Vision of the Gods:
An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Photography
An UR III Empire survey map, dating from approximately 2300
Another telling parallel exists
between archaic and contemporary civilizations. When placed
alongside an early cadastral map, an aerial photograph reveals
the origins and purpose of our quintessentially modern art.
(See Figure 5) Both present an expanse of land, and both
achieve geometric accuracy by assuming an ideal aerial
perspective. More importantly, both are directed at the same
purpose: the comprehension and management of productive earth.
Despite the distance of time, the Mesopotamian scribes who
staffed the first bureaucracies would have understood the
function and purpose of our late model GIS computers, the
Geographic Information Systems that overlay representations of
land with useful information about productivity, access and
(See Figure 6)
Figure 5: An aerial photograph (Space Imaging EOSAT Notes, 1997)
Bazin’s recognition that the photograph is a model for reality, as well as an objective reality in its own right, aim at the core of photography and related practices. We often think of perception, visual or otherwise, as passive, oriented only toward accurate representation. Photography has often been treated in a similar manner, as a wax tablet supplying “truth at twenty-four times a second” but little more. But the ontology of truth tells only half the story. In practice neither vision nor photography has ever
Figure 6: A GIS display
Like the earliest survey maps, Geographic Information Systems display an image of terrain overlaid with information such as ownership, usage, disposition of the soil. (Antenucci, 1991)
Surveying emerged with the early city-state, and it has served the cause of urban civilization ever since. The ancients did not have distinct concepts of technology, science and politics, but their ideologies, which are religious in nature, still reveal the essential relationships between their disciplines. Prior to urbanization, Mesopotamians adhered to animistic beliefs similar to those of contemporary tribes. After the advent of cities, they developed state ideologies based on the sovereignty of sky gods like Inanna and Ningursu. Divine sanction conferred legitimacy upon rulers, and worship occupied most ceremonies of state. Sky gods were associated with planets—Inanna rose with Venus—and their celestial vantage revealed their transcendent authority. Hovering over their lands, they were the lords of all they saw, and their followers built ziggurats as aerial vantages for divine supervision. Mesopotamian hymns capture the awe, and lack of privacy, early civilization felt before these symbols:
It [the temple Eninnu] kept an eye on the country;
no arrogant one could walk
in its sight.
awe of Eninnu
covered all lands like a cloth.8
Toward [the temple] Shugalam, dread place
the place from where [the god] Ningursu
keeps an eye on all lands . . .
Thrust against heaven
is its dread halo,
and over all lands hovers
great awe of my house9
The urban state has unfolded from the concept of the sky god, idealized as a tyrant who governs the earthly state through all-encompassing vision. Aerial perspective—conceived as a divine seat, but realized as the technology of surveying—was a key advance in the feasibility of state institutions.
Surveying realizes the perspective of the Inanna and her ilk, and architecture embodies their creative will, which depended on their ability to view land from an objective vantage. From its first appearance in land surveying, the organization of vision has driven the development of optics, and the drive to merge individual and collective perception continues. Architecture and media both derive from the objective gaze, and the modern spy satellite, surveying the masses below, is its virtual embodiment. In non-political terms, we could say that photography arose from a concern with method. What is the proper way to represent the environment? Whether manifest in Sumerian surveying, Renaissance painting or aerial surveillance, this question bears on the aesthetic, political and scientific concerns surrounding perceptual technologies. Though technical in nature, it is wrapped in the institutions of power—property and architecture—that caused it to emerge.
How do we define property as a practical concept? Sumerian religion provided the first transactive language, or code, for comprehending land in terms of legal ownership. Pre-urban societies assign landholdings according to organic need, and the size of plots are naturally limited by the ability of owners to manage an area. Sky gods owned the land beneath their gaze, and they conveyed ownership to select classes within society as a legal right. By underpinning the legal doctrine of ownership, the sky god constituted the state and simultaneously posed a perceptual problem to its adherents. Ownership demanded management, but Mesopotamian leaders could only comprehend small areas with their native faculties—an area big enough to feed themselves and their families. In order to govern larger areas, they needed to attain the perspective of the sky god. Land surveying solved their problem. By combining simple surveying techniques with advances in accounting, early managers could remotely manage their estates, an ability which greatly extended their capacity to rule. The priests of Mesopotamia used geometry to attain the vision of gods.
