I've been doing some posts developing the idea of secondary visuality.
"A new, data-filled study by the Harvard scholars Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez reports that the Kochs have established centralized command of a “nationally-federated, full-service, ideologically focused” machine that “operates on the scale of a national U.S. political party.” The Koch network, they conclude, acts like a “force field,” pulling Republican candidates and office-holders further to the right. Last week, the Times reported that funds from the Koch network are fuelling both ongoing rebellions against government control of Western land and the legal challenge to labor unions that is before the Supreme Court."
Excerpts from an important article in the Atlantic. Read the whole thing here.
For the last several months, social scientists have been debating the striking findings of a study by the economists Susan Case and Angus Deaton. Between 1998 and 2013, Case and Deaton argue, white Americans across multiple age groups experienced large spikes in suicide and fatalities related to alcohol and drug abuse—spikes that were so large that, for whites aged 45 to 54, they overwhelmed the dependable modern trend of steadily improving life expectancy. While critics have challenged the magnitude and timing of the rise in middle-age deaths (particularly for men), they and the study’s authors alike seem to agree on some basic points: Problems of mental health and addiction have taken a terrible toll on whites in America—though seemingly not in other wealthy nations—and the least educated among them have fared the worst.
Meanwhile, other recent research has piled on the bad news for those without college degrees. A Pew study released last month found that the size of the middle class—defined by a consistent income range across generations—has shrunk over the last several decades. In part, this is because high-paying jobs for the less educated are vanishing. The study builds on other recent research that finds that almost all the good jobs created since the recession have gone to college graduates.
As organized labor in this country has withered, an extreme individualism has stepped in as the alternative—a go-it-alone perspective narrowly focused on getting an education and becoming successful on one’s own merit. This works well for some, but for others—especially the two-thirds of Americans over the age of 25 who don’t have a bachelor’s degree—it often means getting mired in an economy of contract work, low pay, and few, if any, benefits. These prospects suggest that this is an age of diminished expectations for the working class.
Yet there is clearly more to the despair of the working class than empty wallets and purses. Patches of the social fabric that once supported them, in good times and bad, have frayed. When asked in national surveys about the people with whom they discussed “important matters” in the past six months, those with just a high-school education or less are likelier to say no one (this percentage has risen over the years for college graduates, too). This trend is troubling, given that social isolation is linked to depression and, in turn, suicide and substance abuse.
The religiously unaffiliated are not necessarily secular in their outlook. Many of them are spiritually inclined but skeptical of organized religion—especially its intrusion into politics. However, in the absence of any other source of social support and collective meaning (say, unions), there’s less in the way of psychological protection from the slings and arrows of American society.
This sort of isolation was common among the people I talked to. Many said their faith was helping them get through their ongoing troubles, yet they rarely or never went to church. Some felt ashamed to be around people because they were out of work. For others, their religious belief was somewhat a source of self-help, rather than a source of community. For example, one of the workers I interviewed said that being out of work for so long had filled him with a constant rage. To calm his mind, every night he would pick up his Bible and read a dozen verses. He had given up on the church and what he described as its superficial ways. “I want to go to hear the Word—I don’t want to go to see what you’re wearing,” says the man, 53 and from Flint, Michigan. The other way he copes is going outside for a smoke.
For this man and many like him, there is no one to talk to, no one to rely on. “Nowadays, you got people you really can’t trust, man,” he says. “You can’t call everybody your friend.” As the ties that bind them to others have unraveled, the working class has become an ever lonelier crowd.
The larger context of this isolation and alienation is America’s culture of individualism. It, too, can worsen the despair. Taken to an extreme, self-reliance becomes a cudgel: Those who falter and fail have only themselves to blame. They should have gotten more education. They should have been more prepared. On this score, too, the U.S. deviates from other wealthy nations. America’s frontier spirit of rugged individualism is strong, and it manifests itself differently by race and education level, too. White Americans, for instance, are more likely to see success as the result of individual effort than African Americans are (though not Hispanics). The less educated, particularly less-educated whites, also share this view to a disproportionate degree.
