Hito Steyerl’s “Poor Image” as an Index of the Contemporary

Early on in the past century and based on a rereading of Marx ‘s proposals, the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, and specifically Walter Benjamin, proposed an analysis of cultural forms in relation to their material conditions of production. For the Frankfurt school of thought, in contrast to traditional Marxism, cultural forms were not a mere reflection of the conditions of production, but instead were considered to be conducive to activating the critical capacity of reversing these very conditions. This explains why Benjamin addresses cultural forms as temporary capacitors, in addition to relating the modes of production to a certain time period, they are indicative of something else: for example, a crisis in language or a change in the apparatus of perception of a society.

Broadly speaking, in this line of thought fits the analysis of the image that the artist and philosopher Hito Steyerl makes in her 2009 text In Defense of the Poor Image, where the term used to conceptualize a type of contemporary visual economy that is characterized primarily by low-resolution digital images. According to her argument, these images are “lumpen proletarian in the class society of appearances” where images are valued according to their visual quality. Steyerl proposes that the low-resolution of the images is explained by their their modes of production and circulation: whenever an image is copied, manipulated and pasted, its resolution deteriorates. Therefore, the ‘visual loss’ of these images is proportional to the increase of their movement and circulation throughout different networks. Memes can function as an example of the poor image because their low-resolution attests to the numerous times they have been copied and pasted. While they lose resolution, memes increase their capacity for transmission and interaction.

On the one hand, Steyerl finds that in the ‘democratization’ of production and the possibilities of dissent that it embodies, lies the subversive potential of the poor image. Thus, Steyerl describes throughout her text a contraposition which sustains on one end, the digital high-resolution images along with traditional film and analog formats, and on the other, experimental and marginal cinema that after the explosion of digital technologies grew exponentially. Steyerl explores the subversive capacity of the poor image by turning to the manifesto For an Imperfect Cinema written by filmmaker Julio García Espinosa in 1960, who advocates an ‘imperfect cinema’, one that erases the distinctions between consumer and producer, audience and author, because on its flip side, “perfect cinema—technically and artistically masterful—is almost always reactionary cinema.” [1] According Steyerl, García Espinosa predicted that, with the advent of video technology, the decline of the elitist position occupied by the directors of traditional film, which would give way to an ‘art of the people’, which would mean that the imperfect film would be both democratic and poor in ‘visuality’. Steyerl uses García Espinosa’s notion of the ‘imperfect cinema’ to support the correlation that she finds between the high circulation of images permitted by technology and the visually poor image resolution.

However, the argument that equates low-resolution and political potential starts to become problematic when Steyerl recognizes that not all poor images are subversive. The economy of poor images allows the participation of a much larger group of producers than before, but as Steyerl also points out, aside from critical and experimental content, this group also produces spam and hate speech. In many cases, this type of visual economy urges users to constantly produce content, which renders them full-time laborers, and unpaid ones at that. In this very contradiction that emerges in the center of her conceptualization of the poor image, can be found probably the most important diagnostic Steyerl outlines. For her:

“Poor images are thus popular images—images that can be made and seen by the many. They express all the contradictions of the contemporary crowd: its opportunism, narcissism, desire for autonomy and creation, its inability to focus or make up its mind, its constant readiness for transgression and simultaneous submission. Altogether, poor images present a snapshot of the affective condition of the crowd, its neurosis, paranoia, and fear, as well as its craving for intensity, fun, and distraction. The condition of the images speaks not only of countless transfers and reformattings, but also of the countless people who cared enough about them to convert them over and over again, to add subtitles, reedit, or upload them.” [2]

On one hand, poor images oppose the market’s high-definition fetish, but on the other, they are the result of the production currents of information capitalism. Most likely, their critical potential lies precisely in the figure of this paradox that condenses the contradictions of our contemporary economies and the desires and fears of those that keep them running.

Barbara Cuadriello

[1] García Espinosa, Julio. “Por un cine imperfecto” en la Lo doble moral del cine, Madrid, Ollero & Ramos, 1996.

[2] Styerl, Hito, “En defensa de la imagen pobre”, en Los condenados de la pantalla, Buenos Aires, Caja Negra Editora, 2014, p. 42.


[1] García Espinosa, Julio. “For an Imperfect Cinema” in La Doble Moral del Cine, Madrid, Ollero & Ramos, 1996.

[2] Styerl, Hito, “In Defense of the Poor Image” as seen in http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/


Resort / Resorting :


  1. Turn to and adopt (a strategy or course of action, especially a disagreeable or undesirable one) so as to resolve a difficult situation.