What Do I See When I See My Child?

An entry in a series on the experience of being a parent in the digital age. 

At first glance, this may seem like a question with an obvious and straightforward answer, but it isn’t. Vision plays a trick on us all. It offers its findings to us as a plain representation of “what is there.” But things are not so simple. Most of us know this because at some point our eyes have deceived us. The thing we thought we saw was not at all what was, in fact, there. Even this cliche about our eyes deceiving us reveals something about the implicit trust we ordinarily place in what our eyes show to us. When it turns out that our trust has been betrayed we do not simply say that we were mistaken–we speak as if we have been wronged, as if our eyes have behaved immorally. We are not in the habit, I don’t think, of claiming that our ears deceived us or our nose.

What we ordinarily fail to take into account is that seeing is an act of perception and perception is a form of interpretation.

Seeing is selective. Upon glancing at a scene, I’m tempted to think that I’ve taken it all in. But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. If I were to look again and look for a very long time, I would continue to see more and more details that I did not see at first, second, or third glance. Whatever it was that I perceived when I first looked is not what I will necessarily see if I continue to look; at the very least, it will not be all that I will see. So why did I see what I saw when first I looked?

Sometimes we see what we think we ought to see, what we expect to see. Sometimes we see what we want to see or that for which we are looking. Seeing is thus an act of both remembering and desiring. And this is not yet to say anything of the meaning of what we see, which is also intertwined with perception.

It is also the case that perception is often subject to mediation and this mediation is ordinarily technological in nature. Indeed, one of the most important consequences of any given technology is, in my view, how it shapes our perception of the world. But we are as tempted to assume that technology is neutral in its mediations and representations as we are to believe that vision simply shows us “what is there.” So when our vision is technologically mediated it is as if we were subject to a double spell.

The philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek, building on the work of Don Ihde, has written at length about what he has called the ethics of technological mediation. Technologies bring about “specific relations between human beings and reality.” They do this by virtue of their role in mediating both our perception of the world and our action in the world.

According to Ihde, the mediating work of technology comes in the form of two relations of mediation: embodiment relations and hermeneutic relations. In the first, tools are incorporated by the user and the world is experienced through the tool. Consider the blind man’s stick an example of an embodiment relation; the stick is incorporated into the man’s body schema.

Verbeek explains hermeneutic relations in this way: “technologies provide access to reality not because they are ‘incorporated,’ but because they provide a representation of reality, which requires interpretation.” Moreover, “technologies, when mediating our sensory relationship with reality, transform what we perceive. According to Ihde, the transformation of perception always has the structure of amplification and reduction.”

We might also speak of how technological mediation focuses our perception. Perhaps this is implied in Ihde’s two categories, amplification and reduction, or the two together amount to a technology’s focusing effect. We might also speak of this focusing effect as a directing of our attention.

So, once again, what do I see when I see my child?

There are man technologies that mediate how I perceive my child. When my child is in another room, I perceive her through a video monitor. When my child is ill, I perceive her through a digital thermometer, some which now continuously monitor body temperature and visualize the data on an app. Before she was born, I perceived her through ultrasound technology. When I am away from home, I perceive her through Facetime. More examples, I’m sure, may come readily to your mind. Each of these merits some attention, but I set them aside to briefly consider what may be the most ubiquitous form of technological mediation through which I perceive my child–the digital camera.

Interestingly, it strikes me that the digital camera, in particular the camera with which our phones are equipped, effects both an embodiment relation and a hermeneutic relation. I fear that I may be stretching the former category to make this claim, but I am thinking of the smartphone as a device which, in many respects, functions as a prosthesis. I mean by this that it is ready-to-hand to such a degree that it is experienced as an appendage of the body and that, even when it is not in hand, the ubiquitous capacity to document has worked its way into our psyche as a frame of mind through which we experience the world. It is not only the case that we see a child represented in a digital image, our ordinary act of seeing itself becomes a seeing-in-search-of-an-image.

