Images have a history of influence on the socio-politico-cultural consciousness: photographic images of breaker boys in 1910 caused an urgent call for child labor reform, FDR released images of war-ravaged Europe and fallen GIs to rally support on the home front, in the 1950s and 60s the broadcasted images of lynchings and brutality in Birmingham brought civil rights into the home of white Americans, in 1989, the smuggled images of the Unknown Rebel in Tiananmen Square outraged the world, video images of the 1991 beating of Rodney King eventually led to the LA riots. Images such as these, whether real or not, contrived or not, or misinterpreted or not, were experienced by viewers as the real deal: they brought foreign “realities” into the domestic environment to the homes and heads of mainstreamers, educating and disturbing at the same time. The shock and resulting outrage from seeing these images led to some of the most progressive social changes of the past century. It made what was happening somewhere else a priority here. It promised correlating social advances with those of technology. One would assume that today, in a digital age where images have become ever more accessible and distributable, where the plights of the underprivileged, hungry, and murdered world-wide are made visible daily, that we would be living in the most socially conscious, politically active, and culturally progressive society ever, and yet, the question “why is there no student/anti-war/counter-culture movement today like there was in the 1960s” itself has become so cliché that it is stagnant.
The real question however should be: what about our current culture has kept us from responding actively to injustices? The answer has to do with how injustice, if not reality itself, is experienced by the contemporary person. Much of the anti-war movement’s strength in the 60s had to do with Vietnam being the first televised war. It was the first war that mainstreamers could see exactly what was happening from their homes, and they were outraged with what they saw: the images of the war were seared onto the consciousnesses of television viewers across America. I question the possibility of this happening today.
A convenient example can be made out of the blogger’s favorite “Don’t Tase Me Bro” Kid. On September 18, 2007, video began circulating online and then on Big-News of a twenty-one year old student being forced out of a John Kerry Q & A session after confronting the senator on a number of issues (intelligently or not), culminating in the university police forcing him to the ground, immobilizing him, and then tasering him despite his having been completely disabled. And it wasn’t just one video being circulated: it seemed as though a quarter of the audience at the Q & A were videotaping the altercation on digital cameras, digital phones, or amalgamations of the two. These videos, however, do not merely show the absurd encroachment of Andrew Meyer’s rights, both in censorship and excessive force, but something even more disturbing as well: a complacent crowd content with videotaping the event rather than protesting, acting, voicing disgust, or doing anything else.
How does this answer the question of cultural complacency?
On the Colbert Report that aired the following day, Stephen Colbert made a similar observation on the inaction of the crowd and commented very astutely on the matter: something to the effect of “Everyone was so used to seeing people getting tasered on youtube, that all they were thinking was ‘I can’t wait to go home and watch this on youtube.’” This suggests that the crowd related to the injustice at hand only through a picturesque mentality: they could only experience the injustice in reference to experiencing via a picture on their computer screens.
Yes, the internet has proven to be an enormous progression in society, but it has led to an oversaturation of images. We’ve seen so many footballs to groins, at-home water boardings, bombs over Baghdad, nuclear blasts on our screens that have lost meaning to us. We view them only as pictures like other pictures we’ve seen before. They become mere pictures. Where once our mothers spoke of radiation from television screens today we see only the borders of the screen and computer monitors. When an image becomes a picture it becomes distant: a picture is framed, put behind glass, and hung on a wall. A picture does not penetrate our consciousness like an image. A picture can be viewed and then forgotten. A picture is disposable.
Three years ago, the outrageous photographs from Abu-Ghraib became public knowledge and while they may have damaged the popularity of the war in Iraq, there was little to no political or social recourse. If Americans have not forgotten those photographs, they have parodied them (parody only being possible once a certain level of exposure is reached and relation to the images themselves is put at a distance). Abu-Ghraib had all the makings of becoming important images for the times, and yet our experience of them was somehow sublimated as mere pictures.
In a world of pictures, we live in a cultural daze, distanced from that which should seem so real to us. The proliferation of pictures has made us emotionally infertile. And until we face, or rather quiver from, an image-experience that will awaken us to the essentiality of socio-political historicity, we will remain so. Until then, no one really cares.
Monday, November 19, 2007
Posted by newflags at 2:23 PM