Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Reimagining Images and their Uses (excerpt)

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Often, to speak of photographic images, is to say, “there was my mother,” or “I looked beautiful as a child.” The plasticity and the physicality of the image collapses. Distinctions between memory and sight and photographic print temporarily melt into each other. This entanglement is cultural and is also representative of a history (histories) of desire, a history which links the invention of photography to the legitimation of the image as a tool of communication and which prioritizes directness, the explicit, the transparent, as formless expressions of truth. This is also one of the roots of the nostalgia which haunts relations between family imagery, photography and memory. As the plasticity of the photograph recedes into the background its transitory nature becomes more and more important. It takes an act of will to keep all of these connections from simply splaying off into many different directions. Because of this photographs are always in transition and at the same time they are held in tow — this process, this tension is partly the result of the manner in which photographs come from the past but must be converted into the present. There is an artifice to this activity which transforms the plasticity of the photographic image into a representation which need have little connection to the original experience from which the photograph has been drawn.

David Freedberg has commented upon the longstanding belief in the power of the image to both inspire and pervert (as if without form). Thus, well before the invention of photography the image played a paradoxical role, as information, as an icon of worship and as a vehicle for the imagination. This history was most poignantly played out in what Freedberg describes as the tavoletta . “What comfort could anyone conceivably offer to a man condemned to death, in the moments prior to his execution? Any word or action would seem futile, and it would be as nought beside the inner resources or human weakness of the condemned person. But in Italy between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, brotherhoods were set up to offer a kind of solace; and the instruments of consolation were small painted images. […] Each tavoletta  was painted on both sides. On one side was a scene from the Passion of Christ; on the other side, a martyrdom that was more or less relevant to the punishment to be meted out to the prisoner. This martyrdom the brothers would ‘relate’ in some inspirational way to the actual plight of the prisoner as they comforted him in his cell or prison chapel during the night before his morning execution. On the next day, two members of the brotherhood would hold one of the pictures before the condemned man’s face all the way to the place of execution.”[1] It is thus crucial to think about the attribution of “a transparent effect” to photography through a general cultural history of images. Photography may have appeared as a new technology during a significant moment of the industrial revolution, but the insertion of photography into the history of images must be examined within the carefully defined parameters of its relationship to painting, for example. The shift in mediums did not necessarily change the assumptions governing the use and interpretation of images. The move into photography added the technology to the cultural spheres of influence which were already in place. The dynamics of the movement from painting to photography may have enhanced the attribution of power to the photograph (though this was not the case in the first instance) but this power could not have been proposed without the firm yet often contradictory beliefs and suspicions which had always surrounded images.

Although there is also the history of art photography, modernist and postmodernist, which tries to foreground itself as aesthetic practice (e.g., photomontage) and thus reveal its plasticity, these are creative engagements which see themselves framed through an oppositional struggle with culturally dominant conceptions of the image. The problem is that these dominant conceptions are grounded in discursive practices which link language and sight as if the two processes are not always and inevitably contesting each other, as if, although inextricably bound, they are not also the site of ambiguity and confusion. There may be no better time than now (with virtual technologies inching closer to realisation) to rethink what we mean by pictures when we talk about them and what we are capable of saying about the pictures we create. One of my aims then, is to discuss strategies for renaming and redescribing (thus reinterpreting), not only the pictures themselves, but circular processes of interaction, the relationships between images, thought and subjectivity.

Images function within the constraints of space and time and are bound to memory. Memory(s) doesn’t operate within the restrictions of digitalized time, just as consciousness displays no immediate temporal reflection of what we say when we talk about (it). What we describe as that place within the human psyche — the inner — is a mixture of sensations, feelings, thoughts, desires, abstractions, all of which can be isolated by language into discrete units, none of which can be described in isolation of the other. It is this symbiosis (and the organicity which underlies it) which links experience with learning but which makes the translation between experience and learning neither solely dependent on language nor somehow outside of the linguistic, neither of the image nor beyond it.

The “outside” of language has always been described as imagistic. In poetry for example, words combine to produce an image, though this is clearly an idea of image, which must be translated into prose in order to make sense. Obviously the idea has no firm location in space. It is made tangible through language, yet it feels as if it has come from somewhere else. This is often the feeling which I get when reading the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop or T.S. Eliot. I locate my feelings in what I say about what they have said, yet the process itself exceeds the parameters of language, their’s and mine. This excess repeats itself with images which are never fully present through the language of description and interpretation — the boundaries of the image dissolve in the face of what is said about them. There is a wonderful unpredictability here which overwhelms the specificity of what I say (the desire to point to a picture and transparently link meaning and language), which potentially transforms every encounter between images and myself into a novel situation. How then do we learn to deal with this endless reiteration of the new? Is this what encourages us to learn and unlearn the lessons brought to us by what we watch? Or must we find a dramatically different way of describing viewing and spectatorship?

A balance has to be struck here between the way in which we model the mind in language (usually through such words as reflection and representation) and a recognition of the complexity of consciousness. Any effort to somehow reduce this complexity because it will be easier to unpack the often contradictory relationships which we have with images (seduction and rejection), simplifies if not elides the interactive processes through which we categorize and organize our experience(s) of the visual. Of course the cognitive figures in here as one element in the perceptual, one of many stresses and strains between the operations of consciousness and our interpretation of the results. So varied and interactive are the interconnected strategies which we use to make sense of what we see, that it is no wonder the perceptual is drowned out in a chorus of words. But to see an object for example, does not mean that its “name” or its properties have simply been translated from vision to language. It is precisely this relationship which has to be made, brought into a coherent structure through which the sensuous, that which is “felt,” can be labeled, even if it is described as a “sight.” Linguistic categories are a necessary and integral component of this, but they are not the objects per se. Neither are they representations in the fixed sense of signifier-signified relations. The simple duality of object and sight falls apart here as do all the other binary formulae which transform vision into a function of the perceptual or the linguistic.

The dualism of viewer and image is one of the problems because it forces us to look in often oppositional and divisive terms at a staggered process. It locates the image outside of consciousness and understanding as a product of the relationship between image and thought. It suggests a movement in stages across a horizontal axis towards the visual, towards that which can be understood developmentally, as if consciousness is itself some sort of computational network within which there are connections soldered together by experience. The irony is that we know so little about how or even why our minds are capable of creatively engaging with so many different, sometimes recognizable and sometimes unrecognizable processes. We may need the dualism to make sense of sight and to confirm to ourselves that our minds are not the centre of the universe, but we cannot continue to experiment with cognition as if it can be packaged into neatly constructed modules within which learning, vision and language are essentially treated as homologous, parts organized into a puzzle, the whole already known well before the process has begun.


[1] David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp 5-6.