How do we understand our place in a digital world? We often mistake the material world for a 'true' reality. In contrast, we see virtuality - the reality of symbolism, representation, and cyberspace - as unreal. This becomes a problem when we attempt to study virtual experiences. If we regard video games, for example, as 'fake realities', then the only effect they can have on us is deception. We are thus restricted to the study of how we are duped, manipulated, or tricked by the 'illusion' of the media we consume. We overlook the potentially active, critical, and self-aware subject of video gaming. Is it possible to look beyond this restrictive perspective?
I began working on this question as I was doing my thesis research in 2015. At the time I was looking at how we know ourselves in-and-through competitive video gaming. I wanted a way to recognize the very real and tangible experience of playing games like League of Legends - even when they make no attempt to imitate reality. What emerged was the concept of 'emplacement', which looks at how we become the object of our own conditional existence through interpellation and reflexivity. In this article I want to provide a context for virtual emplacement by looking at a particular moment in the history of visualizations.
The Renaissance Ideal
It may seem strange to suggest that we can investigate the relationship between materiality and virtuality by looking closely at revolutionary Renaissance paintings. Yet when I came across a short lecture by Michel Foucault I began to see how their role in the broader history of visualization might inform research into virtual experiences.
When Foucault wrote his book L'archeology du savoir (Archeology of Knowledge) he made an important move away from questions of linguistic representation to include an emphasis on materiality. During this time he was also commissioned to write a book on the work of Édouard Manet. The book was never written, but some of his research was presented in a lecture he gave in 1971. The lecture describes the different ways in which Manet subverted the renaissance ideal. According to Foucault, Manet was parting ways with a style in which the viewer was meant to feel incorporeal; immersed in the picture; to be in the painting like a spirit-presence.
It was a tradition in western painting to try to make the viewer forget... that the painting rests on this more or less rectangular surface and in two dimensions, and substitutes for this material space on which the painting rests a represented space which denies, in a sense, the space on which it is painted.
The frame and the canvas
When looking at Manet's earlier paintings Foucault recognized a sort of flattening of the vision as well as an emphasis on hard lines that reproduced the rectangular form of the canvas (33-35). These visual works employed a shallow field of view, making it difficult for the viewer to see what is happening (35). It is as though Manet was trying to prevent the "effect of depth," creating a sort of closed space that forced the viewer to recognize the rectangle of the canvass and their own existence as the viewer (36-8). This is exemplified in Manet's painting The Execution of Maximilien.
In this painting Manet has closed off the background with a wall. Foucault described this as a "violently marked and compressed closing of space" (39). The soldiers are cramped together, and their rifles are arranged to repeat the strong horizontal line of the wall above. Together Foucault argues that these characteristics have the effect of drawing attention to the materiality of the painting.
Furthermore, the distance between the firing squad and the victims is implied without having been arranged at different planes. In other words, the victims appear to be smaller and distant even though they are close. According to Foucault,
"we enter a pictorial space where distance does not offer itself to be seen, where depth is no longer an object of perception and where spatial positioning and the distancing of figures are simply given by signs which have no sense or function except inside the picture; that is, by the relationship, in some ways arbitrary, in any case, purely symbolic, between the size of the figures here [the victims] and the size of the figures there [the executioners]." (41-2)
Manet is subtly drawing the attention of the viewer to the canvass itself. This is a technique that directly defies the logic of immersion. There is a sense that something is a little bit off with the painting, something about it just doesn't look 'real'. This effect was intentional - after all, Manet was a classically trained painter, fully capable of rendering a conventionally 'realistic' Renaissance painting. This subversion was part of a 'representational play', designed to hail the attention of the viewer.
Visible and invisible
Foucault went on to describe how Manet developed and expanded on these virtual ruptures. In The Waitress (1879) Manet crops the image, leaving two figures who are looking intently at objects which the viewer cannot see for himself (50). This technique is repeated in the painting Saint-lazare Station (1872-3) which is reproduced below.
Foucault described this as a "game of invisibility assured by the surface of the canvas" (54). "The gazes are there to indicate to us that there is something to see, something that is by definition, and by the very nature of the canvas, necessarily invisible" (55).
The representation of light
Manet then turned his attention to lighting. In The Fifer (1866) Manet removed almost any indication of the direction of light. According to Foucault, a painting such as this would have been positioned next to a window. With such an arrangement, the natural lighting of the canvas would have matched the obscure lighting represented in the painting itself, forcing the viewer to acknowledge the placement of the canvas itself (59).
