Image and ideology. Some thoughts on Berger’s Another Way of Telling

David Leupold

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“All photographs are of the past, yet in them, an instant of the past is arrested so that, unlike a lived past, it can never lead to the present.” (p. 86)

For me this introductory remark by Berger in his work Another Way of Telling (1995) was particularly mind-provoking as his idea of “the shock of discontinuity” seemed to contradict with another visual metaphor on memory that had left a profound impact on my understanding of memory years ago. According to the writer Max Frisch (1911–1991) in his post-WWII diaries it is only through the prism of remembering that the present becomes experienceable in retrospect:

“The impression is there, but not yet the experience. One resembles a film which is being processed; it is memory which will develop it. One may ask in how far the present is actually experienceable.” (Frisch 1950)

I think his understanding of “experience-able” is slightly misleading here as he seems to imply more the idea of “meaning-constitutive” — that is only through retrospective interpretations of a given event does it acquire meaning as pattern in our own life narrative. Yet, synthesizing both Berger’s and Frisch’s thoughts provokes me to raise the following question: to which extent do we craft personal (and, by extension, collective) narratives of the past not through snapshots from our own experience but through a mélange, a patchwork of fragmented images that we have absorbed subconsciously from visual media and family photographs alike, thus blurring the boundary between bodily and imagined experience.

The photograph does not oppose, but merge into the “residue of continuous experience” (Berger 1995, 89). I think it is precisely this blurred boundary that offers a space of entry for political ideology that lies beyond our faculties of perception, and thus, interpretation. As preconfigured and politically charged images, which according to Walter Benjamin’s critique in storyteller are already “shot through with meaning”, are woven into personal narratives, fluid and abstract notions (freedom, communism, Islam) that would otherwise evade our comprehension are fixated in rigid axioms.

Or as Berger puts it, “these appearances may tell us very little, but they are unquestionable” (Berger 1995, 87). Radical Muslim fundamentalists with long beards and Kalashnikovs, military parades executed by synchronized masses deprived from individuality and a harmonious family breakfast on a sunny Sunday morning on the patio of a single-family home become visual concretizations of Islam, communism and liberalism. Yet the problem with these images is not that these images are false — the imaginary worlds from which they draw — ISIS, Stalinism, capitalistic accumulation of wealth are real. Or as Berger puts it: “The camera does lie not even when it is used to quote a lie. And so, this makes the lie appear more truthful” (Ibid, 97). The problem lies with the hidden intentionality of the photographer, which forges a particular perspective offered to the public gaze not as a but the image of these abstractions. A such they constitute not only visual simplifications but — as exemplified by Berger in his discussion of colonial photography — visual manipulations of reality.

Berger’s argument that photographs are instinctive and atavistic acquires a particular meaning as it echoes with the ideas of different scholars of psychoanalysis such as first and foremost Slavoj Žižek who pointed out the power of images and their manipulation as tools of ideology. What makes them so powerful is that they circumvent the faculties of the conscious mind but, instead, directly target the subconscious and affective, thus evading direct inquire through contemplative reasoning. By doing so such axiomatic images tell us what we shall desire (liberalism, in a snapshot: the crunchy honey-flavored cereals and the freshly-pressed orange juice in the back of a suburban one-family home) and from what we shall obstain (communism, in a snapshot: lifeless crowds of men and machinery marching towards certain perdition accompanied by the tunes of Soviet Russian songs).

What makes those images so powerful is that it is only of relative minor relevance for the stabilization of such images whether they actually capture and correspond with the multiple layers of reality, or not. On the contrary they might even serve as what Torbakov calls in his deconstruction of post-Soviet memory politics powerful “blocking myths”: against the sight of destitute ghettoized and poverty-ridden suburban district in Baltimore haunted by gang violence and equally violent police authorities the “axiomatic image” of the ideal type one-family home reminds the suburban middle class resident that while these things might indeed exist as deviations from the norm they merely constitute deplorable imperfections that do not reflect “genuine liberalism”.

Simultaneously, while the current COVID-19 related health crisis reveals the limits of private health care — and its dire consequences — in the US and elsewhere, many low-income voters who would greatly profit from public health care would still continue to fiercely oppose it — acting, ultimately, agains their own personal interests. At this point, again less the rational than the affective level provides a pathway for making sense of this behaviour: for public health care is linked in the public discourse to the notion of socialism which, in return, is linked to the haunting image of “genuine communism”, that is a totalitarian end to humanity, Thus we can see that what makes us act more often is less the result of contemplative reasoning (an embattled concept even in what had been its last stronghold: academia) but of following what seems to be, instead, the allegedly the last “landmark” on the road towards post-truth: our gut feeling. “As thoughts may be flawed with false truths, the only genuine truth lies in what you feel deep inside” — summarizes maybe most poignantly this false consciousness — as “history” gave way to “racist and other myths”, “meaningful democracy” to “market-research techniques” and collectivity to the “individual consumer’s dream” (Berger 1995, 100).

“No invented story, no explanation offered will be quite as present as the banal appearances preserved in this photograph” (Berger 1995, 87) — the axiomatic images perpetuated in the public sphere appear in this light like the mythologems — the most essential motifs — that construct the ontological framework in whose boundaries we make sense of the past, experience the present and imagine (in a literal sense!) the future. For the affective imagination of the future inevitably relies on the images of the past which are employed in order to envision the unimaginable (the realm of the future). Yet this past-oriented exploration of the future always bears the risk of conjuring up “the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” Yet precisely, at this point the discontinuity of the photograph turns into an advantage. It may allow us to break photographs out of the forged continuity of the hegemonic narrative, to break them out of Walter Benjamin’s “jetzt-zeit” and “to read across them and to find a synchronic coherence (…) that “instead of narrating” (the familiar master-narrative) “instigates new ideas” (Berger 1995, 128) for a genuinely new future.

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