Saturday, February 24, 2018

Fetishizing the Digital

I was running through a collection of essays over here: "Photography and the Essay" which is something of a mixed bag. Several of the essays are simply weak. Daniel Blight's is just a pointless dribble of namedropping and citations that says nothing and goes nowhere. There's some others that are pretty good but fail to make obvious connections and talk about the obvious things. Down at the bottom there's a sort of point/counterpoint on 21st century photography. Maybe there is a point and a counterpoint but to be honest I was not able to discern either.

Back up.

As a mathematician I had a certain amount of mathematical philosophy shoved down my throat, which is not the same as philosophy. A mathematical philosopher might remark that there is such a thing as a cat, and that there is a word: "cat". There is also, noted in passing, the "idea of a cat" and then you can go on to build a tower "idea of the word 'cat'" and so on ad infinitum but perhaps to no particular purpose. Philosophers in general, and practitioners of the Humanities in general in these modern times, seem to take special pleasure in muddling these things up:

After all, can we truly distinguish the word "cat" from the cat itself?

they might bloviate. I respond thus: Yes.

But they do not. Instead they conflate the thing, the word for the thing, the idea of the thing, the idea of the word for the thing, the phrase meaning the idea of the word for the thing as busily as possible, and then write another 20,000 or 200,000 words of bullshit originating from the mistake. This is, basically, the first portion of Sarte's Being and Nothingness with "cat" replaced by "nothingness" so as to make it sound cooler.

But back to the correct consideration of the relevant layers of reference, the world in which we know that the cat, and the word "cat", are two different things, one of which refers to the other.

There's actually a fairly respectable collection of theory around photographs that resembles this, in useful ways. First of all, we might have a cat, and then a photograph of a cat. Embedded in the photograph we have what we call an "index" of the cat, the photograph is indexical. There is a strict correspondence between the photograph and the cat. This bit of the photo corresponds to that bit of the cat, the cat's eyes are beside one another thus on the cat and also in the photo, and so on. We can think of an "index" as an abstract thingy that refers in a specific way to the subject, the thing it "indexes". In a useful sense, it's what a photo is when you remove consideration of the paper, the gelatin, the pigments and silver, and consider only the cat-ness aspects.

An index is more or less by definition truthful, without being complete. It lies, but mainly by omission. It is truthful as far as it goes. (this is the "truth claim" of photography, which is rather chic to dismiss, but it's not really dismissable. Dismissing it is just sophistry, like dismissing "red" because some things are not red. "Red" doesn't care, it carries on.)

The index leads to the idea of representation which is, roughly, what happens when index meets eye-and-brain. It's how the photograph creates the idea of the cat in my mind, in your mind, in the collective consciousness of society. These days representation is generally only discussed in the context of people of color and of women, not because it doesn't apply equally well to cats and vases, but because nobody in the Humanities wants to talk about anything except people of color and women. Which, you know, is fine. There's some stuff to talk about there.

(representation is actually broader, it makes sense in the context of a lot of things, not just photography, but it is concerned with both truth claims of the relevant media, and how those play out as people look, or hear, or feel, so the idea of index is intricately tied up with representation as applied to photos)

There's the rough sketch of the bones of contemporary theory on photography. Much of what people do in writing these days is lay it out again, and then say things like "representations of women are, wow, so problematic. definitely a problem. we should engage with this terribly important question" and then they kind of dribble on for another few thousand words, not addressing the question, and then they're done. Off it goes to or wherever, and you stick another publication on your CV. Perhaps some day you will rise from Associate Sub-Lecturer to Assistant Sub-Lecturer, and get yourself a rise of 2 quid per annum, if you write enough of these bloody things.

I could talk about studium and punctum from Barthes but in the first place these are idiotic ideas and in the second place I have literally never seen a reference to these ideas that was not merely namedropping Barthes. These are ideas that lead nowhere, that produce no body of work, they provide the basis for exactly nothing in the way of ideas, theory, models for thinking about things. Because, let's be honest, punctum just means "that special something in a few photos, the important photos which you, being a clod, dismiss as mere snapshots, that special something that only I, Roland Barthes, being extremely sensitive, can detect."

This is not a concept that's gonna go super far as a basis for new theory.

I will leave punctum out of my thumbnail of theory, therefore, despite the fact that it turns up constantly.

Anyways. The whole index/representation thing is getting a bit stale in some people's minds, and the other big and truly modern genre is the subject of this particular essay here. That is to fetishize the digital.

