Transforming the seen and unseen – Pic Pic, Sapphire and Steel, Magritte

Recently, this amazing cartoon was put my way by Barrow Wheelders.

…and life is good again.

Although I dose up a good amount with anime, its always a shock to come across something that simply makes play to an extraordinary degree, across its worlds of composition (and something completely unsullied by the depth of cynicism as with Rick and Morty for example).   And while its also important at times to let things go unadorned with words, I will say I responded that the ‘solution’ applied in the end of this cartoon reminded me through some imponderable junction of the kind of pragmatics of the abnormal you see in the brilliant early 80’s TV drama from the UK – Sapphire and Steel.

The trailer at the bottom spins up the eerieness of Assignment 4, one of the most compelling of the six that were filmed and featuring an entity that occasionally brings to mind the images of Magritte’s constellation of bowler hatted men paintings.

The Mysteries of the Horizon (Les mystères de l’horizon) (1955) is an oil on canvas by René Magritte.

There is something of the hauntological about these paintings by Magritte, the bowler hat men, the very definition of a kind of anonymity, whose faces are generally out of sight or kept from us (leaving them unidentified, deliberately unknown), the faceless businessman bureaucrat, symbolically integral to the infrastructures and high architectures of state-capital.

Here, in The Mysteries of the Horizon three such men are collected together (at least in dress and location) out on the field or rocky plane, although each has their own direction.  They are staring outward, marked out each by an equally wan crescent moon, which reminds us that most of the lunar body under these circumstances is invisible, as if we see only a fraction of what is there with these beings, whose time in correspondence with their moon is of the night (though crucially the scene is at twilight as the very real between of the definites of night and day).  The moon; our celestial neighbour, the siren unseen of tidal forces that moves the world of the oceans in the vastness of its bodies, casting them through the land.  This lunar connection, either as a kind of symoblic or cosmic analogue also in that sense, lends its particular thinness to our understanding.  That which remains connective and reflective to the cosmically stellar is now at its most thin and denuded aspect in alignment, while the beings of their specific relation appear to scan the horizons,  The horizons where the actual mysteries (according to its title) reside…

There are a number of striking elements at work here though.  The men themselves appear as a group and yet are almost equally defined by their separateness.  As if they are each absorbed by their direction, a coordination like sentinels of some kind, whose intent or direction is in or to the distance (the title further suggesting the involvement of the horizon).  Although it feels significant that at least one of the directions (and horizons) involved contains the silhouetted profile of houses – the human community.

Typically, we can also understand the horizon as the space where the apparent knowledge and certainty from the directly visual field of the terrain (and its perception) are gone, at which point we are at the deliberate junction of the unknown of the Land,  the disappearance of the visibility of its space, past a threshold of our contact with it.  In this sense, it is also like an entry point to a mysterious individuated beyond possessed by the world.  It can also function like a channel, the location for where in defined visible terms, the plane of the earth’s surface ‘meets’ the envelope of the sky.  This realm where the mysteries of weather occur and where from over the horizon, the unimaginable can arrive at any time.


And yet, Magritte’s painting is of the bowler hat men, the faceless functionaries of the bureau.  If these are the people scanning the horizon (or perhaps more explicitly, this is the mode of scanning or fixation on the horizon) then the diagnosis (in this hauntological sense) is that the mode of the bureau has taken over, that the beings of the bureau, like scantily reflective moons are in a co-mingled sense, engaged beyond what we see and know directly, or in this widened sense, being engaged beyond the same.  The darkened close horizon in the painting itself gives us these outlines of terrain but also seemingly houses and we must understand too that what we are seeing here, places these men (now partly as junctions with unknown intersections at the edge of what we appear to know), outside the human spaces of the community – the lived-in human world of the conurbation, the lived-in human world of understanding.  As such in their dimly adorned, dark-uniformed anonymity, they are also imparted to the same mysteriousness of the horizon, yet with this form of a threatening banality.  This is also why one can imagine, Magritte gives each man his own moon, as the requirement of reminding us that there is something of the unearthly at work, something of the unseen world, something of the cosmic within this appearance of the ordinary, the uniformed individuation of the functioning of assemblages of state capital operation and power (and what is of their animation and production).

They are, in their bowler hats, the very definition in that time and space (the 1960’s) of the London office gentleman (also the symbol of patriarchal self-congratulation, the gravity uniform of the grey eminence figures who run things).  Notable here of the facets of the mode of organisation at work are that they are typically heirarchic and arboreal in structure (molarised networks downward and outward in direction-fixed distributions) the arboreal being something identified in a Thousand Plateaus as a recurrent organisational mode within humans and their structures. Juxtaposed with the rhizomatic, it is a mode which, in a strict power relation isolates and diminishes the multiplicity of its own ongoing (connective) composition.


