PHOTOCAPITALISM IS AMONG US
Carles Guerra is the director of Fundació Tàpies. A curator and associate professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, he has held various other positions, including chief curator of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), director of La Virreina Centre de la Imatge in Barcelona, and director of the 2004 Primavera Fotografica. Since the late nineties he has paid particular attention to post-media documentary practices in the form of monographic exhibitions and special publications.
The current debate on photography is about to eliminate the remains of a practice that, since the nineteenth century, has had a central role in establishing notions of citizenship, the public sphere, or the event.1 While some have held to the belief that technique is an instrument in the production of truth, one in which the photo graphic camera becomes a fetish, others are inattentive to the resultant photo graphic act. For the latter, photography is an encounter mediated by the camera, as if the apparatus were merely a presence whose attributes vary over time. How ever, its authority is also subject to ruinous tensions that could ultimately discredit what the camera has seen.
Heads Will Roll could be read as an unsettling symptom of sensorial and perceptual stress that photography, having suffered from itself, is unable to represent in a traditional medium. The visual repertoire in this volume is reminiscent of the accumulation of genres that define photography in the twenty-first century. Found within these pages is the information, surveillance, pornography, and the mobilization effect—the power photography has to prompt a particular perception of events in the public sphere—, which pervade the character of the photographic image. Together they embody a set of functions that are quite different from the celebratory and mnemonic character that is quite typical of the medium. What is at stake is the accountability of photography in regard to its history.
The somber, dense, and speculative nature of many of the compositions that appear in this visual essay reveal a space that is freed from the mythologized contact with reality, and is representative of the way in which documentary aesthetics is defined. The photographic epic, which has sought to access any event that occurs in remote places and unexpected moments, yields to an economy of access that turns the computer screen into a heterotopy,2 a place in which these events over lap in a sequence and which take place before us. Photography, as can be inferred from the pages of this book, abandons the traditional division of labor that had once previously characterized it.
The manufacture of the event, its capture, and its subsequent distribution are replaced by a process that, in general, is possible to carry out through low cost technology. In condensing what had once constituted the three distinct moments of photographic production, all chance of distinguishing between the agents of the event and its observers is reduced. Even the computer screen is no longer a sufficient guarantee of the separation between what happens on one side and the other. Today it is inevitable to conclude that photography is—as Judith Butler said, following the release of the infamous Abu Ghraib images—part of the event.3
The result of these transformations, which are more social than technical in nature, is clearly the product of the accelerated dissemination of reproduced images that are released into circulation and continually distorted. Thus, it is degeneration rather than evolutionary and illuminating generation that emerges as the impulse of a creativity that transcends individual actions and that further distances itself from a transcendent concept of the image. If there is anything that defines Heads Will Roll, it is its willingness to accept uncertainty as a principle. The sequence of its pages, far from promoting a discursive logic, modulates intensities and sets forth tonalities. The synthesis of the story that takes place between the images resists articulation. It is suspended as if it were one image among many.
Max de Esteban’s essay, which is entitled with a phrase that rouses the specter of looming violence, reveals a considerable heterogeneity of images that are drawn from the flow of news, as well as from other sources, and offers a version of the photographic medium as it is experienced in the digital age, its content—rather than a detailed story of the supposed events that are represented—reveals an accumulation of juxtapositions. This is, perhaps, its ultimate meaning, for which there is no more accurate and fair equivalent than the interpretative difficulties that the contemporary individual faces in a hypermedia world. Thus, iconic overabundance eliminates the hierarchy that is able to discriminate between figure and background. Perplexity is no longer a state of exception, instead it constitutes normalcy.
However, the associations and compositions that are distilled from the sequences in the book are not limited to images in the strict sense of the term. The relation ship between the banality of the means of production that this type of essay re quires—often it requires no more than a home computer—stands in stark contrast with the subject matter of a more speculative nature, which, on the contrary, de mands a considerable epistemological apparatus. The most significant relationship is articulated between these two dimensions—namely between the modesty of the medium and the ambition of the questions that are to be dealt with. The soft ware that is used in postproduction to alter the photographic image and that is easily accessible to a majority of users further sustains this parade of monumental references in the history of philosophy. Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and so many other figures emerge as shadows projected upon the ruins of the most mediatized of catastrophes.
