If this multi-layered reality comprising of bits of matter and bits of information appears homey and familiar it is in part due to the ease with which digital images are so readily translatable between different layers of data, code and matter.
However, it now seems that it is the humble photographic image, in all its hybridized digital forms, that encapsulates the interlacing of physical and algorithmic attributes, aesthetic and political forms, which characterise the age of information capitalism.
It seems that the digital-born image has become a hinge between these physical and digital modes of existence, combining as it does elements of familiar ocularcentric culture – with its trust and reliance on the true-to-life photograph – and algorithmic processes that problematise the presumption of an ontological connection between images and objects.
This plurality of methodological approaches marks the moment when photography is able to extract itself from dealing only with questions of truth, the archive and the index in order to become interested in its transformed conditions of production, its own states of becoming.
Just as the analogue image’s relationship to time could be said to embody the linear chronology of a living organism, instantaneity and simultaneity are not only the technical qualities of the digital image, they are also expressions of the mental and spiritual reality of anyone who is hooked to the network through it.
The digital networked image, it could be said, moves along two – rather than one – temporal axes. It moves along the axis of chronological time in which the image maintains connection with an event in the past, and it also moves along another axis on which the instantaneity of its dissemination takes precedence. Here an image is not an archive of past events but a force that shapes the present.
For instance, in news reporting, photography can no longer be reduced to the documentation of political events as it has become a principal actor in the unfolding of political situations.
If we only talk about the event-image in terms of visual appearances, we risk missing the infinitesimal complexity of the underpinning algorithms which account for the fractal-like ability of the digital image to be repeated, mutated through repetition and spread through various points of the network, all the time articulating its internal consistency on the one hand and the mutability and differentiation of each instance on the other.
This double articulation of the digital image as a representational image and as a network event, suggests that the digital-born image is a good entry point into understanding the mysteries of the online organism.
The image is no longer, or no longer only, the passive register of past events. It is active, it has an agency that relates to and has an effect on embodied existence. It comes before and has effects on the real, which resonates with Foucault’s understanding of language as having had, in different times, different relationships to representation: ‘[Language] prophesied the future, not merely announcing what was going to occur, but contributing to its actual event, carrying men along with it and thus weaving itself into the fabric of fate.’
Photography, understood as multiplicity, might just be on the verge of releasing itself from the burden of representation. By foregrounding multiplicity as the determining condition of the digital image, we would also like to suggest the possibility of multiple interpretations of this image that cannot rest on the values of representation.
What one sees as an image on-screen, for instance, is only conventionally presented to appear the same as the analogue photograph: it is actually a skeuomorph. In reality this image is a variegated field of data that is not bound to obey the material and visual logic often taken to be defining of photography.
The processing and algorithmic chains of coding that bring images to our screens are always potentially verging on becoming something else and always establishing temporary and labile relationships with what they verge upon.
This is an avenue of thought that foregrounds untamed and unruly elements in the image. It challenges notions of cause and effect and ultimately remains closed to forms of analysis that seek to resolve the image in clear and precise terms.
There is a whole critical tradition that inflected photographic representation with embodiment. Gender critiques and queer critiques, accounts of photography and desire have sought to render representation in the messy terms of bodily processes. But one must also come to terms with the fact that the digital image does not travel along the clean passages that convention might have us believe.
By naming instantaneity, simultaneity and multiplicity as the forces that shape the field of the digital-born image, we are driven to make two observations on the subject of the detachment of photography from notions of visual representation as a guarantor of truth and as an archive of time.
The first is that the time of the digital image is not necessarily chronological, rather it is more resonant with what Nietzsche named “the eternal return” and Heidegger refashioned as “the ecstatic temporality of the ‘is’”. The second observation concerns the understanding of the technologically produced image as precisely the site at which contemporary subjectivity is being formed and deformed.
But one might also risk saying that the meaning of being on the verge of photography, in the wake of the digital-born image, is that we are on the verge of becoming like images.
Far from being the untrustworthy vehicle of manipulation and untruth, the digital image is actually a very accurate image, not, in the first instance, of an external reality but of the ways in which we as humans embody the network and how the network is intertwined with our embodiment.