Earth or world? Aerial image and the prosthetic imagination



Aerial image and the prosthetic imagination

Lawrence Bird



The image is one mode by which architecture appeals to us. The image has long been bound to the conditions of architecture’s creation, its presence and its performance. But images today are fraught. They easily become commodities, objects of exchange, fetishes substituted for what they ostensibly present to us. They are increasingly swept up in a rapid, international traffic in which each image is devalued in the sense Walter Benjamin articulated as early as the 1920s.1

That trade is made possible by technical frameworks such as media technologies and infrastructures. It seems obvious to understand such systems as instances of what Heidegger referred to as the gestell: the technical enframing of human life. There is nothing, however, obvious about the essay from which Heidegger’s term is drawn, “The Question Concerning Technology.” Referring to technological enframing, Heidegger cites Hölderlin’s poem Patmos:

But where danger is, grows

The saving power also.2

Heidegger suggests that just as art is not about aesthetics, so the essence of technology is nothing merely technological. For Bernard Stiegler, this means that gestell is not simply about instrumentalization or the achievement of an end. Instead it stems from and is one aspect of the unfolding of our humanity. In this essay, I will draw on Stiegler’s reading of Heidegger to consider images harvested from Google Earth, probably the most ubiquitous imaging resource available today. My intention is to address the following questions: Is the devaluation of the image, its reduction to a mere product – and the corollary of that process, the impoverishment of our ability to compel and enchant – inevitable? Or is there evidence from within the territory of the technologized image that some kind of redemption might be found there – that in some sense a saving power grows where danger is?

Rendering image

Heidegger made a distinction between the conditions of “earth” and “world.” The former was considered as a bare well of material, and the latter as that material gathered, shaped, and rendered meaningful through our work. The technological system discussed in this paper perhaps unintentionally acknowledges that distinction in its very name: Google Earth. This online mapping resource is the most accessible and widespread of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Earth presents for public consumption an exhaustive documentation of global geography and inhabited space. As such, it seems to fulfill one of the promises of the Enlightenment: a complete and seamless mapping of the world, a mapping made possible through the triumph of technology. Charles Waldheim has used the term “representational domestication” to describe the modern aerial image’s reduction of the landscape to an object of surveillance, control, and consumption.3 Google Earth’s most ambitious attempt to fulfill that project would seem to deny any possibility of imaginative consideration of our being in the world. But that is not the case. The work of several artists, including Doug Rickard, Jon Rafman, Edward Burtynsky and Mischka Henner, suggests that one can find in those images the potential for interpretation and criticism.4

The work I present below, while dovetailing with such explorations, has a different focus: it considers the rifts that appear within digital images themselves as a result of their technologization. This chapter is a first attempt to tease out the anomalies in such systems, and to think about what they might mean for those who, like architects, try to make earths into worlds. The images I will look at are those of the landscape of the Canadian prairies, where I currently make my home. There has long been a resonance between our technological manipulation of that landscape and our manipulation of the image generally. One irony in the history of electronic imaging is that the first all-electronic television drew on an agricultural precedent. The so-called “image dissector” of the 1920s was inspired by the realization of a farm boy that the movement of one man, a horse and a plow across the landscape inscribed a pattern on the surface of the earth. That epiphany provided the principle for the electronic conversion of images (two-dimensional) into signals (one-dimensional) and back again.5 The term “image dissection” can describe just as well our digitization of images today, their decomposition into pixels and ultimately bits. Progressive scans across a flat surface, each pass harvesting or sowing another fragment of image, are still the basis of most digital displays. The discussion that follows will demonstrate that this resonance between our modern management of the earth and our manipulation of its image runs quite deep.

Not mere instruments

Rather, as Stiegler asserts, such forms of technical manipulation matter profoundly to our condition as human beings.6 He insists that our humanity is, and has always been, negotiated with technical objects and processes outside of ourselves. Mankind is in fact defined by the use of tools, that is, of prosthetics. Drawing on anthropological sources, Stiegler argues that human beings are engaged in an instrumental maieutic.7 By this he means an interplay in which our creation of tools in anticipation of need on the one hand, and the formation of human cognition in response to this creation on the other, results in a drawing forth of the human being. Our works create the conditions that surround our own development. Today’s mechanized planet is only the latest manifestation of this phenomenon. What might be different now is that our prosthetics today can seem all-encompassing. Google Earth’s ostensibly complete mapping is a graphic demonstration of that.

In the circumstances Stiegler describes, it is meaningless to imagine a condition of man’s original independence, in which he did not always lack something whose substitution through technics he anticipated. Instead, lack becomes man’s very definition and, therefore, his fulfillment. Today we experience this as the circumstance in which our actualization is the same thing as our derealization. This is not a post-human but an acutely human condition. It binds us with complex technical prosthetics existing somewhere between the conditions of living and non-living objects. Stiegler proposes that these constitute in fact, after the two genres of animate and inanimate beings, a third kind: organized inorganic beings. These, like us, demonstrate perfectibility and a movement toward complexity and indeterminateness. It doesn’t need to be pointed out to us that this genre of being can include architecture and landscape architecture.

