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Something has gone, and something else has replaced it. The grand linear narrative of modernity has for the most part been phased out, and something more complex and elusive has begun. Something that pulls us towards superfluous options for a future anterior. This ‘something’ is also making the transition from the concrete to the virtual, foregrounding the intangible in every respect – from heritage, knowledge production and wealth to identity, communication and social relations. In this new scenario, the notion of time has been corrupted, and it is that great intangible – the future – that has already been colonized. Here, those that possess the means of shaping representations of the future for the rest of society, particularly from within the spheres of politics and business, are those that are part of the new strata occupied by the most powerful within the redefined relations of social class. It is about the ability to craft powerful images, and it tends to be based on a deeply speculative economy that essentializes the idea of being totally dependent on things getting either better or worse. The intangibility of existing systems for generating these representations of the future means that that there is no longer a clear understanding of where exactly our repositories of pictorial culture lie, yet it is clear that it yields great power. And so, the ‘something’ here is what I would like to refer to as the ‘Image Bank Empire’.
As individuals, we have come to partially embody a lexicon of images from history that can be tapped at any moment for emotional responses. Our sense of images in itself suggests that there is a sort of metaphysical ‘image bank’ that has been nurtured over time, which has a profound existence in the collective conscience. It is something that suggests it is part of the symptomatic condition after the event of modernity, which follows exposure to modern cultural artefacts – mainly image production techniques and images – and it is seen as a sort of resource that is increasingly being mined at strategic moments. Think about a contemporary political election campaign, for example, where a common motif adopted is that of the sun rising in a landscape. This motif was used extremely successfully by President Barack Obama in his election and re-election campaigns in the USA, for example, although the same image backfired somewhat comically for the Labour Party in the UK in their 2010 election campaign – their graphic interpretation of a sunrise on the horizon actually seemed to resemble the blinding light of a nuclear explosion. Of course this image is intended to signify a future of optimism – a pure idealism even. It is an image that has a place in the collective mind, but where exactly it came from is not something that most people are aware of. The answer is that it has been appropriated from the historic posters of socialist propaganda – the brand new dawn offered by communism. But the fact that it has been appropriated from the visual grammar of the Western democratic world’s ideological nemesis does not seem to matter as much as the fact that people recognize it, and that it somehow suggests that beyond the horizon there are good things to come. The whole point of simple motifs is that every psyche has the capability to capture and tag them. They are the round pegs for the round holes in our minds.
And so with simple shapes and forms come symbolism. Symbols come to represent certain ideas in the mind, often with specific regard to events that are yet to come. The dome has become a ubiquitous motif for representing the future architectural imaginary, for example, despite the fact it has now become somewhat retro. But position motifs within a sequence of images and they effectively become part of a narrative. In essence, it is a game of mental associations. Something that could easily have been taken from André Malreaux’s Le Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Without Walls, 1947) as a mode of utilizing the image. It is a useful reference here, as museums are repositories just like image banks are. And although Malraux’s thesis focuses on the dissemination and narrativization of sets of images as secondary sources to the actual firsthand experience of art, it resonates widely. His thesis implies that the influx of images in the world had reached the threshold of being so widely circulated that in effect we all live our everyday lives – permanently – within a museum. Since he wrote Le Musée Imaginaire, the amount of images has expanded exponentially, to the point that many types of image have sunk into our minds so deeply that our collective memories are no longer distinguishable from them. ‘Imagine’ is derived from ‘image’. These images can be called on at any moment.
Living within this cognitive level of images is like watching, or even participating in, a hypothetical video in real time. At the level of politics and economics, important narratives unfold and can be modified or redirected at any moment, based on a decision as to whether the future possibly might be deemed necessary to change. This relation to images is not only based on how they slot into our memories, but also on their margins of malleability. Vilém Flusser’s compelling writings on images in society describe how they are unstable things with no fixed meaning, and that our ‘magical consciousness’ has the latent privilege of interpreting them in highly individualistic ways. There is a certain ‘liquidity’ to our perception if you like. Though in Flusser’s opinion this is considered a form of liberation, it is also open to much adulteration. The instability of images allows radical reinterpretations to be inserted in (and along with) the supply of images that are imminently linked to the speculative economy of things getting better or worse. It is a case of editing in order to highlight certain chains of motifs and signs. This takes us to the filmic quality of images generated in the world.
Deleuze’s writings on cinema consider the advent of film as being like the invention of a time machine. With moving-image culture, the context of time warps and changes. You are transported into a different situation that is at odds with the present moment. And it is the invention of these scenarios for image consumption that we might consider to be the ‘corruption’ of time – inserting a subjectivized scenario from a different moment in time into the context of the present moment in order to provide a glimpse of the future. It is a strategy used by numerous agents, from politicians to contemporary artists. It is also essential to the powerful insurance and reinsurance businesses too, extorting huge sums purely by creating the hypothetical situation of a negative outlook to come. For these people, nothing is without risk, and all risks are quantifiable. There is a certain art to forming narratives that play incessantly with the context of time – seemingly disparate images, ideas, emotive triggers and artefacts placed coherently in associative sequences can transport us. We can leap with ease from an image of the circular form of a retina to an image of a black hole through a short but concisely formulated suspension of disbelief. From a bone to a space station. It works similarly to the filmic conscience of the everyday, and it is in this sense that the twin fantasy realms of cinema and politics mirror each other. Representations that signify future forms of dystopia or utopia are made to connect, coercively, with the forms that already exist in our minds.
