Cultures of Vision: Images, Media + the Imaginary
In 1992 a major statue of one of the founders of Canadian confederation (Sir John A. Macdonald) was decapitated in a local park in Montreal. Although poorly maintained up until that time, rusty and neglected, the decapitation provoked a major outcry from Canadian federalists. To make matters worse, the decapitated head was stolen. Two years later (1994) no effort has been made to replace the statue or repair it. Pigeons now roost on the remains and the statue has deteriorated further. From time to time journalists have commented on the loss and some private citizens have banded together to raise funds to have a new head made. But the symbolism of the gesture will never be forgotten nor will this symbolic death of the federal spirit in Quebec simply disappear if and when the statue is restored. In a sense this sculpture, both in its full and fragmented form, stands for historical realities which transcend its status as an object and are a clue to its transformation into an image. The aura of the statue (negative or positive) seems to bring history, the former Prime Minister, and notions of the nation state into a synoptic grid, from which many different meanings can be drawn.
So complex is this interplay, so naturalized are its underlying premises, that the task of “writing” about this history of the image of Sir John A. Macdonald will be richly endowed from the start. It will move through a number of sometimes contradictory and sometimes connected levels of meaning, creating a sphere of relationships in constant need of interpretation and reinterpretation. The process will oscillate between the micro-historical and the macro-historical and the terms of that interaction will produce new and different relationships dependent on the context of analysis and the subjective choices of the interpreter. In other words, the statue is both a powerful presence and an incidental component of what we do to it, the basis for a hierarchy of interpretations, and the reason we tear at the statue’s foundations.
Although headless, the statue retains all the qualities which allow it to be identified with its human predecessor. As a focal point in the debate about the future of Canada, it matters little whether the head is there or not. Yet, as an image, the loss of the head brings the arguments of history into the forefront and suggests a rather paradoxical situation in which image and history are one, in which the visual and the material co-exist through the absence of the eyes of one of the founders of modern day Canada.
This process of decay and reconstruction has been paralleled in recent times in Eastern Europe. As the Communist dictatorships fell, crowds of men and women rushed into the streets of cities and towns. One of their first acts was to topple the giant sculptures of Lenin, Stalin and local figures who had supported or run the state apparatus. The images of these statues falling to the ground remains one of the most powerful reminders of the frailty and strength of monuments created to support a symbolic, ideological and social order. Numerous films and videotapes have explored the graveyards in which these statues are now stored. One of the most poignant was made as a video diary for the BBC by Ylli Hasani, an Albanian doctor. THE MAN WHO LOVES GARY LINEKER won the top prize at the equivalent of the academy awards for the documentary film in Britain in 1993. One of the scenes in the video takes place in a warehouse where the statues of the former Albanian dictator Hojda are stored. We see people pulling at the nose of the dictator as the camera scans the shattered pieces of his body lying on a dirty floor. History is brought into the foreground as a tangible object, not just a discursive construction. Hasani talks over the images and is ecstatic. The entire video comes together at this moment symbolically exorcising all of his pain as a witness and victim of the poverty and despair in his country. It is this movement between the symbolic and the imagistic, the discursive and the real, which sustains the power of the video and which points toward a new and powerful strategy for interpreting everyday life. Hasini is both the subject of the video and a witness to the historical process. He is simultaneously in front of the camera and the camerperson. He watches himself and is seen. He stands on all sides of a divide with radically changed boundaries, within which visual representations create moments of historical expression that can be controlled by the spectator and the videomaker.
The iron or stone from which the monuments have been cast represent a moment in which historical meaning has been redefined. The presumably natural link between the visual and the symbolic falls apart. A recent exhibition in New York in the Courtyard Gallery of the World Financial Center foregrounded the paradoxes of this situation. Here are two examples of what artists would do with the now useless sculptures. “Scherer and Ouporov propose a mass ceremonial procession of the statues and monuments. The procession would culminate in their actual burial. John Murray envisions burying the states of former leaders, so that their heads and shoulders stick out of the ground, thereby simultaneously demystifying their former exalted status (by equalizing the viewing plane) while rendering the experience of gazing into their eyes all the more terrifying for being so intimate.”
The fictions of history are foregrounded and the status of the image as a representation is thrown into question. In Hasini’s case his video diary slides between a radically different subjectivity premised on the truth of his experience of oppression and the images he creates to exemplify his reality. The power of the video lies in the contradictions of being within and outside of the very moments he wants to record. It is this paradox which both permits and encourages dialogue, which situates his images as historical and which encourages their projection and appropriation by other cultures and individuals.
Boundaries of Seeing and Feeling
“In devising a story, therefore, the first thing that comes to my mind is an image that for some reason strikes me as charged with meaning, even if I cannot formulate this meaning in discursive or conceptual terms. As soon as the image has become sufficiently clear in my mind, I set about developing it into a story…. Around each image others come into being, forming a field of analogies, symmetries, confrontations.”
