Seeing Seeing Today, or The Flesh of the Interweb

Vision sometimes seems like this magical act that somehow bypasses the world. Touch, smell, and taste are so dirty. And sound can be so, well, unsound. Ah, but vision is  pristine, the immaculate sense: it's a way to know the world without touching the world. 

The great French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (a most euphonious name) messes this up. To see, he maintains, is to palpate the world. My vision doesn't go from me to you without getting messy in the process. When I see you, I bring you to me — and me, in a way, to you. You enter me and swish all about, marbling with my thoughts and tissues. 

Vision creates a chiasmus, an intertwining, of seer and seen. In the very act of seeing, I am taken up by the seen. For instance, when I read, the words occupy me, fill my eyes, my head, my fibers. I transport those words to me, into me, and there those words do what they will while I, in turn, do what I will.   

For Merleau-Ponty, the very condition of my seeing is that I am something that can be seen. In fact, I can only see the world — not to mention touch and know the world — because I am part of this world, continuous with its fabric. He calls this flesh. 

The flesh, he tells us, is an element like fire, water, earth, and air. All things are enmeshed in the flesh of the world. Between you and me is not nothing. Between you and me is the world. This flesh is at once physical and virtual, visible and invisible. It is made of gravity and history and concepts and breath and the scent of roses and the push and pull of all sorts of bodies. 

Vision takes place within this flesh, is of this flesh. Seeing is inscribed within the flesh of the world, eyes casting shadows and traces as they take in and take up the world (and, in turn, are taken. Seeing is neither active nor passive; it's both active and passive. It takes place in that beautiful middle voice of the event.) Seeing is a kind of origami, folding what's there and what's here into various configurations.

What happens when we introduce new eyes, disembodied eyes, into this fabric? 

In pre-digital photography, the photographer stood at a remove from his subject as the click of the camera closed this distance. Between subject and object there is what the photographer Cody Bratt calls a dance. And the film — or rather the image marks the juncture of seer and seen, of subject and object, of photographer and world.  

Indeed, within every photograph, we see more than the seen: the photograph presents  the seeing of the photographer. When you look at the postcard, you don’t just see Yosemite: you see Ansel Adams seeing Yosemite. We call this his style. 

But we don't just see Ansel Adams' seeing, as if we were all Laura Mars with Adam's eyes embedded in our skull. No, we see Ansel Adams-camera seeing. The photographic image is inscribed on and with a particular fabric: this camera, this lens, this film. We know the pictures of our childhood by their technological patina. We relish the photographic sunspot, an image we only see because of the technology.  (What is true of technology is true of people, too. I see with the technology that is me: these eyes, this vision, this culture, this perspective. I am dated film just as any Kodak or Fuji film is.)

The camera never captured what’s there. The camera has always created the image — an image that includes what’s there but is not exhausted by what's there. The photographic image is not simply a static image, an externalized rendering of what's been imprinted in our minds. The photographer is a cut up artist, a collagist, who takes a mountain, light, sun and gives us this impossibly odd object: Yosemite on a postcard. This photograph is not a replica. It’s a new thing, an object, something that is part of the world thanks to the camera.

Today, we enjoy a different relationship to the image. The camera is no longer a specialized tool we use to record special moments. The camera is now always on — Facebook, Instagram, surveillance, telemedicine, MRIs, Skype, Chatroulette, ATM cameras, credit card imprints. The relationship between body, self, technology, and world has shifted. The flesh of the world is lined with images forged from unblinking, disembodied eyes. 

If before the digital, the camera at once kept and closed the distance between photographer and world, in the digital network, the technology entwines us and entwines with us. In the networked imaging of the interweb, we inscribe and are inscribed in the same breath — every pixel, every key stroke, every click recording the world, writing the world, reading the world, forging constellations that immediately become the flesh of the world. My "liking" of an image becomes part of that image.  

At the risk of sounding like a douchebag, I'll say: Il n’y a pas de hors-image. There is no outside the image. 

The interweb is a literal encoding of the flesh of the world as the very terms of seeing and being seen become embodied by servers and code. It is the very site and condition of image consumption and creation, the very site and conditions of seeing. It is the fabric of experience, at once virtual and physical.  The interweb is a living, open system of the conditions of perception. 

To see in the new age of the image is always to be participating within this image-making-event, always making images, always becoming an image, always seeing seeing and, in turn, having one’s own seeing seen.  

From Marc Lafia's "Tumblr Room"

Marc Lafia has become a photographer of the new image landscape, his desktop no longer a view onto the world but the very site of the world. The interweb is not a replica of the so-called real world; it is continuous with this real world. It is the landscape. If for Robert Frank, America was out there on the streets and backroads, for Lafia it's on Tumblr, Facebook, Blogger.

But the desktop is more than the landscape: the desktop is at once landscape, camera, and screen: Command-Shift-4. The digital network has become the flesh of the world, a seeing engine that, like the human face, digests and plays back in the same breath.

Imaging before the interweb: For Robert Frank, the landscape was "out there."

From Lafia's "Tumblr Room." Note the "zoom" and user notes: the tools of engagement, of seeing, are now written directly into the image.


roca de carioca said...

It seems like as you see the flesh of the interweb (correct me if I’m wrong), an image is like an extended instant; multifaceted and spread, a three dimensional in two dimensions. Perhaps as a webpage were actually on a scroll.

Cameras create images, but are there type of cameras as there are types of images like patina and black white and sunspot? Like, cameras that take different contexts from the same moment? Can a camera be more textual than another?

At this point with fb, instagram, utube, www.etc., isn’t what creates a camera becoming more of a fluid question?

Are cameras maybe, in this fluid context, more synonymous with the verb “imaging”?

roca de carioca said...

*types of cameras

Daniel Coffeen said...

Yes yes yes yes....the entire interweb is a camera made of cameras: it records us. Which is why it's not photography but imaging...which, in turn, transforms photography. If that makes sense.

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