The Mirror of Modernity

Gail Jones’ Neo-Victorian novel Sixty Lights opens with an image of an Indian man scaling an enormous scaffold with a mirror strapped to his chest. His foot slips and he falls to his death, impaling himself upon the mirror that reflects both his dying face and horrified responses of the crowd in its shattered surface. Jones uses this metaphor to open her novel in an attempt to question some of the ethical boundaries surrounding the use of photography and the massive over saturation that modernity is exposed to at the hands of this art.

By setting Sixty Lights in the late nineteenth century, Jones is able to open this discussion right at the roots of photographies’ invention and emerging popularity. Sixty Lights charts the course of Lucy Strange, an Australian immigrant whose life is uprooted when she is orphaned at a young age and removed to Victorian London, that she has hitherto only encountered in her knowledge of the novel Great Expectations, that is being serialized at the time. Despite these initial literary introductions to the world, through the presence of several well-known Victorian texts and through her late mother’s passion for stories, Lucy is at heart a photographer. She sees the world in terms of pure aesthetics, in lights and shades, colours and motion; a palpitating vision unique from the staged and sepia representations that still remain collectable items from that era. In the acknowledgements at the novel’s end, Jones recognizes her debt to the postmodern theorist Susan Sontag, who’s 1979 essay ‘In Plato’s Cave’ questions the motive of the modern photographer and critiques the depth of space between artiste and voyeur.

Sontag’s objection to the encouragement of casual photography, and in particular photographic tourism, runs along the lines of many of her postmodern contemporaries who felt that societies  over saturation  with images was responsible for a certain kind of numbing towards painful and disturbing subjects; a numbing perhaps more effective even than absence of any exposure to them at all. The difference between being ignorant of a situation, say an example of colonial corruption or a horrific political event, and being overexposed to it is that if we are unaware of it, we are still capable to be shocked if and when it is brought to our attention. In a culture where  new flow is constant and constantly accompanied by images that are designed to shock and disturb us, the opposite result has been achieved. Truly startling images, the fall of the Twin Towers for example or the famished children of Aids and poverty campaigns, have become clichéd. They no longer hold the power they could have yielded at their primary viewing. We find it difficult to connect with the image and empathize, it is simply one more in a stream of images, both real and simulated, by which we are constantly surrounded.

In the case of the tourist, Sontag argues that by placing a camera between oneself and an event we find exotic, breath-taking or completely new (although the latter is particularly hard to find now in a culture where documentary television has made a point of bringing everything right to our living rooms) is a way of separating ourselves from an experience we find hard to take in and, in a sense, numbing ourselves to the experience as it is taking place. It has expanded to a point where, postmodernists argue, people constantly think in pictures and, not only the pictures alone, but how these pictures will be perceived by our peer group public. Writing at the end of the 70s Sontag could never have predicted the onslaught of social networking sites or even the vast expansion of the internet and personal technology. However, postmodern reservations at the beginning of this trend have been proven completely accurate. Social networking sites abound with people determinedly enjoying themselves, on nights out, on holiday, with partners, getting ready for nights out, for public consumption through pictures. It is as though we are being asked to prove our very existence. Postmodernism ‘hyperreality,’ a state in which images and the media are so fluid and so all-encompassing the that real is constantly confused and interchanging with the simulation of real life through television that they eventually become impossible to separate, is at full realisation in our culture. Did a night out exist if there are no photos the next day to prove it? How can we quickly explain our lives to the curious voyeurs of the web if not through a brief montage of pictures?

In Sixty Lights Jones toys with this idea in that we know from the beginning that Lucy is going to die young. Lucy herself is aware of this and it is pertinent when we consider her desperation to immortalize that which she sees. The fact that Lucy herself is only ever captured twice on camera, once in a staged portrait with a man she must pretend is her husband and the second time as a blur leaving the picture, signifies her true nature a voyeur who is only part of the life she lives through her dedication to what she sees. Like Sontag’s modern photographer, Lucy is in constant motion, walking continually around the city living life through the images she mentally collects. She is reminiscent of the nineteenth century flaneur; social crusaders of the male middle class who toured cities on foot critiquing and exposing social inequalities and vast economic divides. However, like the artist, the lack of any active intervention on the part of these flaneurs, other than their documentation of what the witnessed, has often been criticized as hypocrisy and voyeurism. The artist is perhaps even more susceptable to this criticism as all art replies on human drama and therefore, to some extent, suffering which the artist must emulate rather than try to end. To create art, Jones seems to say, is to be unable to participate in life.

