Over at The New Atlantis, Christina Rosen takes another whack at an aspect of digital culture. Having flailed at computer games, she now turns to digital images. Sort of. This weirdly anarchronistic piece lunges at our time, but keeps sliding backwards to some pre-mobile phone, pre-web, even pre-internet time and place. (Perhaps not a-chronia, but u-chronia?)
The short response: skip Rosen's article and read M.R. James' classic story of scary images instead, "The Mezzotint" (1904).
But I can offer a slightly longer response, not without misgivings about treating this essay too seriously.
For a screed against the proliferation of images, "The Image Culture" makes several quick runs through historical antecedents. But they are strange passages. Iconoclasm never appears. Instead the article summons Thomas More and his king Henry, perhaps to suggest a dislike of utopian thinking (see below, re: politics). Despite an accumulation of grumbles against image-only artififacts, collage doesn't cross these passionate paragraphs.
Those same prose chunks also fail to make much of a case for the dire dominance of said images. Rosen slips from the statistical piling up of images to their triumph over text, without showing us much evidence for a great cultural turn from one to the other. Neither does she pause to consider text combined with images - perhaps "multimedia" is a bit too lowbrow or chic.
For there is a politics lurking in this neoiconoclasm. The essay repeatedly worries about the democratization of images - to be precise, image editors, more than image creators, despite the multitude of privacy and copyright worries around the latter. It's bad enough that Stalin had people snipped out of photos, but now everyone can be up to no good. DIY memory holes are all around us! Fortunately, some virtuous people have reacted. Rosen takes pains to attach impressive titles to those noble ones, usually faculty at highly-ranked academic institutions, each position duly enumerated. In contrast the hordes of Photoshopperi remain generally unepitheted.
Despite the esay's publication's date of 2005, there isn't much sign that the past decade of digital critique has touched on this cliched point so far (here's Brin's transparent society in 1996). Rosen's dislike for pop Photoshop focuses on one side of mass DIY media, since she doesn't notice the way many eyes make photo bugging shallow. No blogger spots errors in Rosen's spotty history, and no network effects occur to surface detection of "corrections." Technology is a fairly one-sided sword here. Even worse, that technology isn't very fresh. Like most Americans, Rosen doesn't say much about mobile phone cameras. Social image services are growing like mad, but barely register.
The article's politics shade into a curious fear of satire, which might just be anti-leftism. Like the Victorians amputating Percy Shelley's politics from his poetry, Rosen disapproves of art with a political aim (all the examples of which are left-wing). Instead she prefers "the manipulation of the image at least serves an authentic artistic vision, a vision that relies on genuine aesthetic and critical standards."
Indeed, Rosen's politics show an odd blindness towards the market. Her writing examines the proliferation of televisions, for example, as an odd intrustion into some pre-device-saturated world (radio appears nowhere in the essay), perhaps intended to "entertain and distract, but in fact ... more successful at annoyance or anesthetization." That television may be a device for selling goods and services is not apparent. Her dislike of cultural triumphalism similarly sidesteps the question of market choice.
That the market might choose erotic images is barely touched on, and only with a palpable shudder.
These image-purveying devices have apparently erupted into our cloisters thanks in part to the blinkered celebrations of "techno-enthusiasts". Rosen conjures up a technophilic elite in order to make her argument seem less frantic. That there may have been, and continue to be, debates about images with multiple points of view cannot be admitted to Rosen's Atlantean canvas.
That vista offers the occasional, odd bit of facile snarkiness. For instance, we come across the facile "In fact, television doesn’t really “tell stories.” See, tvs make images happen, and we viewers have to do the work of assembling narrative. Much as radios only produce sounds, or print makes letters visible. Similialry we also find the moldy complaint that much of tv content isn't very good, a tired jeremiad-particle emitted without a glance at its age (1961), or at the work of media studies, or even at the similarly old, but stronger, counterargument that most print content isn't very good, either.
I am tempted to refer Rosen to the digital storytelling movement. This is the practice whereby ordinary people create short video clips based on their lives. They use digital images to represent things they find meaningful. They even edit the materials involved. Instructors teach with them, and students learn. People communicate with others around the world, using such images as stories. But this image, pleasing as it is to some, is a bit too much, too democratic, too complex, to fit into Rosen's portfolio.