In this sense, contemporary photography—or what is left of it—does not conceal its status as a victim with respect to the conflicts that it has represented throughout its history.4
It is as if all the wars has taken its toll on the body of this institution. Something profound and destabilizing has affected the photographic vision, to the point of disabling it. As can already be seen in the first plates by Max de Esteban—snap shots of disasters, deflagrations, and waste dumps—the skeptical nature of the gaze that is cultivated in catastrophe comes forth, which is something that the mon tage of the images confirms in its extensive sequence of overlays. These are the same images that give substance to the tensions and collisions made emblematic by the accident scenes. Photojournalistic violence does not have an effect on the transmission of the image, but rather it becomes the medium that acts as an effi cient instrument in propagating the catastrophe.
The innumerable layers and strata of images in this volume demonstrate that none of these compositions can aspire to attain a permanent significance. The meaning of the images undergoes semantic stress to such an extent, that they are ultimately turned into docile, iterate signs. So much so, that even the classic method of cen sorship—by which the circulation of counterproductive images was prevented—is unnecessary. In fact, Max de Esteban’s treatment of his compositions assumes that the images have left behind a contemporary Inquisition of sorts. It is sufficient enough to intervene in the interpretation—in that subjective space that from now on will have to be defined as a space of bio-political government, as open, acces sible, and predisposed to receive instructions, as had once been the case in photo graphic distribution. Or, moreover, susceptible to governance, as in the instance of a public space in which the production of images were dispersed and in which it seemed to be possible to interrupt their dissemination.
As a consequence, the drama and eroticism that exude the fragments of each composition in Heads Will Roll are systematically and purposefully diffused. Visual pleasure and catastrophic fury collide at their extremes. This is undoubtedly the most explicit symptom of perceptive habits that have been deprogrammed and submitted to an “induced regression,”5 a state where photography—just like a tortured body—can end up losing all capacity for vision. As a result of this process, the photographic apparatus relegates the capturing of images. Photographic prac tice then shifts to the management of photography, as if each and every one of us had become a news service, able to access thousands of snapshots of remote events, which can then be reordered in a limitless and unrestrictive fashion.
This is how this ambitious photographic essay is able to recall the epic character of photography books of the nineteenthirties. The ability to represent the most complex transformations that took place during that decade—changes of a political and economic nature—would add an additional challenge to the documentary task.
Visual evidence, which were newly established by the documentary aesthetic, was confronted with the perception of phenomena that were diffused in time and dis persed in space. The cognitive complexity of that crisis overwhelmed the limits of the photographic medium, which, it could be said, had been confronted with a new manifestation of the sublime. Beyond the empirically observable events, the modern subject is thus the receiver of information that cannot be verified except by means of the distributed images. They can only be accepted by believing in their truthfulness.
It would be appropriate to cite two photography books by Ernst Jünger, Der gefahr- liche Augenblick (The dangerous moment; 1931) and Die veranderte Welt (The transformed world; 1933),6 which indicate the emergence of a new visual literacy that had domesticated the mediatized sublime of the nineteenthirties. Its referent is a consumer of fleeting and transitory images, with a gaze trained by the photo graphic technique. Well aware of the mobilizing power of photography, Jünger con firmed an ability to act with his innovative use of images that he had obtained from news agencies. Rather than celebrating a scopic fascination and the illusion of visual totalitarianism, the photography books of this problematic writer, which are often considered to be of a secondary nature within the corpus of his work, propose a reflection on the medium of photography in the interwar period. In them, the hyp notic power of catastrophe is added to an intellectual ambition. In this new essay form, critical thinking finds itself grappling with an emergency scenario. The naturalization and submission of what uncontrollably explodes in the catastrophe ulti mately provides the necessary aesthetic tension. To paraphrase Paul Virilio, the acci dent allows for “an unconscious work” in which we discover what was being hidden.
However, we cannot ignore that the interpretation Jünger proposes for the new planetary regime was affected by an ambivalent attraction to war as a liberating force of energy. In Heads Will Roll there is no trace of traditional war, except for a few plates that could date from the First World War. Destruction has evolved into a blurry violence that is nevertheless as effective as allout war (or more so). The ubiquity of police forces, the remains of the climate catastrophe, or the accidents of history—themes that are found among the images that compose Heads Will Roll—confirm an interest in representing the forms of neo-liberal government. In a world of apparent freedom, effective control lies in the constant warnings about the lurking risk.
