ON THE PAST, PRESENT AND POSSIBLE FUTURES OF THE IMAGE
Humanist culture is/was a visual culture: with the “perspective revolution” in the Renaissance the visual became the catalysing agent for an ensemble of philosophic and scientific knowledges which consolidated into the “humanist episteme” where Vitruvian “Man” stands at the centre of the visible and representable world. Central perspective constitutes the core principles of today’s visual culture – photography, film, video and computer graphics, functioning as a veritable “machine of vision” that, over the centuries, forged the convergence of vision and representation so that today, we see the world as image and the image as the world. (But what if the world resists our vision?)
Humanist visual culture is/was deeply intertwined with the capitalist programme of the objectivation of the world, its control and exploitation. In the late 20th century this programme lost its credibility as climate change, resource depletion, overconsumption, overpopulation, pollution and species extinction are running out of control. If nowadays humanist visual culture is still thriving, it is both in a state of excess (more and more images) and mania (better and better technologies) and in a state of sterility (less and less meaning) and anxiety (less and less hope).
In our book SOFTIMAGE: Towards a New Theory of the Digital Image, we have shown that with digital technologies, the photographic paradigm of the image put in place with the invention of the central perspective, is supplemented (but not replaced) by a new paradigm, the algorithmic. The image becomes soft, not only infinitely malleable but merged with software. It becomes operational, part of algorithmic processes, where the representational image (on our screens) acts as a lure for the actual processes of surveillance and control (behind the screen). In fact, the rapid developments in automated sensing systems, robotics and artificial intelligence seem to lead towards a (literally) post-human future where humanity will be at best ignored if not extinct. In our current book project Postimage: Or What We Do Together we are exploring other and less extreme possibilities.
Because humanism is not only an anthropocentric but also an androcentric programme, feminist posthumanism may foster an understanding of “image” that is no longer unilateral (the world as object) but multilateral, that is no longer representation (and will) but relation (and respect). The same agenda is pursued in related approaches, such as new materialism, environmental humanities and ecophenomenology – all calling for an end of human suprematism (of which today’s “Anthropocene” discourse is but a variant) and proposing a posthumanist ethics of immanence, inclusivity, care and kinship between species (Barad, 2007; Alaimo, 2010; Abram, 2010).
The challenge facing us is to understand – and practice – “image” no longer in terms of vision but in terms of relation. Freed from representation and unilateral subject/object relations, the image opens up to an “eco-relation”, an oikos com-posed of the mutual relations between humans and non-humans. Contrary to the humanist period, what we need to reinvent is not our vision of the world, but our dwelling in the world, our living together on and with the planet. In this process, the next step is to abandon the old (and desiccated) humanist image and with it, the pillars of our existing visual culture, such as projection, resemblance, or objectivity. Only then can we imagine our entanglement in a mesh of protean relations among all wordly co-dwellers – and understand these relations as image.
This means first to adapt our human brains (as we did after the perspective revolution) to a radically different type of perception, a re-distribution of the senses where vision is no longer dominant. Second, it requires to develop a new kind of sensus communis where we could call “image” the ensemble of shared perceptions, exchanges and thoughts across the community of the living and the non-living.
For early drafts of the Postimage book, see:
The Martian Image (on Earth) (Palgrave, forthcoming 2020)
The Future Evolution of the Image (Routledge, 2018)
Postimage (Bloomsbury, 2018)
From Softimage to Postimage (Leonardo, 2017)
(all available on academia.edu)