In contemporary terms, we might call this action at a distance telepresence or virtual experience. The key to understanding why these terms apply lies in our definition of reality. If “real” means a visually correct image of a distant place, then they are certainly inappropriate. But if “real” describes an accurate representation, then a bureaucrat reviewing survey maps surely has experienced a distant place in a meaningful way. Mathematical knowledge lies at the basis of perceptual technology, and the data generated by technology is independent of a particular display. We admire photographs for their resemblance to vision, but both photography and vision operate by decomposing a visual scene into components. We can hardly say that photographs carried within television signals, or a computers, have lost their identity. They have simply changed mode, a process that occurs when our brains translate retinal images into neural impulses.
Geometry derived from conscious reflection on material practices. As a cognitive process, it is related to our ability to communicate and coordinate the self within society. Despite our singular feelings of value, self-awareness may have evolved as an outgrowth of language, perhaps simply to facilitate cooperation. But this does not mean consciousness is merely the capacity for symbolizing. Thought lacks direct instrumentality, arising as it does from the unique situation of the body in its environment. It is the awakening of symbol to itself, the realization of the capacity to communicate through structured discourse. Through its embodiment, its placement in a desiring body, consciousness projects thought onto its environment, understanding its surroundings through stories that reflect its awareness of self, situation and desire. Aside from sheer presence, which demands acknowledgment, the gap between situation and desire, between the real and the ideal, is the primary motive for conscious beings to communicate. We imagine a better situation, and then, with the aid of others, try to realize it. Individual desire calls society and its tools for communication into being.
Millennia of social development preceded the relatively quick formation of the first city-states in Mesopotamia. It is not a given that archaic Mesopotamians were evolving toward urban civilization. Instead it seems likely that they confronted conditions such as drought which forced them into progressively smaller regions. Necessity demanded they create efficient organizations of production and distribution, and bureaucracy emerged to handle the administrative load. Sky gods emerged to consolidate Mesopotamian society within state institutions, and, though our society is more sophisticated, we are still realizing the consequences of Sumerian ideology.
Ancient priests may have conceived social hierarchy, private property and land surveying as a religious exercise, but their practical intent was the maintenance of cities. These institutions have persisted until today, gaining in variety and complexity, but never losing the ideal form of legal sovereignty and unchallenged will. To be effective, Sumerian religion absorbed the natural sovereignty of individuals, who gradually became subjects of the state and its dictates. By appropriating taxes and labor, the state constituted itself as a corporate regime defined by the active surveillance of territory. The image of the sky god gained force over time, and it eventually entered the divinely ordained king whose will embodied the political state.
Though symbolically concentrated in his body, the king could hardly manage every facet of daily administration. As a practical matter, the royal will and its divine legitimacy was dispersed among a hierarchy of officials. In many modern states, every individual bears some degree of legal sovereignty, though their liberty is constrained by law. In all states, property ownership is a key signifier of status, and it became the basis for the division of physical and cognitive labor. Property constituted the res publica by situating individuals within abstract mechanisms of hierarchy, land rights and surplus value. On this basis, the state and its institutions could organize themselves as virtual bodies, performing their duties in urban interiors according to rational divisions of labor. Surveying and bookkeeping documents mediated communication within states, sending information from the peripheries and directives from the center. As Herodotus notes, records migrated toward central locations, archives that contained virtual images of land. Maps, calendars and accounting tables became essential tools within complex civil societies, serving as percepts that greatly expanded the faculties of their users. Mediated by tablets, papyrus and pens, and transported throughout the nation, these representations became a sensory apparatus, one that supported the state through disciplined perceptions.
Early technologies like surveying clarify the essence of later practices like photography, mass media and digital imagery. For centuries the Mesopotamians did not distinguish the representation of land from other forms of information. Aside from its tools of measure, geometry was not treated as a special discipline, and cadastres contained only written measurements accompanied by descriptions of location. Later sketches displayed the same prosaic attitude, although it was no doubt difficult, if not impossible, to achieve visual effects on a clay tablet. But the first maps nonetheless transformed raw information into something resembling vision, and they inspired a transformation of the way we understand our visual environment.
The transformation accelerated when the sciences of Mesopotamia and Egypt passed into Greece. A critical attitude evolved within Greek science, perhaps because thinkers tried to reconcile alternative systems. By the sixth century BCE, Greek artists began to display a concern with realism, and we see the beginning of furious philosophic debates over proper representation. Investigations into visual truth began emanating from workshops and academies, and over centuries painters adapted the techniques of perspective, laying the foundation for optical science. Greek investigations into scientific representation culminated in Euclid’s Geometry and Optics, which were completed in the third century BCE.
