot co-exist with the human-centered world, a world that can only become perceptible ‘after’ the human. The horror in question, then, is one of negation – it does not express the emotional fear of a human in a human-centered world, but a horror produced in the confrontation of the very limits of the human. It is a communication with or mediation of something from beyond that, simultaneously, remains a communication breakdown, a failure to mediate anything more than a void. Its irruptive power is generated by the mediation of lacunae, blind spots. Its weirdness is an event, a perceptual encounter with something for which our habitual patterns of recognition cannot prepare us.

In Thacker’s terms, this weird space-time is a ‘magic site’, a place in which ‘the hiddenness of the world presents itself in its paradoxical way’ (2011: 82), which is to say that what is revealed is the site’s own hiddenness. In horror fiction the magic site is, on occasion, specifically constructed by humans as a device through which an occulted world might be accessed. It is, though, usually produced spontaneously or accidently, without design. Moreover, it is not ‘black’. Rather, as Thacker describes, such sites manifest the occulted world as mists, fogs and slime. Magic sites are marked by their betweenness: by formless clouds both material and immaterial, by oozing states that inhabit both liquid and solid form, by grayness. If black and white worlds are separate worlds set in opposition, a gray world is one in which such categories are in open communication with one another. And yet, this does not mean that grayness is simply a ratio of black and white. On the contrary, it is produced by the careful composition of a multiplicity of colors, a spectral prism, it is the color of the whole.

Ancient revelations

We now know about PRISM. We know about the collection of data from the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook and Apple. We know about Boundless Informant, the NSA’s tool for metadata analysis, for the real-time examination of data flows. In the UK, we also know about the government’s Tempora project, we know about ‘Mastering the Internet’ and ‘Global Telecoms Exploitation’, the project’s component parts. For Geert Lovink, such enlightenment is a rude awakening – the Snowden revelations bring to an end three decades of naïve media rhetoric and celebration. The revolutionary dreams of cyberculture, in which ‘media’ becomes synonymous with ‘future’, are exposed as a waking nightmare: ‘The values of the internet generation have been dashed to pieces: decentralization, peer-to-peer, rhizomes, networks. Everything you have ever clicked on can and will be used against you’ (Lovink, 2014). Affirmative Deleuzian-inspired discourses of acceleration – collective flights toward future trajectories – are exposed as the very energies which feed the monster of control. Futures have been foreclosed.

FIG-4Fig. 4 The NSA’s Information Dominance Center. Image by DBI Architects, original linked at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/15/nsa-mind-keith-alexander-star-trek [no longer accessible]

By contrast, for Wark, although the Snowden documents illustrate a current form and strategy of power, there is nothing radically new about these revelations. The dialectic of escape and capture has been integral to every era of communication – surveillance has always been part of telephonic networks, just as it was part of the networks of express mail that preceded them (Wark, 2014). Indeed, this would all seem to confirm current theories of visuality. Take, for example, the science-fictional images of the NSA’s Information Dominance Center (fig. 4). Last year, the journalist Glenn Greenwald published excerpts from the architect’s brochure of the Center based at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. The document notes that designers were asked to model the space on the command bridge from Star Trek’s Enterprise. The space was fitted out with ‘chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a “whoosh” sound when they slid open and closed. Lawmakers and other important officials took turns sitting in a leather “captain’s chair” in the center of the room and watched as [NSA chief General Keith] Alexander, a lover of science-fiction movies, showed off his data tools on the big screen’ (Greenwald, 2013). The architect’s brochure goes on to state that ‘the prominently positioned chair provides the commanding officer an uninterrupted field of vision to a 22’-0” wide projection screen,’ while the primary function of the center ‘is to enable 24-hour worldwide visualization, planning, and execution of coordinated information operations’.

