Void: Screens in Baudrillard's The Transparency of Evil

In his collection of essays The Transparency

of Evil, Jean Baudrillard investigates the role of

screens in contemporary culture. He worries that screens-television screens, movie screens, and (especially) computer screens-subvert reality through an unending proliferation of images.

The flow of images includes not only still photographs and film, but words which have lost their orthographic significance and have been reduced to little more than a string of small pictures, each one as meaningless as the next. He argues that television watchers and computer users have permitted, even encouraged, images on their screens to supplant the reality outside their windows, and that we would rather stare at a flickering monitor than engage in substantive human relations. Claims that television or computers somehow facilitate meaningful discourse, he suggests, disguise these devices' tendency to reflect the thoughts of only the individual user, rather than the others with whom the user "communicates." In this way, the screen becomes a sort of mirror, but a mirror which will reflect any reality its viewer desires. Baudrillard employs literal and metaphoric readings of screens and mirrors to outline the severe disjunction in contemporary life between image and reality. He suggests that before computers, mirrors were the symbolic paradigm of the relationship between Self and Other, be-



tween Subject and Object. Now that computers have come to the fore and radically altered the way we interact with ourselves and others, screens are a more appropriate representation of these divisions. But screens have not adopted that role without adapting what they signify. Baudrillard argues, perhaps rightly, that screens have overcome the opposition between Self and Other and transformed it into an equation of Self and Same. Such an alteration abnegates the fundamental notion of interaction, and leaves behind a bleary-eyed, passive computer user staring at his screen, capable of communicating only with himself. If we agree with

Baudrillard that the foundation of good society is good communication, screens jeopardize good society by virtue of their annulling the way we relate reality to one another. In such a society (a society in which we already live, according to Baudrillard), reality gradually, almost imperceptibly, recedes behind a screen of insignificant (unsignifying) "virtuality." In his essays, Baudrillard concerns himself with this tension between reality and virtuality, particularly the way in which the latter has superseded the former. The problem of screens begins with the urge towards faster, more efficient communication in business and government, on both individual and mass scales. Just one generation ago, person-to-person communication at the workplace was done primarily via postal services. Now, information, in greater volumes than ever before, is sent via facsimile or modem, and constant

flow of digital information, accessible almost instantly from hundreds or thousands of miles away. The information cannot be transmitted fast enough for the business world. There is a never-ending, always-increasing demand for speed: faster computers, faster modems, faster processing. The result of this obsession for speed is the conclusion that "faster communication" somehow equals "better communication," that the information being transmitted is of such priority and significance that it must be available as close to instantaneously as technically possible. The speed with which data can be transferred comments on its importance and value. In Baudrillard's vision of the computerized office, "communication 'occurs' by means of a sole instantaneous circuit, and for it to be 'good' it must take place fast" (12). If a business is to be as efficient as its technology, its human resources must keep the pace of its technical resources. The cessation of information is, from some managerial viewpoint, the cessation of work. For a computer in such an environment, interaction in excess of what is absolutely necessary slows the process, interferes with the flow of other, more important information. As far as the computers are concerned, "there is no time for silence" (12).The same is true for the employees. As soon as information comes into their hands or, more likely, on appears on their screen, they must review it and send it to its next destination. In a stream-lined, efficient environment, there is little time for careful analysis, consideration, or thought. These actions are extra, burdensome. Lack of data-movement during analytical reflection is a kind of inactivity, a silence. Baudrillard maintains that fear of silence in the corporate/technological realm prohibits significant

