Image and Reality



Howard Adelman


Images and Words

Images recorded on tape have destroyed the career of Rob Ford. Others contend that the words he utters have done that job. Though the Toronto Star assiduously tried to get a copy of the notorious crack cocaine video, the same newspaper wrote an editorial yesterday depicting Rob Ford as a boastful serial liar. Rob Ford claimed that he, HE, had transformedToronto into an economic powerhouse, presuming that it was anything but before he took office. The audience of businessmen understandably laughed. Rob Ford claimed, “in a break from the past,” that he had succeeded in building a subway. Setting aside the fact that the Scarborough subway has not yet been built, or whether or not it is something to boast about, the reality is that the Spadina subway is moving slowly north to York University and beyond. Mel Lastman, for good or ill, built the Sheppard line. So why does anyone listen to a mayor who differentiates himself from his predecessors because he built a subway when he really differentiated himself from them by his inability to distinguish truth from outright lies.

This mayor who cavorts with drug users in his office and can barely follow an agenda or an economic analysis, claims to have run Toronto like a business. If the business was a mad circus, perhaps; he always showed only that he was excellent at getting potholes filled when constituents phoned to complain. Rob Ford says he was elected with the largest mandate in history. He did get a substantial plurality (47%), but Lastman won 80% support in his last run and even Miller got 57%. On the basis of these sheer fictions, Rob Ford claimed to be “by far the best mayor the city has ever had”.

This is the thinking and rhetoric of a psychopath, someone so detached from reality and wedded to his own self-created imagery that he cannot tell the difference between his beliefs and reality. I wrote in the past on Lance Armstrong and suggested that, though a very accomplished athlete, his psychopathological exercise in self-creation raced ahead of that ability until he became a prisoner of his own lies. Being a prisoner of your own lies is what this blog is about.

I have written about commentators on the Iran nuclear deal who distort and invent and contort the clear provisions of the agreement. The deal does not mean opposition is unwarranted. It does mean and require – in my world – that one be accurate in representing it. There is an epidemic of pundits and politicians who seem to believe the only thing that is important is the fictions they create and communicate and clearly seem to believe in phantoms and mirages, in dreams and illusions in the wish to blind us to the truth and isolate us in our imaginary worlds. I have just been introduced to another phenomenon, far worse, but related, and it horrifies me.

Internet Suicide

After downing pills and vodka, a student at GuelphUniversity evidently immolated himself in his dorm room, or tried to, while recording the event for the internet and while his electronic community on his chatroom site egged him on.  Not one of the 200 viewers over the forty minutes thought to call the police or fire department. Evidently this incident was far from a first. There have been a series of such events. Two weeks ago a thirteen year old succeeded.

Why do people watch? Why would they encourage such an act? I went online to see for myself. I actually watched in absolute horror one of those videos where a young man hung himself in his own bedroom and you literally watched him wriggle and his face turn blue. I had never seen anything like it before.

The explanations for the person who commits the act and the observers who watch and encourage vary. Evidently, students record such acts because they have both shock value and have the potential to go viral giving the person who commits the act a type of immortality. Further, in breaking social taboos in such an outrageous way, they become insiders with a select few, those few who subscribe and watch electronically tied to one another. The suggestion is that those who watch treat the performance as no different than all the other shootings and killings they watch on TV and movies. There is a diminished sense that what is occurring is actually happening. The sense of unreality is linked with the rejection of any sense of responsibility reinforced by the way watching a screen turns one into a spectator and not a participant. The horror is then escalated when, following the act and the widespread viewing, “trolls” call the person who attempted suicide a “retard”, not for trying, but for failing to accomplish the task at hand. The devastated family has to endure a plethora of vile abuse in the aftermath.

Is there any connection between these actions and the political performance of liars? Certainly in the most extreme cases, they share a common characteristic of self-destruction. But is there something more that can throw light on the phenomenon?

Plato’s Cave

One of my philosophy professors when I was a student at the University of Toronto was David Gallop, an expert on the Greek thinkers. His lectures on Plato’s Republic elaborated on the latter’s allegory of the Cave, in particular, the relationship between imagery and reality. In the perfect Republic, imagery and the imagination have no role in the perfect state, but, paradoxically, Plato makes that point with many very creative images, of which the Cave allegory is a prime example. This allegory, and the illustration of the divided line that follows in the Republic, more specifically, the bottom two sections of the divided line and what happens within the cave before anyone escapes into the sunlight, bears an eerie resemblance to these situations, particularly since they deal with the relationship between images, fantasy and fabulism versus realism. I will ignore the realms of science and pure mathematics, of understanding and reason. My concern is the imagination and common sense.

What is the relationship between the shadows and images we watch on our TV, movie and computer screens to the solid world of “real” chairs and table, acts and dogs? This question is impelled by politicians seemingly wedded to hyperbole and outright lies, whether commenting on the Iran -P5+1 nuclear agreement or acting out like Rob Ford. Philosophers have dealt with the relationship of imagery and reality – Plato is a prime example. So does the Tanach. After all, in the Garden of Eden, Adam is a scientist charged with naming objects found in the natural world. But he knows nothing about his own body or his passions. He does not even know he is alone and, in his sleep, has come to imagine that woman has been created simply as an extension of himself. He does not even know his own body. He imagines his penis is a separate being, an erect snake that has independent agency and talks. So he takes no responsibility for his (or its) actions.

Plato in the allegory of the cave envisioned people tied to a log and unable to turn their heads in any direction. They are in the bowels of a cave watching shadows projected on the wall; they take those shadows to be reality. They cannot turn their heads to look around. They are totally absorbed with the shadows they observe on the cave wall. In the unevenly divided line illustration of four sections where the upper and lower sections of the line are divided in the same unequal proportions as the whole line, using an unequal division of 2:1, the upper section of the line is an 8, the next section a 4 and, in the lower section, the upper section is a 4 and the lower section is a 2. Plato insists that each different segment signifies a different measure  or degree of clarity and obscurity. Thus, the bottom section, dealing with images and fantasies on the cave wall and identified with the world of imagination, contains the least clarity. Above it, what we now call common sense, can have double that value. This corresponds to the experience in the cave when individuals are freed from their bonds and fixed positions and are able to look around at others in the cave. Thus, the visible realm of knowledge (distinguished from the intelligible segments in the two upper segments of the line) is made up of common sense and the imagination. In the latter, we are mesmerized by the products of the imagination, by the shadow dancing across the cave wall. In the Jowett translation, it is: .

a line divided into two unequal sections and cut each section again in the same ratio—the section, that is, of the visible and that of the intelligible order—and then as an expression of the ratio of their comparative clearness and obscurity you will have, as one of the sections of the visible world, images. By images I mean, first, shadows, and then reflections in water and on surfaces of dense, smooth, and bright texture, and everything of that kind…As the second section assume that of which this is a likeness or an image, that is, the animals about us and all plants and the whole class of objects made by man.

Knowledge at the highest level is noêsis, at the next highest is understanding or dianoia making up the two intelligible sections of the line that you experience when you are outside the cave. The next segment down is belief or pistis where your knowledge is obtained, not my rational proof, but from experience and the opinion of others and empirically looking around. It is, therefore, only called belief. The last and lowest segment of the line is the observation of images, eikasia, the realm of the imagination where what is known is only projected shadows of reality as two-dimensional images.

Pay attention to the claim, not that the lowest section of the line possesses the least clarity when it comes to knowledge, but that it is a realm of knowledge. Further, without that realm, the upper sections of the line make no sense – we need to climb up to the higher realms through images. Further, as is clear in the tale of the Garden of Eden, the lowest section of the line is a realm of knowledge, the realm of knowledge where Adam came to know Eve. If we waited for common sense to get its ducks in a row, we would not be here. There would be no sex.

Part of the imagery of being tied to the log and watching images on a cave wall means that we are obsessed and possessed when we are totally within the realm of imagery, possession and obsession that leads to bodily knowledge that cannot be conveyed at the higher levels. It is the realm where blue is the warmest colour. It is the realm where we become possessed and do not take responsibility for our own actions. It is the realm where we are not in possession of clear and self-evident truths but see only through a cloud darkly, where we do not know what we do and where we do not take responsibility for our actions for we see ourselves imprisoned in the world of images. Hence the dangers two passionate lovers pose for one another for they live in the realm of conjectures able only to draw inferences from small and inadequate signs. As Plato wrote;

Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. They see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?  The truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images. Fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

Suicide in an Imaginary World

Why then is projecting your own suicide through a videotape onto the worldwide web seen as the ultimate expression of being caught up in this world of fleeting images and immediate bodily experience? ALL juveniles dream of being at their own funerals. Here they achieve this degree of agency, they are the producers and directors of the imagery that is the precondition for there being a funeral in the first place. It is the closest feeling to omnipotence and being at one with the gods,  While totally enraptured by one’s own state, one does not and cannot empathize with others. So why do we attend movies to experience the pain of others? Because it is not what we experience. We experience a simulation of pain and know we are in a movie theatre. That is why we are able to watch. I challenge you to watch those videos of young kids killing themselves on the internet and not feel corrupted and polluted rather than gaining cathartic relief.

The characteristics of being caught up in the self-destructive world of being totally obsessed and possessed by images is that we lose any ability to correct ourselves. We lose the ability to take responsibility for our own actions. We lose the ability, most of all, to distinguish the world of images from reality, for the world of images has become our reality. It is more real and more powerful and more convincing than anything we experience in the world of cats and dogs, tables and chairs, in the world where we get to look another in the eye.

