Florian Schneider on Wed, 23 Jul 2008 00:24:39 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> the museum of the stealing of souls

dear nettimers!

last saturday the "the museum of the stealing of souls" has opened its
doors hosted by manifesta7.

below you find my text for the manifesta7 catalog which is supposed to
introduce the idea of this "mini-museum":

today the passage from "intellectual" to "imaginary" property is
challenging traditional notions of ownership and personhood. it is the
theft of the soul which in both, analog and digital modes, turns images
into property or vice versa: property into imageness.

"the museum of the stealing of souls" is devoted to histories of the
invention, appropriation and reconfiguration of the subject by
photography. the museum holds a fast growing collection organized in
seven departments. the exhibits on show are reflecting alleged histories
of soul-theft and surveillance, soullessness and alienation, immaterial
production and precariousness -- loosely based on the question: Where
can a soul live its life instead of saving it?

within the next few days the museum website will make the entire
collection available as well as additional video footage, the audio
guide and related material:

very best,



A Matter of Theft
Notes on the Art of Stealing a Soul
Florian Schneider


There is a well-known myth according to which indigenous people believe
that when a camera takes a picture of them, it captures a part of them,
if not stealing their soul. This has been repeated often enough, by the
pioneers of ethnographic photography as well as in online forums by
today’s amateur photographers; so-called natives have been credited with
this belief in every part of the world and across time. Like many other
popular assumptions from the field of ethnography, the idea of the theft
of a soul by image has become a commonplace, free from critical
reflection and questioning.

It proves what is supposed to be evident: the primitiveness of the
other, of those who are unfortunately doomed, as well as their
originality as a rare, still available and not yet fully exterminated
example to whom the privilege of possessing a soul has only recently
been granted; the naivety of those who are not familiar with new
technologies, as well as the correlate power of those who know how to
handle them properly; the spiritual innocence of the noble savage, as
well as the guilty conscience of those who intrude upon their

It is not rational, since it is irrational, a self-fulfilling prejudice
that reveals not much about those who are supposed to hold the belief
but quite a lot about those who assign the belief to others. In that
respect, the myth of the soul-stealing camera appears as a colonial
projection constitutive for the exoticising practice of portraying
indigenous people.

The innocent, noble savage does not only have to look and behave, wear
clothes, hold weapons, make gestures in order to fulfill the
expectations of the colonial photographer. The antipathy of indigenous
people towards the camera may not have derived from their alleged belief
in its soul-stealing capacity, but rather from their own very concrete
experiences: the camera has served as a weapon in the process of
photographic colonisation that ‘violates the silences and secrets
essential to our group survival’ (Leslie Marmon Silko).1

Moreover, the indigenous were forced to believe what was in fact a
bourgeois fashion in the European capitals of the nineteenth century:
with the emergence of physiognomic studies the face was considered to
express the interior decoration of the mind to the public, to reveal the
individual and the essential truth of the subject. The face became the
mirror of the soul.

Although at its outset and by its inventors photography was considered
ill-suited to the rendering of faces and the art of portraiture, the
technological development has been shaped according to the desire to
capture the intimate privacy of a person rather than stills of
landscapes. While Daguerre still doubted that the slow lenses,
time-consuming preparation, and long exposures required would make his
process suitable for portraits, by the mid-1850s at the latest the new
medium had been bent towards the art of portraiture: reproducible paper
prints, natural lighting and faster lenses prepared the ground for the
widespread success of portrait studios.

As soon as photography was capable of taking the picture of a person, as
soon as it managed to reproduce the human face in a recognisable and
identifiable way, resembling the subject and expressing his essence,
honorable figures from Balzac to Baudelaire began to fear an uncanny
technology that produces doubles and doppelgängers, that materialises
spirit, that manifests the soul in the image of the subject.

