Two Image Futures
I want to consider two images that will help us trace what Jacques Ranciere has called the “odyssey from the Aurorean glory of Lascaux’s paintings to the contemporary twilight of a reality devoured by media images and an art doomed to monitors and synthetic images.” (1) And for the sake of consistency in subject matter, I want to follow this as an animal trail which begins with the familiar bisons and horses of Lascaux, and ends with a futuristic image of a futuristic animal, a digital dinosaur from the film Jurassic Park. You will probably want to ask why the long journey of the image from the deep, primeval past to the contemporary moment of virtual, imaginary futures should be exemplified, not by the “image of man,” the human fabricator and implied beholder of these images, but by images of animals? What is it about animal images that provides a clue to the entire odyssey of the image, and allows us to glimpse the future of the image?
Before I address this question, I want to consider the situations of the images themselves. Among the many speculations about the function of the Lascaux images is the notion that they were something like a ritualistic “teaching machine” in which a kind of Platonic cinema was being staged prior to the hunt, in order to familiarize the hunters with their prey, producing a virtual rehearsal that would, by a kind of iconic, homeopathic magic, ensure the success of the hunt. (2) No doubt the smokey atmosphere and the ingestion of appropriate stimulants would help to heighten the hallucinogenic, dream-like atmosphere of the cave, which becomes a place for using images to project and control an immediate and possible future. Similarly, the scene in Jurassic Park is in the control room of the park, which has just been invaded by a real, not imaginary velociraptor that has accidentally turned on the film projector showing the park’s orientation film. The raptor is caught in the projector beam at the moment when the film is showing the DNA sequence that made it possible to clone a real live dinosaur from its fossil remains. If we imagined a real bison galloping into the caves of Lascaux and threatening to trample the stoned-out hunters, we would have a Paleolithic version of the effect produced in the projection room of Jurassic Park.
Consider these two images, then, as an allegory of the beginning and end of the odyssey of the image. They exemplify many of our common assumptions about the past and future of this narrative, moving from hand-painted, primitive likenesses that still “suffice to stand in” for the objects they represent, to a highly technical object, a product of high speed computing and genetic engineering that is then represented filmically by the latest development in the cinematic image, namely digital animation. Many more contrasts could be elaborated: the image of primitive magic with the technoscientific artifact; the mythic ritual of the deep past and the science fiction narrative of a possible future; the beast to be pursued in the wild, with the cloned organism to be produced as a theme park attraction. And yet the longer we contemplate these two images, the more evident it becomes that the binary oppositions between past and future, nature and technology, wild and domesticated, hunting and zookeeping, will not stand up to scrutiny. Both images are technical productions, located in cinematic “control rooms”; both are present objects of consumption to be “captured” by their images. Most interesting is the temporal inversion that the two images demand. The image that stands for the past in this pairing turns out to be much younger than the image that represents the future. The digital dinosaur is not, like the Paleolithic bison, an actually existing animal in the present; it is a purely science-fictive creature, a living, fleshly re-animation of an animal that existed on this planet long before the bisons or the primitive artists who painted their images. In this sense, our futuristic animal, if not its image is much more ancient than the animals of Lascaux. Perhaps the only contrast, then, that really stands up to deconstruction is the most literal natural fact about the objects represented by these images: Lascaux is about herbivores, and Jurassic Park features its carnivores as the main attraction. The positions of predator and prey have been reversed. In the primitive image, it is we who hope to kill the wild object represented; in the contemporary, futuristic image, the artificial object we have created has gone wild and threatens to kill us.
(1) Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image (New York: Verson, 2007), 1.
(2) Bertram Lewin, The Image and the Past (New York: International Universities Press, 1968).