Mediamatic Magazine vol 5#3 Richard Wright 1 Jan 1990


Science as voyeurism

The most powerful metaphor for the modern scientist of Foucaults 'vivisecting gaze’ must surely be the portrayal of the murderous photographer Mark Lewis in Powell and Pressburgers classic i960 movie Peeping Tom. In a recent season of the film-makers work on British television, Peeping Tom received added hype due to the outrage it provoked when first released. Its unremitting depiction of the sadistic but pathetic voyeur figure virtually ended Michael Powell's career but is now praised by leading directors as a major influence on the cinematic language which was partly its alluded subject.


Videognosis -

In the story a young man seeks to continue his psychologist father's work of painstakingly recording on film his patients every action and expression. Flis own investigations concentrate on an analysis of human behaviour in moments of extreme fear. An obsessive desire for realistic documentation causes him to equip his 16mm camera with a lethal spike with which he can impale his experimental subjects as he advances towards them, camera running. Every time we see Lewis uncover this instrument from under a raincoat or jacket we prepare for this form of surveillance which inevitably results in death, which demands the death of the subject in order to ensure the perfect study of human emotion in its purest state. This camera becomes a surgeon of appearance, attempting to cut away beneath the layer of everyday posturing to some underlying motivating force, in this case that of fear - the emotion that allows Lewis to inflict on others the same intrusive terror that was inflicted on him as a boy by the camera of his over zealous father. The camera is both cause and effect in this experiment, as in the professional work of Powell and Pressburger, the cinema attempts to provoke naturalism from its subjects or actors by the contrived orchestration and scripting of actions. These scenes are then captured and frozen to be analysed and dissected at leisure in the comfort of the viewing theatre as though it were a laboratory of the real. For the Peeping Tom, the living specimen is 'dissected' both on celluloid and in real life. As Lewis closes in on his prey he craves more and more accurate detail of his subjects reaction, and simultaneously hastens the moment of that subjects death as it reaches its ultimate expression of the human nature that he seeks to record.


There are an almost limitless number of provocative interpretations that can be drawn from Powell and Pressburgers archetypical theme - surveillance and terrorism, the camera as male projection and sexualpredator, Lewis's panic when the girl turns the camera on him and makes him the subject of his own desperation, the relation of the cinema viewer with the voyeurism of film going, etc, etc. But perhaps many of these issues orbit around a central concern of the role of the eye as the primary vehicle of awareness and knowing.

The power of vision is now the ideal model for the acquisition of knowledge. The previous limitations of the human eye can be overcome by the many cameras and electronic imaging devices available. By these prostheses the eye has unlimited space in which to probe and conquer its world. To be able to 'see' what is happening in a given situation is the greatest expression of power over that event. To be able to direcdy see the chemicals reacting in a test-tube - the individual molecules one by one - would seem to render all the usual abstract deductions and scientific inferences obsolete. Now the smallest particles of matter can be examined for their structure and properties under microscope or bubble chamber, while the most distant star clusters are observed and charted as they travel across our field of view, nothing escapes our technophilic gaze. Temporal dimensions can be split up, seconds into fractions of seconds, moments can be sliced razor thin and extracted from the flow of events by high-speed photography, and seasons condensed into seconds by time-lapse filming. New forms of 'non- visible’ light are detected and captured, the infrared from plant activity, the ultraviolet from the suns rays. From scientists monitoring the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope to a naturalist enticing a badger out of his set and into the glare of the film lights. The hidden realms of reality are given no respite until they have been compelled to become images.

The latest spaces to become amenable to sight are the conceptual spaces of rational thought, the logical structures of the computer that are revealed by electronic graphics - illuminated, visualised and transformed. What has emerged from this exploration are exotic patterns of light and colour, objects enticed out of the attic of the mathematicians brain and shown to be visually dazzling in their forms, not at all like the dry, boring old formulae of classroom lectures and textbooks. The kings of this new class or geometrical arabesques are the fractals and iterative functions of Dynamic Systems and Chaos theory - electronic images usually plotted point by point from a simple mathematical procedure or algorithm that tirelessly repeats the same calculation until the whole picture is finished. Because they can be generated at arbitrary levels of detail and the range of forms they can take is theoretically as large as the largest range of numbers you can conceive of.

