Peter Lunenfeld on Sun, 7 Sep 1997 19:10:26 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Art Post-History [1/1]

>The idea
>of a universal language that will code and encode everything, the idea
>of free accessibility of gigantic libraries is Leibniz' idea. So
>finally we are doing what Leibniz has proposed.

Bruno Latour raised this issue in his recent interview with Geert. I
thought list members who wanted to follow this line of inquiry might be
interested in a piece I published last year on the transformation of art
history and the semiotics of electronic imaging.


Peter Lunenfeld |

I.      The Alexandrine Dream
        In the third century before the common era, King Ptolemy I called
on "all the sovereigns and governors on earth" to send him volumes of every
kind, by "poets and soothsayers, historians, and all the others too." [1]
Thus it was that the Ptolemaic dynasty set themselves the task of housing
all "the books of all the people of the world" under one roof in the
Library at Alexandria.  The word, once written down, has always been
subject to reproduction,  and the fact that there could be more than one
copy of a book has encouraged such totalizing fantasies in the realm of
language. [2] A few short centuries after Ptolemy I, the fabled Library at
Alexandria was burned to ashes. Yet the desire to spatialize and totalize
knowledge within a repository has thrived through the millennia.
        The technologies change but the dream remains. Michel Foucault
mentions that in 1538, after the advent of printing, La Croix du Main
proposed a space "that would be at once an Encyclopaedia and a Library, and
which would permit the arrangement of written texts according to the forms
of adjacency, kinship, analogy, and subordination prescribed by the world
itself." [3] Again, as the word has been digitized, the Alexandrine dreams
have shifted from architectural space to hyperspace. Ted Nelson, who coined
the word "hypertext" in the 1960s, has for more than two decades been
pursuing Project Xanadu, a computer-based system to digitize and link the
totality of text, making possible "a common publishing repository for the
writings of humankind...a clarifying system of order."[4]  The computer
here serves to meld Hellenistic structure and Renaissance method.
        What then of the image? Through most of human history, reproducing
the image has been more problematic than replicating the word. Not even the
most megalomaniacal of tyrants ever proposed bringing all of humankind's
art works together in one place -- the prospect of uniting so many unique
objects has always seemed too daunting.  The advent of photography held out
the possibility that what the tyrant could not assemble as booty, the
scholar could gather as (represented) subject. In 1859, Oliver Wendell
Holmes prophesied: "The time will come when any man who wishes to view any
object, natural or artificial, will go to the Imperial, National, or City
Stereographic Library and call for its skin or form, as he would for a book
at any common library. We do now distinctly propose the creation of a
comprehensive and systematic stereographic library, where all men can find
the special forms they particularly desire to see as artists, or as
scholars, or as mechanics, or in any other capacity." [5]

