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Posts Tagged ‘Roland Barthes’

Over the ruins of Google Earth

July 16, 2012 Comments off

Some previous posts discussed the notion of removal from representation, a desire that in some ways stands in contrast with what in political theory is often described as the initial step towards the political and the construction of the subject (this notion in a way points to a possible fissure between media theory and critical theory, which required further investigation). While the former involves a constant obsession with producing the conditions of representation, or utterance, making the silent subject speak and the not visible subject seen, the latter is more concerned with how the position behind the lens is left invisible. Curiously, humanitarian advocacy groups send containerfuls of cameras and recording devices to the oppressed so they themselves can look at themselves as anthropological subjects and to capture, recapture and constantly distribute their subalternated position. However as many indigenous journalists’ footage suggest, the human behind the lens tends to remove oneself from the rubble, the slum, the refugee camp. After all who wants to picture him/herself getting urinated on, forcefully stripped in humiliating positions, getting raped, etc? In a site of a totalizing destruction, like what we are witnessing in Syria, how many more women, children and civilians need to show themselves wandering on their own rubble and does this kind of representation empower the represented subject and turns it into a political one? It seems like there is a constant desire to see more of the same, to categorize, tag, analyze and archive the total annihilation of a group of people, to see how subjects continue their existence after their homeland has turned into a desert of man-made rubble after being bombed on for a decade, what kind of human is being created under such conditions? We need to see, and we need to give them cell phones so they can document their own decay and eradication.

Jon Rafman, “You, the World and I”, 2011, screen shot from website

But nevertheless, the question is to what extent is removal and hiding from representation possible, in the face of surveillance cameras at every corner of cities (there are even talks of having them installed in public restrooms), Google Earth , and ever rolling cell phones and digital recording devices, constantly generating footage of all animate and inanimate subjects. The position of power after all is not one that constantly defies representation, but rather one that defines its own condition of representation, as previously discussed. This is partially similar with Foucault’s argument in What is Critique, where he notes that critique is questioning, and redefining one’s own condition of governability; “I don’t want to be governed like that.” In addition does there exist an ethics of caring under surveillance?

Jon Rafman, "You, the World and I", 2011, screen shot from website

Jon Rafman, “You, the World and I”, 2011, screen shot from website

In a roundabout way, Jon Rafman’s You, the World and I, hints at such notion of care. The piece, deliberately inhabits a partially melodramatic space in tone and in its soundtrack, veering to irony, counterbalanced by the use of digital footage that implies a from of distance implicated within surveillance footage. The narrator, who you might thing might burst into tears any second, tells the tale of a lost romance, a lover who left him without leaving any trace. In addition, she never let anyone photograph her as she believed that a “picture could steal your soul, or something like that,” and therefore, the narrator sets to find an image of her, so he can keep her alive in his imagination, and to find a record of their time together, “proof of our love,” he says. Over footage of Egyptian pyramids and Mayan geoglyphs, Stonehenge, etc, the narrator recounts their travels together, and mentions that there is not a single photograph of her, before saying that but that is not “entirely true.” He recounts that while staying in a hotel in the coast of Italy, a Google truck went by, and he sets out to find the picture of her on Google Earth. He eventually finds the photograph, nude, like a classical Greek marble, looking into the ocean from the shore. In his mind, the image starts to animate her image in all places that they have been together, and he starts obsessively browsing all the streets that they have walked through on Google Earth, and when finally he goes back to the shore of Italy, the image is gone. Nevertheless, it was a surveillance image, that for the narrator did what an old photograph of his mother did for Roland Barthes, a digital having been there, “a new space-time category: spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then.” A Google Earth native, at some point might be able to recover one’s past through the ruins of Google Earth. (TBC)

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March 20, 2012 Comments off

[cont]

