Image Simulations, Computer Manipulations:

Some Considerations

Martha Rosler

Pick a picture, any picture. The question at hand is the danger posed to "truth" by computer-manipulated photographic imagery.’ How do we approach this question in a period in which the veracity of even the "straight," unmanipulated photograph has been under attack for a couple of decades? Think of how much time has been spent in that period on the, relation between the photographic "map" and an instant of past time. Think about Serge Eisenstein and his development of filmic montage, to extend and multiply the power of an instant. Now consider (an image of) the pyramids. If a photograph represents mutability, then surely the pyramids are the very image of immutability the immutability of objects. Metropolitan skyscrapers, they symbolize a death culture; they represent the staying power of something that yet decays, that will not last as long as the earth. Unlike the blasted ruins of the Acropolis, they are, moreover, brute geometry, enduring monuments to a long-eclipsed power of command over labor in a land now reduced to dry dust. Like Ayers Rock in the middle of the middle of Australia, the pyramids represent another people’s relation to the earth itself, about which we are nervously aware that we are largely unaware. Now think about moving the pyramids – as a whim, casually. What, if anything, would such an impulse tell us about ourselves? ... More on this later.

We tell ourselves that ever-mutating experiences of space and time are the commonplaces of "post-industrial" civilization. If travel and telephone meant the abridgment of space and time, then sound recording, film, and video meant the collapse of their continuity. Fredric Jameson and others3 relate the experience of postmodernism to the loss of maps – we depart from and arrive nowhere in the movement through time and space, which have in any case been collapsed into one another. In recounting the multiple echoing self-referentiality of the forms of representation we have uncertainly called "postmodern," it’s hard not to sound overawed – the dizzying displacement has a certain primitive appeal; some people have taken Jameson’s criticism of the Los Angeles Bonaventure Hotel’s dislocating plan as praise. There is, after all, pleasure to be had in the giddiness of dislocating oneself in a culture that has been experienced for a couple of centuries as dislocating us. This, however, is old talk.

Early in the marketing of VCRs, in 1980, a SONY advertisement (showing a photo of a man in an armchair, holding aloft a remote TV-VCR controller and emanating both bourgeois complacency and patriarchal godhead majesty) promised you and me the ability to "master time, memory, and circumstance" and suggested, "Experience the freedom of total control" – through time shifting of TV programs, of course. We keep hoping that (this kind of) control over time and space does offer both freedom and totality, on a personal level.

If a consumer culture centers on the manipulation of desire, then controlling time and space is a small matter, for desire knows only the present – so we need control only the fantasies of the moment. Technological fetishism underlies our preference for vast, or vastly convincing, technological apparatuses,

like VCRs, to channel those momentary desires. Machinery is the answer, as even most hippies thought. (In their fantasies of stripping away the taints of civilization, virtually everything seemed expendable except some source of electricity to run the sound system – which, we should note, produces not music in the traditional sense but the representation of music.)

Photography and Manipulation

And photography? Its abilities are so modest that in a heady discussion of time warping they can be overlooked. Still, let’s say you want to move that pyramid. "Technology" makes it possible to move it photographically with hardly any trouble. Now, before we proceed with moving the pyramids, be forewarned that critical considerations of the possibilities of photographic manipulation tend to end with a tolling of the death knell for "truth:’ This discussion will not end that way.4 It’s possible that certain modes of address are near exhaustion as ways of communicating "facticity," but that doesn’t amount to asserting either that "truth is dead" or that "photography is used up." Any familiarity with photographic history shows that manipulation is integral to photography. Over and above the cultural bias toward "Renaissance space" that provides the conceptual grounding of photography itself, there are the constraints of in-camera framing, lenses, lighting, and filtration. In printing an image, the selection of paper and other materials affects color or tonality, texture, and so forth. Furthermore, elements of the pictorial image can be suppressed or emphasized, and elements from other "frames" can be reproduced on or alongside them. And context, finally, is determining. (For linguistic context, there is the ubiquitous caption; for visual context, the multiplicative effect of images placed together; recall also the early Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov’s experiments in the influence of sequence on meaning in film.)

In the mid-nineteenth century, Oscar Rejlander concocted photographic montages that intrigued Queen Victoria. (If street urchins could be seen in interior doorways, and painters could represent them, why not photographers, despite the technical inability of photography to do so? If the representation of a dreamer and his dream can be thought, why not presented photographically?) Charles Darwin, impressed by Rejlander’s simulations, engaged him to prepare photographic representations of facial expressions of emotion from terror to loathing – the distinction between representation and falsification was not of interest here, and Rejlander’s photos, in contrast to less staged or unstaged images in the same book, look Victorian, theatrical, Rejlanderesque. Nineteenth-century rural Americans apparently might have trouble distinguishing between photographs of dead people as records of their bodies and as repositories of some portion of their souls; by the twentieth century this distinction had become a litmus test of civilization. In a less mystical, more practical vein, any nineteenth-century photographer of landscapes was likely to make good exposures of cloud-bearing skies to marry to appropriate images of the terrain below (or to retouch or double-expose the negatives), simply because orthochrornatic film6 couldn’t do justice to both at once. The great attention paid to skies in landscape painting had prepared the way for photographic skies to appear as presence, not as absence. So any outdoor photo was likely to be a montage, posing no problems of veracity for maker or viewer. All these manipulations were in the service of a truer truth, one closer to conceptual adequacy, not to mention experience.

The identification of photography with objectivity is a modern idea, and the fascination with the precision of its rendering has only partly characterized its reception. Certainly the artistic practice of photography incorporated markers of the effort to evade the mechanicity of "straight" photography. The deceptive manipulation of images is another matter. The use of faked photographs is a long-standing political trick, in the form both of photographs misappropriated or changed after they were produced and in ones set up for the camera. Before lithography’ enabled newspapers to use photographs directly around i88o, photographs were at the mercy of the engravers who prepared the printing plates for reproduction. Even now, cropping and airbrushing are decisive methods of manipulating existing imagery, and set-up or staged ("restaged") images are always a possibility.

Restaging or faking is always an issue in war photography. Even "the most famous war photograph," Robert Capa’s image of a soldier falling in battle in the Spanish Civil War, has been called a fake (partly because there is another Capa image that is strikingly similar). In America, the emblematic photograph of World War II, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prizewinning image of marines raising a huge flag at Iwo Jima, is something of a fraud. Despite the existence of photos of the original event by Marine photographer Louis Lowerx’, the statue at the Marine Corps War Memorial at Arlington is based on Rosenthal’s image. ‘The use of the Rosenthal image –a post battle replacement by a different set of Marines of the original, smaller flag planted earlier tinder fire –was in the interest of Marine Corps public relations. Both groups of men –those who had raised the original, smaller, flag during combat and those who had taken part in the second raising – were repeatedly made to lie about the event, and the second group, not those who had really raised the flag, and Rosenthal, not Lowery, were honored.9 Earlier, and with less consequence, in the American Civil War photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, in Matthew Brady’s employ, is believed to have moved at least one body. By the Spanish-American War of 1898, when news images had routinely (if recently) become photographic, American newsreel photographers were re-creating important scenes such as the taking of San Juan Hill in Cuba or the battle in the harbor below, famously restaged in a bathtub. Audiences were not yet schooled to ask whether the image was a product of the precise event and the precise moment it claimed to represent. Journalistic veracity and, more sophisticatedly, objectivity – the absence of an invested point of view–are concepts born of the early twentieth century, vexed responses of the newspaper industry to the crises of political journalism – particularly war reportage, and particularly in the Spanish-American War.

In early newsreels, meant as entertainment, events such as important prizefights might be restaged for the camera, with painted spectators as backdrop. In the infancy of corporate photography’, which has burgeoned into brochure production, images of manufacturing plants were routinely adjusted to get rid of dirt, clamp, decay, and any other form of intrusive ugliness detracting from the nascent image of the manufactory as one grand machine. And Playboy, airbrushing its nudes in the interest of a more perfect vision of an ideal bedroom appliance, was simply following custom. Commerce and entertainment still provide the most widely accepted rationales for manipulation.

In producing images of proposed buildings, architects not willing to forgo the superior veracity suggested by the photograph might go to Hedrich Blessing,

a photographic firm that pioneered in the stripping together of negatives. They blended images of the architect’s model of his building with others of the pro- posed site so skillfully that clients couldn’t tell they were looking at something Walt Disney’s "Imagineers" might have conjured up. Were the clients fooled? Less than visitors to Disneyland. Not fooling people but selling them was the idea, as in the rest of advertising, where reality is adjusted. Magic-show illusionism done with the proverbial smoke and mirrors helped spur the invention of filmic projection and movies.’2 Daguerre himself was a showman whose business depended on the two– dimensional re-creation of architectonic space (though most likely a space already known, but only through pictorial representation or verbal description) and its "placement" in time through the manipulation of light.3 It can, finally, be argued, as docs the critic Janet Abrams, that all architectural photography fictionalizes because it "prepares one only for the optimum conditions, not just the building newborn, . . . but the building severed neatly from its surroundings, the building always sunbathing ... smiling for the camera.

In the late 198os, while digitizing technology was being developed, there was still a lucrative market niche for spectacularly manipulated images produced in the old-fashioned, in-camera way; photo magazines tended to feature their makers one a month. For example, in 1988 the first issue of Kodak’s high gloss promotional magazine Studio Light, aimed at commercial photographers, led with the "special effects" photography of Kansas City photographer Michael Radencich.’5 Radencich specialized in Star Wars like corporate images, each produced through the use of hand-made table-top (often paper) models and multiple exposures, on a single sheet of Ektachrome 64 Professional Film. Radencich stresses the need for "believability." So much has changed since 1988, not only for image production but for Kodak. which no longer even uses the word "photography" in describing itself. But in the interim, although most such trick photos have become likely to be made without being physically staged, the point to note is that the technology is following a cultural imperative rather than vice versa.

Image Intervention Via Computer

When the National Geographic abridged the space between one pyramid and another on its cover for February 1982, was it betraying its (believing) public? Earlier, I harped on the reading of the pyramids as a symbol of immutability and control. If we move them photographically, are we betraying history? Are we asserting the easy domination of our civilization over all times and all places.

as signs that we casually absorb as a form of loot? For their April 1982 cover, the Geographic adjusted the emblem on a Polish soldier’s hat, importing it from another frame in the photographer’s roll of film. These perhaps inconsequential changes have provoked a small but persistent fuss. The Geographic was using computerized digitizing technology, which converts an image into minuscule "pixels" (a neologisn4 for "picture elements") that can be adjusted at will. To move a pyramid with the use of a computer seems to some more innocent than moving it, say, by stripping negatives or making photomontages, where the brute act of combination requires the handling of materials and their physical separation by cutting, not just the rearrangement of "information." To others it seems, for that very reason, more suspect and dangerous. The Geographic apparently isn’t above rising staged photos, though presumably the staging is done at the initiative of the photographers, not by editorial directive, for the imperative is to get that picture, no excuses. The fact that this occasions small comment underlines the point.

When I described the basics of computer manipulation of photographs to a California law officer in 1988, his immediate response was, "That would mean the end of photographs as evidence." The consequences of undermining the credibility of photographic legal evidence shouldn’t be underestimated, but the issue is more complex than it might appear and is beyond the compass of this article.’8 I consider the matter briefly further on. In journalism – where standards of evidence are more nebulous hut of great interest nonetheless – observers are worried that digitizing technology will be used to "fix up" news photos. Once again, the journalistic profession is attempting to close ranks against overt manipulation in order to protect its reputation and the basis of its license to practice. The fears about digitization center on the ease and availability of digitizing equipment. Such machinery, pioneered by Seated, is part of the equipment used to produce many newspapers and magazines. The controversy centers on news images, since magazines (and feature sections of newspapers, such as food, fashion, and other "lifestyle" or "business" sections) have often made use of set-up images as well as manipulated and retouched photographs. The rationale is that visual appeal and cleanliness (so to speak) of images, not photographic accuracy, are the criteria in these uses. But "interpretive" representations in which elements are literally manipulated – either before or after the photograph is made – are anathema to photojournalists, publicly, at any rate.

Image Control or Information Control?

When a U.S. art critic gave a talk at a photographic "congress" on a well-known artist whose practice was built solely upon appropriated mass media (in fact, advertising) photos, the response was volcanic The audience’s worst nightmares, it seemed, had never thrown up a practice such as the critic described. The proprietary relation of the professional photographers present to their images was made very clear when they threatened physical doom to any artist found appropriating their work. No surprise, then, that they expressed general support for the then-pending Congressional amendment, sponsored by the aggressively right-wing Congressman Jesse Helms of North Carolina, to withhold public funding from art work deemed obscene or otherwise offensive – an initiative that expressed in extreme form the collective Imaginary fear and loathing of artists, and, in fact, of photographers. Of art photographers, that is – the same people

whom professional ("working") photographers fear and loathe (or at least loathe) for their lack of respect for the unmediated image.

