ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 21, May 1999



Jeffrey Pence

Machine Memory: Image Technology and Identity




Celia Lury

_Prosthetic Culture: Photography, Memory and Identity_

London: Routledge, 1998

ISBN: 0-415-10294-4

248 pp.


'Through experimentation . . . the previously automatic is converted into the volitional, the unconscious is brought into view, the forgotten is recalled and lack of control or responsibility over the self is converted into intentions, subject to calculation, risk-taking and the apparently never-ending exercise of will' (1-2).


Changes in the technologies which extend our abilities to remember and represent experience seem to promise both a greater field for the exertion of our will and new vistas of social equality. At least this is the triumphalist narrative one often finds in advertisements for electronics manufacturers and the techno-utopian assertions of public servants, in so far as such roles can be separated. Another possibility that developments in digital recording, photography, and so on may offer -- if not instead of the starry future mentioned before, then supplemental to it -- is an assimilation of subjectivity into the logic of its tools. In this picture, individual and collective faith in our domination of the world of objects only thinly veils our own subordination to the machines to which we have granted our interior functions. The first option is a Scylla of appetitive narcissism, an equation of the freedom of the individual consumer with the greater good for a fragile planet populated by groups with enormous disparities of wealth, power, and prospects. The second option is a Charybdis of automation, instrumentality, and dehumanisation in the face of irresistible technologies. Contemporary discussions of technology's role in shaping our future tend to fall into either of these rhetorical traps, a situation which rather devotedly illustrates, if by reduction, the binarism of the assembly code that apparently is determining everything.


Celia Lury's _Prosthetic Culture: Photography, Memory and Identity_ attempts to steer a sort of middle course between these techno-futures. For Lury, technological innovations will change the dimensions of subjectivity; what is equally certain is that the value of these developments will be indeterminate, that is, both good and bad. Her choice of photography does two things. First, it off-sets an imbalance: 'While there is a long standing and growing literature on the subject-effects of *narrative*, the significance of the *image* for understandings of the self in modern Euro-American societies still remains somewhat underdeveloped' (2). Given the last thirty years of film theory and its off-shoots, and the elaboration of critical concepts of spectacle, the gaze, and a whole rhetoric of the visible, it is rather hard to grasp precisely how the image has been neglected by theorists. Denigration, to use Martin Jay's term, is a serious sign of respect. It also isn't intuitively clear that photography is a privileged medium for such a discussion of the present: the protracted engagement with a singular image seems somewhat anachronistic in an image culture characterised by circulatory speed and saturation.


The other effect of Lury's focus on photography is more useful and interesting. Precisely how technology offers or influences an interface between interiority and exteriority is a vexing question. The metaphoric similarities between brain and technical apparatus or mass and network are presumed intuitively, and this presumption alone grounds further speculation. This sort of under-argued analysis is one thing in the hands of prophetic Frenchmen -- Virilio and Baudrillard come immediately to mind, and appear throughout Lury's work -- but seems to be quite another in the hands of academics who want some measure of positivist prestige for their work, filling it with footnotes, empirical references, images and so forth. What tends to result is work that is somewhat incoherent precisely because of the continuous effort to elude awkward questions of causality. In _Prosthetic Culture_, Lury attempts to work out a more exact understanding of how photographic images mediate between consciousness and techno-cultural context, altering both while being itself altered in the process. Her approach is essentially formalist and aesthetic, following Barthes's work in _Camera Lucida_ in analysing photographs as opportunities (although often unavoidable ones) for reflecting upon and redacting our cognitive capacities in the interest of ethical development. Not that Lury ever announces her project in such explicit terms, but given her general ambivalence toward what we might term the Western, gendered, transcendental subject, it is telling that the ultimate architecture of her critique of 'possessive individualism' is Kantian through and through.


