The digital age has changed the way we relate to objects and subjects alike by moving a substantial portion of human interactions online. This includes the family album. What had once been an actual, physical object filled with printed photographs, was substituted with the ephemeral digital image archive. The private was wholly subsumed by the public and relegated to the status of digital fragments. A literally lost world. An abyss of meaning.
Because the family photograph has been so thoroughly digitized and publicly profaned, it is no wonder that the very notion of a family photo album, or a photo album as such, has become completely irrelevant in a world of scrolling, tapping and swiping, where cameras are ever-present and almost always recording. Photos appear and disappear with such rapidity that any one image is completely interchangeable with the next. The notion of time or a sense of continuity disappear along with the image. Their appearance and disappearance are abstract, because they do not truly disappear. Rather, they are fully absorbed into and lost in the digital tapestry that undergirds the totality of the media. They are, in effect, always present through their disappearance.
The digital image does not age. It can be lost, corrupted, erased, but the physical aspect of aging does not apply to it. There are the time stamp and pixilation that betray its age. Unlike the family photograph, the digital image possesses none of the qualities of the analog photograph. Endless copies can be made of the digital image, provided one retains the file. If one does not possess the negative, one cannot make another copy of an old photograph. In this sense, old family photos are closer to paintings than they ever were. They betray the hand of the photographer, are often badly framed, badly lit, and do not allow one to glimpse the possibility of a repeatable moment, which is the basic premise of the digital image.
The digital image is a mess of information, ones and zeros, pixels tossed together in a tumbler. The image emerges out of this primordial chaos as if by magic, concocted out of the soup of coded information. There is no regard for continuity within the digital world, not to mention that in modern life continuity is dispensed with on the basis of being nostalgic and backward-looking.
Time and space are flattened and abstracted in the digital space into a kind of neverland. Nothing gets old and all exists in a permanent state of arrested development. This time vacuum comes to us through the flurry of data constantly circling around in the chaos, like background radiation, which occasionally gels and assumes the guise of an image. The digital image is not superior to the analog physical one, but is only its alternate ego, a supplement.
The family photo exudes nostalgia. But nostalgia is only a partially examined position, subject to distortion and interpretation. What exists in the photo is itself subject to misconception and misreading. Nostalgia exists independently and outside of subjectivity, yet it is intrinsically tied to the subject’s core and dwells also within it. To look at the family photo is to look into the past, but also the present and the future. In a nostalgia for ourselves, mindful of our impending disappearance.
Progress produces nostalgia. The subject of memory is rife with misinterpretation and misrepresentation because so much of the knowledge pertaining to it hinges on the zeitgeist in which it is being discussed. Via the magic of progress, memory is turned into a mechanized component of brain functions. Externalized, it can be a memory card, cloud storage or some form of abstract spiritual akashic record. Photographs used to betray their age (memory) by their yellowing, brittle edges, the smell of process chemicals, and the fading colors. The digital image stays perfectly clear, oblivious to the passage of time. The digital image can in fact be made better, restored, clarified. The analog image can also be digitized, colors made more vivid, the signs of age dispensed with, along with tactile memory of the object. The impermanent made permanent, the dead and decaying made undead.
Svetlana Boym proposed that nostalgia operates on two basic levels, reflection and restoration.[i] As technology, progress, and modernity displace ever greater numbers of people, the stronger will be the drive toward restorative nostalgia with its focus on order, tradition and conservative values. At worst, restorative nostalgia is the driving force behind heinous political activism that likes to deal with fetishized totemic images of the past. At best, restorative nostalgia functions on the level of hauntology, as that which forever returns to haunt the hallways of cultural production. Such an eternal return of the same is what keeps society in a permanent paralysis and fear of change, because restoration is a kind of will to normalization. This type of nostalgia always attempts to restore the past cloaked in its former glory. It never creates, but only recreates; it does not innovate, but simply appropriates. The digital space is one of the finest examples of restorative nostalgia at work. Within it, the gears of restoration are constantly recreating the external world out of the chaos of data, code and soft/hardware. What is this vast network of cloud storage, computer servers, internet nodes, and artificial intelligence other than a vast memory machine projected into the future, an attempt to restore to the digital realm that which already exists and was left behind elsewhere? But restorative nostalgia is invisible, and when it retreats into the Internet it comes back as innovation, disguising itself in the language of futurism. The distillation of restorative nostalgia into a political or social project instrumentalizes the forms it takes. Thus, in addition to the two terms Boym proposed, we could perhaps speak of instrumental nostalgia as a third category, which uses the logic of restorative nostalgia, with its focus on high-minded idealism and rapacious romanticism, to perpetuate itself through the medium of reflective nostalgia.
