The Nature of Digital Images
“In the age of computers, the image is not one, meaning not identical with itself.” (D.N. Rodowick)
D.N. Rodowick is not the only media theorist to claim that digital images are, essentially, lacking. According to contemporary media theory, what has changed in the digital era is nothing less than the ontology of the image itself. Digital images, so the story goes, are inherently incomplete, because they merely persist in a virtual state as numerical information. As Friedrich Kittler points out, digital data is neither two-dimensional (like traditional painting) nor one-dimensional (like alphabetic and/or hieroglyphic forms of writing), but “zero-dimensional,” because the numbers and bits that comprise this data inherently lack any physical extension in Euclidian space. From Kittler’s anti-phenomenological perspective, the very notion of a “digital image” amounts to a contradictio in adjecto that renders the traditional concept of “image” useless, if not misleading, in the digital era. This paper argues against this view, which I consider symptomatic of a problematic trend in contemporary media archeology and digital theory: the trend to over-emphasize the ontological-material gap that separates analog and digital images at the expense of the epistemological-phenomenological links that exist between them. For regardless of their altered techno-ontological status, (digital) images only matter—and make sense—in the context of human perception. Echoing Mark Hansen, Eugene Thacker, Barbara Maria Stafford and other media-phenomenologists, I argue that media theory must remain rooted in the human body and the evolutionary history of human perception. In support of this claim, I examine two works (Corner Extended and Your blue afterimage exposed, both 2000) by the Icelandic new media artist Olafur Eliasson. In marked contrast to Kittler, Rodowick, Wolfgang Ernst, a.o. theorists, Eliasson’s work demonstrates that the ontological dimension of digital images remains secondary to their phenomenological effects upon the viewer.