Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Jean Baudrillard live in Oslo:

Jean Baudrillard live in Oslo:
What under the sun (under the objective) is real?

Jean Baudrillard. During his lecture at the University of Oslo in May 2000.
Photo O.E. 2000.
Together with J├╝rgen Habermas (see Page 1), the French sociologist and philosopher etc. Jean Baudrillard (born 1929) is probably one of the most influential contemporary European philosophers, and has been so through several decennia. Storms have raged about Habermas, but Baudrillard has to a still larger degree been considered as 'controversial'. However, in the case of Baudrillard the controversial is not related to an aggressive or negative view towards the spirit of the time. At least, this became evident to me during a lecture he recently presented in Oslo (in connection with an exhibition of his photographs). Here, Baudrillard rather appeared as being surprised by his own findings and a bit nervous about their consequences, if they were truly valid. The contents of Baudrillard's lecture is reasonably well covered by his essay The photograph - writing of the light, which may also be found in a somewhat abbreviated version translated into Norwegian, see Baudrillard (2000).
Virtual anchors in Wittgenstein, Borges, Platon, Hopper, Vermeer...

A photograph by Baudrillard. From his exhibition in Oslo 5/2000.
Photo O.E.
Baudrillard draws on theories and utterances of a number of wellknown philosophers and artists. For example the so-called picture theory for the connection between language and reality, by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). According to Wittgenstein, philosophy is an activity which creates clarity by drawing a borderline between what can be said scientifically in the language and what can only be shown. All attempts to describe in factual terms what can only be shown, lead to directly meaningless results and what we in everyday speech call 'media hype' - more or less private opinions amplified by the media.
As I understand Baudrillard, he holds that photography is in possession of just the possibility to show what is impossible to express in factual terms:
"The point is to resist noise, speech and sounds by mobilizing the quietness of the photograph, resist movements, flow and speed by using its immobility, resist the explosion of communication and information by emphasizing its intimacy, and resist the categorical imperative of meaning by allowing its lack of rigid meaning."
It is interesting to confront these intuitive and artistic arguments by Baudrillard with the discussion of art versus brain research on Page 30. For example Mondrian's appreciation of straight lines and rectangles. It has recently been shown by brain scientists that the visual signals from straight lines are processed by specially tuned cells in the brain, specialized also with respect to the orientation or direction of the lines. Furthermore, in connection with with cubist painting, Semir Zeki writes as follows (see Page 30):
"A great work of art tries to distill on canvas essential qualities. A major function of art can thus be regarded as an extension of the function of the brain, namely, to seek knowledge about the world. Indeed, it was an unacknowledged attempt to mimic the perceptual abilities of the brain that led the founders of Cubism, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, to eliminate the point of view, the distance and the lighting conditions in their early, analytic period."
It is just such a kind of filtration that Baudrillard is aiming at when he writes that the photograph should "resist noise, speech and sounds... " etc. It seems reasonable to think that a preparation or 'preprocessing' of a painting or a photograph like this will make it easier for the brain, as the Zeki quotation goes, "to distill on canvas essential qualities". Knowledge of this type will certainly in the time to come improve communication with the artists about their art.
Baudrillard holds that photography above all should challenge the limitless stream of pictures flowing past ourselves. In this stream pictures have not sufficient time to become pictures. A picture can only be realized in a moment when the noisy life of the world is "put i parentheses" and eliminated.
However, it should be mentioned that according to newspaper interviews, Baudrillard has an almost paranoid attitude towards technological appliances in his everyday life. He doesn't use neither mobile phone nor digital text processing. This has brought some critics and culture journalists to speculate if his 'purism' in this field has influenced his theories. Also, he has been characterized as a nihilist, melancholic etc.
However, when confronted with Baudrillard in person, such labels function poorly. As in the case of the often misunderstood Wittgenstein and other important thinkers, their complete works should be considered in such evaluations. From a journalistic point of view, it is more realistic for example to point out that Baudrillard scores highly on personal qualities such as self-insight and French philosophical thoroughness.
For example, Baudrillard elaborates on a passage from Borges where Borges points out that the absence of reality in our lives "is so evident and so readily accepted because we already have a feeling that nothing is real". The photographic picture becomes a concrete proof of this absence of reality. In a magic way it makes the reality disappear, letting the magic of the object itself be played out. It helps us filtering away the disturbance of the subject, the noise, the stories that most pictures are telling, everything that prevents the silent message of the objects of the pictures being expressed. Baudrillard holds that our look is perfectioned by means of the lens, making it able to protect the object against aesthetic transformation. The objects are allowed to remain transient, they appear just for a short glimpse, and then disappear.
For those of us who are not artists, it may be closer at hand to connect the lack of reality with postmodernity's emphasis on pluralism and diversity. The old, monolittic reality may be gone for ever, but it has been replaced by the possibility of several realities, several complete social spaces. However, this is appearently as a rather bleak explanation as compared to Baudrillard's intuitive and artistic one. Perhaps it may serve as a bridgestone between the two until brain research has produced more thorough explanations.
Degrees of reality
In the mentioned essay, Baudrillard poses a number of rethoric questions in order to capture what we perceive as reality:
The world is an object which at the same time is both present and impossible to grasp. Where are the limits of the world?
How can we focus it correctly? Is the photograph a mirror which at a given moment captures the world's imaginary limit? Or is it so that man, dazzled by a reflex from his own consciousness falsifies visual perspectives and veils world's sharp edges?
Is the photographic picture taking us closer to the so-called "real world", which in reality is infinitely far away? Or is the picture keeping the world at a distance by creating an artificial impression of depth which protects us against the menacing presence of the objects?

