3. Touching Screens
Published: 02.05.2018
in the series Photographic Futures
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One question that returns in the digital age is that of the correlation of subjects and their bodies to their sense objects: how do we, as subjects, relate to images we see and things we touch? It is very tempting to posit a mythic immediacy that has at some point been lost or been undermined by media and technology. And in that case, the only choice is to make the journey back, the same journey back to the time that is past.

Opposing this temptation, McKenzie Wark writes: “If one took the long view, one could say that the human hand is already an interface shaped over millennia by tools. That ancient interface now touches very new ones. The interface layer mediates between users and the technical layers below. Interface connects and disconnects; telescopes, compresses or expands layers—routing user actions through columns that burrow up and down through the stack.” 1McKenzie Wark, "The Stack to Come. On Benjamin Bratton's The Stack", 28 December 2016, http://www.publicseminar.org/2016/12/stack/

And in The Stack, Benjamin Bratton posits a similar myth for images: "The Stack turns tech into images and images into tech. Once an image can be used to control what it represents, it too becomes technology: diagram plus computation equals interface." 2Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), 220. Recall Vilém Flusser's concept of technoimagination, which says of all digitally generated images that they do not represent objects but processes of thinking. The digital image of an airplane, according to Flusser, is the representation not of an airplane but of an airplane being thought. And as early as 1928, Alexander Rodchenko, in his famous photo text "Against the Synthetic Portrait, for the Snapshot," saw in the photo of an airplane the representation not of an airplane but of a stage of the technological development of the airplaneor, as Wark and Bratton would say, of the camera.

What is interesting about Bratton's view is that he valorizes the inverse movement: under the conditions of the Stack, technology becomes image. In turn the image becomes, according to Wark, the way we touch. But how exactly are techno-logical relations transformed into pictorial relations and pictorial relations transformed into even simpler haptic relations? Above all we must ask, how can we escape the temptation to see what we're thinking anyway and willingly to enjoy the media's massage Marshall McLuhan spoke of more than fifty years ago?

Thomas Hirschhorn's 2012 video Touching Reality is a shocking example. There we see the tips of a white woman's fingers sliding across a touch screen showing images of mutilated bodies from wars in our time. Something in us resists describing in detail what can be seen in the photos, what occasionally is zoomed into with the tender fingers of this woman before she has the pictures shrink again and swipes on. 3We thank Andrew Fisher for countless eye-opening conversations on contemporary photography and for pointing us to this video in particular. The bodies in the images are dead, male, of color, torn apart to varying degrees, lying in their own blood. I doesn't find it easy to manipulate the touch screen. And yet another I corrects this phrase and seeks to find a description for the image in our mind that shows a man's jaw torn open. Two of the woman's fingers zoom into the face. The eye of the dark-skinned, young, dead man is still open. The two fingers zoom out again. I and I again type the words revulsion, nausea.

Perhaps we get a better understanding of our experience with this video if we give it a mereological interpretation (mereology being the theory, developed since the middle ages, of the relationships parts enter into with wholes). In viewing Hirschhorn's video, we see on the surface the manicured hand of the white woman glide across photos of male victims of a conflict in the Middle East. Reading this image mereologically, we see the politics of violence in the age of global confrontation where, most of the time, victims in one half of the world are viewed in images in the other half of the world. On a mereological reading, the hand is a part of the body; as an interface, the hand is an extension of the body and relates, as a part, to a whole. The dead male bodies belong to the experience this woman has of her own body. This sexual subtext, too, contributes to the unbearability of the video.

Enough seen. Back to the texts. Just as the interface forms the hand, it probably also forms the eye and the extension of its reach. The mereological relationships between the two body parts hand and eye, the interface, and the body thus reveal themselves to be very complex. What is missing from McKenzie Wark's description, however, is the hand of an other and the gaze of an other. Touching Reality alerts us to the illusionary nature of the situation Wark outlines, in which singular subjects are said to relate to objects such that this relation affects only their own organization. Yet a long tradition of cultural criticism—from Marx's assertion that in things, we encounter reified social relationships, via Freud's description of the fetish to Lacan's analyses of our objects of desire—teaches us that we encounter objects at first as small others (the ominous objet petit a). Only with difficulty do we then succeed to socialize via alienation—after which we no longer recognize ourselves in the other—and reification—at the end of which, even in objects, we are aware of the other only as the appeal of the interface. Because they are rooted in the other, alienation and reification are more than just objects of a cultural criticism of the present. They are also processes of a politics, a politics in favor of alienation of the kind demanded by the xenofeminist collective. A politics of images would first have to become a politics in favor of reification if it is to go beyond the present. How else are we to imagine the future of digital images if we don't want to end up propagating a posthuman technophilia?

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