Photography is the transitional medium of modernity, a form of representation destined to transform both culture and cognition. By turning to it, Lury situates her work in the tradition of Kracauer and Barthes. Along the way, her formalist approach provides some refreshing contrasts to the post-aestheticism of much of contemporary cultural studies. However, my final reaction is that the work goes too far in this direction, pressing the homology of aesthetic experience and the politics of identity to an extreme. Her instincts, to embrace both the positive and the negative of technological development, seem true; her conclusions, not-quite-persuasive prescriptions for ethical innovation, seem forced. Furthermore, I finished the text full of questions about rhetoric as a prosthetic, and the implications of a dense and frustrating style characterised by overcitation, passive voice, neologisms, and opacity.


Lury begins in a fairly straightforward manner, declaring her goal to be an investigation of 'the changing ways in which self-identity is constituted as a possession of the individual' (1). In particular, she is interested in how modern technologies of vision -- this would include not just photography, film, and other technologies, but also the available discourses for understanding them -- have enabled identity to become partial, exteriorised, and highly permeable. As a result, we live in a culture ruled by style as manipulated by an 'experimental individual' (1). Or so it seems, since Lury perceives the sense of control associated with self-revision and self-fashioning to be, more or less, illusory. The subject's ability to both exteriorise and appropriate images of the self as Other is predicated on the structuring of vision along the abstracting and acquisitive lines of dominant photographic practice. This way of seeing precedes any particular seeing, and bears within itself an illusion of perspectival transcendence which we know to be more a textual effect of framing, cropping, juxtaposition, and so forth, than a matter of fact. Photography becomes a model and a modeller of the viewing subject, even as it transforms the world into an endlessly reassemblable array of signs. Its formal features become crucial tropes for the subject's own self-conception, although indirectly.


Lury characterises photography by its abilities to '*frame*, *freeze* and *fix* its objects' (77). In turn, these capacities tend to liberate objects from the determinations of their situatedness in a process she terms 'outcontextualisation'. Contemporary subjects encounter an array of objects fundamentally characterised by this freedom from context: images of human suffering become signs of a utopian commercial community, as in the famous Bennetton advertisement featuring a patient dying of AIDS. Cultural and natural primordia -- from ethnically specific clothing and accoutrements to cosmetics assembled from exotic ingredients -- themselves recirculate in an apparently horizontal global economy of signs. Negotiating with objects and images unmoored from necessary context results in cognitive experiences disassociated from the subject's own situatedness. The spatial dimensions of memory, as it is associated with a particular place and the extensive limits of the body, become diffusive and hyper-flexible. Memories are disengaged from bodies and the subject floats free of context, just as objects do. Lury argues explicitly that, through the medium of photography, subjects and objects undergo a process of *indifferentiation*, in which their traditional boundaries are erased. As further parts of this process, the divisions between cause and effect, interior and exterior, will and reflex, choice and coercion, also blur beyond recognition.


Lury's argument rests on certain assumptions about the subjects and objects she finds commingling and transforming in the prosthesis of photography. The possessive individualism she elaborates, through heavy exposition of a range of post-Foucauldian scholars, is decidedly gendered, occupying a privileged position of agency, self-determination, and cultural capital grounded in the explicit denial of the same to the whole gamut of subaltern groups. It goes almost without saying that this subject's narcissism and aggression ought not be advocated in any new techno-cultural dispensation. On the other hand, the objects which are relevant to Lury's discussion of prosthetic culture -- family albums, advertisements, repressed memory testimonies -- all seem possessed by a dangerously magical power, by which they exceed the fiction of an autonomous subject only to enable the reconstruction of a greater fiction of autonomy and adaptability. Initially, then, the expansive realms of the subject and reproductive instrumentality seem to reflect each other. New objects are imitative technologies and the products of imitative technologies; as such, they are extensions of our fundamentally mimetic nature. This perception, however, doesn't so much address technology as imitate it, in the Heideggerian sense of technology as a mode of thought. Though not an idealist in this sense, Lury likewise finds the notion of human resemblance to and control of technology a dangerous illusion.


