An Imaginary Ecology
by Simon Biggs, May 1989

Originally published 1989 in Mediamatic (ed. Willem Velthoven), Amsterdam, Netherlands

Technology now enables the physical realisation of our mythic symbols. No longer is myth to be found in the interpretation of the object, for that object has become entirely mythic through the material manifestation of its deeper dynamics. Both the machine and its products function to assimilate and desublimate the creators' Id.

It is ironic that an apparently rationally led process of production, such as is evidenced in the development of technology and its attendant sciences, has eventuated in this possibility. In a sense rationalism has given us the opportunity to indulge the supra-rational.

With genetics we see the possibilities for wild hybrids of living things; the merging of organisms into other forms and states. Our relationship with nature enters a new phase, not only regarding our sense of control, but also the social values ascribed to the things we create. The computer engenders a similar process with regard to information, such that that which is the foundation of our dream economy and our understandings takes on a motility that is certain to disturb the established patterns of seeing and knowing. How will we regard such hybrids, both functionally and psychologically?

The Age of Reason and the Suppression of Myth

Technology is generally regarded as functioning within the paradigm of reason; the product of logical investigation. Since the Age of Reason human artifacture has been led by this dynamic. However, in the late 20th Century the fruit of our labours appear to be leading us in quite a different direction.

The historic suppression of the symbolic content of artifacts in favour of functionality must be regarded, whilst problematic in definition, as complimentary to the development of rationalism. Was rationalism a "natural" mode of being, an evolutionary step in human development rendering redundant other social and mental states, or a response to more subtle psychological dynamics; a construction upon a disturbing and more substantial human condition? Was the emergence of rationalism a crude attempt, by some social mechanism underlying our social constitution, to initiate a pseudo-Super Ego in order to establish control over the previously uncontrollable - our collective Id?

For much of human history the artifact has been seen to embody not the logical or reasonable, the factual or verifiable, but the mythic. The object functioned to invoke the emergence of the group and individual unconscious through physical manifestations such as the totem, ritual or art. The objects value has thus historically been primarily symbolic rather than functional. This symbolic role functioned relative to notions of social organisation, delineating or invoking the fundamental limits of social praxis.

Freud regarded the totem as symbolic of the dead father of the social group. It represented the nature of libidinal desire - toward both the father and the fathers object of desire - and as a reminder of the group guilt created through the primal crime of patricide. Putting aside the veracity of Freud's particular suppositions - for it is the nature of such objects that their symbolic ambiguity and motility renders them relative in their meaning - there is no doubt as to the nature of the objects relationship to the multifaceted self.

Whilst it is assumed that the contemporary objects function has eclipsed its symbolic status, the value of the object is still to be found as a subtext in its symbolic presence; as a nexus for the social unconscious. As such, the value of things is not least to be discovered in their role as mirrors, reflecting the souls of those who produced them. Questions arise here as to whether the mirror is accurate, representing a totality; partial, rendering only an aspect of the self - the object functioning as a libidinal construct or as an externalised Super Ego; or distorted, reflecting not so much what we are, but how we like to see ourselves. Possibly the artifact as mirror functions in a space located between these roles?

The computer may be considered as an attempt, by its creators, at self-reproduction; a mirror, as described above. There is space here to regard the computer as something of a totem, with all the attendant Freudian associations. Certainly, the computer is central in the design and implementation of contemporary mechanisms of social control. It has taken on the role that Foucault designated the Panopticon, with its functions in surveillance and information storage, retrieval and distribution. It is of course only a tool, but as a tool it is invested with social power through its symbolic presence in much the same manner as other objects. A work of art or a weapon each carries a fundamental significance, regardless of its individual characteristics or application.

Given the primary role of the computer, and its relation to power, the classic Freudian interpretation of the totem is invited. If not the father, or perhaps the mother, it can be regarded as a form of externalised Super Ego, controlling our social Id. However, the nature of such a symbol is to evoke its very opposite, so the computer can be seen as a mirror of the self and thus representative of the self's own libidinal desire for the self - a form or Narcissistic artifacture - and becomes the very thing that in its alternate role it is invested to suppress.

Probability and Improbability

Probability is a recent idea. For an inhabitant of Medieval culture a different paradigm functioned to that we have today. Dragons did live in the local lake, angels did fly among the trees, and Death, given human form, wandered the forest seeking to apply the scythe to whomever crossed His path. The possible consisted of the full range of imaginings made material by the pattern of cultural codes available within the symbolic system; a system unrecognisable to the contemporary logocentric mind.

This difference is especially evident in the visual representation of the world, where the use of space in Medieval illustration is opposed to that in modern pictorialism. Where objects within modern representations function relative to one another within the absolute frame of pictorial space, thus placing all objects as subject to the representational envelope, in Medieval representation space is established as subject to the symbolic value of the individual objects. As such, each object exists in its own spatial envelope, the overall layout of the pictorial elements being dictated by the objects' relative symbolic values. In a sense, modern pictorial space can be seen as objective and democratic, stripped of symbolic motility, whilst Medieval space is subjective and hermetic; where the meanings of the individual elements shift in relationship to one another and the overall frame of reference. The Medieval world was one of the unexpected.