What does the mediation of the digital smartphone camera amplify? What does it reduce? How does it bring my child into focus? What does it encourage me to notice and what does it encourage me to ignore? What can it not account for?

What does it condition me to look for when I look at my child and, thus, how does it condition my perception of my child?

Is it my child that I see or a moment to be documented? Am I perceiving my child in herself or am I perceiving my child as a component of an image, a piece of the visual furniture?

What becomes of the integrity of the moment when seeing is mediated through an always-present digital camera?

How does the representation of my child in images that capture discreet moments impact my experience of time with my child? Do these images sustain or discourage the formation of a narrative within which the meaning of my relationship with my child emerges?

It is worth noting, as well, that the smartphone camera ordinarily exists as one component within a network of tools that includes the internet and social media tools. In other words, the image is not merely a record of a moment or an externalized memory. It is also always potentially an act of communication. An audience–on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Snapchat, etc.–is everywhere with me as an ambient potentiality that conditions my perception of all that enters into my experience. Consequently, I may perceive my child not only as a potential image but as a potential image for an audience.

What is the nature of this audience? What images do I believe they care to see? What images do I want them to see? From where does my idea of the images they care to see arise? Do they arise from the images I see displayed for me as part of another’s audience? Or from professional media or commercial marketing campaigns? Are these the visual patterns I remember, half-consciously perhaps, when my perceiving takes the on the aspect of seeing-as-expectation? Do they form my perception-as-desire? For whom is my child under these circumstances?

I have raised many questions, which I have left unanswered. I leave these questions unanswered chiefly because whatever my answers may be, they are not likely to be your answers. And the value of these questions lies in the asking and not in the particular answers that I might give to them. Regardless of the answers we give, the questions are worth asking for what they may reveal as we contemplate them.

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Google Photos and the Ideal of Passive Pervasive Documentation

I’ve been thinking, recently, about the past and how we remember it. That this year marks the 20th anniversary of my high school graduation accounts for some of my reflective reminiscing. Flipping through my senior yearbook, I was surprised by what I didn’t remember. Seemingly memorable events alluded to by friends in their notes and more than one of the items I myself listed as “Best Memories” have altogether faded into oblivion. “I will never forget when …” is an apparently rash vow to make.

But my mind has not been entirely washed by Lethe’s waters. Memories, assorted and varied, do persist. Many of these are sustained and summoned by stuff, much of it useless, that I’ve saved for what we derisively call sentimental reasons. My wife and I are now in the business of unsentimentally trashing as much of this stuff as possible to make room for our first child. But it can be hard parting with the detritus of our lives because it is often the only tenuous link joining who we were to who we now are. It feels as if you risk losing a part of yourself forever if you were to throw away that last delicate link.

“Life without memory,” Luis Bunuel tells us, “is no life at all.” “Our memory,” he adds, “is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.” Perhaps this accounts for why tech criticism was born in a debate about memory. In the Phaedrus, Plato’s Socrates tells a cautionary tale about the invention of writing in which writing is framed as a technology that undermines the mind’s power to remember. What we can write down, we will no longer know for ourselves–or so Socrates worried. He was, of course, right. But, as we all know, this was an incomplete assessment of writing. Writing did weaken memory in the way Plato feared, but it did much else besides. It would not be the last time critics contemplated the effects of a new technology on memory.

I’ve not written nearly as much about memory as I once did, but it continues to be an area of deep interest. That interest was recently renewed not only by personal circumstances but also by the rollout of Google Photos, a new photo storage app with cutting edge sorting and searching capabilities. According to Steven Levy, Google hopes that it will be received as a “visual equivalent to Gmail.” On the surface, this is just another digital tool designed to store and manipulate data. But the data in question is, in this case, intimately tied up with our experience and how we remember it. It is yet another tool designed to store and manipulate memory.

