Following on from my translation of a recent interview with Annie Le Brun and my review in S No.4 of Ceci tuera cela, co-written by her with Juri Armanda, I have translated the introduction to this important book. 

Ceci tuera cela

INTRODUCTION

Rest assured, this book is not a new speculation about a virus that has had the side effect of making people endlessly prattle on about it.

Begun two years ago, this text, devoted to the new status of the image in the 21st century, was three-quarters written when the pandemic began. Continuing our reflection on a digital hegemony that seemed to us to be taking on monstrous proportions, we were nonetheless attentive to the novelty of the situation. At first astonished, then increasingly less so, we saw day after day the violent confirmation of what we had advanced or had only a presentiment. The dangers of the pandemic did not diminish or erase those of the technological enslavement that seemed to us to be underway. On the contrary, these dangers provided the proof and, at the same time, were aggravating this enslavement, whilst almost everyone was welcoming it.

Paradoxically, it is the quasi-unanimity of the political powers in comparing this pandemic to war that enlightened us on this contradiction. Whether it was Angela Merkel declaring that Germany was facing the greatest challenge, not since reunification but since the Second World War, or Emmanuel Macron stating: “We are at war. We are not fighting against an army or another nation. But the enemy is here and is advancing.” This bellicose rhetoric even took on a particular emotion when, on 6th April 2020, in a remarkable speech, Queen Elizabeth II of England recalled the one she made on the radio in 1940 addressing evacuated British children during the German bombing of London. In the United States, Covid-19 casualty statistics were constantly being compared to the number of people killed in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour or the number of people who perished in the September 11th terrorist attack in New York.

However, the war we were told about was unlike any of those that were evoked. It was an immaterial war, without ruins. A war that spared architecture but also the entire social infrastructure, factories, schools, hospitals; a war in which the walls remained intact. And even a war fought intra muros; probably the first war to take place without the noise of artillery or planes. It was a war that continued in the silence of cities. Immobile and without mobilization, it was a war that paralyzed and placed people under house arrest behind intact facades.

It never occurred to anyone that talking about a war in this way, about what wasn’t really a war, was part of the generalised denial that has characterised the spirit of our time. Emblematic of the world in which we have been living for fifteen years without being aware of it, this denial had the unquestionable strength to make us accept everything. This had been confirmed by a major component of contemporary art, encapsulated by the slogan “YES TO ALL!” inscribed in gigantic luminous letters on the pediment of the FIAC International Contemporary Art Fair of 2019. An injunction which, once it had become commonplace, was no doubt not unrelated to the ease with which everyone allowed themselves to be held hostage to what was above all a war of absence, even if the enemy, although invisible, was very real.

Hence the multiplication of walls that were not walls, of glass or transparent plastic sheeting; invisible walls partitioning the limited public space that remained, without our even thinking that – in the belief we were deceiving the enemy behind this transparency – we were reproducing the traditional urban reactions in the history of epidemics, which had always entailed relying on the wall, to protect ourselves by isolating, closing, locking. Thus, as in the medieval city, we excluded the dead from public space, setting up mortuaries on the outskirts of cities, to the point of repeating the practice of quasi-clandestine burials.

So, was this war just a new variant of the great fears which, from century to century, had punctuated the history of mankind? Whether we like it or not, we were confronted with what had been the dominant fear in the history of epidemics, the fear of invisibility. And we were all the more right to be alarmed by this, since visibility had become an essential value of our societies. This is probably why we accepted the metaphor of war so easily, without the slightest resistance to the practical consequences it entailed. In any case, although some people couldn’t help invoking the history of epidemics, we didn’t truly recognise ourselves therein. There was a novelty not limited to the striking universality of the event.

The novelty was that the pandemic had triggered an unprecedented cultural phenomenon: the invisibility of the enemy was matched by a total visualization of isolation. We were no longer hiding; we were showing ourselves through an uninterrupted distribution of images whose production was intensifying.

This was an unprecedented event in the history of epidemics. Exactly the opposite of what had always happened. Until now, from the Middle Ages to the end of the 19th century, where epidemics were rampant, from one day to another all activities were interrupted. The first activities to disappear were generally those in the visual domain, from architecture to image making. And now the opposite was happening. The current pandemic has been at the origin of an exponential production of images.

The message this was sending us at the beginning of the 21st century was clear. We had reached such a high level of technology that, even as prisoners in the strictest physical and social isolation, we were able to produce and distribute an unlimited quantity of images. This also meant a new status for the image that made it one of the keys to technology.

Besides, hadn’t the confinement stopped everything, except for technological communication, in which the production and dissemination of the image had played an essential role? In regard to any epidemic, we have never had so many visual documents, whether about spaces of confinement or confined people. The number of indoor photos and selfies of all those whose mobility was impeded was countless. For the first time in history, we could recall an epidemic not because of the halt it brought about in the production of images, but, on the contrary, because of their excessive production, corresponding daily to billions of new images and videos. What’s more, while all other manufacturing processes were stalled, the visualisation of the pandemic’s reality asserted itself in social and economic exclusivity as the only ‘raw material’ immediately available and usable.

This technology, capable of producing and distributing an untold number of images, gave the illusion and hope of opening up to other activities, despite the constraints of confinement. It only took a few days for the image to be the object of a consensus as the only possible way out, as the technological outcome, guaranteed to maintain a sense of normality. Thanks to this, it was still possible to think about the future: the image was going to save us economically by allowing us to work from home. It was going to save us mentally with the streaming of Netflix series; it was going to save us socially by allowing us to communicate via Facebook; it was going to save us culturally by transporting us to the Metropolitan Museum or the Vienna Opera… and, perhaps most importantly, to escape an invisible danger, the image was going to save us from the invisibility forced upon us by isolation.

In fact, the pandemic brought to light what, without our knowing it, we had been previously experiencing: for a long time, we exist only in terms of our greater or lesser visibility. What’s more, it was the only weapon available to the masses in what was presented as a social, economic, and psychological war against the virus.

This pandemic also revealed that the image is now at the heart of the visual device which, in order to combat the invisible virus, through billions of images, opposed it with the total visualisation of an isolated man who, paradoxically, embodied the great lesson that technology was giving us at the beginning of the 21st century: at the height of all restrictions and coercive measures, visibility continued to be efficient. And everyone was able to judge this from their own bodies. A prisoner of confinement, the body could continue to circulate freely on condition that it became an image. Nothing summed up better the programmatic strength of the new culture we had entered: everything that society prevented, the image permitted. In other words, we had reached the stage where the image gave everyone the illusion of the existence of which they were deprived, like an ersatz of freedom supposed to compensate for prohibitions and constraints.

In the same way that, since the 1980s, due to AIDS, the condom became the accessory of our sex life, the image was becoming, because of Covid-19, both a component of and indispensable means to our daily life. It was even asserting itself as an essential element of a new ‘normality’ inseparable from digitisation, which was an indisputable priority for political and economic agendas. Suddenly, this preponderance of the image suggested what technology could gain from its intensive distribution. Until now, in a world that knew nothing about ‘social distancing’, the emphasis had been on connecting people – stay connected. Today, without even imagining the consequences, we are discovering that the reality of social relations has no impact in the context of new technologies – stay at home. Through the means of the image, technology had acquired the freedom we were losing. The pandemic was proof of this. Whether we were isolated or not, whether we were here or elsewhere, technology was playing it both ways, to rule absolutely over what is, if not replace it completely.

The unfortunate thing is that this will have brought happiness to almost everyone, increasingly convincing us to continue seeking it there and nowhere else. Also, Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google (but still holding more than $5.3 billion in Alphabet shares, Google’s parent company), was unlikely to encounter any opposition when – on the May 10th 2020 on the CBS television channel – encouraging its recognition:

“Think about what your life would be like in the United States without Amazon, for example. The     benefit of these corporations – which we love to malign – in terms of the ability to communicate… the ability to get information, is profound – and I hope people will remember this thing [the health crisis] is finally over. So, let’s be a little bit grateful that these companies got the capital, did the investment, built the tools that we’re using now and have really helped us. Imagine having the same reality of this pandemic without these tools.”

And, as an accomplished businessman, the same Eric Schmidt did not fail to immediately underline the irreversible benefit:

“These months of quarantine have enabled us to make a ten-year leap. The Internet became vital overnight. It is essential for doing business, for organising our lives and for living them.”

That said it all and no one could find fault. States and peoples alike seemed to adapt to it. The dangers of the pandemic had succeeded in concealing those that the growing influence of digital technology had appeared to generate. This was first confirmed by the impressive eye tracking maps, which suggested the novelty and immensity of the phenomenon, showing the eye movements of billions of Internet users, revealing the zones on which the eyes of the whole world are concentrated.

At first glance, we didn’t know whether it was an endless archipelago or the skin of an unknown monster that seemed to cover the horizon but whose variegated colours, fluctuating in intensity from red to blue, through yellow and green, were constantly redesigning the eye of the world. Closer up, they were veritable deposits of gazes open to the intensive exploitation of GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) whose insatiable greed to collect all possible data determines their activity as gigantic purveyors of images.

The evidence was there: for the first time in history, our gaze was the main object of capital’s covetousness, just as gold and oil had been previously, as some had already noticed.

All the more so, when there is no image today that, simultaneously produced and distributed, does not become both a means of control and an object of profit. This is because the production and reproduction of images are now redefined by the technological novelty represented by the immediacy of their distribution.

More than a novelty, this is a genuine revolution. Over the past ten years or so, distribution has become the mathematical heart of a new economy of the gaze, in which everyone seems doomed to be paradoxically both the supplier and the customer.

An unprecedented revolution with the major consequence that from now on capital and technology share absolutely the same aim of reducing everything to numbers. In fact, nothing differentiates the end from the means any more: it merges with them. Stemming from the rationality of profit appears what could be termed a ‘technological cynicism’ which intensifies that of capital. There is no need to refer to Machiavelli to show that the end justifies the means, when technology and money relentlessly converge, stimulating each other in an escalation that nothing seems to be able to stop.

As a result, our relationship with the outside world as well as our interiority is affected. And without our having any idea that they are continually being remodelled with a profusion of algorithms, in all fields: scientific, political, aesthetic, ethical, erotic… But always with the sole purpose of establishing a system of relationships between people and things, each of which immediately becomes a source of profit, so as to make any relationship outside of this perspective inconceivable.

Never before has the power of money penetrated so far into the depths of being, at the risk of provoking a psychic equivalent of the irreversible evolution represented by the Anthropocene regarding the nature of our planet.

We don’t realise it, but thousands of horizons are disappearing in silence, as this remarkable concurrence of the dynamics of capital with those of algorithms affirms. Because it is a relentless struggle against all that could oppose it. And this is not the smallest effect of this digital revolution, processing data in accordance with mathematical models that eliminate singularities as well as irregularities, to the point of erasing whole swathes of what we are, for lack of compliance with the order of algorithms. Nothing escapes this mutilation by formatting. A mutilation as insidious as it is silent, which constantly works to integrate us into a universe exclusively controlled by the imperative of the measurable.

For where numbers reign, all qualities become equivalent, starting with the polarity that no longer makes sense, not without short-circuiting all opposites. The world of the Internet is based on this principle of non-contradiction which accustoms us to the smoothness of the immaterial image, to the point of making us forget space and its depths. As if nothing had happened, we are witnessing this dematerialisation merging with an intensive neutralisation that only seems to thrive on subjugating all existence.

“This will kill that” is the title of the chapter in Notre-Dame de Paris that Victor Hugo devotes to the idea that the “book of stone” constituted by the Gothic cathedral “was going to make way for the book of paper, even stronger and more durable”; in other words, that “printing was going to kill architecture”, for the reason that “human thought, by changing its form, was going to change its mode of expression”.

In the eyes of Victor Hugo, “the invention of printing is the greatest event in history” because, “in the printed form, thought is more imperishable than ever, it is volatile, elusive, indestructible”. That is when “it mingles with the air […], becomes a flock of birds, scatters to the four winds and at the same time occupies all points of the air and space”.

To the satisfaction of almost everyone, the advent of computer technology has presented itself as a phenomenon of equal importance, if only for having wrenched communication and information from the contingencies of space and time. It would even be tempting to continue the comparison, thought never having found a mode of expression so close to its immaterial essence. Not to mention the challenge that the speed of computer connections poses to the speed of human intelligence… Yet, how can we fail to see that this revolution has strange consequences for what is in danger of being killed, to use Victor Hugo’s formulation?

We know what fears people are seized by as soon as a major new technology appears. Especially when the mode of transmission of images and words is likely to be changed. Thus, returning more or less explicitly to Victor Hugo’s dramatic vision, many people have tried to envisage the unknown that might come about.

Among them, first there was Baudelaire, presenting the dream-like danger of death with which photography threatened painting. It was sixty years before Walter Benjamin showed how mechanical reproduction would ceaselessly destroy the aura of the work of art. In 1964, McLuhan announced that within the ‘global village’ it was becoming possible for a Manhattan nightclub to destroy the Gutenberg galaxy, while, referring to this in 1996, Umberto Eco, in turn, envisaged the possibility that the computer would kill the book.

Undoubtedly, for each of them, there had been a murder, or this was an imminent risk. And not content with determining the crime, each had also tried to identify the criminal and the victim.

With the Internet, despite appearances and predictions, it wasn’t that simple. Contrary to what a certain modernity has liked to imagine, media have never killed one another. Films, videos, books, music… the Internet is the place where everything can coexist. And if something dies there, it’s probably the idea that something has been murdered. The Internet is not a media killer, it is its perfect promoter.

What’s more, unlike Victor Hugo’s transition from the book of stone to the book of paper, the digital world is in no way supposed to fight against what it replaces. On the contrary, it would even be its optimisation, to the point of making people forget what it optimises. Assuming there was a murder, the body has not yet been found. This is the trap that almost nobody is aware of. The lethal weapon of distribution is the novelty here. Something disappears, without anyone really knowing what or how.

*

It has been almost a century since Walter Benjamin was able to see and predict what the technological reproducibility of images implied with the disappearance of the original. The time has come to consider the overriding importance of their exponential distribution and what we lose in being provided with billions of images every day. Persuaded that we can find freedom in them, we have allowed ourselves to be locked up in this vertiginous prison of images which manages to make us increasingly incapable of distinguishing between reality and fiction.

Just as others once managed to get out of the labyrinth that enclosed them by reconstructing the plans, the only chance we have left is to try to understand what dark story has been woven between the image, the gaze and capital. What little freedom we may still have depends on it.

 

Introduction to Ceci Tuera Cela (published in March 2021) by Annie Le Brun & Juri Armanda