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Over the ruins of Google Earth

July 16, 2012

Some previous posts discussed the notion of removal from representation, a desire that in some ways stands in contrast with what in political theory is often described as the initial step towards the political and the construction of the subject (this notion in a way points to a possible fissure between media theory and critical theory, which required further investigation). While the former involves a constant obsession with producing the conditions of representation, or utterance, making the silent subject speak and the not visible subject seen, the latter is more concerned with how the position behind the lens is left invisible. Curiously, humanitarian advocacy groups send containerfuls of cameras and recording devices to the oppressed so they themselves can look at themselves as anthropological subjects and to capture, recapture and constantly distribute their subalternated position. However as many indigenous journalists’ footage suggest, the human behind the lens tends to remove oneself from the rubble, the slum, the refugee camp. After all who wants to picture him/herself getting urinated on, forcefully stripped in humiliating positions, getting raped, etc? In a site of a totalizing destruction, like what we are witnessing in Syria, how many more women, children and civilians need to show themselves wandering on their own rubble and does this kind of representation empower the represented subject and turns it into a political one? It seems like there is a constant desire to see more of the same, to categorize, tag, analyze and archive the total annihilation of a group of people, to see how subjects continue their existence after their homeland has turned into a desert of man-made rubble after being bombed on for a decade, what kind of human is being created under such conditions? We need to see, and we need to give them cell phones so they can document their own decay and eradication.

Jon Rafman, “You, the World and I”, 2011, screen shot from website

But nevertheless, the question is to what extent is removal and hiding from representation possible, in the face of surveillance cameras at every corner of cities (there are even talks of having them installed in public restrooms), Google Earth , and ever rolling cell phones and digital recording devices, constantly generating footage of all animate and inanimate subjects. The position of power after all is not one that constantly defies representation, but rather one that defines its own condition of representation, as previously discussed. This is partially similar with Foucault’s argument in What is Critique, where he notes that critique is questioning, and redefining one’s own condition of governability; “I don’t want to be governed like that.” In addition does there exist an ethics of caring under surveillance?

Jon Rafman, "You, the World and I", 2011, screen shot from website

Jon Rafman, “You, the World and I”, 2011, screen shot from website

In a roundabout way, Jon Rafman’s You, the World and I, hints at such notion of care. The piece, deliberately inhabits a partially melodramatic space in tone and in its soundtrack, veering to irony, counterbalanced by the use of digital footage that implies a from of distance implicated within surveillance footage. The narrator, who you might thing might burst into tears any second, tells the tale of a lost romance, a lover who left him without leaving any trace. In addition, she never let anyone photograph her as she believed that a “picture could steal your soul, or something like that,” and therefore, the narrator sets to find an image of her, so he can keep her alive in his imagination, and to find a record of their time together, “proof of our love,” he says. Over footage of Egyptian pyramids and Mayan geoglyphs, Stonehenge, etc, the narrator recounts their travels together, and mentions that there is not a single photograph of her, before saying that but that is not “entirely true.” He recounts that while staying in a hotel in the coast of Italy, a Google truck went by, and he sets out to find the picture of her on Google Earth. He eventually finds the photograph, nude, like a classical Greek marble, looking into the ocean from the shore. In his mind, the image starts to animate her image in all places that they have been together, and he starts obsessively browsing all the streets that they have walked through on Google Earth, and when finally he goes back to the shore of Italy, the image is gone. Nevertheless, it was a surveillance image, that for the narrator did what an old photograph of his mother did for Roland Barthes, a digital having been there, “a new space-time category: spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then.” A Google Earth native, at some point might be able to recover one’s past through the ruins of Google Earth. (TBC)

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