climate change aesthetics and the logic of the spectacle

Via Andrew Curry’s reliably interesting Just Two Things newsletter, here’s a piece by the Magnum photography collective about the portrayal of climate change in contemporary photography, and in particular the work of a non-profit called Climate Visuals, which is…

… founded in research in social science; they use evidence gathered from focus groups in Europe and the USA to examine the emotional responses to different photographic depictions of the climate crisis. Smith says they want to see a more compelling and diverse visual language around climate change: less “polar bears, factories and glaciers… all of which have the really neat trick of signifying climate change, but still producing a large amount of cynicism and inactivity”. It’s this cynicism that they hope photography can help overcome in order to build our collective investment in reducing environmental harm.

Now, for the sake of the avoidance of doubt, what I’m going to discuss here is not intended as an attack on the integrity or intentions of these photographers. Quite to the contrary: what interests me about this piece is the way it shows them wrestling with a problem which manifests in my own theoretical work, and which I believe to be inescapable. This problem affects all of us who are working for change in the collective human relation to the environment, but it is maybe most easily (and rather ironically) illustrated with the issues that these shutterbugs find themselves faced with.

“I think it depends on what you expect photography to do or what you expect of the photographer,” says Sim Chi Yin in reference to the challenges posed by photographing the climate crisis. “I think this is a deeper question about whether photography and photographers are expected to be advocates and activists as well,” she continues. “There are things that may translate photographically into climate change and some things that don’t”. Sim has been working on her project Shifting Sands, documenting the social and environmental cost of the land reclamation industry in East and Southeast Asia. Previously taking an ‘infrastructural gaze’, shot at ground level, capturing the people and places affected, she has since adopted a birds-eye view, producing strikingly beautiful other-wordly landscape photography. It’s not uncommon to hear criticism of photography, particularly in the realm of editorial, for making terrible things look too beautiful. This is an all too familiar conundrum for Smith in his work at Climate Visuals: “I spend a lot of my time arguing with the media about social science but the other side is that I spend a lot of time arguing with social scientists about the subjective qualities of photography,” he says.

The phrase “infrastructural gaze” there is an interesting choice, not least because I would probably find myself arguing that it was the bird’s-eye view that was the infrastructural (because systemic/managerial) gaze rather than the ground-level shots (which would provide a more situated perspective). However, the point is not to abolish the systemic perspective entirely, so much as to dethrone it: the systemic perspective is valuable precisely for its ability to portray the complexity and metasystemicity of that which to individuals on the ground appears either as technologies of interface, or as conduits regulated in such a way as to prevent local access to their capacities.

But the seductiveness of the managerial/systemic perspective—the aesthetic snap and thrill of what Haraway referred to as the “god trick”—is plain to see, as well. Put simply, infrastructures which are ugly up close (in both the aesthetic and functional senses) display an elegant, mathematical beauty when seen from above and at scale:

Sim Chi Yin, Singapore. Tuas. 2017. From “Shifting Sands”, 2017

Artists are interested in beauty (or perhaps more accurately in aesthetics), but that is not unique to artists; it is surely also true of the planners and architects and “transition managers” who develop infrastructural projects like the above, just as it is true of the rest of us. And it’s probably fair to say that a majority of people are more attracted to beautiful and orderly aesthetics, rather than an aesthetics of of chaos and destruction. At least this is the dominant assumption among the people who make editorial decisions around which photographs to publish, which naturally effects the choices that photographers make about their shots:

… though accurate and impactful depictions of the climate crisis are the goal, the photos need to be published if you’re going to achieve that, and the pictures have to be good or that’s not going to happen. For Sim Chi Yin, the beauty of her Shifting Sands images were an entirely deliberate move away from the more ‘ditactic heavy-handed approach’ she once took; here, the aestheticization of a challenging topic is a strategy to encourage on-going engagement in a difficult conversation.

I want to zoom in on the use of the phrase “the pictures have to be good”, and so I’m going to re-emphasise my earlier point about not impugning the photographers in this analysis. These are artists trying to communicate toward a particular goal within an industrial structure where the decisions on what messages are fit to be commissioned and passed on are not under their control: in order to reach a wide audience (and to be paid enough to do the work), they are obliged to make these compromises with editorial requirements. Not to belabour the point, but the same constraints apply to most academics, though in different ways and to different degrees; in both cases, a large part of the job is finding a just way to do what you feel needs to be done that is compatible with the requirements (and the rhetorical framings) of your funders.

My interest in the use of the word “good” is due to its centrality to Guy Debord’s theory of the Society of the Spectacle, whose fundamental rhetoric he summarised as “that which appears is good; that which is good appears”. The point being is that “goodness” in the context of the Spectacle, while retaining its own surface appearance of being a moral valuation, is in fact evacuated of any moral and ethical content by the circularity of the spectacular premise: the “goodness” of a thing is merely a measure of its fitness to take a place in the semiotic torrent.

Furthermore, the Spectacle is the field in which capital’s recuperation of its most savage critiques is enacted. So Sim’s bird’s-eye images, as seen above, are good to certain audiences—to certain markets-for-imagery which are constructed and maintained by systems that end in editorial teams, but which of course extend back to profit-oriented corporations working on a global publishing platform whose incentives and imperatives are entirely predicated on clickworthiness. But there are other audiences, audiences for whom the aesthetic of chaos and despoilment is a better fit with their preconception of the state of the world—and for those audiences, the Spectacle provides “good” images as well, reaffirming the narrative assumptions and thus the identity of the audience/consumer. Critiques of capitalism are easily made into products; we might argue in fact that this has been one of the great growth industries of the neoliberal period.

