The Role of Pictures in Society
New Ways of Using Images
Fri, January 20, 2006 – Sun, January 22, 2006, Symposium
The history of pictures was dominated for a very long time by the monopoly of a class of experts who alone had the manual skills to produce them. Whenever a picture was needed, whether by the church, a noble lord, a ruler, a merchant or a patrician, there was only one class of persons who could meet this need and execute the commission: the painters. Because of their monopoly these experts were also known as artists. In this sense the history of the image was identical with the history of art. The end of the history of the image as art and the end of art history – both types of history being for obvious reasons closely bound up with social history – was ushered in with the invention of photography around 1840. The imaging devices which developed in the context of the mechanical machines of the Industrial Revolution, e.g. photography and film, and the image-transmission systems of the post-industrial revolution – i.e. television and the Internet – opened the door to the universe of the technical image [V. Flusser]. The moment machines acquired the ability to generate images by themselves, that is to say automatically, not only the monopoly of the painters, but also the anthropological monopoly of image generation and dissemination as a whole began to totter. The much deplored dehumanization of the arts [Ortega y Gasset] and the many attempts at a visual anthropology [H. Belting] are an expression of the crisis caused by this lost monopoly and the beginning of a new social history of the image.
The image is no longer a monopoly of painting and has freed itself from the history of art. Today's imaging devices and peripheral systems for transmission and distribution, communications and information, achieve a terrestrial range far in excess of normal human dimensions. The images which are produced and transmitted with the aid of machines far exceed the capacity of the human eye. More than ever before we are able to see micro- and macrostructures – we can see events at other times and in other places. The technical image marks an enormous expansion of visual scope. The imaging devices and systems have brought about a worldwide explosion of visual culture. In this expanded universe of technical images the significance of the artistic image is diminishing and that of other forms of image and ways of using them by means of image-processing techniques is increasing. The social use of the image is undergoing a process of profound change. Technical images have a purpose that goes beyond mere representation – static images are no longer just autonomous but have a definite function. The triumph of the technical image lies in the fact that it can be used in far more ways than those to which pictures have traditionally been put. This makes the technical image into a social instrument in fields ranging from astronomy through transport to medicine. The image has become part of the service industries, part of the service society. This is what was meant when we spoke at the outset about a new social history of the image.

The technical image gives rise to new social services, thus playing a radically different role in society than before. Multi-tentacled news agencies, global media conglomerates which deal in photographs and moving images, eminent scientific societies and institutions which use images to conduct research into the universe, the human body, matter and radiation phenomena, etc., all testify to a profound change in the social use of the image and the function of the image in society. The technical image has not only expanded the visual but also the social range. Whether it is a matter of control by images, the computerized recognition and generation of patterns, the simulation of artificial, previously unseen worlds or of real but dangerous worlds – when we think of all the uses to which images can be put, even including blackmail and humiliation, we realize that images are playing an unprecedented role in society, being more multifarious and influential than ever before. The world has become an image, as theorists like Anders, Heidegger, Virilio and Baudrillard recognized at an early stage. But the cultural pessimism of the philosophers failed to perceive the constructive and positive aspects of this visualization of everything, the social value of the aid provided by images in the exploration of the world. Bourdieu spoke of the 'illegitimate use of photography' if it was used for social rather than artistic purposes. One might almost say that the technical image has triumphantly joined numbers and speech as a competitor for the prime role in the expansion of human knowledge. The precision of images in many cases exceeds linguistic description, while the availability and transmittability of images in many cases exceeds that of numerical code or numerical data. The price we pay for this in terms of the loss of the anthropomorphous monopoly of image generation and dissemination is certainly a high one. We no longer see the world with our own eyes, but with the eyes of machines. Our eyes have in a sense been expropriated – we observe machines as they do the actual observing. We have become secondary observers. The advantage, however, is that as secondary observers we see more, better and further than primary observers do. The computerized perception, production and transmission of images form the core and centre of the new role of the image in society. These images are 'no longer a sign and not yet an object' [Rheinberger].

The triumph of the computerized image lies in its dual capacity, in a kind of high fidelity, in reproductions of a faithfulness and closeness to reality never previously achieved, and in an ability to penetrate and permeate reality that is also unprecedented. The computerized image thus fulfils the claims of both the imaginary and the real. The high-tech nature of the image production and distribution of computer games via mobile telephony or on-line communication – these multiplayer media which attain new dimensions ranging from education to the sex industry – enhance the effects of images in society to an incredible extent. The power of images rises in proportion to their capacity to serve us. The more assistance the images offer – by helping with communication, cognition, persuasion – the more powerful they become. These high-tech services provided by images in everyday use naturally lead to their extreme secularization. The image that is published in a million copies and disappears in a fraction of a second, images which can be stored and retrieved by the terabyte, i.e. images that are now but fleeting guests in space and time – flexible, variable, transformable, movable – naturally lose something of their aura. For an image like the 'Mona Lisa' owes its aura to the fact that it comes into existence at a certain place and at a certain time and remains there for ever. But the high-tech nature of the image paradoxically destroys its status as high culture. The mass image serves mass culture. So what new culture is the artificial image about to usher in? Art has yet to offer us an answer to this question.

Day by day we experience the effects of this change, of the function of the image in society and of the use of the image in society. Yet despite this daily exposure there has hardly been any attempt to study them scientifically, whether in a quantitative or a qualitative sense, whether in terms of cultural philosophy or social theory. At this multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary symposium we shall attempt to investigate and analyse these new effects and the changed role of the image in society. This new study of images is of a scope that greatly exceeds that of the history of art or the visualizations of the natural sciences.
Organization / Institution

Volkswagen Stiftung