The picture below was taken Wednesday night by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a blogger at The Atlantic. The picture depicts one slice of the Million Hoodie March for Trayvon Martin that took place in New York City. It is a parable of our age.
To begin with, as Coates put it in a previous tweet, “Crazy just a week ago this was just a few bloggers reporters and activists.” In the age of digital/social media, things move quickly. A great deal, of course, has already been written on social media and protests or even revolution, particularly with reference to the Arab Spring. But that is not what I want to focus on here.
What struck me in this image was the double-mirror-like effect of a photograph of people photographing an event. In short, we live in an age of pervasive documentation. What difference does this make, that’s the question.
What difference does it make for the marchers? What difference does it make for the present spectators? What difference does it make for those who experience (if that’s the right word) the event through its pervasive documentation? Thorough answers to those questions would probably yield book length discussions. In the space of a blog post, I’ll offer a few tentative considerations that suggest themselves to me.
First, of course, the march becomes a performance. Naturally, all such protests and marches have always been performative, that is their nature. So perhaps it is best to say that they are performative in a different key. Or, maybe that all such actions were in the past symbolic actions and now they are symbolic actions and something more. What is that something more though? I’m not sure, I’m not a student of protest movements, but I would venture to say the solidity of the record yielded by pervasive documentation foregrounds the individual dimension of the action. The gaze of the camera hails the participant in their potentially distinguishable individuality.
In other words, if the march was only being witnessed and not documented, as a participant the experience would feel more collective. The self is subordinated to the crowd in its collective symbolic gesture. When the symbolic action is being pervasively documented, the self then comes to the fore because my image, my face now becomes potentially distinguishable when the documented record becomes (more) permanent and public.
This is, I should make clear, entirely speculative on my part.
Secondly, for the witnesses present at the scene, those seen documenting the event in Coates’ photograph, the act of documentation changes the experience of witnessing. The witness becomes a documenter, and the two are not equivalent. The consequence, it would seem, is that the event is objectified by the process of documentation. It is no longer an event in whose thrall I am in, it is now an object to me that I seek to capture. This has the effect of stripping the symbolic action of its power, to some degree. The witness is in some sense in the event, while the documenter stands outside of it. I would also suggest that the documenting stance is also in some sense a rationalist, or rationalizing stance. It is creates a different mode of experience — removed, quasi-analytic, detached.
At the same time, however, it may also yield a heightened sense of participation of a different kind. To tweet a picture, for example, or post one to Facebook adds to the totality of the event. The witness has not only witnessed, but also acted in a way that expands the reach of the event. But the action is complex because in a sense the focus is no longer necessarily on the event and its symbolic power, but rather on the witness/documenter’s presence at the event.
Perhaps we could speak of such symbolic actions before pervasive documentation as enacted (rather than preformed) and such actions in an age of pervasive documentation as both enacted and performed. The former locks the participants and witnesses into a mutually constituted field of experience. The latter disintegrates the field into its individual parts, making the participants more conscious of their selves as actors in a spectacle. This is further complicated and heightened when the participants are self-documenting their own participation, which while not capture by this particular photograph as far as I can tell, undoubtedly happened. Also in the latter case, the witnesses are likewise distanced from the event as individuals documenting and publicizing.
The parting question, then, is still what difference does this all make. What difference does it make for the power and influence of such events?