On rewriting the terms of engagement with images of Black suffering

Full-text audio version of this essay.

The video of George Floyd being murdered by former police officer Derek Chauvin has inspired thousands across the world to protest police brutality and systemic racism. As these protests continue, day after day, week after week, people are not only taking to the streets but to social media, posting footage of police brutality against protesters, links to donate to the families of those murdered by the police, and how-to guides for discussing systemic racism with your conservative family and confronting and destroying one’s own complicity in anti-Black systems.

Images of Black suffering, death, and protest have widely circulated on the internet before: for example in 2012 after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s murder by George Zimmerman, or in 2014 after Michael Brown was shot in the back by Ferguson police officers. One difference this time is that it’s not just that people who already saw themselves as activists who have called their online followers to take to the streets and participate, but formerly nonactivist users have become politicized and seized upon the feed as a politicized space to engage in an activism of their own. Not only are these users posting and circulating petitions, donation links, videos, voting instructions, and literature; they are also setting rules of engagement on social media, revealing how a platform’s technology can be used to their benefit or detriment.

The earlier critiques — that these images were retraumatizing, that circulating them could be an act of violence itself — have had a cumulative effect

This awareness became abundantly clear on #BlackoutTuesday. Initiated by Atlantic Records, Warner Music Group, and Capitol Records, #BlackoutTuesday was supposed to allow musicians, producers, and record companies to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement by pausing from business as usual and clearing space on the feed for posts relevant to the movement. However, when those outside the industry began posting squares in solidarity using the #blacklivesmatter tag, they ended up erasing crucial info in the #blacklivesmatter Instagram feed, accidentally censoring weeks and months of useful information. As users realized this, many began to advocate that their followers delete their black squares or not post them at all. As I watched this unfold, it became clear that these users were not just posting and reposting new information but were conscious of how this information circulates, even if at only a cursory level. By denouncing the black squares, they used the network to adjust their and their followers’ mode of participation in the space of the feed, further reinforcing its status as politicized space. In other words, it’s not just about proliferation; it’s about circulation as a methodology.

Similarly, many users lamented that they saw no BLM related content on their discovery feed despite their frequent posting, liking, and commenting on posts around such topics. If normally Instagram’s algorithm capitalized on their preferences and reflected them back via their feed, performing the all too familiar surveillance capitalist function, then why weren’t they seeing BLM posts or content about the movement? Despite the promise of the “feed” — the promise of infinite information flow as nourishment — the Instagram algorithm can and does insidiously bury information by virtue of its own logic. As James Bridle notes in New Dark Age, commodified information can lead to “an age in which the value we have placed upon knowledge is destroyed by the abundance of that profitable commodity.”

In harnessing this duality of feeds — how they both amplify and suppress information; how they both circulate information and commodify it — user-activists are managing to disrupt the typical flow of images to convey what some have known for a long time and what others are just now getting around to: It’s not just George Floyd, and it doesn’t matter if you call your protest “peaceful” — police brutality is a reality for those who directly resist or threaten by their mere existence (read: Black people) the systemic oppression of capitalism.

If the relationship between state violence and capitalism isn’t yet clear to you, consider that, in addition to the way that users are harnessing the feed, a part of what has made this movement strong is that many people are mostly working from home, furloughed, or laid off. Without the pressure of the 9 to 5, of constant productivity, many of us are able to engage as political actors in a way that capitalism makes impossible. Moreover, the #DEFUNDPOLICE movement, which has circulated through the network and continues to sustain its presence in feeds more than ever before, elucidates the link between capital, resources, and the ability to inflict violence upon communities of color. For those who have not grown up Black or brown, a reality constrained by a lack of resources and perpetuated by state violence is concretized through images of police brutality and Black suffering.

Crystalized by the current moment is a paradox: These images, in their circulation, oscillate between being tools of activism that galvanize protests and being the means for neoliberal capitalism’s persistence as Black death is instrumentalized as a spectacle — evoking sympathy rather than empathy, solved by black squares rather than action. This paradox has been described in different ways by multiple generations of writers, activists, and observers reckoning with the history of such circulation and its pertinence to both activism and the persistence of white supremacy, especially when graphic video circulated online of the murders of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling by police. Such footage once made for a kind of context collapse on social media, but it has become all too familiar, a fact of living with online networks. The earlier critiques — that these images were retraumatizing, that circulating them could be an act of violence itself — have had a cumulative effect on how people understand and circulate images in general and the stakes involved, the commitments that should be implied, the ways to point them toward interpretations and actions.