It could be said that notions of the future function a bit like memory in reverse. In the human-centric understanding of things, anything that is yet to happen can only do so in the mould of what has come before. At least this is the ethos of one school of thought existing within the academic though inexact science of Futures Studies. There are of course other schools, such as those that express opinions focused on the ‘Black Swan’ principle – a belief in the idea that the things that genuinely change the course of history are events that could never actually be predicted by society – the advent of the Internet for example, or the event referred to simply as ‘9/11’. Yet the human brain is drawn towards Hauntology, and the belief that the spectre of past events, monuments and beliefs are haunting us in the contemporary era, and will recur again to render the present course of the world redundant. That’s the thesis, and it is something that is replicated in some types of speculative fiction. The status of images in this understanding is almost supernatural, creating a sense of anxiety about life as if today is an ambiguous point somewhere between: a) a moment where a better time took a turn for the worse; and b) impending doom. Things are never that simple of course, and the simplification of an emotive story is the strategic means of generating prejudice for the economy of fear.
The technological means for the influx of images have transitioned inexplicably from one condition to another. During the era of modernity, one now-historical reservoir of images entered the collective consciousness. Yet another has been borne as a distorted reflection of the previous one – one that sought resolutely to commodify modes of mass representation. Image rights are now a vast reservoir of economic potential – ‘the oil of the twenty-first century’ as this is now regularly referred to. It doesn’t matter either whether this is in physical print form (‘dead tree media’ to some) or virtual form (‘pervasive media’ to some). (Except in the art context, where photography usually takes physical form and is sometimes editioned.) Running concurrently to business models built on image rights, there are other conceptual models for commerce that are built on predictions of human-induced risk, as well as arenas like the futures market, whose foundations are based on the aforementioned sets of wagers on whether things will get better or worse in the future. Defining the futures of what might happen to people, companies and organizations is to be operating several steps ahead of them, defining them by both their hypothetical weaknesses and their potential. Wishing to attain the status of being ‘futureproof’, as an individual or as a business, is emblematic of culture in the risk society.
It feels more accurate to say that we have become consumers ‘of’ culture rather than ‘in’ culture. It is this compulsory state of consumption that we are now inextricable from, particularly in the Western world, and that we could even use to draw a comparison with the historical role of religion. The consumption of mass culture has become the new way of instilling one’s sense of guiding principles and for orienting one’s moral compass. In a similar way to how many religions work, such as the Abrahamic faiths, this kind of embodiment is, at its heart, based on fear – fear of a higher power, fear of not achieving salvation, fear of other religions, fear of not conforming, fear of the unknown. Anthropologically speaking, these forms of belief are what come to the fore when there is an existentialist lack in our lives, and we need the image of an icon or deity to give this belief a symbolic form. This situation stems partially from a shortage of awareness about our abilities for self-determination in our lives. And many of us would actually rather feel the fear of the Other in order to be able to define ourselves in relation to it.
Of course, much of our exposure to images comes directly from the mass media – newspapers, marketing, television and Internet. They are supplied by a media network that, broadly speaking, is increasingly partisan. Openly so. This relation between medium and message has become well-theorized in the academic and cultural sphere, but what is now coming to the fore in the Western media are the implicit messages given in support of the notion of Universalism. Defined in the present situation as the shared sense of values and ethics for all of humanity, it is against the idea of cultural relativism – just like, say, the Catholic Church does not officially accept relativism. Universalism is something that is given the status of being like nature, thus unquestionable, and because it is the Western world that attained this belief first, it feels it has the right to preach and to intervene in the business of the non-Western world if necessary. This ideology has directly informed representations in the media by framing the national images of such places as China or the UAE as being the ‘evil’ of the future that we need to be protected from. An earlier, well-known incarnation of the Universalism construct was through early twentieth-century modernism, most visibly in architecture, as the grand project for creating a futuristic living platform for the whole of humanity. But it became evident that there was an implicit colonialism underlying this project. Today’s ‘European Universalism’ in the mind of the Western conscience (in theoretical circles at least) is being revealed as a similar hegemonic position. Images of the architectural imaginary though are often insidious in terms of the representation they give of these places as playgrounds for mainly Western ‘Starchitects’. They are images of architecture that are comparable to those seen in the West, but more dream-like, iconic and more daring, and they are fast becoming real. Perhaps a sort of Hauntology 2.0 – bringing back what the West was only dreaming of in the 1920s, just at a vastly accelerated rate. For some media outlets, it is an aspirational future we can choose to participate in, for others it is a nightmare scenario.
The Image Bank Empire ought to be considered as a sort of delirious regime. It is a delirious regime that is all-pervasive within the present situation of the Western political economy, and even stokes the fires of its motivation. Any idea of whether we can move on from here in some kind of progressive sense depends on whether you believe our society ultimately suffers from a lack of imagination or not. In some areas of Futures Studies there is the curious but fascinating question that considers whether civilization as we know it will reach a tipping point for its visual cultures – it is envisioned as the logical conclusion of a time when images are so overwhelmingly abundant that they no longer have any actual effect on us. We know from recent events that the economic system could also all too easily collapse, and so in a comparative way, perhaps its related machinery for generating affective images might also implode. All delirious regimes eventually come to a violent end, to be replaced by the beginnings of something else. It could be a moment that might allow us to imagine a whole new beginning. This of course would all be pure speculation.
-Notes on the Image Bank Empire