In Stayin’ Alive, his powerful history of the “last days” of the working class, the historian Jefferson Cowie describes how the proud blue-collar identity of previous generations disintegrated during the ’70s. “Liberty has largely been reduced to an ideology that promises economic and cultural refuge from the long arm of the state,” he writes, “while seemingly lost to history is the logic that culminated under the New Deal: that genuine freedom could only happen within a context of economic security.” As working-class solidarity receded, an identity built on racial tribalism often swept in.
from Democracy Now:
The World Trade Organization recently issued a final ruling saying, unless we ixnay that law, we were going to face billions in trade sanctions. And the history of this is, the U.S. meatpacking industry, plus their Canadian and Mexican counterparts, didn’t want this law. And they tried in federal court. They tried to fight us in Congress. It only took 50 years, we finally won. The law becomes the law of the land. And the polling shows 90 percent of Americans love that law. Well, when they couldn’t win in the democratic process of our courts, of our Congress, these interests went to a trade tribunal. Mexico and Canada challenged the law at the WTO in one of the trade tribunals, saying this violates the U.S. obligations at the WTO. And the tribunal, one tribunal after another after an appellate one, they said yes. The U.S. government even changed the law to address the technical errors that the WTO tribunal pointed out. And again, we lost the appeal. So, basically, Canada and Mexico, at the end, were in a position, because this is how it works, to say to the U.S., "Either kill the law or pay $2 billion in trade sanctions every year"—every year—for the right of knowing where our meat comes from. And the Congress said, "Oh, oh, my god, trade war. Let’s avoid the sanctions." And they gutted the law. So, if you go to the grocery store now, you’re going to notice that’s gone.
That is a real, live example of our day-to-day lives—not about jobs, but our day-to-day food, the environment—being undermined by these agreements. And if TPP is allowed to go through, imagine that on steroids. We have the ability to stop TPP by getting our representatives now, in this election year coming up, when they’re most sensitive, to commit to voting no. But it’s on us, because in our country is where it can be stopped. And we can do this. It’s already—there are a lot of members of Congress who don’t like the agreement. But using this TransCanada case, using the meat example, those are real ways we can help educate our neighbors, our friends, about what the risk is. Everyone knows TPP means more job offshoring and lower wages, but it’s more than that. That’s terrible, and it’s all these other things, too. And if we educate people and aim them at our members of the House of Representatives to get commitments to vote no, we can avoid doubling down on this disaster.
Liza Featherstone in the Nation (an excerpt -- read the whole thing here):
Socialist feminism assumes that redistribution is the best way to begin improving life for the vast majority of women, both materially and socially. To take a none-too-radical example, in countries like Denmark and Sweden—which offer a broad range of social benefits provided through the state rather than acquired in desperation, as they so often are here, through marriage or a job—women can live more comfortably; raise healthier, more secure children; and sleep with whomever they please. Throughout her long career, Clinton has demonstrated contempt for turning this project into policy.
As first lady of Arkansas, she led the efforts by her husband’s administration to weaken teachers’ unions and scapegoat teachers—most of them women, large numbers of them black—for problems in the education system, implementing performance measures and firings that set a punitive tone for education reform nationwide. Rather than trying to walk this back, Clinton recently said that as president, she would close any public school “that wasn’t doing a better than average job.” Fuzzy math aside, this suggests a regime of pressure on America’s mostly female teaching force—81 percent of elementary- and middle-school teachers are women—that would make her predecessors look like presidents of a giant homeschooling hippie collective. Hillary’s socialist-feminist boosters might want to ask themselves: What kind of socialist feminism supports undermining black women on the job while imposing austerity on the public sector? And lest you think Clinton’s financial hawkishness is reserved for K–12, she also opposes free college tuition, though the United States is the only country where students—57 percent of them women—are saddled with decades of debt as the price of attaining higher education. Defending this position, Clinton recently said that it was important for people seeking a college degree to have “skin in this game.”
In a normal election season, all of this would be reason to agitate, but not necessarily to work or vote against the candidate—after all, what’s the alternative? This year, however, there is an inspiring reason to vote against Hillary: an actually existing socialist-feminist candidate in the Democratic primary. I’m talking, of course, about Bernie Sanders. He’s no Marxist revolutionary—if you’re waiting for someone who will expropriate the expropriators, you’ll have to wait a little longer—but he has spent his life fighting, consistently and without apology, for social-democratic policies that would improve the lives of a majority of American women. In contrast to Clinton’s devotion to imposing shame and austerity on poor women and their kids, Sanders helped lead the Senate opposition to Republican efforts to cut the WIC program, which provides nutrition assistance for mothers, babies, and pregnant women—and he has said that, as president, he would expand it. Other prominent planks in his platform that should be of interest to feminists include free college tuition, single-payer healthcare, high-quality childcare for all Americans, and a $15 minimum wage. In contrast to Clinton’s waffling on Planned Parenthood, Sanders has said that he would increase federal funding to the organization; and as part of his single-payer plan, he would expand support for women’s reproductive-health services.
“With this red line laid down across Crestwood’s driveway, we declare that its plans to store fracked gases in abandoned salt caverns on Seneca Lake constitutes an emergency,” said Colleen Boland, who recently returned from the Paris climate talks. “We declare that these plans threaten our water, our children, and our climate.”
