What makes something real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion.
It’s easy to forget that the very idea of digital expression involves a trade-off with metaphysical overtones. A physical oil painting cannot convey an image created in another medium; it is impossible to make an oil painting look just like an ink drawing, for instance, or vice versa. But a digital image of sufficient resolution can capture any kind of perceivable image— or at least that’s how you’ll think of it if you believe in bits too much.
Of course, it isn’t really so. A digital image of an oil painting is forever a representation, not a real thing. A real painting is a bottomless mystery, like any other real thing. An oil painting changes with time; cracks appear on its face. It has texture, odor, and a sense of presence and history.
Another way to think about it is to recognize that there is no such thing as a digital object that isn’t specialized. Digital representations can be very good, but you can never foresee all the ways a representation might need to be used. For instance, you could define a new MIDIlike standard for representing oil paintings that includes odors, cracks, and so on, but it will always turn out that you forgot something, like the weight or the tautness of the canvas.
The definition of a digital object is based on assumptions of what aspects of it will turn out to be important. It will be a flat, mute nothing if you ask something of it that exceeds those expectations. If you didn’t specify the weight of a digital painting in the original definition, it isn’t just weightless, it is less than weightless.
A physical object, on the other hand, will be fully rich and full real whatever you do to it. It will respond to any experiment a scientist can conceive. What makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion.
A digital image, or any other kind of digital fragment, is a useful compromise. It captures a certain limited measurement of reality within a standardized system that removes any of the original source’s unique qualities. No digital image is really distinct from any other; they can be morphed and mashed up.
That doesn’t mean that digital culture is doomed to be anemic. It just means that digital media have to be used with special caution.
Currently reading Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman and came across a beautiful passage about an afternoon spent at the Met:
One day next week, a rainy Thursday afternoon, he stood in a large room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Somewhere in the heights a workman was rattling the chain of a skylight. Happy people were worse off in their happiness in museums than anywhere else, he had noticed some time ago. In here the air was thick as mustard gas with ravenous particles which were stealing the substance from painting and viewer alike. Though the light was technically good, illuminating the paintings in an unexceptionable manner, it nevertheless gave the effect of descending in a dismal twilight from a vast upper region which roared like a conch shell. Here in the roaring twilight the engineer stationed himself and watched people watch the paintings. Sometime ago he had discovered that it is impossible to look at a painting simply so: man-looking-at-a-painting, voila! —no, it is necessary to play a trick such as watching a man who is watching, standing on his shoulders, so to speak. There are several ways of getting around the ravenous particles.
Today the paintings were there, yes, in the usual way of being there but worse off than ever. It was all but impossible to see them, even when one used all the tricks. The particles were turning the air blue with their singing and ravening. Let everything be done properly: let one stand at the correct distance from a Velazquez, let the Velazquez be correctly lighted, set the painting and viewer down in a warm dry museum. Now here comes a citizen who has the good fortune to be able to enjoy a cultural facility. There is the painting which has been bought at great expense and exhibited in the museum so that millions can see it. What is wrong with that? Something, said the engineer, shivering and sweating behind a pillar. For the paintings were encrusted with a public secretion. The harder one looked, the more invisible the paintings became. Once again the force of gravity increased so that it was all he could do to keep from sinking to all fours.
Yet the young man, who was scientifically minded, held himself sufficiently detached to observe the behavior of other visitors. From his vantage point behind the pillar he noticed that the people who came in were both happy and afflicted. They were afflicted in their happiness. They were serene, but their serenity was a perilous thing to see. In they came, smiling, and out they went, their eyes glazed over. They paintings smoked and shriveled in their frames.
"The governing principle of the postindustrialist techno-scientific world is not the need to represent the representable, but rather the opposite principle. To turn away from this principle—that infinity is inherent in the very dialectic of search—is absurd, impractical, and reactionary. It is not up to the artist to reinstate a make-believe ‘reality’ which the drive toward knowledge, technology, and wealth will continually destroy in order to replace it with a version considered more viable—and which itself will eventually be replaced. The spirit of the times is surely not that of the merely pleasant: its mission remains that of the immanent sublime, that of alluding to the nondemonstrable.
It goes without saying that such a mission causes anguish, but painters are not subject to the question, ‘How can we avoid anguish?’ They are subject to the question, ‘What is painting?’ In addition, they are also subject to the question ‘How do we communicate our painting to those who are not painters?’—but this does not mean that the two roles are to be confused. To confuse them would be comparable to the philosopher confusing the responsibility to thought with responsibility to the public. The responsibility of communicating the meaning of thoughts and paintings belongs to the intellectual. In fact, the question, ‘What is thought?’ places the philosopher in an avant-garde position. That is why he dares speak of painters, his brothers and sisters in experimentation.”
- J.-F. Lyotard, “Presenting the Unpresentable,” Artforum, 1982.