3. Plantocracy of Computational Photography
Published: 07.06.2017
in the series The Programmable Image
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Well, this AI business only goes so far. We still have to fight. Or at least blend.

Technically it is correct to say that photography, understood as a geopolitical and computational matrix of operations that organizes perception and consciousness on a planetary scale, is AI. There is no doubt this sedimentation of human practices has its own materiality, autonomy and intelligence that exceeds and outpaces the scope of mere human understanding. Mortal intelligence may endeavor to understand photography, data-visualization, computation and discourse as co-functional and co-functionalizing; the effort – an encounter with the sublime – offers many occasions for insight. Methodologically this modality of analysis inveighs against platform fetishism and the reification of any particular medium or agent – a definite advance with respect to much of today’s platform-bound thinking.

The problem arises if and when this thesis on the mediations endemic to and organized by the buildout of fixed capital over several centuries slides into two related but erroneous assumptions. The first erroneous assumption is that just because we are bound by a totalitizing system of financialized global inscription, all the ills of the world are to be blamed on that system and therefore the actors within that system, as mere symptoms of its function, cannot be our enemies. “We” have enemies, they are people and they are more or less real. The “don’t blame the gamer, blame the game” approach is fine at the would-be-transcendent conceptual level, but sorry friend, you and I are also in the game-space of geopolitical computational racial capitalism, and certain formats of play require treating pernicious vectors of global oppression as individualized formations of violence. That’s why, to the best of our ability, we don’t hire racists in the department at the school where I work. The second erroneous assumption is that actually existing planetary AI is the only possible AI. This latter is debatable and may depend upon your read of quantum splitting and multiversality, but I would suggest that whether as break or as reprogramming we can and must imagine a different photographic AI.

Let us remember that the current AI enclosure, already dimly and very one-sidedly perceived by Adam Smith as the invisible hand, is not a pre-existing force (like a god), but an emergent structure. It coalesces out of preexisting relations and is their summation over time. It is the sedimentation of concrete practices, abstract processes and ways of thinking in cultural and technical forms. With the development of industry, science, finance and technology, society itself becomes increasingly abstract. The condition of this order of abstraction is that social relations are abstracted as concepts and programmed into matter. Flusser’s understanding of the apparatus, particularly the camera, is thinking extended into matter that as a result becomes automated. The function of the apparatus is to automate certain types of thinking. Chemical and optical equations, themselves the fruits of the abstractions possible with linear writing, inform the black box of the camera and program its operations. And its operators. This “thinking” is automated by the black box, and various inputs are there computed into various outputs. The photograph is the result of a higher order of abstraction than that of linear writing (since the apparatus presupposes it), but nonetheless photography is built out of the abstractions that linear writing made possible. It is for this reason that Flusser says the photograph is avowedly not a window, rather it is information that results from the operation of concepts.

What Flusser did not perceive well was the intersection of capital and photography. He was bent upon producing a narrative about the automation and intensifying autonomization of photography, to demonstrate its domineering foreclosure of logocentric life and to stage the crisis produced by such overdetermination by the unconceptualizeable functions of the photographic apparatus for freedom. Because the technical image dealt in programming and information, he dismissed the Marxist critique of capital and property and thus missed the fact that photography’s emergence is built out of and also sustains the logic of a world system founded on racial capitalism and settler colonialism. He did not perceive that the logic of property and expropriation could not only extend to the photographic image, but that the rise of the photographic image amounted to a deeper colonization of the bios by that very logic.

Writ large, photography (like cinema) is not a break with capital but an extension and intensification of capital logic. It becomes a medium of capital. Flusser could be excused for not having imagined the internet, for seeing that the logic of photographic culture would constellate into a network of extractive technologies that would convert the metabolism of perceivers and discoursers into informatic value that could be accumulated at the top of the value chain. But there were indicators that have become more pronounced in our contemporary moment. For example, the subsumption of linguistic function and of linear time by photography and the subsumption of the same by capital are in fact one phenomenon. The conversion of what was formerly real into fodder for machines, be they in the first instance machines of representation or capitalization, manifest, just beneath the surface, part of the same de-ontologizing function. Real life becomes the raw material for the production of values that marginalize and eliminate whatever it was. Workers disappear into their products, biographies into their images, peoples into spectacular forms of propaganda. What is called the financialization of everyday life is unthinkable without photographic technologies. This intensification of the computational operations of photo-capitalism is a technical shift experienced as a metaphysical liquidation. “I don't know how to work upon my skin from within,” said Barthes, experiencing under the force of the lens what racialized subjects experienced under the white gaze (Fanon). Every movement, every thought is now subject to risk-reward analysis. Infinitesimal valuation creates the experience of precarity, depression and burnout even for the seemingly enfranchised. That’s why most of us are sick.

So what else is encoded in these camera abstractions beyond their denotations? Informing the equation for optics is a notion of human perception that was itself thousands of years in the making. Dürer, Alberti, Newton codified relations of looking that not only ordered space in accord with axonometric rules but posited a subject constituted through sight. These are not naturally occurring perspectives, treatments and formations, but are rather the result of technical, social and financial modifications taking place over centuries. Without rehearsing the relationship between the emergence of the modern subject (his point of view), axonometric space and the Cartesian grid it casts over place that makes it calculable, clocks and the quantification of time and capitalism, in which each person bought his commodity to market as its representative to exchange it for an equivalent in money – a relation that posited people qualitatively equal regardless of the amount of value their commodity represented –, we content ourselves here with the simple claim that a host of other social attributes are encoded into our abstractions. “The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present,” said Marx. Perceiving with clarity that the logistics of perception are and continue to be inextricable from the history of capital allows and indeed demands what for some will be a new direction in the analysis of the photographic image. In the context of our discussion, Cedric Robinsons’s lucid understanding that civilizational racism made capitalism always racial capitalism would insist that the camera is not just a machine of capitalization, but a machine or racialization.

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