Living for the Moment in the Age of the Image

We live for the moment because the moment is what an image captures.

It’s not uncommon, I presume, to snap a picture again and again in the often vain attempt to get it just so. Getting it just so in such cases entails matching the image captured by the photograph to the image in our mind of what that moment should look like (and feel like).

Two questions follow.

First, where did that image in our mind come from? Likely from countless similar images we’ve seen on Facebook or Pinterest or Instagram or television or Norman Rockwell or whatever.

The other night, I stood in a near empty section of a big box store waiting, surrounded by aisles of Christmas decorations, enveloped in the projected sounds of Christmas music, and I thought to myself, if this were a movie, this is the scene in which the director would zoom further and further out, showing me standing there alone with would-be purchases in hand, and it would scream that tired-late-capitalist-suburban-ennui cliché.

And even if I had felt as much, not simply thought that this was what the image suggested, but actually felt that ennui, would it have been because I was, in fact, an instance of the case, or would it have been because I had that pre-interpreted image in my head?

We’re Platonists, but our Ideas are not eternal, timeless Forms remembered from glimpses we caught of them in some preexistent state of our souls. Our Ideas, against which we seek to test the truthfulness and reality of our experience, are the Images that have become iconic commonplaces generated in the age of photography, film, and Madison Avenue, and now by social media on which we all play Don Draper to our own curated brand identity.

The second question, then, is this: Why are we so intent on getting that image just so?

Because it is what our dominant forms of remembering will receive. To be remembered is to appear, to be taken notice of, to be; so we desire deeply to remember and be remembered. So much so that we will transform the logic by which we make sense of our lives so that our lives may be subject to means of remembering.

In the age of stories, be they stories told by the rhapsode, the bard, or the novelist, what mattered was the whole, not the part. Individual scenes were subordinate to the logic of the whole plot. They gave one the sense that there was a beginning, middle, and end; and it was not until the end that the whole significance of the beginning and the middle could be perceived, much less understood.

In the age of images, this is reversed. In the image, the whole is instantaneously present. We crave that moment and the image that captures it, and so we pose and point and click and frame and click and click again and pose again, but naturally, and click.

Remember in Saving Private Ryan, how in the closing scene Ryan, played by Matt Damon, now far advanced in years, breaks down before the grave of Capt. Miller, Tom Hank’s character, and pleads with his uncomprehending wife to tell him that he has lived a good life — a life that, in the end, made sense of the sacrifice of those who died for him? We could care less about the good life taken whole and judged from the end, but, ah, we’d love to play a scene like that. It would work so well on Youtube, and it would feel just right, just then.

We are connoisseurs of the moments and scenes that the camera can frame, but we have little patience or taste for the satisfactions that arise not in the moment, but in deferred time, when, long after the moment has passed, it may finally be understood in light of some larger canvas. How, then, could we be expected to take notice of and live in light of some as of yet future whole. There is no memory to sustain such a project any longer. But there is memory enough and more to sustain the capture and storage and retrieval of the moment.

Recently, I suggested that Facebook might undermine the quest for the narrative unity of a life. This was naïve. It is not that Facebook undermines the quest for narrative unity, it is that Facebook makes such a quest implausible to begin with. Facebook — as a means of remembering, as our treasury of memory — receives the image, not the story. No one will write our story, and even if someone would, who would have the patience to listen to or read it.

If we will remember and be remembered, it will be by the image — and so we will live for the image, for the moment.

8 thoughts on “Living for the Moment in the Age of the Image

  1. perhaps more “primitive” by-gone groups were profoundly insightful––the camera will capture our souls.

    perhaps we no longer embody an enculturated people, where relationships are the medium to interact with the past, present, and future. perhaps we only manipulate the present so we can remember, repeatedly into the future, the past as we wished it to be, where we digitize our relationships.

    the threshold of capturing the moment just lived vs. creating the moment to live through what was captured.

    1. “perhaps we only manipulate the present so we can remember, repeatedly into the future, the past as we wished it to be” & “capturing the moment just lived vs. creating the moment to live through”

      Yes, that was well put. Very much what I was trying to get at.

  2. Reminds me of the scene from the David Lynch movie LOST HIGHWAY:

    Ed: Do you own a video camera?
    Renee Madison: No. Fred hates them.
    Fred Madison: I like to remember things my own way.
    Ed: What do you mean by that?
    Fred Madison: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.

  3. I felt the same way, until I started weaving the loose ends of my ancestry. That story is the original neverending story. It starts slow and clinical yet somehow becomes an intricate part of your being. It is like tiptoeing through time and becoming a part of the past, the present and the future. You start knowing intimately the people who bear your dna and live a life for their future, which became my future. The history that was so faceless in books became the story of my grandmothers and grandfathers. I think if the children and teens of today came to know history through their family, the story itself would hold their attention in a way many other things they do today don’t. It has given me the patience to turn another page of my history day after day. I will never be tired of the continuity in time in has showed me.

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