Let’s start with an unusual love letter as a precocious introduction to the problems of media, long before they became such a dominant part of contemporary life. “Written kisses don’t reach their destination,” Franz Kafka writes to Milena Jesenská in 1922, because the ghosts haunting the media feed on them on the way. To counteract these ghosts, humans invent new means of transport to bring people together, like the trains, cars, and planes developed during Kafka’s era. But the ghosts have a more expedient series of inventions on their side: after the postal service, the telegraph, the telephone, the internet, and wireless connections, along with the various videocall and messaging platforms they host. “The ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish,” Kafka writes.1 What begins as a whimsical love letter turns into a horror story about hungry ghosts roaming the virtual space of media. In this prescient letter, the hungry ghosts and their contemporary avatars belong less to the past than to the future; they are proleptic ghosts in the process of being created by advancing technologies.
The same year that Kafka writes to Milena, Paul Klee paints The Twittering Machine. At first, the work might seem cute and inconsequential, until detail after detail reveal how acute and uncanny it really is. Created with his oil-transfer technique over a watercolor background, the four chirping birds that are expressively represented, with their resulting smudges, have an initial air of “naturalness” and spontaneity. However, like Kafka’s letter, the depiction quickly grows more sinister, as we notice how the birds are perched awkwardly on a wire, with weird objects coming out of their mouths, and one end of the wire attached to a hand crank. When the crank is turned, the birds presumably will move up and down and twitter, portraying a nature that is mechanically produced; a nature that is actually “unnatural,” and so, menacing. The pink and white rectangle beneath the birds and wire further suggests this sense of menace, if it is taken to be a pit into which victims of the twittering machine fall. Retrospectively, Klee’s little birds resemble the creatures in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), where the director creates an eerie atmosphere by using mechanically produced sounds to replace natural bird sounds. Where Klee’s birds and Hitchcock’s birds differ is that in Klee’s work, contrary elements like nature and machinery, or cuteness and horror, are not in opposition but in superposition. The result is an artwork that engages with multiple dimensions, rather than multiple aspects of one dimension. Dimensionality is a central concern in Klee’s 1924 lecture “On Modern Art,” in which he speaks of trying to “arrive at a conception of a whole which is constructed from parts belonging to different dimensions” (15, italics added). Multidimensionality was also important in Cubism, although Klee’s approach is specific. In many of Klee’s paintings, the viewer is constantly transposed from one dimension to another, and what is incongruous in one dimension may be perfectly congruous in another. “Art,” Klee famously said in his “Creative Confession” (1920), “does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible”; it reveals the multiple dimensions of the real.
Today, our associations of twittering (or tweeting) birds are more likely to relate to social media than to modernist art history. When Twitter was launched in 2006, it was conceived as a very different genre of twittering machine, although over time it has evolved, as I see it, into a kind of accidental parody of Klee’s painting. The name was chosen, quite independently of Klee’s title, because the founders thought that the dictionary definition of “twitter”, “a short burst of inconsequential information,” conveyed their vision for the future form of the media platform. Twitter’s logo is a sky-blue bird, because a bird is free to go wherever it likes and to tweet whatever it likes—the sky’s the limit. The genius of Twitter is to wager that the more inconsequential the message, the more powerfully it signifies the ideas of freedom of speech, democracy, anti-elitism, and personal liberation. “Liberation” includes liberation from the tyranny of facts. If ethologists say that birds twittering on tree branches are comparable to dogs pissing on the ground, that both singing and pissing use waste matter (breath and urine) to mark territory, the Twitter generation can choose not to believe them. The experts just give us boring facts; boring because fact is restrictive, and prevents us from saying whatever we like. The danger is that a “short burst of inconsequential information” can in fact have weighty consequences, and this danger is real even if it is not “clear and present,” but vague and developing over time. Tweeting is a liberation from the factual prison house, just as junk food is a liberation from dietary constraints. The danger lies in the way the apparent lightness of social media fuses and confuses fact with fiction, information with disinformation. We are living through an aporetic moment in media history, marked by “fake news” and “post-truth,” which no amount of fact-checking can counter. The initial impression of the inconsequence of a tweet or a fleeting social-media post cumulatively clouds into a more sinister picture, as per the dark tonalities of Klee’s Twittering Machine.
The crisis posed by the Covid-19 pandemic now gives the question of understanding social media new urgency, in ways that even Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic Understanding Media (1964) could not have foreseen. How might the epistemological confusion stemming from social media contribute to social and political confusion? Information and disinformation have become deeply entangled, like host and parasite—only without the benefit of knowing which is which. In a worst-case scenario, being well-informed also means being misinformed, as William Burroughs alluded to when he said that “sometimes paranoia’s just having all the facts.” One current example of the imbrication of information and disinformation—which might be a comic soap opera if it weren’t for the fatal consequences—is the American political right’s refusal (along with similar sentiment in other Western democratic countries), against medical advice and factual evidence, to wear face masks, because they see the mandate to wear masks as a violation of their individual rights and freedoms, a descent into socialism. Hence, the refusal becomes a patriotic defense of America, in spite of the fact that this can contribute to a drastic increase in the US death toll. A fanatical commitment to liberties overcomes common sense around health.
