The gap always shows. With characteristic wit, Réne Magritte painted La Condition Humaine (1933) to depict a landscape segment portrayed as a near-continuous view seen through both a window and on a painted canvas set in front of that window. The keyword is “near-continuous.” In the painting, the canvas’ depiction of the landscape very nearly – but does not quite – match the view from the window. With subtlety but still-clear deliberation, Magritte disrupts the painting’s otherwise flawless alignment between canvas and window view: here are the faint strokes of the canvas outline; here are the canvas edges topped and tailed by clip and stand; here is a white strip along the canvas edge studded with pinheads that fix the canvas in place. They all show the distinction between canvas and view. The continuation of the landscape across representation and reality is just about perfect… but not nearly so. The gap always shows.
The gap is more than a witticism. It underscores a crucial idea – difference. Difference between representation and object; artifice and nature; virtual and actual. Difference that not only asserts each positive term of landscape and painting, but does so specifically via their between-ness, or in their relation as one against the other. Difference, then, that not only is about comparison, but takes on the task of reference where one can point to a positive term and say: this is X not only because it is X, but also because it is different from Y.
As such, where difference disappears is also where terms disappear. And where terms disappear is also where conditions are set for discombobulation, disorientation, and confusion. If differences cannot be discerned, how may terms be ascertained? If terms cannot be ascertained – if they are confused, muddied, fudged, exaggerated, misspoken – how can truth be apprehended? If we do not know truth, how do we evaluate, decide and judge?
The disappearance of difference is thus not just about understanding X against Y. Difference also carries a moral meaning. As Jean Baudrillard writes:
What was separated in the past is now everywhere merged; distance is abolished in all things: between the sexes, between opposite poles, between stage and auditorium, between the protagonists of action, between subject and object, between the real and its double. And this confusion of terms, this collision of poles means that nowhere – in art, morality or politics – is there now any possibility of a moral judgement.
The disappearance of difference thus also translates into a loss of space for moral judgement. To Magritte, the gap embodies this loss, one that connects directly to the condition of being human. The painting is thus also about the moral question of being human translated into the difference between the virtual and the actual. On these terms, to discern that difference is a redress for truth that also redeems ourselves as humans who both want to know and care about truth. Losing that space for discernment – that critical gap – is thus more than just a witticism or an entertainment of differentiation. It is a genuine peril in losing the orientation of ourselves.
As with, or part of, its play with boundaries, media have also always entangled with difference. As systems of representation, media inevitably push the limits of an audience’s discernment of difference. Wordplay readily arises, where “representation” ruptures itself both with punctuation and in pronunciation as “re-presentation.”
The French film theorist André Bazin foresaw precisely this outcome out of the mediascape ushered in by the moving image. He uttered his famous proclamation of “no more cinema” in his 1971 reading of Vittoria De Sica’s “perfect aesthetic illusion of reality” as shown in De Sica’s 1948 film, Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief). In “no more cinema,” Bazin celebrates the eschewal of spectacle as part of the film’s defining neo-realist style. Biciclette’s “‘integral’ of reality” thus presents “pure cinema”: “no more actors, no more story, no more sets.” To Bazin and the theorists of cinematic realism at the time, cinema heralded the effective extinguishing of difference between actual and screen reality.
As it turned out, cinematic representation, with its cumbersome apparatus of screens and projectors, was not quite the perfect illusion as envisioned by Bazin. As cinema institutionalized, its screens lapsed into industry standards and models which fossilized expectations of the site of the image – the multiplex; the art house theatre; the drive-in with its big outdoor projector screen. In becoming a set audiovisual system, cinema established its language, social norms and practices. Its regime of representation correspondingly became tamed, familiar, bloodless.
Nonetheless, difference continues to disappear in recent and contemporary media. For instance, the easy manipulations of Photoshop and camera framing adeptly erase the difference between representation and reality.
