With this tremendous development of technology,
a completely new poverty has descended on mankind.
Walter Benjamin. “Experience and Poverty”

 

In the motion picture for The Jungle Book, one argument weaves the story between Mowgli and King Louie: the monkey wants to learn the secret of fire. Only the possession of the great red flower of men will give the ape absolute power over the jungle. In the 1967 film, the cartoon of a colorful and cheerful orangutan tries to trick Mowgli with the promise of fulfilling his will to remain in the jungle, in return for the coveted element. It’s the preceding dialogue to the song, which shows significant variations in the 2016 remake, in which the merry orangutan is replaced by a horrid lugubrious Gigantopithecus. Now, he doesn’t only promise the kid to fulfill his desire in return for fire but also—so he says—that he will never want for anything ever again.

 

This shift evidences a different use of the image, befitting to our contemporary times, where eagerness to portray the sharp reality—reality in HD—makes use of the horror posed by the real when it occurs (being threatened by a gigantic wild monkey). But it also evidences a variation in the scope of discourse—perhaps the most important of our species, that of the omnipotence of man—which goes from King Louie’s promise to satisfy the kid’s desires to the promise that he won’t want for anything ever again. For this, the man-cub has to give the master the power of technology: fire, which gave Homo erectus, millions of years ago, an unprecedented control over nature.

 

Unprecedented control is also offered by the cable television company promoting its new feature—the “interactive mosaic”—by means of a jolly kid that doesn’t wish to miss a thing within the so-far-possible limits of his television. Thus, he will be able to watch not one, not three, not six, but up to eight screens broadcasting every instant of his favorite sports venues. In the ad, the kid lets us on “a little secret” and says: “with this button, red like fire, you can access interactive features (…) and more.”

 

The over-saturation of images in contemporary discourses is an undeniable trait of this time. Consumption of images—in many cases, without them even getting to become imageries, which requires a minimum process of identification—is the biggest, most seemingly inexhaustible offer on the virtual shelves of the global market. Imageries—and especially imagination—have given way to the introjection of the pure image or the mere image without elaboration, which functions as a specular field, determining the place of subjects in the world (I am like that image I’m seeing). Introjection, as if those images were gulped down—without limits or bottom—by the spectators. As long as they keep watching, they will never want for anything. This reproduces nothing but clogged, self-completing subjects, bewildered by the jouissance that the endless succession of images produces in them.

 

And then we remember Benjamin’s warning about a poverty of experience, descended with the development of technology in the contemporary world.

 

On his work “Experience and Poverty” (1933), he reckons something has been lost and it has to do with the practice of passing an experience on to somebody else. «Where has it all gone? —he asks—Where do you still hear words from the dying that last, and that pass from one generation to the next like a precious ring?» He takes subjects that participated in World War I as an example and the assertion that they returned from the battlefield in silence, «not richer but poorer in communicable experience.» This poverty of experience finds two paths in Benjamin: one in which it is a product of the traumatic shock of war, and another that answers to the enormous development of technology (without them being mutually excluding since the former is deployed from the latter).

 

This poverty should not be understood to mean that people yearn for new experience—he explains. They have «devoured» everything, «both culture and people, and they have had such a surfeit that it has exhausted them.» They «long to free themselves from experience.» Therein lies the nucleus that blocks the possibility of narrating bodily events in contemporary subjects. There is something that belongs to the region of trauma, of the emptiness of sense, and which instead of being elaborated—and thus, made available for passing it on as an experiece—gets clogged, over-saturated with the experiences provided by the empire of technology. Today, almost a century later, we say to Benjamin: the empire of image.

 

For him, this «tiredness» is followed by «sleep», a dream «to make up for the sadness and discouragement» of the contemporary subject’s day. Nowadays, this sleep has been doubtlessly translated into a kind of insomnia that seeks in the image the same function as slumber: to keep subjects away from the experience of void, to keep them over-saturated with experiences that block the question that each one is meant to ask upon asserting that something is missing. This absence cannot be mistaken for the notion of need or preference or taste—demands for which the market of images and gadgets offers more than one answer—it refers to the fact of the fundamental question that gives us the consistency of split subjects: What does the Other want me for? What is this I cannot respond to?, this which I cannot see but is there?, this I keep repeating over and over every time?

 

It is appropriate as a portrait of our time for King Louie to be an enormous bulging ape in Disney’s recent adaptation of the film—grim from the weariness of wanting to have it all. While the cartoon orangutan was getting ready—according to the song—to stroll into town and out of the tiredness of monkeyin’ around, to shake off the sadness of not being able to reach further heights [1], the Gigantopithecus appears already worn, swollen and over-saturated from having reached (forty-one years later, or, if we take it from Benjamin’s work, eighty-three years later) such heights in regard to the modern orangutan. Now, he is not only after the secret of fire but wishes to never lack anything ever again.

 

Lack, besides enabling the experience of void that puts us in a position of questioned subjects, also opens the path towards desire—each one’s own desire—which is the only door that allows for making something singular with and out of the symptom. In the first adaptation, Mowgli gets to ask King Louie “what do you want me for?”, while speaking his desire to remain in the jungle. In the remake, the child seems terrified by the size and looks of the ape, and by the violence with which the latter demands of him his condition of being a subject of culture.

 

This copious descent of images not only answers to a more in terms of quantity, but also—and this condenses one of the juiciest pulps of contemporary horror—to the reality-verifying quality of the image; that is: its capacity to show it all just as it happens in real life. I remember this one time as a kid, we were returning to Caracas from a car trip and traffic slowed down because of an accident. Though they told me not to look, I couldn’t help the impulse of staring out the window as we passed by the wreck. There was a man lying on the pavement, covered by a white sheet stained with blood. The sight gave me insomnia for several months. Recalling it terrified me.

 

Over the course of this century, a couple of years ago, I logged on to Facebook to look around just before sleeping, and these two images managed to freeze me completely, to the point—like that one time—of not being able to stop staring at them: A lion-tamer is being devoured inside a cage by the raging maned beast. Even though some men come close to shoot the lion point-blank, his iron jaws do not let go of the tamer, until he eventually stops convulsing. In the end, both wind up very still. The other one (yet again our dirty linen) was the sequence of a lynching at the hands of an inflamed mob in Caracas, recorded on a cell-phone. The audio played the crowded polyphony orchestrated by horror. That night, I managed to sleep like any other day.

 

After terror—the impregnable events of the real—follows trauma; this allows the subject to search for a symptomatic solution with which to weave a story, an experience to pass on. But about these states of urgency of contemporary subjects, Miquel Bassols proposes that they live «between the endless metonymy induced by language and the experience of a body limited by death drive and its demand for immediate satisfaction. In fact, this is the time that techno-science and its gadgets impose on us. From cell-phones to the Internet: we are constantly being pushed elsewhere, we are always away from the place where our speaking body is.»[2] We go about immersed in the trauma of living, but with little or no distance to attest it. Being always away from where our speaking body is—that is, from our condition of lacking subjects—is what the insomnia of the bottomless gorging of images leads to.

 

Toward his final days, the poet Eugenio Montejo would warn that this time did not leave room for contemplation anymore. «Today’s kids, when they don’t have the fortune of going outside their villages—as he claims to have been raised, among trees, fields, and animals—must content themselves with the virtual world, in which they can only know animals through images. Ungarretti affirms in one of his notations that poetry is almost not possible anymore in our time, because contemplation isn’t possible.»[3] The ritual of contemplation, as the poet used to call it, is one of the ways of enduring the flood of images. Contemplation requires distance, momentarily renouncing the frames of meaning that determine functionality and the common usage of things; it implies opening oneself up to the experience of estrangement from the objects that rest on the shelves of our world.

 

To open a gap for reflection, to estrange oneself from the world as if being estranged from the images that fill it, to allow embossment, to allow time, to question the images, to imagine other ways of being with them and through them, to formulate politics for the image and the gaze capable of expressing and experiencing disagreement; to stare into the corners ruled as having nothing to see with the purpose of giving image to what has been excluded from the imposed frames of meaning. Such are the bets placed by Sergio Martínez Luna in a very interesting text entitled “Globalización y circulación visual: el – con – de las imágenes” [Globalization and Visual Circulation: The – With – of Images], which I came across on Facebook a few days ago and that, incidentally—though not surprisingly—spins on the very same problematic axis as this text.

 

These are, indeed, bets that manage to take us away—briefly, just for a while—from the stream of images that enchant and paralyze us. Benjamin tells us that this poverty of experience regards a new kind of barbarism. But, «what does poverty of experience do for the barbarian? It forces him to start from scratch; to make a new start; to make a little go a long way; to begin with a little and build up further.» To take distance as if renouncing, not our own time but the conformance it keeps inviting us to—the comfort that means to fill, to saturate, to conform. To renounce the abundance of images, to move towards the shaky regions of language and creation, regions that lead to the tension implied by the void, what is close to falling but is also potency exerting its force to abide. What gives way to stumble, to failure, to misstep, to the novelty that emerges from what is already known.

 

To say “no” to the Gigantopithecus, “thank you very much, but we do not wish to never want for nothing ever again.” «Beginning anew and with few resources—cleaves Benjamin—[with] men who have adopted the cause of the absolutely new and have founded it on insight and renunciation.» To discern our own lack in the images. To sift a silhouette through the turmoil, to unfold from the frame another element, to keep from burning in the fire of our own technology.

 


 

Notes:

[1] Taken from the following extract from the lyrics: «Now I’m the king of the swingers, ohh / the jungle VIP / I’ve reached the top and had to stop / and that’s what’s bothering me / I wanna be a man, mancub / and stroll right into town / and be just like the other men / I’m tired of monkeyin’ around!»

[2] Translator’s free translation.

[3] Translator’s free translation.

 

References:

Bassols, Miquel (2016) El cuerpo hablante y sus estados de urgencia. In Virtualia. #32 July-August. Argentina. Retrieved from http://virtualia.eol.org.ar/032/PDF/El-cuerpo-hablante-y-sus-estados-de-urgencia.pdf

Benjamin, Walter (1989) “Experiencia y pobreza”. Discursos interrumpidos I. Filosofía del arte y de la historia. Prólogo, traducción y notas de Jesús Aguirre. Taurus. Argentina. [English translation retrieved from https://es.scribd.com/doc/83378640/Benjamin-Walter-Experience-and-Poverty]

Gutiérrez, María Alejandra (2002) El diálogo con el enigma de Eugenio Montejo. In Literaturas: Revista Literaria Independiente de los Nuevos Tiempos. Spain. Retrieved from http://www.literaturas.com/emontejolc.htm

Martínez Luna, Sergio (2017) Globalización y circulación visual: el –con– de las imágenes. In Campo de relámpagos. Crítica, análisis y cultura visual del presente. Spain. Retrieved from http://campoderelampagos.org/critica-y-reviews/6/1/2017

 


 

About the author:

Jordi Santiago Flores (Caracas, Venezuela) is a researcher at the Center for Critical and Sociocultural Research of the Universidad Simón Bolívar (CICSC-USB). He is a professor at the School of Arts of the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV). He is currently writing his doctoral thesis in the line of Psychoanalysis and Social Sciences of the UCV’s Social Sciences Ph.D. program. His fields of interest orbit psychoanalysis, art, and politics. He is an Associate of the New Lacanian School at Caracas.

 

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