Representing Beauty

(Essay) On Disembodiment, Dimensionality, and Dominion

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Escapism is the antithesis of Existentialism. Existentialism, a philosophy that claims existence precedes essence, establishes that we come into existence and then decide the meaning of our existence, rather than the meaning be predetermined. It entails an engagement with the actual world, and an ‘existential crisis’ results when a person finds that actuality doesn’t match with what that person thought was real. Such a crisis causes a shattering of beliefs and preset complexes. It is a painful experience; it causes angst. To avoid this crisis, the modern person can view everything as a potential photograph, tweet, posting, text, etc. In this way, the modern stands as a viewer, ‘outside’ the world, and hence the world is something humans conquer rather than the world conquer humans. Perhaps in Eden humanity could have dominion over the world, but now the world holds dominion. In protest, humanity has digitized itself and the world to reestablish the rules of Eden, but this dominion is a kind of escapism and denial rather than a true engagement. It disembodies us: anytime we escape the world, we escape ourselves.

I

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Off and on, without conscious thought, we cannot help but view everything as a potential tweet, Facebook post, and/or picture. Consequently, we transform the world into something we can capture rather than something that captures us. Now, our imaginations capture the world rather than the world capture our imaginations. We have moved into a position of control from a place of humility.

To face the world is to face nothingness. To make the world face us enables us to keep our back turned to the emptiness of life as the void stares into the back of our heads and transforms into a monster.1 Never facing reality, we never see the need to equip ourselves with the capacity to create purpose (versus images), and to thus rise above the void. If we faced the nothingness, we would realize there was nothing to fear. Denying it, we come to fear ourselves, thinking that we fear the void.2

By acting as if the world is something we can manage and capture, we outsource our cognition. We abstract ourselves into (a) non-reality — for, in reality, the world cannot be captured — setting up an ever-worsening existential crisis. Hence, we are incentivized to take more pictures and to make more posts to further dominate the world and to push off this worsening crisis until later. Equipped with countless technologies, we feel more able to deny the inevitable than ever before and fall ever-deeper into abstraction.

II

Technology reformats our ‘toward-ness’, our ‘orientation toward the world’. Websites on which we can rank restaurants can make us experience restaurant as ‘rank-able’ while also making us feel that such establishments should make us happy rather than we learn how to be made happy by them. Instagram can make us approach sunsets as phenomena that we are responsible for translating into digital information for the world to experience, as if the picture of a sunset was as wonderful as the experience of one, as if sacrificing the experience of wonder for a representation of it is rational. Websites on which we can share pictures of parties we attend can fashion lenses we wear when we attend those parties: we see everything there as things we can share with loved ones who might be hurt if we don’t help them feel part of the fun.

Everything can be commoditized.

Everything can be exhibited.

Everything is now a potential ‘post’ which can be ‘liked’: every experience is an opportunity to draw attention to self and a chance to give others something to which to respond. The more friends a person gains on Facebook, the easier it becomes to achieve responses, ‘likes’, and to avoid actuality with community, comments, and pleasure. Consequently, community can become inauthentic, founded on denial, not because digital friendship is inherently fake, but because the digital tempts us to sacrifice the actual and often succeeds. Digital friends can be as good as real ones if engaged with authentically: only a given person can know whether or not he or she is real online (though keep in mind that no one thinks they aren’t).

Every experience is now susceptible to blogging and commentary: one’s opinion can now be attached to everything in the world. One can always approve, disprove, and commentate on: silence and study are not required. Nothingness has become a subject of commentaries, and consequently, through complacency, it has become easy to take flippantly. Facebook has also made it easy to see the faces of many people without actually encountering them: seeing others is no longer necessarily a ‘labor of love’. People can achieve the sensation of seeing friends without taking intentional time out to do so, and when tired, people can tuck friends away. Friends, in never inconveniencing us, give us the illusion that friendship and love are easy. When they become hard, we dismiss them as having spoiled, when such difficulty is through which relationships achieve authenticity.

Experiences are no longer necessarily things we undergo but things we record: parties, for example, aren’t so much attended as they are shared. Consequently, we feel transcendent of the pressure of engaging with reality. There is no longer such a thing as a party free of the sensation that it should be recorded (perhaps in order to remember the charm, to leave artifacts for future generations, etc.), and it’s now as if there has never been such a party. Before the invention of Twitter, it wasn’t possible to engage with entities or experiences as potential tweets; now, it’s impossible to engage with them any other way.

We use technology to help us comprehend and understand the world around us. Consequently, the very way we are ‘toward’ the world changes. By fathoming everything as potential ‘posts’, our understanding and sense of how we are to engage with things changes. Technology always, in some way or another, impacts the ‘toward-ness’ of being. Whether or not this is good or bad depends on the technology in question and the mindset it fosters.

The invention of a technology doesn’t make it inevitable that a given individual will fall into varying modes of ‘toward-ness’, though it does mean an individual will have to actively combat the urge to view the world as a thing to be digitized. It is only certain that the majority and ‘spirit of the age’ (zeitgeist) will take up varying modes of ‘toward-ness’; whether or not a given person does depends on the individual in question. Ultimately, it cannot be said for certain whether technology is good or bad, only that it changes us.

With every invention, the world is never the same.

III

Alluding to “Read(er)” by O.G. Rose, we ‘read’ atoms into chairs, cats, etc.: we ‘translate’ lower and higher dimensions into our dimensionality. It’s in our being. Yet, what we ‘read’ into being is not necessarily to our liking: what we have actually made doesn’t always fit what we would like to make. Similarly, what is real doesn’t necessarily fit what we think is real, though both ‘come unto us’ because of our ‘reading’-consciousness. It is because of the space between our ideas and the subject of our ideas that existential crises are possible.

