The Snapshot Effect

22 January 2018

Monday


Images will always be with us, but the age of the snapshot understood in its cultural and technological context, now belongs to the past. Or, if not to the past, it belongs to antiquarians and enthusiasts who will keep the technology of the snapshot alive even as it passes out of the popular mind. The snapshot inhabited that era that intervened between the age of cameras as large, bulky, specialized equipment that required a certain expertise to operate, and today’s universal presence of cameras and consequent universal availability of images — images often made available on the same electronic device that captured the image. The snapshot — presumably named for the onomatopoeic mechanical sound of the camera shutter that went “Snap!” as one took the “shot” — is, then, predicated upon a particular degree of finitude, of images more common and more spontaneous than a daguerreotype, but also less common and of more value than a smartphone selfie.

The most famous photographers of the snapshot era — for example, Henri Cartier-Bresson — become known for their candid and spontaneous images of ordinary life, sort of the still life version of cinéma vérité. Never before had so much of ordinary life been captured and preserved. Painters had always been interested in genre scenes, and the early photographers who lugged around their heavy and complex gear often followed the interest and example of these painters, but these images were relatively rare. In the age of the snapshot, images of ordinary people engaged in ordinary pursuits became as ordinary as the people and the pursuits themselves.

Part of what we mean, then, when we refer casually to a “snapshot,” is this sense of an image that spontaneously captures an ordinary moment of history, without formality or pretense, but with a documentarian’s fidelity. And once the moment is past, it remains only in the snapshot, almost a random moment fixed in time, while the persons and the events and the circumstances that once came together in the confluence of the snapshot, are now gone or changed beyond recognition.

It is partly this meaning that I want to tap into when I use the term “snapshot effect” to convey a particular idea about the human relationship to time and to history. Human life is long compared to the life of a mayfly, but it is quite short compared to the life of a redwood, and shorter still when measured against evolutionary, geological, or cosmological scales of time. What the individual human being experiences — what the individual sees, hears, feels, and so on — is as a snapshot in comparison to the world of which it is a fleeting image. A snapshot may or may not be representative of what it purports to represent; it may be a good likeness or a poor likeness. Because a snapshot is a moment snatched out of a continuum, we can only judge its fidelity if we compare it to a sufficient number of comparable moments taken from the same continuum. But the image often has the impact that it has precisely because it is a moment snatched out of time and stripped of all context. Often we resist a survey that would reveal the representativeness of the snapshot because to do so would be to deprive ourselves of the power of the isolated image.

I am going to use the term “snapshot effect,” then, to refer to the temporally narrow nature (and perhaps also the fragmentary nature) of human perception. We see not the world, but a snapshot of the world. We see not the object, but the side of the face that happens to be turned toward us when we glance in its direction. We hear not the narrative of a life, but a snippet of conversation that relates only a fragment of a single experience. We taste not the crop of strawberries, but the single strawberry that dissolves on our tongue, and judge the quality of the year’s produce by this experience. Even the grandest of grand views of the world are snapshots: to look into the night sky is to experience a snapshot of cosmology, and to recognize a geological formation is a snapshot of deep time. These snapshots reveal more than a casual glance, especially if they are attended by understanding, but they still exclude far more than they include.

Any rational individual, and any individual trained in the sciences, learns to control for the limited evidence available to us, but as carefully as we set our trap for limited evidence by rigorously controlling the conditions of our observations — observations that will count toward scientific knowledge, whereas our ordinary observations do not count because they are not so controlled — so too we also grant ourselves license to derive generalities from these observations. Ordinary experience is but a snapshot of the world; scientific experience derived from controlled conditions is an even more fragmentary snapshot of the world.

Because of the snapshot effect, we have recourse to principles that generalize the limited evidence to which we are privileged. The cosmological principle legitimizes our extrapolation from limited evidence to the universe entire. The principle of mediocrity legitimizes our extrapolation from a possibly exceptional moment to a range of ordinary cases and the most likely course of events. Conservation principles assure us that we can generalize from our limited experience of matter and energy to the behavior of the universe entire.

A recognition of the snapshot effect has long been with us, though called by other names. It has been a truism of philosophy, equally acknowledged by diverse (if not antagonistic) schools of thought, that our experiences constitute only a small slice of the actuality of the world. To cite two examples from the twentieth century, here, to start, is Bertrand Russell:

“…let us concentrate attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound. Any one else who sees and feels and hears the table will agree with this description, so that it might seem as if no difficulty would arise; but as soon as we try to be more precise our troubles begin. Although I believe that the table is ‘really’ of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colours, because no two can see it from exactly the same point of view, and any change in the point of view makes some change in the way the light is reflected.”

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Chap. I, “Appearance and Reality”

Russell represents the tradition that would become Anglo-American analytical philosophy, temperamentally and usually also theoretically disjoint from European continental philosophy, which might well be represented by Jean-Paul Sartre. Nevertheless, Sartre opens his enormous treatise Being and Nothingness with a passage that closely echoes that of Russell quoted above:

“…an object posits the series of its appearances as infinite. Thus the appearance, which is finite, indicates itself in its finitude, but at the same time in order to be grasped as an appearance-of-that-which-appears, it requires that it be surpassed toward infinity. This new opposition, the ‘finite and the infinite,’ or better, ‘the infinite in the finite,’ replaces the dualism of being and appearance. What appears in fact is only an aspect of the object, and the object is altogether in that aspect and altogether outside of it.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, translated by Hazel Barnes, Introduction: The Pursuit of Being, “I. The Phenomenon,” p. xlvii

Both Russell and Sartre in the passages quoted above are wrestling with the ancient western metaphysical question of appearance and reality. Both recognize a multiplicity of appearances and a presumptive unity of the objects of which the appearances are a manifestation. Seen in this light, the snapshot effect is a recognition that we see only an appearance and not the reality, and this reflection in turn embeds this simple observation in a metaphysical context that has been with us since the Greeks created western philosophy.

The snapshot effect means that our experiences are appearances, but our appreciation of appearances has grown since the time of Parmenides and Plato, and we see Russell and Sartre alike struggling to make out exactly why we should attach an ontological import to appearances — snapshots, as it were — when we know that they do no exhaust reality, and sometimes they betray reality.

The ontology of time and of history ought to concern us as much as the ontology of objects implicitly schematized by Russell and Sartre. A snapshot of time is an appearance of time, and as an appearance it does not exhaust the reality of time. Nevertheless, we struggle to do justice to this appearance — just as we struggle to do justice to our intuitions, for, indeed, a snapshot of time is an instance of sensible intuition — because the moment abstracted from time is still an authentic manifestation of time.

The “snapshot effect,” then, will be the term I will use to refer to the fact that human perceptions are a mere snapshot, perhaps representative or perhaps not, but perceptions which we tend to treat as normative, though we rarely take the trouble even to attempt to understand the extent to which our snapshot views of the world are, in fact, normative. There is, then, not only a metaphysical aspect to the snapshot effect, but also an axiological aspect to the snapshot effect, as our valuations are likely to be tied to, if not derived from, a snapshot in this sense.

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