Weak Hypotheses on the State of Images
An Image for the Present
November 8, 2018
The problem with talking about the state of images is that there’s nothing new to say about them. We can only discuss how we see them at present.
But discourse records thought, not images.
Speech can be recorded through writing, but it is difficult and unpredictable to dictate an image.
The ability to endlessly reproduce images displaced discourse and memory. . .
. . .and images continue to reshape the spaces of our memory.
Images materialize the past in the present. We experience them in and across time.
Different media from different eras coexist in the same images.
Images do not exist objectively.
They provide space for interpretation, and our gaze continually rewrites their meaning.
There can be multiple contexts behind an image, which may change over time.
And meaning can now precede the image itself. Another equally unstable relationship.
Yet there is perhaps now more reality in images than in reality.
There are no longer rules governing image production.
But everyone is good at making images.
The distinction between the producer and consumer of images is fully blurred.
But an image is not a photograph.
The photograph was the first technical image.
Technical images are a category containing the totality of all phenomena that can be created by numbers and their systematic arrangement.
They go beyond reason, being made by humans and machine – not humans alone.
They are meetings of material and technical knowledge.
The image has always been carried by technologies of light, the essential link between us and images.
No image is static. Their materiality is constantly in flux, as are the moments we encounter them.
Images are nothing if not mutable.
Some argue that images are now social events, nodes of energy. Some say images can no longer suffer a death.
The only effective way to erase an image is with other images.
We live in a world that behaves like an image and reacts to their demands.
Our cities are now comprised as much of text and image as they are buildings and streets.
We navigate and mediate a reality composed of images by reading them, decoding them, producing them, re-producing them.
Images were once shaped to accommodate apparatuses, now apparatuses are shaped to accommodate images.
Images pay more attention to their containers than their audience.
The form of images adapt to the constraints of the platforms that ensure their continued circulation.
Images cannot resist the possibilities of circulation. Continued circulation is the lifeblood of the image, sustaining their relevance.
That said, images rich or poor, cursed or blessed, obey the rules of ad-driven platform capital or condemn themselves to being unseen.
Artists, no longer in control of images, turn to economic models to try to make sense of them.
An endless trail of counter-flowing image streams form the image economy, in which there’s only one currency.
Here, experiences, people, and things that can’t be turned into images are worthless.
But as the scale of visibility increases, increased standardization takes hold.
Images seek one another and pool themselves into exhausted semiotic fields.
Everything is photographed through the same categories.
Yet every image, even apolitical, has the latent capacity to be weaponized, radicalized, re-contextualized and used in ways unintended by their makers.
You can’t repossess these images, but you can endlessly reappropriate them.
Images with different value systems increasingly exist and compete on the same significant and insignificant surfaces.
Frictionless cascades of images in simulated spaces wash over our blinking reflections, unable to hold our gaze or attention.
Doomed to be captioned by zoomed-in details of themselves.
Despite this, over any other means, we choose to provide access to feeling through images.
There’s nothing left to say about images.
Vilém Flusser, Towards a philosophy of photography, European Photography, 1984.
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McGraw-Hill, 1964.
Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” e-flux journal 10 (November 2009).