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Draft notes for keynote to The Image conference, UCLA and Common Ground, 2 December 2010. Final version will be submitted to

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  1. 1. The Latent ImageSean CubittInaugural International Conference on The Image December 2-3 2010, UCLA In the present go nor right nor left; ! nor stay in the middle, where theyll get you Charles Olson, The Song and Dance of, The Maximus PoemsThe Unholy ImageThe Bible prohibits the graven image, engraved, we presume, or carved;therefore any depiction printed or sculpted, etched . . . . The study of the imageis incompatible with monotheism.God may have had a point. The prohibition on imaging is premised on the ideathat the image properly speaking, the image of the world, occurs in the eye andcan be observed reflected in it. Should a hand or handheld tool trace that imageelsewhere, there is sin: creating a Platonic simulacrum which both the ancientGreek and the religions of the book prohibit.The imaging the God of Genesis knew was a mediation of the eye by the hand– a bodily technology. Does He still punish the photographic plate or negative orprint, a halftone or fax or photocopied image, an image gathered in CCD orCMOS,in camera or scanner? What is different about these modes of printing isnot the automation but the appearance of instantaneity, the changing time of theimage: coming into existence, enduring, submitting to and engaging in theperceptual, analytic, interpretive activities of viewers, human, animal andmechanical, and most of all articulating with other images. If the God of Exoduscould see the way one image seems to demand another and another, He wouldbe sure he had been right in the first instance.Strictly speaking, things are invisible: what we see is not things but light; but thelight we see is impure. Pure light is as blinding as darkness. What we see islights history of reflections and refractions, of bouncing through dust andmoisture and the cacophony of things. The sensation of seeing is conditional onthe being-light of light, but the pure light that that seems to refer to is nevervisible. What we witness is instead the becoming-visible of light. So what thenare we looking at when we look at recordings which fix into stability thebecoming-visible of invisible light? The problem becomes increasingly urgentwhen we move from reflected (projection,) to emitted light from electronicscreens (LCD, CRT, plasma). What happens when we attempt to seechemically or electronically mediated light? when a photosensitive surfacereacts to the presence of light by producing a process other than light, such asoxidisation or emitting an electron? When a fluorescent or phosphorescentscreen, a DLP or LCOS projector automates the reproduction of light that hasbeen mediated through charge, voltage and logic? Or for that matter throughpost-production, when the immediate is mediated?The Unstable Image[Fantin Latour] Any image is uncertain: this is what imaging is - renderingperception unstable. The mechanical like the digital image hides its temporalitycubitt latent image UCLA 1
  2. 2. as it occupies and inhabits space, multiple spaces overlayering multiple times,the occupation of time as if it were space, the translation of time into space. Inthis it is no more than a mechanisation of the realism of 19th century painting,or for that matter of the 17th century still life: a realisation of the fleetingunreality of the material world in the one, the joy of lights changes caught onthe wing in the other.Time is integral to the image: not just the ontology of a new creationsupplementary to Gods; but time as the raw material of imaging today, asspace was in the renaissance. Dimensionality is most important in the visibilityor otherwise of any image, but especially of The image. The term suggests thatan image is a unity, possessed of autonomy, internally coherent and bounded:discrete from what it is not. Image as whole: as discrete, autonomous, andcoherent may describe some images, even a complex and multiple image, suchas a montage, or complex spatio-temporal relations, such as diptychs. It isdifficult to claim however that the thesis of wholeness can be consideredaxiomatic of all images. In one particular case this is especially clear: what orwhere is the unity of the moving image? Are we simply lazy to refer to film orvideo as work with "the" image when clearly they are composed of many?Alternatively: if all images exist in and through time, so that there is a process ofimaging rather than an image, then are moving images the technological proofthat no image is discrete or autonomous, that every image takes its place in thesuccession of images produced and perceived? But if that is the case, is thenthe sleight of hand that makes apparent motion possible – the manner oferasing each image at the point of its completion in order to replace it – is thatmagic trick generalisable as a condition of existence of every image? Or is thatreading history backwards, deriving the past from the perfection of the present?But then again, a Heideggerian would here propose the images lack in being(manque à être). If at some indefinite moment in the past, the image existed asplenitude, such has no longer been the case, since Plato observed that theimage is always a trace of presence, not a presence, not itself fully present toitself. Aristotle would add: it is self-contradictory, an entity of which it cannot besaid that it is identical with itself. This is no longer a definitional but ametaphysical argument: the image is incapable of existence because it isinternally self-contradictory.Against the Heideggerian nostalgia: this is not a loss or a lack in being but acondition of becoming. The world is not "all that is the case" but rather what isnot, or rather (in Blochs terminology) not-yet, the case. Heidegger still acceptsthe Aristotelean principle of self-identity: A=A. The image teaches us byexample that what is often most significant, what bears meanings, affects andrelationships between us, is what is not self-identical. The condition describableas lack is not something that disappeared in the past, as Heidegger wishes it.On the contrary, it is something which struggles at the brink of existence. Animage in time seeks actuality, but in achieving it, becomes again virtual, a fountof other possibilities, possible relations, meanings and affects. It is intrinsicallyutopian. An image, unlike a thing, is all potential, always already virtual, a leapinto becoming other than what it is, enabled by the very flaw in its ontology: thatit is non-identical and, to that extent, it does not exist. Instead it oscillates in itsinherent difference from itselfcubitt latent image UCLA 2
  3. 3. And we know from cybernetics, information is any difference which makes adifference in some later event (Bateson 1973: 351; original emphasis). That is,zero, infinity, non-identity, difference and information are of a kind, and –when we include the oft-repressed final phrase of Batesons formulation – allare therefore necessarily temporal phenomena. Thus we can understand themotives of the one eternal God in banishing this ontological error from Hisuniverse. An image is a crack in the universe that proves its imperfection, theimpossibility of unity, the impossibility of eternity.Because the unstill image instills motion, it blasphemes against the permanenceof Being. That history which is not of the destruction of images and icons is ahistory of struggle over their control or liberty.Images move because there is no stillness available to such a contradiction,which must forever pursue and abandon coherence. Coherence, self-identity, isnot only a theological category. It is the founding principle of classicalrationalism; as unity it is the foundation of commodity exchange; and asindividuation it is the formative ground of liberalism and bio-politics.The instability of imaging therefore cannot be countenanced, not by the God ofthe Old Testament, nor by the contemporary database economy. The struggle tostabilise images has continued for five hundred years in an amazingproliferation of forms. The frame appears to stabilise the flicker of succession inthe movies but the movies still achieve extraordinary feats of parataxis. In asimilar contradictory role, latency attempts to stabilise the impossibly pulsating,percussive movement of the photographic image as it oscillates betweenvirtuality and actuality.LatencyTo say an image is invisible is true only temporarily, and confusing sincevisibility is of the essence to visual perception. Yet so too is invisibility. Thepassage through invisibility is as critical as that from photopic to scotopic visionat twilight, and as magical. Latency is the moment of invisibility when aphotographic image lies in the negative after exposure but before fixing.The first reaction of the silver salts to light has taken place, but remainsincomplete.The distinctions between analog and digital imaging have been over-emphasised. [Ansel Adams]The claim (made by Kittler among others) thatanalog photographs are always visible from exposure to final print is incorrect,as is the claim that analog imaging has a privileged indexical relation to the real.Both lose the image to latency: one to chemical, the other to electrical. In digitalimaging, latency refers to a different phenomenon: the time it takes a camerato migrate the image from chip to memory, the period when the camera islatent, ie cannot take another picture. Consider what is happening during thisprocess: incoming photons have been converted to electrons, held in the gatedraster of p-type and n-type semiconductors. To make the chip ready for anotherexposure, the electrons must be drained from the chip in the precise order ofcubitt latent image UCLA 3
