Osama and the Problem of the Picture: When More is Less

by JenniferCobb on 05/06/2011

We live in a post-modern age. By this I mean we live in a time when all the seemingly “objective” truths have been dismantled to be replaced by billions of radically subjective selves, each of whom are responsible for creating their own truths, their own authenticity, their own moral compass. Not only is this very hard work, but it leaves us, as society, without a commonly understood social syntax. The Christian narrative, the Great Chain of Being, the sacramentalism of nature — the time when these orderly stories enabled a shared set of understandings is long gone.

Without this shared syntax, we live in a world that is much more fluid, self-created and dynamic. This terrain becomes quite challenging in times when we need to trust each other. I cannot be sure how you are constructing your reality or fully understand the symbols you use to do so. I cannot ever stand in your shoes. And therefore, at the end of the day, I have a hard time really trusting you.

This problem has been exacerbated by our increasing reliance on digital technologies for communication. Like our post-modern selves, digital artifacts are endlessly plastic and equally endlessly full of potential for innovation and invention. While the potential of these technologies is deeply exciting, it also becomes highly problematic when it comes time to trust in a shared event.

The recent death of Osama bin Laden offers a crystalline example. I will admit that I had a moment of asking myself, how can we be sure? So I watched with great interest first the demand for documentary evidence and then President Obama’s careful response. While I applaud his decision not to release the photograph, I found the reason most interesting. President Obama, it was reported, concluded that for those who doubted that Osama had been killed, the photograph would not be enough convince them otherwise. In the battle between our plastic subjectivity and plastic objective evidence, the internal voice wins. I am gratified we have a president who is wise enough to understand this.

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