Today, with the development of digital technologies of representation, the gap between the production and reception of the image has shortened, and image production has become an instantaneous act. Not a “having-been-there,”[1] (as Barthes puts it) but a “being here,” an assurance and reassurance of being present in time. The camera is no longer only a device that would freeze a moment in time for the future, but a device that freezes every passing moment into fragments of now. It is as if we are living and experiencing life with a short delay and the instant image is a visual echo of the present. From dinner tables to mass demonstrations, through this visual echo of the livestreaming of life, we instantaneously review the living moments, or we live through the instantaneous broadcasting of life. While before the kind of absence that the mechanically produced image represented was more similar to that of the text, this livestreaming of life has given the image some of the properties of speech. This is a fleeting moment, and then becomes the “having-been-there”again, but this momentary cohabitation of the image and the image-image maker, as they share a temporal and spatial coordinates between “being-here”and “having-been-there,” opens a new performative space. As such the relationships between participation and spectatorship are redefined as they become parts of a single entity constituting a subject that is the product of the real-time streaming of the event that the very same subject is participating in. It is the product of a new form of self-consciousness constituted by the real-time representation of the self within the event via the means of instantaneous image-making provided by digital technologies. While Roland Barthes talks about the “spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority of the photograph,” today—even if for a brief passing moment—the instantaneity of image making has brought together the space and time of the image with space and time of life.

But it is in response to this acceleration of data transmission and this instantaneous televisual connectivity, that Paul Virilio warns us from the visual crash. The dawn of a planetary panopticon that has put on display “even our most private activities”, and a new “market of vision” that renders visible whatever is “happening in the world in the present instant.” It is along the same lines that he declares the end of politics at the scale of speed of light, where there is no room for reflection. But has this supposedly global tele-surveillance abolished the historical primacy of local time in favor of a global temporality as Virilio claims? If in the age of live television, the event was transmitted to receivers across the planet to supposedly passive observers, now the circle of spectatorship is finally complete, as the subject is also the recipient of the same image. The subject is participating, documenting, transmitting, and watching at the same time, while previously s/he was a subject to a process of mediation and representation, and left out from the circle of live spectators. As such, the global time is now re-synchronized with the local time. In February 2011, in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the protestors set up a screen and watched the projection of Al Jazeera’s live coverage of the Egyptian revolution. The images were broadcasted in real-time from the square to the square and the participants could see themselves as they formed the revolutionary crowd.

Between a global televisual panopticon and an agora of spectators, there seems to be a window, or a revolving door, for the practice of visual parrhesia in the age of planetary live broadcast.


[1] The type of consciousness the photograph involves is indeed truly unprecedented, since it establishes not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing (which any copy could provoke) but an awareness of its having-been-there. What we have is a new space-time category: spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then. (Barthes, Rhetoric of the Image)

February 6, 2012 Comments off

***

The technical image,[1] that from its advent became an obsession with the time bygone, the time of the past, has now become an obsession with the present. It is a form of documentation of now, the documentation of the present for the present. Not a “having-been-there,”[2] but a “being here,” an assurance and reassurance of being present in time. The development of digital technologies of representation has shortened the gap between the production and reception of the image, and image production has become an instantaneous act. The camera is no longer only a device that would freeze a moment in time for the future, but a device that freezes every passing moment into fragments of now; it is almost as if time stands still. It is as if we are living and experiencing life with a short delay, the instant image is a visual echo of the present, of our presence. From dinner tables to mass demonstrations, through this visual echo of the livestreaming of life, we instantaneously review the living moments, or we live through the instantaneous broadcasting of life.[3]

This livestreaming of life has given the image some of the properties of speech. While before the kind of absence that the mechanically produced image represented was more similar to that of the text (that is if we only consider temporal categories of presence as absence and the formal properties that arise). The image that had already complicated the temporal relationships has now further complicated our relation to time, to being present in time. It could be said that we are becoming spectators of our presence as we live and watch simultaneously and constantly, as we document our togetherness and consume it at the moment, even though it sets a record for the future, a future that we continuously postpone as we are becoming more obsessed with now.


[1] I am not differentiating between still and moving images in this essay, instead the focus is on the incentive to make a record in any possible way.

[2] The type of consciousness the photograph involves is indeed truly unprecedented, since it establishes not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing (which any copy could provoke) but an awareness of its having-been-there. What we have is a new space-time category: spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then. (Roland Barthes, Rhetoric of the Image)

[3] In February 2011, in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the protestors set up a screen and watched the projection of Al Jazeera’s live coverage of the Egyptian revolution. The images were broadcasted in real-time from the square to the square and the participants could see themselves as they formed the crowd.