Against Tumblr

“Insofar as ‘image flow’ isn’t going away any time soon, it certainly makes sense to try to harness the powers of YouTube for all kinds of social causes as well as for entertainment.  But there are also perils.  And one is that in a cultural moment defined (by some, for some) by image flow, the question of what one should look at, along with attendant inquiries into the nature and effect of the images blowing by, has a creepy way of overtaking almost all other questions.  This may in fact be part of the so-called image regime’s raison d’etre, rather than a puzzling side effect.  In any case, it can lead ot cul-de-sacs, red herrings, or distractions fatal to the primary issue at hand.

For example, in a director’s statement about his Abu Ghraib documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, filmmaker Errol Morris names the principal question posed by his film as, ‘Is it possible for a photograph to change the world?’  But what could the answer to this question –– be it in the negative or the affirmative — really mean?  As Sontag puts it in Regarding the Pain of Others, ‘The image as shock and the image as cliche are two aspects of the same presence’ –– a notion that partially explains how the iconic image of the hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib forced to hold a foreboding wire in each hand could literally sicken one’s stomach when first viewed, then move on to become a much-parodied image (e.g., on the satirical posters that appeared throughout the New York subways not long after the Abu Ghraib story broke, posters that borrowed the distinct design of Apple’s iPod campaign, but substituted the word ‘iRaq’ for ‘iPod,’ and featured the silhouette of hte hooded man in lieu of the iPod’s silhouetted dancer).  It isn’t that the photograph played no role in the unfolding of human events –– clearly, it did.  But after nearly 200 years of photography, it may be that we are closer than ever to understanding that an image –– be it circulated in a newspaper, on YouTube, or in an art gallery –– is an exceptionally poor platform on which to place the unending, arduous, multifaceted, and circuitous process of ‘changing the world.'”

-– Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

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