Published June 11, 2019
It seems that among the hottest topics worthy of discussion in our materialist epoch is the role of future technology in our lives, and the seemingly endless questions surrounding the various theories, schools and postulates of post/transhumanism. The reality is that artists, writers, SCI-FI nerds, etc. have done more to wrestle with and create potentialities of futurist tech in relation to society, philosophy, nature, and the subject than any of the so-called “hard” sciences. People aporetically debate the possibilities, dangers, and perhaps the inevitabilities of transhumanism, AI, nano-tech etc. as always, the discussions of these things surrounding art itself and ecology go relatively unnoticed. Sc-fi really is not “art” in the sense of literature, or at least not in the way people think of “literature”. It has become mass-art, a companion for scientism to imagine itself a space without nihilistic apathy and sterile machinic replication, permeated with a kind of supreme hyper-humanism that looks at various starry-eyed possibilities of a nu-man (or woman, or xir). Not all Sci-Fi of course, some darker Sci-Fi masterpieces have truly grappled with the horrors of such futurist scenarios. But the most popular manifestations of nerd culture (nerd culture more or less being a top genre and product of the culture industry at this point) seem to be sold on the idea of tech-determinism and a form of cosmic, banal utopianism that often goes unquestioned.
This essay is not intended to discuss these topics of Sci-Fi per say, but rather art in a hyper-tech, post-human world, art truly at its end, the way towering figures of art history like Hegel and Danto could not even imagine it to be. I will attempt to posit a scenario, an outcome that is more than a little likely given current trends in what academia calls “visual culture”, a thought-probe rather than a hard and fast logical argument, because in aesthetic theory, such an analytical approach is worse than a little shaky, its boring!
In the study of visual culture, we know that the power of the image has weaned and withered within the last few decades, or even this last century, given the particular curmudgeon analysis. People often cite the degeneration of music as an art in the most mainstream, top 40 charts, and this phenomenon has even been scientifically analyzed. Pop music is simpler because the culture industry, with its engine of global late capitalism, demands peak market-saturation. Pop is thus the thinnest of imitation gruel for mass appeal, and so too the world of images has cecum to the same degradation, marketization and overt simplification. Let us quantify such a vast topic as “visual culture”; the popular images and symbols have been rung through the meatgrinder, whilst the art world still sticks to the image of intellectual contemplation, or confusion, or political propaganda, etc. however, let us bracket contemporary art for now, because let’s face it, most “normal” people (despite there being more access to, and production of art than ever before) are totally disconnected from the trends of the contemporary art world. People simply do not care, they are inspired by whatever memes are popular or films of various cape-genre repeats and reproductions. As Werner Herzog said when someone asked him why he enjoys watching Wrestle mania “always look at what most people find interesting”.
So, on the one hand, we have a more surface-level denigration of visual culture and the role of the image through a variety of socio-economic forces that has placed art, design and symbolism in the hands of marketing firms, the culture industry, corporate globalized monoliths, etc. Images need to be simple for the masses, but on the other hand are much more sophisticated explanations as to why the breadth and social role of the image has deteriorated; think in terms of the aesthetic, cultural, and political trends of the last few centuries. With the advent of the printing press (qua McLuhan) we have become a literary culture, an audio and biblio-centric culture, especially among the predominantly Anglo-Germanic roots of the now globalized North American aesthetic culture. While the artistic image becomes more nebulous, abstract, and minimalist both in design and in the meaning that images convey, the written and spoken word becomes paramount. Take for instance, the visually rich and monumental artistic movements of the French and Mediterranean, now compare that to the aesthetics of Anglos and Scandinavians. Even in this example, you can try to boil down an artistic image to what is the safest, most mass-appealing, politically correct, etc. But the image always has an aura that is powerful, almost too “abstract” or hidden within a revealing-concealing of meaning. The written word, the narrativized image can always be manipulated, imbued with a carefulness and thorough planning of text that can be sanitized of meaning. So too can images, and this is not to set up a dichotomy or an either/or between divergent aesthetic/political mediums. Both the image and the word have been degraded in modern culture, but soon both the image will disappear, and the word will be so meaningless as to not even be there anyways.
What exactly am I getting at here, and why even mention futurist tech? I will explain very soon, but first let me do more stage-setting by briefly mentioning Martin Jay’s phenomenal book “Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-century French thought”. Vision is a source of endless speculation, the image a source of interrogation in modern philosophy, cultural studies, lit departments, etc. And everyone from the post-structuralists, rad-fems, new materialists, and cultural critics have taken a hold of where the impressionists and abstract expressionists left off in interrogating, manipulating, expanding images and imbuing them with an abstract poly-optic nature. Where the cubist or abstract expressionist artist tears aesthetically tears apart the image, rearranges it, looks at it from a multitude of perspectives (such as cubism) etc. The academic interrogates the image via the analyses of the “gaze”, the “spectacle”, the hidden totalitarian leanings and “isms” that lay behind mass-images. The image possesses an eldritch power, a vitalism that is often hard to contain, and thus the image must be controlled, or denigrate, even perish in high and even low culture, especially among dower academics and cultural critics.
