Images without Viewers: Imitation, Repetition, Circulation
My posts have been exploring secondary visuality as a key attribute of communicative capitalism. Secondary visuality names the primacy of the image in technologically mediated mass personal communication. Rather than the privilege of top-down communication (broadcast media, advertising) or a means of expression confined to artists and professionals, visual communication is part of everyday communication in digital networks.
With our phones and tablets, we converse via images as well as with words. Our phones are only tangentially for voice communication. On our screen appendages, images and words are tactilely identical. Most of the photos we will see today are digital images within a larger communicative flow.
In this setting of secondary visuality, images merge with text, become texts. Text is more than a caption and image is irreducible to illustration. Because images circulate as conversations, we find ourselves engaging in a new communicative form where the originality or uniqueness of an image is less important than its common, generic qualities, the qualities that empower it to circulate quickly and easily, that make it contagious. Images function as visual colloquialisms, figures of speech, catch-phrases, and slang. Whereas the critical or philosophical discourse on photography may draw insight from analyses of specific images, secondary visuality subsumes the specific into the generic. What really matters is whether an image is repeated, whether it incites imitation, whether it can jump from one context to another. An image’s circulatory capacity, its power to repeat, multiply, and acquire a kind of force, has triumphed over its meaning (whether that meaning is withheld, inviting interpretation, or a seemingly straightforward and obvious representation of an object).
In the digital habitats of secondary visuality, the ostensibly odd or unique image is immediately collectivized. It becomes one among many: 49 weird family photos from the seventies; 23 worst celebrity plastic surgery disasters; 10 most beautiful sunsets; 39 babies in Renaissance paintings who can’t even. Websites like Buzzfeed and other clickbait aggregators specialize in the collectivization of the weird, the rendering of what might have once been seen as singular as common. The singular image is isolated and alone. The images that register are the ones that share with others and that others share. Their force comes from being many. The greater the circulation, the greater the force: we know that others have seen it and shared it (the number of retweets and shares is right in front of us).
The collectivization that accompanies secondary visuality, that renders images as elements of speech, extends to photographs of faces. In communicative capitalism, images of others are images of me. Each day, millions of tweets include text saying “this is me” or “then, I’m like” with an accompanying gif of someone who is not actually them. I convey who I am by sharing a photo of someone else. My identity or sense of self is not so singular or unique that it can only stand for itself, only represent itself. On the contrary, it’s interchangeable with others. Their faces and expressions convey my own. Not only do I see myself in others, I present others as myself. The face that once suggested the identity of a singular person now flows in collective expression of common feelings. Reaction gifs work because of the affect they transmit as they move through our feeds, imitative moments in the larger heterogeneous being we experience and become.
Consider celebrity reaction shots, for example, tweets of photos of members of the band One Direction where fans use photos of Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson, and Liam Payne to convey their own reactions. Band faces become fan faces, faces of the fandom. When fans do this, they are doing it for each other. Their likes and retweets let them see themselves seeing themselves. The One Direction reaction gifs are not simply indications of adoration, as if the communication were from fan to band. Rather they are opportunities for the many to experience a collective force. Enthusiasm arises out of experience of collective imitation because the collectivity comes into being as a collectivity by feeling itself amplified, strengthened.
Sharing, repeating, makes us part of a crowd. Pleasure accrues through repetition: the counts of retweets and likes let us know we are not alone; we see with others as they see with us. Of course, on Twitter, for instance, the fact of a retweet doesn’t tell you where someone stands. A retweet itself may be either for or against, subversive or supportive, sincere or ironic. It might just be a “look at that!” A trending hashtag usually indexes a division, the struggle over and around a term. It marks a contagious intensity, something about which many people have strong feelings. Crowds, in squares and in media, are generally diverse and tumultuous. Imitation, repetition, contagion do not imply agreement.
Communicative capitalism’s circulating images are images without viewers. It’s not that images are unseen (although many go unshared, culled, deleted like so many thoughts unsaid). It’s that they are not seen as separate images; they flow into our life montage, becoming the visual common through which we converse, the archive or inchoate lexicon of our expression. Digital images don’t present themselves as objects for scrutiny and analysis but for repetition and imitation. The less unique, the better. We don’t have time to look at them – just a quick glance and then we’ll share and scroll down.