The red line motif emerged at the end of the Paris climate talks last Saturday, as 15,000 people marched in the streets of Paris. It signifies a commitment to holding society to the lines that cannot be crossed in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. Eighty percent of fossil fuels must be left in the ground in order to curb climate change.
The red line motif also was prominent last weekend as 300 residents in Porter Ranch, CA demanded closure of the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility. The Southern California Gas Co. field has spewed natural gas into the atmosphere since Oct. 23. It currently contributes a full one-quarter of California’s daily methane emissions. There have been hundreds of complaints from the surrounding community of headaches, nosebleeds, stomachaches, rashes, and respiratory illness from exposure to the gas and its additives. 1,000 families have evacuated. The company estimates it will take 3 months to plug the leak.
“Aliso Canyon is a clear warning to us of what can go wrong with underground gas storage,” said Tony Del Plato, 67, of Covert, “and how willing the companies are to ignore the plight of the communities around them, and the impact on the climate.”
Schuyler County deputies arrested the nine shortly before 10 a.m. as they blocked a Crestwood tanker truck from leaving the facility.
The nine protesters were transported to the Schuyler County Sheriff’s department, charged with disorderly conduct, and released. The total number of arrests in the civil disobedience campaign over the past year now stands at 441.
Comrades standing up against Elsevier and Taylor and Francis and insisting on the knowledge commons. Here is their letter. Please read and share.
In solidarity with Library Genesis and Sci-Hub
In Antoine de Saint Exupéry's tale the Little Prince meets a businessman who accumulates stars with the sole purpose of being able to buy more stars. The Little Prince is perplexed. He owns only a flower, which he waters every day. Three volcanoes, which he cleans every week. "It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them," he says, "but you are of no use to the stars that you own".
There are many businessmen who own knowledge today. Consider Elsevier, the largest scholarly publisher, whose 37% profit margin1 stands in sharp contrast to the rising fees, expanding student loan debt and poverty-level wages for adjunct faculty. Elsevier owns some of the largest databases of academic material, which are licensed at prices so scandalously high that even Harvard, the richest university of the global north, has complained that it cannot afford them any longer. Robert Darnton, the past director of Harvard Library, says "We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free … and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices."2 For all the work supported by public money benefiting scholarly publishers, particularly the peer review that grounds their legitimacy, journal articles are priced such that they prohibit access to science to many academics - and all non-academics - across the world, and render it a token of privilege.3
Elsevier has recently filed a copyright infringement suit in New York against Science Hub and Library Genesis claiming millions of dollars in damages.4 This has come as a big blow, not just to the administrators of the websites but also to thousands of researchers around the world for whom these sites are the only viable source of academic materials. The social media, mailing lists and IRC channels have been filled with their distress messages, desperately seeking articles and publications.
Even as the New York District Court was delivering its injunction, news came of the entire editorial board of highly-esteemed journal Lingua handing in their collective resignation, citing as their reason the refusal by Elsevier to go open access and give up on the high fees it charges to authors and their academic institutions. As we write these lines, a petition is doing the rounds demanding that Taylor & Francis doesn't shut down Ashgate5, a formerly independent humanities publisher that it acquired earlier in 2015. It is threatened to go the way of other small publishers that are being rolled over by the growing monopoly and concentration in the publishing market. These are just some of the signs that the system is broken. It devalues us, authors, editors and readers alike. It parasites on our labor, it thwarts our service to the public, it denies us access6.
We have the means and methods to make knowledge accessible to everyone, with no economic barrier to access and at a much lower cost to society. But closed access’s monopoly over academic publishing, its spectacular profits and its central role in the allocation of academic prestige trump the public interest. Commercial publishers effectively impede open access, criminalize us, prosecute our heroes and heroines, and destroy our libraries, again and again. Before Science Hub and Library Genesis there was Library.nu or Gigapedia; before Gigapedia there was textz.org; before textz.org there was little; and before there was little there was nothing. That's what they want: to reduce most of us back to nothing. And they have the full support of the courts and law to do exactly that.7
In Elsevier's case against Sci-Hub and Library Genesis, the judge said: "simply making copyrighted content available for free via a foreign website, disserves the public interest"8. Alexandra Elbakyan's original plea put the stakes much higher: "If Elsevier manages to shut down our projects or force them into the darknet, that will demonstrate an important idea: that the public does not have the right to knowledge."
