The Frozen Land
Published in ZG, New York, No. 12, November 1984.

 
 

 

For Death must be somewhere in a society; if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life.

 

--Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

We see before us a strange and macabre spectacle. The dead no longer lie forgotten in their graves. They rise before us, great numbers of them, in darkened rooms : they glow with light. In one place, they make political speeches. In another, they are telling raucous jokes. Here they speak among themselves, over there they are addressing the living. Great choruses of them dance and sing, sometimes in a serious manner, sometimes lightheartedly. But, miraculously, the dead are not aged or decayed. They appear in full bloom of youth, at the peak of strength and beauty. The living gaze at them in awe and fascination. They listen intently to their every word. Their images appear everywhere, both in public and in the most private recesses of the houses of the living.

And we see that the living inhabit a world that has become bereft of meaning. To the living, life is a farcical marionette show, while death is an overwhelming void. Yet the strange spectacle of the dead holds out a kind of facsimile of hope to the living, a semblance of comfort against their endless dread. Following the example made by the dead, the most powerful among the living devote much time and effort to having their own appearances preserved and recorded. Those less fortunate do the same, according to their resources. As they age, many among the living also have their faces and bodies remolded in the image of perfect youth, believing that this masquerade will ward off the onslaught of death and time. This macabre scene is not a description of some primitive religion, nor is it the product of some horrific science-fiction fantasy. It is life, or what is left of life, in the icy landscape of the twentieth century. It is life in a culture that has been torn from the symbolic, but that is not less obssessed than the symbolic world with death. But here death is not viewed as a reunion with the universal, nor as a return to origins. Here death is seen as an eternal void, and as a fate that must be eluded, no matter what the cost.

And the cost is considerable. It is the cost of the construction of the great frozen facade of pseudo-life, in which transient life is pictured ever more exquisitely as static and immaterial, in which youth never ends, and movement and speech, those quintessentially ephemeral phenomena, are made to seem permanent. We live today in a culture that denies death, as is often said, but that occupies itself instead with transforming life into a frozen, never-ending simulacrum of itself. All the means of our culture are employed to advance this goal. In the macabre scene we have just described, the darkened room is the movie theatre, while the glowing figures are those represented in film or on television. It is said that movies and TV have seized reality away from «lived experience». But their role in creating a frozen tundra of pseudo-life is no less important. However, these media represent only the present-day state of the art in a series of technological and ideological inventions for creating silmulacra of frozen life. It is a series that goes back to the Renaissance, when the symbolic world first began to crumble.If we can believe the judgments of our historians, up until the time of the Renaissance, men and women consciously prepared themselves for death. They could accept that death's hour had come; they could, with some measure of resignation, ready themselves for their reunion with the universal order. At death, a person would find rest from the trials of the temporal world; a person would be brought before the judgment of God. Death was the culminating event of life. It was the time of reunification, the time of judgment, the time of reward and damnation.

The Renaissance was the beginning of the end of this order. In the Renaissance, icy facsimiles of life first began to appear alongside and even intermingling with the symbolic order's treatment of death. Since the Renaissance, the role of these facsimiles has steadily grown stronger as the symbolic order has steadily receded.

Three major inventions appeared in the Renaissance that laid the foundation for the creation of the facade of simulated life. These were the portrait, the concept of art, and that of fame. The portrait is usually discussed in its role of documenting the emergence of the individual in the Renaissance : in the portrait, the facial features of the sitter are distinguished from those of other members of the same sex and station. However, in the portrait we also see first deployed a technology for creating the effect of stopping time and fooling death. The portrait isolates the particular age of-its subject as much as it emphasizes the particular character of his or her features. The subject becomes a kind of human clock whose age can be pictorially frozen and precisely read. Further, the stopping of time is made manifest by the portrait's handling of light. The use of chiaroscuro creates the effect of a specific moment of natural light arrested. And the stopping of light is synonymous with the stopping of time, since for the Renaissance the passage of time and the movement of light were still the same. The portrait thus becomes a portable, static equivalent for the individual's appearance. With the portrait, the image of a person is no longer subject to time; it can transcend death. The timeless simulacrum begins to take the place of the living individual.

The portrait could achieve this wondrous effect by virtue of the specialized skills of the practitioners who created it - by virtue of their art With the Renaissance, art emerged from its service to the symbolic order. There are no more anonymously Grafted crucifixions or cathedrals. Art is instead harnessed to the task of "immortalizing" mortal humans. The Renaissance artist actively promoted this idea : Alberti, for example claimed that painting made "absent men present and makes the dead seem almost alive".

