Processing | Sean Cubitt | Wednesday, 18.01.2017

Image + After 2: From Truth to Ethics

In my last post I argued that the gradual move of photography from random scatters of molecules to formal grids marks its assimilation into formal modernity. Before leaping to this conclusion, it is important as well to reflect on photography’s place among scientific instruments, one of the major ways it was understood in its early period. Peter Galison makes a distinction between image and logic as two principles of scientific observation. In his account of nuclear science, Geiger counters are ‘logical’. They give statistical accounts of massive numbers of individual events, no one of which is closely observed. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the kind of diagram now familiar from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider is in his vocabulary an ‘image’ that captures a unique event. This form of image is the mode of the photograph. The distinction is important because we can never tell whether the unique event captured by photos or by instruments like these is typical or entirely one-off. That question dogs the history of debates on propaganda, where an instance is labelled as a type, but also nags at the central claim of photographic realism, that the image belongs to an unrepeatable moment in space and time.

CMS Experiment at the LHC, CERN (29974)CMS Experiment at the LHC, 2016 ©CERN

Photography in the tradition of Cartier-Bresson is anchored in the uniqueness of the moment juste. But it is rather, as Godard might have said, juste un moment, just another occurrence among millions, billions. The etymology of the word ‘unique’ evokes one-ness, but one-ness philosophically is a very fraught concept. The One suggests absolute Being, the kind of being Plato ascribed to his Ideas, or that mathematics ascribes to the whole number 1. At least since Hegel, and very powerfully since the beginning of the 20th century, philosophy has found such pure unalloyed Being problematic. Photography is bound up in this ontological problem, because what it captures is not the being of things but their appearance, their ‘being-there’, which is already a split in the unity of the object it portrays. Ecological thought and informatics both presume that the thing only exists in connection with and through its differences from other things, forces, activities and times. For all these reasons, the unique event, to the extent that it is one, has to be thought of as a construct. Here we are caught over a barrel, because the alternative model of the Geiger counter gaging averages from vast numbers of events gives us a statistical probability of an event occurring, but no knowledge about the event itself. This innocent enquiry into the relationship between photography and scientific instrumentation has taken us rather swiftly into some deep waters.

But in fact these waters are the same as those which ended my previous post. They concern who or what is doing the viewing and measuring. On one side of the argument, there is little doubt that the connectivity of all events to one another in the vast ecological intertwining of the world includes their intertwining with both kinds of instrument. Something occurs, and that something registers, whether on a metric scale or as an image. The question posed in my last post was about who sees in the place of the previous guarantors of truth, God and Man, and what they make of these pictures that the world makes of itself.

To chip away at such questions is the nature of research. Sometimes one tool reveals only problems, and we need another tool to make an advance. The question about the truth of photographic images places them in a combined history of printmaking and scientific instruments, quite as much as they belong to the history of art. Those two histories, I believe, are intertwined through the shape of the grid, which overlays all our images today, and shapes our understanding of them (long-time readers of Still Searching… will see that there is a distinct difference between this hypothesis and the idea of the grid as a civilizational diagram in Aveek Sen’s 2012 post on the subject). But that line of enquiry brought us to a major roadblock: the question of whether any kind of image or measure can give us an account of the world. I suggested that the answer might lie in the question of who or what sees, what records the truth of images, now that we have neither God nor his universal replacement Man to rely on to guarantee truth for us. We will come back to this question, but via another route: the question of ethics.

Of the great schools of ethics, three seem to me to be unsuitable for this enquiry. Virtue ethics, the idea that there is a code which we must obey in order to be virtuous, seems problematic precisely because digital photography is grounded in code. There is also the problem that three of the great systems of virtue ethics, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all explicitly forbid the making and preserving of images. One problem is that a code of behaviour is not virtuous in and of itself. As St. Paul realised, and Augustine after him, performing all the actions required by a code does not save us from the sin of pride in our own virtue. An action is ethical if it is not guided by a code. I can only make an ethical decision when there is no guide, no code, no ready-made answer: when I decide on the basis of the right without knowing that it is right in advance.

Kant’s deontological ethics of the categorical imperative is perhaps too abstruse to analyse here, and rare enough in everyday life, even if its central statement – ‘act according to the maxim that your choice could be a universal law’ – can be simplified and caricatured as ‘do as you would be done by’. Much more common is the utilitarian belief in consequences. An action is good, for the utilitarian, if it produces the greater good for the larger number. It could be said this is a political rather than an ethical line, to the extent that it addresses how we should live, rather than how I should, but the sheer ubiquity of this belief in public life makes it vastly important. Take the infamous Abu Ghraib images. Those photographs of tortured individuals revealed a horror in the heart of the US Army in Iraq, and, we dutifully hope and believe, put an end to the worst of the horrors they depicted. But I take to heart Susan Sontag and Elaine Scarry's arguments about the images. Why were they taken? To shame the people being tortured. Their continuing circulation continues that torture. It may be for the greater good, but further dissemination keeps the torture alive for the poor souls who endured it. Adorno argued once that an ethical system that condones the misery of even one person is not ethical at all. The myth of the greater good does exactly that: it accepts and condones the hurt and degradation of the few in the interests of the many, and that cannot be the grounds of an ethical system.

Which leaves one of the older concepts of virtue, the eudaimonist thesis of Aristotle. Aristotle sees the end of ethics as the good life. He inspects various forms of happiness – wealth, honour, fame among them – and, being a philosopher, plumps for the life of the mind as the highest form of happiness. In his Politics he opens a different door. Eudaimonist politics is the debate over what constitutes the Good for all of us. So let’s say that happiness, however defined or described, is the goal of virtue, and that, following Adorno, we add that it is happiness for everyone, not just the majority. And we can go a step further by asking who is ‘us’. In the age of environmentalism, we should say that the happiest condition embraces not just everyone but everything: not just humans but the world that we inhabit, that frames us and that we remake constantly. I like this ethics because for me it is the most fundamental, the most radical. We don't just demand the end of suffering. We demand happiness – for all!

What if the purpose of photography is not truth after all but happiness?