What has not been made explicit is that this paradox is in part the result of the way in which the circulation of images of Black death online parallels the neoliberal ideology that continues to perpetuate Black death in real life. As neoliberalism relies on alienation, so too an image economy within a neoliberal capitalist world relies on this operation to commodify the image. Images of Black people undergo this same operation; these images can be used as currency, decontextualizing the means by which they were made and given a new message, a new value, by those who circulate that image. But, it is also possible to reverse this process, whereby the alienation and commodification of images can be turned against themselves. It is possible to contracirculate the image. When circulation is used as a means to recontextualize the image, the conditions under which it was made are named, revealing its meaning anew. Within a neoliberal image economy, there is still the possibility that modes of production can be seized, and the alienated commodity can become reinstated in its life-world.

Works by artists Paul Pfeiffer and Arthur Jafa can help us see this interplay, articulating the relationship between violence against Black people and reform against neoliberalism while also rehearsing problems that arise as blackness is centered in mass media.

In Paul Pfeiffer’s Fragment of a Crucifixion (After Francis Bacon), a gif loops 1990s basketball player Larry Johnson on the brink of a triumphant scream that never comes, cut short at the moment of excitement as he is confined to continuously perform a small stepping motion, back and forth, back and forth, his eyes and muscles bulging, his fists held tightly by his side. All the while, the ground behind Johnson is filled with flashing lights and the tiny blurred figures of the crowd. If one continues to watch the loop, the flashes start to appear as though they are controlling Johnson’s movements. What first appeared as ecstasy now looks more like pain or agony inflicted by the flash of the spectators’ cameras. Representation, and the flattening that becoming an image entails, is posited as a kind of crucifixion itself. Each flash of the camera acts as a nail on the cross.

Johnson is — both as neoliberal subject and as a subject formatted by the gif — always “updating to remain the same,” to borrow the title of Wendy Chun’s most recent book. There Chun argues that neoliberalism, “despite — or more precisely due to — its rhetoric of empowerment has accentuated disparities in wealth, increased levels of individual debt, and depressed real incomes. Neoliberal subjects … are always searching, rarely finding. Shifting from the zoom to the overview, from search term to search term, they defer and extend decisions; the end, like that mythic pot of gold, is never reached.”

In Pfeiffer’s gif, Johnson’s agony and ecstasy as a player within a game becomes a metaphor for this neoliberal subjectivity, which arises out of capitalism’s gamification of human life and an economy whose rewards can appear simultaneously as punishments. The gif suggests the role digital media plays in trapping subjects in these loops, poised in an infinite suspension that obfuscates their condition.

But the neoliberal subjectivity Johnson symbolizes here is complicated by his blackness. Johnson’s conflicting emotional state not only enacts the malleability of neoliberal subjectivity, especially as mediated in digital forms, but also W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness: “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” The flashes of the camera can be read as standing in for that world of white onlookers, with Johnson’s undecidable agony and ecstasy encapsulating Black people’s experience of representation on the internet.

The tension between ecstasy and agony is intensified in Pfeiffer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse series. Three haunting images from the series — 6, 8, and 30 — depict basketball players frozen in midair, with the context of the game removed: no opposing players, referees, ball, or nets; even the figures’ clothing has been erased of all personalization or identification. Only the mass of spectators in the background remain. The figures on display, under the watchful eye of the multitude, can be interpreted as conveying the phenomenon of Black bodies represented as under watch via digital networked media. As Pfeiffer described the figure in Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (6) in an interview with Art21, it “looks like his head is chopped off; all of his limbs look awkward … it almost resembles the figure in a photograph of a lynching … It is the sense of not just a lack of context but, in a way, it looks like this figure has somehow been frozen into this frame.”

In each of these images, the composition of the players’ bodies elicits an air of martyrdom. Pfeiffer’s images thereby echo how the deaths of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Nia Wilson, or the earlier violence against Rodney King, have been put on display for spectators across the world. Their “frozen” gesture conveys the anguish induced by Black death circulating via networked media platforms. As bodies rendered anonymous, the figures are presented to the viewer as canvases to project onto and into. As Aria Dean argues in “Poor Meme, Rich Meme,” such anonymity “reflects the same fungibility that means that violence against one black body cannot be isolated and understood as being against that body alone, where I am you and you are me, where ‘we are all [insert #nameofpersonmurderedbypolice here].’” But, as Dean lays out, “historically speaking, we could characterize the collective being’s attitude toward this [fungibility] begrudging, held in opposition to the desire to constitute ourselves as complex, individual subjects.” Many have taken issue with this function of images of Black suffering on the internet and in mass media, recounting how these images turn into spectacle and rehearse how white people circulated lynching photos and memorabilia in the early 20th century.

Rarely do users take action beyond the click of a button. Such users drain these images of their value

In line with critiques of imaging Black death, I read Pfeiffer’s images as addressing this function and constituting it as a problem rather than merely reinforcing it. They depict how images of Black martyrdom can serve to commodify Black spirituality for white audiences, on internet platforms as well as in stadiums. Pfeiffer sets up a scenario in which spectators have paid to enter an arena of Black death and suffering. The question becomes whether or not, for white people, this is merely a way to release their white guilt.