Extrapolating from the work of Marilyn Strathern, Lury presents an antifoundationalist, or social constructionist account of our relationship to nature and objects. She focuses on the intersection of the power of images, the forms and experiences of looking, evolving image technologies, and the contingent results of a mimetic drive in the subject. Together, these factors constitute the parameters of a culturally and historically specific form of subjectivity. If, for Aristotle, man is an imitative creature, for Lury, contemporary Western subjects are 'merographic' entities, defined by 'the capacity to make partial analogies':


'These analogies are partial not only in the sense that they imply perceived difference as well as similarity in the making of comparisons between wholes and in that sense are not complete or total, but also in that they make wholes (including persons) out of parts in particular kinds of ways. In this making, while parts of a person are part of that person as a whole or a system (such as the individual), they are also, from another perspective, conceived as parts of other wholes, such as, for example, society and nature. In this sense, things (including the individual, nature and society) are seen to be *constructed* or *determined* and to be inhabiting what might be termed a *synthetic culture* or a *culture that constructs*.' (13)


Here, 'mimesis', and its cognitive cousin 'comparison', are only approximations, but they are continuously transformative of the world and the subject, since partial analogies continuously work to obscure and redraw the boundaries between the two. For instance, the photographic portrait recirculates the image of the person as a part of a system of other objectified images. The portrait stands in a relationship of partial analogy to systems of the individual, the natural, photographic images, representation in general, and technological and scientific processes and progress. Most interestingly, from Lury's point of view, subjects reconsume these uprooted images through the imitation of styles and dispositions culled from advertising, cartoons, and other image discourses; in doing so, subjects reimpress, in radically altered form, the previously uprooted images into their own imaginary identities. The technologies of prosthetic culture thus result 'in the transformation of mimesis into style' (34). This is far more significant than the play with surfaces connoted by a pejorative notion of fashion. Rather,


'*aesthetics* is being simultaneously subsumed and extended within a *prosthetic* culture in which a range of supplementary techniques fantastically extend the range of the senses, consciousness and memory . . . But they do so not only by extending 'things perceptible by the senses,' but also by extending 'things thinkable or immaterial,' by means of 'soft technologies' or perceptual, sentient prostheses. And they do so not, or so Baudrillard claims, by modifying the image of the body, but by their imposition as the 'original model.'' (34-5)


Prosthetic culture, therefore, means a dispensation in which newly fashioned versions of the self not only displace prior constructions, but replace them by becoming more primary. In this situation, self-fashioning becomes an accelerated, central feature of contemporary life. The logic of fashion penetrates to the core of identity in the aestheticisation of the self. The 'successful individual' in such a setting is typified by flexibility. Given that new styles of the self are (mis)perceived as functions of the will, Lury sees the possible evolution of the possessive individual into what might be termed the self-possessive subject, since the self is now treated almost like an object. Her own term is '*experimental individualism*' (23).


Lury is careful to avoid celebrating the end of the occidental subject in favour of this successful, flexible one. The distinctions between cause and effect, will and coercion, are obscure in this area, and the perception of control over the project of self-renovation is by no means assurance of such power. Instead, the risk of 'more effective subjection of the individual *in representation*' (33) is always present. Yet while she is interested to 'explore some of the ambivalences of prosthetic culture' (36), her project is ultimately as prescriptive as it is descriptive. Her aim is demonstrate that 'indifferentiation and outcontextualisation do not exhaust the possibilities of mimesis' (39) in our current situation. This, in turn, reframes her analyses as what can best be described as good and bad examples.


Still, Lury attempts to hold both desirable and disconcerting interpretations of prosthetic culture's effects in mind. In doing so, she is effective enough in illustrating the problematic contours of such developments that the attractive alternatives she elliptically offers seem weak and unlikely in comparison. Such is the case with her chapters exploring dimensions of photographic portraiture. In 'The Family of Man' Lury looks at how photographic portraiture 'has been put to use to define humankind, as individuals, as types or genres of humankind, and as a species' (41). Such pictures, on the one hand, function to individuate, as they record, reify and privilege the unique subject. They also, on the other hand, function to classify, as they render the particular as the expression of a range of types or as an instance in a series. In this sense, photography both 'individualises . . . and yet constantly threatens individuation, the absorption of the individual into a taxonomic schema of humanity' (47). Photography, then, becomes not just an index of the singular, but of the standard of singularity as such, a measure, finally, of the individual in relation to humanity. This process is essentially comparative, or merographic: 'photography . . . has come to shape . . . what we now understand as . . . the individual and his or her relation to consciousness, memory and embodiment' (42).


In this manner 'The Family of Man' makes a case for photography's role in producing an abstracted, distanced perspective on the human which evolves from 'the representation of human difference as *variation* [to] *diversity*. . . generic [to] genetic 'man'' (58). Where variety implies infinite expansion, diversity suggests a more limited range of divergences. Lury identifies diversity as a 'process of enclosure' in which various possibilities of identification are linked in a scaled continuum of 'the individual, the family, the nation and humankind . . . as in a family of Russian dolls' (64). 'The Family of Man' photography exhibit of 1955, and some notorious Benetton ads (no date is given, although I believe they may be from the late 1980s), both illustrate the impact of this sort of quasi-transcendent perspective. While the collective is imaginatively conjoined by an overarching danger -- nuclear war in the first case, AIDS in the latter -- the individual is undermined as a category, since subjects become defined by the 'substitutability' for others (64).


The emergence of diversity as a paradigm for enclosing and 'ordering the difference of life' (69, citing Homi Bhabha) is accompanied by an increase in outcontextualisation, or what Lury now refers to as 'displacement of type' (68) or '*generic estrangement*' (72, citing Fredric Jameson). Her example of such a displacement is a single Benetton advertisement picturing a pair of attractive male twins in a stylised embrace. Because the image suggests both that they are identical twins *and* that they are a gay couple, Lury argues, the boundaries between typologies are erased -- culture is exposed 'as a construct, acknowledged as artifice, a technological extension' (74). Photography emerges as a medium of movement across generic boundaries, and such movements become important signs of cultural capital.


By any standard, this argument places an extraordinary burden on a slight scaffold of evidence. Nonetheless, Lury assumes she's proven her point and that, 'despite the rather pessimistic tone' of her analysis, photography may yet lead to 'new political possibilities' by freeing vision and thought from 'the natural bonds' of the familiar (75). Aerial images or otherwise invisible details might provide a staging ground for cognitive, and therefore ethical, progress. This conclusion seems no more likely or useful than that of her following chapter, 'Become What You Are', which tentatively searches for 'the development of a techno-intuitive knowledge of a kind which has the potential to mark an interruption or suspension in the human relationship with time, memory and death . . . created in a relationship of intentionality *and* indexicality, of hesitation and anticipation' (98). The problem explored in the chapter is the ways in which technologically produced images of the individual become models for the subject's own project of self-refashioning. Once again, the individual's expression and self-conception of will in these areas is not transparently given. The 'photographic image . . . sets up the advent-ure [sic] of my self-as-other as an obligatory choice, making wilful artifice into a necessary contrivance' (79).


