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Comprehending Screens: A Meditation in Medias Res

Vivian Sobchack
p. 87-101


Il presente saggio afferma che la digitalizzazione e la proliferazione degli schermi contemporanei vede il passaggio da uno “screen-scape” a una “screen-sphere” – un nuovo universo dai limiti topologici e dall’organizzazione sistemica, il quale non solo ha radicalmente cambiato il nostro modo di vivere il mondo quotidiano, ma anche il nostro comportamento ontologico ed epistemologico al suo interno. A partire da alcune recenti vignette del New Yorker e dalla celebre distinzione effettuata da Humberto Maturana e Francesco Varela tra sistema autonomo e sistema autopoietico, il saggio riflette sulla configurazione di una nuova “screen-sphere” e soprattutto sul nostro posizionamento in relazione ad essa.

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One needs to enlarge the frame of description and know how to draw – behind the back of the spectator, so to speak – a second screen on which the osmotic exchange between the so-called spectator and the events on the primary screen becomes visible.
Christiane Voss

  • 1 Voss 2011: 139.

1My epigraph, like all of them, is taken out of context but for its address of screens1. However, although directed specifically to the cinema and in the service of a very different argument, its charge that we enlarge our description of screens has been both provocation and heuristic to my project here. In the contemporary moment, in the middle – and muddle – of screen technologies that have rapidly changed (and, in so doing, changed us as well), how might we respond to this charge? By now, the expressed desire for a screen «behind» as well as in front of the «so-called» spectator has been literally – and exponentially – realized. Screens today not only watch and display us from behind as we watch the display of others in front, but they also do so from the front and the sides and above. Moreover, given the ubiquity of screens that surround us at every turn, the epigraph’s hierarchical positioning of a «primary» and then «secondary» screen seems antiquated – as does the literally straight-forward and static visual and spatial positioning suggested between the two. Both spectators and screens are now primarily mobile and responsively «smart» in relation to each other, their movements and interactions destabilizing the fixed position and physical passivity previously associated with watching cinema from a distance and in a theater seat. As well, all of this movement and interactivity are hardly conducive to the kind of reflective scene the epigraph «draws». Indeed, our «osmotic exchanges» with screens today (and their exchanges with each other) are less reflective than they are reflexive, refractive, and recursive – that is, self- and system-referential; visually and representationally deflected, distorted, or diverted; and their various «subroutines» dependent upon the operations of a systemic whole.

2Thus, as screens have multiplied and converged despite their apparent dimensional and functional differences, instead of illuminating our relations with them, they have only further complicated and compounded them. Constituting what is less a «screen-scape» than a systemically-unified, if componentially-diversified, «screen-sphere» (the structure of which will be addressed later in this essay), screens now comprehend us more fully than we comprehend them. This is to say that we live today primarily in and through screens rather than merely on or with them. No longer a small, if significant, part of our lifeworld, screens now are our lifeworld – and their historical expansion has ontological as well as epistemological implications. Screens no longer merely mediate our knowledge of the world, ourselves, and others; beyond representation, they have now become the primary means by which our very existence is affirmed. (As evidence, we need only watch people on their smartphones anxiously waiting for their «being» to be phatically called or tweeted into existence).

  • 2 Gombrich 2000: 2.

3To illustrate some of the ontological and epistemological implications of this expansion and transformation, I turn again to the epigraph so as to take quite literally its odd metaphorical desire to «draw» an observant second screen that could display and reveal us to ourselves in interaction with other screens. That is, as Ernst Gombrich did at the beginning of Art and Illusion, I want to use a New Yorker cartoon (actually a number of them) to make evident how the (very recent) transformation of our screens has also radically transformed our modes of «knowing» and «being-in-the-world»2. Even as I must describe rather than show them (journal budgets being what they are), taken together, these humorous drawings and their captions perform a phenomenological reduction of the «osmotic exchanges» we, in the U.S. (and elsewhere), have with screens today. They draw the outlines of the screen-sphere in which we now live, and make visible the variety of ways in which our comportment in the world and toward others is quite different than it was only twenty years ago. Thus the cartoons acknowledge what is a multi-generational history, in which the young seem completely (and often unreflectively) comfortable in our screen-sphere, whereas those who passed puberty before the mid-1990s are in various stages of (often self-reflexive) adaptation to it.

  • 3 Bliss 2012b.
  • 4 Stevens 2010. For those not familiar with American texting, “Omg!” means “Oh, my God!”
  • 5 Flake 2013.
  • 6 Cheney 2013.

4Consider, first, the young – indeed, the very, very, young. The cartoon’s occasion is a pregnant woman’s sonogram. She is laying on an examining table, her doctor and husband beside her. Hanging above the table is a screen, its in utero image of the fetus partially covered by a block of text which offers the following options: «Share on: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube»3. It is thus hardly surprising that, in another cartoon set in a hospital baby nursery filled with cribs, two tiny hands just visible from one of them is holding a smartphone. The «tweet» in a bubble above reads «Omg! I just got born!»4. We could follow this constructed narrative with a scene in which parents, sitting on a sofa, watch their toddler daughter standing on the cushions next to them move her hand on the window directly behind them. The caption: «She thinks it’s a touch screen»5. And, if we jump some years ahead and pretend it’s that same fetus, tweeter, and toddler all grown up, another cartoon takes us to her wedding. There, everyone at the altar except the priest is looking down at their cell phones, and the bride, suddenly distracted from hers by his question, looks up to respond: «Huh? Oh, yeah – I do»6.

  • 7 Byrnes 2011; Bliss 2011.
  • 8 Dator 2013.
  • 9 Sipress 2013.
  • 10 Vey 2013.

5The cartoons go on to draw attention to the impact of the screen-sphere in what might be chronologically arranged as the married life of this newly-united couple. One is set in a kitchen, where the wife explains to her husband, «How am I supposed to cook? The Internet’s down!», while another shows the couple sitting on the living-room sofa in front of a large Tv screen, the husband caressing his wife’s hair, as he makes a suggestion: «What do you say we turn off the television, go upstairs, and turn on our computers?»7 We might also look ahead to this imagined couple as parents. In one cartoon, for example, the husband and a friend sit outdoors at a patio table while, in the background, his wife takes smartphone pictures of two young children playing. As he explains to his companion, «My wife is recording everything the kids do until they leave for college. Then I’ll binge-watch them grow up»8. («Binge-watching» as a popular practice and term emerged only recently, when on-line «streaming» of television episodes became possible – and, of course, commercially viable). Two other cartoons provide an ending to this generational narrative. The first shows the married couple as much older. They are, again, sitting on their sofa in front of a screen, both manipulating controllers and playing something akin to a competitive XBox or Playstation videogame. What we see onscreen before them, and wearing the same clothes, is the very same couple having a violent argument9. To close the circle from birth to death in the screen-sphere, another cartoon takes us to a funeral home. Rhyming with the new-born tweeter in the hospital nursery, inside the open casket, we see the deceased man holding in his hands a working smartphone. As one of the people paying their respects explains to another, «It was his favorite app»10.

  • 11 Walsh 2013.
  • 12 Sawyer 2012 and 2013.

6The people in these observant drawings seem totally absorbed by the screen-sphere and blind to the accommodations they have made to live within it. In this regard, one cartoon in particular stands out. It shows a busy city street filled with people walking: some on the sidewalk, others crossing the intersection. All, however, are looking down at their phones – and, as do the blind, using canes thrust out before them to guide their movements11. The cartoonist not only literalizes what certainly can be seen as our blind accommodation to the screens that absorb us but also highlights both its absurdity and very real dangers. Indeed, because of what is called «inattention blindness» and, more recently, «distracted walking», London has padded some of its lampposts, television news and YouTube videos show people glued to their phones falling into shopping mall fountains, and statistics indicate a large increase in «pedestrian deaths» linked to scrolling, texting, and talking12. Thus, our «osmotic» absorption in screen space has not only now left the protective bounds of theater and home for the streets but also radically altered our comportment in physical space as well as compromised our physical safety.