When Levy asked Bradley Horowitz, the Google executive in charge of Photos, what problem does Google Photos solve? Horowitz replied,

“We have a proliferation of devices and storage and bandwidth, to the point where every single moment of our life can be saved and recorded. But you don’t get a second life with which to curate, review, and appreciate the first life. You almost need a second vacation to go through the pictures of the safari on your first vacation. That’s the problem we’re trying to fix — to automate the process so that users can be in the moment. We also want to bring all of the power of computer vision and machine learning to improve those photos, create derivative works, to make suggestions…to really be your assistant.”

It shouldn’t be too surprising that the solution to the problem of pervasive documentation enabled by technology is a new technology that allows you to continue documenting with even greater abandon. Like so many technological fixes to technological problems, it’s just a way of doubling down on the problem. Nor is it surprising that he also suggested this would help users “be in the moment” without of a hint of irony.

But here is the most important part of the whole interview, emphasis mine:

“[…] so part of Google photos is to create a safe space for your photos and remove any stigma associated with saving everything. For instance, I use my phone to take pictures of receipts, and pictures of signs that I want to remember and things like that. These can potentially pollute my photo stream. We make it so that things like that recede into the background, so there’s no cognitive burden to actually saving everything.”

Replace saving with remembering and the potential significance of a tool like Google Photos becomes easier to apprehend. Horowitz is here confirming that users will need to upload their photos to Google’s Cloud if they want to take advantage of Google Photos’ most impressive features. He anticipates that there will be questions about privacy and security, hence the mention of safety. But the really important issue here is this business about saving everything.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the stigma Horowitz is talking about, but the cognitive burden of “saving everything” is presumably the burden of sorting and searching. How do you find the one picture you’re looking for when you’ve saved thousands of pictures across a variety of platforms and drives? How do you begin to organize all of these pictures in any kind of meaningful way? Enter Google Photos and its uncanny ability to identify faces and group pictures into three basic categories–People, Places, and Things–as well as a variety of sub-categories such as “food,” “beach,” or “cars.” Now you don’t need that second life to curate your photos. Google does it for you. Now we may document our lives to our heart’s content without a second thought about whether or not we’ll ever go back to curate our unwieldy hoard of images.

I’ve argued elsewhere that we’ve entered an age of memory abundance, and the abundance of memories makes us indifferent to them. When memory is scarce, we treasure it and care deeply about preserving it. When we generate a surfeit of memory, our ability to care about it diminishes proportionately. We can no longer relate to how Roland Barthes treasured his mother’s photograph; we are more like Andy Warhol, obsessively recording all of his interactions and never once listening to the recordings. Plato was, after all, even closer to the mark than we realized. New technologies of memory reconfigure the affections as well as the intellect. But is it possible that Google Photos will prove this judgement premature? Has Google figured out how we may have our memory cake and eat it too?

I think not, and there’s a historical precedent that will explain why.

Ivan Illich, in his brilliant study of medieval reading and the evolution of the book, In the Vineyard of the Text, noted how emerging textual technologies reconfigured how readers related to what they read. It is a complex, multifaceted argument and I won’t do justice to it here, but the heart of it is summed up in the title of Illich’s closing chapter, “From Book to Text.” After explaining what Illich meant by the that formulation, I’m going to suggest that we consider an analogous development: from photograph to image.

Like the photography, writing is, as Plato understood, a mnemonic technology. The book or codex is only one form the technology has taken, but it is arguably the most important form owing to its storage capacity and portability. Contrast the book to, for instance, a carved stone tablet or a scroll and you’ll immediately recognize the brilliance of the design. But the matter of sorting and searching remained a significant problem until the twelfth century. It is then that new features appeared to improve the book’s accessibility and user-friendliness, among them chapter titles, pagination, and the alphabetized index. Now one cloud access particular passages without having to either read the whole work or, more to the point, either memorize the passages or their location in the book (illuminated manuscripts were designed to aide with the latter).

My word choice in describing the evolution of the book above was, of course, calculated to make us see the book as a technology and also to make certain parallels to the case of digital photography more obvious. But what was the end result of all of this innovation? What did Illich mean by saying that the book became a text?

Borrowing a phrase Katherine Hayles deployed to describe a much later development, I’d say that Illich is getting at one example of how information lost its body. In other words, prior to these developments it was harder to imagine the text of a book as a free-floating reality that could be easily lifted and presented in a different format. The ideas, if you will, and the material that conveyed them–the message and medium–were intimately bound together; one could hardly imagine the two existing independently. This had everything to do with the embodied dimensions of the reading experience and the scarcity of books. Because there was no easy way to dip in and out of a book to look for a particular fragment and because one would likely encounter but one copy of a particular work, the work was experienced as a whole that lived within the particular pages of the book one held in hand.

The book had then been read reverentially as a window on the world; it yielded what Illich termed monastic reading. The text was later, after the technical innovations of the twelfth century, read as a window on the mind of the author; it yielded scholastic reading. We might also characterize these as devotional reading and academic reading, respectively. Illich summed it up this way:

“The text could now be seen as something distinct from the book. It was an object that could be visualized even with closed eyes [….] The page lost the quality of soil in which words are rooted. The new text was a figment on the face of the book that lifted off into autonomous existence [….] Only its shadow appeared on the page of this or that concrete book. As a result, the book was no longer the window onto nature or god; it was no longer the transparent optical device through which a reader gains access to creatures or the transcendent.”

Illich had, a few pages earlier, put the matter more evocatively: “Modern reading, especially of the academic and professional type, is an activity performed by commuters or tourists; it is no longer that of pedestrians and pilgrims.”

I recount Illich’s argument because it illuminates the changes we are witnessing with regards to photography. Illich demonstrated two relevant principles. First, that small technical developments can have significant and lasting consequences for the experience and meaning of media. The move from analog to digital photography should naturally be granted priority of place, but subsequent developments such as those in face recognition software and automated categorization should not be underestimated. Secondly, that improvements in what we might today call retrieval and accessibility can generate an order of abstraction and detachment from the concrete embodiment of media. And this matters because the concrete embodiment, the book as opposed to the text, yields kinds and degrees of engagement that are unique to it.

Let me try to put the matter more directly and simultaneously apply it to the case of photography. Improving accessibility meant that readers could approach the physical book as the mere repository of mental constructs, which could be poached and gleaned at whim. Consequently, the book was something to be used to gain access to the text, which now appeared for the first time as an abstract reality; it ceased to be itself a unique and precious window on the world and its affective power was compromised.

Now, just as the book yielded to the text, so the photograph yields to the image. Imagine a 19th century woman gazing lovingly at a photograph of her son. The woman does not conceive of the photograph as one instantiation of the image of her son. Today, however, we who hardly ever hold photographs anymore, we can hardly help thinking it terms of images, which may be displayed on any of a number of different platforms, not to mention manipulated at whim. The image is an order of abstraction removed from the photograph and it would be hard to imagine someone treasuring it in the same way that we might treasure an old photograph. Perhaps a thought experiment will drive this home. Try to imagine the emotional distance between the act of tearing up a photograph and deleting an image.

Now let’s come back to the problem Google Photos is intended to solve. Will automated sorting and categorization along with the ability to search succeed in making our documentation more meaningful? Moreover, will it overcome the problems associated with memory abundance? Doubtful. Instead, the tools will facilitate further abstraction and detachment. They are designed to encourage the production of even more documentary data and to further diminish our involvement in their production and storage. Consequently, we will continue to care less not more about particular images.

Of course, this hardly means the tools are useless or that images are meaningless. I’m certain that face recognition software, for instance, can and will be put to all sorts of uses, benign and otherwise and that the reams of data users will feed Google Photos will only help to improve and refine the software. And it is also true that images can be made use of in ways that photographs never could. But perhaps that is the point. A photograph we might cherish; we tend to make use of images. Unlike the useless stuff around which my memories accumulate and that I struggle to throw away, images are all use-value and we don’t think twice about deleting them when they have no use.

