Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 7, No. 1, 1993
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Ian Angus

Lost in space: into the digital image labyrinth

McKenzie Wark

"An impending world of exotica,
glimpsed only peripherally..." (Alan Moore)

Dear Stieglitz,

Even a few words I don't feel like writing.
You know exactly how I feel about photography.
I would like to see it make people despise painting
until something else will make photography unbearable.
There we are... (Marcel Duchamp, NY May 22, 1922)

Here we are

A new and very particular kind of space is unfolding before our eyes. Like all other kinds of space that we humans are all too familiar with, this new space is the product, at one and the same time, of culture and technology. The theatre, painting, architecture, photography, all of these inventions, and the developments that have occurred within them, have shaped our perceptions of space. Since the deux ex machina, since the quattrocento, since the arch, the cantilever, the daguerrotype, since Cubism, since cinema, since each and every moment in which culture and technology have met, relations of flesh to space have changed and changed again, and along a number of axes.

Firstly, the instrumental relation of body to space: the ability to make space work for one, or conversely, its ability to make one work and conform to its form. Secondly, the imaginative relation of subjectivity to space: the way the spaces we make suggest an architectonics for thought and creative action, or conversely, the way purely poetic thought can be realised in concrete space. Thirdly, the philosophical relation to space: our understanding of the reality of space in relation to one's own flesh and spirit, and conversely, one's grip on this subjective being as suggested by the spaces our bodies inhabit.

These are three of the dimensions of our relation to spaces, or the space-species interface, if you will. They are the product of the prevailing cultural technologies which are themselves the accumulated product of social action and conflict.

I want to look firstly at the experience of spaces by an individual subject - any subject. Later sections move on to examine epistemological-aesthetic and ethico-political relations to space, wherein most screen critics position themselves in relation to the collective. Most would agree that our relation to space is always, already, socially 'constructed', and necessarily so. Without the physical and spiritual architectonics of culture and technology, space attacks us with the terrifyingly amorphous fullness of a schizophrenic nightmare. With that said, it is also true enough that the very constructions which make spaces spiritually and physically inhabitable can also crush us, derange us, deform us, betray us, mislead us, tease us, confront us, exploit us, alienate us, and bore us mindlessly.

One need never be bored for long. Every now and then the struggles within technological culture produce a radically new technique for space creation, which those whom it empowers adapt, and which those whom it does not empower, need adapt to. It usually happens that the new way of manipulating space is firstly instrumental in nature. Photography and cinema are good examples here - instruments for recording the disposition of objects in space simultaneously, in terms of the quanta of light falling upon them and reflected from their surfaces. But, photography is also a window through which we glimpse a space of startling imaginative and ontological form. Once people (particularly artists) become familiar with the instrument, imaginative relations to this space turn up - the Surrealist re-invention of photography by Man Ray, Lee Miller and others is a case in point here. The ontological consequences of such a space also begin to occur to people (like the journeyman-critic Walter Benjamin) by which time we may have already become accustomed to it and encultured by it.

It is with these considerations in mind that I confront that space which I believe may indeed have unique, imaginative and ontological properties; properties revealed through the unassuming screen of the video display terminal. A world named computer graphics (CG for short) by William A. Fetter of the Boeing Co. in 1960. In the words of CG artist Hiroyuki Hayashi, "CG is the 'unusual' smartly hidden in the everyday". Ever since the first appearance of those glitzy CG commercial television logos, I've been fascinated by the kind of space which unfolds in them. They seem to position the viewer as if s/he is in a space ship, hermetically sealed from the void, but hurtling through jet-black, inertia-less space, whizzing past and through grid lines or objects or moving forms which appear to glow with a luminescence inspired from within. The idea occurs to me that these hallowed forms, put to work on such deliciously banal tasks as representing a channel logo as if it were an awesome 2,000 mile long neon, might just be the near edge of a vast universe of potential forms, in a digital space that's big and weird and wildly new. A space with many more windows into it than the humble TV's familiar vacuum-sealed, plexiglass porthole - and yet which is strangely invisible ...

The computer graphics on TV seem to me to have a close affinity with the digital retouching of photographs, video arcade games, bank autoteller machines, video poker machines, military surveillance and strategic scenario simulators, international stock and forex trading systems, videotext, sequencers and samplers, computer aided design and manufacture (CAD/CAM) and even humble word processors (like the one I'm using now). Some of these things appear more like each other than some of the others. What I want to show is that they are connected by more than mere analogy. They form a whole species of topological environments - that is to say, spaces.

