The Humiliation of the Word by Jacques Ellul
Jacques Ellul was Professor of Law and Sociology and History of Institutions at the University of Bordeaux. He has published several hundred articles and over thirty books. This book was published by Williams B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1985. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 3: Sight Triumphant
Every society since the beginning of the human race has had its images; we have always seen and been filled with images. Consider our cave paintings in southern France at Lascaux, our stained glass windows at Chartres, the sculptures at Hoggar, and the high reliefs at Karnak. Haven’t people always created such images? Haven’t we always tried to place such interpretative filters between us and the world? Doesn’t the biblical commandment forbidding graven images indicate a permanent human tendency of particular importance, since it results in such a command?
We always hear the same reassuring error: "there is nothing new under the sun -- our civilization is really the same as the civilizations of earlier centuries. Why bother with this now? People are the same as they have always been." This, however, is not true. Images today are very different from those in earlier societies. For instance, earlier sculptures and paintings were negligible in number and were not the inevitable object of everyone’s continual attention. Rarely did a person see an image and only under special circumstances and in exceptional places.
Who looked at the sculpture of the Greek and Egyptian temples? Probably not the peasant who lived far from the cities. We do know who saw the statues of the Chaldean and Roman palaces and the paintings and mosaics at Pompeii: kings and their advisers, rich senators and nobles -- very few people (we may also mention their slaves, but they had reasons for not feeling the same joy that the images produced in their masters). Obviously these artistic creations were utterly foreign to the masses.
Turning to more recent periods, we see the same pattern more clearly: usually a rich person commissioned a work of art. The miniaturists of the Books of Hours, and later, medallion painters, enamel specialists, and still later, those receiving stipends from patrons, found work that way. Patrons at first requested their own or their wives’ portraits, but later became interested in any painting by a well-known artist. Naturally, all these works remained strictly private. No reproductions of good paintings, no museums or exhibitions existed. The patrician or lord kept the masterpiece at home, for personal use. He enjoyed it alone, or with friends of the same social class. In any case, such friends would only see the painting or bust from time to time, as when they came to dinner or to a reception.
Images certainly existed. A person could even become passionately fond of one. But how different someone in the past who contemplated, repeatedly and with penetration, Grunewald’s crucifixion and our biweekly herding to see the latest film. Formerly the overwhelming majority were excluded from the effect of images, and those who possessed them had only a few--which remained the same. A painting could produce joy or serve to educate someone’s taste, but was not a collective force that modified the psychic structures of a group.
Images for the masses also were created, of course: stained-glass windows and sculptures in cathedrals, where individuals learned about the imaginary world and piety; and the libri idiotarum, to which we will return later. But these images also were very few in number and intended for the masses, who knew nothing beyond what they saw in their local church. One soon finished counting and learning by heart those few dozen scenes, always the same, unvariable and never renewed. Such images became part of one’s universe, but did not in themselves form a separate, autonomous universe.
The spectator was not overwhelmed or pulled apart by these images; on the contrary, they focused his attention. And because they were familiar to him, they never carried him beyond the reality of his life. One could not then have spoken of a civilization of images, whereas this is certainly what we have now. The multiplication of images has changed the nature of the phenomenon. This is one of the instances in which the Marxist idea is correct: sufficient modification in quantity may become a qualitative change. No comparison is possible between what people have traditionally known of images and what we are now exposed to.
In an earlier time, sight was oriented toward the spectacle of nature. Nature was people’s only image, their main contact with the surrounding reality. They measured this reality and established a relationship with it through sight. Sight was a means of taking nature’s dimensions with a view to later action, and contemplation was always directed toward the exterior aspect of things. Only speculation, when added to sight, tried to reach beyond the superficial view.
Even one person gazing into another’s eyes does not penetrate to his soul; the sentimental illusion that would have it otherwise is untenable. Such looking is truly relationship, and is a genuine under standing of the other person, but only in his reality. This reality becomes the object of my action. It really becomes an object in relationship to me. My mere looking transforms what is into an object. This is true not only of scientific looking at matter, but also of the icy gaze of any person who considers the universe in which he moves to be absolutely his, with no reservations. The person who lives beside you is buried by this look; he is effectively transformed into an object. The proliferation of artificial images prepared the way for all this.
1. The Invasion of Images
Certainly we need not go into detail about the triumphal progress of the image and the regression of the word in our society.(Let us simply note that tangible images are involved, and not just mental images. One of the best specialists on "mental images" writes: "It is not a true image. True images, such as photographs, are concrete objects which can be looked at, manipulated, hung on the wall, etc. Obviously that has nothing to do with what the brain’s mental eye perceives" (S. Michaël Kosslyn, in La Recherche [Feb. 1980]). Here we have the same extension into metaphorical language as when the word "language" is applied to gestures, films, etc.) A universe of images surrounds us: photos, films, television, advertising, billboards, road signs, illustrations, etc. We habitually visualize everything. Napoleon’s famous statement, "a picture is worth a thousand words," is obviously a truism for us. Let us note, however, that this must be the statement of a person of action -- a realist who refers to the concrete, directly perceptible world. Obviously, for showing troop movements on a map, a simple sketch is better than detailed oral explanations. But we have converted this principle into global truth: the evidence of an image makes any other kind of expression useless. What can be shown to us, however, is necessarily of the order of reality, not truth. The world of representation, spectacle, and information is fused with the visual world.
Whenever we remain without images, information seems dubious to us in our day. Great hypotheses of information and communication did not advance until images developed. Specialists will say, of course, that this is also true of spoken information, but the historical juncture is fundamental; we now attribute visual characteristics to all information. The whole theory of communication is built on the basis of visual information, and this hypothesis is then expressed by means of sketches and diagrams.
How many comments are repeatedly made about our "spectacle oriented society"! How much diluting and extension (like oil on water), how many elaborations and misinterpretations are attributed to this expression! I repeat: we must refer directly to Guy Debord’s thought (Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red, 1977). (which is rigorous and explanatory) instead of attributing to him whatever we please. The spectacle-oriented society makes a spectacle of itself, transforming all into spectacle and paralyzing everything by this means. Such a society forces the involuntary and unconscious actor into the role of spectator and congeals through visualization everything that is not technique. It is a society made by, for, as a function of, and by means of visualization. Everything is subordinated to visualization, and nothing has meaning outside it.
Our ancestors’ only spectacle was Nature -- and Nature was not really a spectacle, since it was both the source of all possible life and a permanent threat against which one had to take precautions. Nature was not a spectacle to be enjoyed by a tourist arriving at the high point of his climb or watching an ocean storm from the shore. The peculiarity of the invasion of images in this situation is, then, that society has now substituted itself for Nature, furnishing and guaranteeing people all their means and possibilities of livelihood. This society is also our greatest danger, constantly threatening both individuals and the collectivity. This society has become a spectacle and can be grasped only as spectacle. Such is the extraordinary mutation that has taken place.
It is as if, two hundred years ago, someone had gathered the crew of a ship in the middle of a storm to have them attend a theatrical production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. We live in just such an unthinkable and grotesque situation! The spectacle of disturbances, wars, plagues and famines, airplane accidents and hijackings (Here we must refer to Jean Bruller’s admirable drawings, from the period before he became known as Vercors, "Comme mouches en bouteille." This theme is stunningly illustrated in these drawings. "Comme mouches en bouteille," in La Danse des vivants (Paris: privately published by the author, 1933-36). -- all this conceals everything that is not spectacle: conditions of prisoners and of the insane (or those treated as insane for ideological reasons), of assembly-line workers, etc.
Of course, we also know how to transform such suffering and alienation into spectacle and thus submerge them into our universe of images. Sight enables us to gloss over unpleasant reality by divorcing it from the order of truth. Sight permits a representation of reality that is accepted as reality and identified with it. Images become unquestionable, just as reality is. This happens because images become more real than reality itself.(Who has not had the experience of being disappointed on seeing the art object he had seen in a picture? The lovely image, so beautifully presented, contrasts with the reality of the object, which is such a letdown. See the extraordinary illustrations in L’Or des Scythes (Paris: Editions des Musées Nationaux, 1975). We will return to this problem). The representation comes to serve as our mental framework; we think we are reflecting on facts, but they are only representations. We think we are acting, when we only flounder around in a stew composed of representations of reality that come from a profusion of images, all of which are synthetic.
These images have no coherence and are continually changing. They are projected by some "magic lantern operator" who chooses, then colors, the images in variable fashion -- such is our mental panorama. Such a presentation corresponds to the representation I foist upon myself. I play a role, but refuse to consider clearly who I am and who makes me what I am. Images are so much more satisfying than speech! We even praise this situation as "culture and freedom"! For example, consider this delectable passage written by a reporter for Le Monde (July 1978): "We must learn to resign ourselves to living in an audiovisual age. Most people, especially youth, read little, have poor memories, forget what they learned in school and barely remember what they see on television. Words withdraw behind images, more every day. Not just any image gets watched: only the moving, speaking image. It is not like pictures in books, but like life itself. Other images are erased by pushing a button. In an earlier time, before people could see the feature film, they were obliged to digest a crude, traditional documentary on diamond mining in Brazil or Chateaubriand’s childhood in Brittany. Now all this is eliminated. Each is free to choose his own program. No one can make us ‘learn’ against our will."
Thus we are free -- utterly free. On the condition, of course, that we enter the "audiovisual culture," that we accept the fact that we cannot do otherwise, and that in every sphere the word, discourse, and reading are on the wane. Once this is established, we are left with an admirable culture and freedom.
The text is progressively retreating everywhere. A simple examination of textbooks and magazines shows this. The turnaround took place between 1950 and 1960. Previously images were mere illustrations of a dominant text. Language was by far the most important element, and in addition there were images to make the text’s content more explicit and to hold the reader’s attention. This was their sole purpose. Now the situation is reversed: the image contains everything. And as we turn the pages we follow a sequence of images, making use of a completely different mental operation. The text is there only to fill in empty spaces and gaps, and also to explain, if necessary, what might not be clear in the images. It is true that sometimes the images are clear but do not clearly communicate what the reader is supposed to learn from them. Thus the relationship has been reversed: images once were illustrations of a text. Now the text has become the explanation of the images.
Let us quickly survey our universe of images. From the beginning of his training a child finds himself surrounded with pictures and maps. Increasingly his books are cleverly and lavishly illustrated. This is now true not only of gift editions but also of textbooks, whose only goal is to address the child’s senses directly, compel his attention, and awaken the kind of interest that some colorless, complicated text can no longer attract.
Even in somewhat rustic elementary classrooms photographs of scenery and reproductions of paintings are no longer hung to illustrate something taught. Their role is to insert unconsciously the beginnings of culture and to suggest a universe with dimensions that are incomparable with those of the classroom. Moreover, teaching is made easier when images are used; they not only back up a lecture but can even replace it. Everyone agrees that "an image teaches more in an instant than a long lecture." This issue is not discussed; the professors’ only complaint is that they do not always have sufficient illustrative material to show all that could be shown. They would prefer to teach a subject which could be reduced in its entirety to visual symbols. This agreement, that the image teaches more than a lecture, reveals the unanimity of conviction in this area. From the very beginning of our discussion, we must cling to this agreed-on dogma, so as not to be tempted to change our minds when we have seen some of its consequences!
Signs and Billboards
As I leave my house, I am immediately impressed by signs in the city streets. Their purpose is multiple: advertising and propaganda, proclamation and attraction. The words on a sign are nothing I would read, except in passing (would I have time to pause?). But their color, form, and design are engraved on my memory. I will remember these elements from huge billboards glimpsed at the curve in the road as they pass me at great speed above the bus; or from the immense posters with loud colors which strike me at the entrances and exits of subway stations.
Signs fill me with an imaginary world invented by people like me, and conveyed by these innumerable designs. They make me a participant in society’s artistic creation, which is fleeting and colorful. This forms and deforms my reactions, manipulates my needs, and occupies my thoughts. I cannot escape this influence, however indifferent I may wish to remain to all that it praises and suggests to me. Signs are designed according to precise laws whose combination is intended to have the effect of forcing my attention and attracting my gaze. The person who boasts that he is indifferent to them is undoubtedly the most heavily influenced, albeit unconsciously.
Exhibitions and Museums
As I continue my daily routine, it may include a visit to some exhibition or museum, be it a collection of great works or of less important ones. Of the many sorts of museums in our day, the art museum or museum of history is not the most important. We need not include a museum of seals on medieval deeds or a lace museum as major components of our image-oriented civilization. They exist, however, and for some of us they are the image that dominates our mind.
Exhibitions are much more aggressive, be they of techniques, navigation, noxious insects, or civil defense. They are composed of explanatory panels, maps, models, projections, and statistics that aim to instruct people pleasantly about fascinating things to learn. As in the case of textbooks, however, the exhibition teaches through images, through the special magic of forms. Such knowledge is intuitive and not reasoned; it causes us to grasp in a glance the totality of a reality.
A few years ago we might have thought that such cultural and educational efforts would remain rather limited. How many French people went to see the urban exhibition? But the Beaubourg Museum changed everything in France! Here we see the triumph and glorification of image, spectacle, and culture through representation. In the cultural universe of the Beaubourg, everything is dedicated to the visual domain; everything is shown (its enormous library is only a joke in comparison with the miles of images, and in any case books with pictures are the big attraction!). At the Beaubourg we witness a concentration of the methods, objectives, expectations, and realizations of the image-oriented civilization, with images of and about everything. A million visitors receive a configuration of the world they live in through this multiple exposure to images. They are taught the development of their society by images, photos, prototypes, drawings, sketches, diagrams, and slides. The result is a more frantic attachment than ever to reality -- reality without truth. Beaubourg has raised the ex-position (absence of reality through presentation of this same reality) to its zenith.
Films present us with a different problem. In this case we have before us the debauchery of images -- the deluge which crashes down on a person once, often twice, a week. There is no longer any doubt about their effect: psychologists and medical doctors agree that films do not leave a person intact. The emotional shock is too powerful, but not just in the story that is told: even the atmosphere in the theater, the collective darkness which leaves each person in the crowd solitary and caught up in the hypnotic light of the screen. It is common for biological as well as psychological modifications to take place during the viewing of a film: rapid pulse, changes in facial expression, which becomes ecstatic and at the same time weary and satiated.
The impact of these images continues well beyond the few hours of film viewing. Taking advantage of the relaxation in mental tension, self-control over one’s feelings and emotions becomes less effective during darkness: a kind of giving up of oneself to "things as they are" takes place as the impact of images reaches its maximum. Not only the thoughts and body but the entire being of a person participates in the emotion stirred up by the film, which possesses a power previously unmatched by any other means.
The film viewer is placed in a state of emotional accessibility that opens him wide to influences, forms, and myths. Because of the images that draw him into the story, he is liberated from the restraint usually placed on some of his instincts. He projects his personal desires onto the world, because these desires wear the mask of everyday emotions. Since this situation occurs repeatedly, its effects are long-lasting. Frequent film watching creates a new personality and leads to a kind of addiction while at the same time aggravating internal lack of balance in the imagination or emotions. Obviously every frequent film-goer is not thus poisoned, but his personality is modified by the world of images whose company he keeps, as they superimpose themselves on the real world.
Film images are perhaps only encountered once a week. But they are augmented, reinforced, and accentuated by the daily images of television or the newspaper. The absolute image thus becomes familiar, brought down to the level of family and private life by television. We actually live with a continual play acted out before us; our home becomes nothing but scenery. An imaginary mutation takes place that is continually renewed and that erases and takes the shine off reality. A screen of images is placed between me and my world -- a circle of images that become so much truer than my own life I cannot rid myself of them. Television is the supremely powerful drug. I end up living my existence before the very thing that eliminates me.(Here, then, I find myself disagreeing with McLuhan. His theory about television is certainly extremely attractive, but must be deeply modified in order to introduce certain nuances. When he says that television does not give us images, but rather arouses sensations, that it uses the eye like an ear and destroys our reading habits, he gives us a strange mixture of correct insights and paradoxes. It is true that television destroys our reading habits, because reading has recourse to the sequence of spoken language, whereas television addresses itself to the universalizing and instantaneous visual sense.
But how can he say that television does not give us images? I am well acquainted with McLuhan’s arguments, and possibly he could be right in the realm of the unconscious. The construction of a puzzle made up of lighted dots, which we make into an image, may have a profound influence on us. Here I completely agree with him. But an image is received and perceived. This image belongs precisely to the visual domain. McLuhan can say what he chooses, but when I close my eyes, I do not see what is on the screen! The eye functions as an eye. McLuhan can say that television makes the eye function as an ear because it produces something instantaneous and all-inclusive [in which sight is considered sequential and sound is seen as instantaneous] only by building on his previous hypothesis.
This previous hypothesis, however, I reject as inaccurate. With television I perceive an image that is differently made but which presents all the characteristics that images have always had [except for written language!]: they are instantaneous, universal, and composed of dots! Look at a landscape: you have an overall view, an instantaneous impression which arises from the thousands of details which are present [as on the screen]. But you do not "see" each detail! And if you stop looking, you do not find these details in your memory. Only by looking in detail would you perceive one detail, then another, and another. In the case of the image on television, you cannot perceive the details, because they disappear too fast. But how can anyone say that a pointillistic painting, made up of thousands of little spots, is not an image! In reality, television limits itself to reinforcing the world of images and challenges the logic of language! I am tempted to reverse McLuhan’s statement to say that, for example, in modern music, the globalization of sounds and the artificial creation of an "acoustic bubble" make the ear function like an eye!)
Newspapers, Magazines, and Comic Books
I also have my daily newspaper -- illustrated, of course! Its photographs give me the feeling that I have a better grasp on reality itself. Is there anyone who has not had a slight feeling of frustration in reading a serious paper, such as Le Monde, without illustrations, or when the pictures in another paper are not clear? The readership of a million reached by the great weekly magazines shows that photographs, with their minuscule, useless, and absurd captions, are a necessity for modern people. These are admirable examples of an entire text which is little by little transformed into images, where the ideal is a story with no words.
This is the sort of story that obviously suits the contemporary individual best. He has, moreover, an extraordinary capacity for grasping even the most subtle meaning of images, whereas perfectly clear words seem foreign to him. What great shrewdness is required, on the other hand, to grasp at a glance the meaning of a surrealist poster, a baroque advertising film, or even those strange comic strips.
Comic strips are filled with allusions, asides to the reader, and details that must be noticed. The reader engages in interpreting these details without effort, grasping the meaning of the frozen pantomime. He plunges into this ridiculous, subhuman fiction -- which every newspaper must now include. This is an indisputable need that testifies to the remarkable training and capacity to deal with images that modern people have acquired.
The image not only is offered to me -- it assails me. The image I make or produce also affects me, inserting me forcefully into the incessant stream of image production. Just think for a moment about photographs -- souvenirs from a trip. On my trip, I receive impressions -- especially visual ones, but also overall impressions. These may include the atmosphere or phenomenology of a place, an impression that must be felt! This presupposes an enlarging of my capacity, an availability of the most flexible sort: I must perceive the largest possible number of impressions.
On the other hand, I must also "integrate’’ and assimilate this scene and these impressions -- an unexpected, surprising, and gripping experience. Obviously then, two possible directions present themselves: one based on memory alone, involving the remembering of names and places, spectacles and meetings; the other involving assimilation; that is, making the experience of this encounter with reality an integral part of me, on both the intellectual and the human level. In the latter case I do not stop with superficial memory but appropriate (through reflection, comparison, and intellectual organization) new things into the mosaic of my existence. This requires that I offer myself to the new reality that is becoming part of me, whether a deep experience of nature or of a human milieu.
Only under such conditions can a trip become the source of a meeting between the order of truth and the order of reality. But these conditions go far beyond mere "recollection." The simple fact that I carry a camera prevents me from grasping everything in an overall perception. Even more, it keeps me from proceeding to cultural assimilation, because these two steps can be taken only in a state of availability and lack of preoccupation with other matters -- a state of "being there." Both perception and assimilation must take place in continuity and in the immediate present. Assimilation cannot happen several hours afterward or later on in the evening. It must be at the moment when the impact of the new reality thrusts itself on me.
When a person is concerned with taking pictures, however, he worries about the choice of scene to be preserved (an option that separates out one piece to be remembered from the overall scene). Thus we become locked entirely into the visual problem alone. We abandon any effort at overall impression; what might have been an authentic experience is reduced to mere spectacle. Furthermore, even if you are a specialist, you become preoccupied with manipulating and fussing with the camera; the lighting and the search for the best angle lock you into a technical exercise that radically blocks out any intellectual process or reflection, the offering of yourself to the wind, the sea, or the flow of people. Even more, these concerns prevent the surging of deep exaltation in the presence of something unique; if you are a Christian, you are prevented from thanking God. No, the camera is in command. You no longer really see anything; you look at and hunt for what you are going to photograph.
When the picture is finally taken, notice that all travelers sud- denly lose interest in everything else: the job to be done has been taken care of. What else could they possibly do in the midst of the ruins of the Parthenon? Suddenly they wonder what they are doing there. Once the memory has been frozen on film, they are suddenly bored. The picture diminishes enormously the experience of a trip; it externalizes it, prevents internalization, and concentrates everything on the "visual souvenir."
