Empty Frames

What you can see in photographs of nothing

What I am craving, from behind the screens through which I now primarily experience the world, is to give my eyes a break — to hear and smell others, to touch and taste them too. Obviously I’ve nothing against seeing, but I wonder if it isn’t our primary sense because of how it distances, no murk of scents or vibrations. Sight seems to forestall the possibility that your body is contaminating mine. But because we are, in this pandemic, relatively deprived of other senses, what we see demands even greater scrutiny than before:

“In an epidemic,” Elias Canetti wrote in Crowds and Power, “people see the advance of death; it takes place under their very eyes.” But so far, there are few, if any, American bodies “piling up” in journalistic photographs — certainly nothing like the corpses newspapers showed us when Ebola struck several West African nations in 2014. At most, there are photos of “mobile morgues,” or trailer structures resembling those often parked on construction sites; rarely do the media present us with what is presumably inside. There are “mass graves” on Hart Island in New York; yet the photographs we saw showed an empty, freshly dug trench.

That Covid-19 would be an occasion for personal consumption was inevitable. Something must fill the space

What we see, over and over, are voids. The streets, for example, are empty. In Italy and New York, the famously packed museums are deserted. Beijing, home to 21 million people, looks like a film set after hours. Nobody’s at the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, and in the subway stations of dense cities worldwide, one could, it is imagined, hear a pin drop. These images, it is said (for example, by Michael Kimmelman in this essay for the New York Times), resemble apocalyptic films depicting cityscapes and interiors after the imagined collapse of civilization, or even photographs of real places now abandoned by human inhabitants, such as Matthew Christopher’s images from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone or Yves Marchand’s “ruin porn” images of libraries, theaters, schools, and train stations in Detroit.

But they also don’t resemble them — not quite. A ruin is ravaged — sometimes by war, usually by time. Ruins are human-made structures fallen into disrepair, which connotes neglect. Nothing in the current images of empty cities and museums suggests neglect. Nothing is destroyed or crumbling. In a photograph on the front of the New York Times from mid-March, for example, 32 small, identical plastic chairs are spaced six feet apart in the massive, baroque courtyard of the Palazzo Marino — Milan’s city hall. If anything, this photo looks less ruined than it would if it were peopled, yet it’s still unsettling. Measures are being taken, the photograph suggests. Yet that the chairs are empty — that even they, medicinally distant from one another, are void of human beings — seems to suggest these measures will fail. Read alongside these other apocalyptically tinted pictures, this could one day serve as an image of how we tried.

Instead of disease or nuclear war or even climate change, these photographs of emptiness suggest that we’ve simply disappeared, that we all “got raptured.” With our public spaces erased of people, everyone in physical isolation can now look at a newspaper or magazine or computer screen and feel like the last person on earth, the one who got left behind.

Of course, these cityscape images are more distant to us — more journalistic and “eventful” — than those more familiar images of emptiness: ransacked shelves. Not only do we see these in newspapers and on panicked social media feeds but for oneself, in person, at nearly any grocery store or corner market. Not only is there a sudden lack of options after a lifetime of redundant plenitude, but we see, repeatedly, this scarcity. The emptiness has arrived in our cities, in our own neighborhoods — perhaps on our block. We cannot buy or sell what we used to freely buy and sell: What is really dying, these images seem to say, is the economy.

Unsettling as these images are, what they are not is frenetic; the version of fear they offer is dread, not panic. Instead of fleeing, we can see there is nowhere to go, that the safest course of action is to sit and wait. In this way, they show us something else: What is bountiful is time. To be safe, one must sit and experience time passing. Like any of fiction’s imagined last persons on earth, there is, now, a great deal of time for each of us to experience.

This is reinforced by various calls to consumption, themselves images of normalcy, of how to “survive” (meaning: assimilate) a pandemic. Amid the “social distancing” of self-imposed quarantine or stay-at-home orders lurks a sense of consumerist opportunity. Waiting out the virus? A book blog has recommendations for you. A magazine wants you to make these soups. An app invites you to learn a new language. At least a dozen websites offer the same recycled list of “pandemic movies” to stream. This is the perfect time, a retail chain says in an e-mail, to tackle those household projects you’ve been ignoring. Never mind that laid-off workers may not be in the mood to shop, or that parents now have to homeschool their children. Never mind that most adults working from home will inevitably find their working hours spread over the whole of the day in the “office” they can no longer leave. Like Burgess Meredith’s ill-fated bibliomaniac in the Twilight Zone, we too may discover the irony in “time enough at last.”

Meanwhile, a magazine says, “We’ll get through Covid-19 together” — especially, goes the subtext, if you subscribe. It’s a hard time, quips a sex toy retailer — a great reason, it is understood, to spend money. “What you need now,” a newspaper threatens, “is the truth.” Whether to instill apocalyptic dread or convince us to “keep calm and carry on shopping,” it should shock no one how quickly a global pandemic has been assimilated as “content.” The virus gives every commercial entity a reason to reach out, to check on consumers. The more emotional the tone, the better, be it a mournful note about family or a joke about missing all that dick you used to get. Even the imagination of apocalypse can be personalized, branded, and marketed to specific demographics.