The artist became the high priest in the cult of simulated life. Not only would the work of art immortalize its subject by permanently preserving his or her specific appearance; but, by the beauty the artist created, the work of art would also attract the attention of succeeding generations, further assuring the "immortality" of its subject. This idea of immortality was expressed in the concept of fame. No longer did European culture devote its resources solely to achieving eternal life through pious union with God. The religious concept of afterlife began to be replaced by another idea : that everlasting life could be attained by imprinting the glory of one's deeds on the minds of those who would come after -by the power of one's fame. The preservation of name and reputation replaced the preservation of the body and the soul. Today, there are everywhere reminders of the pervasiveness of this idea. Streets, squares, and buildings are named for generations of statesmen, revolutionaries, and generals. Portraiture, art, and fame sufficed for three hundred years to ward off death; but in the nineteenth century a new cluster of inventions appeared to replace the further atrophied structures of the symbolic. These new inventions - history, realism, and photography - made possible a fuller actualization of the ideal of timeless life. History established a discourse between the dead and the living in a way far beyond the limits of the idea of fame. History enabled the whole matrix of an era, its economic structures, its conflicts, and its styles to move backward and forward in time. Through history, consciousness could roam hundreds of years into the past. The present could discourse with dead generations. Through history, we are able to believe that the future may one day participate in the debates and crises of the present day.

The nineteenth century also invented realism, in which the idea of the frozen image is likewise extended from the individual to the scene. In a Courbet, for example, the portrait's specificity is extended to the clothing of the peasant girls, the dusty landscape, and even the bony cows. On the one hand, realism widened the focus of the life to be simulated; on the other, it advocated a new confidence in the "reality" of this simulacrum. Out of the same impetus came the invention of photography. At the level of procedure, the slow, painstaking techniques by which painting had sought to stop time were replaced by a process in which the camera could instantaneously freeze the moment. The length of time depicted in the image and the time necessary to make the image became the same.

The invention of this fast, mechanical process also served to naturalize the creation of the frozen image. A specialized intermediary was no longer needed. As a result, the photograph began to be considered as real as the living model.

With the advent of photography, it was no longer only images of the wealthy and powerful that were preserved. It evolved that photographs were made of practically everyone. Because of this popularization, the frozen image became increasingly important within the realm of the family, which was also the place to which the treatment of death was also increasingly relegated. Families became repositories of snapshots of their members, both living and dead. Within the family, every stage of life of each individual was documented. There are photographs from infancy, childhood, and the various stages of adulthood. In this way, the stages of life no longer die after they are lived; they become frozen monuments against the flux of temporal life. Time starts to lose its meaning in this situation. Writing in Camera Lucida, Barthes examines a photograph of his mother at age five, after she had died: "I studied the little girl and at last rediscovered my mother 7". The aging man has encountered his mother as a child.

All these ideological and technological inventions accumulated during the last four-hundred years have set the stage for the events of the twentieth century. We live today in a world where the dead and the living can no longer be distinguished and where time no longer flows forward. The machinery is now in place for us to turn our backs completely and finally on death.

There has been a proliferation of recording media. Suddenly, in film, not only human appearance but also human action can be recorded; movement, the very sign that separates life from death, can now be simulated. At the same time, means for recording the human voice have been devised. Speech and song, the most poignant signifiers of passing time, can now be preserved forever. Around the new media-movies, records, and TV a great cult of homage has sprung up. Huge budgets and incredible resources are allocated to their production. So universally recognized is the importance of making a film that anywhere in the world the authorities will stop traffic and interrupt daily life for it: and there is always a crowd gathered, awed at the spectacle of life being transformed into this image more permanent than life. Within the media, a complex, arcane culture has arisen, a culture whose goal is to further simulate timeless life. The key figures in this culture are the great "stars" of movies, records, and TV. The star is a superreal everyman with whom we vicariously identify and by whose frozen lives our lives become frozen as well. (Why else do millions of aging men sit Sunday after Sunday in front of their television sets, gazing at the image of endlessly strong, endlessly young athletes ?) But the key task of media culture is the final destruction of the old, ordered idea of chronological time. This is accomplished by grafting together the technology of recording and the idea of history. Media culture does this in two ways. It records simulations of the past (and the future) as if they were the present, and, at the same time, it treats films and recordings actually made in the past as if they were part of the present. On the one hand, it creates the historical film; on the other, the culture of old movies. On the one hand, it records symphonies by dead composers; on the other, it distributes the records of dead rock stars. All become part of an asynchronic present, where time is condensed, its order is abridged, and its meaning is discarded. Paradox abounds in this necropolis. Is Shirley Temple a child or a woman ? Is Lauren Bacall twenty or sixty years old ? Is John Wayne dead or alive ? In Birth of a Nation, the long ago Civil War era is protrayed by actors who have long since died. Death is denied twice over. Our lives are filled with these fantastic images from the media that make it so hard for us to focus on death. Nevertheless, it is true that at a certain point, for the most part, we all do die. But already tiny holes are being made in the wall of death. The dying are snatched from death and kept alive with simulated organs. Genetic engineering is becoming capable of cloning life from life. Meanwhile, Walt Disney, that ultimate master of time, calmly "awaits his resurrection at minus 180 degrees centigrade". If the era of modernity continues, if we continue to turn away from death in horror, perhaps through new inventions the dead will walk again; our "macabre scene" will be played another time at a new level of verisimilitude. Perhaps Walt Disney will one day rise to speak again with those as yet unborn. Perhaps he will someday awaken to a version of the future he himself dreamt up in the distant past.


Note

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Hill and Wang Publishers, New York, 1983.