I am thinking here in particular of those jerky videos which in many ways have defined our perception of the so-called Arab Spring. These highly pixelated, out-of-focus images seem to play upon a convention often associated with the ‘documentary’: the more grainy and imperfect they are, the more they appear to be the signifiers of authenticity. Shot in ‘real time’, these images seem ideologically neutral, the markers of documentary truth, positing a kind of metonymic relation between the representations produced by low-tech recording devices and the experiential truths of the socially disempowered. What we encounter is an inverted epistemological hierarchy where clarity (read ideology) is subordinate to roughness (read truth). The events are recorded as and how they appear. And when we see them no one speaks. The events seem to recount themselves.
Yet the seemingly self-evident correlation between roughness, authenticity and social disempowerment conceals a deeper, more contradictory relation, which the artist Hito Steyerl has termed ‘the uncertainty principle of modern documentarism’. For it is also often the case that the more immediate these forms of documentation become, the more unintelligible they are and the less there is for us to see. Steyerl gives only one example – a fuzzy film shot by an American general with his cell phone during the war in Iraq – but I think it is fair to say that our perception of the Arab Spring is composed in large part of such paradoxical fragments where authenticity and indecipherability go hand in hand: indistinct images of shouting crowds, blurred images of bodies, the garbled sound of gunshot, the sight of running feet.
Which begs the question: what exactly do these images tell us? I am reminded here of a monumental work by Gerhard Richter, a two metre high and twenty metre long painting titled Stroke (on Red) produced in 1980. At first glance a single horizontal stroke of yellow paint on a red background may seem to have little to do with these issues. The work is usually read as a response to the paintings of Barnett Newman, whose vertical lines, often understood to evoke the infinite and the sublime, are countered by a horizontal line that emphasises finitude and materiality. But I think Stroke (on Red)may be read along slightly different, allegorical lines that may prove useful when thinking about these images. Because the magnification of what appears to be a single brushstroke has a paradoxical effect. Seen from a distance it can be taken in as a totality; in this experience there is something of what Roland Barthes termed ‘l’euphorie du panorama’, the kind of euphoria that is felt when, if only for a moment, we are able to take hold of our situation in the wide stroke of history. But when you approach the paintingmagnification loses its privileged status. Seen from up-close up you realise that the wide stroke is in fact composed of what looks like a series of innumerable, smaller strokes. In a reverse movement magnification leads not to a greater clarity of vision but to its atomisation. The panoramic view is lost. Euphoria is replaced by a sense of claustrophobia.
How might this be related to Pullman’s anxieties about the immediacy of the present tense and those fuzzy images of the Arab Spring? Now, the typical view would be to say that a blurred image of a corpse taken by a camera on a mobile phone, for instance, is both depictive and indexical. It not only represents an object but is the index of the presence of a witness who was really there at that moment, in much the same way that a stroke of paint suggests the presence of a painter. Graininess and imperfection only reinforce this sense of authenticity, of thereness. But it is also the case that the line between what we know and how we feel is destabilised when we view such an image. ‘Pressed up against the immediate’, we have trouble disengaging ourselves. We feel uneasy, claustrophobic. And we hesitate. We have no idea who recorded the image, nor do we have any idea of when it was recorded. It is simply present. As in Richter’s painting, our perception of the magnified index seems to block the unfolding of a narrative logic that might include past and future. It is as if the immediate representation of an event led not to clarity but to a point of blindness in the visual field, to a kind of abstraction. This, when the image appears to be a straightforward, figurative document of the event itself: a stroke of paint or a corpse.
In his book The Content of the Form, the historian Hayden White noted the difficulty of sustaining historical discourse in times of social and cultural breakdown.