September 8, 2017: You Gotta Represent

9 Sep

Note: I actually mostly wrote this a couple of months ago, before getting derailed by…life, I guess. So, some of the links are a little dated, but looking back over it I decided I was sufficiently satisfied with it to finish it up and post it anyway.

I’m doing a lot of reading lately, mostly for research, and a lot of it is fairly dense and often pretty depressing as well (for instance, accounts of the treatment of Native American children in federal boarding schools). Though it’s not “light” reading, exactly, Teju Cole’s new book of photographs, Blind Spot, has been a kind of respite for me over the last couple of weeks. The photos are paired with texts that Cole has called “voiceovers”; these sometimes comment on the content of the photo, sometimes on the place in or occasion on which it was taken, and sometimes reflect more generally or ideas or concerns inspired by the image, or reflected in it. They have to do with art, with politics, with human relationships of many kinds, and most of all with photography itself, and the act of looking at something or someone and creating a durable image out of what one sees.

Cole is deeply concerned with representation: what can stand for something else, and how? A photograph is almost always seen to “stand for” something, even more than painting, because it is by definition a reproduction of something out in the world. To make a photo, somebody pointed a camera at something that existed, at least for a moment, and the camera creates an impression of that moment on some sort of sensitive medium. Of course, this isn’t as straightforward as it might seem, and digital technology, which creates so many more possibilities for altering images, makes it even less so. But still, photography is understood in terms of the correspondence between image and reality; a great photograph is often said to “capture” something.

At the same time, making a photograph also involves selection. Seeing is always selective, or partial; for every act of seeing, there is something that remains unseen— in fact, nearly everything, necessarily. As Cole says in this interview, one of his concerns is

…the fact that the act of looking is limited. We only see a small part of what we are looking at, so there is a constant blind spot even with the kind of attentive looking that photography entails.

Photography brings the partiality of looking to the surface, because it involves a deliberate, explicit choice of what to show and what to leave out— where to point the camera. The balance between the seen and the unseen is, at least in principle, a product of the photographer’s intentions (or maybe their attentions). This has consequences beyond simply leaving some things out of the frame; as Cole observes several times, the choice to include gives the included, the seen, a special significance; objects become elements in an image, with a unity and coherence they might not otherwise have. Or, at least, their selection by the camera’s frame prompts us to look for what unifies them, to ask: why this and not something else? How would the photo have been different if the camera were aimed a little to the left, or focused a little differently? Even in a BAD image, poorly composed, poorly framed, this is true— and in fact, it is the problem. Because they are grouped inside the frame, the objects in the scene are pushed toward unity and coherence, but at the same time resist it. A photo that doesn’t work may simply fail to overcome the resistance of the objects inside it to the unity imposed by the frame, the act of assembly that says this is an image, a unified visual field. A photo makes a claim about what it depicts, and it succeeds or fails by how well it supports that claim.

(This is also part of what is going on when an unwanted object or person shows up in a photo; the frame pushes them into unity with the other objects in the frame, even if their presence is unintentional or undesirable. They are part of the picture.)

In a more general sense, a photograph often presents a part as a representative of a larger whole: a mountain or building or monument for a city or country, a portrait for an individual life, or moment in that life. Of course we all know that this is a false picture, and that there is more outside the frame than in it, but nevertheless we tend to treat the photo as if it can bear this burden. In fact, a part can only ever represent the whole symbolically, by calling it to mind, evoking it— and that evocation is always subject to the vagaries of individual interpretation.


Debates over who can represent a particular group, then, are often less about who can actually perform this function in practical terms (nobody) than they are about who can stand for the group symbolically. One of the more familiar aspects of this is the subject of Zadie Smith’s “Getting In and Out,” in which she reviews both the film Get Out and Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, which depicts, somewhat abstractly, the corpse of Emmett Till. Smith frames her discussion of the two works in terms of appropriation, which in the film is quite literal— I won’t spoil it, but, fair warning, she definitely does. One question with Schutz’s painting is whether a white artist has the right— and what kind of a “right” this is is part of the problem— to depict an image so integral to the story of the Civil Rights movement and the suffering that drove it. Smith’s take seems to be that it’s not a particularly successful painting, but that this idea that the subjects an artist can choose depends on membership in categories that everyone agrees are, at best, problematic and unstable, is questionable. (The open letter to the curators of the Whitney Biennial, where the painting was shown, calling for it to be destroyed is really disturbing). Smith comes at this in terms of her own biracial background, asking what subjects, by this logic, she is allowed to engage with:

To be biracial at any time is complex. Speaking for myself, I know that racially charged historical moments, like this one, can increase the ever-present torsion within my experience until it feels like something’s got to give. You start to yearn for absolute clarity: personal, genetic, political. I stood in front of the painting and thought how cathartic it would be if this picture filled me with rage. But it never got that deep into me, as either representation or appropriation. I think of it as a questionably successful example of both, but the letter condemning it will not contend with its relative success or failure, the letter lives in a binary world in which the painting is either facilely celebrated as proof of the autonomy of art or condemned to the philistine art bonfire. The first option, as the letter rightly argues, is often just hoary old white privilege dressed up as aesthetic theory, but the second is—let’s face it—the province of Nazis and censorious evangelicals. Art is a traffic in symbols and images, it has never been politically or historically neutral, and I do not find discussions on appropriation and representation to be in any way trivial. Each individual example has to be thought through, and we have every right to include such considerations in our evaluations of art (and also to point out the often dubious neutrality of supposedly pure aesthetic criteria). But when arguments of appropriation are linked to a racial essentialism no more sophisticated than antebellum miscegenation laws, well, then we head quickly into absurdity. Is Hannah Black black enough to write this letter? Are my children too white to engage with black suffering? How black is black enough? Does an “octoroon” still count?

Representation in a number of senses is part of what’s at stake in “Greetings, E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us)”, by Steven Johnson. Many people will be familiar with SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which listens for signals from outer space that seem to have been generated by intelligent lifeforms; more recently, some people have begun to advocate a more active approach, to deliberately send messages, rather than passively listen. A new group called METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has formed, expressly for this purpose, with plans to begin transmitting next year.

This is not actually especially new; astronomer Frank Drake— probably best known as the author of the Drake equation, which predicts the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe— sent out a message from the Arecibo Observatory, in Puerto Rico, back in 1974. But, both then and now, this idea is opposed by some as too dangerous. Prominent thinkers including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk argue that we can’t assume that contacted life would be benign, or have peaceful intentions; further, we must also assume that any lifeforms who might receive our message will be more technologically advanced that we are (interestingly, there’s some actual math to support that assumption). That makes sending a message, any message, far too risky for a small group of scientists to decide to do it on their own.

I was interested, first, in the problem Johnson describes about how to send the message; how to make it clear, first of all, that it is a message, at all, and then how to represent all of humanity with any single message. What would tell an alien (in every sense) society what we are like? Without going in to too much detail, Drake’s message used a semi-prime number (a number that is the product of two primes) to define a grid, which was then filled in with the ten digits in binary, atomic numbers for five basic elements, and a “sketch” of a human body. As Johnson puts it,

The message said, in effect: This is how we count; this is what we are made of; this is where we came from; this is what we look like; and this is the technology we are using to send this message to you.

The message, in other words, was designed to represent humanity in a the most general way— to give its alien audience a broad sense of what we, as a species, are like. To make the message much more specific that this would, necessarily, make it less representative (as well as much more difficult to send), because at some point you’d begin to say things that don’t apply equally to all human beings. (Even the sketch of a human body must be a “typical” body, with, for example, two arms and two legs.) That generality also means, though, that the Arecibo message doesn’t really represent us very well at all; its recipients, assuming they could properly interpret it, would know virtually nothing about human beings, human life, and literally nothing about human cultures or societies (beyond the fact that we’ve developed the technology to send such a message). To even begin to have a sense of the beings who sent this message, the hypothetical extraterrestrials would need much more information, but more detail makes it harder, and very quickly impossible, for the message to be representative of all of us in any simple sense.

