November 20, 2011

The Immediacy of Image Response

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 12:09 pm

This photo intrigues:

It intrigues not only because of the sense of moral outrage it evokes, an outrage best summed up as “police brutality” or as one organizer of the UC Davis protest comments, the suppression of “free speech and peaceful assembly. ” All of this may very likely be true. And the photograph obviously intrigues those commentators for such reasons. But, for me, it intrigues because this photograph merely, like all photographs taken in the name of a given political moment, suggests. The photo does not tell us what actually happened (prior to and following). It suggests what happened.  Suggestion, as an enthymematic enterprise, is the focus of the response to this or any similar photograph. We make assumptions based on what is not present as much as we do based on what is present. Whether it is a child running from a napalm attack in Vietnam or a female soldier pointing her fingers at an Iraqi prisoner whose face is covered by a bag, the information of the image gets quickly reduced to suggestion. The suggestion in the above photo is brutality and oppression. There is, as well, a sense of communal wounding by this suggestions. That wounding sparks public outrage.

Suggestion may, in fact, match a set of moments that occurred. Or it may not. I’m reminded of one set of images broadcast years ago on one of the major networks that showed two separate moments as one: An elderly Arab man walking down a series of steps in Jerusalem; two Israeli soldiers firing tear gas. Two separate moments were juxtaposed for suggestion (despite the two moments occurring separately). Intellectual montage, as Eisenstein argued, is powerful. In the political moment, this form of juxtapatory suggestion often leads to emotional outrage.

The pepper spray photograph, however, brings together a present image (the police officer spraying kneeling and arm locked protesters) with a series of images not present: the Occupy movement up until now. Added to that series is another set of images not present: 1960s protest on California campuses (the emotional connection is obviously present, even though the period is not since this photo occurs on one such campus, and California is an emotional focal point of American protest because of the 1960s). What we understand, then, is a suggestion based on one momentary representation (the spraying) as it is juxtaposed with other non-present moments.

That is not necessarily a faulty way to understand a moment. But it is also an immediate way to believe one has understood a moment. Saying that, I don’t deny the moment occurred or that the moment is problematic. I’m more interested in the image’s ability to interact with non-present images so that a network of meaning occurs, a network that has a largely emotional component or response to these actors. As legitimate as the critique may be, then, it can also be problematic since immediacy is not the best means toward understanding (consider Richard Jewell as one obvious example).

With the spraying photo, we immediately “know”  that someone should be fired because of this immediacy of emotional response. Barthes might call this response the arrogance of affirmation. Regardless, and as many note regarding the sense of immediacy or involvement digital dissemination allows for, we believe we know. We believe we know many things, but as the Occupy movement continues to demand attention, we believe we know this moment. We know based on a single image of a man pepper spraying kneeling protesters.

These are rhetorical questions and not value based questions. And they deserve some meta attention as well: The blog response, too, participates in such immediacy. I immediately blog in response to the photograph. My emotional response is different than what is publicly expressed regarding the photography, but it is still immediate (a focus of Internet critique – we don’t think through our ideas). Overall, then, I’m intrigued by immediacy in ways others are as well – via the blog or the photo. Immediacy is central to digital expression and understanding. We may not entirely understand that point yet.

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