The proliferation of externalised aspects of the self is typified in the 'pinboard' assemblage of photographs and other images which has come to replace the traditional, sequentially organised family album (84). In the contemporary, Lury writes, 'collage displaces narrative as the privileged technique of the self' (84). However, narrative returns upon the engagement with elements of the collage in the form of retroactive prophecy, an accounting of how the pictured self became that way, which is simultaneously a call on the narrating self to change. The result is a rolling process of subjectivity shaping and shopping, as individuals 'discard old selves, to try on personae and compare the multiplicity of subject-effects of retrodictive self-transformation' (84). Lury doesn't want to cede sovereignty to either factor in this joint operation; not to the possessive individual as controller of the means of self-stylisation, nor to prosthetic technologies, whose power over interiority is ominously visible -- 'we now live in a culture in which we each have a video recorder in our head' (78, citing Jean Baudrillard). Her solution is the sort of revivification of a modernist aesthetic we might associate with the neo-Kantianism of Lyotard, although she works towards this position from another angle. She sees in the Barthesian *punctum* 'a process that is neither simply that of an individual body (the viewer) nor that of a machine (the camera), but a combination of the two' (99). This combination of will and reproductive technology, or 'intentionality and indexicality', produces the cyborg vision she terms '*seeing photographically*' (99).


As with her previous use of the Benetton ad, Lury relies on a limited example whose ambiguity would seem to offer itself to multiple interpretations. Once again, the aesthetic is revealed as an experience of extraordinary consequence for thinking through the politics of technologically-mediated identity. This time, Cindy Sherman's film stills are invoked (although not shown; one wonders if some very material issues of copyright and permission, of material possession rather than figural, are being elided here). Viewers of these images -- of feminine frailty and fear in the guise of celebrity performance -- are said to become 'self-conscious' of their 'complicity' in 'the constitution of femininity'; in the pause of the ambiguous interpretative moment, Lury discerns 'the possibility that prosthetic culture will not be entirely recuperated by the experimental individual' (104).


In 'Remember Me' and 'Seeing You, Seeing Me', Lury takes up the issue of false memory syndrome and her contention that it is an example 'of the implications of seeing photographically' (106). She announces an unusual, photographic style for these sections; however, to most readers, the suddenly forthright prose will be welcome. Perhaps the notion here is to mimic the false transparency of the photographic image. Lury makes some useful claims in these chapters and incorporates some valuable readings of other critics. Yet her central, counter-intuitive claim -- that critics of false memory system are its badly-motivated producers -- falters under the burden she places on limited evidence. More importantly, her account is weakened by the complete exclusion of a consideration of the prior and parallel phenomenon of recovered memory. In other words, Lury's focus on the case of an accused person who confesses to actions of which he was previously unaware props up her analysis of false memory syndrome as an effort to reproduce a certain configuration of masculinity -- autonomous, wilful, and so on. At the same time, this analysis depends, first, on whistling away the life-world fact that real lives are and have been ruined by actual false accusations and, second, that some accounting of the genesis of these accusations, in a certain conjunction of simple-minded feminism, the medicalisation and narrativisation of perceptions of trauma, and other factors, reveals a rival prosthetic platform for seeing and conceiving that we ought to be no more inclined to embrace simply because it is not intuitively masculine.


Against a certain conception that false memory syndrome and multiple personality disorders are produced simply by the vulnerable self's weakness in the face of the overwhelming power of images, Lury argues for a reconceptualisation of vision which is not simply constrained in analogy with photography. While I'm much less eager to embrace her later extensions of this concept, her initial elaboration of 'seeing photographically' is compelling. By this name she means to indicate the simultaneously disciplined and productive nature of seeing and conceiving experience in alignment with the formalist reception of photographic images. Rather than blunt, and likely futile, resistance to the impression of photographic modes of perception into consciousness, Lury envisions, despite its risks, the possibility of a negotiated version of seeing photographically which represents a politics she would favour. The dangers of seeing photographically are immediately present, as she notes, following Kracauer, that immersion in a culture of reproduced images 'sweeps away the dams of memory', in a process ultimately homologous with Lury's own notion of outcontextualisation: 'The *contiguity* of these images systematically excludes their contextual framework available to consciousness' (126). What is excluded here is more than just the benchmark of veracity, although this is the fundamental banishment on which all the others would seem to depend. Lury is more interested in outcontextualisation as the false transparency of modes of thinking which have framed the seen. While I am inclined to agree with this formulation, there are two problems that come to mind, both related to the primary exclusion of the question of fact from an image isolated from its context. The first is that the topic here -- accusations of criminal sexual abuse based on the putative recovery of memories -- is linked to a juridical context in which one would not want to give up empiricism altogether. Particularly since, as in the famous Bundy case, false convictions can prove ruinous for individuals and communities. Secondly, the extension of Kracauer's analysis of photography into what most would understand to be a post-photographic culture seems problematic. Digital imaging and photography has, one could argue, freed the still image from the burden of indexicality. Rather than a rampant suspension of disbelief in the encounter of images, subjects familiar with process photography in the cinema and the anarchic fabrication and manipulation of images on the world wide web could be understood as indifferent towards the supposed truth of images, since even scepticism presumes an inclination toward belief.