On another level, there are also problems of representation in that the decision to send a message, with all of the potential consequences, is basically unregulated; the people doing it (including Drake, back in the 1970s) have taken it upon themselves, with no permission or oversight from anybody. If you believe that sending such a message at all may be a very dangerous thing to do, then that’s a problem; even if you don’t, it’s reasonable to ask why these people, in particular, are the ones who will speak for the entire planet.

You have to imagine time scales on which a decision made in 2017 might trigger momentous consequences 10,000 years from now. The sheer magnitude of those consequences challenges our usual measures of cause and effect. Whether you believe that the aliens are likely to be warriors or Zen masters, if you think that METI has a reasonable chance of making contact with another intelligent organism somewhere in the Milky Way, then you have to accept that this small group of astronomers and science-fiction authors and billionaire patrons debating semi-prime numbers and the ubiquity of visual intelligence may in fact be wrestling with a decision that could prove to be the most transformative one in the history of human civilization.

All of which takes us back to a much more down-to-earth, but no less challenging, question: Who gets to decide? After many years of debate, the SETI community established an agreed-­upon procedure that scientists and government agencies should follow in the event that the SETI searches actually stumble upon an intelligible signal from space. The protocols specifically ordain that ‘‘no response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place.’’ But an equivalent set of guidelines does not yet exist to govern our own interstellar outreach.

I’m reminded in all of this of political theorist Robert Dahl’s Principle of Affected Interests, which says simply that people should have a meaningful say in any decision that affects their interests in a significant way. There are many practical problems with implementing that, but it still strikes me as a reasonable baseline. In this case, there is simply no mechanism or set of institutions for enforcing anything like this principle, and that’s a problem, no matter how much or little risk you believe is involved.

Johnson suggest that

We need to define a special class of decisions that potentially create extinction-level risk. New technologies (like superintelligent computers) or interventions (like METI) that pose even the slightest risk of causing human extinction would require some novel form of global oversight.

That, of course, is a tall order, but it’s also probably insufficient— extinction isn’t the only threat that raises these kinds of problems of representation. “The Brave New World of Gene Editing” by Matthew Cobb, discusses, mainly, a new book by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg about CRISPR, a powerful new technology that, in principle, allows highly precise editing of DNA. Cobb explains the science here better than I can, so I won’t try; the important thing is to emphasize how much of a game-changer CRISPR is. If a condition or trait can be reliably traced to a single gene, then CRISPR can be used to avoid, eliminate, or produce it. It is comparatively simple and inexpensive, and has the potential to radically alter life on earth. And that means it is also a big problem. But, like the sending of messages into outer space, the technology was created without much political accountability, and it’s not clear what kinds of regulatory mechanisms can be created, at the global level, to determine how it should be used. More to the point: nobody is asking us. These decisions will be made, at best, by scientists and bureaucrats in bodies like the United Nations or the European Union, which are famously distant from the citizens of the countries that make them up. Realistically, they will also be made by people much less interested in those citizens’ welfare— private companies operating in weak states with little capacity for oversight, say. Either way, a very small number of people will make choices that have profound consequences for every human being on the planet (and many non-human beings as well), without any clear reason why they should be in such a position. We simply have no political mechanisms for determining who can take such actions, or under what circumstances.


All of which is a long way, apparently, from the aesthetic claims of the photographic frame. But one can think of examples in which, for instance, an entire nation or an event, like a war, is encapsulated for a large audience in a few, iconic images. In such cases, the choices of individual photographers suddenly have very high stakes, and rarely is there any sense in which the photographer can be thought of as accountable to the people whose lives (or deaths) they are depicting. In democratic politics, the power to represent always rests on the right of the represented to revoke that power; the representative is a representative precisely because they are accountable. In other arenas, though, the power of representation comes with no such limitations.

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