Finally, Google’s answer to the problem of documentation, that it takes us out of the moment as it were, is to encourage such pervasive and continual documentation that it is no longer experienced as a stepping out of the moment at all. The goal appears to be a state of continual passive documentation in which case the distinction between experience and documentation blurs so that the two are indistinguishable. The problem is not so much solved as it is altogether transcended. To experience life will be to document it. In so doing we are generating a second life, a phantom life that abides in the Cloud.

And perhaps we may, without stretching the bounds of plausibility too far, reconsider that rather ethereal, heavenly metaphor–the Cloud. As we generate this phantom life, this double of ourselves constituted by data, are we thereby hoping, half-consciously, to evade or at least cope with the unremitting passage of time and, ultimately, our mortality?

The Would-Be Assassin and the Camera

It’s not uncommon to hear someone say that they were haunted by an image, often an old photograph. It is a figurative and evocative expression. To say that an image is haunting is to say that the image has lodged itself in the mind like a ghost might stubbornly take up residence in a house, or that it has somehow gotten a hold of the imagination and in the imagination lives on as a spectral after-image. When we speak of images of the deceased, of course, the language of haunting approaches its literal meaning. In these photographs, the dead enjoy an afterlife in the imagination.

Lewis Powell

I’ve lately been haunted myself by one such photograph. It is a well-known image of Lewis Powell, the man hung for his failed attempt to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward. On the same night that John Wilkes Booth murdered the president, Powell was to kill the secretary of state and their co-conspirator, George Atzerodt, was to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson. Atzerodt failed to attempt the assassination altogether. Powell followed through, and, although Seward survived, he inflicted tremendous suffering on the Seward household.

I came upon the haunting image of Powell in a series of recently colorized Civil War photographs, and I was immediately captivated by the apparent modernity of the image. Nineteenth century photographs tend to have a distinct feel, one that clearly announces the distant “pastness” of what they have captured. That they are ordinarily black-and-white only partially explains this effect. More significantly, the effect is communicated by the look of the people in the photographs. It’s not the look of their physical appearance, though; rather, it’s the “look” of their personality.

There is distinct subjectivity—or, perhaps, lack thereof—that emerges from these old photographs. There is something in the eyes that suggests a way of being in the world that is foreign and impenetrable. The camera is itself a double cause of this dissonance. First, the subjects seem unsure of how to position themselves before the camera; they are still unsettled, it seems, by the photographic technique. They seem to be wrestling with the camera’s gaze. They are too aware of it. It has rendered them objects, and they’ve not yet managed to negotiate the terms under which they may recover their status as subjects in their own right. In short, they had not yet grown comfortable playing themselves before the camera, with the self-alienated stance that such performance entails.

But then there is this image of Powell, which looks as if it could have been taken yesterday and posted on Instagram. The gap in consciousness seems entirely closed. The “pastness” is eclipsed. Was this merely a result of his clean-shaven, youthful air? Was it the temporal ambiguity of his clothing or of the way he wore his hair? Or was Powell on to something that his contemporaries had not yet grasped? Did he hold some clue about the evolution of modern consciousness? I went in search of an answer, and I found that the first person I turned to had been there already.

Death on Film

"He is dead, and he is going to die ..."
“He is dead, and he is going to die …”

Roland Barthes’ discussion of death and photography in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography has achieved canonical status, and I turned to his analysis in order to shed light on my experience of this particular image that was so weighted with death. I soon discovered that an image of Powell appears in Camera Lucida. It is not the same image that grabbed my attention, but a similar photograph taken at the same time. In this photograph, Powell is looking at the camera, the manacles that bind his hands are visible, but still the modernity of expression persists.

Barthes was taken by the way that a photograph suggests both the “that-has-been” and the “this-will-die” aspects of a photographic subject. His most famous discussion of this dual gesture involved a photograph of his mother, which does not appear in the book. But a shot of Powell is used to illustrate a very similar point. It is captioned, “He is dead, and he is going to die …” The photograph simultaneously witnesses to three related realities. Powell was; he is no more; and, in the moment captured by this photograph, he is on his way to death.