Looking at the picture later recalls "memories": a certain gesture or word spoken. That is all there is. It recalls no deep perception. This is obvious when one listens to the talk and conversation of people who show slides of their trips. Everything is reduced to superficialities. Just as the process of picture taking hacked off one piece of the overall reality that was to be lived, in the same way the picture, once shown, obliterates the living memory.
Memory is a part of my total life. It appears and disappears, depending on the transcription of a whole world which I have assimilated and which is part of me. It is not just a product of memorization, but a progression dependent on the basis of my relationship with the reality integrated into my culture and my total experience of life. Every memory is like a many-sided and multicolored cube in an enormous mosaic.
Pictures prohibit this movement and this return. They deal with the "picturesque," which will always be the most superficial. Here sensitivity is directed to a spectacular view and nothing else. And seeing it again causes the rebirth of false memories that are purely superficial and utterly useless. Such pictures serve no good purpose.
I can just hear the angry shouts: "You know perfectly well that you forget! Pictures serve to remind you . . . without pictures, you will forget that you went to ..., that you saw the mural of La Parisienne at.... " What an enormous error! What deserves to be remembered -- whatever has been lived deeply -- is engraved in my being and in my memory. It changed me and made me a new person.
What about all the things I’ve forgotten? For it is certainly true that I have forgotten thousands of places, faces, and paintings. The things I’ve forgotten are simply those that meant nothing to me, those I did not live, which were just empty curiosities that remained foreign to me. They offered me nothing of value, no truth. In this case, what good is it to preserve such things on scraps of paper? I was dumbfounded by the mountains on the horizon. What picture could do anything for me? And if all I saw was a spectacle, why bother to remember it? Pictures are just an effort to prove that we really went somewhere! -- that we really made the trip.
Here we have reached an essential aspect of images: in the modern identity crisis, in the midst of technical change and dispersion, images give us some certainty that we exist. Pictures assure us of our past; leafing through a picture album makes me certain that I have lived. The picture becomes the substitute for something living, just as images always do. It is the elimination of the personal and existential relationship with the world, cutting oneself off from the milieu, from other people. And it is the means of not being subject to the impact of anything new. It is also the dreamed-of substitute in terms of a false, frozen reality that takes the place of the inability to face life.
This is very symptomatic of technique: it prevents us from living but gives us the strong impression that we are living, assuring us that we are really alive! "After all," they say, "look at these faces; look at your friends. Freeze that happy, marvelous moment: the child playing, the child looking up at you. Rediscover the faces of your dear departed ones.... " What a lie. Either you loved them and their faces are engraved in you, woven into your thought, your worldview, and your daily experience, or you did not love them. In that case, what good are pictures? What good is it to hang on to these faces from a given moment, these expressions on shiny paper or film, if you do not have their absence burning within you?
Their absence is neither filled up nor ensured by looking at this picture. No, let’s not have pictures of dear ones who are no longer with us. We should say with the poet (whose name I won’t mention, since he isn’t in fashion!): "Since the game is over, put down the cards; throw them away." The picture of these faces is a lie I tell myself, believing that I cared about these people, whereas no trace of them is left in me. It is another lie based on something visual: an image. What could you say about these people you loved? What language would be appropriate? What truth did you live because of them? What did you go through together? What of that remains with you? If you remain silent, the picture is nothing but an illusion. And if you can talk about these things, the picture should be thrown away.
"Still," you say, "photography is an art, and I can make a work of art.... " Certainly, certainly! I do not deny at all that people can take very beautiful pictures. But in this case we leave the subject of ordinary pictures. If I take a trip in order to take beautiful pictures, or if I photograph a face in order to produce an artistic portrait, that is a different goal and another objective. In that case I am not traveling for the trip itself, nor am I cultivating a memory. I do not take exception to the existence of photographic art but to the practice of photography by the millions who own a Kodak. In any case the ambiguity remains, and all I have said above remains valid. Even the best pictures belong to this universe of images that supplants reality itself and makes us live on a reflected and re-reflected visual plane which prevents us doubly from having access to the word.
Liturgies: Political and Religious
It is impossible for us to go through the entire range of images. But we can hardly avoid dealing with the vivid image formed by the living picture of great liturgy. As we will see, the Church discovered the importance of things visual in order to incorporate the individual through a collective process. But we have gone well beyond those first efforts, necessarily limited, that were still restrained by the common reference to transcendent truth. The liturgical image, limited to symbolism, was only the sign of something inaccessible. We have changed all that: God is dead, and with him any notion of transcendence and truth (or more accurately, we make our own truth now). Thus we can profitably proceed to an integrating visual and bodily liturgy that knows no bounds.
Benito Mussolini inaugurated the new totalitarian liturgy, but Hitler became its great conductor. Everything visual conspired to annihilate the individual and integrate him into the whole. This included huge gatherings minutely orchestrated as to rhythm and pauses, with processions and endless parades characterized by precisely calculated movements. These great liturgical productions expressed power -- at long last visible. And of course, since plainly visible, they had to be true. The entire nation was symbolized. Anything excluded was reduced to dust -- something to sweep off the surface of the globe or scatter to the winds.
The grandiose vision obliterated objections just as it eliminated people. The image reduces truth to reality -- or more precisely, this all-encompassing liturgical reality lends to any word at all the overtone of truth. The Fuhrer’s absurd, incoherent speeches could only be received as absolute Truth in the midst of the great display of huge processions and flags. Yet our world was affected decisively by those liturgies.
Of course, this triumph of images in political liturgy is only one facet of the image-oriented civilization. What Hitler created was dependent on the generalized promotion of images. The Nazi liturgies produced such a profound effect because they were perfectly integrated into this process of our civilization. At the same time, images developed and strengthened this process, giving it a new form of expression.
Exactly the same phenomenon occurs in the mass gatherings. They have the same function but are less rigorous, with everything appearing disordered and spontaneous. Strikers’ parades and China’s Cultural Revolution are accepted as the expression of the people themselves. How simplistic! We have only to recall the degree to which the movements of the Cultural Revolution were regulated like a ballet,(See the analysis of China’s Revolution in my De la révolution aux révolts [Paris:Calmann-Lévy, 1972]) or to note the repression which still swoops down in China on any spontaneous movement (for example, the shooting of Tien An-Men), and to admire the amazing precision of the crowd’s movements in Chinese mass celebrations. Obviously, in these events everything is spectacle, and the liturgy causes the individual to disappear in a new reality. But the Communist Party and the Communist Unions’ parades are also spectacles: these tens, hundreds, and thousands of workers who move in formation with so much discipline, flanked by those who keep order. These processions are intended to demonstrate the power of the masses but in reality they expose only their passivity. Meetings, demonstrations, parades, and processions are multiplied indefinitely for all occasions. They are part of our world of images. They are as necessary to political life as is traditional liturgy to the Catholic mass. As with all liturgies, these demonstrations substitute for the poverty of word, speech, and thought.
You can say anything in a meeting. It doesn’t matter. Content doesn’t exist. The word becomes mere stimulus meant to reinforce unanimity. People applaud and boo when they are supposed to -- at just the right moment. They are taken up with a purely visual spectacle in which the word has no meaning and no weight. The word only provides opportunity for another visual expression. Fists are raised, hands applaud. The spectacle is sufficient unto itself, as each person views himself. Liturgy, be it religious, fascist, Maoist, or popular, is a decisive manifestation of our permanent drive to reduce truth to reality by means of symbols. The technique for such integration is the image, which manifests the totality of existence in an atemporal moment and leaves us overwhelmed by an impression of power and permanence.
Omnipresence of Images
The omnipresence of images, however, is not an accidental, sporadic, changeable fact. We are dealing instead with an almost total milieu in which all of existence unfolds more or less smoothly. Truly it is a universe of images in the midst of which we are set as spectators. Our eyes’ function has been extraordinarily expanded. Our brain is constantly receiving the impact of imaginary sights and no longer of reality. Today we can no longer live without the reference and diversion provided by images. For a large proportion of our lives we live as mere spectators. Until the present time our perception of reality through sight incited us to action. But now the superficial spectacle imposes itself on us all day long, turning us into passive recorders of images. This multiplication of images comes together in such a tight weave that we are hopelessly hemmed in, and everyone feels a need for images. These factors make it plain that we are not dealing here with chance but with a precise progression.
Images are the chosen form of expression in our civilization -- images, not words.(It is utterly surprising that Goux interprets abstract painting (Wassily Kandinsky, Pieter Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, ete.) as a spiritual turning point that coincides with the prohibition of making images. Painters rediscover the spiritual authenticity of revelation and are considered prophets of the messianic world to come. Unfortunately, Goux pays no attention to the technological system and abstract painting’s place within this system. Only by verbal aerobatics and intuitive flashes of insight can he assert the oneness of the empty temple and abstract painting (which is certainly also empty!). For though our era speaks, and abounds in printed paper, so that written thought has never been as widespread as today, still there is a strange movement that deprives the word of its importance. Talk and newspapers are like word mills to which no one attaches any importance anymore. Who would still consider a book as something decisive and capable of changing his life, when there are so many of them? And a person’s word, buried under the floods of millions of people’s words, no longer has any meaning or outreach. The word has no importance for any listener because it is broadcast in millions of instances over thousands of miles.
A casual glance at newspaper headlines (which are, moreover, not sentences or reasonable thoughts to the person who depends on them) produces an image brutally engraved on the memory. One need not read the article in order to become acquainted with its content or to pick up a piece of information or reasoning. The headline’s expression evokes a series of stereotypes that are more than sufficient to confirm and reassure a person. The news item becomes part of the collection of images that serve to feed our opinion, which is at the same time both stable and fragile.
Here we are on the verge of slogans. In slogans, words are completely stripped of their reasonable and meaningful content. All oral propaganda rests on the fact that language loses its meaning and retains only the power of inciting and triggering. The word has become mere sound: pure nervous excitation, to which people respond by reflex, or because of group pressure. If a speaker fails to make use of the magic words which automatically stir up hatreds, passions, mobs, devotion, and curses, the rest of his language dissolves, as far as his listeners are concerned, into a gush of lava, an overflow of monotony, a contemptible fog that prevents or smothers action. The word thus loses its power.
The multiplicity of images creates a strange new universe. The multiplicity of words has emptied them of their content and value. We avoid and scorn people who are always talking. In our age of technique, we know the vanity of the word. "Enough words; let’s have actions." Each of us, at one time or another, has spoken these words when he was exasperated with useless repetition. Images are the language of action. But our being transformed into spectators radically changes the effect of images. The sight of reality normally moves us to action, and images are usually the language of action. But our being transformed into spectators paralyzes us for any possible action.