II.     Photography, Art History, Semiotics
        In a book analyzing the methods and assumptions of art history in
the modern era, Donald Preziosi notes that in addition to making
comprehensiveness possible in the realm of the image, photography --
specifically the projected transparency so important to nineteenth century
archival practices -- reduced "all analysands to a common scale and frame
for comparison and contrast." [6] Photography thus makes the discipline of
academic art history possible. Yet today, the computer's capacity to
electronically represent any image as simply another graphic is a serious
challenge to photography's previously secure position within the archive as
the primus inter pares of representational media. That is, the photograph
was formerly the representational medium under which all others could be
subsumed, distributed,  and analyzed. Today, that role must be alloted to
the computer graphic. Under its domain, the photograph is transformed into
simply one among many representationaal forms. A critique of digital
photography, therefore, must account for this subsumption of the "photo" to
the computer "graphic." [7] With this subsumption comes a shift in the very
way that we conceptualize the image: both in terms of the way that we read
its position within a semiotic, and the way that we consider it within
contexts, that is to say in terms of its place within art history. [8]
        I contend that the development of electronic imaging technologies,
of which digital photography is but one part, has posed a challenge to both
the conception of semiotics and the discipline of art history. We are only
just now getting around to theorizing the impact that the computer has had
on the discourse developed around the photographic object. [9] Paramount to
this project is the posing of certain categorical questions. What is
digital photography? Is it simply the presentation of photographic images
within the realm of digital displays? When viewed on a monitor, most
non-specialists would probably hazard that the digital photograph is an
image that looks better than television, but worse than a slide. And how,
then, to deal with the digital print, which is a more slippery subject,
indistinguishable from the photochemical  print?
        These questions are rooted in the commonplace wisdom about
photography and its practices, which assumes that the electronic
technologies are simply addenda to the essence of photochemical processes.
Writing in 1961, at the height of his structuralist phase and under the
influence of the semiology developed by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913),
[10]  Roland Barthes observed that "the photograph is not simply a product
or a channel but also an object endowed with a structural autonomy." [11]
Moving on from there, he identified the crucial specificity of the medium:
while there may be a reduction of visual information from the object to its
image (proportion, perspective, color), there is no "transformation (in the
mathematical sense of the word [his emphasis]... the image is not the
reality but at least it is its perfect analogon  and it is exactly this
analogical perfection which, to common sense, defines the photograph. "
[12] But as film scholar Rick Altman notes, "conventional wisdom is always
about yesterday's technology; that's how it became commonplace." [13]

III.    Digital Photography?
        We must understand that there is a radical rupture between the
photochemical processes and the new electronic imaging technologies. The
proper question now proves itself to be: Is the digital photograph a
photograph at all? William J. Mitchell has written an excellent
introduction to such questions in The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the
Post-Photographic Era, wherein he offers a clear delineation between these
two technologies of image production. "A photograph is an analog
representation of the differentiation of space in a scene: it varies
continuously, both spatially and tonally." [14] This differs from any
computer image, whether originally photographic or not. "Images encoded
digitally by uniformly subdividing the picture plane into a finite
Cartesian grid of cells (known as pixels) and specifying the intensity or
color of each cell by means of an integer drawn from some limited range.
The resulting two dimensional array of integers (the raster grid) can be
stored in computer memory, transmitted electronically, and interpreted by
various devices to produce displays and printed images." [15]
        Digital imaging can take input from a vast variety of sources,
among them analog cameras, digital still cameras, video, scanners, and
camcorders, and can be displayed on monitors or in hardcopy outputs
including thermal wax, dye transfer, inkjet, laser printing, filmcameras,
imagesetters, and -- for large-scale applications -- computer-to-press and
computer-to-plate systems . [16] No matter what the source or output, in
digitizing the continuously varying analog input of the photograph, its
fine details and flowing curves are converted into a series of discrete and
unconnected steps. Rather than the continuous grades of tonality associated
with photochemical processes, the digital image is an array of points: the
picture elements already referred to as pixels.
        Examine the differences between this electronic process and
established photochemical practices. The photochemical image continues to
reveal detail as it is enlarged, though it will show grain, and fuzz out
eventually. The digital photograph, once blown up to reveal its pixelated
structure will look like nothing more than bigger and bigger portraits of
the same pixels. This apparent limitation of the digital image masks some
of the unique properties of electronic imaging. Because the computer image
is a set of instructions to the raster grid, it can be copied exactly. With
every copy of an analog picture, detail is lost -- it is better thought of
as a re-presentation. Nothing is lost with digital transfers -- it is a
true re-production.
        Whereas this quality of digital imaging seems to be an extension of
the mechanical reproduction of photography, the nature of computer graphics
-- of which digital photography is only a subset -- engenders a radical
shift. Because the digital image is composed of discrete pixels which have
mathematical values assigned to them, the whole of the digital image can be
shifted by modifying the definitions given to those pixels. The digital
photograph is as mutable as any other computer graphic -- all are subject
to the visual alchemy of the paint program, which offers the user a set of
tools to modify every quality of the pixel. This linkage of electronic
imagery and digital paint programs is at the heart of the subsumption of
the "photo" to the "graphic" mentioned earlier. When all images are created
or modified by the computer, the photographic is no longer a privileged
realm of visual communication, segregated by its machined qualities.

