Friday, July 23, 2010

Capital as Image

Achille Mbembe. Image by Annie Leatt

Achille Mbembe began his talk by stating that the title, “Capital as Image,” is deceptive. On the one hand, he meant that he would not be addressing the issue of capital as image in any systematic way; that the ideas he would be presenting were tentative, exploratory, fragmentary, and experimental. On the other hand, his opening gambit cleverly introduced a key term in the ruminations that followed: deception. According to an important tradition of French thought, Mbembe observed, the image is fundamentally deceptive. At the same time, it is imbued with deep meaning. Through a series of personal reflections and philosophical readings, Mbembe illustrated how the image is always underpinned by the effective use of this ambiguity.

For Mbembe, the mask epitomizes the ontology of the image. Reflecting on the first time he saw a mask as a child in Cameroon, Mbembe adumbrated a number of tropes related to the image: the play of surfaces and shadows, the principles of appearance and oscillation, the dialectic of concealment and transparency, and the underneath of things. But Mbembe was more interested in a different mask: the death mask, that mould that renders the face in objective form. For Blanchot – a crucial thinker in Mbembe’s exposition – the death mask seeks meaning in death beyond its immediate context. In other words, it implies the resurrection and transcendence of physical contingency. Mbembe recalls Jesus’ injunction to the buried Lazarus: “Lazaras, come forth!” Following Blanchot’s exegesis of this Gospel, Mbembe suggests that the mission of reading and literature is to open a path, to bring forth what has been buried and give it new meaning. All of this means that the image is simply another name for exteriority, an outside so external that it can never become authentic experience. It is, as Mbembe tells us, the end of every appearance.

What happens, then, when life becomes nothing more than the accumulation of spectacles? This is a world, as Mbembe reminds us, that Guy Debord glimpsed decades ago. Under conditions where the spectacle mediates social relationships as a material force, and thereby inserts itself in the very heart of society, “deceit deceives itself” (Debord). From this double deception arise forms of separation, alienation, dispossession, and a host of prolematics at the centre of capitalist critique.

In his conclusion, Mbembe asked: “How are we to think of images and the technologies that produce them?” Moreover, how might we understand the value that images bring to capital? In this tentative talk, Mbembe did not claim to have answers to these questions. He suggested, however, that one possible line of inquiry would take up Paul Virilio’s thoughts on the ubiquity, speed, and force of images. If I understood him correctly, Mbembe suggested that a critique that seriously engages the technologies of images and perception might help us forge a freer relationship with images.

Most of the responses addressed issues of historical genealogy. One participant reminded us of William Pietz’s genealogy of the fetish, in which the magic fetish arises out of an encounter with the unknown, and in particular the magic “fetish” of Africans encountered during the slave trade. Other participants were more interested in the notion of deception. They asked questions such as: Do images hide anything these days, or they are mere simulacra? And: Is it not the case that today truth is the best form of the lie?

From my own perspective as a musicologist, I would be interested in thinking about how the sonorous might unsettle our notions of deception. Although one participant was vehement that the term “image” is not restricted to visual perception and thus that discussion of different sensorial apparatuses is irrelevant, the history of Western metaphysics does not support this view. We need only recall Derrida’s many critiques of the “ontology of presence” – which, it needs to be said, is all about the voice – to realize the problematic place of the sonorous in Western thought. In fact, despite their many differences and nuances, it is possible to argue that the properly Romantic notion of sound as unmediated presence continues to haunt much recent theory. For example, in Jean-Luc Nancy’s recent book, Listening, he claims problematically that whereas with the gaze “the subject is referred back to itself as object,” in “terms of listening, it is, in a way, to itself that the subject refers or refers back.” In a way, this privileging of listening is related to a mistrust not only of the image but of sight itself. Some have argued that this mistrust is based on a Judaic strain of theorizing epitomized by Levinas and Lyotard, whose ethics were based on the Hebraic taboo of visual representation. So Lyotard writes in Driftworks that “in Hebraic ethics representation is forbidden, the eye closes, the ear opens in order to hear the father’s word.” And Levinas will write that hearing breaks “with the self-complete world of vision and art.” For him, “sound is a ringing, clanging scandal.”

These are admittedly limited readings. But they help us to explain Mbembe’s comments later in the day during a discussion of the World Cup. Mbembe referred to two recent events in which South Africa broke productively with its nationalist clichés. First, in order to participate in something we might never see again, people in South Africa picked up the vuvuzela. In doing so, says Mbembe, noise was turned into voice. “But a voice that remains to be deciphered,” he quickly added. Second, he referred to the “glossolalia” experienced at a fan zone in Cape Town. This glossolalia resulted is a kind of public community seldom experienced in South Africa. Without belabouring the point, it’s obvious that sound doesn’t elicit the same kind of mistrust that images do. In fact, sound is often understood as our only alternative.

The task, as I see it, is to demystify sound by not thinking of it as the innocent Other of the deceitful image. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that the sonorous is not equivalent to the visual. This is not simply a phenomenological matter. On the contrary, we need to develop an ontology of the sonorous at the same moment as we develop an ontology of the image. An ontology of the sonorous will not, however, reveal the “secret” of the image. And this, of course, is precisely my point.

Gavin Steingo

1 comment:

SJ said...

Excellent post, thanks for the insight

Post a Comment