Such power would seem directly aligned to the historical legacy of visuality, a term Mirzoeff (2011) traces to 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle. For Carlyle, visuality is an authoritarian perceptual activity, one that endows the heroic commander with a power both techno-scientific and mystical.1 In this account, visuality’s truth-giving authority worked precisely against the kind of grayness produced by excitable states of social flux and disequilibrium. Visuality was a force that shone ‘like a polestar through smoke-clouds, dust-clouds, and all manner of down-rushing and conflagration’ (Carlyle, 1841). It would, then, be easy to take images of the NSA’s Information Dominance Center as confirmation of the continuing operation of a visuality that functions to maintain transcendent order, that ensures future order remains bound to a certain truth and realism, while the irrationalities of other, virtual potentials remain closed off. And yet, the danger of reducing all of visuality’s current manifestations to mere iterations of its historical form – wielded by a commander – is that it remains all-too-human in its conception.

Indeed, following the Snowden leaks, we now also know that the vast majority of data intercepted from fiber-optic cables is unexamined by humans.2 It is software that sieves metadata, that conducts complex pattern analysis, that searches for ‘triggers’ (MacAskill et al., 2014). Here, as Deleuze warned us (1992: 5), the individual becomes the ‘dividual’, the network subject, depersonalized as packets of potential. Moreover, the gray infrastructure of distributed computing through which such power is exercised – wifi networks, apps, system protocols, passwords, verification procedures, traffic routers and switches, firewalls – is an assemblage of biological and technological actors, ‘a restless expanse of multihued contaminations, impurities, hybridity, monstrosity, contagion, interruption, hesitation, enmeshment, refraction, unexpected relations, and wonder’ (Cohen, 2013a: xxiv). There is, though, something neutral, something bland about this technological unconscious: this ‘gray media’. Its unspectacular operation, its ‘dull opacity of devices and techniques’, mostly eludes our attention (Fuller & Goffey, 2012: 1). And yet, grayness is not flat or uniform – it is dynamic, it remains in continuous transition. These states of disequilibrium are, as Mirzoeff insists, the strategic environment for visuality’s new cultural counterinsurgency, but the newness of this mode of power is not what concerns us here.

What makes revelations about PRISM so terrifying is, instead, the disclosure of something older, something more ancient. PRISM is an attempt to command and coordinate prismatic multiplicity, this spectrum of possible relations and agencies, human and nonhuman. It aims to manage escape and capture systematically, which is to say non-dialectically, extracting and generating difference from a single set of relations – relations from which no godlike perspective is possible. It therefore reveals to us what we were already. It reveals the alien immanent to the human. It reveals our instability, our in-betweenness. It reveals that ‘we are media’ (Kember & Zylinska, 2012: 13).

In the third and final part of this essay series, I will reflect further on the vitality of this gray middleness and propose that practices of countervisuality must remain immanent to its weird processes.

 

PART III

Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.
H. P. Lovecraft (1933)

Shades of gray

In the Deleuzian horror story, control operates on the basis of modulation. It is a power both supple and subtle, adjusting from one moment to the next. Media theorists Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey take the idea of modulation seriously. For them, processes of mediation create ‘a troubling opacity and thickness in the relations of which they are a part’. These are processes ‘with an active capacity of their own to shape or manipulate the things or people with which they come into contact’ (Fuller & Goffey, 2012: 5). The consequence is that mediation generates ‘opaque zones’, the compositional form of which Fuller and Goffey describe in terms of grayness.

Typically, grayness is conceived in anthropocentric terms, that is, as a depletion of life, as a running down of energy and vibrancy, as an absence of human vitality. A gray world is a post-disaster world, a world in which the human is all but snuffed out (Cohen, 2013b: 270). In the collective imaginary of the 21st century, gray is the color endured by surviving humans scratching out an existence in the aftermath of a secular apocalypse. What remains missing from such imagery, though, is a certain gray vitalism. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues, gray is a process rather than a color, and in this sense the liminality of the gray should not center on the human: ‘The gloaming is a place of life, but not necessarily of those sublime forms we expect life to assume’ (Cohen, 2013b: 271-2).

The grayness of mediation is vital; it is comprised of generative forces, of world-making processes, but human life is just one amongst many of these interrelated energies. A certain grayness characterizes the human’s ontological entanglement with its technical environment, whereby the apparently natural division between human and machine is dissolved. In the gray, technology can neither be defined as a tool for our use nor as something that uses us. More importantly, for the human, the world has always been gray – grayness has always been ‘an intrinsic condition of being-in, and becoming-with, the technological world’ (Kember & Zylinska, 2012: 1). The human has never been an autonomous agent, there is what Bernard Stiegler has called an ‘originary technicity’ to the human, always outside and beyond itself, open to the nonhuman.