I remarked earlier that art photography perpetually defines itself by stressing its distance from the recording apparatus; it often does so by relying on arcane theories of vision and on manipulation of the print, more recently on conceptual or critical-theoretical grounding. In the eyes of professional photographers, this no doubt makes them skill-less charlatans, loose cannons who get rich by fleecing the public. Such professional photographers, fixing their horizon at the level of copyright, are in no position to see that artists’ motivations for appropriating photojournalistic and other workaday photographic images are not so far from their own fears of manipulation; the difference, of course, is that the artists see commercial photography and photojournalism as deeply implicated in the processes of social manipulation while the producers of the images are more likely to see themselves as at the mercy of those who control the process.

Autonomy for each is the underlying theme.

While professional photographers stop at the level of ownership of the image, the future lies with the conversion of the image to ‘information," making photographers, no matter how souped up, chip-laden, automated, and expensive their still cameras are, look like little old’ craftsmen or cowboys, cranky remnants of the old petit bourgeoisie. There’s more to say about photographers, cameras and the nature of their output in the digital age, but that will have to wait until later on in this article. In 1986, American Photographer magazine reported on an effort by a bunch of business-school whiz kids in their newly formed National Digital Corporation (NDC) to create a stock-image hank in digital form. The article treated the effort with suspicion, remarking that (a) the stock-image business is low profit and NDC, while acknowledging that it would represent only a third of their business, declined to specify what the other two-thirds would be, citing only unstated government archives; and (b) several similar hut less ambitious efforts in the early 1980s had already foundered. She concluded:

"The toughest test of the system will not be the technical one, however; it will be whether [it] can win converts in an industry that so far has demonstrated little love for technology beyond the camera. I’ll say. But digitized stock-image banks were inevitable, and again there is more about this later. Interestingly, in her 1986 article Russell makes no mention of the hazards of the loss of control of the image’s visual appearance – that is, of its conversion into information. And, as information (which every hacker, unlike every photographer or every computer and software executive, believes should, by definition, be free), both sellers and buyers will have to pay for access.

Although NDC’s dream of work stations in offices across the country may not yet have been realized, the conversion of stock-photo resources to digitized form is happening very rapidly and frightening many professional photographers. As to the production of print media, every newspaper of any size now has the Scitex-type digitizing technology (despite its considerable cost) in its make-tip room. This increases the likelihood that decisions to alter photos will be made casually, by those liable to slight the niceties of photojournalistic ethics. Presently the primary newspaper use of this technology in respect to images is in adjusting color and "burning and dodging" as in traditional black-and-white darkroom procedures. (The newspaper USA Today tells its photographers what kind of film to use for given situations, regardless of the lighting source, and removes the hues produced by fluorescent lighting by recoloring, which other newspapers do as well). At present, there is increasing use of digitization techniques outside the news section, as in feature stories, especially food and fashion, in which cosmetic techniques of image manipulation, including adjusting the product or the resulting image, have long been accepted. The nightmare of photo-journalists, who remember that W. Eugene Smith quit Life magazine (twice) over its editors’ intention to use some of his photos in ways he didn’t appreciate, is that some editor somewhere will start by adjusting the color or diminishing the clutter in some news image and go on to a career of photographic alteration. Tom Hubbard, in News Photographer magazine, recounts the routine "dialing in" by an engraver of the color blue for a swimming pool photo in the Orange County Register illustrating a story about vandals dyeing the water red (!) Here the change was not editorial but technical and "inadvertent," but it’s just the kind of egregious error that makes photographers and ethicists wince.

Newspaper photo editors, when asked, uniformly reject the retouching or other forms of manipulating photos, claiming that even flopping photos is not allowed, so why would they acquiesce in more pernicious changes? In contrast, U.S. television network executives have been more positive about the possibilities of photo retouching of all sorts (there seem to be no "picture editors" on TV). They describe the removal of elements in photos and footage, such as microphones in front of speakers, or the straightening of presidential candidates’ shoulders (but supposedly not their faces). Nevertheless, as time has passed, supposedly reputable (print-) journalistic outlets have run photomontages (e.g., The New York Times) and even digitally retouched images (e.g., Newsweek and Time29). Formerly less reputable – that is, "tabloid," or sensationalist –publications rely on this technique; they are noted for pasting, say, piglets’ heads on babies’ bodies. Interestingly, in this same period, the distance between tabloid and so-called legitimate media has drastically diminished. Photojournalists and even newspaper picture editors are still interested in obtaining assurances from management that they won’t do what the editors of the Geographic (and of Newsweek’s puff series on various countries called "A Day in the Life of 30) have seen fit to do, which is to "improve" their pictures for the sake of conceptual accuracy, aesthetic pleasure, formatting, hucksterism, and so forth. Yet they are well aware that photographs have been subject to change, distortion, and misuse since the beginning of photographic time. The simplest misrepresentation of a photograph is its use out of context. The most remarked-on examples of this pertain, of course, to political instances and prominently feature examples related to \var. War photographers Susan Meiselas and Harry Mattison have exhibited photos of theirs (about atrocities in El Salvador and events in Nicaragua) that they claim had been clearly labeled but that have been intentionally misused by journalistic outlets, with lies about what is being shown, when, who did it, and what it "means."

Hard Evidence

Photographic exhibits of documentary evidence provide another arena of exploitation. Senator Joseph McCarthy made liberal use of "damning" photographs and charts in his anti-Communist crusade, and in one celebrated instance – captured in Emile Dc Antonio and Daniel Talbot’s wonderful film Point of Order! (1963) – the exposure of McCarthy’s use of a cropped photo provided a vehicle for his discrediting during the 1953 Army-McCarthy hearings.

My favorite variety of lying through the presentation of a photographic exhibit is the photo of mysterious cargo as used, for example, by President Ronald Reagan in exposing the public via television to a blurry photo of "Nicaraguan Sandinista official Tom Borge loading drugs" (cocaine) onto or unloading them from a small plane on an obscure airstrip in "Nicaragua." This line of evidence is one of the CIA disinformation mill’s favorites. Blurry aerial photos, virtually incomprehensible without decoding, were used to very powerful effect the Cuban Missile Crisis. It seems that no matter how much we don’t believe the media, such exhibits always give doubters pause. Maybe.

