Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 39, November 2002

 

 

Jeffrey S. Longacre

 

After Photography

Deconstructing the Era of the Image

 

 

Scott McQuire

_Visions of Modernity_

London: Sage Publications, 1998

ISBN 0-7619-5301-9

270 pp.

 

Scott McQuire's book, _Visions of Modernity_, expands from the implied premise that, instead of dividing the history of the western world into the traditionally accepted B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era), it can better be divided into B.P. (Before Photography) and A.P. (After Photography). Although the theory that the history of vision, from the camera obscura to the invention of photography, is discontinuous and marked by a major paradigm shift is by no means new (see Jonathan Crary's essay 'Modernizing Vision' for one example [1]), McQuire's book provides both a useful summarization of the disparate theories surrounding the rise of photographic culture and its impact (in particular, on memory and the recording of history), and an intriguing deconstruction of the totalizing and positivist roots of the photographic project.

 

In his introduction, McQuire states that:

 

'In seeking to formulate connections which don't necessarily conform to the model of linear narrative, there is a temptation to say everything at once. Since this proves impossible, other means must be found. What follows can certainly be read from beginning to end, but this is not the only legitimate way to proceed' (8).

 

This is certainly true, since each of the chapters reads like a self-contained essay, thus facilitating random reading or browsing. However, there is a structure to the entire book that does unfold in a more or less linear fashion. The text is divided into three parts (or acts if one wishes to conceptualize in a theatrical mode). Part 1, 'The Ruins of Representation', is mostly a succinct and well-organized narrative of the decline of photography's supposed autonomy and the 'positivist' authority of its images from its inception in the 1830s through the invention and rise of cinematography in the 1890s and early 1900s. Part 2, 'Photomnemonics', examines the crisis of individual and collective memories that the rise of audiovisual media has caused, and the ideological and political dilemmas inherent in the (re)presentation of history through the camera's eye. Part 3, 'The New Plasticity of Space and Time', is an analysis of our ever-shrinking global village, dominated by the speed and the homogenous space created by the rise of the televised mass media. All of these larger units are further divided into chapters as well, with titles such as 'The Mechanical Eye of Reason', 'Flickering in Eclipses', and 'In the Neon Forest'.

 

As mentioned above, McQuire begins his study with a history of the cultural and philosophical contexts into which photography was born. After relating this familiar background, McQuire turns his critical lens towards such history and begins to methodically deconstruct the ideological assumptions of its foundations. He writes that:

 

'At the historic moment in which positivism subjugated virtually the entire field of Western knowledge, the camera was able to fuse the realism of geometric perspective and the theological investment in light as the origin of truth with the scientific valorization of the objective eye' (33).

 

After illustrating how photography reinforced positivist ideology and the certainty of an objective truth, McQuire shows us how the very technology that assured these notions began to unravel and undermine such certainty in the faith of perception. All of the usual arguments come up, from the selective space of the photographic frame to the subjectivity of the individual photographer's look. This leads McQuire into the philosophical grey area and ambivalence that photography embodies.

 

In the aptly titled chapter 'Promiscuous Meanings', McQuire writes, 'the camera has consistently proved to be neither properly objective, nor yet properly subjective' (50). It is in this either/or -- or more accurately both/and -- space that photography exists. Photographs acquire their 'promiscuous meanings' through fragmentation, infinite reproducibility, and dissemination. In fact, photography placed new emphasis on the fragment as the privileged mode of meaning. McQuire notes that both photography and psychoanalysis 'lavish unprecedented attention on the detail, the part-object, the fragment; especially the fragmented body as a structure of deep psychic meaning' (51). Insights like this make one wonder about the extent to which the invention of photography made modern psychology possible. There is no doubt, however, about the effect that photography had on the modern psyche and the rise and spread of industrial capitalism. McQuire finds the correlative of the alienation of the modern subject in the 'profound deterritorialization of image and meaning produced by the camera' (55). He continues:

 

'In the proliferation of disembodied visions and the wholesale portability of images, the photographic camera offers the modern subject not an image of totality, but an image of its own ambivalence, suspended between the silken promise of liberation and nostalgia at loss of anchorage' (55).

 

In other words, the camera helped to facilitate the alienation of the modern human by simultaneously providing the means to capture the past and fragment and remove it from any fixed context. Thus, the modern era was born.

 

Chapters 6 and 7, 'The Mobile Frame' and 'Flickering in Eclipses', finally bring us to cinema and how it figures into the ideological history of photography. McQuire glosses the history of cinematic possibility from its revolutionary beginnings: 'being acclaimed as a tool of cultural subversion and political awakening, cinema has come to be frequently castigated as a mechanism of social conservatism and political narcosis' (71). He finds this transformation to be complex and significant: 'On one level, it belongs to the gradual naturalization of cinematic perception over the course of this century: where it once shocked, cinema now saturates habitual ways of seeing' (71). Perhaps this trend -- the shock of the new giving way to acceptance and naturalism -- is simply, sadly, indicative of all revolutions. Somewhat ironically, incidents such as Joseph Stalin's silencing of Sergei Eisenstein have left us with Steven Spielberg's capitalistic fantasies. However, the political implications underlying this trend are complex and worth investigating in order to understand the way in which we have been conditioned to perceive the world around us. And even though much of the remainder of McQuire's book probes these questions, it is Noel Burch's study of cinema and the rise of the 'Institutional Mode of Representation' in his book _Life to Those Shadows_ that presents a definitive word on the subject. [2]

 

At the heart of these questions is the debate surrounding cinema's relationship to mimesis: in other words, how does the real world relate to the 'reel' world? McQuire writes:

 

'Because cinema offers 'real perceptions' unburdened by the necessarily real referents that Barthes posited as the corollary of the photograph, its mimetic aspect resides far less in plotting direct correspondences between images and objects or events than in the structure of its viewing experience . . . [this] expanded the sense cinema was able to give its spectators of not only seeing the real world differently, but of *really seeing a different world*' (73).

 

With Jean Baudrillard's aura looming in the background and Walter Benjamin's spectre haunting his text, McQuire continues a few pages later:

 

'With the photograph, one can still dream of locating the image within lived space and time, of referring it to a single 'real' instant which occurred at a determinate place. With cinema, even though individual shots may retain this aura of referentiality, the textual system of the multi-shot scene no longer functions with reference to a single, ostensibly real event' (76).

 

The problem, for many theorists, arises with the attempt to naturalize or normalize this cinematic grey area. However, despite the success that Hollywood (particularly during the era of the studio system) has had in standardizing and naturalizing cinematic practice, the differences between real and cinematic have never entirely been eradicated or smoothed over. McQuire notes that:

 

'Despite all the attempts to secure the spectator's relation to the moving image -- *to naturalize its frame to infinity* (Derrida) -- the experience of cinema has remained intensely ambivalent. Hailed as the repository of 'life itself', cinema has found equal acclamation as life's *other*, the waking dream of a world whose boundaries, surfaces and dimensions have become increasingly unstable' (85).

 

This ambivalent crisis of representation is where the trajectory of photography and cinema has taken us, into a no man's land of neither this nor that. In the last chapter of Part 1, 'The Ruins of Representation', McQuire concludes that:

 

'If the image-world has today swallowed the 'real world' to produce a mutant state of being which is neither real, nor yet simply imaginary (at least as those terms have been customarily understood), it is naive to envisage a political critique which could be located entirely *outside* the world of images' (101).

 

Or, in other words, 'representation is no longer shaped to fit what is real; instead, the world is called on to live up to its images' (101).

