In communicative capitalism, we communicate with words and images – what I’ve been referring to as “secondary visuality.” Communicative utterances that might have once been speech acts – like talking on the phone or sending a letter to the editor – now mix words and images: a text with emojis, an animated gif inserted into a comment thread, a meme. New kinds of visual conversations make stories out of photos and short videos (Snapchat). As interactions that flow across our screens, multiple images envelop us in a montage of humor, horror, the mundane, and the bizarre. Words and images are equivalent. One does not replace or subordinate the other. They intermix, mash, and mingle such that neither alone can be said to be the repository of truth.
The repercussion of secondary visuality is that popular politics unfolds as the politics of the crowd. Everybody knows that networked media don’t facilitate democratic deliberation. There’s no time to consider every argument or viewpoint. Contemporary commentators thus fret about “bubbles,” “cascade effects,” “bandwagoning,” and “confirmation bias.” The classic crowd theorists of the early twentieth century considered similar phenomena with a different vocabulary: imitation, contagion, suggestion, de-individuation, and affective intensification. Even more: they said that the crowds think in images.
Typically, the elite chastises the crowd and all the processes associated with it – imitation and visuality are subordinated to originality and the word. As Jacques Rancière notes, the dominant logic “makes the visual the lot of multitudes and the verbal the privilege of the few.” Rancière rejects this logic, arguing that words actually are images, “that is to say, forms of redistribution of the elements of representation.” Rancière makes this point in the context of a discussion of the intolerable image. His concern is not with the circulation of digital images in social media. Rather he is questioning assumptions regarding the political capacity of images so that he might present politics aesthetically, as the opening to new arrangements of the sensible.
To my mind, though, Rancière’s observation highlights the flattened terrain of networked participatory media, a communicative milieu of rapidly circulating reappropriations of words and images. In this milieu, an awkward facial expression can undermine a cogent argument; a silly caption can détourn a serious or straightforward photograph – and these effects are contingent on repetition and circulation. Creative juxtaposition has been set free from the domain of art to thrive in the digital networks of communicative capitalism. The most powerful word-image combinations reproduce rapidly, contagiously, as people copy and share them. The political content of these combinations is of course open; different sides and interests use them in struggle and treat them as sites of struggle. Trending hashtags, for example, generally point to battles, contestations over a meaning rather than its acceptance. If there wasn’t a conflict, something at stake in the circulation of the image, why bother?
Rancière says that “the images of art do not supply weapons for battles.” His idea here is that the presumption of a “straight line” from the image of an intolerable situation, to an understanding of the reality of that situation, to a desire to act politically to change the situation is mistaken. This is not how the politics of visibility works, he argues. Artistic images suggest new configurations of the sensible and they do so “on condition that their meaning or effect is not anticipated.” Less weapons than they are openings, artistic images hinge on the introduction of the unanticipated.
Rancière might be correct with respect to works of art shown in museums and galleries. When images are emancipated from their exhibition value, however, when they are made to circulate, their political operation is configured according to the dynamics of the crowd. Practices of image-sharing constitutive of secondary visuality thus suggest a limit to Rancière’s account. Within these practices, images can be weapons. Moreover, their power can come from the mobilization of anticipation, the generic, and the common.
As I’ve emphasized in the posts in this series, “Images without Viewers,” the communicative capacity of images – emojis, memes, reaction gifs – relies on a certain anticipation of effect. To circulate efficiently, an image shouldn’t be viewed, that is, contemplated and interpreted. It has to be obvious, fast, with a little charge to incite people to deploy it. When someone uses “this is me” to caption an image of someone else, the intent is not to surprise a viewer or provoke a viewer into questions regarding the instability of personal identity. The point is quickly to register a feeling using a common visual language. In the politicized interactions raging throughout social media, images are lobbed as so many visual grenades, produced and circulated as means to expose, condemn, humiliate, and undermine. A common image (of a presidential candidate, say) is expropriated, text is attached to it (a dank meme), and the image-word combination is released into battle, ready to be duplicated, altered, and circulated. Every forward, retweet, share, or like is another arrow in an endless epic orc battle.
At the same time, the archive of images and their traces stored in the corporate and state servers misleadingly presented as the cloud provides ammunition for a range of other battles – the knowledge of customers and their interconnections desired by advertisers, the knowledge of terrorists, insurgents, and whistle-blowers desired by the state. And in yet another twist, the expropriation and redistribution of images directs us to the contradictory conditions of class war under communicative capitalism: because it is so easily created and shared, digital content is hard to commodify. Much of what is posted is offered up for free, and what isn’t, people take. This undermines the efforts of many cultural producers to get paid for their work even as it diminishes the hold of the commodity form in the realm of affects, images, and ideas. In the words of technology theorist Jaron Lanier, “[o]rdinary people ‘share,’ while elite network presences generate unprecedented fortunes." In class war, everything is a weapon; part of the struggle consists in seizing and knowing how to use them.
Like the processes of secondary visuality, so do practices of political art collectives also point to the limits of Rancière’s claims for artistic images. The Brooklyn-based art and activist collective, Not An Alternative, makes the reappropriation of generic forms and images into the basis of its practice.
To use but one example, Not An Alternative developed Occupy Wall Street’s black-and-yellow symbolic infrastructure. This infrastructure takes the color scheme and style associated with public works such as construction sites, foreclosure tape, and highway caution signage and puts it in the hands of the people. Not only can anyone imitate generic official style, but when many start to do so, they amplify their force: the same visual symbols used by the state start to point to the presence of a radical counter-power.
Under conditions of the proliferation of memes and images, of capitalist efforts to identify and monetize whatever is new and different, and of intense competition for positions, recognition, and capital, producing the new feeds the system. Not An Alternative therefore rejects the idea that the role of the artist is to create new openings. It emphasizes instead the political division that is already inherent in any institution, form, system, or practice, occupies this division and forces a decision. Not An Alternative puts to work the processes of imitation and repetition characteristic of crowd politics, rejecting the unique, personal, or original as it adopts a common, institutional, and generic visual vocabulary. The power inhering in available forms is the fact that they are already known and in use. The political task is thus one of seizure and redirection in the interest of the many.
The secondary visuality of communicative capitalism directs us to a visual milieu characterized by imitation, repetition, and circulation. In this setting, the power of images comes from the crowd, the many who give them their force. Political tactics adequate to this setting will find ways to seize and deploy the common in the service of a divisive egalitarian politics.