  • 13 Bliss 2012a.
  • 14 Haefeli 2012.
  • 15 Mueller 2012.

7Other cartoons, however, draw our adaptation to the screen-sphere as not quite so transparent or total, and the transformation of our lifeworld is viewed with reflexive awareness by their characters. One drawing, for example, shows a woman standing behind her husband, who is on his computer, as she tells him, «It’s sweet, Tom, and I know that’s the site where we first met, but for this anniversary I thought we might go to a restaurant»13. In another, a woman on the phone tells her caller, «Actually, I’m sitting here reading a book – just to see if I can still do it»14. And awareness of how social relations have radically changed is highlighted in a drawing, in which, yet another woman announces: «A bunch of friends are coming over to stare at their phones»15.

  • 16 Noth 2013b.
  • 17 Dernavich 2013.
  • 18 Noth 2013a.

8Computer screens are also an element in a great many cartoons, but these are usually figured in the background, a necessary but taken-for-granted part of both domestic and working life. Thus, cartoons located in offices tend to find their humor not in technology but in workplace hierarchies. There are a few exceptions, however. One, for example, shows a man at work on his computer staring at a pop-up box that has appeared on his screen and is blocking access to the documents below. The text in the box reads: «The Internet wants to destroy your productivity», and offers only a single option to make it disappear: «Always allow»16. Most recently, and no surprise, there also have been several workplace cartoons that focus on the constancy of surveillance. In one, two men sit before a bank of screen images as a guard explains to a visitor, «This is the break room where we watch reruns of classic security footage»17. And in another, two men sit before computers as well as a bank of screened maps, as one tells the other, «After we read every e-mail ever written, I’m going to start on that next Dan Brown novel»18.

  • 19 Steed 2013.
  • 20 Karasik 2013.

9Finally, there are two cartoons that invite special attention in the present context. The first is the only New Yorker cartoon over the last several years to directly address the “primary” screen of the cinema, perhaps because it has now become predominantly absorbed by, and thus «secondary» to, the smaller, mobile, «smarter», and more multifunctional screens that accompany most of us wherever we go. The drawing is of a huge (and literally) «green screen» that dwarfs not only the two lights and camera set up in front of it but also two men in the background, where one says to the other, «We’ll add the everything in later»19. The second cartoon is also singular, for it directly addresses the systemic and recursive nature of our contemporary screen-sphere as well as our relation to it. The drawing is an oblique view of the back of a laptop computer that allows us to also see part of the keyboard, and a groping human hand reaching out and down from the screen. The caption reads: «Where’s that damn “escape” key?»20

  • 21 For an elaboration of “screenness” from a heideggerian perspective, Introna and Ilharco 2006.
  • 22 Acland 2012: 168.
  • 23 Ibidem.

10As this cartoon suggests, contemporary screens have created a domain from which there seems no escape. Our screens have literally comprehended us – that is, grasped and taken us in, “osmotically” absorbed us. So, how, then, to enlarge our frame of description to comprehend them? Perhaps what we need to do is go beyond thinking about screens in their particularity of form, function, and content, and attempt to describe the «screenness» that grounds and connects them all21. As Charles Acland writes in a recent Cinema Journal, «For all its variations…“screen” stitches together an identifiable and meaningful array of artifacts. We just seem to know what it is reflexively: a thing that glows and attracts attention with changing images, sounds, and information»22. However, Acland also goes on to suggest that our critical gaze be as much directed «toward the integrated qualities of all the sites and locations that we casually understand as screens as it is toward the definitive distinctions between and among them»23.

  • 24 For an insightful précis of the concept of the interface, see Jeong 2013.
  • 25 Dasgupta 2002: 121.

11Certainly, all screens can be categorically described as a surface that only realizes its screenness and salience when a visual display of some sort is projected upon or from it. However, the screen’s significance emerges not only from display but also from a boundedness that both separates and partially conceals whatever it reveals to us in the phenomenal world from which we look at and respond to it. It is, as Acland puts it, «an in-between», or what we now commonly call an «interface» – a term whose shift of nuance expands the meaning of the screen as a mediating surface to one that allows interaction not only with it but also through it24. Thus, Sudeep Dasgupta describes contemporary screens both as «permeable surfaces through which our location in contemporary life [is] negotiated», and «the discursive filters through which our experience of everyday life and our relation to it are mediated»25.

  • 26 Acland 2012: 168.

12Nonetheless, as Acland writes, screenness remains «baffling», and this «because [the screen] is not in and of itself a medium, format, or platform. Rather, it is often an in-between manifestation of all three, one that materializes how we come to see and describe the differences and connections among television, film, computers, electronic signage, and digital spaces»26. However, what happens to these differences and connections when, through electronic and coded digitization (the real «medium» here), the cinema screen is now a television screen is now a computer screen is now a tablet screen is now a smartphone screen is now a «smart eyewear» screen – and vice-versa? Indeed, as all these screens have become first connected and then convergent, their comparative differences seem increasingly trivial, and their structural and operative connections increasingly important.

  • 27 Maturana and Varela 1973. See also Varela, Maturana, Uribe 1974.
  • 28 See, for example, Hayles 1999; McGann 2004, Clarke and Hansen 2009.

13In what follows, I want to attempt to describe the structural and systemically-operative connections of what I have here called the «screen-sphere» by drawing on the work of biologist, neuroscientist, and phenomenologist Francisco Varela, who, with his mentor Humberto Maturana, first described living biological systems as «autopoietic». (It thus seems an uncanny coincidence that my epigraph describes our absorbing and absorbed exchanges with screens as «osmotic».) Autopoietic systems are a special sub-class of «autonomous» systems, but the former’s similar structure to the latter was distinguished by its unique capacity to self-generate or (re)produce all of its own internal components27. The relationship between autonomous and autopoietic systems has subsequently influenced scholars outside the biological sciences, in disciplines that include neocybernetics, literature, and cultural studies, (all of which are concerned in various ways with mediation, recursivity, and communication, particularly in a digital context)28.

  • 29 Varela, Thompson, Rosch 1991.

14Focusing on the structure of these systems as well as the distinction between them also seems relevant to enlarging the frame of our description of the screen-sphere as well of our lived relations to, with, and within, it. Indeed, a key question such a distinction raises is that of our spatial and functional positioning in relation to the screen-sphere and, given our location, whether we live the systemic unity the screen-sphere circumscribes as autonomous or autopoietic – or, more likely, as something still emergent and, like the screen itself, «in between». In this regard, it is important to emphasize that, as a phenomenologist, Varela approached systems (living or not) concretely and from the «bottom up» rather than abstractly and from the «top down». His descriptions were grounded in embodied – and contextually embedded – observation of manifest practices and interactions that dynamically enacted and systemically structured the conditions of (everyday) life rather than in abstract and static theorization29. Thus, although subject to the organizational criteria specified below, the existence of any system emerges as such first in the eyes of a situated observer – in the current instance, not only me but also the cartoonists who drew what they perceived as the manifest and significant transformation of our lifeworld from screen-scape to screen-sphere. Varela, I suspect, might have very much appreciated their cartoons. Moreover, he also might have viewed the proliferation, networked connectivity, and on-going convergence of our contemporary screens as very real, and materialized, indices of an emergent system of some kind at very real work in the world.

15Indeed, the most manifest evidence of the (possible) existence of a system as such is the ubiquity, multiplicity and connectivity of screens themselves. As I’ve earlier suggested, whatever their various dimensions (e.g., Imax or Google Glass), or their ostensibly discrete functions (e.g., browsing the Internet, sending a tweet, taking a photograph, watching a movie, or locating oneself or others geographically for purposes of navigation or surveillance), the multiplicity of screens has put in place the (potential) system’s material boundaries. That is, it has increasingly «filled in» the spatial gaps in our earlier screen-scape to circumscribe a larger and dimensionally-altered topological domain: the screen-sphere. Moreover, the connectivity of all these screens is also concrete and manifest, constituting individual screens not simply as «an array of artifacts», but more complexly as a «composite set» of interrelated and «networked» components that, through «interactivity», comprise a systemically-functional unity. (This is the case even when, for example, competition between cell phone companies in the U.S. might suggest otherwise; although each may have «preferred» devices and different geographical «coverage areas», overall the entire U.S. is interconnected and «covered»). However, the most recent and dramatic evidence that screens are components of a system has been the «convergence» of what once were their discrete and divergent functions. Indeed, I would argue that, in both form and effect, convergence is a mode of homeostasis – as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, «the maintenance of a dynamically stable state within a system by means of internal regulatory processes that tend to counteract any disturbance of stability by external forces or influences» (in this instance, be they screens of different sizes and/or dominant functions, or, at least initially, with incompatible components).

  • 30 Varela, Maturana, Uribe 1974.
  • 31 Whitaker 2002.

16In 1974, in the journal BioSystems, Varela, Maturana, and Uribe offered concise criteria for assessing not only whether a «perceived unity» was, indeed, a system but also whether it was autonomous or autopoietic30. As Randall Whitaker notes on his very valuable and detailed website «Autopoiesis and Enaction: The Observer Web», these criteria were «presented in the form of a 6-point “checklist” by which one may proceed step-by-step in evaluating autopoiesis for a given unity»31. (If, at any point, the perceived unity fails to meet a criterion, it cannot be autopoietic.) Glossed by Whitaker (who quotes from both the original essay and later work), the first criterion requires that a perceived unity be discrete and have both spatial extent and circumscribable boundaries that separate it from its environment. As suggested earlier, this criterion has been fulfilled by a multiplicity of screens that together have materially occupied more and more space and, in so doing, also inaugurated a boundary – and a relational interface – between the physical environment they occupy and the virtual space they display. The second criterion is that the unity have constitutive elements: «components» seen as a «composite set» of parts that comprise a whole. As I’ve suggested, this criterion also has been fulfilled both by the diversity of individual screens (of different dimensions, dominant functions, or capacity for mobility) that form the screen-scape’s boundaries, and by the «composite» connectivity that informs all their operations.

  • 32 Varela, Maturana, Uribe 1974: 192.

17The third criterion moves toward further complexity. The components of the perceived unity must interrelate «mechanistically» – that is, «their properties [must necessarily] be capable of satisfying certain relations that determine in the unity the interactions and transformations of these components»32. Whitaker puts this more simply by asking, «Is the unity as it is because of its components’ interrelations, and not simply because of its components’ individual properties?» Individually, screens do not fulfill this criterion. However, once screens accreted and became a boundary and then also directly (and indirectly) interconnected, their interrelations generated unique properties that transformed and determined them all – including, as I’ve suggested, a new capacity for functional convergence and its system-stabilizing homeostasis.

  • 33 Ibidem: 193.
  • 34 Ibidem: 193.

18The fourth criterion requires that, in particular, the components that constitute the perceived boundary of the composite unity also be discernable as such because of their participation in the processes of the whole. That is, such discernment cannot rest on the boundary’s material circumscription alone. It must also include awareness of the boundary’s componential status and cooperative participation in larger processes, for, as the original essay points out, without discernment of the latter, «You do not have an autopoietic unity because you are determining its boundaries, [rather than] the unity itself»33. It is thus not sufficient that we observe a multiplicity of screens circumscribing a spatial domain and constituting what seem its boundaries. We also must perceive (and experience) the screens’ connectivity and interrelationships not only with us but also with each other so that they are discernable not merely in numerical accretion but, more significantly, as a functionally-transformed (and transforming) part of a composite unity. The fifth criterion is even more complex, for it not only requires that the unity’s «internal» components and/or processes generate those components at its boundaries (here, the manifest multiplicity and variety of material devices and their screens) but it also introduces the composite unity’s possible interrelations with its exterior environment. To quote from the BioSystems essay, the unity’s boundary components must «be produced by the interactions of the components of the unity, either the transformation of previously-produced components, or by transformations and/or coupling of non-component elements that enter the unity through its boundaries»34. «Osmotic exchange», indeed!

19In relation to the screen-sphere, this fifth criterion raises two questions: first, what might be the screen-sphere’s «internal» components and interrelated processes able to generate screens as its manifest boundary components?; and, second, do these generative internal components and processes originate from within or without the unity’s boundaries? Screens, of course, were extant long before we perceived them as the possible indices of a system. Initially generated by the components and processes of scientific inquiry, technological invention, industrial production, and commercial interests, they emerged in the material and individualized form of a discrete – and chiasmatic – boundary condition, both separating and conjoining two different logical types of space and time through pre-, proto-, and cinematic mediation. Discrete and occasional in their environmental placement, they thus did not function as boundary «components» of a larger systemic domain. However, beginning in the 1920s, we began to see screens as interrelated, but this was loosely, and only in terms of their external organization through industrial and commercial coalition into movie theater «chains» and, later, television broadcast «networks». Thus, in regard to the fifth criterion, although an initial conundrum arises insofar as some might argue that the screen-sphere’s boundary components pre-existed the systemic unity that was to have produced them, we might respond by arguing that these earlier and more loosely-located and organized screens were only «pre-existing (boundary) conditions» – necessary to, but insufficient as, the boundary components of an extant and circumscribed spatialized unity.

  • 35 Varela 1979: 55.

20What was sufficient for the existence of such a unity was the electronic digitization of screens – an extremely recent occurrence. It was only in the mid-1990s that screens, and the boundary conditions they individually materialized for discrete functions and in discrete locations such as the theater and home, became not only interrelated but also interactive – and thus not merely the boundary conditions necessary for systemic unity but also the boundary components sufficient to a particular systemic unity as such. Although, as always, there is a «pre-history» here, it was in the mid-1990s that the external processes and components generated by recent scientific inquiry, technological invention, industrial processes, and commercial interests converged in relation to the development, «improvement», diversity, and cultural proliferation of digitized screens as well as the infrastructural (or «internal») components and processes necessary to their existence. The material and operational connectivity (direct and indirect) of these digitized screens soon followed. So did their ubiquity. Thus, screens increasingly mediated but also increasingly refracted and occluded our relations with the physical environment, transforming what had been their occasional, if significant, presence in that environment into the encompassing boundaries of a topological domain, within which the already extant components and processes of digitization (both hardware and software) became circumscribed. Once so circumscribed, however, these externally-generated components and processes became «internally» recursive in relation both to their own processes and interactions and to their boundary conditions, thus generating and transforming the individual screens that had accreted to form these boundary conditions into boundary components. That is, connectivity and interaction transformed screens from a solely exteriorized surface for mediated display into an «interface» that was simultaneously interactive in two directions. It mediated outward in relation to viewers and users and also inward in operative and systemic interrelation not only with its own components and «processors» but also, and recursively, with the components and processes of the connected whole. It could be argued, then, that, expansively spatialized and dynamically transformed through these new and systemic digitized interrelations, contemporary screens are indeed generated by those internal components and processes comprising the systemic unity of which they are an integral part. In this regard, Varela characterizes autonomous systems as organizationally «closed» insofar as they are internally recursive and their processes dependent upon each other35. This form of closure, however, does not preclude interactions of varying kinds with other systems and environments. Rather, as Whitaker puts it, it means that the system’s «changes of state are realized […] solely within the network of processes that constitute the system as such». (Hence, the cartoon that asks, «Where’s that damn escape key?» is funny because its recursivity may touch a contemporary nerve but its closure is also organizationally exaggerated.)

  • 36 Maturana 1975: 318.

21The fulfillment of the preceding five criteria affirms the existence of an autonomous system but not an autopoietic one. Thus, the sixth and final criterion matters most of all. This requires that all components, interactions, and processes of the unity, including its boundary components, must participate in the (re)production of these components within the unity itself. As Whitaker emphasizes, componential (re)production accomplishes the «central theme of autopoiesis»: its «organizational preservation». Indeed, Maturana writes, «Autopoietic systems operate as homeostatic systems that have their own organization as the critical fundamental variable that they actively maintain constant»36. Certainly, at this point in time, we can see the screen-sphere moving toward (if not already) fulfilling this sixth criterion. As I’ve suggested, the convergence of screen processes and functions across (almost) all of our various screen devices is a homeostatic mode of conservative regulation directed toward maintaining and preserving the screen-sphere as an organizationally functional and composite whole.

  • 37 Varela 1981: 15.

22Nonetheless, whether the screen-sphere has the capacity for «componential (re)production» beyond that of its boundary components is a more ambiguous matter. While it seems apparent that screens «beget» screens, it is not apparent that the screen-sphere can «beget» all its other components. We might argue that it can, for all of the internal, electronically-digitized components, processes, and interactions that comprise its organization and operations are able, as Varela writes, to «recursively regenerate the network of interactions that produced them»37. However, regenerating networks of interaction is not the same as regenerating the components themselves. Albeit composited as a networked set, and transformed through electronic interactions put to the service of maintaining the screen-sphere as such, these internal components are not clearly produced by – and within – the screen-sphere itself. Indeed, it could be argued they were produced in the external environment, first in commerce with the screen-sphere and then circumscribed by it. If this is the case, Varela would deny the screen-sphere autopoietic status.

  • 38 Maturana and Varela 1992.

23Here again arises the major question of our own ambiguous position in relation to the screen-sphere. If it is now all-encompassing and we are comprehended by it, living our world on and through the screens at its boundaries as well as in and through its internal digitized operations, have we not become (living) participatory components of it? If so, given that we have the capacity to (re)produce not only ourselves as viewers and users but also all of the screen-sphere’s components, does this not make the screen-sphere autopoietic? Perhaps and perhaps not – for there are certain kinds of interactive relations between autonomous systems and their external environment that Maturana and Varela term «structural coupling», and characterize as «a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems»38. Might such historical interaction between systems (one biological, one not) have not only transformed the screen-scape into the screen-sphere but also led to the present moment’s «structural congruence» – and thus confusion – of «inside» and «outside»? Indeed, this structural congruence between the screen-sphere and its perceived environment has confused our perception and conflated our location in relation to both. That is, although, through its encompassing display, the screen-sphere may recursively refer us inward to ourselves and our present location within its comprehension, the chiasmatic function of its screens also refers us outward to an external environment in which, if now at a distance, we also see ourselves as a (living) part.

  • 39 Maturana 1975: 326.

24In this regard, Maturana has addressed various forms of «structural coupling», including that of a biological (living) system with its environment. He writes, «If one of the […] systems is an organism and the other its medium, the result is ontogenetic adaptation of the organism to its medium: the change of state of the organism corresponds to the change of state of the medium»39. As Whitaker suggests, «structural coupling» has «connotations of both coordination and co-evolution between a living system and its environs». He also points out that «the reciprocal effect of organism and environment on each other» provides a basis for both description and explanation of, first, «the particular state(s) in which these coupled unities/systems are observed»; second, «the course or trajectory of [these] states observed over time»; and, third, «the ultimate viability of the organism to continue operation in the given environment».

  • 40 Gombrich 2000: 3.

