The Status of the Image in Digital Culture | Ingrid Hoelzl, Rémi Marie | Tuesday, 26.04.2016

From the Kino-Eye to the Postimage

In this last post, we want to explore the relation between vision, image and machine. With film, or already with photography, a new age has started: that of machine vision, of machines that see (for us). The logical consequence is that at some point, these machines will no longer need us to function (we’ve already come a long way from hand-cranked cameras to webcams) or to look at their images (think of automated CCTV surveillance or assembly robots). They may still see for us, but will do so without our involvement, as with self-driving cars for instance. What is at stake then in the age of machine vision is not only the status and concept of the image (what does “seeing” mean for a robot equipped with various sensors, among them visual ones?), it is also the status and concept of the human as the producer and consumer of images.

Still from Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera (29234) Still from Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Let us start with a famous sequence from Dziga Vertov’s experimental film Man with a Movie Camera (1929), an alleged “Excerpt from a camera operator’s diary” following Soviet citizens in a nameless city throughout the day (the film was in fact shot in several cities). In this sequence, the camera seems to act on its own: getting out of the case, assembling itself on top of the tripod (which moves on its own as well), turning around its axis, turning its crank and finally being walked out of the frame: the first camera-robot so to speak!

In the opening credits, Vertov introduces the film as a “6 reel record on film” and as “an experiment in cinematic communication of real events” “without the help of a story”. But what exactly is a “record on film” as opposed to human perception? In his “Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups” from 1926 he writes:

“Our eye sees very poorly and very little – and so men conceived of the microscope in order to see invisible phenomena; and they discovered the telescope in order to see and explore distant, unknown worlds. The movie camera was invented in order to penetrate deeper into the visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena, so that we do not forget what happens and what the future must take into account.” 1Dziga Vertov, “Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups (1926),” in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michelson (Berkeley/LA, London: The University of California Press, 1984), 67–79, here 67.

The camera not only records (for later) what happens (now), it not only produces images. It allows us to “penetrate deeper into the visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena”. But in fact, it does not see for us, it sees without us. In his famous Kinok manifestos from the 1920s, Vertov argues:

"I am kino-eye, I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it. Now and forever, I free myself from human immobility, I am in constant motion, I draw near, then away from objects, I crawl under, I climb onto them. I move apace with the muzzle of a galloping horse, I plunge full speed into a crowd, I outstrip running soldiers, I fall on my back, I ascend with an airplane, I plunge and soar together with plunging and soaring bodies. Now I, a camera, fling myself along their resultant, maneuvering in the chaos of movement, recording movement, starting with movements composed of the most complex combinations. Freed from the rule of sixteen-seventeen frames per second, free of the limits of space and time, I put together any given points in the universe, no matter where I've recorded them. My path leads to the creation of a fresh perception of the world. I decipher in a new way a world unknown to you." 2Dziga Vertov, “The Council of Three (1923),” in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michelson (Berkeley/LA, London: The University of California Press, 1984), 14–21, here 17f.

Vertov’s manifesto – in line with other manifestos of the historical avant-garde, from Futurism to Bauhaus – implies not only the idea of machinic vision as autonomous, but also as fundamentally superior to human vision: “We cannot improve the making of our eyes, but we can endlessly perfect the camera.” 3Dziga Vertov, “The Council of Three”, 15. Yet, where speed of recognition and decision are implied, human vision still is superior to machines. But is it in fact still a ‛human eye’ that sees if it is continually enhanced with apparatuses and devices, from simple glasses to powerful microscopes and telescopes to satellite and drone imagery, not to speak of retinal implants? At what point will these “new instruments of vision”, as Bauhaus experimental photographer László Moholy-Nagy called them, no longer be “enhancements” of human vision but replacements? 4László Moholy-Nagy, “A New Instrument of Vision (1932),” in The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells (London: Routledge, 2002), 92–96. Probably this point will be reached when machines will be fully autonomous not only in terms of cognition and action, but also in terms of energy (self-repair and subsistence). We will come back to the issue of energy.

In fact, Vertov’s assessment of the human as deficient and of the machine as perfectible does not stop with the eye but extends to the whole body. In “WE: Variant of a Manifesto” (1922) Vertov writes:

“The ‘psychological’ prevents man from being as precise as a stopwatch; it interferes with his desire for kinship with the machine. […] The machine makes us ashamed of man’s inability to control himself, but what are we to do if electricity’s unerring ways are more exciting to us than the disorderly haste of active men and the corrupting inertia of passive ones? […] For his inability to control his movements, WE temporarily exclude man as a subject for film. Our path leads through the poetry of machines, from the bungling citizen to the perfect electric man. […] The new man, free of unwieldiness and clumsiness, will have the light, precise movements of machines, and will be the gratifying subject of our films.” 5Dziga Vertov, “WE: Variant of a Manifesto (1922),” in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michelson (Berkeley/LA, London: The University of California Press, 1984), 5–9, here 7f. Maybe the interesting word in this sentence is “exciting”. What are we to do if we need more and more excitation to keep our electrical circuits going? Plug us into the mains? Maybe that’s what Vertov suggests with his call for a “new man” who “will have the light, precise movements of machines”. Vertov’s excitation about a future of humans transformed into machines, and thus, of a future where human vision no longer has a place, is a syndrome of the “electric age” which forms the basis of our current, digital age.

What if, then, the question of the image is – much more than a question of technological change (from analogue to digital), as has long been argued in a somewhat “shallow time of the media” 6This is a wordplay with Siegfried Zielinski’s seminal book which advocates precisely the contrary: Deep Time of The Media (Cambridge/MA: MIT Press, 2006) – that of energy, namely the energy involved in its production, circulation and display, and how this energy changes: from the small wooden icons painted with pigments and egg, to the frescoes covering the walls of churches and castles, to the film camera and the electric film projectors (Vertov’s film celebrating the electric spark that sets the projector/film in motion) to today’s digital cameras, screens and their electronic components.

Now, with the development of autonomous machines (autonomous in terms of energy) a new question arises: the question of the obsolescence of the human. In 1936, Walter Benjamin considered the radio-controlled airplane to be the culmination of the “machine age” which implies the eventual disposability of man. 7Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” (2nd version), in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Harvard: Belknap Press, 2008), section VI. In 1994, Paul Virilio traces the history of the “automation of perception” and foresees a future of “vision machines” “designed to see and foresee in our place”. In charge of stock control, industrial production, and warfare, function like a “mechanized imaginary from which, this time, we would be totally excluded”. 8Paul Virilio, “The Vision Machine,” in The Vision Machine, trans. Julie Rose (Bloomington/IN: Indiana University Press, 1994), 59–77, here 60f.

The eventual disappearance of the human can nonetheless take different forms and the prophecies about it are diverse, including the prophecy that at some point, humans and machine will merge into one, a prophecy that can be traced back to Descartes’ theory of the animal-machine 9Rene Descartes, “The Discourse on Method, Part V,” in The Philosophical Writings of Rene Descartes, ed. John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) p. 139f. and its development in La Mettrie’s theory of the “man-machine”. 10Julien Offray de La Mettrie, L'homme machine (Leyden: Elie Luzac, 1748). In 1886, French author Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, in his novel Future Eve (L'Ève future), invented a female automaton with inbuilt phonograph and other mechanical parts, constructed by a fictionalized Thomas Edison. Later, Karel Capek, in his stage play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) which premiered in 1921, coined the term robot (robota meaning ‛slave labourer’ in Czech) for his artificial humans that look like humans; a robot rebellion causes the extinction of the human race, except for one human survivor, who, when seeing two robots fall in love with each other, realizes that they are the new Adam and Eve...
18th century automaton The Writer by watchmaker Jaquet-Droz (29235) 18th century automaton “The Writer” by watchmaker Jaquet-Droz, housed at the Neuchatel Museum of History and Art, can write 40 customized letters of text (which is coded on a wheel). Wound up by a crank, it follows the written text with its eyes, and moves its head when dipping his goose feather into an inkwell...
From 18th, 19th, and 20th century artificial humans (actual or imagined) to today’s “humanoid” robots such as Jia Jia, the quest is to take over the divine role of creating man “in the image of god” in creating artificial humans “in the image of man” (Jia Jia, by the way, refers to her creators as “lords”). The human-machine (as an idea and as a technology) is thus a tight knot where religion, reason, and probably a bit of magic or alchemy are linked together, so that the uncanniness of and fascination with automata (brilliantly narrated in E.T.A Hofmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman about the hero’s erotic obsession with a female automaton) is nothing but a reflection of our unease and eagerness to surpass ourselves as machines and become “perfect electric men”. Except that, in fact, the majority of androids (meaning “man-like”) are... female!
Humanoid robot Jia Jia (29236) Humanoid robot Jia Jia, produced by the University of Science and Technology of China, at the launch event in Hefei, Anhui province, April 15, 2016 (REUTERS/Springer).

At the beginning of the 21st century, if we leave aside the somehow anachronistic Jia Jia, who is still a far cry from a human-like robot, the situation we are facing is still more complex and the knot far from untied. On the one hand, robots endowed with sophisticated intelligence are on the verge of taking control of all aspects of daily life such as driving, dating, and cooking (or even killing, since drone attacks to eliminate supposed terrorists have become routine). On the other hand, humans are on the verge of merging with artificial intelligence through ever more sophisticated computational prostheses and neuro-implants.

So that exactly 80 years after Benjamin's prophecy, the question is probably not that of the disposability but of the mutability of the human – and its disappearance as a distinctive species. If the indiscernibility between human and non-human was the central topic of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dreams of Electric Sheep? (1968) and of Ridley Scott’s screen adaptation Blade Runner (1982), this indiscernibility was a merely apparent one, the means to detect android impostors being their lack of empathy. In the cyborg scenario, on the contrary, humans and machines become actually indistinguishable: Not a third sex beyond male/female, but a third species. This scenario – the search for the perfection of the human species through technology, as in Vertov’s “electric man”– is commonly attributed to transhumanism.

Posthumanist theory, as formulated by feminist new materialists Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway and others, proposes a slightly different angle where the blurring between animal, machine, and human through biotechnology and robotics is hailed as a possible path beyond human exceptionalism, the other one being “interspecies collaboration” 11Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007). . The “posthuman” is no longer a species of masters (and slaves), but one of co-laborators: among humans and with other life-forms (both biological and technological). For the image this opens a new field of possibilities, that, in a forthcoming article, we propose to call the “postimage”. 12Ingrid Hoelzl and Rémi Marie, “From Softimage to Postimage,” Leonardo/Statements (forthcoming 2017), pre-published in May 2016 on Leonardo:

If the cornerstone of the humanist episteme was the subject/object dichotomy, the cornerstone of the posthumanist episteme may be Agamben’s whatever singularity 13Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, transl. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1993). where community is the co-belonging of singularities without the affirmation of identities. The postimage, then, is (or will be) not an objective (photographic) or subjective (human-centred) image, but a whatever image 14Zafer Aracagök, Bilkent University, “Whatever Image”, (accessed 21 April 2016). or better, a common image.