The Image Matrix

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The Image Matrix

“Analog is having a burial and digital is dancing on its grave”

Burying the Image for the Future

Today the image is so powerful that it has to be buried alive. Consider the following story:

“It will be a surreal burial.

The Bettmann archive, the quirky cache of pictures that Otto Bettmann sneaked out of Nazi Germany in two steamer trunks in 1935 and then built into an enormous collection of historical importance, will be sunk 220 feet down in a limestone mine situated 60 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, where it will be far from the reach of historians. The archive, which is estimated to have as many as 17 million photographs, is a visual record of the 20th century. Since 1995 it has belonged to Corbis, the private company of Microsoft’s chairman, William H. Gates.

The Bettmann archive is moving from New York City to a strange underworld. Corbis plans to rent 10,000 square feet in a mine that once belonged to U.S. Steel and now holds a vast underground city run by Iron Mountain/National Underground Storage. There Corbis will create a modern, subzero, low-humidity storage areas safe from earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, vandals, nuclear blasts and the ravages of time.

But preservation by deep freeze presents a problem. The new address is strikingly inaccessible. Historians, researchers and editors accustomed to browsing through photo files will have to use Corbis’s digital archive, which has only 225,000 images, less than 2 percent of the whole collection.

Some worry that the collection is being locked away in a tomb; others believe that Mr. Gates is saving a pictorial legacy that is in mortal danger…

When the move is done, Corbis’s New York office will contain nothing but people and their computers, plugged into a digital archive. No photographic prints, no negatives, no rotting mess. Analog is having a burial and digital is dancing on its grave.”

Sarah Boxer, New York Times, April 15, 2001

The death of analog/The power of analog.

The 20th century may have been dominated by the spectacle of the image, but the 21st century will witness the disappearance of the image into digitality moving at the speed of light.

Not simply the death of analog with its extended burial rights for the traditional apparatus of photography-prints, negatives, and the framing gaze of the photographer’s eye-but the disappearance of the image itself. Because that is what is really at stake in this strange story of Corbis’s necropolis of the photographic archive. Certainly there are serious issues of cultural politics here: issues of monopoly capitalism in digital form creating a short market in the photographic archive of the future; issues of shutting down the eye of photographic history itself; issues of substitute culture-replacing an actual worked photographic archive with its coded, and dramatically abbreviated, digital substitutes. All of this is almost self-evidently true, almost palpable in this eerie spectacle of the cryogenic deep-freezing of photography, this entombment of the reproductive rites of photography in an abandoned mine shaft in Pennsylvania. No more (photographic) images, no more decomposing smells of negatives, no more “thumbing through” stacks of refrigerated images, no more immediacy. Now, we are suddenly living in the culture of the retrieval of digitally archived images by remote control: images safely kept at a distance from human contact, uncontaminated by the passage of time. The image archive is reduced to the steady flicker of the cybernetic code. Hygienic, sterilized, catalogued on the computer screen, untouched by the human hand, unseen by the human eye, uncontaminated by the ephemeral imagination.

But what does this really mean? Is this simply another story of the triumph of digitality over analog-the sovereignty of the light-image over that curious mixture of light and time and chemicals that is photography? Or is this assignation of the photographic archive to the coffin of a cold underground storage vault a haunting presentiment of something more monumental, more striking for the artificiality, perhaps even naivety, of its digital illusions?

Certainly on the surface this may be a quick-time fable of “analog having a burial and digital dancing on its grave,” but in the strange reversals that mark the passage of life itself through the spectacle of the image, exactly the opposite may also be the case. The secret of this fable of the buried image lies in the question of the code. Because the code is what this story is really about, and it is just when we disentangle the double helix of the digital code, that twisting spiral of analog and digital logic as they intersect and implode that we can begin to understand the serious cultural implications of this story for the future of the image in the new century. It is in the nature of all codes, digital or otherwise, to immediately repress all signs of their opposites, to cancel from view and certainly from verbal optical articulation the repressed energies of the anti-codes that work to make possible the violence of the positive code itself. As in life so in the story of the digital code.

The digital code speaks the sanitary language of culture cleansing, of photography itself at a distance, of the archive by remote control, of the deep-freeze preservation of the image from the ‘contamination’ of time and history and memory and skin and smells and touch. Photography in a bubble. Memory in cold storage. Images fast-frozen. Perfectly preserved, perfectly coded. Always retrievable, always inaccessible. A psychoanalytics of digital repression.

But what if with the history of mythology as our guide, we were also to note concerning the future of the image that that which is most deeply repressed, most feared and most preserved even to the point of its death, never fully absents itself from culture, never can be removed at a safe preserve from the future anxieties and future boredom of the enigma of life itself. In this case, it is not so much the “burial of analog with digital dancing on its grave,” but analog as the repressed memory the absence of which haunts the once and future spectacle of the digital.