We demonstrate daily, and on a massive scale, that the system is broken. We share our writing secretly behind the backs of our publishers, circumvent paywalls to access articles and publications, digitize and upload books to libraries. This is the other side of 37% profit margins: our knowledge commons grows in the fault lines of a broken system. We are all custodians of knowledge, custodians of the same infrastructures that we depend on for producing knowledge, custodians of our fertile but fragile commons. To be a custodian is, de facto, to download, to share, to read, to write, to review, to edit, to digitize, to archive, to maintain libraries, to make them accessible. It is to be of use to, not to make property of, our knowledge commons.
More than seven years ago Aaron Swartz, who spared no risk in standing up for what we here urge you to stand up for too, wrote: "We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access. With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we'll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?"9
We find ourselves at a decisive moment. This is the time to recognize that the very existence of our massive knowledge commons is an act of collective civil disobedience. It is the time to emerge from hiding and put our names behind this act of resistance. You may feel isolated, but there are many of us. The anger, desperation and fear of losing our library infrastructures, voiced across the internet, tell us that. This is the time for us custodians, being dogs, humans or cyborgs, with our names, nicknames and pseudonyms, to raise our voices.
Share this letter - read it in public - leave it in the printer. Share your writing - digitize a book - upload your files. Don't let our knowledge be crushed. Care for the libraries - care for the metadata - care for the backup. Water the flowers - clean the volcanoes.
Dušan Barok, Josephine Berry, Bodó Balázs, Sean Dockray, Kenneth Goldsmith, Anthony Iles, Lawrence Liang, Sebastian Lütgert, Pauline van Mourik Broekman, Marcell Mars, spideralex, Tomislav Medak, Dubravka Sekulić, Femke Snelting...
This post is a result of frustration with Todd Gitlin's editorial in today's NYT. I can't stand his self-serving invocation of '68. No student protests or radical political efforts since '68 ever measure up to his rosy-tinted glory days and he is always happy to tell us why. This time it is because the protesters are complaining about vulnerability and movements don't win unless people are strong. Gitlin's basic move is bizarre: the students at Missouri won. Their football team put their economic power in the university to work as political power. Students all over the country this week put their universities on notice, occupied spaces, opening up another round of discussions of racism in colleges and universities . This doesn't seem like a story well-described with a headline about protesters' fear.
That said, the rhetoric of safe spaces, vulnerability, and civility does seem part of the current moment. Why? Gitlin too quickly dismisses political economic considerations -- the enormity of student debt, diminished economic prospects, loss of rewarding work, and intensified financial insecurity facing this generation of students. He notes, only to discard, the surveillance part of contemporary life. I think these political economic factors are more important than Gitlin allows. They establish the terms through which the students are voicing their critique. Students frame their opposition in a language of safety and vulnerability because that is the language available to them after forty years of neoliberalism and in the second decade of the war on terror.
The new left stood on the shoulders of the old left they sought to defeat. Available to them was a rhetoric of class struggle, equality, strategy, and solidarity. Contemporary students come into a different university, one focused, first, on profits, individual success, efficiency, and the victory of the strongest and, second, on safety, security, and comfort. They are taught that what matters is their individual psychic, physical, and emotional health. They have to defend themselves, take care of themselves, listen to themselves. If they don't no one else will. So they are pushing back against a university system that they experience as hostile, damaging, unhealthy.
Some universities present themselves as caring, as providing mental health services and a personalized environment that will help students meet their individual needs and goals. For the most part, this is advertising -- as everybody knows. The reality is stress, debt, the reproduction of privilege, and, for some, a few years of extreme partying.
The university concentrates the tensions of the larger society: competition v. security, profits v. comfort. When every space is a site of struggle -- to get that job, that A, that recommendation, that attractive mate, that sports victory -- no space is safe (that students in Texas can carry guns is an extreme illustration of this point). The university tries to promise to its customers a safety it cannot provide because it's impossible, particularly under capitalist conditions. Capitalism requires losers, victims, an exploited underclass, a reserve army of the unemployed, and, more pointedly, those who ruthless enough to cut, fire, and coerce.
When every course or offering requires an economic justification (the proliferation of "leadership" as a buzzword is one odious example), cultivating reflection, respect, understanding, and the languages of critique seems an expense few can afford. The university either cuts them entirely or the students in these courses realize the fundamental tension between the course and the university itself: will getting a good grade in theories of social justice make a difference in the job market?
Students are using a vocabulary of safety and vulnerability because that is the one that registers in contemporary culture. Since 9/11 they've seen that it works. Need resources? Highlight a security threat. There's always money for weapons and police.
The critical language of too much of the academic left amplifies the appeal of a critical language of vulnerability: grievable lives, mourning, melancholia, exclusion, failure, the rejection of power, the potential of any term, act, norm, or demand to harm and exclude.
