The Ersatz Image [2]

Roman Jakobson’s communication model1, while developed on the back of studies of verbal communication and the speech event, has proved invaluable for the semiotic analysis of culture beyond the scope of structuralist linguistics. One of the primary benefits of Jakobson’s functionalist understanding of language is that it avoids the transmission model’s reduction of communication to the imparting of information. In Jakobson’s view, this is only one of the possible functions language has. In addition, Jakobson made important distinctions between the parts of communication, such as those between code and context. Such distinctions only became more important, especially for Althusser, for whom for example message and code are irreducibly different; the ideological elements of a message can be much easier to resist than the ideological aspect of the code it uses. This of course depends on the dominance of the code in use.

Can something such as a mural be analysed in terms of a model like this? To do so, there has to exist a correlation between the constituents and functions of language (in the narrow sense of speech) and the constituents and functions of an artistically produced image. It is not so difficult to show that pictorial analogues of these constituents and functions exist. The addresser and addressee are the artist(s) and the artwork’s public (both of whom are virtualised within the work itself through débrayage, as discussed in part one). If the art is inclined towards the addresser, focusing on their internal world, then the expressive function comes to the fore. If the art is inclined towards the addressee, marshalling its impact upon them, then the conative function gains in intensity. If the artwork serves to visualise a world (or what phenomenological hermeneutics would call a ‘referential context’, be it real or imaginary), then the referential function dominates — the image is then what art historians usually call ‘figurative’ (I prefer the term figural). When a work of art encourages focus on its own material constitution (as is the case in abstract or nonfigural works) then the poetic / aesthetic function is highlighted. When a work of art encourages only that the gaze of a public is maintained — when it predominantly invites the look and is interested primarily in keeping that channel open — then it is functioning in a phatic mode. And when a work of art orients attention towards the codes and conventions it makes use of, it can be said to be functioning in a metalingual mode. Thus, term for term, Jakobson’s functionalism can be appropriated for the semiotic analysis of visual culture and art, providing a methodology that opens up an object’s various dimensions for discussion.

In treading this path, we have to be cautious that the linguistic constituent called code is given its fullest, social-historical weight. We are not only dealing with the broad conventions of a particular medium, but with the narrower conventions of particular representations within certain social groups. Thus, for Ockerman, the choice between generic (or even abstract) representation and identifiable, personalised figures that always faces the painter of political murals gives way to the pre-existing or historical codes of satire, lampooning and caricature. Falling back to an already-established, but deeply anti-semitic, series of stereotypes which depict the political influence of financial institutions and their mechanisms of power broking through cartoon-like representations of a certain physiognomy, postural and gestural isotopy, the artist cannot help but orient public attention towards this narrow, exclusion-creating, code. We have to ask from where this code originates, who uses it, and how it attempts to situate us as viewers. This is easily done through thought experiment, and the asking of a handful of critical questions. Which traditions are those which have used similar depictions? How would we react if this mural had been sponsored or patronised by a right-wing politician such as Donald Trump, a member of his administration, or a prominent member of the UK’s Conservative party? What are my feelings as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Wiccan or Atheist in regarding this image? How am I included into or excluded by the referential context generated by this image?

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The Ersatz Image [1]

As someone deeply invested in the disciplines of art history and visual culture studies, the recent shitstorm over a comment Jeremy Corbyn made in 2012 regarding a mural by Mear One (Kalen Ockerman) keeps flying into my radar range. Because it’s Easter and I’m supposed to give myself a break, I’ll stick working towards my research pro forma on hold for a day or two and wade into this furore.

Firstly, let’s talk about this mural. Yes, it is antisemitic. No, this cannot be watered down into ‘features antisemitic elements’. When you are used to perusing images, you come to regard them in terms of not just what they represent (if anything), but in terms of what they do, and what they want with us. Art (of this kind at least) does not occur naturally, it is fabricated by human intelligence. Furthermore it is publicly displayed, which means it has a claim on us; it is staked upon, motivated by and addressed to our attention. Visuality is a primary modality, perhaps the primary modality (it’s tempting to rank it equal to musicality), in which ideology is propagated and reproduced in contemporary life. Since at least the early 20th Century this was recognised among newspaper editors, who coined the idiom that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’: if you had something to say, say it with a bold image, then append the argument textually. Since that time, among the weaponry of journalists their cameras have taken pride of place and it is often (though not always) the case that it is the securing of an image that will make or break the rationale for a story. No one can doubt the extraordinary impact of images today. However, the powerful ‘speech’ of images, their ability to hail or interpellate a public, precisely by virtue of standing in for or condensing the argumentative impact of ‘a thousand words’, also elides the discursiveness and rational argumentation that those thousand words would have had to present in order to achieve a similar intensity of effect. In other words, the impact of images takes place largely in an affective register; they appeal to the emotionality of their public and not, primarily, to their discursive or critical thinking, which they tend to short-cut. It is this emotive character of images that lends to them a rhetorical, persuasive character. All of this is absolutely obvious of course, but it is necessary to step through it in order to approach the specific image.

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