What happens when we get subsumed within the ‘world of images’? What kind of a fate is this? What sort of psychological processes take hold of us at this point? These are all highly pertinent questions that we in our immensely superficial society completely fail to ask and this abject failure – it may be said – is to our very great detriment since the consequences of being thus subsumed are dire to say the least…
We live in a world of images – images have become our ‘stock in trade’, so to speak. They are the currency upon which modern life is based. As a culture, we excel in the production of images and as a result of this unhealthy proficiency we have created a world that is all about the images, a world that is made up entirely of images. As Jean Baudrillard says, it’s not so much that ‘the image has replaced the original’ but that there is no original anymore and the image now copies itself, reproduces itself, multiplies itself, feeds off itself, with complete license. It has become an entity in itself. If we knew an image to be an image that would be one thing but when we don’t that is another entirely. This, Baudrillard suggests in Simulacra and Simulation, gives rise to a particular type of pathology:
The media represents world that is more real than reality that we can experience. People lose the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. They also begin to engage with the fantasy without realizing what it really is.
They seek happiness and fulfilment through the simulacra of reality, e.g. media and avoid the contact/interaction with the real world.
We orient ourselves towards the image – we use it as a yardstick to measure ourselves against. We determine our own reality by referring to the image. Not only do we dress to approximate the image (so that the closer we come to looking like the media-promoted image the more valid our existence in the world becomes) we do the same in all the other aspects of our lives as well. Naturally we do – everything about us has to be validated by some kind of external standard or other. How would we dare to be just what we are, without reference some kind of precedent, when this is what the whole world is doing? In a logically constructed system (which a consensus reality always has to be since we can’t agree on anything unless it’s standardized) everything has to be officially sanctioned before it can exist. In the consensus world we all live in, to not conform to a template is not to exist.
In a world where everything is an image, images do not of course seem to be ‘images’ but rather as the very embodiment of some essential aspect of reality – the image becomes the very object of desire. We both desire the image and want to be desired or accepted as one. Because we value only the image, only the definite representation, it is inevitable that everything will devolve to the level of the image, the level of the superficial representation. ‘As far as today’s politics is concerned, most art aspires to the condition of Muzak’, Robert Hughes says. As far as our present day cosmopolitan culture is concerned, absolutely everything aspires to the level of the image, the level of what can be said with a finite number of standardized pixels (or characters). Images are not art – they can’t be art because they have no depth, because there is nothing about them that is not immediately stated, immediately presented. Superficiality is everything in the world of images: the way we relate to images has to be superficial because the images themselves are! The thing about an image – as everyone knows – is that we yearn to obtain it, strive and compete to obtain it, and then pass quickly onto the next image because there’s actually nothing in it once we have successfully acquired it. The chase is better than the catch, as they say. Another way of putting this is to say that images are all for show, not for actual consumption. Everything is on the outside and nothing is on the inside. When we buy into the world of images – Baudrillard’s hyperreality – this is the only sort of life we’re going to be getting – we’re getting the sort of life where everything is on the outside (the problem with this being that ‘the outside’ is an abstraction and doesn’t on this account actually exist).
In this exteriorized (or ‘abstracted’) realm there is always a lot of activity but never any ‘resting’, never any peace, never any actual appreciation of what we have worked so hard to obtain. Genuine appreciation cannot exist because there is no inside and therefore nothing there to appreciate. In this realm everything is about the idea of things rather than the things themselves – everything is about what the thing, the image means to us. As John Berger says, images possess ‘glamour’. Glamour that has to do with envy – an image is glamorous because of the way it seems to represent what we want, what we so much wish we had. It shines with the light of our own desire, in other words. An image has glamour because it is precisely what we don’t have and wish very much that we did have.
So to be subsumed in the world of images is to be swallowed up in a world that is made up of ‘glamorous external surfaces’ which we are constantly being magnetized by. The entire world seems to exist in the form of external surfaces and the corollary of this – as we have said – is that there is nothing on the inside. Everything has been turned inside out, everything has been inverted. It is because there is nothing on the inside that images have such a capacity to exert a hold on us, the capacity to appear so very attractive, so very glamorous to us. The glamour we are constantly perceiving and reacting to (when we have been subsumed within the world of images) is really our own lack of interiority reflected back at us in an inverted or ‘reversed’ fashion. A lack of interiority is simply pain, nothing else, but because we are in denial of this pain it appears somewhere else, in a guise that is unrecognizable to us. This is after all what always happens when we deny pain – it pops up somewhere else, as an apparently unrelated phenomenon…
The pain of having no inside gets turned into the deceptive promise of everything we’ve ever wanted, tantalizingly offered to us by the latest ‘hot’ image. Once acquired however – as we have already pointed out – the glamour immediately fades and appears somewhere else, attached to a new image somewhere out there just beyond our reach. And so it continues for us, over and over again, for as long as we wish to keep at it – which could be for a very long time indeed! Naturally we’re never going to catch hold of what the glamour is promising us and have it for our very own – the glamour we are so enchanted with is after all just a transfiguration of our own hollowness! It isn’t a thing in itself that we can lay our hands on – despite the fact that we insist on seeing it as such – it is simply ‘the absence of interiority’ seen in an exteriorized and inverted form. We want very much to acquire what the glamour is promising us – we want to own it, we want to possess it forever – and yet the joke is on us because what we’re really chasing after is only a projection of our own need, our own unbearable yearning to have ‘something on the inside’ when we don’t.