Barthes also borrowed two Latin words for his analysis: studium and punctum. The studium of a photograph is its ostensible subject matter and what we might imagine the photographer seeks to convey through the photograph. The punctum by contrast is the aspect that “pricks” or “wounds” the viewer. The experience of the punctum is wholly subjective. It is the aspect that disturbs the studium and jars the viewer. Regarding the Powell photograph, Barthes writes,

“The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: this will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose, the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence.”

In my own experience, the studium was already the awareness of Powell’s impending death. The punctum was the modernity of Powell’s subjectivity. Still eager to account for the photograph’s effect, I turned from Barthes to historical sources that might shed light on the photographs.

The Gardner Photographs

The night of the assassination attempt, Powell entered the Seward residence claiming that he was asked to deliver medicine for Seward. When Seward’s son, Frederick, told Powell that he would take the medicine to his father, Powell handed it over, started to walk away, but then wheeled on Frederick and put a gun to his head. The gun misfired and Powell proceeded to beat Frederick over the head with it. He did so with sufficient force to crack Frederick’s skull and jam the gun.

Powell then pushed Seward’s daughter out of the way as he burst into the secretary of state’s room. He leapt onto Seward’s bed and repeatedly slashed at Seward with a knife. Seward was likely saved by an apparatus he was wearing to correct an injury to his jaw sustained days earlier. The apparatus deflected Powell’s blows from Seward’s jugular. Powell then wounded two other men, including another of Seward’s sons, as they attempted to pull him off of Seward. As he fled down the stairs, Powell also stabbed a messenger who had just arrived. Like everyone else who was wounded that evening, the messenger survived, but he was paralyzed for life.

Powell then rushed outside to discover that a panicky co-conspirator who was to help him make his getaway had abandoned him. Over the course of three days, Powell then made his way to a boardinghouse owned by Mary Surratt where Booth and his circle had plotted the assassinations. He arrived, however, just as Surratt was being questioned, and, not providing a very convincing account of himself, he was taken into custody. Shortly thereafter, Powell was picked out of a lineup by one of Seward’s servants and taken aboard the ironclad USS Saugus to await his trial.

It was aboard the Saugus that Powell was photographed by Alexander Gardner, a Scot who had made his way to America to work with Matthew Brady. According to Powell’s biographer, Betty Ownsbey, Powell resisted having his picture taken by vigorously shaking his head when Gardner prepared to take a photograph. Given the exposure time, this would have blurred his face beyond recognition. Annoyed by Powell’s antics, H. H. Wells, the officer in charge of the photo shoot, struck Powell’s arm with the side of his sword. At this, Major Eckert, an assistant to the secretary of war who was there to interrogate Powell, interposed and reprimanded Wells.

Powell then seems to have resigned himself to being photographed, and Gardner proceeded to take several shots of Powell. Gardner must have realized that he had something unique in these exposures because he went on to copyright six images of Powell. He didn’t bother to do so with any of the other pictures he took of the conspirators. Historian James Swanson explains:

“[Gardner’s] images of the other conspirators are routine portraits bound by the conventions of nineteenth century photography. In his images of Powell, however, Gardner achieved something more.  In one startling and powerful view, Powell leans back against a gun turret, relaxes his body, and gazes languidly at the viewer. There is a directness and modernity in Gardner’s Powell suite unseen in the other photographs.”

My intuition was re-affirmed, but the question remained: What accounted for the modernity of these photographs?

Resisting the Camera’s Gaze

Ownsbey’s account of the photo shoot contained an important clue: Powell’s subversive tactics. Powell clearly intuited something about his position before the camera that he didn’t like. He attempted one form of overt resistance, but appears to have decided that this choice was untenable. He then seems to acquiesce. But what if he wasn’t acquiescing? What if the modernity that radiates from these pictures arises out of Powell’s continued resistance by other means?

