Hypnotised by the camera's dirty tricks

PHOTO OP: PM John Key on the end of a shovel again this week.
PHOTO OP: PM John Key on the end of a shovel again this week.

Press columnist JOE BENNETT's latest book targets the all-conquering tidal wave of "bullshit" that assails us throughout the day. Bullshit is used to manipulate us and its opposite and antidote is reason and common sense. The book is Double Happiness: How Bullshit Works, and the extract below is chapter 28, The Tyranny of the Image.

My dog is running. He has somewhere to go quickly, probably somewhere I don't want him to go. Then a molecule of rotting possum reached the smell receptors in his nose. His muzzle is yanked involuntarily to one side, as if it were moored to the source of the smell. The brakes come on but he is travelling so fast that his hindquarters carry on in the original direction. They swing round, describing a semi-circle, the centre of which is the point to which his nose is now directed. Thus he addresses the smell that he was powerless to resist addressing. The dog is an olfactory creature.

We are visual creatures. It is through the eyes that the stimulus reaches us to prompt a similar and barely resistible reaction. Like music, images bypass the analytical bits of the brain, the critical faculties, and arrow home to the ancient bits.

DIABETES FIGHT: Prime Minister John Key and Lady Beaven planted a tree at the Don Beaven Medical Research Centre.
DIABETES FIGHT: Prime Minister John Key and Lady Beaven planted a tree at the Don Beaven Medical Research Centre.

I recall one hot afternoon in Spain when I was riding a bus to a factory where I taught the managers English. Through the bus window I caught a glimpse of a poster so sexy, so precisely attuned to my desires, that I simply got off the bus and walked back to stare at it, powerless to resist the urge. I can still conjure that image in my head, in detail, 33 years later. I remember nothing of the lesson I later taught.

A picture is famously worth a thousand words. Time was when every picture had to be made by hand. Now cameras create them endlessly and effortlessly. And no human invention has done more than the camera to enable the proliferation of bullshit.

People who seek publicity design things around the camera. They schedule photo ops. I open today's paper and there is a picture of John Key planting a tree. Only he isn't. He is wearing a suit and the light glints from the blade of his virgin spade. Someone else dug the hole and will fill it back in and tamp it down and mulch and tend the tree. Mr Key is "planting a tree". It's a symbol. The image associates the leader with good things.

TREE PLANTING: Prime Minister John Key plants a liquid ambar with the Callander family  at the learning centre.
TREE PLANTING: Prime Minister John Key plants a liquid ambar with the Callander family at the learning centre.

The fundamental lie of photography is that it freezes time. Consider the Hertz ad. The happy youth is carrying the happy girl across the beach in perpetuity. Their smiles will never fade.

Now, I don't recall ever carrying a young woman across a beach, but I can imagine doing so and I am confident that at some point my smile would fade. As I dragged my feet through the sand, stumbling perhaps on a piece of driftwood, or stabbing my sole on a broken shell, I would begin to pant, to sweat. Lactic acid would accumulate in my thighs. And however white the young woman's teeth and however charming her smile, and however her laugh might ring across the sand like the tinkle of silver bells, the time would come when I would say, "OK, darling, that was fun, but would you mind getting off? My back's killing me". In the Hertz ad that time never comes.

Even as amateurs we acknowledge the deceptive potential of the camera. "Say cheese," says the recorder of the moment. "Come on, everybody, say cheese." And we who have stopped having a good time in order that someone should record us appearing to have a good time, dutifully fake it. And when the shutter finally clicks we all smile for real at the relief. But then, 10 years later, the photo is all we have of that afternoon and we've grown to believe, gradually, that that's how it was. And when our house catches fire we dash back through the smoke to rescue an album full of such frozen dishonesties. Images are potent.

Because of the potency and emotional immediacy of the image, bullshitters increasingly use words in a manner that strives to imitate its instant appeal. The text of the Hertz ad begins thus: "Sunny skies. Warm weather. And ways to enjoy even more of it with Hertz."

Note the sentence fragments, the gobbets of language like patches of colour. No verbs. Nothing complicated. This is language as an emotive anaesthetic. And what it seeks to anaesthetise, as always, is the analytical and critical faculties. What exactly are the "ways to enjoy even more" warm weather? The next paragraph purports to provide the answer: "Including a wide selection of vehicles to choose from, 24-Hour access to Emergency Medical and Roadside Assistance plus great additional extras like zero insurance excess and Neverlost GPS."

Once again we have a sentence with no finite verb. But more significantly this is language divorced from sense. Having "24-Hour access to Emergency Medical Assistance" is not a way to enjoy more good weather, any more than a zero insurance excess is, or a GPS system. Behind this inanity you can sense a residual trace of what ought to be there. There is in the copy a ghost- memory of the pattern of reasoned argument, but it has been lost in language that aspires to the emotive potency of the image it accompanies.

A century and a half ago an image was a rarity. Today images are impossible to escape. And the most potent purveyor of them by far is that box in the corner of the living room that presents us with a mediated version of the world beyond our walls, the television.

Television has been a worldwide success because, as visual beasts, we absorb the endless succession of images on the screen without interpretative effort. Indeed if a television is on in a room, in a bar, in an airport, it requires a conscious effort not to watch it.

The screen is hypnotic, stupefying, infantilising. It reduces us to the status of babies, lying back and watching stuff moving before our eyes, like the clothesline of plastic shapes stretched across a pram. If the plastic shapes stop moving the baby falls asleep or starts to cry. We just change channel. A simple press of the finger will take us somewhere else in the endlessly entertaining labyrinth of the alternative universe that is tellyland.

The makers of television do not want us to change channel. Their business depends on retaining our attention. So they try never to allow the shapes to stop moving. On the news today there was a story of the possible departure of Greece from the eurozone. The story told of bailouts, soaring interest rates, a possible run on the banks, all of it significant stuff. But none of it visual stuff. So in order that we baby viewers should not get bored, burst into tears and change channel during an item that lasted a minute at most, we were shown file footage of a machine printing bank notes, hypnotically stacking and slicing, stacking and slicing. Look, said the picture, this is all about money. Look at the clever machine.

The Press