What's innovative in the last round of protests is the weaponization of safety and vulnerability. Think cultural revolution rather than therapy, hundreds and thousands of students on campus after campus rejecting the status quo and demanding change. The attack on privilege is an attack on hierarchies of race and class, waged in the language available to those told they live in a post-racial society offering no alternative to capitalism.
That said, there is a risk in the current struggles-- and it has nothing to do with a threat to free speech as the liberals would have it. The risk of invoking vulnerability and appealing to safety comes in the reinforcing of an authority who would promise security, who would recognize the vulnerable as vulnerable and guarantee that he would protect them from harm.
I don't think the current wave of protests will end up in this position for two reasons. First, such protection is impossible -- it exceeds the boundaries of the university. From the changing climate to the barbarous economy, the university can't shore itself up against the society it includes and reproduces. The more it tries, the more caught up it gets in the contradictions of struggle and safety. Second, and consequently, efforts to meet students' demands by strengthening administrative authority reveal the impossibility as the incompatibility between capitalism and the promise of a decent, humane life on which the university relies. Decent, humane life, equal life, solidary life, responsive life, requires remaking the university, using it as a base camp in a struggle for society against capitalism -- in other words, cultural revolution.
The endlessly visible glut of information online has not disciplined us. As online subjects we have not been afraid of being tracked, even as we become more aware of who and how our metadata is being collected, and this lack of fear has not produced disciplined subjects. Artist Hito Steyerl articulates with striking insight how relentless the drive towards online presence has become. As we increasingly produce endless amounts of visual and verbal statements to validate our digital existence, we are
… realized online as some sort of meta noise in which everyone is monologuing incessantly, and no one is listening. Aesthetically, one might describe this condition as opacity in broad daylight; you could see anything, but what exactly and why is quite unclear. There are a lot of brightly lit glossy surfaces, yet they don’t reveal anything but themselves as surface43
It seems certain that even if it were possible for images to truly reveal something about their referents, the aspiration toward transparency is a trap. The Internet has wrought a kind of “opacity in broad daylight” as Steyerl claims, where anything we want to see is visible but meaningless. How then does such a critique of the assumed transparency of the public sphere press itself into artworks, and photographic practices specifically? The concern is not for artworks that attempt to visualize the invisible or hidden but that must address the problem that visibility itself is an ideology, one powerfully tied to the contemporary global order. A critique of transparency then seems possible only when artworks are considered beyond the formal, aesthetic frames of the image.
In the years following 9/11 questions around the limitations of visual representation have been widely addressed, and the role and power of images interrogated.44 However, the parameters of this inquiry seem to now be shifting. As photographs are increasingly freed from their role as representational objects and are now digital processes, images have become an important component of global networks of communication and dissemination that are operative beyond vision. Image production now happens automatically, or sometimes algorithmically. Images that we might think we have ownership over are no longer truly ours; we have relinquished our rights to images for the ease of transmission and communication offered by image-based social networks. Within a hyper-visual environment, the ways in which images are used and engaged has shifted so definitively away from the tangible, material of a printed photograph that we can no longer think of the photograph as a representation, as an index of an event or place.
Whereas Rancière’s longstanding examination of the intersection of aesthetics and politics places him within a discourse that firmly roots questions of representation within questions of political violence,47 for Galloway the impossibility of representation is precisely that neither political nor aesthetic representation is ever possible. He identifies that “one of the key consequences of the control society is that we have moved from a condition in which singular machines produce proliferations of images, into a condition in which multitudes of machines produce singular images.”48 One camera does not produce many images, but many cameras (or computers, or smartphones) produce one image. This is a situation where photography no longer records an event but is instead a process or accumulation of many microevents; it does not track a unified point in time, it opens onto many. Photography is not the actual or metaphorical click of the shutter but is instead the instantaneous uploading, tagging, geotagging, searching, facial recognizing, networking, sharing, and filtering of images. This networked image landscape is one where innumerable machines produce not individual, varied, differentiated images but singular images, images that conform to societal codes and conventions.49 For Galloway this proves that “adequate visualizations of [the] control society have not happened. Representation has not happened. At least not yet.”50
Representation has a constitutive relationship with its mode of production, and such production is no longer based on a creator–apparatus–viewer relationship. It is increasingly evident that to make something or someone visible, to produce or make public from multiple sources a singular image is not to produce or generate power. In contrast, Galloway argues, “the point of unrepresentability is the point of power. And the point of power today is not in the image. The point of power today resides in networks, computers, algorithms, information, and data.”51
This is an unusual position since historically vision has been tied to representation through the image. But Galloway’s is an argument against the possibilities of visualization full stop. Where Butler and Azoulay might argue that the signs in the image cannot be considered in isolation from each other, that is they cannot be considered free-floating or unmoored from their referents and that they must actually mean something even if they do not appear to. For Galloway the signs, symbols and imagery that we use to attempt to make data visual, to attempt to make visual sense of so much unending, infinite data, can only appear to forge a relationship with any determined meanings. For him there seems to be little or no power in images, despite their massive proliferation. The generation of power resides in the notion that the image is a screen, which is a front for real power that exists in networks, algorithms, data sets, and relationships of information. These systems of power are yet to be made visual or visible in any meaningful way, and the attempt to make visual systems of power is indeed a pressing one. The question remains not only whether representation is possible, but also whether it can locate and visualize power at all, particularly when political and visual representation is being continually denied across many discourses.
