As we oscillate between hopes and fears, wishing for success and terrorized by the idea of failure—such are our fundamental attitudes toward the future—we seldom recognize that the representation of situations has a considerable impact on our evaluation of the facts, nor do we recognize how this happens.
The realization that the way a problem is formulated already prejudices our understanding of it was developed by visual artists in the 15th century using the device ut pictura poesis. Contrary to common belief this was not merely a question of positively re-evaluating the image of painters, graphic artists, and sculptors, who, up until that point, had been considered mere craftsmen. The question of the recognition of craft—“hand-work”—as an intellectual pursuit—“brain-work,” to be included among the septem artes liberales, was not about the status of the people involved, as the craft guilds were highly respected. Rather, the notion of ut pictura poesis took account of the increasing demands placed upon cooperative planning within the various crafts and on the preliminary work needed to calculate their projects’ feasibility. Fundamental to this was the idea of making it easier for customers to make decisions about projects by presenting them with visual options or realizing the project in the literal sense. In short, the necessary move toward working with models in different scales forced the recognition that the ways in which they are represented exert a decisive influence on how projects are defined. This meant that the teaching of proportion and perspective had to be developed. In the Gothic era, whose uniform sense of scale meant that a reliquary would be designed using the same dimensional schematic diagram as a cathedral, major projects ceased to be authorized once the secular authorities no longer felt any commitment to the story of Christian redemption.
Today popular interpretations of ut pictura poesis take it to mean that artists, too, are research scientists, and scientists, now that they all work with electronic visualization techniques, must acquire specifically artistic skills. Anyone seriously considering applications for the financial support of “art as research” would have to redefine completely the idea of research. And anyone exploring the level of representation in computer simulations in the (natural) sciences can clearly see that they surpass the majority of artistic presentations. For this reason artists increasingly avoid the representational practices of scientists; and scientists, to enhance their acceptance among the public, allow high-profile interpretations of their visual simulations that are almost on a par with artists’ flights of the imagination.
Where this ideologizing of science as art through imaging processes can lead has recently been demonstrated. It was claimed that Galileo, by making drawings of the “moon,” the subject of his research, made more profound discoveries than he could have achieved as a mere natural philosopher. These works of art attributed to Galileo were proved to be forgeries. However, the fact that the Galileo drawings could be used as a revelation of the truth of the saying ut pictura poesis at all, demonstrates to what extent the “iconic turn” has already become a scientific ideology.
Ut pictura poesis has been part of the ideology of marketing for 120 years, ever since advertising had merely to replace a product review with an enthusiastic representation of the product. A similar example in the contemporary print media is how arts pages reviews are replaced by advertisements for events and reports of art auction sales fetching prices that run into millions. On the stock exchanges the precedence of psychology over economic facts is commonplace, and in daily political life, when justifying one’s excuses for having failed at the elections, it is accepted that one has “done a bad job of selling” one’s policies, or the appearance of the policy representative has been stage-managed in an unsatisfactory way.
When imagining the future between hope and fear, both artists and scientists have made propaganda out of images that completely mask how the context of fear and hope is determined by evolution. Models of the end of the world are placed in opposition to permanent images of home and an ideal world. To enhance people’s convictions to the extent of overwhelming the public, makers of disaster movies and other doomsday visionaries employ the entire repertoire of scientific projections. But simulation techniques were not developed to do this, as “theories of everything ending” exclude any further scientific investigation because it is meaningless. Even the horrific visions of total “ABC war” (atomic, biological, chemical) could not play with the termination of everything, as the calculations revealed that somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away, a few people would survive the fury of annihilation. And both Russian and American generals found it completely unacceptable that, to prove they were the highest form of intelligence in evolution, they should wipe themselves out while a few primitive examples of the human race survived. Up against such tried and tested limits of vanity even the assumptions made about the future by Reagan’s US Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt were shelved. Watt had implied that good Christians should look forward to the end of the world as the Kingdom of God could only come into being after such an event.
For reasons of brevity we will not offer any more three-dimensional examples of the unrelated opposition between doomsday visions and millennial or eternal hopes for world peace. The ability to anticipate what lies behind all such speculations teaches us that one must learn to fear in order to be able to hope with any prospect of success. Anticipation describes the crucial characteristic of consciousness in all those systems of living things that rely on learning as a survival strategy. We can thus talk meaningfully about consciousness if the anticipation of attributable events, as results of action as much as natural challenges, leads to the avoidance or de-activation of the dangers we anticipated. In this regard, research based on well-founded assumptions is being undertaken today on the relationship between genetic and epigenetic predispositions.
Even in today’s training methods for high-performance athletes the apocalyptically named “look to the end,” as it was once known in Christian terminology, is used productively as an encouragement to bear it in mind, rather than surrender oneself to it. Extreme athletes of all kinds can only become active when they have learned to deal with even the most minimal threat to their prospects of success. For example, the racing car driver or downhill skier must imprint and memorize the course in his mind many hundreds of times in anticipation of the demands he is making on himself as an athlete, if he is to give himself the slightest chance of surviving the race by relying on his abilities and skills. Significant successes in the systematic development of the power of anticipation in the realm of high-performance sport to date are the techniques through which tennis players learn to deal with their opponent’s return even though the latter has not yet played the shot. With tennis balls reaching speeds of more than one hundred kilometers per hour only such anticipatory abilities can guarantee the continuation of the game.
As for today’s customary demands on the ability to anticipate in the context of healthcare, sustainable economic management, and provision for the future, as well as in the context of the overall “problem-solving competencies” of experts, of particular relevance is the element that even power-hungry individuals claim to have recognized as the basis of their effectiveness: the confidence of their target groups. Against all evidence to the contrary, the latter assume that such individuals actually use their anticipatory capabilities exclusively to avoid the dangers they claim to understand well. When a major German bank argues that its employees acted for reasons of passion and not for financial gain, it loses its customers’ confidence even if it were established that this passion did not lead to the intention to gain power or was used for financial gain. As is well known, people go for broke because of passion—they also hate and even kill for the same reason. Murder as a crime of passion arouses great interest in the narratives of experimental sociology as such stories play out in the millions of detective novels that are consumed each day. In the crime novel as in the judicial system, in corporate communications as in the political media, etc., iconographies have been established that can only fulfill their function to the extent that they remain constant and at the same time still seem to keep up with the huge changes of conditions taking place in, for example, technical and social developments.
We can learn from the history of the ut pictura poesis formula that young people can certainly appreciate collections of historical paintings, for example, even though they completely lack the Christian and theological assumptions needed to decipher the iconography. They replace the external subject matter with intrinsic constructions of meaning as a plausible context for messages. As not only the multiplicity of messages on offer increases with the general availability of representational media, but equally the pressure to make a choice and reach some meaningfulness of contexts, the relationship changes from a demand for constancy to a simultaneous demand for permanent adjustment to change to a fundamental constellation of evidence-based meaningfulness in every different message context.
Such permanent metaphorization in the change of register can be seen in the arts in the genres of caricature, parody, satire, burlesque, grotesque, pataphysics, Dada, and Surrealistic and nonsense literature. In the case of the protagonists of this type of control through Deconstruction, confidence in system-specific iconographies only returns when they prove their strength by disproving themselves through the aforementioned forms of Deconstruction; when they prove their obviousness through the critique of obviousness, and their credibility through doubt; and when they prove that they are controlled by prejudice through the revelation of their prejudices, interests, and self-contradiction. The judge who reveals his prejudices against certain types of behavior—precisely those being displayed before the court—inspires confidence; the judge who says he is only bound by the law is considered a victim of unenlightened self-deception.
Of course the most radical pessimism in the face of the judicial system based on the saying “on the high seas and in court we are all in the hands of divine capriciousness” will not lead to a well-founded optimism about the outcome of the process. The capriciousness of the gods and of nature, random constellations, or the Furies of historic demise and madness, the withdrawal from autonomy through illness or a foreign power are chaotic magnitudes in concrete manifestations of the thermo-dynamic principle. There is no cure for this, but in general we have no fear of the indisputable view that even when our solar system comes to an end all scientific, artistic, cultural, and theological speculation will dissolve into stardust. Even the extinction of the dinosaurs after a meteor strike and the decline of all empires that have ever existed are not capable of reducing in the least our optimism that we can survive the worst if we learn how to deal with it. These are the words of the prophet of doom who is nevertheless smart enough to survive, as he knows that by changing the descriptions of this awful prospect he can avoid being harnessed to the yoke of doubt and euphoria.