  4. 4. their layout. This is done by timing their movement from the chip with a clockthat ensures each row of charged particles moves down the capacitor array inlockstep. The last capacitor in the array dumps the electrons into a chargeamplifier which converts them to voltage. By repeating this process, thecontrolling circuit converts the entire semiconductor contents of the array to asequence of voltages, which it samples, digitizes and stores in memory asnumerico-logical data. So the digital term latency covers over a processprecisely analogous to the latency of wet photography: the delay prior to thecamera cleaning itself up ready for the next shot is exactly the same as fixingthe chemical image. Both are functionally amplifications of the latent image,which needs to be boosted chemically or electronically from the raw state of thefirst photo-chemical or opto-electronic reactions. In both processes, there is adistinct moment when the photons have been converted into something else,but that something else is not-yet visible.The material specificity of the image is not about an imaginarily privilegedrelation to the real. We could define the real as that presence which isdefinitionally excluded from its re-presentation in the hyperreal of the image.More guardedly, the common moment of latency should indicate that bothanalog and digital undergo a critical moment of divorce from the indexical whichis so treasured in film theory. Consider how both use the same compoundlens designs, coatings and filters to establish the spatial relations of unity; howthey share the use of frames; how both employ the same panning, tilting,tracking and dollying, using the same floating-head tripods, the same cranesand steadicams. Consider how they share techniques of editing, matting, over-printing. Pause to consider the importance of the shutter in camera designregardless of whether the light-sensitivity is electronic or chemical. Layers andcomposites are equally available in post to either or to their hybrid forms. In oneof the few real changes to professional practice, grading is now in the edit suiteinstead of the lab. Outside of animation, it is difficult to see any other majorchange in the analog-digital transitionAs rays of light converge at the objective of a lens, they intersect at a singlepoint where the image vanishes. In analog production, lenses are ubiquitous,especially in optical printing: the image, as it passes from dailies to rough-cut toassembly to final cut to showprint is constantly vanishing, constantly re-appearing. The same happens in the eye. These are vanishing points, as wesay of perspectival images, but as vanishing points orchestrate the emergenceof space into the canvas, so the objective of the cameras or the eyes lensprojects the image forward, brings it into visibility; is a vanishing-and-becoming-point. Latency then names the disappearance and reappearance of thetechnical image, a material practice which makes visible, as metaphor, theemergence and evaporation characteristic of the non-identical, and clarifies theobservation that no image is ever still. We must then disagree with Coleridge forwhom nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself thereason why it is so, and not otherwise" (Biographia Ch 14). Any image isnecessarily otherwise than so. The question is only whether an image canpermanently please, and whether permanence is the criterion we require.Managing InstabilityWholeness has been central to the conceptualisation of the image, as art andideology. The incoherence of the image, its proper latency, is prior to the effortcubitt latent image UCLA 4
  5. 5. to make it whole, and incoherence recurs after that effort. The inconsistency ofsuccessive, progressive or interlaced images, of scans, layers, collage andmontage, have required the deepest efforts of both engineers and artists tocreate unifying techniques and technologies from perspective to digital grading.Why have they bothered? Why the immense effort to design increasinglycomplex compound lenses to correct the distortions created by simple lenses– like the ones in our eyes? The creation of coherent images is part of a plan ofmastery: mastery of space especially, which has been a hallmark of modernity,a process marked by the gradual eradication of time, the dimension of change.In the triumph of instrumental media (spreadsheets, maps/geographicinformation systems and databases) the image itself has been spatialised. In itstrajectory from renaissance perspective and baroque theatre to compoundlenses and composite images, the image has been integrated with the map,(much as imaging instruments have been integrated with the logic of counting inGallisons analysis).Integral to these procedures is the development of screen technologies, chipsetarchitectures, workflow managers, colour management systems and codecs.Having achieved a series of innovations designed to maximise wholeness, suchas eradicating flicker and increasing apparent resolution, the remainingweaknesses lay in distributing images. Here we begin to see genuinedifferences between analog and electronic media. Effects of transmission aremarginally visible in halftone reproductions of wire photography, two processeswhich dominated news photography – where realism, instantaneity andgeographical reach are most highly prized – throughout the development of20th century news industries. Lacking the random scatter of both silver halideson negative stock and of the emery-prepared surfaces of lithography, halftonemade up for its geometric rigidity by laying its lines down at 45 degrees to thehorizontal. The human eye, evolved to see horizons, perceives grids pitched offhorizontal as smoother, more graduated. That luxury is not available to thecathode ray tubes electron scan, whose legacy is the raster display nowubiquitous in digital screens (with a single exception to which we will return).Viewers must be schooled into ignoring the artefacts of transmission, the gapsbetween images in cinema, the flicker of TV, and the blocky raster effectscompression-decompression technologies. Codecs will serve as our example.The Database EconomyIn 1995 Macromedia was beginning its transition from CD-RoOM authoring,which it dominated with Director, towards the web, where its Authorware andShockwave tools had demanding interfaces inherited from Director. They seizedthe opportunity to buy a start-up package, FutureSplash, which they shortenedto Flash. Flash was a hit with Microsoft, which installed a player in Explorer at atime when it was trying to create web content that would only play in IE, andwhen it was at what not only with Netscape but with Suns Java. Adobe, whichhad been trying to build an alternative player, eventually knuckled down andbought Flash in its 2005 amalgamation with Macromedia, a moment at which allthe market-dominant 2D design tools came under a single management (and apowerful workflow manager which still triumphs over open source rivals).Microsoft reacted by attempting to strangle Flash with its alternative, Silverlight,while Apple turned off Flash support in Quicktime, and largely excluded Flashcubitt latent image UCLA 5
  6. 6. from iOS, and the open source community continued to extend SVG as analternative to the proprietary Flash format. Where hackers have tried to provideopen source Flash functionality, they have been hit with patent infringementsuits (Maclean 2008). But developers continue to work up sophisticated Flashsites, and Apple decided in September 2010 to reopen its software developerskit to Flash applications: the Skyfire app, which transcodes Flash for the iPhone,shifted 300,000 downloads in three days of its introduction. Adobe meanwhilehas been forced to shift its once dominant .flv video format from the clunky H.261 to the far more functional H.264 codec, a process that involves it payingsubstantial license fees to the patent holdersThe arrival of HTML5 and the argument over which formats will be recognisedin its <video> tag have produced strange alliances. Mozilla and Google haveput their weight behind open source codecs from Ogg, while Googles February2010 purchase of On2 technologies led promptly to the adoption of the VP8codec by Safari, Firefox and Opera, as well as Chrome (Explorer held out, withthe exception of a Chrome frame, until in November this year Microsoft bowedto the pressure and began to sideline Silverlight [Dilger 2010]). By the 4th ofNovember, Google were reporting that 80 per cent of YouTube content hadbeen migrated to the WebM format based on VP8. However, the move has itsopponents: the unlikely alliance of Microsoft and Apple who, as members of theMPEG_LA patent pool, are claiming that open source alternatives in fact breachthe pools patents. [The beginning of the 21st century thus echoing the warsover the Edison MPPA patent pool 1900-1912]Compression-decompression uses new forms of latency. Aesthetically it movesthe production of illusion from device to observer, to that extent mimicking late19th century optical mixing of colour. But it also abstracts from the wholeness ofthe image the pure equivalence of image with image on which theircommodification depends. While arguments and lawsuits rage over who ownswhich elements of the codec (AT&T for example own key patents not in thepool, which have to be licensed separately), the codecs themselves share keyprocesses, notably keyframing, familiar from Flash and earlier cel animation,where the start and end points of a segment are used to automate whathappens between them, and vector prediction, which averages change over thetime between keyframes. The former spatialises the time of the clip; the lattersubjects it to a formal management which shares the same diagram asbiopolitical statistical management of behaviour. The new mode of latency herelies in what is removed from the succession of images in compression: thecontingent differences which once made a difference, which opened up thepossibility of unexpected information changing perception.The codec warsdisguise the commonality of compression-decompression: the sacrifice, underthe ideological banner of engineering efficiency, of what makes images matter.This new quality of latency in codecs at last reveals the contradiction betweenwholeness and equivalence, that is between the disciplining of images and theircommodification. Commodifying the intellectual property inherent incompression-decompression disrupts the carefully constructed coherence of thewhole image, especially the image in movement,The conduct of politics in these days is dominated by the commoditys migrationfrom informatic to affective labour, and the oscillations between biopolitical andcubitt latent image UCLA 6