thought; that to be truly efficient, a worker must mimic his machine, and incessantly receive and transfer data. He suggests that a corporate mentality trains populations to use computers as their model for personal interaction. Workers substitute meaningful "relations" for meaningless "communication," even in their personal lives. As with computers, people are compelled to provide a similarly constant stream of data, afraid to take a moment to think. "Silence is banished from our screens. It has no place in communication," he writes (12), suggesting that at all times, some information must be moving from any individual's computer to another's. Anything less is inefficient, slow, bad. The data-glut from the corporate world has been matched by the mass media's own efforts at ceaseless waves of information. Television, especially, prides itself on its ability to provide uninterrupted programming, much of it so trite or oft-repeated as to be devoid (at least in Baudrillard's opinion) of meaning. The repetition of the data (in this case, TV shows) is so frequent and so structurally similar to purportedly different sets of data (other shows), the differences erode into insignificance. Even the differences between pictures and words lose their substance. "Media images (and media texts, which resemble media images in every way) never fall silent: images and messages must follow one upon the other without interruption" (12-13). The meaning of the information is sacrificed to its sameness. It as though the lack of silence has


turned television bandwidth into an infinitely-reduced Babylon, in which everyone speaks the same language that no one understands. It just might be that silence (so feared by finance and television executives alike) would lend, if only for a moment, some meaning, some variation, to the flowing data. A chance interruption, the allowance of silence into the system, might provide a society of screen-gazers a chance for self-reflection, or even reflection on anything besides the screen and what lies (elusively) behind it. In a time when everything means nothing, when an infinite promulgation of signs dizzies and confuses any observer, an instant of nothingness might mean something. "Silence is... a blip in the circuitry ... that slip which, on TV for instance, becomes highly meaningful" (13). Baudrillard is concerned that the strategized construction of a seemingly anarchic proliferation of information into the screens (but not the minds) of millions of people undercuts the ability of these people to generate their own information, to relate interpersonally. Their ability to signify has been hijacked by the airwaves; it is too much of an effort to "relate" rather than "communicate" using the tropes and conventions of screens. More deeply, Baudrillard wonders if many of us have not so unfailingly mimicked our computers that we have ourselves become "satellites" or representations of them, humanoid screens. Communication has sapped our inclinations to express and to think for ourselves, leaving a hole where our identity used to be. A cynical, maybe paranoid, Baudrillard contends that even those occasional glitches in the system that result in a dark screen and silent speaker are pre-planned in such a way that "confirms ...communication is basically nothing but a rigid script, an uninterrupted fiction designed fo free us not only from the void of the television screen but equally from the void of our own mental screen," voids that develop in moments of transition between silence and noise, tension and release) So pungent is Baudrillard's vision of the viewer mentally stranded by a dark screen, and his conviction that creativity has been outmoded by technological agility, he imagines that of all the images to flow across the newspapers and airwaves in the last ninety years, "the image of a person sitting watching a television screen voided by a technician's strike will be seen as the perfect epitome of the anthropological reality of the twentieth century" (13). There is an element of arrogance-if not elitism-mixed with alarmism in

Baudrillard's provocative commentary. To be sure, first television and then computers revolutionized the way we relate or communicate with others, but one must occasionally question whether Baudrillard is himself being true to reality, or whether he, too, presents a glorified vision of reality in order to pitch his product, a theory of confused realities. Baudrillard is ambiguous as to whether he includes himself in his excoriations of screen-gazers. While we

II think of moments when (usually during live sporting events) my family and I would sit hushed and still in our living room, staring at a black and silent television screen, waiting for a few interminable seconds to pass between the end of an advertisement and the appearance of, say, the familiar "rafters" shot at Boston Garden. Such moments, as they occurred, would arouse a fleeting sensation of guilt.


might guess he watches less television than the average subject of his critique, we might also presume he knows whereof he speaks. If Baudrillard is merely indulging in language games, and is indeed subject to his own criticism because of his representation of a false image, his argument that the "virtual society" is a fait accompli might be suspect. Even so, he supplies sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that virtuality is at the very least a burgeoning force. Non-academics do, after all, avidly claim not to watch "much" television, and it would seem nearly all elites, whether academic, corporate, political, or otherwise, from time to time must yield to a computer screen. Whether this means our brains are by default empty is still, as ever, subject to debate.
If we have become as void of meaning as our televisions, perhaps we (like televisions)

make an effort to portray significance through a screen of our own, one specially adapted to our needs. We would control what appears on our screen as efficiently as a network controls its programming, and our screen (like any network's) would be subject to the whims and tastes of a certain audience. The screen would determine or reflect our tastes, our goals, our history, how we interact with others, and how they interact with us. Baudrillard dubs such a screen a look. A look is an appearance, a means of presentation or more properly, representation through which we declare our visibility. According to Baudrillard, the Cartesian syllogism of existence

through thought must be reconceived for the latter twentieth century. No longer is it appropriate or significant to argue "I think, therefore I exist" or even "I exist, I am here." Now, questions of ontology have been reduced to the emergence of the image, in the semantics of a television program announcing itself. The pathetic, and reductive "I am visible, I am an image-look! look!" passes for a new statement of self-appraisal. But Baudrillard detects an underlying passivity even in this weak assessment. The concern is with the "appearing act, not being, or even being seen" (23). If this last condition-being seen-does not matter to the image person,

and only the initial condition of appearing does, the presumed need for an audience vanishes. The person becomes a screen with an audience of one, the person himself. What initially appears to be an act of distinguishing, i.e. establishing a unique "look," ultimately is one of selfnegation, since the look "draws neither attention nor admiration" and has "no particular significance" (23). The look, or personal screen, involves only the person who created it, and in a world where "everyone becomes the manager of their own appearance" with surgical precision, no one has time to worry about what everyone else looks like. The system is, claims Baudrillard, "no longer founded on an interplay of differences," if only because everyone has ceased to interplay or notice a difference. This abortive division of Self from Other "no longer even appeals to a logic of distinction" and therefore conflates the two, as the Self, in its imperial ego-mania, absorbs the Other. Once again, the screen-system leaves an individual capable of conceiving only of himself. Social constructs, whatever they might value, do not even enter


into the world of "the look." The preoccupation with image and the systematic destruction of the concept of the Other causes Baudrillard to wonder, suggesting the alienation of Self to follow, "Am I a man or a machine?" (23). Just as people were beginning to overcome the division between mind and body, and conceive of themselves as total individual, unsullied by artificial internal divisions, the screen parlayed their methods of thinking about information into ways of thinking about themselves. Out of this process came "the look," and out of the look came a new conception of the self-more specifically, the body-as a perfectible image, and suddenly, we are alienating our bodies from

our minds or selves again. Baudrillard maintains that the manufacture of a look, a way of mimicking a computer's style of communication, "makes man himself into a satellite" (30). When enough men become satellites of a system, whole social constructs also break apart from man and transform into satellites. "Loan, finance, the techno sphere, communication-all have

become satellites," writes Baudrillard (31), meaning that all those functions people created to ease social life have become irrelevant to it, now that social life has dissipated in favor of the Self's preoccupation with the self. Baudrillard's depiction draws from McLuhan, but takes him to extremes. Where McLuhan saw television and other screen-devices as "extensions of man," Baudrillard conceives of them as centers of satellite-man's orbit. The computer is not an extension of man, but man and his screen have become satellites-or has been a willing partner in the process. The infinite "whitewash" (44) of information and images in which signs are indiscernible and, for all intents and purposes, insignificant pushes towards an erasure of all meaning in social, physical, and historical realms. This is the macro-version of the process in which an individual surgically removes all traces of negativity from his look, or all silence and inconsistency from his screen. With the aid of signs pouring from the mass media as water from a fire hose, the system purges itself of "bad information," of the discontiguous or meaningful, until nothing remains but the same data repeated endlessly in a stream of pure communication. The process, says Baudrillard, a bit conspiratorially, " vast enterprise of cosmetic surgery," of removing surface blemishes and reshaping all kinds of discourses. Individual or discursive identities, Others who have not merged with Selves, are forced into representations that are duplicated to the point of meaningless, "plunged into a realm of radical uncertainty and endless simulation" (45). In other words, a system which has not been made insignificant or once discovered, will be defeated by the proliferation of inadequate representations-of it, and man

"whitewashed," representations,

until the original loses meaning. Violence, for example, a most seditious

system, can be simulated in the mass media until it loses meaning for everyone but its real world victims. (The fact that violence does have an impact on someone, in a very real sense, does suggest, contrary to Baudrillard, that it has not been completely whitewashed, unless he means


merely that the practitioners of violence can no longer fully comprehend what violence means, in which case he would be right.) Baudrillard claims an operation is underway, though he does not adequately define by whom, to eliminate traces of imperfection in an effort to achieve an ideal form. This operation is true in the literal sense in cosmetic surgery offices all over the world, and metaphorically in various approaches to revisionist or contemporary history, and analogically in our treatment of data in business and government. On a larger scale, it is true everyday, every time an individual or a media institution makes an effort to convey reality. If we do not yet entirely accept Baudrillard's postulation that no one truly desires to relate anything anymore, and consider the case of, say, the nightly news, we might come to believe that despite their efforts to relate something of significance, they fail outright. They fail because it is impossible to adequately convey the totality of experiential reality to another sentient being. No matter how many words, pictures, sound bites, and diagrams one uses to capture a given incident, the experience of having been there, or having lived through it, the unique "pleasure of being human" as Baudrillard calls it, cannot be transmuted in any kind of convincing fashion. Something will, necessarily, be missing. This, it seems, is a difficult and frustrating notion to accept. Many historians, media moguls, philosophers, and everyday people have wrung their hands, and been able to utter a trite equivalent of, "You had to be there." This problem is so frustrating that many of these same historians, moguls, and other people have surrendered to the proximity of images, the nearness of a given set of images to what they experienced, wish they' experienced, or want to think they experienced. In their own minds, they "remodel things synthetically into ideal forms" (45) to suit the ready-made images generated by various media and easily disseminable. How it appears on the computer or television screen is how these people revise the images in their mental screen. They put an "ideal face, a surgical face" (45) on their memories in order to make them communicable to others; they settle for the image over reality. When enough people do this consistently, for a long enough time, this procedure operates on a cultural level. The screened image supplants its original signified, in a process Baudrillard calls the "precession of the simulacra." These, he says, are the four successive phases of the image as it overcomes or "murders" (Baudrillard's term) reality:
• • • • It is the reflection of a basic reality It masks and perverts a basic reality It masks the absence of a basic reality It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

(Docherty, 196). This is not to suggest that the images or the screens do not exist in a real-world, only that their relation to reality as a referent has been negated. As such, an image may appear on a computer


screen but be so distorted as to mask altogether its initial referent. Baudrillard further maintains that with the aid of computers, an initial referent need not ever exist since "images of

anything" are now a possibility" (57). People have become so accustomed to revising memory of
experiential reality to fit conveyable images of it, that actions now are executed as "operations" which exist to be replaced by images. There are, Baudrillard writes, "no actions save those which result from an interaction-complete, if possible, with television monitor and

feedback" (46). Events orchestrated for the screen and ready to be revised according to feedback are the new model for determinism, as what cannot be reduced to communicable data is "whitewashed" into oblivion. Excessis pushed out. "For content to be conveyed as well as and as quickly as possible, that content should come as close to as possible transparency and insignificance" (49). The need for will and thought, inefficient by-products of a lost era vanish on-screen, where everything is treated in terms of speed and transference and with

"indifference to content" (48). A cycle of operation, image-generation, and image-dissemination becomes the interminable work of the screen, and interminable ecstasy of the screen's observer. The viewer of the screen watches this spectacle of reality-rendering, and is lost in it. He gives himself over to the palatable, communicable image in front of him and ignores the difficult, infinitely complex other-reality around him. The screen trains him to accept the images, not to question them, to pour himself into their void. It infuses him with what Baudrillard calls "static electricity,"2 and what most others call "couch potato-ness" or

"inertia," the force that stultifies the thought processes' and motor control of screen-gazers. The screen and its play of images do, as Baudrillard suggests, offer "a hypnotic pleasure ... an ecstatic absorption or resorption of energy" (48).For this reason, we can interpret the screen as a mental prosthesis, at once cosmetic and functional that shapes our world view as surely as do eyeglasses and contact lenses. This prosthesis "may be looked upon as a drug" and can be categorized under the efforts of synthetic remodeling; the screen contributes to "a plastic surgery of perception," a process which alters not only the image at hand but the comprehension of images to come, later arrivals to the screen. The surgery so skews perception that, eventually, satellite operations like communication defeat themselves, and jeopardize societal functionalism as a whole. The push to efficiency puts at risk more substantive issues of a given culture. It is the "Hitler /Mussolini/Pinochet made the trains run on time" argument writ large foundation, today, of a good

and it destroys everything in its way. "Good communication-the society-implies the annihilation

of its own content" (49). With the content of "good

communication" goes good information, good knowledge, good relations, all aspects of a good
2Before kindergarten, I would be entranced by the magical tendency of a fresh Kleenex to remain attached to the television screen, by force of the screen's static electricity, the same force I thought responsible for making my small hand flicker in the dark when I waved it rapidly back and forth, back and forth between my face and the screen.


society forfeited in the name of corporate efficiency. If Baudrillard persists in being alarmed, it is for strong reasons. The predominance of the phrase, now (appropriately) cliche, politically expedient should give some idea of the quest for efficiency in government domains, and of the valuable components of a system lost in the process. Baudrillard asks us to note that "even the term 'society' has lost its meaning" (49) in the midst of a citizenry of screens, too concerned with the spectacle of insignificant data to fret over the price of their own efficiency, namely the increasingly conspicuous recession of "knowledge" into "information." This recession occurs because of a general desire to turn information over to machines, rather than process it in our own minds and develop knowledge. The realization that there is simply too much information stuns us into a passivity towards information and thought, and pushes us toward a belief that if we cannot process all of it, we should not process any of it. If there were a way to turn all that information into discrete units or facile images, then we could feel comfortable with it. The purpose of computers might be described as the management and storage of precisely this kind of information. Machines and reluctant learners, then, match perfectly. "By entrusting burdensome intelligence to machines, we are released from any responsibility to knowledge," (51) and the responsibility, such as it is, fades into nothing, excess trimmed by a computer more efficient than we could hope to be. Once the data is in the machine,3 we can manipulate it, play with it, watch it wrap into itself, explore its own permutations without concerning ourselves with what it signifies in the real-world. The data, already . abstracted once, can be abstracted yet again, and again, until it loses altogether its relation to reality. We can take time to project our own thoughts and musings on to the data; perhaps it is personal information, or numbers, or conversation. Idly, we let the data worry about itself, enjoying its detachment from the life-world. Gradually, we grow as intrigued with this information as we had with the image on television. The data mutates into an image, a hypnotic pattern of broken signifiers. "What such machines offer is the spectacle of thought, and in manipulating them, people devote themselves more to the spectacle of thought than to the thought itself" (51). Real thought, thought that matters and can have some active effect on life, is undercut by the idle gaze of a screen-watcher, as he begins the process (in yet another way) of replacing his living reality with a world of images and detached data. This second world mimics the first, offering signs and information that were familiar sights in reality, but now have been codified and translated into communicable, commutable forms of information. The user's (rapidly becoming a too-active noun) agency diminishes, and his "thought is put on hold indefinitely" (51). He ceases to be a true agent and, in love with his screen, devolves into Baudrillard's Virtual Man, who "makes love via the screen" (52). Having spent so much time with his screen, the Virtual Man can no longer think for himself, desire for himself, will for
31suspect all data is in some machine, somewhere. Lurking.


himself. The surgery to eradicate negativity and distinction continues imperceptibly as the mental prosthesis of the screen figuratively grafts itself to his brain and to his libido, abetting his already crippled faculties, and supporting a "species without capacity for thought" (52). Before he knows it, the once human aspects of Virtual Man dissipate into the screen, breaking apart piece by piece.
If Baudrillard errs in his assessment of virtual manhood, it is only by degree. At the

very least, the first signs of dependence on screens become manifest each time the power goes out, the cable system crashes, or a hard drive refuses to spin up. All of these temporarily leave us without information, but not without knowledge or even (in most cases) essential information, yet they each incite varying levels of tension and anxiety, an anxiety which is not eased until service resumes or the screen brightens once again with the play of images. But even with the resumption of service, perhaps we should not be so quick to rejoice. Screens, by their nature, can provide only inadequate versions of reality that tempt or lull us into believing in their connection to reality. That connection does not, for the most part, exist, even in the most material terms. When a computer or television analyzes the data fed into it, the data is already encoded in binary terms-a series of ones and zeroes that come together to form an image or word.

