As those of us who still benefit from the civilising effects of capitalism huddle closer together on our gated islands, the margin of those who fall outside the net seems to grow wider and wider. While out shopping we have to step over bodies in the street, outcasts of savage capitalism, surplus to requirements, abandoned like refuse on the sidewalk.
There has always been evidence of homelessness in the streets. One thing that increasingly strikes me is not just the profusion of improvised encampments but the sight of some of these bodies slumped on the sidewalk without visible signs of animation, unable to tell whether dead or alive apart from the stain of various bodily fluids seeping around them.
The loss of bodily functions may of course be due to the influence of toxic substances. These bodies, however, are not just comatose. They are apparently inanimate, parcels of flesh wedged at odd angles as though they have fallen from a great height, unable to make most minimal attempt to compose themselves where they lie. It is not just that these bodies are barely animated, not obviously habited by any living substance. It is more that some of them do not even seem to occupy any recognisable corporeal space.
It is not simply a question of the fate of these poor souls who have come so adrift from the social bond, who are no longer moored in common space. It is equally an indication that somehow the topology of inhabitable space that we take for granted, like the air that we breathe, is in the process of being transformed around us, has perhaps already changed, to the extent that it no long makes room to lodge what remains of these discarded bodies.
It then struck me that perhaps another aspect of the same phenomenon can be observed in all those busily hurrying past without a second glance, going about their own business, avoiding any contact not just with these imploring or accusing gazes but also with each other. Eyes ever more resolutely fixed on our screens even while in transit, we see the conventions of eye contact by which pedestrians used to tacitly negotiate their passage in shared space being rapidly eroded.
It is not only that these marginalised bodies no longer seem to occupy any recognised space but perhaps that we ourselves no longer inhabit a shared space, something of a paradox in the era of digital connectivity. We are ever more reliant on our digital devices to tell us what we need to know, where we need to be, and how we might get there. We are perhaps not so much without a compass as reliant on a different compass to map our own position in the world. At the same time we neglect to observe the extent to which that world is being reconfigured around us.
We seem to have accustomed ourselves without too much difficulty to that slightly grating but seductive voice of the dashboard GPS, the one that reassuringly tells us to continue for 200 meters and then turn left and even tells us when we have reached our destination. But I still find it disconcerting to hear the same voice echoing down the pavement as pedestrians make their way through the massed crowds.
There would be room here for a reflection on the history of map making and the role of GPS as a localised symptom of our entry into a new space as we cross the threshold from an analogue to a digital environment. Those old paper maps that used to help you locate yourself within the bounded frame of an artificial segment of mapped territory are now collector’s items. They obviously failed to solve the difficulty that if you don’t know where you are in the first place you are then unable to locate yourself on the map.
The digital positioning of GPS presents us with the converse problem. You know immediately where you are, even if only because the screen in your hand is showing you, but imperceptibly we have been situated in a different space. The co-ordinates of mapped space have been inverted. You may know where you are but your position is no longer located within a limited, segmented and bounded space. Rather we have stumbled unwittingly into open space, the unlimited space of the open series.
This is of course not an entirely recent phenomenon. Similar effects could be traced to the introduction of the digital watch. On the analogue face inherited from the ancients time is also counted in minutes, but these minutes are displayed as fractions, quarters of the hour, subtended by the geometrical model that produces numbers as the fraction of a whole. The digital watch in principle tells us the same time but has performed a subtle inversion of the relation between point and frame. We now have access to ever more precisely punctuated decimal milliseconds, running away from us in an unlimited series of present moments.
It would be possible to bring these observations into relation with other small indications of how our reliance on our new digital compasses is modifying the space that we inhabit. Until recently it used to be an everyday sight to see someone checking their makeup on a crowded metro train using a discreet makeup compact with a little mirror for any necessary retouching. The market for those makeup compacts, like that for cameras and alarm clocks, must be dwindling rapidly as everyone now seems to be using the reversible camera on their phone to check their appearance.
This discreet phenomenon gives us localised access to broader questions surrounding the invention of the reversible camera, the rise of the selfie, and the reworking of the narcissistic space of the ego. When we see the screen being used as a mirror one fundamental aspect comes into view. It is still in principle a means for the reflection of the image. But it is not at all the same image that is being reflected. What has been quietly elided, suppressed, is precisely the inversion of co-ordinates at play in the displacement between left and right that we are accustomed to see in our image reflected in a mirror.
What the mobile screen now offers us is in effect a more realistic view of our own image as others see us. This in turn cannot be without effects on the narcissistic space that organises the relation between image, other and ego. The elimination of the inversion of orientation at the heart of the mirror image means that the shadow of negation no longer falls on the ego and the subject’s message no longer returns to him or her in inverted form. It is in fact no longer clear what the destination of the message would be nor where the subject of negation under the gaze of the Other would be situated.
Whatever the precise co-ordinates of this reconfigured space of narcissism, we should not ignore the degree to which it is not just the image and the gaze that have become dislocated. At the same time the voice is floating free. We only have to return to the high street to witness everyone talking at full volume but no longer to each other. As our digital devices become increasingly miniaturised it is no longer possible to tell who is in conversation and who is merely responding to voices in the digital aether.
This is one more small indication of the progressive reconfiguration of the delimitation between the private and public spheres. Voices have been set free by our digital devices and the public space is filled with a babble of chattering voices in a multiple monologue without determinable points of address. Perhaps here we have one of the correlates of those insensate parcels of flesh slumped on the sidewalk while the chattering hordes rush on by without seeing anything but their own images on the screen.
On the one hand, voices set free without addressee or physical location; on the other hand, flesh without body pinned to the ground; and everywhere a proliferation of images that carry no weight. Have we not then already left the space carved out for us at the birth of the modern era? And are we not the new Argonauts negotiating uncharted territories without the comfort of the traditional mappings and with new instruments whose functions we do not yet know how to read?
This is something that the experience of the contemporary psychoanalytic clinic teaches us. It is here that we will have to extract the new co-ordinates of our voyage.
Photograph by Tim Wimborne, file photo: Reuters