Let me begin by using myself as an example. I was born and raised in the Czech Republic. My mother remarried when I was 11 and when I turned 12, she and I moved to the United States as a result of this marriage. I’ve lived in the US ever since. I will spare the reader the nitty gritty details of the actual move, the integration, and so on, mostly to say that my experience and the experience of the thousands of others that emigrated to the US that year alone are on the surface typical. Cut to today and I can with a lot of confidence say that, as a first generation immigrant, having emigrated at the age I did, my experience of the world and of American culture can only be described as incomplete. The same can be said of my experience of the Czech culture. What would seem as an upper hand, being bilingual, having roots in both cultures (muliticultural), etc, to me seems, while not a handicap, as a void that can never be filled. True, Walter Benjamin’s experiences as an exile illustrate this point nicely. My point is that today the exile and the immigrant experience are metaphorical models on which the on which the very existence of the split individual is based and by split individual I mean all of us that inhabit the dual worlds of cyberspace and the real world. By moving into cyberspace we have become ‘inward’ immigrants and as a result, experience ourselves as incomplete because we cannot fully realize or exist in both worlds at the same time, while each world acts as a supplement to the other and vice versa. While this may or may not be true of the experience of those of us who were born with or rather into the mediated world of the internet, in which screen time is just a normal part of one’s growing up, I believe that those of us who came onto the scene, or rather, whose lives were forever impacted and disrupted by the mediated world of the internet, can only be described as experiencing within themselves an abyss that is at once ontological and subjectively undefinable. This does not mean however that this abyss or void does not exist, only that it is structured so as to be always just out of reach. One can never fall into it or experience it directly. Rather one experiences their void as peripheral.
What do I mean by this? Slavoj Zizek has a few examples of this phenomenon. During his debate ‘Duel-Duet’ with Graham Harman, Zizek points out the example of God as a lazy video game designer. Imagine yourself playing a video game. You walk around in some large landscape with some trees and buildings in the background. You have a task to do, but you may never enter any of the buildings. When you try, you will usually bump up against a mess of pixels that look like a door, but this door or whatever it is you are trying to get to, will never open or reveal itself. Within the scope of the game, it was unnecessary to provide or design the interiors or other side of those areas. The player was never meant to enter these in the first place. The trees and buildings in the background are only that, a background.
In another example, Zizek gives the experience of the self as also incomplete. I can look at myself and see my legs, hands, feet, clothes I’m wearing and everything around me. What I cannot see is my head, or rather, where my head/face are, is experienced as a void. Zizek never mentions what happens when I see myself in a mirror, but one can extrapolate that even when I see my reflection in a mirror, this is in itself an experience of the abyss. I see myself, but I see myself reversed. I am therefore myself and also not myself at the same time. I will never be able to see myself the way that others see me. Therefore, my experience of myself is as having a void where my head ought to be.
In yet another example by Zizek, in his EGS video titled ‘Ontological Incompleteness in Painting,’ I title I shamelessly pilfered for my essay, he gives the example of the painting ‘The Death of Marat’ by Jacques-Luis David. In this painting we see Marat dying in a bathtub with paper and quill presumably stabbed to death in mid-sentence. Above Marat is an abstract void, what was possibly meant to be a wall. The background encroaches onto Marat, in effect squashing him into the spatial foreground that he occupies. The Death of Marat can be effectively called an abstract painting, despite the obvious representation of Marat in the bottom of the frame. To further this claim, Zizek points to an analysis of the painting by T J Clark, an art historian, who called Death of Marat the first modernist painting. Isn’t the background of the painting a forerunner of the first Malevich paintings? Anything other than the wall-as-abyss, say a window, or other figures in the background, or as would’ve been the case, wallpaper, would destroy the effectiveness of this image. I agree with this position. In another famous painting, this time by Caspar David Friedrich ‘The Monk by the Sea,’ a similar effect is achieved. Friedrich painted the entire sky, about 80% of the painting, in a murky, dark and disgusting grey, opaque and absolutely foregrounded, rather than receding, the sky is oppressive and encroaching on the figure of the monk in exactly the same way as the wall does onto Marat.
With these examples in mind I want to be careful in my description of abstraction. I am not suggesting that all abstraction illustrates the abyss or void or incompleteness. To be clear, the kind of abstraction that I describe here are different from the total abstractions of painters like Rothko, Newman, Still, or De Stilj, Kandisky, or the Cubists. In my opinion, true abstraction is an attempt to reconstitute or fill in, rather than to illustrate the void. Abstraction in the hands of the Cubists, De Stilj, or Abstract Expressionist painters, was always a method for elucidating that which is already missing as a kind of substitute, a supplement. Abstraction is an ontological method by which what one sees and experiences is hashed out paint. These are colors, shapes, moods, and so on. The gamut of human experience and interaction with the real world and with what can only be called as spiritual or ethereal world is attempted to be transcribed through abstraction. My claim is that, unlike the examples above, where incompleteness is part of the method, true abstraction leaves nothing out, and is therefore not illustrative of the void or the experience of it. Abstraction may leave out representation and depiction, but that is the point from the outset. Total abstraction gave itself the task of reproducing the things themselves, rather than imitating them, as in objective/representational art. A line is a line, a color is a color, a shape is a shape, and so on. The world is made up of color, it is made up of shapes, it is made up of various lines, and so on. Abstraction is therefore by many understood as a better representation of the real world, without its inherent incompleteness, than representational art. I must agree with this assumption. Modernism was a concerted effort to show through art not just what is, but also to show the whole of human interaction with its environment, in abstract forms, because by the time of early modernism it was apparent that much of what constituted human experience was becoming increasingly abstract. But modernism was also an attempt to erase the void from the human experience.