Stiegler warns of, or heralds, the contemporary manifestation of this condition with his words describing a modern man’s “disappearance in the movement of a becoming that is no longer his own.”8 We move forward into the future not alone but accompanied by technical creations, which are other than us, part of us yet alien. This is Stiegler’s understanding of Heidegger’s saving danger. In this condition we cease to be merely the designers of our works but instead become their operators, or perhaps more precisely their stalkers. We follow along in wake of our work, as the farmer behind the plow. This is my condition as I navigate Google Earth, harvesting images in which I find meaning.

Before we turn to the evidence we might glean directly from those images, we need to understand that Google Earth forms one specific type of prosthetic complex: a prosthetics of perception. In allowing us to see, and perhaps even to begin to act, on the other side of the world, it obviously extends our own sight to incorporate the mechanical eye of a satellite. So doing, it extends our body there too. Maurice Merleau-Ponty briefly addresses prosthetic perception in the Phenomenology of Perception, where he makes that case that the edge of the body is not merely our physical boundary, our skin. Rather, it lies beyond us, where we act; or even as far as the eye can see.9 As he explains:

The blind man’s stick has ceased to be an object for him, and is no longer perceived for itself; its point has become an area of sensitivity, extending the scope and active radius of touch, and providing a parallel to sight…. To get used to a hat, a car or a stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely, to incorporate them into the bulk of our own body.10

While these words are often interpreted as referring to physical extensions of the body, a kind of materialization of sight, the point is that the realms of visual perception and hapticity bleed into each other as we incorporate devices into our perceptive apparatus. Merleau-Ponty himself, in his later writing, imagined the incorporation of even the new information technologies into this understanding of perception. In 1959 he wrote the following working notes in anticipation of the task he saw for himself with regard to this area of knowledge:

Show …

that information theory applied to perception, and operationalism applied to behaviour – is in fact, confusedly glimpsed at, the idea of meaning as a view of the organism, the idea of the flesh …

that the perception-message analogy (coding and decoding) is valid, but on the condition that one discerns a) the flesh beneath the discriminating behaviours b) speech and its ‘comprehensible’ diacritical systems beneath the information.11

In other words, the processes of coding and decoding imply their own kind of chiasm. Merleau-Ponty’s mention of speech here is worth putting in context. In The Visible and the Invisible, as though in anticipation of the work others were later to pursue in semiotics, Merleau-Ponty made the first forays into territory he would be not have time to fully explore himself. He asserted that the relationship between signs and things is an analogue of the subject/object relationship: “As there is a reversibility of the seeing and the visible, and as at the point where the two metamorphoses cross perception is born, so also there is a reversibility of the speech and what it signifies….”12 These lines suggest that even signal and informatic response, on which the operation of a computer is based, as well as sign and signified (and in the case we are examining here, earth to its image), imply a condition of flesh in Merleau-Ponty’s terms. Thus perhaps it is not incidental that Google Earth has built into its interface a kinesthetic response: we don’t merely see, we fly like bodies through the air, we accelerate and decelerate as though we had mass. While seeming to take us out of our own bodies, this tool also paradoxically drags them along with us to the other side of the world. As we will see, rather than distancing us from images through vision, it implicitly embeds us in images and in the landscape they represent. This is far from a Cartesian space, but to be convinced of this we have to find evidence within the phenomenon itself.

A pixilated prairie

The upper half of Figure 8.1 shows the prairie landscape as viewed in Google Earth. The square-mile grid of prairie fields on display here is a result of modern systems of demarcating the world, dividing and owning land, and growing and distributing crops. This system for organizing the prairie dates from the nineteenth century, but it has a strange resonance with today’s imaging technologies. On seeing these images, we might even say that the prairie surface seems pixilated. In fact, it is. A pixel is a picture element, a component of a whole image broken down into cells of identical size (generally consistent and organized by a grid within a given image) and with a single defined color. Complex, rich, and whole images are broken down into minimal elements manageable by a digital infrastructure. The same is true of the contemporary prairie. Native plants are replaced by domesticated, monocultural and genetically modified crops. Laid out in a grid of exactly one mile square, these cells render crops up to transportation networks, which carry the crops to markets across the globe. Both the imaging systems and agricultural systems, in Heidegger’s terms, expedite their object, by unlocking it, exposing it, and directing it toward an end. It is perhaps no surprise to see this strange congruence between the treatment of the landscape and the treatment of its image made so apparent in an environment like Google Earth, where two parallel systems for reduction of things – landscapes on the one hand and images on the other – to mere objects confront and map onto each other.

Aug 9, 2021 | Posted by in Building and Construction | Comments Off on Earth or world? Aerial image and the prosthetic imagination
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