Media Ideologies: A Gallery

I study and teach about digital media, so I find these frequent artistic criticisms of technology usage useful and fascinating on a number of levels. In a social scientific vein, we might interpret these clever images as intentional media ideologies, that is, as discursive statements about how and when communicative technologies ought to be used. Such digital tools are relatively new, in terms of human social and historical development, so the rules on correct usage (or might we say, ritual correctness or cultural orthodoxy, as the discourses sometimes operate in religious registers) are not yet fixed or determined. Photographic statements such as these constitute proposals for those very rules.

Although I have yet to conduct a rigorous scholarly analysis of this corpus of images, one might delineate a few provisional observations. First, notice Kortaba, Geiger, and Reilly and Farias’s digitally manipulated photographs. Data phone usage, the artists wish to convey, distorts the rituals of daily life. Technology, the pictures suggest, have disembodying effects. Kortaba’s images speak especially on this point, while Geiger’s appear to theorize technology’s distortive, manipulative effects on human persons. The series by Reilly and Farias qualifies communicants as “ghostly” and not quite entirely present in real time. The Banksy image is the most straightforward in terms of content. Two lovers distracted by seductive white screens. Pickersgill’s “Removed” gallery thematically inverses the Banksy painting, to argue that technology, while an “addictive force,” is actually becoming, in an unsettling way, something of a “phantom limb.” Tech design perpetually sharpens and develops. Soon one won’t even be able to see the digital technologies that supplement, extend, and reinforce the tasks of the human body (see, for instance, this iPhone cover. Hoax uses ubiquitous pop culture icons (produced and disseminated by Disney, itself a veritable media empire) to add another level to this body of trenchant media ideologies.

All of this is so anthropologically fascinating. At the very least, it gives me a good deal of fodder for class discussions. What are the media ideologies present? I ask my students. What do the artists wish to convey about media use? What do the photographers find unsettling about contemporary communicative devices and burgeoning communications rituals? And the more controversial questions: Do you (dis)agree with the artists’ criticisms? Is it true that data phones will bring about the demise of society or at least the end of meaningful human interactions? Are the criticisms on to something, or are we living in simply the next stage of human media development? Do data phones make us any more antisocial than, say, newspapers

Lastly, a request for the reader. Have you ran across any other artistic and/or photographic work that constitutes a media ideology? If so, send me a link and I’ll add them to the gallery.

Image credit and/or source links: Kamil Kortaba via designyoutrust; Antoine Geiger’s Sur-Fake gallery (see also Colossal’s take); Eric Pickersgill’s Removed gallery; Saint Hoax’s Contemporary Fairy Tales series; Banksy’s “Mobile Lovers” via My Modern Met; Allison Reilly and Miguel Farias’s Gh0st L1fe series (via Colassal). The uses of the images on this page (i.e., for teaching, criticism, scholarship, and research purposes and not commercial ones) falls squarely under Fair Use parameters as outlined in 17 U.S.C. § 107 : US Code – Section 107.

An Anthropological Critique of Instagram #NoFilter Hashtags


What do you think of this Instagram image? Do you like it? How might you describe it? It’s filtered, obviously. A bit impressionistic? Dreamy? Hold those thoughts–I’ll return to this image in a moment.

I like Instagram and use it sporadically. Really, it’s like Facebook with less of the political, religious, capitalistic, and ideological redundancies to wade through on a daily basis. Chalk it up to my being a millennial, or my love of anything imagery-related. Pictures of your foodie exploits, your unbelievably adorable children, your cats lounging about in funny places, your color-streaked sunsets, your stereotypical but envy-inducing Eiffel Tower (and other travel) pictures, your teetering stacks of books beside your bed, your mocha foam art: please keep them coming.

But recently I’ve noticed at interesting phenomenon. More and more people seem to be appending the hashtag #nofilter or #NoFilter to their images. I see it under sunsets, nature shots, outdoorsy light flare-ups where the sun casts that surreal glaze that textures the rest of the image. What these hashtags mean—or at least my social scientifically informed  interpretation of them—is that the picture-taker wishes to make it clear that they by no means used a custom filter, provided by the Instagram smart phone application. The photographer took this picture themselves. They captured the image on their own and managed to be in just the right spot at the right time to do so. Sunlight (and lighting in general) is fickle, as both amateur and professional photographers know, and it’s hard to predict just how luminescence will appear on digital film. Regardless of these technical difficulties, no filter was needed. Thus, #nofilter.

One might analyze the #nofilter phenomenon as a legitimizing mechanism or strategy of authentication. The implication is that a #nofiltered image is more real, more accurate, more authentic, more true-to-life. You get the picture. According The Huffington Post, apparently #nofilter constitutes a veritable “social contract.” (But a contract to or for what? one might wonder. The hashtag is an authenticity contract. A purity contract. #nofilter is a purity pledge in the context of folk photographic practices and online social networking. The irony of my interpretation is that some anthropologists have questioned whether Instagram itself, and other socio-digital photographic applications such as Hipstamatic, are themselves authentification tools to make digital-age photographs appear more like those from the 1980s, the golden age of folk photographic practices.)