Users circulating the video of George Floyd are subject to this charge as well. Are users merely producing spectacle through reposting images of Black suffering? The way these images can be emptied out can function ultimately as a call to action, driven by the moment when one realizes that someone else’s pain is their pain too, that this could be and is me too. But any given user’s intentions are not always clear. As is typical on social media — and epitomized by #BlackoutTuesday — users often post for clout or under peer pressure, without sustaining a longer dialogue or engagement with the issue on the web. These issues become one-offs, lost in the endless flow of information and circulation of images, as if the value of blackness buys one less in the attention economy than a photo of avocado toast let alone the possibility that a user might engage in real-life politics or commit to dismantling the system that produced the images they circulate in the first place. Rarely do users take action beyond the click of a button. Such users drain these images of their value, decontextualizing and commodifying them while centering themselves in an effort to capitalize on the appearance of progressivism or activism.

This was, of course, occurring before George Floyd. But in this current moment, the circulation of images like the Floyd video doesn’t merely commodify them into misplaced remedies for white guilt; it serves instead to build momentum to continue the movement. #BlackoutTuesday again provides a clear example of this. Part of the reason that users changed course and deleted the black squares was a recognition that without videos of police brutality and Black death circulating, in such a blackout, the movement could falter. That is to say, users moved beyond the static use of these images to convey their sympathy and toward a mode of production and circulation that contextualized the image within the larger system of violence. The continual reappearance of certain images becomes a marker and reminder that there is work yet to be done.

While Pfeiffer’s works focus on relatively contemporary subjects, Arthur Jafa’s Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death (2016) operates in the past and the present, drawing a through line between the current moment of Black suffering and striving and the civil rights era. This seven-and-a-half-minute video montage takes viewers from WorldStarHipHop videos to footage of Barack Obama singing Amazing Grace to people dancing to “Teach Me How to Dougie.” Particularly powerful are the moments when Jafa juxtaposes viral videos of Black people dancing with clips of white actors dancing in blackface from the 1920s; a small Black child comes on screen as his father yells at him, “That’s what the police do to you. Put your hands up against the wall.”

The decontextualization of images of police brutality and Black suffering from their mass and networked media contexts, as Valerie Cassel Oliver notes, acts as a forceful reminder that “modern technology is giving us a front-seat view of the unprovoked violence upon black bodies.” Like Pfeiffer’s Crucifixion and Four Horsemen, Jafa’s work conveys how representations of police brutality against black people have become a crucifixion-like spectacle of public torture, which can function as a tool to absolve white guilt or reify ideologies of Black inferiority, weakness, and death.

As art institutions collect and display Jafa’s Love Is the Message, profiting off of Black spirituality and creativity, the work choreographs its argument in real time

Jafa’s juxtapositions also capture Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness: Many of the images Jafa has chosen have circulated in networked media and are thus subject to and often selected by and doctored for the white gaze. At the same time, images of Black American life and striving act as a window into Black subjectivities that may not be tainted by being staged for the white gaze. This duality, this double consciousness, applies to images of Lebron James dunking, Lauryn Hill singing, as well as videos of dancing, which operate on their own as images of Black joy and striving but are also often circulated in white news outlets, where their connotation can be shifted and reframed through the white gaze.

Love Is the Message elucidates the parallels between this current moment and Black history by contrasting footage of contemporary brutalization and anguish with footage of historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. These juxtapositions highlight how those figures were not only harbingers of a kind of collective hope as Black people came together for the movement, but also how they were subject to innumerable representations by a white-dominated media that sought to paint them as enemies of the American way of life. But in the current moment, unlike in the civil rights era, social media have allowed for a decentralized movement, which means there is no specific figurehead to demonize. In the 1960s, the American government targeted Malcom X and Dr. King and tried to squelch the civil rights movement, but today Donald Trump can only point at “Antifa,” a non-unified movement of organizations committed to anti-fascism.

Similarly, the notion that user-activists have been able to exploit the decentralized nature of the movement is embedded in the move from the analog to the digital, from mass media to the network. By virtue of the internet’s rhizomatic protocol, users can participate as activists. This contrasts from the centralized structure of the civil rights movement, which thrived through television’s broadcast function. Rather than watch, users can plug in directly by hijacking the typical functions of social media — connectivity, circulation, constant content. They can rewrite the terms of engagement for the feed, making image circulation more about collective activism rather than individual promotion or expression.