The electronic visualisation of these and scientific data in general has reached epidemic proportions, with the American National Science Foundation stating that a computer graphics workstation is required by every scientist and engineer working today. Its advantages are continually being sold to the scientific community. The formalism of the computer allow digital models and data to be easily manipulated, transformed and revisualised until an acceptable result is achieved. Abstract conjectures can be eternalized into concrete form to be better apprehended, communicated and discussed. To increase a scientists conceptual grasp of a subject, images have to be forthcoming - the visible validities the real, creates the real, in a digestible, ready- to-wear format.

As might be anticipated, such is the beguilement of these images, especially ones which come from the esoteric world of mathematical certainties, fractals and chaotic functions have seeped out of the research labs and into the outside world (where, presumably, they were all along, only we did not then have the means to see them). Several style magazines have recently proclaimed that 'Chaos Culture’ has arrived, the totemic fractal - fractal tee-shirts, comics, pop videos, art, fractal consciousness. And a familiar chorus of mystic interpretations and meanings have blossomed to fully absorb them into the cultural melting-pot.

For some, exploring the patterns of chaotic functions make science accessible, puts it back into the hands of the 'ordinary people'. The ability to make a colourful picture of paisly motifs and Catherine wheels means that this voyeuristic scientific knowledge is just a home microcomputer away. The intense rippling effects of selective colouring schemes remind some of drug-induced hallucinations - 'cyberdelia'. For others the experience of ‘zooming in’ on a Mandelbrot Set fractal, endlessly slipping down spirals and dragon curves, is a powerful metaphor for the infinite. Unlike the photographer in Peeping Tom who was forever doomed to destroy his subject just as he got nearest to exposing it, the fractal object freely opens up to the quizzical gaze of the viewer. For as closely as you can look into the depth of an algorithmic image the computer can always answer by generating more detail for the eye to wallow in. When animated they appear as a bottomless kaleidoscope of colour, having no underlying substance or base, no elemental components beyond which the eye cannot penetrate, reality as pure process, the metaphysics of the void, a continual orgy for the insatiable hunger of the eye, a portrait of infinity.


But every portrait has an artist, and a model, and in computer graphics the model always exist in a conveniently cut-and-dried form as the computer program that creates the image in the first place. For many people, the power of computational mathematics to generate chaotic data is an indication of the new understanding of disorderly phenomena. It suggests that all kinds of random events have an orderly basis, that simple rules can produce the complex patterns of creation which beforehand could only be ascribed to the ultimate authority of a Godhead. This time the true reality, operating behind the bewildering procession of life's unfathomables in the great algorithmic Rule. Is this what people see when they peer at the flickering dots on their VDU screens? The most straightforward answer is that the algorithmic image expresses the logical structure that created it, be it the equations of a fractal tree, an air turbulence simulation, a galactic star cluster or the dynamics of an elasticated jelly mould. It can be simplistically convenient to identify some natural phenomenon with a mathematical equivalent and make this algorit hmic base take on the role of the object of the images referential function.
The mythology of signification survives by reformulating itself in purely technical terms. A direct relationship between a given image and the process that computed it is suggested by the logical determinism of digital media, allowing the binary categories of signifier and signified to be reapplied in this formal context. The algorithm takes the place of the referent or first cause, existing behind the image in logical space. In true positivist fashion, the image uniquely represents the algorithm which embodies the object to be depicted in precise mathematical notation.
However, now that we have achieved the supposedly ideal, systematic, representational practice, we discover that the powerful formalism of the computer conspire to divert the flow of signification from image to object in a million different directions. The essentially meaningless sequence of logical operations that define a computer algorithm make it infinitely mutable without the slightest regard for the external world, and completely undermine it coherence as a referent. All that is left is the computers ability to mimic the behaviour of a given situation, able to maximise its effectiveness by its contingency but losing its truth value in the process. The same image can be generated by an arbitrary number of different algorithms, such is the scope allowed by computational modeling. And this superfecundity of the computer can create an infinite range of visualisations of the same data and code, none of them privileged above the rest, each chosen for the appropriateness of the information they contribute to the project at hand. The hierarchical status between image and algorithm collapses and becomes interchangeable. The algorithm could represent the image as much as the image represents the algorithm. In this way the computer is used merely to simulate the structure of representational practices for the convenience of traditional interpretation.
For each electronic image the parent algorithm is both determined, arbitrary and unprivileged (one of many possible origins) and also non-realistic - its conceptual basis lost beneath layers of approximation, re-representation and 'techniques'. The principle of knowledge demands that the algorithm provide an accurate reflection of the object portrayed. The logics of digital encoding take on the awesome burden of scientific exactness as they are required to embody abstractions expressed in the rules of rational and symbolic relations. The problem is not always that scientific knowledge is unable to supply a mathematical model for a particular phenomenon. Often the problem is that such phenomena have been reduced to a few basic 'laws’ out of some conceptual necessity and were never designed to be taken so literally that someone try to reconstruct the macroscopic object from them. To precisely model the natural lighting needed to create a picture of a simple scene would mean accounting for the light interaction between the infinitesimal surface points on every object with every other. The computational stress is so great in building complex behaviour from first principles that numerous approximations and assumptions are made to bring the task to tractable proportions. And of course they may be many equally valid ways to do this, the final method bearing little resemblance to the original theory.

Effects of deterministic alienation occur as recognisable phenomena emerge from a jumble of interconnected processes and exchange of information, the causation of each exterior sign submerged beneath the hum of racing data paths. This mass of tangled signals effectively shields the researcher from any lucid explanation of how the system functions, only that it functions. Its rational coordinations are so complex that its working cannot be 'understood' or ‘analysed’, only trained and coerced, like a new puppy dog, until suitable parameters are found which produce the desired results.

The only approach to computational knowledge is to accept an epistemological economy of the sign to accept the prohibitive economics of realism and bow to the inscrutable dynamics that result in numerical imaging. Representation is superseded by visualisation, the ability to create that which is visible, to simulate the physical model and avoid the computer collapsing under the full weight of abstract ontologies. Severed from their theoretical substructure, algorithmic entities simulate their own conceptual identities, their own referents. The computer grants them their own lives to function as stand-ins for absent realities. The interactive images these generate are super animated. simulating their own being in digital space.

For the cameraman in Peeping Tom, the only way to elicit the purest manifestation of human fear was to confront his victims with their own fear of impending death by placing a small mirror above the lens of the camera which reflected their contorted faces. This fear of fear brought Lewis the closest he could get to a study of human emotion stripped bare, but excluded its fundamental cause, its raison d’etre. The camera's menacing intrusion provokes the emotions it seeks to explain. That horrified reaction is reflected back and forth in its mirror and amplified until becomes a degree removed, and its victim plays the role of witness to an emotion that is no longer their own.

If the computer could represent fear then it would also be as pure surface quality, a simulation without substance, the result of a convoluted play of signs and relations. If the only way we can apprehend the digital world is through images reflected by visualisation techniques it becomes pointless to talk of what that inaccessible world is actually like. The ceaseless flow of visualisations of phenomena that the scientist receives is reflecting and amplifying his/her grasp of an object that is no longer there. Only its after-effects, the appearance of it behaviour is left, enough to confirm is functioning but never to reveal its innermost workings, its causality. Not just symbolically, but in a very concrete sense, the computer allows us to see everything and to comprehend nothing, to explore reality so thoroughly that it kills truth forever.