Will Image Move Us Still?


“Will Image Move Us Still”

by Kevin Robins, pp.29-50. The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, edited by Martin Lister, London, Routledge, 1995.


The fact that technological development is seen as some kind of transcendent and autonomous force – rather than what it really is, that is to say embedded in a whole array of social institutions and organisations – also works to reduce what is, in reality, a highly complex and uneven process of change to an abstract and schematic teleology of ‘progress’.

What is supposed to be superior about the post-photographic future becomes clear in contrast with what is seen as an inferior, and obsolete photographic past.


The postmodern order is considered to be one in which the primacy of the material world over that of the image is contested, in which the domain of the image has become autonomous, even in which the very existence of the ‘real world’ is called into question.


[Robins is concerned with] the uses of photography and post-photography. Where the prevailing interest is in the information format of image technologies, my concern is with what might be called the existential reference of images to the world. Photographs have provided a way of relating to the world – not only cognitively , but also emotionally, aesthetically, morally, politically.

These uses of photography now seem to mean strangely little to those who are primarily concerned with exposing the aporias of photography’s construction of the visual world.

The progressivist agenda constructs a false polarisation between past and future, between photography and digital culture.

[Robins asks] What alternative principles are there that would allow us to more critically evaluate and assess the transformations in image culture?


[Digital images] have subverted traditional notions of truth, authenticity and originality, compelling us to be more ‘knowing’ about the nature and status of images.


[Robins concedes] that there is a certain justification for this idea of progression to a higher stage of visual sophistication and reflexivity, but only the limited terms of what must be seen as essentially a scientific teleology of the image.

The teleology of the image may be seen precisely in terms of the continuing development of ever more sophisticated technologies for ‘getting at the real truth’. The objective remains the pursuit of total knowledge, and this knowledge  is still in order to achieve order and control over the world.


New technologies are not only amplifying the powers of vision, they are also changing its nature (to include what was previously classified as invisible or unseeable) and its functions (making it a tool for the visual presentation of abstract data and its concepts).

It is possible to construct a logic of development which is about the shift from a perceptual approach to images (seen as quotations from appearances), to one more concerned with the relation of imaging to conceptualisation.


Strangely, we seem now to feel that the rationalisation of vision is more important thanthe things that really matter to us (love, fear, grief…). Other ways of thinking about images and their relation to the world have been devalued.


The is even the danger that the [digital] ‘revolution’ will make us forget about what we want to do with images – why we want to look at them, how we feel about them, how we react and respond to them.

Are there ways, then, of proceeding constructively against the digital grain (without just becoming a counter-revolutionary)? For me, this is just a matter of whether it is possible to introduce, or re-introduce what might simply be called existential dimensions into an agenda that has become predominantly conceptual and rationalistic (‘severed from a human observer’) [Crary]


For Barthes, understanding the representational nature of these images cannot be seperated from understanding the sensations – the touch – of desire or of grief that they provoke.

[Berger’s focus on appearances – see Another Way of Telling…]


[Robins uses Barthes, Berger and Benjamin as examples of meditations on photography that] contradict any idea of purely rational seeing and knowing. In their distinctive ways they aim to show us how vision also serves psychic and bodily demands, and how much it is also needed in the cause of sublimation and imaginative transformation.

Through rational control and mastery (over both nature and human nature), rationalism and positivism, ‘its ultimate product’, have sought to occlude the sources of mortal fear. We may consider digital technology and discourse as being in continuity with this project of rational subjection.

Electronic images are not frozen, do not fade, their quality is nor elegagiac, they are not just registrations of mortality. Digital techniques produce images in cryogenised form: they can be awoken, re-animated, brought ‘up-to-date’.


[Robins questions the move toward digital death-defiance. Like Barthes who writes ‘for Death must be somewhere in society…’ Do we really think it could be nowhere?

I am concerned that we should hold onto a sense of the complexity of image cultures, and, particularly, that we should continue to recognise the significance of other than rational uses of the image.

The new information format is understood in terms of the emancipation of the image from its empirical limitations and sentimental associations; it is a matter, that is to say, of purifying the image of what are considered to be its residual realist and humanist interests. That is, in fact, the programme of rationalisation masquerading in the drag of postmodernism.

With its singular commitment to rationalisation of vision, digital culture has tended to deny or to devalue other uses of the image. It is no longer concerned with the image as transitional between inner and outer realities.

If imagination means anything at all in this progressivist scheme, it is certainly not what John Berger calls ‘the primary faculty of the human imagination – the faculty of being able to identify with another person’s experience’.


[Robins’s point] is to contest an overly rationalistic and imaginatively closed understanding of our changing image culture. It is to find other meaningful contexts in which to make sense of and make use of images.


What are significant are not new technologies and images per se, but rather the re-ordering of the overall visual field and reappraisal of image cultures and traditions that they provoke.

It is notable that much of the most interesting discussion of images now concerns, not digital futures, but, actually, what seemed until recently antique and forgotten media (the panorama, the camera obscura, the stereoscope); from our post-photographic vanatge point these have suddenly aquired new meanings, and their re-evaluation now seems crucial to understanding the significance of digital culture.

In this context, it seems productive to think, not in terms of discontinuities and disjunctures, but, rather, on the basis of continuities, through generations of images and across visual forms.

[cites David Phillips ‘ vision operates instead as a palimpsest which conflates many different modes of perception – a model which applies both to the history of vision and to the perception of a singular observer.’]


Rather than privileging ‘new’ against ‘old’ images, we might then think about them all – all those that are still active, at least – in their contemporaneity. From such a perspective, what is significant is precisely the multiplicity and the diversity of contemporary images. In working against the grain of progressivist or evolutionary models, we can try to make creative use of the interplay of different orders of images. The coexistance of different images, of different ways of seeing, different visual imaginations, may be seen as an imaginative resource.


There is a prevailing tendency to think of digital technologies as being ‘revolutionary’, and to suppose that they are so in their very ‘nature’. [Robins has] been arguing against such a position, suggesting that digital culture may, in fact, be seen in terms of the continuing rationalisation of vision (bringing this ‘logic’ to a new level of sophistication, and efecting a new accommodation between the rationalist and empiricist aspects of modern culture).


[Robins recommends] reasserting the importance of vision (appearance) in cultural experience – beginning from the uses of vision, that is to say, rather than technological novelty.

The ‘death of photography’ is one of those rare moments in which we are called upon to renegotiate – and to re-cathect – our relation to images (old ones as much as new ones). In the end, images are significant in terms of what we can do with them and how theycarry meanings for us.

For some this will indeed be a matter of exploiting the extraordinary power of the new technologies to ‘see’ the births and deaths of stars. Most of us, however, will have more mundane and personal concerns, because image culture – to adapt Raymond Williams’s phrase – remains ordinary. Images will continue to be important – ‘technological revolution’ notwithstanding – because they mediate so effectively, and often movingly, between inner and outer realities.


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