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The Inhumanity of the Photographic Image: Post-Humanist Photography and the Robotic Picture

Warstat, AFH (2017) The Inhumanity of the Photographic Image: Post-Humanist Photography and the Robotic Picture. In: Eighth International Conference on the Image, 31 October 2017 - 01 November 2017, Venice International University. (Unpublished)

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Abstract

The disciplines of post- and trans- humanism analyse the growth of a social, political and cultural environment where human beings are no longer the main actors in historical development. Understanding changes in technology are central to exploring a post-humanist world and photography - as a technologically driven form of image making - can, unsurprisingly, be studied for symptoms of the advance of post­humanism. While acknowledging that photography has a humanist side (represented by genres such as documentary and photojournalism, dedicated to representing human existence; exhibitions such as Edward Steichen's 'family of Man'; or seen in the work of photographers such as Cartier Bresson, Walker Evans etc.), there is also a tradition within photography that has focussed on the a-human or non-human. This tradition isn't simply about an alternative subject for representation, it is as much about the mechanical, non-human element of the photographic apparatus. This alternative tradition suggests that at the heart of the photographic image is a radically non-human core. Examples of this tendency within the history of photography include Fox Talbot's acknowledgement that the removal of the fallible artist's hand was key to the development of his 'photogenic drawing', or the fascination with automation and the inhuman in surrealist photography (e.g. Man Ray's machine masks). Walter Benjamin also recognised the challenge to the human agent in §13 of his WoA essay, where his allusion to the optical unconscious indicated how photographic technology revealed things beyond the bounds of human vision: "a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye" continuing that "we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal". Benjamin's reference to the optical unconscious not only marked a correlation between photographic technology and psychoanalysis in showing us things hidden within human experience, it also implied how human subjectivity was dominated by potentially uncontrollable forces. As well as the unconscious, automation and machinic power could also be understood as examples of monstrous, even inhuman, uncontrollable forces. The photographic image therefore contains a trace of the non-human, regardless of whether the ostensible content of the image is 'human'. This paper examines how an acceleration in the contemporary power of inhuman forces in image making can be seen in examples such as automated facial recognition software; in commercial photography which is already utilising the 'dehumanised' aspect of the photograph with technology such as PhotoRobot, a studio based robotic 'photographer'; and even The Photographer's Gallery in London which recently addressed this issue with a programme focussing on the role of technology in creating what they call the 'unthinking photograph'. The paper concludes with a critical contextualisation of these issues by examining how the post-human photographic image fits into debates within existing scholarship on post-humanism via an examination of Eugene Thacker's work on the devaluation of human consciousness and agency in art and technology.

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