Arien Mack, Editor
Since becoming a folk term for Americans in the 1950s the category of the "image" has had multiple careers, occasionally in contact with one another and often not. From avatars to reality TV, from maps and photographs to representations of data, from advertising and PR to politics, the question of image vs. essence is alive and thriving. In this issue of Social Research, authors explore the major "brands" of image discourse today, taking a close look at what, precisely, it is that we're looking at.
A history of "the image" should force a convergence of three fundamental human activities: seeing, thinking, and depicting. Images have long been understood to be the currency of all three, so a comprehensive history would have to venture into many of the disciplines that bear on these activities. This article is something much more limited: a collection of significant episodes that indicate something of the range a full history of the image would require. It seeks also to demonstrate that particularized concepts of the image are invaluable for correlating models of seeing, thinking, and picturing in specific times and places.
The power of pictures cannot be understood by a sole focus on pictures, but needs to be based on a relational and contextual approach that probes into the constitution of human-picture relations through broader politics of representation, modes of governance, and practices of animation at specific times and places. Pleading for a broadened approach of "visual culture" that acknowledges the role of Christianity in spreading a Christian imaginary and organizing pictorial practices throughout the globe, this essay analyzes pictorial practices around the Sacred Heart of Jesus and other Jesus pictures in everyday life in Ghana. Such pictures are at the center of religious practices of mediation through which spiritual presence is effected.
Today, opponents of every president complain that the object of their criticism has prevailed in the public mind through his devious manipulation of the news media-his use (or abuse) of public relations and hype, press management and rhetoric. Hackneyed as this allegation is today, in Theodore Roosevelt's day it was relatively novel. For not until TR entered the White House did American presidents fully exploit the media; not until his presidency did they fully conceive of their work as promoting an agenda on behalf of the democratic masses. To be sure, all democratic leaders are ultimately answerable to the people; and it is also true that presidents since Washington have carefully superintended their images. But by and large 19th-century presidents didn't actively try to steer the nation along their preferred policy course. That daunting task-which Roosevelt not only embraced but made a condition of presidential success-required using modern tools and techniques of public persuasion that were newly available to TR: generating stories for the mass-circulation newspapers; touring the country to speak on behalf of a policy agenda; hiring dedicated officials to help shape the public discourse on key issues. In these ways Roosevelt turned the presidency into a public platform-and with it, an activist office-as no one had before.
The article addresses the duplicity in our approach to the image that stems from an ambiguity towards the realm of the visual itself. Having inherited Plato's distinction between forms and shadows we remain locked in an unhelpful tension between truth and falsity, and forget that truth for Plato remains visual in nature. A form, the Greek word for which is eidos, refers to both essence and idea, but is also the way something looks, or how it gives itself to be seen. However, the image has been stripped of its share of brilliance and has been relegated to the shadows. The aim of the article is to move beyond the dualism and duplicity that still dominates our approach to images, arguing there is a need to think of the image as a three-fold problem that treats the image positively, rather than something merely derived, impoverished, or coming after-the-fact. That is, to conceive of the image in a tripartite schema that accentuates the radical quality of the image in relation to the active formation of the world(s) we know. Using the work of Nancy, Castoriadis, Althusser, Rancière, and Mitchell, the argument is developed around the following three realms: the image as creative ground; the role the image plays in the specular interpellation of subjects into such worlds; and the communicative capacity images have to cross social, cultural, institutional and media borders thereby contributing to increasingly complex organizations and communities of sense. The activity of the image is thus to effect worlds: to bring them into being; to regulate and maintain them; and to extend and distribute them. These three moments in the activity of the image are referred to as the imagination, the imaginary, and imagery. One further key element is to show these three areas are perpetual sites of dissensus or conflict over the form of the created world.
Guy Debord, a key member of the avant garde movement known as the Situationist International, is best known for his concept of the society of the spectacle. Conceived in the sixties, the concept had at the time two variants, the concentrated and diffuse. Debord used these in those cold war times to describe the regimes of the image in both east and west under the same rubric. Later, he conceived of the rise of the integrated spectacle. Based on his experience of France and Italy in the seventies, this concept explained regimes of the image that combined elements form both sides of the cold war divide, threading together the commodity fetishism of the west with the opaque actions of the state form the Soviet east. But what if a third period could be discerned, of what might be called the disintegrating spectacle? This concept might point the way to an analysis and critique of the image under twenty-first century conditions, where everyday life is super-saturated by the commodity, by digital media, and by the unravelling of the political form of social organization.