Lury's focus in these chapters is on two extensive journalistic pieces exploring a particular case of recovered memory written by Lawrence Wright. In this particular episode, a Pentecostal family from the Pacific Northwest comes under scrutiny as two adult daughters, under church counselling, accuse their father of childhood abuse; he, in turn, comes to admit their charges, despite having no recollection of the events, and to ultimately confess to acts far beyond the original accusations. Lury wants to argue that Wright's analysis amounts to a defensive effort:


'to fight for the survival of the subject of representation, the individual, a self-identity founded on the value of propriety, of property and properness, of the appropriation and reappropriation of the self made possible by a belief in the continuity and interior depth of subjectivity authorised by the narrativisation of memory' (128).


This subject, possessive and paranoiac about threats to will and identity, typifies 'the *masculine* individual's . . . distance from himself' (131). The distinctions upon which this self-identity rests are foundational not only for the elaboration of gender differentiations, but also those of the nation state, according to Lury. Furthermore, the emergence of a journalistic discourse which seeks to explain away recovered memory syndrome, precisely when progress is being made in 'the ongoing struggles to politicise the issue of child sexual abuse' (152), she argues, ought to be seen in the context of 'a backlash to feminist political activity' and even 'a more aggressive development in the gendering of cultural politics' (134). Wright's 'active role in [the] creation' (135) of false memory syndrome consists in developing an account of its genesis which forwards 'a perversion of mimesis: autopoesis' (134). In this process, false memory syndrome is produced by the technics of a prosthesis, here, a method of psychological prescription masked as description, then reinserted into subjectivity as its own possession.


While Wright's journalism provides the primary evidence and opposition for two of Lury's chapters, in the end his claims still seem to carry more persuasive force than hers. Again, some consideration of the generation of accusations, some reflection on the problematic alliance of some strands of feminism with the therapy industry, some consideration of the continuing if transforming role of hard-shell Protestantism in American life, and some reflection on her political assumptions -- is a backlash against a certain feminism necessarily bad?; is a politics which defends fantasies of abuse self-marginalising? -- all would have contributed perspective to this aspect of _Prosthetic Culture_. Without them, the limits of aesthetical politics become manifestly visible, and one begins to fearfully anticipate attacks on critics of alien abduction claimants.


