Black Noise


Dr. Edward Colless
Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne
Email: ecolless@unimelb.edu.au
Reference this essay: Colless, Edward. “Black Noise.” In Leonardo Electronic Almanac22, no. 1, edited by Lanfranco Aceti, Paul Thomas, and Edward Colless. Cambridge, MA: LEA / MIT Press, 2017.
Published Online: May 15, 2017
Published in Print: To Be Announced
ISSN: 1071-4391
ISBN: 978-1-906897-62-8
https://contemporaryarts.mit.edu/pub/blacknoise


Abstract

Our modern media of photography, telegraphy, telephony, radio, cinema, television, and video were once domains of disembodiment and spectral appearance; whether characterized as incorporeal voices and sounds, or as ethereal images or actions communicated by their agents from a distance, they have been intuited from their origins and theorized throughout their history to be “haunted media.” Contemporary digital technologies and, notably, their fabrication of social media, however, appear to have dispelled such phantoms, both at the microscopic level of code and in the macroscopic realm of interactivity across the web. While there may be piracy, crime, and subterfuge, these appear to be due only to anachronistic loopholes or glitches in security protocols that are constantly being monitored and corrected or closed down: in principle, and in its ultimate form, there are no hiding places on the web, because there can be no dark corners and no ‘Unconscious’ behind its affluent heterogeneity. Perhaps that ultimate form of pervasive availability and accessibility is configured in the superabundant connectivity of the cloud. While the political economy of the cloud—in particular, its configuration of web capitalism—has been subject to critique in the past few years, this essay presents a view onto the cloud from the haunted perspective of modern media. It speculates on how the cloud might darken, and what demonology might be written for it, as its communal spaces are inundated by paranormal pollutants and pathogens, erupting in paranoia, contagion, and pandemic possession.

Keywords: Cloud, demonology, haunted, stigmata, media


You should show the clouds, driven by the impetuous winds, hurled against the high mountain tops, and there wreathing and eddying like waves that beat upon rocks; the very air should strike terror through the murky darkness occasioned therein by the dust and mist and thick clouds.

Leonardo da Vinci, “How to represent a tempest,” The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, ed. and trans. Edward MacCurdy (New York: Braziler, 1955), p. 870.


1. The Cloud

The advent of cloud computing represents the ecliptic arrival of a black cloud, wreathing and eddying with a murky darkness. This cloud requires a demonology, just as our formerly modern media—telegraphy, photography, radio, cinema, the telephone, television, and video—had their manuals of gremlins. In their time, those means of connection or information transport suffered interruption, intermission, noise, blur, blotting, dispersal, degradation, or disaggregation: interference by distortion or by misdirection in transit. The signals in these media may have been distorted or refracted, yet in their essential substrata were propelled like shortwave “mayday” calls as voices in the dark, fog horns, searchlights, emergency flares in a night sky, or the radio emissions of quasars and pulsars into spectral or oceanic wastes. Unlike this obscurity, the cloudiness of the cloud has nothing to do with distortion, distance, or diminution, but is instead due to the unaccountability of its dimensions. The cloud is neither restricted nor bounded. As an unprecedented cultural and technical artifact, it is total: totally (in every direction) open, and totally (always) on—“which,” say Rob Coley and Dean Lockwood in their searing critique of cloud culture, Cloud Time, “will push far beyond what we currently understand as interaction.” [1]

The cloud is the idiom of an immanent and inestimable social and topographic connectivity, like a cybernetic representation of the Mahayana Buddhist emblem of Indra’s net, whose jeweled, interconnected nodes reflect all other nodal points in the net. We humanize this ghastly but brilliant supernova of communicative immediacy and availability by bestowing it with the universalist and cosmopolitan righteousness of a digital commons, spiked with the democratizing impulses of Wiki collaboration, conviviality, and even charity. But of course the sociality of such a commons is determined by the marketing of the network labor-power appropriated for the production of its data traffic. [2] As Coley and Lockwood observe, the cloud is not so much in danger of becoming monetized or colonized by a new information capitalism and/or by capital’s force of rationalization and cybernetic control; rather, the cloud “should be understood as both the force behind this new paradigm and its new configuration.” [3] If there is a demonology to be written about the cloud, it is not in the naïve terms of demonization of those capitalists eager to exploit the utopic possibilities of the cloud’s “communalism.” [4] Rather, it will address the demonic diagram of the cloud’s saturated connectivity, which purges mediation of any unconscious or non-conscious potentiality, and renders all communication into a rationalized—if inestimably dynamical, complex, and unblemished—accessibility. This is a fractal, customized, but also totalized exchange that no prior system of media could attain.