Historically speaking, these spaces are all the product of the progressive development of digital information processing systems. Early systems dealt with numbers, which were easy to represent and process in a binary language. Next came language itself, and the digital storage and manipulation of text. Now sounds and images can also be digitized and manipulated. Digital systems bring to the image similar capabilities as they brought to number, text and sound.

For example, computer artist Simon Penny notes that digital information is permanently mutable: it can be changed over and over with no loss of quality. This facility, which is merely convenient for number or text is thoroughly radical in its implications for sound and image. 'Old fashioned' mechanical reproduction always resulted in a slight but significant drop in quality (i.e. information content) between original and reproduction. With digital copying, such a difference can, in principle, be entirely eliminated. Hence, all forms of digital information storage, filing, manipulation and interrelation take place in a medium where the information has a totally arbitrary relation to its material support. While there is a generation of difference between a master print and a reproduction, a master tape and dub, there is no difference in the information content on two discs with the same digital information on them. Digital information is becoming indifferent to origin. Barring error or the odd crash, and within certain parameters, digital information spaces achieve a freedom from material constraint of a whole new logical type.

These spaces have more in common with each other than CG have in common with photography or film. This is in spite of the prevalent tendency to assimilate CG into the same aesthetic discourses and public spaces as video, photography and film, which are already clinging to discourses and spaces which for a long time have been the sacred domain of the finer arts. If, as Bourdieu says, culture is merely "that present incarnation of the sacred", then it is this very un-Duchampian tendency to assimilate CG to these high, dry islands of culture which perhaps ought to be questioned.

These notes are meant as a response then, to the intersection of two kinds of space; on the one hand, this weird, phantom, architectronic space 7 of CG (to which I shall return). On the other, the architectonic space of culture, particularly the public gallery (and by extension the journal, 8 the cinema and teaching). I have already suggested that the first of these two spaces (CG) is already a doubled one. We have the porthole to look through the screen, which is one thing, but the space itself is quite another. What we see on the screen is only an example of the potential of this putative space. It is not the space itself. We do not even know, at this point, whether it can truly be 'seen' at all.

'The difference that makes a difference'

Now it's time to show why the space represented by CG is different from the space represented in photography and film. This involves looking at the images, thinking about the processes by which these images are produced, and describing the spaces they represent. At each of these three levels, a photograph and a CG image appear to me to be qualitatively different things.

First, let's give them different descriptors. Setting aside the relationship of film to photography, I will bracket them both together as the evidence of photospace. Against this we have CG and all that. In honour of the 'techno-punk' sci fi novels of William Gibson, 9 I will call this cyberspace.

The first thing we can say about photospace and cyberspace is that photographs and CG represent these spaces via different processes. Borrowing from Bateson and Wilden, 10 we can say that photographs are analog representations of photospace, while computer graphics are digital simulations of cyberspace. The difference between an analog and a digital representation is the difference between a continual variation and a binary code; between a trace and a switch, a map and a matrix, a pulsion and a distinction. It is the difference between information which comes in ambiguous figurations or in discrete bits.

There are also different kinds of difference. In photospace, difference can be undecidable - made up of infinitesimal variations of shade - right down to the very substance of the emulsion itself. This is a difference which is ultimately gestural, a matter of degree. In principle the degree of difference may be infinitely small or great, or perhaps not even measurable, but it is always motivated by a corresponding difference outside of itself. On the other hand, in cyberspace, difference is always discrete and non-trivial, and is always part of a finite set of differences, but its relation to anything outside itself is necessarily conventional. Because it is made up of a set of symbolic data which are arbitrarily assigned to values, it can make the sign of the infinite but cannot, in principle, be anything but finite and discrete.

In a photograph, an object is represented as a continuous variation of light and shade, created by variable quantities of light. Light actually enters into the space where the image is recorded, but is in no way 'coded' in the process. A digital image, on the other hand, can only be constructed out of information which is coded. It can be made from the same patterned quantities of light that make a photograph, or the movement of an analog device like a lightpen or a mouse, but only on condition that it is coded as a set of arbitrary but systematic values and co-ordinates first, before it passes into cyberspace. In the process, it is transformed into a mathematical description of a space. Alternatively, an image can be generated from a mathematical model, pure and simple - the product of the artist's head rather than hand.

