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Even better than the real thing February 4, 2007

Posted by @Doc in art, Education, newspeak, simulacra, technology.

Item 1: While waiting for a table at a restaurant this morning, my wife, sister-in-law and brother-in-law were looking at a series of photographs by Sue Norris, whom I know little about. Nice work, though – very pretty landscapes. We were noting the vividness of the colors and I made an offhand comment about how they’d certainly been Photoshopped. We found the “About the Artist” piece on one of the walls, and she talks in some detail about her technique, which does in fact involve the use of Photoshop for color and contrast balancing, filtering, etc. All straightforward enough.

But I noted a particularly intriguing bit in her description of the process. She noted that she used Photoshop to correct for the actual color and contrast (can’t remember the precise words she used, but this is the essence of it). So the implication is that the photo itself didn’t reflect the truth of the scene, and that only through technological manipulation can we reproduce reality. Of course, what caused my Photoshop comment in the first place was the unreal vividness of the colors in the scene. They weren’t radically artificial, but they were quite clearly enhanced.

Item 2: A few days ago I caught a commercial for one of the many hair restoration products out there. Sorry, can’t remember which one. The copy was absolutely fascinating, though. The female narrator (because this obvious play on male insecurity is going to respond to a voice of female approval, especially if that voice is sexy, right?) noted that (again, paraphrasing) losing your hair means you aren’t you anymore. She then explains that their product can help you become you again.

Pay close attention here: you are not you, due to natural processes, and only through the intervention of the patently artificial can reality be restored.

I’m not suggesting that there’s anything terribly new about this general phenomenon, which French Postmodernist intellectual Jean Baudrillard refers to as simulacra. Simulacra are “copies for which there is no original,” if that makes sense. In the Modern assumption, copies reproduced originals, but in the Postmodern, the original isn’t necessary or desirable – we can create copies that are far better than the original could have been. (If you feel a need for more painful detail, Google “Baudrillard” and “simulacra” and knock yourself out.) The simulacra dynamic has been at work in our culture long enough that we no longer twitch when presented with visual imagery that’s digitally altered or fabricated from the groud up. We live in an age of rampant special effects, to the point where an adage like “seeing is believing” has entered a quaint sort of quasi-obsolescence. If you’ve been to a movie theater in the past few years, you know that seeing certainly isn’t believing; if it were, then where in the hell did they find that varmint that played the role of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy?

What is sort of novel, though, is the brazenness with which we’re increasingly engaging in newspeak. Once in the not so recent past, the hair ad might have appealed to a balding guy’s desire to look like he once did, or maybe even to “regain his youth.” For Sue Norris and other photographers, the process of color adjusting is hardly a new concept, and we might have expected that her description and what was actually happening would have been in closer alignment. If she wanted to idealize, she might have described how that was done, and if accurate reproduction were her goal, we might have expected a product that looked a bit less unreal.

Instead, we’re now told that up is down. A technologically fueled process of idealization is passed off as naturalism. With the hair ad, we’re being told – literally – that natural is artificial and artificial is natural. The traditional intermediate metaphorical step – the weasel wording, which explains that we’ll look younger or we’ll look more like ourselves – has been displaced by pure falsehood.

I’m sure you can supply other examples from your own experience, and maybe at an academic level this doesn’t seem all that harmful. It’s a pretty picture, and all us bald guys wish we had our hair back, and we’re smart enough to see through the commodifictation engines to what’s really going on. Or are we?

Our political experience in this young century says no. We’ve had more than our share of cases where the real thing has been ignored and we have been told that the fake thing – otherwise known as a flagrant lie – is the truth. The switch-job has been shameless at times; we have been shown an ideal that exists nowhere in the world – a simulacra – and told that it’s the original. Ignorant is smart. War is peace. People who are dramatically different from each other are in fact exactly alike. Dissent is unAmerican. The abject denial of science is scientific. Global warming is climate change. The lowest common denominator is the public interest. Decorated veterans are heroes if they agree with you and traitors if they don’t.

Shall I go on? The new approach is to set aside how things are, for the moment, and envision how you wish they were. Envision the state of reality that would best serve your agenda. A particular health condition is inconvenient at worst, but you could make a lot more money if it were the most horrific thing imaginable. You’re running for office against Mother Teresa, and boy howdy, wouldn’t the task be easier if she were a common crack whore? Then proceed forth as if the desired state is the actual state. Do so with a straight face. And just in case you’re challenged, have an equally bald-faced slander waiting for anybody who’d suggest that the emperor is a tad underdressed.

The problem is worsening noticeably, too. Back in the late ’80s Bill Moyers did a series on the role of image in public discourse, and he interviewed noted media scholar Neil Postman. Postman observed that we have a language for testing the truth or falsehood of words, but none for image. When shown a picture of a father and son enjoying lunch at McDonald’s, is that picture true, he asked. A politician standing in front of a waving American flag and holding his grandson – surely that image communicates powerfully, but is what it communicates accurate? What faculties allow us to argue that such an image is untrue?

One hoped, at that point, that we would evolve toward mechanisms for more effectively evaluating visual communication – we were growing more visual by the day, after all, and surely a certain measure of savvy would necessarily develop. Instead, we have regressed to the point where, never mind the powerful unreality of the image, we can no longer seem to parse even the most blatant and cynical verbal misdirections.

This bodes ill for the Republic.

We’d all like to live in that idealized world, of course, but your chances of progressing toward a better place depend on understanding the reality of where you are currently. There are way too many scoundrels running loose in America who are willing to use every tool at their disposal to twist, distort and torture the facts in ways that serve their own narrow self-interests to the exclusion of the common good. Our only defense is learning, and as I have noted repeatedly, there is a direct link between the dynamics described here and our nation’s aggressive War on Education. Since only education can save us, we can rest assured that dismantling true education is going to be a high priority on many people’s to-do lists.

I’m not suggesting that bad toupee commercials are the work of al Qaeda and Sue Norris’ photography isn’t something we need Congressional hearings on. But when the doublespeak has so saturated the public mind that these kinds of black-is-white communications go unnoticed and unchallenged, it says something about how deeply we’ve swallowed the hook.

It’s going to be a long hike back to sanity. We ought to get get started while there’s still a little light left.

NP: White Zombie – “More Human Than Human”



1. scott keyes - February 4, 2007

just to be clear here.. the photographic process *itself* is not natural..and it almost ALWAYS requires careful correction, especially of color among other things to match what the naked eye of the viewer would experience at the original. I frequently have to explain to women who have never modelled before that the corrections I make are NOT to artificially enhance thier looks, but so that the pictures will actually look as good as they do in life.

which doesnt detract from your overall point (with which I concur), just that specific example.

2. theseniorsenior - March 25, 2007

To add my two cents…it is true that the photographic process does require manipulation, but technology has made it easier (or, at the very least, made the manipulation more available). In fact, technology has made the processes of out-truthing truth, if you will, so easy we don’t give it much thought. And that might be the point. Since we know how the trick is done, we assume we’re in on it. Whether its Photoshop or advertising, we think that because we know we’re being manipulated, we are somehow immune to the effects. And that might be the most dangerous effect. To be in on it, we stop thinking critically, and we let a lot slide that we shouldn’t.

Which is what your point was in the first place, but I thought I’d yell “Amen!”

3. drslammy - March 25, 2007

The point that Postman and others made so compellingly is that we simply don’t think TO critique image. I mean, “pictures don’t lie,” right. As a culture we haven’t gotten to the point where we realize that we have to develop hard critical tools for images, and there’s absolutely NOBODY in the political or corporate spheres that’s pushing us in that direction…

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