Years ago, writer Susan Sontag expressed righteous anger over the political manipulation of photographs by Chinese authorities. Her cases in point included the removal of the suddenly hated Chang Ching from a venerated image of Mao on the Long March. Such maneuvers point to the authoritarian manipulative-ness of the regime, but they appear most of all to be a neatening up of historical representations having a largely ceremonial function, in a society unlikely to base its conceptions of social meaning on photography quite the ways ours does. In a widely noted example – one more recent and closer to home – of the misuse of an apparently straightforward documentary photograph early in the Reagan administration, Secretary of State Alexander Haig waved a photo of a body on fire, calling it an image of a Miskito Indian being burned after a Sandinista massacre and citing it as evidence of Sandinista brutality. In fact, this photo, which he obtained from a right-wing French magazine, was of a body being burned by Red Cross workers – who were cropped out of the photo – during the uprising against the dictator Anastasio Somoza.32 Haig meant the image to be decisive in rallying support for the still secret war in Nicaragua. In this instance the original photo could be located, and perhaps its negative.

In digitization, there may be no original, no negative – only copies, only "information." Certainly, as the image emerges from digitization, it is not via a negative; the final image has no negative. Perhaps even more troublesome is the fact that electronic still cameras (produced by several Japanese manufacturers such as Canon, Sony, and Fuji,33 with others promised from other manufacturers) can bypass the production of film, negatives, and prints and feed



their information directly into a computer. Once in the computer, it is more likely that technicians rather than photographers or editors will monitor the fate of those images.

If we want to call up hopeful or positive uses of manipulated images, we must choose images in which manipulation is itself apparent, and not just as a form of artistic reflexivity but to make a larger point about the truth value of photographs and the illusionistic elements in the surface of (and even the definition of) "reality." I don’t mean a generalized or universal point alone but one about

particular, concrete situations and events ... Here we must make the requisite bow to Brecht’s remark about the photo of the exterior of the Krupp works not attesting to the conditions of slavery within. The origins of photomontage as an aesthetic-political technique are not certain, but the Dadaists used it to disrupt the smooth, seamless surface of quotidian urban existence. Before them, Soviet constructivists used them to suggest the nearness of the just society and the complexity of social relations. Drawing in some respects upon their example, the German photomontagist John Heartfield still provides an unsurpassed example of political photomontage. In the 1930s, Heartfield, employing painstaking techniques and a sizable staff, produced photomontages with integral texts for the left-wing mass-circulation magazine Arbeiter-Illrtstrierte Zeitung (Worker Illustrated Journal), or AIZ. In every photomontage was the implicit message that photography alone cannot "tell the truth" and also the reminder that fact itself is a social construction. This is not meant to deny that photographs provide some sort of evidence, only to suggest that the truth-value of photography is often overrated or mislocated.

The Digitization Market

Digitization techniques, based on previously developed, more direct forms of image manipulation, are pervasive in commercial fields of visual illustration. They are used in the production of television commercials, music videos, and still image advertisements (which may or may not he based on traditionally produced photographs) and are the backbone of "desktop publishing." Digitization and still-video imaging are finding new corporate uses in financial, training, sales, and marketing presentations. In medicine, digitized imaging, particularly in conjunction with CAT scans and ultrasound, has produced a new type of representation of bodily innards. Ultrasound imaging, particularly of developing fetuses, is now widely recognizable, and this potent representation has been of use to antiabortion forces. For the home market – interested not in strict accuracy but in prestige-enhancing aesthetic values, in landscape, tourism, and above all in portraiture – ordinary color labs now may purchase an Agfa CRT printer (still in limited production) that offers image enhancement in making prints from slides, from the increase of sharpness and reduction of grain to the removal of "unwanted features, such as shadows."

Most of these applications are bound up with the capability of producing still images in printable form from a computerized image. Digitization is also used to produce computerized simulations of the movement of vehicles and people through landscapes, real and imaginary. The TV networks make increasing use of elaborate simulations, such as animated footage of the bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1982 or projections of Star Wars battle engagements or crashes of commercial airliners – for anything relating to death and danger, whether immediately grisly or simply military. The increasing acceptance of the image field as composed of fragments or overlays means that the public has no trouble understanding cockpit images with data overlays, as in footage from the Persian Gulf War of 1991. The temptation to reproduce the video-arcade experience is apparently as high in the network newsroom as in the military planning suite (where video games are already used not only in military simulations) but in recruitment).

Motion Simulation, Moving Simulations

Likely to upset the apple cart of earlier forms of representation is the complex digitized simulation that goes under the name ‘virtual reality" (coined by Jaron Lanier, deposed head of VPL Research Inc. of California, a prime promoter and developer of the technique). In 1990 former psychotropic drug promoter Timothy Leary appeared on CBS’s 6o Minutes television program to tout virtual reality’s potentials. Like many amusement–park experiences, virtual reality has caught the public’s imagination before it is particularly well developed or widely available. While some computer software makers are working on "rendering" programs that xviii allow nonexistent objects to be represented from all angles, virtual reality developers are attempting to create the illusion of a physically present environment, through which one may feel oneself moving, touching, seeing, and otherwise sensing things. Virtual reality is meant to allow people to feel as if they are actually immersed in another time or place or even personality (a husband or a frog, writes ‘Frish Hall in the New York Times, or Ronald Reagan, or Elvis Presley or a bag lady, to quote a promoter cited in the same article)4 This promise of voyeurism is not a startling discontinuity with previous fantasy vehicles that embody a desire to be or see and feel as others might. (Calling this empathy might be going too far. Instead, it seems more appropriate to call upon the cultural critiques, such as those that build upon the work of the Frankfurt School or even Marshall MeLuhan, which emphasize the numbness engendered by modern life and the desperate search to return meaning to individual existence through the consumption of simulations.)

Such simulations can have other uses than learning to play at war or to "forget yourself." Times Square, a 15-minute computer animation made in 1985 by Peter Bosselmaun, the director of the Environmental Simulation Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, was intended to demonstrate that the essential experience of New York City’s Times Square–an area that is an emblematic for tourism, one of the city’s most vital "industries" – would be lost if plans for its redevelopment proceeded unmodified. His technique, which used still photos and harks back to the stripping of photos of architects’ models into photos of real locales, was similarly intended to project a future space or experience, but with differing intent: It has its eye on public policy, not ecstasy or sales. A discussion of Bosselmaun’s film in the New Yorker mentions that the environmental-impact statement for the proposed Times Square redevelopment cost close to a million dollars to prepare whereas Bosselmaun’s simulation cost (only) twenty-five thousand dollars. On the other hand, Bosselmaun was reportedly following a trail blazed by Hollywood special-effects developers. Movement through a landscape is just the sort of thing that military strategists want to develop intensively – and will be quite pleased to have artists, urban planners, Hollywood, independent studios, and anyone else do the advance work for thenv One of the most popular and relatively inexpensive recreation programs, and one of the most important, albeit expensive, work-training programs,



has been the flight simulator. The military has helped develop 3D virtual reality type helmets that enable pilots to experience some form of alternate space conjured up on the basis of their more complete sensory immersion, and such devices likely played a role in the Persian Gulf War.

Computer animation techniques have been used to combine photographic and drawn imagery in films, such as Disney’s Tron (1982). After the popular apocalypto-shoot-’em-up Terminator(1991) used an advanced computer-animated image-metamorphosis technique, it was featured so heavily in television commercials that its novelty value was quickly exhausted. The TV news-directors who were enthusiastic about light retouching of non-facial stills also claimed to have produced simulated moving footage of political personalities, but never to have put such simulations on the air. In an instance of non–news simulation of dead personalities – or, one should say, of "icons" – in the six minute videotape Rendezvous & Mon Lr~al (1987) Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe were computer animated, although the characters, based on small sculptural models, are blatant caricatures and their movements and voices bizarrely unlifelike, lawyers for the Bogart estate have reportedly threatened to sue tile videotape’s makers, Nadia Magnenat-Thalmaun and Daniel Thalmaun. The Thalmans’, who operate under the nom de computation The Human Factory, were computer instructors at the University of Montreal business school at the time they produced this and similar animations. Their ventures have been funded by the Quebec provincial government and a number of institutions and corporations from Kodak to Bell Canada and Northern Telecom. Daniel Thalmaun, according to the Dallas Morning News, has said, "I think that within five years, one won’t be able to tell the difference between a real person on film and one created by tile Human Factory," and, "Soon, a film may no longer be accepted as proof that something happened." The first question we might ask is, under what circumstances is a film acceptable now as proof that something happened? The Morning News also quotes Daniel Thalmaun as claiming that "you won’t need real people any more

Actors could be out of a job The second question to ask is, when can a film be taken as displaying "real people"? These are not empty questions. As Thalmaun’s remarks suggest, the discussion of the effects of computerization on modern society tends to bifurcate: either the concern is with the reception of computerized images and the effects on society as a whole, or it is with the impact of computerization on production and the experience of labor – the classic split between production and consumption, in which the latter is universalized and the former demoted, at best to a technicality and at worst to an inconvenience. Jean Baudrillard dismisses George Orwell’s vision of the video screen as Big Brother surveillance monitor because, following Hans Magnus Enzensberger (with whom he agrees about nothing else), he notes that television has already prevented people from talking to one another – so there is no possibility of significant subversion to monitor. "There is no need to imagine it as a state periscope spying on everyone’s private life – the situation as it stands is more efficient than that: it is the certainty that people are no longer speaking to each other, that they are definitively isolated in the fact of a speech without response."

Computerization and the Processes of Labor

The development of digital image-processing techniques will most immediately affect the stasis of those who work with still images–particularly photographers. as I suggested earlier, it opens the way for a further loss of relative autonomy for the professional photographer, who may become, like the ‘IV news-camera operator, merely a link in the electronic chain of command. Kodak is marketing a sensor capable of high-resolution digital imaging that couples with a conventional Nikon F3 camera body. This device, selling for about $ 2o,ooo, captures images easily transmissible by satellite or wire, making the still photographer part of the "electronic newsroom." According to Fortune, in 1989 a CNN photographer using a similar device bypassed censors by surreptitiously sending an image of a Tiananmen Square demonstrator via telephone. But there is a wider application for computerization than image conversion, and the computer’s effects on work apply far beyond the bounds of photography.

Consider some of the effects of computerization on work in general – both the changed nature of the work itself and new hazards associated with it, both physical and personal, such as loss of autonomy in the work process and loss of privacy because of monitoring. Computerization is well entrenched in productive labor (nonoffice) processes, in the form of machine shop computer control applications and sophisticated three-dimensional drafting and modeling. Computer-enhanced imaging has also altered the face of the graphics industry, turning graphic artists into computer operators. This has wrought changes not only in the types and level of skills (and capitalization) such artists require but also in the nature and locale of their work. Virtually all computer jobs (despite Baudrillard’s assertion about the television set, which he considers as the site of reception, not production) also contain the possibility of absolute and effortless surveillance, as well as ever-expanding forms of Taylorism – time-and-motion "study" or efficiency-expert management. Since computers have the inherent ability to monitor all work done on them, the number of key4trokes per hour of computer operators can be effortlessly monitored, or surveyed. And it is, as all observers have reported.

A large proportion of workers affected by computerization – and monitoring –are women, so-called "pink-collar workers." The women’s clerical workers’ union 9 to 5 began reporting on health problems associated with video display terminals in the 1970S and has more recently considered the issues

associated with monitoring. By the 198os, concern about hazards associated with computer use among workers (now including white-collar workers, including those in the news room-i.e., reporters) was so widespread that Congress looked into it.

The hazards of the machinery are in some ways like and in other ways quite unlike those posed by earlier types of machinery developed since the industrial Revolution. Reporters, for example, are most worried about carpal-tunnel syndrome or repetitive strain injury (keyboard-related injuries resulting from repetitive motion) and other health effects more than about surveillance, since the story, not the keystroke, is their measure of productivity. The Newspaper Guild has been studying VDTs since the early 197os, but the repetitive strain injuries, which are more characteristic of industrial labor (and even of such activities as hand knitting), were an overlooked-for effect and result from keyboard use, not from the video display terminals, or VDTs.

