“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Monday, March 30, 2009

Fiddlers on the roof

The spate of phallic art on rooftops for viewing via Google Earth deserves comment. It wouldn't be hard to do a Lacanian reading here. Google Earth promises the ultimate illusion of being able to see reality from the point of view of a (strictly nonexistent) Big Other, incarnated as outer space. It's as if outer space itself were looking at Earth and that we, by extension, were in the position of outer space. This view from the impossible Big Other's viewpoint is the basis of the Earthrise image that Al Gore popularized (in his movie and elsewhere; see Ursula Heise's new book). It's the ultimate totalizing gaze of surveillance at its purest.

You could read the phalluses as desperate attempts to normalize the situation. This takes various forms:

1) Flipping the bird to the view from the place of the Big Other, rather like the bumper sticker that says “How's My Driving? Dial 1-800-EAT-SHIT.” In a sense, aren't these bumper stickers there to convince us that there is a real, coherent Big Other—didn't Lacan say “Every bumper sticker is the bumper sticker of the other”? No, he didn't. It's amusing that the phallic symbol in the photo above “waited” for almost a year to be seen. So that in a way the illusion is that it was being “seen” by Google Earth itself before humans stumbled upon it. The phalluses are messages in bottles for voyeurs that return their own prurience back to them in the tawdriest imaginable form.

2) The gaze of the Big Other is imagined to be the phallus as such, so the phallic symbol tries to neutralize this by appearing as an object of that gaze. Just when we think we're standing in the phallic position of the all-seeing eye, the phallus appears “down over there” on someone's roof. Of course, this neutralization never really works—the phallus is everywhere and nowhere at once (and as the rooftop phallus meme multiplies, its impotence grows more and more apparent).

3) A parody of the Lascaux cave paintings, as if Earth dwellers were primitives viewed by extraterrestrial anthropologists—ourselves! Or the inverse—a perversely idiotic message to send to curious aliens: the essential bits of Man (who exited the Solar System on the Pioneer Plaque), minus the man.

The overlapping of primitivism and ultra-modernism here reminds me of the New York new wave scene, viz. Talking Heads and Laurie Anderson (“Big Science” in particular). Now anyone can do a David Byrne. In this case, the well-worn contours of the phallic symbol mock the newness of the possibility of seeing everything from the Big Other's point of view.
It's significant that the phallic symbols appear to be the very first form of unofficial Google Earth art. Okay so we've all heard of artworks that anticipate or mimic Google Earth—but never of art that can only be viewed via Google Earth. It's neat that the first example of this art is anti-art, graffiti.

4) Converting the entire surface of the Earth into a school lavatory wall brings obscenity and the ridiculous back into the sublime techno-joy. It's as if the pristine image of the fragile, glass-like Earth were already an antique product of a more naive age. In this sense the phalluses merely point out what was already the case. Google Earth actually abolishes Earthrise as a distanced, aesthetic object with an aura (you can almost see it!), since you can zoom in and out and see many, many different places and angles on a whim. Ironically, then, the kind of global view often seen as the devourer of the “organic” local perspective finds itself tossed into the dustbin of history. The phallic symbol merely points out how Google Earth has already de-aestheticized the planet.

We must now be on the lookout for art that no one may see, because it's been placed to be viewed via Google Earth. Isn't this exactly the way Holbein inserts the phallic skull into his painting The Ambassadors?

We can't view the skull, a memento mori, without viewing the picture from an entirely different dimension which erases the picture as an illusory window onto a deep, perspectival reality (we have to look at the painting perpendicular to it, on its right hand side). Google Earth art is essentially spectral/phallic in this way. We can't see it without destroying the illusion of a lifeworld upon which ecological ideology depends. All the human dwellings are flattened by the shift to another dimension.

Google Earth appears intimate with everywhere: in the Google Earth image of my house you can see the trash cans sitting permanently outside. You can see my mother's fish pond in Wimbledon, London. But this intimacy is achieved at the expense of simultaneously evacuating the deep, surrouding, immersive lifeworld.

Psychoanalytically, the ultimate horror is that there is no real phallus—it's always a distorted shadow of an image that we can only glimpse as an intersection from another dimension. The phallus doesn't really exist “within” any one of the dimensions—it only appears as/in the distortion of one dimension by another. So the rooftop phallus is impotent, and so is the Google Earth phallic gaze. Once you can see everything, there is no guarantee of meaning. The more information we have, the less richness. Ironically, then, the ultimate proof that “there is no metalanguage” (Lacan) is not that we're limited to our perspective within our horizon, but that once we achieve a perspective without a horizon (Google Earth), we realize to our horror that we are not outside of subjectivity, with its distortions and desires. There is no outside—and no local either!

So learning about global warming and our fragile Earth, and so on, serves to make us feel something much worse than an existential threat to our lifeworld. It makes us realize that there never was a lifeworld in the first place, that in a sense it was an optical illusion that depended on our not seeing the extra dimension that Google Earth (and global warming mapping) opens up. (See here for an elegant Google Earth guide to your locale's emissions.)

I recently saw the Coen Brothers' brilliant and disturbing Burn After Reading, which was as horrifying as it was hilarious, often simultaneously. The opening and closing shots were a kind of Google Earth zoom towards, then away from, the D.C. area location; and there's a general theme of surveillance and being caught in multiple ways of framing reality. The conclusion is very similar in effect to the discovery of the rooftop phalluses: the CIA has eliminated the people it thinks might be a threat, but they have no way to ascertain that the characters in question really were a threat, or even what they were threatening. What is truly horrifying is that the big picture view becomes just another actor, just another viewpoint among others, so that it doesn't contain the others in a nice holistic Russian doll set.