These sort of virtual ruptures had an impact. When Olympia was exhibited in 1965 it caused a scandal. Some art historians have said that it was the use of an 'oriental' painting style that shocked the fragile (presumably racist) minds of the European viewers. However, Foucault suggested that it was Manet's use of harsh lighting, appearing to come directly from the position of the viewer, that caused such a stir (63).
According to Foucault "an aesthetic transformation can, in a case such as this, provoke a moral scandal" (63). By using these techniques, Manet was forcing the viewer to acknowledge their presence in front of the image itself (63). The scandal here was that Manet did not allow the viewer to be immersed in fantasy. By drawing attention to their material reality, the viewer became something else, something more like a peeper.
The viewer and the self
All of these visual breaches provoked the viewer to recognize materiality. These were ways of subverting the customary game of representation; to ask about what is unseen, to dare them to turn the canvass over. Most importantly, and what we will see in this final painting, Manet was impelling the viewer to recognize themselves.
In Manet's last major painting, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-2), something significant is being subverted: "no longer space, no longer light, but the very place of the viewer" (73). Previous paintings may have asked the viewer to acknowledge their own presence, but this particular painting destabilized that relationship entirely.
It is hard to tell what is going on in this painting. The first time I saw it I felt as though something was wrong. In a lengthy analysis, Foucault explains that there are three incompatible arrangements represented in the painting.
- The first inconsistency comes from the reflection. The woman is drawn in profile, meaning she is facing the painter head on. Yet in order to see her backside reflected in the mirror the painter must also have been shifted to the right. "The painter thus occupies - and the viewer is therefore invited to occupy after him - successively or rather simultaneously two incompatible places" (76). Foucault calls this a "centre and right inconsistency" (77).
- Next, at first glance, one might assume that the viewer is himself depicted in the top right-hand corner of the mirror. This would once again suggest that the viewer is standing directly in front of the woman. Yet Foucault points out that, on the woman, the lighting appears to come "full shot, striking without any obstacle whatsoever" (76). If this were so, then the viewer should be blocking the light. Foucault calls this a "present or absent inconsistency," whereby the existence of the viewer is both necessary and impossible (77).
- Lastly, the man in the top-right corner of the mirror has a "plunging view," gazing down upon the woman as though he stood above her. Yet if this man was, as Foucault suggests, supposed to represent the viewer or the painter, his point of view would have rendered the bar at a completely different angle. There would have been a greater distance between the edge of the marble counter and the gold-framed bottom of the mirror (77-8). Likewise the woman - drawn in perfect profile - is positioned at equal height (77). Manet has here created an inconsistently ascending and a descending gaze.
I will allow Foucault explain the significance of these perspectival departures:
This exclusion, if you will, of every stable and defined place where we locate the viewer, is evidently one of the fundamental properties of this picture and explains at once the enchantment and the malaise that one feels in looking at it. While all classical painting, by its system of lines, of perspective, of vanishing point, etc., had assigned to the viewer and to the painter a certain precise place, fixed, constant, from where the spectacle was seen... Here, on the contrary... it is not possible to know where the painter has placed himself in order to paint the picture as he has done it, and where we must place ourselves in order to see a spectacle such as this. (78)
Manet was effectively messing with the game of representation. He was taunting the viewer, challenging their attempt at suspended disbelief. This provocation turned the painting itself into an object; a "picture-object," as Foucault called it (79).
At this point in my analysis I want to point something out. I have hopefully allowed you to submit yourself to the text. Perhaps there were a few places where you were drawn out of the text; maybe you recognized a typo, or saw something that struck you as wrong. But thus far you - yes you - have not been called into attention in this article. This immersive state of being is common. We are - as readers, viewers, gamers, and self-possessed individuals - capable of this remarkable private space in our head, but we are also capable of existing without recognizing the nature of our own existence.
This is something that Manet was fucking with. By doing so, he made 'the viewer' into a knowable category; something that could be pondered, considered, invested; he made the 'subject' into an 'object'. Our existence is thus called forth, impelled by these virtual ruptures. To conclude I want to draw from the theoretical discussion in my thesis:
If we want to know how the self can be ‘made true’ in a relationship to video games, then we have to begin by looking at the mirror-elements force light upon our singular existence, cleave us from the virtual experience. By looking beyond manipulation, we can begin to recognize how virtual-material emplacement becomes the axis upon which we know, practice, shape, and improve ourselves.