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the phatic image

October 24, 2007

“From the beginning of the [20th] century the perceptual field in Europe was invaded by certain signs, representations and logotypes that were to proliferate over the next twenty, thirty, sixty years, outside any immediate explanatory context, like beak-nosed carp in the polluted ponds they depopulate. Geometric brand images, initials, Hitler’s swastika, Charlie Chaplin’s silhouette, Magritte’s blue bird or the red lips of Marilyn Monroe: parasitic persistence cannot be explained merely in terms of the power of technical reproducibility, so often discussed since nineteenth century. We are in effect looking at the logical outcome of a system of message-intensification which has, for several centuries, assigned a primordial role to the techniques of visual and oral communication.

On a more practical note, Ray Bradbury recently remarked: ‘Film-makers bombard with images instead of words and accentuate the details using special effects. … You can get people to swallow anything by intensifying the details.’

The phatic image – a targeted image that forces you to look and holds your attention – is not only a pure product of photographic and cinematic focusing. More importantly it is the result of an ever-brighter illumination, of the intensity of its definition, singling out only specific areas, the context mostly disappearing into a blur.

During the first half of the twentieth century this kind of image immediately spread like wildfire in the service of political or financial totalitarian powers in acculturated countries, like North America, as well as in destructured countries like the Soviet Union and Germany, which were carved up after revolution and military defeat. In other words, in nations morally and intellectually in a state of least resistance. There the key words of poster ads and other kind of posters would often be printed on a background in just as strong a colour. The difference between what was in focus and its context, or between image and text, was nevertheless stressed here as well, since the viewer had to spend more time trying to decipher the written message or simply give up and just take in the image.”

Excerpt from the book ‘The Vision Machine‘ by Paul Virilio (p.14, 1994, Indiana University Press).

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