25The first basis for such description and explanation returns us to the cartoons. All of the drawings I’ve described (and many more that I haven’t) make visible «the particular state(s)» in which we observe our own coupling with the encompassing electronic and digital medium (and environment) of the screen-sphere. Thus, although Gombrich offered his cartoon at the beginning of Art and Illusion to different purpose, the rhetorical question he posed to his readers about the historical people in that drawing is as salient to the people in the drawings here. «Is it possible», he asked, «as our cartoonist hints, that they perceived nature in a different way?»40 And, of course, the answer is affirmative. «Nature», as we now primarily know it, is perceived as digitized and always on screen.

26The cartoons also gesture toward the second basis for description and explanation of the reciprocal relations between a living organism coupling with (in this instance) the screen-sphere as both environment and medium: «the course or trajectory of states observed over time». Thus, as I conclude, I need to say «up front» that I pre-date television and, for a brief while, like many of my generation, spoke of screens only in the (cinematic) singular, and, had I more space and time, could track many of my «states» of electronic and digitized «being» over time. I will also say, at the end and «up front», that given my current observational confusion, I do not know whether the screen-sphere is yet, or ever, will be an autopoietic system, although I am convinced that it is, at least, an autonomous one.

27Finally, in relation to the third basis for description and explanation of our biological coupling with the system that is the screen-sphere, the cartoons, and many of my references to (yes, screened) news broadcasts, YouTube videos, and television advertisements, all interrogate «the ultimate viability of the organism to continue operation in the [now] given environment». However aged an «organism» I am, I would not characterize myself as nostalgic. Nonetheless, I want to point not only to the unintended (and often dire) consequences) of walking and texting, or the cartoon in which a woman reads a book to see if she still can, but also to a recent TV advertisement (for disposable plates), in which a woman walks into the dark museological space of «The Lost Art Exhibit». Drawn toward a very large glass vitrine filled with people sitting at communal tables outside a compact row of houses or standing and talking with each other under festive strings of colored lights, she eventually sneaks in. The voice-over tells us: «There was a time when being social drove people to houses, not home pages. Doorbells rang more frequently than cell phones […] Occasionally, someone still finds their way back […] You’re invited».

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1 Voss 2011: 139.

2 Gombrich 2000: 2.

3 Bliss 2012b.

4 Stevens 2010. For those not familiar with American texting, “Omg!” means “Oh, my God!”

5 Flake 2013.

6 Cheney 2013.

7 Byrnes 2011; Bliss 2011.

8 Dator 2013.

9 Sipress 2013.

10 Vey 2013.

11 Walsh 2013.

12 Sawyer 2012 and 2013.

13 Bliss 2012a.

14 Haefeli 2012.

15 Mueller 2012.

16 Noth 2013b.

17 Dernavich 2013.

18 Noth 2013a.

19 Steed 2013.

20 Karasik 2013.

21 For an elaboration of “screenness” from a heideggerian perspective, Introna and Ilharco 2006.

22 Acland 2012: 168.

23 Ibidem.

24 For an insightful précis of the concept of the interface, see Jeong 2013.

25 Dasgupta 2002: 121.

26 Acland 2012: 168.

27 Maturana and Varela 1973. See also Varela, Maturana, Uribe 1974.

28 See, for example, Hayles 1999; McGann 2004, Clarke and Hansen 2009.

29 Varela, Thompson, Rosch 1991.

30 Varela, Maturana, Uribe 1974.

31 Whitaker 2002.

32 Varela, Maturana, Uribe 1974: 192.

33 Ibidem: 193.

34 Ibidem: 193.

35 Varela 1979: 55.

36 Maturana 1975: 318.

37 Varela 1981: 15.

38 Maturana and Varela 1992.

39 Maturana 1975: 326.

40 Gombrich 2000: 3.

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Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

Vivian Sobchack, «Comprehending Screens: A Meditation in Medias Res»Rivista di estetica, 55 | 2014, 87-101.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Vivian Sobchack, «Comprehending Screens: A Meditation in Medias Res»Rivista di estetica [Online], 55 | 2014, online dal 01 mars 2014, consultato il 12 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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