Stephen Cave unpacks its origins in our evolutionary past:
The studies showing that babies respond naturally with increased interest to human faces also show that this applies equally to pictures of human faces. We are, of course, capable of learning the difference between representation and reality as we grow older, and in our contemporary society, so awash with images, we become adept at doing so. … But for earlier peoples, this was not a skill that they had much opportunity or encouragement to develop.
And so what we see across all cultures is a systematic failure to distinguish between flesh-and-blood humans and representations of them. In almost all early civilisations we find images – statues, for example – worshipped as if they were living gods or kings. Similarly in magical practices such as voodoo, a model of a person is treated as a part of that person’s self. And from China to Native America, the initial reaction to photographs was that they literally peel off a layer of the person’s soul and trap it on paper.
It seems, then, that what we perceive when we are reproduced in the cultural sphere is a kind of magical act of creation. Because I believe the representation to be in some way real, I feel that my fragile biological self is being transmitted into a new form: a process in which I become stone or become song. It is a process in which I transcend the body and so attain immortality. Whatever rational skepticism we might impose, we cannot help but fall for this magic, any more than we can help falling for an optical illusion. It is this act of ancient sorcery that all our fame-seekers have attempted, from Glaucus to Lady Gaga.
(Photo: Warner Bros. publicity still for for Rebel Without a Cause, via Wikimedia Commons)