Is it therefore surprising that as the camera and such mechanical means of representation are lost in history, and replaced by the fictions of digital imaging techniques, that visual paradigms will enter a similar shift away from the continuities of Cartesian space? What is surprising, perhaps, is not this expectation but that virtually all the computer graphics produced to date seek to function within, or exploit, these established but now irrelevant conventions. When will applications of other approaches to the dimensioning of space, as facilitated through the computer, occur? There is no doubt that the envelope of a symbolic world is as important as the symbols it contains, and as those symbolic values shift the nature of the envelope shall shift as well.

We have lived in a world envelope dominated by probabilities - from weather forecasts to financial futures, international politics to marketing. We inquire of likelihood in the hope of shaping a reality and securing a future. Prophesising has become an exact science. However, in reality we construct an intricate labyrinth where numerous futures beckon at each corner; so complex that we need to create equally complex machines to calculate these probabilities - and still it rains rather than shines. Our desire is to do with representations of time, and especially the future, what has been done with the representation of space. To fix it as a continuity of measurable and discrete (and therefore controllable) elements.

If the technologies involved in this process allow anything, it is the comprehension that finding peace amongst the probabilities is a falsity, for the options now available have exploded. The machines created to shift information and deduce futures have left in their wake ever growing quantities of data, each detail suggesting numerous likelihoods. In fact, so many that the notion of probability may be seen to be collapsing under its own weight.

Is this to result in stasis, a paralysis engendered by too much choice, or a form of symbolic and actual anarchy - at least radical relativism? Some claims to stasis being at the centre of a Post Modern malaise have been made, however as the notion of Post Modernism evaporates in a mirage of vague definitions, to the creative imagination this option appears insurmountably boring. A little light cast on a future without probabilities seems more tantalising. A universe where everything is possible within a system of cultural codes without the requirement of logical association. A world where hybrids can emerge without reference to a pedigree of logical relations in their genealogy.

Rationalism has allowed the development of technologies that give opportunity for the emergence of a state of mind, and the materialisation of a world about it, which is not bound as a closed system. Alternately, it is one thing to play with notions of beasts and demons, quite another to create them corporeally.

As we gain the facility to radically alter our environment, using genetics to create new life forms and computers to synthesise data, what are our relations (to be) with these things thus created? What are out fears and desires and how will they shape firstly the nature and destiny of things and, secondly, our response to them?

The symbolic loading of things is led by the conflicting elements of self - in Freudian terms, the Id and Super Ego. This is especially evident in certain classes of things such as artworks and ritual related objects. Nevertheless, this process can be discerned in other things; a stairway, a mirror, an automobile or a computer. This relationship between self and the object is operative at two levels - production and consumption - but the process is the same for both. The processes of association dominate the construction of meaning, each object - as a sign - having many referents. It is the interplay between these referents that allow the fuller meaning of things to be constructed. The poetic principle is the process of the imagination.

An Imaginary Ecology

The computer is not only a means - perhaps that is the least of its value - but also an object upon which readings are placed, as it is situated within a web of associations and memories. The computer has taken on a powerful totemic character in contemporary culture and, like other totems, its primary role is to invoke. This invocation has the potential to real power, which is not only a function of the computers evident facility for the management and control of information - the international currency of power - but is also situated within its totemic presence within culture.

The products of these machines and other technologies will carry with them similar psychological resonances, and given the essentially irrational nature of the source interpretation and imagination it seems improbable that such products will resemble logical constructions. This is of course true, to some extent, of any object. One need only consider an automobile. True, it has a function, but most of the elements active within its manifestation are functionally gratuitous, their primary value to be found in the satisfaction of desire.

Imagine these non-principles applied to the design of life. Here the operative word is "design"; a human occupation concerned with the gratification of human needs that are primarily psychological in nature. The world, and the organisms within it, on evidence contrary to Judeo-Christian belief, were not so much designed to meet humanities needs and desires, but evolved, initially at random, and then selected through the mechanisms of survival. I imagine that an Art Director might argue that similar processes occur in the development of a design, but somehow I feel there is a large difference between the satisfaction of the human libido and the satisfaction of nature's fundamental principles.

Are we then to remake the world along divine lines, where we place ourselves as creator and the created? Is the poetic principle of the imagination to circumscribe its extent and nature? Probably, and perhaps not surprisingly, given the general poverty of the human imagination, it is likely that the products of the geneticists laboratory will appear quite banal when compared to some of the inspired hallucinations that nature has produced on its own.

In the final analysis humanities relationship with the world has evolved as its ability to control and shape it has developed. Now we have available the means to not only edit nature but to define it. Traditionally this has only been an option with effect upon the symbolic universe. Paradoxes abound here, and questions as to what this will mean for the shape of the world to come and our relationship with it and thus ourselves, remain outstanding.