Meanwhile, new fears among computer users have arisen over the potential hazards of electromagnetic emissions from the terminals. This is consequent on the more general reawakening of concern over extremely low frequency (ELF) magnetic fields generated by an electrical sources, including high-voltage power lines but also all household appliances, from toasters to TVs. The computer magazine Mac World broached the subject of physical hazards, including the dangers of ELF and the more widely attended to VLF, or very low frequency, range (to 6o kilohertz). The magazine, which featured a discussion by New Yorker staff writer Paul Brodeur, a tireless writer on the subject, also editorialized ‘forcefully for accountability from the computer industry that provides its bread and butter. Consideration of the validity of widely reported negative effects of VLF and ELF radiation on eyesight, reproduction, and other bodily functions is beyond the scope of this article. While most public attention to computer hazards has centered on such physical effects, especially those on female reproductive processes, the monitoring function of computerized workplaces has been lost on no one. In 1987, in "‘Big Brother’ in the Office," Newsweek wrote: "Warning:

your computer may be watching you. For many American workers that’s not just a paranoid fantasy. Last week the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) reported that computers are being used to keep tabs on as many as 6 workers, from government employees to bank tellers. ... ‘It’s Big Brother at its worst,’ says Democratic Rep. Don Edwards of Cal...... ‘Just because you get a job: says Edwards, ‘doesn’t mean you lose your constitutional rights.’ "Barbara Garson demonstrates in her book The Electronic Sweatshop that "word processing" has brought about new forms of deekilling (to use Harry Braverman’s word). Workers in her study, secretaries - are reduced to performers of single, repetitive tasks. Garson claims that IBM sold employers on the idea that word-processing was not just a way to get more work out of secretaries – it offered management the possibility of redefining the jobs of both secretaries and all-but-top-level bosses so that more work could be gotten out of both of them. Secretaries, ‘IBM pointed out, need not be "freed to do more important things" than typing; instead, a new job category of word processor would allow people, primarily women, to be removed from their offices and put in "pools," where they would do nothing but operate word processors all day, and their relationship (of who knows what complex and anti-productivist character) with individual bosses would be severed. Carson notes that this also enables the productivity of the bosses to be monitored, since they are the ones providing the words to be processed.

In fact, as I have suggested, most jobs performed using VDTs are subject to such surveillance, and everyone who works with one quickly finds that out, whether it is actually applied to them or not; the chilling effects are obvious. For example, a Rutgers university memo of July 1985 to "deans, directors, department heads, and others" VDTs responded to requests for information on the health effects of VDTs. Sixth and last on the list was stress: studies showed "workers experienced stress over their concerns about the possibility of almost constant surveillance

Although guidelines were offered "to reduce or eliminate pain, strain and stress, surveillance had vanished from consideration. To consider for a moment the effects of computer surveillance of a different sort on a younger, unpaid set, I heard a radio reporter quote an education specialist enthusiastically describing primary education in the twenty-first century, when the home computer would be hooked up to the school’s, and each pupil’s progress could be charted at every moment; utopia or hell?

To return to the graphics industry, which may soon be barely distinguishable from the photographic industry: Computerization reduces the number of technologies involved in production and allows the work force to be dispersed, with the work often done in the artists’ own homes which might he in Asia. This reversion to "home work" (not in the school sense but as the term has been used in sweated industries like garment production) fragments the labor force, making not only conversation but solidarity close to impossible, producing a more docile group of piece workers, who as independent contractors also generally lose all their non-wage benefits, such as health insurance, paid vacations, sick leave, and pensions. The ability to work at home is often treated as a social advance, but in most discussions the people affected are executive or managerial in rank; the effects on lower level or shop-floor employees are slighted, if not celebrated for producing labor peace. In arguing for the repeal of labor laws that prohibit piece work, the defense of these new forms of homework for production workers has been disingenuously couched in terms of rural or small-town crafts-women sewing for a living while tending the homestead.

The Culture of Simulation

The decline of industrial labor and its system of valuation and work-force organization (and self-organization), and the development of a culture whose common currency is the production of images and signs, constitutes the burden of Baudrillard’s arguments about simulation, which have provided so much grist for contemporary critical mills. Yet, as with Baudrillard’s precursor and intellectual mentor Marshall McLuhan, recognition of the media’s power to flatten both experience and difference has led to capitulation or (more in the case of Baudrillard than McLuhan) to cynicism. Baudrillard, with many followers, believes that truth is no longer an issue, since all signs are interchangeable. He writes that, for example, the subject of every single thing that appears on television is "you": "‘YOU are news, you are the social, the event is you, you are involved, you can use your voice, etc.’ ... No more violence or surveillance; only ‘information,’ secret virulence, chain reaction, slow implosion, and simulacra of spaces where the real-effect again comes into play.’ "The problem with such totalizing pessimism is that it provides an adequate description of neither causes nor real-life experiences. It remains a fantasy of power of those implicated in the system of production of signification. Yet we cannot dismiss the tendencies toward "implosion" of meaning and the difficulty of distinguishing the real

from the artificial that Baudrillard describes, following a line of thinkers that includes not just McLuhan but Frankfurt School cultural critics Adomno and Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin, as well as Gunther Andlers and the French situationists, notably Guy Debord. In 1967 Debord opened Part I, "Separation Perfected," of his immensely influential book La Society~ du spectacle with the following quotation: "But certainly for the present age which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence, ... illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness." This quotation is from Ludwig Feuerbach’s preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity, published in German in 1841. Fenerbach’s remark is taken as an early diagnosis of a trend that has since become all-pervasive. Well, then, what shall we think about computer-processed imagery, which may indeed produce copies with no "original," and about its relation to photographic documentation?

Earlier I invoked the pyramids and the cultural transactions involved in photographing them and electronically adjusting their placement on the land. In Jean-Luc Godard’s anti-imperialist, anti-war movie Les Carahinieres, the main characters, tattered simpletons named something like Michelangelo and Raphael (not after the turtles), return home to their wives after a grotesque national military adventure. "We bring you all the treasures of the world," they proclaim, opening a suitcase and pulling out card after card picturing monuments and wonders. In 1992, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced a plan to photograph 200 "cultural and natural wonders of the world and to make the images "instantly available worldwide through digital transmission according to the New York Times. This UNESCO adventure, called Project Patrimoine 2001, is backed financially by the immensely rich La Caixa Foundation (supported by Barcelona’s municipal pension funds), which donated ~140 million for the first year.’ ‘Technical services will be provided by Kodak, France Telecom, and the Gamma photo agency. Selected sites, to be recorded with "scientific comprehensiveness and artistic beauty" in mind, will come from a UNESCO list of so-called world heritage sites. The idea is to make images of such treasures as Angkor-Wat or the Seychelles Islands turtles, before, according to the Times, "they are further damaged by war or the environment." On a lesser scale, there are moves afoot in various cities, such as New York, to require that buildings slated for demolition be photographed beforehand (by process unspecified). One wonders whether proponents of such measures know that such cataloguing was one of the earliest governmentally mandated uses of photography, as in Thomas Annan’s documentation of slum sections of old Glasgow in the i86os and i8~os before demolition, the photographing of old Paris by Charles Marville in the i86os before the implementation of Baron Haussmann’s monumental boulevard plan – or the self-appointed documenter of "old Paris" at the turn of the twentieth century, Eugene Atget. The relation to Godard’s carabineers needs no further explication but what of the idea of "capturing" something photographically and transmitting it in a medium that implies mutation and change? Of what value, precisely, will be the record assembled?

