May 2, 2010
Zelda Harrison

Sebastian Guerrini: The Social and Political Life of Images

Our contributor from Argentina formulates a theoretical framework on how identities are shaped by images.

Identities are built in a process of identification which is related to the social life of images. For this reason, it is important first to analyse what an image is.

There are many definitions of what an image is. As Mitchell pointed out, Plato relates the definition of image to that of an idea, whose root idein means to see (Mitchell, 2006: 348). Likewise, the image has also been defined as imitation in itself relating its name to the Greek term imitari, to imitate (Barthes, 1991: 21). Later, Maimonides defines the image as likeness such as in the “man’s creation in the image and likeness of God” (Mitchell, 1986: 31), as a series of predicates, listing similarities and differences, as an essential reality of a thing.

Second, there is no identity until it is materialized in some form. Accordingly, an identity would be no more than matter composed by a group of strokes, a beam of features that are summarized in a few traces that represent the “being” (Heidegger, 2002: 46). However, that traces must also contain something so valuable that it would speak in name of someone, transmit something that differentiates someone from other identities and from other marks in the self-reference within the universe of marks. This mark would produce a cut of what one thing is and what it is not, emerging from the action of assuming a particular image and leaving something aside. Thus, at the same time an image can be defined as an intentional cut-out of the world surrounding us, a cut of interpretation which reaches the status of an entity in itself.

This “cut out” definition follows the idea that an image is the consequence of the crystallization of an instant and of isolating something from the visible surrounding world, framing or cutting the continuous picture that is around which appears to eyes as a whole. As Barthes describes “I am already cutting off the continuity that is before me” (Barthes, 2002: 225). Thus, an image is a cut-out that is understood as a whole, as a meaningful unit linked to the act of consciousness that accompanies it. In any case, “it is a captivating and fascinating whole” (Lacan, 1997: 3) from the natural and believable world, displaying the content that the image is performing.  In a parallel way, even identities can be produced by this act of cutting.

Third, and from a psychological point of view, an image is the integration of parts of what is seen as a fascinating totality by the mind, like the one someone saw with the image of his/her body in the mirror, an image “which establish[es] a relation between the organism and its reality” (Lacan, 1977: 4). Therefore, this totality is also working as an organizational anti-chaos mechanism that allows people to find sense. On the one hand, this sense can come from the information that each part of any image transports, acting as words which articulate information in the way of a text. On the other hand, the strength of an image arises from instantaneous, synthetic, organic and organized parts that confuse the perceptions in the spectator, naturalizing or presenting an assembly of fragments as some meaningful and a reliable totality.

However, to understand the effect that images generate in the way identity reality would be seen it is necessary to analyse the nature of the power of images. For that reason, the analysis of the social importance of the act of seeing, of representing, of interpreting, of imagining and of desiring will be developed as the sources that give power to images.

II.1. To see: my image, their image, our image

The sole exposure to a created image can influence the way someone reaches his/her order and can force someone to be in contact with a new possible order that can then produce an alternative classification of his/her daily experience.

The influence that other image can have on our sense construction process can be a non- spontaneous anchoring on the way we see reality, produced by those who wants to canalize someone else’s desires into certain particular fantasies. This can be done by those who want to define who is left outside that order, maintaining thus the capacity to define what or who is different. Those who want to have the “power to mark, assign and classify, power to represent someone or something in a certain way” (Hall, 1997: 259). Power by which that image will exercise a hypnotic effect on those who see, and consequently motivate people to behave in a certain way.

This can be seen inversely. For instance, even if an image failed in dominating a conscience, it could have helped someone to clarify their standpoints and fears, humbly contributing to reconsider any reading of a subject matter. Thus, stories portrayed by images allow possible alternatives of seeing the way reality and identity are.  For instance, one of the ways through which philosophy can circulate is by creating image, where this act of composing reality is forcing the spectators to answer, to think, to explain their positions.

II. 2 To represent


Images are not only the reality but also representations in the whole sense, intermediaries between what is not physically present and our mind. Then, something could be represented by being conjured up in our mind’s eye, being this something a kind of resurrection, a living presence. In that way, for Stuart Hall “to represent something is to describe, to depict it, to call it up in the mind by description or portrayal or imagination” (Hall, 1997: 16). Afterwards, this representation would be internalized as a reflected double of a prototype of what the image represents, giving the beholder the mirage of making visible and alive what is absent. Thus, images can be seen as tokens, immaterial or material objects which serve as a channel to the matter and to the invisible, mediator objects between the soul and the being, between perceptions and ideas.

As a consequence of that, an image can represent something powerful for the beholder, something that can be present both before open eyes and before closed eyes. This enables the evasion of blindness in a world without images, transporting the spectator towards a likely parade of imagined scenarios, mobilizing feelings and emotions of both positive and negative kind. Moreover, images can project the spectator towards realities and illusions, their deepest desires or fears or even the materiality of what surrounds it, the recognition of something real that makes it possible to see the world right as it seems to be.
Then, it could be thought that constructing words and images is in part creating reality, where certain significant images act as supports for concepts and ideas, facilitating everything necessary for thinking.

Hence, images help to deal with known issues, to allow the recording of perceptions of what the immediate world is, of what happened and what is happening by recording and processing past experiences.  Consequently, images are stored in the mind allowing the memory recall them whenever necessary. Whenever they are needed they are recalled in order to remember and understand the world where someone is living, inducing the association of ideas and connections of meanings that help to reassure, comfort, and improve someone’s relation to the world.

Besides, among those images there will be stories and memories from where we can find the initial images, the visual basis of each person’s memory, images which somehow have conditioned the classification for the rest of the material that was added next. In this sense, such as Freud argues, in the first three or four years of someone’s life certain impressions stabilize our memory (Freud, 2003: 19-21).

Accordingly, different events and scenarios are seen as familiar and acceptable. For instance, the world becomes fixed because images in the mind are constructed on the basis of our memories of things offering information about who someone is in time, space and sense. It is in this inter-textuality, where an image triggers off in our mind an older image that we already had, connecting both into inter-referential chains of citation. Hence, visual representation immediately shoots the association chain that would catalogue anything under the cultural parameters possessed by the spectator, determining which of its attributes, which scene and belonging contexts are part of this information.

However, the role of image as representation also involves the exercise of power that such representation can generate. Lacan highlights that the power of an image is due not to any intrinsic quality of the image in itself, but to the place which it occupies in a symbolic structure. Therefore, an image could be seen as something having an unwarranted irrational power over somebody just because it is a repository of power which someone has projected into it but which in fact it does not possess.

That implies that the meaning of an image is constructed using representational systems which generate this sort of language, where images are only a useful embodiment of concepts, ideas and emotions in a symbolic form, to be transmitted and meaningfully interpreted.  In that context, created images project a picture that represents something; that is to say which publicly substitutes it, occupying the role of a narrator of the identity and contributing in fact to the transformations of the identity of the one who is dealing with this picture.

Therefore, in a world in which people are mostly known through representations more than in person, images become an essential part not only of identities but also of all aspects of social life. Then, images are important for current life, for collective identities and for men and women’s souls, because they allow people to identify, organize, classify, embody and make sense of the world. In addition, images are not something given but rather fragments of reality that have sense just by being part of that sort of language, a language understood as the place where our ideas, thoughts and feelings are given meaning, a form that is structural for social life.

II. 3. To interpret


It is possible to think that images are powerful only if they succeed in being or becoming the reality rather than a masked discourse hidden and created by somebody. For that reason, an image would evoke our imaginary world and neither an icon nor a symbol would function or be active unless or until it is interpreted by members of such culture, as well as assumed by the beholder in his or her imagination. Culture, considered as systems where there is interaction of interpretable symbols (Geertz, 1973: 27).

This is because images express relations of identification and fear in the place where subjectivity rests, that is, in the imagination, in the unconscious, through fantasies, in visual scenery and language. This capacity of imagining the world, to be part of the process of reality construction, brings to the image a magic and mystery for being a possible medium for the creation of new realities where the society inhabits.

II.4. To imagine

Images always make it possible to see something, acting as a door that give access to contents and pieces of information that are translated as narrations, stories, myths, memories, desires, fantasies and dreams.  This is because an image, as Todorov points out, is defined as a medium that always arouses in those who observe it a story. A story that will always raise a message, something between what really happened and what can happen (Todorov, 1990: 105), or “when the event happened to me and the moment when I described it” (Todorov, 2002: 151).