Sight triumphs because it is useful. The deluge of artificial, superabundant images creates a new world environment. Sight saves us the trouble of thinking and having to remember. It lets us live on the basis of representation and substitution. It reinforces a group’s cohesiveness. The word divides, whereas images (when consciously organized) unite, as for example in liturgy.
Artificial images provide another example of that movement so often described in which, as discoveries take place, we assign to some mechanism or other a quality which was a part of our human uniqueness. The most extreme example is the computer, which is even called on to "think" in our place. Because I have my photograph album I no longer need remember. I no longer need the slow process of reflection, since I function on the basis of evidence. I no longer need to search so hard for ways of living in community, because communion is established by the image’s all-encompassing identity. Techniques replace me in a growing number of activities, and the universe of images to which I belong facilitates this substitution to an incredible degree.
Images are indispensable for the construction of the technological society. If we remained at the stage of verbal dialogue, inevitably we would be led to critical reflection. But images exclude criticism. The habit of living in this image-oriented world leads me to give up dialectical thought and criticism. It is so much easier to give up and let myself be carried along by the continually renewed wave of images. They provide me from moment to moment with exactly the amount of stimulus I need. They give me the emotional level (the anger, the tender feelings, and the degree of interest) that I can tolerate and find indispensable in this gray world. Images are essential if I am to avoid seeing the day-to-day reality I live in. They glitter continuously around me, allowing me to live in a sort of image-oriented fantasy.
Images are also indispensable as a form of compensation. The word would only increase my anxiety and uncertainty. It would make me more conscious of my emptiness, my impotence, and the insignificance of my situation. With images, however, everything unpleasant is erased and my drab existence decorated by their charm and sparkle.
Above all, I must not become aware of reality, so images create a substitute reality. The word obliges me to consider reality from the point of view of truth. Artificial images, passing themselves off for truth, obliterate and erase the reality of my life and my society. They allow me to enter an image-filled reality that is much more thrilling. Even television news, when it deals with catastrophes, disasters, and crises, takes the drama out of them by making them extraordinary and thrilling -- by literally converting them into something metaphysical. The more terrible the spectacle, the calmer the hypnosis of the images makes me.
The most violent film about politics, or one that denounces the worst atrocities, is in reality a means of accepting the situation. The film by itself allows me a clear conscience because I have participated in the denunciation as a spectator. As far back as 1937, with no theoretical analysis, I denounced the "pacifist’, film All Quiet on the Western Front. It was based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, but the images utterly reversed the meaning of what was written! I criticized the film for eliminating people’s willingness to fight war, because it would actually prepare public opinion to accept war. The magic of images makes me satisfied with such a vicarious life. Even if something concrete were to indicate the opposite, I would not notice. This is the main usefulness of the continually renewed flood of images.
There is, of course, no Machiavellianism or hidden motive in this elimination through images. Only under very exceptional circumstances would an especially clever tyrant try to use all the image’s possibilities. And such an effort never succeeds for very long. On the contrary, the insidious flow that gums up our thinking and our existence occurs apart from anyone’s intent and without any goal in mind. It simply exists, because teachers wax enthusiastic in good faith over the efficiency of audiovisual methods, because publicity agents try in good faith to sell a product (obviously useful!), because film directors and photographers aspire in good faith to produce a work of genius, because journalists try in good faith to present their information in the best possible manner, and because television producers accept in good faith their triple mission: "amuse, inform, educate." I am not aware of any big capitalists making shady calculations in order to alienate further the poor citizenry. Nor are there plotters of collective feeblemindedness, nor perverse statesmen who use images to conceal their actions.
Some will say my analysis is deficient, I realize, since I have said nothing about some people’s deep motivation through "vile capitalism" or through "the evil empire of communism." I think, however, that those who swallow those fine expressions are themselves simply victims of a fairy tale based on images and possessing only the evidence that sight gives. In this case as well, images have been substituted for the rigor of language. Images finally become like lightning, attacking us from all directions, simply because technicians involved in the use of images do the best possible job, in good faith, without asking more basic questions. The only question they ask has to do with finding something new to show -- something that will be in every way useful. Let’s examine the problem more closely.
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The image certainly is first of all a means of knowledge. Illustrations in textbooks probably enable children to picture better to themselves the matter at hand. Obviously, you can describe at length Michelangelo’s style or the kind of life serfs led in the Middle Ages, but children will have a much more authentic impression if they see a reproduction of the Moses statue or a picture of the medallions of the cathedral at Amiens. Why describe the clothing, the work methods, and the tools, when the children are looking at them? What is true for history obviously holds equally true for physics, chemistry, biology, etc.
More strangely, illustrations also invade domains that normally would not seem to be dependent on images: literature, Latin, and philosophy, for example. In such areas an effort is made to help students understand by external means, such as pictures of people, places, and graphic materials. Thus they learn about an author’s environment, which may have determined his thought or style (if you believe that these imponderables are precisely determined by the environment, that physical conditioning is decisive, and that such pictures have explanatory value for someone to whom a given environment is foreign). True or not, this presupposition shows itself correct with respect to children in our day, and this type of illustration responds to their need for something concrete. It satisfies something that a dry reading of the text would not fulfill.
But there is more! Even Latin and Greek dictionaries are illustrated. It is no longer enough to give the possible meanings of a word; we must also have it visually represented. This is superfluous. We learned Latin perfectly well without illustrations. But significantly, dictionaries followed the fashion. This shows the concern for concrete things dominating our educational practice. We must give children a precise view of things, so that words not be emptied of the objects they represent. We must not simply substitute one abstract term for another but use images to show that ancient or modern languages are alive. But such things are not done on the basis of mere theoretical concern! Scientific pedagogues did not discover the importance of images, and I am inclined to suspect that this theory of concrete pedagogy is only an intellectual explanation undergirding the sudden awareness of the need for images.
We will discuss later whether there is not really a sort of modern collective need for representation and reproduction, of which children and textbooks would be only a case in point. But we can already state with confidence that today’s students could not possibly study the complicated, ugly books with small print and no illustrations like the ones used half a century ago. True, children became bored learning from such books. But let us not delude ourselves: today’s children are every bit as bored, but it would be utterly impossible for them to learn from the old books. The clarity of the pages -- the margins and white spaces -- and the excellent appearance remove some of the boredom in themselves and give a varied and interesting appearance to a book. But only the illustrations manage to rivet modern children’s flagging attention, which tires so quickly,
Today it is almost impossible for a child -- but also for an adult -- to fix his attention on something besides images. If a person wants to teach or to make something known in our day, he must, without reserve, represent it: express it in a picture, a diagram, or a reproduction. Oral explanations overwhelm and tire the listener; words no longer hold people’s attention or their interest. Knowledge today is expressed through images.
This is also true at a completely different level: in almost all areas of thought we have introduced diagrams, curves, and graphic and statistical representation. It seems normal to use maps and cross sections in geology and geography, since these are real objects that are only simplified, diagrammed, and made more easily understood; such representation is only consistent with the subject matter. Cross sections in anatomy, static images of muscles, the blood vessels, or the nervous system, the skeleton in detachable sections, anatomical models that can be opened on several levels, and even the glass model of a human being that shows the circulation of the blood in a dynamic manner -- all these are of the same order as the images we have mentioned in geology and geography.
More significant is the use of such aids in the more abstract sciences, or in those close to being abstract. In biology we can effectively move from one of the representations we mentioned to the image of a mechanism that is not directly accessible. We can, for example, grasp the very reality of the inward workings of the heart and brain and then transcribe them in an image that has no sensorial relationship with this reality. In this case an entire process that abstracts the reality of the movement takes place, and then this abstraction is retranscribed in a visible, understandable diagram that authentically expresses the reality. The electrocardiogram and the encephalogram are examples of this process. It is remarkable that just the visible image of the curve enables us not to imagine but to grasp an object that cannot be grasped in its concrete existence.
This leads us to more abstract examples. The process is the same in economics: verbal expression can certainly deal with and explain economic life. But at what a price, in terms of time, effort, and concern to find the precise word. This is so true that in economics, as in every science, the specialist is obliged to invent new words, because the traditional vocabulary does not define newly observed phenomena with sufficient precision. And after all this effort the expert realizes that what has been said is not exact and that his listeners have not carefully followed his long argument. On the contrary, how easy it is to use statistics and to draw curves based on them. Statistical curves are the images that translate economic life with its interrelationships and the evolution of a system (or a part of one) in a visual, sensory, and direct manner. Why bother to make the effort to say again in words what can be grasped through statistical curves?
We find the same pattern in sociology, where the need for images has also led to the use of curves for representing matters that could be expressed mathematically. And linguistics? Semiotic diagrams enable us to see structures. Furthermore, we should note that the process in linguistics is the same as in biology: graphic representation is the result of a process of abstracting from reality: the mathematical reasoning applied to a social body is an abstraction that then enables us to construct a graphic image. Only this image can speak to our minds. But sociology does not stop at this point. Sociograms, describing groups and interpersonal relationships within groups by means of a diagram, are just as indicative of the importance of visual means. Organizational charts, directly related to sociograms, also describe (by means of a diagram) the organization of a state, a party, a business, etc. They enable us to express not only structures but also dynamic relationships and the internal movements of the different organs. Such charts can be used in political science as well as in sociology.
Finally, the same principle enables us to reconstruct movements and relationships by the image of the psychogram in the most intimate domain of psychology. There is now no area of knowledge that escapes this tendency. This is perhaps because knowledge is becoming scientific everywhere. But it is also certainly because visual knowledge today is much more adapted to our thought patterns. Images are a true means of knowledge and the essential means of its expression. Furthermore, we must grant that in many areas of the exact sciences there is no competition between language and representation because language has become not just useless but simply impossible. Often it is impossible scientifically and technically to express discoveries made through calculation by means of words. It is generally useless to try to describe a physics experiment orally. It is utterly useless to try to explain how a radio functions by means of words. Only the diagram is expressive and comprehensible, consistent with the object.
At this stage, we are no longer dealing with rivalry between image and word; we have excluded the word. This is not the most frequent case, however; usually a verbal description is possible. But in reality we observe the image’s victory over explanation in each instance. It is useless to talk at length when the diagram speaks directly and captivates.
The word discourse itself contains part of the explanation of this tendency. Discourse implies a long process: an indirect approach and a kind of winding movement involving successive approximations that irritate lazy modern people. Visual representation is the easy, efficient, quick path. It allows us to grasp a totality in a single glance, without any need to break up a thing and to analyze it. Explanation and precise formulation are no longer necessary when a person has been able to grasp all at once what the issue is. It is much easier to let oneself be captivated or impressed by an image than to follow an oral demonstration. It is easier not only intellectually, but we could almost say it is easier because of our temperament: a line of reasoning or a demonstration are efficacious only if they are in accord with the person who listens to them. The rigor of spoken thought must find its counterpart in a similar rigor in the listener. In order for the word to become truly demonstrative, a kind of asceticism and interior discipline are required. These cannot be acquired all at once.
