Virtual Culture, Time and Images

Beyond Representation

How to Cite

Mules, W. (2000). Virtual Culture, Time and Images: Beyond Representation. M/C Journal, 3(2).
Vol. 3 No. 2 (2000): Culture
Published 2000-05-01


The proliferation of electronic images and audiovisual forms, together with the recent expansion of Internet communication makes me wonder about the adequacy of present theoretical apparatus within the humanities and communication disciplines to explain these new phenomena and their effects on human life. As someone working roughly within a cultural and media studies framework, I have long harboured suspicions about the ability of concepts such as text, discourse and representation to give an account of the new media which does not simply reduce them to another version of earlier media forms. Many of these concepts were established during the 1970s and 80s, in the development of poststructuralism and its linguistic bias towards the analysis of literary and print media text. The application of these concepts to an electronic medium based on the visual image rather than the printed word seems somewhat perverse, and needs to be replaced by the application of other concepts drawn from a paradigm more suited for the purpose.

In this brief essay, I want to explore some of the issues involved in thinking about a new cultural paradigm based on the photovisual/electronic image, to describe and critique the transformation of culture currently taking place through the accelerated uptake of new televisual, audiovisual and computer technologies. I am reminded here of the existential philosopher Heidegger's words about technology: 'the essence of technology is by no means anything technological' (Heidegger 4). For Heidegger, technology is part of the 'enframing' of the beingness which humans inhabit in various ways (Dasein). But technology itself does not constitute this beingness. This is good news for those of us (like myself) who have only a general and non-technical knowledge of the new technologies currently sweeping the globe, but who sense their profound effects on the human condition. Indeed, it suggests that technical knowledge in itself is insufficient and even inadequate to formulate appropriate questions about the relationship between technology and human being, and to the capacities of humans to respond to, and transform their technologically mediated situations. We need a new way of understanding human being as mediated by technologies, which takes into account the specific technological form in which mediation occurs today. To do this, we need new ways of conceptualising culture, and the specific kind of human subjectivity made possible within a culture conditioned by electronic media.

From Material to Virtual Culture

The concept of culture, as it has been predominantly understood in the humanities and associated disciplines, is based on the idea of physical presence. That is to say, culture is understood in terms of the various representations and practices that people experience within social and historical contexts defined by the living presence of one human being to another. The paradigm case here is speech-based linguistics in which all forms of communication are understood in terms of an innate subjectivity, expressed in the act of communicating something to someone else. Although privileging the site and moment of co-presence, this model does not require the speakers to be immediately present to each other in face-to-face situations, but asks only that co-presence be the ideal upon which successful acts of communication take place. As French philosopher Jacques Derrida has consistently argued over the last thirty years, all forms of western discourse, in one way or another, have been based on this kind of understanding of the way meanings and expressions of subject identity take place (Derrida 27ff.).

A good case in point is the introductory essay by John Frow and Meaghan Morris to their edited text book Australian Cultural Studies: A Reader, where culture is defined as "a contested and conflictual set of practices of representation bound up with the processes of formation and re-formation of social groups" (xx). If culture is defined in terms of the agonistic formation of social groups through practices of representation, then there can be no way of thinking about culture outside the social as the privileged domain of human interaction. Culture is reduced to the social as a kind of paradigm limit, which is, in turn, characterised by the formation of social groups fixed in time and space. Even when an effort is made to indicate that social groups are themselves culturally constituted, as Frow and Morris go on to say, the social is nevertheless invoked again as an underlying presumption: "the social processes by which the categories of the real and of group existence are formed" (xx). In this model, social groups are formed by social processes. The task of representation and signification (the task of culture) is to draw the group together, no matter how widespread or dispersed, to make it coherent and identifiably different from other groups. Under these terms, the task of cultural analysis is to describe how this process takes place.

This 'material' approach to culture normalises the social at the expense of the cultural, underpinned by a 'metaphysics of presence' whereby meaning and identity are established within a system of differential values (difference) by fixing human subjectivity in space and time. I argue that the uptake of new communication technologies makes this concept of culture obsolete. Culture now has to be understood in terms of 'virtual presence' in which the physical context of human existence is simultaneously 'doubled' and indeed proliferated into a virtual reality, with effective force in the 'real' world. From this perspective, we need to rethink culture so that it is no longer understood in terms of differential meanings, identities, texts, discourses and representational forms, but rather as a new kind of ontology involving the 'being' of human subjects and their relations to each other in deterritorialised fields of mediated co-presence, where the real and the virtual enmesh and interact. In this case, the laws governing physical presence no longer apply since it is possible to be 'here' and 'there' at the same time. We need a new approach and a new set of analytical terms to account for this new phenomenon.

Virtual Culture and the Time of Human Presence

In his well known critique of modern culture, Walter Benjamin invents the concept of the 'dialectical image' to define the visual concreteness of the everyday world and its effect on human consciousness. Dialectical images operate through an instantaneous flash of vision which breaks through everyday reality, allowing an influx of otherness to flood present awareness in a transformation of the past into the present: "the past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again" (Benjamin, Theses 255). Bypassing discourse, language and meaning, dialectical images invoke the eternal return -- the affirmation of the present as an ever-constant repetition of temporality -- as the 'ground' of history, progress and the future. Modern technology and its infinite power of reproduction has created the condition under which the image separates from its object, thereby releasing materiality from its moribund state in the past (Benjamin, The Work of Art). The ground of temporality is thus rendered virtual and evanescent, involving a 'deterritorialisation' of human experience from its ego-attachment to the present; an experience which Benjamin understands in repressed mythical terms.

For Benjamin, the exemplary modern technology is photography. A photograph 'destroys' the originariness of the object, by robbing it of aura, or "the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be" (Benjamin, The Work of Art 222). The photographic image is thus dialectical because it collapses the distance between the object and its image, thereby undermining the ontological space between the past and the present which might otherwise grant to the object a unique being in the presence of the viewer. But all 'things' also have their images, which can be separated and dispersed through space and time.

Benjamin's approach to culture, where time surpasses space, and where the reproduced image takes priority over the real, now appears strangely prophetic. By suggesting that images are somehow directly and concretely affective in the constitution of human temporality, Benjamin has anticipated the current 'postmodern' condition in which the electronic image has become enmeshed in everyday life. As Paul Virilio argues, new communication technologies accelerate the transmission of images to such a rate that the past is collapsed into the present, creating an overpowering sense of immediacy:

the speed of new optoelectronic and electroacoustic milieu becomes a final void (the void of the quick), a vacuum that no longer depends on the interval between places or things and so on the world's very extension, but on the interface of an instantaneous transmission of remote appearances, on a geographic and geometric retention in which all volume, all relief vanish. (33)

Distance is now experienced in terms of its virtual proximity to the perceiving subject, in which space is no longer understood in terms of Newtonian extension, but as collapsed or compressed temporality, defined by the speed of light.

In this Einsteinian world, human interaction is no longer governed by the law of non-contradiction which demands that one thing cannot be something else or somewhere else at the same time, and instead becomes 'interfacial', where the image-double enmeshes with its originary being as a co-extensive ontology based on "trans-appearance", or the effective appearance on a single horizon of two things from different space and time zones: "the direct transparence of space that enables each of us to perceive our immediate neighbours is completed by the indirect transparence of the speed-time of the electromagnetic waves that transmit our images and our voices" (Virilio 37). Like the light from some distant star which reaches earth millions of years after its explosive death, we now live in a world of remote and immediately past events, whose effects are constantly felt in real time. In this case the present is haunted by its past, creating a doppelgänger effect in which human being is doubled with its image in a co-extensive existence across space and time.

Body Doubles

Here we can no longer speak of the image as a representation, or even a signification, since the image is no longer secondary to the thing from which it is separated, nor is it a sign of anything else. Rather, we need to think of the possibility of a kind of 'image-event', incorporating both the physical reality of the human body and its image, stretched through time and space. French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have developed an entire theoretical scheme to define and describe this kind of phenomenon. At one point in their magnum opus, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, they introduce the concept of haecceity:

a body is not defined by the form that determines it nor as a determinate substance or subject nor by the organs it possesses or the function it fulfils. On the plane of consistency, a body is defined by a longitude and a latitude: in other words the sum total of the material elements belonging to it under given relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness (longitude); the sum total of the intensive affects it is capable of at a given power or degree of potential (latitude). (260)


This haecceity of the human body, as "trajectory", or "interassemblage" (262) denies the priority of an originating event or substance from which its constitutive elements could be derived. For instance photographs cease to be 'indexes' of things, and become instead part of an assemblage which includes living bodies and other forms of human presence (speech, writing, expressive signs), linked contingently into assemblages through space and time. A photographic image is just as much part of the 'beingness' of something as the thing itself; things and images are part of a perpetual process of becoming; a contingent linking of bricolage with different and diverging material expressions and effects.