What we are really doing when we have been subsumed within the world of images and are as a result preoccupied with chasing after attractive images on a full-time basis is that we are chasing after a missing inside that we are deludedly seeing as ‘existing on the outside’. Because we’re never going to find our absent interiority on the outside, in the world of appearances, in the world of superficial exteriorities, we are going to be chasing forever. This is an Eveready Battery that never runs out; this is the legendary ‘perpetual motion machine’ that crackpot inventors keep trying to invent. Our ‘fate’ in the world of images is therefore that we have to keep on straining to attain something that is impossible for us to ever attain. This is the curse that we are afflicted with. We are compelled to keep on trying to figure out how to fix a problem that just can’t be fixed – a problem that can’t ever be fixed because it isn’t a real problem. Our interiority can’t be found in the world of external appearances because interiority isn’t an external appearance. We’re forever searching in the wrong place. What’s more, we are not ever able to perceive our interiority where it actually does belong precisely because we are always looking for it where it isn’t. The ‘illusory problem’ – despite the fact that it is entirely illusory – has the knack of perpetuating itself forever, therefore.
When we get subsumed within the world of images we get turned into an image too. This is our ‘fate’ in a nutshell – we become an image just like all the other images that we are relating to on a full-time basis, just like all the images we are either trying our best to acquire or run away from. In the world of images I am an image wanting to be real. As an image (who does not know himself or herself to be an image) this is my core motivation. This is the motivation that drives all my ceaseless problem-solving activities. Because I don’t know myself to be ‘only an image’ (i.e. a superficial representation of who I really am) I understand myself to be legitimately striving after some independent ‘value’ in the outside world. I also understand the outside world to be the only world there is. If you were to tell me right to my face in clear and uncertain terms that in reality the reason for my constant searching and striving is that I am trying to fix my own lack of interiority by chasing after shadows in the outside world I wouldn’t understand what you were saying. Even if you repeated it over and over again, with great patience and clarity, I still wouldn’t get it. It simply wouldn’t make any sense to me, precisely because the outside world is the only world I know.
Of all possible fates, this has got to be the worst. I have become a mere ‘image in a world of images’. I am an image trying not to be an image; I am concept trying to be real. I don’t know this to be the case – I image myself to be trying to fulfil some other kind of need (not the need of an image trying to prove that it is real; not the need of an arbitrary construct trying to prove that it is not an arbitrary construct). That is what I am really trying to do however – I am trying to do a thing that can’t be done. This being the case it ought to go without saying that any gains that I make on the theatrical level are always going to prove unsatisfactory to me. The world of images is both the realm of desire and the desire of ultimate frustration, therefore. I am implanted with a fundamental need that I can never fulfill, a fear I can never run away from.
In the image world it is our constant yearning (our never-ending striving) that keeps us trapped. Our constant seeking, our constant controlling, our constant goal-orientated activity is what ensures that we will never be able to escape. The one thing we cannot tolerate when we have been subsumed within the world of images is stillness – stillness very quickly becomes unbearable for us because when we’re still we can’t help noticing the painful truth of our situation. We can’t help noticing the hollowness of the world that we’re caught up in, which is the only world we know. ‘Staying still’ just isn’t an option, therefore. When we stay still then we start to be actually present and when we’re present with the exteriorized world we discover that it is entirely vacant. We discover that we are entirely vacant at the same time, and so all-in-all this represents an extraordinarily difficult awareness for us to come to terms with, therefore! The thing that matters most to us in the entire world is revealed as being completely hollow, and all the multitudinous activities that proceed on the basis of this ‘self’ are simultaneously revealed as irredeemably sterile. The activities of the imaginary self are its denial of its true nature, after all. The ceaseless activities of the ‘imaginary self’ are both the denial of the thing that we fear discovering the most, and at the same time they are the very thing that creates this situation (which is the situation that we are so afraid of finding out about)! This is what samsara is all about: the running creates the thing we are running away from, in other words. Or as we could also say, the image is both the problem and the apparent solution to the problem, and this is the mechanism that keeps the wheel turning.