The materiality of grayness, of gray relations, is continually variable, continually shifting: grayness thins and congeals, darkens and lifts. It is a rushing, an undulation, a noise. Noise is something that is impossible to get a distance on, something that infects you, that you cannot be rid of. Noise is that which cannot or will not be confined to the usual hermeneutic categories. So it is that noise is ‘indelibly associated with horror’ (Hainge, 2013: 85). In the standard cybernetic model of mediation, noise is the unwanted corruption of a transparent connection between sender and receiver. In such a model, mediation is understood in terms of a device connecting two self-contained and previously separate points. It is only by occluding noise that ‘meaning’ can occur. But in the ancient fug of gray, noise is always present – it cannot be distinguished or separated out from ‘information’. Noise is medial, it expresses the relation between actual and virtual; noise is ‘the trace of the virtual out of which all expressive forms come to be, the mark of an ontology which is necessarily relational’ (Hainge, 2013: 13-14). It is, then, the breakdown in conventional models that gives rise to the horror. With no clear senders or receivers, our existence in the world appears less hospitable, less validated by meaning. We are left with nothing but an oceanic middle, a cosmic middle in which we suddenly find ourselves (Thacker, 2014: 87-90). For Lockwood (2012: 80), this constitutes a ‘media sublime’ – not as rapturous transcendent sublime, but an immanent-transcendence, a sublime as the infective propagation of alien affect into the everyday.

In a society of control, the media sublime again serves to describe weird encounters, those fleeting moments when it is briefly possible to perceive the powers of modulation in effect. As an ‘affective and perceptual condition’, as a low level buzz, an atmosphere, grayness constitutes ‘a changeable but often unnoticed background – unnoticed until an environmental shift occurs’ (Fuller & Goffey, 2012: 12). Usually, gray media have little aesthetic charge, they calibrate human activity on a pre-individual level, on a low boil, a simmer of not entirely burnt out producers and not entirely addicted users. Their unconscious background of routines and algorithms assuage perceptual and affective intensity just as they preserve a consistent liveliness (Fuller & Goffey, 2012: 14). But there are necessarily glitches in the continuity of this system – more forceful movements of power into the ontogenetic processes of life itself, movements that leave vague impressions on conscious perception. More importantly, it is possible to instigate such horror in ways that glitch conventional belief in the world and confront the sensation that ‘the scratching from “outside” is already inside, infecting, running rampant, warping and deforming human life’ (Lockwood, 2012: 76).

Cosmic countervisuality

In his own response to the opaque powers of control, Deleuze famously called for ‘circuit-breakers’, for ‘vacuoles of noncommunication’ (1995: 133). Today, in the midst of an increasingly loquacious and performative century, how are we to understand such a tactic? Are we to fall silent? On the contrary – as Wark (2014) cautions, ‘secret’ communication only serves to attract greater attention. Vigilant, surreptitious, or false behaviours, which impair algorithmic control, might allow some room to manoeuvre, but an escape to transcendent privacy remains a bourgeois fantasy. Silence is too moral, too human. Any countervisuality must be immanent to the weird and noisy middle of mediation.3 This is to believe in our existence within what Deleuze (1995: 133) called a ‘cramped space’, a bottleneck, though cramped need not indicate something small – we might imagine the horror of being cosmically cramped. Indeed, this is, at least in part, the approach Trevor Paglen takes in another recent project.

In November 2012, the communications satellite EchoStar XVI launched from a base in Kazakhstan and joined the hundreds of other spacecraft now in geosynchronous orbit around the earth. In this narrowly defined region of space, in which there is no atmospheric drag, the craft will continue to circle the earth for millions, even billions of years. It will remain stable, never falling back to earth. It is now part of ‘humankind’s longest-lasting material legacy’, ensuring that, long after all human life on the planet has winked out, it ‘will remain encircled by a thin ring of long-dead-spacecraft’ (Paglen, 2012: 6). In the years leading up to its launch, Paglen conceived the idea of attaching to the satellite an archival disc micro-etched with one hundred photographs. The work, titled The Last Pictures, is a collection of images that will outlast the species that produced them.

