The Defining Image

The foundations of our species being, and the narratives of species history are marked by imagery—the parietal, megalithic art and body art of first peoples, the iconography and symbology of religions, the graphic-representational roots of writing.

We are, uniquely in natural history, the symbolic species. And within our peculiar species history, the development of capacities to create images parallel speaking and precede writing.

Since the beginnings of modernity, however, we have increasingly focused our attention on language as our species-defining characteristic. After half a millennium where the power and prestige of language has held sway, we may be in the cusp of a return of the visual, or at least a multimodality in which image and text are deeply inveigled in each other’s meanings. This can in part be attributed to the affordances of the new communications environment. As early as the mid twentieth century, photolithography put image and text conveniently back onto the same page. Then, since the mid 1970s, digitized communications have brought image, text and sound together into the same manufacturing processes and transmission media.

The Image of Transformation: Properties of Consequence

The image has several key properties, of interest to the participants in this research network.

The first is its empirical connection with the world–telling something of the world, reflecting the world. It re-presents the world. How does it do this? What are its techniques? What are its mediations? What kinds of ‘truth’ can we have in images?

A second property of consequence — the image has a normative loading. No image can ever solely be a reflection on the world. It is also a perspective on the world, an orientation to the world. This is because it is the incidental outcome of an act of design. It is the product of an act of human agency. An interested image-maker takes available resources for meaning (visual grammars, fabrication techniques and focal points of attention), undertakes an act of designing (the process of image-making), and in so doing re-images the world in a way that it has never quite been seen before. The human agent is central.

To the extent that no two conjunctions of human life experience are ever precisely the same, interests and perspectives in imaging are infinitely varied. In fact, across the dimensions of material conditions (social class, locale, family); corporeal attributes (age, race, sex, sexual orientation, and physical and mental abilities); and symbolic differences (culture, language, gender, affinity and persona) variations in perspective are frequently paramount, the focal purpose or implicit agenda of the imaging agent.

For viewers, too, every image is seen through available cultural and technical resources for viewing, seen in a way particular to their interest and perspective. The act of viewing transforms both the image and its world. From a normative perspective then, how do interest, intention, motivation, perspective, subjectivity and identity intertwine themselves in the business of image-making? And what is the role of the viewer in reframing and revisualizing the image?

And a third property of consequence — the image is transformational. Its potentials are utopian. We see (the empirical). We visualize (the normative). We imagine (the utopian). There is a more-than-fortuitous etymological connection between ‘image’ and ‘imagination’. Images can be willed. Images speak not just of the world, but to the world. They can speak to hopes and aspirations. The world reseen is the world transformed. What’s in the imagination for now, can become an agenda for practice and politics tomorrow. Imagination is the representation of possibility.