Jafa’s choice to splice MLK and Malcolm X with Barack Obama further complicates the history of Black political figures and past social movements. Obama’s 2008 election is perhaps the ultimate example of Black media representation reaching unprecedented heights, but Jafa invites us to consider just how high these heights might actually be, juxtaposing Obama’s image with images of Black death, public humiliation, and mistreatment. Rather than these images appearing in isolation, they appear within their conflicting connotations of suffering and striving, they are contextualized within their mode of production as products of a system of oppression, as products of a larger history that make their circulation possible. This rearticulates the life-world in which they were produced, the conditions of their possibility rather than their alienated, commodified form.

This standpoint offers a position from which activists and supporters can make a kind of détournement of Black virality. However, as Black people demand the end of lynching, many white allies post images of black squares and continue on about their day, reproducing a mode of neoliberal productivity that drowns out and covers up state-based violence. #BlackoutTuesday and the case of fashion designer Virgil Abloh, criticized for donating just $50 despite his multimillion dollar net worth derived from Black people buying his products, are illustrative. Corporations and art institutions have also been criticized for gestures that seem more oriented toward marketing than change. Making statements and donating money are not enough if they are unwilling to restructure in response to their complicity and promotion of anti-Black business practices. As users call out the white folks and brands on their feed who seem to struggle to understand the cause, they challenge misguided ideas of putting “safety” and individualism over the lives of black Americans.

America relies on these images and instances for change. We react to these images; we do not prevent their production

In his reflections on Love Is the Message, Jafa has noted how strange he has found white viewers’ emotional reactions to it, given that he regards it as being about Black people through and through — precisely about the experience of living as a Black person under white hegemony. This contradiction — between Jafa’s understanding and white people’s affection for it — is crucial to understanding the current circulation of images of Black death today. Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death’s enactment of Du Boisian double consciousness is itself doubled by how it has traveled and been received by audiences in galleries and museums and beyond. It replicates rather than describes how white people can view Black culture as spectacle, through their own filter. As art institutions collect and display the work, profiting off of Black spirituality and creativity, the work choreographs its argument in real time. The fact of circulation becomes a part of what the work represents, what it means. A similar case could be made about Jet’s 1955 publication of an image of Emmett Till’s corpse. It evidenced the role of images in white supremacy while also pointing to the role they could play in ending it.

In What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, W.J.T. Mitchell has deemed this ability of particular images their “vitality.” Such images, he argues, “stand in for and act as symptoms of what they signify,” for “images introduce new forms of value into the world, contesting our criteria, forcing us to change our minds.” How they circulate is inseparable from how they mean, and how they can change viewers. “Wittgenstein describes this moment of the birth or rebirth of an image as the ‘dawning on an aspect,’ a new way of seeing this as that,” Mitchell writes. “Images are not just passive entities that co-exist with their human hosts, any more than microorganisms that dwell in our intestines. They change the way we think and see and dream.”

Jafa’s work possesses this capability, showing how white sympathy may also simultaneously be white exploitation — “a new way of seeing this as that.” The images of George Floyd being murdered also demand that such contradictions be recognized. They do not merely signify police brutality, black suffering, and the need for change; their circulation performs it. These and other images of violence and Black suffering “stand in for and act as a symptoms of” how Black people have been oppressed through capitalism, functioning not as commodified Black pain but as proxies operating through circulation. Such reappropriation turns the image market’s commodification process on its head, unalienating the image itself.

This is not to entirely remove the fact that these images produce spectacle, but it is to offer the other side of the coin: Sometimes these images are flattening and used as commodities by users, and yet they have inspired hundreds of thousands to march in the midst of a global pandemic. The video of George Floyd reinvigorated efforts to bring justice for Breonna Taylor, ending Kentucky’s no-knock policy, caused New York City to reform police departments, inspired Seattle residents to form their own autonomous zone, forced Los Angeles to cut their police budget by $150 million, changes that would have seemed impossible just a month earlier. With these initial results appearing, it becomes difficult to view the circulation of these images in a purely negative light. And yet, despite the possibilities this opens for thinking about images as politics, I am unsure if the fact of the image’s reappropriation by users merely transforms them into another kind of commodity, equally as nefarious as they were before.

What is certain is that whatever the motive, whatever the outcome, America relies on these images and instances for change. We react to these images; we do not prevent their production. The fact that a video could catalyze such a shift speaks to the power of images, their abilities to produce and describe desire — not only for a kind of consumer satisfaction but for social change. And yet, as Mitchell explains, the fact that these images produce desire, that they interact with us as if they were alive and that we can ask them, “what do they want,” necessarily means that they are lacking. As such, these images are ontologically empty; they are representations of that which is not there. And not only are these images harbingers where the message is death: They are the indices of death itself. In the end, what I think George Floyd’s video and Emmett Till’s photograph “want” is for their vitality to be real rather than photographic, for change to come before the image and for blackness to be circulated as joy rather than as death. What these images want is to never have existed at all.

Marielle Ingram is a writer based in New York City. She’s interested in relationships between technical images, labor, globalization and capitalism, as articulated by contemporary artists.