Photography and Its Hidden Power

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Photography and Its Hidden Power

IMAGE CONTROL: Art, Fascism, and the Right to Resist (Counterpoint), the new book by novelist and essayist Patrick Nathan, is one that looks at looking. The lens, as it were, through which he views the sociopolitical role of the image was ground by Marxism, queer theory, and the thinking of Sontag, Arendt, and Adorno, among other philosophers. The result is fiercely argued, fascinating, brilliant. It is also sometimes maddeningly abstruse. Nathan is good at getting us angry about fascism’s darkly insidious ways and means. He is less convincing about how we might counter it. Being made to understand the mechanisms of a deadly problem when we have so little ability to affect them is, to this reader at least, depressing in the extreme. For starters, the genie of visual propaganda’s digital amplification is not going back in the bottle.

It’s shaky theory to connect photography with the urge to totalitarianism. It vilifies a medium, which in itself is neutral, on behalf of its singular deployments. Nathan’s initial assertion—that we are “ceding” the authority that belongs only to language (because it alone conveys meaning) to photographs, which “can’t say anything at all”—is tenuous. Art “says” plenty of things. It just doesn’t happen to use words. This is analogous to the common claim that other animals don’t have language; of course they do. Much of it is visual: rich, subtly variegated, and largely unknown to us. What other animals don’t have is what we understand as speech.

Nathan goes on — and here we’re only on page two — to state that our “assumption” that images can act as a suitable replacement for more thoughtful means of communication (itself an assumption) “opens the door to fascism, an ideology that requires a schism with reality.” He’s right that fascism operates through filling the void it first creates by isolating a society from sources of truth. But visual art, notably photography, does not intend to assist this severance from reality. If a photograph cannot mean, it cannot intend either.

The proliferation of images shared on social media, a mass personal addiction with a secondary benefit to digital media companies of rendering them the stickiest places in our attention, is another thing entirely. Nathan is on solid footing in explaining that when we allow human relationships to be reduced to consumption of two-dimensional representations, we practice becoming collectible, then disposable—as capitalism requires.

The author relies heavily on Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977) to consider the nature of photography, as well he must. He correctly identifies it as eerily contemporary: more than 40 years ago, she seems to have identified the smartphone camera’s work in service of creating each individual’s “atomized reality.” But do photographs “always” aestheticize suffering, reordering it as a preordained “what is meant to be”? Does viewing a photo of an atrocity always preemptively relieve the need to do anything, giving us a hit of restorative sorrow before we move on? True, every picture is framed, contained, and past. But perhaps it is less what is pictured than where: digital media is structured to be endless, an ongoing question without answer. The storytelling instinct toward narrative (beginning, middle, end) is never fulfilled, only met with further yearning for completion. Hence doomscrolling. Hence hour after hour of mindless consumption of visual empty calories. It makes us the pigeon that, in B. F. Skinner’s experiment, was trained to peck 10,000 times on the same spot for a single pellet of feed.

Our brains evolved to scan the visual field quickly for danger and make decisions—there was no time to ponder whether that shadow was a cloud or mountain lion. As a result, we “read” images far more rapidly than text. Their emotive power is immediate. Good for art, bad for the rise of the meme. (Nathan faults both right and left for use of “noise and merchandise” to sell ideology: “I wish I could say otherwise, but the aesthetic of resistance is no different—equally noisy and commodified, right down to the T-shirts, the slogans, and stupid tweets.”)

Image Control is packed with insight, digression, observations both original and rehashed, exegesis of a spectrum of works from Greek myth to Twin Peaks; it is passionate, disorganized, philosophical in both the best and worst ways. Its rants are written as if Trump were still president, which is more true than most of us would like to admit. It’s a “difficult” book, tough to read and at times tough to make sense of. But that is another way of saying necessary: what are we here for but to confront every difficulty? Proponents of fascism are masters of making life a trial for anyone who doesn’t fall in line. To resist is to start by comprehending the mechanisms by which they do so. That is the purpose that Patrick Nathan’s book fulfills.

Not that he gets there straightforwardly. The author often arrives at stunning interiors through broken doors. In a discussion of music apps’ playlist function—its tendency to package and bland down music into a form of aural décor, yet another way the untidy, organic, or thoughtful is capitalistically “gentrified” (a process of commodification applied, as Nathan explains, to many aspects of culture)—he apparently forgets there’s always been bubblegum pop, elevator music, and other types of comfort sound. Since I occasionally play lo-fi in the background have I somehow become a cog in the machinery of corporate dehumanization? Well, I have, but not because of the music. He goes on to make a case for hip-hop as the sole music that embodies resistance, buttressed by Kevin Young’s argument that “American culture is black culture.” The revelation here (with an assist from Freud) is that whatever is most forcibly suppressed necessarily becomes dominant: it must be heard somehow. Black experience preceded everything America was or became.

Image Control is more successful when it is descriptive than when it attempts to be prescriptive, but that might be my cynicism talking. What does Nathan believe is to stop our slide into unthinking collaboration with power systems that require a pliable and unitary populace that will accept subjugation to corporate dictatorship—the endgame, I would maintain, of fascism?

“What is needed is a queering of compassion,” he avers. “To move beyond the truly rare (but extant) binaries of perpetrator and victim, it’s important that every individual recognize their existence in a continuum of conflict”—conflict being the primary driver of the capitalist marketplace and thence autocracy.

But how to accomplish this? How to dislodge the image from its current primacy in the public sphere, with its reductive and capitalist-friendly gentrification of the difficult and different? Can it really be as simple as . . . words?

He’s not proposing a law that all photos be accompanied by captions of a minimum of 300 words. Rather, our redemption, and our resistance, will come from literature. Imagining ourselves into the lives of others is the wellspring of compassion, Nathan believes.

To read fiction is to risk being moved by someone who may have done or said terrible things. It is to risk facing the wholeness, the humanity, of those whose actions may have harmed us or others. It is to risk knowing that no one can be seen as in a photograph, consumed in a glance.

That fiction is requisitely complex and essentially human is indisputable. Yet here Image Control unwittingly promotes another binary, the very structure the book is devoted to dismantling. It might be hard, but it’s humane to take it case by case. Image bad, writing good? No, it’s all good. Except when it isn’t.

Image Control: Art, Fascism, and the Right to Resist by Patrick Nathan (2021) is published by Counterpoint Press Editions and is available online and in bookstores.

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