Thursday, June 1, 2017

Academic Artists

... or, I read this bilge so you don't have to!

Let me start out by noting that both of my parents were academics, in the Humanities. My mother taught in the English Dept, my father, Classics. Both were serious scholars. My mother examined Swift but, notably, did not write satire herself. My father was a specialist in Aristophanes and his contemporary critics but did not write plays himself. My sister has a PhD in biochemistry, I have one in Mathematics. So, I'm not some "academics are dumb eggheads" guy, I was literally raised by academics, and was an academic myself. I know, in short, the difference between real academics and fake ones. If life dealt me slightly different cards I would be holed up as high in the Ivory Tower as I could climb.

As a guy who shoots, designs books, and writes about photography, I can assure you that if you wear a bunch of hats and your name is not Goethe, you're probably not doing any of the jobs particularly well. But anyways, J. Colberg retweets 1000 Words Magazine's stuff, for reasons I cannot fathom, but it causes me to obsessively go back there try to figure out what I am missing. Colberg is, as you know, a real boy. He thinks and writes well. 1000 Words, on the other hand, is pure and unadulterated pseudo-academic bullshit.

Let us take a little tour through an Interview with Ben Burbridge conducted by none other than Lewis Bush. I will start by quoting my favorite exchange. They're zipped through some formalities "You curate, write, direct, dance, shoot, masturbate, pontificate, bloviate, and paint? Me too!" to demonstrate that both of them are dilettantes. Now Ben is talking about the second of two books he has in the pipe.

Burbridge: The other book is an effort to draw together various things I’ve been thinking about during the past five years or so, in relation to the idea of photography and ‘communicative capitalism’, a concept I’ve borrowed from the political philosopher Jodi Dean. I didn’t set out to write a book initially – I just followed my interests as and when I got the chance to do some work and then, a year or so I go, I realised that maybe I was sitting on enough material to draw together as something like a book. It deals with the ways in which photography is directly implicated in the political and economic machinations of neoliberalism, not so much in terms of the depiction of political and economic subjects within photographs, more in terms of the politics and economics of photography. It’s an effort to critically address diverse corners of a recent photographic landscape in terms of labour, profit and power. I do this with reference to a wide range of contemporary art practices, which provide the lenses through which this landscape is brought into focus – both because photography’s political-economies seem to be an important emerging interest for some artists, but also because they prove a significant blind-spot for others when they look to photography’s uses in the larger culture. Fairly traditional approaches to appropriation, for instance, seem to be very poorly suited to addressing questions of how the photographic cultures they explore are monetised, or how those processes are implicated in the broader dynamics of free-market capitalism. The book also tries to position the field of contemporary art – and, indeed, my own work as an academic (which would include this interview, of course) – within, not outside the issues studied. In that sense, I’ve gained a lot from recent discussions of institutional critique, particularly from artist-writers like Hito Steyerl and Andrea Fraser. I think Fraser’s idea that economics should be central to what artworks mean not just socially but also artistically provides an interesting jumping-off point when it comes to writing about photography, art and politics today.

Bush: I’d like to briefly pick up this idea of the way photography is implicated in neoliberalism, and capitalism more broadly. It’s a fascinating topic and one of significance for anyone who uses photography, almost regardless of how they position themselves, whether as artist, documentarian, professional or amateur. It seems to me that ‘serious’ photographers of most leanings have been aware for several decades at least of the extent to which the camera is inescapably meshed into a history and politics of seeing that complicates our use of it, in terms of the politics of representation for example. Relatively few seem to have applied the same thought to the way photography is part of a similarly problematic mesh of economics that one has to work within, whether one does so consciously or not. There seems to be an ever growing awareness in wider society about the way our lives exist within these diffuse meshes, most tangibly manifested perhaps in digital networks and the data we generate through their use, and an awareness also of how our lives are also shaped by these things. Do you think the moment is particularly ripe for photographers to engage more fully with these issues, as they have already engaged with issues around, say, representation?

Burbridge: I’m not sure.

Allow me to decode what they're saying. This took a lot of looking stuff up, and then bashing determinedly through a lot of excess verbiage. communicative captialism here refers to the present day capitalism in which we have this network that grants billions of people more or less an equal voice, we're all talking to one another, but unfortunately democracy is not magically emerging in a new and beautiful form. To first order this can be summarized as "Facebook sucks, and has not solved any problems, but they're making a bundle on us."

Neoliberalism is pro-capitalist liberalism. To leftists, it is Fascism-lite, or perhaps worse.

So Burbridge has used this idea, and his book is about how photography is "implicated in the political and economic machinations of neoliberalism" but not by what it depicts. It's not about photographs of stuff as such, it's "more in terms of the politics and economics of photography". When you dig through this, I think it must be referring, essentially, to the fact that photographs (yours, mine, everyone's) are powering social media, are a part of this communicative capitalism.

Then there's some stuff about labor, profit, power. Which, I think, must mean "Facebook is making a bundle off everyone's pictures, and not paying people". Blah blah "photography's political-economies" means what, exactly? Is photography trying to economize on politicals by using fewer of them? More likely it's just vague blather about "politics, economics, you know, all that stuff."

And, apparently, "Fairly traditional approaches to appropriation" seem to be "very poorly suited" to whatever the hell he's on about. Which, I guess makes sense, since he seems to be saying (basically), "Facebook sucks because it is making a bundle off us."

The business about how the book attempts to position contemporary art "and, indeed, my own work as an academic (which would include this interview, of course)" within the issues studied rather than outside seems to be nonsensical cuteness. If contemporary art (i.e. what you're talking about in your stupid book) is "outside" the issues you're talking about in your stupid book, then what on earth would your stupid book be about? What does it mean for "art" to be inside versus outside "issues" anyways? And to cutely include this horseshit interview within "my own work as an academic" is to expose the whole enterprise, isn't it?

Then Burbridge namedrops a bit, and asserts that the economics should be central what what artworks mean, which is a mysterious statement that probably means something but without context it does not. Does he (or, well, Fraser) mean the Art Market, or the fact that Rich Oligarchs buy Art? Or that capitalism is the system that enables the private ownership of Art? Or does he just mean that Facebook is making a bundle off everyone's pictures (well, of course that's what he means, but he's too cute to say so).

The Bush replies, saying "that's fascinating" and then "serious photographers ... have been aware for decades ... of the extent to which the camera is inescapably meshed into a history and politics of seeing" which, um, as far as I can see, doesn't mean anything. "Politics" means something, and not just elections and national leaders and so on. It's about the mechanisms of status and power and whatnot in any sphere. "politics of seeing" on the other hand doesn't mean a goddamned thing except "I have been to Art School and shove the word 'politics' in wherever the word 'dialectic' doesn't seem to fit." Then it turns out that "Relatively few" have thought through what happens when you replace some unguessable portion of the previous gibberish with "economics" which, as far as I can see, turns it from one meaningless sentence into another one no matter how you plug "economics" in.

Anyways, as soon as Bush got the camera inescapably enmeshed into a "history and politics of seeing" the wheels had pretty much fallen off, and no amount of blather about diffuse meshes can save him. Bush is also saying, basically, "Facebook is making a bundle off us, and that sucks" which you can see when he gets around to "most tangibly manifested perhaps in digital networks and the data we generate through their use" without specifying any of the less tangibly manifested manifestations.

Burbridge, wisely, replies "I don't know" which cracked me up, because it's pretty clear to me he's thinking "WTF did this guy even say? What issues? Oh god, get me out of here. Is it my turn to talk again? Yay!" and then he wanders off into the weeds talking about Web 2.0, Occupy, and Edward Snowdon, which is just a bunch of dog-whistle bullshit that means "I spend a lot of time on twitter."

I'm sure these guys are trying to pull together some general theory of how communicative capitalism is affecting photography, but it's a bit like a general theory of pre-Renaissance English Epic Poetry. I mean, it's pretty much just Facebook after you clear away the underbrush, isn't it? Google's in there making a pile of cash too, but they're not doing it by smearing your photographs all over everyone else's feeds or whatever. And, yeah, flickr and some also rans are in there struggling, but they're irrelevant blips. It's pretty much just Beowulf.

Finally, several 1000 words later we're done, thankfully. It's fairly hilarious because the two guys are clearly talking two different and mutually incomprehensible dialects of pseudo-intellectual gibberish. Whenever you can discover some actual meaning in a sentence or two here and there, it is invariably trivial, and invariably unconnected with whatever the other guy just said.

Yeah, academic artists. Just say no to the MFA.


  1. nnngghh.... is this like your thing with all the lines and boxes? I'm having that same feeling of confusion and rage and I had to stop reading before I got thru the first guy's first, I just ground to a halt...I had nothing left, all my neurons just...gone...

    1. This is not a parody, these people actually seem to think they're saying something. I am pretty sure they actually do not know the difference between discourse and simply m making clever sounding mouth sounds.

  2. although I did just finish reading about six or eight pages of tiny, tiny print in the Economist (why, yes, in fact it DID take me two cups of coffee and the better part of an hour!) about the myriad and complex, terribly successful and not yet successful, efforts out there to capitalize online and other digital-type data which HORRIFIED me. Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg....

  3. I hate people like this. Not because they have nothing worthwhile to say, but because it takes so damn long to figure that out.

  4. I feel your pain. Many years ago, in 1977, I abandoned a promising career in the academic Humanities because, amongst other factors contributing to a Dark Night of the Soul, I experienced that terrible, reflexive moment when you think: "Wait, WTF??" I always think of that Far Side cartoon where the cow looks up in a moment of satori and says, "This is grass! We're all just eating grass!"...

    The Humanities have been in a Roadrunner Moment (over the cliff edge, but still running) for decades, ever since "theory" took over from "scholarship". That the serious sciences have so far put up with this situation speaks volumes for the tolerance and collegiality of (most) universities as institutions. But it can't go on...

    Mike (I coulda bin a contender)

  5. Re Jörg M. Colberg: I believe he's different because he is originally a physicist. The physicists I came across during my time in academia and also at work are reasonable, no-nonsense guys. Once they resolve to speak up, you can be sure that they know what they're talking about (no, I'm not a physicist).

    By the way, have you read Mr. Colbergs recent book about photobooks? If so, I'd appreciate a critique!

    Best, Thomas

    1. Yep. Colberg comes out of a tradition of actually thinking coherently. Which is why it is such a mystery why he gives these bozos plugs. Professional courtesy? But why can't he find many serious people to be courteous to? Darren Campion is literally the only non-idiot I have discovered following Colberg's links.

      I was aware of his book but had not seriously considered getting it, for reasons I cannot understand. Obviously I should get it. Thank you for the nudge!

  6. I glad you read this bilge so I don't have to. If I did I'd be screaming and throwing things at the wall. Having spent 25 years as a writer of sorts this sound to me like a serious case or Tourette Academica.