On Perception: Reality and Approaching Renewal
This essay combines the thoughts of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Jean Baudrillard’s The Precession of the Simulacra, and Rebecca Solnit’s The Annihilation of Time and Space to examine how humans have evolved to perceive space-time in regard to the industrial revolution(s); semiotics and iconology; and simulation-based media. Originally written October 7, 2018
As we continue to discover, create, and evolve as a species, so does the way we perceive our world and subjective realities. Through our five bodily senses, the mass of information we accumulate throughout our lives contextualize our cognitive processing. This is the basis of artist and critic John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1973), a book and BBC television series largely responding to Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) which discusses how the value and interpretation of art can change based on its frequency of reproduction. The essence of Berger’s work is the idea that “the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled” (Berger 7). It is mutable, changing with time. This is due to the context of our surroundings and how our knowledge hitherto informs what we see. There are several milestones and infinite cultural movements that have affected the way in which we see today; Most significantly, products of the industrial revolution.
“Berger’s idea [is] that looking is a political act, perhaps even a historically constructed process — such that where and when we see something will affect what we see.” Yasmin Gunaratnam and Vikki Bell. “How John Berger Changed Our Way of Seeing Art.” The Conversation.
One major new way of seeing begins with the advent of moving pictures, or film. With formal credit to Eadweard Muybridge for capturing the galloping of a horse, we began the journey of manipulating still images to create motion. In An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator (1995), author Tom Gunning examines the credibility of the audience reaction to the first motion picture; the Grand Cafe viewing of Lumiere’s 1896 Arrival of a Train at the Station. The moving image was first seen as a hyper-realistic occurrence happening to the audience; A threatening illusion that caused the audience to physically react to this new way of seeing. Gunning hypothesized this as a myth, giving us historical context in defense of the “incredulous spectator”.
Arrival of a Train at the Station premiered within the 1850’s Realism arts movement, “[portraying] real and typical contemporary people and situations with truth and accuracy” (Roberson 36). This was also during a time when magic tricks and stage craft were on the rise and roller coasters at amusement parks were becoming popular. People had several decades to accustom themselves to this new praxis of perceiving depth and recognizing illusion, especially through the popular style of Tropme L’Oeil paintings. Gunning argues that the Grand Cafe audience was taken aback by the transformative process from still to moving image, which later became sensationalized by film showmen, rather than the belief that they were in physical harm. This emphasis on shock value became important during this time of industrial urbanization especially for the masses of people who sought for the thrill that they weren’t receiving in their ordinary lives.
Similar to us, the Grand Cafe audience is said to have confused the real for the simulated in their reaction to Arrival of a Train. Today there is a blurred line between that which is real and that which is simulated as real. Theorist Jean Baudrillard writes about this in The Precession of Simulacra, which was first written in French in 1981 then timely translated into English in 1994, aiding in the rise of simulation-based media and surveillance culture as well as spawning an array of late ’90s distorted reality films like The Matrix (1999), Fight Club (1999), eXistenZ (1999), and Memento (2000). Baudrillard believed that contemporary society lives within a simulation because our technological advances have rendered us unable to distinguish the simulated from what is real. That, our deeply structured world, and the act of deterrence leaves nothing up to chance and prevents the real from taking place (Baudrillard 475). We live in a simulated reality today in that nothing we do has real meaning or value because all of the guidelines that we live our life based on are social constructs (i.e. power, capital, government, beauty, etc).
To understand simulacra (images and representations), one must first understand semiotics. We are so overwhelmingly inundated with our own creation of signs (both physical and conceptual) that we search for meaning in every object, or what it may signify. When we create something artificially before it exists organically, we are contributing to the simulation. This meshing of the real and the simulacra is present in our reality tv, government scandals, and retelling of history. Baudrillard uses the concept of Disneyland to explain our current hyperreal reality. It contributes to the culture of distraction mentioned by Gunning by allowing itself to be so dreamy and magical — the perfect recreation of our imagination — that we perceive everything outside of it as real. This displays the “effect of the imaginary concealing that reality no more exists outside than inside the limits of the artificial perimeter” (Baudrillard 462). Our world is no more real than the fake realities of smaller worlds we create.
The Truman Show (1998) exemplifies the concept of Baudrillard’s Disneyland and how perimeters create the idea of distinction. Inspired by The Twilight Zone’s “Special Service” episode (aired in 1989) of the same premise, writer Andrew Niccol responds to the rise of late 20th century ideas of surveillance, ultimately contributing towards today’s deeply embedded surveillance culture. In the movie, Truman Burbank, is born into a simulated reality broadcasted on television (on a show named The Truman Show) wherein he is the only person unaware of the true nature of his surroundings. Throughout the movie the creator of the show, Christoff, speaks directly to the loose construction and interpretation of reality. In explanation of why Truman is just questioning his reality at 30 years old, he says “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented”. When speaking to Truman directly about if his life was unreal, Christoff answers, “There’s no more truth out there than in the world I created for you — the same lies and deceit. But in my world you have nothing to fear.” Here, Christoff states that there is no distinction in truth or reality between their controlled environments. That is to say that our world is also a controlled environment by the practices and social constructs that we’ve made into social facts.
