Johann Zoffany, Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-1778)
As we prepare for an ever more cybernetic future, we stumble over boundaries we made for ourselves millennia ago, boundaries between the Real and Unreal, the Quick and the Dead, Art and Nature. Reality slips our moorings, while we contest its location, its course, and its ballast.
Domenico Remps, Cabinet of Curiosities (1690s)
Like starlings chuckling on the eaves, the ancient arguments continue about the relationship of things to the words we use to describe them. (As Francis Ponge says in Mute Objects of Expression, we are constantly forced "to accept the challenge that objects offer to language"). Rooks nesting in our chimneys, tossing bits and leaves down the chute, rustle our debates over the power of language to describe, entrap, encircle, capture a reality that forever eludes.
Open-world video game environments, ever-widening sandboxes of virtual reality...meticulous CGI, visual descriptions of that-which-may-or-may-not-be. Our modern-day wizards creating-- as Barthes puts it of their forebears-- "the effect of the real." I have seen The Matrix and it is real. I have inhabited an Avatar on Cameron's Pandora, and I was real.
The old experiment debouches into the ocean of digital magic. We wield once more the Shield of Achilles, so famously described in the Iliad. Yet recall Auden's warning about that shield: "But there on the shining metal/ His hands had put instead/ An artificial wilderness/ And a sky like lead."
P.S. Inspired partly by these concluding remarks (page 217) in Joanna Stalnaker's The Unfinished Enlightenment: Description in the Age of the Encyclopedia (Cornell University Press, 2010): "...we are at a critical juncture, when literature is no longer being treated as an autonomous category of discourse, and when other fields are borrowing the tools of textual analysis for their own purposes. From the rhetoric of science to historical epistemology, there is a new awareness that the science and literature of description are inseparable from one another."