1. The Camera as Vast Automaton
Published: 05.05.2017
in the series The Programmable Image
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As the process of photography becomes generalized, and blends with social, financial, semiotic, political, ontological, computational functions and more, our understanding of photography shifts. Is photography a medium or is it now “media?” If, as Vilém Flusser says, all activities aspire to be photographed, and if, as Flusser says again, the camera’s program functionalizes its users such that we become extensions not only of its shutter button but of all of its black-boxed operations, we confront a troubling question: has the program of the camera colonized and thus converted all social (mediological) process into a feedback mechanism dedicated solely to the camera’s continued emergence? Has the bios been sub-routinized by the program of the camera?

For Flusser, the evidence in support of a thesis that explains both the historical emergence of “the universe of technical images”, and with this emergence the disappearance of linear thinking and linear history is overwhelming. This emergence achieves the status of a total enclosure that converts the formerly pro-filmic real into raw material for photographic processing. “The camera encodes the concepts programmed into it as images in order to program society to act as a feedback mechanism in the interests of progressive camera improvement” (Towards a Philosophy of Photography, London: Reaktion Books, 2000, 48). The camera program thus succeeds where most bureaucracies have failed: it infinitely replicates, extends, entrenches and perfects itself. Tourists travel to spots where photos ought to be taken and produce “camera memories” that document what the camera did in a particular place. Our own responses to photographic images, as Flusser’s example of “the war in Lebanon” would show, consist either of obligatory viewing (in the case of TV) or ritual acts (in the case of the newspaper photo), where "one can cut it out and keep it, send it to friends with comments or screw it up in rage.” Flusser says, “One thinks one is thereby able to react in an active way to the scene in Lebanon. The last vestiges of materiality adhering to the photograph give rise to the impression that we are able to act in a historical way towards it. In fact, the actions described are nothing but ritual acts.” (60)

Such ritual acts for Flusser are the antithesis of historical acting and are also further evidence of the functionalization of humans by cameras. It does not take much imagination on our part to see retweeting, reposting, reblogging etc. as a modern-day extension of sending a newspaper image with comments to a friend or screwing it up in rage. Does social media engender the ritualization of responses to photography in a way that interdicts democratic historical participation? Mandatory participation does not mean democracy as the indentured and colonized know all too well. 

The main point of Towards a Philosophy of Photography is to show that humans have been enclosed by the program of the camera and have become its functionaries. Would this include our participation in/incorporation by social media? For Flusser, the camera is already a program, an apparatus that has automated aspects of thinking. “A philosophy of photography must reveal the fact that there is no place for human freedom within the area of automated, programmed and programming apparatuses, in order finally to show a way in which it is nevertheless possible to open up a space for freedom (81–82).

Flusser does not say it, but the ritual aspect of the responses to the image that he describes have everything to do with Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura in the work of art and the “artificial” preservation of aura in the cult of personality by cinematic technologies that if used otherwise (à la Vertov) could actually annihilate aura by overcoming distance and destroying cult values based in ritual. Ritual and cult, as dimensions of aura, mean in this case not just “unique distance”, as Benjamin defines aura at one point, but also acquiescence to social hierarchies that keep things (such as the work of art and celebrity) at a distance. Cult (the church, the museum, the film star) imposes through their institutional forms rituals of power that impede the historical movement to socialist democracy by legitimating plutocratic oversight. The destruction of aura (a good thing in Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay) is the necessary aesthetico-representational practice to aid and abet socialism’s sweeping away of ritual values that serve primarily to preserve inequality and forestall revolutionary democratization.

What Flusser does say in relation to ritual is that “Throughout history, texts have explained images; now photographs illustrate articles…. Throughout history texts dominated, today images dominate. And where technical images dominate, illiteracy takes on a new role. The illiterate are no longer excluded, as they used to be, from a culture encoded in texts, but participate almost totally in a culture encoded in images. If the complete subordination of texts to images comes about in future, then we shall be faced with a general state of illiteracy, and only a few specialists will learn to read any more. There are signs of this already: ‘Johnny can’t spell’ in the USA…” (60–61). In 1983 Flusser exemplifies the illiteracy and consequent liquidation of historical imagination brought about by the rise of the technical image by pointing at the USA. Ritualistic yet illiterate responses to images were a forecast of the coming order. However, even a prescient visionary such as Flusser could not quite predict an illiterate-billionaire 45th President who would be able to govern by Twitter – probably because he thought his insights into photography had transcended those of Marxism.

Be that as it may, the POTUS-Twitter cyborg does allow us to make a further point in relation to the functionalization of society by apparatuses that ultimately are part of the vast automaton that is the program of the camera. The tweet is language that has been functionalized by screen-images – often a response to ambient images and other media feed. Flusser’s example from the newspaper is useful for thinking about computational media platforms: “As the function of the text is subordinated to the image, the text directs our understanding of the image towards the program of the newspaper. It thereby does not explain the image, it confirms it. Besides, we are by now sick and tired of explanations and prefer to stick to the photograph that releases us from the necessity for conceptual, explanatory thought and absolves us from the bother of going into the causes and consequences of the war in Lebanon: In the image we see with our own eyes what the war looks like. The text simply consists of instructions of how we are to see” (62). We may observe that the tweet also provides instructions how to see (and oftentimes how not to). Here with the Tweet the subjugation of text to image and to the program of the platform can be grasped. Let’s just say for the moment that if the medium is the message, and if this medium is subjugated to other media, particularly photographic media, then so too is the message. (We can debate later whether or not the computer screen has made text into a particular kind of photographic image.) So too then can we grasp the connection between the capture of the cognitive linguistic capacities of the species by capital as a fundamental and ongoing event endemic to contemporary visuality and computation, since the functionalization of language by the image is also a capitalist exploit, both within the platform (be it Twitter, Facebook, Google or Fox News), and macro-politically as a fundamental strategy of global governance, advertising and racial capitalism in the service of profiteers.

A final note then: The vast automaton, a figure from Marx to diagram the domination of an industrial network of fixed capital imposing nodal points for surplus productive labor stolen from human functionaries whom he termed capital’s “conscious organs,” also provides a diagram for photo-graphically organized computational capital. The ritual acts of social-media functionaries, sequestered in their screens, represent an evolutionary moment of this vast automaton. Scripted forms of value-productive attention replace or better describe both new and old labor processes. Industrial capital, language, narrative and linear time move into the visual, computational, statistical and networked. What’s more, the POTUS-Twitter governor type is a cybernetic emergence and while yes, it is fascism, it is also a node of artificial intelligence – a node that can and in fact is being replicated in multiple contexts. 

While it may seem shocking that I would seem to honor the POTUS-Twitter cyborg by calling it intelligent, even if artificially, we should keep in mind that like evolution, intelligence is amoral. AI does not necessarily function at the level of what we have come by common sense to recognize as intelligence, and it need offer no recognition of us in terms of who we think we are. It is, in short, inhuman (and we can say that without having to valorize the old figure of the human, who in any case, is a colonial creation). I know I have raised many issues here that are debatable (not least of which is whether or not social media participation is ritualistic in the sense described, and thus fully subsumed in the operation of social media as an extension of the program of the camera), but I will close with the thought that if the POTUS-Twitter head of state is an iteration of photographically-mediated computational capital, a programmed and programmable image, then ritual responses confined within the framework of actually existing platform sovereignty will not do.

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