Thinking along these lines will get us around the problem of non-contradiction (that something cannot be both 'here' and 'there' at the same time), by extending the concept of 'thing' to include all the elements of its dispersal in time and space. Here we move from the idea of a thing as unique to itself (for instance the body as human presence) and hence subject to a logic of exchange based on scarcity and lack, to the idea of a thing as 'becoming', and subject to a logic of proliferation and excess. In this case, the unique phenomenon of human presence anchored in speech can no longer be used as a focal point to fix human subjectivity, its meanings and forms of expression, since there will be many different kinds of 'presencing' of human being, through the myriad trajectories traced out in all the practices and assemblages through time and space.

A Practical Approach

By thinking of culture in terms of virtual presence, we can no longer assume the existence of a bedrock foundation for human interaction based on the physical proximity of individuals to each other in time and space. Rather we need to think of culture in terms the emergence of new kinds of 'beingness', which deterritorialises human presence in different ways through the mediating power of photovisual and electronic imagery. These new kinds of beingness are not really new. Recent writers and cultural theorists have already described in detail the emergence of a virtual culture in the nineteenth century with the invention of photography and film, as well as various viewing devices such as the stereoscope and other staging apparatuses including the panorama and diorama (Friedberg, Batchen, Crary).

Analysis of virtual culture needs to identify the various trajectories along which elements are assembled into an incessant and contingent 'becoming'. In terms of photovisual and electronic media, this can take place in different ways. By tracing the effective history of an image, it is possible to locate points at which transformations from one form to another occur, indicating different effects in different contexts through time. For instance by scanning through old magazines, you might be able to trace the 'destiny' of a particular type of image, and the kinds of meanings associated with it. Keeping in mind that an image is not a representation, but a form of affect, it might be possible to identify critical points where the image turns into its other (in fashion imagery we are now confronted with images of thin bodies suddenly becoming too thin, and hence dangerously subversive).

Another approach concerns the phenomenon known as the media event, in which electronic images outstrip and overdetermine physical events in real time to which they are attached. In this case an analysis of a media event would involve the description of the interaction between events and their mediated presence, as mutually effective in real time. Recent examples here include the Gulf War and other international emergencies and conflicts in the Balkans and the 1986 coup in the Philippines, where media presence enabled images to have a direct effect on the decisions and deployment of troops and strategic activities. In certain circumstances, the conduct of warfare might now take place entirely in virtual reality (Kellner). But these 'peak events' don't really exhaust the ways in which the phenomenon of the media event inhabits and affects our everyday lives. Indeed, it might be better to characterise our entire lives as conditioned to various degrees by media eventness, as we become more and more attached and dependent on electronic imagery and communication to gain our sense of place in the world. An analysis of this kind of everyday interaction is long overdue.

We can learn about the virtual through our own everyday experiences. Here I am not so much thinking of experiences to be had in futuristic apparatuses such as the virtual reality body suit and other computer generated digital environments, but the kinds of experiences of the virtual described by Benjamin in his wanderings through the streets of Berlin and Paris in the 1920s (Benjamin, One Way Street). A casual walk down the main street of any town, and a perfunctory gaze in the shop windows will trigger many interesting connections between specific elements and the assemblages through which their effects are made known.

Image of a mechanical doll - click here for a larger pictureOn a recent trip to Bundaberg, a country town in Queensland, I came across a mechanised doll in a jewellery store display, made up in the likeness of a watchmaker working at a miniature workbench. The constant motion of the doll's arm as it moved up and down on the bench in a simulation of work repeated the electromechanical movements of the dozens of clocks and watches displayed elsewhere in the store window, suggesting a link between the human and the machine. Here I was presented not only with a pleasant shop display, but also with the commodification of time itself, as an endless repetition of an interval between successive actions, acted out by the doll and its perpetual movement. My pleasure at the display was channelled through the doll and his work, as a fetishised enchantment or "fairy scene" of industrialised productivity, in which the idea of time is visualised in a specific image-material form. I can imagine many other such displays in other windows in other towns and cities, all working to reproduce this particular kind of assemblage, which constantly 'pushes' the idea-image of time as commodity into the future, so long as the displays and their associated apparatuses of marketing continue in this way rather than some other way.

So my suggestion then, is to open our eyes to the virtual not as a futuristic technology, but as it already shapes and defines the world around us through time. By taking the visual appearance of things as immaterial forms with material affectivity, we allow ourselves to move beyond the limitations of physical presence, which demands that one thing cannot be something else, or somewhere else at the same time. The reduction of culture to the social should be replaced by an inquiry into the proliferation of the social through the cultural, as so many experiences of the virtual in time and space.

Author Biography

Warwick Mules