Friday, February 15, 2019

Reductionism

Take a look at this picture. It's probably familiar to you:



What do you see? A fat man. Balding. He appears to be irritated. You see a waistcoat (or a vest?), a watch chain, a bow tie. These, the paneled background, as well as the texture and style of the photograph speak to you of the social class of the man (high). There's not much else here. There are some white objects on the right side of the frame that look like pocket silks and so on, but it's not at all clear what they are. Does the body extend that far over?

It is, of course, Winston Churchill, and you will almost certainly have recognized him. He is, famously, irritated because the photographer, Karsh, has just taken his cigar.

Because it is Churchill, we read his glower as power and/or arrogance barely contained.

It is chic these days to declare Churchill a villain, a racist, any number of things. In previous decades it was chic to declare him a hero. At this historical moment he has a sort of double life, as either one or the other depending on the speaker, depending on the moment. Churchill, without a doubt, presided over and made important decisions during, events that were awful and events that were heroic.

Depending on where you land politically, therefore, you are almost certain to look at this picture and think either bully or hero.

Neither, of course, is really true. We judge our political leaders, our celebrities, and people we see in photographs, by absurdly simple standards. Our sensorium is a marvelous system for reducing the infinitely complex world around us to a few manageable approximations which we can use to find food, shelter, and conduct a sort of crude society. Similarly, we reduce people, notably people we see in pictures to a few simple tropes.

Are you describable in a single word? Are you merely a bully or a good fellow or smart or silly? You are not.

The girl on the playa is also not merely slutty or a princess, she is a fully formed human being. The picture conspires with the viewer to reduce her to a pair of breasts in a small costume.

The point is that we reduce pictures, especially pictures of people, absurdly. The complex gestalt that is a human being, represented in vastly simplified (but still complex) form on a piece of paper, on a screen, we reduce further to a single word or phrase. Or, in these degenerate times, the glyph +1.

I view this as a sort of collapsing of state. We take in the picture, with its myriad details which speak to us, which suggest, this or that, and we combine that with our own experience, our own prejudices and opinions, and we collapse the the whole thing to a short pithy reaction: Bully.

Of course we can choose to spend more time with a picture and get more out of it, but mostly people do not. If you're striving to connect, using a picture, you've kind of got one shot at it.

It is tempting to, and people do it all the time, to suggest that everyone will collapse a picture to a different pithy reaction, because "it's all subjective." This is wrong. For starters, there simply are not that many pithy reactions available, we have to share. Secondly, many fewer reactions will get widely deployed than even that because people are pretty similar to one another.

The picture of Nancy Pelosi clapping at Donald Trump will tend to collapse to one of a short list of reactions, depending on whether you recognize the players and if you do where you sit on the political spectrum. Similarly the Burning Man Girl photograph will collapse in a handful of different ways, depending on your sexual preferences and a handful of other details about you.

It is this collapsing, this reduction, that we need to understand if we wish to reach people. We need, I think, to understand far more nuance and detail of our pictures (or anyone's pictures.) If we understand the details, if we see the cues and hints clearly, we can more reliably speculate about how this person or that person will tend to collapse the picture to a glib reaction.

The common refrain, when people fail to react in the right way, is simply that these viewers are "uneducated." The usual discussion goes something like this:

A photographer shows off some weird portrait which anyone can see that a normal viewer will "collapse" in a particular way. The photographer may or may not complain that people don't like the picture. Other photographers will coo about the hair light or some goddamned thing, and will explain that the viewers are just uneducated, and do not see the awesomeness of the hair light.

The photographers are collapsing the picture to a glib description: lighting is great!

Non-photographers are collapsing the picture to a different glib description: subject looks like he's farting.

As photographers, we need to do better than that. We need to see the bow tie, the waistcoat, the girl's rings, the hair light, and the expression on the subject's face, all at once. We need to understand the significance of each of these details, and make a decent guess at how this viewer or that will read them. From that follows how this viewer or that will collapse the picture to a simple understanding. I could probably go on about semiotics at length here, if I knew anything about semiotics.

This is completely different from what internet forums do, from what Reading The Pictures does, and from what the vast majority of self-styled commentators do. These people all choose to give us their collapsed take on the picture, and maybe unpick a little where that take came from.

