High Definition Obscurity


TV Static Abstract #8, Rick Doble

by Nicholas Rombes


Throughout his career, but especially in writings from the 1950s gathered together as the essay “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” film critic André Bazin praised the potential of the cinematic image “not according to what it adds to reality but what of it reveals of it.” And, a bit later: “Is not neorealism primarily a kind of humanism and only secondarily a style of film-making?” [1]


Rather than clarifying, high definition realism—as a synecdoche for the desire for clarity, forthrightness, assessment, and the entire cultural mania for visibility—obscures rather than makes visible the desire to see everything, to control everything.


“Autonomous Real-Time Ubiquitous Surveillance – Infrared (ARGUS-IR): Current infrared systems either have a narrow field of view, slow frame rates or are low resolution. DARPA’s ARGUS-IR program will break this paradigm by producing a wide-field-of-view infrared imaging system with frame rates and resolution that are compatible with the tracking of dismounted personnel at night. ARGUS-IR will provide at least 130 independently steerable video streams to enable real-time tracking of individual targets throughout the field of view.” [2]


“Film purists will criticize the lack of blur and strobing artifacts, but all of our crew—many of whom are film purists—are now converts. You get used to this new look very quickly and it becomes a much more lifelike and comfortable viewing experience.” [3]


The equation of high definition with lifelike suggests not just the resurgent dominance of the realist aesthetic, but the gradual exclusion of the murkiness of inner life.


“The built-in camera recognizes your face and logs you in to your profile.” [4]


“A blurred picture is just as much a single mental fact as a sharp picture is; and the use of either picture by the mind to symbolize a whole class of individuals is a new mental function, requiring some other modification of consciousness than the mere perception that the picture is distinct or not. I may bewail the indistinctness of my mental image of my absent friend. That does not prevent my thought from meaning him alone, however. And I may mean all mankind, with perhaps a very sharp image of one man in my mind’s eye. The meaning is a function of the more I transitive’ parts of consciousness, the ‘fringe’ of relations which we feel surrounding the image, be the latter sharp or dim.” [5]


The “fringe” of relations surrounding the image: will it be possible to imagine unfocused if all we have, everywhere and all the time, are images whose stake in the real is high definition?


“Thus, the last power left to the director, as to the army officer, is not so much to imagine as to foresee, simulate and memorize simulations. Having lost material space, the bunkered commander of total war suffers a loss of real time, a sudden cutting-off of any involvement in the ordinary world.” [6]


“Routinely thought of as robots that turn wars into sanitized video games, the drones have powerful cameras that bring war straight into a pilot’s face.

Although pilots speak glowingly of the good days, when they can look at a video feed and warn a ground patrol in Afghanistan about an ambush ahead, the Air Force is also moving chaplains and medics just outside drone operation centers to help pilots deal with the bad days.”[7]


“I don’t know much about Spanish politics, but from watching tons of protests in Europe, I know that it would take a lot for any protests to rise to the level or effecting real political change. Tactically, these are the thing[s] we want to pay attention to for protests: Where are the protests being held? Are the protesters wandering loosely around in the streets or are they tightly congealed in one central spot to show how massive they are for the cameramen? It sounds like the 15-M started figuring out in May that amassing your forces in one spot is a good tactic for force multiplication. Where is the largest public square in Madrid? Is it Puerta del Sol or is there another bigger one? Do we have pictures from those last protests to assess approximately how many people showed up?” [8]


As opposed to high definition, low definition has become a metaphor for danger, evil, uncertainty. Below, a frame from Lost Highway (David Lynch, 2007) showing the anonymous, black and white footage of the main characters’ surveilled house, delivered to them on VHS. 


“People want their Minecraft world to look as realistic as possible.” [9]


Hyper-clarity. Hyper-detail. More real than real. But to what end? The clarity of thought? How to measure that in algorithms of resolution? What does it mean to see? Or to think, in HD, about seeing in HD? Having built a double of the world, more realistic than the world itself, what next?


“In fact, if one were to eliminate all movement of the eye, and we were to fixate on a single point, our perception of our visual world would fade away.” [10]


At some point clarity is not enough. HD is not enough. 3D HD is not enough. We create machines that in turn create such powerful, detailed visual fields that our own, human eyes are not sufficient to apprehend. We rely on the machines to see for us.


“Adversaries often take photos and videos to claim responsibility for events or to illustrate capabilities. This media is sometimes confiscated by the DoD [Department of Defense] from a variety of devices, including laptops, cellphone cameras and memory cards. The volume of this visual media is quickly outpacing our ability to review, let alone analyze the contents of every image.” [11]


But if we rely on the machines to see for us, how do we know what we’re missing? What if the blind spot is not a small quadrant in the field of vision, but the entire field of vision itself? Perhaps we will devolve back into the state of bioluminescent deep-sea fish, fish that produce their own light with bacterial luciferin to see by. In seeing, we too are sightless.


[1] André Bazin, “An Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” in What is Cinema? Volume 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967 [2005].

[2] From the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) website. DARPA is a part of the U.S. Department of Defense.

[3] Peter Jackson, referring to the pre-release clip from The Hobbit, shot at 48 frames per second, quoted in 29 April 2012.

[4] From Samsung’s “Smart TV” hub.

[5] Henry James, from The Principles of Psychology. 1890.

[6] Paul Virilio, from War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London: Verso, 1989.

[7] Elisabeth Bumiller, “A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a World Away,” New York Times, 29 July 2012.

[8] E-mail from the global intelligence company Stratfor, made available by here by WikiLeaks.

[9] Description of LB Photo Realism 1.2.5 Texture Pack at

[10] From “Your Brain Develops the Negative” at Webvision, The University of Utah.

[11] From the DARPA website’s description of the Visual Media Reasoning (VMR) program.

About the Author:

Nicholas Rombes is the author of Cinema in the Digital Age, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1972-1984, and Ramones, part of the 33 1/3 series published by Continuum. He is a professor and chair of the English Department at the University of Detroit Mercy. His work has appeared in The Oxford AmericanThe Believer, The Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, Wigleaf and other places. His website is The Happiness Engine.