ALL this concern for images: John Major's image, Tony Blair's image, every public man-jack's image. Images - and in the era of the electronic media that means television pictures - have become more important than reality. It is 30 years since McLuhan gave us modernity's cardinal text, "The medium is the message." And still we do not believe it.
But it is true and the image- makers are kings in the post-modern world. The results of general elections are achieved by the way that make conjuring tricks and sleight of hand marvellous. Sometimes these machinations fail of course as when President Clinton is given a haircut on an airstrip. This was no doubt intended as an improvement to his image but it ended up almost wrecking his image completely.
Modern technology has even caused image to be prized above reality. Anthony Burgess told us this in his dystopic novel 1985, where a horrid little girl salutes her father with the words, "You was on the telly." This is taken to be some sort of ultimate accolade. And it is true in what we tentatively refer to as "real life": the impression is that people would do almost anything to appear on television.
It is as if our existence had become cathode rather than visceral, as if there were a new ontology summarised by the phrase To Be Is To Be Seen When Reality Is A Screen - as if the age-old philosophical argument about appearance and reality has finally been settled - in favour of appearance. At such a time as this, old words seem curiously contemporary, for example the commandment which said, "Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image." The present age has forgotten the prohibition on the making of images.
But this judgement neglects to account for the reason behind the prohibition of images. It was because wise people knew that the image as a mere copy, out of context, contains within itself the destructive potential of diminishing the numinous power of the original.
And yet we crave the original: that which is not an image but which is. Sometimes the results of this craving are laughable, as in the case of the proud father who wishes to "capture" the religious moment of his daughter's christening. So he takes along his camcorder for the purpose and he gets his picture of his daughter, regenerate - but with it pictures of half a dozen other fathers with their camcorders. And gadget speaketh unto gadget unto the third and fourth generation.
People are more casual, jocular, talkative and less reverent in church these days and yet you know that what they are trying to capture on their cassettes and videos is precisely that uniquely spiritual, special, holy and other sense of the sacramental moment. The same problem arises when we consider the cathedrals. In every one of them there are signs saying This Is A Holy Place, but the clamour of visitors looks like profanity. They come because they want to see the holy place and you know they come with expectations of vast silence in an awesome space. They come for a glimpse of heaven but what they get is bustling mundanity. And this too is captured on the camcorder.
When a visitor goes armed with his camera or camcorder to a shrine he or she is trying to capture for ever something of unique, religious value. …