Simon Glass

On The 4-Dimensional Body

In Henri Bergson's essay "The Perception of Change" he suggests that the divisibility of movement and of life itself into consecutive states is an illusion. For Bergson, there is nothing but movement. Immobility is illusory. "…there never is real immobility, if we understand by that an absence of movement. Movement is reality itself, and what we call immobility is a certain state of things analogous to that produced when two trains move at the same speed, in the same direction, on parallel tracks." (Bergson 90) Likewise, there can be no such thing as a point in time. It seems that these illusions have persisted since the time of Zeno of Elea (Bergson 90). That it's even possible to imagine that Achilles will be unable to overtake the tortoise relies on the illusory habit of seeing time as being divisible into individual instants. Representation, and especially representation of the body has cultivated and been cultivated by this habit, that is, ideas about the body and its representation in any kind of technology share a dynamic relationship with each other, one influencing the other and vice versa.

In 1838 Louis Daguerre made a photograph of Boulevard du Temple, a Paris street; the exposure required was long enough that all the moving subjects disappeared and the only remaining figures visible were those of a man on the sidewalk getting his boots shined and the shoe shine boy. The two of them were relatively still long enough that they were recorded on the plate. This was the impetus for faster and faster photographic emulsions which would permit “instantaneous” depictions. Frustrations like this led to experiments such as Eadweard Muybridge’s Horse in Motion, which showed us what human and animal locomotion “really” looked like.

But it must be remembered that every photographic exposure is in fact a duration. The stillness that a photograph seems to represent is an illusion. It’s an illusion that fosters and is fostered by a mechanistic view of the human body. (There’s no greater illustration of this illusion than the use of a large format camera to make close up portraits. When one examines the image and focuses on the ground glass, the real motion that is apparent is heartbreaking in light of the apparent stillness one knows will result.) Paradoxically, it’s the illusion of stillness in still photography that allows for the illusion of motion in cinema and video. I still remember the shock I experienced the first time I examined a length of motion picture film and discovered that what I had been experiencing as motion was in fact nothing but a series of subtle changes from one still image to another. So, what I’m saying is that “the attempt to integrate the fourth dimenson of time into spatial representations” (Zielinski 58) influences and is influenced by our mechanistic, positivistic view of the body and everything around it.

The Futurist artist Marinetti was influenced by Bergson’s ideas that motion is indivisible and exists to the exclusion of any object. (Berghaus 25) Bergson: “What is the ‘mobile’ to which our eye attaches movement as to a vehicle? Simply a colored spot which we know perfectly well amounts, in itself, to a series of extremely rapid vibrations. This alleged movement of a thing is in reality only a movement of movements.” (Bergson 92) And so we got the Futurists’ emphasis of process over material and paintings such as Giacomo Balla’sDynamism of a Dog on a Leash, with multiple legs resembling wheels.

In Marinetti’s “Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism” of 1908, he fetishizes mechanization and industrialization. He and his friends speed through the streets of the city in their automobile, “squashing the watchdogs on their doorsteps who curled up under our scorching tires like starched collars under a flat-iron.” (Marinetti 284) Their joyride lands them in a factory drainage ditch. “I avidly savored your nourishing muck, remembering the holy black breast of my Sudanese nurse… When I got out from under the upturned car – torn, filthy, and stinking – I felt the red hot iron of joy pass over my heart.” (Marinetti 285) And then, he speeds off again in his car after “a crowd of fishermen armed with their poles, and some gouty naturalists… put up a high framework and enormous iron nets to fish out my automobile like a great beached shark”. (Marinetti 285) Technology is at once menace and saviour, poison and (surrogate) mother’s milk. But I think we can no longer even consider the ramifications on the body of representation in the fourth dimension without giving consideration to the latest obsession with speed: communication at the speed of light. Ninety years after the Futurist Manifesto, in “Open Sky”, Paul Virilio is less ambivalent about the applications of technology. “If last century’s revolution in transportation saw the emergence and gradual popularization of the dynamic motor vehicle (train, motorbike, car, plane), the current revolution in transmission leads in turn to the innovation of the ultimate vehicle: the static audiovisual vehicle, marking the advent of a behavioural inertia in the sender/receiver that moves us along from the celebrated retinal persistence which permits the optical illusion of cinematic projection to the bodily persistence of the ‘terminal-man’; a prerequisite for the sudden mobilization of the illusion of the world, of a whole world, telepresent at each moment, the witness’s own body becoming the last urban frontier.” (Virilio 11) What does it do to the body that as I write this, two prosthetic robots are on Mars transmitting images of the martian landscape back to Nasa which aremade available for all of us to see?

In the orientation to “Audiovisions” Zielinski considers three terms: culture, technology and subject. “Between the three terms of reference there is, however, a constant reciprocal relation, which is influenced by individual factors in different historical constellations to a greater or lesser extent.” (Zeilinski 20), It seems that at every stage, our understanding of perception and especially of memory has driven technology to bring us images that fracture experience and that these fractured experiences then inform our perceptions.

Simon Glass 2004 (rev. 2014)

Works Cited:

Berghaus, Gunter. Futurism and Politics: Between Anarchist Rebellion and Fascist Reaction, 1909 - 1944. Oxford, UK: Berghahn, 1996

Bergson, Henri. “The Perception of Change.” Continental Philosophy. Ed. Mc Neill, W. and Feldman, Karen S. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998

Marinetti, F. T., “The Futurist Manifesto.” Theories of Modern Art. Ed. Chipp, H. Berkeley, California, USA: University of California, 1968

Virilio, Paul. Open Sky. trans. Rose, J., New York and London: Verso, 1997

Zielinski, Siegfried, Audiovisions: Cinema and Television as Entr'actes in History. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999