Disembodied eyes, or the culture of apocalypse

Marina Warner
17 April 2005

“Memories at risk!” cries a poster for digital cameras. The ad means to say that unless you take photographs, the parties, the family gathering, the children growing up, life itself, all of it will grow dim and even – vanish.

But you could take the slogan another way, and say that memories are placed in jeopardy precisely by images.

Film illusions, like dreamed experiences, seep into lived realities. The distinction that used to seem so clear between fantasy and memory, between actual and imaginary events has been fading. A new generation of video games incorporates documentary footage and mixes it up with virtual scenarios. Television news labels footage “live” to inform the viewers that the event is really taking place at that moment. While on American TV the warning “metaphorical images” sometimes appears across film of bombings or other events. Metaphorical – not simulated, not untrue: but we have to be told to receive them as truthful not fictive.

And as the boundary between fabrication and documentary footage becomes increasingly blurred, it’s not only that we remember real events from their representations, but that representations themselves, unmoored from any referent in the world, become reality and then because reality has turned into fabrication, the real loses its nature too. The “replicants” of Blade Runner, with their implanted and fabricated consciousness, are coming to resemble us more and more.


Pris (Daryl Hannah) the “replicant” stands outside Sebastian the toy-maker’s warehouse.

This state puts far more at risk even than subjectivity and the sense of personal continuity.

Consider the shocking photographs of prisoners from Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq. These come in a variety of levels of veracity: some were staged for the camera as tableaux vivants of punishments and degradation; some of them were posed to intimidate and threaten; some of them have been faked in the UK to recall what happened. Some are indeed neither staged, nor imitations. Several can’t be easily categorised: real atrocities and torture were play-acted, as if filmed for a bondage tableau for S & M cultists; such images were then transmitted by pornography’s new native element, the internet, to amuse the folks back home. Perpetrators defended themselves saying they were “only posing” – it wasn’t for real.

One cause for this disassociation lies with the uses of cinematic realism. For a start, with all its dazzling computer-generated images, it doesn’t include understanding of suffering, neither of bodies and enfleshed fragility, nor of human beings and psychological vulnerability. The production values of contemporary films strive for authenticity in communicating a visceral experience of ordeals and pain.

But in the midst of the gouts and gore, the new kind of verisimilitude never admits what blows or blades really inflict or the consequences of violence. In Return of the King Frodo plunges several feet down a mountain side, but his cheek alone displays a mere charming cosmetic scratch. Nobody ever holds their nose or gags at the reek of corpses, as they do in medieval paintings of the Raising of Lazarus, whereas when we read about pain and suffering and death, we empathise, and their existence belongs within the whole imaginative projection of the text.

raising of lazarus

Raising of Lazarus, 15th Century Flemish manuscript

In films of carnage, the scenes cannot be veridical: the image turns everything into a game of let’s pretend.

Happily, public revulsion against the Iraqi material shows that affectless disassociation hasn’t altogether triumphed. The photographs made a difference and the disavowals have not found acceptance. The outcry also revealed that images have huge power to shock us into thought. But – though the photographs have indeed stirred widespread dismay and shame – their making also conveys how the consumption of fantasy can denature us. They reveal the disappearance of act into image. In these trophy pictures, the subject’s existence as a person vaporises – he becomes a phantasmic enemy, his degradation a symbolic ritual designed to deliver pleasure and triumph to the viewer.

Suicide bombers, for example in Palestine, also create icons of a different kind when they enshrine their last hours on video: they turn themselves into lasting ghosts. These grim and sacramental memorials are then broadcast to keep their martyrdom present and of lasting significance: they too are weapons of what the historian of science Bruno Latour has called “iconoclash”.

Inside the frame of fantasy, heaping up special effects uncouples the subject and the image, and exacerbates alienation; this in turn becomes the ground for disregard for life, where callous violence grows. Ever since the falling of the Twin Towers and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, a new acute chapter opened in the contemporary war of images. So in the realm of culture, the character of our representations matters most urgently. Either we admit artifice and stage unreality frankly in its own terms, or we must honour the laws of time and the flesh, and confront the consequences of violence and stigma and the reality of pain and suffering.

The images we circulate have the power to lead events, not only report them; the new technical media have altered experience and have become interwoven with consciousness itself.

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