A peculiar kind of dismembering of reality

I confess to following the news (if I follow it at all) in a very erratic fashion, getting only bits and pieces of stories every few days. I tend not to commit too much time to knowing in detail things that don’t affect my sphere, or about which I cannot do anything.1

All of this amounts to a defence of why I don’t have much in particular to say about the American border separation business that is making the news at the moment. I don’t have all the relevant facts, nor do I have much insight on the issue of immigration that I could be of use to anyone else. (Add to this that I’m living all the way over in Australia, and we’ve got plenty of our own curly immigration questions already, thank you very much.) As a rule, though, I’m generally against traumatising children; I don’t know where that puts me on the political spectrum.DgN8dH3WsAA-Dzr

Of more interest to me is the meta-story about how the story has been presented.

Many of you will have seen the TIME Magazine cover featuring a two-year-old Honduran girl balling her eyes out in front of a less-than-empathetic President Trump. As it turns out, the little girl photographed hadn’t been separated from her family because of the policy, as the image suggest; her mother had momentarily put her on the ground while she was being searched at the border. As Rachel Stoltzfoos writes for The Federalist:

The photo and story made a big splash in the media war over the separation policy, which Trump has since ended, but both have now been completely dismantled by the press, resulting in a major correction.

“The original version of this story misstated what happened to the girl in the photo after she taken from the scene,” the correction reads. “The girl was not carried away screaming by U.S. Border Patrol agents; her mother picked her up and the two were taken away together.”

[…]

TIME defended its cover and its reporting Friday, essentially claiming the facts are irrelevant because of the propaganda value of the piece. The photo and story “capture the stakes of this moment,” the editor in chief told reporter Hadas Gold.

“Yes, it’s not technically true, but it tells the story very effectively.” Jiminy.

This struck me as an almost perfect instance of what Neil Postman discussed in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death over thirty years ago:

The photograph also lacks a syntax, which deprives it of a capacity to argue with the world. As an “objective” slice of space-time, the photograph testifies that someone was there or something happened. Its testimony is powerful but it offers no opinions – no “should-have-beens” or “might-have beens”. Photography is pre-eminently a world of fact, not of dispute about facts or of conclusions to be drawn from them. But this is not to say photography lacks an epistemological bias. As Susan Sontag has observed, a photograph implies “that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it”. But, as she further observes, all understanding begins with our not accepting the world as it appears. Language, of course, is the medium we use to challenge, dispute, and cross-examine what comes into view, what is on the surface. The words “true” and “false” come from the universe of language, and no other. When applied to a photograph, the question, Is it true? means only, Is this a reproduction of a real slice of space-time? If the answer is “Yes”, there are no grounds for argument, for it makes no sense to disagree with an unfaked photograph. The photograph itself makes no arguable propositions, makes no extended and unambiguous commentary. It offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable.

The way in which the photograph records experience is also different from the way of language. Language makes sense only when it is presented as a sequence of propositions. Meaning is distorted when a word or sentence is, as we say, taken out of context; when a reader or listener is deprived of what was said before, and after. But there is no such thing as a photograph taken out of context, for a photograph does not require one. ‘In fact, the point of photography is to isolate images from context, so as to make them visible in a different way. In a world of photographic images, Ms Sontag writes, “all borders… seem abitrary. Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently.” She is remarking on the capacity of photographs to perform a peculiar kind of dismembering of reality, a wrenching of moments out of their contexts, and a juxtaposing of events and things that have no logical or historical connection with each other.

The term “post-truth” has been thrown around quite a bit in recent years, but Postman is pointing out that the medium in which propositions are subjugated to the image is necessarily beyond truth, not in the sense that every image the media shows you is misleading, but that the true-or-false taxonomy that you can use about a proposition doesn’t neatly apply to images in the first place.

Is TIME’s magazine cover true or false? Well, I don’t understand the question.


    1. I don’t hold this to be a hard rule, as though the goal is to shut out any information about things outside my own life; rather, the goal is to focus on areas where I can exhibit some agency, rather than spending inordinate amounts of time picking up ever-changing tidbits of information merely for their own sake. (This, incidentally, is also something I learned from Neil Postman: “the information-action ratio”.)

      I have been challenged on this position by other Christians who have pointed out that the more I know, the more I can pray about. This is quite true: Paul prays for the good news and bad news in other churches as he hears about them, and shares news between churches so they can act and pray, with prayer itself being a form of action: 2 Corinthians 8:1; Colossians 1:3-4. However, I don’t think that this argument makes the necessary step of showing why I ought to commit to finding out an unmanageable amount of extra information in the first place.

      I don’t think it’s unduly cynical to suggest that, if we’re honest with ourselves, this amounts to an after-the-fact justification for our habit of scrolling endlessly through feeds and streams. We rather like the feeling of “being informed” and knowing what’s going on for its own sake. As Postman also points out, our opinions about the news are useful fodder for newspolls that themselves can be turned into news for us to know about.