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"The Programmable Image" by Jonathan Beller


At “Still Searching”, a blog of Fotomuseum Winterthur, there is an ongoing series called “The programmable Image” by Jonathan Beller who is Professor of Humanities and Media Studies and Director of the Graduate Program in Media Studies at Pratt Institute. Taking Vilém Flusser’s writings as a point of departure (especially Towards a philosophy of photography, originally published in german in 1983) he aims at developing his notion of the programmable image.

From the introduction to the series:

“Photography, the writing with light, has had at least as profound an impact on planetary life as linear writing. Arguably, photography creates a crisis for linear writing and its affordances including linear thinking and linear time. Today the photographic image has become inseparable from politics, semiotics, sociality, finance, the security state, and computation. Indeed actually existing planetary life presupposes photography, and one could say that globality consists of the complex interactivity that constitutes photography. Recently I have proposed the notion of the programmable image as a way of rethinking the geo-political relation between photography, computation, sociality, and political economy. Over the coming weeks I will endeavor to further develop and test this concept.”


Trying to direct some attention to this topic I quote a lengthy part of Beller’s second blog entry at “Still Searching”:

"This sketch of image as data-visualization, as nodal point of sociality, as iteration of machinic function, can be understood by means of comparing it to Marx’s notion of price. Price in brief is the assignation of number to a social relation by the market. It is the market’s best-effort background calculus of all relevant information such that the abstract universal labor time that informs any commodity whatever, can be quantified and denominated in money in a particular place-time. Price is an image of those relations – the summation of those complex and volatile relations reduced to a single number.

In practice, we are familiar with this function of price even if we do not understand the micropolitics of its operations – we use prices everyday as we exchange currency for goods, or even as we imagine our financial strategies over the short or long term. “The financialization of everyday life,” as Randy Martin put it, means that every activity is submitted to a cost/benefit or risk/reward analysis at some level, even as it means that the metrics necessary for such analysis (thinking) are coming into existence, colonizing the mind and transforming the operations of the imagination. Here the dual meaning of the word currency is useful; it suggests an adequation between what can be measured (and therefore valued in quantitative terms) and what can happen. The currencies of “likes” on Facebook and Instagram, and as importantly the currency of page views, not only embody this dual notion, they also become vehicles for the conversion back and forth between “finance” and “culture.” This convertibility – of culture into finance, of finance into culture, of likes into money, of money into likes – itself suggests something we already sense in the stress of our daily exercise of our “options”: that the domains of culture and finance are now inextricably imbricated. Culture(s) has (have) been subsumed by finance and this intensifying subsumption is machine-mediated and thus far, irreversible.

One point of these examples – those of price, internet currencies, and images as data-visualizations – is that each of these can be represented by a number: $12, 14,500 likes, or the string of digits that can be written as a single number from the matrix of pixel values in the digital display of any image whatever. What follows from that, and hopefully justifies this excursion, is that social relations of extraordinarily high complexity, breadth and density can be and are represented as numbers. Numbers of various kinds can, in theory at least, be assigned to any activity whatever, and in practice are assigned to an unconceptualizeable and therefore sublime number of them. These relations in themselves and in their interactivity today ineluctably pass through number. Furthermore, these machine-mediated numbers interoperate algorithmically. One name we have been using to express the totality of this process is Photography, but from this description I hope it is clear that we barely understand what this term means and that most of our definitions of this “medium” are outmoded.

To return to my question from the previous post, “Is photography a medium or is it ‘media’?”, we can see, building on Flusser, that photography as a, if not the, dominant social practice turns other media into media for its instantiations. It converts other mediations into subroutines for its own production. We could say that it subsumes them. As Flusser already noted, all activities today aspire to be photographed. Whether you’re a Higgs boson, or an ISIS recruiter, you need a movie to build your career. If you’re a POTUS-tweet you need to show up in the newspaper or on the evening news. Unlike Flusser, we have added to our diagram a recognition of the convergence of financialization with photography, a thesis that the information processing accomplished in and through photography is also an operation of financial logic. Indeed, arguably, the emergent and still emerging medium of photography, with whose definition we are struggling, was the medium of capital expansion – its new domain.

This claim that photography was an emergent medium of capital and of financialization makes a lot of sense in as much as it then casts a now familiar history into clear relief. The visual was the new frontier for industrialization and capital expansion, through it the colonization of planetary space and time was ever more efficiently extended into the sensorium and language. Capital’s ramification of the senses by machines brought new worksites outside the plantation and the factory walls right to the eye, to the senses and to the neural cortex. Images became worksites, and, as I wrote in The Cinematic Mode of Production, looking, a specialized form of attention, was posited as productive labor. Photography then cinema then computation arose as a more thoroughgoing, more complete and more totalitarian capture of the productive capacity of the “human” and its relation to the bios. It contains within its emergence at once the pathway to an even greater liberation of the productive forces along with their utopian aspirations for self-liberation from all forms of finitude, and the most brutal, violent, oppressive, genocidal modes of governmentality and warfare to date. Weaving together the visual, the financial, and the digital – and changing the meaning and function of all of these through and as the rise of information – photography as a medium of capital expansion was and is the best and the worst thing that ever actually happened."