Cybernetic Desire: Terry Ratzlaff Feature, But The Eyes Are Blind One Must Look With The Heart 

Ratzlaff’s photographs expose our landscape as the merging of desire and images, looking past content to instead maximize stimulation. 
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Author ········· Taylor Dorrell
Published ······ May 28, 2020

Kurt, 2015 by Terry Ratzlaff

    In Terry Ratzlaff’s photo series, But The Eyes Are Blind One Must Look With The Heart, we are exposed to people, places, objects, and screens that are blended into media driven desire. This desire is not simply apparent in the portraits of nude subjects found under the surface of the internet, but bleeds into the landscapes, trees, and furniture. The foundation connecting the subjects and landscapes, being the internet, opens up a sobering visualization of our world that’s increasingly reflective of the themes in science fiction and cyberpunk of the 20th century; these genres becoming what the late Mark Fisher calls Cybernetic Theory-Fiction in his book Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction.

    Ratzlaff’s visualization of this complex landscape of tech, social media, and desire exposes how this complexity of 21st century desire manifests itself in the Real. However, optics are just another part of the circuitry of stimuli, which includes our [media] landscape and blurs the Real with images. Desire is no longer biological, but blended with this landscape. It’s no longer about separating media from sex, but blurring the two together to create a new stimuli.

    In Ratzlaff’s absurdist search for meaning, the subjects are decoded, seeking meaning in the ‘Craigslist Casual Encounters’ and on ‘’. The physical representation, the unmasking, - “the stealthy intercession into, and deletion of, private space…” (Fisher) - of the subjects leaves us with nothing but a sign, “...because once flows have been decoded, you can no longer subtract anything or break into them, no more than you can detach segments from any code in order to dominate, orient or direct the flows.”¹. With a lack of a signifier, all that remains is the naked body without image. We’ve arrived at the core, there’s nothing more to symbolize when the unconscious desires become visualized.

Don No.1, 2015
Lori No.1, 2016

“The experience of the body as container for subject breaks down, allowing not an escape of the subject from physicality, but an exploration of the body as depersonalized potential; abstract matter. Abstraction without empathy… What is at stake is a - new - account of the body, abstract, cybernetic and denaturalized.” Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction

Ashley, 2015
Harold, 2017
Karma, 2016

    In his photographs of screens and printed posters, Ratzlaff blends his images with images of images. The series, reflective of culture, displays, not the image of the body, but the image of the image of the body. A faded tattoo of a pinup girl on an aging shoulder is one step further down the line of reproduction from the wrinkled crusted porn pinup hanging on a wooden interior or his own intimate portrait of “Lori”. In McLuhan’s reading of the myth of Narcissus, it’s “not because he falls in love with himself, but because he is unable to recognize his image as belonging to him.”.

Pin-up Girl, 2016

Pin-up Porn, 2016

    Along with the technological blurring of images and images of images, is the blurring of self with images of images. In this blurring, Fisher identifies (through Burroughs and McLuhan) a shift from spectator to participant. “Immersion… displaces spectatorship.” and therefore collapses the private. “‘Private’ space now becomes a ‘terminal’  whose function is to relay a ‘public world’ that only exists at the level of simulation… here, there is no reflection, only interminable circulation… Narcissism… is not about self-love, but the inability to distinguish self from the other, object from subject: cybernesis.”

Pleasures Arcade, 2015

    Technology seems to, not contrast nature and biology, nor act as an extension, but instead act as a synthesis that creates a greater and unmanageable form of stimuli. Ratzlaff’s images are not simply sexual in content - the nudes or sexual objects - but in form. From the process of finding subjects online to the very presentation of the images. Pornography is not limited to the visualization of sex, but the search online becomes an act that produces a new kind of stimuli. “It is not only the sexual that becomes obscene in pornography; today there is a whole pornography of information and communication; that is to say, of circuits and networks.” (EC 130) “... the tendency in hypermedia/sensation culture is towards an abstract sensation and away from a naturalized sexuality, towards a cyberoticism or hypersexuality that precisely puts in question the limits of the sexual as such.” In his image titled “Man Watching Internet Porn”, if the subject was actually searching for internet porn, this would likely entail even a higher degree of drive and desire as the subject has not yet been met with the final form of the actual video. By only engaging with thumbnails and website layouts, organized by category, the subject is submerged in an entirely new form of stimuli in the search - not through a preselected static observation, but a personal participation.

Man Watching Internet Porn, 2016

    As stimuli transcends the organic, “..the body itself is nothing but a medium.”². If stimuli and new mergers between bodily organs and technology create new synthesis’, then our analysis takes place on “not the organism but organism plus environment…” In addition to the people in Ratzlaff’s images are the untitled landscapes. The images not only show people in their most stripped down form, but show mundane landscapes, beds, signs, and commodities. By including these objects and landscapes, there is a flattening of the plane of desire as all fall into the same “continuum”.

Macy’s, 2015
“Ballard’s question “in what way is intercourse per vagina more stimulating than with this ashtray, say, or with the angle between two walls?”(AE 69) outlines a vector of capitalist expansion. It’s not just a question of selling commodities by associating them with sex, (the well-known but by now archaic advertising technique critiqued by McLuhan in The Mechanical Bride) but of a generalized libidinization in which bio-sex is no longer the privileged referent. What McLuhan calls the “hunger to experience everything sexually” converts into an (even more) abstract drive to maximize sensation.” Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction 

Fleshlight, 2018

Lonely Bed, 2016

    Ratzlaff’s image of the “Fleshlight” wedged into an old brown couch gives a resemblance to Cronenberg’s morphing hallucinations that become real in his film, Videodrome. In Videodrome, the tv pulsates, stretches, becomes sexual in its form. The main character Max is able to stick his face into the screen, into the object, into the light. The environment is fully engaged with this “curious fusion of sex, technology and death” (Mcluhan).

    The media landscape is “In an environment increasingly dominated by billboards and advertising hoardings, the word “landscape” is not at all metaphorical.”  Ratzlaff’s motels, houses, and Macy’s parking garage are a part of the blending; the very grounds of the organic circuitry. “the replacement of a reliable world of durable objects by a world of flickering images that make it harder and harder to distinguish reality from fantasy.”³ The texture of the underexposed “Lonely Bed” is the same skin of desire we see across the naked bodies.

Untitled, 2016
Untitled, 2018

“As soon as this scene is no longer haunted by its actors and their fantasies, as soon as behavior is crystalized on certain screens and operational terminals, what’s left appears only as a large useless body, deserted and condemned.” Baudrillard, Ecstasy of Communication

    In Ratzlaff’s project, But The Eyes Are Blind One Must Look With The Heart, we see the new landscape of desire and what it looks like for those who don’t give ground relative to their desires - even when those desires are increasingly merged with the ‘Big Other’ of tech, algorithms, media, and the ideology that structures these forms. We see Ratzlaff’s observation of this landscape through the medium that is a photo series. Ratzlaff’s images, viewed online, become part of the very blending visualized in his photographs. In its very form, our drive is sustained through this desire, through a new form of stimuli through the blending of reality and fantasy for the sake of maximizing stimulation.

Window at Night, 2018

See more of Terry Ratzlaff’s work on his website

  1. Deleuze, “The Nature of Flows”, trans. Karen Isabel Ocana, Deleuze Web,
  2. Baudrillard on Crash
  3. Minimal Self, Christopher Lasch, 19

Note: All unspecified quotes are from Mark Fisher’s Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction