Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

L'arrivée d'une nouvelle réalité

L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat is the title of the first truly iconic piece of cinema. It is, of course, that much romanticised 50-second visual record of a steam engine pulling into a train station in the south of France and it was produced by the infamous founders of French cinema, Auguste and Louis Lumière. The urban myth which unfurled from the first screenings of this film encapsulates the ideal of each projectionist's magic ritual:

A small audience, assembled in a darkened room, were hushed in expectation of a wondrous spectacle never seen before. Suddenly, the wall or screen in front of them was filled with a dark light which then became suddenly bright and brilliant. The French countryside was in full view, figured in various shades of grey, but fluid and twitching; moving; somehow alive and real. In the near distance a dark, cylindrical object quickly emerged from behind some members of a gathered crowd to reveal itself as a steam engine.

It glided towards the left of the scene quickly, growing exponentially larger and larger as it drew nearer thanks to the mathematical laws of perspective. The light and quality of the image were so sharp that the strange black and white projection seemed to threaten the entire room. The audience members closest to the screen, fearing for their lives as the train approached them inexorably, leapt out of their seats and screamed, diving for the back of the projection hall.

"The audience members closest to the screen, fearing for their lives, leapt out of their seats and screamed"

Very little of this account is accurate. Not only was this far from the first public screening of a motion picture (the oldest surviving film dates from 1888; L'arrivée d'un train was first exhibited in January 1896 according to records), reports of the audience's startled reaction to the scene are certainly exaggerated, most probably grossly. Also, the Lumière brothers later exhibited a version of the film in 3D, an event which may have been conflated with stories of the 2D original since stereoscopic projection would have been more likely to actually startle members of an early cinema audience.

Trivial matters of fact aside, it is important to note that the myth endures because of a two-fold quality which makes it endearing to our contemporary, cinema-going age. Firstly, we are, as a race, prone to giving disproportionate attention to apocryphal stories which recall technological naivety.

James Thurber's aunt supposedly believed that power sockets which were not switched off once an appliance was unplugged would cause electricity to "leak" all over the house, for example. Or this list of well-known "computer stupidity" tales including the example of the PC owner who telephoned a support line to complain that the "cup holder" which slid out of her machine at the press of a button now refused to open correctly.

The second reason we adore the myth of the Lumières' early film is that it gestures at the true visual complexity of the art form we call cinema. We can hardly believe that an audience would be fooled into thinking a grainy, wobbly short film showing an old steam train was in fact some sort of breach in the very fabric of reality, but we buy tickets for 3D screenings of films today in the hope that we will experience the exact same reaction. The myth presents for us, then, a culturally resonant dual value. It allows us to critique the quaint notions of our predecessors (away from whom we must always suppose ourselves to be advancing) while simultaneously celebrating the brilliance of cinema's invention (and its continuing popularity).

Early cinema, like the appearance of the photograph before or the arrival of television after, represents one in a long series of steps human culture has taken to narrate or mediate perceived physical reality. However, the perceived stability of that reality has always been something of a red herring. Throughout our history, art, literature, religious doctrine, politics and economics have stressed the influence of the human condition upon perspective itself. Our view becomes narrated, devoted to symbols and tropes, obsessed with things like transience or the workings of the mind.

Where does reality stop and imagination begin? Hyperreality could be said to be the sediment of fantasy, the glossy version of what we already know, but without the fluidity and narrative complexity of true fantasy. In fact, it is a kind of alternate reality turned back to face our own. Hyperreality is there to be found in individual objects, products, systems of organising power and wealth - and of course mass media. Contemporaneously, the vast resource full of text, sound and image which we call the world wide web has come to epitomise the plastic vibrancy of the hyperreal paradigm and the wide-ranging impact of that hyperreality on our behaviour is forever being dissected by pundits and commentators.

