Eyes on representation
disaster, the laws of attraction and other incidental phenomena
Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we're shown a photograph of it. – Susan Sontag, in Plato's Cave
In this image-saturated world the act of looking at pictures or photographic representation is mostly bogged down in the process or perversion of savouring the spectacle. Any catastrophe – be that natural or man-made – is reconfigured as we, the observers, are afflicted by what can be dubbed as deviation syndrome – a mental habituation to the cosmetic aspect of print- and the electronic-media as they present news and events not only to incite empathy but also to enact what may be called – the drama of representation.
Developed to attract readerships/viewers, in a society that lays its faith squarely on
communication and evidentiary value of image and text, the astute showcasing of the sites of disasters or horrors opposed to the debunking of their actual nature as well as the impact they have on society and individual, only provides for the reader/individual to enter an irrational contract with habit: the producer produces the content and the consumer consumes sparking an interdependency unique to our age. For the consumer, the more he/she is exposed to these virtual portals the more one is drawn to it like iron-dust to magnets. 'The vision machine and the motor' triggers it, to borrow the formulation of Paul Virilio from 'The Accident of Art', his celebrated essay.
Once confronted with the 'depiction' of a real-life apocalyptic event or a human-induced disaster, we take the media for a convincing conduit for 'truth'. We observe without knowing that the very sense of the absence of the 'real experience' has been pigeonholed by the attentiveness we invest in viewing its cleverly manipulated representation where the actual remains eternally 'repressed'. The absence of actuality/physicality of the event, or the experientiality-related void is filled with the retinal sensation brought forth by images culled by photographers who are only able to transport a selection of the works to the public arena through the sieve of the media's decision-making apparatus. The images that end-up in the final layout either ensure picturesqueness, or heighten sensation in the name of evidence sharing.
Imagine the milieu where the reader (the second observer) is looking at what the capturer (the first observer) has been able to harness with a camera – what gets savoured at this juncture is 'visual data' already chosen, selected and processed for second-hand viewing.
We (observers) are served – through channels of the media – on our platter, sympathy-inciting, attention-grabbing subject matter, which we consume with a semblance of attachment, or in the absence of attachment, in a stupor of self-absorbed, ego-fueling passion, which often dilutes/infects our minds obfuscating the issue of how differently we would have reacted in real-life situations vis-à-vis the real-life event.
Between emotion in response to an actual event and the empathy in response to its representation a fugitive structure lies – one that helps to confuse the difference between the two. It is an amebic mechanism related to the unconscious faith in the power of representation and the technology that seems to capture accurately what is 'real'. Whether this element is foundational to the relationship between the one who is feeding and the other who is ready to be fed calls more deliberation, but we may become sure of the fact that it dilutes – to varied degrees – human understanding, knowledge and even just plain awareness of the presence of a mutating knowledge-base, power relations and the politics of information dissemination.
Only by confusing representation with what is real we enter the belief system that takes the camera – both movie and still – for a window to the world of reality forgetting the fact that these are the means by which the totality of experience is reduced to a rational, objectified, observable and, to great extend, an aestheticized event or topography.
Reality seen through the means of the technology of representation from within the matrix of the capitalist mode of production, rather than felt/interiorized through one's own senses, is akin to an experience of a video game – a journey through the already chosen tract, a tailor-cut counterfeit course of actions to be pursued by the readers upon consensus but to be experienced by every individual in isolation. It is a game where the player's passivity as spectator is guaranteed to a degree, which substantially affects the subject's subjectivity as the very act of spectating itself becomes a synonym for subjugation courtesy of the processes of representation and the sense of enjoyment/fulfillment it brings alongside other undefined emotional baggage.
With some fixed reference points to reality, the visual experience is relegated to mere habit, only inspiring looking/viewing/gorging/gulping what is on display, thereby making the subject addictive. Thus, looking or spectating becomes synonymous with looking into a speculum where the spectacular is made particularly noticeable. And this turns the very act of looking into a secular and meaningless ritual with repetitive performance as the spectator grows the compulsion of visiting the same virtual venues in search of perpetual 'satisfaction'. In the absence of spiritual fulfillment often derived from all forms of art, or even forms the act of knowing rather than being spoon-fed through a chosen societal apparatus, humans as spectators are left with nothing but the feeling of not getting enough.
Jean Baudrillard contends that 'reality has been replaced by mass-media images and individuality subsumed by the crowd.' News Media as a window to the world has not really replaced all the other representational modes, but has – to varied degrees – decentered, devalued them, and even caused devolution of some of the traditional modes, ie, age-old poetic/artistic methods such as various forms of recitals, narrative paintings, or just plain storytelling, but most of all the social concourses where oral transmission including plain information sharing construct and reconstruct the social/cultural fabric. When written words and printed images rule, speech suffers stutters, and also lose currency and credibility. Consequently, we have lost most oral traditions; gossip has taken over. And when the evidentiary value is given the upper hand, art, literature and any other sites where reality and its social-political implications is interpreted as paradigms, synecdoches, analogies, and metaphors as representative images or codes always conveyed something of import to artist and audience alike, as is described by George P Landow.