Among their many accomplishments, Euclid’s mathematical studies reconcile the dualism that plagued Platonic philosophy. Plato denigrated perception because the shifting appearances of things contradicted what we know. In mathematical terms, geometry describes what we know, and optics describes how we see. By deriving optics from geometry, Euclid demonstrated the validity of visual information. Vision distorts geometric space—it distorts reality—but it does so systematically. As any surveyor knows, by accounting for the effects of perspective, we can glean accurate data about visual objects. The obvious solution to Plato’s dilemma is to systematically relate optical “slices,” individual perspectives, to a coordinated, geometric whole.
Thinkers from Claudius Ptolemy10 to Rudolph Arnheim11 have proposed something like Euclid’s schema, and Stephen Kosslyn’s work Image and Brain extends that work to the imagination. When we remember a visual image, the visual cortex hosts an event physiologically similar to actual perception. We may recall James Gibson’s arguments against mental imagery, but Kosslyn presents convincing experimental evidence for pictorialism and the matter should be closed.12 However, we can still query the human visual system, questioning why it evolved as it did. Could we have evolved a “sightless vision,” the cybernetic vision Paul Virilio describes in The Vision Machine? We sometimes perceive without sensation, as when we automatically block a stray ball. There are alternative forms of visual perception that do not rely in internal representation, for instance, in computers that use neural nets for navigation. The human brain is often described as a neural net. Could consciousness have evolved differently? What role does preconscious processing play in our responses? How does vision relate to faculties like language.
Visualization became important when Paleolithic toolmakers began working together. Unlike most animals, humans have few inborn skills, so their survival depends on creativity and learning. Even when chipping rudimentary knives, early humans needed mental conceptions, and probably verbal descriptions, to guide their activities. Speech and imagination sufficed to organize society until the advent of city-states, when large projects demanded precise and durable forms of visualization. Thousands of workers often contributed to a project, and monumental works could not be built without coordinating (and subordinating) their judgment. Leaders needed objective standards to manage projects, and they invented the disciplines of measurement and quantitative analysis. Perceptual technologies coordinated the social body, allowing large groups to behave as one. While planning scribes would gather physical data such as size, weight and volume. They would then devise schedules by analyzing productivity, available labor and other factors. Deployed within a social body, geometric representation formed a matrix of objective perception, and the mechanical accuracy of surveyors enabled the functioning of social technics, the megamachine described by Mumford.
And what of our human art? Must we not say in building it produces an actual house, and in painting a house of a different sort, as it were a man-made dream for waking eyes?
Plato, “The Sophist”
I have described perceptual technologies as activities that coordinate an autonomous social body. But, from the individual standpoint, the products of surveying and related technologies create far more than external pictures. They constitute institutions, and they structure society by defining relations of property, administration and commerce. Unlike natural vision, which views the environment as a continuum, perceptual technologies couple attention to social boundaries consisting of laws, architecture, contracts, receipts and deadlines. By organizing perception into an objective whole, they create a secondary environment based on institutional rather than individual imperatives. Property lines, buildings, calendars—none of these are pregiven in experience. They are human creations that reenact nature.
Subjectivity and objectivity take on new meanings in this context. Like geometry and optics, they refer to strategies of political organization, not scientific truths. Taking the state as an analytic condition, we might speculate on the next stage of perceptual technology. Surveying produced perspective, which in turn led to photography and television. Engineers are already producing immersive digital environments, some of which may do away with cameras and material displays. Direct neural couplings will be widely available in the foreseeable future. Scientists have already bypassed eyes and ears, and advanced haptic interfaces could simulate the balance of senses. There is no reason to feed real-world camera images into a neural coupling—digital environments would work just as well. Artists and engineers have already started designing imaginary spaces, giving us a taste of possible future environments. (See Figure 7) In a stable virtual world, neurally induced experiences could collapse the opposition between subject and object, along with distinctions among vision, photography and architecture. As our senses adapted to the new environment, culture might evade nature altogether, referring only to itself. What sort of societies might evolve in such a space?
