Transformations in Film as Reality (Part Four)

Toward a Reality of “Reference”

The Image and the Era of Virtual Reality

Kogawa Tetsuo

As part of this year's commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of cinema, Documentary Box is running a four-part series of articles exploring the history of film's relation to reality. Each piece, written by a different film historian, will investigate how both documentary as a genre, as well as the "realistic feel" of cinema itself, have evolved over the last century. As a conclusion to the series begun by Komatsu Hiroshi, Bill Nichols, and Michael Renov, the critic Kogawa Tetsuo discusses a radical change in the image's relation to reality brought upon by new technology such as virtual reality and the Internet.

The Editors

The long and troubled relationship between documentary and "fakery" is nothing new, but there was never a media scandal that sparked such debate as the 1992 broadcast of NHK Special - Mustan: the Forbidden Kingdom Deep in the Himalayas ("NHK supesharu: Oku Himaraya kindan no okoku - Musutan"). Unfortunately, the usual conclusion drawn from this incident was the need to strengthen internal company policies and re-establish "journalistic ethics." However, what lies hidden in this incident are the fundamental problems concerning reality and the innate potential of the image medium.

Faked images are often exposed as such because of poor technical quality, but in the case of Mustan, the fabrication was revealed via some kind of "leak." It is impossible to tell by watching the program whether or not it is a fake. For instance, very few viewers would be capable of scrutinizing the 100 seconds of the famous altitude sickness scene and concluding that it was staged. If one views the scene again after finding out that it is phony, it seems strange that the filmmaker himself appears in the scene to say repeatedly, "Lets bring [the 'patient'] down," and, "We've got to take him down" (naturally, it had been arranged from the outset to go to the site by helicopter, but to heighten the dramatic effect of the visual image, it was made to seem as if use of the helicopter was an emergency measure). Even so, the "patient's" movements seem true to life as he suffers in agony while an oxygen mask is placed on him. As far as this kind of chicanery is concerned, it is too simplistic to assume that if the audience had the critical consciousness that comes with video literacy that it would not be taken in. This kind of criticism by the viewer is only the other side of the coin from calls for better broadcaster ethics, and certainly does not resolve the basic problem. Furthermore, what this falsification issue suggests is that our point of departure must be the idea that today's visual technology renders inoperative any concept of truth based on the dualism of true and false.

The coverage of Aum Shinrikyo escalated to the point of televising the events of April 23, 1995, when a senior member of the sect was assassinated. However, such a scene of the victim collapsing, stabbed repeatedly with a kitchen knife and blood flowing, leaves the impression it was dramatized, regardless of which of the many versions one sees (each station having recorded the assassination differently). When this scene in which a person was actually killed - for which, so to speak, someone gave his life - erupted before the cameras, there was no slip up in the way the scene was filmed despite the extreme situation; and yet, in spite of all that, one cannot escape the feeling that the event was somehow phony. The same is true of the accident scene where Formula 1 racer Ayrton Senna died by crashing into a wall in the midst of a race. To take an example from an earlier time, the literally live broadcast of the assassination of Robert Kennedy is even less real than a scene from a dramatic film.

I am tired of hearing the explanation that this is because television is a "cool" medium. To resort to argument that the television screen is small in comparison to the film screen is no more than a vulgar view which seeks to explain reality by reducing quality to quantity. The problem has to do with the nature of today's reality. To be sure, this reality is changing right now but those changes have yet to become mainstream. As a result, television has become a kind of counter-reality (which is to say, it blurs the real gravity of an event) and has come to be manipulated as a cultural apparatus which renders serious matters indeterminate. When a medium so constituted becomes part of everyone's environment and seems natural to the point that it is no longer apparent as an instrument of control and indoctrination, to attack it with such clichéd expressions as "colonization of the unconscious" or "deprivation of the body" is not much of an indictment at all.

To say that the camera "replicates" that which is photographed is an expedient oversimplification based on a simple metaphor corresponding to the technology of the camera in the modern age. To be sure, up to now cameras could not change the image to the point it was unrelated to the object being photographed. And that's why we have the word "special effect" which suggests there is something upon which a special effect is brought to bear; that there is an object which exists in front of the camera which is the entity being photographed. That is, there is a concrete, tangible physical object which special effects photography then effects. Now, however, special effects do not occur external to the camera but within the image itself; we are now beginning to get images for which no photographed reality exists. This is why it is impossible to discuss truth or falsehood using the object as a standard.

The protagonist of Woody Allen's Zelig has a body devoid of substance. For that reason he is able to alter his personality to fit the surrounding circumstances. In The Purple Rose of Cairo too, there is a character whose body is without weight. That character, who appears in a film of the same title, one day descends from the screen because of his interest in a spectator (Mia Farrow) who has come time and again to see the film. Of course, in actuality (that is, in the physical world) this is impossible, but as a well-considered index for the relationship between the image and "reality" it is brilliant. What is curious about this character who has come down off the screen is his total lack of interest in sex or money. Sex is the epitome of the physical realm, and money, established as the pole of reference equating the body and labor, bears no relationship to the character since he is devoid of a physical body.

While the image and money can be referenced, with neither can one have sex. However, both modern visual technique and capitalist economics have operated according to a doxa [orthodox conventions] in which the visual image and money appear to constitute the body. Accordingly, modern technology comes to embody this paradox in and of itself. Electronic technology brings this paradox to its peak in an era which straddles the end of the modern and the threshold of postmodern technology. Because while the electronic media have exposed the myth that the (re)presented body always has an immediate existence "here" before our eyes, and while it is a basic characteristic of that same technology to try to erase the existence of the body, it laments that loss and tries to regain what is lost via its own methods. Electronic technology, retro- and post-modern aesthetics all conspire in order to conceal the substitution of a new "here and now" for the (re)presented body.

The technology of virtual reality, conceived as an extension of modernism, attempts to reconstruct the body which had been "formatted" by existing electronic technology. This reconstruction happens through a method of deception. Heretofore, artificial reconstruction of the body had been an attempt to construct an equivalent of the human body: robots, cyborgs, and androids. Virtual reality, however, tries to attain equivalence on the level of the consciousness of existence instead of on the level of physical existence itself. While the body maintains the same composition of flesh, consciousness becomes an artificial intelligence. If this should happen, one could produce reality from even an unsophisticated visual image. Once perception is altered, junk food is also gourmet cuisine. Actually, this suggests virtual reality's transmodern possibilities, but the developers of virtual reality technology intentionally close their eyes to such possibilities. In fact, if they did not do so, it would no longer be possible to contain this technology within the conventional framework of modernity. The paradox and conspiracy of "a body without organs."

Nowadays, surgery is becoming such that doctors don't directly perceive the diseased parts, but rather view them through video monitors, manipulating scalpels while watching micro-cameras that have been inserted into diseased parts. Furthermore, remote control devices intervene between a doctor's hand and scalpel. The experimental phase of tele-medicine has come to an end. Therefore, systems of virtual medicine are being developed for educational use or as experimental devices that can simulate on a video monitor any surgery on an internal organ.

With the spread of virtual medicine, people come to value direct perception of the body less and less. This doesn't mean that primary perception is replaced by secondary perception but rather that primary perception becomes meaningless, because the portion of the world which is now constituted by a simulated, controlled, and virtual reality is increasing, and with growing frequency it is this simulated part that we are encountering. However, the problem is with the kind of criticism against advanced media and communications technology which is said to promote this trend. Such critics say that multimedia and the Internet separate people from one another, weakening face to face interaction - that watching too much television is completely depersonalizing - but if this is true, we have no choice but to go the way of the Luddites.

There is an interesting scene in the film Virtual Wars. The main character creates a virtual reality system that can link computer generated cyber-space with the human brain and he himself becomes enrapt with floating in virtual space. One day, he sprawls on the "Flogiston Chair," as he usually does (this chair produces the effect of floating in space), puts on the HMD [head mounted display] made by VPL, and floats in virtual space. His girlfriend, with whom he lives, approaches in a huff and abruptly switches off the instrument. She says angrily, "Falling, floating, and flying? What's next? Fucking?" This scene brings to mind a character in Douglas Trumble's Brainstorm, a middle-aged scientist who, via a machine in his laboratory, ruins himself by becoming addicted to virtual reality sex.

However, it seems that this kind of criticism of electronic media does not at all take into consideration the potential of the technology. As telephone and satellite communications permeate society, and as multimedia internet communications prevail, it is natural that human relationships based on such media will go beyond face to face relationships, but this doesn't mean virtual reality will deprive anyone of his or her body or turn anyone into an android. On that level, Cronenberg's film Videodrome has much better powers insight. In this film, video is called "new flesh," which can be correlated to the "flesh" (chair) that Merleau-Ponty discusses in his The Visible and the Invisible. Amidst the triumph of electronic technology, the process of demystification has begun in one area that had been sacred: what we have been calling the "body" and "flesh." By problematizing "the body," there is for us the chance to recover a "here and now" which has long been hidden behind the mask of modern philosophical tradition. What this electronic technology secretly calls for is a different attitude.

