From the onset of reading ‒ as well as writing ‒ the current text we are immediately overwhelmed by an external flow, almost alien to us, of question-consciousness: What is the best route for examining the status of the viewed image today? An examination undertaken from a certain perspective, of the investigation into the point of view in the image; or in other words an examination of contemporary subjectivity - a subjectivity entirely involved in, evolved from and enthralled with image viewing.
Should we formulate this argument as critical-reason (in the sense that the investigative subject actively explores the passive object-image) and then in what sense? Are psychoanalytic and philosophical discourses enough? Or should we invoke theology? Or are these archaic discourses, as those which have infused and maintained our discussions until now, constrained in their ability to comprehend the image as it will be viewed in the future? What does critical thinking mean in this regard, in relation to the contemporary image; can it even be analyzed with critical tools? For the logic of viewing an image is tied to the past of the image, a past which is always viewed as part of a forward motion, an image propelled towards and by a futurality, an imminent promise of an epoch in which the idea of viewing will no longer be comprehensible (and by the same token, neither will the concept of the viewing subject). Will this future even permit visibility ‒ seeing and being seen? Can the critical-academic discourse with all its anal-compulsive tendencies fulfill the prerequisite methodological demands or can we with fear and trembling offer a different paradigm, a paradigm open to this persecuting futurality from a position of determination and trepidation as well as suspicious apprehension? This methodological paradigm will suggest a suspicious analogy regarding the transformations of the screen, like the transformations in the otherness of God in monotheism.
The current proposal for logically understanding the contemporary image assumes that a radical change is currently taking place in the mode of existence and operation of the image. This is manifest in two paradigms: first in the relations between the subject (the viewing eye) and the other (the eye of the image) in which the relation between subject and other are constantly reversing, with the viewing subject at one moment viewing the other and at another viewing the subject. This formulation stems from a psychoanalytic understanding of the unconscious dynamics between these two forces: in the Freudian-Lacanian discourse consciousness is aware only of its viewing of the image and the other, while at the unconscious level the inverted relation takes place. We shall denote the subject as S and the Other (Autre in French) as A: in consciousness: A < S; and in the unconscious: S < A. But this not restricted to the psychological. More and more humans live under the field of the external gaze, in the sphere of the Foucauldian social panopticon (Foucault 1975). As will be highlighted in the second part of the text, the internal-psychological relation is an allegory for the political relations found between the different eyes populating and constituting the sphere of images,
In the second paradigm, the movement’s future-orientation - its futurality - is always towards a post-human/matricial world, a unification between subject and other: S = A ∨ A(S). As the relations between the subject and the other as the (big) Other is rooted in psychoanalytic discourse, we shall have recourse to it, but even more so, we will broach this discourse’s foundations in Jewish and Christian theology, which are also concerned with the relation between subject and the Other - God. We will delve into the work and thought of Paul, who wandered the short (if not infinitesimal) highway leading from Second Temple Judaism to the establishment of Christianity; in which God is turned human and then divides again, a movement which radically changed the logic of the other and the logic of its gaze at the subject. When, if ever, did this paradigmatic shift take place, or rather have they always coexisted?
These questions are tied to my attempt to formulate a theoretical position regarding contemporary visuality. With this end in mind, my work attempts to formulate a befitting methodology, a methodology which attributes significance to the temporality of visuality. To understand imagery and visuality in general, especially that found in the encounter between screen and subject in the contemporary present, a methodology emerged with two branches growing in conflicting directions but with an identical logic: One is a genealogy which turns to the “past” as a term and an essence and the other an eschatological turning to the “future” in much the same way ‒ both for the purpose of making sense of an incoherent “present”.
Axes of Identification
These words describe their author’s suspicions that an analogy exists between two axes of identification: on the one hand, the axis of a two-way identification, between the believer-subject and the image of the cross: imitatio Christi and vice versa - an imitatio ego of sorts, towards the promise of a future remerging of the self with the image of God. On the other hand, an axis of identification and mutual determination between the (modern) subject-viewer and the image of the screen-other. This structure manifests initially in the cinematic screen and more coherently in the screen-apparatus of the Google Glass, which merges with the eyes of the viewer. This is a subject which exists in the act of viewing, a subjectivity which takes place during this time and responds to the Ego-Ideal which is as its base. This is true not just for the image portrayed on the screen, but rather in the actual encounter with the screen as a platform for images. The Western dynamic between the viewer and his narcissistic framework which is the screen ‒ whether it is real, personal, social or internal ‒ is, I suspect, a cultural expansion of the Christian situation of gazing upon the cross and the crucifixion, as was first articulated in his Paul’s radical epistles, and was preserved in the New Testament’s Gospels which generally accepted and continued with his post-Jewish and ultravisual orientation, thus laying the basis of Western visual culture.