While the data which one inputs into cyberspace must be of a certain type, there are a number of ways to output an image which correlates to that data. For example a number of types of video display or a plotter could be driven. A machine tool could be guided. Or one could output on a number of different types of printer, or as a print or film. In each case, there is a radical separation between the internal space which is cyberspace and other spaces. As computer artist Adam Wolter points out, even in a real time manipulation of an image on a screen with a mouse (familiar enough to most home computer users), "The mark that is made is in a shimmering electronic pseudo-space and the hand is (usually) still in the real world". 11

A photograph or film is a mapping of the contours of light falling on a 3-D surface, as recorded in a chemical emulsion which is a 2-D surface. The link between the referent space and the image space is an infinitely variable quanta of light. The referent space always precedes the image space. CG images, by contrast, need no such precedent in physical space. Indeed, it is only with a great deal of mathematical development that CG images have come to simulate such commonplace things as perspective, texture and shading. 12 But CG can spatially represent any kind of array of difference: different quantities of light, heat, stress, neural activity, radioactivity, radio waves, radar, demographic or geological patterns, trajectories, flows of money - anything - or nothing at all. It can make images of spaces which have never existed, can never exist, or which will exist at a future date.

For example, an interactive, walk-through model may simulate a building prior to its construction. That may not sound like much - so could a drawing or plan. But drawing or plans, like photographs, are just surfaces (though arrived at by different processes). CG is more than a mere surface, it is a mathematical structure, which in this instance could be a drawing, plan and model all in one, in anticipation of the referent building which has yet to be built. More than an analog, it is a homolog. Where one might plan a building, build it and photograph it, in that logical order, one can now plan a building, 'computer-graph' it, and then build it - having disturbed the logical order of sign and referent, and perhaps altered the relation of signifier to signified.

This coding and separation gives cyberspace a flexibility and mutability which photographic practices don't ordinarily possess. There are, of course, analog methods for manipulating analog images; colour timing, pushing the film speed, dodging and burning in while printing, but even so, an analog representation can never fully differentiate itself from its referent. It can only modify its contours. In this sense, the camera doesn't 'lie' outright, it fudges and finesses vis-·-vis its referent space. It exaggerates or understates, masks or unmasks - but that is all. In this respect, there is a certain, comforting, moral integrity about photospace which appeals to some interpreters, Barthes and Berger for example.

This difference between an uncoded analog and a coded digital is a crucial one, as it affects our perception of the fidelity of the objects we see in the space of the representation. For example, a photograph is legally admissible as evidence. Experts may be made to testify as to the fidelity of the Zapruder film of the photos or Lee Harvey Oswald with his gun, but the mere fact that forgeries are detectable indicates a certain residual sense in which photospace is, in fact, directly connected to the referent space.

Now, it seems, all this is about to change. With the introduction of digital retouching of photographs, it may no longer be possible to tell whether an image is in fact an analog of an event. (This situation is dramatized in the dystopian film The Running Man, where the powers that be give up attempting to create propaganda in the space of live TV by manipulating events in the referent space - the set of the 'Running Man' game. They turn instead to simulating the desired effects in the cyberspace of computer graphic animation).

A characteristic feature of cyberspace is that things can disappear in it without a trace. Anyone who has accidentally 'lost' their own writing in a wordprocessor has experienced this most primal aspect of cyberspace. Had the photo of Oswald with the gun been faked digitally, perhaps there would have been no possibility of questioning its authenticity. When we look at an image from cyberspace, we look at an image from a non-place, an atopia, an inaccessible space which obeys quite different laws from our own. Photospace, on the other hand, always appears to obey the same laws, and this is the sense in which the camera doesn't lie. This makes possible two wonderful oxymorons: documentary photography and art photography. As traditionally conceived, the former is interpreted in a dystopian framework, the latter in a utopian one. (I'm thinking of the horror of Capa and the purity of Stieglitz, respectively).

Of course, there are plenty of aesthetic photographic practices which demonstrate that photographs in a sense do 'lie' about their referents. Yet in order to show that the camera lies, one has to presume that it is an instrument which has a truth effect in the first place. This is the case, for example, with the Surrealist photographic practices which Krauss 13 examines. The practices of doubling and cropping in the work of Man Ray and Lee Miller show us the analog turned back against itself: the solarisation, the double, the familiar rendered strange through cropping, nature twisting itself into a sign, the genuinely miraculous chance occurrence captured on film, and so on. Yet in all of these practices, dissimulation assumes the active labour of the practitioner, whereas in cyberspace, it is more strictly a property of the medium itself.