While restorative nostalgia rebuilds the dreamscape and symbols of power, reflective nostalgia huddles in the attic of memory, rummaging through the detritus of lives lived on the precipice between waking and sleeping, attempting to discern the difference between the two. Reflective nostalgia is neither an intellectual exercise in understanding nor is it simply felt. It is neither and both at the same time. The poetics of space, as Gaston Bachelard once put it, is the physical link to ephemeral memory spaces.[ii] His psychoanalytic conception of the house is meant to represent the human psyche with the basement, main and upper floors corresponding to the id, ego and superego. In this context Bachelard asks: what happens in houses without basements and what is the role of the attic? It is in the attic that the family photo album symbolically resides, though, most likely, it once lived inside one of Bachelard’s drawers that to him revealed entire worlds and mental concepts. The house was another sort of memory machine, a space in constant tension between projection (imagination) and lived experience, unfolding between the polar opposites of the basement and the attic, rationality and irrationality.
There are limitless ways to reproduce an image because there are also limitless ways to find out how to do so. The digital age has essentialized and prioritized digital media, for which there is only one way to go, if only with limitless reproducibility. What is being reproduced is essentially the one ‘object,’ the file. This object can be endlessly manipulated. It can change location, become multiple, be in one place or many places at once. It can be and not be at the same time. It recedes from view into its pure essence, the ones and zeroes, information, the cloud. The digital object is, in some ways, the closest we’ve come to an experience of what quantum physics indicates. Yet, it does not relate to anything physical as such. It is a phantom. It does not require a physical form, only the device on which it is viewed. In the drive to de-materialize the material world, the digital world has become the world of supremacy over the world of analog, the world of real objects. The foreclosure of the world of real objects in the digital age has made a lot of new discoveries and progress possible, yet this progress remains in the shadowy (but, at the same time, idealized) world of technology and the Internet, while the exterior world stagnates, or in many cases, is degraded. It is no wonder, then, that while progress marches on in the technological version of our universe, with its promise of an individuated utopia, a perfected subjectivity, life on other planets, or solutions to problems not yet discovered, the really existing world is slowly regressing under its weight.
The last image. An infectiously positive photographer once told me that the goal of the digital camera is that one day the image will be so good that there would be no need ever to take another shot of whatever would be being photographed. Until then, we seem to be living a digital experience that can be described as ‘lived and re-lived.’ To paraphrase Debord, all that was previously lived is today interminably re-lived as re-presentation. This is what marks so insistently the early years of digital re-production. The latest versions replace the old in a constant cycle of renewal, making previous versions obsolete, making previous versions of life itself subject to a kind of obsolescence. The last image will never be taken, but the exercise is what keeps the machine and the technology humming. There is an imagined end-point, at which the ceaselessly receding horizon is arrested and we can finally arrive at our intended destination. This is the moment, at which another fork in the road appears, just as it did when the horizon was foreclosed on analog. It does not mean that analog technology had nowhere else to go: its own horizon was forever receding, as well. The fork in the road means that the horizon itself has become something that not worth exploring further. The fork signals completion through its very incompleteness. It is a door shut on a long dark corridor in the wake of those who have passed through it.
[i] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001)
[ii] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994)