It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on the past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
“Beings” as appearance; reversal of values; appearance was that which conferred value—. Knowledge-in-itself in a world of becoming is impossible; so how is knowledge possible? As error concerning oneself, as will to power, as will to deception. […] The destruction of ideals, the new desert; new arts by means of which we can endure it, we amphibians.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power
Introduction: A Selective History of the Image
We are suffocating, in delirium, lost in a world of images. Not simply a world saturated by images, but a world of images. There is nothing outside of the image.1
A desire to be brought near to the world is at the very base of human life. In a sense, the entire human endeavor, before modernity, was to bring the world as near as possible, smoothly and cleanly folding the earth and its mysteries into the human mind and spirit. As Rilke wrote, “Earth, isn’t this what you want: invisibly to arise in us?”2 But this world is fundamentally unknowable: it is a world of violent, unstable becoming, of turbulent dialectics, slippages, and potentials. For Rilke, as for us all, the world was in a sense always-already invisible. The world, the Real, is an abstract machine — an untidy system of relations between forces and intensities, destinies and selections — constantly constructing a real that is yet to come.3 Rilke again gives us a lens through which to understand this idea, when he says that, “What happens is so far ahead of what we think, of our intentions, that we can never catch up with it and never really know its appearance.”4 It seems that every step toward the Real is a step away from it: our grasp on objectivity, on understanding, is constantly slipping. We are perpetually forlorn.
As a remedy, we invented the image. We drew, engraved, painted, diagrammed, projected, fixed, photographed, filmed, transformed, and most recently, simulated. The domain of images grew and grew to the point of explosion. We became enraptured by images, those little fixations and crystallizations of time and space. We did this all in search of a new understanding, a new objectivity. In pursuit of this objectivity we also invented technical optical devices: new ways of seeing, of drawing ourselves closer to the world. These devices allowed us for the first time to externalize our memory, individually and collectively. These devices and the images they produced also made the world technical, eventually dissolving the barrier between life and technics entirely in the second half of the nineteenth century.5
For a while we were satisfied to simply reach for an understanding of the world as it appeared to us, taking appearance as truth — “appearance was that which conferred value”.6 We began to view the world first through simple lenses7 and camera obscura, and later through more complex apparatuses like the telescope and microscope. We began to draw diagrams of the world and its functions, making the world machinic and technical. This development of technical optics was driven by an insatiable curiosity to reveal the parts of reality hidden to the eye: macro and micro reality. Indeed, we even went so far as to diagram the human eye itself, making the processes of vision visible for the first time. (Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, the great Arab scholar, was the first to reach a modern understanding of the eye and the way it sees objects in the world8, setting in motion an “accelerating sequence of displacements and obsolescences” constituting the history of technical optics — “part of the delirious operations of modernization”).9
But eventually, an understanding of the world’s composition was not enough. The Will, in one of its “hereditary madnesses of human pride,”10 wanted to master the world, not only understanding it but fixing it in place, controlling it, managing and ordering it. Our obsession with objectivity drew us further and further into images and optical devices — into technical realities — manifesting in early optical tricks like the magic lantern and in later photographic processes by Niépce and Daguerre, Talbot, Muybridge, and a slew of other adventurous (if not clumsy) image-makers. The image became the primary constructor of social reality, replacing the text.
Fast forward to today and we see a world drowning in images, enraptured by their splendor at every second; for the image, unlike anything else, has mastered the second and its infinitesimals. We have entered the age of the world-image. The would-be world of presence and understanding originally embedded in the ideology of scientists and image-makers before the 17th century has turned sour. The modern era has become defined by a taste for ubiquitous absence. A taste for retreat into the image. To be made invisible, to disappear, as the late Paul Virilio puts it, has become the ethic of social reality. With the 17th century as a loose starting point, we began to disappear into spectacle and illusion, inventing apparatus after apparatus to satisfy our escapist impulses: the camera obscura and its projection, then the magic lantern and its phantasmagoria, then the panorama and diorama and their productions and reproductions of worlds. With every advance in optical technology came a further withdrawal from reality, a withdrawal into the image. The image, it seems, has its own internal dialectic: a dual motion of intrusion into and withdrawal from reality. Every advance in technical optics — the invention of new optical devices for better seeing, better capturing, reality — drew us epistemologically closer to and phenomenologically further from the real.
Now, the image has become a regime. Its ubiquity gives it power even over kings. We took our own mastery of worlds as the condition for the materialization of new worlds, cast in our likeness. Stanley Cavell once wrote that, “A painting is a world; a photograph is of a world” — yet an image is still not the world; it is simply a representation of a small fragment of a world, passed down to the world by its creator, whose embodied disposition and point of view are entirely subjective.11 This subjectivity makes images dangerous. In an age where jokes can bring down governments, the image finds its apotheosis of power.12 It has gained its own sovereignty over the world. It commands our attention, drawing us through its internal realities and turbulent dialectics. Ideology sublimates into the image, communicating itself through différantial signification and rendering the entire world at once a subject and an object.13 What’s more, the image has rendered all ontologies and dialectics inert, freezing time and space and flattening hierarchies into a geometrical plane.
The age of technical representation has decidedly thrown humanity into the unreal: the world we perceive is one of inescapable signs and simulacra. We have developed so many mediations between man and experience, in pursuit of an objective reality, that I fear we have lost access to both the objective and the subjective: our perception can best be categorized as liminal, unstable, and unreal. What are the effects of this removal from reality on our phenomenological, epistemological, and ontological standings in the world? To answer this question, we must go by way of a more difficult one: what is the image?
What is the Image?
Through observation of the world of images, I have come to contest that there are three primary types of image: sensory images, mental images, and symbolic images. Sensory images are images analyzed and transmitted by the eye — the sensory image is plain and unaugmented sight. Mental images are images formed by the mind, the imagination. They may be informed by sensory images and their trace14 in memory, producing the uncanny and other creative versions of the real. Symbolic images are images produced through media. They are a consolidation and realization of sensory and mental images. Symbolic images are also predominantly technical (that is, produced by or with the aid of technical devices such as the perspective lattice, the lens, the shutter), meaning they can be either signifying or a-signifying. In each epoch, the dominant type of symbolic image is treated as having parity with the sensory image — in our epoch, this is the photographic image; in the 17th century, it was the painting; in the near future, it will be the dream image.
Each type of image is dependent upon all the others for its existence. Symbolic images are only symbolic in relation to mental images, and mental images are only mental as such because of sensory input. When one looks at an image, memory is activated (this is why some images impact us and others do not: our subjectivities come to us through memory and its traces) and we interpret the image as a mental image, combining it with our lived experiences to create a “constellation” of reality in the mind. The visual experience itself is what generates mental images. Here we see that there is a chain of command between sensory, mental, and symbolic images, and that the symbolic image is highly dependent upon the mental image, which is to say that it is dependent upon subjectivity, which will be important for us in a moment.
In addition to these three primary image categories, I distinguish between three different types of symbolic images: pictures, technical images, and dream images. Each of these three types arises from a “completely different kind of distancing from concrete experience.”15
The picture is the prehistoric, historic, and traditional image — the cave drawing, the representational image. It arises from a wish to understand and communicate the world we see before us, to make sense of the world. It introduces little mediation between the individual and concrete experience, and does not introduce much simulation or simulacra into the image besides the simple signification of representation. The technical image is the post-historic picture — as Flusser describes, “the level of calculation and computation.”16 Images of this type include diagrams, schematics, and certain notations; as well as photographs, films (which are for me an extension of the photograph into a thicker, more exact version of the fourth dimension), and other lens-aided or machine-produced images. This type of symbolic image arises from a wish to master the world we see before us, to capture and harness the vital energies of the world. We may view this type of symbolic image as being driven by the senses, or by a technologically augmented version of them. The technical image introduces great mediation between the individual and concrete experience, abstracting and unanimating the functions of the world into a-signifying abstract machines. This is also the level of object-oriented ontologies, which really are class-oriented ontologies: they are interested in categorizing types, not with the vital materialisms of objects and instances. Critically, this means that the world as viewed through the technical image is a disembodied machine, a function abstracted from a form, a mutated and quantified description of reality — the world is a diagram. The dream image is a technical image shot through with the mental image: it dons the characteristics of sensory images, but is ultimately an artificial world in and of itself. This type of symbolic image arises from a wish to escape from the world we see before us, to evade and denigrate material reality and its vital energies. In this category we see certain types of picture-like forms (namely non-representational, surrealist, and religious images) as well as entirely new forms like the computer-generated image and the virtual reality space (which, interestingly, appears to be all dimensions collapsed into a flat and geometrical plane). This taxonomy of images gives us a point of departure from which to analyze the dialectics of the image, as well as a critical framework with which to analyze the image itself throughout the course of history.
The image is dialectical. Its dialectics operate internally and externally. The internal dialectic of the image is, as mentioned previously, a dual motion of intrusion into and withdrawal from reality — an epistemological closure and phenomenological rupture. In other words, every advance in the technics of images (the production of symbolic images via technical means), be it in the image itself or in the apparatus used to produce the image, performs two primary functions: first, it gives us greater knowledge about the world before us, allowing us to more cleanly categorize and manage the world; second, it leads us further into the reality produced by the image and further away from the real. The external dialectic of the image is a social-material dialectic. In it, we see in every generation an oscillation of the predominant form of symbolic image between the registration of the observable and the generation of the imagined. In terms of the image types explained at the outset of this section, we can say this: every modern epoch’s predominant symbolic image is either the technical image or the dream image — that is, driven by the senses or by the imagination.
In the external dialectic of the image, we are able to learn a great deal about a generation’s superstructure, its cultural milieu. Specifically, the predominant image-form of a generation tells us something about the dominant psychological state of that generation. In generations whose images are mainly the registration of the observable, we see a drive toward knowledge, toward epistemological wealth and the high-fidelity representation of the real. Generations in this stage produce the vast majority of society’s technological and scientific advancements. In generations whose images are mainly the generation of the imagined, we see a pathological drive away from the real and toward the illusion, into the image. Generations in this stage produce the majority of a society’s cultural detritus, such as art and fashion — dream images. However, this detritus may in fact signify the most about a society, which I will describe in further detail in a moment.
Interestingly, despite being dialectical in and of itself, the image is also “dialectics at a standstill.”17 The image is a crystallization of time and space, and also of memory. It is a disembodied eye and a disembodied mind. We might also say that the image is a slice through time, or a core of history. This is why we can consider the image to be dialectics at a standstill: it seems to take all of history and crystallize it, in a flash, into a single moment, a fraction of a second. Because of this, the image offers both revolutionary and fascistic potentials. Revolutionary because, as Walter Benjamin explores in his Arcades Project, the image allows the collective conscious of an epoch to be recalled in an instant, shocking the conscious into realizing its standing in the capitalist dream. Fascistic because looking at technical images leads to “the construction of conditions that individuate, immobilize, and separate subjects, even within a world in which mobility and circulation are ubiquitous.”18 These conditions are constructed primarily through the semantic operations of the image, which have the property of being either signifying or a-signifying.
The image is a semantic operator that can work on two registers, similar to the way capital works for Maurizio Lazzarato.19 In the first register, that of representation and signification, the image signifies meaning to the individual, thereby allowing the individual to construct an identity in relation to the signified, as in Lacan’s mirror stage: the sign reaffirms the individual’s status as a subjective individual, giving them the sense that they have control over the way they perceive or interpret symbols and images. Put another way, in the first register, images speak to the individual at the subjective level, allowing the individual to interpret and form identity through this interpretation. In the second register, or the machinic register, the image’s primary role is not to construct identity as such through signification but to intervene in the processes of individuation by bringing into play signs and symbols which have a signifying effect but whose actual function is a-signifying, as we see in propaganda, diagrams, advertising, fashion, and a wide range of other cultural detritus that is usually deemed unimportant to critical theory in terms of its revolutionary potential. It is this second register that is perhaps most critical for an analysis of society, being not a cultural register but a cultural expression of the economy and of the dominant power structures within a given society or epoch.20 In fact, most images under the capitalist system are a-signifying, operating first to individuate the viewer and second to placate them through spectacle, false sense of identity, and assignment of social roles. We see this most of all in the world of advertising, where advertisements individuate viewers while in the same motion relegating them to social roles and distracting them from the turbulent mechanics of capital in the marketplace.
