Thursday, January 18, 2018

Art and the Surveillance State

A lot of the more serious thinkers about photography, or at any rate people who are trying, are more or less academics. As one would expect. As academics they tend to be politically left-leaning, and in fact generally ascribe to a fairly simple politics more or less selected from a chinese menu of options. As, again, one would expect. In fact, one suspects that some of them are more sophisticated than that, but put forward the simplistic ideals their students expect in order to avoid unpleasantness.

An interesting phenomenon emerges. These thinkers, steeped (perhaps mired) in a more or less standard set of philosophical-ish ideas which they push around their plates like colds peas which they do not wish to eat, seem to think that they are experts on anything that involves pictures.

A case in point. Trevor Paglen is an artist and a researcher who actually does spend time examining and thinking about The Surveillance State and whatnot. Corporatism, Facebook, etc, I suppose. He wrote a piece recently, which you may read over here. The piece itself, while overlong, may be essentially summarized thus:

The government and their corporate allies are watching us, there are machines taking a lot of pictures of us, for the usual shitty reasons governments and corporations conspire to gather data on people. The ways we have of understanding and thinking about photography and visual culture are worthless here.

He doesn't quite have the sense to stand up and say "look Sunshine, it's got nuthin' to do with photography and visual culture, and everything to do with bureaucracies, large scale human institutions, and the shit governments tend to get up to when nobody's holding their toes to the fire" because he wants very much to make some direct connection between his work (Art, and the Understanding of Art) to this.

The usual B-list academics that I keep an eye on lined up and said OMG THIS IS SO IMPORTANT and linked everyone off to it. (Note that Trevor is higher up the food-chain, and that therefore his ass should be kissed.)

Coming, as I do, out of a background of computer security, I find the whole thing rather tiresome. "Oh? Facebook and google are gathering up all your personal data now, are they? Really. Do you remember when we told you... no? Ok then." This has been obvious and a foregone conclusion for quite some time now, to professionals working in the field. And yes of course they're colluding with the governments. I'm no historian here, but I'm not an idiot.

Statements like In aggregate, AI systems have appropriated human visual culture and transformed it into a massive, flexible training set are sheer bait for the not-very-clever. Unless you're claiming that "human visual culture" is nothing more than "a big pile of pictures" this statement is simply untrue. Visual culture, I like to think, is a much more interesting thing. The AIs have appropriated a huge pile of pictures, yes, and are using it to Get Up To Stuff. But Paglen's notion that "visual culture" is somehow merging with, or being eaten by, The Machine, is simply silly. Culture is essentially human. You might as well imagine culture as evaporating in to space, carried away by the myriad radio signals of media. Quick! Surround the earth with tinfoil so our culture stops leaking away!

We saw echoes of these same sorts of things in Lewis Bush's and Jörg Colberg's naive talk of machines and algorithms, earlier.

The machines are, without question, getting up to a lot of shit on behalf of their not particularly agreeable masters, But what they're getting up to is neither new nor particularly related to photography qua photography.

The mistake here is in the idea that having thought about photography a lot, and being able to fling around phrases like "politics of representation" somehow qualifies you to parse and analyze the activities of a more or less hostile State apparatus, merely on the grounds that it involves, among other things, cameras. The leftist politics of these gentlemen tends to get muddled up in there a lot as well.

Cameras do many things, and many of them are unrelated. Sometimes it feels a bit like knowing a drummer who, on the strength of knowing a lot about drumsticks, tends to launch in to lengthy treatises on anything whatever that involves the use of a stick, or two sticks. As if Ringo somehow claimed to be an expert on Chinese culture on the grounds that drumsticks are a bit like chopsticks.

Now, I am interested in politics, in the political uses of cameras, of photographs, of visual culture, and I am pretty leftist. But, those are all different things, there is no common thread binding discussion of one irrevocably with the others. Expertise in one area does not carry over, you have to develop new expertise.

Further, I do think that Art generally construed does have a role in struggling against The State. It is the assumption that the philosophical ideas which are used (currently) to understand Art are somehow applicable to understanding The State that is false.


  1. Good point (although I am profoundly suspicious that this whole thing was constructed around the joke about Ringo and chopsticks...).

    Curiously, I was impressed by these words from a review I read this morning of an edition of Dostoeveky's notebooks that concentrates on his doodlings:

    "Barsht remains bound by the myth of the total code and lacks the conceptual framework for dealing with the contingencies that abound in writers’ notebooks and manuscripts, and which accrue especial importance in those of Dostoevsky, that orchestrator of chaos. Not every mark is a detail of a whole. Some words evidently attracted Dostoevsky’s calligraphic eye for their visual form, rather than their dictionary meaning or biographical associations. His manuscripts might often show him engrossed in intense contemplation of his artistic world as it unfolded before his gaze; but sometimes he might simply have fallen into distraction or reverie."

    Not every mark is a detail of the whole... That totalising tendency is very characteristic of Hegelian / Marxist influenced thinking, where everything (if read "correctly") *is* a telling detail of the whole. The temptation to feel entitled to read across is a fatal one for the academically-minded: I know several "scholars" of a literary background who have presumed to make the history of science and medicine their playground, because ... well, because.


    1. I cannot read the Real Philosophers as they strike me as insufferably sloppy and pointlessly dense (a background in Mathematical Philosophy will do that to an impressionable boy) so I may have the names botched up in the following:

      A friend of mine, also a mathematician, liked to characterize two of the major players as, roughly, "Kant had it, more or less obviously, right, and Hegel had it, more or less obviously, wrong. But Kant wrapped it up, and Hegel left the door open for infinitely many more papers, so Hegel won."

    2. When it comes to philosophy, I defer to the Monty Python "Bruce's Philosophers Song", than which no wittier song about philosophy was ever written. Though the competition has never been great.