FIG-5Fig. 5 ‘Lernaean Hydra, Albertus Seba’s Thesaurus’ (as featured in Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures). Image from Wikipedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albertus_Seba_-_Hydra.jpg [accessed April 15, 2014]

On one level, the work is a product of the Anthropocene, namely the present era in which human activity is understood to affect all life on the planet. This is made clear in the selection of images which, although occasionally weird (figs. 5 and 6), generally attest to a political and environmental crisis. The first photograph shows the back of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, an image famously described by Walter Benjamin (1968: 257-58) as depicting the angel of history, who looks at the mounting wreckage of the past as he is blown backwards into the future by the storm of progress. Paglen’s set of images compels us to adopt the angel’s view of recent history, comprised as it is by pictures of the Occupy movement, a nuclear explosion, battery farming, a disappearing glacier, cloned livestock, drone warfare, and high frequency trading. But for Paglen (2012: 7), who is conscious of the project’s conceptual affinity with haute-Weird, the work is also ‘a future alien artifact’, made for a future in which humans are the ‘ancient aliens’. Accordingly, the artifact confronts that which Lovecraft (1933) described as ‘the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe’, namely, time. It destabilizes anthropocentric time in favor of an ‘utterly foreign’ and ‘deeply unearthly’ time (Paglen, 2012: 6, 3).

FIG-6Fig. 6 ‘Dust Storm, Stratford, Texas’ (as featured in Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures). Image from US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: http://www.photolib.noaa.gov/bigs/theb1365.jpg [accessed April 15, 2014]

It was, after all, only in the 20th century that human knowledge grasped with any certainty the ‘deep time’ of the Earth, encountering a new concept of planetary history that spans billions of years. The sheer scale of this temporality entirely shatters humanist narratives of progress, narratives in which man continuously develops and commands ever more sophisticated machines. Deep time is entirely alien to us, it exceeds our powers of imagination. It is in this sense that The Last Pictures invokes a cosmic perception, a terrifying view of the world after the human.

Paglen’s work is not about control society but it does force us to think reflexively about our relations with nonhuman agents. Importantly though, the images – apparently selected to represent the challenges, complexities and crises of human existence on and with the planet – play a different role in this process. In spite of the lengthy deliberations, interviews, research and debate which led to their inclusion, the individual images actually function most effectively as a series of negations, as failures. In other words, where the work necessarily fails in its curatorial attempt to ‘render the inaccessible accessible’, to capture an artifactual portrait of human life, it does reveal something else; in its cosmic sensibility it does begin to ‘make accessible the inaccessible – in its inaccessibility’ (Thacker, 2014: 96). The work not only evokes the limits of representation but the limits of perceptual experience, the limits of expression. The work is a scream.

For Deleuze (2014: 15), the scream is a disharmony of the senses through which perception can be transformed. It is a ‘spasm’, the body’s attempt to escape itself, to break from the frameworks of recognition that inhibit other perceptions, other visualities. The scream resolves nothing, creates nothing, but it does express a perception of opacity in and of itself. In this we can begin to imagine how seizing upon the right to scream might produce an ethico-aesthetic sensibility to that which is beyond the human. We can begin to formulate new tactical possibilities for confronting a visuality that is not simply visual. For in the end, while the sublimity of the scream is born of fear over the demolition of the unified human subject, of a perception of connectedness as terrifying overconnectedness, it also testifies to an excitable awe at radical relationality, to a sudden wonder at perceiving a multiple and collective subject. It welcomes, as much as it fears, becoming monstrous.

Notes

1 Similar assertions could be made of DARPA’s much discussed Total Information Awareness project, which came with its own Illuminati-inspired mystical insignia.

2 The story’s source states that, ‘The vast majority of data is discarded without being looked at… we simply don’t have the resources’.

3 It is in similar terms that Fuller and Goffey (2012: 13) commend ‘gray immanence for gray media’.

References

Benjamin, W. (1968) ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations (ed.), H. Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 257-58.

Carlyle, T. (1841) On Heroes, Hero‐Worship, and the Heroic in History. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1091/1091‐h/1091‐h.htm.