The crucifixion was first and foremost a Roman spectacle, a forceful lesson for the empire’s subjects to see and to internalize. It was a show no different in its logic from that of the ethos of Roman gladiators (on this matter see Hengel 1977). As such, it is a principle image, well beyond any concrete death of this or that Spartacus.
The Roman scene of the crucifixion is in fact an imaginary format with real world historical implications and ramifications on the teleology of the Gospels’ narrative, the history of Christian art and the imaginary core of Western subjectivity. Traumatic-real aspects of blood and gore are contained within this format and governed by it: a fixed picture of the body of a man nailed to a cross, his body exposed for all to see.
It is well known that Jacob Taubes (2004) considered Paul to be primarily a Jewish messianic apostle who dissented against the heavy handed control of the brutal Roman master. In response to this position, I will claim that the visual spectacle of the crucifixion served as the cornerstone in formulating the new faithful’s subjectivity. Thus, ironically, Paul, with all his dissent, fortified and enforced the role of subjugation in faith for the subject vis-à-vis this specifically Roman image of the crucifixion.
The design is new but it does not dispel the magic shrouding the single image. Paul did not make explicit the details of Christianity’s cross, but rather what was important for Paul was the actual visual-imaginary situation, an image of which believers take into their heart where it serves as the fundamental situation: the crucifixion.
It is important to take into account the historical context when we attempt to discuss early Christianity’s embrace of the crucifixion: 1. We are dealing with a ‘ready-made’ image which Christianity took over from the culture of the times for its own purposes, while maintaining its initial meaning; moreover, we must also remember that at that time crucifixions were commonplace, an omnipresent threat for many of the empire’s subjects and citizens. 2. We are dealing with a phantasmatic entity (like the community of sons or the crucifixion) and its phantasmatic offspring: different cultural positions, which themselves are not realistic, but are built on the backdrop of real historical situations. The conceptual entities which we will focus on, such as the screen-subject, are theoretical metaphors of different cultural situations and of the subject’s location within those frameworks.
We might see in the Passion a mental infrastructure unique to Western-Christian subjectivity, a subjectivity constituted from a special relation with the field of visuality, a relation of both symbolic and imaginary identifications.
The spiritual or symbolic aspect of Paul’s conception of faith (mostly associated with the transcendent figure of God the Father) stands on the shoulders of compulsive identification with the imagined situation, the inner picture of the act of humiliation unto death of the archi-Son Jesus of Nazareth. The symbolic or spiritual identification transcends narcissistic identification with the body image. In other words, the symbolic or the spiritual aspect of the resurrection (which is under the aegis of the Father who resurrects, so that the resurrection is connected to symbolic identification with the figure of the Father) is entirely premised on the image of the crucifixion.
In this regard, I wish to note that even though Alain Badiou (1997), like many other scholars, saw the resurrection as the key real event in Paul's doctrine, I suggest that it is better to consider the more fundamental imaginary event ‒ imaginary in the sense that it is primarily visual ‒ of suffering and humiliation in the crucifixion as central. There are indeed two different stages concerning the death of Christ and its implication for the believer, but the violent image is the more decisive of the two ‒ it is the psychological core of the latter's subjectivity. It is worth mentioning that for Jacques Lacan the imaginary (as the narcissistic order) is the order that colors the other two dimensions of the real and the symbolic. The difference between my conception and that of Badiou and maybe Agamben is in a way not a matter of correct understanding, but of orientation; specifically a psychological perspective combined with a theo-political outlook. Badiou (the Marxist thinker) embraces a narrative which focuses on the resurrection as he claims the ‘proto-Lenin’ Paul did, while I attempt to work within a framework of a critical-theology (see Benyamini & Hotam 2015), which takes the resurrection as an ideological element based on, and concealing, the imaginary event of the crucifixion.
While Taubes, Agamben and Badiou view Paul as a kind of key for breaking with the stagnation of postindustrial late capitalist culture and society, I claim that Paul is in a sense one of the factors that facilitated its initial conditions of possibility in his formulation of the disciplined Western subject. On the one hand he embraced the Roman imagination to establish faith, and on the other, Paul’s subject, captivated by the imagined spectacle, laid the foundation for the contemporary Western subject as a blankly staring and enslaved spectator. We may ask ourselves whether this basic imaginary substructure of the Western subject is all that remains of the subject in the period of late modern despiritualization and desymbolization (due to the disappearance of the big Other and death of the paternal God).
It seems we are left with a spectator-subject, a subject focused obsessively on the screen, beginning in the early days of the cinematic spectacle. Our analysis is in accord with with the notion of the shocking effect of the cinematic screen found in Walter Benjamin's (1968) famous essay on mechanical reproduction, while opposing the sense of its emancipatory potential; and concurs with the sense of Guy Debord's (1995) concept of the spectacle. We follow the cinematic spectacle with its capitalistic logic of consuming more and more gazes within a cavernous cathedral space, up through and to the contemporary and almost childishly fascinated subject who gazes at the smartphone screen; until finally, in the near or far future a symbiosis will obtain between our eye and the screen apparatus (for an alternative – and possibly optimistic – take on the spectator, see Rancière 2014). My work attempts to follow the line of thought initiated by Jacques Derrida in his provocative lecture Above All, No Journalists! on the manner in which television’s obsession with LIVE broadcasting is an extension of the Catholic logic of recreating the event of the incarnation of the divine Logos in Christ and his crucifixion, Derrida 2001).
