LICKING THE SALT: SPEED & SURFACE

LICKING THE SALT: SPEED & SURFACE


by Peter Bishop







"Thus the symbol manifests itself first of all as the murder
of the thing". Lacan (1)

First Lick:

"With bitter feelings of disappointment I turned from the
dreary and cheerless scene around me".
             Edward Eyre on encountering  the great salt lakes 
             (Journals of Discovery into Central Australia 1840-1) (2)

For Baudrillard the desert is "a smooth space". And at "the
heart of the desert" is the salt lake. The Great Salt Lake
desert, "where they had to invent the speed of prototype cars
to cope with the absolute horizontality". Nearby lies the
salt lake itself, the "leaden lake, its waters hyperreal from
shear density of salt." (3)

Here is a basic equation, archaic even in its simplicity: speed/span/
flow/ across/ insubstantial vs depth/substance/ slow.

Baudrillard's passage suggests a series of intersections: an
archeology of western fantasy-making about salt,  desert and
salt lake; a philosophizing of screen culture; a problematization
of theory as a specific genre - about its writing, its
reading and the subjectivities it invokes. The salt lake
gathers these issues in a single image and through an
abstraction into pure geometry, becomes an instrument of a
theoretical gaze. In the protracted struggle over global
poetics, it is also part of the singing of America and the
idealization of its placescapes into universal signifiers.

Salt lake surface as technoculture screen and as surface of
inscription. Anxieties about screen culture: loss of face-to-
face, about loss of place, about loss of dwelling, about loss
of depth, about loss of presence, loss of stillness, loss of
reflection, loss of loss.

Instead we need to face the screen. View the screen as place,
not as abstract geometry; find the depth of the screen. Measure its gaze.


Glancing (At)traction:

Another hard day at the interface (which still yields nothing
of itself).

Glancing is more difficult than it seems. For months now I've
been working at it. Scanning the interface. Screening/
scrutinizing the screen: through; around; across; along.
Plenty of glimpses.  They're easy.

From this moment on we are only left with the glimpse and the
glance. For better or worse we must learn to work with them.
At theories and other texts, at screens and other things,
skimming across their surfaces.  The glance invokes surface.
 Perhaps invents it.

To glance: to glide harmlessly from the object struck; to
slip or slide; something brilliant or shining.

Glancing across, invoking surfaces. Forget depth and in-
sight. Instead of moving through surfaces, move across
them.  Skimming; sliding; slipping; grinding; skating;
settling; layering; rubbing: surface operations.  Glancing
plays with surfaces, generates resonances between them.

Hypertext delights in a constant shifting mobility. "The
interplay of surface and depth gives way to a perpetual
displacement of surfaces".  (4)

glimpsing of...

glancing off...

It is all too smooth, the slide. From now on a new concern
with the traction, the grip and friction on and across surfaces (of theories,
landscapes, texts). Time to stay low, close to the screen.


(First Glance) Immaculate Surfaces:

"the immaculate surface of the Great Salt Lake Desert"
                                        Baudrillard (p.4)

"to cope with the absolute horizontality". (p. 3)
[to cope: from Old French "couper" - to hit, strike, a blow.]

Hitting the road (surface). The salt desert as pure surface,
defining absolute horizontality. By being all horizon it
absorbs horizon. It invokes the absolute, experimental,
limits of speed.

Excess gravity breaks through the surface. Fear of being bogged, of
"humours and fluids", of being dragged down "into the
remorseless eternity of a slow-motion catastrophe". (pp.3/6)
Immobility.  Fear and ancient distrust of surfaces surface
and moves vision at speed over the surface.  The refusal to
face the surface masks a longing for the screen.

Skimming quickly over the (salt) surface.  A refusal to taste
the bitterness?

Mobile glimpse/glance reveals the static on the screen.
Immobile glimpse/glance speeds across it.


Ecstatic Refractions:

"From the extraordinary and deceptive appearances, caused by
mirage and refraction..., it was impossible to tell what to
make of sensible objects, or what to believe on the evidence
of vision...".  Edward Eyre

Refraction: breaking down, re-fracturing, fragmenting,
rebounding and recoiling. Something deflected from its
original straight line. Vector deflected. Bent aside.
Deflection of purpose from its desired goal. Through
fragmentation is revealed the colour and display of the
vectors constituent parts. Prismatic poetics. False purity
and wholeness overcome by refractive eloquence.  A constant
slippage between decay and renewal. A shimmering tension
between presence and absence, (an aesthetics of)
disappearance and reappearance, acknowledging the nothingness
of the image.  The confessional, introspective literalisms of
subjectivity associated with mirroring are avoided. Single-minded
visions are deflected and scattered into a reanimation of things.

We stop, straining to catch a glimpse of the dry salt lake
over the horizon. A white glow. Binoculars only resolve the
shimmer.

In place of the mirror we have a non-reflecting surface -
the smooth operational surface of communication.

Speed is refraction through a crystal.
The silence of desert is visual, suggests Baudrillard. "A
product of the gaze that stares out and finds nothing to
reflect it". (p.6) Speed is the death of reflection, a
paradoxical non-reflectiveness that evokes death's
refraction.

What is this fear of refractive smoothness?  Why nostalgia for reflection?
"Today", insists Baudrillard, "no performance can be without
its control screen.  This is not there to see or reflect
those taking part, with the distance and magic of the mirror.
No, it is there as an instantaneous, depthless, refraction".
"Video...  is a screen of ecstatic refraction". "The mirror
phase has given way to the video phase". (p.37)

But is there really a "mirror phase" or just an obsessive
rubbing of Lacan.  Hoping for the genii to appear?

