Holes, Caves, Lines, and Cameras


Jalal Toufic’s recent piece in issue #55 of e-flux titled “A Hitherto Unrecognized Apocalyptic Photographer: The Universe” starts with an interesting problem: is it the case that photographer deceptively freezes the motion of the world while art, at its best, captures the uncapturability of motion as Rodin argues? Toufic writes against Rodin’s assertion about time stopping that:

“I do not agree with his assertion that “in reality time does not stop.” To disagree with this assertion, I do not have to invoke the freezing in dance and undeath, under silence-over; I can invoke relativity. The Schwarzschild membrane of a black hole is an event horizon not only because once an entity crosses it that entity can no longer communicate back with us this side of it, but also because from our reference frame the entities at the horizon do not undergo any events, being frozen due to the infinite dilation of time produced by the overwhelming gravity in the vicinity of the black hole. Was photography invented not so much to assuage some urge to arrest the moment, but partly owing to an intuition that it already existed in the universe, in the form of the immobilization and flattening at the event horizon?”

Later on he writes:

“From a local reference frame, an artistic rendering in the Rodin manner of the astronaut at the event horizon might very well be less conventional, more truthful, than a photograph of him; but from the reference frame of an outside observer, a photograph of the astronaut at the event horizon is less conventional than an artistic rendering of him in the Rodin manner, for at the event horizon not only is the person flattened, but also time is so slowed it comes to a standstill.”

Toufic goes on to discuss the event horizon as a radical closure which the photograph captures the loss of the individual, its flattening into a thin pancake of data which after it has passed into the gateless gate of the black hole can no longer be recovered let alone detected. Toufic speculates on the experience of the astronaut who drifts through the gateless gate (setting aside the gravitational waves that would crush her instantly) he argues that, following Bergson, that the astronaut would suffer an instantaneous loss of memory because of losing touch with the pre-event horizon space-time.

Again quoting Toufic:

“There is thus a weighty difference between the traditional photograph taken by a human using a camera, and this other photograph into which he or she would turn at the edge of the universe, the event horizon: while we still have our memories when photographed by humans, the person whose photograph is taken at the event horizon, as it were by the universe, loses memory (as a result of being separated from the spacetime to the other side of the event horizon he has just crossed). To the other side of the event horizon of a black hole, a photograph showing the astronaut would not elicit any nostalgia from him or her because he or she would have become amnesiac—and because such a photograph might be an unworldly, ahistorical entity that irrupted in the black hole as a radical closure.”

Toufic seems to endorse Bergson’s notion of an unfolding past as the present against the material (or maybe better put) physical traces of memory. The passage across the event horizon does not undo the matter holding the memories (if, as was already stated, we are claiming the astronaut can survive the gravitational shear) and so what does this mean that some information enters the black hole never to be retreved though, we might argue, nothing would change for the protected astronaut inside – they would become radically unknowable? Quoting Bergson Toufic quips: “Can one cross beyond the end of the universe and conserve one’s memory intact?”

It becomes quite strange to see how one could argue that the sudden disappearance of a reference frame (using physics as your major point of reference) could then lead you to state that all physical traces of memory, all the biological marks left in the cerebral cortex over a lifetime, would be erased by loosing this reference. It moves into a Bergsonian theory of space madness or into another kind of event horizon altogether. How can one completely cut the physical tie between the brain and matter in this way?

In two recent lectures Iain Grant has pointed out the weirdness of the hubble ultra-deep field photograph. Grant focuses on a photograph of the night sky (of the most red-shifted stars) which gets ‘closest’ to the time of the big-bang. Grant argues that this self-picturing of the universe is necessarily incomplete since it takes 17 billions years to create a partial and incomplete self-portrait from a particular location in space-time. One aspect of the philosophical fallout of this position, he argues, is that if a complete self-portrait did exist it would show its inexistence ie it would display, somehow, the that which is not from which it came. Since any one thing (including the universe as thing) cannot have its ground in itself, some antecedent or  ground for it is not where it is.

It is in this case that I return to my point (made in my talk at incredible machines) that Plato’s cave, as a poor repetition of the divided line, demonstrates the auto-reflextivity and necessity of  imaging in human existence (or really biological existence). This seems fairly obvious but the myth-form of the cave immobilizes the human whereas the divided line demonstrates, more clearly, the human as using the line whereas the cave places the human within the demonstration. Thus, Toufic’s Bergsonian argument drawing from a thought experiment necessarily suspends the physical (that we could cross an event horizon and not be squeezed like toothpaste out of a tube) and yet dissolves the physical or material act of demonstration in subsequently isolating memory from the physical world in the guise of making it dependable on physics.

That is, I do not see how Toufic can justify exploring the ramifications of a thought experiment based upon the effects of a physical entity while continuing to rely on a model of experience that assumes some notion of quality, of the continuum or duration of time, could be snapped in two by the event horizon but somehow not have any material basis? This can be turned to the possibility of experience itself from the point of view of the subject or really anything impacted by spatio-temporality. As Luciana Parisi points out in her Contagious Architecture, Bergson’s duree cannot coincide with a virtual time but has to involve the splitting or ‘chunking’ of spatio-temporal regions thereby leading to the Whiteheadian conclusion that discrepancy between recorders of data in different sub-regions of space-time has more to do with the nestedness of the regions (amount or curvature of space) than with the intensity of the experiencing subject. If this were not the case, how would the subject itself divide its own experiences unless you make the rather strange move (in Bergson) of making space-time itself experiential as such. As Brassier points out, and which Grant runs with in a quite different sense, over-emphasizing the rootedness of experience undercuts the physical nature of creation as well as denies the augmentative procedure of coming to be conceptually grasping beings.

In his essay “Universe in the Universe” Grant writes:

“The philosophy of nature does not propose to eliminate nature or concept but, in seeking a concept of nature capable of the concept, changes the form in which nature’s antecedence is thought into the movements proper to the conceiving operative in nature. A concept is not a thing, an object, nor an abstract container, but a form of move-
ment overcoming its beginning in pursuit of the history of which it is consequent.”

Experience’s reliance upon and inability to catch that which creates it does is its antecedent possibility – or the strange loops that we are produce a notion of experience in which we are capable of augmenting the degree to which we see ourselves as loops. But singularities of varying sizes will of course have lesser or great effects on productions they are involved in ie with space and and time. While a black hole may slow time to a crawl there is a quite different sense of how the experience of that time for an organism – not because we hold the reins of duration because, well, compared to a black hole our brain activity is quite tiny.


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