Even at this early stage, the reader might feel discomfort at the almost outrageous methodological situation we find ourselves in – we have suggested connecting, in a way that might have initially seemed superficial and ahistorical, two subjective situations far removed from one another – one born in a religious age and the second in the technological age (two definitions which can anyway be taken ironically). But as Jacques Lacan (who can be said to be the founding father of outrageous psychoanalysis or at least he who who stressed the outrageous in the psychoanalytical) taught us, the roots of modern Western subjectivity are found in the birth of the biblical subject. As Lacan suggests in Seminar III on the psychoses (Lacan 1993), the Western-Christian subject is faced time and time again with the absolute Other, unlike early Western subjects, who were caught up in countless small and mundane interactions with small others.
I want to make a theoretical addition to this point about Western subjectivity, and say that its encounter, in its Christian orbit, is not necessarily with some absolute Other, a spiritual Being (according to the Oedipal phantasy regarding the Jewish God the Father), but rather an encounter with the Master on the Cross, who maintains a narcissistic relation with the subject’s internal image. Nevertheless, we must take into account that the Christian ethos, from its first foray into the world, is forced to deal with the Jewish dictum forbidding the representation of the Absolute-Fatherly God, as opposed to the image of the new divinity, which the believer is called to emulate, and which has been actualized in the flesh by taking on human form. This has important ramifications for the imaginary base of the Western-Christian subject.
How does this question of representation continue to play a role in the interpellation of the Western subject? What are its implications for the subject, or should I say spectator-subject, whether in the church in which one gazes at icons (regardless of whether this is in Eastern Orthodox or Western Catholic churches), or in the cinema and with contemporary smartphone screens that hijack our eyes. This is not just the question of the real viewer-subject, but also of perceptions of such a subject, even if they are stereotypical, precisely because such perceptions can have implications for such a subject’s formation and developmental path.
And thus, in the initial stages of the development of the (Western-Christian) film theater there were already those who understood, even if unconsciously, at the end of the 19th century, that the spectator-believer sitting in the Catholic cathedral, gazing at the image of the Cross in the dark and ominous space, must surrender to the infinite aspects of God, precisely as a direct result of a faith rooted in the divinity of the image of the crucifixion. This type of prismatic space encourages the subject to stand in awe of the infinite nature of the image he is faced with, but it also forces him to demand of his pitiful and lazy self to merge with this impossible and real, infinitely infinite image, until blood is shed. This type of presentation of the cathedral is overly simplistic, but we should ask if such a simplistic image is not after all manifest almost perfectly in the design of the cinema auditorium?
And another point we must make as part of the current methodology, outrageous as it is, is that we are not just talking about Christian faith in medieval times and subsequently, because this faith involved an abundance of icons extending far beyond just that of the crucified Christ. For our purposes, we are focused on the internal state of faith, a state of internal identification with the figure on the cross, the psychic being of the subject with ramifications for Christian faith itself in all its manifestations. And so to Western art and visuality in general, up until our day
The reader might at this stage imagine the weirdness of the situation in which some pitiful theoretician tries to radicalize our conclusions to the limit, saying that the whole of Western imagery, in and of itself, is nothing but variations on the founding image of the crucifixion! (This in paraphrase of the statement that Western philosophy is nothing but a system of footnotes to Plato). In response to that uncanny situation I wish to moderate the vulgarity of such a claim. It is not our goal to reduce understanding of the Western subject to a single dimension, but rather to attempt to understand the significant core at its heart; a core which has undergone and continues to undergo countless changes, transitions and reversals, and even negations of past attempts to erase the past. And nonetheless…
“Know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified”
Was Flusser (2000) correct in saying that a revolution of consciousness only took place in the wake of the material-technological events of the invention of the printing press and photograph? Or rather, as my current research tries to claim, was there an additional and earlier moment of the spiritual technology of identification, involving an instrument no less powerful, that which we find in Paul’s 'mad' letter? The commonplace outlook focuses on the constant presence of images of the cross in the everyday faith of Western Christianity and hides the perhaps more basic fact that Christianity’s moment of foundation as a separate religion introduced an idea that inspired a massive transition in consciousness, one that is visually motivated and uniquely focused. In that moment a new technology was born, an inner pictorial fixation of man to the unique and singular Image. All this comes after a clear prohibition of gazing at images of the one and only (regardless of whether such an image could accurately render his Majesty or not). And this is now the exclusive image. This ‘invention’ contains five steps:
- Imagined fixation
- Imagined fixation on the exclusive image
- A visual fixation of the bloodiest and goriest kind.