It comes as no surprise that the modern media of mass communication, in their novelty as well as their obsolescence and now in their utopic or piratical revival as “poor” images, [5] have been astutely and almost exhaustively described as “haunted.” From our contemporary perspective within the fabric of ‘Web 2’, the gamut of the now-historicized ‘modern’ media (analogue, even if electronic) has been constitutively defined as the domain of disembodied voices, of actions detached from their distant agents, of ghosted images, and of white noise. [6] By analogy, we could also appeal to the entrancingly derisive yet epochal adjective “spooky,” which, in 1935, Einstein applied to the postulation of nonlocal instantaneous interaction, or the type of “action at a distance” later to be dubbed “entanglement,” in quantum mechanics. [7]

The disquieting spookiness of a particular modern medium was famously portended by Maxim Gorky in his prescient review of the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph program, screened at a Russian fair in 1896 in a traveling recreation of the sort of Parisian café that had been the films’ original venue. “Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows,” he declared as if reporting on a nightmare or a state of possession; “curses and ghosts, evil spirits that have cast whole cities into eternal sleep come to mind.” [8] Gorky’s remarks were directed at what might arguably be branded as a primordial instance of naïve and frivolous—if not entirely benign—actuality footage. It was this very realism—but as bleached-out, insubstantial, “grey,” or anemic, rather than any explicitly fantastic iconography—that was unsettling for him. Gorky may have been thinking of the illumined cast of figures on screen, rather than the spectator in the dark café, when he proposed the marvelously brooding image of a whole population captivated and hypnotized by an evil genie. Nonetheless, it seems premonitory of the critique of spectacle launched by both the Frankfurt School and by the Situationists against the pacification and passivity of mass-media audiences, as much against the anemia, pap, and kitsch of the product delivered to them. For so many of its critics—whether progressive, conservative, or saboteur-Luddite—modern mass media trafficked content as bereft of substance as the imagery entrancing Plato’s race of slaves, held spellbound by flickering, spectral shadows cast onto the wall of their cave. But, as Gorky’s metaphor invokes—with a dimension far more poignant, and afflicted by a less intelligible catastrophe than that of the allegory of the cave—these media also had the power of a ‘psycho-pomp,’ luring spectators or audiences into a shadow kingdom comparable to the Homeric underworld of Hades, a domain of ghosts and the lingering or revenant dead. Photogenic beauty is shadowed by this dark seduction.

Almost from its debut, analogue photography—that most modern of visual media, and allegedly the harbinger of death to painting—was prone to revealing instances of entanglement between visible and invisible worlds or between spatial and temporal dimensions: whether as emanations and aural presences, as personified spirits, as evidence of unnatural phenomena, as psychic projections and haloes, or as ethereal force fields. [9] Almost as the exclamation mark for this tradition of the photogenic specter, Roland Barthes distilled the thanatologic constituent of photography when he diagnosed the traumatic, unspeakable lightning-strike of the punctum, erupting within the loquacious conventions, both technical and formal, of photographic representation (studium). The punctum, or pinhole lesion, in a photograph is attendant on a devastating acknowledgement of an anterior future in which death is at stake. [10] It is a singular silence, occasioned when one withdraws from the “usual blah blah,” he says, of the studium. [11] “These two little girls looking at a primitive airplane above their village,” observes Barthes, “have their whole lives before them; but also they are dead (today), they are then already dead (yesterday).” Indeed, “whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.” [12] What is catastrophic is the absolute particularity of this death, although it is a death repeated mechanically into infinity, and that haunts every photograph…

Barthes distinguishes the blinding beauty of this photographic trauma as separate from the lulled spectatorship of cinema, which appears to elude this catastrophe (unless trapped in a film still [13]). Yet, as Gorky’s discernment demonstrates, the subjectivity characterizing the classical descriptions of cinematic spectatorship also professes a spooky kind of commotion. Certainly, the early years of cinema as a public institution carry anecdotes of audiences being spooked by its relatively novel darkness, cocooned with strangers in café-like spaces with the only illumination thrown from projector to screen. This was a darkness that concealed potentially immoral or illicit encounters, and that cloaked behavior that might be judged—outside the theatre—to be asocial, delinquent, or improper. [14] More abstractly, the exquisitely objectified, passive, trance-like states of specular seduction swathed the audience’s energetically repetitive, fetishistic pleasures of identification with the cinematic “imaginary signifier” (or, more concretely, with screen personas and visual style), and “sutured” the subject into the filmic scene through concatenations of narrative form, pulse, tension, and discharge. [15] This distinctly Freudian and Lacanian theorization of audience subjectivity, so prominent in academic film studies from the 1960s to the 1990s, had little truck with post-Freudian medical psychiatry or ethical psychology and their therapeutics. Further, this critical insistence on the Freudian pedigree of film studies (particularly in its later battle with cognitive theory) provides an apparent correlation between the invention of the commercial and public cinematograph in the later-19th century and the diagnostics leading to the discovery and charting of the unconscious. Indeed, the clinical scenography utilizing the analyst’s couch seems to coincide topographically as well as historically with the institutional apparatus of the cinematic medium.