Powell could not avoid the gaze of the camera, but he could practice a studied indifference to it. In order to resist the gaze, he would carry on as if there were no gaze. To ward off the objectifying power of the camera, he had to play himself before the camera. Simply being himself was out of the question; the observer effect created by the camera’s presence so heightened one’s self-consciousness that it was no longer possible to simply be. Simply being assumed self-forgetfulness. The camera does not allow us to forget ourselves. In fact, as with all technologies of self-documentation, it heightens self-consciousness. In order to appear indifferent to the camera, Powell had to perform the part of Lewis Powell as Lewis Powell would appear were there no camera present.

In doing so, Powell stumbled upon the negotiated settlement with the gaze of the camera that eluded his contemporaries. He was a pioneer of subjectivity. Before the camera, many of his contemporaries either stared blankly, giving the impression of total vacuity, or else they played a role–the role of the brave soldier, or the statesman, or the lover, etc. Powell found another way. He played himself. There was nothing new about playing a role, of course. But playing yourself, that seems a watershed of consciousness. Playing a role entails a deliberate putting on of certain affectations; playing yourself suggests that there is nothing to the self but affectations. The anchor of identity in self-forgetfulness is lifted and the self is set adrift. Perhaps the violence that Powell had witnessed and perpetrated prepared him for this work against his psyche.

If indeed this was Powell’s mode of resistance, it was Pyrrhic: ultimately it entailed an even more profound surrender of subjectivity. It internalized the objectification of the self which the external the external presence of the camera elicited. This is what gave Powell’s photographs their eerie modernity. They were haunted by the future, not the past. It wasn’t Powell’s imminent death that made them uncanny; it was the glimpse of our own fractured subjectivity. Powell’s struggle before the camera, then, becomes a parable of human subjectivity in the age of pervasive documentation. We have learned to play ourselves with ease, and not only before the camera. The camera is now irrelevant.

In the short time that was left to him after the Gardner photographs were taken, Powell went on to become a minor celebrity. He was, according to Swanson, the star attraction at the trial of Booth’s co-conspirators. Powell “fascinated the press, the public, and his own guards.” He was, in the words of a contemporary account, “the observed of all observers, as he sat motionless and imperturbed, defiantly returning each gaze at his face and person.” But the performance had its limits. Although Ownsbey has raised reasonable doubts about the claim, it was widely reported that Powell had attempted suicide by repeatedly pounding his head against a wall.

On July 7, 1865, a little over two months since the Gardner photographs, Powell was hanged with three of his co-conspirators. It doesn’t require Barthes’ critical powers to realize that death saturates the Powell photographs, but death figured only incidentally in the reading I’ve offered here. It is not, however, irrelevant that this foray into modern consciousness was undertaken under the shadow of death. It is death, perhaps, that gave Powell’s performance its urgency. And perhaps it is now death that serves as the last lone anchor of the self.

Society of the Spectator

You’ve likely heard or read about Ingrid Loyau-Kennett. She is the woman who calmly conversed with the two men who had just murdered a British soldier on the streets of London  for the nearly 20 minutes it took police to arrive on the scene. If you’ve not, you can read about the whole incident in this profile of Loyau-Kennet that appeared in The Guardian (link via ayjay).

I was particularly struck by the closing paragraphs:

Loyau-Kennett is deeply concerned, she says, about the direction modern society is headed. “I prefer the values of the past than the non-values of today, where most people don’t seem to give a damn about others.” The events of last Wednesday have magnified her feelings. She has particular disdain for some of the people who stood by recording on their phones, refusing to offer help.

“It annoyed me to see those people with mobile phones filming,” she says. “They were doing it for money, with the idea of selling the footage. I was annoyed at what must be in their heads that they just wanted to watch and record the unhappiness of others. And then there was the stupidity of the mothers who had stopped there with their kids. The man could have reached them in five seconds if he’d run at them. It would never cross my mind to show a heavily bleeding body to my kids.”

If people were scared, she ponders, why didn’t they just run away? That’s an understandable reaction, she says. “It’s a horrible mentality that some people have these days. I think we have this culture now – maybe started by things like soap operas – where we have this unhealthy curiosity about other people’s lives. You shouldn’t just be there watching like it’s on TV. By only watching they are actually interfering. Do something useful. Don’t just stand there. Move away.”