- A visual fixation of the bloodiest and goriest kind, a founding narcissism.
In my fundamentalist book, Narcissist Universalism (Benyamini 2012, ch. 2) I claim that Paul forces the developing subject to face the screen-mirror image which turns it into a servant of the ecclesiastical faith apparatus.
This is the power of the ethos of the Passion as put forward by Paul, Christianity’s founding supplement, an appendix to the initial community which bore universal Christianity from an eschatological-apocalyptic fervor, and whose letters still find their way to new addresses throughout the Christian world. This entailed regulating the Jewish-Hellenistic origin so as to make it the most radical form of identification ‒ to the point of religious furor ‒ with the image of God’s servant as humiliated (in the Book of Isaiah). This image packs a punch for the viewer, gazing at the future eschatological wounds while merging with them. Then the viewer, from a position of identification with the wounds, is constituted as a subject whose being is towards a futurality whose roots are in the nail-studded cross.
I will then suggest seeing the Passion as central aspect of the mental infrastructure of the unique subjectivity of Western culture, a culture that shapes and constitutes the subject out of a special relation with the visual field, a relation which far exceeds any human relation to any image. Even if there is truth in the counterclaim that the subject being constituted is not a full one, we shall then claim that this partial subject overlaid history with a certain recurring motif of a very specific kind of visual identification - an image of a crucified messiah. This is the material image of that visual identification (which is a meeting point of Jewish, Hellenistic and messianic identifications; a junction of different ways of identifying with the internal nucleus of human suffering, without a clear distinction between them, a prism of sorts that encompasses beams of light from diverse origins, projecting a very specific image at the other end of the prism). For the Christian gaze both pities and identifies with the image of Jesus on the cross, as was formulated exclusively visually by Paul, with the internal aspect seeing just one single event:
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (1 Cor 2:2)
What we have here is nothing but a picture in words (Mitchell 1986, ch.1). There is no need for an underlying message behind the cross except the cross itself - the spectacle of Jesus wounded on the cross. In this respect, the icon of crucified Jesus is not meant to convey some additional message - it's all there – the key image of the Son sacrificing himself for the salvation of us, the sons. This medium, this icon, is Christianity. The medium is the (messianic) message.
For Paul, the community is supposed to focus on the image of its Lord, the consummate Son, Jesus the Messiah. It is a congregation of believer sons standing before God, the Father, while escaping his harsh Nomos (He is a previous but still relevant God). In the crucifixion complex, the sons experience loss as a result of the death of their love object and identify with his image, with their Ideal-Ego, until it merges with their subject-in-process. In other words, through the imagined loss of the crucifixion, the figure of Jesus becomes the source of narcissistic idealization for the believer – for his self-image – which is but an inferior reflection of the imagined-ideal icon. This does not necessarily mean that the imitation is solely practiced by the community towards Jesus, for the Jesus figure also emulates the sons – their existential, social, economic and political suffering. We can see in the crucified figure a structural and ahistorical reflection of the miserable human condition (as it is manifested in the lives of the believers and Paul himself at the hands of the pagans and Jews).
Paul presumes to establish a Christian community of sons complete with its demarcation vis-à-vis old Judaism and Hellenistic paganism. This is a congregation characterized by internal harmony, revolving round the figure of Jesus nailed to the cross. Accordingly, Paul, who sets out against the Jewish tradition of the Fathers, to which he used to belong, establishes the narcissistic community of sons, which constitutes its identity through an image that emulates it in return, until the future unification with that icon.
The gaze is one of identification with the pitiful figure nailed to the cross and its imitation of the messiah, and conversely, the image gazes emptily back at the believer and emulates the existential suffering of every man and woman. This reverberation serves as the foundation of the ideal of humility and suffering and Christian adoration around them, bringing about the creation of ecclesiastic pictures of the crucifixion. These images, like the image of the family and apostles lowering their savior from the cross, consistently address the Western subject as one not born from the word, but from the image, a very specific image, which attempts to cross the subject’s internal suffering with the internal image of humility.
The psycho-theological dynamics in Paul can be understood as a pivotal part of a cultural shift that occurred at that time. It seems that there was a move from the Jewish or Hellenistic internal mono-theism (a religious fixation on the One, like the Father-God or the abstract-infinite One Being) to an internal mono-imagism (a religious fixation on a single image, which is the framework for a seemingly endless world of other images - the father, Mary, the Saints, the different scenes of the New Testament and so on).
This is an irony of sorts, which offers an answer to the question of how Christianity maintained its monotheistic position, attempting to respect the Second Commandment’s demand (or to be more exact, how the demand is understood) not to represent God, without giving up the religion's unique nature, connected to the eventful temporality of Christ the divine man on the cross. (See Assmann 2009 regarding the Bible’s relation to the issue of representing divinity, and Hamburger 2012 on the roundabout ways Christian mysticism dealt with this dilemma regarding the visual.)