This onslaught of the disappearance of difference now reaps its own cynicism as cliches roll through “Photoshop fails” memes or assertions of “natural” photographs, such as #nomakeup and #wokeuplikethis hashtagged selfies. These photographs duly parade through various celebrity social media postings for no reason other than their lack of enhancement and touch-ups. But they also only serve to emphasize the continual disappearance of difference. Their heralding of difference only makes sense where there is no longer any discernible difference between truth and manipulation in contemporary media.
The New Virtuality, beckoning ever diminishing boundaries between the real and the virtual, thus headlines this latest chapter of visual culture. Difference is disappearing as boundaries are muddied, with more scandalous and madder amalgamations between the actual and the virtual. What is left is a profound bewilderment, as we flounder through what Vilém Flusser calls the “Age of Light”, where “the ocean of light is bottomless.” What, now, are the anchors to truth and reality? How and what should we believe? These are the questions with which the New Virtuality has to contend and answer.
Two further scenes.
The first is from Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film, Minority Report, adapted from a Philip K. Dick short story. The film is set in a science-fiction world replete with, among other things, touchscreens, holographic and 3D projections. Twenty years on, those cinematic visions are self-evidently prescient.
The scene here shows the protagonist, John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise), playing a 3D projection of his young son, Sean, presumed in the film to be dead. Anderton projects images of Sean recorded in the past at a beach during which father and son exchanged a casual conversation. In his present space and time, Anderton gazes at the child from the past, now before him as an animated three-dimensional projection. He speaks to the image in the same words as had been recorded from their past conversation. An anachronistic conversation ensues as the Sean-projection “replies” in real-time. Too soon for the father, the conversation comes to an end. The projection flickers into darkness.
The second scene is from a 2020 South Korean TV documentary, Meeting You, which features a mother “meeting” her deceased daughter as simulated in Virtual Reality (VR). The mother places the VR headset over her eyes and straps on VR haptic gloves. This apparatus enables her to see her child in a computer-generated environment which ostensibly surrounds her, and gives her hands some sensations on what she touches in VR. The mother sees her virtual daughter in VR and cries out in both joy and grief. She understands that this is a simulation of her deceased child – at no time is she deluded into thinking the child is alive again. Yet her recognition and embrace of the child’s virtual figure before her is visceral, heartfelt and deeply instinctive. She cannot turn away from the image, even as she knows she is grasping at thin air.
Two scenes of parents mourning their deceased children, if in entirely different fictional and documentary contexts. More crucially, two scenes which fully register the recognition of difference, and the understanding between reality and fiction, between actuality and virtuality. This moral assertion of difference between the actual and the virtual thus threads Magritte’s canvas of the virtual landscape to these technological virtual manifestations of the past. It is this acknowledgement of difference which enables the grief and the pain, even if the anguish is also laced with some comfort. The heartache of mourning is true, because the dead cannot return. And it is difference – the understanding, recognition of and assent to it – which enables that truth.
La Condition Humaine: René Magritte, La Condition Humaine (The Human Condition), 1933, oil on canvas, 100 cm x 81 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Magritte actually made two similar paintings of this title, La Condition Humaine I, 1933; and La Condition Humaine II, 1935. The latter is of the same dimensions as the first version and currently located at the Simon Spierer Collection in Geneva, Switzerland.
Baudrillard: Jean Baudrillard, “Screened Out,” in Screened Out, trans. Chris Turner (London; New York: Verso, 2002): 176-180, 176.
Bazin and “no more cinema”: André Bazin, “Bicycle Thief,” trans. Hugh Gray, in André Bazin, What Is Cinema, Vol. 2, 2nd ed. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press,  2005): 47-60, 60.
Flusser and the “Age of Light”: Vilém Flusser, “On Science,” in Artforum // Essays, introduced by Martha Schwendener (metafluxpublishing.com: Metaflux Publishing, , 2017): 45-51, 51.