We're All Poor Images Now
On Hito Steyerl, high priestess of affect under quarantine
The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.
From “In Defense of the Poor Image,” Hito Steyerl, e-flux Journal #10
About two weeks ago, already deep into quarantine and feeling lonely, I video chatted with my friends Molly and Julia. It was something of an ordeal. First we tried Zoom. It took us a few tries to figure out how to even start a meeting. My computer microphone had been broken for months, so I’d been using my phone for audio, but this time it wasn’t connecting. I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I could hear Molly and Julia, but I couldn’t speak. I mimed my problems. I explained them in the chat. My cat knocked over a glass of wine. I exited the frame. I cleaned it up. I still couldn’t speak. My friends wondered why I’d vanished.
Then we tried Facetime, but we couldn’t figure out how to make the chat work three ways. Eventually we landed on a solution: Molly used her computer to chat with my phone, and then used her phone to chat with Julia’s phone, and then held her phone up to her computer screen so we could all see each other. That worked. It was unwieldy, but it worked. I could see my face (or an image of my face) reflected in Molly’s phone, right beneath Julia’s face, or an image of it. We were layered and refracted, mediated through layers of virtual and material reality. Screens reflected by screens. Looking at the pixelated, distorted version of myself, I felt a recognition tempered by discomfort. I was seeing myself as a poor image.
The poor image is the pixelated still from a Wong Kar-wai movie reimagined as a Facebook cover photo. The poor image is the meme on Twitter that one might describe as “deep-fried.” The poor image is the screenshot of a screenshot of an Instagram post from the finsta of someone you hate. It is the 480p Youtube video titled “frasier s3 ep12 russian sub.” It is the Avengers gif that someone on Tumblr edited, in 2013, using a torrented copy of Photoshop, to include a flower crown — which is now beginning to lag, and glitch, and even fail to load.
It is a poor image but a rich text. In its degraded visual quality, the poor image contains its own history: the rags and rips and transformations that have liberated it from whatever cultural or actual capital it was once meant to generate. The artist and theorist Hito Steyerl coined the term in 2009. (An aeon ago, in internet-time.) “Poor images are the contemporary Wretched of the Screen, the debris of audiovisual production, the trash that washes up on the digital economies’ shores,” she wrote. “Poor images show the rare, the obvious, and the unbelievable—that is, if we can still manage to decipher it.”
It is April of 2020 and I haven’t seen any of my friends in the flesh since early March. I haven’t seen anyone outside of three members of my immediate family. Instead of people, I talk to video chats: moving images, copies in motion, pixelated, freezing, and out of sync. As Steyerl predicted, the degraded picture quality acts as another layer of information. The time and condition under which these images were created is embedded into their very form: April 2020, coronavirus pandemic, shelter in place. We’re all poor images now.
At least, those of us who can afford to be. The irony is that, far from Steyerl’s conception of the “Wretched of the Screen,” it is now only the most privileged class that can live entirely through images (however poor). White-collar workers and financially comfortable college students work from home while blue-collar essential workers and gig employees keep braving what we tend to call “the real world” out of a painfully ironic need to survive. There’s a trend in the media to call such workers heroes. Nonsense. Maybe healthcare workers signed up to be heroes, to risk their lives in a pandemic, but the guy restocking lentil pasta at Trader Joe’s sure didn’t. “Heroes” is what you call people you have no intention of trying to protect.
Even within the privileged class of the digital, though, hierarchies emerge. To Steyerl, resolution was one of the major axes on which the class system of images was organized. The strength of one’s WiFi, the sharpness of one’s camera, and even the virtual representation of the real physical space one occupies all play a role in this system. Zoom classes have taken on a strange intimacy. I see my classmates’ homes, and maybe even pets and family members. I see who has a stainless steel fridge and who has a dark wood office and who can’t find a quiet corner away from younger siblings. Goofy Zoom backgrounds are a way to opt out of that intimacy, at least in part. As one tweet put it:
Then someone pointed out that older computer models can’t run Zoom backgrounds. (When I tried to use a background with my older PC, it covered my face entirely.) And someone else pointed out that backgrounds tend to project on top of black hair. The idea that an image can convey nothing about the conditions under which it was produced is a fantasy.
I miss real life. You all know this. I’ve written about it. I miss places. I miss looking at things that don’t emit a constant, mild blue light. I go to bed and my eyes hurt; I wake up and my eyes hurt. I miss things that are just things and not images of things.
It’s kind of comforting, though, to remember that the “real” is not a stable category. There was a time not that long ago when my digital life was much more compelling than my real life. I had very few classically formative experiences in high school. Pretty much everything I can think of that impacted my adolescence happened online. I can always tell when I’m slipping into old patterns of projection: I start crying at sitcoms. Authentic emotion can result from inauthentic stimuli. This is the logic that lets fiction work, and also the logic keeping me sane under quarantine.
“One could of course argue that this [poor image] is not the real thing, but then—please, anybody—show me this real thing,” wrote Steyerl. “The poor image is no longer about the real thing—the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities… In short: it is about reality.”
Pedro Almodovar’s quarantine diaries for IndieWire are light on the navel-gazing and heavy on the gossip. This one includes a superbly bitchy anecdote about Madonna.
A critique of COVID-era wellness influencing, by Amanda Hess.