In any case, this one image serves as a giant filter through which the countless images supplied by the world stream through, with the endless wealth consolidating into one, the one God, the spiritual ideal or singular image. From the unique one sprout a countless wealth of other images, but these are subsets bound to the hierarchy of the one in face of the many (and from then on, there are no longer any other singular images like it, but only those in relation to the one; and henceforth all forms of relativism will unite around the unity of the Western-democratic-liberal ideal).
And thus the subject’s pathological fixation on the screen is born; the very same screen which can host the infinitude of images. In this way, reading Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians allows us to jumpstart our discussion regarding the historical plausibility of what we have called the screen-subject, a possibility addressed in these letters of the Passion with their obsession with the visuality of death. And although historically Christianity is more diverse than just the Pauline tradition, this visual core is there, albeit in terms which not even Paul’s contemporaries could fully comprehend (as is said by the head apostle in the Second Epistle to Peter 3:15–16). It is worth noting that if one reads the other epistles in the New Testament it becomes clear how much less they are obsessed with the issue of the messiah's death and crucifixion. Although the crucifixion of the messiah, who promised salvation only to be found dead, instilled cognitive dissonance in the apostles, from that moment on this tension succeeded in devouring their doubt and enforcing their faith. These apostles found strength in recalling the words of truth Christ had sounded in their ears, speech for which Paul was not present in the flesh, but only in its image of truth-death.
The subject’s highway to the future
In light of the chaos-abundance engulfing us in the age of high technology, which shoots us towards an unknown future – unknown except in metaphysical sci-fi films which seems to watch us more than we watch them - we seek to focus a question about our everyday reality: what is the essence of the “subject” (as a concept and an existence consequent to as well as going beyond the concept), the subject characterizing our age; or in other words, what is the subject found at the basis of our presentness and that moves towards the future, that is to say whose whole essence is movement towards the future?
Though the Western subject has an eschatological-progressive bedrock which is always moving towards a future, it now seems that this futurality no longer permits any being in the subject beyond a structural relation to the future. We will attempt to address this new form of subjectivity while taking into account the being of every subject as conceptualized (that is, one whose very existence, for each and every one of us, is already scripted in a spiritual notebook which precedes us and places us under a certain concept, a certain idea, as part of a philosophical, religious or other cultural construct.)
This conceptualization describes the subject and its being, but also constitutes it within the confines of that description, and what is this description and being if not: existentially in movement, from the present to the future? This is a movement in which the past is erased, not even dialectically, for the pastness itself of the subject is erased, as the past per se.
Although the monotheistic subject (in its Jewish metamorphosis, as well as en route to Christianity and Islam) is commanded to remember and honor the traditions of its fathers, this is a past always serving the present and future, and the past as such is not preserved, except as a past which is processed and repressed dialectically through resistance to it. This is a kind of erasure of the repression or forgetting of the past where a measure of violent energy towards it remains; a kind of play of tradition that is pseudo-faithful to that past while looking to its own future.
No hint of this will remain in the future: there where there is total apathy towards the past - no negation, no denial, no repression of the past. The past is simply not, because even the present is no longer, and then by the same token the future will disappear within this future futurity, in which only the screen event, the instantaneous drug-like pleasure of the screen will exist, without need of the distinctions of time and tense. The terms “uni-time” or “uni-space”, in the sense of one-dimensional, seem to apply here. And what about the situation in which even entertainment cinema, from pornography to the most highbrow, as well as 3D cinema and the computer game industry, move in a direction in which the spectator experiences the virtual world in three dimensions through the use of virtual reality glasses? It seems that in these cases the elimination of different dimensions of time and space grow ever more extreme in scope, approaching a temporal experience which can be called “periodic” (to the extent that time and space are reduced to the infinitesimal?) (See Virilio 1983 for more on the various changes the concepts of time and space are undergoing today). This is already happening within the subject-screen, that is going in this direction. Moreover, this motion, from the present toward the future, contains a conservative echo and protects the past, a dialectic echo of the foundations of the past. All this is a dialectical negation which preserves the past but actually leads towards its complete negation, where the erasure of the past is forgotten.
The Remote Controlled Subject
To adumbrate a theoretical analysis in the contemporary modes in which the viewer-subject encounters the screen (television, cinema and computer), we will make use of psychoanalytical discourse which will allow us to better understand the aspect of identification; as well as hermeneutic discourse, to understand how the reader and viewer constitute a text. Together they are supported by Sigmund Freud's theory of narcissism, Lacan’s way of understanding the reality of the gaze (regard), Althusser's concept of interpellation following Lacan, as well as the cinematic critique led by Metz and the academic journal Screen following Althusser; as well as Stanley Fish’s idea of reader response (see Fish 1980; Metz 1986; Althusser 2008).
