Monday, March 21, 2011

Democracy as a Way of Seeing (via Photojournalism)

In concluding No Caption Needed, Hariman and Lucaites take issue with the critical tendency--common among academics from various fields--to regard image-driven, visual communication as a threat to the deliberative reasoning processes that are the lifeblood of a thriving democratic public sphere.  In fact, Hariman and Lucaites suggest that "democracy is a [particular] way of seeing" (289).  Looking at the iconic images of photojournalism, democracy as a way of seeing seeks out images that inspire widespread identification--especially images that allow for multiple (often conflicting) patterns for identification.  As the examples of the book show, the iconic images of democracy generate a host of positions from which to make arguments or to feel a range of sentiments.  Viewers may have completely opposing reactions to the photos--but they are all looking or have looked at that photo (e.g., Migrant Mother, Time Square Kiss, The Hindenburg Explosion).  The flexible, disjunctive collectivity pictured by the mass circulation of photojournalism engenders, supports, and embodies the disjunctive collectivity that is the democratic ideal.  And so, as we move to imagine a public sphere for visual practices that would be the electrate equivalent of the Habermas's literate public sphere, we should learn from (and perhaps incorporate) the visual rhetoric/aesthetic developed by photojournalism throughout the twentieth century.

It seems inevitable that the visual public sphere of the twenty-first century will be built and sustained with digital technologies.  Though Hairman and Lucaites readily admit their study is largely restricted to analog images, they do speculate occasionally on the role of digital technologies in fostering visual democracies:
"Digital technologies make images and texts (and sounds) equally fungible.  Thus, the visual public sphere is not uniquely or primarily visual.  One is seeing public address as it always has been articulated, but from beyond the horizon imposed by print technologies.  Public culture is a vast intertext of mixed media.  Each medium can be dominant at any one time, and each offers a perspective on the others capable of both blindness and insight.  The culture itself can only be seen to the extent allowed by the medium one is examining."
AR apps (especially world browsers) are currently extending the digital medium into every taggable/networked location on Earth--especially in highly public/urban spaces such as city streets, museum exhibits, monuments, transportation hubs, etc.  Using an AR app, one could create an appropriation of the Statue of Liberty, not just an appropriation of a photo of the Statue of Liberty.  With this in mind, we can say that relatively familiar digital technologies (e.g., image manipulation programs and photo-sharing websites) increase the speed/rate at which appropriations can be created and circulated, while AR apps also increase the very scope/canvas of visual appropriation beyond photographic images.  Digital appropriation may be the contemporary equivalent of mechanical reproduction.  That is to say, as Hairman and Lucaites point out early in their book, when mechanical reproduction displaced the aura of the work of art it also gave rise to a new kind of aura--the iconic photograph (which gains its aura not by originality/scarcity but by popularity/circulation).  By disrupting the hierarchy of circulation characteristic of twentieth century print media, the global proliferation of digital media (presumably still in its infancy) may displace the iconic aura native to mass photography and give rise to yet another new kind of aura--and further unfoldings of democracy as a way of seeing.

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