In ‘My Life as a Photographer’ the former caricaturist and pioneering
French photographer Felix Nadar recalls a theory he heard from Honoré de
Balzac: ‘All physical bodies are made up entirely of layers of ghostlike
images, an infinite number of leaflike skins laid one on top of the
other... Repeated exposures entailed the unavoidable loss of subsequent
ghostly layers, that is, the very essence of life’.2

Apparently Balzac borrowed his thoughts from the Latin poet Lucretius,
who suggested that images are ‘films’, insubstantial shapes of things,
which travel through air: simulacra, atom-thin and lightning-fast images
that stream from the surfaces of solid objects and enter the eyes or
mind to cause vision and visualisation.

Long before the triumph of wave theory in nineteenth-century physics,
Lucretius proposed a materiality of the image that seems fundamental for
any further elaboration on soul theft and image production. Balzac’s
adaptation appears confined within an logic of scarcity, while Lucretius
originally assumed an endless production of simulacra based on the
infinite existence of atoms. Furthermore, for Lucretius the soul is
affected by the constant stream of simulacra off of each object such
that it is as if one were wounded, epileptic, or paralyzed.

What is the reason for Balzac’s greed? Why should there be only a
limited number of images as ‘ghostly layers’ which disappear by
exposure? What really endangers the ‘very essence of life’? The
antipathy or refusal of being photographed resonates with a problem that
must reside outside the field of photographic technology; another, yet
unknown precariousness.

The soul that is stolen by exposure leaves an objectified person behind
that has lost its subjectivity and become alien to itself. Hegel still
used the term alienation as both a positive and a negative force of
modern life, but the young Karl Marx took that concept in order to lay
out one of his foundational claims: in the emerging industrial
production under capitalism, workers lose control of their lives and
selves—in other words, of their souls, since they lose control of their
work. Marx denounced the process of abstraction from use value to
exchange value as ‘fetishism’—yet another metaphor that relates to
allegedly primitive cultures, but this time it goes the other way around
and it finds its assignment in the centres of industrial capitalism.
Based on the belief that inanimate things or commodities have human
powers, these things appear as able to rule the activity of human
beings, replacing concrete social relationships with the illusions or
artificial character of the commodity form.

‘Thingification’ turns everything into commodities or objects to be
owned. The soul becomes a matter of property relations: through
alienation and commodity fetishism it turns into a thing that is
concealed, exchanged, traded and sold, after it has been stolen.

Postmodern capitalism has carried this idea to its extremes. The
alienated labor force is not enough; the new managerialism demands the
production of affects. The stolen soul reappears as the new productive
force; it invests in creativity, enthusiasm, commitment, loyalty,
friendliness, motivation, dedication.


In the face of a social reality ruled by alienation and based on
affective labour, the theft of the soul through photography may itself
sound like a nice, innocent, harmless and naive metaphor. Nevertheless
it corresponds to the irretrievable loss of authentic life caused by the
contradictions of an emerging, not yet fully graspable technological

Its incapacity or reluctance to cope with the contradictions of early
capitalism allowed the bourgeois subject to project its very own fears
onto the noble savage or the primitive. With the help of the indigenous
other and in the best tradition of orientalism, the antimodern soul
desperately sought to remain indispensable as the last resort of an
individuality that should not be endangered or alienated. Today’s
criticism and latent concern about surveillance and control technologies
follows a similar pattern. At the first glance, it seems that, after
all, the soul became a matter of privacy—walled off, gated and protected
against a hostile public. What is supposed to be guarded against
invasion and intrusion is conceived as constitutive for distinctiveness
and individuality; it exists in solitude, apart from company and being
observed. ‘The privation of privacy lies in the absence of others’, as
Hannah Arendt pointed out.3

Since Augustine of Hippo, across romanticism and existentialism, maybe
even in parts of the neomarxist criticism of alienation, the soul can be
perceived as a hidden interior territory, home of an untroubled
personality, an enclosure in which authenticity is nourished, not
bothered by interferences and unexpected encounters: ‘In the inward man
dwells truth’, as Augustine said.4 As the headquarters for the
cultivation of emotional life it is the hotbed of personal preferences,
individual taste, and other partialities. In this view, the soul would
stand for the limits of manipulative access to subjective experience.
Access is granted, if at all, only through specifically designed
interfaces, and trespassing turns out somehow equal to theft.

