Saturday, February 19, 2011

the medium and the message

Such images are indeed able to usurp reality because first of all a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.

-Susan Sontag, On Photography, p. 154

It is part of, an extension of that subject; and a potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it.

--Ibid. p. 155.

Even though a photograph is a part of the original and tells "this is what has been," the medium of the photograph is not the sheer presence of the image the medium carries. And the sheer presence of the image also can tell "this is what has been." There are two types of "what has been."

McLuhan's axiom "The medium is the message," regardless of his intention, appears to be widely accepted and capturing the imagination of artists and critiques. On the one hand, the media, such as photography, motion pictures, and recorded sounds carry the message that tells a certain thing has occurred. You don't believe 24's "The following takes place between 5:00 A.M. and 6:00 A.M.," but don't doubt that it has filmed real actors acting anyway. On the other hand, if it is true that the medium carries the other messages, such messages are mostly time-oriented: it says about our collective memory: black and white, 8 mm, LP, CD, and so forth; the musical instruments are also included.

I sometimes wonder whether a musician who uses the "vintage" instruments is interested in the timbre or the collective memory associated with the timbre. Not that I'm criticizing it. I just note that there is no such a thing as a pure timbre without context. It is similar to that there is no such a thing as a beautiful single note.

Giving a new image-(or sound-)value to things deprived of their use-value and exchange-value has been practiced by many artists since what Jacques Attali calls the network of repetition began in the 19th century. But, when the new value are given to those old TV sets, LPs, photographs, those objects cease to be the media ("Ceci n'est pas une televisiĆ³n" doesn't have to be a picture of the TV). Instead, it tells that it has been the medium.

I wonder whether Hegel's lantern, gridiron, and millstone are coming back. Of course, that ex-TV is not St. Vincent. We don't worship it that way. But this ex-TV affects us in two ways: as the sheer presence of the machine; as the hieroglyph its history. Some of such artworks may have some aspect of anthropomorphism (Unlike Michael Fried, I don't use this term negatively).

Sontag says:

The fine arts assume that certain experiences or subjects have a meaning. The media are essentially contentless (this is the truth behind Marshall McLuhan's celebrated remark about the message being the medium itself); their characteristic tone is ironic, or dead-pan, or parodistic. It is inevitable that more and more art will be designed to end as photographs. A modernist would have to rewrite Pater's dictum that all art aspires to the condition of music. Now all art aspires to the condition of photography.

-Ibid. p. 149.

I think I've understood what she says. What Walter Pater means by "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music" is kind of abstract language, which is generally similar to Diderot's concept of the deaf conversing with the dumb. By saying so, Pater dreams of autonomous art. Now few believe in such an autonomy.

But, aspiring to the condition of photography, all art does not try to be simply contentless. It ever oscillates between the sheer presence and the history. Even a simple black square, a white square in white, a metal cube, or a 4'33" of silence can do so. In this case, such an art aspires to the condition of what Attali calls noise:

But noise does in fact create a meaning: first, because the interruption of a message signifies the interdiction of the transmitted meaning, signifies censorship and rarity; and second, because the very absence of meaning in pure noise or in the meaningless repetition of a message, by unchanneling auditory sensations, free the listner's imagination. The absence of meaning is in this case the presence of all meanings, absolute ambiguity, a construction outside meaning. The presence of noise makes sense, makes meaning. It makes possible the creation of a new order on another level of organization, of a new code in another network.

Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, p. 33.

I'm not as optimistic as Attali. What Attali actually tells is, for me, the performative side of language (noise, objects, and so on), the effect I cannot plan beforehand.

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