The Son of Man Rene Magritte

In ‘Son of Man’ Magritte locates the face behind (or it is obscured by) an apple, a fruit that comes from something predominantly arboreal with its well known association to the concept of ‘wordly’ knowledge.   It’s important to at once both grasp that the image here is already a question of being (even also in the way that our own being is partly, deeply abstract and abstracted), in the most crucial context of the idea of the apple (and of the man and of the wall, sky and sea behind) as expressed here.  The apple, when identified as such, is already also simply an apple, but that it is in a surrealist painting gives it a double-ness.  It is already in a relation as something other than its own simplicity and yet it can retain that simplicity (it is just an apple albeit floating in space between ‘our view’ and the face of the person in the painting) while also being freed up to be recognised with other possibilities of its being and relation.  This then is a kind of holding open of the space, while experiencing the specificity of the different kind of contacts which come through the image of the object in the context of the painting.

As such, the question of how the face is usually the identifier of the person – now gone – gives us the possibility to think that something is being shown to us here about the things which can be understood by an apple, to have replaced the specific, singular nature of the person’s face (in fact this was to be a self-portrait by Magritte which he did not appreciate).  If we are to try and take the idea of the apple in this painting (as an opportunity if nothing else) out through its human contextuality, then it becomes possible to think that this painting can comment on knowledge as a sphere of male associations or lineage (‘Son of man’).   As if with the cultural folk-narrative of the man as the rational, uniquely reason-illuminated being, to whom has come the implements of assembling a power over nature.  A narrative that also handily demarcates women as being of an inferior efficacious connectedness in the matter of materiality.  In the materiality of power, it is the male line that carries the components of its construction, which is part image (the image of the power of reason and rationality, the bedrock of the civilised mode, the underpin for the capitalist interaction, the language of the scientific discourse, the fundament of causes and effects, the image of the structure of ‘thought’).  And just as women are invisible in these particular paintings of Magritte, so is the narrative for becoming-woman in the western hegemony of thought and reality.  

These paintings by Magritte almost appear as a sustained meditation on the formation of men, their locations in relation to the world and the abstractions of life, the unthinking uniforms of a power culture that has grown out of a power culture.  In a way, the bowler hatted professionals and bureaucrats of London were like a late gesture of the British mode of Empire (the bowler hat itself first made for an aristocrat in 1854) the unfurled establishment of what was left of running continents from back offices.  All the while with the coda of the gentleman at work, belying invasion as modus operandi while administrating the managed ‘savagery’ of conquered indigenous people,  whose concern with remaining autonomous among their lands, made them obstructions to the rapacious, monomanic acquisitiveness of the ‘developed’ western states.


magritte Décalcomanie

Another work resonant in this way is Décalcomanie from 1966.  this time, we have the de-facialised being once more, only now he is beside a curtain – both the theatrical of life and of the availability (or not) of the visual.  He seems to be seeing towards a horizon once more and an evacuated, beautiful view.  And yet he is not alone as an image.  His empty double which in some way goes beyond or negates the curtain (the unknown) allowing us to see the view beyond from where he (or the negative of his space) has in some way been ‘transferred’ beyond himself.  Magritte it seems is again giving us a beyond of our darkly normal, undifferentiated posture of being, right there beside us, which is also of course the presence of the world in our shape, visibly in (and by) its relocation.

We have an invisible cut-out beside us, which is also cut out of the curtain in some way, like his shape (our shape) is now cut from the material which separates and divides the known, the curtain which also generates the drama of our existence by being the barrier beyond which we cannot see (and where theatrically speaking, preparations are made for the next Mise-en-scène).

The incongruous fold of curtain visible in the cut-out figure itself is of course the length of the curtain obscured from our view by the man’s figure.  It were almost as if by this point, the impact of his existence, the space he takes up, is also a space of absence elsewhere, against the backdrop of the curtain wall of what we do not know, maybe this is also a moment to reflect on human being’s schematically deranged approach to the unknown, which has resulted in a kind of shrunken capacity in relation to an ontology of the unknown in personal existence (like the repetitive relegation of the concept and reality of our own death in our consciousness; the invisiblised, faux-receded universality of the presence of the unknown).

And then it also seems to simply imply that we must see through ourselves, we must see through man, relocate from its perspective and yet see through precisely its outline, at what is being blocked, through the occluded unknown of the curtain to the world beyond, revealed in its quiet ’empty’ seethe, occupied by terrains of the sky and the sea and the crystalised land.

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