The academic commentators on photography have noted two things:

First: there's a great deal of digital activity going on in the world, a sort of invisible (except to the governments) activity which controls or effects a great deal of our lives. There is banking, corporate communication, political posturing. There's social media. One of the essays referred to at the very beginning even makes the fatuous statement that this is the "real" world, which is just the sort of hyperbole calculated to impress the idiots in your class, but which just seems silly to grownups. What the author means, obviously, is merely that the digital is pervasive, important, and more or less omnipresent.

Second: photographs are digital.

Then the goal is to strive to make some connection here. First you say something like "the idea of 'index' simply isn't relevant any more" and then you say something about 1s and 0s, and say some words about networks, digital communication, and neoliberals. Then you say some words about photographs being digital. Then you silently hope that the audience doesn't notice you have completely failed to make any substantive connection. And then you pronounce the need for new paradigms, new modes of thinking, in this new world of digitalness.

Do you then propose a new paradigm, or a new mode of thinking? Good god, of course not. You go back to talking about 1s and 0s or something. Perhaps you lurch sideways into government surveillance.

This is roughly equivalent to Gene Smith attempting to make some connection between photography and Chisso, on the grounds that both are chemistry things.

The reality is that these guys don't have a clue about the digital world. I worked as a computer programmer for 25 years or something, and I never gave much of a shit about the 1s and 0s. Yeah, they're down there someplace, who cares? They might as well be ants, or 0s, 1s, and 2s, or little tubes of mercury sloshing about. It turns out that 1s and 0s work better than the others, but the entire point of the discipline of computing is to make that irrelevant.

The old stale ideas of "index" and "representation" work just fine, it turns out. They're not terrible ideas. They're kind of basic, they're pretty much baked in to opto-mechanical imaging systems.

The mysterious blob of 1s and 0s, which requires an Algorithm to turn it into an Image, which is then Ephemeral, is just as much an index as a photograph. This little cluster of 1s and 0s corresponds to that bit on the cat, and so on. The blob of 1s and 0s is as we mathematicians might say "isomorphic" to a print, because we can make one from the other, and then make the first one from the second (OK, a scan of a print won't make a perfect copy in practical terms, but one could certainly make prints and scan them perfectly, with effort. You'd probably want to use TIFF not JPEG and there would be technical considerations, blah blah blah). If there is a mechanical transformation that converts one thing, reversibly, into the other, well then stuff that's true about either one will also translate pretty well.

What's interesting is that the properties of a JPEG file, as a blob of 1s and 0s, considered as representation, are a trifle problematic. While the file is isomorphic to the print, we can't actually see it. This feels like it might be very deep, but really, it's pretty much the same thing as turning the print face down. How, essentially, is printing a JPEG file onto a piece of paper, different from the action of turning a print face up? It turns out that an index is an index even if you can't see it. Representation is tied up with the seeing of the thing which is an index. This isn't particularly new, but it's not something we thought of a lot with prints, because the operation of turning them face-up was automatic, invisible.

This feels a lot like the cat, the word "cat", the idea of a cat, and all that rot, no? But if you're tediously careful and you keep all the moving parts sorted out, you can actually use these ideas to make sense of new stuff. Like digital photography. You can answer question like "how will the digitalization of photography impact our society?" with actual thoughtful responses, because now you can see what's actually new, and what's the same old stuff.

This is actually why we invent things like "index" and "representation", not so we can throw them out wildly to impress our friends, like Hendrix smashing a guitar, but so we can use them as a method of understanding new things. Sometimes we have to modify the underlying ideas to accommodate the new thing and, often as not, we learn something new about the old thing when we do. Just like the "print face down" thing above. Occasionally you have to toss the whole thing out. Not very often, though.

The impact of the digital world isn't that photographs are somehow suddenly connected, by the alchemy of 1s and 0s, to a neoliberal agenda. The impact of digital is very specific: it renders the index less reliable, less trustworthy. It renders larger the space in which the underlying "truth claim" of photography is falsifiable, there are fewer pictures that are in fact indexical, and many more that are constructs, that are non-indexical, partially indexical, or -- and this is the really important -- less indexical than they appear to be. Doctored photos are now the norm, not the exception.

In addition, digitializing makes reproduction a lot easier, so there's a lot more of it about. Sheer volume has its impacts.

That's it. There's nothing magic in the 1s and 0s, and the fact that the essayists in contemporary photographic "theory" think there is merely shows how little they understand either of photography or of how digital things work.


  1. Andrew, I was in a rather 'down' mood till I read this and started laughing! Thanks so much for your ability to brings things down to earth!!!

  2. Would a doctored photo be roughly equivalent to Fake News?

    With best regards.