They've got snake by the wrong end entirely. I don't care what Michael Shaw's hot take on some political picture is, because I already know what it is. I can predict, with depressing ease, how he is going to collapse any picture he sees. What I am interested in is what the details are in the picture that carry various meanings are, and how they might collapse this way, or that way, how various people will see the photo.

What details do you see in there, and what kinds of meaning do you think they carry? How would that affect the way a viewer might read the picture?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Burning Man

This is a little exercise in trying to sort out how other people might look at a picture. A little exercise in stepping into the shoes of others to imagine how they might read a photograph. Also, a little fun with Burning Man.

We all know about Burning Man, right? Big Art Thing in the Nevada desert, they build a big wooden sculpture of a man and burn it down at the end and everyone goes home.

There's a lot going on out there, I guess. There are 70,000 stories at Burning Man, these days. What we see out here in the real world, though, is a decidedly partial view. It is a highly visual take on the thing, which is itself increasingly a visual thing. While there may be whole subcultures for whom radical self-expression is singing opera, that's not photograph-able particularly, so we don't see it. Also, I doubt that it exists as a significant feature.

Over the last decade, Burning Man has become more and more visual, it's been more and more about the pictures, the pictures one can perform for, the pictures one can take. In the last few years, reliable internet and cellular data has become a feature, and to nobody's surprise a massive influx on social media influencers have shown up. Product placement is apparently A Thing at the supposedly de-commodified Burning Man event, and so on. Naturally, the organizers are fighting back in a variety of ways, definitely not including killing off internet access.

Ok, so what. The dominant visual coming out of Burning Man is the hot young woman dancing or doing yoga in the desert. In second place, enormous shitty art that looks pretty much the same year to year, which appears to be essentially jungle gyms suitable for hot young women to drape themselves over.

A little digging around reveals that this is not an entirely accurate description of Burning Man's actual visuals. Turns out there are chubby people, there are men, and there are a few non-white people lurking around the place. Not, I guess, a lot, but some. If you inspect the backgrounds of the pictures of hot young women, you can see some of these people riding bicycles in the distance, sometimes.

The beautiful young woman at Burning Man is an archetype. Let us consider the girl first, and then the photograph of her (the photograph is also an archetype, and is arguably The Brand of Burning Man).

The girl wears effectively a uniform. There are likely to be wings, there is likely to be glitter, there is likely to be some sort of headdress. There will be very little fabric. She will wear shoes, but often very little else. Sunglasses or chic goggles. It is a combination of minimum practical covering, and set of faintly outré accessories, all of which look much the same from this girl to that girl. She is extremely fit, she probably does a good deal of yoga (and in the picture she is often in a yoga pose) or dances.

In her real life, she probably finds herself passed over for better jobs, she probably finds it difficult to get people to listen to her in meetings, and so on. This is not her fault, it is simply the way it is for most women today, and especially for young attractive women. Professionally, she gets the short end of the stick more often than is strictly fair.

On the playa, in her uniform, she joins a privileged class. Everyone looks at her (at any rate, everyone photographs her, and very little else) and attends to her presence. In the gifting economy of Burning Man, she likely receives rather more gifts than do plump middle aged men. She gets to ride in the cool art cars, she gets to swing in the cool swing, and so on. Here, she is a sort of princess. If she is even slightly aware, she knows that she is the embodiment of Burning Man's image, she is what people expect when they attend the event.

Looking at her picture, we can know only a few things about her. She is pulled out of her usual context, she dressed and in all other ways placed into the role of an archetype, and therefore we can only know of her what we know or can guess about the archetype. She is young, she is fit, she is a little bit vain, she is in that moment a kind of princess, a sort of ruling peacock in a temporary city of 70,000. Her pose reveals that she has practiced posing.

We know also, and this distinguishes her from fashion models, porn stars, pretty girls taking selfies at home, and all the other pictures of beautiful young women: she will be at Burning Man next year, and if not actually her, a pack of indistinguishable substitutes. We know when and where to find her. For a few thousand dollars, we can be there too.

This, to me, seems to give her an almost unique kind of availability.

But what about the picture of her? Any one of the 100s of 1000s of such pictures will do.