The anxiety that characterizes the digital era conceals the last of the transforma tions photography has brought to the area of social relationships. Uncertainty about the disappearance of a chemically determined medium and its substitution by a new dematerialized technology leads to a debate that questions the material and technical order. Photography, as we have thus far understood it, teeters on the brink of more important changes. The sequence of technological transformations is no longer an adequate description of what photography has become.
In these times of systemic crisis, the anxiety that characterizes digital photography coincides with analogous anxieties that have emerged from an increasingly abstract and an intangible economy. To the extent that this abstract economy is presented as the most decisive, one that ultimately influences the conditions of our existence. It is the economy that we consider to be real, so that digital photography and capitalism are quite similar as both are defined by their speculative risk. Both admit that they are sustained by a theological structure,7 which only allows us to believe everything is functioning smoothly until the very moment a rupture or collapse in the faith with which we endorse its reality takes place.
This is a regime that denies us the empirical experience of information, which in the field of photography is translated into the disappearance of all real reference or indexical indicators; whereas in economics it is specifically the loss of the rela tionship between work and gain. This equivalency leads us to find the similitude between the logic of capital and photography, until the time when the aesthetic exception is suddenly subsumed by the evolution of the economy. Photography’s realism has never been the product of its mimetic character, but rather of the effi cient integration of the economy of capital, which tends to conquer those enter prises that are furthest from the mercantile sphere.
These changes no longer appear as a unique and original innovation, but as a mul tiple novelty that assume heterogeneous forms. Proof of this is that photographic practice includes infinite possibilities that transcend the limits of the photographic medium, and to such an extent that the history of photography has seen itself overwhelmed by the medium’s uses. The new historians of photography8 no longer rely on the identities of modern photography and recognize a rupture that is technologically determined, without knowing for sure what the future might hold for this nineteenthcentury technique. The preeminence of the medium (whether it be photography, cinema, video, or television, all of which are linked together by a string of technical bonds) has given way to the free market of platforms (namely the Internet and social networks, which are characterized by their exponential growth). The infinite circulation of images has made one of the most radical poten tialities of nineteenth-century photography a reality, and is defined as “a universal currency.”9
This is how it has come to be that photography is equated with capitalism. Photo capitalism has taken shape among us. It is no longer possible to distinguish be tween the exchange of images and other forms of exchange, which define the various forms of profit. The economy has captured photography, and this pro- cess is represented by a relentless diversification of the practices that were once restricted to a technical process. Nowadays, photography has been socialized even beyond the point of what Pierre Bourdieu could have imagined in the mid nineteensixties when he envisioned his thesis of photography as the art of a pros perous middle class.10 Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, anticipated photography’s aesthetic decline and advanced its social meaning rather than its iconic content. Similarly, just as linguistic interchanges had assumed capitalist production towards the end of the nineteenseventies, at present the production of images has cap tured all spheres of socialization.
A high degree of never-before-seen connectedness defines the societies of glo balized capitalism. This connectivity is the same phenomenon that has nullified the difference between producers and consumers. Instead of authorship, which photo graphy has acquired with great difficulty over the twentieth century, cooperation on a Pantagruelian scale has emerged. As the enthusiastic technophiles that cel ebrate crowdsourcing strategies and other apparent democratizing phenomena proclaim: “We are all photographers.” Yet the truth lies elsewhere. The quantita tive explosion of photography is the smokescreen that keeps us from seeing the rapid integration of this centenariesold practice as an advanced form of social production.
The most notable effects of this mutation is that photography has been turned into little more than a gesture. Photography’s potential abandons its iconic force and, more than ever, finds refuge in the temporality of a capitalist economy that erases the past of all “antecedent labor,”11 so as to focus in on the effective value of the present. Thus we should not be surprised by the phrase “Only the present,” which appears along with the first plates in Heads Will Roll as a laconic warning. The infi nite webbing of visual composition—as is evident in Max de Esteban’s approach— suggests that the function of many of the images involves erasing the memory of other images, or even the possibility of ever seeing them.12 This is how the capac ity of creation and destruction is simultaneously revealed—ultimately crystallized in a visual palimpsest.
