Seeing is believing: The politics of the visual

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Seeing is Believing: the Politics of the Visual is Professor Rod Stoneman’s personal and analytical account, investigating the politics of visual communication.   The director of the Huston School of Film and Digital Media at the National University of Ireland, and a member of the Pod Academy Board, Rod explores the complex and reciprocal dynamic between world and image in this most visually mediated society.   

The discussion in this podcast took place at the launch of the book.  However, we have already carried short pieces from Rod about some of the images he looks at in Seeing is believing.  You can find those pieces here:

This podcast and all the earlier pieces have been produced by our film and media producer, Esther Gaytan Fuertes.

We know that images can be false or deceptive, but we all live and work in constant denial of this idea and its implications.  In a world saturated with media we act as if we are immune to their effects.  Seeing is Believing is an invitation to explore the potential for contemporary forms  of artistic practice  to create spaces for active participation in cultural society.

Brian Winston, Professor of Communications and Lincoln Chair at the University of Lincoln is the first speaker.

Brian Winston:  I just want to make a couple of points about television. There is a very chilling image on page 108 [of the book], which is all these television presenters looking at the screen. I always say to students, ʻjust think what happens if the television presenter, who is looking at the lens, says “over now to number 10” and looks up, instead of not looking at allʼ.

The notion that we are in an environment of a flow of images which are extremely highly structured but which, as Barthes says, totally disguise their ideology, their foundations. This is really critical. The whole business of how the technology works and how relationship between the representation and the referent actually operate, I think itʼs absolutely crucial to any sort of discussion either aesthetic or political or both or whatever, of this world of the image which we are trying to deal here. And it seems to me that weʼve only gone some way towards dealing with that. And I think itʼs works like this that are really reflexive and speak to a personal experience of this which is so valuable.

Thatʼs the first thing I wanted to say. Secondly, it’s interesting that when you find the Barthesian image you actually canʼt recognise it from the text, which is well illustrated by Barthes. If you donʼt have the caption, forget about it. In Barthes’ case you only have the caption, you might as well not have the photograph. The photograph, Rod talks about some instances of fakery but it seems to me the whole language and approach of fakery is, not beside the point, but not capable really of dealing with the complexity of the issue that we are facing. I

There is an horrific story of a Peruvian nanny in Miami in 2002. This poor woman was looking after somebodyʼs baby and they had invested in a cheap, theyʼre called ʻnanny camsʼ to make sure the child is alright, and she was seen shaking the baby. The local police managed to lock her up for 22 months and then bring her to trial. One expert immediately got on the stand and said, ʻthis is a malfunction in the machineʼ. And what really gets me about this is that, of course itʼs a bloody malfunction of the machine and of course youʼd have known it if you werenʼt some sort of idiot fuzz in Florida and if she wasnʼt a Peruvian, right? etc. etc. I donʼt have to say the rest. But the fact of the matter, is that the most chilling remark about that and why I think this sort of… I said in my comments on the back of the book, this is a sort of apologia sua vita, and indeed for many of us, all of us in the room perhaps, all our lives. The really chilling effect is that the parents, and I think the guy was in the business, he was a professional television person, he actually thought she had been released improperly because, ʻthe camera cannot lieʼ. I mean the strength of that tradition and everything else needs to be, in my view, continually examined.

The whole question of the indexicality… I think indexicality is too simple a way of looking at it… the complexity of the image isnʼt addressed at all by the cultural assumptions that we have. For example, the police in this particular incident, and in general, think about images ( now all electronic) all television images, as being, and the technical term in law is simply, ʻsilent witnessesʼ- they are silent witnesses. And of course they are not silent witnesses.  As Bill Nichols says somewhere, I think quite correctly, that is to mistake symptom and cause and to treat the symptom as if it is a cause. But itʼs done, all the time.

So one of the things I want to draw your attention to and I do so haltingly because there is so much else going on here in this book. But there is a strand that deals with  those sorts of issues, about how we culturally and ideologically position the image, which is important. One of the best remarks I ever heard on a platform was from Herb Schiller, I remember once in New York thirty, forty years ago somebody stand from the audience and accused him of vulgarity, there were various talks of vulgarity. And Herbert looked at them all and said, ʻThereʼs been a lot of talk this evening about vulgar Marxism. Well I want you to know  that I am an extremely vulgar Marxistʼ. I am not quite saying that, but Iʼm saying that there is something here.  ‘Yah, the God failed, so whereʼs the other God?ʼ It seems to me that this book speaks to those sorts of things. I keep reading things that seem to say that to me, all the time, like Tony Judd’s book and so on. Where is the God that failed? I think thatʼs particularly true because we have very little from people inside the system, which talks at any sort of reasonable level about its limitations. Itʼs very valuable to have voices like Rodʼs, which is very clear and distinct in this book, which come through and explain what those realities are, how we were on sufferance when we were allowed to do things in the development of television from Channel 4, in Channel 4, especially at its outset and how we were licensed, really, to pretend that all sorts of things were going on which in reality were not and are not.

So I personally am extremely grateful that we have this book before us. Maybe the next stage after this is for Rod to start gathering all this stuff up and be taking it and his masterly exposition on it to some regime less sensitive to copyright issues than ours so that we can also have a digital version.

Laura Mulvey, Professor of Film and Media at Birkbeck and Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image carries on the discussion by looking at some of the debates around the politics of the image.

Laura Mulvey: I had a lot of thoughts looking at Rodʼs book.

I canʼt say we come from the same generation because heʼs quite a lot younger than me. But at the same time, I think I can say quite confidently that he emerged influenced by the same intellectual milieu, the same kind of world and the same kind of fascination with film. But what I wanted to emphasise is that, although there isnʼt much about film in Rodʼs book — itʼs much more about the relationship between picture, story, event, history— that fascination with film was something that was really crucial for our generation. We saw film as a medium for change. It seemed to us that it had a progressive potential, that the other kinds of media that we lived with didnʼt.

Now, looking back at it one sees very much Utopian, as Jeannette Michaelson said, the Utopian aspiration that was associated with film which she related back to the 1920s, which was being rediscovered during the 1970s. I think the 1970s was not necessarily such a complex period such as, say, Weimar in Germany. But to us, strange though it may seem, we invested our hopes in the way in which our medium could actually change the way in which the people say the world and also change the way in which people represented the world. I think itʼs perhaps important to say that this period of the 1970s was a period of return to the past, of holding on to the avant-garde experiments of the 1920s both intellectually and cinematically. Theoretically and aesthetically there was a very conscious return to that period.

And I said to Rod that I would mention the journal Screen, that we were all quite influenced by or involved in in different ways, Rod very directly, in the 1970s. But if you look at the early issues of Screen, you see one devoted to Brecht, one issue devoted to the Russian formalism of the 1920s, another to the history of semiotics… And so there is a kind of curving around of, what I think of, as the lost curve that was dissolved in the crisis of the 1930s, of the Depression but more acutely the rise of fascism and the appalling loss of European intellectual continuity through the Nazi persecution, the fascism and racism and fascism in the Nazi period.

I want to emphasise this because while reading Rodʼs book Iʼve been simultaneously reading my friend Miriam Hansenʼs book called, Cinema and experience, which is a study of Kracauer, Benjamin and Adornoʼs relationship to the cinema and what the cinema meant to them, not as a thing, but as something that had to be thought through in order to think through Modernity and its relation to modernism – cinema as an instrument in the sense of thought and social engagement.  To a certain extent, cinema seemed like that to us. So as well as our fascination with film, film was also a theoretical instrument at the time

Stephen Bann, Emeritus Professor of History of Art at the University of Bristol  continued the discussion tracing the origins of this Utopianism described by Laura Mulvey. He also explored questions about the relationship between text and image, as well as the different forms and formats in which this analysis can be carried out.