We might additionally propose, in the scenographic tenor, that both cinematic and television spectatorships also display the sacramental artifice of clairvoyance or séance. This spectacle is most notably observed in the distinctly modern spiritualist occupation of channeling voices or behaviors of the dead (like table-rapping or ectoplasmic ejaculation), or at least communicating with the otherworldly. Using a sequence of deliberate and domestically familiar cathode-ray-tube distortions and glitches, the TV series The Outer Limits (1963-65) began each week with an anonymous, disembodied voiceover, which announced with mediumistic sonority that the program had taken command of each viewer’s television for the duration of the broadcast. [16] In its originality (compared, for instance, with that of The Twilight Zone[1959-64], which invited viewers to enter a fantastic realm), this overture remains intimidating and eerie in its insistence—exclusively—on an abstraction of the apparatus and medium, regardless of the content.

A similarly spooky annunciation was delivered by Carol Ann, the little girl in Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film Poltergeist, who, occupying a position in a family pathology not unlike that of the haunted and traumatized character of Nathaniel in E. T. A. Hoffman’s gothic short story “The Sandman,” disobediently stays up far past her bedtime and in so doing witnesses a type of forbidden “primal scene.” In an era before 24-hour broadcasting, Carol Ann sits spellbound and expectantly in front of a dead channel on the television set, peering into its droning, random white noise. “They’re here,” she mysteriously declares, making out within this seemingly signalless (or non-signifying) hum the murmured enticements and pleas of the dead, as she witnesses them take form as a pareidolia within the mosaic racket of the screen. When asked by her mother who she is referring to, the child replies, “The TV people.” But they are also the dead disturbed by the rapacious suburban property development that trampled over an old cemetery, and they use the TV’s white noise as a medium, percolating up from the suburban unconscious and unleashing their fury. The dead return with hysterical obscenity, unveiling the sexual repression in the primal nature of Carol Anne’s susceptible spectatorship. They manifest as a phantasmagoric circus of symptomatic, adult sexuality that induces monstrous phallic and vulval eruptions from the home’s furnishings and architecture—a circus into which the jealous poltergeists abduct the child who brought them forth.

Both Poltergeist and The Outer Limits allegorize the viewing experience with a mise-en-abyme strategy that is not so much baroque metafiction as it is an emblematic insignia of modern electronic communication. Poltergeist’s iconic poster depicts the little girl in a vaguely Victorian nightgown, silhouetted against the enveloping, unearthly white glow of a TV set—a charming, if anachronistic, nod to Lewis Carroll’s Alice—with her hands reaching out towards its screen as if she were sleepwalking. “Evil spirits that have cast whole cities into eternal sleep come to mind.” If it seems plausible that an electronic medium such as TV might be pirated by spooks looking to penetrate the most intimate zones of domestic consumption and kinship, then it is not only the persuasive narrative that permits this, but also, as with The Outer Limits prologue, the fact that this capacity is a feature of the medium’s modernity. The limit of plausibility of this supernatural incursion, as well as the limit of its modernity, might be reached with the appearance of a cursed videotape in Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998), which kills anyone who dares to watch it within a week. Once again, the video signal carries the parasite of a vengeful ghost, and interweaves hallucinatory sexuality and death. This was a generic theme of the horror genre in that decade, one that fused morbid, adolescent fantasias on urban legends with the license given to sexual expression in the context of the teenage sleepover. The montage of blurred and disintegrating images and glyph-like symbols in the demonic video are banally reminiscent of some styles of contemporaneous music video, as well as of Ring’s antecedents in 1960s experimental and psychedelic cinema; indeed, the images seem as stylistically bulky and clumsy as the videotape that has to be inserted into the VCR itself. Yet it is precisely this clumsiness that provides the movie’s insinuating exemplum of a modern haunting: the transposition of chaotic rage—immaterial, revenant, residual—as photogenic imagery onto a recording surface, one that is receptive to this signal precisely because of its particular technological modernity. [17] In cybernetic terms, we could say that modern media were theoretically and practically styled as channels of communication with polar-isolated correspondents. Yet the spooky parasite repeatedly crept into this otherwise functioning relay via its insatiable and inevitable accumulation of noise, for these channels were susceptible to interference from undetectable, ineffable, beguiling, alien presences. Like specters lurking in an empty mansion, they loomed within movie screens, manifested in graveyard-shift TV transmissions, or crackled out of radio headphones tuned to short-wave, like specters lurking in an empty mansion.

In marked contrast to this, our contemporary media—notably, the data clouds formed from interactive social media, in which content, software, and platforms are offered on demand, yet held in corporate-operated, hyperlinked assemblies streaming into and out of individual computers—provide an understanding of both mediation and communication that is distinct from the obsolete media of modernity. As a result, this difference stipulates a different demonology. What ghouls might inhabit the cloud’s proffered superabundant connectivity and accessibility? Viruses and bugs, to be sure, but also worms, seeders, hosts, leeches, trolls, zombies; a taxonomy of threats distinct from the ghosts of modernity. These are, in some respects, anachronistic creatures (with nomenclature borrowed from The Lord of the Rings and World of Warcraft), yet they are not the sorts of melancholic wraiths or disquieting apparitions that stalked a twilight zone and induced uncanny sensations. Instead, they gather and emerge from realms of viscerally morbid horror; from vermiculate rot and phage-like, leprous infection. They are demons that appear only when the data cloud darkens, for the cloud is—at least in its corporate and commercial idealizations—a white cloud. We envisage the cloud with this blank whiteness when we conceive of it as a boundless storage space, inestimably dynamic in its continuous uploading and downloading of data, an endless cycle of remote data storage and access. In this sense, as a new allegory of the mind—one inflected with the new bio-materialism of the mathematics and physiology of ‘neural nets’—the cloud is an even greater object than the web.

