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.