That Covid-19 would be an occasion for personal consumption (the word itself is a synonym for multiple fatal diseases throughout several centuries) and a source of daily entertainment via memes, language games, and jokes was inevitable. Something, after all, must go here — must fill the space left empty by the restaurants and bars that used to define our nights and weekends, by the clothes we bought for others to notice, and above all by images of our own we can no longer share — images of food we didn’t prepare, of drinks we didn’t make, of ourselves smiling in faraway places our friends and followers may never be able to afford to visit themselves. And so instead we share solitary workout routines, unkempt hairstyles, the scarves we’re knitting, “cooking for one” meal-prep ideas, “quarantinis” — even our favorite cities we did visit, back when we still could.

If we aren’t, after all, experiencing desires and making overt, visible choices based on those desires, are we still “us”? Am I, without perpetually modulating my lifestyle, still me?

Like any illness, this strain of coronavirus “means” nothing. The attempt to interpret it, to build meaning around it — to ask what Covid-19 can teach us, what it reveals about us — has nothing to do with the virus itself and everything to do with how nations, corporations, and individuals have chosen to react to it. Nor do the photographs of vacant streets and shelves mean anything. They are not inherently messages, diagnoses, prognostications, or warnings. Like all images, they rely on context — where we see them, how we see them, and who has shown them to us. We may imagine we are looking at our ruins or being invited — manipulated by journalistic context — to inflect these photographs with apocalyptic fears, but what we are really looking at are mute images.

“Metaphors are central to thinking,” Susan Sontag told Rolling Stone in 1978, “but it’s like a kind of agnosticism: as you use them, you shouldn’t believe them.” She was responding, primarily, to questions about Illness as Metaphor, a project she later described (in the book’s “sequel,” AIDS and Its Metaphors) as an attempt “not to confer meaning, which is the traditional purpose of literary endeavor, but to deprive something of meaning.”

In the images of our culture reacting to Covid-19 — both those of desertion and those of consumption — we are offered not only fear and entertainment but new opportunities to “confer meaning.” This is, we are told, a “surreal” moment. The empty streets and shelves are “surreal.” It’s a word Americans often reach for when something destabilizes the ongoing-ness of daily life, when life seems “not itself.” This “life” almost always means “one’s role within the economy.” To be pushed into surreality in America is to suddenly notice the strangeness of one’s relationship to producing and consuming.

In 1966, art critic Max Kozloff distinguished Surrealism from its ideological contemporary, Expressionism: “Surrealism wanted very much to concern the spectator ‘with the human content of the work,’ and to engage itself with living forms … Whereas Expressionism wanted to wrest the viewer’s involvement into the rhythms of violent paint handling, Surrealism … sought to engage him with the visualized spectacle of his inner life.” This suggests a direct line connecting the immense and lasting popularity of the surrealist ethos with how capitalism, by isolating and aggrandizing the importance of individual choice and desire in every relationship we have, depletes us of the capacity for an inner life.

Surrealism, Kozloff argues, “opens up the possibility of a wholeness and personal integration on a behavioral level from which its artistic embodiment will only seem to trail behind.” Today, that “integration on a behavioral level” manifests as a near constant stream of individualistic content meant for public consumption, mined from the recesses of the personal. These are the fragments we broadcast to “followers” as well as those we scroll through, an algorithmically sorted, polyvocal stream of consciousness that always promises, but never offers, coherence. Timelines are always, it seems, just about to mean. What surrealism explored in art for individuals to contemplate — “Here is the total contents of the artist’s inner life; make of it what you will” — social media now encourage everyone to practice, not as art but as daily, self-guided distraction: Here are the contents of my thoughts this morning, shattered into isolated units and mixed alongside yours and everyone else’s, like coins at the bottom of a well.

Rather than pushed into the surreal, we have been for the first time in decades dislodged from it

In surrealist thinking, the imagination of existence is not unified, interrelated, continuous, imbricated, or ongoing. It is instead atomized into interchangeable units. Photographs of murdered human beings, for example, are juxtaposed against a description of what a friend ate for lunch and a joke about toilet paper. Despite their appearance together, they are not imagined as related.

Just as in a surrealist painting, novel, or film, these inner lives are presented in an equal, uniform register: Aspects of human life and personality are presented, copied, and distributed as if existence were confined to an endless tableaux of clashing thumbnails; the illusion is that we can “see” what we want of others — and when — and ignore the rest. This is not “conversation,” as many social media platforms would have it, but simple consumption — the spectatorship of each other, and thus deeply antisocial. Obviously it’s possible to have more meaningful, less consumerist experiences with one another on social media, but this is despite the way these platforms are built and refined, rather than because of it.