Although it would seem that with these new conditions, photography is no longer the ideal instrument with which Modernity had chosen to reflect upon the movement of time, rather what has effectively occurred is that it has drawn even closer to the temporary lapses that characterize the markets. While in the political sphere consultation is carried out in yearly intervals, the markets react every nanosecond. Thus between the temporality of political hegemony and the neoliberal market place, photography fills time with no recognizable specificity or identity. As a medium that has lost its uniqueness in regard to the economy, all it has left is to fuse itself with market impulses. The exponential growth of social networks that allow for the free exchange of photography (namely Instagram) demonstrates that there is as much photography as capital coursing through the veins of the neoliberal regime.
Here photography emulates the relations of the exchange value and the use value, which pertain to a consumer product. All of its values refer to the present day framework. We should take into consideration that the image has suffered from a loss of anchorage ever since it was launched as a space of infinite circulation, in the same way that at present certain critics define neo-liberalism in terms of being subjected to an economy of “infinite debt.”13 That is, there is no tangible indicator with which to link the image to either a reference or to a real object. Nor is it even possible to connect it to a process, since it has most likely erased all traces of itself. If we were to try to trace the trajectory of each sign, image, fragment, icon, or visual cue, utilizing a compendium of visual materials such as those found in Heads Will Roll, we would become aware of the precariousness of these bonds. In a certain sense, mourning for the objectivity that is frequently associated with photography, is compensated for in the faithful reproduction that is subjected to an eternal return. “The most exact reproduction is therefore the one that reproduces reproduction rather than the matter or event reproduced.”14
In these conditions, the source, as it is habitually termed in academic circles, is no longer relevant. In its place, “curiosity, the pleasure principle of thought”15 emerges, as Adorno proposed in defining the logic of the essay form. However, far from strengthening a strictly individual creativity, one that is able to challenge scientific causality (against which the philosopher seeks to legitimate his essay), which favors an even more autonomous subjectivity, if possible, the photographic essay places us inside the machine until we are converted into a veritable extension of it. In this regard it would be highly instructive to remember that Proposition Three: Touch Me Not (2013), the series Max de Esteban created before Heads Will Roll, flooded the picture plane with pseudocubist views comprised of the juxtapositions of ma chine fragments and technical objects.
Heads Will Roll continues to operate from within the organs of a machine that has fused the intense flow of all capital with that of an infinite circulation of images. There inside, within the heart of that virtual space, photography is still willing to embrace new forms of citizenship, which has, probably, found in this medium— altered and modified in respect to what its story has told us since the nineteenth century—a place to be constituted. This would be the case even if the camera had not taken a single photograph, or if it had not seen a single thing.
1 The most current review of these possibilities is most likely the result of Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (London, 2008).
2 See Michel Foucault. “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias” Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, no. 5 (1984).
3 “En Irak, la prise de photos de torture faisait partie de l’evenement,” Liberation, June 19–20, 2004, p. 46.
4 The work of the Lebanese artist Walid Raad is a good example of a photographic practice that assumes the damage inflicted on the disinterested vision that photography might represent by default.
5 See the declassified documents in Max de Esteban, Heads Will Roll.
6 For a philological analysis, see Isabel Capeloa Gil, “The Visual Literacy of Disaster in Ernst Junger’s Photo Books,” in Carsten Meiner and Kristin Veel, eds., The Cultural Life of Catastrophes and Crisis (Berlin, 2012), pp. 147–176.
7 See Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (London, 2013).
8 An example is Steve Edwards, Photography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2006).
9 This term is contributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” Atlantic Monthly, no. 3 (June 1859).
10 Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art (Cambridge, 1996).
11 Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (New York, 1973), p. 826.
12 Here it would be necessary to recall the reading Fredric Jameson makes of the temporality of the commodity in commenting on the first volume of Capital: “… capitalist temporality which ruthlessly extinguishes the past of the labor process in order to appropriate its present as a commodity: which forgets the qualitative past, the existential nature of the work, its origins and contexts, “the traces of labor on the product,” in favor of the quantitative present in which alone it is to be sold in pristine form and itself to be ‘consumed.’” See Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (London, 2011), pp.59–60.
13 See Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man: Essay on the Neoliberal Condition (Los Angeles, 2012).
14 Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton, 1997), p. 36.
15 Theodor W. Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” New German Critique, no.32 (Spring– Summer, 1984).