Stephen Bann: When you look, youʼre always overlooked for me. II think that itʼs a good thought to bear in mind in relation to Rodʼs book and to the way in which we might approach the use of imagery which is there.  Particularly Iʼd like to think in the tradition of making books with images. That is by no means an easy thing. If one looks at the history of producing, at least letʼs say in the post-Second World War period, there are two examples that one could take that seem to be important to this connection. One of them is positive and one is semi-positive, semi negative.

The first is McLuhanʼs great book, The Mechanical Bride, published in 1951, which is essentially an examination of American advertising and publicity images, about 30 or 40 altogether.

My second instance, which is very relevant to what Rodʼs been doing (because the mix in some ways, at least of many of the episodes is very similar) is Roland Barthesʼ Mythologies. Iʼm sure many of you, if not all of you, will know that book –  it has been republished, translated and so on. One of the really interesting things – the fascinating thing,  and why I call it half negative, half positive as far contributing to this kind of tradition – is that, of course, there are no images. There are no images partly because of the technical problems at that stage, or with his publisher, of producing a book with images integrated. As a result of this, essays like the great essay on “Myth today” (you know, the soldier saluting the French flag) effectively we take Barthesʼ word for it.

A PhD student of mine once  did a long investigation finding the photograph Barthes refers to. Eventually I managed to buy the Paris Match that Barthes had seen at the hairdresserʼs and, of course, when you look at it, it bears very little resemblance to what Barthes said. The  point is that Barthes is precisely talking about a random thing seen at the hairdresser’s, something he hasnʼt studied but just put down, so it doesnʼt matter. But it does mean that thereʼs a curiously asymptotic relationship between text and image in Barthesʼ work. Barthes was pursued throughout his life by the impossibility of getting an adequate visual illustration to his books.

Itʼs a very difficult thing to do a book that, at the current state, at the contemporary state of technology, can produce a synergic effect that Rod has done. So I think itʼs going to be a very good reading experience for those of you who are on the point of reading it and what would be contributing to that will be, not only the great flexibility obviously now which digital printing allows, and which makes it possible and reproducible like this, but also because this is the kind of book that would have been impossible to produce fifteen years ago and indeed, ten year ago. But which we have the pleasure of being able to read today.  

The audience had the opportunity of asking questions, some of which referred to the technical difficulties of editing a book of which images are a key element….

Rod Stoneman: The actual process of putting it together was really quite difficult, was at the beginning of this year discovering—okay itʼs my naivety— but that taking electronicimages and thinking that they would work in a book was not at all as simple and that a high proportion of them may have looked fine on digital screens but they didnʼt have the requisite, 300dpi.

And also, and it refers to what Brian was saying, the minefield of copyright and intellectual property. I remember an Indian director called Shekhar Kapur, who made the Elizabeth films, was at a festival and I was very taken when he said, ʻIn India we see the copyright as the right to copyʼ.  I wish that was more true here!

There are glimpses- as happened with Goddardʼs Histoire(s) du cinéma, being able to use fair comment as a basis to invoke and play with other material. But I mean it touches on your thinking of making it digitally available. I always thought, if itʼs not arrogant to say so, the process that I went through is something thatʼs available to everyone, just lifting the corner of an image and, in many cases, seeing it crumble as soon as you go around it and see whatʼs behind it and underneath it. In a smaller scale way, maybe the aspect of the book that I thought would some kind of little incursion against the confinements and rules of Academia was to insert the personal, which by and large, when you read academic essays or listen to conference presentations, is absent. And actually, and Laura talked about it, certainly at the moment of Screen there was no personal pronoun anywhere to be seen in that. It was an ultra objectivist discourse… your film scripts, that was different, Laura, but by large in the articles.

Laura Mulvey: There is a reason for that which I think fits in with the time and I think it was the spirit of the manifesto and the spirit of a kind of collectivity over the individual. So that when Screen spoke, it wasnʼt just speaking for Stephen Heath or whoever it was actually a sense of purpose. And that was very important in the womenʼs movement, of course, so there was a kind of interesting contradiction between the need to speak about the personal while also the need for anonymity and the two were constantly juggling together. I mean, from my point of view, I never used the first person, partly because I found myself liberated into writing out of feminism and through the womenʼs movement, and so I wanted to speak , as it were, more in the mood of the manifesto than in the mood of either personal opinion or academic knowledge.