So too in the way Covid-19 is shown to us: these various images of emptiness and consumption invite us to spectate this disaster in isolation, our attention drawn not to the way they might be related but how they are unrelated (or, to use Sontag’s more apt term, “disrelated”) and individually consumable. We are, as ever, offered a choice: How do I want to experience the novelty of a global pandemic?

Just as this highly contagious disease has revealed our bodies to be all in some way connected — even if some of those bodies are in luxury apartments while others are in housing projects or sleeping on sidewalks — it has revealed, too, the social limits of consumerist activity. Years spent collecting “experiences” with one another — fitness classes, drag brunches, bars and restaurants so loud conversation is next to impossible, escape rooms, viewing parties, and whatever else can be photographed and uploaded for later — have damaged our capacity for experiencing one another on non-transactional terms. Without the ability to spend money and call it “having fun,” we may we find ourselves as empty, as abandoned, as the train stations and supermarket aisles that drift through our timelines.

Yet suddenly it doesn’t matter how much we pay for a drink, only that we login and have a drink together. It doesn’t matter how many new or topical novels we can tweet about, only that we forget about our desires and anxieties while reading a novel or watching a film, or cooking a meal, or even, as I’ve found soothingly tactile, playing solitaire.

What is “surreal” is not the moment when we stop and see the strangeness of ourselves no longer consuming and producing, but that we otherwise ignore the strangeness that this is how we’ve been spending, and valuing, our lives, as though transactions were the horizon of sociality.

One of surrealism’s clichés is that it is “the art of the dream.” It seems, now, as if a long dream has ended. Rather than pushed into the surreal, we have been for the first time in decades dislodged from the surreal.

In AIDS and Its Metaphors, Sontag observed that “one set of messages of the society we live in is: Consume. Grow. Do what you want. Amuse yourselves… In rich countries, freedom has come to be identified more and more with ‘personal fulfillment’ — a freedom enjoyed or practiced alone (or as alone).” But what happens when spiritual aloneness, or “individualism,” becomes physical isolation? Right now, in isolation, we still retain the “freedom” to perform and distribute our personalities from the remoteness of our homes, yet the platforms that make this surrealistic behavior possible convey more images of emptiness, of abandonment, of a lack of choices or options, and of course, of millions of people equally isolated, running out of ideas, and asking each other, What should I do next?

Confronting the spectacle of others but with no contact bursts the illusory bubble that consuming others as images was ever “social” at all

“The element of contagion,” Canetti writes, “which plays so large a part in an epidemic, has the effect of making people separate from each other… It is strange to see how the hope of survival isolates them, each becoming a single individual confronting the crowd of victims.” This is what we might read from social media feeds: individuals confronting the crowd, staking their hope on remaining apart not just physically but conceptually, required more than ever to view one another as distant spectacles. Unlike the inner isolation fostered by consumerism, the isolation of quarantine is a physical — and highly visible — reality: We can see ourselves, each a private “last person on earth,” confronting deeply fragmented, surrealistic others. Without our “public” spaces (“public” meaning, in that American way, private places where you can be among others as long as you spend money), it’s easier than ever to see our conceptual, spiritual isolation. Confronting the spectacle of others with little to no contact or shared transactional space bursts the last illusory bubble that consuming others as images was ever “social” at all.

Yet to me — and I suspect to others — the images we are seeing during the Covid-19 pandemic are, in Sontag’s words, “rich enough to provide for two contradictory applications.” While it’s possible that some will use them to reinforce the harmful structures that have left many of us so deeply lonely, they are here too for those of us who’d choose to reimagine the possibilities of American life. Not only can they show, if we wish, the need for much more elaborate social safety structures —guaranteed basic income, universal health- and childcare, a non-carceral approach to justice, and the forgiveness of predatory debts that prevent individuals from accessing care or essential services — but they can articulate how chilling it is to confront spiritual emptiness, to be bereft of the pleasure of an inner life.

If we haven’t already, Americans in isolation may learn that we are the loneliest people on earth. Which does not mean “alone.” In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt distinguished between solitude (“I am ‘by myself,’ together with my self, and therefore two-in-one”) and loneliness (“I am actually one, deserted by all others”). “What makes loneliness so unbearable,” she argued “is the loss of one’s own self.” The American fantasy is that loneliness, the disquiet one feels when one’s self has fled, can be bought off. Now that this promise is deserting us — now that the shelves, literal and metaphorical, are empty — we must relearn, to paraphrase Arendt, to trust ourselves to be the partners of our thoughts.

To thrive, or even survive, we must find a life beyond capitalism’s assimilative reach — a life where it’s not only possible, say, but easy to imagine confronting a global disaster, be it a pandemic or something far larger and more gradually insidious, without the temptation to monetize it, entertain oneself with it, or hang one’s personality on its hook. Everyone, as we can now see, has the right to that life.

Patrick Nathan is the author of Some Hell. His essays and short fiction have appeared in Gulf Coast, Pacific Standard, Boulevard, Ninth Letter, Longreads, the Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. His second book, an essay on photography, art, language, and the antifascist imagination, is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press in 2021.