Let’s continue with the idea of the video game. Say a video game designer creates a perfectly abstract video game, shapes, colors, sounds, etc. Unlike in the representational game with background buildings we cannot enter, the abstract video game, could be designed in such a way that one could enter through anywhere and into anywhere. The background is the foreground and vice versa. Nowhere is this more evident than in the abstract world of fractals that continue to move inward and outward indefinitely.
To go back to my original anecdote about my experience as an immigrant to the US, I believe that today, for the first time in history perhaps, we experience ourselves as totally connected while at the same time, totally unmoored from reality. When I came to the US, I was 12. One could effectively say that my life as a Czech ended at that time. My experience of the place, of the environment, of school, friends, family, culture, ended and was replaced by a new place, new environment, schools, friends, family, culture, and so on. But in this new culture, I was a stranger, having to learn the signs and ways in which everything and everyone operated. Until I was 12, I had all the references from my culture: lullabies, TV shows, music, food, etc. Once in the US, I found out that these were in some ways necessary references for understanding and connecting to the new culture. But because I did not, and still do not have these references, they act as a void. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the experience of adolescence and adulthood in the US. Because I experienced these in the US, that incompleteness is now palpable on the other side, my Czech side. This process can be repeated indefinitely throughout the entire experience in which one culture predominates and is supplemented by the other, while never fulfilling the gap that is created through absence.
Human experience is somewhat limited. We cannot experience ourselves in more than one place at a time. If we did, perhaps the abyss would not exist. The modern world, with its electronic prosthetic supplement, continues to create a void out of the very experience it claims will make one whole. In other words, because one cannot occupy more than one place at the same time, whether physically, mentally, or psychically, or any combination of these, and because experience itself is limited, ontologically a void is created precisely when an attempt at a multiple position is made. To extrapolate this point is to imagine oneself as both in the online world and in the real world. One must necessarily inhabit one or the other. While it seems as though one may be able to be in both palces at the same time, what actually happens is that in both the real world and the online world, we have fragmentary selves, a mixture of screen names, profiles and curated pages supplementing the real world we occupy. While in the real world we live without those very things we’ve created in the online world. There are innumerable ways in which we appear in databases, databanks, on websites, forums, browsing cookies, and many of them, especially those being kept secret from us by the NSA, we will never know. These are bits and pieces of information about ourselves, that constitute ourselves, but are not of ourselves. The being thus created is incomplete, like the immigrant, whose cultures overlap, but do not fulfill one another. Another point to be made here is that our awareness of this incompleteness, the very fact that I know that the NSA, or the government, or Facebook or some other faceless corporation has much of my online self at their disposal, is part of what produces the experience of the abyss. I know very well that a part of me is missing, but that does not fill in that part of me with that very knowledge. I am, and always will feel myself as incomplete. And the same can be said for the real world. In the real world I also experience myself as incomplete because while I occupy the real world, I do not at the same time see and experience all the little bits of myself that exist in cyberspace. While I do things in the real world, hiking, sleeping or eating ice cream, my online self is effectively living its own life. It provides Facebook information about my myself, it provides Google information about my browsing habits, real people can ping my credit report, see how much money I have in the bank, algorithms run diagnostics on my likes and dislikes to promote products to me and play matchmakers with other online selves, etc. My fragmented online self exists independently of me and it is interacting with other real and online selves. Presumably even after I am long dead, my online self will exist as a de facto supplement of myself. It is this knowledge that one part of me is always acting while I myself do not, that creates this mysterious abyss between myself and my supplement. When in the early decades of computerization ideas about AI and the internet were being developed, nobody suspected what form these would actually take and how they would act on the real world. My online self is in some sense dead and not dead. It acts as I act, and it is acted upon, but it is inert. The data to feed it comes from me, but in and of itself, when I relinquish myself from it, though inert, it seems to take on a life of its own. So oddly enough, our online selves are something more like the undead. I think that AI, if there is such a thing, comes to us as a byproduct that takes on the appearance of what it is trying to supplement, namely us. We may have created AI, but not as an end product, but through an accident as an unintended consequence of globalization and overconnectedness to everyone and everything. It is too soon to tell, but this type of AI is definitely not what the early online social engineers had in mind. As Adam Curtis would put it, we retreated into cyberspace because we could no longer control a runaway world, with all its wars, pollution, and environmental degradation, and because cyberspace offered a chance for a new beginning. We emigrated inward and left the real world behind. But when this happened, we left a part of ourselves in the real world and conversely, placed a new part of ourselves into cyberspace, while neither part effectively spoke to the other or fulfilled that which the other one lacked. By opening up cyberspace, we opened up a space within ourselves that could in fact never be filled, because just like the immigrant from another country, we cannot be in both places at once, and thus must recon with the loss of one culture and be prepared to never gain what is effectively lost at the beginning when adopting a new one.