But what I found strangely enough and it always puzzles me a bit, is that now Iʼve been forced to start using the first person and I think itʼs due to age, that actually Iʼve been forced to think back on things I did before, when I was not speaking personally. Now I have to reflect back and that mode of reflection has introducedthe first person. I think also there is no longer that sense of a collective spirit of the manifesto. So although you could certainly say there was a certain aescetisism and puritanism in the Screen style I think it also had a rationale behind it.

Stephen Bann: I agree with you absolutely about the I and I think the explanationthat you gave is very convincing. There is now with those of with a certain age a necessity to, as it were, bid to double. You canʼt anymore as it were hide, if itʼs hiding, behind a certain kind of objectivised discourse… anonymity.

 Brian Winston and Rod Stoneman closed the discussion with a reflection on the role of technology in social and political change.

Brian Winston: The point Iʼd want to insist on is that technology is not the driver here. Itʼs the social, the political circumstances around the activity. And yes, now itʼs technically possible all the stuff that we could never do. I remember when we got VHS tapes, at MY we thought the Mastersʼ programme, which was enormous, was finished. I can remember, we had discussions, that people only did an MA in the Film Studies department at MY because they got to see a lot movies. But now, if they can go down to what eventually became Blockbusterʼs, why would they bother? They could just go and see the movies. So, of course, there are factors involved and we can do so much more now. And indeed, the falsity of memory, which was extreme in the earlier stages of Screen Studies… people remembered things erroneously, didnʼt they? All the time! Thatʼs now obviously a thing of the past and now we can actually start, as Robert was saying, that metaphor of lifting up a corner and looking underneath, we can do that. But there are still very profound reasons built into the social circumstances under which we operate, why there are limits, in my view.  

Rod Stoneman: But, there is a lot attention and discussion around the speed of change involved in digital technologies. You know, social revolutions in the Arab world refer to, probably because itʼs flattering to Silicon Valley to say itʼs Facebook or itʼs Twitter. But surely these are interacting all the time and to say, itʼs the technology that determines or itʼs the social context that determines, neither is really sustainable.

Brian Winston: Well, it does seem to be that… the extra Western examples of the impact of the technology in the instances that you mentioned tend to be a trick of the light. The ʻTwitter revolutionʼ was first coined by an American, of course, in connection with the Iranian upheavals of the previous revolution. There were exactly 1,500 Twitter subscribers in Iran at the time. I think thereʼs a great deal of smoke and mirrors that goes on about this. And Iʼm happy to be accused of overstating hostility to it, exactly because of the prevalence of the technological determinist position the technocist position.

But I think there is one aspect of the new technology and the visual that even I would have to admit is indeed revolutionary, indeed weʼve been hitting at it, which is the connectivity between the referent and the image, which was a given of the cultural and political situating of the analogue photograph is now at an end. Now itʼll be a long time before people stop believing in photographs. That was the point of the case of the nanny. But slowly that has to disappear.

Of course, itʼs perfectly possible to make an argument that people should never have believed that in the first instance but the change is considerable. There is this wonderful… I collected, many years ago, 20-25 years ago, I was collecting what I refer to as the Sky Tech scandals, because Sky Tech was the first dedicated programme for image manipulation. And there were a number of scandals. National Geographic were caught squeezing the Pyramids of Giza together because they couldnʼt get them on the cover. And they promised that they would never mess with the seven ancient wonders of the world again. I always thought that the ʻspot the ballʼ game that newspapers used to run, where they took the ball out, I always thought that was very good attack on the assumed silent-witness nature of photography.  

Rod Stonemanʼs book Seeing is Believing: the Politics of the Visual is now available on Black Dog Publishing. Please check  to hear Rod Stoneman talking about some the images that he analyses in his book. 

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