This differs from the way information used to be processed, namely by an analog method which, as the name suggests, through the use of waves and frequency was actually analogous to what was occurring in the real world. For Baudrillard, this difference is best captured in the comparison of the mirror (an analog form of a representation) and the screen (a digital one, generally). "We [once] lived in a world where the realm of the imaginary was governed by the mirror, by dividing one into two, by theatre, by otherness and alienation. Today, that realm is the realm of the screen, of interfaces and duplication, of contiguity and networks" (54). Film projectors (their role now having been taken over and distorted by television) cast light in analog waves which would tell communal audiences something about their world. Record players would play back music with a warmth akin to the warmth in a sepia-toned photograph. One difference between analog and digital is that the former will transmit all the information available-all the light, all the sound, even all the interference. A compact disc

of music or a laser disc version of a film have been cosmetically altered to remove those elements of reality which are discontiguous; all the ones and zeroes that do not fit have been cut away with surgical precision, even if those ones and zeroes had a real-world counterpart in sound or light. Hence, listeners complain that certain CDs lack the "mood" or "intimacy" of their vinyl version of the same album. What the CD really misses is a chunk of reality. The digital's push to break down reality does not end with the music industry. According to Baudrillard, computers break "linguistic, sexual, or cognitive acts down to their simplest elements and digitiz[e] them so that they can be resynthesized through models" (52). This process


results in a new digital model being touted as reality, but quite clearly the string of binary numbers invariably leaves out something, perhaps something intangible, but something real. The continual resynthesis of these models gradually erases the significant source of the simulation until it, too, falls into meaninglessness. Screens cannot substitute for reality any better than they can stand in for humans. They cannot truly create anything, only adapt it. By contrasts, human artists will create from their

imagination a new and unique work, representative in some mysterious way, of some part of the
life-world. Computers do not have imagination, but mere warehouses of images from which they draw a particular image which is then adapted, broken apart, and reassembled as a user watches, amazed by the apparent spectacle of thought. Baudrillard worries that this cache of images has supplanted the imagination, and has become a model for itself. If this is the case, he implies, the role of the human artist, now, is nothing more than dead image-storage. People, rather than employing their imagination, will provide only endless repetitions of the same images, ignoring the passion and excess which once made them human. Like computers, they will lack "excess functioning which contributes to the pleasure of being human" (53). By this excess functioning, Baudrillard seems to mean-literally and figuratively-sex. That no

computer or screen can enjoy sex (but only give the illusion of it) proves to Baudrillard that "all machines are celibate" (53).
If we allow that machines are, by necessity, celibate, and all they can do is operate

withfu and for themselves, we should also accept Baudrillard's' proposition that "celibacy of machine mandates celibacy of Telecomputer Man," since Telecomputer Man's "relations" or communications are only with and through his Telecomputer, which does nothing more, argues Baudrillard, than "offer him the spectacle of his own brain at work" (53). In other words, when Telecomputer Man stares at his screen, he projects whatever visions and desires he has left onto the screen, and lets the images seep into his mental screen, replacing what once was there with a computer-synthesized model. The screen in front of him exchanges data with the screen in head until both share exactly the same information. His attempts to communicate with the Others become nothing more than a communication with himself, because he sees what he writes and the responses seem generated by his screen, which is virtually grafted into his mind and sense of self. Communication with the Other reduces to communication with Self or Same. "The Other, the interlocutor, is never really involved: the screen works much like a mirror, for the screen itself as a locus of the interface is the prime concern," writes Baudrillard, noting that the mind of the user never gets beyond the screen, never really connects with that Other user. The users thoughts merely reflect off the screen and back into his mind. The notion of interaction via screens, for Baudrillard, is little more than a hollow myth, in which people have confused relating with one another with exchanging data with one's Self. As with the


predominance of the look, people's screens cease to individuate people and instead, dehumanize them. "An interactive screen transforms the process of relating into a process of communication between One and the Same" (54). In this new equation, there is no room for the Other. The One is absorbed in himself, buried in his screen. "Otherness is surreptitiously conjured away by the machine," conjured away not only because of the self-absorption or spectacle of thought, but also because being on a vast computer network forces one to abstract the millions and millions of users who sit, somewhere, staring at their own screens, staring at their own thoughts. These users cannot be converted so easily by one person into digital information: each must do it for himself. For the individual, those millions of users out there are abstracted first into one binary digit-I, or the Other-and then spirited away into the other binary digit: zero. The original

user then conceives of himself as the One, the only One, and merges with the endless stream of data which so fears silence it cannot process the only sign of silence in a binary system: a zero. We can metaphorically interpret the unceasing flow of media images and data as nothing more than an infinite series of ones pouring into the screen and brain of every user. The ones, repeated without variation to the point of meaninglessness, are only given significance by the pres~nce of that which they fear most, silent zeroes. Until a zero, a glitch in the system, a mistake, gets through, the ones are nothing more than white noise, an unsignifying, uniform, infinite presence of sound. This flow is a kind of death for the user, an entry into a world where all information is the same, where all data means nothing. Don DeLillo frames this death metaphor in his novel
White liJoise.


if death

is nothing

but sound?



You hear


forever .... Uniform, white" (DeLillo, 198). The life of the screen, as embodied in the constant flow of visual noise, is the death of the screen-watcher's humanity, because he loses the ability to discern meaning and Otherness. Following Baudrillard's line of thought on

aesthetics, if everything is Self, nothing is. All that is, is Sameness. The world which once" divided one into two" now multiplies One by One, producing the same. It is an age of duplication, not division, in which a computer network connects a person only to another version of himself, represented by his own thoughts on the screen. Gone are the days when "otherness and alienation" were problems which plagued Modern Man. Baudrillard wryly suggests that there is no need for alienation, now that only the Same exists, "Why speak to each other, when it is so simple to communicate?" (53), he asks. Communication is nothing more than the confluence of data between two screens: one on the desk, one in the head. Baudrillard maintains that this problem is so pervasive, "the interactivity of humans has been replaced by the interactivity of screens." In his first novel, Americana, DeLillo theorizes that the ideal university employing the ideal mode of communication would consist of a halfmillion students who, on the first day of classes, would be videotaped as an audience.

Elsewhere, the same day, a technician would videotape a professor's lecture. The following


day, in a room containing two televisions and two video cassette recorders, the two televisions would be made to face each other, and the two tapes would be played simultaneously, one in each VCR. The professor would have his ideal audience; the student's the ideal professor; the school, the ideal communication (DeLillo 1989). Real human problems a society based on screens-pain, violence, suffering-are ignored in favor of the spectacle of thought. Although

this may not be entirely true today, the signs are there. Media imagery forces us to abstract the pain of others to such a degree it only rarely affects us in a meaningful fashion. The difference is minor between ignoring another's pain altogether and watching it for a few minutes on television. The screen at once puts the image in front of us but keeps it an insuperable distance away. We cannot actually touch the image on our computer or television screens: we can touch only the screens. An effort to go beyond the screen, to break through it, in a physical sense, might puncture the glass but leaves us as far from the image as we ever were. Unlike a work of plastic art in a museum or a stage play in a theater, the screened image cannot be broken or interrupted. It is there, staring back at us from behind the sheer class, a prisoner in its own cell, a boy in the bubble, and we cannot reach it. Our relationship with the screened image is wholly visual. Efforts to touch the image or reify it will inevitably fail. This is hard to accept, especially when we have been lured into the belief that the image is reality. In White Noise, DeLillo discusses the unbearable distance between the observer and the screen, even when the screen displays a figure of one knows intimately, such as a spouse. A man watches his wife on television and remarks,
Was she dead, missing, disembodied? Was this her spirit, her secret self, some two-dimensional facsimile released by the power of technology~ ... A strangeness gripped me, a sense of psychic disorientation ... Her appearance on screen made me think of her as some distant figure from the past, some ex-wife and absentee mother, a walker in the mists of the dead. If she was not dead, was I? (Delillo, 104).