Cohen, J. J. (2013a) ‘Ecology’s Rainbow’ in Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (ed.), J. J. Cohen. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Cohen, J. J. (2013b) ‘Grey’, in Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (ed.), J. J. Cohen. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. (1992) ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October 59: 7.

Deleuze, G. (1995) Negotiations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, G. (2004) Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. London and New York: Continuum.

Fuller, M. & Goffey, A. (2012) Evil Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Galloway, A., Thacker, E. & Wark, M. (2014) Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Grant, S. (2013) ‘Monsters and Myths: The Manifestation of Man’s Deepest Fears’, in Aquatopia: The Imaginary of the Ocean Deep (eds), A. Farquharson & M. Clark. London: Nottingham Contemporary/Tate.

Greenwald, G. (2013) ‘Inside the mind of NSA chief Gen Keith Alexander’, The Guardian 15 September. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/15/nsa-mind-keith-alexander-star-trek. Originally accessed 19 November, 2013.

Hainge, G. (2013) Noise Matters: Towards an Ontology of Noise. London: Bloomsbury.

James, W. (1982 [1902]) The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. London: Penguin.

Kember, S. & Zylinska, J. (2012) Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lockwood, D. (2012) ‘Mongrel Vibrations: H.P. Lovecraft’s Weird Ecology of Noise’, in Reverberations: The Philosophy, Aesthetics and Politics of Noise (ed.), M. Goddard et al. London: Continuum.

Lovecraft, H. P. (1933), ‘Notes on Writing Weird Fiction’ [online] available at: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/nwwf.aspx. Accessed April 7th 2014.

Lovink, G. (2014) ‘Hermes on the Hudson: Notes on Media Theory after Snowden’ e-flux 54. Available at: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/hermes-on-the-hudson-notes-on-media-theory-after-snowden/.

MacAskill, E. et al. (2014) ‘GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications’, The Guardian 21 June. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/jun/21/gchq-cables-secret-world-communications-nsa.

Miéville, C. (2008) ‘M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire’, Collapse IV: 105.

Mirzoeff, N. (2011) The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. Durham: Duke University Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1968) The Will to Power. New York: Vintage.

Paglen, T. (2008) I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World. Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing.

Paglen, T. (2010) Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World. New York: New American Library.

Paglen, T. (2012) The Last Pictures. Berkeley and Los Angeles: California University Press.

Thacker, E. (2011) In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, vol.1. Winchester and Washington: Zer0.

Thacker, E. (2014) ‘Dark Media’, in Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation, A. Galloway, E. Thacker and M. Wark. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wark, M. (2012) Telesthesia: Communication, Culture & Class. Cambridge: Polity.

Wark, M. (2014) ‘Where Next for Media Theory?’ Public Seminar 9 April. Available at: http://www.publicseminar.org/2014/04/where-next-for-media-theory/#.U0kyqce9MXw.

Rob Coley is a Lecturer in the School of Media at the University of Lincoln. His PhD thesis (awarded in 2013) explores an immanent, ontological mode of visuality. He is the author, with Dean Lockwood and Adam O’Meara, of Photography in the Middle: Dispatches on Media Aesthetics and Ecologies (forthcoming with Punctum Books).

One Comment

on “The Horrors of Visuality
One Comment on “The Horrors of Visuality
  1. Dear Rob Coley,
    thank you for this! so many points of intersection with my own areas of research and engagement: from Houellebecq to Carlyle – via dandyism as a technique of the self as/and representation (amortized surface) – to Colebrook’s inhuman – in her Essays on Extinction, vol.s I & II – back to Deleuze’s powerfully ‘false’ play at the edge of the human and the organism – according to Nick Land, his ‘cold, reptilian eye’. … I am trying to pack too much in that you have given a space which is not so compacted – I look forward to reading and hearing more… Deleuze calls Leibniz’s notions a ‘scream’ … China Mieville shares his Maoism with Zizek and Badiou and yet and yet … (is this another weird negative disavowal? – both opaque and transparent? …).

    My current project – after a graph-based(-visualised) social network start-up – is Minus Theatre Research Group – found, with irony and humour, here: https://www.facebook.com/minustheatre … Artaud’s scream as well…

    Best,
    Simon Taylor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *