'Image Control' Is A Plea For Artistic Ethics In What Author Calls 'Fascist Times'
Early in Image Control: Art, Fascism, and the Right to Resist, novelist and cultural critic Patrick Nathan admits, "I never thought I'd write a book about photographs and fascism because I knew nothing, I thought, about photographs and fascism."
Image Control is, unmistakably, the work of an autodidact. Nathan's curiosity is evident on every page; so, too, is the breadth of his interests. He writes about photography in both its professional and social-media forms, yes, but he also discusses epic poetry, gentrification, literary citizenship, Donald Trump's tweets, the decay of magazine journalism, and much more. These objects of study may seem scattered, but Nathan effectively weaves them into a sharp, passionate, and frequently scathing plea for artistic ethics in what he calls "fascist times."
In order to track Nathan's ideas, it is necessary to get on board with his habit of invoking fascism broadly, emphasizing its aesthetic and imaginative tendencies over its concrete manifestations. Of course, the latter rely on the former; Nathan notes that fascism works via "division, isolation, and elimination," none of which are possible among a citizenry that considers itself united. Per Nathan, living in fascist times does not necessarily mean living under a fully fascist regime. Rather, it means existing in a nation that, first, teaches people to "discard and be discarded" and, second, denies the social interdependence that Nathan takes as a core human truth. According to Nathan, no life is coherent or comprehensible in isolation. "We are all," he writes, "each other's context."
Images need context as much as people do — or, really, more, since we can talk. One of Nathan's biggest concerns is the contemporary habit of "ceding to photographs and other images the kind of authority that belongs to language." He refers first and foremost to political or moral authority; The New York Times, he argues, acts as if photographs of suffering Syrian children could impel readers to oppose Assad's regime, when in fact they have no such power. But the authority of language is, fundamentally, just the ability to convey meaning. Words can do it; pictures can't. Images, no matter how striking or upsetting, cannot make claims or express ideas — but increasingly, we act as if they could do both.
Nathan explains this error readily enough. "The consumption and creation of images," he writes, "like the usage of language, are political: every choice has behind it an ethics." Yet language can not only contain but convey ethics; images, no matter how much the viewer may sense their intention, cannot. According to Nathan, it is impossible to truly learn from an image, to debate one, or to forge a real connection with one. He draws this idea through a nuanced condemnation of social media, a "surrealistic environment" that numbs users to suffering and turns their friends into "a catalogue of images to consume, reject, and discard." Later, he argues that literary culture has a similar effect — which seems a stretch at first, or hardly relevant to Image Control's preoccupation with visual art, but his suggestion that market pressure on authors to commodify themselves creates cynical literature is compelling. After all, if a writer has to sell their image in order to sell books, a library or bookstore suddenly becomes yet another catalogue of frozen, silent people to accept or reject.
Nathan often makes this type of associative leap: social media to literature, Romanticism to Trumpism, Kill Bill gifs to Homeric metaphor. Not all his jumps are easy to follow, but every one works. His intellectual roving, chaotic though it may sometimes feel, renders Image Control not only fascinating but genuinely exciting. It can be a real pleasure to watch Nathan build scaffolding between his ideas. In one excellent chapter, he draws on the great writer and activist Sarah Schulman's broad body of work, which he combines with Run the Jewels' hip-hop, Kimberlé Crenshaw's theory of intersectionality, and more, to argue that Americans have entered a "gentrified era of political thinking" in which "a consumable image of an idea, a historical event, or a political belief replaces the real-life complexity of that idea or event or belief." This insight would be both true and useful without its varied antecedents; with them, it becomes powerful.
Image Control can be frustrating at times: polemical, hyperbolic, messy. But the book's aggravating moments stem from, and are redeemed by, its intelligence, originality, and heart. Cultural critics rarely frame their work as explicitly ethical, and Nathan's insistence on doing so is refreshing. He transforms the idea that images need linguistic context — which could be reduced to a defense of wall text in art museums — into an ethical system that defends human complexity against the ever-flattening pressures of both consumer capitalism and creeping fascism. As proof of concept, Image Control more than succeeds.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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