Contemporary surveillance practices based on digital technologies are
widely considered such ‘trespass on the soul’. But today, the violation
of the soul lies in duplicating the self rather than intruding upon it.
One of the main reasons for that is the ongoing inversion of the
classical notions of ‘public’ and ‘private’. To the extent communication
became the key factor of production in the postfordist age, the
relationship between public and private seems to turn on its own axis:
what was considered publicly accessible gets privatised without any
fuss, and what was formerly known as private gets exposed to the
scrutiny of a more and more specific public and ever-fragmented

In the digital age, the soul is copied over and over again by means of
data mining and user profiling: the tracking and tracing, examination
and evaluation of personalised settings, individual preferences, and
habits within communication networks. The digital double created by
these practices can be perceived as an attack on the alleged integrity
and originality of the soul. The doppelgänger is made of bad copies,
owned by secondary possessors. Nevertheless, these spitting images
resemble the idea of one’s own; and this idea should comprehend the
relations and proportions constitutive of the internal essence.

This is probably what makes the society of control so scary: the
privation of privacy not only turns out to be the theft of the soul, but
it marks precisely what constitutes the postmodern individual as
ancestor or previous owner of a self that is indeed multiplied in all
sorts of corporate and social networks; still, it relates back to the
subject of a claim or pretense—and it does not matter so much whether
self-images, profiles, preferences and private data are voluntarily
given away or literally deprived.


What was formerly known as ‘information society’ has shifted into an
image economy based on the techniques of imaging information or turning
information into images. At the same time, contemporary images are
characterised by a passage from visibility to legibility: ‘constantly
modulated, subjected to variations, repetitions, alternations,
recycling, and so on...’ as Gilles Deleuze noted it.5

Such ambivalence reflects the two potentialities of images that Jacques
Rancière recently suggested: the image as a ‘raw, material presence’ or
‘pure blocs of visibility’ and ‘the image as discourse encoding a
history’. Such duplicity defines specific regimes of ‘imageness’: ‘a
particular regime of articulation between the visible and the sayable’.6
Their relations are constantly redistributed and by no means limited to
the realm of the visual or the world of pictorial representation.
Rancière for instance sees the invention of the double poetics of images
in novel writing.

Today’s search engines may be an example of another redistribution of
the relations between visible and sayable. Their crawlers and spiders
replicate the content of innumerable websites across the World Wide Web
by wrenching them out of their original context, imaging them by storing
and caching them; but the goal is to reduce their complexity into a
specific model of indexability by which alone they become visible and
accessible, according to the ranking algorithm (maybe one more sentence
about what this reduction adds to the sayable, or if it simply collapses
a multitude of potential sayables to a singular one?).

The advance of portrait photography in the mid-nineteenth century, which
discovered the face as unique identifier and gateway to the bourgeois
identity, has found its present-day equivalent in the phenomena of
self-exposure in social networking platforms which culminates in
googling one’s own name. Furthermore, in its digital form the image
appears as a storage unit for framed portions of psychic realities that
can be duplicated without significant loss and distributed nearly in
real time. The image becomes subjected to processes of design as well as
designing processes of subjectivation.

The bourgeois or modern conception of property has been characterised by
anonymity and pure objectivity. The fundament of western individualism
is the ability to first of all ‘own’ or author one’s soul, and therefore
‘own up’ to one’s actions and transactions. But today, in the age of
immaterial production, digital reproduction, and networked distribution,
there is increasing confusion about biopolitical property relations.
These relations need to be made visible in order to be enforced. In
order to keep faith with capitalism we need to believe in the presence
of property relations that appear ever more imaginary. And this marks
precisely what is at stake in contemporary image production. The actual
content matters less and less: it is copied, remade, replicated, stolen,
looted, pirated, faked anyway. What counts is the fact that its soul is
still supposed to operate as a commodity. Or as Benjamin once observed:
‘If the soul of the commodity which Marx occasionally mentions in jest
existed, it would be the most empathetic ever encountered in the realm
of souls, for it would have to see in everyone the buyer in whose hand
and house it wants to nestle’.7

Property exists first of all as imagery and rapidly becomes a matter of
imagination: the desperate attempt of corporate networks to reidentify
and reinforce the abstract nature of the value of exchange while being
confronted with the overwhelming opulence of use value once the images
are liberated from the fetters that arrested their freedom of movement,
their capacity to circulate freely. In a society after the spectacle, we
are realising that it makes no sense anymore to criticise and expose the
fetish character of non-things or absurdities, since it constitutes the
very essence of the means of immaterial production. It is inscribed
directly into the process of imagination, since imagination turns out as
the labour power of the creative industries of late capitalism.

In the 1970s Bernard Edelman researched the development of intellectual
property laws parallel to the emergence of commercial cinema and
industrial image production. French law of the nineteenth century had
not considered photography a creative act, since it was just a copy of
reality: ‘The product, the photographic negative is soulless because
only the machine works, and the photographer has merely learned to get
it to work properly’. A few decades later, the opposite is true. The
photographic machine becomes ‘pure mediation of the subject’s
production: The real belongs to the subject if the subject invests in
it, or: on the condition “of bearing the intellectual mark of its
author, the imprint necessary to the work’s having the characteristic of
individuality necessary to its being a creation”’.8

To explain the transition from soulless labour to the soul of labour
Edelman proposes the concept of the overappropriation of the real: ‘The
appropriation of what has already been appropriated’. All production is
the production of a subject, the category by which labour ‘designates
all man’s production as production of private property’. As soon as the
productive forces demand that images be protected by copyright law, ‘it
is sufficient for the law to say that the machine transmits the soul of
the subject’.

Today, it is again the theft of the soul which turns images into
property. But to the extent that its property relations are inscribed
into every image, we might also experience a reconcretisation of the
commodity form. What has been extensively abstracted in the space and
time of modern capitalism returns in a perilously concrete, almost
tangible fashion. It might be such ‘dereification’ or ‘becoming-image’
which ironically turns out today to be the key obstacle to
consciousness, more or less in the opposite way as Lukacs suspected
‘reification’ to operate.

There is no way out of the imaginary. Not because the ‘imaginary’ is
equal to the fictitious, faked or ‘unreal’, but because of the
indiscernibility of real and unreal, as Deleuze mentions once in his
very few remarks on this peculiar terminology. ‘The two terms don’t
become interchangeable, they remain distinct, but the distinction
between them keeps changing round...’9

This could lead to a first and fundamental characterisation of imaginary
property: as a set of exchanges it is based on the impossibility of
discerning anymore what is one’s own and what is not. Such
indiscernibility certainly rests on the persuasive power of the digital
image, which promises to instantly provide ‘lossless’ and cost-free
copies while insisting on the identity of the copied content. But more
importantly, it introduces the urgency of a constant renegotiation and
exchange of meanings of ownership which remain distinct.


‘If this idea is hostile to us, why do we acquiesce in it? Give us those
lovely phantasms! Let’s be swindlers and beautifiers of humanity!’


In one of his recent essays, ‘My Self and my Own. One and the Same?’
Étienne Balibar revisits John Locke’s ‘Essay on Human Understanding,’ in
particular the chapter ‘Of Identity and Diversity’ which Locke wrote
separately and included only in the second edition. Balibar shows ‘how
the vexed relationship between the self and the own’ prepares the ground
for Western theories of ‘personal identity’, the self and the subject:
‘There is nothing natural in the identification of the self and the own,
which is really a norm rather than a necessity, and reigns by virtue of
a postulate’.11

Balibar comes to this conclusion via the detour of his own misreading of
a poem by Robert Browning. Balibar considered the beginning of the verse
‘My own, confirm me!’ as a form of self-interpellation, and originally
thought he had found an example where ‘my self’ and ‘my own’ were indeed
one and the same, identical. Only later did he find out this was not the
case and Brownings ‘my own’ actually designates his beloved wife. ‘My
own is my wife’, Balibar realizes:

It is the other with whom I make one and the same precisely because we
can never become identified, indiscernible, in other terms, with whom I
experience the uneasy relationship of identity and difference, not only
because it is conflictual, but because the identification of what is
shared or what is the same and of what is separated or divorced can
never be established in a clear-cut and stable manner. The name of this
uneasy experience conventionally is ‘love’.12

Balibar’s little mistake and the resulting rich elaboration on the
production of a vanishing difference or a vanishing duality that is
‘neither unity nor multiplicity’ might also pave the way for a less
lamenting understanding of the art of stealing souls.