In a sense, this cloud—a white, neoliberal market allegory of the information economy as a crypto-archaeological data hoard—is incalculable: it is what Timothy Morton might call a “hyper-object,” in the same way he calls global warming a hyper-object. [18] Too vast to be perceived as a gestalt, too complex to be analyzed even as a composite and thus not divisible into representative portions or fragments, the white data cloud is globally distributed, yet coalescing into continuously revised priority paths, assemblages, concatenations, and concentrations entirely according to usage, and therefore subject to the imperatives of the market. It is an incalculable totalization because it is a market that uses data not only as its freight, but as its medium. Think of the perfect fit between Google Glass and the cloud: the mobility of the Glass tech allows it to not so much record, like portable videotape, the otherwise overlooked, unedited imagery of the minutiae of day-to-day life, but rather stream this imagery constantly into and out of the cloud. After all, only the dimensionless cloud can contain such an incalculable amount of data. Indeed, if we had the means to somehow hear this cloud, it would be white noise. The cloud is white—superabundant, penetrable, accessible, and symmetrical, yet dimensionless and dazzling—when it is seen as a totalizing, yet paradoxically de-territorializing, or even ungrounded, data bank. Our relationship to it, and within it, is defined in terms of claiming resources, of appropriating its genial availability through negotiated proscriptions of its superabundance: the issues of ownership, leasehold, marketed priority (queue-jumping), loyalty programs, and even a sort of native title to that data. Its protocols determine rights of access and traffic, the acquisition of defenses for privacy, and incitements to foster commonwealth, all of which are economic as well as topographic features of the cloud.

Thus, the cloud also has a political economy that becomes apparent when we speculate on the resistance and privileges that might be forged in opposition to its totalizing, unifying economy. The cloud is dimensionless and incalculable, yet for all that, it remains a vast calculus of data usage: a deterministic mathesis universalis, like the vision of a cosmos describable in the universal, algebraic language hypothesized by Descartes, Leibniz, and Laplace. Of course, the cloud in its commercial idealization transcribes the cosmos as a condition of pure communication, visibility, and presence; of untrammeled, frictionless interface. We could call this mediation or this medium a supersaturated state, in which the channel is hypothesized as immaterial precisely because it is universal. Its medium manifests as a dazzling presence of all its subjects in relationship to each other, appropriately celestial in its metaphoric poetry, since it portends a heavenly rapture and the sci-fi fantasy of ‘singularity’ (that is, the universal upload of pure consciousness). Thinking again of the implied quotidian ubiquity of Glass tech, one can easily imagine the cloud’s ecstatic superabundance, the “ecstasy of communication” (to revive Jean Baudrillard’s lovely, ironic term [19]) invoking an apocalyptic vision. This apocalypse, I propose, could be a J. G. Ballard-like scenario, in which the equivalent of gated communities block out Glass media either by physically intercepting the upload/download signals or blocking and erasing certain pathways in the Google neural nets within an area of the cloud. Such virtual gated communities would be privileged zones, designed for everything from individual psychologies to family histories and interactions (such as protocols for parental control) to nations, yet affordable only for the same sector of society capable of securing its physical neighborhoods against unwelcome outsiders. This would result in a different political economy than that of the current security paradigm founded on the password or PIN code, as this gatekeeping would not be done by barring access through hygienic filtering so much as by coagulating into  invisible or esoteric archipelagos, hermetically withdrawing from communication. These archipelagos would be havens and oases of privilege, as well as hiding spots invoking the predatory stealth of cloaking. But they could also be bizarre, anachronistic forms of willful excommunication, as seen with the current legal battles over the “right to be forgotten” (or erased from the web) [20] or with the modes of hermit-like, almost cultic or survivalist isolation: in other words, a mottling of blind spots, like a spread of leprosy, throughout the cloud. In his convulsive, geopolitical, and crypto-archeological grimoire, Cyclonopedia, Reza Negarastani suggests that these sullying and stigmatic insurgences within the cloud be called its “leper creativity.” [21] It is, then, in its geopolitical economy and crypto-ontology that the cloud loses its luster and darkens to black.

It is here, too, that we see not only the political economy of the cloud, but also its theology. In its dazzling idealized whiteness, the cloud is the glory of the information economy, and by “glory” I mean the triumphant, luminous presence of benevolent divinity. There is no unconscious in such a cloud, no scission in the communicative act, but rather a pure consummation of it; no division or misrecognition of the subject, but instead the pure presence of the subject’s supersaturated mediation, devoid of objectification. It arrives as love. It is heavenly; unquestionable in its glory. But as the nimbus darkens, the data cloud’s communal spaces are inundated by paranormal pollutants and pathogens, and these communities coagulate into gnostic perversions and cabals, erupting in paranoia and contagious possession. These demons manifest as if they were chemical storms in a miasma, as disintegrating turbulence or teeming torrents, or as cancers—as black noise.


2. The Tempest

When I suggest a demonology for the cloud, I do so against the background of its meteorological connotations. What is, in naturalistic terms, a cloud? Until the amateur scientist Luke Howard’s famous lecture on cloud morphology, delivered to his fellow Quakers at their Askesian Society’s annual meeting in London on December 6, 1802, clouds were treated as formless substance, as bodies without boundaries. [22] For Leonardo da Vinci, clouds represented a strange class of “bodies without surfaces,” capable of interpenetrating and entangling with each other: “The surface is a limitation of the body and the limitation of the body is no part of that body,” wrote Leonardo in a notebook, “and the limitation of one body is that which begins another. That which is no [sic] part of any body is a thing of naught. A thing of naught is that which fills no space.” [23] Clouds, therefore, had no limits or common frontiers with the space around them. As surface-less bodies, they could not be analyzed in terms of shapes, and thus had no identity or fixed position. Like the sky itself, they were dimensionless and placeless: blobs, blotches, or smudges, or alternatively, violently impetuous and anamorphic fluids. Mere blurs, even if solid enough to support angels, saints, or heroes being lifted heavenward in ecstasy or apotheosis, composed of a buoyant vapor that could nonetheless block sunlight enough to cast shadows across the architecture of illusionistic quadratura ceiling paintings, which seem to miraculously levitate Baroque cupolas. Howard’s tripartite typology, despite its Latin nomenclature, was so novel and succinct that it is still in use today. Cirrus were those clouds resembling wisps of hair, plumes, cat scratches, or diaphanous swathes; stratuswere like unbroken sheets, blotting out the blue of the sky like ice floes in a sprawling, unmodulated layer which, when at ground-level or intercepted by high terrain, was experienced as fog; and cumulus, the heaps gathered up like monumentally swollen breakers, drifts, and dunes, often seen massing on the horizon. But these were, at least from the vantage of the ground, rather than in a flight path negotiating them, picturesque, benign, unblemished, and—above all—white. Howard’s clouds were as naturalized and benevolent as those rendered in the paintings of John Constable. (Goethe, who admired Constable’s art as much as Howard’s cloud science and who attempted unsuccessfully to meet Howard, drew a compelling comparison between the two approximately contemporaneous men, even though neither knew of the other). [24] Constable’s skies seem to weigh on the earth, defining a sort of biosphere and political territory in which men and women are bound to the providence and dispensation of their birth in an order governed by a pastoral god. There is no mystery to Constable’s Anglican clouds, quite unlike the vaporous, miasmic, and ultimately mysterious atmospherics of J. M. W. Turner’s art, which fuse promethean sentiments with the devil’s pandemonium.

These tumultuous or threatening sorts of clouds—notably, the blackening clouds that forecast and bring stormy weather—were called nimbus by Howard; however, they did not constitute a fourth category in his taxonomy because, to Howard, nimbus was not actually a distinct form, but rather a stew, a tempestuous indeed blemished amalgam of all three types. In this respect, nimbus eludes the placement and profile Howard gave to his white clouds: like Italian Renaissance skies, nimbus had no place or dimension. We should respect this odd fastidiousness that excluded nimbus from a providential place within the firmament, particularly when trying to envision a contamination of the data cloud. Nimbus is a sort of goop, an almost-formless admixture of the defined cloud types that possesses an ominous surcharge. And perhaps it was for this reason that Howard felt inclined to use a word that designates a supernatural luminosity, yet also connotes a sinister halo. Unlike the more ‘secular’ cloud types, nimbus insinuates a supernatural infusion or incursion into meteorology, manifesting as amorphous turmoil and volatility. It expresses the kind of excitability, moodiness, and impulse exemplified in the looming exhalation and fuming condensation of Correggio's 1531-2 painting of Jupiter, in which the god descends on, encircles, and ravishes the object of his desire, the supplicant and accommodating virgin nymph Io. [25]

Correggio has the naked Io discreetly turned away from us to face Jupiter, with her robe casually discarded across the knoll she sits on. As she leans slightly to the right, giving way to Jupiter’s advance, her legs, back, and tilting head form a strikingly lit diagonal across the scene, complementing the god’s shadowy and opposing stance in front of her. Jupiter’s cloud, according to the version of the myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (which was Correggio’s literary source), was a cloak used to conceal his infidelity from his wife, Juno. [26] The partial, reticent, and almost sketchy linear and tonal indications of Jupiter’s ardent face and outstretched right hand, enshrouded within the puffs and billows of grey fog, seem (in accordance with Ovid) to make the cloud a prosaic veil. But the painting’s scope of subterfuge goes beyond this simple ruse: the eroticism of Correggio’s treatment indulges in the beguiling implications of an intimate, ecstatic, and incarnate epiphany. This is especially notable in the teasing sensitivity of Io’s left arm, which takes hold of the tumescent surge of dark cloud that designates Jupiter’s right arm, which in turn slips deftly around her waist in an embrace. But while Jupiter’s arm embraces Io, it also thrusts deeply through the vulval opening formed by the space between the curve of her arm raised outward and the symmetrical curve of her inner torso. This visibly suggestive action at the painting’s focal point (also the meeting point of its two main diagonals) serves as a piquant displacement of the action hidden within Io’s otherwise discretionary poise; just what is hidden is indicated by her right foot, with its curling toes, seen rising above her left thigh as, we must deduce, she opens her legs to Jupiter. [27]

Io, eo, I—the mark of subjectivity,” remarks Hubert Damisch in a parenthetical aside on the painting. [28] Jupiter’s clouding here is less a shield against his indiscretion as it is Io’s hold on his cunning passion. In Correggio’s painting, the cloud that conveys Jupiter’s visitation doesn’t disguise so much as deform the god. Ballooning his body into turbulences and eddies of libidinal vivacity, the cloud swirls downward and over and around Io like a smoky discharge or a smutty emission, handling her supple but solid nakedness as her flesh emanates a penumbral tremor, stoked by the sfumato warming the cloud’s wispy gradations. This is a pyretic and gaseous cloud, one which might bear lightning—appropriate to Jupiter—and yet it also produces an outpouring of fluid, which in turn becomes the stain or blot spreading out from Io’s erotic effusion. The painting is a mischievous travesty of the Christian Annunciation and its inviolate, eternally virgin vessel, Mary Theotokos, who (at least in the more prurient exegeses of Roman and Orthodox dogma) is a sexual mortal, the archetypal bride of Christ her own son, an object of desire as well as veneration, but a woman with no sexual animation. Is not the advent of the data cloud similarly allegorized as “divine,” promising to join the immateriality of information traffic with its material infrastructure—its servers, conduits, and fossil-fueled circuitry—as a kind of miraculous incarnation?

Hallucinatory and yet substantial, when nimbus clouds darken, they drive us into a deep sense of obscurity, wreathing and eddying like Leonardo’s tempest. This tempest is a pagan profanation of Christian Incarnation, of glorious theophany, “striking terror through its murky darkness.” To use the 18th-century painter Anton Mengs’s distinction, the tempest is celestial rather than divine. [29] The clouds in which the Hebrew and Christian God appears before mortals may be rendered as desert whirlwinds or majestic columns of smoke or even lightning squalls, yet these are all imbued with an authority that prevents them from deforming the God within, no matter how much they obscure him. Indeed, an immaculate presence is always embedded within any phenomenal visitation; any such appearance of God within clouds, regardless of its contingent qualities of enigma, awe, or shock, will radiate an unadulterated presence; an indwelling of spirit and feeling of belonging to that phenomenal form. Even at their most fearsome, divine clouds are radiant masks, and while they veil the true face of God, they are not deceitful or treacherous; they are not a form of camouflage or a simulacrum. The celestial, on the other hand, is a kind of theatre: its clouds are a machinery for hoisting Christ in his Ascension or the Virgin Mary in her corporeal assumption to heaven; for lowering angels to convey their messages; or for conveying Gabriel in order to impregnate Mary through the Word of God. Celestial clouds are the expedient props of a deus ex machina; that is, an inglorious contrivance of plot and direction. [30] But let us apply an anamorphic distortion to the celestial, inspired by the tempestuous concoction of form and dogma in Jupiter’s cloud, and in so doing consider the catastrophic collapse of theatrical contrivance, the rupture of plot and direction that the nimbus cloud induces precisely because of its lack of place, its lack of belonging, and its defacement of the pious indwelling of spirit. When we envision the data cloud as a darkening nimbus, clumping and erupting in leprous stigmata and sickening maculae, we might begin to articulate its etiology as a kind of demonology; indeed, as black noise.


References and Notes

[1] Rob Coley and Dean Lockwood, Cloud Time: The Inception of the Future (Winchester, UK and Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2012), 12. For an exorcism of the alleged democratizing vector of crowd sourcing among other lineaments of social media see Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World (London: Allen Lane, 2010).

[2] Franco “Bifo” Berardi projects an affinity between such a virtualized labour power with the far more concrete disenfranchisements of the fourth world precariat: “cellular fractals of labour, underpaid, precarious, depersonalized. Fragments of impersonalized nervous energy, recombined by the network.” See After the Future, eds. Gary Genosko and Nicholas Thorburn, trans. Arianna Bove et al. (Edinburgh, Oakland and Baltimore: AK Press, 2011), 141.

[3] Coley and Lockwood (2012), 14.

[4] For instance, the utopianism of the internet’s “universal without totality”, described by Pierre Levy in his Cyberculture, trans. Robert Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 91-102. See also Pierre Levy, Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age, trans. Robert Bononno (New York: Plenum, 1997) on collectivity and virtual intelligence as an “economy of deterritorialization,” 67-88.

