Image and Programme
As an attentive reader has pointed out to us, the word ‛programme’ appears in our book Softimage within a family of terms: algorithm, software, computation, processing, programming. If these terms, all gravitating around digitalization, seem almost interchangeable, we are in fact using the term ‛programme’ in a larger yet very specific sense, that of the programme of the image, or the image as a programme, which is not a condition that emerged with digitalization, but one that dates back to the Renaissance. Our first blog will explore the way the programme of the image develops in the 15th century in an intricate relation with the political programme of the time and the birth of the humanist episteme.
The original Greek meaning of programma is “public proclamation or notice” and “injunction” 1Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Trustees of Tufts University, 1940). Online version: http://perseus.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.60:5:78.LSJ , stemming from prographein or “setting forth as a public notice”. The current meanings of ‛plan or scheme’, ‛set of measures or activities’ appear much later; programme in the sense of ‛software instructions’ in the 1940s. Programme thus comes to mean both the announcement itself and its content: A political programme, for instance, means both the series of actions that a given party proposes if elected and the very announcement of this series of actions. Pro-gramm (‛to set forth’) is closely linked to pro-ject (‛to throw forth’), whose meaning evolved from the Latin projectum, ‛something prominent’ to the modern ‛plan’, ‛preliminary drawing’ and ‛tabulated statement’. Likewise, programme (in its original sense of pro-gramma) can designate written or drawn inscriptions/injunctions – no distinction here between the literal and the visual. Projection in the sense of ‛estimate, forecast’ has a similar significance of futurity as programme and project. But it also has a more technical meaning of both the method to represent a 3D space on a plane surface and its result (a perspectival drawing or painting; a map).
When we are speaking of the programme of the image, we are speaking about an epistemic revolution of which the perspectival image, in the 15th century, was one of the principal instruments – just as the digital image is one of the principal instruments of the ‛algorithmic turn’ 2William Uricchio, “The Algorithmic Turn: Photosynth, Augmented Reality and the Changing Implications of the Image”, Visual Studies 26, 1 (2011), 25–35. . In the Renaissance, the imaging of the world coincides with the project of modernity, or, as Martin Heidegger put it in 1938 at the eve of World War 2, “the fundamental event of modernity is the conquest of the world as picture”. As a striking synthesis of the etymology of programme and project as ‘setting’ or ‘throwing forth’, Heidegger defines ‘picture’ not in mimetic terms, but in the sense of “to set out before oneself and to set forth in relation to oneself”, the event of the world becoming picture coinciding with the event of “man’s becoming subjectum in the midst of what is”. As a result, world picture and world view – “the position of man in the midst of all that is” – are closely linked. 3Martin Heidegger, “The Age of the World Picture” , in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 115–154, here 132–134, emphasis in text. Human action conquers the world as picture, and this ‘world picture’ in turn acts upon man. The image, then, is both representation and action; it is both set out before oneself, appearing at a distance, and set forth in relation to oneself: image and man relate to each other as part of ‘what is’ – image praxis and praxis in general are closely intertwined.
But there is another dimension of the programme of the image in the humanist era that we want to explore before extrapolating the results of this analysis to the current posthumanist era. It is the dimension of the programme that is implicit in the image but not apparent. This is less the dimension of the prevailing episteme in Michel Foucault’s sense of “positive unconscious of knowledge” 4Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Tavistock Publications, 1970), xi. than the dimension of its obfuscation where the image is a mask hiding a conscious political programme.
In Softimage, we posit the photographic paradigm of the image as the tacit assumption of the commensurability of representation and vision which forced their convergence in a series of technological and perceptual adjustments. The perspective protocol seems to be a purely mathematical protocol but it is in fact the vehicle of an epistemic revolution. In this new geometry of the world, the point of view of the spectator coincides with the infinite which, from a theological point of view, corresponds to the eye of God. This correspondence, even if not the explicit aim of the technique of linear perspective, is at the heart of humanist philosophy, which is less a reduction of the world to its human (finite) dimensions than an expansion of the human world into the infinite/divine space. The coincidence of the human subject and the divine (which finds its inversion in the theology of incarnation) is not only thought, but also imaged, as for instance in the last of three self-portraits by Albrecht Dürer, carried out in 1500 at the age of 28, and in its idealization clearly resembling representations of Christ.
So much for the humanist programme of the image re-ordering human relations with the divine. What about the political programme of the image concerning the order of human society? Let us discuss this question taking a characteristic painting of the Italian Renaissance as an example, the Veduta di città idéale (1480–1484), the veduta (or view) of an ideal city (or city ideal). It is contested among art historians who painted and commissioned this painting.
We will follow Wikipedia’s and thus the most widely accepted version that The Ideal City is “usually attributed to the architect and artist Fra Carnavale. The Ideal City is one of three related paintings, the others are in Urbino (Ideal City) and Germany (Urban Perspective). The painting was most likely executed for the Ducal Palace, Urbino of Federico da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino [built between 1470 and 1475].” It is also unclear whether the painting seeks to expose architectural, urbanistic and humanist principles or rather the principles of perspectival representation. But most probably these principles are intertwined... Wikipedia describes the painting following the book Masterpieces of Italian Painting (2005) by art historians Morten Steen Hansen and Joaneath Ann Spicer 5Moren Steen Hansen and Joaneath Ann Spicer, Masterpieces of Italian Painting (Baltimore/London: The Trustees of the Walters Art Gallery/D. Giles Ltd, 2005), 62–67. :
“The painting consists of a city landscape, glowing in the morning light, nearly empty of human activity. There are five structures that define the space. At the center is a Roman triumphal arch, reminiscent of the Arch of Constantine in Rome, whose prominent position speaks to the importance of military leadership. Federico was a leading military commander of his day, but the place on the arch for dedication has been left blank. The amphitheater, is modeled after the Colosseum in Rome, and could represent the importance of providing entertainment for the well-being of the people. The octagonal building is the only structure not specifically Roman, being modeled after the Baptistery in Florence.”