The image, on the other hand, contains its rigor and its constraining force within itself. There is no need for it to find a corresponding human quality in the spectator; the rigor is transferred from the person to the object, with great ease, tranquillity, and economy! In this age of usefulness and efficiency, when we all have so much to learn and know, when progress keeps gathering speed and we are quite obligated to follow it, how could we lose time accommodating ourselves to the slow learning process involved in discourse? Just learning the indispensable skills for reading and understanding images is overwhelming enough. Why should we exhaust ourselves over an asceticism that can easily be. substituted by the perfectly objective image which purely intellectual qualities (in the case of scientific images) allow us to accept?
Images have such practical usefulness: they enable us to save time and energy. No reasonable arguments can be advanced against this certitude. Images enable us to have an overall view of a fact or situation or even of reality. No verbal description enables us to understand or feel a landscape like a well-taken photograph. No spectator’s testimony gives us an overall understanding of what happened in a demonstration the way a film can. Pictures furnish us the framework, the action, the actors, and the expressions, simultaneously. They give us a genuinely total knowledge, whose superiority over all other types of knowledge is well known. The word, however, is exceedingly poor, since it hacks reality up into isolated fragments; the phrase is so doubtful, since it depends on the person who said it; discourse is unreliable, since we must amass time and verbal constructions in order to express -- always in an incomplete manner -- the reality which an image gives us instantaneously.
It is perhaps significant that this synthetic knowledge has been introduced even into reading methods. In the word-recognition method of learning to read, children are taught to consider a word as a whole, like a picture. This enables them to recognize it immediately, like the picture of a house or a table. In this way it is no longer necessary to decompose words into syllables or letters. No analysis or detour through the genuine difficulty of linking letters together, which involves intellectual gymnastics. When words are reduced to the status of designs or ideograms, they surface without making any detour and without explanation in one’s consciousness. They evoke what they stand for by means of direct perception. This mechanism is obviously very different from the one used in normal reading; it makes an image of the words themselves!
But visual representation permits not only synthetic knowledge; it also allows us to understand quickly. It leads us as spectators directly to a result: the image in itself furnishes a result. There is no need to follow a process or reasoned argument step by step, since it is entirely contained within the final image to which the process would lead. And the final image is the only thing that matters. Even when we look at a statistical curve, it is obvious on the one hand that we do not need to calculate the figures that made the drawing of the curve possible (unless we disagree or want to learn to draw a curve). On the other hand, it is clear that we can see in a glance the line of the curve and the result of its entire movement. We can go immediately to the last part of the curve, which indicates "the latest stage in current economics." It is obvious that an explanation does not furnish a result as simply and directly as the result of this continuous movement of the eyes. Images are the royal path to modern knowledge.
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Another way images are useful shows the degree to which representation has made a decisive impact on our modern consciousness. In just about everyone’s thinking today, images are considered to be proof of what they represent. You have only to see a photograph to be convinced of the reality and exactness of its subject. A photograph in itself is indisputable proof; it is a basic "given" that cannot be questioned. This common feeling is absurd. When we reflect, we know that films and photographs can be amazingly reworked and modified. Even when not doctored they can be misleading.
To mention a few well-known facts, take the problem of reproductions of paintings and statues. Everyone has been surprised by an original utterly different from its reproductions --and not only when the reproduction is not faithful to the original. It may be too detailed: one has only to change the size of a painting or isolate some detail, such as a rose from one of Velasquez’s portraits. Such a rose is not even noticed when one looks at the painting as a whole. The same may be said of a crooked branch against the background of a green sky, taken from the altarpiece at Issenheim. These details truly exist, but they are not noticed, and they definitely do not have the importance that a clever reproduction gives them. In these cases the reality of the painting is not transmitted; instead, another reality has been created -- a different reality, because the isolation of a detail intended to blend into the whole changes the "text" of the painting.
This effect is perhaps even more noticeable in the case of pictures of sculpture. Thanks to the consummate science of lighting, angles of vision, and framing, a photographer may choose the position and the unique moment in which a statue will take on a living form and a depth that moves the spectator. But a person observing the statue itself can never rediscover the harmony of forms which a single position made possible, nor the brilliance of the harmoniously placed blacks and whites. The spectator is disappointed by the banality of the statue, which had looked like a masterpiece in reproduction. In this case we have a genuinely artificial creation.
The same thing is true of landscapes. In front of my house we have a small, rather muddy pond. A clever photographer recently made it into both a genuine canyon and a radiant lagoon with a blue cast that was probably authentic, since it was a photograph, but which I had never seen!
If we go to the other extreme, moving to politics instead of esthetics, we find the same thing. Does anyone still remember the pictures of the massacre at Katynka, of the pits containing the bodies of Polish officers? They were presented as massacred by Hitler’s troops or by the Soviets, with equal plausibility, and were used as propaganda by both sides. And consider the pictures of prisoners tortured in the Belgian Congo in 1961, which were presented as massacres carried out by the Belgians, by the partisans, or by Patrice Lumumba’s adversaries, and considered obvious "proof" in each case.
Let us recall two cases in more detail. Who remembers the story of the pictures in l’Express magazine in 1956? Alongside Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber’s series of reports on Algeria, quite violent in tone concerning the authorities, were pictures taken in Algeria. These showed Arabs or scenes from the war, but without captions. As was usual in l’Express of that period, there were allusions to the pictures in the story that led the reader to think that these pictures were "documents," and that they were sufficient in themselves as representations of the facts mentioned in the story. Then the Foreign Ministry, questioning Servan-Schreiber’s story, showed that these pictures had no relation whatever with the facts related. They had been taken in other places, at other times. They were not "documents," but "illustrations," as the magazine’s editors hastily explained. This scandalized public opinion to a very large degree and filled readers with suspicion. The Ministry’s exposé was considerably appreciated, since the public does not tolerate photographs as illustrations. They are perceived as fact -- as unimpeachable witnesses. The photograph’s power of evocation should not be capable of deception.
Let us recall another typical event: in 1954, the wife of a Soviet diplomat in Australia, Mrs. Petrov, was said to have refused to return to the Soviet Union. Then she was supposed to have been arrested in Australia by two Kremlin agents, and when about to be taken away by force, she was said to have been delivered by the Australian authorities. This is how the Australian press told the story, and it was repeated in the English, American, and French presses. In Russia, the facts were different: Mrs. Petrov wanted to return to Russia, but she was arrested and held prisoner by the Australian police. The same photograph illustrated these two contradictory stories, in each case in order to make the story unquestionable and authentic. This picture published by the Manchester Guardian was evidence that the Australian police had delivered Mrs. Petrov from the seizure of the Soviets. Exactly the same picture was published by the Polish newspaper Swiat as just as much evidence that the Australian police were arresting Mrs. Petrov when she was going to get on the plane.
All these little examples are well known. It is common knowledge that film can be altered and that edited films can have a very different meaning, depending on how they are edited. We also know that the same picture can spontaneously serve as evidence for utterly different things to spectators who have differing prejudices. No caption is needed for the English reader and the Polish reader to give Mrs. Petrov’s picture the necessary interpretation. Life magazine occasionally gives us the picture of a glowing young woman, bursting with health, laughing, athletic, and hale. She suggests real American life, which is wholesome and produces a balanced youth that is joyful, confident in the future, and a symbol of the excellence of democracy, fair play, and liberalism. But exactly the same kind of young woman -- same teeth and hair, engaging smile expressing the same joy -- was occasionally pictured for us in the Nazi magazines from 1936 to 1938. There she was a no less obvious symbol of the excellence of National Socialism, the beauty of the Race, and economic statism.
We find these same young women again, always with the same bust and smile, exuberance for life and enjoyment in their work, in the RDA Review of East Germany, or in the earliest Soviet magazines. They are symbols just as obviously of the excellence of communism, of the liberated proletariat, and of economic planning. The pictures and their meaning are identical, although the realities are a bit different.
Everyone knows this, and yet everyone continues to believe loyally in his country’s photograph, attributing to it value, meaning, and significance. A word always remains the same: its meanings are so "obvious" one need not discuss them or inquire about them; the picture is so symbolic that we understand with certainty the evidence it presents.
We are not skeptical. Photographs always convince us, even though our reason tells us that they may mean nothing. Still ... still ... photographs place us in the presence of a fact. We make contact with the fact through sight. The image reconstructs the fact for us, and in its presence we are in the presence of the fact itself. We cannot surmount the old reflex that is inscribed on our nerves, in our deepest subconscious, and which is an expression of the oldest experience of humanity: whatever we see is real. Clear awareness of fake photographs is too recent and too unusual to be able to annihilate this experience that is as old as humanity: our eye has never deceived us about facts. We know through millions of experiences accumulated by our ancestors that the image must correspond to the facts.
We continue to identify pictures with reality, obeying an irresistible automatic reaction. When something forces us to deny this identification, we feel scandalized or ill at ease, and the most we can say is "Who knows?" But this does not happen often. And our theoretical knowledge of this possibility does not alter our spontaneous conviction. In other words, here we are face to face with a fact. Let’s not forget that for today’s individual a fact is the ultimate reason, the supreme value, and an unimpeachable proof. Everything bows before a fact. We must obey it. We are irrational, idealistic dreamers if we do not trust facts. It is not enough to take facts into account; we also attribute decisive value to them. No justice, truth, or humanity can stand up in the face of a fact. It decides everything.
"History will judge" comes to mean that the facts of our material victory will prove our cause was just. "Moving with history" is the same thing as moving toward the good. And when an opponent can say "It’s a fact," that ends the discussion, since there is no possible answer. Our whole society cries out: "Let justice and truth perish, before we will go against the facts."
This collective submission to facts that have been transformed into values and this frenzy of wanting to know nothing but the reality of facts -- these attitudes contain within them what we are seeing in our society: the triumph of things material. In this situation how can we be astonished at the decisive power that the images of facts (photographs, films, etc.) have over us? These images are charged with the same authority we attribute to facts: they are genuine proofs and unimpeachable witnesses. For this reason we are obliged to accept everything that underlies them and explains them.
Images not only confront us with facts but also impress us with their currentness. We are always bothered when newspapers print old pictures from their files, on the occasion of the anniversary of some event. These pictures undoubtedly call to mind the reality of the fact, but there is also an imperceptible withdrawal on our part. The same thing happens when we see an old film whose actors we know to be dead. Seeing Louis Jouvet, Jean Renoir, and Raimu again, living and talking, makes us uneasy. This is because we are their contemporaries. We are conditioned by all of human experience. We see neither the past nor the future; we see what is contemporary. And images always give us this feeling of currentness, presence, and immediacy. This impression is further reinforced by films, whose reality it is so difficult to resist, and even more so by television.
