Monday, August 27, 2007

The Media is the Minefield

I was again cogitating – something akin to thinking for oneself, but for older people – about the ancient cave paintings in southern France, and other great works of figurative art from the foundations of human civilization.

What is it about us people as a species that we yearn to create images? We seem to be genetically predisposed to be image-makers.

Well, perhaps I’m being hasty. In our present time we find a plethora of image-related media, and the technology for creating images – electronic, film, literary – has never before been as abundant. Yet not all who have access to such technology are found to be creatively using these devices in actual image-making applications. Think of all the unused cameras and video machines collecting dust in their disuse.

Yet, imagery pervades our culture.

Still, my argument is valid if modified in this way: let us alter our proposition to say that, rather than being a race of image-makers, we are more accurately a race of image consumers. That is to say, we have an innate ability and desire to visualize.

It is crucially significant to make the distinction between the human ability and desire for imagery and the biological functioning of the visual cortex of higher life forms. Virtually all animated life, from insects to reptiles to mammals, has the ability to form visual images, to see. Yet that is not what distinguishes mankind from other life forms. It seems that our innate abilities as image-maker and image beholder are not merely biological. There is something deeper at work here, more ephemeral, in order to explain the differences.

Perhaps the term ‘spiritual’ comes to mind; certainly an over-used word, one that is absent the rigor of the carefully defined terminology of western rationalism.

In this case, we’ll say that our hunger for imagery helps to satisfy a deep, primordial, internal spiritual craving. We seem to use images to fill a divine-shaped vacuum within.

The physical evidence yet collected seems to indicate that humans became human – that is, were found to be biologically distinct from other hominids - at about the same time that we see evidence for the ability to create imagery.

While evolutionary anthropologists make the argument that image making helped early man to organize into social groups around religious ceremony, and reinforced the more effective tactics of the hunt, I find particular interest in the coincidence of the arrival of image making with the prerequisite for an advanced ability to think in abstract terms. A quantum leap in cognition is required in order for biological animal vision to be transformed into a system of visual symbology.

This is in essence what the image becomes in functional terms: an assignment of identification between one thing and something else, through some common visual attribute, or other characteristics shared by both.

A stone or piece of hardwood is scrapped, chipped and carved into a shape that enables a mental assignment to be made between the object as placeholder and some part of objective reality. The two lumps on the carving seem to resemble the breasts of one’s mate, for instance. A system of visual symbology begins to form. The carving is now endowed with symbolism: that of the role served by female in the local culture.

The graven image has been discovered: the first media.

We would like to believe that the artifacts of early man are intrinsically important to the understanding of their culture and the nature of early humans. That may not be implicitly true, however.

Suppose the detritus of our culture were unearthed in some far-distant future time: what cultural and spiritual significance would be placed upon a can of Coca Cola, for instance? Might it not be mistaken for some important artifact of religious ceremony? Indeed, our most important cultural artifacts might not survive the long sleep of the eons; the future may know us only through our waste material left behind.

We suspect that early man was a storyteller, acting out the retelling of fables and legends down from antiquity. We only suspect this from what has survived of the written records of later ancient cultures, such as the Greeks for instance. Suppose earlier ages failed to see the value of ‘archiving’ their ‘data’ in material form. Instead, their culture would be archived generationally, as stories, songs and dances were handed down from one generation to the next. What happens when warfare finds the slaughter of every last man, woman and child to be complete? Is not the ‘higher aim’ of such forms of total warfare the eradication of culture itself, rather than the mere wholesale slaughter of the enemy?

It becomes a plausible thesis that the control of image making has been a central theme throughout human history. Wars have been fought; villages and empires have fallen and risen on the merits of one’s imagery. It therefore becomes crucially important to understand the present geopolitical situation in the light of our understanding of the long stretch of human history. What is being fought today in both Baghdad and Madison Avenue is a battle of image-makers for control of the planet.

Who’s vision will win?

The media is not merely the message; the media is the minefield.

We can thus begin to suspect that the great monuments of the ancient world – Thebes, the Parthenon, Machu Picchu for instance – are evidence of wide-scale and systematic forms of propagandizement, whose purpose served to organize a population around a belief system intended to keep an oligarchy in power.

Frequently throughout history such systems of control have been structured around a mythology and practice of religious ritual, which functions to reinforce the messages of propaganda as an absolute system of belief. The use of imagery in such cases serves as a vehicle for the reinforcement of these beliefs as a system of iconography, a direct transference of the physical and pragmatic into the sublime and ephemeral.

In our westernized, rationalistic and highly mediated culture all of these systems of control are well in place, having been refined into a cohesive system of corporate-defined, consumer-driven demand that sets the agenda for all local, national and transnational political arena.

It becomes increasingly obvious that artists and others versed in the skills of mediation should be aware of their responsibility to unwrap, unveil and reveal the underpinnings of our mediated, propagandized, image-conscious culture. This awareness reveals itself as a moral obligation.