Today there is a multitude of media across varying forms and styles that specifically address the concept of surveillanced-based simulation, including Rick and Morty’s “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!” and Black Mirror’s “Hang the DJ” episodes. These shows are notorious for delving into human interaction with technology, leaning towards the curious and the many ways our dabbling into advanced technology can go wrong. Both shows are very exaggerated and catastrophize events, but are not unlikely in the progression of tech. They are an analysis and hypothesis of our current way of seeing. Each of these simulation-based media involves the idea of the perimeter that separates what is real from the simulacra created for them, and all parties reach that boundary. Baudrillard believes there is no boundary or outside parties in our lives because we’ve created the simulation for ourselves.
There is no distinct marker of our first contributions towards today’s simulacrum, however there are major cultural movements that indicate pivots in the operations of our daily lives. In The Annihilation of Time and Space (2004), Rebecca Solnit contextualizes the inventions of the Industrial Revolution and how they changed the way we perceive space and time. John Berger’s work alludes to this in explaining how advancing technologies affect our understanding of how we live and interact. Inventions such as the railroad, photography, and the telegraph reformed our understanding of spacetime, expanding time and compressing space. The influx of technological devices not only changed the speed of how we travel and communicate, but also the scheduling of our lives.
Solnit posits that Muybridge helped to restore the lost sense of time and space that occurred when we disconnected ourselves from the nature whence we used to rely on. In the early 19th century, we could only travel as fast as horses could trot and communicate as fast as pigeons could fly (Solnit 9). As old technologies became normalized, Solnit says “traveling was no longer an encounter … but a transport. It was as though the world itself was growing less substantial” alluding to Gunning’s culture of distraction (21). “They were moving into…a world that was experienced more and more as information and images. … There was no simple dichotomy…between images and the natural realm of the sense” (Solnit 22). Our simulacra was beginning to take place in the early 20th century.
In more recent history, there have been randomized spikes in simulation-based media in pop culture. Today it has become a meme repeated throughout social media to signify the realization of disrupted reality. Twitter users use phrases such as “glitch in the simulation” referring to previously absurd and unimaginable events happening in the news or “adjust the settings of my simulation” when something inconvenient continuously happens to them. Our society seems to be aware of the true disorder of our reality, yet we continue to contribute towards the simulation. This can be attributed to our deeply ingrained reliance of structure and consequent fear of its collapse. However, perhaps this growing collective consciousness means we are breaking through the layers of simulacra. That being said, many of us cannot remember a time before the tech and mechanization that has shaped our lives. Similarly, social constructs such as government, power, and race have existed since time immemorial and will likely forever be embedded into society.
Everything is a sign of concept, a symbol; the train was symbolic of industrial change. Since, we have become alienated and disconnected from many aspects of our lives in that we now typically only participate in the last steps of the process. We drive the car, but do not assemble it; wear the clothes, but do not sew them; cook the food, but do not grow it. Solnit says, “Those carried along on technology’s currents were less connected to local places, to the earth itself, to the limitations of the body and biology, to the malleability of memory and imagination”; real sensations grounding us in our existence (22). The act of mechanical production increasingly continues to give us a less hands-on and more passive involvement in our own lives. Even the low-effort act of driving a car has become more mechanized allowing for several brands of autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars.
Far ahead of agriculture and irrigation, the compound stages of industry — “mechanization, steam power, weaving loom; mass production assembly line, electrical energy; automation, computers, and electronics; cyber physical systems, internet of things, networks” (Simio) — may very well be the largest cultural shift to affect humankind, but to what end? Similar to the hypothetical television shows that warn us of advancing technologies, we may possibly be aiding in our own demise. As we begin to see more clearly, the general dissatisfaction of America’s National Body becomes more pronounced and profound. Since the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 — the onset of this nation, according to Sir John Glubb’s The Fate of Empires, our 250-year cycle of civilizations’ renewal is quickly approaching as we enter our 244th year as a nation, with perhaps with a newly developed way of seeing to come (Glubb; Bernard).
Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. PDF.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. PDF.
Berger, John, Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox, Michael Dibb, and Richard Hollis. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1973. Print.
Bernard, Serge. “The Fate of USA Empire Life Cycle.” Astrologic.info, 25 July 2015, astrologic.info/usa-empire/. Accessed 4 April 2020
Glubb, John B. The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1978. Print.
Gunning Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator.” Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, 114–134. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994. PDF.
Roberson, Cliff , and Elena Azaola Garrido. “Theoretical Explanations” Deviant Behavior. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2016. PDF.
Simio LLC. “Industry 4.0.” Simio, www.simio.com/applications/industry-40/index.php. Accessed 30 Sept. 2018.
Solnit, Rebecca. “The Annihilation of Time and Space.” In River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. New York: Penguin, 2004. PDF.
Arrival of a Train at the Station. Dir. Auguste Lumière, Louis Lumière. Société Lumière. 1896. Film.
eXistenZ. Dir. David Cronenberg. Perf. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie. Miramax Films, 1999. Film.
Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf, Jared Leto. 20th Century Fox, 1999. Film.
“Hang the DJ.” Black Mirror, season 4, episode 4. Writ. Charlie Brooker. Dir. Tim Van Patten. Netflix, 29 Dec 2017. Television.
Memento. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss. Joe Pantoliano. Newmarket, 2000. Film.
“M. Night Shaym-Aliens!” Rick and Morty, season 1, episode 4. Writ. Tom Kauffman. Dir. Jeff Myers. Adult Swim. Cartoon Network, Warner Bros. Television Distribution, 13 Jan. 2014. Television.
The Matrix. Dir. The Wachowski Brothers. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano. Warner Bros, 1999. Film.
The Truman Show. Dir. Peter Weir. Perf. Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor, Ed Harris. Paramount Pictures, 1998. Film.