Fly on the Wall – Lost and Found in the Moment

Education and the Search for Epiphany

Snorkeling in clear and bright Okanagan Lake the other day allowed me to ponder future course opportunities and dream up esoteric ?Fly On the Wall? Topics. Just as I began to suppose that I’d see no fish on this swim, a huge carp glided into my peripheral vision. Had it been watching me and decided to investigate? Instantly I wished for my camera, yet, in a flash, realized that the moment itself was special. A wise person had recently counselled me that some moments really are meant just for us as individuals. I began to wonder how to approach meaning in terms of photographic journaling and my educational journey.

Whatever ?meaning? means in a teleological sense (meaning can merely be our own creation as we experience life, or meaning can have some cosmic ?everything happens for a reason? significance), the fish did clarify my sense of wonder at the joys of under-lake reality. Within a few seconds my mind had traversed boundaries of thought and emotion; I thought of Henry Miller’s line: “tremendous voyages sometimes occur without the person moving from the spot” (Miller, 1964, P. 121).

I then turned my attention to how capturing a moment with a camera is a bit like fishing for enlightenment through education; the purpose is in the pursuit, the chase, as much as in the result. Yet the horrifying potential of an empty bucket at the end of the day drives us onward.

The carp set me to thinking about social theory too, and how in our media-saturated century even the perfect image may drown in a sea of other pictures posted online. And we may capture the fish, but do we really share the essence of the moment? Ubiquitous digital cameras mean that sublime beauty doesn’t stand alone on a wall the way it might have in art galleries of yore. Walter Benjamin’s famous late-1930s essay ?Art and Mechanical Reproduction? was already lamenting the decline of what he termed the “aura” of art, as print reproductions of paintings and photographs made any particular visual image available to all and sundry (Benjamin, 1936, P. 423). Mona Lisa prints are available in big box stores; a person can watch YouTube videos and claim to have learned the course material of a post-secondary course. Technology has opened the floodgates of self-education and yet there’s still tangible and intrinsic value in taking a course ?for credit? at an institution like AU. Like an artist who feels pride at the completion of a work, we students attain real gratification at passing real courses at official institutions. With the wonders of the internet’s dissemination of knowledge comes a loss of the aura from successful completion of post-secondary degrees. Benjamin stated that “to pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose ?sense of the universal equality of things? has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction” (Benjamin, 1936, p. 424). The unique object, in this case, is university, which today may seem watered-down in the face of all the content (if not experience, form, or expectations) available free for all online.

The visual arts uniquely reflect the desire for expression, which can be both artistic and academic. Benjamin asserts that, at root, a painting seeks to convey the actual lived experience of the artist; likewise, students learn to express their lives in new ways by becoming educated. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin, 1936, P. 422). Were I to capture the carp for all time with my camera, my Facebook friends would lack the full content of the moment. The daydreams and ponderings leading me to drift out of full conscious awareness would be lost. So too would my pleasure at seeing this huge creature after beginning to doubt that I’d see any fish at all. Even the play of light upon its smooth, dark body would be restricted to the precise snapshot moment which the lens had lassoed. In this same way, the abstract sensation of “being there” in a class (even an online course!) contains perhaps a unique experiential kernel. Maybe the possibility of failure, contained in authentic life experiences, gives real moments their varnish of authenticity.

Then there is the matter of whether any moment or topic can ever really be caught. Photos give us the eternal present, yet they lose the past and future which brings the present to life. Benjamin claimed that “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” (Benjamin, 1936, P. 422). Yet the original representation of a moment only implies the moment itself. Imagine a safari bus full of tourists snapping photos of elephants and zebras; each individual is deferring their own personal present into the photo. The split-second that the lens clicks becomes a moment put off for another day, a procrastination until the picture is shared with another person who, even then, will only be seeing a simulation of a split-second in time. One that never happened in that the photographer was never really there in the way the photo presents the event. The photographer was busy taking a picture even as the reality depicted occurred within the picture itself. A tourist taking a photograph wasn’t there looking at the wildlife in the sense that the camera conveys. She or he was busy taking the picture which functions only as a simulacrum of the moment of awe in the face of nature. We know the aura of the moment is there, but It’s easy to forget that the picture is only a pale imitation; we know we’ve read the textbook, but not whether we’ve fully grasped the author’s intent.

Baudrillard discusses this hall of mirrors, whereby simulacra reflect off of each other and exist detached from original, authentic existence in his 1981 book ?Simulacra and Simulation?. With regard to the post-modern proliferation of visual images (such as occurs on Facebook) he wrote that “the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum – not unreal, but simulacrum, that is to say never exchanged for the real, but exchanged for itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.” (Baudrillard, online). This culture of simulacra may be akin to randomly looking up an academic topic without it being tied to a full syllabus and program of study. A reproduction of authentic experience stands in for the real unmitigated awe of the viewer-student lost in the spectacle of education.

The very act of seeking to reflect a moment by taking a picture may tarnish its original sheen; “the quality of its presence is always depreciated” at the moment we seek to share it (Benjamin, 1936, P. 423). A picture may be worth a thousand words, yet, just as some things are beyond words, Benjamin suggests that some instances are also beyond pictures and hasty interactions. To learn from life we have to be there, ?all in? with the moment. In real school courses we can’t just flutter (or Twitter) away from the material and never come back; likewise, wonderful glimpses of nature are irreducible to mere snapshots for other Facebook users to rifle through at their leisure.

Finally, nature’s spectacle is often itself; nothing special, just nature being natural. Benjamin sensed this; he reminded the reader that we have to be there to really ?get? what an artist strives to explain visually about the natural environment. (In this sense emotional connections become a wonderful artistic thematic; we all feel human emotions and need only a flower or mountain or fish to strike a chord in our hearts.) Benjamin summarizes the wonders of nature as follows:

“We define the aura of the latter as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon to a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of these mountains, or that branch. This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura…the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction…Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.” (Benjamin, 1936, P. 424)

It helps to remember that representations merely point us to authentic experience. Likewise, when we love the feeling and appearance of something It’s easy to get too close and destroy the distance between ourselves as subject and it as object. Rainbows are not graspable to the touch; a lifetime of study in no way guarantees mastery of a topic. To appreciate something of interest, be it the fish in a lake or the intricacies of a school of thought, requires a headlong immersion with the material and concurrent possibility of failing the course. AU provides this brimming potential for academic experience in a way that merely sifting through the webosphere only hints at.

Yet, as students and life-artists, we must remember that the value we attain from our education depends in great part on us alone. If we expect education to magically alter our lives we may be disappointed. Baudrillard hinted at this when addressing post-modern disenchantment: “one can live with the idea of distorted truth. But their metaphysical despair came from the idea that the image didn’t conceal anything at all.” (Baudrillard, online) It’s up to us to find meaning in whatever lies in front of us; it won’t always appear on its own. Camera or no, the mind is where our imagination brings the world to life.

Baudrillard, J. (1981). ?Simulacra and Simulation Quotes?. Retrieved from:
Benjamin, W. (2011). ?Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction? In: ?Social Theory: Roots and Branches?. (Ed. Peter Kivisto). New York: Oxford University Press.
Miller, H. (1964). ?My Aims and Intentions? In: Henry Miller on Writing. New York: New Directions Paperback.

Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.

One of the things that I hope The Voice Magazine does is make students take another look at the world around them and question their assumptions. As post-secondary students, the art of critical and higher thinking is something we’re supposedly striving for, beyond just getting the paper that lets us get the job. Enter The Fly on the Wall series. While a couple of instalments were mentioned by students, this one from September had the most mentions.