SoftImage: Towards a New Theory of the Digital Image
by Ingrid Hoelzl and Rémi Marie
Intellect and Chicago University Press, Bristol and Chicago, 2015
154 pp., illus., 30 b/w. Paper, $36.00
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
It is not easy to produce a new theory of the image as it functions today, but this book does pretty well in this regard. I don’t mean of course that it proposes a completely new theory, which would imply a more philosophical approach, for instance á la Vilém Flusser, but it does propose a complete new theory, covering all major aspects of the image after the digital turn.
The first thing that strikes is the quasi-absence of debates on what has been for many years a key issue in the study of the digital image: the question of indexicality and how age-old ideas and practices of realism and mimesis have been overthrown by the digital. Hoelzl and Marie rightly state that this should no longer be the primary concern of image theory, which has moved beyond this discussion. Other aspects come thus to the fore, such as the erosion of the difference between the fixed and the moving image (a topic on which Ingrid Hoelzl had already widely published, for instance as the guest-editor of a special issue of History of Photography in 2011). In the digiverse, all moving images can become fixed and manipulated as such, whereas all fixed images can be animated in order to convert into moving images. This example may suggest that the ambition of this book is to deconstruct a number of existing dichotomies, but actually its spirit is rather one of expansion. The shift from image to softimage (a porte-manteau word that brings together “software” and “image” and that has strong connotations of the fundamental openness and changeability of the liquid) aims in the very first place to analyze the networked character of the digitized visual. The softimage is not the image in-between the fixed and the moving, it is both at the same time, and similar observations apply to the relationships between image and code or computer programme, image and user, image and screen, image and database, or image and urban environment. In that sense, the digitized image recovers in a much more fundamental way the mimetic and realist dimension that its problematic indexicality may have jeopardized when it emerged. We can no longer be sure that what we see corresponds with what has been (to quote Roland Barthes’s famous definition of the photographic image), but it cannot be denied that what we see is what we see, and that the patient and careful analysis of this view offers the best possible understanding of the environment that we make and by which we are being made at the same time.
A major problem of all studies of the digital image (and all images have become digital today) is the treatment of technical aspects. Not all readers are familiar with the newest developments and inventions, and for a book with didactic purposes as this one a too high degree of technicality might have discouraged the general reader. Hoelzl and Marie have succeeded quite well in finding a good balance between theory, technical background information, and critical analysis of well-chosen examples. Softimage does not attempt to cover too many types works and practices, and the book has wisely chosen to build each of its chapters around one key example. By doing so, the authors elegantly combine technical information (for instance on jpeg and video technology as well Google Street View and other types of database images) and critical reading of specific works (both artistic and nonartistic ones, for this as well is a feature that becomes more and more blurred in the digital environment). The chapters can also be read in a more independent way (most of them are revised versions of previously published articles) and usefully completed or confronted with other examples in the classroom. Each chapter relies also on a very rich bibliography, which links the close reading of the chosen examples with broader cultural and historical discussions (yes, Benjamin is there, but the rereading of some of his key texts is very refreshing).
Hoelzl and Marie are clearly excellent teachers, and this reflects in the structure of their book. The transition between chapters is extremely logical, each chapter expanding on the insights of the previous one, and the whole essay is opened and closed by a general overview that first announces and eventually recapitulates the theory of the softimage. Moreover, the style is free of jargon, not a small accomplishment in this field. At the same time, the desire to speak for a broader audience does not involve any downgrading of the technological. Softimage is not a book that offers a critical reading of technology as opposed to humanities. It helps instead understand the vital importance of technology for humanist scholars and should be read as a standing invitation to supersede the barriers between technological form and visual content.