Andrea Pinotti, Professor of Aesthetics and Theory of Representation and Image at the Università Statale di Milano, published in 2021 a peculiar book that speaks of new technologies related to the image in relation to humanity’s millenary desire to get inside it, a bit like the traditional Chinese tale that Walter Benjamin resurfaced from the sands of time, of this painter who, after showing his last painting to friends, disappears, and they, dismayed, find him moving in the picture, tiny, in the image he had just painted.
Speaking of new technologies, in the double track that on the one hand leads to virtual and augmented reality and on the other to artificial intelligence, Pinotti, starting from mythology, the mother of mankind’s dreams and utopias, reasoning by topoi, delves into philosophy and at times into history, that of art, cinema and technology above all, with more or less marked pop nuances. And so the first three chapters have themes that are as curious as they are perfect for reasoning on that threshold of the title, which fascinates and intimidates us for an entire existence: The two Narcissuses, a mythological figure that, in relation to technologies, brings to mind Marshall McLuhan with his reflections on “Narcissus as narcosis”, and sketches the prehistory of immersiveness, which can always be naive or conscious, like the different versions of the Narcissus myth; Alice’s mirror, with all that the mirror represents in our culture, a threshold element par excellence, we perceive an ‘inside’ of it but it is only a surface, when Alice crosses it she enters a virtual world governed by extravagant laws, a real digital space theorised in the 19th century; and finally Pygmalion in Westworld, a genealogy of the automaton and of our desire to animate the inanimate, like a sort of omnipotent deity, which links the famous myth of Pygmalion, who was so in love with his statue that he asked Venus to bring it to life, to the brilliant and complex television series Westworld (cancelled before the production of the last season to show that the first real enemy of culture is who finances it).
Of course, the subsequent chapters are also very interesting, the heart of the book dealing even more in depth with the relationship between man-environment, man-virtual environment and virtual man-virtual environment, until we reach the last chapter, which outlines, with regard to artificial intelligence, the question of empathy.
An indispensable book, because what is the point of speculating philosophically about the future, about what awaits us, about where the new technologies are taking us, if we do not know what has been driving us towards them for millennia, our ancestral desires, among which crossing the threshold of the image stands out. Knowing this means better understanding the present and avoiding ending up like the naive Narcissus, in love with his virtuality, his reflection, and unable to recognise its threshold.
P.s.: the decision to put a beautiful photograph by Francesca Woodman on the cover is a courageous choice and perfectly in line with the themes dealt with in the book.
Andrea Pinotti, Alla Soglia dell’Immagine. Da Narciso alla realtà virtuale, Einaudi, 2021.