The image is many things, as we have seen, but ultimately the properties of the image make it a critical site of knowledge and power in the modern era. The world, lost in images, has allowed systems of economic and political power to be wielded over us unimpeded. Capitalism has spun out of control right under our noses, under the cover of the image and its distractions, spectacles, and semiotic operations. Knowledge and our systems for containing it have been transformed with every technical development in the generation and analysis of images — from the diagram to the photo, from the photo to the simulation, every development is a further intrusion into and withdrawal from reality. Now, we have become amphibians.
The entire idealism of mankind hitherto is on the point of changing suddenly into nihilism—into the belief in absolute worthlessness, i.e., meaninglessness.
The destruction of ideals, the new desert; new arts by means of which we can endure it, we amphibians.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power
Before the emergence of consciousness, there was the real.21 That is to say: there was a purely immanent world of becoming. Immanence is “a life, and nothing else”22: a state of being that is subjectless, primordial, without individuation or stratification, and without hierarchy. As Deleuze wrote in his final essay, “Immanence: A Life,” “It is only when immanence is no longer immanence to anything other than itself that we can speak of a plane of immanence.”23 In other words, immanence can be viewed as the sovereignty of objects. As soon as an object enters signification or representation, that object becomes a subject, ensnared in a power relation between the object and the viewer. Therefore, after the emergence of consciousness, humans effectively lost access to the real, unable to view things as purely sovereign objects and instead viewing things as subjects to be controlled and manipulated. Things could only be seen, not accessed. The plane of immanence was locked away forever; the vital materialism of the world, lost.
As our consciousness developed and mutated over the course of centuries, we developed new ways of seeing the world in order to gain control over our reality, over the objective situation we found ourselves within. These apparatuses generated images of increasing representational fidelity, each one capturing reality better, more “objectively” than the last — but this objectivity was merely a reconstitution of subjectivity. In our hubris we thought objectivity with regard to the world around us to be possible — a trap we are still caught in today. From the first cave painting to the first artificial world produced by a computer, we find a range of optical techniques and apparatuses of increasing fidelity with regard to the representation of the real. At the same time, due to the image’s internal dialectic as described in the previous section, we find not only a better grasp on the real but a further retreat into the unreal, into the image. The consequences of this are far-reaching, and constitute not only a cultural revolution but a revolution in the constitution of the human spirit: a withdrawal, ultimately, into nihilism.
The mode of production of material life conditions the general processes of social reality. As I have already described, the primary constructor of social life today is the image — in its ubiquity, it seeps into every corner of social, political, and intellectual life. Images drive economies, dictate and mediate geopolitical conflicts, bring down governments, entertain and distract masses, and condition the general psychology of a society through semiotic operations. In terms of our phenomenological standing in the world, this brings us to an interesting conclusion: in a world whose mode of production of material life is the image, the general processes of life are also conditioned as images. Effectively, the world itself has become an image of an image, a mirror facing a mirror, an imago mundi. Upon this point, the world pivots into nihilism.
As Vilem Flusser describes in Into the Universe of Technical Images, “What is currently happening is a mutation of our experiences, perceptions, values, and modes of behavior, a mutation of our being-in-the-world.”24 We have finally become amphibians, abstracting our world to such a high degree that the distinction between technics and the concrete, the real, has begun to evaporate — or, more appropriately, sublimate. This much is critical: living in images is tantamount to resigning to nihilism. An infinite resignation, as it were — a total withdrawal from the real. This withdrawal from the real, seen primarily in our society’s inundation and obsession with dream images and technical images, arises “through a particular hallucinatory power that has lost its faith in rules.” This loss of faith in rules, for me, aligns with Nietzsche’s idea that “old ideals for the interpretation of the totality of events” have become useless — in other words, that new arts must be invented to cope with the disintegration of the real before our eyes. Serendipitously, perhaps the very media that threw us into this nihilism can be useful for our liberation from it. For this, we look to the barrier between life and technics.
When the barrier between life and technics evaporates, something interesting happens: the fidelity of representation converges on the concreteness of the real. This, curiously and perhaps paradoxically, may be our only hope of escaping the nihilism of the world of images. The paradox is this: in order to escape the regime of the image, of representation, the only way out may be through the image itself. The fidelity of representation, of the symbolic image (and especially of the dream image), must reach absolute parity with the real. When this happens, i.e. when images appear to be the things in themselves, when simulations are able to accurately capture the quanta and sense-data of the real, perhaps we can reclaim some sense of connection with the real, breaking with the regime of images and representations. I hope to break with this regime in order to reclaim some sense not only of the real but of the transience and vital materialism of it.
As Rilke wrote:
… to be here is much, and the transient Here
seems to need and concern us strangely. Us, the most transient.
Everyone once, once only. Just once and no more.
And we also once, Never again. But this having been
once, although only once, to have been of the earth,
To reclaim the immanence of the world, to recognize its vital materialism, to break with the regime of images: this is the way forward. To recognize, at last, our desire to be brought near.
Afterword: The Regime of Images
Through my research on and observations of the image I have unearthed a rich and far-reaching conceptual territory. The passages contained in the present essay are by no means a systematic or far-reaching account of this territory and its constitutive properties; rather, they are a series of doorways that I intend to enter with future work. It has become clear to me that images constitute a new reality, a new way of being-in-the-world, as Flusser would put it. However, my claim is more overtly political than Flusser’s. While Flusser may say that the image constitutes a new social reality, I say that the image constitutes a new social regime. My hope is that through this work I will begin to reach an understanding of the apparatus that is the image, through phenomenological, ontological, and epistemic analysis. Aesthetics have become one of the most political weapons we have; and images, as one of the most accessible forms for an aesthetic to take, are ground zero for praxis and living in the world of images.
Cf. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 158. ↩
Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Ninth Duino Elegy,” http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~felluga/eng241/rilke.html. ↩
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 142. ↩
Rainer Maria Rilke, qtd. in Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, trans. Philip Beitchman (Los Angelas, CA: Semiotext(e), 2009), 29. ↩
Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 12. ↩
WP 617. ↩
One of the earliest known lenses to date is the Nimrud lens, https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collectiononline/collectionobject_details.aspx?objectId=369215&partId=1. ↩
Peter Adamson, Philosophy in the Islamic World: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps (Oxford University Press: 2016), 77. ↩
Crary 13. ↩
WP 567. ↩
Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Enlarged Edition (Harvard University Press, 1979), 24. ↩
Cf. Metahaven, Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?: Memes, Design and Politics (Strelka Press, 2013). ↩
Cf. Jacques Derrida, “Differance” in The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, ed. Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas (New York: Routledge, 2008), 133. ↩
The trace is a critical concept for Derrida, and for myself. As a brief explanation: the system of language is composed of differences and oppositions. Other signs are always present in the meaning of a single sign by virtue of their trace. The trace marks the absence which is signified by a presence —the hidden differential network of signs evoked by a signifier. It is like an invisible mark left on the next page when you make a mark in pencil. The trace is unconscious, but nevertheless makes itself known through a kind of Freudian sublimation. ↩
Vilém Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images, trans. Nancy Ann Roth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 6. ↩
Flusser 7. ↩
Benjamin, 462; N2A, 3. ↩
Crary 74. ↩
Maurizio Lazzarato, “‘Semiotic Pluralism’ and the New Government of Signs: Homage to Félix Guattari,” EIPCP, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0107/lazzarato/en. ↩
In this case I find the emergence of consciousness to mean two conditions: when man entered the Lacanian mirror stage; and when man found meaning in objects. ↩
Gilles Deleuze, “Immanence: A Life” in Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, trans. Anne Boyman (New York: Zone Books, 2012), 27. ↩
Flusser 5. ↩