«FROM PARALLAX TO THE SPECTACLE BY JL MARZO Read at the Parallax Conference, at the Saint-Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre in Winnipeg, Canada, Sept. ...»
FROM PARALLAX TO THE SPECTACLE
BY JL MARZO
Read at the Parallax Conference, at the Saint-Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre in Winnipeg,
Canada, Sept. 1996. Published by the SNACC in 1998.
During this time we have together we are going to try to establish a series of
correspondences, moving in a number of directions. First of all, a
correspondence between the Baroque conception of the world and our own
idea of it. In second place, we will try to link the context and causes of the birth of the Baroque theory of parallax in astronomy, to the theories and practices which emerged in seventeenth century Europe, which in our day -as then- have come to make up what we now call the spectacle. The method we are going to follow does not hide its direct debt to Baroque methods themselves. We are going to travel through allegories (something very Catholic indeed!). So there will be no answers (something very Catholic as well!), but rather certain points of confluence which in principle seem to function as miniature engines, conscious of the fact that perhaps they have no real importance in the overall machinery of the world.
It should be also noted that the gender we use when we talk about the Baroque is mainly masculine, since the Baroque culture didn't even think about the existence of a feminine thought. Moreover, it established and regulated social and political misogyny that still rules most of today's cultural behaviours. As a suggestion, it would be very interesting to bridge the Parallax theory -the consciousness of relativism- with some of the Italian women painters in the 17th century -like Artemisa Gentileschi- who were able to develop subtle interpretations of the masculine painting of that moment (more or less encrypted for security reasons) and questioning the mainstream readings of religious tradition and history as well as the role that women have been forced to adopt.
To begin, let us suggest that the end of the general conception of the ancient world, which pervaded through a good part of the Renaissance, had much to do with the appearance of new instruments that were able to objectify, or socialize, the thoughts of humans. The instrument, both apparatuses and lenses created at that time, took on a status which set the foundations of what we now call modern society. With the instrument and the machine, the Baroque scientist is able to discover, paradoxically, what he was trying to demonstrate had been lost: the still image; the idea of the centre, the vision of something focussed and diaphanous, an immutable, essential, starry heaven. While on one hand he dedicates himself to the task of demonstrating that the world is movement in itself, that there do not exist central factors to which we can appeal to explain neither things nor ourselves, that there is no fixed element at all in the universe, on the other hand he discovers in the instrument the possibility to raise our perception of things, both microscopically and telescopically. This contradiction is the axis upon which Baroque culture pivots, and one of its main legacies to our own culture.
One of the problems that lead to the theory of parallaxes in astronomy, especially by the hand of Kepler, was that of appearance. This question could seem rather trivial in our days, though in the 17th century the ability to specify with precision what "really" could be seen, represented a challenge that was difficult to meet and understand. Up to this time, the lack of a technique applied to the observations of the world and the stars, converted these disquisitions into
debates whose analyses were carried out deductively, in general terms. It is with the appearance of Baroque technology that the necessity to define and situate with precision is legitimated as a necessary model in the certification of theories. What is more, from that moment on, it is practically impossible to discern between the analysis of the theories in themselves and the analysis of the means used to demonstrate them. Within the same theory that Galileo laid out concerning the movement of stars, was the description of the very instrument used to refute existing hypotheses: the perspicillum (from the Latin perspicio, make manifest), or telescope. It is in the Baroque, and above all thanks to Galileo, that the concept of science initiates a new phase of development, one that can be called instrumental.
As we have said, Kepler asked himself to what degree the vision we have of the stars is not contaminated by our own position, by our own perspective.
Undoubtably, Kepler was a fine contortionist. He began to perceive the possibility of looking at the planets from other points of view, points that were not our own. Thus, as an equation that would allow us to calculate and modulate the real distances and movements of the objects in the cosmos, he came up with the theory of parallaxes. Parallax is the apparent displacement of an observed object due to the change in the position of the observer. If we are able to correct the optical defects of distance and size derived from our particular and singular position as observers, we might be able to form an objective map of the universe, so Kepler deduced. With Galileo's telescope, all of these questions were amplified. And further on we will see to what degree they have continued to expand until our days. We could take this a step further: these questions represent the very movement of present-day culture.
Thus the problem set forth concerning parallaxes is that of appearance, how we see things and to what degree this vision responds to the reality of the object. It is curious to observe how the majority of debates that take place in the 17th century are not centered so much on the exact truth of the world, but on the degree of reality available in what is seen. To be sure, a world such as the Baroque which is suddenly made subject to movement and velocity can only with difficulty establish theories of the immutable. The great majority of metaphysical theorists, with Leibniz at the fore, go to great efforts to explain something as immovable as the existence of God.
The Baroque era raises a new problem: how can I be sure of what I see?
Science (or Natural Philosophy as it was then known) will try to give immediate answers in the form of corrections, but the question raises a series of problems that science cannot penetrate. How can I be sure that I and those around me are how I think we are? The theory of parallaxes uncovers a fertile field in the ethical and social reflection of the moment. When astronomers establish that our vision of the stars is corrupted due to our own position in the galaxy, they quickly come to derivations concerning how we observe and perceive the most everyday aspects of the universe: things, persons, actions, decisions, and attitudes that surround us and influence our lives. The Baroque period inaugurates the era of probabilism, of relativity, and with it the era of the search for consensus. For if each of us has a completely partial vision of everything, as is said, it will be necessary to create a common ground where certain collective norms of communication and objectivization can be founded.
To this, eventually the name illusion will be given, spectacle, as soon we shall see. The fundamental problem of Baroque thought is the fact that the relations between subjects and objects, between who sees and who is seen, has become an essential issue, in a way that is fully problematic though tremendously suggestive.
Things, objects, are no longer still. They move, wander, pulsate, whether according to physical laws or not, yet they do so. They are no longer static symbols that exist in function of a superior norm. They are simply allegories, autonomous points that look upon the world from "their point of view". The object becomes a mobile form that cannot be fully captured. When we perceive it, we look upon it and see it blurred, as if a digital "morphine" effect.
Or better yet, like when we take a snapshot of a racing car speeding past: we sense the car, we know it is a car, yet its form is distorted, fleeing forward.
Our camera was in principle prepared to capture objects fixed in one point.
We should regulate the velocity of obturation (exposure speed) and the aperture of the diaphram to capture the car just how it is in reality. This is what the theory of parallaxes is based on. However, the Baroque man who did not have a camera, wondered to what point the blurriness of the object, the lack of definition of it is his problem, a problem of his own inability to capture the entire form of things in detail. And then he says: if what I look at, I cannot see as I should because of its velocity, shouldn't I too put myself in movement to obtain more perfect images? The Baroque thinkers take a step beyond their own limits and possibilities. They discover that running at the same speed as the car it is posible to take perfect photographs. Just like in the Atlanta Olympic Games, where television cameras could be seen installed on steel tubes moving parallel to the athletes on the track. As the disco strobe lights freezes and isolates for a fraction of a second our silhouette within the magma of the space, thus creating a narrative of our displacement based on ellipsis.
There is nothing more Baroque than a Steadycam, mounted on an apparatus of correcting counterweights, allowing us to observe anything in movement with perfect visibility.
Gilles Deleuze has analyzed with particular subtlety this question of the transformation of the relations between object and subject in the Baroque era, though always with an eye on our days. He came to ironically propose a new terminology. The new object would be an objetil, an object projectile, phantom-like, fugitive. The subject that adapts to the new situation would be a "super-ject", a super subject to the degree that it must be prepared for brusque shifts in speed and direction, according to the interest of whoever guides it. The objectile recalls the Baroque world but also our own, "when the fluctuation of the norm substitutes the permanence of a law, when the object is situated in continuous variation".
It is indeed intriguing to observe how the twentieth century has shown to what degree the thinkers of the 17th century established the idea of the world we now contemplate. The investigations that were carried out on the atom are extraordinarily revelatory in this sense. Strictly speaking, noone has seen an atom, as it cannot be seen. As Werner Heisenberg showed long time ago, when we try to illuminate an atom with a photon in order to observe it, the atom automatically is displaced; it begins to move, not allowing it to be seen still. The existence of the atom is indicated by deduction, after the observation of certain parallel phenomena. The essence itself of matter is invisible for us, as we cannot completely capture it. And was it not Leibniz who said that we can only have perceptions of things, but not complete images of them?
For its part, the transformation of the object refers to a correlative transformation of the subject. The subject, the super-ject (term that Deleuze borrows from Alfred Whitehead), is structured in respect to its point of view.
The point of view, says Deleuze in Le pli (or The Fold), "is not exactly a point, but a place, a position, a site, a "lineal focus". It is called a point of view to the degree that it represents variation. This is the foundation of perspectivism.
The subject is whatever reaches the point of view, or is more or less installed in the point of view. The point of view does not vary with the subject; it is the condition for which an eventual subject might grasp a variation (metamorphosis); or, something equals X (anamorphosis).... It is not a variation of truth according to the subject, but the conditon for the truth of a variation to be presented to the subject. This is precisely the same idea as Baroque perspective".
This circumstantial conjunction that the subject discovers in its desire to capture objective visions of things which are in constant movement, brings with it a new picture in the relations with the world. The necessity of the Baroque to identify a mobile universe, to actively participate in velocity (as the only possibility to begin to define what cannot be seen) generates the spectacle, the notion of the necessity of participation for whoever wishes to share in the world. We shall soon see how this links up with Baroque creation.
But before, I do not want to leave out a fundamental aspect of this new subject-object relation. The Baroque search for any equalizing relation between them can only occur from a vertex, as Leibniz and Pascal call it, and no longer from a central perspective. From a vertex we search out the meaning or sense of a centre. From a determined centre. It is no longer an essential centre, hierarchical, external, nor is it internal either, in the sense of a site where a permanent balance might exist. This new centre is taken up contractually, in a given space and time, within a concrete variation. The illumination of this centre, as if dealing with a mobile focal point, organizes vision circumstantially. Light becomes a great machinery, now making up part of the apparatus of the same object that illuminates. To be able to move the spot of light as quickly as the object itself effectively obliges us to participate in the object itself. The centre that is not permanent is always denied. The deal we have made with it, was made to be broken.
Yet to speak of parallaxes also obliges us to speak of the machines that correct or, depending how we look at it, create them. It is well known that the Baroque instrument par excellence, the telescope, shows great similitude with the reality projected by the modern media machine. In the modern camera, parallax also defines the optical difference between the vision of an object through the camera's lense and the vision we have of it through the sight. Thus both the problem of the Baroque machine and our own one is based on questions of optics, of appearance.