In Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel, Goodbye to Berlin, he documents a society on the brink of cataclysmic change. He likens himself to, “a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking”. Presumably, if smart-phones had existed during this period of the Weimar Republic, Isherwood may not have spoken so metaphorically. On the contrary, Isherwood — like many others — may have felt the need to share the deteriorating situation on Instagram. Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, this would have been beneficial to the cause. But it seems quite unlikely, given that during our own period of incessant politicised imagery, hashtags and social-media posts, we are now embroiled in a so-called Culture War.
We are living in the age of the image. According to Instagram, 95 million pictures and videos are shared daily on their platform. Due to both affordability and accessibility, the democratisation of the camera has steadily increased from the 20th century onwards. In James Fox’s documentary, Age of the Image, he explores how the power of images has transformed the modern world. The “revolution in visual culture” has effectively turned us into a population of “image addicts”. Images have the ability to seduce, entice and make others green with envy. Some will vehemently deny vanity as a motive, but one wonders, wouldn’t a privately owned family album prove to be adequately sufficient if that weren’t the case?
A mere image, now, can be an act of protest
During Covid, there has been a noticeable shift in this seemingly innocuous pastime. After all, the vast majority of us have been forced to accept a dreary and monotonous lifestyle within a domestic sphere. Yet the fact remains that people have become accustomed to the exercise of sharing photographs. It is no longer a hobby, but part of our daily routine. It goes without saying that the pandemic and our hunger to appear exciting are at odds with each other. However, one associated amusement has not only continued, but positively flourished throughout: performative activism.
Performative activism requires very little effort, but potentially gives very high returns. Not only does it make you feel responsible and good, it provides one with a certain level of social and moral capital. Images must no longer be beautiful or interesting; they should have purpose and meaning. Of course, self-interested individuals have always enjoyed jumping on justice bandwagons, but Instagram and other media giants of that nature allow these people to partake in such ventures with relative ease. You can simultaneously reassure others (and yourself) that you are on the right side of history, all from the comfort of your own home. A mere image, now, can be an act of protest. The camera, I argue, has become the main weapon in our developing culture-war, and it is creating significant distortion and disorder.
The image of the black square was nothing more than an example of virtue-signalling
The killing of George Floyd served as a tragic reminder that racial injustice in the U.S is not only ingrained, but sometimes done brazenly by those in positions of power. Before smart-phones, assumedly, Floyd would have been the victim of police brutality and everyone (excluding his family and friends) would have been none-the-wiser. That is, of course, the benefit of carrying a pocket sized camera. But, it also invited many to make bafflingly irrational decisions on social media. In the U.K, many white, liberal warriors started to conflate the African-American experience with the black British one. It should be remembered that America has its own identity and history, marred by the years of slavery upon its own soil and the subsequent period of Jim Crow. That isn’t to say that black British people don’t suffer from certain aspects of inequality, but to presume that every minority, regardless of location, feels the same struggle is quite simply preposterous and, actually, racist.
Nevertheless, a wave of BLM profile pictures appeared online. Some wanted to express their support and there were others who felt shamed into joining in. If they didn’t participate, it could be an indication that they are harbouring racist sympathies. Then came Blackout Tuesday. On that day, 28 million people posted a black square on Instagram, because assumedly, that would help to solve societies’ ills. However, at the same time, only 13 million people signed a petition to arrest the officers involved in the killing of Floyd. But, then again, that does require a little more effort and is hidden from public view. The image of the black square was nothing more than an example of virtue-signalling. Social media has pushed us towards becoming our own sort of brand ambassadors, and, of course, in the age of Corporate Social Responsibility, injustice is a trend to seize upon.
I have grown cynical of imagery that seeks to simplify complex situations. Even prior to the pandemic, I found the subsequent online reaction to the Manchester Arena Bombing to be depressing and bereft of true and intelligent discussion. In my home place of Manchester, the bee symbolises our hard work and determination. We are, after all, born of industry. After the terrorist attack, the bee could be found all over people’s social media accounts — partly to express support, and also to state, “I don’t like terrorism.” But, one assumes, hopefully, that the vast majority of people are horrified by random acts of murder; surely it doesn’t have to be stated. It’s all well and good, but I find it very hard to believe that someone who is thinking of committing such a mindless atrocity would be instantly perturbed and de-radicalised by the mere image of a bee. The image cannot change the situation, and it cannot prevent another one from occurring. It is therefore another self-serving example of virtue on display.
The image has evolved into something quite peculiar. We have a constant desire to be outraged and informed, and we are turning towards pictures and symbols, rather than words, to disseminate this perceived knowledge. All the while, our attention span is at an all time low. Performative, pious activism, sadly, will not help to alleviate the world’s problems but instead serve to brush them under the carpet.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe