Le récit interactif, tables rondes, 6 décembre 2000 — ENSAD-ARi, labEi, CIREN
  Le récit interactif à l'École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs, Paris

Le récit interactif | Langage et écritures: Jacques MORIZOT, Jean-Pierre BALPE, Anne CAUQUELIN, Georges LEGRADY, François Soulages, Liliane TERRIER || Images et dispositifs: Jean-Louis BOISSIER, Grahame WEINBREN, Raymond BELLOUR, Anne-Marie DUGUET, Timothy MURRAY

Le récit interactif : Images et dispositifs

Contact Zones:
The Art of CD-Rom

Timothy MURRAY Récit, mémoire, sublimation

1 — Introduction

I would like to begin these remarks on memory, sublimation, and new multimedia narrative by situating in relation to the terms of Antonin Artaud’s momentary fascination for the virtual promise of new media, what he knew as cinema. Fascinated by the "virtual force" and movement of film, Artaud wrote compellingly about the cultural transformations promised by cinema’s "new atmosphere of vision." To this prophet of contemporary performance, film provided the means for a welcome "deformation of the visual apparatus." Rather than ground theatrical affect in the development of realism and the narrative of the family drama, he situated performance at the abstract interface of modernist developments in technology. The technological artifice of light and sound provided Artaud with the promised break from the numbing effects of mimetic realism and its attendant social passivity. "Cinema, better than any other art form," he wrote optimistically, "is capable of translating interior representations because it is the enemy of dull order and habitual clarity" (85). What remains particularly haunting about Artaud’s assessment of the cinematic metamorphosis of representational order, whose cruelty he soon adapted to the extravagance of early multimedia performance, is its characteristically French emphasis on the contribution made by new artistic technology to interiority: "The cinema seems to me to have been made to express matters of thought, the interior of consciousness."

Curiously, however, it was during the same passage of time-- when Artaud saw in technology the promise of a performance of affect--that Freud broke from his former fixation on the symbolic role of dramatic narrative to reflect more freely on the affects of the drives and the linkages of incorporation, masochism, and sublimation. French work on Freud’s later writings, by analysts such as Jean Laplanche, André Green, Guy Rosolato, and J.-B. Pontalis, has revealed that his undeveloped thoughts on the Super Ego and the enigmatic link between incorporation, sublimation and the drives opened the door to a challenge not merely of the causal dominance of the Oedipal structure but also to a questioning of the telephonic passivity of the sublimated analyst, not to mention the psychically confident reader, who too finds himself troubled by the charged currents of countertransference and its vicissitudes. At the heart of all of this interference, so maintain the postLacanian analysts, lies a deformation of the visual apparatus and its linkage to sublimation.

2 — Subjective Scansion

I frequently find myself wondering what might have happened to psychoanalytic theories of creativity had Freud paid more attention to the early discourse on cinema and its relation to what we might call the transfiguration of the book/ends of narrative clarity, had he been able to profit from Artaud’s prescient dream of a technologically aided performance of affect that was meant to impinge on the psycho-social comforts of the ideology of dramatic realism. Perhaps Freud and Artaud could have collaborated on oeneirical film scripts or on a multimedia spectacle like “Spurt of Blood.” Such a collaboration might have profited from the material representations of performance to better theorize or imagine the workings of incorporation and the death drive in view of their enigmatic relation to the visual scene. While such a missed encounter might be understood as a mere curiosity of history, it could just as easily be attributed to a gap in sensibility that continues to exist between psychoanalytic and artistic practice. Whereas psychoanalysis steadfastly champions the curative value of “creativity” and frequently celebrates the fine arts for their display of artistic sublimation, it frequently does so at the expense of focusing on contemporary art forms and practices that promise to complicate the fundamental premise of Freudian sublimation: that of “the energetic passage from the sexual instincts to non-sexual activities,” which Freud attributes to successful intellectual symbolization and procedures (ideologies) of normative homosocial binding (at the expense, we should recall, of “non-normative” homosexuality). Even sophisticated approaches to sublimation by Laplanche, Rosolato, and Green remain overdetermined by authoritative references to Renaissance and modern representational painting to such an extent that they fail to capitalize on how the artistic nuances of their own metaphors might liberate their approach to art from the clunky bookends of the conventional aesthetic referents of representational painting and symbolic narrative.

I refer less to the promise of their frequent analogy of painting and dream, such as Pontalis’s foundational thesis, in Perdre de vue, that “the painting and the dream teach that one must unlearn the conventions of sight so that the horizon and background of things can display themselves in their immediacy,” than to the prescient references in their revisionary texts on sublimation to the burgeoning digital scene. Rosolato reminds his readers, for example, of the psychoanalytic distinction between primary imaging and the “signifiants digitaux” that efface the prestige of images by opening the subject to linguistic abstraction. Conversely, he turns to the metaphor of “scanning” to describe the activity of reading through vision whose “exploration demands patience and time” at the expense of visual representation. Just as Freud called upon the apparatus of the mystic writing pad to understand the process of screen memory, Rosolato now could cite the digital scanner as precisely such a machine whose patiently close entry of data recognizes the object only in relation to the software’s internalized recombination of form that easily can skew the representation and abstract thought of the source document. It is in this process of scanning, moreover, that Rosolato identifies a convergence in psychic space around what he calls “the Object of Perspective” that grounds psychic life. “We thus recognize the chiasm,” he writes, “ between the verbally digital and visually representational analogy which is centered around the aporia. This results in a double manifestation: that of the relation of the unknown in the aporia and that of the object of perspective that recovers the aporia as a topological object. So it goes that this object of perspective lends itself to the signifier of loss.” Loss here is organized around the phenomenological procedures of scansion, not primarily around sexual differences or Oedipal triangularity. These latter are the social forms of representation through which the subject gives content to form. In essence, it could be said that this is the endgame of homosocial sublimation, “in accordance with the general estimate,” writes Freud, “that places social aims higher than the sexual ones, which are at bottom self-interested.” The former functions to rewrite subjectivity as merely a component of the deterritorialized residue of code.

As a result of this doubled logic of scansion, through which the form or metaphorization of the scanned object may be recognized but not necessarily in terms of its content or what it represents, the status of “representations themselves can be relegated,” suggests Rosolato, “only to that of the phantasm, whereas the visible, maintained at a distance, can only be a protection against more direct contacts, following other perceptions, other sensations, or inversely against abstract thought.” Readers of these 1987 remarks on “The Object of Perspective in its Visual Foundations,” may even recognize scanned repetitions of Laplanche’s earlier seminars on sublimation, which he offered from 1975-77 and published in 1980 as Problématiques III: la sublimation. There Laplanche turns to a similar metaphor to emphasize the importance of the process of symbolic temporalization, over and against a symbol’s content: “here also we encounter the problem of time as subjective scansion with its heterogeneous moments particularly of ‘disqualification,’ symbolic loss, and anxiety.” At the heart of subjective scansion for Laplanche lies his revised thinking about the energy of sublimation through which the notion of subjectivity itself is rendered unstable by the traumatic enigmas of subjective scansion as they circulate energetically in relation to the uncertainty of content and signification (what he calls elsewhere “the enigmatic signifier”). “So you have to think of sublimation,” insists Laplanche, “in a less transformational and so-called mathematical way than Freud thought of it, which is of inhibited and desexualized drives and so on. We must try to think of sublimation as a new sexuality; it is something new, maybe coming from the message, from the work itself. It is a kind of new excitation, new trauma coming from the sublimated activity itself, and through this new trauma comes new energy. I try to connect the idea of sublimation with the idea of research or trauma, and I coined the idea of traumatophilia.”