Former US President Trump led the Covid confusion, fond of both junk-food and tweeting, and equivocating on the wearing of face masks. Until the eventual suspension of his Twitter account in January 2021, he exploited this and other platforms to diminish, for political reasons, the seriousness of the virus and delay the country’s pandemic response. It could be said that this fatally delayed response, communicated chaotically via media, is another kind of virus, an informational virus working alongside the biological virus to further its propagation. The disinformation is passed on to Trump supporters, who repeat his denial of the epidemic’s seriousness, or even its existence. In South Dakota, a state that tested a staggering 60-percent positive, Republican governor and Trump ally Kristi Noem can say, “My people are happy because they are free,” while people keep dying in hospitals filled beyond capacity. A most harrowing detail, as frontline nurse Judi Doering reported on YouTube and indeed on Twitter, is how as these patients lie dying, they often remain in denial, gasping with their last breath: “This is not happening, this is not real.”
Has social media made “the real” disappear? Is it the loss of a sense of reality that makes so many people deny, even when biological life is at stake, what seems so clear to everyone else? In October 2020, Berlin-based South Korean theorist Han Byung-Chul published a highly controversial essay on the pandemic, “Why Asia is better at beating the pandemic than Europe: the key lies in civility.” Han begins by asking not why America and Europe have handled the pandemic so badly, but why Asia has handled it so well. His answer, rightly criticized for its essentialism, is that Asia is more accepting of authoritarianism because of its Confucian culture. Hence its politicians and peoples do not put up much resistance to digital surveillance or to wearing masks, both of which have proved effective in containing the coronavirus. Essentializing Asia goes together with essentializing the West, so that the refusal to wear masks is seen as a form of individualism. However, this individualism proves to be a more extreme if tacit form of obedience to authority—an obedience to seductive, powerful leaders to the death.
Next, and somewhat more convincingly, Han argues that digitization and “fake news” have eliminated reality, and that what the pandemic represents is the shock return of something “natural”—not just a computer virus, but a real virus, which a culture overdosed on a diet of virtual reality cannot handle. The idea of the pandemic as “the return of the real” is also a little misguided, because it maintains an opposition between actual and virtual worlds, where one is real and the other is delusional. It is, in my view, more exacting to begin by saying that at this moment in media history, both the virus and social media are real. There is no “return of the real” because the real never disappeared. What has become obsolete is the old divide between actual and virtual, which predefines and so reduces both realms. We are confronted today, as ever, by a real that is ambiguous and entangled with difficulties, a nondescript, indiscernible real: our real. When Klee asserted that art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible, we might understand him to mean that art engages with a real that is under no obligation to conform to our notions of it.
A similar example of art’s relation to the real can be found in the film Parasite (2019) by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, with which I would like to close this essay. As I described for Klee’s Twittering Machine, Bong’s film begins on a light note of social comedy but eventually takes on menacing overtones. The story concerns how members of a working-class family, the Kims, pose as English tutor, art therapist, chauffeur, and housekeeper in order to infiltrate the wealthy household of the Parks. They do this by using digital technology and social media to produce false university certificates and personal references, and to fake an expertise they do not have. The title Parasite prompted many viewers to view the film as a tale of class conflict, of rich and poor being parasitic on one another in different ways. However in the film, even class conflict undergoes a twist, so that there is not only conflict between classes, but an even stronger conflict within the working class, as poor characters compete with each other for survival. Instead of working-class solidarity, solidarity is with the rich, who the poor fantasize about, aspire to, and emulate. The most bizarre example is the husband of the Parks’ original housekeeper, Geun-sae, declaring his profound “Respect” for homeowner Mr Park. This convoluted form of respect for those (at least partly) responsible for one’s plight recalls the fatal respect that some Covid-19 patients in the hospitals of South Dakota held for their leaders. Such incongruities point to the world as a site no longer possible to grasp with previous concepts such as class conflict. The world has turned into a para-site: the site of a problematic and multidimensional real.
An important element contributing to this notion of para-site is the “ghost” that appears twice, near the beginning and the end of the film. The ghost turns out to be the previous housekeeper’s living, respect-giving husband, Geun-sae, who has been hiding secretly all the time in the basement. His first accidental appearance sends the Parks’ young son into convulsions and his mother to seek art therapy for him (from Mr Kim’s daughter); his second appearance results in full pandemonium and multiple deaths. Geun-sae dies after an altercation with the Kims; Mr Kim murders Mr Park, and then hides from the law by taking Geun-sae’s place in the basement. The film ends on an ironic note: Kim’s son wants to liberate his father from the cellar, and plans to do this by working hard as hard as he can, making a lot of money, and buying the Parks’ residence. But this emulation of the rich turns out to be no more than an escapist fantasy, an attempt to ignore the ghosts that haunt the para-site. Like Klee, Bong shows that the ghost in the twittering machine is the grimace of the real.
Ackbar Abbas is Professor of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine. Before that, he was Chair of Comparative Literature and co-director of the Centre for the Study of Globalization and Cultures at the University of Hong Kong. Besides essays on critical theory, he has written on artists like Liu Dan and Antony Gormley and film makers like Wong Kar-wai and Lars von Trier.