The current discussion is also an elaboration of a theoretical term I have developed in my work - subjectext. The concept describes the two-way process of identification and determination of subject and text: on the one hand the reader-subject constitutes the text-other through the act of interpretation (according to Fish), and on the other hand the text and the other gaze back at the gazing subject, addressing him in the Althusserian sense, as an open book, an interpolating address. The other does this by inspiring in the subject a process of identification with the other’s gaze within him, perceived as addressed only to him. The subjectext is a compound of identification which takes place during reading.
From this position we can clearly articulate a similar theory regarding the subject and the screen, in which I would like to present the screen as the Other which gazes back at the subject. For Lacan, following Sartre (1943) in this regard, the subject sees the object but unconsciously feels the object-other’s gaze:
In the scopic field, everything is articulated between two terms that act in an antinomic way—on the side of things (des choses), there is the gaze, that is to say, things look at me, and yet I see them. This is how one should understand those words, so strongly stressed, in the Gospel, They have eyes that they may not see. That they might not see what? Precisely, that things are looking at them.[...] What we see here, then, is that the gaze operates in a certain descent, a descent of desire, no doubt. But how can we express this? The subject is not completely aware of it— he operates by remote control. Modifying the formula I have of desire as unconscious—man's desire is the desire of the Other—I would say that it is a question of a sort of desire on the part of the Other, at the end of which is the showing (le donner-à-voir). (Lacan 1973, p. 109, 115. Emphasis in the original.)
According to Lacan, the screen make the subject undergo a process of both identification and objectification, which turns the subject into an object for the other-object. This double movement is manifest in the fact that the screen projects its truth into the subject’s plot, an external truth that lives in the other but is not recognized as external and controlling, while also screening out the Real, hiding it with the help of the plot’s phantasms of the subject's self.
The Screen-subject and beyond
Moreover, such a psychoanalytic theory belongs to a very specific historical period and context, and might be less valid for explaining future circumstances. I will attempt to claim in what follows that contemporary circumstances signify rather the beginning of a process (apocalyptic and destructive while also simultaneously liberating) in which the screen, in both the physical and mental sense, increasingly merges with the viewer-subject into a single entity, a future dissolution of the distinction between them tending towards a world of simulacrums in which it is likely that the field of language, the field of representation, will disappear into the technological experience of telepathy. Moreover, could it be that this is no longer just a new aspect of reality which the subject experiences but the continuation of a certain logic of control which has long been in power in Western culture, and perhaps in all of human culture? To understand this transfusion between screen and subject, we should understand the relation between eye and screen as encapsulating the larger problem in play here; an allegory (but not just) that will give us a terminology to help clarify the future state, so that later it will be possible to deconstruct it - until eye and screen are no longer distinct (in much the same way Lacan in Seminar XI analyzes the aspect of the gaze and sight as an allegory for the relation between the subject and the otherness of the unconscious).
We shall call this being the subject-screen, especially in light of the unique gaze that obtains from the subject to the apparatus and back. Phenomenologically we can claim that the eye encounters the apparatus while encountering the eye of the screen. The following description of the process, taking place at two levels, can serve to clarify this point:
First level: The main organ through which man contends with the world is through the eye > the eye gazes at the world > the most significant objects for wo/man (as with most other creatures) in the world are other wo/men > one’s eye is predominantly occupied with gazing at others > in such gazing, the main focus is the other’s eye > man is predominantly occupied with eye contact > such eye contact is structurally repeated in the eyes’ contact with the screen > the screen is the end of an apparatus projecting light towards the eye > in the most advanced technological developments of the screen (like that of the smartphone) there is a camera on top of the device, serving as an eye of sorts.
Second level: the eye is exposed to an infinitude (of images) of the world > the (internet) screen increasingly reproduces this infinitude > this infinitude is concentrated and contained within one screen, one center, confronting the private individual > the eye is fixated on the one screen in which an entire world dwells > thus the two-level encounter between man and screen takes place: an inflation of visual simulations opposite the narcissism of the relation between the eye and an interactive mirror > the eye gazes at the screen and experiences it as an eye gazing directly back at him. The gaze at the eye and the viewer constitutes a being which is on the one hand open to the endless stream of images and on the other hand to reinforcing his narcissism: on the one hand the self’s passion is created by the screen and on the other hand the screen constantly feeds this passion while preserving a pinch of frustration which will continue to keep the self-desire cycle moving.
This frustration does not create an unbearable anxiety, because the levels of tension between screen and subject are constantly decreasing due to the ingenious reproduction between the spectator and the screen producing the cyborg merge. What was once an unbearable Angst, in the Lacanian sense, found in the frightening encounter with one’s likeness in the mirror (Lacan 2004), or in the Freudian sense of the Das Unheimliche (Freud 1919), is now mitigated by Capital’s insatiable needs (Capital which seems to be extremely well read in the works of Karl Marx and Max Weber).
