The disappearance of appearance (après Baudrillard)

1. At the beginning of The Red Violin, an expectant mother sings a gentle motif to her unborn child. Each phrase resonates in the space around her, lingering in her voice as the next begins. In the next repetition of the motif, the theme is continued by a solo violin. As the last of her breath passes through her lips, the motif persists through the vibration of the strings, which are, of course, recorded mechanically for us to hear. We think of such a recording as discrete, that is indiscriminately duplicated and repeatable; that every playback is an instantiation of a master, which itself is a duplication of an original, human event. Instead, we might think of the recording as simply a prolongation of the original event—a time loop or a suspension of natural time—such that what was once beholden to the experience of the hic et nunc becomes exactly the ars aevi to which the medievals had attempted to give expression. In this way we deconstruct the original event from its repetition: the repetition is indistinguishable from the original; and the original is nothing other than its prolongation in the repetition.

But, what we fail to notice is that the recording is nothing other than the appearance of disappearance. The disappearance of the human voice is the appearance of its trace in the singing tone of the violin. And, of course, we know that the recording is a recording—we know that we are not in the presence of the voice that we hear and that that voice has disappeared. In the recording, we know that something has happened, but in its happening, the event disappears. The event never happens—we only know that it has happened. Disappearance always happens; disappearance is always an appearance—specifically, it is a double appearance: the appearance of that which appears and, reflexively, the appearance of a disappearance (in other words, there is no “disappearing object”, which is a contradiction in terms). Dis/appearance are not contraries but, rather, the archetype of disjunctive syntheses. Appearance is always already reflexively encoded in disappearance; it is disappearance that removes or distances the object and makes meaning possible.

2. This, however, raises a problem. Baudrillard—in one of his final and best texts—has already pointed to the hyper-reality of pure appearance, i.e., a purely objective appearance when appearance no longer requires being an appearance to anyone: “the modern world, foreseen by Marx, driven on by the work of the negative, by the engine of contradiction, became, by the very excess of its fulfillment, another world in which things no longer even need their opposites in order to exist … and the world no longer needs us” (we might also add to Marx Simmel’s analogous distinction between the quest for more-life, which results in twin excesses of hyper-ob/subjective more-than-life). The image is no longer a representation of anything but the image and the scene coincide. In the new movie Avatar, for example, life and CG become not only visually indistinguishable but coextensive. The image is no longer a copy but creates its own space of production in the very perceptions of those who undergo it (e.g., in the economy of drives, capital, and signification that make such an image possible). Dispersed among its objects, consciousness finds itself only “in the interstices of reality” where “in the visual flow in which we are currently submerged, there isn’t even the time to become an image” (Baudrillard).

3. If the logic of technical objects is inherently genetic, then nothing cannot not appear. Every identity, secret, process, torture, and google is subject to the sequencing of multiple retentions and subsequent dissemination. We might at first be tempted to think that appearance is the problem (in the midst of politics, capital, technology, fashion, etc). We might lament the “disappearance of the human” or our “posthuman condition” in the name of a vaguely romantic humanism that insists on the reduction of human life to biology, of consciousness to the brain, or of language to finitude. Under all these reductions, the human becomes caught in the contradiction of body and spirit: at once, “we are all just human”, limited in our perspective but “noble in reason, infinite in faculty”, prone to mistake and in need of a warm embrace; and we protect this contradiction by insisting on the schism of biology and technology. What happens when reproduction and replication no longer require the mediation of an eye, a feeling, or a decision?

Perhaps, however, we need to ask how a pure disappearance is possible (in Deleuze and Guatarri’s terms, this is the question of territorialization): the real disappearance of (all that has gone under the name of) the human. This is a question that we cannot even ask if we continue to think that this means the self-annihilation of human endeavor (e.g., nuclear war, global ecological destruction, genetic engineering, etc, which would be nothing other than the most conspicuous and permanent human signature). Before we can understand how disappearance is possible, first we must understand the ideologies and conditions of appearance. Before “something new” can appear, we must first disappear.