This is a well used if controversial argument, and one must ultimately accept that art contains a necessary level of voyeurism. Another character in the novel sketches the face of his dead father. Lucy wishes to photograph the man fallen on the mirror. The Victorians themselves, in the early stages of photography’s development as a public art form were renowned for photographing their dead, not for particularly morbid reasons but simply because it was easier for the deceased to remain still. This same voyeuristic state must be true of authors. To create an alternative to life in the form of fiction, one must first observe reality and then peel oneself away from it and remake it in a different form. Sontag’s argument against the photographic voyeur however, is that while a narrative may have many interpretations, a photograph is a direct and instantaneous slice of action. It must be enacted in the moment whereas a story can be written down in hindsight, and if our action in the moment of some terrible event is to photograph it we must surely question the motives of the photographer.

This is particularly relevant to our own contemporary culture when we consider once again live news feeds and modern journalism. Images and film clips of grieving relatives at sites of tragic events, bodies being dragged from wreckage, orphaned children being filmed yet not assisted, clog the modern news channel and contribute to a widespread acknowledgment of such disasters without much capacity for real thought or emotional engagement. Of course, the integrity of such journalistic intervention has been called into question numerous times before, the usual result being that ethically it is dubious but that morally it is necessary to show the public what goes on around the world. I would agree with this to an extent but not to the extent at which it effaces the world itself and makes us nearly blind to both atrocities and wonder so that we are no longer capable of experiencing first hand. I surely must not be alone in having witnessed in real terms a highly photographed object, the Eiffel Tower for example, and felt an element of disappointment as the preconditioned responses produced by photographs and touristic hype, failed really to impress.

Jones relates to this question of the impersonality of photo making in a scene in which Lucy, who is spending time in India with a man she has been recommended to marry, photographs an Indian holy man. Her huge, invasive camera equipment makes her conspicuous and impractical in the busy Indian street and she must photograph the man hidden beneath her sheet. The act in this sense is portrayed as vaguely predatory, almost a theft in that she can see and examine him, pick the right moment in which to capture his image, yet he cannot see her or have any control of how he looks on film. She has no idea why he is fasting or the grounds of his belief in his ritual yet wishes to capture and fetishise them for their exotic and beautiful aesthetic quality. Although in the novel’s context, this speaks more like a colonial critique upon eccentrics collecting curiosities of quaintly ‘primitive’ culture, the message can quite easily be paralleled to the ethical question of photography today and how far one should take photographic journalism when one’s time might be better spent enhancing the experience of the subject rather than the experience of the modern viewer.

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3 Responses to “The Mirror of Modernity”

  1. sohobaby21 Says:

    It’s Catherine here, by the way. I created this account months ago but have yet to use it, though I’m thinking of writing an entry.

    I love the fact that you are using Susan Sontag. I’m just getting through ‘Death Kill’ at the moment, and it reminded me of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ a little bit; only instead of transforming into a giant insect, Diddy is transformed from this passive man into a neophyte of mortality. It feels like when he fully realizes death exists, he goes mad.

    What a light-hearted summary, hey?

    Oh, and when did you get so into Victorians? There’s this phrase from ‘The Hours’ (both the book and the movie) where Virginia Woolf compares her doctors to a ‘bunch of contemptible Victorians’. Heh.

    Anyway. Keep writing 🙂

    • Hi! You should write something, I’d like to read more of your stuff. I’ve always been really into the Victorians, just find them really fascinating and now I’m doing a course on Neo-Victorianism and thought that would be a good thing to specialize in as not much is written about it.
      That book sounds really interesting. I haven’t read Metamorphosis but will do eventually!
      Haha yeah, I have some opinions about Virginia Woolf and her criticism of Victorian female writers so might right some about that at some point…
      Thanks for reading! 😀

      • cornflakegirlraisinworld Says:

        Lol now I can imagine some kind of debate happening through blogging.

        I did write an entry, but I’m not really sure it’s anything good. Just me rambling about art, really.

        And why is it that when I left Aberdeen Uni you got all the good courses? All I remember of three years of an English degree is spending an unnerving amount of time on Dickens. I hate Dickens!

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