Perhaps it is time to return to the questions I raised about computer animator Daniel Thalmaun’s remarks namely, when can we ever take film or photos to

represent real events or real people? Earlier I referred to the endangerment by digitization of one of photography’s quotidian uses, that of the provision of courtroom evidence. Granted, with respect to publishing, all publishers of whatever size should be assumed to be in possession of image-processing equipment and all publications to be produced by one computerized process or another. But these elements of the labor process are not prominent in the public consciousness. What will affect public attitudes, however, are imaging products soon to be available for the mass market. Companies are devoting a great deal of attention to developing such products of acceptable cost. These will likely provide customers with multiple possibilities for viewing, from "hard copies" to television-screen images, and the information will be stored in a variety of ways–on video disks, tape, or most likely compact disks. Images will be manipulable with varying degrees of ease. As the public becomes used to the idea of the image as data in flux, the believability of photographic images – the common assumption that a photo is true unless shown to be otherwise – will likely wane. (But we have also to acknowledge that outside the judicial process [one hopes the perverse tenacity of the will to fantasy, the fantasy that sells the National Enquirer, the Weekly World News, and People magazine images we have discussed, fantasy which requires the suspension of belief about the provenance of photos that marked the beginning of the era of published photographic imagery.)

It is in any case simplistic to assume that processes of fact finding and adjudication through evidence are what drive the judicial process. In fact, as most people realize, the judicial system might better be viewed as a theater in which the adversaries deploy props and variously encoded arguments. At present lawyers, particularly in accident and negligence cases, like using videotapes showing accident scenes and sufferers; such videotapes frequently short circuit the judicial procedure by leading to pretrial settlements with insurance companies. Computerized simulations, however, such as the movements through a landscape that I described earlier as in use for the military, are gaining favor with lawyers as the technology for producing such "forensic animations" improves and the cost of producing them drops. Here, perhaps, it is easier to see that the "document" is in reality a text or an argument.

Still, there are social costs associated with the radical delegitimation of photography. Although such delegitimation would make it more difficult for State officials to wave photos around as evidence of this or that, clearly it also diminishes the public circulation of communications of factuality. The development of a politically active citizenry depends on the ability to receive and communicate information about events and situations not directly experienced, including the experiences of others. Even without the collapse of photographic legitimacy, merely reproducing documentary images can rarely mobilize or even, perhaps, inform. Without an adequate discussion of the context and meaning of the social relations represented, such images cannot work, unless the audience already shares certain presumptions about "what things mean."6~ Like the photo of the Krupp works, such documents are accurate but insufficient. The question, then, is not whether to manipulate images but how and also bow to rise them straight to "tell the truth."

The confusion of style with substance is fostered by any situation that allows advertising to be integrated into its fabric and format. The increasing commercialization of everyday life continues to blur the boundaries between objective evidence, informed knowledge, prejudicial opinion, and sheer fiction. The

syndrome represented by a huckster claiming "I’m not a doctor, but I play one on FV" does not end there. Just as "public relations" was invented early in the twentieth century to mimic and exploit the printed news release, and, more recently, U.S. children’s cartoon shows have been developed as marketing vehicles for new toys, television now can boast ads that appear to be programs. Such "infomercials" or "program length commercials," or PLC’s, copy television formats closely. They represent an interesting but ominous crossing of genre boundaries. It is important to note that the simulation at issue is not computerized but based on old-fashioned mimicry. Jeffrey Chester and Kathryn Montgomery, in "Counterfeiting the News," describe a news like show on violent crime that was actually an ad for a stun gun, a "consumer-advocacy show" that hawked sunglasses, a "legal-action hotline" that featured lawyers who paid to be listed.

"A growing number of these commercials," they continue, "are disguising themselves as news." (They also provide revenue for stations that would otherwise have to pay to fill the slots they occupy with "real" programs.) Such programs were banned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the early 1970S because of viewer complaints, but the ban was lifted under the Reagan FCC’s deregulation. The possibility exists that vigilant viewers and groups can push back this particular form of simulation once again, just as it seems likely that advocates for children’s programming can curb toy-based cartoons in the U.S. It is always necessary but also often effective to push back.

Although John Kamp, director of public affairs for the FCC, says that "under existing rules, there’s no such thing as excess commercialization," Jeffrey Marks, chair of the Ethics Committee of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, remarks: "We’ve made the news interesting to a lot of people [by showing "soft news" to increase ratings and raised the production values, so in a sense news became as glitzy as commercials. Now the reverse is happening." The news profession, of course, is upset that actors who appear to be news personnel will destroy the credibility of the news, a process that is already under way, and for somewhat different reasons. Yet, like the use of the political press release by newspapers and television, short "segments" on health produced by – surprise! –manufacturers of health products are regularly and seamlessly inserted into local news programs without either newsroom distress or acknowledgment.

The pressure of cable television, which has developed in the climate of de-regulation, and of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox television network, has resulted in "tabloid television," featuring sensationalist exploitation as well as simulations of news events, on the one hand, and the theatricalization of actual events, such as police raids, on the other. (The opener of Fox’s program, Cops, shows real police on real raids taking real captives, cut to a rap song called Bad Boys.) But the presentation of grisly "actualities," harking back to the beginning of cinema (and to the sensationalist newspaper tabloids flourishing by then), is also represented by the mid-i97os’ network broadcasts of open-heart surgery. In a related matter, few have bothered to question the long-standing involvement of television stations in law enforcement through their Crime Stoppers campaigns, which have spawned the burgeoning "America’s most wanted" audience-participation shows. In 1991 a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News discovered that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had made an unpublicized deal to release the additions to its list of the "most wanted" directly to America’s Most Wanted (Fox) and to Unsolved Mysteries (NBC) before any other outlet.

The intertwining of law enforcement and reportage puts journalism in a tenable relation to the State a fact that apparently bothers almost no one. Indeed, such shows have become the model for much of the rest of television programming and have markedly affected even the more legitimate varieties of television joumnalism.

The difference between the presentation of open-heart surgery and police raids, then, is the difference between a certain prurience expressed as scientific curiosity and an implicit identification with the police powers of the State. This is dangerous to any polity and points yet again to the decline of a public sphere standing resolutely apart from the interests of the State. The traditional adversarial relation of press and State, let alone standards of fairness or objectivity, attenuates under these circumstances. It does so as well when the press positions itself as an unabashed conduit of government pronominceients and positions, as it always does in wartime as in the Gulf War, where the government’s own images and control of images and language – were paramount. Although in photos of Saddam Hussein his mustache was cropped to resemble Hitler’s, and the usual stories and images depicting him as a baby killer were circulated, this was compared with the totality of the government onslaught on the autonomy of the press. Control over information in this war, represented as being the one most intensively "visualized" to date by press images, was as great as it was in the days when the English Lord Kitchener threatened to shoot any reporter found on the battlefront. The principle of using a flood of controlled information to bombard the sense out of the populace was well applied. In the CNN war, instant replay of cockpit video images forestalled analysis; the simulation environment overlaid and observed reality – the brute facts of bombs falling on and killing people that constituted "collateral damage." (But this too was simply the latest step in the technological vision of war as a hardware – and now software – contest.) On a more mundane level, "infotainment" is whizzing along like a bullet train, blurring the landscape outside. Although comments on cultural and technological developments, such as those in this article are soon outdated by the pace of change, it is worth noting the current rage for "multimedia." Multimedia, one may surmise, is envisioned as an educational answer to the video game, but it is another heavily commodified simulation in which the continuity of a historical text or narrative is fragmented by vicarious excurses into other simulated or recorded byways. Post-structuralists take note. Rapid advances in digitization and other computer technologies will continue to alter modes of information delivery in specialized and general rises and will certainly transform not only photography but also the television, telephone, and personal computer industries. The present article is a palimpsest of arguments configured to conform to questions posed by the state of computerization of photography and other images. When I began writing in 1988, Kodak was still a "photo" company making ad marketing film, and the professional photography establishment was worrying about digitization of photos. As I write in 1995, digitization is taken for granted, and interest centers on the new, miniaturized digitization devices for photographers such as were used at the Olympics; on data compression that enables the transmission of digital video images by telephone (presently, fiber optic) lines or other modes of transmission and on the tremendously important contest of corporations as this field becomes increasingly Irionopolistic and internationalized; and encryption. In the first instance, tiny portable monitors and scanners return some measure of control in the field

to the photographer. In the second, digitization and, importantly, compression, of video images may well make broadcast television obsolete; the Supreme Court has granted the myriad Baby Bell phone companies the right to transmit video, in a service called "video dial tone," and as I revise this in 1995, the U.S. Congress is in the process of handing industry a new omnibus telecommunications bill that gives them all their hearts’ desires and allows industries formerly barred from various types of transmission activities to enter into them. In the third instance, the transmission of images, and indeed of other data, has opened the possibility of tampering, so that corporate senders have urgently developed highly complex, virtually unbreakable, forms of encryption. But the government is opposing such encryption, because it does not wish to allow any entity to transmit data it cannot intercept and monitor at will. Meanwhile, the computer industry seeks resuscitation, searching desperately for a new industry-transformative device, whether it be keyboardless, cable-free or even wearable computers.

The Larger Picture

These are the contexts for the manipulation of still photographs. In sum, concerns about manipulation center on political, ethical, judicial, and other legal issues (such as copyright), as well as the broader ideological ramifications of how a culture deploys "evidence" it has invested with the ability to bear ("objective") witness irrespective of the vicissitudes of history and personality. Complications posed by questions of reception, such as those raised by post-structuralist critics and philosophers, have themselves fueled a pessimism about the ability to communicate meaning (let alone "truth"). Nevertheless, as I’ve already indicated, it seems unreasonable to conclude that meaning cannot be communicated, let alone that "the photograph as evidence of anything is dead," to denote the Whole Earth Review’s slightly hysterical discussion of digitized photography. To be sure, newspapers, photographers, and governments should be enjoined, formally or informally, from changing elements of photographs that are presented as evidence of anything at all; but the idea of the photograph as raw evidence is one with a rather short history, and the erection of Potemkin villages for politics or entertainment neither began nor will end with the electronic manipulation of photographic imagery.

That is not to say that an era characterized by certain beliefs and cultural practices is not passing in the West. A more general cultural delegitimization than the questioning of photographic truth is at work in the industrial societies. This delegitimnization is as much a product of political failure as of in large societies, and it entails the declining faith in the project of modernity and its religion of "progress." In describing its material basis (though not in its totalized conclusions), Debord was surely correct to locate the genesis of ‘the society of the spectacle" ill the process of capitalist industrial production and the dominance of the commodity form despite Baudrillard’s attempted correction of Debord’s theory to the interchangeability of commodity’s signs.

There are productive aspects to the adoption of a skeptical relation to information provided by authorities. The real danger as evidenced by the mass willingness of Americans to take refuge from uncertainty in the utterances of their leaders regardless of the plethora of evidence contradicting them as political; it is the danger that people will choose fantasy, and fantasy identification with power, over a threatening or intolerably dislocating social reality

The highly consequential "Rodney King beating case" of 1991-92 provides an instructive reminder of the way that evidence is received. In that instance, the evidence videotape appeared to afford a "candid," irrefutable peep at unwarrantedly brutal police behavior and was so judged by the court of media opinion. The ability of such evidence to persuade those left unconvinced by generations of firsthand verbal reports of police violence is a reminder that there is still a cultural inclination to treat photographic evidence as objective. But to the surprise of many, in the courtroom it was adjudged simply to show the legitimate exercise of police power, to use the common phrase. Although the cultural reception of nonprofessional video (labeled "amateur video" when broadcast) has privileged the apparatus over the operator and thus generally taken its testimony as unimpeachable (home videotapers are assumed not to be invested with the skill, the interest, or the wherewithal to alter the material), the meaning of what we see is not in what we see but in what we/it "mean/s." Truth isn’t necessarily taken to be empirically demonstrable; when those who are asked to judge must pass judgment on the police or the State, many will choose allegiance to the police and the State over specific evidence of misconduct. Put more simply, we seem likely to forgive those in power for abusing it as long as we don’t identify personally with the abused.

As always, social meanings and their perception are not fully determined by the technologies used in their production but rather are circumscribed both by wider hegemonic ideological practices and by the practices and traditions of those who oppose them. If material conditions need to be redescribed, more painstakingly and in novel forms, in order to be reinvested with "believability," then we can surely develop the forms and the means of dissemination to do so. A cautionary note, however, is that it is only those committed to rationality who make political or any decisions on the basis of rational criteria. Unfortunately, in the United States and surely elsewhere the corporatization of what has come to be known as the information superhighway means that just as the gulf between those rich and those poor in monetary resources is yawning wider, the gulf between those information rich and information poor is also widening, threatening to convert democracy into demagogic rule. These developments, not the structure of the photographic image, remain the main challenge to civilization.