Figure 7: A Virtual Space
Designed by the NOX studio in Rotterdam, this virtual space is accessed through head mounted goggles. Within a few years, the environment may be accessed through direct neural coupling between the brain and the computer which generates it. (Zellner, 1999)
Strict control of virtual worlds could create a kind of planetary dungeon. Economics would dictate the rhythm of daily life, which would be governed by a central body according to laws of consumption and production. Freedom could be severely curtailed in this environment, which might resemble a digital version of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. Proposed in the eighteenth century, the panopticon was designed as an ideal prison which concealed nothing from the guards. Misbehavior was unlikely in such a place. More advanced technologies are beginning to impose a similar effect on society at large. Surveillance cameras blanket most cities, and authorities are using computer networks to increase their effectiveness. Complemented by satellite-based surveillance, an immersive cyberspace could completely assimilate individual faculties to objective data. Privacy would be impossible since every perception would be controlled, even witnessed. Videotapes in arcade games capture the completeness of digital surveillance. People can either join the game, or they can observe it from the perspective of one or more players.
On the other hand, these same technologies could celebrate an extreme form of individuality. A wave of progress in genetics and engineering could take humanity well beyond its current state, and, driven by the urge for self-fulfillment, an elite, or perhaps an entire society, might decide to fuse with machines and retreat into cyberspace. Here they would develop a poetics of technology, crafting experience with unlimited mental resources.13 Freed from productive labor, these cyborgs might reject the objective order altogether. Imagination would become the organizing principle of experience. (See Figure 8) It may be difficult to sustain a collective under such conditions, particularly if companionship could be provided by one’s own creations. Unchecked individualism could break down society, creating a future bizarrely reminiscent of myth. Living in a programmed environment, bodies and the world could assume any shape, support any whimsy. Computers would then plunge individuals into a kind of idiocy—immersed in technology they would be playmates who met only for companionship. Or who never met at all. Confined to their individual worlds, each person would exist as a mechanical god, an idiot king presiding over a terrain of information.
Figure 8: Architecture of the Future
Marcos Novak designs virtual environments according to poetics rather than gravity. Unencumbered by mass and utility, they function as fantastic playgrounds for the mind. (Zellner, 1999)
The scenarios outlined above describe the polar tendencies toward freedom and tyranny inherent within perceptual technologies, the machines we use for observation and communication. As a concept, the sky god displays both tendencies, and, when applied within society as an ideology, it creates the primal existential dilemma. What is the role of the individual within society? The previous scenarios represent extreme possibilities in the development of media, and we can hope that society evolves within their balance. It is hard to predict what scenario may come to pass. Biotechnology is advancing more quickly than we would have imagined even ten years ago, and engineers are busy devising new ways to reconstruct our senses. Already we largely dwell within a virtual reality, an artificial world enclosed by architecture, media and telecommunication. But we may never build a completely cybernetic world, preferring to simply augment natural perception with layers of information.
The sky god can model transcendent freedom, or it can subsume
the individual to a corporate will. We see within it the
modern individual who uses machines to control destiny. In the
beginning this power was wielded only by kings, but, since the
beginning of urbanization, more and more individuals have
gained the power to structure their world. Personal liberty
has never been greater except perhaps in certain tribal
cultures. At the same time, the ability of central authorities
to control expression, movement and now biology has advanced
immeasurably, and we always stand on the brink of
totalitarianism. Whether concrete or digital, our cities
embody the creative gaze and the architectural will of the sky
gods. Though our kings have lost divine right, we have
launched the sky god into orbit, just as the Sumerians
conceived. The constant presence of surveillance cameras,
whether hanging from buildings or satellites, should remind us
of the potency of such vision, and how it might alter our
environment. However it evolves, virtual reality will bear the
imprint, and the dangers, of the ideal state and the vision of
Antenucci, John (1991) with Kay Brown, Peter Croswell and Michael Kevany. Geographic Information Systems: An Introduction to the Technology. New York: Van Nostrand Rheinhold.
Arnheim, Rudolph (1969) Visual Thinking. Berkely, CA: 1969.
Bazin, Andre (1967) ‘Ontology of the Photograph’ in Trachtenberg, Alan, (ed.) Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven, CN: Lee’s Island Books: 237-245.
Crary, Jonathon. (1990) Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Boston, MA: MIT Press.
Euclid (1908) The Thirteen Books of The Elements. Sir Thomas Heath (trans.) New York: Dover Publications.
Euclid (1945) Optics in The Journal of the Optical Society of America 35 (5): 357-372.
Fried, Itzhak, Christof Koch and Gabriel Kreiman (2000) Nature 408 (6810): 357 – 361.
Gernsheim, Helmut and Alison (1955) The History of Photography from the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura up to 1914. London: Oxford University Press.
