The Image and the Spirit of Place
Last night, and through the whole night, my dreams were of nothing but a struggle with fascists and fascism; fascism within various dream scenarios; fascism approaching wearing various disguises. No doubt my dreaming and more intuitive self was assimilating everything I had been reading lately, experimenting with patterns; trying to penetrate to the overall meaning of fascism.
Then, when I awoke this morning, the first thing that occurred to me was a photograph, of how a photograph almost always seems to disappoint in its failure to capture some essential quality of liveliness or vitality in a scene that so impressed us in the first place. I’m sure there’s a puzzling connection between my night’s dreams and the waking thought, as if my “inner ego”, or dreaming self, was setting up a riddle for me to solve. And the solution to the riddle became rather obvious over the course of the morning.
I have been reading, lately, The Portable Hannah Arendt, and particularly excerpts from her book The Origins of Totalitarianism. Her’s was a quick and lively mind. And although she often shows some dazzling insights into the totalitarian phenomenon, ultra-left or ultra-right, it still lacks something. That “something” was what my dreams were trying to fill in.
It isn’t just that Arendt largely overlooks the whole religious question that Karlheinz Drescher took on in his book God and the Fascists. She even appears to get this completely wrong when she writes that “It is true that a Christian cannot become a follower of either Hitler or Stalin…..” In the case of Hitler, at least, that may have been true of some Christians, but not of the institutional Churches, save perhaps for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the German Confessing Church along with many, many lower clergy in the Catholic Church who paid with their lives for their resistance to fascism (and whatever we may think about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we have to honour their courage in this respect). As Drescher put it regarding the mainstream German Churches, “before Hitler, against; during Hitler, in favour; after Hitler, against”, or as we say “go along to get along” was probably the attitude of your average church-going civilizee. But Arendt also seems to place too much emphasis on totalitarianism as a political (ideological) phenomenon when it is really a social phenomenon.
In that respect, she is right to say that totalitarianism, as it emerged in the last century, is “unprecedented”. And she is right to say, in that regard too, that we have to differentiate between “authoritarianism” and “totalitarianism”. But that is as much as to say that authoritarianism is purely a political phenomenon, while totalitarianism is a social one — the total state. And what marks the difference — the transition from “authoritarianism” to “totalitarianism”? The answer is, social media. Totalitarianism was not possible until the technology of social control made it possible to assimilate (“Gleichschaltung”) all aspects of society to the authoritarian state. The first social media to make the totalitarian state possible was radio and public broadcasting, and also film and photography. Command and control meant, essentially, control of the image; to force “reality” to conform to the image. The totalitarian state was a designed environment in which everyone was surrounded by a totalising image. An air of unreality hangs over every totalitarian state.
What, then, is “the image”? There’s an air of unreality to all images or representations. You notice it yourself, maybe with a feeling of disappointment, when you view the great photographs you took on your fabulous vacation in the desert, the mountains, the lakes, the forest, the photograph of the loved ones, etc. Something is missing. The image seems dead, frozen compared to the liveliness you saw and felt in the original scene that so impressed you that you took a photograph of it. The medium itself has stripped and filtered “it” out — the “it” that is missing. That “it”, that invisible quality that is missing from the photograph, is the spirit of place, the liveliness of the scene. That aliveness of place is what is missing in the image.
So, it was no “superstition” when native people initially recoiled in horror at the camera and the photograph, which they accused of “capturing the spirit” or soul. They were right. It’s that very quality you miss when you view an old photograph and have the sense that something is missing from it. You know what it is, even if it is invisible to the eye — it’s the spirit, the soul, the life of the place. Even if you can’t see it, you know it is there — in the desert, in the mountain, in the tree and the forest, in the lake. This is the reason the photograph disappoints, but which great art attempts to highlight and which the artist struggles to bring out — a van Gogh for instance — the intuitive aperception of the world as a living world.
You know it, don’t you? Something is missing. It’s because our senses have become deadened to the fact that this living world is full of “spirits”, to which we have become insensitive, but which is our’s and its true reality. And we know it especially when we look at an image of that reality and feel that something is missing. Life is missing from it. And all that we are left with in the image is a hint of it, even a caricature of the reality itself.
Yet, at our “end of history”, we are virtually enveloped and surrounded by nothing but images of the real, void of any internal life of their own. That is the meaning of films like “The Matrix” or “Dark City“, or books like Land of Idols or Neal Gabler’s Life The Movie. It’s also hinted at in the meaning of Paul Simon’s song “Kodachrome“. It’s also Charles Eisenstein’s “Ubiquitous Matrix of Lies“.
So, you do know it, don’t you? You know it. You already “know” the invisible reality and the truth of it all. You already see and know as Blake saw or as Castaneda also came to see. It’s that deep ache you feel when you look at a beautiful landscape and want to merge with it, but can’t. It’s the nostalgia you feel when view an old photograph and yet know that something is missing from it all. You know what it is. It’s what we call “the spirit”.
It’s not coincidental, then, that the cult of death, nihilism, and totalitarianism go hand-in-hand, and that this is connected to the domination of the image, the idols of the mind including the internal monologue we constantly conduct with ourselves as construction of our “self-image”, which is the ego-nature. That internal monologue is “the foreign installation”. It’s not you at all. That fact is, we all know the truth. We just have to wake up to it, emerge from the web of images. For “facts” are also just images of the true, as “concepts” are just images as well. What’s missing from them is exactly that quality that’s missing from your photograph and which you feel as absent — the life, the spirit.