Looking at the picture, men for the most part will, how to put this delicately, want to fuck her. They may transmute this desire in the interest of practicality, or because they are priests, or for any number of reasons, in to something else. I want to look at her, or I want to talk to her, or She is a harlot and shall burn, or any number of other things. The girl and the picture conspire to present her has a sexual object, and as after a fashion available. You could at any rate go and look at her, or a suitable substitute of her, and maybe if you hit the gym hard for the next year...

What do women think of the picture? Well, for the most part they know what men think of the picture, and this will surely color their understanding.

We could do worse at this point that to go watch John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" Episode 2, starting about 14 minutes in when a somewhat rambling conversation occurs among a group of women regarding the painted nude. They talk about the idea of availability, and of the ways women judge themselves and other women.

Most people, I think, but perhaps women more than men, will recognize her as an essentially sexual object, and will recognize that, on the playa, she is using her sexual power to seize a position, a role, within a privileged class. I imagine that men will see this less clearly, because their vision is perhaps a little hazed. At any rate, it took me a while to recognize that the girl in the picture is in a sense a princess, a ruling-class peacock, and I have my suspicion that this will be intuitively obvious to many women.

Some women will aspire to be that girl, perhaps most will in some way (who does not want to rule, after all?) Some women, a few thousand of them, are that girl. Others, I suppose, will envy her, despise her, judge her. Some will admire her without aspiring to be her.

The basis, though, for their judgement and reaction will be their recognition of this girl as, however briefly, a member of the playa's ruling class. Their reaction will depend, at least to a good extent, on how they feel about the act of using sexuality to seize power in this way.

Men, from whom the power is seized, will generally be in favor. If they were not, they wouldn't be ceding their power and the whole gambit, which manifestly works very well, would not work. Women, watching the action, will have a variety of reactions.

(all this, of course, in extremely broad strokes, individual mileage may and without doubt will vary, etcetera and so forth)

ETA: It occurs to me that I find myself curiously neutral on all this. I do not intend to "slut shame" these young women, I do not intend to denigrate them for using their sexuality to obtain power. I can find nothing either particularly good or bad about this, and as far as I can tell everyone is enjoying themselves. Certainly the portly middle-aged men do not get to ride in the cool swing, but that has nothing to do with the scantily clad young women, it has to do with the (hypothetical) douchey young men who control access to the (hypothetical) swing.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Through the Eyes of Others

Camera Lucida is, essentially, one man's investigation into how he, personally, reacts to photographs. I've been noodling on how people seem to mainly be interested in offering their own, personal, hot takes on pictures. We see it in forums "well to me this picture..." and we see it in Serious Academic places like Reading The Pictures where Michael Shaw offers essentially the same thing. We see it on twitter, where people share photographs with the assumption that You (all of you) will react in precisely the same way the tweeter did.

As a self-styled critic and would-be propagandist, I spend a lot of time speculating, contrariwise, about what other people might see in a picture.

Consider this one, that made the rounds recently.



This is Nancy Pelosi, who is politically the leader of the Democratic Party, clapping for Donald Trump's speech. I have no way of knowing Pelosi's heart, or even if she has one, but she certainly appears to be essentially sneering at him in this photograph.

This has been widely re-tweeted and so on, with a side-helping of "hurr, hurr, lookit Nancy dunking on Donald! yay!" by leftist twitter, and by Reading The Pictures, and every other leftie member of the would-be Academy.

I imagine there are a few other possible reactions. Certainly the MAGA-hat wearing Trump supporter will see "pinched-faced bitch" and offer up some choice suggestions.

What I see is a pair of wealthy oligarchs who have confused sneering at one another in the halls of government with actual governance.

The Donor Class, who certainly want to be seen as Very Woke because it distracts from the question of "where'd you get all that money" see this as a marvelous bit of theater. Their side is dunking on the bad guys, and twitter loves it! And maybe they love it too!

The question, of course, is what voters see in it. My guess is that the average middle of the road voter who's working 3 jobs and barely making it is going to lean more toward the "two oligarchs who probably both ought to be loaded into a tumbril" reading, although they might be too busy to think much about it.

Here's another visual from the same event:



This was another, more explicit, bit of political theater. A large cadre of the female Democrats in congress dressed in white and sat together to listen to Trump's speech, the white referring to the suffragette movement that led to women's voting rights. There is, of course, the same left/right divide in reactions.