Lury moves on to examine the consequences of digitalisation on an image economy in which the subject knows itself as an exteriorised self-image seen photographically. This new technology offers, per Virilio (and Lyotard and Baudrillard, amongst the other thinkers whom Lury exegetically works over), the potential for an intervention in temporality with significant impact on the formation of identity. Within a generalised aestheticisation of everyday life, 'typified by the pleasure of immersion in the objects of contemplation' (157), Lury identifies the emergence of a 'non-dimensional personality' (156). This zero-degree subject results from, first, the deferral to the visualising capacities of machines and, second, from a blurring of the distinctions between subject and object: 'there is but a difference of degree between mind and matter, depending on the capacity to gather and conserve' (171). With apparatus, subject, and the object-world all equally understood as bound up in processes of representation and conservation, it becomes possible to imagine cultural production without the categories of agency and ownership which Lury is at pains to avoid. With digitalisation, then, 'the uses of photography are no longer so easy to consolidate in the author(is)ed [sic] biography of the possessive individual' (176). Rather than a subject owning a past through its indexed memory images, 'techniques of topographical amnesia' (177) prevent the amalgamation of percepts into a prosthetic image of the self. But this isn't all; Lury also identifies a countervailing trend -- she terms it 'reverse motivation' -- to describe a process by which subjects retrospectively claim provenance over digitised memories by elaborating retroactive 'prosthetic biographies' (177) which support a sense of consolidation and ownership over experiences which, in fact, produced the very subject now asserting the power of identity over them (187). It is difficult to accept that this sort of rationalisation of things as they are as a mirror of agency is in any sense peculiar to the present. As with earlier chapters, having elaborated a scenario which, initially, seems to challenge normative views of subjectivity, only to see the reassertion of the categories of this identity in a newer and more powerful register, and to finally postulate a slim hope for an alternative future, so Lury here asserts the chance for 'a cyborg being with an optical unconscious that is neither that of the machine of vision nor, indeed, that of the embodied individual' (211-12).


In her conclusion, Lury considers the ethical implications of 'seeing photographically'. With the proliferation of technological extensions of the self (218), ethical reflexivity becomes problematic, even beyond the fundamental Weberian sense in which self-reflection 'is necessarily a self-defeating practice' (221). The prosthetically-extended self combines and confuses willed and 'reactive behaviour' (222), or subjective and technological action. In this mutually constitutive symbiosis, we become aware of 'the interrelationship of ethics and aesthetics in the politics of self-identity' (223): the self is produced by its prosthetic abilities, as the visible itself is revealed as a *practice* of the self in the arbitrary selectivity of framing. In a paradox familiar to readers of Lyotard, Lury proceeds to will the demise of will, to forward, hopefully and intentionally, the very end of the impulse she evidences throughout her work. That is, her solution to the problems of self-identity, its gender valences, power disparities, blind alleys of narcissism, is to imagine mimesis divorced from intentionality. This political vision isn't anarchic, since its assumptions towards the ego amount to a fundamental disparagement; nor does the continual attention to the aesthetical response of a single subject permit us to imagine any sort of collective politics. Rather, as with Lyotard, this is a politics without people, a purified realm more reminiscent of Kantian aesthetics than Kantian morality. This will-less mimesis she terms 'blind imitation', immediately recognising its unimpressive sound:


'Although blind imitation might not sound promising as the basis for redrawing the line between behaviour and action, or, rather, behaviour and performance, it provides a basis for a revised ethics, in so far as it does not presume the (gendered) individual; nor does it tie ethics to the related notion of subjective meaning. Rather, it enables a consideration of what Haraway calls 'significant prosthesis' in the redefinition of ethics. In this way of seeing photographically, the image -- as perceptual prosthesis -- may, but does not necessarily, lead to the experimental individual, the closed individual who knows no limits. It neither assumes death as an end or exit nor predicts a future without death, the future as the past perfected. Instead, it may -- in an encounter that has been anticipated but has not yet happened -- cause the viewer astonishment, and continue to provoke the question, 'why is it that I am alive *here and now*' (227, citing Roland Barthes).


Let me indicate another possibility: 'it' (a subject replete with power and referents in the above citation) may also lead to a consumerism dependent less on an illusion of subjective autonomy than on the foregrounding of the absence of the same. In which case, the formalist politics of desubjectification resembles not so much the way things ought to be as the way things already are. Benighted and beleaguered, the ethical and aesthetic subject may be an impossible construct; at the same time, it may be an absolutely necessary one.


Oberlin College, Ohio, USA



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999


Jeffrey Pence, 'Machine Memory: Image Technology and Identity',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 21, May 1999 <>.




Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle


Join the Film-Philosophy salon,

and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here


Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England



Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage