John M. Phelan
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"The Pseudo-Context of the Processed Image," Media Ethics Update, Spring 1992

The above piece is adapted from his "Image Industry Erodes Political Space," Media Development 4/91. Further expansion on these ideas appear in Phelan's contributions, "Media" and "Advertising", in the Routledge Dictionary of Theology and Society, eds. Paul A.B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey.

The Pseudo-Context of the Processed Image

With the rapid march of digitization, fiber-optics and satellite distribution systems, all media are becoming electronic. Because of its early history of identification with voice and picture formats, the broadcast style of electronics, particularly television, with its concern for telling images, will enlarge its domination of all communication content, whatever the physical means of distribution. A further reason for this style of mixed multimedia is the greater accessibility of images for broader audiences of different language groups and of uncertain literacy.

In this context, then, we can look at the modern electronically transmitted (and, increasingly, electronically created) image as the unit of media distribution with the greatest currency and, I shall argue, authority.

This authority of the electronic image poses ethical and moral problems of profound dimension because of its divorce from the language base of all ethical traditions, which flow from spoken oral traditions and written canons, from the Pentateuch to the Analects. It is significant that at a common stage of development, religious traditions are suspicious, if not condemnatory, of images, graven or otherwise.

Let us take a look at the modern status of the image.

Simon Schama, Mellon Professor of Social Science at Harvard, generally uses no verbal notes for his university lectures. He does, however, have thousands of carefully prepared slides of images which serve as the organizing thread for his oral commentary. Schama is the author of the widely praised Dead Certainties, which recounts the political power of Benjamin West's dramatic painting of General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City, dying at the moment of defeating the French. Schama shows how this theatrically composed picture replaced the reality of the General's death, and thus the significance of his life and of the battle he fought, in the minds of generation after generation of schoolboys to suit the political mythology of the British Empire. Schama's writing illustrates the long history of image as propaganda just as his teaching method demonstrates the current ascendancy of image in the context of postmodern intellectual life.

The current electronic image is of course not confined to versions of the political poster. Sir Arthur Eddington, the distinguished scientist who championed relativity and whose career spanned the intellectually fecund turn of the century, claimed that no scientific theory was comprehensible if you could not build a model of it. Subsequent arcane formulations of relativity and quantum mechanics defeated Eddington's criterion; no model could have been built of them. They could be apprehended only with the unimaginable precision of mathematical formulae. But now, sixty years after Eddington's death, dazzling new computer graphics programs can construct multicolored and moving models of the most abstruse formulae, surpassing the wildest dreams of Descartes. For such programs, the imaginative envisioning of multivariate statistical information is comparative child's play.

In many cases, computer imaging provides pilots, surgeons, architects, machine toolmakers, heavy construction supervisors, steel mill operators, high tech color printing operators and an increasing number of technicians and professionals with the only means for them to "see what they are doing."

Of course, the image most often is associated with entertainment and propaganda, but my belief is that the increasing use of images as the key to understanding complex concepts, combined with the knowledge that many of the most powerful and intelligent workers in our society use images to control the real world of bricks and steel, is giving the representation and the reproduction an authority that eclipses, in wild paradox, firsthand, unmediated, eyewitness experience. People who may be sceptical about television news often accept without question what the display screen of their computer information service tells them. And once something is printed or broadcast, it joins "the great news database in the sky" [=satellite networked computers]. By a strange process, the further one gets from the reality, the more processed the information gets, the more authority it assumes, a development satirically anticipated in E.M. Forster's long-forgotten "The Machine Stops, " from The Celestial Omnibus.

The virtue of the computer-processed image is that it strips away the inessential to enable the surgeon or engineer to concentrate on his single-minded purpose. The vice of the media-processed image in covering politics, art, education - most of the world in which we live and act - is that it strips away the moral-historical context to leave the citizen-viewer with Brute Event as Truth.

The heart-rending images of war-ravaged Kurds may have mobilized international aid but could picture neither the causes nor the culprits of the pain and so could not serve as correctives. The true context of history, wrapped in value-laden local languages, is replaced by the pseudo-context of media images, drafted to meet the immediate needs of the powers that control, or merely the convenience of technicians that operate, the electronic media system.

This pseudo-context, in other words, is either deliberately concocted by image-mongers and wordsmiths in the employ of an interested party, like a government or powerful corporation, or it is insouciantly dictated by cinematic cliche taken from fiction. Both procedures sculpted Operation Desert Storm, which was presented as (1) a desert campaign of World War II, Hollywood-style, complete with tanks in the sunset, and tearful homecoming, parades; and (2) the Nintendo War, a game without victims or purpose. But there were no pictures of the Mutlaa massacre: too reminiscent of Hiroshima or Dresden, too historical.

So the moral and ethical challenge is to somehow reintroduce values into the technological, and thus political, contextualizing of processed images, to restore the dissected and desiccated token to the water of life, to the moral universe, the real world which permits us to be truly human.



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