Alan N. Shapiro, Autonomy in the Digital Society

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Time-Memory-Experience (part 3 of 4), by Anja Wiesinger

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The Optical Unconscious in Benjamin and Krauss

from the Time-Memory Experience project

(this is part 3 of a 4-part essay)

by Anja Wiesinger

The Optical Unconscious in Walter Benjamin’s writing appears first in „A little history of photography“ (1931), which Benjamin wrote a few years prior to the famous Artwork essay. In the photography essay, Benjamin describes how photography evolved from the portrait photography of the early days of the technology in the middle of the 19th century to the Paris recordings by Eugene Agdet’s in the 1920s to the applications of the mass media. The early portrait technique didn’t allow for short exposure time. The model would have to sit and hold out longer. Benjamin saw in those pictures a captured auratic appearance, manifested in the gaze of the person, looking outside of the picture into an undetermined distance, as well as in the material features of the Daguerreotype, which left traces of light on the photo paper.

Benjamin concluded that the auratic phenomenon is caught in an older appearance, that it is the view of the portrayed person, because it attains to the cultic mode of observation, which is a contemplative attitude of the subject towards a sacral object.

By contrast, Eugene Atget’s recordings of Paris’ empty streets bear a different kind of aura. Through the quietly missing and drawn away („Verschollene und Verschlagende“ 157) which the picture brings out and to the consciousness of the viewer, history itself is charged with aura, which has been lifted from the portrayed person. Benjamin noted that through the lens of the objective things appeared much larger than when viewed with the human eye, which sets forth a different kind of perception. There is a different picture revealing itself to human vision:

„Es ist ja eine andere Natur, welche zur Kamera als welche zum Auge spricht; anders vor allem so, daß an die Stelle eines vom Menschen mit Bewusstsein durchwirkten Raums ein unbewusst durchwirkter tritt.“ 158

This technical image shows, as compared to painted landscapes, not an optical distance, but the disclosing of microstructures.

The optical unconscious makes an appearance in Benjamin’s Artwork essay, once again, making a reference to the stretching/expansion of time and space though the camera eye. It is possible to see new modes of movement, something that has a floating, sliding and celestial quality. Benjamin concludes that the human perception of space, which is informed by our consciousness, is supplemented by an unconscious one. (160) It hence depends on the relationship of the subject to its object, which means its understanding/notion of the essence of the technic / technological, which includes a human experience, in other words, one that makes technic it’s organ. (161) Benjamin puts it like this: “yet what determines photography is the relationship of the photographer subject towards his technical device.” (162)

The optical unconscious references two different discursive mental frameworks. One is the optical, which Benjamin, as is well known, draws from the pairing optical-tactical made by the art historian Alois Riegl (1858-1905). This first aspect underlines that aura is not something tangible but entails something inaccessible. The second aspect, the unconscious, is taken from the theories of Sigmund Freud. As I explained before, for Freud, the unconscious is the part of the psychic apparatus that absorbs experiences not being tackled properly and installed as a memory, and which then manifest as a symptom in the actions and thoughts of the subject.


Benjamin and Freud apply the same method: Reduction of the distance towards the objects by cutting through it


A few scholars, among them Jutta Wiegman, argue that Walter Benjamin transferred Freud’s symptomatic psychic analysis of the individual onto the collective. For Benjamin, modernization, which happened parallel with technologisation or mechanization in the industrial age, eliminated a prior balance between humans and nature. Reality appeared to become superior through the acceleration of everyday life by way of mobilization, and the alienation of work though machines and so on. According to Benjamin, this traumatic experience open the way to the presence of something that is not coped with. The machine world appeared as a mysterious superpower (similar to the wild, cruel animal nature) that the individual is subjected to. Thereby, a second technique (the machines) turns back into first nature (mysterious primitive nature).

But Benjamin also suggests a healing methodology for people to help cope with this sensory overload. A certain use of technology can have this healing power. In this particular case, it is photography which creates new strategies of defense and helps become accustomed to the acceleration.

In the context of the optical, Benjamin offers to us a complementary partner, the tactical as method, which he describes in the image or metaphor of the surgeon. Several times he compares the cameraman with the surgeon; it is he who, via technical tools, hacks an image into pieces and puts it together in a new way. Both the surgeon and the cameraman intervene into the cellular textures or the microstructures.

In order to disclose the suppressed events of history, Benjamin’s tactic was to blow open the superficial appearances. In this moment the optical, which had unleashed a memory, changes to the tactile, which triggers an action by the subject, leading to the reduction of the formerly installed distance between subject and object and ultimately to the overcoming of the trauma.

Both Freud and Benjamin make use of the same method for revealing the suppressed memory to consciousness. Which is by way of destroying the distance between subject and object, by penetrating the object operatively, by dissecting the object or the image.

We shift now to the body, not only the body of the object, but also the body of the subject, which participates in the process of perception.

This brings in the role of the body, and another thinker who has adapted Benjamin and Freud through Benjamin to make for an alternative history of vision that includes the subject’s body: Rosalind Krauss.

Rosalind Krauss’ Optical Unconscious

Rosalind Krauss composed in her book The Optical Unconscious a counter-history of vision in modernity. In contrast to the typical modern time- and bodiless notion of vision, she connects vision to time, the body and the unconscious. We will see how important this becomes when looking into the experience of time and its bodily effects on the body in digital environments.