Also, in effect, to be in line with what is perceived as authentic, when we talk we do so in reference to the images and information we have already been fed; the represented reality dominates, even set the agenda and the rules of the game that is conversation as communication.
Compared to the camera, all old visual methods are now erroneously placed at a several notch down in the list of choice in terms of their ability to represent reality. Yet it is through the finance-driven camera – be that movie or still – that the virtual world is being constructed according to the wishes of the people who seem to profess to have a better understanding of what to put on to the platter for the greater public to gorge on.
We have reached a stage of Modernity when a handful of pragmatists get to select the menu on behalf the rest – the majority, as the greater portion of the crowd remains ready to be served out of habit. Accordingly, our emotion is only sapped at venues crowded with seemingly real, yet known in terms of actuality of only graphic nature, the virtual portals such as newspaper and television, the web and, recently, the wap versions in mobile handset.
In real avenues – real life situations – things are of different more; the milieu is of oneness as between the observer and the observed there exists no mediating Third Party.
Don DeLilo, the American author who brought to light the fissure running across the intimate familial environment and social life at large due to the collision with technological as well as consumerism-related profligacy of our times, in his fêted novel White Noise, interpolates that 'the narrative role of the writer has been usurped by terrorists, whose acts are globally visible as televised spectacles.'
Add to this scenario the fact that what also has been usurped is the link between the murderous acts and the actors, disbelief has crept in between them. The names of the perpetrators that the media attempt at linking to the venomous acts are often a source of speculations, if not pure skepticism. The 9/11 catastrophe is a case point. The sources of the modern world's increasing fear of retaliatory acts by those who are out to resist the onslaught of global capitalism or by others driven by rage and revenge when faced with its military might, has only accelerated the process of the propagation of lies. The destruction of the Twin Towers has become the biggest propaganda generating disaster event.
Truth is becoming more and more elusive, and the process of representation a way for the people at the helm, as well as on the periphery, to hammer home their own sets of beliefs in line with their respective agendas.
All the technologies of the world together have only contributed to the downgrading of the very idea of communication and representation; due to the way information economy works, infotainment has replaced what other may call 'manufacturing of consent'. Representation is relegated to the level of a self-contained process. Representation of disaster or horror is now the ultimate self-referential sites, lacking the very concept of an 'outside'.
As far as the media is concerned, the devices are of hegemonic nature; perhaps the very culture of consumption of news and the way it is being manufactured antagonize the so-called democratization some thought was possible chiefly through legal or ethical means.
To fully disclose the actual nature of modernity or its devices of control, one must uncouple the antagonistic element from the central theme of progress and democratization; behind the facade there lurks its auxiliary force – 'violence'. The nation states, with it mechanism to protect private property and sovereignty, enforce through the so-called unifying force of a leader or an institution or two, often tactically evict/cow down the Othered majority who occupies the continuum of supporters, sympathizers and even enemies. This is the net consequence upon entering the web of pseudo-discourses and knowledge that stand to null all other alternatives; and the spots of urban pseudo-psycho-geaographical portals such as newspapers and TV stations have, by now, become the ideal conduits for regular discharge of such officially approved line of Thinking.
'The audience must participate in the news, much as it participates in the drama, by personal identification,' such is the view of Walter Lippmann who also recognizes risk-taking by publishing houses as 'hazardous performance'. Going by these extrapolations we land squarely on the site where the rules of the games are being set and the forces behind the signifiers that dominate the public arena are being unleashed, which in short can be referred to as the arrangement of influence. If 'the power to create opinion' resides in the clever management of this virtual space, the horizon of transmission is more and more being constructed along the line of economic diktats leading to desired as well as undesired effects on the consumers. The cosmetic variables – empathy image for personal identification, horror image for sensation, and all the other shades in between, to ensure excellent performance, are an essential part of the drama of reading according to the ones who are in control of the content.
For an atomized individual in the Modern society, viewing is a way to stave off boredom, as every emotional response to the representation of a calamity provides a cause for one to feel an acute mental anguish, but here, emotion equates interest level, and for these two to be at par graphics or visual aid is the prerequisite.
'Modern capitalism, which organizes the reduction of all social life to a spectacle, is incapable of presenting any spectacle other than that of our own alienation. Its urbanistic dream is its masterpiece,' is the observation once made by Raoul Vaneigem, an ardent member of the Situationist group, in Spur magazine (issue 6), a special edition on Unitary Urbanism, a concept the members brought into existence.
The Situationist International was an exclusive group of intellectuals who proclaimed the 'nullity of Urbanism and the nullity of the Spectacle' and identified the fact that 'the development of the urban milieu was the capitalist domestication of space'.
The spectator conditioned by such restrictive urban realities is neither an observer nor a witness, he/she can at best be defined as a participant in remorseless entertainment. And no dubious means are needed to continue to be entertained as the ritualistic craving for disaster image, horror pictures appears to have contributors who are willing to continue with the supply.