This book explores the many fascinating aspects of our culture’s relationship to images, vision and human understanding. Much of the discussion below is devoted to a study of photography, to the cinema and video and to questions about vision, discourse, language and the socio-cultural context of modern media. The book proposes that our relationship to images is not as dependent on the activities of seeing or listening, as we often presume. The assumption that to look means to see, or that to see means to understand, is derived from models of mind which for the most part conceive of human consciousness as a mirror of the world we inhabit. It matters little that we have long ago abandoned the idea that the mind is a tabula rasa at birth or that learning follows a predictable developmental path from early childhood on. At a cultural level, the idea of the image implicates the mind in a representational process which is defined and measured through reflection and linearity. In part, this is a question of power, the subjective power to control “sight” and to locate the “seen” discursively, within, or as a part of the everyday language which we use. It is also about efforts to drive the process of seeing into an anatomical and physical sphere, however metaphorical that might finally end up being, and thus to anchor vision in the “real” world of human thought, perception, experience and practice.
The interaction of visual metaphors with language and power is explored by Marcel Danesi. He developed a list from which it is worth quoting:
“I cannot see what you’re getting at; There is more to this than meets the eye; That is my point of view; That’s the way I visualize it; It all depends on how you look at it; Seeing is believing; I cannot quite picture that; That idea is really out of sight; I do not see the point of your argument; Please look your idea over; They always focus on the same concept, etc..”
This list could be expanded through the use of words or phrases like insight, hindsight, oversee, scan, keeping an eye on, looking down on someone, etc.. The intimate linkages between thought and vision, which are suggested through the complementary aspects of these discursive characteristics will be explored in greater detail throughout this book. The emphasis on the eye as the ‘site’ of perception, thought, reflection, communication and representation suggests that more is at stake with regard to the above inventory than might initially seem to be the case. What stands between the eyes and knowledge? What makes a world seen, a world understood? Or do these questions promote the all too easy conflation of vision with thinking?
At the heart of this debate, which is itself part of a broader argument about the relationship between subject and object, are a variety of quandries and contradictions about the many different and complex relationships between vision and knowledge. What are the distinctions between observation and looking, for example? Is a glance the same as a stare? When we study an object or a person, is that the same as reading? Do similar principles of comprehension and explanation come into play in all of these processes?
A central icon for the activities of seeing in the modern and postmodern era is the window, as an object which frames and mediates the possibilities of vision. “The condition of the window implies a boundary between the perceiver and the perceived. It establishes as a condition for perception a formal separation between a subject who sees the world and the world that is seen, and in so doing it sets the stage, as it were, for that retreat or withdrawal of the self from the world which characterizes the dawn of the modern age. Ensconced behind the window the self becomes an observing subject , a spectator , as against a world which becomes a spectacle , an object of vision.” Why is this argument so pervasive and so familiar? It is often used with respect to technologies like the cinema and television, but it was also a dominant aspect of the initial critical response to photography during the 1850’s. Is it the case that windows separate us from the world? Are they the condition upon which the activities of spectating are based? Why and how does the world become a spectacle? Can windows become a place for contemplation, a place where energy is gathered to create an imaginary and sometimes real union of the seen and the seer? Can they be like a landscape painting which in the first instance proposes a separation in time and space between the scene and the canvas, but then leads the viewer back to a real and/or fictional Provence or Arles, or the wind swept cliffs and skies of a Turner ocean, an English Sea?
Romanyshyn’s argument is seductive. It freezes the very relationships which his otherwise excellent book explores in great depth. To him the world becomes “a matter of information,” “a bit of data, obervable, measurable, analyzable and readable as a computer print out….” (Romanyshyn 42) because what he pictures as a spectator is a self divided off from knowledge and from awareness, a passive actor in the world. This notion of the window as a place where sight rebounds against itself and viewers lose the senses of touch, smell and hearing, this is the distopic argument which has been applied to most modern media. It is a position in which the body devolves into the eye and vision shifts from exploration to consumption, from the insecurities of watching to a fixed gaze. It is an approach which relies sometimes correctly, on highlighting the increasing levels and complexity of mediation, the distance of our bodies from experience, the use of media to explain and reflect the world as if our implication in it can be negotiated from afar, as observers.
It will be one of the contentions of this book that we need to look very carefully at the implications of this approach. Although, for example, I am but a distant witness to the tumultuous changes in South Africa, the recent election of Nelson Mandela to the Presidency of the country left me in tears. The images I ‘watched’ were as close to me as the people I shared the experience with and this was as much of a physical and emotional experience as other more ‘direct’ and less mediated instances during that very same day. We must be careful indeed in asserting that the windows we use cannot be smashed. Media-tion must be thought about as multi-leveled with as many grey zones as clear ones. Our perspectives on the world are never as immobile as the metaphor of the window suggests. More often than not we imagine ourselves to be beyond the constraints of the frame. Sometimes we succeed in stepping outside of the boundaries to which we are accustomed and other times we fail.
The work which follows tries to build on this everchanging foundation. It takes into account that time is a crucial element in the viewing experience and that at no point do the spectacles which we witness freeze us into positions which we cannot control or change. In fact, notions of spectator and spectacle need to be recast as instances of oscillation between the control implicit in acts of seeing and the parallel loss of control in every act of watching. This simultaneity of power and loss creates the possibility, the openings for the imaginary. It is our imaginations which permit us to wallow in the images of violence we abhor and to transcend those moments with a thought, a daydream, an intuition. Our senses and our bodies don’t disappear because the television is on. We are not the victims of what we watch, feel, listen to, although we may wish to alter how we see the world, may wish to open the window and check or validate the truth of the images which we come in contact with. Even in those instances when we cannot, a friend, distant or close, may come to our aid. We may turn to other media, to other forms of communication and to our own experience of the world, to enhance or negate what has been presented to us.