Thoughts? What do we make of her analysis? Is this a symptom of what Debord famously called the “society of the spectacle”? Or better, is this a symptom of the evolution of the society of the spectacle into the society of the documenting spectator?

Walker Percy on the Surrender of Our Experience

I’ve long had The Message in the Bottle, a collection of Walker Percy’s essays on my shelf. Over the years, I’ve dipped in it to read an essay or two here and there. Somehow I’d missed the second essay in the collection, “The Loss of the Creature.” I’m grateful to Alan Jacobs for mentioning this essay in a comment thread this morning. The essay is well-worth your time to read. Here are a couple of selections. I commend the whole thing to you.

“Why is it almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon, under these circumstances and see it for what it is — as one picks up a strange object from one’s back yard and gazes directly at it? It is almost impossible because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind. Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic complex, head on. The thing is no longer the thing as it confronted the Spaniard; it is rather ‘that which has already been formulated-by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon. As a result of this preformulation, the source of the sightseer’s pleasure undergoes a shift. Where the wonder and delight of the Spaniard arose from his penetration of the thing itself, from a progressive discovery of depths, patterns, colors, shadows, etc., now the sightseer measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex. If it does so, if it looks just like the postcard, he is pleased; he might even say, “Why it is every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard!” He feels he has not been cheated. But if it does not conform, if the colors are somber, he will not be able to see it directly; he will only be conscious of the disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be. He will say later that he was unlucky in not being there at the right time. The highest point, the term of the sightseer’s satisfaction, is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex.

Seeing the canyon is made even more difficult by what the sightseer does when the moment arrives, when sovereign knower confronts the thing to be known. Instead of looking at it, he photographs it. There is no confrontation at all. At the end of forty years of preformulation and with the Grand Canyon yawning at his feet, what does he do? He waives his right of seeing and knowing and records symbols for the next forty years. For him there is no present; there is only the past of what has been formulated and seen and the future of what has been formulated and not seen. The present is surrendered to the past and the future.”


“This loss of sovereignty is not a marginal process, as might appear from my example of estranged sightseers. It is a generalized surrender of the horizon to those experts within whose competence a particular segment of the horizon is thought to lie. Kwakiutls are surrendered to Franz Boas; decaying Southern mansions are surrendered to Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. So that, although it is by no means the intention of the expert to expropriate sovereignty — in fact he would not even know what sovereignty meant in this context — the danger of theory and consumption is a seduction and deprivation of the consumer.

In the New Mexican desert, natives occasionally come across strange-looking artifacts which have fallen from the skies and which are stenciled: Return to U.S. Experimental Project, Alamogordo. Reward. The finder returns the object and is rewarded. He knows nothing of the nature of the object he has found and does not care to know. The sole role of the native, the highest role he can play, is that of finder and returner of the mysterious equipment.

The same is true of the layman’s relation to natural objects in a modern technical society. No matter what the object or event is, whether it is a star, a swallow, a Kwakiutl, a ‘psychological phenomenon,’ the layman who confronts it does not confront it as a sovereign person, as Crusoe confronts a seashell he finds on the beach. The highest role he can conceive himself as playing is to be able to recognize the title of the object, to return it to the appropriate expert and have it certified as a genuine find. He does not even permit himself to see the thing — as Gerard Hopkins could see a rock or a cloud or a field. If anyone asks him why he doesn’t look, he may reply that he didn’t take that subject in college (or he hasn’t read Faulkner).

This loss of sovereignty extends even to oneself. There is the neurotic who asks nothing more of his doctor than that his symptom should prove interesting. When all else fails, the poor fellow has nothing to offer but his own neurosis. But even this is sufficient if only the doctor will show interest when he says, ‘Last night I had a curious sort of dream; perhaps it will be significant to one who knows about such things. It seems I was standing in a sort of alley –‘ (I have nothing else to offer you but my own unhappiness. Please say that it, at least, measures up, that it is a proper sort of unhappiness.)”