Technologies, like video cameras and cell phones, enable us to escape our experiences by allowing us to record them as if an outsider. They also give us the illusion that we can ‘read’ reality into different dimensionalities from our inherent and natural calibration. The photograph is frozen, like a world without time; the tweet and Facebook page are one dimensional; the video is repeatable and stoppable, as if time is controllable. Technologies help us feel like reality can be reformatted and as if we can respond to an existential crisis by ‘changing the channel’; consequently, the imperative to learn how to overcome nothingness vanishes.

Technology has equipped us to combat reality. Threatened with being overcome by actuality and thrust into an existential crisis, we have fashioned works that frame, capture, and translate the world into different dimensionalities than ourselves. Consequently, in abstracting the world into something ‘other’ than us, its nothingness becomes increasingly incomprehensible, distant, and less threatening, in the same way that the suffering of children faraway doesn’t grip us as does the suffering of children nearby. In viewing every sunset as a potential photograph, we approach them ‘as if’ they are one dimensional. The sunset is of a higher dimensionality than this, but keeping it one dimensional, its beauty doesn’t overwhelm, capture, call, or threaten us. Rather than listen to the summons of beauty into humility, we unintentionally silence it by thinking of sunsets as commodities to be hung on walls and appreciated when convenient. Beauty fills us not with awe but pleasure; no longer does beauty suspend us into experiencing it. With our homage of the photograph, beauty has become digestible.

IV

Existence precedes essence, but rather than try to fashion meaning for our lives, we often fashion representations. Through this act, we can attempt to escape our responsibility to fashion purpose and consequently neglect our existence, challenging it in its asking of us to rise to the challenge of nothingness with a meaning we craft and live out. Even those who believe in God can live meaningless lives; everyone, from believers to atheists, are challenged in this way.3 Unfortunately, most of us now ascribe to a new philosophy, a philosophy which establishes that existence precedes digital existence, and that makes the digital and recorded the essence of the actual.

We have outsmarted reality.

We can now judge reality and the worth of the world around us by the degree to which it is ‘like’ our digital and digestible representations. The unreal world is now more real than the real world. The fake is our objectivity; the real, our subjectivity.4 In making this switch, we attempt to draw the whole world ‘outside of itself’, as we use digitization to draw ourselves out of what can cause us angst. Because memory is unreliable, the more we exist in this paradoxical age, the less we remember a less captured time and the mindset that accompanied it. The more time passes, the more the delusional becomes the way it’s always been.

Like earlier generations that believed essence preceded existence, we are once again free of angst. We have escaped the nothingness of the world by fashioning a different, digital world — made in our image(s) — to face. Rather than an essence of our making, it is an existence of our making. We have answered the challenge of Existentialism by denying its existence. We have achieved freedom. However, the freedom we have achieved is an escapist, ignorant one: it is inauthentic. It is a freedom that disembodies and disables us from being able to handle true freedom, which is found in the actual. We have fled from the freedom presented to us to a freedom of our own making; we have fled from the world to our world; we have fled from our image to our images.

V

The actual world physicalizes as the digital one digitizes. When we encounter beauty in the world, we are attracted toward physicalization; when we encounter beauty online, we are attracted toward abstraction. When we digitize actual beauty, we abstract it into that which then attracts us into disembodiment. What we digitize always tempts us in this way; if we can avoid the temptation and rather use what we digitize to remind us to be ‘toward’ the world, then the digital is good. However, this is a difficult temptation that requires great character to resist in an age that is arguably losing it. Tragically, the less concrete and authentic we are, the more we view nothingness as a subject for jokes on 4chan. Rather than viewing beauty as a summons to engage the actual more deeply and so achieve authenticity, we can view it as a chance to create a new representation, so abstracting ourselves and the world further.

Beauty needs representatives, not representations. We must regain the ability to look at a sunset and not think about taking its picture; only then can we master photography rather than be mastered by it. People have been making representations and images of the actual world for centuries through paintings, statues, etc., but representations used to take hours upon hours to make. We can now be ‘insta-artists’ and our creations, no longer requiring intensive labor, are no longer ‘labors of love’. Everyone is now a ‘creator’ without striving to become one, and when it comes to representing the world, we have become thoughtless. In this sense, we must become more ‘loving’; it is through love that we achieve authenticity.

There is nothing wrong with photography, tweets, etc. as long as they direct us toward deeper engagement with the world and the actual, rather than inspire us to look away.5 We must regain the capacity to embrace beauty and so become more concrete, rather than try to flex dominion over beauty and forgo our reality. In doing so, we shall master digitalization and cease being mastered by our inventions. The more we capture beauty before we are captured by it, the more we are disembodied, and the more actuality is lost. Beauty and the world must move us to lift ourselves up, rather than move us to pull it down.

Life is short, but if we learn to experience it, life can be a beautiful vapor.6

Notes

1Allusion to Nietzsche.

2Allusion to Kierkegaard.

3However, perhaps one must believe in God for any meaning a person fashions to ultimately be meaningful rather than ultimately a form of denial (like a drug).

4Inspired by Baudrillard.

4.1According to Baudrillard, reality has been replaced by symbols of reality, and these symbols hide the fact that reality is no longer relevant. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. all accelerate this deconstruction and ‘precession of simulacra’.

5Without Facebook, this paper couldn’t be shared with so many so quickly: Facebook has done much good as it has done much bad. Moralizing about technology isn’t the interest of this paper, but rather on marking others aware of how technology transforms our understanding of the world, potentiality, and ‘toward-ness’.

6If you scanned this article, you have proven that your ‘toward-ness’ has been influenced by the internet, hence proving a claim of this paper. Thank you.

2020 UNO Prize Finalist. The Write Launch. Iowa Review. Allegory Ridge. Streetlight. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M Review. Poydras. www.ogrose.com

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