Plato turns to Glaucon and says: “When our eyes are no longer turned upon objects upon whose colors the light of day falls but that of the dim luminaries of night, their edge is blunted and they appear almost blind, as if pure vision does not dwell in them.” Those young kids live in their own caves but now linked by the internet with other young people living in their caves. And they challenge one another to see who can best live on the edge.  

There is no longer a dichotomy of the hidden and the revealed, the suggestion that there are other surfaces to be seen from another perspective, for there is absolutely no sense of perspective. It is a 1-dimesnional world in which the observer envisions himself on the same plane as that which is watched. Thus, there is no occlusion and no binocular disparity. Part of this is achieved because head motion or motion parallax is reduced to zero. There is, however, convergence, for the eyes can and do focus and are absorbed by the spectacle witnessed. and the eyes accommodate to the shadowy light and the grey images but always in the sense that what is seen is not seen with clarity but in fog and what is in front of us is a dance of light and shadows.

Believing solely in the image is belief in a phantom, in a magic world not of causes and effects, of agency and acts. As Northrop Frye wrote in The Educated Imagination, “The world of literature is a world where there is no reality except that of the human imagination.” How much truer that is of the world of movies and even much more so the world of UTube and the internet. Instead of being absorbed into that other world, the dreams and illusions insinuate themselves into the psyche mesmerized by the images. In the real world, eternal life is impossible. The imaginary world creates exactly such a possibility. The world of advertising had conditioned us to believe in the miraculous possibility of images, for products ARE their images. What higher magic than to be frozen for eternity on the internet, a poor fellow’s cyronics. 

Further, you have become the artist of your own being. “The genuine artist, Harris is saying, finds reality in a point of identity between subject and object, a point at which the created world and the world that is really there become the same thing.” (Northrop Frye, 211) As Frye writes, “Like all forms of fiction, these simulations depict, not the world as it is, but a vision of the world transformed by the imagination.”

Photographs and Action Videotapes

Why aren’t we happy with photographs of ourselves? It is not the same. Photographs are but frozen reminders, flimsy means of stimulating memory, not re-enacting life, and, most of all, not re-enacting the decision to end the life of the body so that desire can finally win its battle with the will to survive. Photographs capture and preserve experience. They do not reproduce it. Photography is the terminus for a possessive individualist and part of the modern age, not the age of post-modernity. Photographs package and preserve; the dancing  shadows on the cave wall mesmerize and seduce.

I can analyze this world but I cannot really understand it. I belong to print culture, to a world that is lineal and causal, where a correspondence theory of truth presides. It is a world that celebrates interpretation and not exhibition. It is a world of objects and subjects and not the merger of the two. In the world of objects and subjects engaged in describing and interpreting, a third world of meaning is created. The world of the shadows on the cave wall has no meaning, no third dimension and no second dimension.

On the other hand, there was a propensity in the modern world – as there was in the ancient – to ban the imaginary and the realm of interpretation. In the golden age of modernity in the twentieth century, when the printed word became king, and before advertising, television, movies and the realm of imagery usurped the throne, the objectivity of the world was expected to be accompanied by an objectivity to meaning. However, as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard already recognized in the nineteenth century, the infinite passionate interest in one’s eternal happiness was thrown overboard as superfluous. The great quest of desire had to be bracketed, limited, boundaried and even, for extremists and fundamentalists, discarded.

In the realm of the electronic, all that is solid vanishes into the cloud. Even the visual based on the eye loses its crown through the new visual universe for there, instead of isolating and privileging sight, all the senses become involved. Your whole body, not just your eyes, watch Blue Is The Warmest Colour.  Even more profoundly, the basic dichotomies of our structured understanding of the world are subverted. Those children committing suicide on the internet belong to a very different world in which images, signs and codes have no meaning in my world but ARE meaning in the world of the chatgroup that he joined. Unlike Plato’s depiction, the images on the wall are not representations of reality that mirror and reflect that reality. They become the reality, a super-reality that permeates the world in which we live. The relationship between image and reality is inverted.

So the suicide does not have meaning. It cannot be interpreted. And the hi-jinx of men – they are mostly men – become the new order of celebrity culture. Rather than a wall which miirrors and displays the dancing shadows, we have instead a Black Hole that aborbs and swallows up energy and gives nothing back. The content – any content – is dissolved by the very media itself. There is nothing there to interpret – the final revenge of this post-modern world on my world. The suicidal child offers an entry point to the entropy of the universe, its dissolution rather than its ordering where the spectacle of an exploding star just before a new black hole is created becomes the entertainment for the day. Instead of aspiring to reach daylight and see the sun, we have the vision of a cold and lifeless universe turned in and imploded on itself. The individual person becomes just a terminal in a process of self-destruction. and the last we see before Alice enters into this Black Hole is not the delightful stories of absurdity and inverted logic with which she returns but an explosive display of fireworks that seduce and fascinate, an ecstasy of obscenity, a simulacra to beat all simulacra where all is visibility and transparency before dying forever. 

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