What I see, and what I speculate the average voter sees, is a visually powerful reminder that our elected officials are the kind of people who can go out and drop $1000 on a suit of clothes they intend to wear for 2 hours. It is not a secret that we are led, primarily, by the wealthy, and this particular visual does many things other than forcefully remind us of this. I think the suffragettes were great, and that women's voting rights are great. I approve of a nod to same, especially as a kind of rebuke to Trump.

And yet, I look at the sea of white and I am forcefully reminded that these people are not like me. And they are even less like the people in America who are further down the economic ladder than I -- which is to say, most of them.

This is, I think, an essential problem with The Left as construed in the modern west. They tend to view things through a very personal lens, they conflate their own reactions with universal reactions. This is, I think, an intellectual consequence of post-modernism, of structuralism, of these generally pervasive ideas that infest the Academy. Identity Politics in its current form is also a consequence or perhaps merely a relative, as it elevates the personal "lived experience" over all, and in doing so denies the possibility of empathy.

I cannot, and do not presume to, draw a straight line from Derrida to the habit in internet forums of, in the first place offering up only personal reactions, and in the second place slamming people who attempt to offer up more with a loud cry of "Art is all subjective!" There may be no straight line. I rather think there is at any rate a long and crooked one, however. Both belong to the cult of subjectivity, of the dominance of the personal, of the denial of empathy, of the denial of the possibility of understanding across a divide.

From Barthes to the internet forum, we are reduced to the notion that each of us is the ultimate and only authority on ourselves, and completely ignorant outside of that. Smuggled in there is the idea that I am actually a universal authority but that you know only about yourself (for, weirdly, all possible values of I and of you.)

There is in all these ideas a denial of external, objective, truth. The author has no authority, nobody has any authority. We are reduced to cogito, ergo sum and at some point we have managed to drop the first word even of that. If all investigation, research, search for meaning is to be performed by essentially isolated egos, things get pretty damned weird.

Idiots like Michael Shaw, Roland Barthes, Daniel Blight, seem to think that they can only really talk about themselves. They believe in themselves, not only as the only subject they are qualified to talk about, but also themselves as an authoritative model for all right-thinking humans. Their explanation for people who disagree with them is that those people are brainwashed or stupid or, something.

This makes, to be blunt, communication of any meaningful sort impossible. You cannot communicate (and especially you cannot make propaganda) that works if you deny empathy, if you refuse to even attempt to see how others might see a picture, or read an essay, or hear a song lyric. Without empathy, you can communicate only with people who are pretty much like you, and then only by repeating signs which stand in for shared concepts.

From the point of view of the Donor Class and the Political Consultant this is great. Your job becomes simply one of mouthing these signs and either writing or cashing checks, depending on which side you're on. There's plenty of money in a political echo chamber (presumably because the echo chambers without any money captured in them simply fade away) but there's very little good government.

It is worth noting, perhaps, that the Right seems to be less informed by the Academy and their silly po-mo ideas. The Right is also a lot better at propaganda. Weirdly enough, it appears that The Right has not jettisoned empathy at all, but rather embraced it. They're quite good at predicting how people will read a visual, or a slogan, or a song lyric.

Without empathy, there is no communication. Without communication there is no society. By ceding the very ability to communicate to The Right, we define the future of our society.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

What about Punctum, Then?

I occasionally rail against the philosopher and critic Roland Barthes, who wrote an oft cited but curiously uninfluential book called Camera Lucida. As noted wisely over on Leicaphilia, this is a book which everyone mentions, but nobody has actually read. It's not an easy book to read, being repetitive and boring, and yet somehow also dense. I had to look up at least a dozen words in my recent reading of it, which is a practically unprecedented amount of dictionary work. Further, he uses terms of art that are rather harder to pin down - I suspect that "field" means something to Barthes which I am unable to completely sort out.

Anyways, it's not the worst philosophical blather, but it's not a walk in the park either.

In it, Barthes introduces the ideas of studium and punctum as, somehow, properties of photographs. These are the concepts everyone wants to cite, although they never have much idea what they mean and generally get it wrong. This is, by the way, how you know they have not read the book. Wikipedia has the more or less standard, wrong, definition up right now. If they say something about "wounding detail" you know they've not really read the book.

So, let's see what punctum actually is. Studium by the way, is just the normal stuff in a photograph. In fact, we will learn that it's everything in a photograph. Shhh, don't tell.

To get anywhere, it turns out, you have to understand the "blind field" idea discussed in Chapter 23, because this is used in the only thing I can detect as a useful, operational, definition of punctum. Barthes lifts this idea from cinema, (he says as much) and it is essentially the idea of "trame" which I have written about. It means the life or existence of things in the picture outside of the frame of the picture, before and after the photograph was taken. It is the extension of the photographed into the world outside the photograph, broadly.

Barthes says in Chapter 23 that the punctum creates the blind field. A photograph without punctum has no blind field, with it, it does. Now, Barthes is not an idiot. He knows intellectually that the sitter lived before and after the portrait. He is speaking here through his framework of phenomenolgy and furthermore his personal experience of photographs. What he means, as nearly as I can determine, is that he feels this reality of life and existence in a different and more potent way. He is able to believe in it, in a more-than-intellectual way. He refers to it as a "doubling of vision." Without punctum he sees only the things in the picture, and can only grasp their reality intellectually. In the presence of punctum, he grasps, ectatically, emotionally, that reality, that fully realized existence.

So, that is the effect of punctum, an essentially ecstatic reaction, which makes real the things in the photograph. Note that Barthes divides his reactions to pictures into two very distinct kinds, apparently instantly recognizable. The first is the "normal" reaction, of seeing the photo, recognizing the things in it, and intellectually deducing things, thinking about them, and so on (cf. studium.) The second reaction is pure, and apparently powerful, emotion and ecstasy, a completely non-intellectual spasm incapable of being rendered in to words (cf. punctum.)

Ok, so what is punctum, beyond "whatever produces this effect?" The answer is, actually, not much. Or conversely, a lot of things. It is not a little cute surprise tucked into the corner of the frame (Chapter 14). It is not intentional (or at least Barthes feels that it probably cannot be intentional), it is something that the photographer could not avoid rather than something the photographer actively intended to place in the picture (Chapter 20). The punctum is not "coded" (Chapter 22), you cannot name it. It is not "the pathos of her blouse" although it may be located in her blouse. "Very often the punctum is a detail" (Chapter 19) -- which implies that it is not always a detail. When it is a detail, Barthes sometimes finds that it moves to some other detail, and he also gives us examples in which he cannot locate the punctum he feels. (Remember that shit about "the wounding detail"- um, nope, but thank you for playing.)

Punctum may or may not reside in some detail, but it is not some detail you stick into a picture. You probably can't "stick it in" to a picture at all. It is not something the photographer adds, it is not nameable. It has, sometimes, a locus, but it is not really that locus. It is simply a property of the picture.

Put this together. Whatever punctum is, it is that which makes the picture real for Barthes. It might be a detail, it might be an overall effect. It is elusive, although apparently the effect is not. The fact that it is, in Barthes eyes, unintentional, something the photographer could not avoid, is useful here. Because it was something unavoidable, to speaks to the reality of the photograph. Wherever punctum resides, it is distinctly not artifice, nor within artifice. It functions to reify the picture, by its own reality, by its lack of artifice. Barthes has, by the way, a somewhat touching naivete about what is and is not artifice.

Having established as best we can what punctum means, and what it is, let's revisit the way Barthes reacts to photographs.

Barthes presents this as a personal investigation. He's starting from himself, and developing a theory of Photography based on what he finds inside his own mind (this is explicit in the first chapters of the book.) What he finds is two radically different reactions, in himself. While everyone talks about studium and punctum they never seem to admit that their reactions fall into these two distinct categories. Nobody ever seems to say "ah, yes, I react ecstatically to the doubling of vision" they either just mumble the words before moving on, or if you're lucky, they point to something that definitely isn't punctum ("the excitement on the cyclist's face, placed carefully by the photographer at the edge of the frame, is the punctum, for me" or similar).

I conclude that this bifurcation of reactions is exclusive to Barthes. In fact, it is clear from the text that Barthes is working himself up into a somewhat fraught emotional state. His mother has just died, and he's trying to figure out something. Jedi-like, he reaches out with his feelings, he digs deep into his phenomenological heart seeking his own intense experience, looking for something that will explain photography. Like a child brooding on some trivial injustice, he eventually reaches a state of hysteria and finds his intense reaction.

This reaction, alas, is entirely manufactured.

The brutal reality is that there is no such thing as punctum, it is a figment of Barthes investigation into his own, supremely weird, interior consciousness, coupled to mourning his recently deceased mother (and he is maybe the ultimate expression of a Mama's boy), and his own need to explain photography to himself (and, tediously, to the rest of us).

This is not to say that there is no emotional reaction to photographs. Of course there is. Much of what Barthes has to say is not wrong. It is the notion that there are two radically distinct possible ways to react that is simply silly, and it is in this radical distinction that the definition of punctum lies. No radical distinction, no punctum.

This, furthermore, explains why the theory of studium and punctum have led to nowhere. Well, there are at least two reasons. The first one, though, is that nobody can be bothered to work out what punctum actually is, and when they do, it makes no sense. You cannot extend or build upon an idea that you cannot first make some kind of sense of.

The second reason is political. Barthes says at one point (Chapter 36) "the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation" which means, from Barthes' viewpoint, the power of the photograph to reify, to show us what was really there is more important than the power of the photograph to communicate about what was there. This is anathema to the very people who like to cite Barthes. The only thing they want a photograph to do is to communicate, to reveal the flaws of the photographer, the plight of the subject, and so on. The only thing a photograph does is represent.

The only part of the photograph that matters, to the modern theorist, is the studium, that cluster of nameable, mentionable, reducible, discussable things. The idea that there is anything in a photograph that is ecstatic, unnameable, is anathema. The idea that the simple testimony of that-has-been which a photograph brings - which Barthes argues successfully is the only thing a photograph brings, is anathema. From our position here in 2019, we can readily view Barthes' book as a polemic against the very idea that "the politics of representation" is an important idea for understanding photography.

Here I find myself surprised to be aligned with Barthes. While his punctum is a stupid fantasy, the idea of the photograph as primarily, most importantly, an index which may "create the blind field" is pretty much exactly my position.

Given that literally the entire point of Camera Lucida is a set of ideas that are absolute anathema to the Academy, to the likes of Jörg Colberg, to Daniel Blight, to the editors of 1000words.com, and all their little friends in various art schools, it becomes something of a mystery as to why they're constantly citing the book.

Well, not really much of a mystery, they have no idea what the book says.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

New Thing

My absurd Alley project has reached what I hope is its final form. I am pretty happy with it, although of course it is not perfect. As usual, you can bash the Preview and get a pretty good look at what's inside. I think I have finally shrunk my fonts enough for print, but that does make them rather small online.

Note the use of "progressive design" which indicates, well, you get to decide what it means.

Alley: Rogue Photo 2

This is blurb's magazine, the cheap glossy paper, and good lord it looks stunning. You can't really write on it, so it's badly suited for handwork. In fact, a darkly inked section will tend to act a bit like carbon paper, transferring ink to a facing page if you write on the back. I am keeping track of whether it ever dries/cures out of this state, or if it's permanent.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Importance of Visuals

It is received wisdom, well understood, that the astronaut, shot into space and seeing the earth whole for the first time, will be moved to speak heroic words of unity and beauty.

"It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small."
-- Neil Armstrong


"The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me -- a small disk, 240,000 miles away. . . . Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don't show from that distance."
-- Frank Borman

and so on.

The conceit is that seeing the earth, whole, as it were, generates this epiphany. Photographs from space are brought back, paired with these quotes, intending to elicit the same response from those of us unlucky enough, or lucky enough, not to have been shot into space.


Blue Marble, 1972, Apollo 17.



Earthrise, 1968, William Anders. Apollo 8.


Galen Rowell called Earthrise, if wikipedia is to be believed, "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken," and author Robert Poole claims it as the spiritual nascence of the environmental movement, saying “it is possible to see that Earthrise marked the tipping point, the moment when the sense of the space age flipped from what it meant for space to what it means for Earth.” The first claim is absurd, Silent Spring was published 4 years earlier, but hold on to the quotation.