According to the understanding put forward here, the apparatus-subject is a being constantly-becoming in a process that destroys its personal desire (if such a personal desire can be really said to exist). This (possibly mystical) convergence takes place as the dualistic Cartesian formulation of the computer takes over our own formulation regarding our ‘wetware’ human brain, and thus facilitates the ideology which attempts to lead us towards such a merger, at which time the logic of the wetware ‒ the software/hardware analogy for mind/body ‒ will become only natural. In light of the repeated cries heralding “Here comes the Day of Yehova!”, first by the biblical prophets, and then in the “Jesus, come!” of John of the Apocalypse, the question arises whether the pressing call is now “apparatus, come!”
The being of the screen-subject has formed and been reinforced over decades, beginning at the end of the 19th century, through the initial gaze at the Big Other of the cinematic silver screen, a traumatic and violent experience which engulfs one in a womb-like fashion, developing into the warm family home television screen. The screen then further penetrated into the personal-intimate sphere, intended for the individual’s eyes only, and no longer just the family. In the screen-subject’s current development, the interactive smartphones and tablet screens capture the eye’s gaze, forcing the viewer to become immersed. And the viewer is himself also an object of these screens’ gazes, which study the subject’s movements to better fit his form, which the subject himself consolidates, confronted by the technology’s own consolidating subjectivity - a circle of magic mirrors. ‘Selfie’ images express the radical side of the narcissistic (phone) object which interfaces between subject and screen through applications like Facebook and WhatsApp, but also in the original sense of Ovid and Freud (and not in the simple sense of the duplication of the photographing me, where the image on the screen simply makes a one-directional copy of the ego’s body, and the ego falls in love with this image): the photographed image and the one photographing it recreate and duplicate one another, preserving an echo of each other. (For a genealogy of how mobile phones influence the world-views of the subject see Wellner 2011).
An example of such a future point is Google Glass. The screen-subject will don special glasses like those of a fighter pilot or futuristic robot and information will be projected onto the lenses, directly merging with the gaze of the world through an (information) augmented reality. Gaze-1 of the human eye merges with the apparatus’ gaze-2, the same gaze-2 which is always aimed at the subject – the subject and the apparatus are one and their gaze, gaze-3, is aimed at the world (a gazed-at-object without being gazed directly at but only through the apparatus). At this time we find ourselves in an intermediary stage in which the technology of eyes is still thoroughly differentiated, eyes that have “telepathic” understanding: the car in which I drive enters the parking garage I see, my car is identified by the eye-camera which clocks its time of entrance and allows me to exit after payment procured by a credit card interaction, which my eyes inform me has been confirmed on the pay station’s LED, without a single redundant step, either physical or mental – a streamlined process of visual confirmation and identification.
Embedded in the Apparatus
In his essay on apparatus, Agamben (2009) notes that the most prominent of apparatuses in human history is language. This offhand comment by the apocalyptic-messianic thinker, at the end of a theological-political debate about the Christian foundations of the Western concept of the apparatus (or posed in the earlier terms of economics and dispositions, which describe divine intervention). Moreover, we can treat language as a mechanism, as a techne governing the brain, internalized and integrated with the self and conditioning it in life, while the futuristic apparatus is an external tool which will take over and render impossible the distinction between the self and the self towards an ocean of subjectivity (in which the internet will contain all of us embedded within it. And this can already be said to be taking place; each of our subjectivities is embedded there until such time as all subjectivity will henceforth dwell there, and the respective borders of our different subjectivities will blend and disappear within this ocean); while the older apparatuses produced the double action of horizontally creating eyes and vertically creating the distinction between self and self (regardless of the media in which the imagined self first manifested and was deconstructed in accord with the postmodernist doctrine).
A viewing of the 2008 film Wall-E reveals the interpellation of the screen-subject in the form of a future breed of humans living in a paralyzing utopia on a spaceship run by a mothering apparatus in the form of a supercomputer with protruding eyes, blocking any possibility of maturing and returning to the home planet Earth. And indeed through a reversal of the psychoanalytic formula we discover regression, or an onthological-parody of that regression, from the tension between the subject and the absolute/Big Other on the cinema screen, to an autoerotic screen-subject in which there is no longer a distinction between subject, screen and apparatus. An apocalyptic regression, or one aimed towards an apocalyptic experience, in which the subject undergoes a process of reversal towards a Freudian consolidation of the subject from auto-eroticism (the internal love devoid of any other) to narcissism (the love of an identical object which exists for the subject as a possible significant other) and finally away from the subject to the selection of an object (the love of the other as the other) (See Freud 1904).
To what extent is this process influenced by the fact that these screens developed as part of the Christian cultural field linked to a Western subjectivity? And how much can be extrapolated to a universal subject through cultural colonialism? For the core of that very subjectivity was also formulated in the epistles of the thirteenth apostle, Paul. We take this into account in positing Christianity, like every systematized religion, as much more than a spiritual framework, but a wider cultural one.
The discussion presented here regarding the relation between the viewer-subject and the screen, a discussion which has clear eschatological characteristics, is aimed at the trivial in its everydayness, but also at that which has surprisingly apocalyptic aspects, and even more so at the superficiality of that coincidence which melds the contemporary with finitude itself. It seems that what is being outlined here is none other than a cultural paradox, especially valid in our current time. To better point to the structural paradox, I wish to stress the fact that today academics and laymen as one flatly reject any claim that our time is close to an apocalyptic futurality; they reject the absurd aspect of the claim, namely the contradictory relation between two radically different states that also entail a peculiar proximity. Before we clarify the meaning of this paradox, we will focus on its structure through this rejection which actually paradigmatically expresses it.
The very defensive response confronted by a paradox, expressed in a sneering rejection of its actual presence or existence ‒ especially in the extreme apocalyptic end situation in which we find ourselves ‒ serves as an example of the problematic nature of our contemporary logic, in that it highlights how we are facing a problem that can be taken as either radical or trivial. But the choice of either pole misses the larger point regarding a condition which is both; both democratic and liberating as well as totalitarian and oppressive. This is not an issue of different perspectives, but of a phenomenon that is the synchronization of both aspects into an inseparable mesh! For the anti-dialectical rejection only leaves us with the trivial, and thus arouses suspicion concerning the apocalyptic way in which the apparatus consumes us.
In the hope that conceptual clarification can serve to elucidate the difficulties in which we find ourselves, we should focus on the concept of “apocalypse” which should be taken as a tension between its literal and historical meaning; literal in the sense of a dramatic event which reveals something, like that found in the title of the final part of the New Testament, “John’s vision" Αποκάλυψη του Ιωάννη; and historical in the most pragmatic sense, in which the word is imbued with meaning following that very text detailing an eschatological catastrophe at the end of days. De facto, in a broad domain of cultural phenomena, this relation is perceived as solely negative, especially to contemporary secular sensitivities, and is no longer a bearable mix of a negligible negative aspect spiced with positive utopianism. It should be understood that the influence of Hollywood reinforces this trend with the paranoia which it instills in its viewers. Thus the cinematic renditions of Philip K. Dick’s paranoid stories, geared towards a dystopian pleasure which grounds the viewer, completely embedding him in the monadic space created for him and him alone as he ironically returns to his experience of the Truman Show type of heroic masculinity. Moreover, the terrifying aspect of what is imagined is connected to the manner in which Hollywood productions understand, in their bid to give pleasure in line with the Christian tradition, the imaginary depth of our relation to a future apocalypse.
Besides those noted above, who reject apocalyptic claims, there are those who accept the ongoing change but experience it indifferently if not actually positively, and can claim that as part of our attempt to conceptualize our condition it is preferable to use the term “evolutionary” and not “apocalyptic-catastrophic”, and are astonished at the stubborn paranoia such as is expressed here, which overly stresses the apocalyptic at the expense of the liberating.
First and foremost, in response to these claims we must note that from our current perspective on the approaching future, such as that described by Ray Kurzweil (2005) concerning the point of singularity, it is indeed a threatening future, or in other words, it seems to entail a threat that the contemporary subject senses from afar as its own negation and dissolution into the field of computerized automation-robotization. Secondly, there is not even any possibility of discourse from the yet unknown perspective of future man, for whom the situation will likely be trivial. Thirdly, we go far back in time to make a statement about the future, the future whose seed was planted in our present, or so it seems. The very same past which we are inquiring about is also closely tied to the Judeo-Christian apocalyptic tradition of the destruction of the Second Temple. This tradition thus ties together destruction and anxious anticipation of the future, an imagined anticipation, a present tense point of view that is nevertheless also already rooted in the future, a view towards what is insinuated from the present to the future. This is how Paul perceived messianic time. In this regard, Paul imbues the subject with an apocalyptic core through visual identification with the image of the crucifixion, an identification whose final degradation will lead to a mystical merging with the crucified until the two are indistinguishable.
And thus we can ask if we are experiencing the soft and pleasurable attack of a creeping apocalypse, in and towards us, in which our subjectivity becomes habituated, albeit not completely, to a slippery slope which ends in annihilation through a merger with the Object-Screen? And this stands in contradiction to the earlier subjective prophecies, in which the subject deals with a horrible reality, unique and sudden, a situation so dire that the subject has no choice but to grow accustomed to the catastrophe, to the sudden change. Which situation is worse: the slow process of growing accustomed to growing accustomed, or the very traumatic not growing accustomed to growing accustomed? And are we today dealing with the formation of a revolution, a formative revolution? Will we still be able to define revolution?
This is a revolution whose primary evil is that it contains the process of growing accustomed to it ‒ becoming habituated to it ‒ which dissolves the very objective “fact” of its historical existence, its very existence as “past”. This habituation is part of an existence which slowly but surely can no longer make distinctions between epochs and will not recognize its existence within a revolutionary situation. This is an existence finally apathetic towards time. An irony of sorts - the end of the subject of futurality.
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