CAMERA OBSCURA EXPOSED–by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.


ImageTOWARD DEMOCRATiZING IMAGES: Anatomizing the Facebook Internet Cyberspace Syndrome

by Sonny San Juan on Monday, April 23, 2012 at 2:01pm ·
 

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THE INTERPRETER AS PRODUCER: Can the Revolutionary Masses Seize the Mass-Media Means of Production and Reproduction?

 

            [In memoriam:  Elenita Ordonez, ave atque vale!]

 

 

We intervene at the conjuncture of this conversation with friends and kasamas. Beginning with the axiom that humans produced culture by inter alia mastering and inventing tools, by deploying extensions of the body–updated as McLuhan’s thesis of “the medium is the message”–can we assume that tools such as the camera and computers are neutral? Can photography be seized by the masses to subvert its function as a powerful instrument of the ruling class for suppression and mobilize it for counter-hegemonic ends? In short, can we turn FACEBOOK and the Internet as Mao’s “gun-barrel” to destroy the organs of publicity, advertising, celebrity-fabrication, and deceitful myth-making at the service of profit/capital? In a timely response to my previous note,  Prof, Ruel Pepa of Trinity University of Asia posed a povocative challenge:

 

It is a question of means and ends. While current mass media (television, mass media, films, and the whole ideological state-appratus Althusser designated as instrumental in the capitalist State’s interpellation of docile subjects) generally serves the 1%, the predatory minority, Pepa suggests, we can capture media, or at least use parts of this apparatus, to advance revolutionary goals. In short, we can seize the weapons of the master to turn them against the structures of domination and exploitation, the controlling institutions of the neocolonial order embedded in the Empire. Is it that easy?

 

Of course, isn’t this what the Calibans did, what the servants in Bunuel’s film Viridiana did? Didn’t the Propagandistas–del Pilar, Rizal, and the plebeian comrades of these ilustrados (Bonifacio, Jacinto, Mabini) use the colonizer’s weapons to overthrow their rule? Didn’t Marx use Hegel, Ricardo, St Simoun, and the whole achievement of bourgeois civilization to expose its illusion, its fragility and its transitoriness? Mao read Dewey and Western classics; Ho Chi Minh even quoted the words of Locke paraphrased in the American Declaration of Independence. Indeed, such is the complex dialectical process of liberation in actual history!

 

However, materialist dialectics means not only preserving part of the old, but also negating the larger substance of idealist thinking. Indeed, materialist dialectics implies a transformation not only of the weapon but the modalities of its use.  In the case of wresting control of the media, including the means of producing powerful critiques and oppositional interpretations that can unbalance the bourgeois control of the media, one confronts a more complex problem. Previous researches by H. Schiller, Parenti, as well as Roberrt McChesney, Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster (see their CAPITALISM AND THE INFORMATION AGE, 1998), among others, have shown how total and massive is the capitalist control of the globalized media, even in the face of challenges from anti-imperialist quarters (from Hugo Chavez, WikiLeaks, Anonymous, and other alternative projects). Not to speak of the almost total–but not quite–zombification of minds and bodies of consuming masses everywhere addicted to malling, shopping, potlatching–unnecessary expenditures of the body and spirit now and at the hour, in the political economy of narcissistic desire….

 

Capitalist hegemony, of course, succeeds because it allows the dominated/subjugated to be part of its articulation. Or at least the majority are led believe that its interests are being promoted by its accepting its position in the structure; hence, it allows minority voices to be heard, to participate under certain conditions, etc. Such is the much touted consensus of so-called democracies and their legitimacy warrant. We can even allow consumer goods/commodities to perform symbolic roles and functions, as Mary Douglas has argued in her influential discourse on methodological individualism for neoliberals, THE WORLD OF GOODS. Douglas is the poor man’s Anglo-Saxon version of the postmodernist postmarxism of Baudrillard and Deleuze. She reminds us again that commodities not only satisfy physical and psychic needs, they also serve as information, as organic parts of a communication system in any social formation. Symbolic capital, in Bourdieu’s terms. Granted, but this does not abolish the dichotomy between use-value and exhange-value. In fact, as W.F. Haug, Pierre Bourdieu, Guy Debord and others have shown, commodity-aesthetics precisely depends on the way “use-value” is inscribed in the system of symbolic exchange. No use value, no exchange. This is perhaps why Jacques Ranciere can argue that it is the aesthetic regime of visibility that subverts the  bourgeois hierarchy of values, whereby the ordinary or anonymous becomes “beautiful as the trace of the true.” But the question is (to follow Ranciere in THE POLITICS OF AESTHETICS) how can commodities be wrested from their trivial appearances and “beautified,” so to speak, or “made into phantasmagoric objects  in order to be interpreted as the expression of society’s contradictions”? Ranciere is trying to apply the surrealist formula of estrangement, Brecht’s Verfremdung-effekt, to all sphere of global capitalism. But for what purpose, what consequence?

 

In late capitalism, everything seems not only contradictory but thoroughly perverted and transmogified by the cash/market logic of equivalence. Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Stuart Ewen (in his ALL CONSUMING IMAGES), Sontag, Naomi Klein, and others have shown the insidious complicity of image-producing art/mechanisms with the logic of profit-making and capital accumulation. In short, photography (as well as film, theater, literature and other discursive practices) have been utilized to advance exploitation and oppression for a long time since its iinstrumentalization in 1855, at the Paris Exposition. In effect, Ranciere argues against Benjamin’s thesis that the modernist age of mechanical reproduction has finally destroyed the aura of bourgeois/artistocratic value in goods. Ranciere disagrees. He believes that the loss of aura has not demystified commodities, has not converted their iconic status to an indexical realist one. What is needed, according to Ranciere, is to restore the aesthetic dimension of worldly goods to their normalized, positivized appearances. In short, we need to defamiliarize commodities, make them strange or phantasmagoric. We need to enchant again the disenchanted world of the marketized urban world.  While Stieglitz, Strand or Evans appropriated the commonplace and ordinary into affective, significant photographic discourse, what is needed today–Ranciere argues–is to make the commonplace, ordinary and anonymous stand out from the mesmerizing banality of everyday commercialized/commodified life.   In short, we have to break the aura of normal business routine, the bureacratic modes of consumer society, in order to rescue fragments of humanity and restore the dignity of the natural world. But how do we do this?

 

Shock tactics seem called for, the sudden blast of illumination conjured by Rimbaud and the visionaries of surrealist avantgardism.  Or the thundering appeal of the Communist Manifesto.  For the moment, however, let us engage in a thought-experiment, or visual hyposthesizing. Following Edward Weston’s advice to think photographically: How do we do this in the case of these three photographs of beggars in the land of the morning sun, the pearl of the Orient Seas, when consciousness itself, including our dreams and fantasies, have all been virtually polluted by the individualist ethos and neoliberal habitus we already take for granted as the immutable norm? Are the Abu Sayyafs needed to re-visit Dos Palmas, perhaps even the Spratleys?

 

Sa pansamantalang pagsusuma: Sa tinaguriang “bayan ng hinagpis,” paano maipaliliwanag ang mga larawang ito ng realidad upang hindi maging tadhana o kapalaran ng lahat?  Paano ipapakahulugan at pahahalagahan ang mga imaheng ito, na karaniwang bagay na halos hindi na nspspsnsin o namamalayan, upang maisakatuparan ang layunin at prinsipyo ng pambansang demokrasya at mapagpalayang pagbabago?  Paano bubuhayin ang mga kaluluwang narito upang lumahok ang kanilang mga katawan sa rumaragasang rebolusyon? Makibaka, huwag matakot?

 

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About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Storrs, CT 06268 USA and works with the Philippines Forum, New York, and the PEN American Center.
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