Returning to photographic art practices, it is clear that for Simon’s and Paglen’s projects to be made comprehensible in scope, there must be a way for the images to carry signification. As such, both Paglen and Simon use extended, detailed captioning to direct viewers outside the framed image by pushing against the very limitations imposed by the frame. To see one of their images without an understanding of the context of the project would be to reduce the image to aesthetics only, since the fuller and external spaces of the image would not be legible. Is one possibility for overcoming the failures of photographic representation to navigate between images and texts? Might the use of language also help to articulate questions around data, where language is once again achieving a place of primacy as users learn increasingly various coding languages in order to access different layers of digital communication software? For both Simon and Paglen, without the grounding of extended or specific captions the viewer would be speculating at the research, labour, or people that preceded the image. With the addition of the caption, the limits of each project become less abstract and more concrete. While resisting didactic meaning, both artists are navigate a line between revelation and concealment, between opacity and transparency and it is through the caption that this negotiated border becomes most discernable. Indeed, the troubling of the relationship between image and text is one that both Paglen and Simon hinge their practices on, since without the texts or captions, it would be impossible to assign meaning to these largely abstract images.
Photographic theorist and historian Geoffrey Batchen claims that the “interactive combination of text and photograph is typical of Taryn Simon’s work; it, rather than photography, is her true medium.”52
The tiny texts crafted to accompany the images are intentionally placed to be read in conjunction with the image, so that the two have equal weighting. This strategy “shifts the burden of assigning that meaning from the artist to a viewer, making us all complicit in the act of signification, and indeed in the histories we are asked to witness.”53 This is no small burden for the viewer, and this is precisely the type of responsibility in viewing that Azoulay’s civil contract of photography calls upon us to acknowledge. If the viewer is, as Batchen suggests, obliged to become complicit in the act of signification, then the question of what is knowable and seeable is an urgent one. The image reveals its contingencies not because the viewer can read anything into it, but it is a contingency based in part upon an individual being able to navigate between visual and linguistic texts. What results is “a photography that proffers transparency [and the] utopian promise of liberal democracy, but then renders that transparency opaque, even reflective.”54 Paglen and Simon may both “proffer transparency” in their working methodologies, but their highly aesthetic images hypnotize us with a luminous glow, obscuring more than they are able to reveal. It is precisely this dialectic between transparency and opacity that is operative in the negotiation of image and text. The caption must bring with it the political motivation of the image.
How then can we visualize subjects as wide ranging as border policing, surveillance systems, drone attacks, economic inequality, environmental catastrophe, late capitalism, global finance? This is the overarching question with which Paglen and Simon concern themselves, in projects that interrogate the limits of photography and representation during a contemporary moment where the definition of photography, as a medium, a practice, and a process, is in continual flux. While the images of such subjects come to be largely symbolic, when we attend to the images in context, through language or texts that point to outside sources, we begin to address the contingency of the image without being didactic. The questions addressed throughout this paper may appear specific to photography as an aesthetic and artistic practice, but ultimately they have much broader implications in an era that privileges communicational transparency to the point where certain freedoms and values are being severely limited. As visual forms of communication become the most prevalent forms of social media–and the trend towards imagesharing sites like Instagram and Tumblr offer evidence of this shift–the currency of this form of exchange is the ability to store and manipulate data in ever expanding, seamless, and seemingly invisible sites. How information is presented, represented, and understood in a networked era are questions only beginning to be fully addressed.
Hito Steyerl Let me give you one example. A while ago I met an extremely interesting developer in Holland. He was working on smart phone camera technology. A representational mode of thinking photography is: there is something out there and it will be represented by means of optical technology ideally via indexical link. But the technology for the phone camera is quite different. As the lenses are tiny and basically crap, about half of the data captured by the sensor are noise. The trick is to create the algorithm to clean the picture from the noise, or rather to define the picture from within noise. But how does the camera know this? Very simple. It scans all other pictures stored on the phone or on your social media networks and sifts through your contacts. It looks through the pictures you already made, or those that are networked to you and tries to match faces and shapes. In short: it creates the picture based on earlier pictures, on your/its memory. It does not only know what you saw but also what you might like to see based on your previous choices. In other words, it speculates on your preferences and offers an interpretation of data based on affinities to other data. The link to the thing in front of the lens is still there, but there are also links to past pictures that help create the picture. You don’t really photograph the present, as the past is woven into it.
The result might be a picture that never existed in reality, but that the phone thinks you might like to see. It is a bet, a gamble, some combination between repeating those things you have already seen and coming up with new versions of these, a mixture of conservatism and fabulation. The paradigm of representation stands to the present condition as traditional lens-based photography does to an algorithmic, networked photography that works with probabilities and bets on inertia. Consequently, it makes seeing unforeseen things more difficult. The noise will increase and random interpretation too. We might think that the phone sees what we want, but actually we will see what the phone thinks it knows about us. A complicated relationship — like a very neurotic marriage. I haven’t even mentioned external interference into what your phone is recording. All sorts of applications are able to remotely shut your camera on or off: companies, governments, the military. It could be disabled for whole regions. One could, for example, disable recording functions close to military installations, or conversely, live broadcast whatever you are up to. Similarly, the phone might be programmed to auto-pixellate secret or sexual content. It might be fitted with a so-called dick algorithm to screen out NSFW content or auto-modify pubic hair, stretch or omit bodies, exchange or collage context or insert AR advertisement and pop up windows or live feeds. Now lets apply this shift to the question of representative politics or democracy. The representational paradigm assumes that you vote for someone who will represent you. Thus the interests of the population will be proportionally represented. But current democracies work rather like smartphone photography by algorithmically clearing the noise and boosting some data over other. It is a system in which the unforeseen has a hard time happening because it is not yet in the database. It is about what to define as noise — something Jacques Ranciere has defined as the crucial act in separating political subjects from domestic slaves, women and workers. Now this act is hardwired into technology, but instead of the traditional division of people and rabble, the results are post-representative militias, brands, customer loyalty schemes, open source insurgents and tumblrs.
Additionally, Ranciere’s democratic solution: there is no noise, it is all speech. Everyone has to be seen and heard, and has to be realized online as some sort of meta noise in which everyone is monologuing incessantly, and no one is listening. Aesthetically, one might describe this condition as opacity in broad daylight: you could see anything, but what exactly and why is quite unclear. There are a lot of brightly lit glossy surfaces, yet they don’t reveal anything but themselves as surface. Whatever there is — it’s all there to see but in the form of an incomprehensible, Kafkaesque glossiness, written in extraterrestrial code, perhaps subject to secret legislation. It certainly expresses something: a format, a protocol or executive order, but effectively obfuscates its meaning. This is a far cry from a situation in which something—an image, a person, a notion — stood in for another and presumably acted in its interest. Today it stands in, but its relation to whatever it stands in for is cryptic, shiny, unstable; the link flickers on and off. Art could relish in this shiny instability — it does already. It could also be less baffled and mesmerised and see it as what the gloss mostly is about – the not-so-discreet consumer friendly veneer of new and old oligarchies, and plutotechnocracies.
MJ You have provided a compelling account of the depersonalization of the status of the image: a new process of de-identification that favors materialist participation in the circulation of images today. Within the contemporary technological landscape, you write that “if identification is to go anywhere, it has to be with this material aspect of the image, with the image as thing, not as representation. And then it perhaps ceases to be identification, and instead becomes participation.” How does this shift from personal identification to material circulation — that is, to cybernetic participation — affect your notion of representation? If an image is merely “a thing like you and me,” does this amount to saying that identity is no more, no less than a .jpeg file?
HS Social media makes the shift from representation to participation very clear: people participate in the launch and life span of images, and indeed their life span, spread and potential is defined by participation. Think of the image not as surface but as all the tiny light impulses running through fiber at any one point in time. Some images will look like deep sea swarms, some like cities from space, some are utter darkness. We could see the energy imparted to images by capital or quantified participation very literally, we could probably measure its popular energy in lumen. By partaking in circulation, people participate in this energy and create it.
