Some More Forethoughts for a Study of Body-Image and Self-Image

How do images become externalized? Although a genealogy of this transformation might resound with illuminating institutional contexts and far-reaching echoes in concepts such as ‘body-image’ and ‘self-image’ (if a self is assumed to imagine its body, then what imagines the self?), one point of departure that might reveal just how strange is the idea of an external image is quickly to consider the status of the image in Spinoza.

Initially Spinoza analyzes images and the imagination that produces them in the context of a critique of ideology (of error in physics, metaphysic, and religion). Yet, Spinoza does not consign images solely to error, nor does he deny their being the natural configuration of our life-world. Instead, images and the affections of which they are images become the very object of the third kind of knowledge that orients us towards beatitude.

Spinoza defines images as “the affections of the human body whose ideas set forth external bodies as if they were present to us, although they do not reproduce the shape of things. And when the mind regards bodies in this way, we shall say that it imagines.” An image is not a reproduction or representation that one might make or produce of an external body. Rather in image is a way of being affected by an external body that involves together the nature of one’s body and the external body.

To make present – this is not necessarily the temporal designation of memory, to make present the past which is nothing but to make present those bodies by which the human body has been affected. Rather, it is the very structure of the present, presence, and presenceing. An image is a temporalizing structure. Since for Spinoza affections of the human body are affects or moods, we might compare the affections together with the ideas of those affects that are images and imaginings with Heidegger’s equiprimordial structure of disclosedness as attunement and understanding.

Heidegger identifies three characteristics of attunement wherein moods disclose thrownness, Being-in-the-world as a whole, and an existential openness to the world by which encounters within-the-world can ‘matter’ to it. This latter characteristic implies for Heidegger a circumspective concern that has the character of “becoming affected in some way.” To be touched by anything or have a sense for something “in such a way that what touches them shows itself in an affect” is only possible for a kind of being that is in and attuned to the world.

An image as the sort of affection that has significance in disclosure, or for Spinoza that has significance in the involvement together of the natures of this body and that body, then, is neither a thing nor an image of a thing. It is even less a relation between these bodies as the splitting them off from each other. Images are at once the disclosure of the world and the disclosure of that kind of being in the world that is its disclosedness. Images are the present that has the characteristic of ‘together with.’

Although, the body and mind parallelism might not hold up in an analysis of Dasein, the absence of subject and object distinction in Spinoza is perhaps conducive to this comparison. For, in Heidegger and in Spinoza there is an openness, a not being closed off, that replaces a thought of the in-between that, though it might be close to this togetherness, still separates. The openness in an image that is not an internal depiction of an external reality – even less it is an external depiction of some inner reality – comes before those designations of internal and external.

Which is why it is so strange that image immediately means an external image – a photograph or a painting, yes, but even more immediately an advertisement, a television screen, a window through which is still visible at night some lonely light.

Simulation’s Similitude

The Bandersnatch fled as the others appeared
Led on by that fear-stricken yell:
And the Bellman remarked “It is just as I feared!” 
And solemnly tolled on his bell.

Depictions in media of simulation are boring. This is to say that in their self-referentiality – describing a simulated world by implicating you in it, describing a simulation by ceaselessly referencing its images as simulated – these depictions do nothing. They’re bored and boring, yet more than any other images, these keep boring themselves into our inane, simple-mindedly distracted minds.

Take a look through any reddit or twitter thread discussing the new Black Mirror episode (movie? game?) and you’ll see performed through recycled memes simulations of existential realizations. That’s the real horror of it all. The shiver-inducing realization that I live in a simulation by implicating me in images that announce their being simulations performs those existential reflections that I cannot grasp myself, I cannot think myself, but without spiraling into aporia, because the screen is always and only a screen.

Depictions of simulation are boring because of their similitude. Their images at once perform my being a simulation while also collapsing into mere images that do not disturb my reality.

Not only are such images that enact simulation rather simple, they simplify the world and you and then identify the simplification with the world.

So, Bandersnatch. A traumatized kid who’s trapped in a dull middle-class life, seeks escape in programming video games. Performative cyberpunk that really is not in the least deserving of punk or cyber prefix. You make decisions for him – from actual plot points to what breakfast cereal he should eat, what music he should listen to, whether he should bite his nails or scratch his ear – and he begins to realize that something is controlling him, thus descending into schizoid disassociation.

The fun is that when glimpsing the outside he realizes this, you who make his decisions are implicated because you are not really making decisions at all. The game returns in on itself and there’s only one ending. With all of the fuss on fragmented realities and decision trees, there’s only one game, there’s only one movie, and there’s only one ending, after which the credits roll. The game is always saying, you’re not doing this right, and returns you.

Someone or something is controlling him. This isn’t necessarily you. Free will crumbles beneath a government conspiracy, a media conglomerate, multiple realities, drugs, video games, etc. None of these images that depict the unthinkable outside with rather banal, conspiratorial tropes breach the real consideration of the outside as power.

The banality of most episodes of Black Mirror is their performative catharsis. Performing the extremes of technological manipulation, its frisson comes from the simultaneous realization that we live (or soon will live) in the world it depicts while also seeing it in and as a screen that’s only a screen, so distancing it, rendering it void. It collapses into its own logic. It presents our future as an alternate one that reflects the horror of this one while also being just an image, just an alternative, just a game.

For, to say that we live in a simulation is not only dull and banal, it’s also true. Simulation is banal because the world can never be rendered totally in a second-order description of it – you can’t eat your own mouth. But it’s also true precisely because we identify or confuse its simplification of the world with the world. This simplification is precisely the management of this world as a coherent world-system.

Dussel describes this simplification-as-negation in the introduction to his Ethics as the very project and self-justification of modernity.

“The ‘rationalization’ of political life (bureaucratization), of the capitalist enterprise (administration), of daily life (Calivinist asceticism or Puritanism), the decorporealization of subjectivity (with its alienating effects on living labor, criticized by Marx, as well as on its drives, as analyzed by Freud), the nonethicalness of every economic or political gestation (understood only as technical engineering, etc.), the suppression of communicative reason, now replaced by instrumental reason, the solipsistic individuality that negates the community, are all examples of the diverse moments which are negated by simplification, apparently necessary for the management of the centrality of a world system that Europe found itself in the need of perpetually carrying out.”

These simplifications – above all simplifications of subjectivity, postulating the I as an ego, and reducing all else to machinery (simulation media depends above all on this, for only an I or an ego can be simulated, not a body, not a corporeality) – are effects of modernity that totalize themselves into independent systems that are seen then to cause themselves.

This process of a simplification that replaces the world it simplifies is the horror of simulation.

Of all of the horrific signs that simulate control from above in this dumb show – the Netflix logo, the lion – the most horrific is the binary root of the decision tree. This is what D&G denounce as arborescent cartography.

“It is our view,” they write, “that genetic axis and profound structure are above all infinitely and reproducible principles of tracing. All of tree logic is a logic of tracing and reproduction. In linguistics as in psychoanalysis, its object is an unconscious that is itself representative, crystallized into codified complexes, laid out along a genetic axis and distributed within a syntagmic structure. Its goal is to describe a de facto state, to maintain balance in intersubjective relations, or to explore an unconscious that is already there from the start, lurking in the dark recesses of memory and language. It consists of tracing, on the basis of an overcoding structure or supporting axis, something that comes ready-made.”

The ready-made refers less to Duchamp and more to Heidegger’s logic of technology. One does not ‘learn’ a tool, but ‘uses’ it because one knows what it is in advance: “The mathemata are the things insofar as we take cognizance of them as what we already know them to be in advance, the body as the bodily, the plant-link of the plant, the animal-like of the animal, the thingness of the thing, and so on.”

One know what it is in advance because one relates to it through a structure that overcodes it in relation to you and its use, so erasing all other aspects of the thing that its simplification excludes.

Where there’s a decision tree, it’s never do ‘this or that,’ but even worse: to do ‘this or that’ is already a this and not that, a false choice collapsed according to a structure from the pure openness of a future.

Simulations are tracings are simplifications. It is then necessary for us to seek what this tracing or simplification excludes from the world with which it has become confused. A map of the unknown? An endless list of escape-routes that isn’t a list but a tangle?

Above all, not this trite, atroci-tv.