The flip side of the photograph as document, as evidence, as fact, are the romantic practices which make the camera the instrument of paradox and the undecidable, the 'non-communicable', which is to say the uncoded. It presents us with evidence, clues, possibilities; all requiring interpretation and judgement after the fact, by the prosecuting attorney (See! Oswald with his gun!) or the post-Surrealist aesthetician (See! The unformed! The indecideable! The incommensurable!) Either way, the camera is simply a machine which steals light from the world.

It is this analog nature of the photograph which I think Barthes is grappling with in Camera Lucida. The photograph, which "reproduces to infinity" what has "occurred only once", is a thing which, "in effect, is never distinguished from its referent..." By nature, the "Photograph... has something tautological about it; a pipe, here, is always and intractably a pipe".

Geist in the machine

Cultures have historically operated with concepts derived from available technologies. Everything from potters' wheels to camera obscuras, to steam engines to cinema to computers have been regarded as what David Bolter calls "defining technologies" 15 - technologies which act as the conventional standards according to which phenomena are explained. An old technology will become the explanatory machine for a new technology. A new technology will become the explanatory machine for a new social phenomenon. Old explanations will be reworked on the lathe of new explanatory machines. Explanatory machines can be accessed by different disciplines and can feedback into the cultural slipstream, to the point where the original connection with the machine itself is lost.

Machines make good metaphors because machines create spaces. Spaces which have rules and functions that are logical and clear, and thus make good metaphorical clones for phenomena which are neither logical, nor clear. A simple machine can stand in as a metaphor for a complicated social process, or even for a new machine that is little understood. One sympathises with Barthes when he describes a camera as a "clock for seeing", 16 but one might as well describe a Fairlight video synthesizer as a calculator for reading.

Another convenient example comes from Steven Heath's book, Questions of Cinema. Heath shows how Marx formulated his theory of ideology by using the camera obscura as a metaphor - the metaphor for a process of inversion (incidentally, a metaphor which describes an analog process). In Marx & Engels words:

If in all ideology men and their relations appear upsidedown as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life process. 17

Heath then shows how Freud used the metaphor of developing a positive from a negative image to decentre the subject who is 'subjected' to ideology: "The camera obscura becomes a series of chambers with negatives and positives, movements and repressions, screenings for and from the eye of consciousness" 18 (a more complex set of analog processes). For Heath, this suggests that there is an affinity between Marxism, psychoanalysis and the cinema.

What I'm interested in here is not the ins and outs of this particular theoretical conjucture, but Heath's casual assumption of an analogy between the processes of subjectivity and the processes of film. One can see the analog metaphor of the photographic reversal flowing like waves of light, right through into Heath's descriptions of narrative and suture: "In the intermittance of its images (Benjamin's 'constant sudden change'), film is a perpetual metonymy over which narrative lays as a model of closure, a kind of conversion (metonymy is the figure of desire in pyschoanalytic theory) into the direction of the subject through the image-flow..." And "...the film ceaselessly poses an absence, a lack, which is ceaselessly bound up in and into the relation of the subject, is, as it were, ceaselessly recaptured for the film". 19

From the shifting patterns of light on emulsion, through the continuous mapping of positive to negative, flip-flopped from original to lateral inversion, onto the the explanation of image, desire and suture in terms of "machines for the shifting regulation of the individual as a subject", 20 the trace of the analog metaphor flows on endlessly. Thus, even in the theories constructed to explain photospace and its representations, we find the form of its mode of representation. Perhaps photospace is becoming unbearable today precisely because it is both an instrumental and imaginative space, and a space which serves as an ontological, metaphorical base. A certain exhaustion has set in. 21 The fit between psychoanalysis, Marxism and cinema seems so neat, precisely because analogic machine metaphors run right through the lot. Photography is a defining technology which suffers no lack of exposure.

More pre/post/erous talk ...

What is it about cyberspace that makes it so indifferent, so appalling? In order to address this issue, a change of model might be in order. The first section of this paper spoke of three axes of the individual subject's relation to space: instrumental, imaginative and ontological. Now it's time to move onto collective, discursive relations to space: the ethical-political and aesthetic-epistemological axes. If I might hazard a supposition, I would say that there is something quite different in the relationship of the ethical-political axis to the aesthetic-epistemological axis in cyberspace as opposed to photospace. 'High falutin' as that sounds, it is really a very simple idea. The following diagrams might help:

Here is a model of photospace. This model is actually how I read some recent articles on modern photographic practices or the 'photomodern' by Terry Smith and Tony Fry. 22 The photomodern has a dystopian and a utopian mode, as in Nazi propaganda photographs and certain practices for picturing post war, modern English architecture, respectively. In both cases, the ethical-political framework intersects with the aesthetic-epistemological one. Both writers are able to concentrate on the one axis, then the other, showing their relationship to each other, but keeping them relatively distinct. In both cases, we are left with interesting case studies of how certain avant-garde political and aesthetic practices intersected at a particular stage in the history of the 'modern', or rather, how they perceived this intersection in moral and cultural space at the time.

That moment has passed. These one way streets no longer intersect. As Lyotard would have it, they are not even logically compatible. 23 Welcome to the smash-up derby of the language games! Now, it would appear that besides the problem of these discursive axes not intersecting, we have the problem of them running askew. One cannot speak about one without speaking about the other, and yet one cannot speak about both at once. Every 'political' statement appears questionable from an epistemological point of view, and vice versa, and so on. Every aesthetic game plan appears morally loaded, yet the goal, grounding and rationale of neither appears clear, and so on. Yes, here we are again... (You've heard this before, right?)... The postmodern blues! Here is a diagram of it:

Perhaps the new instrumental space of cyberspace is a contributing factor to our collective relation to, and perception of, this state of affairs. Because of the analog nature of the photographic image, and because of the judicious weight of the discourse which interpreted those ambiguous little atoms of significance ("only that which narrates can make us understand" 24 ), the utopian or dystopian sides of photospace appeared equally tied to the poles of representation and the real. A certain wholeness and unity was achieved precisely through the double struggle of the political and the aesthetic, united in the analogy of labour and the labour of analogy, in a cumulative process of mediation. Hence, clockwise on the map from twelve o'clock, one could specify four practices: 'social realism'/'culture industries'. Between dystopia and the real: 'totalitarianism'/'reification'. Between the real and the utopian: 'socialism', the 'class struggle', and the 'masses'. Between utopia and representation: the 'revolutionary avant-gardes'. Like this :

All this now appears to be anachronistic. The analog technologies which provided the images, the metaphorical cement and the evidence for explanatory narratives is not what it used to be.

In a very illuminating essay, 25 Bill Nichols takes us back to Walter Benjamin to explain the disappearance of this scenario, and indeed, section XIII of Benjamin's famous essay on 'Mechanical Reproduction' does confirm the metaphorical analogy of photospace with certain collective practices. Says Benjamin: "...the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions". It "...extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action". Benjamin here wants to show that film opens up an "unconscious optics", parallel to the "unconscious impulses" of psychoanalysis (an early precedent for an homology we now know only too well). In film "an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored" which, no doubt, is what gives it its cachet of Boys Own radical materialism. 26 Yet, cyberspace presents quite a different picture on this point. It need not "extend", "intervene", "explore" or "assure" in relation to visible space at all - let alone "penetrate". It may have a strictly imaginary relation to any referent space. It suggests no knowledge of bad "rules" and good "action" which are applicable in a referential space. Instead, it suggests a transition to a quite different relation between cultural technologies and the real, based on arbitrary coding and manipulation: the cut-up, the perfect edit, the program, the model, the game, the lattice, the network, the algorithm.

On the ethical-political 'front', the labour of love gives way to the cynic-in-difference. No longer is the bad, threatening, negative space tied to the good, promised, positive space via the metaphor of labour and the machine, by the movement of mass and the mass movement. We've become bored with these explanatory machines, even though they still walk on iron heels upon the face of the earth. On the epistemological-aesthetic street, we still have the hoary old issues of representation and the real. If anything, the modernist obsession with this axis has intensified: witness the exhumations of the Surrealists by Krauss, Mallarm­ by Barthes, Duchamp by Lyotard, Roussel by Foucault, Joyce by Kristeva (well, by everybody...) Perhaps this is precisely because the united front of representation and the real is no longer cemented together by the threat and the promise of the dystopian and utopian? So what takes its place? Where do we go from here?

In terms of the real, perhaps a heterotopia. In 'Other Spaces', Foucault provides us with a topology and typology of heterotopias, or spaces which sit just on the limit of urban culture's spaces. Drawing on the experience of certain information technologies, he sees this heterotopic terrain as held together by relations of juxtaposition, and arranged topographically in series, trees, networks and lattices. "In our era, space presents itself in the form of patterns of ordering. An ordering in which antagonistic, totalising opposites still exist, but as a sort of residue "which institution and practice dare not erode". 27 Hence, the persistence in our moral and political conception of space of oppositions such as public/private, pleasure/work, and cultural/utilitarian. Foucault sees these as occurring within a more general, more heterogeneous patterning. Hence, his classificatory list of heterotopias which include:

Heterotopias of crisis: boarding school, military service, the honeymoon, which, at certain times, remove people from urban space for reasons connected with the experience of sexuality. (The drive-in motel for illicit, sexual liaisons also belongs here).

Heterotopias of deviance: psychiatric clinics, prisons, perhaps even the cemetery.

Heterotopias of juxtaposition: the theatre and the garden, where, as Aldo Rossi also points out, many scenes or types occupy the same space or alternate in time.

Time accumulators: public galleries, museums, libraries, all with an eye on preservation and accumulation, an infinite (19th century) horizon.

Momentary heterotopias: fairs, carnivals, shows, bienniales, expos which in a sense do the opposite to those listed above.

Chronic heterotopias: Disneyland, Sydney's Darling Harbour, which institutionalise the carnival and make a permanent space for it, connected to tourism.

Imaginative heterotopias: such as the colony. (We might also interpret the the left's historic relation to revolutionary states in this manner). Interestingly, Foucault also puts the ship under this heading, as a 'vessel' for the imagination, "a floating part of space, a placeless place".

This idea of the placeless space as a heterotopia is interesting because that is precisely what cyberspace is, though in a different manner to the ship. If the continuous motion between points on an empty sea is what defines the ship, then relational difference in a logical, inaccessible space is what defines cyberspace, particularly when it is a network, linking terminals in difference places and times into a unified environment.

Perhaps what the ship was to extensive, analog space, cyberspace is to a digital conception of moral, aesthetic, political and knowable spaces. We could interpret the various species of both art and criticism, creativity and knowledge today on this model of the juxtaposition of heterotopias and atopias. It is also interesting that a number of recent films deal explicitly with the peripheral interface between the atopia of cyberspace and the human world of heterotopian spaces: Demon Seed, Terminator, Running Man, Alien, Electric Dreams, Tron, The Last Starfighter, Short Circuit, Jumpin' Jack Flash, Robocop, to name just a few. The anxieties about cyberspace expressed in these films are by no means limited to the film medium. A number of media and institutions are currently attempting to rationalise uncertainties about new, digital, cultural technologies.

Imagineers of human souls

Within a heterotopic framework of multiple juxtapositions, particularly where this 'heterotopology' is in turn confronted by the atopia of cyberspace, the ethico-political axis of criticism becomes a complicated and many sided business. The interaction of cyberspace with a heterotopian landscape adds a further complication in the form of new relations between culture and science, or more strictly speaking, technology. The era of information is only the 'end of ideology' to the extent that it signals the proliferation of ideologies.

Old categories become confused. For example, it sometimes happens today that a radical right meets a conservative left. A grand ideology, be it socialism or liberalism, was never a coherent narrative in the first place, but is, in any case, now in the process of being cut up and edited in the interests of a pragmatics and a rhetoric of self-preservation for the interest groups and class blocs that stand behind them. 28 Cynicism multiplies and fills the vacuum once occupied by the so-called grand narratives. 29 Three particular cynicisms are of interest here: the old militia, the new pragmatics and the inhumanities.

The old militia: Lyotard's Postmodern Condition is perhaps the best known work which deals with the politics of knowledge in the era of digital information technology from the point of view of the cynicism of the 'old militia'. That the text is a cynical one wasn't obvious to all and sundry from the text itself, although it does state that it "makes no claim to being original, or even true". 30 This statement is amplified in a recent interview: "I told stories in the book, I referred to a quantity of books I've never read, apparently it impressed people. It's a bit of a parody". A parody of the form of the government report. It is in fact a government report to the University Council of Quebec and yet "it belongs to the satiric genre." 31 (For evidence of this, one only need point to the pun on 'translating' which Lyotard perpetrates on the fourth page - a dry, obfuscatory wit indeed!) 32

This satiric impulse stems from Lyotard's commitment to "the responsibility to resist". 33 From the assertive, military metaphor of the avant-garde, the militant intellectual retreats to that other military metaphor, the more defensive 'resistance'. Resistance "against the great narratives themselves, against the way thought is treated in the new postmodern technologies insofar as they express the most recent application of capitalist rules to language." 34 Resistance in the name of a language which does not communicate, which is autonomous, not instrumental, which resists the performance principle, commodification and exchange value. Resistance on the part of fine artists, general philosophers and pure scientists, the pataphysicians of non-communicable phrases, beyond the law. 35

The cynicism of this position lies in its total obstinance. The irony of it is that it really is quite conservative. Lyotard invests such hope in experimentation in language, but this experimentation is to be carried out by already established categories of 'expert', categories of expert which were established early on in the history of modernism - the fine artist, the pure scientist, and the general philosopher. Hence, Lyotard's work can be read as a defence of the vested interests of these groups, in the name of 'experimentation' and 'resistance'. Lyotard defends the old in the name of the new - a brilliant and highly cynical manoeuvre! Lyotard is the figure of the militant who, in the face of cyberspace and the new categories of expertise that go with it, moves from an avant-garde to a rear guard position.

The inhumanities: 36 no amount of resistance can prevent information technologies from generating new relations of knowledge to power, and new relations of technology to culture. The history of cyberspace to date offers ample proof of this. The development of the first generation of computers was tied to the need to process the calculations (involving many variables) needed to build the bomb. 37 Even computer graphics, a seemingly innocuous application of the power of digital processing received a heavy impetus from military funding. 38 The purpose of computer graphics was originally to make sophisticated simulation of combat situations possible. In particular, cyberspace is an excellent medium in which to train military personnel in the strategy of nuclear war, given that a nuclear exchange is the last word in atopia, in that there can be no practice runs.

Cyberspace has been closely allied to the theory and practice of political atopia. That is to say, with topologies which can exist only in a logical space, and which interact with the heterotopia of social space and relations only 'peripherally'. There are three classic examples of cyberspace: nuclear deterrence, foreign exchange (forex) trading and, prosaically enough, CG. Respectively, these can be thought of as flows of (i) information strategy; (ii) information-value, and (iii) information-image, all of which are immaterial flows - the hope of the 'post-industrial' west... 39

Information-strategy: it is no accident that the hardware and strategies of deterrence take place in cyberspace. This most disturbing and fascinating of atopias is built out of speculative data concerning future events, not experience of past ones. The simulation necessarily precedes the referent (which in this case must always be deferred). The epistemology of pure war and the aesthetics of pure simulation presuppose one another.

Information-value: similarly, there is a neat homology between money and cyberspace. Money is a pure, arbitrary, quantitative sign. Numerically, it is always discrete, never irrational. In cyberspace, money moves away from its analog functions: as a measure of labour time, for example, and towards its digital ones - pure, transitive exchange.

Information-image: similarly with the image. Once separated from its referent by the almost limitless possibilities for manipulation, the image becomes part of a pure economy in an abstract space. A space almost completely free from inertia and resistance - a vacuum. As with deterrence or forex systems, the atopian separation of the image from the real is no barrier to its return upon the real. For example, the architects responsible for Sydney's Darling Harbour scheme have the entire project stored in a cyberspace, walk-thru model, where everything from the plumbing to the fittings is colour-coded. If one model of power in the modern sense was the struggle to realise a utopian space against a dystopian world, one model of postmodern power is the schematic realisation of atopian models within a heterotopian world.

All of these applications have their origins in a new formation of power-knowledge which has grown up within and alongside the traditional institutions of knowledge. This new set of discourses began with systems analysis, 40 but has gradually increased in extent and influence so that its offshoots can be found everywhere from graphic design to expert systems. Taken together, I call these complexes of power-knowledge the inhumanities. This is not meant as a moral slight. Rather, I want to juxtapose the prosaic, practical and heterotopic aspirations with the humanities and the arts: those islands of the poetic, the affective and the utopian. The inhumanities are not so much hostile to such values as indifferent to them. They represent the very summit of "enlightened false consciousness", 41 and are pretty impervious to critique. The inhumanities do not always recognise a separate, human sphere outside of their own, governed by different authorities and competences. The inhumanities are about bridging the cultural and the technological. Derrida's reply on behalf of the humanities in "No Apocalypse, No Not Now", 42 beautiful as it is, is too late. The apocalypse is already over. The inhumanities have taken us into an age of apocalypse management, or "optimizing the unavoidable". 43

On a less millenarian note, perhaps our understanding of present cultural technologies and practices would be enhanced by a change of language, by a move from one metaphorical tool box to others: from analog to digital; from photospace to cyberspace; from mapping to modelling; from image surface to image structure; from engineering to imagineering; from intervention to access; from utopia and dystopia to atopia and heterotopia; from the iron heel to the interface. Experimentation in language necessarily entails involvement with new technologies, not resistance to them. In the words of Alan Moore:

This oblique and shifting cathode mosaic uncovers the blueprint for an era of new sensations and possibilities. An era of the conceivable made concrete and the casually miraculous. 44

So here we are ...