Maybe taking an image is somehow like falling in love, except it is the
soul that is stolen instead of the heart? Certainly it creates unease
and tension, but at the same time it leads to the very interesting
question: what does it actually mean, today, to own an image, especially
once it is stolen or taken away?

 From invention, creation and distribution to recognition, exhibition  
conservation, images are subject to an infinite variety of operations
that are not only characterized by conflicting powers of producing,
possessing and processing them. Ownership of images has turned into the
challenge of implementing solutions in real time. It is a progressive
appropriation, which is, as Balibar might say with Locke, ‘defined in
terms of an intrinsic relationship to its other’.

Images appear as the products of struggles for imagination. It is not
about the relationship between the owner of some thing and the object
that is owned. Imaginary property deals with the imagination of social
relationships with others who could also use it, enjoy it, play it or
play with it. Ownership is a matter of communication and constant
renegotiation, gained and performed on an increasingly precarious basis
rather than grounded on a stable set of eternally valid laws which
follow traditional ideas of property and personhood.

After all, taking an image and consequentially stealing a soul turns out
to be an impossible operation as such: giving what cannot be stolen to
somebody who cannot receive the stolen good. But into what could such
double negation possibly resolve?


The image we take from the world has to deceive the senses and produce a
series of situations that occur to the cognitive subject: simulacra,
images of images, which are intentionally distorted and modulated in
order to appear somehow correct to the respective sensual capacities of
the viewer. With the advent of digital technologies which are supposed
to produce perfect copies, the deceptive and thievish nature of images
has finally become a matter of fact. There is no such thing as an
identical copy which is bit for bit one and the same.

The digital image pretends to be identical or at least equivalent, but
it operates on a rather pragmatic basis: in the end it is all about
eliminating noise as the disturbing presence of an inexplicable and
unidentifiable otherness. In signal processing, sampling originally
describes the reduction of a continuous signal to a discrete signal: if
the noise is less than the noise margin, then the system performs as if
there were no noise at all. This is why digital signals can be
regenerated to achieve so-called lossless data transmission, within
certain limits.

That means that the illusion of identity is produced by a concept of
postmodern border management. In order to perform the supposed
integrity, a dynamic regime of continuous control and instant
communication needs to decide whether specific information would be
considered useful or useless in order to behave as if there were no
disturbance at all.

Meanwhile, the stolen souls are flocking together below the noise margin
ignored by the system. It is neither above nor inside, it is ‘with’, as
Deleuze stated: ‘It is on the road, exposed to all contacts, encounters,
in the company of those who follow the same way, “feel with them, seize
the vibration of their soul and body as they pass”, the opposite of a
morality of salvation, teaching the soul to live its life, not to save


The formula could go like this: the soul that is stolen in the image
that is taken is the difference that is repeated.


1. Quoted in Victor Masayesva and Erin Younger, eds., Hopi
Photographers, Hopi Images (Tucson, 1983), 10.
2. Felix Nadar, ‘My Life as a Photographer’, in October 5 (1978), 9.
3. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958), 58.
4. St. Augustine, Of True Religion (Chicago, 1966), xvii.
5. Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations: 1972–1990 (New York, 1995), 53.
6. Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image (London, 2007), 11.
7. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Paris of the Second Empire’, in Charles
Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Second Empire (New York, 1983), 55.
8. Bernard Edelman, Ownership of the Image: Elements for a Marxist
Theory of Law (London, 1979), 51.
9 Deleuze, Negotiations, 66.
10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Writings from the Late Notebooks (Cambridge,
2003), 51.
11. Etienne Balibar, ‘My Self and My Own: One and the Same?’ in
Accelerating Possession: Global Futures of Property and Personhood, ed.
Bill Maurer and Gabriele Schwab (New York, 2006), 41.
12. Ibid., 33.
13. Gilles Deleuze and Claire Panet, Dialogues (New York, 1987), 62.

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