Away, Away! Talk of Catastrophe and the Desire to Disappear

Essay in the catalogue for the joint exhibition project "distURBANces – Can Fiction Beat Reality?" within the European Month of Photography 2012

distURBANces – Can Fiction Beat Reality? (European Month of Photography), 18. Oktober 2012

On 13 April of the year 2029, naturally a Friday, the Apophis asteroid, named for the Egyptian god of darkness and chaos, will come dangerously close to the earth. The asteroid is around two hundred and seventy metres in size and travels at a speed of thirty kilometres per hour. Upon striking the Earth, an explosive power corresponding to that of an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 would be released. If the asteroid were to strike land, an enormous crater would be created and the material thrown up into the atmosphere would rain down on the surroundings as in the case of a volcanic eruption and obscure the sun for weeks. If it were to hit the water, tsunamis with waves possibly reaching a total height of up to one hundred metres and a height of up to round thirty metres at the coasts could be expected.
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 7 April 2012 [1]

We will all die. The world as we know it will disappear. We want it that way. Like Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s portrait of an epoch, we yearn for the impact, and like her counterpole Charlotte Gainsbourg, we nervously cling to our forecasting devices tinkered from pieces of wire, which we tremulously point to the sky in order to still maintain one last illusion of control. But the apocalypse will come, one way or another.

We will then, however, already no longer be around anymore. Since ‘the subject as agency of will, of freedom, of representation; the subject of power, of knowledge, of history, is disappearing. . . .’ [2] We have already long been in the process of dissolution, ‘(giving) way to a diffuse, floating, insubstantial subjectivity, an ectoplasm that envelops everything and that transforms everything into an immense sounding board for a disembodied, empty consciousness – all things radiating out from a subjectivity without object’[3], remarked Jean Baudrillard in his text Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? before he, the prophet of dissolution, himself disappeared from this world.

What awareness? What reality? Haven’t we anyhow long been living in hyperreality as simulacra amongst simulacra, copies of copies that no longer refer to anything real?[4] That would be great. That would be truly wonderful! Then we wouldn’t have to do anything anymore at all.

But do we then still even stand on the Earth? Didn’t we already leave the stable ground of fact with the invention of digital storage media in the 1940s? Haven’t we already surrendered ourselves to the obscure laws of quantum mechanics, whose language we do not speak and which is only communicated to us in virtual models, and which has brought us the computer, the rocket, atomic weapons and the camera-mobile phone? And which by now reduces us to users of an operating system whose decisions elude us more and more?

‘Digital media and their quantum mechanical episteme calculate entropies from their processes, generate images of a self-referential, “constructed reality”, of an “unattainable world”, on this side of which they leave behind the breakdown of structures without any images of them still in existence’, or so writes media theorist Wolfgang Hagen about the state of things technical. ‘If we continue to cling to images in order to see ourselves, we will be wrong.’[5]

Until the modern era, people read their position from the stars. Photography promised to bring their light to the Earth. ‘. . . the photograph of the missing being will touch me like the delayed rays of a star’, wrote Roland Barthes shortly prior to the apotheosis of analogue photography.[6] At its invention, astronomist and chemist F. W. Herschel’s hoped to be able to read the chemical composition of light itself on the silver plates. Instead, like with all matter, what they reflected was nothing but the light falling on them while being viewed.

But with digital photography, Herschel’s hope was finally fulfilled, Hagen writes. ‘This is the reason why digital photography also forced chemical photography out of astronomy to a great extent. Quantum mechanically, it is possible to obtain a light yield that surpasses any chemical process for storing light that is possible many times over.’[7] Thus telescopes came up that are capable of recognising approaching celestial bodies. And thus, with observation, its subject eluded at the same time. ‘(T)he invention of the technical image in all its forms is our most recent great invention in the unremitting quest for an “objective” reality. . . . It would seem that the mirror has got caught up in the game and has transformed everything into a virtual, digital, computerised, numerical “reality”.’[8] ‘As digitization advances, soon there will no longer be any film, any light-sensitive surface onto which things inscribed themselves negatively. There will only be an image software package, a digital effect running to the billionth of a pixel and, at the same time, unprecedented ease of picture-taking, of image-playback and of the photo-synthesis of anything whatever.’[9]

What remains is Baudrillard’s fondest feverish fantasy: the desert. Horizons of serially connected semi-conductors (which consist on their part of quartz sand) in which data circulate endlessly without anyone still questioning their meaning. The end of the social, the end of the possibility of history. ‘At the end of this irresistible process, leading to a perfectly objective universe, which is, as it were, the supreme stage of reality, there is no subject any longer; there is no one there to see it.’[10]

In the choir invoking the disappearance of reality in the digital, in which many sing along, Baudrillard carries the purest, most erratic, most mercurial solo – the superior distillate of all the technological-deterministic alarm messages: the flood of images! The dissolution! Reality evaporates! Technology takes over! Space and time disintegrate! We are globally alienated! We are no longer stuck in bodies at all anymore!

What makes the apocalyptic so attractive in general? It offers a closed model. It promises an elevated vantage point of superior awareness while simultaneously doing away with practical consequences: it will be really bad, but we can’t do anything. It is from this certainty that arises the cosmic serenity that Kirsten Dunst achieves in Melancholia the closer the end comes. In the past, it was still necessary to repent before the coming of Judgment Day. Today, one can be happy that debts will also have disappeared. The apocalyptic makes the nervous, the hysterical, the melancholic into the wise, who may smile at all the fools who are still running in circles and believe in social change.

I am aware that I am mixing things up here quite improperly. Baudrillard is not a simple prophet of doom. But he is a fatalist; in his diagnoses of the media society, the worst possible case has already arrived, or is in any case inevitable. When Baudrillard says that no practical values (and not even exchange values) circulate anymore but instead only wildly proliferating simulacra, and that any attempt to resist this simulated economy only shores it up, then he reclaims an extraterritorial position that evades the demand for verifiability. Baudrillard contemplates developments – such as digital networking or global terrorism – up to their vanishing points, while the ironic dialectician actually knows that one side of history never ultimately prevails, including the so-called end of history.

‘We want to know as much as possible about our adversary, which might be headed for the Earth,’ says Alan Harris, project leader of the asteroid defence programme NEOShield.[11] Harris is developing methods to force the Apophis asteroid expected in 2029 from its trajectory or to blow it up before it hits the Earth. The European Commission is providing nearly 5 million euro for this programme. The 100 million euro required for a practice mission have, however, not been budgeted. Actually Apophis will not smash into the Earth in 2029 at all. This was brought to light by journalist Marcus Jauer by means of simple inquiry. Apophis will fly by the Earth at a distance of 30,000 kilometres. It is only if its gravity were to take it off course, as occurs with Saturn in Melancholia, that it might return seven years later. The probability of this is 1:250,000. What is more likely is that some other asteroid might suddenly appear undetected out of the darkness and smash into the Earth without warning.

It is therefore much worse than the doomsayers say: Judgment Day is not coming. Nonetheless, thanks to the suggestive power of the probability calculation, the NEOShield programme obtained 5 million euro from an open competition initiated by the European Commission. Well, the European Commission, arguably, simply wanted an asteroid defence programme. As if we no longer read any truths about ourselves in the stars but only danger. Perhaps virtuality is therefore less a problem of technology than a problem of human beings.

And which virtuality in any case? People who take the threat of the virtual seriously have to hold a strong idea of reality. Baudrillard himself describes reality as a fantasy of the modern era: it arises to the same extent at which the natural world is put at a distance. ‘We may say, then, that the real world begins, paradoxically, to disappear at the very same time as it begins to exist.’[12] Or, as is said in the work of Martin Heidegger: technology provides the being and makes it into an ‘enframing’, whereby human beings lose their understanding of being. Now, that’s really not so bad: every term and every statement (and every image) do represent mere tools [13] – they are inputs into the social space.[14]

Perhaps what actually stands behind the pathos of disappearance is melancholy: mourning the loss of a uniform perspective, a sovereign perspective and the belief in truths that would be independent of medium and speaker. In the name of such a synoptic view, attempts have long been made to exclude photography from art: its faithfulness to detail seemed to endanger the view of the big picture.[15]

But what big picture? Which sovereign perspective? Literary critic Sigrid Weigel shows that the privileged position of an overview is a very recent idea, as similarly recent as that of the modern museum.[16] Images have their origin in the cult in which ‘image and person (are) part of one and the same setting’, and the ‘viewer (situated), so to speak, in the picture’.[17] Indeed in their role as witnesses to reality, technical images actually further strengthen the distance between the observer and what is observed. Who knows, perhaps in the case of considered use, the detaching of images from fixed carriers leads the way back to the cult – into a flowing exchange of images that is not regulated by the delusive fetish of objectivity but instead makes the motifs, those on the image plane and those of the desire suspended in them, speak for themselves. The talk of the disappearance of the ‘real’ would then be a last insistence on the possibility of the sovereign perspective, and the end of grand narratives would be the last grand narrative, with which metaphysics drops its booster rockets in order to vanish into the realm of fiction, leaving us behind with the real threats that are playing out directly before our eyes.

In the salt desert around Salt Lake City, there is something in the making that comes quite close to a realisation of Baudrillard’s scenarios:

Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Centre is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyse, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion centre should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter” … “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”[18]

Translated from German by Amy Klement

[1] Marcus Jauer, ,Vom Ende her‘, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Feuilleton, 7 April 2012.
[2] Jean Baudrillard, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, trans. Chris Turner (London: Seagull Books: London, 2009), p. 27.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).
[5] Wolfgang Hagen, ‚Die Entropie der Fotografie: Skizzen zu einer Genealogie der digital-elektronischen Bildaufzeichnung‘, in Herta Wolf, Paradigma Fotografie. Fotokritik am Ende des fotografischen Zeitalters (Berlin: Suhrkamp:, 2002), p. 235.
[6] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), pp. 80–81.
[7] See Hagen, p. 233.
[8] Baudrillard, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, p. 33.
[9] Ibid., p. 38.
[10] Ibid., p. 34.
[11] Jauer, ,Vom Ende her’.
[12] Baudrillard, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, p. 11.
[13] Ludwig Wittengenstein, ,Die Bedeutung eines Wortes ist sein Gebrauch in der Sprache‘, in Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen (Berlin: Suhrkamp: 1997), p. 262.
[14] Perhaps this is what will disappear first, the agitated plying of the idea of the ‘virtual’. Then no one will say ‘I was on the Internet’ anymore because the artificial delimitation of a non-networked world will no longer make any sense.
[15] See Sigrid Weigel, ,Bilder als Hauptakteure auf dem Schauplatz der Erkenntnis‘, in Jörg Huber, ed., Ästhetik Erfahrung (Vienna & New York: Springer Verlag, 2004), p. 202.
[16] ‘This identifying of art and overview is the result of the enclosing of images in the frames of panel pictures and paintings in European art history.’ Weigel, p. 202.
[17] Ibid.
[18] James Bamford, Wired, 15 March 2012, online at: (last accessed 26 July 2012).

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