Gibson, James J. (1968) The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Herodotus (1992) The Histories. trans. George Rawlinson. London, UK: The Guernsey Press.
Jakobsen, Thorkild (1987) The Harp that Once . . . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Kosslyn, Stephen (1994) Image and Brain. Boston: MIT Press.
Lindberg, David C. (1976) Theories of Vision: From Al-Kindi to Kepler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mumford, Lewis (1966) The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich.
Nissen, Hans (1993), Robert K. Englund and Peter Damerow. Archaic Bookkeeping. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ptolemy, Claudius. The Geography. New York: Dover Publications, 1991.
Sabra, A. I. (1989) Ibn al-Haytham’s Optics. London: The Warburg Institute.
Space Imaging EOSAT Notes, Spring 1997
Stephens, Ferris. J. (1953) “A Surveyor’s Map of a Field.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 7 (1) 1953.
Virilio, Paul (1995) The Vision Machine. Bloomington, IN: The Indiana University Press.
Wald, George (1953) ‘Eye and Camera’ in Scientific American Reader. NY:
Simon & Schuster: 555-68.
Zellner, Peter (1999) Hybrid Space: New Forms on Digital Architecture. New York.
I would like to thank Douglas Kellner of UCLA, Robert Solomon of University of Texas at Austin and Steve Best of the University of Texas at El Paso for their comments and encouragement.
1 Sabra, A. I. (1989) Ibn al-Haytham’s Optics. London: The Warburg Institute.
2 This important episode on the history of optics has often been misconstrued by modern commentators, for example, in Techniques of the Observer (Crary, 1990: 27, 35, 38). In support of his statements, Crary cites David Lindberg. Crary seems to have missed the conclusion of Lindberg’s argument. At one point, Lindberg states that Kepler was familiar with the argument that an earlier attempt to construe the eye as a camera obscura. But on the next page, the comparison capitulates to a powerful counter-argument (Lindberg 1976: 182-206). Other inaccuracies in Crary’s work include the surprising assertion that Euclid and Aristotle were familiar with the pinhole effect (Crary, 1990: 27).
3 Wald, George (1953) ‘Eye and Camera’ in Scientific American Reader. NY: Simon & Schuster: pp. 555-68.
4 Research in this area has made great strides. Scientists at both the University of North Carolina and MIT have developed retinal implants that carry impulses from a camera directly to the optic nerve, temporarily giving limited vision to blind people. Reports are available in the websites of their respective universities.
5 Bazin, Andre (1967) “Ontology of the Photograph” in Trachtenberg, Alan, (ed.) Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven, CN: Lee’s Island Books: pp. 237-245.
6 Stephens, Ferris. J. (1953) “A Surveyor’s Map of a Field.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 7 (1) 1953 and Nissen, Hans (1993), Robert K. Englund and Peter Damerow. Archaic Bookkeeping. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
7 Antenucci, John (1991) with Kay Brown, Peter Croswell and Michael Kevany. Geographic Information Systems: An Introduction to the Technology. New York: Van Nostrand Rheinhold.
8 Jakobsen, Thorkild (1987) The Harp that Once . . . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p 422.
9 Ibid., pp. 398-400.
10 Ptolemy, Claudius. The Geography. New York: Dover Publications, 1991.
11 Arnheim, Rudolph (1969) Visual Thinking. Berkely, CA: 1969.
12 UCLA neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried and a team of researchers reported in Nature that the mind's eye—the imagination or mental view—generates mental pictures by using the same neurons that were activated when it saw the object or image. “Our study reveals that the same brain cells that fire when a person looks at a picture of the Mona Lisa are, in fact, the same neurons that excite when that person is asked to imagine the Mona Lisa.” (Fried, 2000)
13 Zellner, Peter (1999) Hybrid Space: New Forms on Digital Architecture. New York.
Ali Hossaini received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin in 1994. He has been published in Open Democracy (UK), The Village Voice, New York Newsday, Maclean’s Magazine (Canada), Logos Journal, The Nation, Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt), and Verlag Spotlight (Germany), and he has been anthologized in Considering Cultural Difference and Passages, a textbook for writers. The Gernsheim Collection has requested several of his photographs for its permanent archive. He currently manages two interactive television channels for Rainbow Media in New York, and he is developing artTV, a video arts network. He recently completed a book, Vision of the Gods: Technologies of Perception and the Origin of Modern Media, and he is producing a feature film, Layla, which he co-wrote.