What this means is a different question though — by now this type of circulation seems a little like the petting zoo of plutotechnocracies. It’s where kids are allowed to make a mess — but just a little one — and if anyone organizes serious dissent, the seemingly anarchic sphere of circulation quickly reveals itself as a pedantic police apparatus aggregating relational metadata. It turns out to be an almost Althusserian ISA (Internet State Apparatus), hardwired behind a surface of ‘kawaii’ apps and online malls. As to identity, Heartbleed and more deliberate governmental hacking exploits certainly showed that identity goes far beyond a relationship with images: it entails a set of private keys, passwords, etc., that can be expropriated and detourned. More generally, identity is the name of the battlefield over your code — be it genetic, informational, pictorial. It is also an option that might provide protection if you fall beyond any sort of modernist infrastructure. It might offer sustenance, food banks, medical service, where common services either fail or don’t exist. If the Hezbollah paradigm is so successful it is because it provides an infrastructure to go with the Twitter handle, and as long as there is no alternative many people need this kind of container for material survival. Huge religious and quasi-religious structures have sprung up in recent decades to take up the tasks abandoned by states, providing protection and survival in a reversal of the move described in Leviathan. Identity happens when the Leviathan falls apart and nothing is left of the commons but a set of policed relational metadata, Emoji and hijacked hashtags. This is the reason why the gay AKP pornstar bots are desperately quoting Hobbes’ book: they are already sick of the war of Robbie Williams (Israel Defense Forces) against Robbie Williams (Electronic Syrian Army) against Robbie Williams (PRI/AAP) and are hoping for just any entity to organize day care and affordable dentistry.
But beyond all the portentous vocabulary relating to identity, I believe that a widespread standard of the contemporary condition is exhaustion. The interesting thing about Heartbleed — to come back to one of the current threats to identity (as privacy) — is that it is produced by exhaustion and not effort. It is a bug introduced by open source developers not being paid for something that is used by software giants worldwide. Nor were there apparently enough resources to audit the code in the big corporations that just copy-pasted it into their applications and passed on the bug, fully relying on free volunteer labour to produce their proprietary products. Heartbleed records exhaustion by trying to stay true to an ethics of commonality and exchange that has long since been exploited and privatized. So, that exhaustion found its way back into systems. For many people and for many reasons — and on many levels — identity is just that: shared exhaustion.
MJ This is an opportune moment to address the labor conditions of social media practice in the context of the art space. You write that “an art space is a factory, which is simultaneously a supermarket — a casino and a place of worship whose reproductive work is performed by cleaning ladies and cellphone-video bloggers alike.” Incidentally, DIS launched a website called ArtSelfie just over a year ago, which encourages social media users to participate quite literally in “cellphone-video blogging” by aggregating their Instagram #artselfies in a separately integrated web archive. Given our uncanny coincidence, how can we grasp the relationship between social media blogging and the possibility of participatory co-curating on equal terms? Is there an irreconcilable antagonism between exploited affective labor and a genuinely networked art practice? Or can we move beyond — to use a phrase of yours — a museum crowd “struggling between passivity and overstimulation?”
HS I wrote this in relation to something my friend Carles Guerra noticed already around early 2009; big museums like the Tate were actively expanding their online marketing tools, encouraging people to basically build the museum experience for them by sharing, etc. It was clear to us that audience participation on this level was a tool of extraction and outsourcing, following a logic that has turned online consumers into involuntary data providers overall. Like in the previous example – Heartbleed – the paradigm of participation and generous contribution towards a commons tilts quickly into an asymmetrical relation, where only a minority of participants benefits from everyone’s input, the digital 1 percent reaping the attention value generated by the 99 percent rest.
Brian Kuan Wood put it very beautifully recently: Love is debt, an economy of love and sharing is what you end up with when left to your own devices. However, an economy based on love ends up being an economy of exhaustion – after all, love is utterly exhausting — of deregulation, extraction and lawlessness. And I don’t even want to mention likes, notes and shares, which are the child-friendly, sanitized versions of affect as currency.
All is fair in love and war. It doesn’t mean that love isn’t true or passionate, but just that love is usually uneven, utterly unfair and asymmetric, just as capital tends to be distributed nowadays. It would be great to have a little bit less love, a little more infrastructure.
Essentially I think it makes sense to compare our moment with the end of the twenties in the Soviet Union, when euphoria about electrification, NEP (New Economic Policy), and montage gives way to bureaucracy, secret directives and paranoia. Today this corresponds to the sheer exhilaration of having a World Wide Web being replaced by the drudgery of corporate apps, waterboarding, and “normcore”. I am not trying to say that Stalinism might happen again – this would be plain silly – but trying to acknowledge emerging authoritarian paradigms, some forms of algorithmic consensual governance techniques developed within neoliberal authoritarianism, heavily relying on conformism, “family” values and positive feedback, and backed up by all-out torture and secret legislation if necessary. On the other hand things are also falling apart into uncontrollable love. One also has to remember that people did really love Stalin. People love algorithmic governance too, if it comes with watching unlimited amounts of Game of Thrones. But anyone slightly interested in digital politics and technology is by now acquiring at least basic skills in disappearance and subterfuge.