In the film Blade Runner the anti-hero Deckard, whose job it is to “retire” or destroy human-like androids called “replicants,” is faced with an odd dilemma. Using a test to provoke responses and reactions in the subject Deckard tests someone who he believes is human at first. After a lengthy test he determines that the human is really a replicant. To add to the confusion the replicant herself is not even aware that she is not human. How? When she was developed the designers filled her android brain with memories and supplied pictures as evidence of that false history.
Umberto Eco in his book Travels in Hyperreality discusses the fabricated histories of Disneyland, Las Vegas, and Hollywood. A fictional and sanitized past not just to point to a past as a symbol but to replace it. Umberto Eco makes this observation about the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, TX:
Constructing a full-scale model of the Oval Office (using the same materials, the same colors, but with everything obviously more polished, shinier, protected against deterioration) means that for historical information to be absorbed, it has to assume the aspect of reincarnation. To speak of things that one wants to connote as real, these things must seem real. The “completely real” becomes identified with the “completely fake.” Absolute unreality is offered as real presence. The aim of the reconstructed Oval Office is to supply a “sign” that will then be forgotten as such: the sign aims to be the thing, to abolish the distinction of the reference, the mechanism of replacement (p. 6-7).
Jean Baudrillard calls this sort of manufactured reality simulacra. It is the point at which something like an icon loses the reality to which it points and becomes the thing itself. In religious terms it becomes an idol.
Which brings us to the photo altered by Instagram. These sorts of photos are images filtered through a past that does not exist. They fit within a thrift shop mentality among so-called hipsters that look for the old but in the new. Jeans look worn and as dirt laden as something 20 years old. Converse All-stars look just as they did 20 or 30 years ago. Bell bottoms and short shorts and countless other examples pervade the pop-culture atmosphere at the beginning of the 21st century.
A longing for a past by creating a fake image of it in the present is a peculiar cultural phenomenon. Even in religious circles there is a continual ebb and flow in movements that continue to look for the “original” church. But can those who dream such ideas imagine their image of that church will be a durable replication of it? This is in the emerging church movement, various forms of charismatic movements, sectarian movements, and cult movements that continually search for a past untainted by the present. The irony of course is once that idea of the past comes into the present it is deflated like a perfect soufflé popped by the bang of a pan.
Icons on the other hand point to a reality that is believed to exist in the present. Such a reality is super-temporal. They are means of contact with higher spiritual planes of reality that aren’t immediately available to us. Icons help the worshiper to understand the difference between a created and uncreated reality, between the living and the dead, and between the corporeal and incorporeal. There is a history to each icon that is brought into the present as a sign that those in the church never die but continue to live on. History isn’t destroyed, but it is reclaimed as something formative to the present.
Which brings us back to fabricated memories of a past that doesn’t even exist. The digital age will have a problem with time since the replication of images and text is near perfect if done correctly. Perhaps the Instagram photo is making up for that false sense of perfection by injecting the wear and tear of life into these fragments of the present. If that desire is so great, if that desire for the tangible and fragile is so important, perhaps we would all do well to go back to paper developing lest the only ones left to use it are professional photographers trained in the art of developing the past.