Taking the lead from such reflections on sublimation which were penned in the nascent stages of digital culture and teleportic communication, I would like to reflect on their prescient relation to the suspended time of digital aesthetics and its “energetic” means of production. Of particular note is the uncanny intersection between recent digital experiments with the multimedia book and psychoanalytic discussions of the visual and its relation to the aesthetic activities of sublimation and memory. In a discussion of Norie Neumark’s CD-Rom, Shock in the Ear, I will suggest that recent developments in digital technology once again offer a promising deformation of the visual apparatus in a way that refigures and reenergizes narrative performance while providing materialized metaphors for a better understanding of the vicissitudes of artistic affect. Both Neumark’s digital book and recent French rereadings of sublimation prompt their audiences “to unlearn the conventions of sight” so that the horizon or affect of the visual itself might destabilize psychoanalytical and philosophical assumptions about intersubjective and social relations. The challenge posed by digital media to conventions of sublimation are not necessarily new but can be said to be forcefully technological as they carry forth in the work of art what Lyotard calls “a technological stain . . . passing beyond recall of what was forgotten to remembrance of what could not have been forgotten because it was never inscribed or registered.”
Nowhere is this solicitous openness of virtual affect better demonstrated than in Neumark’s CD-Rom, Shock in the Ear (1998) which invites its user “to explore five moments of shock, to experience the strangely dislocated time/space that is shock.” An essay on the intensity and fragmentation of shock’s moment and aftermath, Neumark’s piece is organized around five moments of shock and its aftermath: Attack, Decay, Memory, Resonance, The Call (sound/image excerpts of these moments can be found at the Shock in the Ear website: http://sysx.org/shock_in_the_ear/; and at the Contact Zones website: http://contactzones.cit.cornell.edu/artists/neumark.html). The users’ solicitous movement of the cursor across enigmatic surfaces of image and color triggers a symphony of natural and electronic sounds whose melody accompanies jarring narratives of shock: a woman’s first hours after a severe car accident, a political prisoner’s water torture, a World War II soldier’s shock from lightening while on the telephone, a mental patient’s shock treatment, and a young Italian girls cultural shock from an Australian hostel full of refugees from diverse backgrounds who speak unfamiliar languages. In a way that freezes the user in the moments specific to these narratives, the CD is programmed not to permit the user to click-off the story until all of its painful details are spoken. The tension between the free movement of the cursor across the visual field and the frozen time of narrative delivery exemplifies Neumark’s “shock aesthetics [in which] we can sense a dislocated space and expanded time during which, or after which, new sensations and perceptions can flood in.”

Given Neumark’s reputation as a sound artist, it is not surprising that what marks the resonance of these narrative bits is less the graphic unction of their detail than the various textures or grains of the voice through which the sociological stuff of storytelling becomes entwined in the “more mediate ontology” that is voice. Adding to the wonder of this CD-Rom is how its presentation of the five moments of shock include bits of the same narratives being spoken in varying sequence by the different storytellers of the piece. Shock is thereby screened as apperceived by all users from inside fantasy’s continuously unfolding, jumbled, and retrospective narratives as much as something triggered from the outside by social and cultural interaction. While time stands still, fragments of narrative pass from ear to ear, between person and person, self and self’s other in what Neumark terms “a radiophonic type of space.” Enunciation and the vicissitudes of radiophonic interpellation are thus staged here as the foundational ground of shock, a quacking ground whose uncanny affability is likely to disarm and unsettle even its most callous users.

The aplomb of this CD-Rom’s interface with the affect of shock may be attributable to Neumark’s training in sound art and radio which permits her to experiment with the elasticity and plasticity of the expansive threshold of digital sound in contrast to the emphasis on cinematic and videomatic fields evident in the work of Boissier, Hoberman, and Rogala. By foregrounding the interface of sound and shock, both of which “take place in time,” Neumark means to invert the traditional artistic hierarchy of vision over sound in a way “that challenges the aesthetics and kinesthetics of CD-ROM interactives, through non-linear and poetic movement.” Throughout Shock in the Ear, the cursor’s movement triggers a symphony of natural and synthesized sounds whose disquieting tones work to envelope, if not distort, the voiced narrations. Equally striking about this piece, which could lend itself so easily to sensational visceral display, is the artist’s intelligent placement of the “the strangely dislocated time/space that is shock” within the appealing surround of a subtly fluid two-dimensional painterly ground. The CD-Rom’s ever-changing tableaux of paintings and designs by Maria Miranda (http://members.aol.com:/neumarkmiranda/homepage-2.html) playfully solicit the spectators with softly contrasting textures, loosely penciled figures, and abstract color fields that literally embody the digital sound tracks. One animated sequence accompanying the horrific description of ants entering the bloody wound of an accident victim’s leg displays not a mimetic image of the horrific thing but, instead, a sheet of colored paper being torn in half; in another, the description of “a violent sort of trembling” in the patient’s shock treated body is matched on the computer screen by rapidly changing color fields, from red/violet/blue; in yet a different link, the spiraling blackness described by a patient being administered gas is framed by illustrations of human figures entrapped in gilded bird cages. There is something about this project that consistently invites the users to inhabit the phantasmatic zone of shock rather than delight from a distance in the ugliness of its vision.

Neumark’s is an aesthetic environment far different, for instance, from “the condition of digital culture itself” described by Mark Seltzer as the essence of contemporary “wound culture”: “The convening of the public around scenes of violence--the rushing to the scene of the accident, the milling around the point of impact--has come to make up a wound culture: the public fascination with torn and opened bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gather around shock, trauma, and the wound.” To the contrary, the CD’s lyrical and melodic tracks of beckoning whispers, synthesized chords, and natural tunes work wonderfully in situating the retroactive experience and thought of shock in a curiously soothing kinesthetic environment. The calmness and tranquillity lent to the visual field by the mischievousness of Neumark’s own ear contrasts sharply with the labored violent display of Seltzer’s “wound culture.” One hears electric static rather than thunder, shards of glass being swept rather than windshields exploding, and abstract electronic rhythms whose dissonance rings of uncertain familiarity. In striking contrast to the visceral attraction of a wound culture, the stunning verve of Neumark’s project on shock is how it envelopes the experience of shock less in the public fascination with the visceral image than in an unusual cushion of thought-provoking kinesthesia. “So it was a mapping of bodily shock space experience rather than early modernist shock aesthetics or recent Hollywood that I sought. I worked with sounds that traced that space. Not so much the crash of glass at impact, but the sweeping of shards that mark and mark out a fragmented space. Not the scream, but the sucking-in of breath, deep into the body, along the nerve lines, into the tissues.”

  • Shock in the Ear

    Contact Zones:
    The Art of CD-Rom

  • Attack Decay Resonance Memory

  • 3 — The Interval of Becoming: Digital Incompossibility

    Neumark’s artistic emphasis on the soft stillness and eerie tranquility of time’s suspension contributes to a digital environment in which the retroactive experience of shock can be thought along the divide of its divergent manifestations in culture and history. This is marked most clearly by the occasionally translucent cursor that reveals enigmatic but indecipherable fields of color and texture on the underside of the page. Or for a less subtle example of Neumark’s play with the enigmatic signifier of fantasy and its retroactive shock, consider how one page full of the same graffiti-penned question, “what?,” (http://sysx.org/shock_in_the_ear/html/resonance2.html) is designed so that the cursor can pick up and momentarily drag the “what?” with no apparent purpose or resolution. Here “what?” is displayed as a literal floating signifier that functions to signify to the users without its addressees possessing a clue about what it signifies.
    Upon first visiting Shock in the Ear at around the same time I was planning this essay on the aesthetics of interactive digital art, I was struck by how profoundly Neumark’s piece provides a material ground or support for comprehending the digital horizon itself not simply as artistic material but as concept. Hers is not the immediate, hyperreal flaunting of ooze and wound, “a stalling on the matter, the materiality, of representation,” that Seltzer associates with the discourse network of 2000 as “the condition of digital culture itself.” Hers is more the phantasmatic condition of reception itself, similar to that condition of spectating suspended in the delay of time, that state noted by her accident victim as “like watching a silent movie.” The interactive promise of digital culture, in this sense, reveals not simply “the becoming-visible of the materialities of communication” but something more like the shadowy haze itself, something more akin to the three- to four-dimensional interval conjoining space and time, something close to Deleuze’s crystallization of time and image or Derrida’s horizon of “différance” that combines the becoming-space of time and the becoming-time of space. Digital aesthetics, in this context, is foremost an interval of becoming. It thus opens to the spectators an amoebic, fractal space of the temporal continuum of becoming, one enveloping past, present, and future, one that foregrounds the creative enigmas of the many dialectical tensions driving modernism’s ideological fantasy: being and non-being, resemblance and simulation, body and spirit, material and simulacrum.

    It may prove helpful to note that Deleuze understands such temporal continuum to effect the image of space only insofar as the interstice is inscribed in the seriality or difference of duration and time. The sometimes interminable duration of digital repetition, staged by Neumark as the continual recirculation of sound, can be said to figure an ontological crisis through which the user is confronted by the non-localizable exteriority of serialization. Deleuze always returns rather ambivalently to Leibniz’s notion of “incompossibility” to explain this complex point. In a footnote to Logique du sens, Deleuze provides a summary of the three serial elements of the world that inscribe the Leibnizian monad on the margins of incompossibility: one that determines the world by convergence, another that determines perfect individuals in this world, and finally another that determines incomplete or rather ambiguous elements common to many worlds and to many corresponding individuals. Deleuze is interested in how these elements fail to converge while still not negating or rendering each other impossible. Rather than either converging or remaining impossible for each other, rather than being either included or excluded, they stand in paradoxical relation to one another as divergent and coexistent: as “incompossible.” So stand the five states of shock coexisting incompossibly in Norie Neumark’s Shock in the Ear.