AN INDEX? OR,
PLENUM II Digital Aestethics
What’s the Point of an Index? or, Faking Photographs
If Freud had subjected one of the West’s central ideologies – historical progress – to psychoanalysis, he might have discovered the primary psychic operation of displacement, operating behind our constant impetus towards ever-greaterperfection. What passes for progress (especially theoretical progress), I am claiming, often simply displaces unresolved problems onto new material. As a historian of early cinema (and of the even earlier visual and sound technology that preceded the cinema – such as the magic lantern, the phantasmagoria, the panorama, the phonograph and the devices of instantaneous and chronophotography) I amexcited, but also a bit dismayed by the current discussion of newly emerging media, especially when this discussion provides an account of the older media of cinema and photography. There is no question in my mind that the recent interest in early cinema and its technological antecedents springs partly from the excitement the appearance of such new media generates (and my friend and colleague ErkkiHuhtamo has demonstrated this interrelation of old and new most wonderfully1). But, as Norman Mailer once said, ideals of progress often depend on the anaesthetization of the past. While I believe that the possibilities and realities of new media invites us to (in fact, demands that we) rethink the history of visual media, I also fear it can produce the opposite: a sort of reification of our view ofthe older media, an ignoring of the true complexities that photography, cinema and other visual media capturing light and motion presented, simply displacing their promises and disappointments unto a yet-to-beachieved digital media utopia. Especially bothering to me is a tendency to cast the older media as bad objects, imbued with a series of (displaced) sins that the good objects of new mediawill absolve. Let’s tackle one of the largest problem first, the truth claim of traditional photography (and to some extent cinematography) which has become identified with Charles Peirce’s term “indexicality.” Both aspects need investigation: the nature of the truth claim, and the adequacy of indexicality to account for it. This whole issues becomes even more obscure when critics or theorists claim(I hope less frequently as time goes by) that the digital and the indexical are opposed terms. I will approach this last issue first, both because I think it is rather simple and because others have made the argument as well or better than I can (most recently Phil Rosen in his fine work Change Mummified).2 I have some difficulty figuring out how this confu-
sion arose,but I imagine it went something like this: the indexicality of the photograph depends on a physical relation between the object photographed and the image finally created. The image on the photographic negative derives from the transformation of light sensitive emulsion caused by light reflecting off the object photographed filtered through the lens and diaphragm. In a digital image, however,instead of light sensitive emulsion affected by the luminous object, the image is formed through data about light that is encoded in a matrix of numbers. But what problem does this change present and how does it challenge indexicality? Clearly a digital camera records through its numerical data the same intensities of light that a non-digital camera records: hence the similarity of their images. Thedifference between the digital and the film based camera has to do with the way the information is captured – which does have strong implications for the way the images can be stored, transferred and indeed manipulated. But storage in terms of numerical data does not eliminate indexicality (which is why digital images can serves as passport photographs and the other sorts of legal evidence or...