Images and mems: considerations in a soci(ologic)al view, Ambrogia Cereda

As soon as I realize that my recent acquaintance, Dr. Ambrogia Cereda, is on the verge of an important research that bridges the study of images with social studies, I implored her for an opinion on my recent mem project. This is what she kindly replied:

Pictures overwhelm our society and the understanding the role of images is an enigma, which has fascinated many classic and contemporary social observers. But: What are images today? What do they derive their strength from?

In his book, The Contemplation of the World (1997), controversial French sociologist Michel Maffesoli reconsiders this issue in the context of our contemporary systems of representation and shows the contribution of images in fostering the typically postmodern process of re-enchantment of the world. In his perspective images operate as living tools, they have the power to relate people to each other and to encompass all of them by means of a sense of sacred. This special quality acknowledged to images is derived by their social role, as still they can offer traditional displays deemed as necessary for the community during late modern rituals and moments of effervescence (i.e. concerts, national and international sport events, or natural catastrophes), along with emotions, sentiments and symbols.

Drawing on the legacy of Durkheim and Moscovici, Maffesoli seems to reaffirm the importance of the idea a society produces of itself: such a symbolic self-portrait constitutes an influential variable of the community way of life. Along with the material artifacts they create, and the material conditions on which they are constituted into a group within a territory, the members of society recognize themselves as such thanks to the aggregating elements of images and rituals. The importance of social representations is not due to their visualizing potential but proceeds mainly from the fact that they have a concrete impact on social life they organize (ordinary and special) time and the way in which people get in touch and communicate about a common fact. The fundamental function of images is that of being relative, so establishing relations between elements, may they be a men and the divine, or an individual to another, or mankind to the environment: “what we would call the iconic function has no validity in itself, but is essentially an evocation, or rather a support for other things: the relation to God, to others, to nature” (Maffesoli, 1997: 72).

The image, the phenomenon, the appearance, all belong to those things that while not having a precise purpose or an “instrumental rationality”, or perhaps because they have neither one nor the other are in a position to express that “hyperrationality, […] and which seems more pertinent for describing the real or the “hyperreal” that agitates social life” (idem).

If images can do even more than merely suggesting attitudes towards reality, and can live a life of their own, it’s because they are the result of a “synthesis sui generis” through which a world between the material and the immaterial dimension is built.

Such an outstanding capability is related to the possibility of exponential reproduction in a way that they can give life to new forms of experience. Images thus create a second or parallel dimension, a “hyperreality”,[1] mainly thanks to the technological contribution of new and traditional media. As a typically late modern phenomenon, the proliferation of images has increasingly shaped individual perceptions and fostered the configuration of the so called “imaginal world”, a reality similar to “a matrix in which all the elements of earthly data interact, resonate in concert or correspond to each other in multiple ways and in constant reversibility” (Maffesoli, 2007: 76).

If on the one hand, images can be seen in Western late modern culture as the representations closest to reality invoking and evoking things for what they are. On the other hand, even if they are not deemed as a cheating produce, they seem to conceal the relevance of reality to our current understanding of our lives. For they participate in an accumulation of symbols and signs by means of which all human experience is reduced to a sort of simplification which is often more similar to a simulation of reality.

In this ambiguity they offer the viewer the opportunity (or the risk) to give an interpretation to what is portrayed. And, moreover, to challenge the meaning of the image by using it in the practice of everyday life. It is only in the use of images indeed that the meaning – so necessary and comfortable for life in the social group – can be progressively transformed and a new system of representations can be built.

"Where the fashion is art", Las Meninas del corte inglés

“Where the fashion is art”, Las Meninas del corte inglés

Considered in this framework, the mems (some examples are available in this blog) can be seen as participating in this social necessity of conveying useful information for social life, useful tools for handling with culture. Moreover, they enter the process of transforming things in their use: images and words are assembled, re-visualized from screen to screen, and reach one mind after the other. Hence, throughout these passages, we only know how the visualization starts but what will happen to these mems is up to you and I.

[1]Cfr. Baudrillard (1994) Simulacra and Simulations, in which the first theorization can be found about the production of a new reality of images. The French theorist portrays it as parallel to the real matter of fact reality, and as even more real than that – hyperreal – because of its complete independence from the latter and continually reproducing itself through the proliferation of other images.


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