"Objects in this mirror may be closer than they appear". Baudrillard observed this warning on the back mirror in American cars, and asks himself if not the objects of photographs in general are in fact farther away than they appear.
Photo O.E. 2000.

All of Baudrillard's above questions are related to the position of reality in our life, to the degree of reality. According to Baudrillard, they challenge our "naive" explanations on how technology and the modern world came into being:

"Perhaps technology and the media are not the reason why reality has disappeared in the world in which we are living? On the contrary it seems rather probable that all our technological achievements (loaded with fate as they are) have grown out from the fact that reality has gradually disappeared."
Among Baudrillard's salient critics we find the Danish media professor Torben Grodal (see Page 16), who is, at least in part, in disagreement with Baudrillard's view about how the degree of reality should be evaluated. Grodal holds that Baudrillard is overlooking the fact that reality has a cognitive element, to some extent we can learn to know reality. Children learn easily that the mirror or the photograph do not show the factual object pictured, often by touching the surface of the photograph or mirror. A similar kind of learning has been observed in lower animals.
The light and the sight - from Plato till today

Photo Finn Owren Christoffersen.
For Baudrillard the light has a special function in connection with photography. He starts his essay by pointing out that 'photo-graphy' litterally means light- writing. The light in a photograph is always a part of the picture itself. It is not 'realistic' or 'natural', but also not artificial. This light is rather the picture's 'fantasy', its own thought. It has not only one source, but two: the object and the sight. Baudrillard quotes Plato: "The picture stands right in the middle of the light coming from the object and that coming from the sight".
Baudrillard illustrates this perception of photographic light with a reference to the US painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967). Hopper's work is commonly considered as an important presupposition for the American new realism in the 1960-ies. Baudrillard writes about Hopper's use of light as follows, and again he is using an artistic vocabulary:
"The light in his paintings is a rough ocean light, giving associations to coastal landscapes. At the same time it is unreal, empty, as if it came from another coast. It is a shining light which preserves the sharp contrast between black and white even when he is using color. The figures, faces and landscapes are being projected into a light which is not their own. They are sharply lit from the outside, as alienated figures, and in a light that warns that something unexpected will soon happen. [...] The bright intuition in Hopper's pictures is reminding of Vermeer. However, while the secret of Vermeer is the intimacy, Hopper's light reveals a brutal exposition, a brilliant tactility of objects and their spontaneous presence, a revelation by way of emptiness."
In the photographic picture we focus more on what the things are not, than on what they are. It is the 'writing' with light that makes possible the absence of meaning. In addition to this approaching the things through their emptiness, photography is also drama. The photograph expresses the world by its spontaneous fictional presentation.
Photographed distress - 'social pornography'

Photo Finn Owren Christoffersen 2002.
Baudrillard attacks the media for presenting what is commonly referred to as social pornography (in a pejorative sense..). He holds that moralizing photographers within this genre push their own premises onto their pictures. Personally, I have always been uncomfortable by seing such pictures both in print and on films. At the cinema I've had to close my eyes during strong scenes with atrosities and distress. I've only had a vague feeling of the reason for this - and have asked myself if I ought to see them in spite of the pain? However, Baudrillard's words about moralizing seems worth of being followed up. Anyhow, his explanation of the phenomenon social pornography is the most radical and satisfying that I've seen so far. Baudrillard continues:
"This is the reason why contemporary photographers (and not only photo journalists) shoot pictures of "real victims", "real dead people" and "real poor people", who then are exhibited for artificial emphaty as a proof that reality is awful. The fact is that atrocities and distress are by far less touching when these phenomena are made openly observable. This is one of the laws of the picture media. The picture must touch us directly, create a special illusion in ourselves, speak to us in its own language in order that we may be touched by the contents of the picture.
The so-called 'realistic' photography does not focus on that which is. Instead it is directed towards what should not be, for example the reality of distress. It prefers to shoot pictures, not of what is, but of what should not be from a moral or humanitarian viewpoint. At the same time modern photography exploits everyday distress for all it is worth for esthetic, commersial and clearly immoral purposes. These pictures do not tell us about reality. They tell about negation of the fact that a picture is a picture and not reality. The picture then will aim at showing what negates being seen, and becomes an accomplice of those who choose to rape reality. [...]
Every time we are being photographed, we take a mental position towards the photographer's lens, in the same way as his lens takes on a position in relation to us. Even in the most remote tribal society, people will have learnt the art of posing spontaneously. The photographic situation evolves from the confrontation between the object and the lens, and the fight that results between them. The fight is a duel. The object is challenged and responds with its own challenge. [...]
It is a miracle of the photograph, or of the so-called 'objective' picture, that it shows a world that is basicly non-objective. In a paradoxal manner, the objective shows us the lack of objectivity of the world. The photographic technique leads us away from imitation and into an optical illusion. By way of its unrealistic play with visual techniques - fragmentation of reality, standstill, noiselessness and phenomenological reduction of movement - the photograph confirms its position as both the purest and the most artificial form of visual representation."
O.E. new version 2004.
Baudrillard, Jean (2000)
-- Fotografiet - lysets skrift/ The photograph - the writing of the light
Essay translated in part to Norwegian by Thor Varden and Kirsten Aasheim.
The weekly newspaper Morgenbladet, Oslo May 5, 2000


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