A Point of View: Has the world become too visual?
Life in the 21st Century reached a point of visual overload, says Will Self.
I've started telling people that I've become "post-image". I try to say it in a normal tone of voice, but it doesn't matter how studied I am, the announcement still sounds absurdly portentous - rather like that moment in Robert Graves's I, Claudius when Caligula reveals he's become a god. Still, I suppose this is understandable, because there is something vaulting and divine about being post-image. Most of the people I've told about my elevation quickly drop the subject of images altogether. However, one or two pursue the matter, asking: What do you mean by that? And I explain I've reached a point in my life where I can no longer accept uncritically any image whatsoever - be it television picture, film frame, photograph, web page, advertisement graphic, drawing, cartoon or painting. When I say "accept uncritically", I mean I now refuse to take any image as necessarily representative of any existent thing, and furthermore I challenge the information which any image appears to be conveying. You see, I am indeed post-image.
With a major personal transformation such as this, one with severe implications for how I relate to the world, it's reasonable to ask: How did I get here? How have I become the sort of person who can interrogate a stick-man for several minutes before convincing himself it does indeed denote the gents' lavatory? Well, I concede, my relationship with images has always been problematic, inasmuch as I've found them deeply absorbing. I've also always experienced a slight repulsion - as if every time I approach the surface of the image, I bounce back. Nevertheless, I loved films as a child, and was well able to suspend disbelief in even the ricketiest of stage furniture. I loved painting and drawing too, and would while away hours in the British Museum sketching New Guinean shrunken heads or Japanese netsuke.
Actually, I think the problem may have begun with drawing, because when I grew older I began to cartoon with some application, and ended up doing it professionally for a number of years. Cartoon and caricature represent - along with logos, symbols and pictograms - the point at which images begin to deconstruct, or, rather, the point at which their meaning is expressed semiotically rather than graphically. Knowing just how bushy a politician's eyebrows have to be rendered before they're sufficiently exaggerated to convey his fundamental eccentricity involves a particular skill - the ability to reduce the lineaments of the human face to a series of highly suggestive marks. No wonder cartooning styles are so particular to given cultures, and no wonder drawing cartoons makes you question images' ability to represent an objective view of the world.
Still, my cartooning career ended years ago - although clearly cartoons haven't. Rather, like the rest of children's literature they've upped stick-figures and marched into the adult world. In Japan adult cartoons have all sorts of sub-genres - including the pornographic, or hentai, versions of manga and anime. In France there's a long tradition of adult cartoon strips called bande dessinee, while in the English-speaking world we've coined the - to my ears oxymoronic - "graphic novel" to make the medium acceptable. I'm not going to charge adult comic readers with being infantile - or at least, no more infantile than the rest of us, because if there's one thing none of us can exercise mature control over anymore, it's our image-greed. We demand images with everything - text, certainly, must come with glyphs garnishing it, while even a main course of sound, be it music or speech, is now accompanied with a side-order of free imagery. This very radio talk has its own website, where you can look at an image of me while you listen. Alternatively, you could get out more.
Not that this will necessarily help you to escape imagery, which throughout the 20th Century infiltrated the urban environment in the form of advertising and road signs, and which now positively pullulates - a building site would seem naked stripped of its hoardings depicting perfectly scrubbed yuppies sipping cappuccino; no taxi, bus or train is unadorned with illustrated public or commercial information and graffiti; no pigeon-bedizened nook or barbed cranny is without its impetigo of stickers bigging up rock groups or rock-bottom sales. Even if you go for a solitary walk in the countryside, when you sit down on a bench to take in the view, you'll probably be distracted by a discarded crisp packet at your feet, with rippling across its slick crinkles an image of the crisps it formerly contained. We live in one of the most densely inhabited and anthropogenic landscapes in the world - which means everywhere we look we see either images we have made, or things that have been made in our image.
Yet if the aim is total coverage, such physical images are a pretty crude method of achieving it. In Terry Gilliam's dystopic film, Brazil, the protagonist flees the city only to end up driving along a road that's completely walled off by a continuous barrier of advertising hoardings. This image - for image it is - seems absurd, not because it's implausible (on the contrary, we laugh at it because of our shocked recognition) but because imagery long since took a different evolutionary path, opting to parasitise directly on the human mind, rather than troubling with its perceptual objects. What are film, television, and now the internet, if not means of introducing imagery directly to the brain? We don't need the entire physical world to be blanketed with imagery - although this is what we desire - because simply by placing a small screen in our visual field, we're reassured that should this be required, it's capable of conveying global coverage. Nowadays the reassurance usually takes the form of a smartphone which we keep in our pocket, where, like Pandora's Box, full of all humanity's misfortunes, it whines softly.
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Britain's dubious status as one of the most CCTV-surveilled societies in the world is, of course, part of our image addiction. The Queen is said to insist on being visible in public, observing that "I have to be seen to be believed", and in recent decades this aspect of her majesty has been liberally bestowed on her subjects, for now we too find it hard to believe we exist unless we're caught on camera. Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and You Tube - there's a plethora of social media sites geared to the display of images, and in order to keep these supplied people roam the streets, cameras in hand, snipping them out of the bigger picture. Hundreds of billions of photos are now taken every year. Surely, under such conditions of industrial image-production my refusal to either pose for, or look at them becomes understandable?
One friend - significantly, a film-lover - went on the offensive when I told him I was post-image: "I don't know what you're talking about," he said. "After all, as a fiction writer you're constantly manufacturing images, albeit ones made from words." There's a certain degree of truth in this, but I'd argue the sort of images literature trades in are more allusive than visual ones - the figuration and the thing figured bleeding into one another, except in what I term "constructed metaphors", the kinds preceded by "as if", "like" and other signposts. In fact, several years before I became post-image I'd already begun to purge such imagery from my prose on the grounds that it sounds dreadfully contrived to the inner ear. Now I realise it was just my way of rejecting the dagger I saw before me, the one which made Macbeth opine: "Mine eyes are made the fools o' th'other senses / Or else worth all the rest."
I'd like to claim, naturally, that to be post-image is to be part of a vanguard engaged in a principled rejection of the way our culture hasn't simply privileged the visual, but made vision worth far more than all the other senses. I'd like to say that in rejecting the image I'm also rejecting the entire distinction between appearance and reality that bedevils Western thought, imposing on it all the other divisive dualisms of God and Man, flesh and spirit etcetera. However, I'm afraid the truth is probably reassuringly dull - we didn't have a television when I was a child so I grew up listening to the radio, and even though my parents got one when I was in my teens, I now appreciate that I never really, um, got the hang of it.
A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays 08:50 GMT or listen on BBC iPlayer
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