«CHAPTER ONE Vantage Point and Image-Worlds Time past and time future Allow but a little consciousness. To be conscious is not to be in time But only ...»
CHAPTER ONE Vantage Point and Image-Worlds
Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.
—T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
2 Space and Time / News and Images
I begin this chapter with an exploration of television not because this most important of mediums will be examined in any great detail in How Images Think, but because television’s influence goes far beyond the boundaries of the medium. As I mentioned in the introduction, images are mediators between all the different layers of what are increasingly complex image-worlds.
No technology has had a greater influence on this unfolding history of images than television.
Over the last decade the focus of television as a broadcast medium has changed from entertainment to news. This shift has been dramatic with international networks like BBC, FOX, and CNN spawning many local, national, and international imitators. The news now comes to audiences as a flow of information—part of a continuum with exceptional events as punctuation marks.
This flow connects a variety of sources together (from the Internet to radio, daily newspapers, and many other media sources) and knits space, time, and history into a set of visual, oral and textual discourses that are for the most part based on the increasingly sophisticated use of images. The notion of flow that I am using is slightly different from the one that Raymond Williams developed (see Williams 1989).
Broader and more diffuse notions of information and visualization are replacing older forms of journalistic enquiry. Digital technologies are not just adding to this flow. On the contrary, the availability of the news on a twentyfour-hour basis through the Internet and television irrevocably alters the meaning not only of information but the formal means that are used to communicate ideas and events to broad and geographically nonspecific audiences.
In this context, the role of images as purveyors of meaning and aesthetic objects changes. What are the formal properties of images designed to “represent” the flow of relationships among a variety of events that are classified as newsworthy? How do images change when they move beyond boundaries of convention (“seeing” dead bodies) and standards of artifice (docudrama melts into documentary)?
Images combine all media forms and are a synthesis of language, discourse, and viewing. Images are not one isolated expression among many and are certainly not just objects or signs. Within the continuum I am discussing, CNN is a blur of sounds and pictures folding into the shows and channels that surround it. Live television merges with technologies in the home and is a portal into a variety of experiences and uses that link digital cameras, computers, FIGURE 1.1 Screen shot, CNN.COM (April 4, 2002) and games. In other words, images are both the outcome and progenitors of vast and interconnected image-worlds. All of these elements may have been discrete at one time or another but not anymore. Pictures of a series of crises, Vantage Point and Image-Worlds for example, come from so many sources, that the parts become the whole and the whole seems to have no end or even any parts. Viewers who watched the first Gulf War in 1991 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 experienced the intensity and breadth of round-the-clock coverage. The same concentration of passion and despair characterized the events of September 11, 2001. During crises image-worlds become all-encompassing. This raises important issues about history and identity, some of which I respond to in this chapter, issues that are at the core of what is meant by experience, memory, and viewing at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
This screen shot of CNN.COM (figure 1.1) underlines the complexity of the continuum I have been discussing. Texts, images, stories, news, and the or- 3 4 ganization of information combine into an image that no sooner appears on the computer screen than it becomes part of another page and another set of images. The parts fold together as if there were no end in sight—a continuum. The television version of this has converted the TV screen into a multidimensional map with any number of different elements trying to burst out of the boundaries of the screen.
As part of this continuum, viewers begin their morning or nightly viewing experience engaging with a variety of image-based and often, newsoriented phenomena. The images might be centered on an event or a moment in history, a sitcom, or groups of people protesting the impact of globalization on the world’s poor. Alternately, viewers may change the channel. They might be interested in the impact of the cinema on working class culture in Britain (Documentary Channel). They may have a desire to understand more fully why so many young people enjoy video games and go to entertainment centers throughout the world (Independent Film Channel). They may be interested, as I am, in the role of images in society, in their use and the ways in which they are incorporated into everyday life (the subject of a number of shows produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation). Some viewers may decide to play video games, some may choose to connect their digital cameras to the TV to view images of relatives, or some may turn on their computers and retrieve a completely different set of elements to further enhance their experiences of image-worlds.
This screen shot from the CBS site (figure 1.2) crosses all of the possible boundaries between the news and fiction. America Fights Back is set against CSI and The Amazing Race. The former is dramatic fiction and the latter, a mixture of reality shows, documentary, and old style game shows. But the centerpiece of the page is Survivor, which is one of the best examples of the synthesis of reality/fiction ever created on television.
All of these elements interact in sometimes new and unpredictable ways. Images become tools for the creation and expression as well as visualization of stories. Stories are never limited either by the medium used to express them or by viewers or listeners. It is this expansive landscape that has provided the media with a toehold in nearly all aspects of human life irrespective of nationality or ethnicity. The pervasive presence of narratives of every sort told through the multiplicity of shapes and forms of modern media far exceeds the conventional boundaries of human conversation and interaction. This excess is not a negative characteristic. Rather, it is a marker of the profound shift in the ways in which humans act upon the world both within FIGURE 1.2 Screen shot, CBS.COM (April 1, 2002)
Nature and Artifice in Image-Worlds Television, radio, and the Internet are always on. The media don’t disappear when viewers turn off electrical switches, just as electricity doesn’t disappear when it is not being used. This continual presence is part of a new natural and constructed environment being built through human ingenuity and inventiveness. These are not simulated worlds. They are the world. The distinctions between what is natural and what is not natural have thankfully disappeared.
