(Nützlich? Wirksam? Das Bild und die Gewissheit)
It would seem that we consume, produce, archive and forget pictures in (meaningless) massive floods. The status of the picture seems to have changed dramatically, accelerated by technical and sociotechnological developments over the past decades. In fact, it is possible that with the appearance of the ‘de-authored, reproducible and technically generated’ image, the whole world has changed.
However, the observation that certain pictures (beyond the artificial and so on) can surprise, inform, impress or convey knowledge opposes such a dystopian perspective. I would like to present and discuss a particular class of pictures as ‘useful’.
By useful pictures I mean selected pictures in (media) circulation. I mean pictures that are functional and can be functionalised, that are characterised by their ability to be understood as “true” in a specific sense. A certain canon of pictures is now attracting attention in current media culture: spiral strands of DNA, fractals, multispectral satellite images, PET scans and anatomical cross-sections have become part of popular visual discourse. At the moment of their appearance from the hermetically sealed worlds of laboratories, they become part of a common meaning. It makes no difference whether we first assume we are working with principally ‘virtual’ manifestations (such as glowing cross-sections of the brain, fractal geometry, artificially animated worlds) or with forms that have long been handed down (the ladder of the double helix, microscopic pictures of viruses and germs, maps or X-rays), all these images are unified by their original ‘creation’ as epistemological tools. Why should we devote our thoughts about the connection between media and knowledge to the object (or the practice) of the picture or the picture’s act of becoming? Perhaps because taking this perspective seems to be intuitively comprehensible and appears to need hardly any explanation: the (dominant and operative) status of the picture in a visual and/or medial culture seems evident. In such a way, the argumentation surrounding ‘useful pictures’ primarily concerns this experience of evidence. Why does it seem self-evident that we should accept pictures (or a specific class of pictures) as so crucial to the management and governing of culture, knowledge or education?
The project of useful pictures can be understood as a positioning in a pictorial-scientific debate that attempts to understand the concept of the picture as a materialisation of intersubjective knowledge and simultaneously understand the process of this intersubjectification as a discourse-based process of negotiation. Here – and this now seems to legitimise such a perspective of the question – the concept of orientation knowledge plays a central role. Within the framework of a discourse philosophy oriented towards Michel Foucault, and in the specific arrangement of critical discourse analysis (or in the sense of Siegfried Jäger or Jürgen Links), knowledge is always an intersubjectively valid, temporary “truth”, a regulatory function that is culturally and socially shaped and the product of processes of negotiation.
In this way, certain theoretical figures, as they are primarily thematised in critical discourse analysis, should be deliberately carried over into the conditions of pictorial or media-scientific access, above all because a symbolic system is evoked with the ‘subject’ of a picture that is further distinguished and stabilised in public, technological and communicative circulation. For such an approach, it is essential to analyse the distinct picture subject as part of a complex, multifaceted visual current. As it does in every discourse-analytical process, the question arises here as well: just how can the subject effects and dynamics of complex systems of knowledge be captured when the analysis of individual (picture) subjects must consistently fall short?