 

As Part 2 opens, McQuire's stated objective is 'to examine the camera's relation to the transformation of memory and history in the last century and a half' (110). Citing examples such as Stalin airbrushing people out of official Soviet photographs in order to erase and then rewrite history, McQuire turns his attention towards what he calls the 'emergence of *amnesic cultures*: societies entranced by spectacle and immediacy but lacking any sense of history' (109). He further contextualizes the history of photography against the backdrop of industrialization and, more specifically, the subsequent transition from a rural cyclical idea of time to a modern, urban idea of linear time. This idea of time moving like a train down tracks towards a specific destination created a crisis of memory in that memory had to be controlled in order for time to move forward teleologically, or, as McQuire quotes Foucault, 'if one controls people's memory one controls their dynamism' (111). However, as the fear of forgetting and loss that is symptomatic of a linear conception of time became entrenched in western consciousness, McQuire points to the ethnocentric and sexist nature of this ideology. He writes: 'Lamentations concerning the 'disappearance of history' so easily mask the mourning for the disappearance of a particular kind of history: the dream of continuous history which comforted the Western subject with an image of its own sovereignty' (131). It is a kind of selective memory that the colonial project ushered in: reification of the events that connect this narrative of progress and erasure of the histories and peoples that stand in the way of time's train and its destination.

 

In light of all this, one of the great projects of the 20th century has been to give voices to all of the forgotten histories, to try to remember that which, in many cases, has already been lost. In the most intriguing chapter in Part 2, 'Intolerable Memories', McQuire discusses the problem that arises in the representation of certain memories which may be collectively too painful to remember, but need to be remembered nonetheless. His focus in this chapter is the Holocaust and the crisis, both aesthetically and ethically, of representation that this horror of horrors brought to light. How does one remember what our very human-ness resists remembering? What is the best method of recording and remembering that will do justice to the memory of those millions killed in the Holocaust? Part of the difficulty lies in the problem that the very methods of photographic and cinematic naturalism that are often used to record, expose, and memorialize historical events can also be used to manipulate, contort, and control our understandings of history. McQuire writes that, 'once habitualized and hierarchized, stylistic preferences all too easily become alibis for avoiding other questions concerning the politics of representation and the production of realism' (135). In other words, cinema and the mass media -- and the naturalistic methods they often employ -- all too often become a smokescreen to disguise any latent motives. McQuire spends this chapter analyzing various strategies that filmmakers have taken in approaching the Holocaust, and the criticism that many of these films have received. From films such as _Night and Fog_ and _Shoah_, to the German mini-series _Holocaust_ and _Schindler's List_, he astutely navigates a way through the thorny subjects and philosophical dilemmas that these films raise. Without coming to any easy conclusions, McQuire sums up his argument thus:

 

'What can be learned from these different strategies for representing 'the Holocaust'? Most evidently that there can be no single way of encapsulating such an 'event', which in its enormity and complexity challenges the very concept of history conceived as a narrative series of motivating causes and effects' (162).

 

This challenge of teleological history and 'the politics of totalization' (163) are the crux of the postmodern argument, and the crux of McQuire's argument. The terrorist attacks that occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001 raise new questions about how film and the media shape our understanding of history, but that is for another discussion.

 

In the last chapter of Part 2, 'Biodegradable Histories', McQuire (borrowing a concept from Derrida) concludes that all history, all memory, is 'biodegradable'. He writes that biodegradable history 'presages the end of the encyclopaedic model of totalization' (176). Once again calling into question the authority of any photographic image (or the totalizing idea of a photographic archive), McQuire sums up his argument (for Part 2 and more or less for the entire book):

 

'What is called history is never homogeneous, made up only of positivities and positives, all that is solid, enduring, visible, memorialized and saved, but also, and as importantly, is formed by processes of selective amnesia, strategic illegibility, repression, avoidance, neglect, and loss. Recognizing that history is biodegradable, that it belongs as much to the decay of origins and archives as to their preservation and 'museification', demands new protocols from those which have operated in the name of absolute origins, authentic relics and photographic truths.' (176)

 

This recognition that history is biodegradable is at the heart of cinematic representations of history as well. We must always remember that a process of selection (and selective amnesia) is always involved when deciding what part of history to include and what part to leave on the cutting room floor.