But what if to say the culture of the future, and the generations that come after us no longer seek pleasant, sterile, easy to digest images? What if sanitation and containment of the image is not enough, but rather annihilation of images in a space of virtual blindness? This is where futurist tech comes in finally. Current culture has set the stage for a downgrading of visual IQ among the populace, the painting, motif, theater piece, the symbol is much too metaphysical and primordial of an entity to contain, there are too many latent assumptions and possible concepts/conclusions that can be drawn from a striking image for our current cultural gatekeepers to handle. This may sound like a conspiracy, but it is simply trends and discourses that reach plausible and logical conclusions over time, and one of them is the death of the image itself. Like the death of art prophesied by Hegel and Danto, but only final.
From the very beginning of exploding new possibilities with VR, nanotech and art, cybernetic theorists and psychonauts thought that the proliferation of virtual reality interfaces would create visual art on a totally immersive level the likes of which we have never seen before. This is one possibility but think of a level of alienation from the image that is also a probable outcome. What if those corporations, governments and cathedral networks in charge of proliferating new possibilities in techno-futurist culture among the proles simply cut out the middle man of images? Say that there is a Nano-tech bug, or cyborg entity that can crawl up or plug into our brain stems, similar to that in Cronenberg’s “Existenz”. The corporations that are the “enemies of reality” (hence where the band Nevermore got the album title of the same name) manipulate reality in toto, the image is a tool of the final revolution as Huxley proclaimed, one that obliterates historical consciousness, and supplants the image completely with one that is totally controlled, and hence operationalized against the subject. But why would there be a necessary manipulation of images and vision in the first place? Imagine if this VR port, Nano-tech drug or parasite could crawl right into the brain’s dopamine centers, hit every single pleasure nod with the force of ten thousand suns, and deliver a constant stream of dopamine in VR-stasis forever? Combine this with life-extension technologies, and you would theoretically have a population of cyborgian dopamine spice-zombies.
The trend of denigrating visual culture and the role of images and symbols in society would reach its most dystopian and nihilistic of conclusions. Visual Art would no longer proliferate under a regime of futurist VR-control, but would simply end, people would no longer find the need to even fetishize visions and visual ID-driven pleasure objects if they can get those immense feelings of joy and pleasure delivered to them directly. Desire and the object of pleasure would no longer be mediated via art, literature, not even through pornography, but in a timeless, nebulous space, a dreamless dream, an inner black cast cave shadow that whips out and annihilates the so-called “tyranny” of images one no longer has to idealize or conform to. Imagine the popular need for escapism, meeting future technology, meeting the extremes of contemporary left-liberal cultural politics, the aesthetic image would never survive such an environment. The aesthetic image would no longer proliferate, as imagined by starry-eyed techno-idealist and 90s cyberdelica, but die, and people will cheer its death. Why would people learn to love the death of the image? Because the appreciation of the image, art, the symbol, etc. is inherently tied to a culture, it has roots, it is spiritual, no matter how lifeless the image becomes. To comprehend the image on an intuitive level, or even on an intellectual level requires effort, pain, struggle, things we are conditioned to be adverse towards. We need prudence to mediate images, like words and sounds, to determine which image is “real”, or not just real, but true, just and even Godly. Images are powerful, and to eliminate that power, to make the populations of this earth a dreary mass of dopamine-addicted lumpenproles with no vision is the goal of every totalitarian and millenarian regime. To whip clean all images within the spaces of deep pleasure is a power that mortal regimes should never be able to wield, to give the masses an object-less pleasure, and to make them exist within pure sedation and submission, even alienated from their own dreams. This would be a fate worse than hell, because even hell has ghastly images, it is a blank plant without art.
To venture into an even deeper rabbit hole, let us entertain a thought-probe about contemporary psychopharmacology; why is it that gen-xers and older millennials even, were so obsessed with the power of vision in the drugs they took, namely psychedelics? Look at how the new age revival in the 90s and its mini-throwback in the mid-2000s culminated in hipster DMT use, trips to the amazon to seek out shamanic visions, etc. Now what do younger millennials and Zoomers indulge in? MDMA, “Lean”, Ketamine, and other stimulants and opioids. This is a broad generalization, but it seems the intense visual culture of certain drugs are being replaced with drugs that produce intense, visionless feelings and dysphoria/euphoria. Why is Ketamine and other dysphoria-inducing drugs so popular among certain segments of our western cultural Brahman-castes (that shall strategically remain nameless)? We know that drug companies have an incentive to push certain medications upon normal people, hence the current opioid crisis, especially among the youth. VR addiction would be a logical extension of state-endorsed psycho-pharmacological control.
There seems to be a trend developing that will only be exacerbated with future VR technology. The youth no longer want to be taken on a visual journey, but an emotive one in which they are given control over positive feelings and emotions, and perhaps the self-affirmation culture the youth are marinated in would culminate as well in the death of “problematic” images. Certain entheogenic drugs force you to confront very painful and destructive aspects of one’s being, and of course this is dangerous to the current order of things on a number of levels, so drugs that shut off that pesky shadow-self, instead of confronting it and integrating it into the whole of your being, become popular all of a sudden. Extend this strained series of conjectures not to chemical and plant-based drugs, but digital drugs, virtual experiences and devices that can totally immerse the subject into a stasis of pure control, opulence, and lotus-eater sedation. This is once again, is all just random speculation, but things have a way of manifesting from the virtual into the real (and hyperreal) given enough time.