If we are constantly invaded by images, images that we consume and produce, images that make reading on tablets possible, this phenomenon is not new in itself. What is really new is the digitalization of images, their encryption in a digital language: this radically modifies not only the very statute of images but, above all, our relation to them. Armed with the three Lacanian registers, what we can immediately say is that images are inscribed, from now on, into a real register, because of the very nature of that encryption, which implies, then, a novel articulation between the imaginary and the real introduced by technology, which the term data names and which is no more than a vicissitude of the long process it has taken technosciences to mathematize the real.
Incidentally, digital images do not mathematize absolutely anything, but rather write in a digital language what thousands of cameras cover on the planet’s surface, the unlimited remoteness of the universe, as well as the unlimited minuteness of the human body, with the promise of successfully encrypting, in the near future, all the existing information in the universe of the speaking being. The famous Moore’s law, formulated in the 1950s, which states that the storage capacity of microprocessors doubles every two years, does nothing but verify this ambition. This law has been demonstrated to hold for the current possible storage capacity of chips.
The pixel, the unit of digital measurement of this encryption, determines a particular nature of images: it no longer presents the same texture that all types of support had given it so far, because its structure is numerical, reduced to the combination of 1 and 0. In any case, what we have is a new digital support that has introduced new images into our world. Our colleague and friend Gérard Wajcman gives us the paradigm of this difference when he tells us, in The Absolute Eye (Wajcman, 2010), how he comes up against this limit of the pixel in lieu of the pigment of paint, as he tries to come as close as possible to a painting by Velázquez while visiting Google-El Prado. This project aims to make us believe that, thanks to technology, we would be able to take a better look at the paintings than we would if we were actually in the museum. However, because of the digitalization of images, when we come close to any of the paintings, we bump into that which encrypts images, the pixel, beyond which images are empty. Thus, the eye cannot capture what Cézanne called “the truth in painting” (Wajcman, 2010, p. 66) and that which is there for us to see is no more than the truth of the image. As the author says,
the problem lies both in that the engineers at the virtual museum Google-El Prado substitute the truth for the image itself and in that by giving themselves the illusion—and by giving it to us—of being able to tear out the truth in painting, they do nothing but give us a truth of the image. (Wajcman, 2010, p. 66)
Walter Benjamin had already addressed this problem in the text The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936 ). It is not so much about the multiplication of the image itself as its mechanical reproduction allows, but rather about the very modification of the image through its digital encryption.
Those of us who love photography are aware of this frustration that Wajcman points out, with the fissure that digital photography introduced with the loss of the grain of photos in the passage from silver to digital photography. Images themselves have changed and, with them, perhaps so has the statute of the imaginary, which is no longer articulated with the symbolic, making Lacan say that the statute of perception is a signifier, since with digital images this statute may be reduced to its real statute. Certainly, we can still introduce the signifier into images, but noting the impoverished imaginary world of today’s adolescents is enough to make us think that access to images, in which they are immersed almost permanently, might have the same nature as pornography, that is, a statute that no longer accommodates the symbolic, thus certifying its decline, this image recovered due to its real nature, that is, encrypted.
Images produce joy; Lacan pointed that out through the satisfaction of the young speaking being after discovering his image in the experience of the mirror mentioned in the famous Mirror Stage (Lacan, 1997), but we wonder whether these new saturated digital images might redouble the surplus jouissance (plus de jouir) that the imaginary produces with this technological torsion operated on images. In any case, we wonder whether this new statute of images modifies the perceptive phenomenon and how the symbolic can be reduced there, if not foreclosed, because of its digital nature. If what a digital image shows us is basically an image of the image, a pixelated construction of it, where the pigment of the paint and the grain of the photograph disappear, we may wonder about the impoverished eye of the beholder, whether it has observed something other than the representation of the image, and not the image itself.
This is what virtual images offer us now through holograms, which allow the body to be digitally present somewhere it cannot be physically so. For example, it is possible for politicians to give speeches at events they cannot attend, or for people to organize concerts and performances by artists who have already died. The digital body becomes its digital image and loses all carnal consistency. It is an image of the body, as close to the reality of the body as possible, which makes us believe that the body is almost there. Lacan’s make-believe semblant category is applicable in this example. Incidentally, here we find the operational ability of the opposition between semblant and real that Jacques-Alain Miller ([1991-92] 2002) pointed out in Lacan’s latest teaching: the digital body and its images tend to their nature as semblant, forcing us to tell a real image from a virtual one, where the former is different from the real in Lacan.