It is guaranteed by the laws of psychic physics that the more information we have in our greedy pursuit of being able to see and photograph everything, the more our sense of a deep, rich, coherent world will appear unavailable: it will seem to have faded into the past, or to belong only to others (primitivism). Some of us will eventually think that we once inhabited this deep, rich, lost world. Others will realize that even this sense of loss is an optical illusion created by our current modes of seeing.


Nicola Masciandaro said...

Exactly. These are fascina, warding off the evil eye of the big other.

Timothy Morton said...

Good point Nicola. Thanks for finding the right word.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

It was an uncanny coincidence that did it. Cheers.

Tokyo. said...

Quite an interesting post to come to after walking away from the CNN on tv, which is using Microsoft Virtual Earth to rotate the God-eye and show us all four sides of the NY/Binghamton building containing hostages and gunmen. How they work the "old" images to reify the building in our contemptual conception of it with out all those distracting police lines, cars, officers and flashing lights. While simultaneously this angle removes us from the physicality of the horrific things happening within it(a point I think you got to in yr post). As thou we shouldn't fear those from the above so much as those living among us in our common plane of existence. Or, as I like to think of the the ability of the google earth angle, what if it really is not that significant at all? What if this spectacle is just one little action on a particular date which our tech has enabled us to see, and by looking down we're really affirming the inconsequence of our lives. If we look like ants then: humans = ants(not humans > ants). The problematic to this is it entitles both the fuck it let's make bigger hummers, blow shit up attitude, and simultaneously the environmental approach equally(depending how nihilistic one decides to be).

clintonista said...

Awesome exegesis. Lacan in Sem. XI on how the voyeur is looking for the absence of the phallus (p. 182) - thus phallic graffiti (which I'm not sure is anti-art anymore, since the same 80s NY you reference [Keith Haring etc]).

Joe Clement said...

Brilliant post. I also enjoyed your talk in Portland, but was unable to attend the seminar on 'The Book of Thel'. I have a quick couple of question. You write:

"Once you can see everything, there is no guarantee of meaning. The more information we have, the less richness."

How do we, although you do not quite put it this way, make the leap to "realize that even this sense of loss is an optical illusion created by our current modes of seeing"? Specifically, how do we make this leap while still confronting the lack of any real separation? This is the difference between "bad infinity" and "the genuine Notion of infinity," is it not?

Timothy Morton said...

Hi Joe--I'll have to think about this. Thank you. May I ask, separation from what?

Joe Clement said...

The separation is that illusory one between "us" and the "lost world," but also the (perhaps just as illusory) separation from this position and the one where we "realize that even this sense of loss is an optical illusion created by our current modes of seeing."

My question may have to do with the very way I posed it in the first place, which is why I admitted right off the bat that I might be putting some words in your mouth my speaking of a "leap." I also think I am coming at this from Dogen's dilemma over enlightenment and the point of practice. How do we engage the somewhat minimal fact that we are in the midst of global natural catastrophe, arguably of our own making, if what's so catastrophic about it is illusory?

Timothy Morton said...

Hi Joe--thanks for the clarification. What part of my post (or indeed any of them) led you to think that I believe that the catastrophe is an illusion?

Joe Clement said...

I am trying to put what I think are two related sets of issues into conversation, one of which isn't the focal point of this post. Those are the sense of loss of "a deep, rich, coherent world" that comes about as we gain more information and natural catastrophe as the disturbance or retreat, and hence loss, of pristine Nature. You haven't given me the impression that there isn't stuff like global warming, rampant deforestation or the general turning of our oceans into one giant toilet.

If I'm right in making the above connection, where the more we learn about our planet the more it seems to retreat from what we suppose is its natural state, my question has to do with what our realization "that even this sense of loss is an optical illusion created by our current modes of seeing" changes about how we perceive the current state of the world as being in trouble. In other words, what happens to ecological problems when we recognized that part of the problem is our very notion of the ecological?

Timothy Morton said...

Hi Joe--I think that's right on the money. Gaining ecology means losing Nature--that's kind of my argument. What we are losing isn't strictly anything at all--it never existed in the first place (as a reified thing "over there"). But losing a fantasy is even harder than losing a reality. Does this make sense?

Joe Clement said...

Perfect Freudian sense, Tim. What I wonder though is the difference between a regulatory (symbolic) fiction and a (potentially absurd and destructive) fantasy when we're talking about ecological fantasy. Is there already, in your view, such a fiction concerning "the environment" or is establishing that part of the larger project of dumping the ecological fantasy of a (pristine) Nature that is "over there"?

One might say that if what we're losing wasn't there in the first place, then what problem did it pose anyway? It's here that my questions are aimed, not because I want to preserve these ecological fantasies, much less anything along the lines of "capitalism with a green face," but because it's not clear to me what you're saying is at stake in letting them go that doesn't end up begging the question (i.e. pointing back to global warming, deforestation and the general turning of our oceans into toilets).

Timothy Morton said...

Hi Joe:

"One might say that if what we're losing wasn't there in the first place, then what problem did it pose anyway?"

Good question. You can be scared in a dream, no? So, in the dream, there was a problem. But the main problem is that you were dreaming.

Unknown said...

Great post!

I was struck by your final paragraph of 'Fiddlers On The Roof'. It is an excellently worded explanation of addiction to modernized social media -- Instagram, FB, Snapchat. So true, so true.

And really, Google Earth has now been added to my list of modern social media... as you say 'it offers the illusion of being able to see from the point of a Big Other...' as all social media and the (hyperobject)Internet does.

Thanks for making me think, my brain feels a bit better now.

Bryce T.

moili'ili or bust said...

Shouldn't this have been entitled, "Piddlers On The Roof"?