Processing | Sean Cubitt | Montag, 30.01.2017

Problems of Happy Images

I ended my last post with the ethical and political demand for happiness for all. Yes, it is a radical demand. Our world is not a very happy place; and each of us has been schooled, by religion, politics, and what we like to call reality, that we have to put up with pain in the hope of something better coming along when we get to heaven or pay off our debts. Both prospects, in reality, are equally distant. Which means that we have schooled ourselves to accept unhappiness as the nature of life. Casting that off is a huge psychological task, let alone the immense political revolution that would have to happen to realise happiness for everyone.

But we do have a method to hand, millennia old, tried and tested, for creating, if not happiness, at least the longing for it and the belief in its possibility that has made life bearable throughout human history. That method is art. Art does many things, but one of them is to show us happiness; to make it possible to experience happiness, even in the darkest times. The experience is far from unambiguous, and we do not need to reach yet again for the Holocaust to prove the point: Tate, the system of galleries holding one of the United Kingdom's most important art collections, was built with wealth from the sugar trade, entirely funded therefore by slave labour. Such contradictions make the struggle to find little glimpses of happiness all the more precious.

Art nowadays is much more democratic (although if you would like to discover why this democracy comes at another unbearable price, you can read my book Finite Media). Mass access to photography might not produce a lot of high art but it does produce a vast number of glimpses of happiness. The world we have is unhappy. Happiness depends on negating what is given to us as the world. That is what images do: they negate the world in order to produce pictures that are more startling, richer, surer, more filled with meaning and more desirable than what we inhabit everyday. Even images of unhappy events attempt to heal them: this would be the counter-argument to my refusal to recirculate the Abu Ghraib images. Any image aspires to happiness. It seeks out some form of good – beauty, empathy, justice, nostalgia, desire – even if some of its forms, like pornography, might fill many viewers with despair rather than delight.

Don McCullin's shot of the West Durham coalfield in the North of England haunts not only because those fields are long closed, nor because of their century-long history of oppression and resistance; not as an image of some Human Condition, or even because of the formal and metaphorical beauty of the fallen batons in the picket fence catching the light in the middle of the picture. It haunts because it catches the fullness of the instant in a way even the man it depicts, muffled against the cold and grime, might not. We can find ways to dance around the photograph, calling it eerie, poignant, scarred, but these are just adjectives. A photograph is a noun, a proper noun indeed: the precise name of an occurrence which it transfigures by extracting it from the tedious everyday. By separating it, it gives it a name. What we look at and prize isn't the truth of the moment but the capacity of the moment to be otherwise than it is. By taking the world as it falls in front of the camera lens and seizing that moment, photography abandons the truth of the world – that it is an unhappy place – and instead, in a fictional or we might say subjunctive mood, snatches at how it might be or become other. In the darkest times, that is the nearest we come to happiness, and the truest way we have of expressing it, against the relentless happiness of commercial art.

This is true of the single image. For centuries images were rare. The mass of the population would see them only in churches. After the print revolution, illustrated broadsheets circulated through fairs and booksellers, but individual images still glowed with the aura, not so much of uniqueness, as Benjamin claimed, but of scarcity. Of all the millions of images of Lillie Langtry, only one was plastered to the wall of my shack. The repeatability of images secured by printing changed their ontological status at once. The massive proliferation of images after the Box Brownie of 1900 brought further changes by democratising the making of images, but their distribution still depended on the kind of sharing that was already familiar in print collecting, or on the centralised control of mass circulation of illustrated papers and advertising. What has changed is the democratisation not of production but of distribution.

I'm grateful to Liz Kim for reminding me of a once massively influential report arguing the case for public subsidy of the arts. In their 1966 text, Baumol and Bowen argued that the arts could never be brought under fully economic structures because of the impossibility of mechanising creativity. 1William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen, Performing Arts, The Economic Dilemma: A Study of Problems Common to Theater, Opera, Music and Dance (New York: The Twentieth Century Fund, 1966). Neither the argument that photography and cinematography already automated art-making, nor that those 1960s artists contemporaneous with Baumol and Bowen were already fascinated by the task of building machines that would make art quite disprove their case. 2See for example Francesca Franco, Generative Systems Art: The Work of Ernest Edmonds (London: Routledge, forthcoming 2017). The extended apparatus that an artist or collective builds to make art is itself also an artwork; sometimes a more fascinating work than the end-products it fabricates. The creativity lies in creating the conditions for art, and that can't be automated. Or can it?

This question can't be answered without going back to what I just called 'the relentless happiness' of advertising. In this age of mass distribution, images may be more democratic but are not necessarily therefore more free or more happy. The term 'prosumer' describes active participants in digital culture, distinguishing them from the passivity once ascribed to TV and cinema audiences. But the term can't help revealing its obverse: the production of images in digital networks is both a production of commodities and also at the same time a form of consumption. To understand this right, we need to think through large-scale shifts in the nature of work and consumption that have come to fruition in the 21st century.

1. Labour is no longer the same as employment: we work when we study, when we pay attention to ads, and when we play online, uploading content. We may be unpaid, but we are still producing stuff, and making money for the big platforms.
2. Capital has become deeply standardised. It needs its consumers not only to keep consuming, but to create new ways of consuming – new fashions and trends. We become more valuable the more creative our consumption is, and that is measured by an odd combination of popularity (matching social norms) and change (in social norms). As Wendy Brown argues, today we are compelled to invest in and market our "selves".
3. For labour historians like E. P. Thompson, life for working people in the old factory days was structured by work discipline. Today, in the Global North, our time is structured by consumer discipline. Communicating our activities is compulsory; and in the marketplace of the self a bright, shiny image is compulsory too. Here the ancient privilege of the image becomes a matter of image.

One effect of these changes is that happiness has become both compulsory and confused with its image. My colleagues Sara Ahmed and William Davies have written extensively about this phenomenon. Unlike them I want to hang on to the idea that happiness as a political and personal demand means negating the world that we actually have. What they identify is compulsory happiness as a consumer discipline: a structure of control that diverts the demand for happiness into a demand for gadgets and lifestyles. The sad truth is that holidays and mobile phones do not produce happiness. As the Beatles sang in Hey Bulldog, 'some kind of happiness is measured out in miles'. The kind that can be measured conforms to the regime of Key Performance Indicators, not the need that drives us.

And yet the acting out of happiness, the performance we put on for our social media buddies, is nonetheless real. It comes from the same roots, and in many respects its expression as photos of celebrations and landscapes is indistinguishable from the kind of aesthetic image exemplified by the one analysed above by McCullin. It isn't a question of either the images or the sentiments being in some way false, but rather that they present themselves as complete. Reading the McCullin picture, I emphasised its incompletion, its divergence from the actuality it pictures. This isn't just because it is more obviously a 'negative' image in the sense of being glum and dark. A picture of a jolly family reunion can be just as significant. The question isn't entirely about a quality of any one image at all, but of the act of reading. Because the McCullin is framed institutionally somewhere on the spectrum between document and artwork, we give it a kind of care that we don't give to snapshots circulated on social media.

And the bare truth is that many of the images that pass through our social networks scarcely impinge on human attention of any kind. Even though we do look at the photos posted by family and friends, our attention isn't the most valuable thing about these images. The images themselves, as aesthetic objects, scarcely count at all. Even the facial recognition prompts we get are less about the content of an individual image, and much more about the construction of the social graph that places users of a given network in relation to one another from the perspective of the platform: the perspective of a complex machine. Individual images, whether commercially, artistically or socially motivated, cannot help pointing towards happiness. It is rather different when we come face to face with the mass image. But that will be the subject of my next post.