More than is perhaps recognizable in the orthodox media scriptures of the digital age, we are no longer living in a culture dominated by the image because we are the pure image. Ours is a culture signified by the triumph of virtuality, by the disappearance of the spectacle of the graven image into code. It is as if those torrents of words spilled in the decade leading up to the end of the 20th century, those anti-words that stormed the icons of representationality, that spoke of the hyperreality of a coming structuralist reality, finally found their moment of historical truth, not in the echoes of written language but in the language of the disappearance of the image. Hypering the image. Coding the spectacle. A hygienic of (ocular) memory. A necropolis for the photographic memory. When a culture at some deep informing cultural level finally loses faith in representationality, when it shifts its register of acceptable meanings to embrace the language of virtuality, then that culture also effaces its ability to filter memory through the apparatus of the image. The death of representationality then is also about the burial of the image, and the virtual flight from the tomb of the analog of the new story of the cynical image.

Indeed, if the history of 20th century photography can be buried alive, chilled to such a degree of zero-intensity that it cannot be easily disturbed, this is simply an indicator that the image has taken flight from the medium of analog photography to electronic imaging, from the image as a light-based product of the photographic apparatus to the vanishing of the image into the digital simulacrum. Or maybe something else. Perhaps the burial of the history of 20th century photography also announces in the absolutism of this gesture that the photographic image can be superfluous today because we are finally living out that age predicted by ancient prophecy-a time in which the image is made flesh.

Disappearing into Images

It was always intended to be this way.

Discontented with the radical separation of flesh and image, the body has perhaps always yearned to disappear into its own simulacrum, to become the image of itself that it thought it was only dreaming. This is why the story of the simulacra of images has nothing essential to do with the languages of domination, with the purely social stories of alienation or reification. Escaping from the coils of earthy mortality, the history of the image has been most seductive because of its obsessive hint of pure ocularity, because of its trance-like status as a virtual vector in an increasingly electro-optic apparatus of power. A born pervert, the image is the outlaw region of the human imagination. A natural charlatan, the image maintains the pretence that it has something to do with the history of the eye precisely because its real electro-optical history focuses on the shutting down of the eye of the flesh and the opening up of the cynical eye of dead code. An enigma, a sky-tracer, a going beyond, a falling back: the image is the residual trace of the human challenge to a universe that knows only the game of reversibility and seduction as responses to challenges to the power of its silence.

Consequently, it is our future to disappear into images. Not only into those external image-screens-cinema, TV, video, digital photography-but also into those image-matrices that harvest human flesh: MRI, CT scans, and thermography. The future of the media? That’s the unseen cameras of automatic bank machines, the unhearing machines of automatic eye scans, the unknowing machines of planetary satellite photography. Sliced through and diced, combined and recombined, the body is an image matrix. The body desperately needs images to know itself, to measure itself, to reassure itself, to stimulate its attention, to feed its memory channels, to chart its beauty lines, to recognize its gravity flaws, age marks and flaring eyes.

In a special case of the media preceding science, the image matrix is how biotechnology will penetrate the imagination. No need to wait for the sequencing machines of recombinant technology. The image matrix is already recombinant. No need to anticipate the results of gene sequencing: the results of the human genome image are already known.

The image matrix inhabits the body. It is the air breathed by its photographic lungs. It is the sky surrounding its digital eyes. The image matrix quick-jumps the eye and seduces the imagination. A static line. A conspiracy line. An entertaining line. The image matrix is always there.

There is no longer any difference between the body and the image matrix, except perhaps in the default sense that the body is still in the way of a falling away from the intensity of the image matrix, a gravitational pull like a dark unseen star in a distant galaxy that can only be detected by its negative gravitational presence.

Do images warp when in the presence of bodies? Like galactic star systems, do images flare outwards in the act of seducing passing bodies? Conversely, do images retract into cold sterility when animating empty spaces.

And what of light? Why is the image matrix washed out by sunlight? Is it simply a matter of physics, or something else. Is the disappearance of images when exposed to the light of the sun certain evidence that images are also possessed of the spirit of the vampire.

And what of the future of the image in the age of biotechnology?

The image is a gene machine, recombining, splicing, mutating, sequencing. No need to wait for the genetic engineering of the body because the image is already a gene sequencer, mutating and mixing culture patches.

That the history of the photographic archive of the 20th century has now been safely interred in cold monument to the dead image only means that the final assimilation of human flesh and the image matrix is about to occur. In a culture of death, only that which has been buried is finally freed to live out the enigmatic seduction of its destiny.

A Recombinant Postscript

Saving the Future for the Image

So then, a final question: What is the fate of the image in the age of the digital? Saving the image for the future? or just the reverse: “Saving the future for the image?” Consequently, the urgent political question: In the digital age-Saving the image for whom?”

Saving the Image, therefore, for whom? and for what? The real question is not necessarily ensuring the survivability of the image, but of maintaining a cultural free and democratically accessibility to the images of the future. In effect, ensuring the survivability of an open future for the image. A digital future under the global control of the masters of the digital universe means a future of the image under the control of an acquisitive and accumulative mentality driven on by a strange, restless but nonetheless relentless desire to possess the future of the Image. Who will be the guardians of the images of the future? A Ted Turner color-your-world future where questions of accessibility to the electronic heritage will be under the control of all the (Bill) gatesways of the world. A closed digital future? Or an open digital future? Digitally archiving images of the future in which to access those images we will have to pass through a global networked multimedia market centralized primarily in the United States, or an open future free for creative imaging.