With television, we are present when the fact occurs, directly, as if we participated at the same moment in the parade, reception, or game. We are in the room or at the stadium, and we see what makes up events at the moment they take place. This is true even if we are actually seeing a televised film of something that happened a few days before. We may not be aware of this (we would have to be up on everything, and we are not). And even if we know it, how can we avoid being impressed by the direct authenticity of the scene before us? We are not indifferent and disciplined enough to resist being carried away by this presence. I especially distrust those who say they do not get carried away by this influence. Such people are just embarrassed by their fragility.
While images are giving us a feeling of something happening as we look on, they also give us a strong feeling of objectivity. At this point we react as modern people who have learned to distinguish clearly between the subjectivity of a person (which we must guard against) and the objectivity of the camera (in which we must have confidence). The camera does not interpret; there is no strange alchemy inside it as there is within the human brain, transforming facts into living matter, and risking the conversion of reality into truth or error. On the contrary, the camera gives us the fact it has absorbed. We have a brute fact when the camera gives us a fact it has recorded. This fact will always be the same; it is immutable. If we look at the film a hundred times, it will always give us the same scene and the same gesture. We are tempted to say that they are raised to the level of eternity by repetition. But for the spectator they are reduced to the level of the continual present.
The camera is unimpeachable in its undistortable objectivity. For our modern temperament, however, all description and reasoning are tainted with subjectivity, hence doubtful and suspect. Wherever people might be involved, error and falsehood slip in. But the camera is "honest," and gives us a fact through its image. This same problem of human error leads to the use of images in social and political science. No human reflection and observation, even the most accurate, can convince people today. Anything human is considered negligible. But statistical documents, curves, and graphics are convincing -- especially if it has been possible to produce them by machine.
We easily forget that the machine is operated by a person, that it records only those facts someone considers important. This fact cannot destroy our blind faith in the machine’s objectivity. When made aware of the human role in the machine’s operation, we immediately deplore the fact that such a mediocre troublemaker comes along to disturb such majestic mechanical serenity.
In any case, our spontaneous impulse is to trust images produced by something "objective." We are strongly inclined to doubt what a person says, even when he has given it all his weight, all his experience and all his rigor. "No," we say, "that is not so." In history classes, when we recall the use of swearing in earlier societies, and the fact that in a trial a sworn statement could be decisive, we immediately provoke broad smiles, which show how much value students place on a person’s word. It is so easy to swear and not to keep one’s word. For modern people. But these same students have no objection to considering images as proof that binds the person photographed. Witnesses are suspect, but "objective proof", never. Thus in our society, images are genuine proof in just about every area of life. They speak to our heart and senses with an undeniable force, with a weight that comes to them from the remotest past.
It is nearly impossible to deny that television has the power of adapting itself to institutions (and this is not true only of television organized for this purpose and used for propaganda; television itself is this way because of the influx of images).(These initial remarks are drawn from a thesis written under my direction: D. Brethonoux, "La Télévision et le monde ouvrier." The bibliography on television is enormous. See in particular the works of Jean Cazeneuve and P. Schaeffer, especially Schaeffer’s Machines à- communiquer, vol. I, Pouvoir et communication (Paris: Seuil, 1972), and Cazeneuve’s Sociologie de la radiotélévision (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963, 5th ed. l950) Les Grandes Chances de la télévision, with J. Oulif (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1963j; Les Pouvoirs de la télévision (Paris: Gallimard, 1970); L’Homme téléspectateur (Paris: Gonthier, 1974); and Les Communications de masse (Paris: Gonthier, 1976).
It serves as an agent of socialization, in the sense (for we must clarify this essentially ambiguous term’) of integration into the social body, into a collectivity, through renunciation of the individual’s "being himself."(Even if this "being oneself" is the absurd pretension to authentic individuality which does not exist, still it exists as a pretension, and I must take it into account!) Television is an agent of standardization and conformity to the world. This is so in part because it moves us to dreams and psychological mechanisms of compensation; but also because of the continual dichotomy between an obviously visible object and its possible meanings, which are hidden by the multiplicity and the variety of images. Meaning is excluded, but the object is there. Television acts of necessity like an antisurrealism, like something that removes meaning. Television satisfies us, so why should we look any further? I have seen the object itself, the thing in itself.
This mutation takes place through the radical transformation of seeing into vision. We view a film. We do not perceive an object or reality through our own sight, but rather an image of this reality, seen and encoded by someone else. This image is offered to me as a simple image with no consistency, and my sight causes me to take it for reality itself, This image bears an obvious resemblance to the "signified," which is reality. But this evidence is false. That is, the evidence, judged on the basis of truth, is false. Truth in this case means only the equivalence of the image and reality, of the signifier and the signified -- nothing more.
This image bears a false relationship to reality, first because abstraction takes place inevitably in the reading and visual perception of a sequence of images; second, because reality is cut up and recomposed in the image. "Audiovisual material is the reconstruction of detemporalized, dismantled reality that has been retemporalized." "Through photographs, but even more through films and television, we are witnessing a fragmentation of society into series of images. They are cut out of the social fabric and presented more or less independently from each other.... This universe is fragmented and without structure. Society thus comes to be seen as a place where images encounter each other, where things take place in a logical manner. The cohesion of these images thus comes only from a reinterpretation of society. We move from fragmentation to recomposition (and this recomposition will be presented and taken for reality itself). From a society of individuals and individual actions, we go to a society of roles."
Not only the structure and the composition of reality are modified, however, but also its rhythm. An audiovisual sequence imposes a certain rhythm of reading, so it is neither your vision nor your rhythm.(This is the major difference between images and the reading of something written. I read at my own rhythm, and I may go back and reread repeatedly.) The person who puts the images in sequence chooses for you; he condenses or stretches what becomes reality itself for us. We are utterly obliged to follow this rhythm. At no point can we say: "Stop, image; you are so lovely." The image has gone and we will never see it again. (Unless I have a video recorder and remember to record something that interests me!) The basic rhythm of life escapes us.
"Social reality (for example) and its televised image profoundly contradict each other. Social contradictions are eliminated so as to allow only a sequence of selected images to appear." I believe it essential to realize that it is not so much a political choice that is involved here (as the evidence might tend to make us think). Rather, we are dealing with our need for a substitute reality in which images are substituted for lived and seen reality. Under whatever regime or socioeconomic organization, these effects are identical. Even if social contradictions are made especially evident, they will still be erased, deprived of their force, and eliminated by the simple fact that inevitably they will be selected images.
"Television functions on the principle that explanation equals construction of reality, and description means ‘constructed by reality."’ Images are not only fragments of reality on a screen before me. They are not just a sequence I am compelled to follow. They are truly a construction of reality -- one which produces an explanation that satisfies me. In the jumble of images that come from everywhere and mix and blend without meaning, suddenly an order appears. There is sequence and a choice made by the producer of images, and thus I see the light. Everything is explained by the very clarity of this real construction. It is inevitable, and pure description always leaves me in suspense (that is, description constructed by reality; for example, a live telecast). I need someone to explain it to me. The mere account of what is happening does not quench my thirst to understand. I need a clearer reality: one that is constructed and reconstructed, for me.
But this visionary reality of connected images cannot tolerate critical discourse, explanation, duplication, or reflection. These presuppose a certain distance and withdrawal from the action, whereas images require that I continually be involved in the action and in on what is happening. They make me a passive spectator, but I am not removed from what is happening; instead, I am integrated into the image process that unfolds outside of me and according to a rhythm that is different from the rhythm of my thinking process and from the rhythm I would have chosen. Nothing is worse for the image’s influence than to be taken apart and analyzed by language. The word produces disenchantment with the image; the word strips it of its hypnotic and magical power.
Artificial images usually avoid this danger by their short-lived nature, especially on television. The televised signal disappears, does not last, and is not seen again. It is immediately followed by another, and this concatenation of a program is precisely what prohibits any hold that the word might get on a given fragment or sequence. Each image is immediately covered by the succeeding wave, so that, in spite of the spectator’s theoretical freedom, he does not interrupt his pleasure by turning off the set in order to discuss and reflect on what he has just seen. In any case, such a discussion would be useless, since one would be talking into thin air. Once speaking begins, the effect of the image already would have disappeared. This situation highlights the vanity of the television critic’s task, because he necessarily prepares his column after a telecast that no one will be seeing again.
Television (but also the multiplicity of images in general) participates heavily in social control in all these ways. The person who emits and controls images produces conformity. Again, I accept that this is utterly fortuitous and unintentional -- that this does not involve any intention to propagandize or any police activity. But the fact is there. Furthermore, this tendency toward conformity is not connected with a particular type of regime or alienation (such as capitalist). It takes place in any kind of society. The debate is by no means between capitalism and communism, but exclusively between individual freedom and the overall functioning of society, Even if the person producing the images is ideologically opposed to the particular society in which he lives (a capitalist society, for example), he unconsciously acts as an agent of social control. This is true simply because he participates in an enormous structure that in itself is a social machine.
A spectacle produces simultaneously two notions: (1) that since it is only a spectacle, it is easy to change (and society too!); and (2) that since it is only a spectacle, it does not produce conformity to the dominant social reality so different from the spectacle. These attitudes, however, are precisely what leads to inertia, nonintervention, and acceptance. Let us note carefully that what we have here is not an acceptance of this or that accident, incident, or shortcoming; rather, we have an overall acceptance, turning one’s life over to society -- a renunciation of truth. The representation that proceeds from society’s structure, and reciprocally the permanent vision of a spectacle, reinforce social pressures and at the same time absorb any changes one would like to bring about. Everything situated outside the norms and paradigms of this society is reduced and incorporated. You can show the most scandalous, impressive, and provocative images imaginable through photographs, film, and television. But this never goes beyond the level of spectacle, so all such images are incorporated within the overall flood of images.
We are talking about images of reality. This innovative reality is incorporated within traditional images and through this process reduced to the status of conservative images. If there existed in reality some aspect of one of these images that could not be thus incorporated, a bit of doctoring would make it fit. And this altered image is all we will ever know of a given movement, group, or person, which may be unique and nonconformist. But if it is presented to me as unique, it will be marginalized by the very conformity of images.
In this way the "reality-unreality" circle of the action of images is closed. Within this process, the entire visual plane defines everything living. The result is a full and continuous society. Never is there any empty place where someone could insert some authentic action. The artificial image is always complete and we are permanently surrounded by "full" images. Our process of social conformity is effected by this permanent fullness.
