“The amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the idea and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the beautiful.” – Paul Valery
In the Phaedrus, written by Plato circa 370 BCE, Socrates discusses the Egyptian myth of the creation of writing. Socrates thought writing a bad thing because it weakened our powers of memory and thus altered our reality in a profound way, memory being the pre-condition of all culture. This explains why Socrates never wrote anything; his student Plato transcribed his dialogues and thus gave him to history.
For Socrates, writing allowed a pretense of understanding, not true understanding. What we read we really don’t understand in the way we do when we hear and speak: “For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding.” What’s interesting for present purposes is not Socrates’ opinion about writing but his recognition that the transition from orality to writing would lead inexorably to new modes of thinking and thus, new realities. This is also the thesis of Cambridge social scientist Jack Goody, who in 1977 wrote The Domestication of the Savage Mind wherein he traces the long-term changes in human cognition and culture brought about by the development of writing. The mode of our communication shapes what we think.
David Levi Strauss’s recently published Photography and Belief, is about the photographic image and its relationship to what we believe to be true. According to Strauss, with the advent of digitization, we are in the midst of a second radical cultural transformation as profound as the development of writing- the move from a written culture to a culture of images. Strauss examines how digital technologies change how we look and how and what we trust by seeing.
Specifically, Strauss’s interest is the aura of believability that images provide. Photographic images have inordinate power to influence opinion, prompt action, create and direct desire. The question for Strauss is “Why?” Is their power based on an assumption of their truthfulness? If so, why do we assume images are true? As Wittgenstein noted almost a century ago already, such needn’t have been the case: “We regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself depicted there. This need not have been so. We could easily imagine people who did not have this relation to such pictures. Who, for example, would be repelled by photographs, because a face without color or even perhaps a face in reduced proportions struck them as inhuman.”
Most would answer Wittgenstein’s question by pointing to the ‘indexical’ nature of photographs i.e. they are stenciled directly off of real things and more or less represent those things as they are. Of course, there are problems with this understanding as well. Behind the curtain of ‘indexicality’, photographs have been subject to various forms of manipulation. Questions about individual photography’s faithfulness to the real have been around since its inception, although digitization has made its manipulative capacity increasingly obvious to the lay public. For Strauss, however, the long-running debate about photography’s verisimilitude misses a bigger, more important point: what is the tsunami of images we’re deluged with doing to our understanding of truth itself?
Strauss is interested in how our new technologies ultimately undermine the connection between seeing and believing and how a shift in our relationship to images may come to threaten our very purchase of the real. Instead of discussing whether we should believe images, Strauss claims that the surfeit of images we now consume has created a new type of consciousness – a quasi-hallucinogenic “optical consciousness,” borrowing a phrase from Walter Benjamin – and we aren’t going to return to an earlier mode of thinking. We are, in effect, “all in” in this new world of images, where we encounter so many, so fast, our critical faculties have essentially been disabled.
The day of a single photo hanging on a wall, a subject for critique and evaluation, is gone, replaced by images that appear “in a flow” of digital presentation: “Images that appear on the screens of our devices go by in a streaming flow. Individual images are seldom apprehended separately, as a singular trace. Singular, still images operate very differently on the mind. The images in a flow are seldom dwelled on, so their individual effect is limited, creating instead a disproportionately generalized effect.” This new consciousness isn’t predicated on a choice we make about believing, or not believing, particular images; it’s, in effect, forced upon us by the volume and rapidity of the images that deluge us. We are losing the ability to ‘see’ particular images, and with that are losing a means of believing in the real. As Strauss notes, “we no longer believe in reality, but we believe in images.”