This new hyperreality can be thought of as the arrival of the train at La Ciotat in the form of a myth-metaphor. The more things like hyperreality or the digital fill our field of vision, the more our emotions and panic swell in our initial response to it; the more we feel that our safety is compromised. The train in the image supposedly threatens to flood our reality and engulf us; it is that instinctive reaction against the threat of death and collision which makes the L'arrivée d'un train myth so compelling. Indeed, the passivity of the cinema audience serves as a kind of extreme satire of the control we, as a 'public', feel ourselves as lacking over the exponentially increasing influence of the hyperreal upon our lives.

"It is that instinctive reaction against the threat of death and collision which makes the L'arrivée d'un train myth so compelling"

Of course, our engagement with the hyperreal, our acquiescent condoning and purchasing of it, is the very source of its potency. Indeed, far from passive, we are engrossed in the process of masochistically absorbing the hyperreal, of teasing it and relishing the flexibility with which it rewards us. We therefore remain culpable. It is no exaggeration to suggest that it has become a pastime for us to toy with the limits of our being by engaging with the full spectrum of the hyperreal. Death itself might be overcome, or enacted without consequence.

Pre-dating our fascination with this possibility is another myth - one which we have forgotten. It claims that a person cannot die within a dream without also dying bodily. The 'reality' of dying, like the reality of murder for an infantry soldier, can be so shrouded by discipline or practice as to create a kind of amnesia which effectively smothers the physical fact of death itself. For example, I cite the case of George Darkins, a 13 year-old English schoolboy who recently committed suicide accidentally while taking part in an online role-playing game. Frustratingly, I cannot find much detail about the nature of the role-playing game with which Darkins was engaged, but it seems to have involved character-based personal relationships which could be advanced by taking pictures of oneself "in-character" in various situations and then passing them to whomever was interacting with you via some form of online messaging.

According to some very sketchy news reports on the incident, Darkins had previously entered a relationship with a female player of the game but after some time wished to exit that relationship. His means of accomplishing this demonstrate the thinness of the blur between digital and physical. His character would have to commit suicide - that, seemingly, was the relevant rule of dis-engagement. This Selbstmord had to be enacted and photographed. Darkins' literally fatal mistake occurred when, in the process of photographing himself wearing a noose, he applied slightly too much pressure and damaged his neck (it is unclear how). He was later found in the hallway of his home by his father and taken to hospital but died there after doctors were unable to revive him.

The accident is a harrowingly sharp realisation of the conundrum identified by Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation. In the essay, "Precession of Simulacra", Baudrillard asks the reader to imagine the process of staging a fake bank robbery, using harmless but visibly realistic firearms, taking bank clerks hostage and asking for a ransom all the while never admitting that you are just playing a kind of elaborate prank.

"You won't be able to do it: the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements (a policeman will really fire on sight; a client of the bank will faint and die of a heart attack; one will actually pay you the phony ransom), in short, you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real - that is, to the established order itself, well before institutions and justice come into play."

A few paragraphs later, Baudrillard develops this observation into a more general comment on the shift towards simulation which is now "impossible to isolate" from the real: "All the holdups, airplane hijackings, etc. are now in some sense simulated holdups in that they are already inscribed in the decoding and orchestration rituals of the media, anticipated in their presentation and their possible consequences."

But in contrast to Baudrillard, who is elsewhere deeply critical of a trend towards falsification, many more recent thinkers have extolled the virtues of the virtual to contemporary social interaction. Not only in case-by-case ways, which are described variously in other posts on this blog for example, but in structural ways also. Slavoj Zizek, in "The Cyberspace Real" has written:

"The hypertext rhizome [the labyrinthine narrative into which we tumble online] does not privilege any order of reading or interpretation: there is no ultimate overview or "cognitive mapping," no possibility to unify the dispersed fragments in a coherent encompassing narrative framework... [But] this ultimate helpless confusion, this lack of final orientation, far from causing an unbearable anxiety, is oddly reassuring: the very lack of the final point of closure serves as a kind of denial which protects us from confronting the trauma of our finitude, of the fact that there our story has to end at some point - there is no ultimate irreversible point, since, in this multiple universe, there are always other paths to explore, alternate realities into which one can take refuge when one seems to reach a deadlock."

