Text: The Bottom line on planet one: squaring up to The Face by Dick Hebidge
Alan Hughes was a member of the photography magazine Ten.8 ’s editorial board. In an exchange with a group of Dick Hebidge’s visual communications students, one student criticised Ten.8 compared to The Face magazine, citing its left-wing politics, poor design, and its lack of interest (Hebidge, 1999: 99) . The author suggests that The Face represented a urtext or epitomy of good design, and compares this to Northrop Frye’s view of the Bible as the gold standard for Western artistic thought (Hebidge, 1999: 99-100).
The author- a teacher- suggests that Ten.8 is viewed by the students as too dull, too wordy, too preachy, and just not ‘worth the effort (or the cover price)’ to read, for what they imagine they will get out of the text (Hebidge, 1999:100). Indeed The Face has larger sales figures (52,000-90,000 cf. Ten.8 1,500-2,500), and regularly wins applause and awards for the standard of its design.
Hebidge ponders the question of whether the great difference in attitude of these students to the separate magazines could be attributed to any one factor. Had it to do with style or content (or both-or neither), attributes of the readership, style, advertising, financing, marketing or editorial policy? More specifically he wonders whether it was due to Ten.8’s links to education, knowledge, and a non-profit ethos, versus The Face ’s links to their polar opposites (Hebidge, 1999:100). As regards attitudes to profit-making, the author admits that it is an unlikely factor, as both magazines are relatively small and independent (Hebidge, 1999: 102). As for the style and content- they offer style, image and fashion (The Face ), and the theory, politics, history and practice of photography (Ten.8), which the author believes does not lie at the heart of the difference.
Hebidge provides a possible explanation via an anology of two separate worlds, where the power relationship between images and text is different, and where in one the subordination of images to words has been reversed, and allows images to dominate. This second world is
‘larger…first and foremost pictured… (where images) have their own power and effects…looking takes precedence over seeing (‘sensing’ over ‘knowing’)…..’
(Hebidge, 1999: 105)
This world, corresponding to The Face , uses words, not to inexhaustibly explain the images, but to ‘put the image in play’ (Hebidge, 1999: 105). The author seems to suggest that this world is far more mysterious, nuanced, unpredictable, powerful and interesting than the lily-livered way pictures are used to meekly and merely accompany the predictability and didactism of text in the first planet’s Ten.8. My personal reaction to this is that this is all very well, but most of the articles in the reader, including this one by Hebidge, is severely text-driven, and quite explicit. On the other hand, these articles are for a different audience- of students and academics, not style consumers.
Continuing with the separate worlds analogy, the author suggests further that in the second world, the relationships between the contributors is less vertical, less proscribed and traditional, and the contributors themselves are more varied (including flaneurs and dandies). Here the image is King, and the image is NOW, and there is no history, politics, or back-story. In this way the vertical dimension of history has been flattened, and there is only the horizontal dimension of the images and text that is presented each week (Hebidge, 1999: 105). By this stage the reader has a pretty good idea that The Face seems a more interesting and innovative magazine than Ten.8.
The author quotes Jean Luc Godard in order to introduce several ideas common to both Goddard’s words and The Face .
This is not a just image. This is just an image.
(Goddard quoted in Hebidge, 1999: 105)
Similarly The Face is not a just magazine (for example ‘…it renounces…the moralist’s mission to expose and combat social ills’ (Hebidge, 1999:106)), it is just a magazine (to hijack Godard’s words). And the magazine is out to upset most prevailing orthodoxies of the relationship ‘between cultural politics, the image, and the ‘popular’ (Hebidge, 1999:106). For example, it bizarrely juxtaposes fragments of such topics as clothes design, contemporary architecture, the thoughts of leading intellectuals, and electron microscope pictures of the AID’s virus (playfully titled ‘The sex object of the decade’). It is a magazine which ‘goes out of its way to blur the line between politics and parody, and pastiche….’ (Hebidge, 1999:106). In the world of The Face, the author implies that we lose our conventional bearings, and thus are happy to be alive for the sake of life, and nothing else (Hebidge, 1999:107).
In an exhibition in the Photographer’s Gallery near Leicester Square, a room was converted into a ‘walk-in magazine’ (Hebidge, 1999: 107), and the room contained sections which exactly matched The Face. Reading the magazine is compared to someone physically walking through this exhibition, and to Walter Benjamin’s ‘urban consumer’…’ consuming looks, objects, ideas and values’ (Hebidge, 1999: 107). The consumer can interpret and use any information in whatever way they choose- unshackled by conventions.
Similarly, Roland Barthes introduced the idea of ‘cruising’ a text (it seems to me, perhaps on the wet and muddy coat-tails of Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, who cruises the arcades of Paris?) as a method of reducing the reader’s dependence on imbibing the absolute meanings, the signifieds, contained within the text. The author believes that this type of approach is engendered by The Face; readers are using-in any way they wish (or simply enjoying)- the information (or disinformation for that matter); and this is the fundamental difference between The Face and its planet one relative Ten.8 (Hebidge, 1999: 108).
Expanding the argument to first and second world thinking generally, the author likens the second- world approach to that taken by post-structuralists and post-modernists to the image- ridding the signifier of its signified, whilst first-world thinkers like John Berger seek to extract all the meaning out of images (Hebidge, 1999: 108). This dialectic between the object as signifier-signified and the object as just the object is explored by Pierre Bourdieu in his essay on the social definition of photography (Bourdieu, 1999). The planet 2 ‘posties’ seek to undermine what the author calls dominant Platonic meaning (ie. what is represented) and a world of images which may be good and bad, legitimate and illegitimate, or an anti-Godard world where images can be just and unjust. They seek to replace it with a meaning based on differences alone (Hebidge, 1999:109).
More expansively, the first world meaning is part of a long existing hierarchy and power system which can be seen in elements such as the Word, the Enlightenment, and European Rationalism, the Party and that it is oppressive, and may include political thinking (Hebidge, 1999:109). Is this the word of the Lord or more generally text referred to by the author here? This section usefully lists the pervading ideological dogmas of the Western, Modern, Civilised world and hints that there are and were other possible journeys. It might also entail bourgoise ‘truth-speaking’, or ‘representing the oppressed’. The second world also includes anarchists and mystics (Hebidge, 1999:109).
It may seem somewhat impractical to live in a world which is completely without structures such as politics and law (the author calls these sorts of inhabitants an ‘impossible class’, a term originally coined by Nietzche, and appropriated by several anarchist groups). However I can think of examples of these pervading systems which can appear laughable and appalling, such as the sort of bourgoise truth-speaking from the likes of Millionaire celebrity capitalists such as the Rock star Bono.
It would be an interesting exercise to analyse how these sorts of manifestations could be analysed in traditional planet-1 terms, and how they might be replaced by a more unusual but satisfying planet-2 alternative.
The second world doesn’t need to be as severe as an anarchist breakdown of society though, and the ‘assault on representation’ can be limited to a textual and image world of ‘radically empty signifiers’ (Hebidge, 1999:109). Shades, variations and nuances are all possible within the planet. For example Jean Baudrillard is a current second-world thinker, espousing the belief that ‘…appearances can no longer be used to mask, conceal, distort or falsify reality’ , and that ‘… reality is nothing more than the never knowable sum of all appearances’ (Hebidge, 1999: 105).
These concepts inevitably prompt the reader to question his own views about what reality is. Is it simply what is visible, audible, only that which we can sense? Also is the past a reality? or the future ? How does this pared-down Baudrillardian view of the real relate to the Eastern, Buddhist, and spiritual ideas such as ‘thinking in the moment’, and for that matter modern medicine’s idea of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, where the triad of thought, feeling, behaviour is used as a model for both normal and abnormal living? One of my many favourite quotes from Mark twain is that ‘I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.’ (Quotations page, 1994-2007).
Baudrillard believes that reality ‘flickers’, and that we can’t interpret reality on the basis of our experiences, nor can we ‘speculate dispassionately on the meaning of it all.’ (Hebidge, 1999:109). Nor does the I exist. ie. ourselves. We are just what exists at that point, ‘The subject simply ceases’(Hebidge, 1999: 110). This Baudrillardian planet 2 life is suggested by the author to be like a person receiving inputs and playing out their life – like video tape heads receive information on magnetic tape and translate it into a screen picture- ‘…all human life can pass across the heads, but we never own or store or ‘’know’ or ‘see’ the material that we process.’ With the death of the subject the word ‘by’ becomes meaningless- we have no power to intervene (Hebidge, 1999: 110).
I do not think that the death of the subject and this powerlessness logically follows, even from the analogy with a VCR player. It is I guess a concept which has been exaggerated to the extreme, for it’s striking effect. I am happy to admit that in some senses (and this is key, as reality contains a large number of different separate ingredients) that the past and future don’t really exist (but they do as memories, or as hopes and fears…..), but even in the VCR world, even if we are simply interpreting stimuli, then for as long as we have a body, we are able to influence our environment, and our experience.
Is the age of the extinction of signifieds just sophistry? The author cites further abstractions such as the move away from the manufacturing model of economy towards one dominated by media, computers and global conglomerates (Hebidge, 1999: 110). We now have programmed obsoletism (of goods), and manufacture without human involvement, and the most important products are images and information-which have no physical substance, and these characteristics of modern society are breaking down Marx’s capitalist model…..into the model termed hypercapitalism by Jean Francoise Lyotard (Hebidge, 1999: 110).
This sort of societal model is pertinent to my dissatisfaction with our current society. It’s one that measures Quality of Life by measures like the GDP or whatever technological innovations happen to be on the scene- an evolution of science, and medicine, and engineering which is praised as our new GOD. But this evolution has no need of more simple social improvements such as equality. The answers to these profound social issues do not evolve in the same way. Indeed evolution of man or technologies is survival of the fittest and involves power over weakness and the eventual death of the weak. We have to value a different model for ensuring social justice and equality, which may move against our animal instincts, and where decisions are made not incrementally like science, but in major life changing leaps- such as the abolition of slavery, and the enfranchisement of groups who were previously voiceless. From an economic point of view, the increasingly abstracted economy came to a gut wrenching crash once again in 2008, caused by both greedy selling of mortgage ‘debt’ to the poor to buy houses, and more generally in the global necessity to trade in non-existent things, such as stocks and shares and derivatives.
According to some ‘posties’, in this hypercapitalist world the signifier has won out, the playing field is levelled, and everyone has access to the means of reproduction, not production (Hebidge, 1999: 111). In the sphere of knowledge and education the model of the university, and intellectual and cultural value of subjects like social sciences will reduce. These will be replaced with linguistics (to break down communications barriers?) and cybernetics (to manufacture and reproduce things). Communications technology expands and national boundaries and culture are levelled…..everything changes……production ,consumption, subjectivity, knowledge , art….(Hebidge, 1999: 111).
There are lots of structures breaking down here, and I found it difficult to follow the argument here. For example was all this collapse due solely to the loss of the signified? Or was it due to the ‘intellectual’ ideas of Planet 2 in general, which are varied, and where too there may be some disagreement (between planet 2 posties), and some nuances, and some disclarity…
One specific problem I had with this part of the text was that it hinted at possible bipartisan approach by the posties (eg. disagreements exist) about what planet 2 is like, but I did not clearly understand who espoused what. Additionally, I can agree that the post Marxist hypercapitalist world seems to reduces differences (between countries and classes, and hierarchies) and increases the abstract nature of economics, and that therefore the signified is weakened (if not killed off). However ‘the triumph of the signifier’ (Hebidge, 1999: 111), seemed to suggest a dominance and increase in its prevalence during hypercapitalism. My difficulty here is that if this triumph has actually killed off the signifier I agree. If it remains and is even stronger, in a world where abstraction seems to be rife, then this seems paradoxical – but perhaps paradoxical is also allowed in planet 2!
Continuing to describe the planet 2 world, the author suggests everywhere becomes the same and that this is the world suited to The Face (Hebidge, 1999: 112).
The author now cites a Levi jeans commercial (the main character has a copy of The Face in his suitcase) – where the playing out of the dialectic (?) between East/West, Age/youth, Chains/Freedom etc. is going on, and sums up the hypercapitalist society (Hebidge, 1999: 112) the society of ‘…commodity consumption, personal identity, and desire…’ (Hebidge, 1999: 113).