Nevertheless, images also help to recreate, represent and to give protection in front of the unknown. For instance, if someone thinks in other times, an imaginary planet or anything else, there will always be a blurred image giving the slightest bit of comfort in front of the unknown. In other cases, a simple image from a fiction film or book is enough to have some protection in the face of the unknown, the fear of the unknown, and especially the fear of the future.

Images also function as a vehicle where society’s latent stuff manages to be projected, visible and with forms. In this direction, as described by Jorge Luis Borges, we are not afraid because we dream about Monsters, we dream about Monsters because we are afraid (Borges, 1999: 163). Thus, from the figure of the monster it is possible to understand the need of constructing images as the action of designing monsters on the part of the interpreter’s fear. This spontaneous and personal act of dreaming about, creating or drawing a monster from a nightmare, can also be transported to the social ground as soon as the figure of the monster is produced, reproduced, taken and seen by a social group in the figure of the designer.  In such a case, this situation can open up for the figure of the monster to be working as a social container of something that collectively is going on. This could be something that is integrating and going on between people of a given group, a group that needs to recognize in that monster the fear on the part of the spectators, in a communion where that drawn image articulates what many people have imagined. Accordingly, the magic possibility that an image created by someone would involve a plurality of fears together, also establishes a place where spectators’ fear can be integrated in the common monsters’ recognition with other members of their community. Here, spectators will have the shelter to share their monsters with their companions and not be alone facing their fears.

II. 5. To desire

Moreover, seeing images can mobilize, encourage to do and to feel things because as Benjamin points out, “only images in the mind vitalize the will” (Benjamin, 1979: 75). In this way, a flag, the photograph of a loved person, a Virgin statue or the image of a landscape invoking our home, bring the faces of the non-present to be kept in our mind. This mirage potentiality allows the beholder to be connected with prototypical places or people providing consolation for absence, making him/her believe that the substitute or double of the desire is present with the same capacity that the prototype has to give us consolation or anger.

In that way, images created by someone can be thought of as a kind of dream that someone is creating to condition our own dreams and our desires. Thus, constructing images can be seen as a resource which provides a screen or support that sustains the “orthopaedic experience of the collective power” (Buck-Morris, 2000: 171). These dreams and fantasies mediate between the formal symbolic structure and the objects encountered in reality. They provide a formula to which a representation can function as monsters or on the contrary as objects of desire. At the same time, it can be said that those designed images, which are vitalizing the will, show whom to desire.

Some conclusions

In this paper a theoretical framework has been formulated to analyse how identities are shaped by images.

In this sense, first, images influence our sense construction process and the images and objects questions and/or reinforces the definition of what someone or something is.  Second, images are not only the reality but also representations that offer information about who someone or a group is in time, space and sense.  Then, the role of images as representation also involves the exercise of power that such information can generate. Third, images contribute to the interpretation of what reality is and is a  medium for the creation of new realities where the society inhabits. Fourth, images always make it possible to see a story, a story that always raises a message from where society expresses, transmits and recognizes its needs. Last, images mobilize and encourage desire. In this way, images can be considered as a screen from where power shows whom to desire.

Sebastian Guerrini believes in Identities that speak.

“I strive for my brands to leave a lasting imprint; for my images to speak and for their discourse to define concepts which identities can embrace. Images should speak from the depths of what individuals, companies, and organizations want. Their words should tell stories that are perfectly clear and easy to understand. These brands can take the form of a poster, a web site, or an ad, but they will always be themselves. My goal is to design brands that are committed to what they want to say. They are identities with feeling, colour and desire to improve their present.”

Based in Argentina, his area of speciality is the analysis and design of Institutional Communication. He has carried out image and identity design in Latin America, United States, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, England, Switzerland, Germany and China. He has also developed projects for Amnesty International, UNICEF, UNESCO, CLACSO and the United Nations, among others. In 2008 he won the international competition to design the image of the Organic World Foundation (Bonn, Germany) and in 2009 the competition for the design of the slogan and logo for the Argentine Pavilion in the Frankfurt Book Fair, for which Argentina will be the host country in 2010.

Author of the graphical version of the Argentine National Emblem, Sebastian also designed the brand of CONICET, the image of the Museum of Natural Sciences of Argentina and the visual identity of the nation’s Presidency, Ministries and Secretaries of State. Recently, the logo he designed for FIBA (the International Theater Festival of Buenos Aires) colourfully adorned the streets of Buenos Aires.

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