In Being and Time, Heidegger begins with the basic point that since Aristotle, ontology has been based on the "here and now" (Jetzt-hier) - which is to say, a "now" that is temporally immediate, and a "here" that is the place present before our eyes - and then moves on to overcome Western metaphysics. Heidegger had already figured out what Marx had said in an unpublished fragment of The German Ideology (that Heidegger had not seen) - that "We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things" - but he could not and would not extricate the "here and now" from "modern metaphysics" in the way that Guattari and Negri did in Communists Like Us. The reason that Benjamin saw Heidegger as an imaginary enemy is related to this question. The path from the "here and now" as argued in A Thesis on Historical Philosophy through Guatarri and Negri via Hakim Bey's "Temporary Autonomous Zone" must be linked like the "sewing machine and the umbrella which meet unexpectedly on the operating table" to activities which range from the Councils Movement to May 1968, from the Situationalists to the Italian Autonomia of the 1970s, and to the "weaving" that is continuing to occur on the Internet.

The word "image" which derives from the Latin word "imago" is etymologically related to "imitate." As a result, in conventional modern thought, the image has been understood to be the product of the "imitation" and "fabrication" of "reality." However, the positive connotation of "imago" partially survives in the contemporary English word "imago" (adult insect). According to concepts filtered through modern thought, the butterfly is the realization of the idea of the caterpillar. But, since the appearance of Deluze's Difference and Repetition, the idea is now the immanent consistency of the "here and now." Accordingly, the image/imago is not the realization of an ideal form established for the coming future, but rather a recombinant event which takes place as a mutation within immanent consistency. The "reality" which the image references is immanent, but the modern innovation (often attributed to Descartes) was to seek out in the pole of reference a mute, tangible physical reality. The modern is only the name of one such stable long duration, one such relationship of reference. Now this "happy" relationship is on the verge of complete disintegration because the image has discovered that it need not reference reality.

Walter Benjamin considers the visual image in terms of the technology of mechanical reproduction because he is a thinker from a period when film technology was supreme. But when the image is passed on from film to the computer, the paradigm of thought which sees the image as reproduction becomes untenable. It is true that the computer is capable of producing an infinite number of visual images and that this renders the original meaningless. However, reproduction without the original is a parody of reproduction and even if it can reveal the meaning of reproduction, it also renders its function meaningless. Such reproduction is no longer reproduction.

Although Jean Baudrillard says "simulation is reproduction without the original," simulation is a more up-to-date concept than reproduction. Reproduction continues to insist on the original - an original that is ultimately the body as "zero point of the world." However, simulation tries to get as far from the body as it can. For simulation, the starting point is always provisional. Even if the simulated image resembles an actual object in the physical world, it is nothing more than coincidence. But the computer is no more an instrument of simulation than it is an instrument of reproduction. What's more, virtual reality is never a "simulator." The concept of simulation continues to suffer from an "origins complex."

When one thinks of images endlessly reproduced by computer, what is most important is not reproductivity, but rather recombinant referentiality. The function of the computer is not the systematization of reproduction, but the systematization of reference; the reproductive function of the computer merely simplifies the computer's reference function. Semiology discovered a system of reference within the visual image, but since it could only set aside what is "external" to the system by bracketing it off, it was unable to find a final resolution - that is, arrive at a horizon overcoming modernity. Originally, the computer only seemed to put such a theory into practice, but as is always the case with practice, the computer went beyond the theory. Alan Turing did not think about computers from the perspective of semiology, but was able to overcome the limits of semiology by thinking of them from the perspective of the potential computer (the Turing machine.) The computer draws everything together into a single dimension but not for the purpose of integrating the world; rather it does so to recombine the world in a relationship of reference. That relationship includes everything from the syntactical code relations internal to the image to the various relationships external to the image which have societal, historical, or cultural coefficients. However, because there is no definitive coefficient or central point which can control those relationships, the reality produced by the relationship of reference is always virtual.

Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela redefine the organic body as "autopoiesis," or in other words as a, "self-referential, autonomous system that is deterministic and relativistic." In Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, they argue that "language does not transmit information and its function role is the creation of a cooperative domain of interactions between speakers through the development of a common frame of reference." This argument also holds true for the image. What prescribes communication though images is not whether or not the copy is faithful to reality, but rather the "common frame of reference" that is produced by the image. The mass media cooperates to habituate this "common frame of reference," but the experimental image deconstructs and constantly rearranges it. What is important is that "perception should not be viewed as a grasping of an external reality, but rather as the specification of one."

The television newscaster is surprised to be greeted by viewers on the street because he or she does not know these viewers on a personal level; but for viewers, physical perception is superceded by a media-based perception such that physical perception is situated as an extension of media perception. It would be wrong to laugh at the naivete of viewers, however. Have viewers really turned into bodysnatchers and zombies through mass media "mind control" (such out-of-date notions were tossed around at the time of the Aum incident)?

No matter how much a viewer indulges in television, he or she does not lose his or her body. The difficulty occurs between different phases of the body. Knowing via an image is not the same thing as knowing through "direct" perception. Newscasters that appear on television do not know the faces of their viewers, yet they talk as if they know everyone. That is, they "know" everyone. But the word "know" functions at a different level of publicness than the way you and I know our neighbors. This being the case, it is only natural that viewers assume personal familiarity with newscasters. In short, this "know" is an event on the level of reference.

From this point on, events on the level of reference will be progressively more habitualized. Now these events seem to be phony, but they will be all too "real" some day. In the 1910s Kafka tried to have a relationship with his lover Felice based only on letters; in his time, such behavior was exceptional and indeed unique. But in this era of the Internet, such an ethos becomes normal. At least in this transitional period, it would be meaningful to turn the Internet, a medium which minimizes face to face meetings, not into a form which minimizes meetings themselves, but which positively enables meetings - to make the "web" of reference into a more complicated and polymorphous thing. In the 1970s, Ivan Illich already proposed replacing the word "network" with the term "opportunity web."

Virtual reality continues to be seen as a technology that constructs a "virtual space" which does not really exist. But this places the technology only within the frame of a modernist way of thinking. Virtual reality is the concretization of the computer's true nature, freeing what was from the start was an instrument of reference from the modernist strait jacket of data processing. As long as we view the computer as a data processing instrument, it can be no more than an instrument of reproduction. Data processing is merely the rapid reproduction, comparison, and processing of data.

Virtual reality technology makes use of another aspect of the computer. Please consider this. As the years progress, we are headed for a time when virtual reality technology can produce "a reality entirely like the real thing." John Cage said that, "If technology advances to the point where we forget the difference between television images and real scenes, then we can no longer talk about television" (John Cage, Pour les oiseaux) and the same is also true for virtual reality. Yet it is only at this time that both television and virtual reality can be able to concentrate on the function of reference by ignoring the function of reproduction that is urged upon them today. Television and virtual reality will be used as an interface, one which does not think that those various different realities are similar, but on the contrary, finds as many subtle differences between apparently similar things as possible.

The visual image has until now held tightly to the law of perspective and the window. Virtual reality can end this relationship. Today's 3-D virtual reality images are still caught up in the frame of the window. But perception of the image without the law of perspective; an interface that does not use a window screen; an interface of "resonance" where 3-D images virtually synchronize with our movements - these are not dream technologies but rather technologies that try to approach as near as possible the flesh body of the "here and now." They are possible only by being based on a techno-politics and a clear criticism of the present technology. Accordingly, such media will produce new forms of expression which will differ from existing film and video. But even if this takes place, film and video will never disappear. Rather, they will be reconstituted by this medium, accepting in their way reference as a replacement for the law of perspective and an omni-directional interface as a replacement for the window, thus transforming themselves from within.

— Translated by Jeffrey Isaacs

Kogawa Tetsuo

After graduating from the Philosophy Department of Sophia University in 1966, went on to complete the Masters program in Western Philosophy at Waseda University in 1969 and then finished the Doctoral program in the same department, but left before graduating. Currently a professor in the Communications Department of the Communications Faculty at Tokyo University of Economics. Has published over 20 books on a wide variety of subjects ranging from Western philosophy to media theory and film criticism. His main works include: New York Street Theater (Hokuto Shuppan, 1981), A Critique of Information Capitalism (Chikuma Shobo, 1985), The Emperor System and the Electronic State (Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 1986), The Machine of Criticism I: The Challenge of Politics (Miraisha, 1992), and Cinema Politica (Sakuhinsha, 1993).