“How does meaning get into the image?” Roland Barthes‘ question remains an important one when considering the December 2011 FOX News images of riots that were reported to be taking place in Moscow and how the network was caught out by the public in their use of footage from riots occurring in Greece. The public’s critique of the news and its demand for “authenticity” is, however, not new. Nor is the displacement of particular landscapes for particular political purposes. This is seen in nineteenth century Canadian landscapes, among other spaces, as being artistically represented as an English countryside. Here, Benjamin West’s 1770 painting, The Death of General Wolfe, comes to mind. Wolfe did not die on the battlefield, nor was he surrounded by military personnel, nor was there a Native American kneeling at his feet (Wolfe, in fact, held an acute disdain for Aboriginal peoples).
The image was constructed to create a national fantasy of unification and to establish a collective mass memory around a military event. The mechanical reproduction of an “image” at the point of its very operation, as Walter Benjamin argues, is no longer “real.” “Real” can never be reproduced and therefore declarations of its rendered authenticity are impossible. With this said, the suspension of belief in its many creative imaginings remains a compelling device and therefore a lucrative commodity and political strategy to instigate mass consent. The nineteenth century, for instance, is seen as a social site where there was a massive increase in Western readership of the paper press. Wilkie Collins called this elusive and temporal demographic “The Unknown Public.” Wilkie’s foundational (yet problematic) essay was first published in Charles Dickens’ periodical Household Words in 1858. The great subtext of “The Unknown Public” is the political and capital desire and simultaneous fear of the power of individual subjects and their sovereign and unleashed opinions. The public bodies, particularly during times of conflict, wanted to know and were discerning enough to also know the power of political rhetoric and the methods of propaganda. One reason for the rise of the institutionalization of the library in the nineteenth century was to take the public out of the coffee houses where lively debates would take place over The Sunday Times and marginalized Penny Presses and move them into libraries where silence was demanded.
C. Wright Mills, in The Power Elite, (1956) asks a question that underpins Barthes’ rhetorical conundrum: “but who is this public?” Mills sees the nineteenth century not only as a transformative period in a social visual ontology (the Victorian demand “to see” and “to know”) but as a site where the public was discursively separated into the mass: a shift determined by the power elite.
Mills explains the shift:
– many people express opinions and receive them.
– small and unauthorized venues of communications.
– outlets for effective action.
– authoritative institutions do not penetrate.
– fewer people express opinions and received them.
– venues for communications difficult for individuals to effect.
– opinions controlled by authorities.
– mass has no autonomy from authorities.
Management, control, and surveillance of the elusive and potentially transgressive “public” functioned through and through the nineteenth century industrialized media apparatus and its freshly awakened bedfellow: illustration. The co-opting of text and image was and is a shape-shifting technology that continues to morph in its digital manifestations on the internet to accrue the mass. What remains significant to note is that both media, illustration and the internet, originate in the military along with its ideologies. Rather than disqualify a comparison of the technologies as disparate because of their analogue and digital mechanics both rely on their relative cybernetic realities to enable production and reception. Donna Haraway explains, “Cyborgs are not reverent. … They are wary of holism, but needy for connection– they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party. The trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism. … But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential” (“Manifesto” 151).
The critique of the FOX falsification of time and space reveals the power elites attempt to homogenize the public demonstrations as an amorphous “mass” that lacks singularity, identification, or agency; moreover, it is, in the case of FOX, the resistance from “the public” that reveals the heterogeneity of the ubiquitous power bases that remain vigilant, uncontrollable, and always demanding to see the ever elusive real.