Baudrillard would surely counter that to experience the hyperreal in this way is a gross act of self-destruction. However, one must remember that Baudrillard's own stance is fundamentally underpinned by his referral to the Real; that which predated the Hyperreal. This is where I take issue. The presupposition of a concrete, stable and meaningful reality away from which we have foolishly deviated is humanity's most cherished delusion. It is the reason for hyperreality and the faltering tracts which attempt to expose or denounce it. That supposedly original state, that ontological Eden from which we have banished ourselves, is as much of an illusion as Disneyland itself. It is the rug which was never under our feet.

"The presupposition of a concrete, stable and meaningful reality away from which we have foolishly deviated is humanity's most cherished delusion."

There is no simple way of describing the intertwinement of real and hyperreal which is so obviously a feature of contemporary human culture. One affects the other. From the moment technology, language and later media were adopted by our species, the real ceased to exist. And since that process happened unconsciously, in the early stages of early human cognitive evolution, it seems fair to argue that consciousness has probably never existed within the real. Consciousness itself is hyperreal, and it is thoroughly deceptive to suggest that it is not as ground-breaking as the hyperreality of the cinema or the world wide web. All of these aspects of our being offer an imprint of what we like to think is reality. In fact, that reality is dependent on the definition of the medium, be it language itself, or the thoughts we have which cannot exist outside of it. When was the cut-off point? When did we lose our grip on reality? The truth is, we never had it in our hands. We only believe, because it is essential to the cyclical concepts of innocence and the fall which seem to have forever defined us, that it was only a few decades or centuries ago, it was only in that halcyon time over our shoulder, that we still had the potential to access true reality. That we were then still grounded whereas we are now, allegedly, adrift.

What Baudrillard says about the activity of the hyperreal is all, largely, true. The plastic falsehood of a degenerating capitalist wasteland does exist. But that does not mean that similar falsehoods have not always existed. It is wrong to position these errors along some kind of chronological crescendo. The fake, the illusory, are an indelible part of how we have always organised ourselves. We should not be aghast that conspiracy theories and stupid logic persist in the information age, since access to information has never been a guarantee of intelligent action.

The actual delusion now, about which I am constantly writing, is the delusion that turning the next corner of the hyperreal labyrinth will show us a way out of the trap. In a sense that too is what we have always hoped for, yet we have always been rather disappointed. This should not identify me as an anarcho-primitivist. I have no desire to assault and destroy the proverbial machine since it fails to satisfy us. On the contrary I recognise that such a position would be absurd. However, I do grow weary of the same hysteria, the cultivation of the same terror, like that which is said to have been induced by the Lumière brothers' film. It is the paranoia which states that we are now suddenly at threat, that fracture is imminent, that the advancing train will devour us all. The obtuseness and frivolity of the two-penny scaremongering which fills national newspapers and magazines fails to surprise me now. I simply long for intelligent discussions about the demonstrable effects of technology and how we may negotiate them without surrendering ourselves entirely or fearing that they spell the destruction of our race.

The audience at L'arrivée d'un train did not run for their lives. We only think they did. It would be our last great act of folly to chase these ghosts to the back of the room.

 

comments powered by Disqus

SEARCH

ABOUT

MOST POPULAR

TWITTER

The Machine Starts is all over Twitter! Click here to check out a flurry of observations on digital culture and links to the latest and most interesting tech news from around the web.

ESSENTIAL READING

The Interface and Hyperreality

Interfaces express not that a journey has been eliminated, but that a new one may be created.

Predicting a Riot: What Violence Means for "Society"

Networking, in many senses, gives rise to a new perspective on the London Riots of 2011.

Could you quit the internet?

Does abstinence from the web ever last? Is it even a good idea?

The Computer Virus: Our Cultural Contagion

Computer viruses are not just computer viruses. They spread in pathological as well as technological ways.