I’ve got mixed feelings about the hashtag, partly because as a graduate student part of my research has focused on media, technology, images, lived experience, and how people conceptualize the interplay between these domains. My biggest issue with #nofilter as a claim to realness or authenticity is that it ignores the fact that media studies scholars have long argued that a photographic image itself constitutes a theory of the world. Any photograph—any image—is a theory. A photo is a frame. A photograph is a filter. In my opinion, whether a photo uses an Instagram filter or bypasses the option and hashtags #nofilter instead, is irrelevant.

Go ahead, I guess, take credit for your unassisted, filter-free, photographic skill: #nofilter your Instagram images. #nofilter away. But do realize that by taking a photograph of any kind to begin with, you’ve already provided a filtered “reality” for the viewer. A photographed image—not unlike a video recording lens—is a theory. An Instagram image, #nofilter or not, is a filter.

So, that filtered Instagram image of a #barn I opened with. It’s not really realistic (whatever that means). But when I remember that day–the walk, the scent of the wildflowers flowers, my wife next to me, the bees buzzing by, the humidity hanging in the air–the image in my memory is pretty similar to this one, down to the humid haziness and blurred edges of vision. I’m not sure, then. Maybe this photo is pretty (read: subjectively, emotionally, experientially) realistic. One last thought: Does the medium itself (i.e., Instagram and it’s sensuous frames and filters) shape my memory or does the medium simply do a good job representing what I remember about that day?

I’m not sure. But long live photographs. Long live #filters.

Americana, Conservatism, and the Objectification of Women’s Bodies

I’ve been wrestling with an unsettling theory lately. My research this semester—on evangelical soft patriarchy, gender discourse and negotiation of roles, and the history of familism in conservative America—began my theory. Recent publicity for the soon to come Miss Representation premier pushed it further along. I’ll come out with it (in a long, run-on sentence, of course): I’m convinced that the objectification of women’s bodies (as hyper-sexualized, over-sensual objects of male desire) employed ultimately for marketing, advertising, and consumption-driven purposes via diverse forms of media are the result of a conservative familism gone awry. Traditional Protestant-evangelical discourse plays a role in reducing the woman to the domestic sphere. In the divine order of things, the argument goes, women belong in the home. Gender essentialists point to physiological evidences of men and women’s differences, concluding that God designed male and female bodies for different tasks. Consider briefly Stu Weber’s essentialist (evangelical) prescription:

What do you see, after all, when you look at the vehicle of a man’s physical body? What was it made for? Check it out. In contrast, what does a woman’s body tell you that a woman was made for? Every twenty-eight days or so her body tells her she was made for giving life and sustenance. Her breasts remind her that she was made for giving life and nurturing life. What does a man’s body tell you? Not a thing! Why? Because the purpose for a man is out on the horizon. A man was made to be a provisionary, a wagon scout, out there in front, looking ahead. The purpose isn’t inside [the home or kitchen, God forbid!]. . . . We must find that purpose outside of ourselves.

In stating woman’s physiological purpose as the giving of sustenance Weber not-so-subtly connotes that a woman’s body is meant for reproduction; she’s to make other bodies. She must submit her body to the body of her husband, and in doing so bodies will grow and pass through her, to be raised and nurtured in the domestic sphere. To varying degrees, women are stripped of intellectual purpose, subjective volition, and self-autonomy. She is to submit, and receive, and give forth, and be a good sport of it while she sets herself to these tasks.

Contemporary media, then, is the logical evolution of patriarchal objectification of the woman, minus the Victorian propriety. The objectification of women’s bodies is simply patriarchal familism applied at the secular level.   In its hyper-sexualization of the female body, secular society upholds essentialist patriarchal ideals: women cannot think, theorize, write, speak publically, or be public leaders of men. Add to this formula the secular exaltation of sex-qua-recreation (i.e., sex not intended for procreation), and: Voila! The objectified American woman. Her substance is hardly mind, and mostly body. (And it’s sure nice-looking.) This body is meant to penetrate, and use, and exploit. In fact, it’s our favorite national commodity. So I’ll restate my prior contention: the objectification of the female body is an evolved, altogether secularized conservative familism. It’s a bastardized form of Christian patriarchy.

[Citation note: The above quote comes from Stu Webber’s 1993 book, Tender Warrior: God’s Intention for a Man (Portland, OR: Multnomah), 212. I originally discovered the quote via John P. Bartkowski’s 2001 study, Remaking the Godly Marriage: Gender Negotiation in Evangelical Families (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press).]