Archive for simulacra

The White Bentley Chase Did Not Happen

Posted in Postmodern 2.0 with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2009 by Bonni Rambatan

Such was Jason Quackenbush’s response #5 to the polemic that has been going on the the blogosphere about a live-tweeting event of a certain suicide last month. Yes, I know this is very much a late response, but you will forgive me for I was isolated from the blogosphere in the past two months. I knew of the story just a while ago from my good friend A.V. Flox, who blogged about it herself. Five days later Amber Rhea responded rather harshly to A.V.’s post, saying that accusations of technology being awful has always been going around for ages in virtually every era.

Simulacra by Tatchapon Lertwirojkul, which has nothing to do with our post

Tatchapon Lertwirojkul's Simulacra, which has nothing to do with our post

I agree with them. Yes, all of them. Well, I’m a Lacanian, and Lacanians like to bring seemingly contradictory things together and show how they are two sides of the same coin. This is what I’m going to do here.

But before that, a quick recap of what happened. On the eve of February 10th, there was a white Bentley chase in LA that lasted for three hours before the driver pulled over in front of a Toyota dealership and finally killed himself. Let us quote A.V., who tells it in a much more eloquent manner than I could ever do:

The white Bentley stopped in front of a Toyota dealership near Universal City after a three hour chase on Hollywood Freeway and Interstates 5, 10 and 405. The stand-off began at around 11:00PM PST, with hundreds tuning in to the FOX11ABC7 and KCAL9 live feeds online.

Before long, Twitter streams were on fire with commentary from people around the world about what was happening. People watching gave in to speculation about the identity driver, debating whether it was hip hop singer Chris Brown, charged earlier with assault—allegedly against his girlfriend, the singer Rihanna or rapper DJ Khaled, as well as the reason for his fleeing.

As time passed with no action, the public became more and more irate. Jokes followed, including the creation of the fake account @WhiteBentley, which ran a stream of comments as though he was the driver inside the car.

The jokes soon turned sinister, with many expressing someone should just shoot the driver down and save the LAPD thousands, and still others suggesting the driver end his life to avoid repercussions of the extended chase. Then, after news reports began coming in that the driver might indeed have shot himself and the ABC7 cameras zoomed out to avoid exposing the public to a gruesome scene, the disappointment was almost unanimous.

“They aren’t going to zoom in and show us the possible brains, bullshit!” a chilling tweet read.

The driver and law enforcement personnel involved were no longer human to those of us watching. Moving around inside our computer screens, they had become characters in a play put on for our entertainment.

Fascinating. Of course, I could not agree more: people inside the computer screen have become characters in a play put on for our entertainment. Let’s get back to Jason Quackenbush. The same idea, of course, underlies his post. He mentions Baudrillard, whom he likes the more “the older he gets”, and evokes Baudrillard’s famous statement that the Gulf War did not happen and applied the same idea to the suicide tragedy.

I am not a Baudrillardian. I like Baudrillard, but to me his ideas are a little simplistic, and I could never be convinced of his idea of a postmodern rupture after which all things implode into a simulacra. I do not like the technophobic tone, often with hints of a nostalgia for the past, detectable in his works, but also in most postmodern philosophers including today Paul Virilio. And this is where I agree with Amber Rhea. “What’s the current monster of the week?” she said, “The formula seems to be: pick something relatively new and use it as a scapegoat; wring hands; bemoan the direction society is heading (downward, one presumes); repeat in 2-3 months.”

In fact Amber made an excellent point, that we can always go further back in time to find this monster. As far back, I would say, as the development of language and tools itself, the very things that make us what we are today instead of cavemen. You see, mankind is a creature that is fundamentally alienated, separated from reality. Deal with it. To bemoan technology is in effect to bemoan language itself. When I said that the white Bentley chase did not happen, it is not because Twitter has created a Baudrillardian rupture of reality, but because nothing really happened. We live in a Symbolic universe, the universe of technology and language, mediated by it, and things happen, be it with drama and empathy or with sheer coldness and chilling morbid jokes, in none other than our imaginations. We always connect with Imaginary relations with other people.

That should not however be an argument to merely dismiss the live-tweeted suicide event as another day in the office. One could not deny that it was a horrible event, and one that can only happen after the invention of Twitter. Technology does change us, in major ways, and we cannot deny that. Does Twitter kill your soul? Perhaps. But let us not forget that the history of technology is a history of human souls being killed over and over and over again since the beginning of time. It is lso a history of their rebirth, of new modes of Being, as Heidegger put it.

Ultimately, the question of the inherent good or evil within technology is a personal wager. We are never sure that technology will bring us good. But let us not die in postmodern simulacra. Let us be a good Badiouvian and realize the militant nature of truth and the good. I’m rooting for Twitter all the way. Kill our souls, if only to make us grow.

