Perhaps it’s something of a cliche to speak of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  “Yes, yes, we’ve all heard of the Allegory of the Cave!  We all learned about the Allegory of the Cave in our Intro to Philosophy courses!”  That’s true.  I’m sorry to speak of it again.  I can’t help it.  I think the Allegory of the Cave is a good myth.  What’s a good myth?  A good myth is a time machine.  By that, I don’t mean that it takes us back to the past like the Delorean in Back to the Future.  No, a good myth is a myth that is able to exceed its historical horizon, explode the context in which it’s inscribed, and travel into the future.  A good myth is a myth that is open to endless interpretation; which is to say that a good myth is a myth that is able to speak across history.  A good myth is slippery and without a determinate signified.  For that reason, it can take on many signifieds.  What did Plato think?  I don’t care.  He wrote a good myth and therefore wrote a myth capable of going beyond Plato.

We know the story.  The prisoners have been in the cave since birth.  They don’t know they’re prisoners.  Behind them the guards walk back and forth in front of a fire with different shapes of things on long poles.  The shapes cast shadows on the cave wall.  The prisoners think the shadows are reality.  After all, they’ve never seen anything else, right?  Clearly there is only one possible interpretation of the Allegory of the Cave.  The fire is obviously capitalism.  The guards are most certainly the journalists, pundits, editors, and politicians.  And the shadows on the cave wall are television news, newspapers, social media, and the political blogs.  The shadows are images and images are copies of something else.  Plato was most definitely diagnosing the times in which we live.  As a careful reader of Niklas Luhmann– especially Luhmann’s Reality of the Mass Media –and other media theorists, he knew very well that it is the mass is our primary access to reality and constructs our sense of reality.  Think about it.  How do you know that North Korea exists?  Have you been there?  Probably not.  You saw it on a map or a globe (an image).  You read about it (an image).  You heard someone who says they’ve seen it talk about it (an image).  You saw a photograph or film footage (an image).  You watched a documentary on the forgotten war (images again).  The vast majority of your beliefs about the world are through images.  That’s your reality.  That’s my reality.

read on!

What’s Plato’s problem with images, anyway?  He’s so cranky and probably an essentialist to boot!  Hiss!  It gets worse!  Let’s look at Plato’s Analogy of the Divided Line.  What determines the different levels of reality on the divided line?  The Principle of Identity (A = A) and the Principle of Non-Contradiction (~(A & -A)).  Plato is committed to the thesis that reality is rational and that it must therefore obey the root principles of rationality.  The Excluded Middle is in there somewhere too.  The more identical something is to itself, the more real it is.  In Platonese, that’s a fancy way of saying that the more eternal and unchanging something is, the more real it is.  Likewise with the Principle of Non-Contradiction.  If “visible things” are lower than mathematical objects on the Line, then this is because they’re contradictory.  The rose is red now, sure.  Sadly, next week, it will be brown.  It contradicts its identity.  It lacks eternity.  It’s not outside of time.  Fucking logocentrist!

So what’s the problem with images?  Without exception, images distort what they depict.  My photograph of my dog is not my dog.  It doesn’t wake me by licking my face in the morning.  It doesn’t play ball.  I don’t have to feed it.  And all the rest.  The equation for images is I =/= R, where “I” denotes “image” and “R” denotes reality.  That’s not very interesting, though.  It’s trivial, even if it’s true.  Things get more interesting when we cross the line between the world of appearances or the visible world and the world of “true reality”.  Notice that Plato doesn’t treat mathematical objects as the highest reality.  Why?  He says– if my memory serves me right, which is another image –because mathematics relies on diagrams and writing.  Now we’ve fallen into logocentrism.  I draw a triangle to try and think about the essence of triangles.  What’s wrong with that?  No matter how hard I try to draw triangleness, I can only draw a triangle.  It’s always going to be scalene or right or isosceles or equilateral.  It will never be triangleness.  Every image is more narrow than what it strives to depict and therefore excludes members of the kind that fall under the class (Plato had also read Mouffe and Laclau on hegemony).  The danger, then, is that the image we use to help us think gets confused with reality, leading us to overlook other variations of the type.

Saying that images are always too narrow is another way of saying that every image is framed.  We forget that every image is an interpretation, even written images.  How can a photograph or film footage be an interpretation?  Because they’re framed.  What does it mean to say that they’re framed?  It means that there is an inside and an outside.  We see this on Facebook.  Everyone posts pictures of themselves and reports stories about their lives that present them in the light they would like to be seen.  What we don’t see is what is outside of the frame.  Their images are true in the sense that they depict what has taken place, but they tell a lie in that they leave the rest out.  A letter to the editor, which is an image of someone’s thought, is true in the sense that someone actually wrote that letter, but it is a lie in the sense that the editor still selected that letter from dozens or hundreds of letters to portray the story about popular sentiment they wanted to portray.  That is how the truth can be told to tell a lie.  All truth are framed and, like any window, only allow us to see a portion of the world.  We should remember that when we watch the news.  The events and issues we see depicted on the news are indeed real events that are taking place and real matters of concern (to use Latour’s language).  Yet why are these the issues and events that are being depicted and who is selecting those particular stories as the ones worth telling?  How can something true lead me astray?  If I watched my local news I’d be a basket case.  I’d think there’s nothing but murder and robbery in my area, despite the fact that these events are statistically rare and unlikely.  What happens when I watch Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity?  What are they making seem common and foregrounded and pushing into the background?  The prisoners are prisoners of the images that captivate them.  There’s nothing we can do today but live in a world of images, but we can be aware of how those images hypnotize us.