The visual world leaves empty places (which usually bore the city dweller when he goes to the country! On the contrary, the sight of mountains or of the ocean is full and fills the eyes). But the universe manufactured by artificial images must keep itself filled up, so as to avoid producing boredom! Never is any empty space permitted, and this is one of the main differences between images and the word. We cannot listen to unceasing talk. The word discourse necessarily implies not only an alternation between emptiness and fullness; it also opens a gap in itself and in the listener. The word opens up spaces to be discovered and by this very fact is a critical force. It awakens the critical sense and arouses criticism. The word plays this role as long as it is not transformed into image and not incorporated into a visual system; as long as it is not degraded in order to join a spectacular liturgy. Under such circumstances, it would cease being the word and become merely a mute but raucous witness to the triumph of images. Humiliatingly chained to the triumphant chariot, it certifies the victory: it is reduced to noise.
This is precisely the role of the audiovisual approach. to incorporate the word into the flood of images, making it useless and empty. The spectator’s mind is completely occupied with the fullness of the visual spectacle.("We must not say that we have entered and audio-visual civilization, but rather a civilization of noise, and especially of the visual. We should call it the noiso-visual universe, with great emphasis on the ‘visual’" [Maillot]) Images do not give you any respite. You can listen to a speech or the news with half an ear, while doing something else. The image monopolizes us either you watch television or you do not, but you cannot watch television while writing letters or doing the dishes in the next room. Images captivate our entire attention, fascinating us and filling us with hallucinations, so that we abandon everything. Through this process they divert us from lived reality, from all reality, making us live in a universe of the fullness of images.
The crucial role of transistor radios during the May 1968 disturbances in France is well known. Combatants listened to the news while building barricades, and the effect was like an echo or a rebound. They organized their tactics according to the breathlessly reported news received from other cities and districts. It is utterly impossible to imagine the same combatants sitting in a circle in front of a TV screen to see what was happening elsewhere. Television would necessarily not only have stopped and prevented action, but it would have demobilized those watching it. You cannot go back to a movement that has been stopped abruptly in order to insert it into a spectacle. From this point of view it may be said that television is a cold medium -- just like anything that requires full and inclusive attention on the part of its subject, to the exclusion of any other occupation.
Concerning television, we must return to two matters mentioned briefly earlier. Sight, when it perceives concrete reality, makes action possible and directs it. Artificial images are the very language of action. But this universe of artificial images in which we are immersed paralyzes and blocks action. We observe an absolute contradiction between reality and images transmitted through film or television. These images do not motivate us toward any action; they do not even get a person up out of his chair. On the contrary, they sink him deeper into his apathy. We look, but remain passive, because we know that we have no way of grasping the representation offered to us. The effort to get television watchers to participate in games and conversations by inviting them to call on the telephone is very intriguing. Spectators are asked to call something with a name like "action" in order to participate in the spectacle, but this changes nothing in reality, since it is only a game or something equally superficial.
An image that is shown continuously and delivered to a passive spectator moves him to action only when it is propaganda. At this point, we no longer have an action desired by the subject because of some reality he has seen, but an action that has been calculated by someone else. The spectator is an object, and sight is only the means of attracting him. Besides this special case, a profound change has occurred in the artificiality of visual means. These visual media are now so centered on unreal, artificial, and conventional images that urban people (immersed in technique) tend more and more to see in them only signals and appearances. And this is what characterizes the whole universe of images that domesticate us.
Young people frequently protest against society’s tendency to preempt and integrate everything, and this should lead them to understand how images work. Rather than bourgeois society, it is the universe of images that co-opts and integrates all that is done and lived, in order to reduce it to the level of spectacle. The absolute triumph of images and visualization paralyzes and integrates.
Television, however, is not the only means! Images also triumph through comic strips, even when they are "revolutionary." Whether their content is revolutionary makes no difference. What matters is the abolishment of coherent and meaningful language that says something. This is the preempting act par excellence. Images always abolish.
The comic drawings of Hara-Kiri, Brétécher, or Wolinski can never be anything but by-products of this triumph. We may think that we have robbed the enemy of one of his means of action by changing its meaning. We may say "We are aware that Tintin and Astérix contribute frightfully to conformism, but we have recaptured this medium, and are thus fighting our opponent on his own ground." This is utter illusion. For apart from any content is the issue of the image itself, with its perverseness. Placing oneself on the opponent’s ground and trying to change the use of something (which is a favorite tactic of those who practice situational ethics) amounts to aligning oneself with the same tendency. Because it is spectacle, the image’s fullness pacifies my revolutionary conscience. "I saw, therefore I acted."
This whole process not only paralyzes our intervention but also places us in a false relationship with a false reality. I take what is shown to me for reality, and reality itself fades away. Everything depends on this continual fragmentation of the reality in which I live into discontinuous images or pieces of a mosaic. These come from every direction but are blended and situated in relation to each other in new totalities. These totalities are recomposed in such a way as to be continuous. I take this continuum to be the only reality because it is the only relationship with reality that I can have from now on.
Thus the reality I see, and to which I am urged to dedicate myself, is a false reality. And the relationship I have with it is a false relationship, because two things are lacking: (1) the strength and stability of an involvement in experienced reality, and (2) the confrontation of this experience by a series of values and choices related to what I call truth. In the world of artificial images, relationships are gratuitous, fleeting, and merely interesting. But they have no more existence than any other short-lived interesting thing that distracts my attention. This false relationship shuts me out of reality, while it encloses me in a cocoon of familiarity, indifference, and jaded search for new experiences. It involves me in something unstructured that is compensated by a state-controlled economy and social control. I no longer know which reality places demands on me, or where the reality of my life is to be found. Since I know that images no longer refer to anything, I am led to choose from among the floods of images those that are the easiest to understand, instead of those which could have rich meaning. The result is that we are faced not only with a false reconstructed reality and a false relationship with reality because of mediation by images, but also with a false language.
At different points we have advanced two contradictory propositions: first, that a series of images is not a language (which would correspond to spoken language related to truth); and second, that a series of images is a language (in that its structure and its sequences are signifiers). At this point we arrive at a third proposition: images are a false language; that is, they appear to be messages and communication, but this communication is situated in an overall context that produces nothing but a vacuum. This language tries to be taken (and is taken) for the complete complex of "truth and reality." On the one hand it refers only to a fiction, but on the other hand it integrates the spectator into a social whole. In its process of encompassing everything such language neither expresses nor reveals the social whole, but merely serves it.
Diatribes against language (called a terrorist force for integration into the dominant culture) are correct only in terms of what they do not criticize: audiovisual language. Although a false language, an artificial mosaic and puzzle, it has become so much a part of our society that it meets with universal approval. This is so true that the very people who question and torture the word give their solemn approval to images despite their explosive and destructive nature. They do not realize that images cause us to conform. But their language is pure nonsense; it is happily inserted into the nonsense of false language concerning images of nothing.
"Nothing" does not, however, describe the influence of images on life. Such influence unquestionably may be observed: we live under the influence of advertising and according to the models advertising offers us; (I like to remind people that the first basic study on advertising providing life models was done by Bernard Charbonneau, in the journal Esprit in 1935! ("La Publicité," Esprit, no. 31 [1 April 1935]). propaganda and now images are having an influence on violent behavior.(I am aware that questions have been raised about this topic: do movies and advertising really influence young people toward violence? Careful but positive conclusions are found in the commission’s study of the question (C. Chavanon) and in the excellent newspaper article by R. Lenoir ("TV, la violence et l’image," Le Figaro, 10 March 1976). Images of extreme violence produce either exact reproduction (which is short-lived) or else overall behavior of generalized brutality accompanied by impoverished language.) We must certainly beware of the fact that these images have a major influence precisely when an individual lives in an unreal world whose only reality is fictitious and simulated by images.
Ruthless behavior seen in images is not related to real life but becomes normal for the person who lives in the universe of artificial images. Such behavior seems normal because images are norms in a world without meaning. The influence of the image does not act on the person himself, who then acts; that is, images of violence alone do not provoke violence. But images of violence within a world of images (where all that exists is a shadow on a screen) can lead to violent behavior.
When a person hits someone, this "someone" has no more existence than the actor so often seen. The movement of the arm itself as it strikes is only an image, and violent scenes are just a spectacle a person acts out as he watches himself. Everything is a spectacle: ghosts made of shadows, flickering lights, and scenarios worked out ahead of time. The person who is going to be hit has no reality; he represents nothing. It makes absolutely no difference whether you help a blind person to cross the street or attack him. The person striking another has become uncertain of his victim’s existence. He feels like an actor in the middle of images with neither weight nor meaning. Hitting or killing give some meaning to this moment. He looks for a crisis in order to avoid this absence of being, since he too is reduced to the level of an image. Any crisis will do: drugs, orgasm, or violence. These are the only moments when the person absent from himself (because he has taken in too many artificial images) has a vague feeling of existence and self-realization.
I hope I will not be accused of monomania just because I bring the entire triumph of images back to the question of technique, (Concerning technique and its definition, see Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson [New York: Knopf, 1964; London: Jonathan Cape, 1965], and The Technological System, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Continuum, 1980). because this relationship to technique is easily verified: technique makes possible the explosion of images, their infinite multiplication, the substitution of images for the word, and the construction of a universe of images. But there is also a reciprocal demand that images and technique place on each other, and, finally, a common nature they share.
First, consider the possibility of the image explosion. Obviously, the mass media surround us with images. The multiplication of visual techniques has produced this invasion of our eyes and thoughts by images. We produce images only because we have certain equipment. Without technical tools no triumph of images would be possible. First came the printing press, then photography and the explosion that followed it: cameras, linotype machines, television; and now artificial satellites that never stop producing images. The universe of images is a result of technique alone, and not of some human intention, some philosophy or economic structure, a need for profit, the class struggle, or the Oedipus complex. These pseudointellectual "causes" are advanced in every modern interpretation.
Actually things are simpler and more chilling: technique produces the means of images. It explains both their possibility and their spread and multiplication. As we have shown elsewhere this relationship involves a certain logical development: when a technical possibility exists, it must be applied. We moderns cannot leave our discoveries inactive, or relegate potentialities to the realm of the merely possible. This attitude opens the door for the creation of needs or habits imposed on people by technique’s power and weight.
We become accustomed to the multiplication of images simply because this profusion is proposed and imposed by technique. And technique imposes them simply because it is possible to do so. In the world of techniques one necessarily proceeds from what is possible to its realization. When it is possible to send an image instantaneously by satellite from one end of the world to the other, the thing must be done. When the multiplication of the means used to produce images is thrust upon us, a justification for this is found immediately. But, again, all this does not take place because people wanted images, television, or the satellites they have created. They were created by technique’s process of development and then their consumption was found to be pleasant, good, and intelligent (obviously, "pleasant to look at, good to eat, and capable of awakening intelligence"). Thus we briskly entered the universe of fictitious images produced, multiplied, and spread by techniques. Since these techniques dealt with reality alone, they produced what corresponds to reality: images. These images caused humanity to concentrate increasingly on that particular, imaged reality, which became more and more unreal.
