Vilém Flusser, in his virtuoso micro-essay “‘Shelters, Screens and Tents,”’ rightly establishes the technical genealogy of the screen as emerging within the tradition of nomadic shelters:
In a house, things are possessed; it is property, and this property is defined by walls. In a tent, things are experienced; it assembles experience, and this experience is subdivided and diversified by means of the tent wall. The fact that the tent wall is woven –i.e. a network- and that experiences are processed on this network is contained within the word screen. It is a piece of cloth that is open to experiences… (57)
Drawing a trajectory from the carpets and hangings which decorated tents, through painted canvases, cinema and television screens, all the way to the “immateriality” of networked liquid crystal screens in phones and computers, Flusser establishes the screen as a site for “the subdivision and diversification of images,” inherently linked to the nomadic and collaborative socius of the tent (57).
This reading suggests the emancipatory, democratising and communalist hopes pinned upon screens from Eisenstein and Benjamin right through to certain initially optimistic conceptions of the Arab Spring. However, what this understanding neglects is that other function of the screen, as a conservative mechanism for concealment, exclusion, and protection.
“What does the silver screen screen?” Stanley Cavell famously asks, “it screens me from the world it holds- that is, makes me invisible. And it screens that world from me- that is, screens its existence from me.” (24). Exploiting the internally cleft nature of the screen, Cavell points to the way in which screen worlds emerge only through their exclusion of the human subject. Cinema enacts a double erasure of the human, mechanically reproducing human perceptions and expressions, and presenting them in a graven form in which the human subject cannot participate. Likewise, as Henri Bergson knew, an image can only ever come into being, can only ever be perceived, at the expense of that vast influx of extraneous data which does not interest the perceiver (30). A screen is only ever possible through a framing, and this framing rigorously determines an in-frame and an out-of-frame.
This split personality of the screen is the great aesthetic problem of our time. As we flit from screen to screen, in super-hybrid networks of imaged information, which penetrate our bodies and stretch now beyond the solar-system, we must contend with this contradiction inherent to the screen. Screens simultaneously reveal and conceal: the silver faces etched on the drive-in movie screen must always obliterate a little patch of sky.
Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory., tTrans. N M Paul & W S Palmer., George Allan & Co., 1911.
Cavell, Stanley. The World Viewed: – Reflections on the Ontology of Film., Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1979, p.24.
Flusser, Vilém. Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design., Trans. A Mathews, Reaktion Books, , London, 1999., p.57