Layering

A constant rubbing and sliding of surfaces.

Arid noise: salt grains rubbing in the wind.
lying my head against the salt, eye close to the surface. A
shallow white atmosphere. Glowing.


Skimming across the screen:

"I stood gazing on the dismal prospect before me with
feelings of chagrin and gloom.... The vast area of the lake
was before me interminable as far as the eye could see to the
northward, and the country upon its shore, was desolate and
forbidding".
       Edward Eyre

Slippage/ skimming not just as negative/ evasive but as
method/ process.

... but alien surfaces - smooth - slipping

Smearing

In the desert "you are delivered from all depth". (p.124)

Salt Lake as pure surface is metaphorized as screen.  Literal
and metaphorical glances coincide: my glance at Baudrillard;
Baudrillard's glance at the salt lake desert; the speeding
prototypes skimming across boundless horizontality.

High speed on the salt lake isn't to get to the other side,
to get somewhere: "the difference between `near' and `far'
simply ceases to exist". On Baudrillard's salt lake
"distinctions of here and there no longer mean anything". (5)

The mobile glance reveals the static. The static glance
invokes speed: "Desert speed, of motels and mineral
surfaces... the speed of the screenplay". (p.5)

The longing and the fear of speed masks the longing and fear
of stillness.  Fear of the blank screen. The end of
reflection signals the entry of death.

"Speed is not a vegetal thing", exclaims Baudrillard (as if
we would all insist that it was). (p.7) (Maybe the rhizome
can show us the way into/across the melancholy vegetative
stillness?).

The ancient slowness of smooth surfaces.


Entering the Screen:

"It is like entering a vast tomb....There is the indefinable
feeling of the presence of death...."Depression and gloom
enter the soul as one penetrates this lost region".  C.T.
Madigan (Crossing the Dead Heart, 1946)

In an eternal quest for pure abstraction, a kind of
featureless space replaces the sensual particularity of
place: "For the desert is simply ... an ecstatic critique of
culture". (p.5)

The intermediary realm, the metaxy. Lost in the bardo of
images. Death. The presence of desire for lack, a desire for
hidden depths. Those images now beneath (vanished). The
aesthetics of disappearance is simultaneously the appearance
of death, of the underworld.  The lack of depth of corporal
thickness. The shades.  We can follow the traces of the
visible to where they seem to become invisible/ disappear.
Licking the salt, tasting the bitterness, preserving images,
memory-making.

"Speed is simply the rite that initiates us into emptiness".
(p.7)

Refusing fractal logic and its fear of the blank screen.

Bachelard writes of an "inspired monotony" as reverie
"rediscovers its dead". The salt lake desert has a place on his
"map of melancholy". (6)


Boundaries & the Crisis of Presence:

"To the north and north-west the horizon was unbroken to the
naked eye, but with the aid of a powerful telescope...".
                                                 Edward Eyre

Virilio cites ancient theology's engagement with a loss of divine presence
and the Real: "Can we say we have actually taken part in a Mass that was
seen through a telescopic lens?" (7)

To glimpse: to glimmer; to gleam.
A moment (in a text) when something is briefly present;

A boundary is not where something stops but where something
announces and begins its presencing. (8)

From boundary as an edge, a frontier/ margin/ line, to
surfaces and glances across surfaces, the glimpse and glance
as a presencing of surfaces.

We don't glimpse/ glance: we are glimpsed/ glanced: called into occupying the
subjectivity of glimpsing/ glancing. Something calls for our attention.
announces its presencing. attracts. (theory as thauma: a
thing compelling the gaze)

From now on there are no horizons only the mirage announcing
the refractive presence.


Ecstatic Traction & Exquisite Refraction:

"The whole scene partook more of enchantment than reality,
and as the eye wandered over the smooth and unbroken crust of
pure white salt which glazed the basin of the lake, and which
was lit up by the dazzling rays of a noonday sun, the effect
was glittering, and brilliant beyond conception".
                                          Edward Eyre

Across. Not in a bridging or connecting or penetrating sense
of across/ between/ inter... zone etc.  But skimming
over/across the surface. rubbing. frottage?/ sliding across
/against...

not a looking beyond

what seen - not just mirage on horizon but the glance across.

fold/ bend/ weave
two or three ply?

a gravitational disruption/ pulling/ reshaping/ warping/
eruption/ lowering/ raising

not scanning the near/ the inbetween/ the horizon.
not looking to, but across, across the surface.

I'm slowly walking to the centre of  Lake Eyre, this salt lake thats the
lowest and driest point on the flattest and driest continent.
Completely encircled by mirage.

Surface operations: grinding/ skating/ settling/ layering/
skimming/ rubbing/ plying/ scratching/ a boundless
(sp)reading...


GLANCES:



1.  J.Lacan THE LANGUAGE OF THE SELF, Baltimore: The John
     Hopkins University Press, 1974, p.84.
2.  E.Eyre JOURNALS OF EXPEDITIONS OF DISCOVERY INTO CENTRAL
    AUSTRALIA 1840-1, London: T. & W. Boone, 1845.
3.  J.Baudrillard AMERICA, London: Verso, 1988. All page
    numbers in the essay refer to this text.
4.  M.Taylor & E.Saarinen IMAGOLOGIES,London: Routledge,
    1994.
5.  P.Virilio LOST DIMENSION, New York: Semiotext(e), 1991,
    p.13.
6. G. Bachelard WATER & DREAMS, Dallas: Pegasus Foundation,
   1983, pp.46-7,63.
7. Virilio, pp.85-6.
8. M. Heidegger POETRY, LANGUAGE, THOUGHT, New York: Harper
    Row, 1975.


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