In “Lentil Soup”, A.D. Coleman dances around a definition of lens culture, careening through the history of our relation to the underlying technology, but comes closest to defining it as a culture involving the “endless reframing of humankind as perceiver, the world as perceived, and the lens image as both vehicle and repository for that transaction.” This still rings true; most youth communication happens via images, including photos: snapchat, instagram, and facebook have become (or were designed to be) image-centric. The base unit of information transfer is not the bit, it is the image. Even outside of specific photography, “internet culture” (read: modern culture) is based around the sharing of images. Dawkins’ meme is aptly appropriated to describe them — they are how ideas, beliefs, critiques, are spread in 2017.
But if we want to understand our modern relationship to the image, Coleman’s history fails us, drops us off no later than the 19th century, and we must instead turn to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. And with it, the idea of scale. Before our technology allowed for instant, global, and unlimited publication of images, they performed a different function in culture. Benjamin analyzes this through the lens of cult value and exhibition value. The former, the value of an image derived from its creation; the latter, the value derived from its exhibition. Three key arguments are made within this frame:
- That before mass-reproduction of images, most of the value of an image was its cult value. Now, an image’s value is derived almost entirely through its exhibition.
- Reproduction of an image results in a different work, because it is received in a different context, and often in a different form; a reproduction can never reproduce an original’s presence in time and space, but instead carries its own.
- In the presence of mass-reproduced images, the audience identifies more with the camera than with its subject.
Benjamin believes that the consequence is the politicization of the image. In other words, the image seen less as a work of art, but as a method for conveying an idea. Where his analysis fails though, is in discussing this transformation in terms of Fascism and Communism. Since this essay was written in 1936, capitalism ate the world, using the image as its preferred medium of communication. And so, again, our relation to the image has changed.
First, it is important to understand that the three points above remain true, maybe more so than ever:
- Yes, an image’s value is derived through its exhibition. Look no further than social media. Images in themselves are valued much more for the narrative they convey than as works of art. The travel photo posted to Instagram has nothing to do with the place being visited; rather, the symbolism is of the author as the kind of person who visits places.
- Yes, reproductions are different than originals. There may as well no longer be an original anymore, given the scale on which reproductions are produced. In a way, all digital media is a reproduction; there is no original, or if it exists, it is never viewed. Yet each of these reproductions is original in that it is viewed at a unique time and in a unique context. So an image is more than ever able to allow the viewer to identify with and understand it. Again, this was true before — everyone reads the newspaper at a different time, in a different place — but the scale has changed dramatically.
- Yes, the audience takes the place of critic, assuming the role of camera, rather than identifying with the subject. Return to the travel photo: the image allows the viewer to try on the role of photographer. The camera is no longer separate from its author — we carry them always, they sleep next to us, they are an essential part of our lives. While viewing an image, we become the kind of person who creates that image.
So Benjamin is right in arguing that the image takes on a political role. This is a re-framing of Coleman’s argument that the image and the technology of image creation is an essential element to the way we understand our world. Marshall McLuhan offers another phrasing: the medium is the message.
But what Benjamin misunderstands is that as the scale of image in society increases, so does the power carried by an individual image decreases. We’re simply oversaturated. And given a widespread ability and understanding of the production, duplication, and interpretation of images, an individual image carries no cult value. Or so little as to be practically useless. Sure, some people may interpret the cult; they call themselves artists, and look at how much political power they have in the world. The image itself is meaningless; the message it is used to convey becomes the political element. Mass reproduction has entirely eliminated the cult value of the image.
And this brings us back to the situation which Benjamin criticized in the first place: “[Mankind’s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” Benjamin’s answer was to politicize the image, but as the scale of our interactions with images increased, the path we walked was revealed to be circular.