The conceit of this New Yorker cartoon is all too familiar. Our technology and in particular our relentless imaging of the world is not only redundant — the world is there there! Why photograph it?! — but fundamentally flawed. We are losing touch with what's real. We're choosing so-called virtual experience over presumed real experience. Such silly human beings! Such stupid human beings! And, worse, such immoral human beings!
But it seems to me that this argument — an argument that dates back at least to Plato and his cave — has a poor understanding of images, technology, the network, what's happening today, not to mention the nature of phenomenon itself.
Let's consider the situation in the cartoon. They are looking at the Statue of Liberty. Is this the first time they've seen it? Of course not. They may have never seen it with their eyes but they've seen it in words and movies. They come to it already knowing what it is, its place in the world, what it means. Like all monuments, the Statue of Liberty is always already seen, overdetermined, exhausted long before it's even been "seen."
So she takes a picture of it. Is this picture only a pale replica? Is that really what this cartoonist believes images are? It seems to me that the image on the phone is another image, another thing — related, perhaps, to the image of the Statue of Liberty they see without the smartphone screen but nonetheless distinct. The smartphone image is literally something. It's not even virtual. In fact, it's right here. Look.
The camera does not capture a moment. It creates a piece of the world by taking aspects of the moment — light, mist, the Statue — and assembling something new. I consider the photographer a sort of collagist, taking up pieces of the world and assembling them just so.
And the fact is I am sure her photograph of the Statue is better — more interesting, more engaging, more beautiful, more strange — than the Statue "itself."
Now, I am not saying they are the same thing. Or that everything about seeing the Statue without the screen is present in seeing the Statue in the screen. In fact, I am saying that they are two different things — intimately related, yes, but certainly distinct. The Statue, first of all, is much bigger than that little image on the screen. It has a grandeur, a visual weight, that the image doesn't have.
But the image is not simply a diminution of the real Statue. It is a perspective, a reckoning, an interpretation, an engagement. When I look at that tiny screen, I see more than the Statue. I see the impossibly complex act of making sense of the Statue. And that's a lot more interesting — hopefully! — than that big ol' Statue on its so-called own. (Nothing is ever on its own. All experience, all perception, is enmeshed in a vast trans-historical ever-shifting archive of ideology, memory, power, culture, desire.)
Of course, the image is not necessarily more interesting. Most people create lousy images, images less interesting than the images I see with my eyes sans screen. (There's always a screen, in both senses of the word.) My point is this: there's seeing the the big statue and then there's seeing the little statue on the screen. These are two perceptive experiences of two more or less distinct things.
Images are not less real than things precisely because they are things, too.
So now the woman in the cartoon posts her picture on the Facebook — let's put aside the complexity of Instagram for the moment, of apps that inflect seeing in the process of seeing. And I re-photograph it in a new context using command-shift-4, being sure to include other items on my desktop.
Have we moved further away from the original? Has the presumed original experience paled in comparison to the clarity of that first experience, the one without a screen (that will never have been first because we've already seen it in books and such)? No, that's silly. There is no original image, no first image. What might that even be? Amniotic fluid? Light coming in through the vagina? It's an absurd question. It — life, perception — is all just images. More and more images. (But is it a photograph? The multimedia artist, Marc Lafia, asks this in all the images he makes.)
All the teenage girls with their phones out at the Justin Bieber concert recording the ambiguous tween as he saunters about may or may not be living in a virtual world (funny how the accusation changes from material to virtual — and somehow remains the same criticism!). But they are not (necessarily) avoiding life. On the contrary, with their smartphones in hand, they're making more of life.
And what of this image, re-imaged here, of people imaging an image (Bieber)?
Too many discussions of the image — and, in particular, of our lives commingling with them in this Connected Age — turn on the distinction between the real and the replica. But that is an ancient distinction not relevant to our hyperreal times. The question is not: Are we living the real? The question is: Are we living well?