Undoubtedly it can be argued that there are also techniques that make use of the word, such as the telephone and radio. But two remarks may be made on this subject: first, the allure of those techniques is completely different. When the public has to choose between a television program and a cultural radio program, we know what it prefers. Images are enticing, captivating, and, strictly speaking, hypnotic, whereas this is not at all true of the word transmitted by radio. In order to listen properly to the radio, one must decide to do it, make a choice, wish to listen, and apply oneself to what is most difficult. Unless, as is usually the case, the radio broadcasts only background music rather than words. People leave the radio on, whether it is broadcasting music or talk, while not really listening and while talking about something else. The reduction of the word to mere background is obviously more serious than silence or the absence of language. It represents the devaluation of any possible content this word might have; it means utter contempt.
My second remark is very simple: the means used to broadcast images and those which broadcast the word simply are not comparable. The technique of images has effectively transformed our universe. On this point McLuhan is certainly right. When a detailed inventory of techniques of image and of the word is made, the extreme difference is astounding. Only the techniques of image are closely related and constitute a network. Techniques of the word are always casual and related to sporadic activities. Loudspeakers, recordings, cassettes, the telephone -- all these are individual matters directly related to a clearly human activity. The radio would be the only technical means with the same power as visual means.
In addition, however, the relationship of the visual plane with technique is deeper than these issues; the multiplication of technical means is not the only cause of generalized visualization. Another factor is that technique has a basic need for visually oriented people in order to develop. Technique excludes discourse. In its domain, diagrams and sketches are decisive. A technical process can never be explained in words as it can be done by a drawing or a picture. Technical progression is absolutely dependent on visual representation. In order to become a technical person, one must be polarized by the visual domain. The perception of reality, the reduction of reality to usable elements, and action with respect to reality are possible only when the imprecision of language has been replaced by the precision of images. A certain mental mutation must take place in order for Homo sapiens to become a technical individual; and this mutation is effected through the visual plane’s exclusion of language. This process is accompanied by the creation of another language; a statistical language which can be expressed through graphic means, for example. The language must correspond exactly to the object.
Thus we see that all techniques depend on the possibility of reducing to a drawing what had belonged to the order of the word. All of a sudden, political economics sheds its psychological and moral considerations and its problem with ends, because now everything can be reduced to Constantine Leontiev’s input-output tables. At long last, things can be visualized, and therefore political economics can become technicalized. Obviously this involves eliminating what cannot be reduced to such an image. Thus a whole area of language and an entire approach to knowledge are excluded because they cannot be visualized. We must learn through sketches and obey signals in order to be apt for technical development and for the manipulation of techniques.
"But," you say, "we have audio signals." Of course! The trained ear can recognize a motor’s condition by the noise it makes. We also have sirens and whistling buoys. But compare the uncertainty of sounds with the clear evidence given by a visual signal. A policeman’s whistle can mean dozens of things; moreover, somebody who is not a policeman can whistle -- anybody can do it. I have to see the policeman to know who whistled. On the contrary, a red light is unquestionable. This is why visual signals and signs with bright borders multiply. In order to be suited for technique, a person must become more visual than anything else. All day long he must concentrate on visual matters: during his work hours and even when he is off work. This is the first aspect of the reciprocal demands that the visual domain and technique place on each other.
The second aspect is this: we noted above the obvious usefulness of images in our day, due to their ease and speed. Now we must emphasize the other side: people molded by the technical milieu have a need to live through images. The amount of knowledge we must absorb, ever on the increase, requires that we have recourse to images. A person can discuss Israeli politics better having glanced at a map and seen a film on the Sinai campaign than if he had read a whole series of books on Israel. The reason is that he will have a better feel for reality if he has seen the images. But, of course, we are still talking only about recording images. In reality, this is one of the most useful skills in our society. Thus the matter is perfectly clear; technique requires visually oriented people. And people living in a technical milieu require that everything be visualized.
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Going deeper, we discover a common nature in technique and visualization, images and artificial images. All involve evidence, efficiency, and something tangible and real. Technique belongs to the realm of evidence. Its results are clear. In general, either a thing works or it does not. Either we go to the moon or we do not. The rocket has left its orbit or it has not. No discussion is possible. Sight furnishes us with hard evidence, whereas talking can only produce conviction; but the transition from talking to conviction is murky and uncertain.
The same language can produce certainty in one person and doubt in another. The same phrase is true at a given moment, but then no longer. The path followed by discourse, however logical and rigorous, is not able to give a watertight demonstration. We all know contradictory arguments that are equally probable and convincing; this uncertain quality has caused people to lose patience with language.
But let’s be careful: people lost patience with language only when visualization began to triumph. The time came when technique was identified with the visual realm, and technically produced visual images gave people undeniable evidence. At the same time, images gave a feeling of unlimited power. This is when language began to be thought of as just "talk," because it did not give the same kind of clear certainty and indisputable results that visualization and technique did (considered separately as well as in tandem and identified with each other).
Until this triumph of technical images, language was both the most serious act and the subtlest game. But how could the combination of seriousness and play have stood up against efficiency, which is the second similarity between technique and the visual realm? I need not repeat here what I have written about efficiency as the supreme imperative and the prime characteristic of technique. But technique is identical with images in this respect. Images always have a positive or even a programming character. An image which contains a totality furnishes us with the framework and the motivation for action. The visual realm is related to the need for intervening in reality and gives us the means for such intervention.
On the contrary, everyone knows how ineffective language is. What we call the "word" no longer has anything to do with the Hebrew dabar of Genesis 1. Our "word" has no noticeable effect on a situation, is never an immediate program for action. When the word programs, becoming such an agent, it is because a kind of constraint is placed on it, or because it truly changes its "nature." With good reason Georges Sorel speaks of the image as a prime mover, when he is concerned with efficiency in connection with the action of myth. That is to say, what is spoken or told must be in effect a transformation of word into image.
The same concern is involved in the visual realm and in technique. Images are communication par excellence, and technique is efficiency itself at all levels. But without its visual aspect no technique can exist. In order to apply a means, one must see and have an image of reality. The efficacy of an image guarantees the efficacy of a given technique, just as the latter makes the former possible. In all realms, it pays. Not by accident Michel Foucault rediscovers Jeremy Bentham’s panoptic system, (See Jeremy Bentham, Surveiller et punir (Paris: Gallimard, 1979). The panoptic system involved a circular prison composed of cells arranged like those of a bee hive. The cells’ front and back walls were made of glass so that guards posted in a tower at the center of the ring could always see all the prisoners.) which is an astounding overall surveillance system that permits guards to keep a constant eye on everything at a glance. Foucault tries to show that this prison surveillance system actually has been extended to our entire society, which can be interpreted by means of universal visualization. But Foucault fails to mention two matters: this panoptic system is possible only through highly developed technical means; and it is necessary because the technological society requires order and efficiency.
Lack of interest in literature and the condemnation of philosophy reflect the inability of these disciplines to convert themselves into diagrams. Here we see the same concern about efficiency because the same reference to reality is involved. Sight belongs to the order of reality, as we have shown, and technique acts only in this domain of the tangible, the quantitative, and the countable. Through technique we act on things. We are doubly present in this process, through our physical bodies and as those who constitute reality. In order to become an object of technique, everything must be reified and reduced to its corporeality. Even people must be reduced to being only machines (that they submit "eagerly" changes nothing!).
Not much progress took place between Julien Offroy de La Mettrie (1709-1751) and Delenze or B. F. Skinner; the process is always the same, both visual and technical at the same time. From the visual point of view, one says: "I have seen neither the soul nor the spirit." Technique says: "People must become machines in order to be treated technically by the hundreds of techniques which converge on them." Reification is no longer a philosophical matter, an abstract economic issue, or a way of exploiting people that would explain their alienation. It is the result of technical development and the exclusive dominance of the visual realm. The entire person is reduced to seeing and being seen, and technique confirms this.
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Finally, the common nature shared by techniques and the visual domain produces strange consequences that really are reversals. We have said that as a person is present in the world, he perceives through sight the reality of his environment, and enters through the word into a dialectical relationship with human beings and the openness of truth. But the triumph of the visual sphere and of technique has changed all that. The multitude of images imposes finite vision on us, within a given time limit, and it is practically impossible to escape from this. We are seeing the transfer of some media from the spatial mode (newspapers) to the temporal mode (filmed and televised reporting and video cassettes). Sight makes an opening in time for us, as in the case of writing, in which the word is inscribed in space.
This is a basic reversal, and it coincides with another great movement: the effort to reduce language to sketches, drawings, and diagrams. All these efforts -- reducing language to countable units, making lists of bits of information, making sketches with arrows going off in all directions, organizing A. J. Greimas-type semiotic diagrams, determining Jean Ricardou’s reading grids in order to formalize fiction, the graphs of "contiguity on the horizontal axis and opposition on the vertical," or narration and fiction, etc. -- all this shows nothing but the domination of technique.
Visualization is not a scientific effort but a typically technical one. It is a matter of visualizing words through the intermediary of a diagram related to language and discourse. But this amounts to making the word an object of technique. Of course, we are free to choose what we want. We should just be aware of the following two facts: first, by making the word an object of technique, we elevate excessive scientism to its highest point. By "scientism" I mean the process that has eliminated (as if nonexistent) everything that was not reducible to scientific understanding and visual diagrams. The word should have been the thing best able to resist this pressure. Now we have arrived at the point of formalizing visually everything related to the word, but at the price of excluding meaning. This is extremely significant!
Our second observation is that in making the word an object of technique, we are in no way expressing our free spirit, liberated from previous prejudices in favor of the word and language. All we express in this way is our utter sociological conformity, the universalization of images, and a thoroughgoing obedience to the generalized process of technicalization.
The lightning-fast progress of the structuralist method can be explained only by the support of the media: by the technicalization of the average person’s thinking. This method does not improve or add to knowledge; it only changes doubtful understanding into something visual, which is believed to eliminate ambiguity. The relationship of the word to truth has been excluded, in order to limit us to the relationship between language and reality.
Today we must understand that while this exclusion is possible, it is the necessary condition if the word is to have some effectiveness. But it never attains as much force as visual representation. When we think of speech that has been efficacious, we always forget that it was related to a certain visual framework and certain visual impressions. In propaganda, for example, language ceases to be language and word; it is reduced to a stimulus. Propagandistic language is powerful only to the degree that its framework (the masses, marches, flags, surrounding monuments, etc.) gives it weight. The visual elements correspond to the intervention of action in the visual domain, and therefore in reality, which is the realm of technique.
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