 

Part 3 takes up many of the theories elaborated upon in Parts 1 and 2 and applies them to the material world of modernity. For instance, Chapter 4, 'In the Neon Forest', explores the modern city and the manner in which it is informed, represented, and shaped by visual media. After photography, cinema, and television, speed becomes the key commodity in the solipsistic ideology of contemporary media culture. McQuire writes:

 

'In one sense, 'modernity' can be defined by this shift which affects both physical boundaries and psychic formations: the destabilization of architectural and geographical borders (the room, the nation) as much as the disruption of discursive traditions (the unity of the book, the universality of reason) are part of the crisis of referents and dimensions currently testing the limits of thought and experience' (189).

 

The increasing solipsism that television created is one of the primary points in Chapter 6, 'Unstable Architectures', in which McQuire writes:

 

'The fact that television achieved mass audiences on a scale exceeding even Goebbles's hopes, not by replicating the cinematic prototype, but according to a cellular model of individuating viewing sites, has played a major role in structuring the contemporary social and political terrain' (234).

 

The rise of television, the advent of VCRs (and, more recently, DVDs), and the ubiquity of the internet, have all led to a more solipsistic culture of jaded individuals wallowing in the twilight zone of the hyperreal. Through the speed of televisual technologies and cellular communication the very far and the strange have become as near as our living rooms. We have come too far from Plato's cave to go back; we live in a world, as Don DeLillo writes, that television news and videotape has made 'Realer than real'. [3] Towards the end of the text, McQuire writes that: 'Television's attempts to pursue the present moment within a linear economy of time brings what Heidegger called leveled-off time 'to the fore'. When time becomes indifferent, every event becomes the same' (256). It is this apparent homogeneity of space and time that becomes frightening in its political and cultural implications, and McQuire argues that these trends are what must be interrogated and deconstructed in order to understand better this brave, new world.

 

_Visions of Modernity_ is a very useful book for film scholars. Particularly his deconstruction of the history of photography and cinema with which it begins. It is also a useful summation of many disparate theorists and philosophers on the subjects of vision, photography, and film. The middle and latter portions of the book are particularly useful to those interested in the uneasy relationship between history and film, and the impact of television and mass communication on different cultures. However, McQuire's text is not for the faint hearted. His style is very academic (sometimes a little too much so) and he brews up a heady mix of Adorno, Barthes, Baudrillard, Berger, Benjamin, Bhaba, Crary, Derrida, Freud, Foucault, Lacan, Kracauer, Lyotard, Virilio, just to name a few. At times, McQuire risks drowning in this quagmire of theorists and pulling the reader down with him. But, overall, he keeps his chin above water and manages to make sense out of this complex synthesis of ideas, usually conducting an engaging discussion between these disparate voices. In an age when networks digitally remove the logos of rival networks in their broadcasts of location news reporting, and virtual dinosaurs stalk the 'reel' world, McQuire's book is essential reading for those with a desire to understand the ideological and philosophical undercurrents of these phenomena. After reading this book, going to the movies and watching CNN will never be the same again.

 

University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. See Jonathan Crary, 'Modernizing Vision', in Linda Williams, ed., _Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film_ (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994), pp. 23-35.

 

2. Noel Burch, _Life to Those Shadows_, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

 

3. See Don DeLillo, _Underworld_, (New York: Scribner, 1998), p. 158.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002

 

Jeffrey S. Longacre, 'After Photography: Deconstructing the Era of the Image', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 39, November 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n39longacre>.

 

 

Read a response to this text:

Scott McQuire, 'Reply to Longacre', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 40, November 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n40mcquire>.

 

 

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