That we are in the midst of a major communications revolution is hard to miss nowadays. But what exactly is perpetrating this revolution? There are many candidates for the "invention" of our time - the one that seems to have pressed the "refresh" button on a significant stretch of human culture. Was it the computer, the personal computer, the Internet, the World Wide Web, Google, the smart phone or perhaps even Facebook? Or was it the digital coding of information, in general, that has been leading us into a new era? This paper will employ a historical perspective in an attempt to sort out some of these contributions, and it will propose that the truly revolutionary invention of our time may turn out to be none of the above. Instead it may prove to be an invention with older roots: the moving image and its younger companion, the moving word. My thesis is that this communications revolution, like those led by writing and print, will have a more profound effect, a more thoroughly revolutionary effect than merely facilitating our access to wisdom, diversions or each other. This paper will argue that this communications revolution in its most radical manifestations will help us develop new ways of thinking.
Although virtual reality technology is still in its infancy as a means of communication, people have already started to develop spontaneous and creative uses of their avatars: three dimensional representations of selves in cyberspace. A small, but increasing, number of people use avatars as tools and expressions of self-exploration and means of socialization. Based on extensive virtual ethnography of people immersed in virtual worlds, this essay will explore the variety and richness of virtually embodied experiences, by focusing on the agency and reflexivity of the individuals behind the avatars. I will focus on immersive types of avatars in Second Life in order to illuminate the ways in which people use avatars creatively, as well as the ways in which they try to make sense of their experiences in virtual worlds. Four aspects of avatar-self relations are highlighted in this essay: avatars as mirrors of the buried parts of the networked self, avatars as autonomous agents, avatars as self-expressions and explorations, and avatars as a means of boundary-crossing. We should watch this quiet and spontaneous rise of social experimentation in cyberspace characterized by the agency and self-reflections of people who use avatars: it serves as a microscopic device to reflect our own notions of identity, body and world."
In the decade since the 9-11 attacks on the United States, the rhetoric of the "clash of civilizations" promoted by Samuel Huntington has been the dominant means of imagining global culture (1993). Concomitant with this purported clash between the West and Islam has been a "war of images," in which each side appeared to use images as weapons against the other and against internal dissent. In this essay, I will suggest that the image is deployed within a regime of visualization, whose success or failure accounts for its reception. I suggest that the US concentration on counterinsurgency has not only supplanted and displaced climate change as a central issue but actively contests the possibility of visualizing it as such. The "clash of visualizations" between counterinsurgency and climate change is the engagement by which counterinsurgency seeks to (re)legitimize itself, without becoming beholden to the very different claims to social ordering that a prioritization of climate change issues would entail. Looking at this clash of visualization at the US national level in New Orleans and at the level of the global imaginary via the Pacific Ocean and its island states, I stress that from both the formal and political point of view, such clashes center precisely on the definition of the real, the realistic and their attendant realisms.
What sort of image does the planet Earth possess at the opening of the 21st century? If in the 1960s, the Whole Earth, the planet as seen from space, became a cold war, proto-environmentalist icon for a fragile ocean planet, in the 2010s, Google Earth, the globe encountered as a manipulable virtual object on our computer screens, has become an index for multiple and socially various interpretations and interventions; its thicket of satellite images, text legends, and street level photographs can all be tagged, commented upon, modified. In this essay, I examine a kindred image-object, Google Ocean, asking what sort of representation of the planetary sea is in the making in our digital days. Stirring up the century-old classification of signs by semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce, I argue that Google Ocean is a mottled mash of icons, indexes, and symbols of the marine and maritime world as well as a simultaneously dystopian and utopian (that is to say, heterotopian) diagram of the sea - though one that floats in a media ecology that tends to occlude its infrastructural history and conditions of possibility.
This essay describes the friendship between Denis Diderot, the Enlightenment philosopher and art critic, and Melanie de Salignac, a seventeen-year-old girl who had been totally blind since her infancy. I compare their discussion of her conceptualizations of visual phenomena to autobiographical accounts by blind people from the 19th century to the present, and to theories about brain plasticity developed by modern cognitive scientists who study images of blind people's brains.
Most of us generally assume, without much reflection, that our visual experience is a faithful representation of the scenes at which we are looking, and that our eyes function much like a camera, sending images of those scenes to our brain, which receives them and produces our perceptual experience. But this, as it turns out, is a mistaken assumption. Some of the reasons why are discussed.