The Cyborg’s Implosion of Visual Space

Posted in Divine Science with tags , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Scleral Shell, Prosthesis designed by Dr. Danz. Photo by Jonathan James

Scleral Shell, Prosthesis designed by Dr. Danz. Photo by Jonathan James

Recently San Francisco-based artist Tanya Vlach made several headlines with her Call for Engineers to develop her a prosthetic eye that would be able to take still photos and video, use 3X optical zoom, be Bluetooth enabled and hold space for a 4GB SD card. Just below the blog title she quotes Donna Haraway’s definition of the cyborg. Shortly after the news my blogger/designer friend Atherton Bartelby told me of a similar artist, Rob Spence of Eyeborg (graphic images, NOT for the squeamish). One thing is clear: both are obviously aware of their being cyborgs.

What is our relationship to spatiality and the visuals today? Jean Baudrillard has introduced us to the postmodern implosion of the signifier and the signified, where our semiotic sphere loses its grounding and spins around in confusion. But, I think, with the birth of the cyborg — itself a being born out of implosion — as well as surveillance technologies and the evolution of HCI, things get a bit more complex. Here, we are witnessing not only the Baudrillardian simulacra that confuses the signifier with the Thing-in-itself, but also the implosion of the trompe-l’œil with the object. The field of vision itself is objectivized

(This, of course, can only happen qua a posthuman subject, a subject of modular organs: in the past few years, the seeing subject has changed from a subject with eyes to a subject with a nervous system and a camera. It is no longer the eye that sees; it is the brain.)

What does it mean, today, to see? There is nothing natural about sight — the vantage point, the subjective point-of-view is not merely this illusion that locates the existence of the subject, but also at the same time that which radically cuts the subject from within — my gaze is effectively not fully my own. Is this not the reason, the primeval trauma behind all those fantasies of an out-of-body experience? (We can recall here the same formula by Lacan of the voice, and its equivalent ghostly experience of being possessed by a voice.)

It is worth recalling Bourdieu’s famous claim — although ultimately the reference to any “natural” state is a false one — that perspective drawings are not the natural way to see things, but the educated painter’s way to do so. Today, what we take as “natural” comprise of the zoom, the image and video capturing capabilities, the memory in the eye, and so on (suffice it to recall how advertisements of HDTV always feature natural objects). But if the perspective drawing was a way to draw, what we are now effectively dealing with is a way to see — we are now not manipulating how we represent reality, but reality itself, insofar as what we take as reality is nothing but our perception of it (post-structuralism, quantum physics, autopoietic cognitive science, etc.).

And a second point: does not the elevation of the gaze into a cyborg’s render perfectly the notion that our gaze is never our own? Once that trauma is revoked, once the fantasy is realized qua networks and data transfers, it is easy to imagine the paranoia such technology will cause: what if the visions I am seeing is not the way things really are, but are in fact footages and animation transmitted from somewhere else? More ideals, more paranoia. Eyehacking, anyone?

Okami: Divine Subjects and Image-Instruments

Posted in Pop Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan


OK, most of you probably know that I’m a hardcore Wii fan by now, so I’m guessing it’s about time to put the gaming geek of myself to elucidate my Lacanian new media theories. One of the core concepts of my thesis is a new subjective experience I call the divine subject. This notion of transcendent subjective experience made possible by technology has its roots in cybernetics and the Macy conferences of the 20th century, as Katherine Hayles has explained in her 1999 book How We Became Posthuman. The postmodern notion of contingent bodies and posthuman transformations is not, as many may argue, a rejection of the liberal humanist subject of Enlightenment (“ethics is deconstructed with biotechnology,” “it’s all about the dehumanizing market,” etc.), but instead, as John Searle is well aware, a faithful move to take the Cartesian subject one step further: a desperate move to preserve the cogito under postmodernity — precisely because thought is the only viable experience, we need no more bodies!

What better piece of literature to illustrate the divinity of the subject than Okami, a game in which you actually take control of God herself? This game in which your avatar is the Japanese sun God, Okami Amaterasu (taking the form of the white wolf avatar, Shiranui), has as its core element the ability for players to create objects in the scenes by painting on them directly — you create suns by painting circles in skies, stars by painting dots, cut enemies by painting slashes, etc. This is a perfect example of what Lev Manovich calls the transformation from image to image-instruments. With the advent of the computer age, signifiers now has a double role: not only a part of the sign, but also something to be acted upon, a portal to another dimension.

What to say of today’s world of signs? It is no longer the Baudrillardian object-dominated world of simulacra in which subjects are fashionably dead, but a world in which the simulacra is an extension of subjective experience. The correct way to read the popular postmodern dystopia in which even our bodies is nothing but a simulacra is not that we are dead, reduced to mere Foucauldian sand imprints, but the opposite one: every simulacra may be our body. (Is this not the ultimate dream of ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, etc?) With Žižek, the (Cartesian) subject is not dead, but preserved through its reflexivity.

Okami perfectly illustrates my thesis: with signifiers evolving from its original purpose to include a role as portals of actions, with subjects depending more and more on avatars (the contingent simulacra body, explained further on my theories of the psychoanalytic monitor phase) both for social interaction and individual enjoyment, it is only prudent to note the possibility that there is an evolution going on in the dialectics of the Symbolic and Imaginary orders. Does the divine paintbrush of Okami not show that the Imaginary self may very well lie outside the visible biological self?

The Simulacrum’s True Lie

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , on July 12, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Jean Baudrillard is famous for his theories of the simulacrum, quoting from Ecclesiastes, which — to refresh your memories — goes as follows:

The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals the fact that there is none.

The simulacrum is true.

A common reading of Baudrillard would be that the simulacrum is the empty appearance that disguises the hollow nothingness behind it. However, there is at least one problem that arise once we take this into the truly postmodern context. Frankly, are we today, in general, not already aware of the fact that there is none? If so, why should the simulacrum present itself as concealing this fact? It is here that we see the true trick of the simulacrum — the fact that it claims itself as a truth that conceals. It is therefore not the fact of nothingness itself that is the problem — it is the fact that the simulacrum has to present itself as concealing. It may conceal nothing behind it — but the verb remains. And, in a tautological turn, it is this predicate that defines the subject — the simulacrum is concealment, hence concealment is true.

The true perversion of the simulacrum thus lies in the act of proclaiming a third dimension to it, that it carries an empty world behind it — the Baudrillardian trompe-l’œil. Empty as it were, but it functions, and it functions very well precisely because it is conceived as empty, deep, impenetrable. This is why in the contemporary age we have an excessive dose of conspiracy theories, new age mysticism, individualist narcissism, and other symptoms that make global capitalism flourish in its current state of being. These modes, I argue, can only function when the simulacrum of our social sphere is conceived as a truth that conceals.

In fact, the simulacrum is not a truth that conceals. It is a lie that shows. There is nothing behind simulacrum, not in the sense that there is nothing behind it, but in the precise sense that even nothingness itself is impossible. It does not conceal because it cannot conceal — there is nothing to conceal, not even a dimension that legitimizes the linguistic possibility of concealment.

A great metaphor of this linguistic impossibility would be the case of General Relativity — recall the way Einstein treats the void in his astrophysical formulations as physical objects that can bend and stretch. Empty space, in relativistic astrophysics, is a tangible object. Opposed to this, we have absolute nothingness — that which lie beyond the universe, before the Big Bang, inside a black hole. In this second category, their very linguistic statement is a paradox — there cannot be such as “beyond” an all-encompassing universe, “before” time starts in a Big Bang, or “inside” the singularity of black hole cores. Likewise, the simulacrum cannot “conceal” — the statement is impossible. The simulacrum is flat, two-dimensional.

Recall a typical scene from old cartoons where the antagonists are trapped into running straight into a wall painted to look as if there is a tunnel through it that enters into another world. This painting does not conceal the fact that there is no world behind it — its very texture precisely shows that there is no world, it expects us beforehand to see that there is no world, and only the idiotic antagonist would believe that there is. If there is a thing it conceals, it is the fact that it does not conceal anything. The protagonists are never allowed to see through this obscene second-layer of lie, and can usually thus enter into this third dimension precisely because he knows that it does not exist, because he does not believe in it. The antagonist is the one who believes too much. The protagonist is the one who does not believes, but for whom things work precisely because he creates a self-distance from his own supposed belief. Hence ideology. Hence the true lie of the simulacrum.

Hello, World!

Posted in Postmodern 2.0 with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

“Hello, World!” is the standard opening template of the WordPress blog. It is also the standard template for test runs of computer language. It is fascinating – to me, this statement is precisely the mark of the beginning of the posthuman. Humans greeting the entirety of the world using a computer – precisely such is the beginning of how we became posthuman. “Hello World!” shifts the subject of action of saying “Hello” not only to the other side of the screen, but also a paradigm that this other side of the screen is so much more superior than our biological side, perhaps even divinely so, seeing the grandeur of the object. If “Enjoy!” is the superego of the postmodern society, as Slavoj Žižek put it, I would argue that “Hello, World!” is the superego of a society of the Postmodern 2.0, with all its trends of user-generated content and increasing connectivity and user-friendliness. It is not even an understatement, I am tempted to claim, that “Hello World!” is, simply, pure ideology. In a Marxist definition that ideology is what society does without realizing that they are doing it, does this simple sentence not precisely reflect today’s injunction to be connected, to say “Hello” to the world? It is no longer a voyeuristic society, as Baudrillard put it, but an exhibitionist one – not a consumerist society, but – to use Don Tapscott’s term – a prosumerist one. Where do we lie in this society? What does “Hello, World!” promise us? If the postmodern presents false freedom and false cynicism, does Postmodern 2.0 give us a false sense of social connectivity and open public sphere? More fundamentally, in Lacanian speak, to what imaginary world are we saying “Hello,” using what kind of imaginary self? Are we still living in the same postmodern world of simulacra, or has the proliferation of interactive New Media shifted us into yet another different world, a new stage of culture, one of New Simulacra? And, more importantly, what subject position does the famed simple sentence “Hello, World!” assume? What are its implications for our cultural, political, and biological life? What are we?

Hello, World, and welcome to the age of the posthuman :)