Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 40, November 2002



Scott McQuire


Reply to Longacre



Jeffrey S. Longacre

'After Photography: Deconstructing the Era of the Image'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 39, November 2002


It's a pleasure to have one of your books reviewed perceptively, particularly when it was published four years ago and has vanished from most critical horizons. In replying to Jeffrey Longacre's review, I would firstly like to thank him for his careful reading of _Visions of Modernity_. I also agree whole-heartedly with his comments about the way that, at times, the book gets overwhelmed by density -- writing it always seemed a bit like stuffing a pillow into a pillow case which was slightly too small!


This was undoubtedly due to the over-ambitious nature of the project. However, if there is a saving grace in trying to pack too much material into a single text, it is the unpredictable shape of what emerges. For better or worse, I still see _Visions of Modernity_ as an idiosyncratic text, partly the result of its allusive, occasionally lyrical style of writing, but more because it was never designed to fit an established disciplinary framework. I imported materials and insights from many places, often 'translating' concepts from other fields (including cinema studies, critical social theory, art history, media studies, politics, architecture) to address my own concerns. If this approach risks superficiality and dilettantism, the pay off -- when it succeeds -- is that it enables you to pose fundamental questions.


My basic premise was to investigate the ways in which camera technologies have transformed our experience and understanding of the modern world. I sought to do this along three main trajectories. The first was primarily historical: to chart the new visual culture and visual practices that emerged as a distinctive threshold of modernity. The second line of approach borrowed more from critical social theory. I was interested in the social relations that camera technologies such as photography, cinema, and television were articulated with, and, in some ways, have come to sustain in contemporary societies. Thirdly, I was interested in the shift in conceptual foundations that parallels the emergence of media cultures.


As Longacre draws out in his review, one of the key concepts I utilise in attempting to understand the social dynamics of these changes is ambivalence. Contemporary visual culture is a world away from what was first imagined following the invention of photography in 1839. It is also a markedly different world to the particular social, political, and economic settlement represented by the Hollywood studio system in the 'classical' era. Tracing the heterogeneity of historical practices and relations which emerged around different camera technologies offered me a starting point for tracking deeper changes. These were not simply aesthetic or institutional, but concerned the social relations of the image. This is how the three-part structure of the book -- focusing on representation, memory, and time and space -- emerged. How different eras both believed and disbelieved the 'truth' of camera images. How camera images and screen culture came to authorise and structure certain practices of memory and history. How 'real time' circulation of images and information is producing a radically different sense of being in the world (given that subjectivity has always depended on an often unacknowledged temporality).


If you take a long-term view of social change, camera technologies and the types of social relations they sustain are still in their relative infancy. The forms of knowledge about art and science, the kinds of institutional and social relationships onto which camera technologies were first grafted -- and which in many respects persisted as influential (even dominant) forms until after World War II -- no longer hold sway. Yet what will replace them remains uncertain and highly contested. This uncertainty is manifested in a wide range of ongoing debates -- for example, over documentary forms and new 'reality' formats; over the reconstruction of popular memory in cinema; over the heightened role of image politics in contemporary democracies; or the increasing dominance of audio-visual surveillance networks in contemporary cities.


The ambivalence frequently manifested in contemporary social interactions with the image suggests we are living through a transitional 'moment', albeit one which will not necessarily end by grounding us in a new certainty. For me, the most interesting questions raised by _Visions of Modernity_ concern the camera's role in producing cultures in which traditional measures of place, temporality, and identity no longer seem sufficient or secure.


My more recent research has focused on where this might take us. I'm particularly interested in interactions between media and architecture. There is a sense in which the spatial mutations affecting contemporary architecture -- the way in which we gain access to a building, the notion of passage between rooms, the proximity of separate sites, and so on -- are critically linked to the instability in contemporary thought affecting identity, representation, and subjectivity. The increasing use of digital technology in both media and architecture marks the emergence of a new type of environment, a hybrid of image and physical structures which necessitates moving beyond the increasingly tired opposition between real and virtual.


University of Melbourne, Australia



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


Scott McQuire, 'Reply to Longacre', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 40, November 2002 <>.



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