The Byzantine Iconoclasts wanted to destroy images in order to abolish meaning and the representation of God. Today we are still iconoclasts, but in an opposite way : we kill the images by an overdose of meaning. – Baudrillard
Like most people, I found out about the policeman pepper-spraying the student protesters at UC Davis, California, via the images of the event.
As the website Sociological Images told us: ‘images and videos of the pepper spraying incident have flooded the internet. One video has received over 1.7 million views on Youtube; another shorter clip has almost 1 million’.
The event became over-powered and replaced by the mediation of it. Without the initial photograph, and then its reproduction online, we might not think of the pepper spray incident as important at all.
The Scientific American was impressed by this process:
‘When U.C. Davis police officer Lt. John Pike pepper-sprayed a line of student protesters last Friday, his actions were recorded in replicate. Dozens of cameras captured video and still images, and soon swarms of photographs seeped across the internet. If there was ever a more-recorded single event in history, I am not aware of it. Yet, from the cloud of pepper-spray photographs, one has come to dominate. It is this image, taken by Davis psychology student Louise Macabitas, from the west side of the blocked path:
- A low perspective elevates Pike’s head above the crowd, leaving an indelible impression of dominance & authority.
- Pike is in mid-stride, adding motion to a still image, and the outward-pointed foot puts the Casual in the “casually pepper-spray everything” meme.
- Pike’s face is visible, more so than in images taken from a higher angle.
- The spray itself is unmistakable in silhouette.
- Every person is identifiable as either Police, Onlooker, or Protester. The story tells itself.
- See that police officer back-right? His stance, and his high head, reinforce a detached arrogance on the part of the police.
- The expressions of the onlookers- at least not those in the standing paparazzi- convey a mix of surprise and disbelief.
Leaving politics and sociology aside, the image compels on its own merits. It is at once both complex and simple. There is a lot to look at, but each element adds into the same narrative. As Megan Garber notes:
…the photo’s narrative is built into its imagery. It depicts not just a scene, but a story. It requires of viewers very little background knowledge; even more significantly, it requires of them very few political convictions.
A remarkable image. I hope that eventually Ms. Macabitas receives due recognition for it’.
I find it fascinating how the imagery of this moment of police violence has been taken and separated from the event and analysed as a photograph, as a work of art. It’s not the first time this has happened of course. This incredible photo from the Vietnam war in 1972 featuring the naked girl Kim Phuc, won a Pullitzer prize for the photographer, Nick Ut. It has featured in many books, galleries and museums since. But the Kim Phuc photo was also used to publicise the horrors of the Vietnam war. It became an emblem of the anti-war movement. Does the pepper spray photo have a similar, political value? The writers at Sociological Images think it does: ‘I think this meme is itself a form of visual protest. The variations on the original image reinforce the perception that the police officer’s actions were inappropriate and an abuse of power. The use of famous scenes and works of art creates a cartoonish depiction of inequality and injustice, of someone using their power unjustly against those who obviously have less power — children, kittens, the unemployed, etc. (via the Pepper Spraying Cop tumblr)’.
I am not so sure. The sophisticated social media internet, which is dominated by what I call the ‘tumblr generation’, means the relationship between ‘reality’ and ‘representation’ has transformed in recent years. Baudrillard’s early 90s take on this, well before the internet got underway, was incredibly controversial at the time, partly because he used the Gulf War (1991) to illustrate his point. But I think his ideas hold true today:
‘For Baudrillard thinks that language has broken free from its moorings and now proliferates out of control. The best one can do is show how every proposition can be shown to be no more true than its opposite. The ‘evidence’ of the Gulf War taking place can also ‘prove’ the opposite. That what took place was not a war at all, but something else — the spectacle of a massacre. Or that the ‘place’ that the war ‘took’ for those of us who watched it on TV was an imaginary place, an orientalist fantasy of mad Arabs and imperial splendour. The war took the space of our televisual imaginations.’
Now our ‘televisual imaginations’ have been replaced by internet imaginations, and through the endless production and reproduction of ‘memes’, the possibilities for art/photography/film to have political meaning I think has lessened. As I said here at Death At The Mall before:
‘It is in this age of ‘meaninglessness’, and ‘kitchified…tragedies’ that the internet ‘meme’ has flourished, particularly, unsurprisingly, on tumblr. The UK riots were captured and butchered on ‘photoshoplooter’ tumblr, a spoof, in itself of the other ‘serious’ tumblr, ‘Catch A Looter’ aimed at indentifying participants in the riots by posting photos on tumblr.
And feminists, those well known believers in ‘debate’ and ‘rational discussion’, produced ‘Privilege Denying Dude’, who was supposed to represent the arrogance and misogyny of white middle class men. But their ‘irony’ was lost on me, because I actually found myself agreeing with much of what PDD said! And, if you are reduced to using internet memes to make your political points, haven’t you lost the argument? Or am I just behind the times? ‘
There are a number of results of this ‘meaninglessness’ of imagery in relation to politics and political action. It is complex. I am not saying there is no relationship between the two at all – there are too many examples of youtube videos ( most recently the one of the racist British woman on a tram that led to her arrest) which have resulted in protests, criminal convictions etc for me to argue otherwise.
The first effect of this ‘overdose of meaning’ I think is that most representation of violence, war and trauma becomes concern porn. Middle class people watching that video of the woman on the tram may have phoned the police, but the main reason they watched it was to establish themselves as good, ‘concerned’ citizens in comparison to the bad woman who uttered the tirade.
Another result I think, of this mediated imagery overload, is that the value of people’s individual responses and ‘real life’ discussions about events and politics becomes very limited. If you can Retweet a link to an atrocity, why bother going to a meeting or even writing a blogpost about it? I know #ows is a real life, real time movement, but there are many many more people who claim to support it simply sending hashtags round the twittersphere than there are camping out in city squares. Also, I have found the level of debate amongst occupy activists to be dire.
There has been a kind of triumphalism from Occupy protestors when they have successfully ‘shut down’ meetings or talks by their ‘opponents’. For example the British Conservative minister David Willets was forced to abandon a talk at Cambridge university recently, and occupy activists in America have shut down a number of meetings and events. Their own meetings and events have been severely lacking in any kind of political analysis. 1968 this is not.
A kind of enthralling but also depressing example of this lack of ideological backbone to the occupy movement is a youtube clip of Judith Butler addressing OWS. They do that ‘human mic’ thing and her usually complex and subtle discourse gets reduced to a kind of show and tell event. I ended up spending the duration of the video admiring her leather jacket, her ‘look’, rather than listening to what she had to say. To underline my point, Butler has been described by (internet) activist fans as being the dreamiest in the video:
I am forced to abandon the 21st century and its tumblr memes, and to return to Baudrillard, who saw all this coming back in the 1990s. He wrote:
‘Today everything takes the look of the image – then all pretend that the real has disappeared under the pression and the profusion of images.. What is totally neglected is that the image also disappears under the blow and the impact of reality. The image is usually spoiled of its own existence as image, deyoted to a shameful complicity with the real. The violence exercised by the image is largely balanced by the violence done to the image – its exploitation as a pure vector of documen-tation, of testimony, of message (including the message of misery and violence), its allegeance to morale, to pedagogy, to politics, to publicity. Then the magic of the image, both as fatal and as vital illusion, is fading away. The Byzantine Iconoclasts wanted to destroy images in order to abolish meaning and the representation of God. Today we are still iconoclasts, but in an opposite way : we kill the images by an overdose of meaning.’