Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Germain, Baudrillard and Virilio on technology

I recently came across a wonderful essay by Gilbert Germain — in a book entitled Globalisation, technology and philosophy — on “the human condition in the age of technology”, where he takes a serious look at the reflections of Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio on contemporary technology.

What immediately caught my eye is the striking manner in which Germain phrases their assessment of technology: “Baudrillard and Virilio concur that the story of technology is the story of humanity’s decreasing dependence on the earth, and that this growing autonomy from the ‘real world’ amounts to a kind of self-alienation as well. Despite differences in both approach and tone, their analyses corroborate the view that our drifting from the earth challenges a number of key assumptions regarding what it means to be human”.

Condensing it brutally, these French thinkers’ works indicates that the attempt to “escape from the earth” proceeds along two trajectories: a technological surpassing of the natural spatio-temporal limits of the earth through the construction of a separate (but corresponding) virtual reality or cyberspace, and an increasing integration of human beings with their (natural as well as technologically created) environment by way of what is known as “smart” technologies.

Regarding the first axis of development, Germain points out it is less relevant to ask about the efficacy of communications via cyberspace — to be able to cope in today’s world one has to resort to it — than whether it is “suitable” for embodied beings such as humans — whether it perhaps affects human experience adversely in some way.

Turning to Baudrillard’s notion of the “obscene” as a description of the transformed state of the contemporary visual realm, Germain explains this in terms of the “mania for transparency and total illumination” evident in televisual imagery (think of the way Bluray discs and plasma television are promoted as providing clearer images than their respective predecessors). According to Baudrillard, this comes at the cost of a kind of “distance” that the human body cannot bridge in contrast to one’s ability to cross distances separating one from things in everyday spatial reality, as both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty have demonstrated.

Following these thinkers, Baudrillard suggests that the “charm” of the real world lies precisely in the fact that the chasm between perceiver and perceived in human reality “separates” as well as “conjoins” them: real objects in space “seduce” us because they resist being fully accessible to the eye — they have to approached, circled, scrutinized and respected as possessing their own not-fully-transparent being (what Heidegger called “earth”). Unlike the objects of real perception, however, virtual imagery is not “incomplete” but shows everything that there is to see. As Germain remarks, if the odd virtual object exudes an air of mystery, it has been programmed to do so — it does not come with being an object in cyberspace, the way it accompanies all real objects as a possibility. Hence for Baudrillard virtual objects like pornography, “reveal too much”, which is why they appear hyperreal (more real than real). If anyone does not understand this, let them look at World of War cyberscapes – the penny is sure to drop. “And”, says Germain, “like pornography, this surfeit of visibility captures and fascinates the eye”.

Paul Virilio concurs with Baudrillard as far as this is concerned, for instance where he alludes approvingly to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological analysis of lived space with its characteristic mutual implication of seer and seen and the implication that the former is able to cross the gap separating her or him from the latter.

So where does technology come in? For Virilio what he calls “distance technologies” work against this “natural” human spatial situatedness, as shown in his discussion of the experiences of astronauts who actually stepped on to the surface of the moon, which demonstrates that human perception is a strictly earthly perception. From Germain’s account of Virilio’s interpretation of the astronauts’ experience on the moon, it appears that what the latter encountered there was “an altogether different reality”, which hinged crucially on the kind (that is, the “quality”) of light found on the moon.

Virilio gathered this from Buzz Aldrin’s observation, that lunar light was “weird”, something he ascribed to solar light being unrefracted by an atmosphere, as it is on earth, and therefore striking the moon’s surface somewhat like the rays from a very powerful spotlight. Not only was this especially noticeable when moving something from shadow into the sun’s light on the moon — which Aldrin likened to entering “another dimension”, but the distinctively different quality of the light there also affected the astronauts’ capacity for judging gradients and distances on the moon’s surface. Hence there was a marked contrast between the ease with which their bodies adjusted to the much lower (than on earth) lunar gravity and the difficulty they had adapting their vision to lunar light conditions.

It is not difficult to see why Virilio infers from this that human vision is not something that functions equally well regardless of place but that it is context-dependent. From Aldrin’s account of his lunar experience it appears that vision, when displaced from its originary earthly circumstances of development renders a completely different visual reality and Germain suggests that the sudden change from shadow to disconcerting light without the mitigating effect of penumbras (the way it happens on earth) may be described as the experience of a “binary” or “digital” reality.

Small wonder that given the astronauts’ account Virilio regards lunar reality as “a three-dimensional analogue of cyberspace”. For him being exposed to the sun’s light on the moon is similar to the way objects are exposed to unrefracted light in the “glow” of cyberspace, accessible through computer screens, and he compares us, in front of our computers, to astronauts. Both Baudrillard and Virilio therefore regard contemporary technology as contributing to the construction of an un-earthly and therefore in-human reality.