The narrator goes on to describe the trouble his infant son has discerning the image of Mommy from Mommy. "Wilder approached the set and touched her body, leaving a handprint on the dusty surface of the screen.... [When the TV was turned off] the small boy remained at the TV set, within inches of the dark screen, crying softly, uncertainly, in low heaves and swells" (DeLillo, 105). What DeLillo calls the "animated, but also flat, distanced, sealed-off, timeless" image, Baudrillard merely calls "virtual." The two authors refer to the same phenomenon, a unattainable, untouchable "tele-image-an image located at a very special kind of

distance which can only be described as unbridgeable by the body." (55) The distance between the spectator and the image, and the corresponding distance or "void" between the image and the screen has no parallel in reality. Though, like DeLillo's Wilder, "we draw ever closer to the surface of our screen" (Baudrillard's words), expecting to merge with it at any moment, we never do. The screen distances us. "The image is always light-years away" (55). In the days


when mirrors governed the realm of the imaginary, back when there was a realm of the imaginary, we could bridge the distance between our bodies and language, our bodies and art, our bodies and the mirror.4 The functional aspects of our life were grounded in reality. Now, finance, communication, language, sexuality, have all been abstracted, removed from us, hidden behind a screen. The screen is "at once too close and too far away: too close to be true (it lacks the dramatic intensity of the stage) and ... too far away to be false" (55). Somewhere in this void between too far and too close, between electronic screen and mental screen, there is a new kind of life-world, "a dimension that is no longer quite human" (55),in which we have given up a piece of our humanity in favor of a perceptual prosthesis, the screen. The screen is a device that masks the Other from the Self, that eradicates distinction and empathy, that distances us from the beautiful and forces us to form abstractions from the real. Its potential to enlighten, to educate, to bring together have been subverted by a populace all too willing to be efficient, but not willing enough to relate reality to one another. Perhaps people see in the screen the supposed liberty-free utopia Baudrillard attacks toward the end of his essay on "Xerox and Infinity": "Surely the success of all these technologies is a result of the way in which they make it impossible even to raise the timeless question of liberty. What a relief! Thanks to the machinery of the virtual, all your problems are over! You are neither subject or object, no longer either free or alienated-and no longer one or the other: you are the

same." (58).There is, to many, a comfort in sameness, a lack of worry. Those nagging feelings of alienation and otherness which led to the early and miserable deaths o'f so many modern artists need not afflict us in a world of screens, mainly because, according to Baudrillard, there is no alienation, and there are no artists. The screen has eliminated both, allowing us to "leave the hell of other people for the ecstasy of the same" (58). The spectacle of thought enraptures, hypnotizes us: reduces us.

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4Compare extending your finger to touch your reflection in the mirror with extending your finger to touch a duplicate image on (in) a computer screen. The former responds, reflects, is analogous to your activity in the real-world. The latter does not respond, is removed, does not seem so close. This split is also reflected in the fantasy world of art. Where once a child might leap through her mirror to discover another world, now characters (for example, in Lawnmower Man, Ghost in the Machine, and Total Recall) find alternate (virtual) reality behind their computer screens. Screen worlds, invariably, are more frightening than the land through the looking glass.



Baudrillard, Jean. The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. New York: Verso, 1993. "The Evil Demon of Images and The Precession of the Simulacra" Postmodernism: A Reader. Ed. by Thomas Docherty. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Delillo, Don. Americana. New York: Penguin, 1989. Delillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin, 1986. Kawin, Bruce. Mindscreen: Bergman, Godard, and First-Person Film. Princeton: University Press, 1978. Princeton


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