"On Visual Appeal"

It came to pass in the age of Polaroid that late one night, as is wont to happen after holidays and natural disasters, a clerk was busy at work developing rolls of photographs; pictures of the Grand Canyon and Aunt Martha and the 400 foot ash cone that had been left in the back yard after the eruption.

As the witching hours drew longer and the reek of chemicals began to cloud his mind, as legend dictates, he began to deviate a bit from standard photo developing technique. Now, some will say that it happened because of a spilled can of cola, and others say that he was a spy technology smuggler from Japan. Some fancy an errant bolt of lightning during that dry and tense night's atmosphere, but these are all just rumours, drawing away from the soul of the story: it turned out that he discovered a new technique for developing film, one which produced prints so vivid and realistic that they were generally held to be an improvement on the original subject matter.

No one knows who this legendary technician was, or if he ever existed at all, but that's not important to the account. What is important is that he forgot to patent the process, and thanks to his negligence the whole world was given the gift of this awesome reaction. Film stores everywhere adapted to the new standard or went out of business; thus was the public's hunger for these improvements on reality - for an escape, albeit how slight, from the world in front of them.

Now there was just one side effect of this process which could be considered bad: whatever occurred to animate the prints so as an aside also irreparably damaged the negatives. This was a stark concern for two months, as multiple prints required tremendously greater quantities of film and even so the results couldn't always be duplicated. This was all solved, however, when some anonymous mind (again, one philanthropic in his laxity under copyright laws) came up with the ingenious idea of taking pictures of the pictures, and this is where the problem first made itself apparent.

You see, as the first set of pictures were improvements upon the mundane reality of the original subjects, the second iteration improved the image that much more - a print at this stage would seem four times as appealing as it originally was.

Advertisers went nuts. They reasoned, and quite correctly, that this process was exponential - hence you could take pictures of pictures indefinitely until you had arrived at a vision of an infinitieth away from perfection. Chaos broke out in the streets of the developed world. Husbands and wives would whisper most passionately in each others' ears when diverting their eyes from the base and real and instead addressing a tenderly held framed print of "sur-reality," as it was described, as an improvement on reality.

People began attaching, through clips, tape or other adhesives, idealized photographs of themselves to their foreheads, so that they could be addressed directly without dishonouring their co-conversor by forcing them to see gritty, filthy reality.

New mothers in hospitals waited three hours for the prints to be returned before bringing the purple monsters to their swollen breasts; adolescent boys would masturbate at sur-realized representations of cars, aeroplanes, cans of Campbell soup. Doctors and employers both were concerned as workers would gaze for hours on pictures of dolphins, raw meat, or even themselves (as they might be depicted in their greatest and most fantastic dreams,) forgetting to show up to work, call in sick, or even take the time to eat or defecate. Still, stylized graphs, charts and x-ray diagrams always cast the bad news in the best light possible.

Indeed, medical practices of many kinds managed to prosper from this strange love from the public, especially those involving cosmetic surgery. Tattoos were no longer removed but instead received special layered enhancements underneath the skin, whereby grafting the pictures directly onto the patient's surface not only improved the reception of the pigmented image but also ameliorated the general tone of the skin and such reflection of the patient's well-being on a whole. A tattoo on its own was worthless, but after a few repetitions of this formidable procedure, it became obviously more pleasing than the most flawless of natural skins - even the highlights of sores and past scars coming to life and telling their own stories in marvelous relief. The richest of the rich, not content to see their waking share of beauty, arranged for such sur-real images to be implanted on the insides of their eyelids, out of sharp focus to compensate for the extreme closeness, and illuminated by small lightbulbs inserted into the tear ducts. A popular imitation in poverty-stricken lands was to merely tear off the eyelids completely, leaving the optic sensors open to receive such visible delights even when one was asleep.

Now it had been known for quite some time that the augmenting effects remained puissant, though to a far lesser degree, on pictures where there was contained text; stop signs and corporate names typically underwent the process a few times over to ensure that they weren't ignored altogether but the process to render mere words more appealing proved costly and inefficient, where 10 iterations of a catchy icon could supplant thousands of repetitions on an exposure of more alphanumeric symbols. By and large the written word was phased out, for a picture was, after all, worth at least a thousand words.

Intelligentsia, academics, philosophers, logicians, engineers and scientists of all sorts, no longer hunched over desks or tables but rather reclining in lounge seats, gazing placidly at wall-mounted poster-sized blow-ups of images gotten from the long-disused eyepieces of microscopes, precise gradations of drafting equipment and readouts of gauges and dials - they were rightly alarmed by all of these goings-on. Words had always been the primary means of expressing precise logic, identifiers et cetera. Pictures were quite handy but things were getting to the point where one aptly presented graphic could sway the reception of major theses and proofs. Obviously academia had to do something to save the human race from falling into inescapable aesthetic hedonism, its descent briefly broken by bouts of illiteracy and endemic ignorance.

They immediately set about tinkering with the various elements and forces in that elusive but widespread mysterious photographic process, putting what remained of their brainpower to work fighting for its very survival, and within months a solution had been found - a refinement of the process by which text could be rendered simply and inexpensively as appealing as photographs which had undergone the process many times over. It was deemed a full success and students at institutions around the world celebrated by covering university campuses with graffiti; graffiti which was soon covered up with pictures of the same.

Pages torn from dictionaries enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, if only as a novel wallpaper pattern, and books and writing became the objects of a brief but intense love affair from the public. The regurgitated text allowed people to feel good about investing hours spent poring over sheets of dead tree, and long-closed bookstores were restored in the second childhood that only a passing fad can trigger, inundated by callers for the most aesthetically pleasing, the least offensive and above all else the most satisfying reads possible. Complete volumes of Camus and Kafka went untouched, but with minor revision the vast majority of literature could be distilled into palatable tales of two optimisms - where it was the best of times in the best of all possible worlds.

The greatness of a work soon became apparent by virtue of the speed with which it could arrive at a satisfying conclusion; if past works of great literature were lacking such, ghost writers joined forces with ghost editors and together gave literary plastic surgery to the greatest works of the twentieth century and beyond, so that the masses responded to the Savage's attentions to Lenina in much the same way as they did to the feelie theatres, and these professional hacks knew that they had outdone themselves when they managed to leave a reader sympathizing with Alex's forlorn need for the stirring tunes of Luddy Von and Winston's ultimate love for Big Brother. No one spoke out about the rearrangement and omission of a few ugly words and distasteful phrases - they couldn't remember the book ever having been this beautiful in the first place, and they certainly weren't going to act against this wonderful process.

Eventually this comeback, however, was given a boost by the still-impressive forces of the graphic, which had not been forgotten by the public. Indeed, when the two media combined forces once again to provide the formidable and venerable vehicle of the picturebook, the flaring heyday of the word was already over. Passages of nice things were enhanced, then supplanted, by pictures of nice things, and convoluted plots were slowly but surely broken down into images of fewer twists and turns, until the length of a book could be diminished tenfold while the enjoyment of it still be increased. This desperate attempt to preserve society as we know it was pronounced dead when they started replacing book titles and author names with tasteful reproductions of kittens, palm trees and carrion birds. The focus had returned, inevitably, to the instant and gratifying fix that a sneak peek could provide over the slow and imperfect thrill derived from wasting time skimming over dialogue, literary devices and plot development and then pondering and considering its washed-away message, often while looking at nothing more beauteous than the insides of one's eyelids (a complete write-off!)

Eventually it was decided that man's ultimate calling truly was the organized and ritual viewing of such images, and clever and cunning machines and software were crafted to allow every adult to spend only a half of an hour of every day at work, mostly in vast film-developing complexes, the rest of the day being dedicated to sitting in long rows in frugal chairs, uncomfortable but unnoticed, gazing upon a wide, vast gallery of enhanced pictures. A surreal spectacle, that of the silent and awed masses enthralled by the sur-reality of visions of beaches, forests, the eyes of a mighty stag and those of a killer.

While it was to have been expected, it was surprising that this did not happen sooner; a blind man, whipped into a frothing rage at his apparent inability to appreciate those finest things in life, managed to find his way to a gallery despite an inability to consult large friendly reproductions of maps and street names, and, white cane flailing erratically like a lizard's broken-off tail, ripped a poster in two, tearing a terrible crevice down its flawless sheening surface. A jury of twelve sighted folk condemned him to death for the crime of blasphemy. This started a chain reaction where hordes of God's Chosen, those who could see the divine apparitions He had allowed his children to create, rose up and, in a swift, bloody movement, executed savage pity upon those who had been deprived of the ability to worship properly - the blind were rounded up and locked away, and those who required glasses or bifocals were regarded, when at all, as highly suspect.

As has likely been noted by now, the subject matter of the picture of the picture of the picture mattered hardly at all in relation to what pleasure was derived from its viewing - masses reacted equally well to displays of rippling puddles, miraculous fetuses in-the-womb, and man's ultimate expression of power - mushroom clouds billowing menacingly but beautifully. Of course, everyone was too busy looking into sur-reality to actually spend the time singing in the rain, making babies or detonating bombs, but archives provided an ample supply of past experiences which could be re-lived, and better, through this irreplaceable process. Any image, given sufficient dedicated repetition of the process, could be rendered equally appealing and they could all attain the penultimate pinnacle of beauty regardless of what their source was - but eventually even that rule was broken.

Perhaps it was instinct, or mere shadows of a mother's whispered warning long ago, but there was one thing which was rarely gazed upon and never captured on film - the celestial orb above. Traditional photography made it nearly impossible to take representative pictures of that jewel-in-the-sky without running the risk of over-exposed film and damage to equipment, both of the camera and of the photographer's eye. This unwritten rule followed through in this aesthetic movement but, when all else had been captured to film and honed to a perfect print, this lonely star alone remained to leave its inalterable imprint on celluloid, immortalized as an image over the functions it served.

With only two or three iterations, prints of the sun quickly came to note for their exclusive and exquisite beauty - singular and unique among the blocks and blocks of static sur-real glaciers, lions, hummingbirds and paramecia. Heads began to turn to the rising star, or at least wallet-sized versions of it, and soon its shining face was seen peeking from every street corner and in the wrapping of any package. This was to be the era of the Sun, the dawning of a new age, and cults sprang up in veneration of its perfect image, considered by many to be the face of God.

Weather machines were devised to divert clouds to uninhabited regions, and early one morning, midway between dawn and noon, a joint project sponsored by the twelve greatest nations on Earth took place many miles up, where a series of shuttles and satellites came together to construct what had long been thought blasphemous but now was universally regarded as the only remaining course of action. Tubes and reinforcements came together in zero gravity, and by the time the sun was at its highest, measured in the time zone of the most populous region on the planet, of course, the field was activated. The Sun had been framed and new images of itself, propagated through holograph and lenses, appeared in the sky, showering the entire world with the benign rays of a more perfect star.

One truly could make out divine features in the radiant face, and as one, the world turned to see the most glorious sight possible. Faces twisted and contorted into grotesque masks of rapturous ecstasy, and their minds exploded as their eyes turned dark, to savour forever the most perfect sight possible in the universe. The legions of the newly blind, though it would no longer serve them, tried to position themselves so that they would be facing the heavenly object, that God might see them as they had seen Him, and as it swept over their faces the light reflected in their rotting eyes slowly clouded and faded to a dull sullen glow of decay and eternity.

After the cities and megalopoli of the world were silent for many days, the few remaining blind freed themselves from their captivity. Coming upon the silent and unmoving shells of their former friends and relatives, many still living, they moaned and beat their breasts and plucked out their own inoffensive eyes in tragic fury. Still, theirs was the world to inherit - they had lost nothing, and their daring resourcefulness allowed the world to live again.

You may have noticed that many a grizzled storyteller is blind. This hearkens back to tradition of the Norse and the Greeks and beyond, for only one possessed by the spirit of the story can repeat it properly, objectively, without clouded interpretation from personal sights and past images. Their visions are the most perfect, their relations with God the most personal, and they truly are set apart, for they smile more and greater volumes with their useless eyes than most of us do with our sardonically turned lips. Remember that behind the darkened glasses is inspiration and prophecy beyond the most tantalizing of sights, and that the tinted glass is there to protect your naked mind from being destroyed by the great forces which operate beneath them.

Written 1996.
2002: You wanna hear it read out loud (for only the second time ever) at the '02 Portland Columbus Day Nodeslam? Thank steev and hear me get around to it eventually (~3:30) at http://phonophilia.com/times/nodeslam/pseudo_intellectual.mp3 (17:28, 6.29 Mb)
Nuked '03 on account of also appearing elsewhere on someone's website. Mine.
2007. No one with powers believes they can retrieve and reinstate this piece of work, recommending that I just re-post it.
2011. There are powers and there are powers, though I had to wait for the institution of heaven itself to be revoked. 15 years on in this story's life, it's back online... and the age of Polaroid is over.

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