Visible Evidence

From the Department of Incongruous Juxtapositions, this pair of items: on the right, the photograph of Rihanna following her beating by Chris Brown; on the left, the supposed image of Atlantis culled from Google Earth.

Let me immediately make clear that I am in no way calling into question the fact of Rihanna’s assault or equating its visual trace — its documentary and moral significance — with the seeming signs of ancient civilization read into a tracework of lines on the ocean floor. The former is evidence of a vicious crime, brutal as any forensic artifact; the latter a fanciful projection, like the crisscrossing canals that generations of hopeful astronomers imagined onto the surface of Mars.

If there is a connection between these images, it is not in their ontological status, which is as clean an opposition as one could hope for, but in their epistemological status: the way they localize larger dialectics of belief and uncertainty, demonstrating the power of freely circulating images to focus, lenslike, the structures of “knowledge” with which our culture navigates by day and sings itself to sleep at night.

In LA a legal investigation rages over who leaked the photo of Rihanna, while across the nation a million splinter investigations twease out the rights and wrongs of TMZ’s going public with it. Does one person’s privacy outweigh the galvanizing, possibly progressive impact of the crime photo’s appearance? Does the fight against domestic and gendered violence become that much more energized with each media screen to which Rihanna’s battered face travels? What happens now to Rihanna, who (as my wife points out) faces the Hobson’s choice of disavowing what has happened and going on with her career in the doomed fashion of Whitney Houston, or speaking out and risking the simultaneous celebration and stigmatization we attach to celebrities whose real lives ground the glitter of their fame? If nothing else, Rihanna has been forcefully resignified in the public eye; whatever position she now adopts relative to the assault will bring judgment upon her — perhaps the most unfair outcome of all.

Meanwhile, the purported image of Atlantis manifests a familiar way of seeing and knowing the unseeable and unknowable. It joins, that is, a long list of media artifacts poised at the edge of the possible, tantalizing with their promise of rendering in understandable terms the tidal forces of our unruly cultural imaginary: snapshots of the Loch Ness Monster, plaster castings of Bigfoot’s big footprints, grainy images of UFOs glimpsed over backyard treelines, Abraham Zapruder’s flickering footage of JFK’s execution, blown-up photos of the jets hitting the World Trade Centers (bearing circles and arrows to indicate why the wrongly-shaped fuselages disprove the “official story”). From creatures to conspiracies, it’s a real-world game of Where’s Waldo, based on fanatically close readings of evidence produced through scientific means that pervert science’s very tenets. Fictions like Lost provide sanitized, playful versions of the same Pynchonean vertigo: the spiraling, paranoid sense that nothing is as it seems — a point ironically proved with recourse to cameras as objective witnesses. In the case of Google’s Atlantis, that “camera” happens to be a virtual construct, an extrapolated map of the ocean floor. The submerged city itself, Google says, is an artifact of compositing and compression: the lossy posing as the lofty, a high-tech updating of lens flares, cosmic rays, and weather balloons too distant for the lens to resolve into their true natures.

In both cases, something submerged has been brought to light, touching off new rounds of old debates about what really happened, what’s really out there. With depressing speed, internet message boards filled with derisive reactions to Rihanna’s photo. “She looks better that way”; “That’s what happens when a woman won’t shut her mouth”; and perhaps most disheartening, “It’s not that bad.” A chorus of voices singing a ragged melody of sexism, racism, and simple hard-heartedness. Let’s hope we have the collective sense to respond correctly to these two images, separating tragic fact from escapist fiction.