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The Tyranny of the Image

Or alternatively, a response to defacing statues by Grace Han | 18th June 2020

Illustration by Grace Han

Since I’ve read Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I’ve thought about this phrase often: “The tyranny of objects.” In Dick’s dystopian world, police cop Deckard must wipe out rogue androids to prevent their uprising. The logic follows that a rebellious android is a dangerous android, and therefore must be “retired” before they kill real humans. “The tyranny of the object” thus describes the status quo, but also becomes Deckard’s central moral dilemma. Even if androids look like humans, they are not the same as humans; their base materiality (the division between the robotic and the organic) differentiates the two. 

In 2020, I don’t think we’ve quite gotten there yet. I venture to argue that we’re in a more prehistoric era, one that has dominated art history (and human civilization!) since circulation of objects has been around: the tyranny of the image. In the tyranny of the image, the lines between the object and the image blur. This is particularly manifest when the image is the object, as in the case of a photograph or even a painting -- but we must remember that the image is not necessarily the object, and vice versa. The tyranny of images leads us to believe otherwise: that, in this image-saturated society, the icons are the equivalents (not representatives) of the very thing being represented. And that that is all there is to it. 

Take, for example, Coca Cola’s logo. Coca Cola’s logo is not the same as Coca Cola, Co. – the Atlanta-based pop company that sells its sweet fizz in different flavors all around the world, much to the delight of its consumers. Coca Cola’s logo is just an image: a printed piece of paper wrapped around the bottle, a bunch of pixels if we see it online. There is a common misbelief though, that the Coca Cola logo is not just the referent of Coca Cola, but rather is the referred. Coca Cola’s logo will not quench your thirst. It’s like pre-Reformation era arguments for Byzantine icons; instead of simple channels, or mediums to God, the icon – much like the Coca Cola logo – is believed to directly quench our thirst. At face value, we believe in the image to be the substitute for the object; we associate the logo to provide us with the sweet satisfaction of the saccharine drink. 

So let’s think about this in terms of statues. Statues – particularly statues in public spaces – are unique in that they aren’t just images. We recognize them fully in their objecthood (as a form of “sculpture”), but the tyranny of images still applies. While passing by a statue of Winston Churchill, for example, I will not think that I am passing by Churchill in the flesh. But I will name that statue Churchill because of who it represents – at least, when I refer a stranger directions, I will tell them to go down Westminster Abbey, swing by the Churchill, and then make a sharp left to find the nearest Tube station. Maybe a tour guide will give a brief low-down of how the statue came to be, but for a figure like Churchill, they’re much more likely to tell you of how Churchill came to be.

We should also realize that a statue of Churchill – rather than just a printed photograph, for example – is not simply a digital image, but exists in real space. Walter Benjamin calls this the “aura” of the object; for statues like Churchill’s, it’s also about the “aura” of the represented. The artist’s intent does not concern the bronze alloy or the sculptor who made the object. The statue is significant because of who, what, and where it represents: Churchill, yes, and his victory over Nazi Germany. His declaration of a democracy for white Britain. His fearless leadership despite the opportunity costs (namely, the famine of Bengalis, the vocal slights of people of color, and his continued belief in the superiority of white people). His placement honored, no less, right across Parliament. 

When people graffiti statues of Churchill then, there often is a rallying cry that we’re defacing Churchill then, or are censoring history, or we’re erasing the few “British heroes” we have left. But are we? 

I am disturbingly reminded of my own Biblical education. Following their freedom from Egypt, the Israelites of early Genesis worshipped the golden calf. They were punished. They weren’t smote for worshipping the calf, or even of whatever the calf represents (some fertility goddess, probably?); rather, they were punished for diverting their attention from the Lord. 

And I wonder now if that's what people speak out against when we re-evaluate representations of revered characters like Winston Churchill. They are not protesting that we are taking down Churchill; far from it. A monumental figure like Churchill will not, by any means, by erased from history after spraying down one measly representation of him. But I wonder if they're protesting something else: the diversion of attention from his "victory" of democracy for white Britain, when it had all come at the cost of human lives. 

And yes, by virtue of Britain's democracy, we -- as people of color -- can reap the benefits today. I mean, I, as an Asian and American and moreover a student, have benefited from the acceptance and overwhelming welcome I’ve received in London. But acceptance is not the same as power, and the benefits are not the same for everyone in a democracy dominated by a white hegemony. And that, at the core of it, is the microcosm Churchill is emblematic of: a world where certain few benefit off the grievances of many. 

One could argue (as many have) for the case of "cultural context." Churchill saw Bengalis as subhuman, and therefore expendable, because of the Imperial legacy in which he lived. While relativism is necessary in the analysis of art historical objects - and indeed, is key to a positivist discipline - cultural context in this case is often used in justification of racism, of slavery, of eugenics. This sort of "cultural context" is a dangerous justification, since “cultural context” is – just like history – determined by those in power. “Cultural context” is insidious because it believes in a complacency with the status quo, one that is actively oppressive. “Cultural context” is the rhetoric of silence. 

(After all, if our “cultural context” is defined in the future as one of police violence, dumb Donald Trump-ism, and alt-right trolls – what does that make of us?) 

We mustn’t make the mistake that the image and the object are the same thing, because they are not. That’s what the tyranny of images would rather have us believe. To devalue a statue is not to devalue the historical figure themselves; it is to re-examine a historical figure’s representation, and those who have elected to represent the historical figure. Moreover, a statue is not simply a representation of a person. Statues, in their form, embodiment, and very placement, are a representation of the values of the time, and of the ideology that comes with them. And where we choose to glorify these statues – oftentimes strategically placed around centers of historic, institutional power – is only more representative of not just what the statue is, but what the institution thinks the statue is. 

In a few words, to graffiti Churchill’s statue is not to negate his accomplishments. For a historical figure of his stature, his “accomplishments” are already written. But to graffiti the statue is an acknowledgement of his faults; that “heroes” like him, like the rest of us, are human. One who had incredible power, one who starved out the Bengalis for the convenience of his own people, one who was positioned to play with brown human lives for the sake of white ones. 

This conversation is not new. Nor is it just about Churchill, nor is it just about statues. My undergraduate university, for example – the first public university in America and an institution woven into the fabric of the American South – took half a century of protests to take down its own Confederate monument in 2018. The only difference now is that historiographic reconsiderations of racist histories are no longer regional; they are no longer relegated to a “Southern” quirk, or an “American” problem. Welcome to the tyranny of images – an international phenomenon that is hell-bent on maintaining institutionally-sanctioned histories. 

But take heart! Under the tyranny of images, the images themselves are malleable. Churchill’s Britain has had their turn to write history, but Britain is changing. As a new set of voices – liberal allies, people of color and descendants of Britain’s colonial past – make their push to finally reframe that very history, the ideologies of our times must change accordingly. Change, after all, is long overdue. 

Check out a map of Black Lives Matter protests happening across the world through this link (Courtesy of Black Lives Matter).


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