The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations (2nd Edition)

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The Matter of Images Essays on Representations by Dyer Richard

When the photon hits the mirror its reflection is split into two. Under normal circumstances, if the photo-cell registers a beam of light it records it as an image, however in this experiment the wavefunction of the photon triggers the photo-cell to smash a phial of cyanide which kills the cat. Now, for someone who is witnessing the event from inside this sealed room, once the photon is fired the cat will be either dead or alive as we would expect, however — and this is the crux of the experiment — for an observer who is outside the room, the photon particle is in both places at once and the cat is consequentially both dead and alive.

The reason for this is that when the particle is not being observed, according to classical quantum physics the so called Copenhagen interpretation it does not behave like a particle at all but like a mixture of waves that represent the various probabilities of finding the particle somewhere within the box. The consequences of this insight could not be greater, for they not only mean that the laws of Newtonian physics do not apply to the quantum particles, but they also suggest that the rational logic of traditional physics and mathematics cannot account for the events taking place within the dark chamber of the cat experiment.

Works Cited | Keywords for American Cultural Studies, Second Edition

In either case, to be known scientifically or experienced aesthetically a thing must be other than the knower because a thing is only known as a representation. Instead, difference and not representation is the underpinning principle that holds the two observers together while simultaneously making them irreconcilable with each other.

Before letting go of the cat, let me spell out the significance of the feline to photography. In this rupture the ontological condition of the photo-graphic image is revealed as the difference between two incommensurable states. The principle of photography is not in the indexical connection between past and present, nor is it the representation of abstract forms, but in the visual presentation of time as internally divided.

The requirement for rupture institutes the possibility of an image that captures indeterminacy and a-symmetry as the very condition of visuality. The exposure produced by firing a single particle captures the difference between the two observers.


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It is neither the dead cat not the alive one that constitutes the image, rather, the photographic element of the experiment is the very possibility of the co-existence of the two and the figuration of the difference between them. In other words, difference is expressed through the heterogeneity of narrations underpinned by the bifurcation of time.

5. Visual Representation

This bifurcation constitutes the materiality of the photographic image while at the same time asserting its indeterminacy. Getting slightly ahead of myself I want to signal that these understandings prefigure much of the conditions that will describe the fate of the photographic image in digital culture. The condition of reproducibility does not warrant a connection with fixed reality, instead, each repetition of the image opens up the possibility of indeterminacy, variation and multiplication that can pull the image away from an indexical connection with the past.

Gifting Information

Within the network the image operates on several levels: computational, electro-magnetic, economic, conceptual, particle and each level produces separate but interconnected affects. The inherent instability of this assemblage makes it impossible to fix the meaning of the image and limit it to the content available to the gaze. Instead, significance and agency are formed by the relations, interactions and dialogues between the different parts of the system. In other words, meaning is established not through the procedure of representation but according to the manifold of relations to the other parts of the network.

Radical and liberating as quantum indeterminism was, with all the ensuing multiplicities of time and the polyphony of voices on offer, and notwithstanding the energising effect indeterminism had on art and literature, there was still a problem with this world view, which, to put it quite simply, threatened to undermine the whole project of converting all the clocks into clouds.

This problem can be summed up as follows: the indeterminism model was at its core a theory that asserted that everything is governed by chance and nothing else.

It suggested that the strict rules of the Newtonian clock universe be replaced by randomness, chaos and irresponsibility. If determinism is true, then the whole world is a perfectly running flawless clock, including all clouds, all organisms, all animals, and all men. But is chance really more satisfactory than determinism? If everything in life is decided with the throw of a metaphysical dice, what hope is there to build a free and just society? Quite clearly, none whatsoever. If the determinism of the swinging pendulum seemed oppressive and inescapable, then how much more inescapable and how infinitely more oppressive is the thought that we are thrown into an abyss with no logic, no rules and no hope to get out.

For Karl Popper the dangers of this kind of nihilism were too grave to ignore. For one thing, this free-for-all indeterminism was only a step away from a fascist state, where no ethical or moral rules apply and everything is determined by pure force. If nihilism is the only certainty, how do you maintain some form of control over the rampant and unrestrained urges that are sure to raise their ugly heads? And to complicate matters further, how do you keep behaviour in check without appealing to the higher power of god, the absolute, or the torture chambers of the secret police?