I became a little confused here, as the very polarised world of the advert appears to be more simply capitalist to me…us v them and the power of consumer goods- not the sort of hypercapitalist breakdown of these polarised structures. The author says that this advert’s story is not just a ‘bourgoise myth’ but has some reality ie. that The Face and Levis are worth a lot of money in the Russian black market, and they are more like a dream of freedom for the subjugated and trapped Eastern citizens (Hebidge, 1999: 113). For me, is this any different to the bourgoise myth of working classes desiring consumer objects to free them from their life? (ie the typical Marxist / Barthes myth of consumerism). There seems no real difference.
The author compares the second world to the First-world thinker John Berger who in his ‘Ways of Seeing’ TV series moves between a picture of starving refugees, onto an advert for bath salts, whilst reading the Sunday Times. He calls the culture that is responsible for this epistemological gap ‘ (Hebidge, 1999: 113).
In the flat (second world) arguments can be built but with difficulty because it is easy for slippage to occur. In The Face ’… irony and ambiguity dominate…’ and hyperbole (Hebidge, 1999: 114). When the author opens a copy of the Magazine at the exhibition, he sees a SWATCH supplement, faithfully parodying the style of The Face (Hebidge, 1999: 115). These rhetorical devices are used to reduce the feeling that meanings contained within its pages are dogmatic/didactic opinion. Similarly they frequently use new terms (‘Butcheoise’, Doleocracy..) avoiding terms which might be laden with old and traditional meanings (Hebidge, 1999: 114). Photographers, writers, and ‘subjects’ are anonymous (really?always?), which protects them from being categorised and remembered (Hebidge, 1999: 115).
The typefaces used within the magazine are sometimes barely decipherable (Hebidge, 1999: 117). This too is taken by the author as an example of planet-2-ness. Its more iconic, more Eastern Japanese script (a non-phonetic alphabet). The author describes The Face as using ‘the semiogram; a self-enclosed semantic unit- a word, graphic image, photograph……which cannot be referred (or signify? ) to anything outside itself’ (Hebidge, 1999: 119).
The author and his generation tend to remember a particular idea of ‘the popular’ around the inter-war and post-war years, exemplified by The Picture Post (Hebidge, 1999: 120). These ideas are well known to consist of equality, fairness, justice etc (think of the post-WW2 political concensus around medical and social provision for all (NHS and national insurance) and protection (via nationalisation and NATO).
This sort of national view and the symbols it was used to, broke down with the maintained affluence of the post-war period, and a break from concensus towards conviction politicians such as Margaret Thatcher. Another break from the past has been an increasing educational level available to the masses, and feminism, which has put the rights and issues of women at the heart of society (Hebidge, 1999: 120). This is the transformed political landscape that Hebidge sees The Face as serving.
In the final coda of the essay Hebidge surprised me a little. After a lengthy difficult exploration of the concepts and context of planet-2, and its relevance to the style of The Face magazine, he comes down to earth quickly, by stating that The Face is not a complete reflection of planet-2, or Baudrillard, and he commends it for its popularity, significance, influence, and (sometimes) excellent journalism (Hebidge, 1999:121). He also addresses my previous point by suggesting that the depth of his analysis regarding this popular magazine might be viewed as somewhat comical by some.
The most surprising to me were his final thoughts. In fact one last battle between planet 1 and planet 2 had yet to be described, and planet 2 was not (as I had come to believe during the essay) necessarily going to win. This became important as he left the The Face exhibition, and heard a Chrissie Hynde song playing in a loop (Hebidge, 1999:121). The author’s revelation was that when all is said and done our simple humanity makes us believe in words (such as pain, love, faith), and their associated symbols, signifieds, and time frames (not just the present, but the past and the future); all those planet 1 attributes which common sense and humanity had made it difficult for me to accept were not important (at least in planet 2). And he would go on reminding himself ‘….that this earth is round not flat, that there will never be an end to judgement….’ (Hebidge, 1999:121). And with that I happily breathed a sigh of relief and the thoughts of planet 2 began to disperse and dissolve a little from my brain, at least for now.
Bourdieu, P (1999) ‘The social definition of photography’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications. p.162-180
Hebidge, D (1999) ‘The bottom line on planet one: squaring up to the face’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications. p. 99-124
Quotations Page (1994-2007) Mark Twain online at
http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/38977.html (accessed on 16th April 2017)