Friday, March 26, 2010

Assignment #2: In a Room Without Windows, We Are Not Alone

To Thomas Keenan, a window is a breach in the wall between the public and private spheres through which “light” and the “gaze” of the “other” enter. While light allows one to see and discern, forming a sense of self by differentiating oneself from what one is not, too much light is blinding and causes one to lose one’s position. Humans have a psychological need to have a visual connection to the world, but electronic orifices are increasingly replacing actual architectural windows. Television acts as a “window to the world”, but also “opens onto a false day,” no longer showing the actual outside world, but a representation. While the televised media can create a false image of the world and implant it into every home, this is nothing compared to the possibilities opened by the implementation of the CAVE. As Keenan states, the window “has been “shattered” by our ability to enter a “virtual place,” (130). Just as the “public” is not an external space, but rather something found in the subject, the question is no longer one of observation versus hyperreal representation, but one of representation versus illusory immersion.

“What if the opening of the aperture that allows sight were to become uncontrollable, the regulated light that makes
seeing possible were to overexpose the interior- which it opens- to the exterior against which it defines itself?” (124). As his title Windows: of vulnerability suggests, Keenan is directly concerned with the “violence” of light and the imposition of the other onto the subject. This is particularly apparent in his juxtaposition of the etymology of the word “vulnerable” with the definition of the word “Window”. “Vulnerable…from Latin…vulnus, wound…. Window… an opening in a wall or a side of a building… ‘The wounds that we quietly suffer to pierce our breasts, would open you Windows to our hearts,’” (125). In Keenan’s view, windows are literal holes in the armor one builds to create a sense of self. Furthermore, the distinction between public and private is somewhat misleading as, “the public is “in” me, but it is all that is not me in me, not reducible to or containable within “me”, all that tears me from myself, opens me to the ways I differ from myself and exposes me to that alterity in others,” (133). As Keenan states, “the “public sphere” cannot simply be a street or square… some other place out into which I go to “intervene” or “act”,” because it is something that each individual carries inside, (133). It is something other than human. It is the mirror against which one constantly checks oneself and reaffirms one’s existence.

When the light of the other becomes overwhelming, as in the case of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, this delicate balance of distinction begins to crumble, and the subject shifts under the gaze’s weight. “The more light, the less sight, and the less there is in the interior that allows “man” to find comfort and protection, to find a ground from which to look,” (127). Keenan himself admits that, “the subject’s variable status as public or private individual is defined by its position relative to the window,” (132). When one is behind the window, one is the observer, “seeing, theorizing”, but when one is in front of the window, “the subject assumes public rights and responsibilities,” (132). In the Panopticon, each prisoner is placed in front of a window behind which a guard may always be seated. The prisoner is never able to tell when the guards are watching, and as result assumes that they are always being watched. This creates a sense of “a gaze which… each individual, feeling it weigh on him, will end by interiorizing to the point of observing himself, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself,” (129). This paranoia causes the subject to internalize the oppressive gaze, in essence controlling his own behavior and becoming a model prisoner out of fear.

Keenan brings up various terms for television, such as “the window to the world”, and “the Third Window”. These phrases contain an inherent duality, as windows work in both directions. While television offers a view of sights impossible to see from one’s actual window, it also pushes the “other” into the privacy of one’s home. In the words of John Baldessari, “The world constructed by the media seems to be a valid surrogate for ‘real life’ whatever that is,” (130). Television light fulfills the human need for contact with the outside world without any promise of its objectivity. It instead offers a view that goes “beyond the perceptive horizon”, to “the placeless place of others,” (135). While Keenan conceives of this in political terms, citing Alexander Kluge’s conviction that television is “a power [able] to convince millions,” tying in the earlier discussion of the panopticon, the window’s ability to coerce and convince the subject forces a reevaluation of the private sphere, (132). In the words of psychologist William James, “Each of us literally chooses…. what sort of universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit.” If a self exists independently, internalized violence entering through windows (eyes included) molds it. Alternatively, this could be its origin.

Brown University's Center for Advanced Scientific Computation and Visualization houses a new sort of opening into the private sphere. Aptly taking its name from Plato’s allegory, the CAVE immerses the subject in a 3-dimensional, interactive virtual environment. Anyone versed in the program can create a sensory simulation. 3D glasses provide a sense of depth and a magnet in the glasses’ frame updates the projectors for the various screens on the viewer’s position, allowing them to compensate for subtle shifts in the subject’s gaze. Directional sound further prefects the realism. However, the CAVE is not a window. By nature of it's design, unlike television which can be experienced with the same effect by a large group of people, this new portal is a single user experience- the projector's can only track one pair of glasses at a time. Rather than allowing the other/ the media’s hyperreal representation of the world into the private sphere of the home through the television window, the CAVE instead “transports” the user into the project of a single mind. The CAVE is intensely private in that it allows for no “true” light to enter- just projection. Unlike a window, it is not permeable in two directions. The operator of the CAVE remains at his computer terminal behind a black curtain. There is no “other” looking in at us. Instead of being presented with a view of the outside world (no matter how biased), or allowing the light that exerts violence into the space, we are shown another’s unique gaze from their perspective. Just as the cinematographer shows the audience what he sees through his lens, CAVE writing provides unmatched insight into how an author perceives the world. The CAVE is a one-way mirror into its artist’s imagination. It signals a new possibility for interpersonal relations, both of which rely heavily on projection. As Keenan writes, “In Public… this other light opens me not by freeing me, but by exposing me, to all that is different in and beyond me,” (136). While the "other" is not able to look back in at the CAVE user, the user automatically internalizes what he is being shown. Though this can provide for a more perfect experience of artistic intent, to another degree this blurs the line further between public and private, because it fully engages the subject- who can see nothing without being changed. In this sense the public really is something the subject carries with them, because even alone in the CAVE experience, it is something internally palpable. Keenan's views, exemplified by the example of the CAVE suggest that there is no true distinction between public and private, or self and other, it is only a matter of where one chooses to build the walls that provide a sense of comfort.

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