  7. 7. protocological management of human populations, the internet of things, andthe increasingly unruly vectors of weeds, pests, microbes and amoebas,Although hidden beneath this layer of territories and flows there lies the real ofbasic resources, energy and environmental degradation, we have kept theseterrible things secret from our images. When baudrillard pointed to the desert ofthe real, he pointed to those excluded from the hyperreal, condemned toexperience its exterior of e-waste, industrial toxins, collapsing sewerageinfrastructures, and the diseases banished from the gated suburbs of the rich.We cannot collude with the statistical management of probable behaviours,which is expepressed in vector prediction.Vector Prediction vs VectorWe may need to reconsider the image in its materiality, the materiality too oftenignored in interpretive humanities, if we are to rescue it from the purposelessdelusions of which Exodus and Plato both accused it. Where God onceoperated, today the law: as the image is not internally coherent, it cannot onthat account be owned as object. Image is by definition a medium, always intransmission. As a medium, it is not single but a series of operations andprocesses, operating in relative autonomy, in repetitive systems which howeverare open to degradation and interruption, not least from the nodes and terminiwhich they precede and which they define and construct (images are not sentand received: their transit determines who or what is sender and receiver).Images mutate and evolve in concert with the environment they frame andwhich frames them. When we concentrate on the term "image" we must prepareto sacrifice the accompanying terms "the" and "is", and with them the Law ofownership and objectality. and the primacy of individualism the law is premisedon.Materialist analysis will embrace not simply the plural (typical defensivemechanism of uncertainty in cultural studies) but the indefinite. The image is inshort a vector: it is a vector when we consider it as the trace of light, of photons,and therefore as quantum event, uncertain, leaving its perceiver in the conditionof Schrödingers Cat. Despite the efforts traced here to submit it to power, lightis contingent still. This at least is the ideal, the concept of the image. Itshistorical reality is somewhat different.The image may, because of its incoherent failure to exist, proliferate insequences; it may hurl itself into the mise en abyme, the abyss of proliferatingdetails; or it may produce the dialectic of stillness and movement of the latePicasso, whose vectors, like the line in the upper right, seem to graph ourambivalent decipherings of the ambiguous embrace.Making pictures is an integral part of how we make order of the relationsbetween ourselves and our world. But the uncanny nature of picturing becomesthe object of a secondary order, mastery of picturing itself, so that picturing hasbecome also a tool of mastery. This is the task of perspective, as it is of thelegacy of historical techniques through to those common to digital imaging: theraster display, colour management, coherent light and codecs. This mode oforder is different from earlier regimes. It has as one specific novelty: the way itoverwrites the passage of time, creating a field of simultaneous events; andanother – the specific mode of coherence which stabilises images as unitwholes, freely exchangeable one for another in a market of images where bothcubitt latent image UCLA 7
  8. 8. information and affect (sign value), the semantics of the image, are subsumedwithin its exchange value – indeed, the term information has shed itsBatesonian heritage to become effectively synonymous with exchange.Nostalgia for The Image is not just a melancholic substitution for the missing actof mourning for a past composed of terrible devastations of people and planet. Italso unveils the dialectic of the image, its inherent virtuality, its orientationtoward the future, its hope. Conceptual struggle and struggle over the technicalformation of images are part of that history, part of that dialectic. The Imageproject, conference, journal, activities, are part of that critical process, and it isan honour to be part of it.cubitt latent image UCLA 8