6 The trees on the horizon and the stars in the sky no longer come to viewers through a purity of process and vision divorced from the images they have seen of trees and stars. Over the last two centuries, Western societies have built physical and psychological infrastructures that are dependent upon images or what I call image-worlds. This pulls trees from their natural location into a more complex mediated space that is inscribed rather than natural. The images viewers watch are no longer just images; rather, as the great photographer Jeff Wall ( 2002) has suggested, images represent a technological intelligence that shifts the ways humans see themselves, from individuals to hybrid personae, where identity no longer resides in one particular place, object, or person (90–92).
In this context, there are many identities within humans performing different functions, most of which are dependent upon the relationships humans have with image-worlds. Inside these worlds images disperse their content through screens physically housed within any number of technologies or media institutions. In other words, there is no such “thing” as an image divorced from a variety of media or social contexts of use and application. Most societies use a variety of materials to give life to images. And the beauty, as well as contradiction of this process, is that spectators become less and less aware of the influence of those materials upon the experience of viewing (Burnett 1995). In effect, the hybrid spaces viewers occupy reflect the competence and flexibility they have developed to handle the multiplicity of levels of communications and interaction with which they engage to survive.
Events are no longer viewed through the simple relations of viewer and image;
rather, viewers deal with increasingly complex discourses as they struggle to make sense of images that literally seep into every aspect of their lives.
For example, events on television are discussed as if the event and its depiction were one and the same or as if the screen that separates viewers from the event were unimportant. “An airplane has been hijacked,” not “Those are images of an airplane hijacking,” or “That is a depiction of an airplane hijacking,” or even “Those images are smaller than the event itself.” The viewer’s challenge is to describe events as if the visual field, artifice, and form actually move language from representation to visualization. The event is internalized, personalized, and then discussed as if the images approximate “being there.” Even though the event is heavily mediated by technology and medium, conventional categories of analysis and description, as well as conventional ways of talking about image-worlds make it appear as if mediation is unimportant.
In this context, images seem to be powerful enough to overcome how language is used to portray the events to which they refer (if indeed reference as a concept is adequate to describe how humans interact with imageworlds). Viewers are continuously probing the boundaries among different levels of reality and image and among the various elements that constitute depiction, representation and visualization. The challenge is to find the connections and to make the experiences personal. The challenge is also to map the experiences of interacting with images into a process that is discursive, intellectual, and emotional so that it can be understood and applied to the viewing process. Part of the joy here derives from the ways in which viewers establish dialogues with images, the ways in which they talk to images, and the manner in which images talk to viewers.
I am fascinated with the stories that are told through this confusing haze of mediation, experience, and screen. The experience of viewing is, for the most part, about a struggle between proximity and distance. Viewers sit far enough away from the television or computer screen to be able to see its contents. At the same time, viewing is about the desire to enter into the screen and become a part of the images and to experience stories from within the settings made possible by the technology. I believe this explains the remarkable growth of video and computer games because they invite participants into the screen and give them the ability to change the graphic interface as well as the aesthetic look of the games they are playing. The games also actualize a collective engagement with technology in general. This is extended even further through Internet-based gaming cultures. However, video games are an intermediate step between conventional viewing and complete immersion. Their narrative content and structure are still evolving and it is unclear whether total immersion (the disappearance of mediation) is really possible or even desirable.
This struggle between closeness and distance is at the heart of storytelling. It is, after all, the role of the storyteller to weave language, images, and Vantage Point and Image-Worlds sounds into a magical space that listeners or spectators can move into and experience (Walton 1990). The sounds of someone telling a story are distant until the connection is found, and this permits the listener to enter a daydream that encourages the linking of sounds, and internal and external images. Films also encourage this type of entry into images and sounds and bring spectators closer to what is depicted while at the same time sustaining the distance between viewer and screen. Experiments in virtual reality immersion are about collapsing these boundaries, and they represent the next stage in the human love affair with images. At the same time, unless everything becomes image, it is unlikely that the tensions between closeness and distance will fade away. In fact, an argument can be made that they should not disappear. 7 8 As I have mentioned, images are increasingly intelligent instruments that can be used for so many different purposes that a titanic shift may be needed in the discourses that are used to examine them. It is not possible to be a part of Western culture without some reference to the impact of images on everyday life. By extension, the meaning of the term “image” has to be carefully rethought. In other words, it is not possible or desirable to talk about the social construction of meaning and messages without reference to images as sites of communication, miscommunication, mediation, and intelligence.
The issue is not whether there are images or phenomena to examine.
The issue is what methods work best for each of the particular situations under examination. What focus should there be? What points of entry will facilitate the creation of rich and engaging discourses that will also be accessible and meaningful in trying to understand the convergence of human experiences and images? This is as much a challenge to the analyst as it is a challenge to viewers.