The camera-phone has inaugurated an era of therapeutic photography. It is a photography less concerned with producing photographs and more concerned with the act of taking a picture, the “click.” In Snapchat, the actual photo disappears after being taken and sent. It is the mode of most of our iPhone habits. We look at group photos, selfies, and food shots for a few seconds before we consign them to the Camera Roll, where they only matter when they pile up and prevent us from taking more pictures.
This thought first struck me during a visit to London’s National Gallery, where I found my gaze shift from the paintings to the people viewing them. They would drift toward a painting, stop, read the placard, lift their smartphone, click, and move on to repeat the process for the next work of art that caught their eye. The whole ritual took about fifteen seconds—twenty, if the work was famous enough to merit a selfie.
One could hardly argue that these pictures were taken for the sake of memory. There was no activity within the fifteen-second rite to be remembered—nothing outside of the picture-taking itself. It would be equally unconvincing to argue that this kind of photography is an act of record-keeping, as if my generation enters museums with a mind to making digital backups. There are always better versions online, and besides, any digital copy can only be a reference to the work itself. Who would want a reference to an object only looked at for a few seconds?
I could only conclude that it is not for the sake of a picture that the picture is taken, but for the sake of the taking. The desire is not for a captured picture but for capture.
I have felt this need to capture with a lens at rock shows. I know that every photo I take will be a useless blur of lights, and that every video I shoot will end up a garbled attempt at reproducing the thud of the kick drum. Nevertheless, when I’m working to “get into” a band, not quite feeling the groove, not yet lost in the music, not sure whether to dance or to bob my head, my hand creeps to my pocket. I feel the need to commit an act of photography. It isn’t motivated by the excellence or the significance of the object photographed. Rather, I fear that I am missing the value of the object, that I am not “feeling it” and the click will bring me closer.
Emotions are felt participations in things and events insofar as they matter. We can know as much as we want about van Gogh’s Starry Night, and we can stare at the thing until our eyes bleed, but it is only when we perceive the painting as mattering that we are affected. The onrush of feeling reverses the order of knowledge. Instead of me grasping the thing, it grasps me. Instead of me capturing the painting, the painting captures me.
It is precisely this experience of emotion that eludes us at the museum. We are an age divorced from tradition and history, educated for usefulness within a market economy, given to fulfillment in and through technology, and now, thrown into a room of objects we assume, theoretically, to be valuable, significant, and beautiful . . . we are disappointed. We know we should be “having an experience.” Indeed, we were told to go to the museum for an “experience.” But what experience?
My Internet-trained generation stands before the Caravaggio without religious sentiment or aesthetic education, and panics. We know its greatness in theory only; our hearts remain stony. We act upon it with scrutinizing eyes; the painting does not act upon us. The agent does not become the patient; the outside object does not become the source of movement within our soul. We do not feel.
For those who take an academic view, this is hardly a problem. The paintings might remain stingy to our affections, but there’s still ample meat for our cognitive powers to chew on. The art museum becomes the history museum with illustrations; we rescue ourselves from nihilism by ceasing to look for the sublime and the beautiful and contenting ourselves with the interesting. The painting’s age and price, the techniques that created it, the sex life of its maker—everything, in short, besides the painting itself—become the raison d’être of the work. Fact collection is the purpose of our visit.
But those of us who cannot make the academic reduction remain profoundly bothered by the lack of profundity in our experience. Knowing, in a factual manner, that van Gogh painted with a sense of isolation from the human community hardly justifies the price of the museum ticket. We may as well know, in a factual manner, that our spouse loves us. In both cases, the lack of genuine feeling saturates our reception of these facts, makes our knowledge arbitrary and insignificant.
The click offers us a way out. What does not come naturally can always be aped technologically, and the act of taking a photo mimics the moment of emotion. The outside thing, deemed significant, is taken in and stored. If the paintings remain inscrutable, if beauty refuses to show her face to an eye trained on the arousing, the useful, and the entertaining, then we will outsource our affectivity to a technology. We achieve through the lens what we cannot achieve through the heart: a moment in which the object penetrates and changes us according to its own value.
Of course, it does not really reach us, only our phones, and the change is not the change of the body and soul, only of machinery. But the act is a sufficient parody of the real thing to deliver us from our awkwardness of “not knowing what to do” in front of the painting. So too at the concert: I take a picture to grasp the band that does not grasp me. I need “something to do” in the face of an object that isn’t “doing anything” to me. It is a sure sign of being disappointed and frightened by our own withdrawal that we take a photo for the sake of the taking. This explains the unique sadness of our over-imaged age, in which an Instagrammed picture of lunch speaks of the loneliness of the meal, a pornographic image signifies a lack of any real feeling in the erotic, a forced family photo is a sure sign that the feeling of family is fading, and every Facebook album of vacation photos attests not to the beauty of the sunsets, but to the withdrawn affectivity of the photographer.
The man who drinks to grieve gradually finds it impossible to grieve without drinking. The man who seeks the joys of sexual communion in pornography gradually loses his capacity for sexual arousal outside of pornography. To indulge a replacement instead of a reality eventually coronates the replacement as the new reality—a “second nature.” Photography-as-capture is no different. It is not just a neutral, momentary surrogate for genuine feeling. It inaugurates a new habit of human behavior, one that gradually asserts itself as the “real” and “natural” mode for dealing with objects of significance. This new mode is the mode of control, from contra, “against.” It allows us to run against the outside world, neither surprised nor overwhelmed by the things and events that constrict our freedom and press on the borders of consciousness. We do not participate in reality. We are not affected.
This is the dominant value of the age. We reduce the element of surprise to rational choice; we take what gives itself “out there” and make it subject to the will of the individual “in here.” Nature is controlled, gender is assigned, sorrows and fears are medicated, fertility is suppressed, new life is chosen as much as death. Reality is kept at a safe distance. The act of taking a photograph allows us to enjoy the outside object within an egocentric framework. The violent language of photography—capture, take, and shoot—attests to this arresting of the given. If our camera-phones begin as weapons to take participation by force, they end as shields. Our picture-taking translates what gives itself into an object of our will, an object with significance we decide upon, an object we decide to “allow in.” We replace affectivity, participation in the given as it grabs us, with photography, in which we grab the given. We retain our status as sovereign individuals and remain captains of our souls.
That day at the National Gallery, I got the curious sensation that the trip to the museum was not to see, but to forget, not to delight, but to relieve me of the dreadful demand the works place on my heart. The moment a museumgoer takes his picture usually indicates the end of his encounter. The glance toward the screen rarely returns to the painting. A click, and the thing has been dealt with, as if by snapping a shot the painting has been contained and stored, no longer shaming the heart for its hardness or threatening us with an experience that would topple our control.
This is the persistent tendency of our smart-technology. Each app and innovation promises control, stymieing our experience as passive recipients, until, godlike in our control, we become machine-like in our hearts, unfeeling satellites in an age without meaning, orbiting a significant planet without the capacity for surrender required to participate in its life. Safe from significance, we are free to be bored.
Marc Barnes is a graduate student in philosophy at The Franciscan University of Steubenville.