[5] Hito Steyerl, “In Defence of Poor Images,” e-flux journal #10, 2009http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/ [accessed 17/09/14]: “a rag or a rip…it transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition into cult value, films into clips…it defies patrimony, national culture, or indeed copyright…a lure, a decoy, an index…the Wretched of the Screen…. The poor image embodies the afterlife of many former masterpieces of cinema and video art.”

[6] See Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television(Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000); María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, eds., Popular Ghosts: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture (New York and London: Continuum, 2010).

[7] Einstein’s scathing phrase “spukhafte Fernwirkung” was expressed in a letter to Max Born in 1947, but the rebuke featured in the famous Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen (EPR) paradox, published in 1935. Here it criticized quantum mechanical theory’s requisite of a communicative action or interaction occurring immediately between particles remote enough to warrant a communication faster than the speed of light. Einstein’s phrase was as a riposte to Erwin Schrodinger’s term Verschränkung, used in a letter to Einstein in response to the EPR paradox.

[8] Maxim Gorky, “A Review of the Lumière Program,” trans. Leda Swan, in Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 407-408. For a brief historical evocation of Gorky’s experience see Tom Gunning, “Animated Pictures: Tales of the Cinema’s Forgotten Future, After 100 Years of Film,” in Vanessa R. Schwartz, Jeannene M. Przyblysk, eds. The Nineteenth-century Visual Culture Reader, ed. Vanessa R. Schwartz, Jeannene M. Przyblysk, (New York: Routledge, 2004), 99-100.

[9] Clément Cheroux, et al., The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005); John Harvey, Photography and Spirit(London: Reaktion Books, 2007); John Potts and Edward Sheer, eds., Technologies of Magic: A Cultural Study of Ghosts, Machines and the Uncanny (Sydney: Power Publications, 2006).

[10] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 30-32. For a persuasive account of this hidden death as an iteration of Lacan’s “blinding flash” of the beautiful, disintegrating the Imaginary and as the purity of desire as death-drive, see Lori Wike, “Photographs and Signatures: Absence, Presence and Temporality in Barthes and Derrida”, In[]visible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture 3, http://www.rochester.edu/in_visible_culture/issue3/wike.htm(accessed September 17, 2014).

[11] Ibid., 55.

[12] Ibid., 96.

[13] Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning”, in Image-Music Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (Glasgow: Fontana, 1977), 65: “…the filmic, very paradoxically, cannot be grasped in the film ‘in situation’, ‘in movement’, ‘in its natural state’, but only in that major artifact, the still.” In an uncharacteristic elision, however, Barthes fails to detect the difference between a “frame enlargement” (a quotation or excision from the movie footage, thus usually revealing photographic grain and even motion blur) and, in industrial usage, the “film still” as a promotional and publicity tool (which is shot professionally on set but totally outside the filmic frame and its material determinations: the “still” is rarely shot during a film take, and even then is shot from different camera positions, with different frame and lighting composition, different lenses, different photographic stock, etc).

[14] The enticing threats of this theatrical darkness survived well into the mass market commodity form of cinema: at an extreme would be the US pulp filmmaker William Castle’s reputed gimmickry and shock effects with audiences, such as installing buzzers in theatre seats which were activated in climactic moments of the screenings of his 1959 horror film, The Tingler. It is still possible to feel spooked by one essential yet subliminal condition of public, analogue cinema screenings. Since classical sound cinema projects its twenty-four frames per second, in order to transport that footage through the film gate each frame is projected for only one-sixtieth of a second. Each second the screen is illuminated for only twenty-four sixtieths of that second. Thus, for more than half the duration of any movie the spectator is immersed in a darkness of which they are unaware, at least unless without breaking the illusion of screen movement.

[15] Arguably, a summative exposition of this theoretical enterprise would be Christian Metz, Psychoanalysis and Cinema:The Imaginary Signifier, trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster and Alfred Guzzetti (London and Basingstoke: MacMillan Press, 1982). The academic journals ScreenCamera Obscura and Wide Angle among others dedicated the majority of their issues in the later 1970s and throughout the 1980s to research in the field. Screen published a translation of Metz’s focal essay “The Imaginary Signifier” and Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” both in 1975. See also the special issue of Screen: Dossier Suture 18, no. 4, 1977, which presented Jacques-Alain Miller’s essay “Suture” (translated from his Éléments de Logique du Signifiant [1972]).

[16] “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We can reduce the focus to a soft blur, or sharpen it to crystal clarity. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to... The Outer Limits.” The injunction to surrender to the medium’s power is hypnotic: alluding to the techniques of brainwashing, contemporaneously fantasized as cold war tactics used by North Korea and the Soviet Union to program moles and political assassins, for instance in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate of 1962 and The Ipcress File, directed by Sidney J. Furie, 1965.

