Co-authored by Sara Humphreys
“Kent State Murder”
Type it into Google and a number of images, websites, and blogs will come up, along with the Neil Young song above. The historical moment is repeated, consistently, through images and through the circulation of these images on the internet and through other mediums. Digital culture has canonized this moment of grief and loss. It has canonized the moment of turmoil and fear that shook America when the Kent State tragedy was publicized in newspapers and broadcast on the news days after former President Nixon announced that American troops would be invading Cambodia, as a side mission to help “success” in Vietnam. When students protested Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, Nixon ordered the National Guard to restore order on Kent State campus and the result was that four student were shot and killed and many more were injured (Hariman and Lucaites in No Caption Needed:Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy). The iconic image of a young woman wailing over the dead body of her friend, who lies flat on the sidewalk, has become one of the most circulated images of the 1960s and is symbolic of this historical period.
Iconic images are felt individually, but often have a social function as well. I was wondering how images circulated through digital media affect users differently, since digital media users are exposed to a plethora of images on the internet. Whether advertisements (which often plague the internet), video, film, memes, GIFs, etc, images are everywhere. I am using Kent State as an example. In education, especially in history and historical research, photos are primary evidence that can be used to better understand a particular time. Historical moments like Kent State resound through historical, literary, and sociological research. Kent State is the epitome of student subjugation and the image is still circulated widely in universities. What is more, the image also serves as an excellent example of cultural exhibitionism – something that the digital generation is very practiced at. Since it is so circulated, does it affect us anymore? Rather, should it affect us anymore? ? Sometimes the line between the real and the digital gets blurred.
The technology we use surrounds us like a fishbowl, surrounding us with a false sense of agency and knowledge. The internet is another world, one of which, according to Geoffrey Nunberg in his article “Farewell to the Information Age,” “promises to disrupt this process [between sender and receiver]“. It is a mediation ground that sharply increases the proportion of writers to readers. There is far more content being produced than actually read, since it has become so easy to produce content on blogs, youtube, and elsewhere (518). Images like “Kent State” become memes and, through this hyper-reproductive process, I wonder if they lose their meaning. I weave Nunberg’s article in here because he talks about how the internet affects how readers use information:
“On the Web, that is, you can never have the kind of experience that you can have with the informational genres of print, the experience of interpreting a text simply as a newspaper or encyclopedia article without attending to its author, it publisher, or the reliability of its recommender. We read Web documents [including images] not as information but as intelligence, which requires an explicit warrant of one form or another” (519-520).
So, we read the Kent State murder differently on the net than we read it in another medium (such as in the book I am reading now). Since information on the net comes from a dynamic set of sources (some good, some bad) readers have to pry through information to find good sources. The internet makes information casual, including something as iconic as Kent State. I use Nunberg’s article in this post because Nunberg’s article disagrees that the internet will overtake print as the key source of information. Although he acknowledges that we are in the digital age, he states that the information age still holds a strong influence on how we gather, share, and learn information through a variety of mediums. In fact, without the groundwork that this age, the digital age would simply not be. It is clear that humans cannot exist without sharing information using all sorts of language. Digital technology simply presents a new means of sharing, one that interweaves a multitude of languages and mediums. Digital technology shows the evolution of language technologies. Kent State becomes a narrative that is accessible through a variety of these technologies. We can access it through video, music, scholarly articles, and journalistic accounts. The single event becomes accessible through the medium of choice and the reader can see how social this event actually was.
This brings me to a key point in this post. I noticed that in No Caption Needed, Hariman and Lucaites write about iconic photographs from the early-to-middle twentieth century. What makes a photo “iconic” seems to be linked to this age, when photos were circulated only through certain networks. The general public was at the whim of journalists and news corporations, who presented certain images that would attract readers to a story. In the introduction of their book, Hariman and Lucaites provide an extensive definition of what they mean by “iconic.” I include part of this definition below:
Iconic photographs provide an accessible and centrally positioned set of images for exploring how political action (and inaction) can be constituted and controlled though visual media . . . . These images were obviously highly specific objects of memory and admiration, yet also somehow abstract representations whose value was far more symbolic than referential, and more a public art form than objects for connoisseurship (5-6).
Photojournalism played a major role in chronicling the twentieth century, the age of information. However, we are now in the digital age. Information is no longer as sacred, or rare, as it used to be. We no longer share only through specific ways (i.e. phone; photograph) or through specific cultural practices (i.e. story-telling; conversation). We now share through all these ways in a very abstract fashion. Information is everywhere and the internet has made society a network (or networks) of information. We are on a constant, continuous search for it.
How does this effect what it means to be “iconic”? Is anything “iconic” anymore? 9/11 puts the concept of “iconic” into question, since 9/11 was a recent moment in history that transformed the world in countless ways. While reading No Caption Needed, I kept thinking of the “Falling Man” image (below). I have always had a difficult time looking at the image. In fact, the immediate emotional response is that of nausea and vertigo. The image captures a moment of complete loss. An inescapable fall into nothingness. No Hollywood ending. The jumper could not escape the fire in the tower and was forced to make a terrible decision. The “Falling Man” invokes terror and pathos in those who view it or perhaps macabre glee, but in any case, affect is generated and will do so because this photo is digitally rendered – available for all to view at will. Perhaps authenticity comes into question when something is seen so many times that the viewer is desensitized to its effect.
Yet, the “Falling Man” seems to still have an effect. The image also functions as a symbol of national loss; therefore, it functions for nationalistic purposes. This, according to Hariman and Lucaites, is crucial in the definition of “iconic”: its function for political gain (18).
So, is it “iconic”? Somewhat. The digital age, especially the advances in digital technology that were to follow 9/11, has allowed for mass circulation of images and video. The “Falling Man” has become an iconic image, perhaps the first and last one, of the digital age. Yet, it also remains among the company of many digitally circulated images and video which have been diluted of their meaning. They are viewed by so many that it eventually becomes difficult to tell where and when this photo was taken. Perhaps the image represents the subversion of political meaning. The photo/video of the “Falling Man” transcends beyond a political purpose nowadays. It cannot function to support a particular party, nation, or ideology. The image transcends its iconic potential, since it deals with complete loss. It deals with death. In this way it is similar to the Kent State image. Both situations show tragedy. In the Kent State photograph, this tragedy functioned to ignite opposition to the Nixon government, the war in Vietnam, and the invasion of Cambodia. The “Falling Man” was used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2001; however, in 2012, the image is reluctant to show the support of any violence. It is a still frame of potential devastation. What happened to the “Falling Man” is not known. The “Falling Man” does not bestow a nationalistic identity, even though it brings together a nation in trauma. Due to its mass circulation – a symptom alone of how fascinating, yet ubiquitous, the image is – the “Falling Man” is an image of an uncertain fate, which America faced at the time and still faces. Perhaps an uncertain identity is the new identity of the digital age.