Critical Conversation: the power of Dialectical Imagery
James J. Schloemer

Michel de Certeau, in Culture in the Plural, states that “Inaction seems to be the price of the image.” A discouraging thought in a society surrounded by images. We are constantly bombarded by the Image – advertising, along the highway and in our cities. Everywhere we look is a billboard or banner, telling the potential buyer what he or she desires. Every product becomes a utopia to seek out – that dream vacation or dream house or dream girl, being used to sell hamburgers and low interest rates. We are constantly assailed with these “perfect” images, so much that we are desensitized to the dialogues they should generate. The apparent refusal of our society to actively participate in our individual desires only encourages this trend of Advertising: that Imagery begets inaction.

If image destroys the desire to act, how then can one create imagery that inspires action? The image of perfection speaks at once of what is most lacking in society and the dreams consumers will never exert the energy to attain. It is a perfect sunset; the likeness of which should be unbearable to the spectator. It is the image of an object recently forgotten or never seen – a dream ignored. Each advertisement plays on a passing fantasy, and thus exchanges life for dream. In merely observing an advertisement, the “consumer” not only forfeits life (the time of observation) but fails to engage the advertisement in dialogue that would possibly lead to a greater understanding of the issues generated by this corporate propaganda. The observation of each image becomes a lesson never learned – the image seeks to conceal the need for such a lesson.

The manifestation of this exploitation is a society content in looking on – a vivid, photographic “reality” drawing on the passivity of society, captured in our televisions and on our public transportation. These “idol scenes” disincline eyes that once spied dreams. The cycle is not without its irony – imagining a businessman/woman on the subway studying an advertisement for his/her object of desire, a long-desired vacation. An expectation of wealth through professionalism leads the individual into a profession perceived as lucrative, and thus beneficial to the individual who aspires to obtain the object of desire with the wealth acquired in that profession. The profession itself is an image, and the individual aspires to achieve the success presented in the image of profession. But the image of profession is not a complete image, only an ideal – conveniently lacking necessary elements of risk, commitment, and responsibility. Once successful, the “professional” aspires to obtain the object of desire, another ideal Image, by means of his or her success. The Image, the object of desire, is also lacking – elements of risk, cost, time consumption, etc. The profession becomes means to an end, an end which is (possibly) prevented from the individual because he/she failed to generate the dialogue necessary to complete the ideal image.

Image that inspires action must then be dialectical. It should engage the “consumer” in a way that induces action, individually and without additional provocation. This can only be accomplished very thoughtfully. A Dialectical Image cannot be effectively created until its destruction has been anticipated. This imagery is in an attempt to create a specific dialogue within the image itself, and between image and audience. Thus, the image is not complete until it has forced the viewer to criticize what is being viewed. The success/effectiveness of the image is directly related to the ability of the image to withstand the viewer’s criticism. Walter Benjamin isolated the elements necessary for the creation of effective dialectical imagery: symbolism/allegory, myth, (perceived) truth, and aura.

A campaign dominated by communication through Image is obviously limited in the tools of communication with an audience. The dialogue with the “consumer” has to be generated through image and limited text. It is important to observe the tools/weapons used widely, and proven effective, by commercial advertising campaigns. Symbolism is a very powerful tool, because it assumes a universal language where appearance and essence are one and the same. As Michael W. Jennings points out “Benjamin objects to this use of the symbol on the grounds that it is bad theology. Symbolism remains a representational mode that makes false claims about the relationship between this world and the absolute.”

What better mode of communication exists, for commercial purposes, than an image campaign that makes these false claims? Obviously the most efficient way to convince a consumer audience as to the worthiness of any given product is through subtle deception – to convince the viewer that no questions need be raised; questions that could potentially blemish the image of perfection lingering in the viewer’s subconscious. The effectiveness of this form of advertisement is thoroughly proven time and again, as each of us goes about our daily routine. The Image has become a dream within a dream – the object of desire now the content and the fuel. Modern advertising has become so common, so dominating, as to go almost entirely disregarded by its intended audience – it slips in an out of our vision, our thoughts, our dreams; without regulation or consideration. But this simple fact only furthers the case for the value of this imagery as a tool for communication with mass society.

There is a direct relationship between the level of individual reception of an image and the chances of that individual questioning/engaging the image they are observing. That most modern advertising can flash by its audience wholly unnoticed speaks of the great difficulty today in engaging a viewer into dialogue with an image – and thus makes the creation of effective modern dialectical imagery a tedious endeavor. The effectiveness of the image of perfection lay then in its passivity - in its avoidance of observer provocation. Taking this queue, a Dialectical Image that wishes to engage its audience must invite and encourage violations from the observing individual (the same violations the image of perfection tries so desperately to avoid). Simultaneously, dialectical imagery will only be proven effective if it can withstand this violation.

Benjamin described a work of art that can withstand such violations as Auratic. Benjamin depicts this as the way certain works of art may become fetishized – less through the process of their creation than through the process of their transmission. Jennings states “if the work of art remains a fetish, a distanced and distancing object that exerts an irrational, and thus incontrovertible power, it attains a certain weight, a position within a culture which lends it a sacrosanct inviolability.” An Auratic Image must anticipate and overcome its own destruction through violation – upon its creation it must be rendered indestructible. This intervention of criticism is necessary for an Image to be ultimately verifiable, for a truly successful image can only reveal its effectiveness – “its character – its place in the constellation” – retrospectively and in light of its criticism.

An Image is not, in and of itself, complete and self-contained. Benjamin insists that each work of art has a prehistory and posthistory, in which the work unfolds and develops in the course of its reception. This applies perfectly to the dialectical image in particular, in that the sole purpose of the imagery is to open communication with its audience. The final act of the Dialectical Image is not its conception, but rather the incited action on the part of the viewer, and the criticism following its reception. Thus, the Dialectical Image seeks to prolong its life through the actions of its audience – and ideally secure itself as an Auratic Image, an image that (through impacting on an audience) spawns imitation, opposition, translation, interpretation… a desire to “break it down and expose the truth content.”

The Auratic work exercises a privilege to power - privilege that parallels “those of the class for whom such works of art are most meaningful: the bourgeoisie.” The generation of Auratic imagery to be used in a campaign accessible to the general public becomes a particularly effective tool; either in engaging members of the bourgeoisie, or as a weapon against the prevailing class. It represents a unique and effectual tool of communication with the general public - because, while most Auratic work is central to the maintenance of power by the dominating class, the idea of an Auratic work still speaks to the quality of the work itself (not of the audience which typically receives, consumes, or defends it). In this way, an Auratic Image given to effortless consumption by the general public represents a particularly effectual tool through its ability to surmount the desires of the bourgeoisie to seize the work for themselves. A campaign for the mass consumption of an Auratic Image prevents the ability of any one group to propertize the Image – ideally, no one should be allowed to prevent any anyone else access to the work.

Barbara Kruger was particularly effective in this idea of public attack through Auratic/Dialectical Image. Kruger’s work calls upon the viewer to recognize the social spaces they inhabit – be it museums, galleries, parks, train stations, bus stops, billboards, newspapers or magazines; indoor or outdoor, public and private. As described by Rosalyn Deustsche, “She reveals the presence of power in apparently neutral spaces, ostensibly beautiful spaces, and spaces that purport to be merely functional. She uncovers the social conflicts internal to spaces that seem harmonious and insinuates tensions and differences into spaces that repress them beneath the appearance of homogeneity – whether the space in question is an art institution, work of art, self, category, discipline, social group, nation, or any other would-be unity.” As a weapon, Kruger’s work is almost lethal – through sheer efficiency and a universal accessibility. It is a simple, bold statement attached to a simple, bold image – but this alone does not dictate its efficacy. The power is in the charged dialogue between text and image – the dialogue Kruger’s work calls forth in the viewer. A thousand uncertainties [desires / emotions / comments / passions / frustrations / arguments / questions / discomforts] lay just beyond description of the receiving individual – here, in this marginalized fear, lays the utility.

As Kruger has shown, Benjamin’s elements of symbolism/allegory, myth, (perceived) truth, and aura can all be combined to engage the modern consumer in ways that modern advertising either intentionally avoids or simply cannot.

“Memory” as “your image of perfection” is an image of “your” perfection, a process not of recalling but rather of trying to forget what has been learned. Yet because memory, the evocation of things past, includes unconscious as well as conscious processes, it involves the pressure of things hidden but not forgotten – skeletons in the closet. Constructions of perfect spaces contain their own moments of unease. They are, in Kruger’s words, “images of (im)perfection.” If, as I have argued, the boundaries of space are not the stable effect of a ground but the unstable effect of a relationship, space has inscribed within its very being something that is not itself. Closure fails. In itself, this offers no hope for a less violent way of living with others. For is it not precisely to deny failure – to be without flaw – that space tries to cleanse itself of otherness, free itself of conflict, expunge its “outside?” - Rosalyn Deutsche

In this way, dialectical imagery becomes a means of addressing uncomfortable issues and neglected social injustices, using the vein of advertising to incite action in a banal, apathetic population – a population continually placed in submission each day by a barrage of idealized (and ultimately idolized) imagery.

Only through a constant dialogue between image and audience does there exist the possibility of raising individual concerns regarding this passive interaction connecting advertisement and population. There exists, in dialectical imagery, the power to incite the viewer in engagement of the Image, and ultimately incite the viewer in action against what is commonly discarded as unimportant. This individual submission to the Image is not an issue to overlook – as it seeks to alter every individual on the subconscious level. The most effective advertising campaign is one which screams so loudly that, after a while, no one pays notice – a listless acceptance of an ever-present nuisance. Through the power of dialectical imagery, this indifference/acceptance can be thrown into a constant state of question – at which point the audience can rise above the image of perfection and engage life in real form – not as a depiction on a billboard.