Riffing very deliberately on Marx, Debord also noted of the Spectacle that its basic operational premise is that of separation: “The Spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (Thesis 4). This point is echoed in the Magnum piece:

Many people don’t relate to these images beyond the shock and awe of the moment, because it doesn’t resonate with their own demographic construct. This in turn, has resulted in the othering of communities in the Global South as they are continually represented as victims, often by foreign Western photographers, as a way to capture the climate crisis in a way that’s seen as visually appealing. Rarely do we see the photography of practitioners with lived experience of climate disasters in the Global South, and rarely do Western photographers’ cameras turn to document the effect of climate change closer to home.

But the crucial point here is that—unless you decide to go with Debord’s closing exhortation, and aim for self-liberation from the Spectacle as a precursor to bottom-up communist organisation against it—the Spectacle is the only game in town. Debord and the Situationists used this insight to inform the practice of détournement, which was the forerunner of the techniques used by groups like the AdBusters, and arguably also a precursor to contemporary meme culture. The basic premise is that, if you can’t get outside the Spectacle, outside of the metamedium, then you need to learn the logics of the media embedded within that ecosystem of media, and find ways to turn them against the Spectacular flow. Which is what these photographers (and perhaps all artists) are each trying to do, in their own individual ways… but the prevailing currents of the Spectacle are far harder to fight against now than they were in Debord’s day:

Jonas Bendiksen […] says that “photography has a tendency to oversimplify; it’s not the easiest medium to formulate a complex thought process; it tends to rely on ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ and be less focused on the complexities of things”. He’s increasingly interested in the ‘grey zones’, for instance how photography of Western consumerism also provides an important perspective on the climate crisis, but is frustrated by limitations of the platforms that are available. There’s an increasing pressure, driven by social media, for single images or a couple of slides to have an impact, to be easily-digestible. Climate change, particularly its effect on the Global North, will not reveal itself so it can be fitted neatly onto social media feeds.

So what’s my point? To put it very simply indeed, my point is that the despoilments with which these photographers and I are concerned—a category that includes sand-dredging and pipelines, but also the frantic commerce of surplus in the Global North which relies upon those extractions—are performed through infrastructural systems. Without the global logistical network that distributes resources and the commodities into which they are formed, the scars on the planet which are the markers of the thing that many of us refer to as the Anthropocene would be almost impossible to make at their current scale; but those systems are also by this point crucial to the most basic parts of human existence in the most “advanced” economies (as it appears the UK is about to find out the hard way).

Furthermore, those logistical systems have long been inseparably entangled with the systems of information distribution and control whose many functions also include being the medium of the Spectacle itself; information and images are, at this level of analysis, simply another category of resources and commodities to be distributed.

This is why I have argued many times before now that infrastructure colludes in the effacement of its own consequences—an effect analogous to the prestidigitation at the heart of any good stage-magic trick, which is achieved through a combination of physical displacement (i.e. stuff being moved around behind or beneath the stage) and the misdirection of attention. Infrastructure puts the rabbit in the hat.

But as Susan Leigh Star took pains to remind us, infrastructure is made of people as well as technological objects. And sure, those systems (as Langdon Winner first pointed it out) have political biases and assumptions baked into them (though Winner might not agree with me that the greatest and most fundamental bias embedded in infrastructure is the logic of capitalism itself). Infrastructure is hard to change, slow and expensive; people can also be pretty rigid (as we’ve been shown very clearly over the last eighteen month), but their rigidity is ideological, narratological, and might yet be won over, or at least shifted slightly.

How is that to be achieved?

Smith makes it clear that it’s not just the photographers and content generators, who sit at the wide bottom of the ‘pyramid’ of the photography industry, who can play a role in shifting public perceptions of the climate crisis. It’s also the agency, distribution, and media companies who occupy the top of the pyramid and choose what is and isn’t seen by a wider audience. There needs to be the funding and interest to commission work that can take on the long story-arc of the climate crisis in all its complexity.

Now that’s a hopeful position (as distinct from an optimistic one). I don’t think that changing attitudes at the top of that pyramid will be an easy job—and I doubt Smith and his fellow photographers do either. But the only other options would seem to be Kevin Kelly’s cozy accommodation to the status quo (and yeah, fuck that noise), or a pessimistic refusal to stand in the path of one of countless metaphorical (but also often actual) bulldozers.

I can understand both of those choices—though I find the former increasingly hard to forgive, because it is predicated on a sort of wilful blindness. But I have to believe that it’s worth trying to détour the stories that we tell one another through the Spectacle, even as I’m aware that the most likely outcome is their recuperation and commodification—as Debord noted, contradiction and narrative conflict is not a bug in the Spectacular system (as Marx believed contradiction was the bug in the system of capital), but rather a central feature of it. The recuperation and monetisation of counternarratives is depressingly plain to see; five minutes on the birdsite should be more than enough to make it obvious.

But I’m not ready to give up just yet. As is increasingly the case for me, the words of the Starbear still provide a light in the gloom:

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.

Ursula K Le Guin


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