04/03/2015

Image isn’t everything, it’s the only thing

BY Julian Gorham

In a recent radio piece the author (and appropriately flinty-named) Will Self intones (he is a Buddhist after all) our culture hasn’t just privileged the visual, but made vision worth far more than all the other senses.

The evidence, he says, is everywhere.

Throughout the 20th Century images infiltrated the urban environment in the form of advertising and road signs. We’re now overwhelmed with the stuff – big pictures of horribly happy yuppies occupy building site hoardings; taxis, buses and trains are caked thick with illustrated public or commercial information and graffiti. Even if you go for a walk in the countryside, when you sit down on a bench to take in the view, you’ll probably be distracted by a discarded crisp packet – wearing a crisp image on the front.

We are image greedy: We demand images with everything – text must always be accompanied by illustration: Even a main course of sound – music or speech, is now served with a side-order of free imagery.

It’s not just the message, but the mechanism that we find impossible to resist: Film, television and the internet are a means of introducing imagery directly into the brain and that is something we really desire: Simply by placing a small screen in our visual field, we are reassured that should this be required, we are capable of global coverage. A smartphone in the pocket will do.

We now find it hard to believe we exist unless we are caught on camera. Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube – a plethora of social media sites is geared to the display of images, and in order to keep these supplied people roam the streets, cameras in hand, snipping them out of the bigger picture. Hundreds of billions of photos are now taken every year – image production on an industrial scale.

Image is the currency of the culture and partly in a principled rejection of this, Will Self has started telling people he is ‘post-image’. He has reached a point in his life where he can no longer accept uncritically any image whatsoever – TV picture, film frame, photograph, web page, advertisement graphic, drawing, cartoon or painting. He refuses to take any image as necessarily representative of any existent thing – and challenges the information which any image appears be conveying.

Image is everywhere and everything now, but maybe not for much longer.