On the morning of January 1, freshly returned from sojourning in the internet-free home of bohemian relatives, I learned that a video of Saddam Hussein’s execution was circulating on YouTube. Moralists sprang to discuss the rights and wrongs of the use of the death penalty. Less attention has been given to the visceral urge of Saddam’s companion to get the dictator’s demise on camera, and the uncontrolled curiosity of those who watched the execution movie.
Many aspects of consumerism come under fire from puritans, especially at Christmas. The fact that we have accorded ourselves the right to consume our celebrities is certainly criticised. We are sorry that Kate Middleton is being subjected to the media ordeal which had its part in the death of her royal boyfriend Prince William’s mother. But we do not always grasp the root of the addiction to these images, which the media feeds.
It is, almost literally, a form of consumerism. The modern technologies for filmed reportage, and the blogging styles modelled upon it, enable us to consume and absorb the images of our fellow men and women. The celebrity has no right to privacy from the camera because the eye of the camera has become our very means of perception. Outside of this absorbent eye, its objects have no real existence to call their own.
Just as the foodie may define a pig as a source for dry salami, so, for the consumer of images, a person’s reality is defined by their existence on the film which the consumer devours. For the image consumer, the celebrity is not a person, a unique individual who exists both in public and in private space. Only the public image exists, and simply as a target for the camera. The image consumer thereby not only loses sight of the humanity of others, but also dehumanises himself, redefining himself in mechanical terms as a camera, driven ineluctably by his visual apparatus to seize and absorb the pictures of others.
In Telepolitics American philosopher Frederick Wilhelmsen argued that film technology has risen to dominance because of its ability to parody the way the human senses and nervous system operate. He claimed that these technologies extend our “senses by imitating them in the way in which they act.” By imitating the capacity of our senses to absorb images, the camera turns passive reception into active possession. When our senses perceive or "take in" others, these persons remain independent of us, but when we objectify our sensory image on film, we obtain an actual share in them. It’s not surprising that a filmic angle is called a "take", because it literally takes over its object.
Native Indians famously objected to being photographed. They interpreted the camera’s leverage over its target image in magical terms. But you don’t have to be a philosopher like Wilhelmsen or a believer in magic to intuit that reducing someone to a digital image controlled by the camera owner can be a means of negating their independent humanity. Nor is celebrity status a prerequisite for subjection to another’s take. Hooligans in Britain quickly spotted that their mobiles could become bully-sticks, used to transmit "slappings" of selected victims.
Nervous readers of George Orwell’s 1984 used to fear the screen in every room and our defenders of civil liberties raise objections to the widening use of closed circuit TV cameras. We have equal reason to fear becoming cameras ourselves. For the camera user can be as much reduced in their humanity as the camera’s object. They are reduced to their perceptual apparatus, and thus to nothing more than a consumer. Should my status as a perceptual "taker" define my humanity? If it does, no individual has a right to privacy since, in the eye of the zoom lens, they have none; and no organization may be other than transparent as glass.
The reason why the human-as-camera cannot accord privacy to others is not just the extended reach and simultaneity of contemporary technologies — the mobile phones which can record and transmit beatings and hangings. The point is, rather, the way in which these technologies imitate our own perceptual apparatus. They copy it so efficiently that it is not only the camera which seems to become lodged inside my brain, but the victim it relentlessly tracks. The person-as-other becomes the person-as-taken and consumed by me.
But this is only possible if there are willing victims. If, like certain celebrities, I buy into the notion that I am camera fodder, the only way I can experience myself as fully real is by giving up my right to privacy and exposing myself in the public domain — on reality television. Collusion with the public appetite for the consumption of images has become my best take on reality.
There is a lighter side to the candid camera. We would not be without the mischievous camera sneak. Persons with the gift of stealing telling snapshots add to the gaiety of social occasions. No-one regrets that it was not only the crowd present in Munich for the World Cup last June who witnessed Zidane’s Glasgow handshake, or headbutt.
The darker side of cinematic technology is the element of control and put-down which underlies satirical humour, making the lives of others an entertaining extension of our own lives. Reconstituted as material for the camera, its prey is to the observer no more and no less than the food of his or her own sensing apparatus. Its captives have no independent, private existence. They have lost their free humanity.
Given this cultural trend, it was almost inevitable that pictures of Saddam’s execution would end up on the Web. It is hard not to think that the man who took them and posted them was also motivated by the intention of administering a final torment to the "victim" who had tortured so many others. The good of the public domain could have been sufficiently served by a shot of his dead body; there was no necessity for us to witness his death-throes. That is, unless the public domain consists of consumers. Those who were sold the YouTube spectacle acquiesced in being transformed into an Eye, a vast public recording machine.
Saddam’s reduction to a brief flicker on our neuronic screens implies that we are not enlarged but lessened in being persuaded by the vengeful video auteur to buy into the dictator’s death-throes. We are diminished in willing to witness other people as public objects for our private consumption. Some believe that Saddam deserved not only his death but the manner of it. But even if his manner of leaving this life became him, our watching it was unbecoming to us as human beings.
What revolts us about cannibalism is not only that people are eaten, but that human beings can be people eaters. When the preachers wheeled out their annual diatribes against our winter festivals of consumption, not even the crankiest amongst them accused us of cannibalism. But perhaps that is what the holiday snaps of 2006 came down to: not alimentary, but visual cannibalism.
Dr Francesca Aran Murphy is a Reader in Systematic Theology in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. Her specialty is theological aesthetics.