In positing plastic control as an intermediate membrane or a semi-conductor between determinism and chaos, between the world of representations and the world of probabilities, Popper sidestepped the dualism that maintained that things can only be one way or the other: either a cloud or a clock, either mind of body, image or object.

Even more astonishingly, Popper suggested that this layer of plastic tissue is not another system, not a cloudy clock or a clockwork cloud, rather it is the site of consciousness, feelings, desires and sensations.


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Plastic control is therefore a cluster of appetites, affects and passions that brings together the physical and the analytical, combining them into something both carnal and controlling, both sensual and cerebral. In other words, Popper uncovered a synthetic diagram of social, political, erotic and physical drives that forms images out of chaos.

Plastic control does not discipline chaos, but allows it to create connections between bits of matter and bits of ideas that do not fit with each-other like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and yet they form something like a constellation or an archipelago, or a network. According to the logic of plastic control, meaning is not to be located in the deterministic world of the clocks but equally neither it is in the nebulous world of the clouds. As the grey area where feelings, desires, and games of chance rule over logic and reason, plastic control offers a glimpse into non-binary thinking that rejects the dualisms of form and content.

And conversely, plastic controls take computer data and make it into something that looks like a photograph when it appears on a screen. Plastic control allows one to step away from the dialectical reasoning that conceives photography in terms of presence and absence, practice and theory, subject and object. It also exposes the fallacy of thinking about digital photography as being somehow immaterial or virtual.

Digital images can be made without a camera, without chemistry, without lenses, even without light, which means that all the old rhetoric about photography being the trace of the real, or having an indexical connection to events in the past does not have to apply to the digital born image. The idea that photographs have a representational, indexical or signifying connection with events, people and objects in the real world does not need to hold for digital images that rely on electronic signal and computation.

The destabilisation of photographic meaning is the direct result of the image being detached from universal notions of representation and re-staged in terms of the plastic materiality that figures the image through difference, bifurcation and self-replication. This understanding of the digital image as unchained from the dualisms of Western metaphysical thought can help to advance a way of thinking that is taking on board the material conditions of the network.

However, this insight requires the overcoming of the tendency of idealist aesthetics to think of photography as a process that mediates the world with the agency of light to produce legible signs. As there is no unified visual field the narrative is in every case irreducibly different. This irreducible difference is registered photographically as an always-incomplete determinacy.

A further consequence to the overcoming of aesthetic representational thought is that the digital image does not have to be understood in visual terms as something to be looked at. Rather the digital image both undermines and transcends representation by actualising an interval between itself and its object.

Gay Representations in Media

Through its diversity of narrations the digital image acts as a reminder that only the identical, the normative and the similar can be captured by representation while the expressive, the singular and the non-identical remains outside its reach. It is however salutary to remember that representation operates in two distinct but interconnected ways: as a kind of epistemological code that organises information by creating order out of chaos, and as a political system that organises communities by instituting a shared ethical code.

One does not have to be a unicorn or a little green man to be subjected to the exclusion principle: it is sometimes enough to speak with a slight accent, to stutter, to have a lame foot or anarchist tendencies. For this reason, the question for post-liberal political thought is how to inaugurate a community that does not depend on the codes of representation; how to remain sceptical and suspicious about the tendency of images and languages to privilege identity and cohesion over the clamour of disparate voices.

Deleuze and Guattari name this non-representational community nomadic war machine. Its primary objective is not war against the state but resistance to the forms of iconology of the state:. Richard Dyer's analyses consider representations of 'out' groups and traditionally dominant groups alike, and encompass the eclectic texts of contemporary culture, from royalty to serial killers, political correctnesss, representations of Empire and films such as Gilda , Papillon and The Night of the Living Dead.

Essays new to the second edition discuss Lillian Gish as the ultimate white movie star, the representation of whiteness in the south in Birth of a Nation , and society's fascination with serial killers. The Matter of Images is distinctive in its commitment to writing politically about contemporary culture, while insisting on the importance of understanding the formal qualities and complexity of the images it investigates. Subscribe now to be the first to hear about specials and upcoming releases. Title Author. The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations.

Paperback 2. Description of this Book Now published in a revised second edition, The Matter of Images searches through the resonances of the term 'representation', analysing images in terms of why they matter, what they are made of and the material realities they refer to. Author's Bio There is no author biography for this title. This preview is indicative only. The content shown may differ from the edition of this book sold on Wheelers.

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