Surface of Image and Depth of Reality: On worldwide response to image of Aylan Kurdi

Omid Shams

 But certainly the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence….

Feuerbach, Preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity

Image of drowned Syrian boy echoed around the world. Thousands of people are sharing the photos and sending tweets and status updates sympathizing with the family and expressing their dismay. One might say this is the power of the image. And it is true. Image is indeed the most powerful phenomenon of our time even much more powerful than reality itself. In fact, Image surpasses the reality. It encapsulates the reality and delivers it to the exchange order.

What is disappearing in this process is totality. Image, in contrast with reality, is limited, framed and partial. Therefore the only way to perceive the totality in an image is through generalization, or better to say, fetishism. The Reality, which is fragmented and dissolved into images, loses its third dimension, its depth. It will be reduced and limited to the surface. Any reaction to the images of reality is motivated by and addressed towards the surface and will never reach or even realize the depth and totality. Without depth and totality, there will be no comprehensive perception (understanding). And without perception, what remains is nothing but mere consumption.  This is how the late logic of image introduces the reality as an object to the exchange order. Now reality finds its meaning in the exchange value.

A certain image is received and in exchange a certain reaction (nothing in form of perception or emotion, only sentiment) is sent that determines the value of that part of reality represented by image. At this point, the autonomy of image begins. The exchange value of reality, that is, the level of intensity of reaction depends on the marketing of image and nothing else. Those who control the marketing of image, also control the value and the meaning of reality which is represented by that image. They control which part of reality must be revealed and which parts must be hidden. Therefore, they also control the reflections upon the reality by controlling the frame and perspective of image. There is no other way to explain the surprising global reaction to the image of tragic death of Aylan Kurdi and shocking inattention to another image of tragic death of Aziz Badr, 4 years old Yezidi kid who ran away from ISIS wandering in desert for days until his eyes were burnt and blinded by sun and he was found paralyzed and mute and died shortly after.  These two images supposedly represent the same brutal reality and they were both presented in the market of global media, yet their value is incomparable.  It is simply because there is no connection between the surface of image and the depth and totality of the reality behind it.

Polish Refugees in Iran 1943

Polish Refugees in Iran 1943

The reaction to the incomplete image will be incomplete as well. And since the image is temporary by nature, it only causes temporary responses.

We are recently seeing beautiful images of solidarity, kindness and generosity from people around the world. But it seems like dressing the wounds on arms and legs while the throat is cut loose. People (well, some people) are doing their best to help; but since they are not seeing the whole picture, they are not able to ask the most important questions and examine the situation thoroughly. So they simply wouldn’t be able to stop the bleeding. Soon they’ll get tired of pressing their hands on wrong wounds.

They could have asked: why are we welcoming these people while our governments are bombing their countries? Who are these people running from? How those scary murderers suddenly appeared in those countries? Who armed them at the first place? How can these groups sell oil and gas to supply themselves? Who is buying oil and gas from them? Why our governments armed the same groups in Syria that they enlisted them as terrorists in western countries? Wasn’t any better solution for stopping oppressive Syrian regime than arming the most barbaric groups with the most reactionary ideologies?

Greek refugees in Syria 1943

Greek refugees in Syria 1943

How long can we keep doing this? Is it possible to move the whole population of a country and distribute them in other countries? Why our governments attacked Iraq and left it in total chaos as a safe haven for terrorist organizations? Did our governments find any trace of those mass destruction weapons that they claimed they will find in Iraq? Isn’t it an absurd irony that we are helping people whose enemies are being armed by our governments’ allies? Wouldn’t it be better if we stop the total destruction of these countries instead of welcoming their refugees? Isn’t it suspicious that the most powerful armies of the world all together cannot defeat a terrorist organization that has known ground bases in a known geographic region? Aren’t they the same armies that once occupied this whole geographic region in a week?

These are not the questions raised by the image of dead Aylan Kurdi. But these questions may lead to the reasons of his death. And if we
follow these questions and demand for answers, we’ll see that he was long dead before sea swallowed him.

These questions will also be useful for those who are so worried about the two percent of refugees of a ruined region coming to Europe; those who forgot 1943 when 12000 Greek refugees were accepted by not so rich Syria and more than 10,000 Polish refugees were welcomed in Iran. They could follow these questions to see that the most effective way to stop the refugee crisis would be to stop their governments from destroying these countries directly or indirectly.