A few years ago I was honored to give a keynote address at a design conference hosted by Noam Toran Media Design Practices in Pasadena, California alongside DreamWorks digital animator, Rob O’Neill. This was a truly remarkable symposium that opened up an entirely new world for me and that introduced me to new ways of thinking about objects and the production of objects. There was the foley artist, Amy Kane, who spoke of the work she’d done on Deadwood and other television shows and films. There were digital novelists, directors, and artists creating open ended virtual worlds such as Gary Westfahl and Margo Bistis, and then there were the students: designers, directors, animators, and artists of all kinds. While, on a couple of occasions, I had spoken before audiences of artists, this felt like something new to me. I had, to a certain degree, broken out of the world of academia, of only addressing other scholars, and was now entering into dialogue with those that make and produce things. It was an entirely different way of thinking, a different set of questions, a different set of practices; yet also uncannily resonant with my own work. Since then I’ve been fortunate to work and dialogue with designers, artists, and architects more and more. I love it.
In the last three years I’ve thought often about Rob O’Neill’s talk and our conversation over lunch and between the other talks. O’Neill worked on films such as Shrek 2, Turbo, and Madagascar. At the time, my daughter was going through a Puss in Boots, often dressing up like “Kitty Soft Paws”, and he kindly offered to send me some film posters. Sadly I was too intimidated to follow up. In his talk O’Neill spoke of the aspiration, as he understands it, of contemporary animation. If I remember his terminology correctly, contemporary animation aims for what he called “zero resolution”. Zero resolution would be a form of animation that would be indistinguishable from reality. Given public reactions to the bear scene in The Revenant, it would seem that they’ve come close to achieving this.
The fascinating thing about zero resolution animation is that it has led these animators to develop an entirely new science that could be called “meso-science”. We have the science of the very small in quantum mechanics, and the science of the very large in relativity physics. Meso-science studies the between or mid-range beings such as the movement of skin across bones and muscles, clothing across the body, or hair on the head or arm. To program the real, the animators have had to understand the physics of how fabric, hair, skin, blades of grass, and leaves move. They’ve had to develop a physics of the between, of humble things; and they’ve truly done it. Equipped with meso-physics, the animators then devise programs that simulate the behavior of these things. This perhaps is the most astonishing thing of all. There’s a sense in which the animator relinquishes control of his animation, letting the computer do part of the directing; for these programs are autonomous and make their own decisions. O’Neill, for example, talked about how, when doing the famous battle scene for The Two Towers, they had to run the program hundreds of times because the humans, elves, and dwarves were so out numbered by orcs, trolls, and ogres that they kept running away. The computer programs, not the directors, were calling the shots.
There is something like the materialization of a ghost here. A ghost or spectre is a sort of idea that persists after the destruction of the body. It is the idea of the body, the pattern of the body, that continues to move about in the world. This is part of what makes ghosts so uncanny. With zero resolution animation we get this process in reverse. The ghostly idea– the program, the zeros and ones –becomes material. It forms a body for itself that now occupies the physical realm and circulates throughout it.
Baudrillard famously said that we live in the age of the simulacrum. By this he meant the virtualization of reality. Increasingly, he thought, the world was being overtaken by the virtual image. However, in reality it seems something quite different is taking place. It’s not that reality is being virtualized, but rather that the virtual, the ghostly idea, is being materialized. This, perhaps, is the limited truth of correlationism and idealism: that we materialize ideas in matter, that we form matter giving it the shape of an idea in writing, movement, gesture, art– above all art –tools, and technologies. These things are the ideational become real. Plato, a philosopher of presence, gave the copy a derivative status and was suspicious of all simulacra because he held that the copy is always a distortion of the original, of the model upon which it is based. If he was so suspicious of the simulacrum, then this was because the simulacrum, as a copy without an original, competed with reality. As Deleuze argued, the simulacrum, the work of art, is something real, but without correlate. Such is the hole in his ontology. Today the copy is increasingly indistinguishable from the original.
Everywhere today we encounter the reign of the idea that has become material. The idea has achieved zero degree reality, not just as images on the screen as in the case of The Revenant, but also in the case of the thing. With GMOs, three-dimensional printing, and even atomic elements, we now have an entirely new class of entities that are both simulacra and real. The modern strawberry is Frankenstein, a composition– in the sense of musical composition –composed of genes spliced together; some from strawberries, others from fish, perhaps a bit from tomatoes, a little bit of frog here, a little bit of bird there. Who remembers anymore what strawberries used to taste like? Did they used to taste different? Are these strawberries or are they something else? They are materialized ghosts of ideas; ideas that have formed a body for themselves.
I’m not sure why I marvel at three-dimensional printing of ears out of living cells or genetically modified organisms or hyperreal animated images or the invention of entirely new atomic elements. Why should I be surprised, as we’ve always done this with art and the creation of tools, technologies, and buildings within which to dwell. Nor do I know whether this is a good or bad thing. I am making no moral or political judgment here. I am not denouncing the age of simulacra, nor celebrating it. Still, something seems different in all of this and this new age of design seems to call for a new ontological thinking where categories such as the real and the unreal, the material and the ideal, the natural and the fabricated no longer do justice to the world within which we live. This is a Promethean age for good or for ill; an age where ghosts now have bodies and walk the earth.