When You See It

Image Control: Art, Fascism, and the Right to Resist BY Patrick Nathan. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint. 240 pages. $26.
The cover of Image Control: Art, Fascism, and the Right to Resist

Meaning—or narrative—isn’t always what we see, or even look for, in images. In 1868, following the International Exposition in Paris, the Italian novelist and essayist Vittorio Imbriani published “La quinta promotrice,” a collection of his observations and theories on contemporary European art. This included his theory of the macchia, which Teju Cole describes as “the total compositional and coloristic effect of an image in the split second before the eye begins to parse it for meaning.” Approaching a painting, one is most likely to see before anything else its arrangement of colors, shapes, shadows, and space, and only afterward begin to understand those colors as flesh or flora, those shapes as human, or as stone. This visual macchia (“stain”) acts, Imbriani says, upon the nerves before the consciousness can interpret it; like anything primal, it readies the human animal before the human being. “Imbriani’s was an argument for the inner life of pictorial effect,” Cole writes, “not so much about the way in which visual organization transcended subject matter but the way in which it preceded subject matter.” This seems to embrace Impressionism down to its most subconscious, emotional level—one’s passions excited prior to understanding, which Edmund Burke described as the sublime.

Cole—a photographer as well as a writer—describes experiencing something similar when he uses Google’s “Search by Image” function to find “visually similar images” to his own work. What he found, he wrote, “told me what I knew but hadn’t articulated about the pictorial idea of my own picture, its rhetoric of red and shadow and scatter. It was like hearing a familiar tune played on unfamiliar instruments, with dramatic changes in the timbre but the pitches staying the same.”

Attempting this same experiment with GIFs instead of still images, Google doesn’t return visually similar images but instead images that are contextually similar: GIFs or stills from the same films, for example, or the same moments in culture. But that is not to say a macchia of motion does not exist. There are GIFs that echo other GIFs in their variations of movement, their choreography, as in Tumblr GIF sets that assemble tapestries of images. They are synchronous, separate but simultaneously so.

Unlike sets of GIFs that recount jokes in multiple frames, the viewer doesn’t read these choreographed GIFs sequentially, but opens their eyes to a quilt of motion. The delight here is in the moment before the brain can see each GIF individually, before it can understand. Even porn GIF sets offer a macchia of flesh that echo the ecstasy, and the anachronisms, of the erotic moment. They reveal the beauty of motion in sex; their emotional stain is one of rhythmic synchronicity, of bodies transcending understanding. Even a captured cumshot—that curtain call of the video clip—is here presented as infinite, a fantasia in which pleasure can flow in perpetuity. Any narrative beyond the body’s becomes inconsequential.

The GIF’s unique macchia of motion is what makes it valuable as a unit of language, especially as used in memes. Moving there in the frame is an array of colors, a pacing of movement, and a unique, repeated choreography; and all of this our nerves register before, first: understanding what’s literally taking place in the image; second: reading the caption that’s been assigned to it; and third: completing the juxtapositional association so we can perceive what the meme is trying to say. In short, our eyes soak up the GIF’s stain of motion before we even perceive that someone is trying to communicate with us: the impression precedes language.

GIF-based memes, like all memes, risk entering our everyday usage; read often enough, they become part of our standardized vocabulary of motion. As Britney Summit-Gil observed in her essay “Gif Horse,” there are ancillary technologies cropping up all the time meant to augment the technology of the GIF as language: “Sharing a gif now has been streamlined and democratized by the rise of searchable databases like Giphy and by the integration of gifs into phone apps. Finding just the right clumsy puppy or celebrity eye-roll is as easy as finding the right word in the moment, making communicating through gifs commonplace.” Proliferating as they are across multiple platforms of text-based communication, the risk of unique GIFs cementing themselves as specific connotations, and one day denotations, increases exponentially. Lauren Michele Jackson, for example, has written about how GIF search engines can create clichés of motion, even racial slurs of motion. Discussing the commonplace deployment of “black reaction GIFs” by white users, Jackson describes how “these are the kinds of GIFs liable to come up with a generic search like ‘funny black kid GIF’ or ‘black lady GIF.’ For the latter search, Giphy offers several additional suggestions, such as ‘Sassy Black Lady,’ ‘Angry Black Lady,’ and ‘Black Fat Lady’ to assist users in narrowing down their search.” This kind of “digital blackface” is a consequence of a delightful linguistic technology left unexamined and uncriticized—sort of like able-bodied persons continuing to refer to themselves or others as “paralyzed with fear,” as “tone deaf.”

Of course, a shared vocabulary of motion preceded the widespread use, or even the invention, of the internet. Since the 1950s, communities of gay men have quoted not only the dialogue of camp films, but the motions as well—Anne Baxter’s hand gestures in The Ten Commandments or Bette Davis’s shoulder shrugs in All About Eve (or really, anything from All About Eve). For decades now, covens of young people have quoted, in speech and in gesture, every frame of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Rocky Horror Picture Show from memory. What has changed with the internet is our ability to quote motion in writing.

Via GIF-based memes, our person-to-person language of motion is gaining a writing system, and with it an increasing tendency toward standardized meanings. Like the photograph, which clips a moment out of time and uses it to say this is how things looked in this moment, the GIF has captured how it was that we moved in that moment. It liberates motion itself from time and elevates it to a mythology of movement; and it’s in this technological middle space where we find ourselves, right now, able to write this captured motion but simultaneously experience it as art. It hasn’t yet fossilized, not completely, into language.

The cliché—or the dead metaphor, or the image we see instead of watch, or the GIF we read instead of enjoy—is where art ends. It is, after all, a kind of death—not for the person but for what persons create—and what we see in these corpses is where language begins; and from there it’s the new metaphors, the next images, the future works of art, that we build from these bones.

Excerpted from Image Control: Art, Fascism, and the Right to Resist. Published with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2021 by Patrick Nathan.