Not just a technical question, then, of the challenge of archiving and curating the images of the digital future, but now there is a very real cultural struggle over saving the future for creative images.

In essence, the technical question introduced by the move from electronic to digital reality might well be the implications of digital technology for the electronic heritage. For example, Curating the Image in a thin/client future where networked computer systems make easily possible centralized storage of the image-bank of the world’s entire film history: every film, every image coded for easy retrievability, and also, of course, coded for instant digital manipulation. A digital film bank, where if the masters of the digital universe have their way, will be much like Blockbuster Video, where a lot of independent, definitely not-main stream films will be quickly and silently exorcised from the electronic future. A closed digital future, shut down in advance by the subordination of the Image to a digital future acting at the behest of private accumulation.

Not then so much saving the Image for the future. In the digital age, that’s increasingly a transparent question. But saving the future for the Image, asking the question of Images For Whom? and Images for What? is a political question. But it’s a question which speaks of the life-and-death cultural struggle that will take place over democratic accessibility versus private intellectual property rights to the Images of the electronic future.

What’s at stake is nothing less than our cultural heritage in the 21st century. Perhaps that is what is really at stake in these stories about the death of the image: first of the photographic image through its entombment in a new reenactment of an Egyptian cult of the dead; and then of the electronic image as it vanishes into the specter of virtuality.

The Despotic Image or The Bored Eye?

The digital age unleashes deeply paradoxical tendencies in the unfolding history of the image, moving simultaneously between the violent repression of the material memory of the photographic image and its recombinant recreation in the culture of the digitized imaginaire. Out of the ashes of photography under the sign of analog suddenly appears the phoenix of the digitized image-machine. A doubled story of repression and creation?

Or something else?

If today the image proliferates with such velocity and intensity that human flesh literally struggles to become the image of its own impossible perfection -witness the psycho-ontology of cosmetic surgery-then this might also mean that we are now fully possessed by the power of the image. Not possessed by the power of the image as something somehow ulterior, and possibly alien, to human agency, but possessed by the image as a fulfillment of human desire, and perhaps desperation. In a Copernican flip, we ourselves are images to the world surrounding us: designer bodies, rip-tide abs, faces as gestures, attitudes as probes, lips like invitations, pouts like refusals, eyes like a going under. Possessed by the images once thought as somehow safely alienated as representations, we ourselves have become founding referents to the simulacrum that invades us.

A story of body invasion? Not really. Contemporary society is no longer the culture of the disembodied eye. Today, we play out the drama of our private existence along and within the iris of the image-machine that we once dismissed as somehow external to human ambitions. Our fate, our most singular fate, is to experience the fatal destiny of the image as both goal and precondition of human culture. As goal, the power of the image inheres in the fact that contemporary culture is driven forward by the will to image as its most pervasive form of nihilism. As precondition, we are possessed individuals because we are fully possessed by the enigmatic dreams of impossible images.

That we are possessed by the power of the image with such finality has the curious repercussion of driving the image-machine mad. The matrix of image-creation as its evolves from analog to digital and now to the biogenetic struggles to keep pace with the capricious tastes and fast-bored appetites of human flesh as an image-machine. It is the age of the bored eye: the eye which flits from situation to situation, from scene to scene, from image to image, from ad to ad, with a restlessness and high-pitched consumptive appetite that can never really ever be fully satisfied. The bored eye is a natural nihilist. It knows only the pleasure of the boredom of creation as well as the boredom of abandonment. It never remains still. It is in perpetual motion. It demands novelty. It loves junk images. It turns recombinant when fed straight narratives. It has ocular appetites that demand satisfaction. But it can never be fully sated because the bored eye is the empty eye. That is its secret passion, and the source of its endless seduction.

The bored eye is the real power of the image. It takes full possession of the housing of the body. It is the nerve center of flesh made image. It is the connective tissue between the planetary ocular strategies of the image-matrix and the solitude of the human body. The bored eye is bored with its (bodily) self. That is why it is always dissatisfied. It needs to blast out of the solitude of its birth-place in the human cranium in order to ride the electronic currents of the global eye. No longer satisfied with simply observing the power of the image, the bored eye now demands to be the power of the image. Which is why, of course, the archival history of twentieth-century photography can now be safely interned. At dusk, the eye of the image takes flight in the restless form of the bored eye forever revolving and twisting and circulating in an image-matrix of which it is both the petulant consumer and unsatisfied author.

Ironically, the bored eye has itself now become both precondition and goal for the despotic image. Which is why images can now be so powerful precisely because they are caught in a fatal miasma of powerlessness before the ocular deficit disorder of the bored eye. The despotic image may demand attention as its precondition for existence, but the bored eye is seductive because of its refusal to provide any sign of lasting interest. A love affair turned sour. With this predictable result-the increasing ressentiment of the digital image: “Analog is having a burial and digital is dancing on its grave.”