Alan Watts on Reproduction

[Copyright Alan Watts Estate – This is NOT an easy text to come by!]

The Princess of Cleves by Holbein the Younger

[This] fantasy is about reproduction. We use the word reproduction in two principal ways: We talk about the biological reproduction of a species, and we also speak of reproduction in terms of a painting, a photograph, a recording, a movie, or a videotape.

Now what is reproduction in the latter all about? Well, hundreds of years ago, kings of Europe formed feudal alliances by marrying the princesses of far-off states. Before entering into a marriage contract they would have painters send portraits of the lady in question to see if his majesty approved of her. On one such occasion Henry the Eighth of England was badly cheated in this procedure by a too flattering portrait of Anne of Cleves.

Therefore, there developed a kind of moral Code among artists in the European tradition beginning with the marvelous work of the Renaissance, and later the Flemish painters. Finally, with the Art Officiale of the 19th Century, we got what we now call photographic realism.

At that time they said, “Isn’t there some more scientific way of doing this?” And so they discovered the camera. First there were those brownish daguerrotypes. People said, “Well, that is pretty, it really looks like grandpa, doesn’t it?” “But,” they said, “something, several things are missing; it isn‘t colored for one thing.” So they tinted them.

And then they said, “Why, it’s real lifelike, but you know, there are some people whose whole style of life, whose whole personality is in the way they move, and if you just take a static shot like that the personality isn’t there.” So they invented a way of making the images move-movies. I remember when the first movies came out they were all moving in a jerky way. They smoothed it out and everyone said, “Now that’s real lifelike.”

But after awhile they said, “But there’s another thing missing which is sound; a whole lot of the personality is in the voice, so can’t we have them talking at the same time that they move?” And someone invented the talkies; eventually they added color to them, and everyone said, “Wow, now we’re really getting somewhere!” Then to make it even more real they put them in a three-dimensional process which required that you wear special spectacles to see.

But then people said, “Why is it that every time we want to see one of these things we have to go down to the center of town? Can’t we have it all at home?” And so television was introduced; they started out with black and white and looking as Robert Benchley once described the cuts in French
newspapers, as all looking as if they had been made on bread.

They improved it, colored it, and that’s where we are now. Not quite. Because somebody has developed a thing that we shall all be seeing soon-the hologram-a television image produced by laser beams in which you see a three- dimensional figure out in the air in front of you. Soon we’ll all say, “Now, isn’t that marvelous!” But, of course, when you go up to it and put your hand on it, your hand goes right through it. You can’t touch it. And, you see, that is the trouble with television-you look at whatever you’re seeing behind a screen; but it’s intangible, it doesn’t smell, and it won’t relate to you.

So there are future problems to be solved in the techniques of electronic reproduction-and they’ll do it. They’ll manage a way in which the electronic emission source can solidify and make the air vibrate so that you can touch the figure. You won’t be able to push your hand through it because the air will be going faster than your hand. Imagine that! If there’s a beautiful dancer on television, you’ll actually be able to go up and embrace her. But she won’t know you’re there, she won’t respond to you. And you’ll say, “Well, that’s not very lifelike,” just as people once said,”lf the photograph doesn’t move it’s not very lifelike, if it doesn’t talk it’s not very lifelike.” They’ll next say if the tangible, three-dimensional reproduction doesn’t respond, it’s not very lifelike, so they’ll have to figure out a technique for doing that.

Will our technology be able to develop such a technique? Of course they will! Sitting in your home you will watch the scene on a kind of stage, not a screen, and there will be a TV camera observing you. That TV camera will report back everything you do into a Computer and the computer will manage each bit of information going into the image that you’re looking at, and will immediately decide what is the appropriate response to your approach to the image-and won’t that be great! She may slap you in the face, or she may kiss you. You never know.

But eventually you’ll say, “This is still not really the kind of reproduction I wanted. What I want is to be able to identify with one of the characters in the scene.” We want not only to watch the drama that is being performed on the stage but actually to get into it. We will want to be wired in with electrodes on our brains that will actually allow us to feel the emotions of the people acting on the stage. Eventually we will get absolutely perfect reproductions and be able to see that image so vividly that we shall become it.

And so the question arises-could that be where we are already? Are we a reproduction which over the centuries of evolution has worked out to be a replica of something else that was going on and we arc where we always were?

Copyright Alan Watts Estate


Alan Watts: Not What Should Be But What Is

Translate »