It is interesting to note that the Florentine Baptistery was also the location of the famous experiment by Filippo Brunelleschi 50 years earlier, an experiment that aimed to prove the commensurability of perspectiva artificialis (linear perspective) and perspectiva naturalis (human vision). As Brunelleschi’s biographer Antonio Manetti relates, the painting of the Baptistery viewed frontally from the unfinished Florentine Cathedral (of which Brunelleschi built the dome) was painted on a wooden panel through whose vanishing point was drilled a small hole "shaped like a woman’s straw hat" 6Antonio Manetti, The Life of Brunelleschi, introduced and annotated by Howard Saalman (Philadelphia: Penn State Press, 1968), 44. , opening up to the other side. Assuming the exact point of view of the painting (the west door of the Cathedral) and holding the panel against one eye, one could peer through the hole and see the Baptistery. Holding up a mirror in front of the hole, this view was replaced by the reflection of the painting, showing exactly the same view painted on the other side of the panel.
“These ancient structures are joined by two modern buildings of the time. The one on the left is modeled after mid-15th century Florentine palaces of the Medici family, it is representative of a residence appropriate to the ruling class. The building to the right with the arches and cloth covered screens is also thought to be a residence. Visible in the background are other 15th-century buildings, including a warehouse. In the foreground, there are four allegorical sculptures, each representing the personification of virtue; Justice with her scales, Moderation with a pitcher of water to mix with wine, Liberality with a cornucopia, and Courage with a column. The fountain at the center, featuring a bronzed winged Sprite, represents a functional source of water. Providing patrons with good water was a sign of magnanimity.”
As Hansen and Spicer argue according to Wikipedia, “The Ideal City celebrates the values in a well-ordered society, architecture stands as a metaphor for good government”. It is of course not this idea of the image as a metaphor, but the idea of the image as a programme that interests us here: it is The Ideal City as the representation of the Duke of Urbino’s political programme where architecture is the arkhé, the beginning and foundation of social order. There is a clear repartition of space in this painting: political power in the foreground (the palaces of the dominant families), religion and entertainment in the middle ground (the Baptistery and the amphitheatre), and labour in the background (a warehouse and possibly houses for the populos). The ideal city (then and now) is one where the place of work and rest of the popular classes are in the background (periphery) while the centre is reserved for housing the leading families, religious ceremonies, and amusement and theatre. (Strangely, the amphitheatre appears to be the same size as the Baptistery although it is five times larger. Thus, this painting which is considered to be the ideal demonstration of modern i.e. geometric perspective incorporates in fact elements of pre-modern perspective where size varied not according to distance but according to significance).
The Veduta di città ideale is first of all an ideal image, constructed following a strict protocol – that of central (one-point) perspective. The power of this image that still captures us after five centuries resides in its performativity where the accuracy of its protocol of representation and the accuracy of what it represents mutually legitimate each other: The image is the geometric projection of an ideal city constructed following an architectural programme of good governance and in its ideal (geometric) construction mirrors that very political programme. But it is also the force of presentation in the sense of presentience of this image that strikes us in announcing: “This is the city how we (the Duke) want it to be.” The Ideal City is not about representing the world as it is but as it should be: it is not a realistic representation but a programmatic presentation of the world. It is a programme.
This is what we call the humanist programme of the image and this programme runs along modernity and resurfaces later in Modernism, for instance with Le Corbusier’s project of “cleaning” and “purging the old city”. 7Mardges Bacon, Le Corbusier in America: Travels in the Land of the Timid (Cambridge/MA: MIT Press, 2001), 160. His 1925 Plan Voisin for a ‛Contemporary City’ of three million inhabitants in the very heart of Paris was never realized, but his plans and drawings show the same level of abstraction as the Carnavale painting: of a city ordered by geometry, devoid of citizens. Le Corbusier also took an important part in the master plan of the city of Chandigarh, the new capital for the Indian state of Punjab, including its arborisation. (He also designed various administrative and cultural buildings there, including the Capitol complex: Palace of Assembly, Secretariat and High Court.)
Both The Ideal City and Plan Voisin highlight the coincidence of the programme of modernity (and modernism) with the programme of the perspectival image: the “calculation, planning, and molding of all things” 8Heidegger 1977, 135. , which implies objectivation and division of the world and its inhabitants – but also of their ‛housing’ since the term unité d'habitation or housing unity was introduced by Le Corbusier – into ‛unities’. We will discuss in the next post the programme of postmodernity and its coincidence with the programme of the algorithmic image, which implies not subjectivation but personalization (of commodities and management) or, to speak with Deleuze 9Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, October 59 (Winter 1992), 3–7. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0162-2870%28199224%2959%3C3%3APOTSOC%3E2.0 , of surveillance and control, where unities are no longer ‛individual’ but ‛dividual’.