In our digital age, photographic images are ubiquitous and constantly proliferating, and yet the world we see in pictures is increasingly curated by us and also pre-curated for us; algorithms decide what we see, what we might like to see, and what we might like to buy. This state of affairs was presciently predicted by Walter Benjamin in the essay ‘A Short History of Photography’ (1931), in which he writes of:
a photography which is able to relate a tin of canned food to the universe, yet cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which that tin exists; a photography which even in its most dreamlike compositions is more concerned with eventual salability than with understanding … the true facts of this photographic creativity is the advertisement.When it comes to popular film, the philosopher Owen Hulatt at the University of York, a scholar of Theodor Adorno, notes that:
No space is left for consumers to exhibit ‘imagination and spontaneity’ – rather, they are swept along in a succession of predictable moments, each of which is so easy to digest that they can be ‘alertly consumed even in a state of distraction’.
Since the advent of photography, the image has become a truth we trust more than our own memories and imaginations. After viewing the film version of his novel Affliction (1989), Russell Banks noted that he had great difficulty retaining visual images of his own characters, the ones he himself conceived when writing the book. ‘[I]n my imagination,’ he told The New York Times, ‘the faces, bodies and voices of the movies’ stars have displaced the faces, bodies and voices of my characters …’ What’s more, images can never convey the full depth of a multisensory experience: they are perceived unisensorially by what the psychologist Robert Romanyshyn in 2009 called‘the despotic eye’, our dominant sensory source of truth. Neither the other senses nor the imagination are required to grasp them.