- The Listening Eye: Postmodernism, Paranoia, and the Hypervisible
“To the insides of the ear belong those who have a sight of internal
hearing.” That’s the nocturnal look, the listening eye.—Emmanuel Swedenborg, cited in Lyotard, The Inhuman
Postmodernism, Yet Again
In this essay, I shall take a cue from Slavoj Zizek’s discussion of Lacanian anamorphosis, or skewed perspective (Looking Awry), in order to read three dissimilar works alongside one another, and from a “paranoid” slant. For in spite of sometimes radically incommensurate subject matter, the three works I discuss here—The Transparency of Evil (Jean Baudrillard), Looking Awry (Slavoj Zizek) and The Inhuman (Jean-François Lyotard)—all share a focus on the dehumanizing effects of technology as determinants of what Lyotard has called the postmodern condition. 1 Moreover, all three works themselves adopt something like a paranoid perspective, suggesting that under the sway of an ethic of sheer performativity, human contact—face to face—has been rendered obsolete by interface.
In the bleak vision of The Transparency of Evil (1993), for instance, Baudrillard describes an isolated disembodied satellite man, cut loose from his moorings: “The centrifugal force of our proliferating technologies has stripped us of all weight. . . . Freed of all density, all gravity, we are being dragged into an orbital motion which threatens to become perpetual” [30–31]. Similarly, in “The Ecstasy of Communication” (1983), Baudrillard describes a robotic subject mesmerized by pornographic hypervisibility, [End Page 90] “more visible than the visible . . . the obscenity of what no longer has any secret, or what dissolves completely in information and communication” [130–31]. 2
Like Baudrillard, Lyotard (The Inhuman) describes the loss of dimensional intersubjectivity, suggesting that space is no longer an enabling interval between subjects, the scene of the exchanged gaze: contemporary cyberspace is the scene of communication without community, saturated with hypervisible information. But while for Baudrillard, we are already in weightless orbit, in a postcatastrophic, fractal aftermath, for Lyotard our fate is not yet cast, although adumbrated disaster—the end of the species or of the universe—provides a telos for our existence.
Slavoj Zizek is not nearly so metaphysical, nor so glum, as his fellow post-philosophers, but he is every bit as concerned with the optical, Looking Awry. Zizek is a patient and even cheery exegete of Lacan, attempting to “introduce” Lacanian thought by looking at film, detective fiction, and other user-friendly instances of modern culture as templates of theory. Indeed, compared to his fellow travelers, Zizek is resolutely quotidian, even earthbound, focusing on the contemporary human subject as consumer/spectator, seated not in a satellite capsule or at a computer terminal but at the movies, popcorn in hand.
Yet in spite of his goodwill, Zizek’s take on postmodernism is anything but sanguine: he too depicts a subject who is prey to the fascination of overexposed “obscene” virtual reality (X-rated Hitchcock, if you will), and always threatened as well by the eruption of the menacing Lacanian real into the web of symbolic reality—an intrusion that awakens the paranoid “post-man” from an absorption in the image on the screen, with a reminder of the precariousness of all that appears evident or meaningful. Thus in “The Obscene Object of Postmodernity” [Looking Awry, chap. 8], Zizek describes a blot or stain that sticks out or refuses assimilation to the totalizing gaze, eclipsing the heretofore meaningful and legible symbolic universe with an ineffable real that “produces a radical opacity and blocks every essay of interpretation” . I suggest that Zizek’s notion of the obscene object as blot—like the hair on the camera lens that “disturbs” our absorption in the screen—as well as Lyotard’s notion of obdurate matter, may...