Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

49: Susan Sontag part IV:
The Image-World

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         In her essay, “The Image-World,” Susan Sontag lays out a critical theory of photography. She notes that we as a species have always been fascinated by images – it is the essence of our attraction to painting – but we in the west have also been pushed to forget the image and concentrate on the real (for Plato, the real was the outer worldly Forms; for Aristotle, the material world: For both images were a poor copy of reality). But with the invention of the camera, the real (in the materialist sense) could be captured. At the time it was believed that old religious attachments to images would die out and be replaced by new scientific attachments to the real. However a curious development occurred: “The credence that could no longer be given to realities understood in the form of images was now being given to realities understood to be images, illusions.”(Q1)
         A primitive culture becomes modern when “ of its chief activities is producing and consuming images....[and images] become indispensable to the health of the economy, the stability of the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness.” (Q2)
         Sontag views photography's originality, power and value as essentially acquisition. She mentions four forms of photographic acquisition: 1) A photograph is a “surrogate possession” of something. 2) A photograph gives us “...a consumer's relation to events...” an experience. 3) acquiring information – photographs are excellent at “furnishing knowledge disassociated from and independent of experience.” 4) Photographs (in the plural) can become a system of information, classification and storage that redefine reality.(Q3) These four new forms of acquisition have created the new modern relationship between the image and reality and they are the source of what distinguishes modern and primitive reactions to the camera.(Q4)
         Ultimately it is the acquisition of reality that we want from an image. Since it is reality that the photographic image captures, we even think in terms of images to describe the real world(Q5).
         One uniquely modern activity that is very common is picture taking. Being a shutter-bug is a compensation for a more complex view of reality (a reality that includes images too). The shutter-bug seeks compensation for the diminished sense of reality that images create in the world: an image is of course not the real thing. However the image is more and more becoming all that we actually seek access to. We seek access to images because of the personal acquisitional sentiments they induce in us: closeness while being distant; mobility while being immobile; adventure while being safe – “The urge to have new experiences is translated into the urge to take photographs: experience seeking a crisis-proof form.”(Q6)
         This experience seeking nature of photography has the ability to both familiarize and alienate an object. Depending on the way the picture is taken a familiar object can appear strange and an unfamiliar object can be made to feel common. In so doing a photograph can make us feel that we are in the action without the risk. Because of this we implicitly believe that anything and everything should be photographed and recorded and that we should have access to any image.(Q7)
         With this implicit believe that anything can be the subject of a photograph come two attitudes: the aesthetic and the instrumental. The aesthetic attitude claims that anything can be made beautiful or interesting and therefore should be seen and photographed. The second, the instrumental attitude claims that everything is useful either now or later and therefore should be recorded and photographed (Q8).
         The camera with the two attitudes it engenders has been a godsend for capitalism and for the power-elite. The image-world 1) has created huge amounts of entertainment to encourage spending and smooth over the injustices of class, race and gender; 2) has gathered huge amounts of data to better use natural and human resources, keep order, fight wars and create jobs; 3) allows the masses to become one with each other in the spectacle of life and become the object of surveillance for the ruling class; 4) allows social change to be a function of image change since the freedom to consume has become synonymous with freedom itself. (Q9) Photography is like lust; a lust for reality. Just like lust, the desire for images cannot be fully satisfied and its constant consumption necessitates evermore consumption. “If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require an ecology not only of real things but of images as well.”
         Q1 She seems to say that in the past the image was a connection to the real, for example, in the past a spiritual image or symbol was thought to have an intimate connection with the divine and therefore was part of the divine and ought to be treated as if it were divine. Today, in the modern world, we cannot do that anymore; today the image or symbol is the reality. Today, a picture of the moon is not the moon in actuality but the image is the moon for us – and we have no desire or inclination to get closer to the moon through the picture. Do you agree or disagree with my understanding? What do you understand by the distinction between 1) “realities understood in the form of images” versus 2) “realities understood to be images”?
         Q2 Is it accurate to divide cultures into primitive and modern based on the prevalence of images? For us today, are images indispensable for 1) economic health; 2) political stability; and 3) personal happiness?
         Q3 The first three forms of acquisition are personal but the fourth is political. “Photographs do more than redefine the stuff of ordinary experience....Reality as such is redefined – as an item for exhibition, as a record for scrutiny, as a target for surveillance.... thereby providing possibilities of control that could not even be dreamed of under the earlier system of recording information: writing.” Do you see photographs as enabling control more than writing? Is our society using photographs as a source of control? How?
         Q4 “The primitive notion of the efficacy of images presumes that images possess the qualities of real things, but our inclination is to attribute to real things the qualities of an image.” So primitive people tend to think the camera will rob them of their soul; but we want to become more real by having our picture taken thereby creating a “permanent” historical record of our existence. Do you agree or disagree? Do you like to get photographed? Do you worry about how you will look when you get photographed? Why? Would you ever consider ripping up an old picture of a love one? Is that because of a primitive fear of losing a connection or modern fear of losing a historical record? Or something else?
         Q5 How often have you heard expressions like “it was like something out of a movie,” or “it is not what I had expected (from the pictures I have seen).” Is our frame of reference increasingly becoming the images we have access to rather than the real world? Is this a good or bad thing? What do we gain and what do we lose by almost always referring to images?
         Q6 We all take and consume pictures, but do we really want to acquire an experience? When we are tourists in a distant place, why do we take pictures of famous things? Why do we put ourselves in the picture of the famous thing? Do we want a crisis-proof experience? What do you understand by crisis-proof experience?
         Q7 Disasters, both natural and man-made, war and any bad news seems to always come with pictures. We often feel disappointed if we hear of some news story and there is no picture to go with it (sometimes we get an “undated image” so we at least have an image). We have a curiosity about anything bad because our culture aspires to never have anything bad happen – but of course bad things happen. The image with its alienating properties makes us feel exempt by showing how that situation is some how different than ours. Are you disappointed if you do not see an image with a news story? Does our culture aspire to perfect safety? Do people feel better if they can find a difference between themselves and a victim of tragedy?
         Q8 Do you believe that anything could be made beautiful or interesting? Do you believe that anything could be useful either now or at a later date? “... cameras arm vision in the service of power – of the state, of industry, of science....cameras make vision expressive in that mythical space known as private life.” Would you say that both are actually very political; dealing with the manipulation and control of people?
         Q9 The unity of the capitalist world depends on the access and consumption of the same images. Would you say that insofar as the west shares a certain amount of the same cultural images the people and the countries will not fight each other but will fight a culture that does not share enough of the same cultural images (for example the west versus the Islamic world) and furthermore that the difference within the west are due to minor differences in the consumption of images (e.g. Canada's refusal to support the USA's second gulf war without taking Iraq's side)? If the whole world only had access to the same programs and images of the USA would we have world peace? Is a united image-world a scary or pleasant thought?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren