Image: c.1225, "artificial representation that looks like a person or thing," from O.Fr. image, earlier imagene (11c.), from L. imaginem (nom. imago) "copy, statue, picture, idea, appearance," from stem of imitari "to copy, imitate" (see imitate). Meaning "reflection in a mirror" is c.1315. The mental sense was in L., and appears in Eng. c.1374. Sense of "public impression" is attested in isolated cases from 1908 but not in common use until its rise in the jargon of advertising and public relations, c.1958.
On the same day a serial rapist (the so called ‘Hagaman’) is arrested in my town of residence I witness Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 Film Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom.
Salo is a deeply disturbing experience to watch. On this side of the screen the serial rape and torture of women (the youngest 14 years old) has been an ongoing source of despair in Umeå since 1998. The cross over points between these two phenomena is insightful.
Whilst most critics have described Pasolini’s last film as a critique of capitalism, power and state control (and rightly so) I saw it as a morbid study of the power of the image and the ability of spectatorship to discount moral and ethical consideration.
To watch reality is very different from participating in it….or is it? Every day the bourgeois post-industrial citizen is immersed in images and information. The sign has become the way of defining the self; we buy the brand, join the group or go to the place based upon what the signs are: Nike, Hardcore, Vegan, and Toyota:
"When you happily drive a Mercedes or eat at McDonald’s, you’re in essence taking part in the experience that particular brand promises. Advertising plays the most important role in developing a strong brand image and brand character. It is not uncommon for us to purchase products because we identify with what a corporation or business stands for, or because we want to be a part of the group to which the product allows access.”
How Advertising Works
Once we have surrendered to the strength of the brand image we are the passive recipients of its values, histories, and morals. This is why “public relations” is so much a part of any corporate agenda. When dealing directly with the public the image that the customer has must be the one the business wants them to have in order for the relationship to work. If the customer’s image of the business is compromised the relationship is over, think Enron and Skandia. However, if you do not deal directly with the public but rather with governments and lesser underlings then just about anything is permitted. Think Halliburton, BHP Billiton, Union Carbide, Exxon…. The list goes on and on. The image is just a matter of efficiency.
What has this got to do with sexualized violence? The objectification of another human being to the point of turning their life into a living hell is only possible if the idea one has of that person is an image rather than a shared understanding. In Salo a narrative is a priori central to the enacting of reality. Before any act is undertaken it is preceded by a monologue recounting a similar act from the memories of the fascists (Education??). Any emotion that spurs self-identity is forbidden as is any recourse to realities exisitng outside of the narrative monologue (personal memories, religion, love of family or others). It is submission and control indoctrinated as desire that is the law of Salo. Under such a law anything can happen and does in the spinning cruelty of the narrative. In the final two scenes we the audience are watching the spectacle through binoculars turned around the wrong way. The tortures are far away, panoramic and compositional (like a painting or a billboard). We are spectators watching the film. The consumers of the image.
On this side of the screen we buy the image. We want the image. Shopping is a high that millions of people take a hit of every day. And it not just products we buy, it is ideas also. In the audience for Salo there were individuals who seemed to have taken on the persona of famous philosophers. The man who introduced the film resembles Sartre (glasses, crumpled suit, turtleneck sweater) and the man sitting in front of me is Foucault (shaved head, glasses, even down to the 1970’s turtleneck black sweater!!). Such is the power of the image that we can become it. Living in the image reassures us that if my family is OK, if my job is OK then it is all OK. The subject defines the object.
From reading the Gnostic texts I as well believe that it is impossible outside of madness to avoid the image:
[Socrates] And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: --Behold! human beings living in a underground cave, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the cave; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
[Glaucon] I see.
[Socrates] And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
[Glaucon] You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
[Socrates] Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
[Glaucon] True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
[Socrates] And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
[Glaucon] Yes, he said.
[Socrates] And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
[Glaucon] Very true.
[Socrates] And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
[Glaucon] No question, he replied.
Plato, The Allegory of the Cave
So is it a question of attempting awareness? Of breaking through in small acts of compassion? Or is the Surrealist Rimbaudian “rational derangement of all the senses” a way of overcoming our meat prisons. I cannot say. I am planning on reading Slavoj Žižek in the near future. I am trying to be kinder for now.
(The reason why I wanted to see Salo is that is banned in Australia as being pornographic. If that is the Censorship Review Board’s idea of pornography, then they are very twisted people)
For some light antidote to the image spectacle check out Midaircondo “Shopping for Images”. Intelligent pop that seems to attempt to visually challenge the dominating power discourse.