IV.     Semiotics, Photography & Truth Value of the electronic Image
        The inherent mutability of the digital image poses a challenge to
those who have striven to create a semiotic of the photographic. Having
already mentioned Saussure's model, we can also look to the influence of
his American contemporary, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), whom critics
like Peter Wollen have found to offer an even more precise semiotic for the
analysis of the visual image. [17] Pierce created three classifications of
signs: icon, symbol, and index. The icon is a "sign determined by its
dynamic object by virtue of its own internal nature." This is akin to the
painted or sculpted image, a relationship of likeness. A symbol is a
linkage based on convention, like language, an arbitrary relationship
between a dog and the word "dog." A third type is the index, "a sign
determined by its Dynamic object by virtue of being in a real relation to
it." With the index, there is a causal link between the object and the
sign, like smoke indicating a fire. In regards to photography, Peirce was
quite explicit: "Photographs, especially instantaneous photographs, are
very instructive, because we know that in certain respects that they are
exactly like the objects that they represent. But this resemblance is due
to the photographs having been produced under such circumstances that they
were physically forced to correspond point by point with nature. In that
respect then, they belong to the... class of signs" known as the index.
        It is hard to imagine a science of signs, especially Peircian
semiotics, developing in a pre-photographic age. The classical aesthetic
dichotomy divides poetry and painting. A science of signs develops only
after technology adds a new dimension to the signscape of the symbolic
representations of literature and the iconic representations of painting.
Remember that Peirce was born in 1839, the same year photography was
invented , and that both he and Saussure developed their ideas
contemporaneously with the development of the cinema. [19] Only after the
intrusion of the mechanical photographic apparatus ruptures the dichotomy
developed between poetry and painting -- between the symbolic and the
iconic -- is semiotics possible. The mechanical apparatus of photography
vastly expands the realm and power of the indexical sign. What has happened
to this class of signs, and to the semiotics of the image in general, with
the advent of digital photography?
        With electronic imaging, the digital photographic apparatus
approaches what Hollis Frampton refers to as painting's "dubitative"
processes: like the painter, the digital photographer "fiddles around with
the picture till it looks right." [20] Those who theorize this insertion
into the realm of photography of the dubitative -- which the OED defines as
"inclined or given to doubt" -- have a number of directions in which to go.
By far the most popular has been the one followed by Mitchell in The
Reconfigured Eye, which investigates the destruction of the truth value of
the photographic, that quality to which Susan Sontag refers when she says
that "a photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing
happened." [21] While postmodern theorists have long rejected this
assertion of truth value for the photographic, the very fury of the debate
over digital imaging proves that the public sphere still holds the
evidentiary nature of photography in high regard. Yet, as Mitchell and
others point out, in the era of the dubitative digital photograph, the
public is forced to trust in the source of the image, or in the veracity of
the image's context. [22]
        In this, the digital photograph must now be treated as having the
same truth value as a written text. We have thus returned, in some sense,
to the aesthetic of the pre-photographic era, to a signscape that is once
again reduced to the dichotomy between the word and the image, but this
time unified in that both the word and the image are amalgamations of
binary code. This insistence on context and interpretation is, of course,
not unique to digital photography, but it is ubiquitous.  [23] The
breakdown of the indexical relationship between the photograph and its
object is of obvious importance to the epistemology of the post-modern, and
of even greater concern to the politics of an image saturated culture, but
the overwhelming attention to questions of fraud, forgery, and truth value
can obscure the developments in another area of discourse around
photography. The breakdown of the indexical relationship between the
photograph and its referent, and the concurrent obliteration of the truth
value of photography has had the same impact as the destruction of the aura
occasioned by the advent of photography itself.

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