1. My perspective on cultural space owes a lot to three sources. Walter Benjamin, of course; Michel Foucault's Discipline & Punish; Birth of the Clinic and Madness & Civilization, and the writings of the architect Aldo Rossi, who is perhaps less well known. His early work Architecture and the City (Opposition Books, 1986), is a seminal critique of modernist architectural thought, modelled on Renaissance treatises. His Scientific Autobiography (Opposition Books, 1986), a later and more mature work, cannot be recommended too highly. Needless to say, this perspective, while a very general one is quite arbitrary, eclectic, and provisional, and should not be read as excluding other equally valid perspectives on the problem of subjectivity, space, culture, technology and politics.

2. Cf. "Spirit Freed From Flesh" in Intervention, nos.21/22 (1988) for more on the idea of cultural technologies.

3. Cynthia Goodman, Digital Visions (Times Mirror Books, 1987), p.20.

4. In Koichi Omura et al., Computer Graphics in Japan (Tokyo: Graphic-sha Publishing, 1985), p.100.

5. In Artlink, v.7, n.2/3, 1987.

6. Pierre Bourdieu. Preface in Distinction (London: RPK, 1986).

7. The term is Ross Harley's from "Alphabye Cities", Art and Text, n.28, (Sydney, 1988).

8. Cf. "Lost in Space", Photofile, Winter 1987.

9. Neuromancer and Count Zero are brilliant explorations of the meeting of atopic and heterotopic spaces.

10. Gregory Bateson, Steps Towards an Ecology of Mind and Anthony Wilden, System and Structure (London: Tavistock, 1983).

11. Adam Wolter, Artlink, v.7, nos.2/3 (1987).

12. Cf. Digital Visions, op.cit., and Joseph Deken, Computer Images (Thames & Hudson, 1983).

13. Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingstone, L'Amour Fou (Cross River Press, 1985).

14. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (London: Fontana, 1984), p.5

15. David Bolter, Turing's Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984). Cf. Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (Granada, 1984).

16. Barthes, op. cit, p.15.

17. K. Marx & F. Engels, The German Ideology (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p.42, cited in Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema (London: Macmillan, 1981), pp.1-2.

18. Heath, ibid, p.3.

19. Ibid, p.13.

20. Ibid, p.102.

21. This can, of course, be interpreted in a positive light. The exhaustion of the metaphorical structure of photographic practice frees practice from certain, discursive constraints: post Photography photography...

22. Tony Fry in Transition n.20, (May, 1987); Terry Smith in War/Masculinity (Interventions Publications, n.19, 1985).

23. Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thebaud, Just Gaming (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985).

24. Susan Sontag, On Photography (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), p.23.

25. Bill Nichols, "The Work of Culture in the age of Cybernetic Systems" in Screen Vol.29, No.1, (1988).

26. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in Illuminations (New York: Shocken Books, 1987).

27. Michel Foucault, "Other Spaces" in Lotus International, nos.48/9 (1986).

28. Cf. Paul Rabinow, French Modern (Cambridge, Mass: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

29. Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

30. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

31. Interview reprinted in Eyeline n.3 (Brisbane, Nov. 1987).

32. The Postmodern Condition, p.4. The paragraph in question begins "The nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged..." and is a brilliant collection of paranoid non-sequiturs.

33. Interview reprinted in Praxis M No.14, (Perth 1987).

34. Interview in Diacritics (Fall 1984), p.18.

35. Cf. Lyotard's brilliant essay(s) "Rules and Paradoxes and Svelte Appendix" in Cultural Critique n.5, (1986/7).

36. Cf. "On Technological Time: Cruising in Paul Virilio's Overexposed City", Arena n.83, (1988), and "The President's Rectum" Art & Text, n.36, (May 1990).

37. Robert Junck, Brighter than a Thousand Suns (Penguin, 1974).

38. Robert Rivlin, The Algorithmic Image (Microsoft Press, 1986).

39. Cf. "On Technological Time", ibid.

40. Cf. Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (Simon & Schuster, 1984), for a history of systems analysis and its influence.

41. Sloterdijk, op.cit.

42. Jacques Derrida, "No Apocalypse, No Not Now", Diacritics, Summer 1984, pp.20-31.

43. Jacques Vallee, The Network Revolutions: Confessions of a Computer Programmer (Penguin, 1985), p.80.

44. Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, The Watchmen (DC Comics).

New: 24 November, 1995 | Now: 23 March, 2015