Gilbert-Rolfe, Jeremy. "Blankness as a Signifier," in Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime.
New York: Allworth Press, 1999.
annotation by Kathleen Pickett (Theories of Media, Winter 2003)

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, in his semiological essay “Blankness as a Signifier,” provides a genealogy of modern theories of blankness, details manifestations of its complicated definition in technology and visual art, and eventually proffers his own alternate assessment of blankness as a contemporary form with its own specific spatiality. Gilbert-Rolfe assumes an absolutist voice in reviewing these available theories of blankness. Firstly, blankness has largely been considered a space for signification, “the condition of absolute temporality” that constitutes the space before meaning, i.e., the space that gives way to the possibility of representation. “Absolute silence, absolute depth become conditions for all that doesn’t so much replace them as occur in their place.” (161) Articulated in terms of an absence and/or potentiality, blankness assumes a connotation of deprivation often associated with an ascetic lifestyle. With the emergence of subaltern studies, blankness became politicized as a place for the inherently ungrounded, “an affair of inscriptions and fresh starts, history as clearings and beginnings.” (162) This historical model most concretely demonstrates the association of blankness with absence (mired in Victorianism) that Gilbert-Rolfe dismantles, positing it rather as “the sign of an invisible and ubiquitous technological presence.” (162) Blankness is no longer a frightening void comprising depth and infinite temporality; its association with “the instantaneity of the electronic” has for Gilbert-Rolfe a corollary relationship with inscrutability and sublimity, which leads him to the extended anthropomorphic metaphor of the face (and thereby, the blank expression).

The point-by-point comparison of Victorian and contemporary ideas of blankness yields beneficial results for media studies. The examination of differences in home decoration, architecture, and readings of the blank wall itself speaks to a theory of media as an instantaneous array of mobilities on a surface. This in combination with the abolishment of ornamentation made “the outside disappear into a presentation of the inside,” thereby evacuating any sense of an impermeable interiority. Gilbert-Rolfe transitions to the inherently postmodern idea of a surface where blankness is an activity, as in the page and on the screen. “A surface…always points in two directions at once, is by definition an interstitial condition and is in that sense both instantaneous and not spatial.” (163) This space, like the blank expression, “is neither communicative nor incommunicative but rather brings the two as close together as they can get.” (166) The smooth surface in the age of the electronic mediates this gap, providing “the possibility of expression in the sense of a presentation of the conditions of expression.” (167) An active blankness allows the recuperation of the conditions of production and highlights the power in a lack of depth. Gilbert-Rolfe asserts that this is blankness’ response to technology, evoking a certain freedom in instantaneity.

Gilbert-Rolfe’s final analytic turn is a reading of blankness in the practice of visual art, and its subcategories in sublimity and “narrative technology.” If blankness imputes a kind of placeless moment in time, then Gilbert-Rolfe’s contemporary salient exemplar of photography becomes the most useful medium to which the theory is extended. Photography employs an “absence of visible mediation [that] is a challenge to a hermeneutics of bodily recognition, that in which the human is least apparent—because it was never there—is by definition that which is finally out of the human’s control.” (172) At the same time that the corporal element in media is erased, it is intensified in the abstraction. This is Gilbert-Rolfe’s final moment, an attempt to synthesize the blank abstraction (an active space struggling with the nature/technology binary) with the evolution of the sublime in visual art.