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Agamben and the effect of the image

Ensslin ended his lecture with the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. In his work Profanations, Agamben describes the mediaeval philosophical background to the term ‘spectacle’ and refers to its relation to the term ‘species’. What makes humans special is that which sets us apart from other living beings. In the Latin scholastic tradition, the image does not exist in a material sense, but is created anew each time it appears and is seen. This is, according to Ensslin, an important factor in the relation to the iconic image. It means that the image is not objective in an ontological, material sense, but that it is recreated in the web of the phantasm, in the subject with his or her customs and desires. ‘Just as light is always created anew according to the presence of the illuminator, so do we say that the image in the mirror is generated each time according to the presence of the one the person who looks, not the one who shows,’ Ensslin quotes Agamben. Another important aspect of the image is that it has no form of its own, but is the representation of a form. The image has no fixed dimensions; it can be enlarged and yet still be the same image. The characteristics of the image do not consist of measurable quantities, but of aspects of species, modes of being and habits. The subject has the appearance of a species, a usage, a gesture. The image is never a thing, but always a kind of thing.

The image is not a simple duplication or alienation, nor is it an attribute of an individual substance. It creates a relation, which exists only at the moment of looking. This leaves two possibilities to avoid the airy and lofty and somewhat unstable position to be in relation to the image. Either you make the image a feature of yourself: my representation in an image is a personal quality of mine; I have control over my own image. The other option is to make the gap between the image and the viewer so great that every possibility of identification and experience disappears, so that it becomes a fantasy. On the one hand, there is a desire to avoid the uncertain status of the image by fixing it – in a passport, for instance – in order to be able to identify someone. On the other hand the image becomes so far removed from the reality it depicts that it becomes part of our fantasy life, as happens in celebrity culture. This is our man on the balcony, Ensslin concludes, and those are the iconic images of the society of the spectacle. Agamben uses this view of the effect of images, according to Ensslin, to avoid Debord’s substantialist, rationalist interpretation of the society of the spectacle, which takes for granted a return to natural life, a non-alienated existence. Agamben returns to what the society of the spectacle is, namely images, and not what it is made to be, namely identification and the stuff of usance in fantasy.

And so Ensslin took those present in the Reading Room through an extremely careful reading of that iconic image of the 1972 Olympic Games. From a man on a balcony, via the intentions of Black September and the Munich Games’ organisers, The Society of the Spectacle and the desire for a return to ‘real’ life, and the phantasm with its different positions, to how the image works. What is an image, to what degree does it represent what is being depicted, and who or what decides?

Report by Lotte Haagsma

Listen to the  lecture by Felix Ensslin:

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Thursday Night at Het Nieuwe Instituut
Luca Napoli

Thursday Night Live! is a weekly programme of lectures, screenings and discussions on architecture, design and digital culture. Developments and critical insights are discussed by thinkers, designers and makers from the Netherlands and abroad.