White Bear. Where the real encounters the virtual

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The British television series Black Mirror[1], broadcast for the first time in late 2011, presents numerous dystopian situations, not necessarily coexisting or concatenated with each other, imagined from our present and usual way of living and relating to technology. The eloquence, not only emotional, of this successful attempt at speculative fiction is given by its temporality- being not so distant as to be seen as science fiction but different enough to be understood by the observer as a separate reality, unlike our current reality`. The second episode of season 2, entitled White Bear, is one of the most interesting among the imagined futures in which human relationships with the other and the world itself, evolve with the progress of a relational technology that redefines identities. The sight, first of all, plays a leading role, in storing memories, in the global circulation and manipulation of information, in the belonging to a biopolitics of digital interaction, in the show of lives and emotions. In the case of White Bear, the observer is only partially perceived as the subject of what is observed; thanks to a time-lag between the present and the future, the reality presented is in fact, far-fetched but not impossible: a criminal is forced to remember and forget her pain daily, reliving every day the same experience of suffering while the people around her, equipped with mobile phones, take pictures and film continuously. It is only at the end of the episode that we discover the operation behind this organized system, entrusted to a professional theatre company that manages the presence of the spectators on site (those with mobile phones), and has been mandated to implement this punitive daily show. In this dystopian scenario, we are in effect in a reality where the spectacular nature and people’s voyeuristic desire determine its canons of justice and normality in accordance with a collective participation of a show in real time.

Often implemented through a computer, the screen becomes a means increasingly faster and easier to use for finding and sharing information, images, texts, sounds etc.; connected to a virtual reality, it allows us to move through physically intangible three-dimensional spaces. Although recent advances have led it to radical transformations, the screen as a flat, rectangular surface through which to experience illusions, is a much older technology. Used as a surface on which to display visual information its use can be traced from the Renaissance painting to twentieth century cinema. Its newer implementations and its recurring daily use in numerous sectors of society, public or private, leads to a necessary questioning on the evolving cultural role of the screen as a visual device through which we relate to reality. Just think about our daily lives in which small portable screens have become increasingly important, from mobile phones to tablets that often cross the boundary between public and private following their users everywhere. The analysis of this visual evolution leads to a new development of contemporary society thus conducts an urgent reconfiguration of the relationship between the body and the subject on screen space.

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Techniques of the Observer [2], an essay written by Jonathan Crary for the first time in 1988 for the magazine October in anticipation of the book published with the same title in 1990 (back when the existence of the web and social media was not as predominant), is a starting point for all analysis on the screen. In it, the author aims to outline the genealogy of the modern observer of the early nineteenth century in the spread of new viewing devices like the phenachistoscope or the stereoscope, which enshrined the abandonment of Cartesian dichotomy between inside and outside, metaphorically identified with the darkroom. The separation of vision from the human observer revolutionized visual practices and made a technological development possible in which images do not need to be related to the observer’s position, as is the case of three-dimensional models in architecture or flight simulators that pilot drones. In his analysis of optical devices before 1850, Crary locates in the body and in the functioning of social power the core issues of this change that has extracted the visual phenomenon from the questions on mechanical light and directing optical transmission directing it to the human subject. “It is a moment when the visible escapes from the timeless incorporeal order of the camera obscura and becomes lodged in another apparatus, within the unstable physiology and temporality of the human body”.[3] Crary’s study between vision and optical devices has become a recurrent topos in visual and media studies, raising questions on representation, cognition and subjectivity. Similarly, two of the authors to whom Crary refers to are “the Walter Benjamin of the Arcades Project and the Foucault of Discipline and Punishment“, offering a broad analysis of the subject as an observer. This is, in fact, conceived as a historic achievement in which specific practices of subjectivation apply, reaching an optical neutrality that reduces them to elementary (“fit for consumption of the new body of visual imagery and information”). Crary writes:

The articulation of subjective vision in the early nineteenth century is part of a shift which Foucault calls “the threshold of our modernity”. When the camera obscura was the dominant model of observation it was as “a form of representation which made knowledge in general possible”. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century “the site of analysis is no longer representation but man in his finitude… [It was found] that knowledge has anatomo-physiological conditions, that it is formed gradually within the structures of the body, that it may have a privileged place within it, but that its forms cannot be dissociated from its peculiar functioning; in short, that there is a nature of human knowledge that determines its forms and that at the same time can be manifest to it in its own empirical contents.”[4]

anim-1The analysis of optical devices and of their evolution at the cusp of modernity is to Crary the demonstration of the eradication of the vision from a inflexible system of representation, the camera obscura, towards a synthesis of visual and linguistic elements in one place, the human body. This has become at the same time the condition of vision, the tool that makes this possible, and the object to be observed; in this reduction or coincidence of perspectives are the foundations that underpin recent technological developments aiming to replace eye functions by visual practices that separate the image from the need for the viewer’s physical presence or otherwise that internalize it within his own body. “The viewing body and its objects begin to constitute a single field on which inside and outside are confounded”.[5]

On the basis of this research initiated by Jonathan Crary on optical devices, it is worth mentioning the screen genealogy of Lev Manovich, The Language of the New Media[6], who – starting from its classical definition as a flat, rectangular surface for a frontal view defining the separation of space of the body from that of representation – identifies a new type of screen which has all the characteristics listed above in addition to the ability to show an image that changes over time: the “dynamic screen.” If as previously with film and television, the screen mobility redefined its identity, another great revolution has been imposed by computer screens capable of showing multiple pictures in a single ‘window’ and tending to equate the screen with the eye of the observer. As previously noted by Crary about the optical devices of the nineteenth century, the digital screen leads to confuse the observer and the observed object, towards a possible overlap between the physical and virtual spaces.[7] The idea of the screen as a place of immersion and interactivity (so well interpreted by Cronenberg in Videodrome, 1983), as a place where the physical distance of the act of looking disappears and in which the virtual is no longer in front but around us, obviously needs to also refer to the work of Jean Baudrillard. For this reasons, in fact, “Video, interactive screen, multimedia, Internet, virtual reality: the interactivity threatens us everywhere. Everywhere what was separated is now confused everywhere is abolished the distance: between the sexes, between opposite poles, between the stage and the audience, between the protagonists of the action, between subject and object, between the real and its double.[8]

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Always in dialogue with the analysis of Crary, based in turn on Foucault’s reflections on surveillance devices, it is interesting to note how the origins of the digital screen does not properly belong to the history of public entertainment, as was the case cinema, rather to that of military surveillance, as for photography in the case of air surveillance and radar. Technological developments and advances in the military have also led to the development of a key feature of the screen as we know it today: the real time. Quoting Manovich: “What is new about such screens is that its image can change in real time, reflecting changes in the referent, whether the position of an object in space (radar), any alteration in visible reality (live video) or changing data in the computer’s memory (computer screen). The image can be continually updated in real time. This is the third type of screen after classic and dynamic – the screen of real time.”[9] Another feature related to the military, more specifically to the aerial, and to the development of vision in the twenty-first century is to be sought in the gradual abandonment of linear perspective to new guidance attempts that favor a vertical vision. If on one side the Air Force has expanded the horizon of communication with the use of aerial cameras and mapping the territory from above (the drone is the most representative example) even the entertainment industry has contributed to this shift with 3D cinema, computer games, Google maps etc. What is interesting, in this regard, is the analysis of verticality in the politics of architecture carried out by Eyal Weizman[10], who describes the spatial change of surveillance with the dominant presence of a verticality in three dimensions; if the geopolitical power was once deployed on a map with a flat surface which defined its boundaries, the distribution of power today occupies a vertical, cellular dimension, which not only separates air from the ground but the air in different layers of community.

Finally, bearing in mind the reflections of Hans Belting on the differentiation between image, medium and body, and attempts to define the notion of “traditional” image in the age of virtual reality and artificial intelligence – in dialogue with Lev Manovich on its existence or not the digital age – it is necessary to reflect on the visual identity of the visual experience that the observer makes in the daily use of screens as a visual device. “It is only by habit that we still refer to what we see on the real-time screen as images. It is only because the scanning is fast enough and because, sometimes, the referent remains static, that we see what looks like a static image. Yet, such an image is no longer the norm, but the exception of a more general, new kind of representation for which we do not yet have a term”.[11]

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As again suggested by Jonathan Crary in Eclipse of the Spectacle, perhaps the most fragile element of this future lies precisely in the immediate vicinity of the screen[12]. Subjectivity and perception of the body in physical space[13] evolve with the changing use of socially employed visual devices, which today require constant redefinition of an evolving experience. Wondering about the nature of the screen as a mean of reception and production of content, as an access to reality and interaction with the world, as a lens of observation and understanding of the self, is a necessary analysis for the understanding of the definition modes of identity in a more and more digital and real-time culture. It seems, in fact, that in the space that separates the body from the screen there is a large beam of possibilities in which to find “a potentially volatile disequilibrium”.[14]


[1] The expression Black Mirror, title of the series, is not defined by any vocabularies except the Urban Dictionary which refers “to black mirror someone – is to block/mute them across all possible contact and social channels (e.g. Facebook, email, phone, text, blogs, etc.) and delete any evidence of a prior relationship…” It is interesting to note that the word screen etymologically derives from SKERM, SKIRM, SCIRM meaning shield, shelter.

[2] Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer, October, Vol. 45 (Summer, 1988), pp. 3-35.

[3] Id. p. 5.

[4] J. Crary, Techniques of the Observer. p. 6. (Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, p. 319.)

[5] Id. p.7.

[6] Lev Manovich, The Language of the New Media, Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press 2001.

[7] Cfr. W.J.T. Mitchell, What do pictures want?, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2005.

[8] J. Baudriallard, Ecran Total, Libération, Lundi 6 mai 1996.

[9] Id. p. 99.

[10] Eyal Weizman, The Politics of Verticality”. See http://www.opendemocracy.ney/ecology-politicsverticality/article_801.jps.

[11] Lev Manovich, The Language of the New Media, p. 100.

[12] Jonathan Crary, Eclipse of the Spectacle, in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Edited by Brain Wallis and Marcia Tucker. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984.

[13] Cfr. J. Meyrowitz, No sense of place: The impact of electronic media on social behavior, Oxford University Press, New York 1985.

[14] J. Crary, Eclipse of the Spectacle, p.294

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