Monday, June 09, 2003

One Hundred Views of Clement Street

The Elizabethans loved finery and display, but their world, like that of practically all human beings for most of history, was very poor in images. Aside from public religious art and a few paintings in the homes of the rich or at court, the only representative art a Londoner regularly encountered were a few black and white figures in books and the crude woodcuts used to decorate humble walls. Artists were scarce, the choice of media limited, and means of reproduction rudimentary. Even the subject matter of pictures was constrained by tradition to a small number of types. The contrast with our experience is stark. We are absolutely awash in images: drawings, paintings, cartoons, prints, movies, videos, photographs, micrographs, charts, clip art, computer displays, even iconic road signs and identification badges. A large proportion of the surfaces of things now bear the likeness of something. The cumulative effect can be overwhelming or at least wearying, but under the circumstances, you’d think we at least know what the world looks like.

It was once a commonplace of Freudian dream analysis that the multiplication of phalluses or phallic symbols such as digits or swords actually figured castration, the lack of even one phallus. Art historians refer to something similar under the rubric of horror vacui. The same logic obtains in the original Matrix movie in which the spectral unreality of the projected world is made clear by the gratuitous multiplication of images–remember the scene where the hero asks for weapons and gets a universe of Uzis that noisily materialize in infinite parallel racks? The effect was subsequently plagiarized in a TV ad for an Internet company that sells cars; and, for that matter, was anticipated in Eastern art where infinite arrays of identical selfless Buddhas are regularly depicted appearing in a golden sky. If we have expanded on these motifs and now fill our entire lives with representations, part of the reason is surely the simple fact that we have the technical means to do so; but the ubiquity of picturing, a sort of objective neurosis of the age, also obsessively stages the inescapable fact that the world remains essentially invisible.

Were there absolutely no light in the Platonic Cave, we would not even be aware of the darkness. What disturbs complacency is not the impossibility of knowing but the implications of what we know and can’t doubt in good faith. Authentic but indirect knowledge allows us to gauge our massive, constitutive ignorance. I’ve lived in these parts for almost a quarter of a century, for example, but I have only recently admitted that I don’t know what Clement Street looks like. I have acquired this insight through a thought experiment. Let there be hundred representations of Clement Street, but let them be truly representative for once, which is to say, let them be random perspectives that reflect the objective reality of Clement Street rather than the customary iconography. A photographer would probably pick a vantage point from which the interesting features of the scene could be observed, but that choice imposes a human principle of selection and drastically reduces the possible images. For our purposes, the view from underneath a dead pigeon or looking straight down from a light post must have equal rights. Indeed, since the nearly universal practice of holding the camera level is also hugely arbitrary, we also have to expect images shot at every angle. Pictures should be made at every focus, at every magnification, at every shutter speed, and with film sensitive to every possible set of frequencies. Like a bee, we should see the street in the ultraviolet. Like a sniper, we should see it in the infrared. It should appear as an X-ray, a spectrogram; and, atom-by-atom, as an image formed by scanning tunneling microscopy—and that’s just to consider mechanical forms of representation. The complete set of views of Clement Street would also include paintings and models produced not only in every known style of art from cave painting to Peter Max but in every possible style of art and executed with every degree of virtuosity at every scale from the microminiature to the monumental, including full-scale duplications of the street made out of everything from bricks and wood to play dough or cottage cheese. Baring miraculous chance, none of the hundred representations selected at random from this thinkable but unimaginable ensemble would look like anything at all we could recognize or interpret but they would be views of Clement Street for all that and representive of what the world looks like in general.