[17] In this respect, the videotape’s content is akin to Ted Serios’s Polaroid photographs allegedly recording his unconscious mental images, produced in a transfixed moment of staring into the lens after apparently unprompted and arduous fits of inarticulate rage and struggle with the Polaroid camera. See Stephen E. Braude, “The Thoughtography of Ted Serios,” in Cheroux, et al., (2005), 155-165.

[18] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World(Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[19] Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication, trans.Bernard and Caroline Schutze, ed. Sylvére Lotringer (New York: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents, 1988), 11-28.

[20] This right has been debated in various forums since the mid-1990s, but only enacted as a legal human right within specific nations since 2006. Article 17 of the 2012 European Data Protection Regulation of the European Union provides individuals the right to apply for “the erasure of personal data relating to them and the abstention from further dissemination of such data, especially in relation to personal data which are made available by the data subject while he or she was a child or where the data is no longer necessary for the purpose it was collected for…”.

[21] “…something that perfectly matches the non-judgmental monstrosity of his chronic illness, or what he used to call leper creativity.” Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (Melbourne: re.press, 2008), 11. See also Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, ed. Ed Keller et al. (New York: Punctum Books, 2012).

[22] Later published as Luke Howard, Essay on the Modifications of Clouds [1803], 3rdedition (London: John Churchill and Sons, 1865). https://archive.org/stream/essayonmodifica00howagoog#page/n0/mode/2up(accessed May 6, 2014). For a contextual history of Howard’s innovative investigation see Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Metereologist Forged the Language of the Skies (New York: Picador, 2001). A novelistic, and astutely researched adaptation of Howard’s personal and professional biography occupies the first of the three parts of Stéphane Audeguy, The Theory of Clouds, trans. Timothy Bent (Orlando: Harcourt, 2007), 4-87. Surprisingly, in his extensively erudite semiological study on clouds in the history painting, Hubert Damisch makes only a brief and passing reference to Luke Howard: see Hubert Damisch, Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting, trans. Janet Lloyd (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 193-195.

[23] Cited in Damisch, (2002), 285, footnote 36.

[24] Goethe’s poem “Atmosphäre” includes a dedication to Howard: “To find your way in infinity,/You must first distinguish, then gather things together./That is why my winged song gives thanks/To the man who distinguished between the clouds.” Cited in Damisch (2002) 302, footnote 34.

[25] “Jupiter and Io”, now in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, was one of a suite of four monumentally scaled paintings Correggio executed in the early 1530s on the theme of the loves of Jupiter, each illustrating and adapting an episode from Ovid, and which were commissioned by the Duke of Mantua, Federico II Gonzaga, as intentionally erotic décor for his private Hall of Ovid in the Palazzo del Te. (The other three in the series were Ganymede’s abduction by Jupiter in the form of an eagle, Jupiter’s intercourse with Danae in a shower of gold, and Leda having sex with Jupiter in the form of a swan.)

[26] On iconographic and literary sources, see Marcin Fabianski, “Correggio’s ‘Jupiter and Io’: Its Sources and Meaning”, Notes in the History of Art 17, no. 1 (Fall 1997): 8-14. A later, almost reciprocal, episode in the Metamorphoses depicts Juno in a cloudy semblance: when the brutal Thessalonian king Ixion attempts to seduce her, Jupiter—to mislead the king—fashions a cloud into Juno’s likeness, but which Ixion then rapes producing Centaurus, the father of the centaurs. As his punishment Ixion is bound eternally to a turning wheel in the underworld.

[27] This sexual sleight of hand would have evidently been appreciated by its sponsor. Federico’s emblematic identification with Jupiter, in civil stature and domestic sexuality, was taken for granted with the commission. (See Fabianski (1997), 12.) Correggio was also acquainted with Marcantonio Raimondi and Giulio Romano, who were both acknowledged maestros of pornography and associated with the scandalous publication of I Modi, a book of sexually explicit illustrations to Pietro Aretino’s Sonetti lussuriosi, allegedly satirizing prominent figures of the Papal court. Romano was especially alert to Hellenistic and ancient Roman depictions of Bacchic erotic rapture and sexuality, evident in his mural program for the Palazzo del Te in Mantua in the late 1520s. On I Modi see Lynne Lawner, I Modi: The Sixteen Pleasures (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988); and Bette Talvacchia, Taking Positions: On the Erotic in Renaissance Culture (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).

[28] Damisch (2002), 23.

[29] Cited in Damisch (2002), 21. Mengs refers to Raphael as divine, and Correggio as celestial.

[30] For a description of the nuvola or cloud-engine in religious theatre in the later medieval and early modern periods, and its transposition to scenic devices in religious painting, see Damisch (2002), 69-81.


Author Biography

Edward Colless is Head of Critical and Theoretical Studies at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. He has in the past worked in theatre, film, broadcasting and architecture, been a curator, worked as a travel writer, and dabbled in fiction—but, mainly, he writes art criticism and theory. He is the editor of Art+australia and its adjunct publications series. His latest book, Uncontemporary, is due in 2016, through Monash University Press, Melbourne.