More precisely Krauss writes paradoxically with and against a modern logic of vision, in particular in the writing of the art critic Clement Greenberg, which, according to Krauss, is a rationalized and reflexive vision. Krauss characterizes modern visual logics as transparent, simultaneous, immediate and framed. (177) These characteristics underline the autonomy and timelessness of modern abstract painting, which Greenberg deemed to be the highest value of modern art.

Krauss illustrates the history of this conception, beginning with a classical theory of perception, which distinguishes between a figure and a ground, which dissolves into a modern reflexive vision of non-figure and non-ground. Her reference here is the invention of flat abstract painting, which rejects the illusion of space and therefore a background. According to Krauss, this background is re-introduced as figure in the new order of vision. Perception and vision – or background and visual structure – swap roles in the advent of abstraction but don’t get lost. Rather negated to a figure, the background re-appears in the abstract grid-structure. The figure is suppressed to the unconscious. For Krauss, the visual structure as non-figure is synonymous with the unconscious.

The frame of an image, with Krauss, does not embed an actual figure into the image, but constitutes a map of logical relationships. It doesn’t mark the inside and outside, but amplifies the seemingly self-enclosed immediacy of the image.

With the optical-unconscious, Krauss traces strategies of alternate techniques of vision, which, analogous to Benjamin’s enlargements through the lens, release the visual structure to consciousness.  With this counter-history to modernity, Krauss looks for aesthetic practices which disrupt the blending of figure and ground and which set deep structures against the optical logic of modern vision. She finds examples in a mix of theoretical and artistic output: the Precision optics of Marcel Duchamp, the concept of Mimicry of Roger Callois, the uncanny with Sigmund Freud, the mirror stage of Jacques Lacan, and the informé of Bataille.

With Krauss’ work, I would like to introduce two modes of vision: one is embodied, and the other is reflexive.

According to Krauss, the modern perception is characterized by transparency, simultaneity, and immediacy, as well its rendering frame. This is taken from Greenberg’s notion of abstract painterly aesthetics, which is the ultimate expression of modernism. As such it is universal. The optical unconscious is structure: formless, uncanny, pulsating and masking.

I would like to show that both modes of vision appear in the digital image archive. The appearance of the interface, connected to the calculating machine computer, makes for a universal modern perception. While in the rhythm of the dynamics of the calculating processes, it constitute a vision connected to the body. This is why I chose Krauss’ remarks on rhythms and pulse for my argumentation.

Krauss sets up links between vision, the body and desire. These links oppose the modernist reflexive vision. Take for example Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs. Duchamp created an apparatus in the 1920s for optical illusions. Several circles are mounted on a rotating disc, which is set in motion by a motor. This creates the illusion of contracting spirals, which come closer to each other and are distanced from the subject’s viewer position. Krauss observes in this game of the moving discs, and in this game of transparency and opacity, how the hypnotic pulse of the discs penetrate the viewer’s body. The melding with the viewer’s body opens up, therefore, a bodily dimension of vision. Pulse, according to Krauss, arouses and stimulates libidinal energies, as much as it suppresses them in the next moment, in this play of presence and absence.

While Greenberg would not attribute meaning to Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs in the modernist sense, a work which produces its own meaning out of its inner logic. The work is autonomous as an artwork, and time is the critical factor. Yet, this factor must necessarily be a logical one by which the body of the viewer is not addressed, but the object stares back empty at the viewer in order to guarantee the artwork’s autonomy. The Rotoreliefs seem to resist this kind of rationalization of vision:

„The Rotoreliefs are spinning, vertically, horizontally, all around Duchamp. […] but

the experience of an anarchic, infantilized desire irrupts inexorably in their midst, creating, if ever so fleetingly, a space of resistance to rationalization. Temporal, carnal, it is the space of what I am projecting as Duchamp’s version of the optical unconscious.“ (Krauss., S. 214.)

In Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, a different kind of vision manifests itself, one other than what is experienced with modern abstract painting. This vision addresses the mind/intellect of the viewing subject, yet it creates a rhythm, which is constituted by repetition. Krauss discovers an optical pleasure, which is linked to the viewer’s body. This evokes questions about the rhythms of the page load of the screen. What determines the rhythm of observation? In the creation of an optical pleasure – in this case the pleasure on viewing images – does it catalyse or negate deeper possibilities of experience in the sense of Benjamin’s intervention into the object? (Narrowing the distance and allowing for an experience with the object.)

The movie camera gave us the time lapse, a new perception of time. This was explored by Proust in his major literary work “In search of lost time.”

Freud gave us the unconscious, which was explored by the surrealists who gave us l’écriture automatique.

Rosalind Krauss discusses an embodied perception, preceding an aesthetic discourse of high modernism in art.

What new mode of time and perception does the computer or digital technology give us?

“Simulation” of time lapses, the loop, recursion (fractals and so on), self-growth, animation, precise reconstruction, program crashes, unnerving sounds, jump cuts.

The computer interface, as the interface of computer processes and user processes, is something dynamic. It moves. It is animated. Neither is passive. The programmer is merely the third component: he or she who has designed the topology of the interaction between the software program and the user.

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