Moving onwards, here are a couple other quotations:

"Up here, you wonder why we're so different, when the land is the same. You think: we're all children of the same mother planet, who says we're different?"

"I have seen the earth ... turning below me like a fantastic ball, the seas like blue glass in the sun or lashed into grey storm-peaks ... and the land green with life ... and the cities of the world sparkling ... and the people."
-- Reverdy McMillen

Perhaps you are wondering, slightly, who the hell Reverdy McMillen is, and you would be, it turns out, quite justified. Rev McMillen is a fictional character, the first man to orbit the earth, in a short story called "The Cave of Night." I am going to, shortly, spoil that story, so if you're interested you should go find a copy now and read it. We're well past any reasonable expectations, though, the story was published in 1955. Two years before humanity would launch anything at all in to orbit, six before a human would orbit even once.

So, for starters, we see that the idea of the heroic epiphany predates, by quite a lot, the actual heroic epiphany. Alan Shepherd, Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, William Anders, perhaps none of them read James Gunn's story, but they sure as hell knew and worked with people who had. Gunn may not have (probably didn't?) even originate the idea, these things just sort of turn up after all.

The point is, the idea had been in play since at least 1955 that seeing the earth all-at-once from space was supposed to produce these visions of unity, and the fragility of life, of the special nature of the planet. These guys being shot into space cannot possibly have escaped these ideas. We have no real way of knowing how much scripting of these quotes occurred, but certainly the answer is "more than none."

Scripted or no these guys knew beforehand what emotional response was expected to happen when they saw the planet whole.

Here comes the spoiler. It gets better, it turns out.

Even inside James Gunn's story these quotes are not spontaneous, they are scripted. A recording, in fact. There is no man in space, there wasn't enough money. The whole thing is a setup to pry loose money for a real manned mission to rescue the supposedly stranded lone astronaut. The implication is that the dramatic failure to rescue the fellow does indeed lead to unity, to all manner of good things (not least: tons of money for manned space exploration).

So, not only so we have the idea of that this visual should produce an epiphany appearing in 1955, but we have the idea that also, quoting these epiphanies is great marketing. If this did not become NASA's playbook, I cannot imagine why not. In fact, it clearly was NASA's playbook, we just don't know whether they came up with it themselves, or whether James Gunn invented it.

Ok, so what about the visuals? I promised something about the importance of visuals, after all.

Well, here we see played out one more time this theme: visuals, it turns out, follow the idea at least as often as they lead it. The notion that it was the visuals that turned the tide of public opinion leading to the end of the US involvement in Vietnam turns out to be not quite true, and we see the same sort of result here.

The visuals were no doubt emotion-producing, but the epiphany and the basic nature of the heroic quotations was worked out well in advance.

The Earthrise and Blue Marble photo certainly support the sentiments that we ascribe to them, but to suppose that they in any way are the origin of them is false. The sentiment arises first, and the visual is found to support it.

Is it propaganda? Marketing? Or simply the way people work?

I suppose it's all three, isn't it?

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Seeing Order in Chaos

Small children do not know the difference between a scribble and a letter. Later, they learn this, but they still struggle with the difference between a word and a random collection of letters. And so on, the difference between random words and sentence is learned. At this point, even in literate society, people start to drop off. Most people can distinguish, consciously, between a coherent paragraph and a random collection of sentences, although fewer can write one.

The difference between a random jumble of paragraphs, and a coherent essay or argument is something that eludes even some academics. Daniel C. Blight, who has graced this pages from time to time, might serve as an example here.

Always, I think, more people can distinguish these things consciously than can write them, and more people distinguish at some unconscious level than do consciously. But at around the level of an essay, say 1000 words upwards, people often more or less stop reading and start skimming, peeling out keywords and phrases, guessing at the ideas, and reacting to those. Overall structure ceases to matter as much, in our modern social media times.

I dare say it goes on from there, at least notionally. While I think the human mind generally taps out around here, it is possible that there are higher-order structures which a greater intelligence than ours might consider obvious, shaking their heads sadly at poor, limited, homo sapiens who generally cannot tell the difference between a properly constructed grozbloo and just a random collection of books.

Anyways. I was reading something, never mind what, the other day and thinking the basic problem here is that the author cannot tell the difference between an essay and a collection of vaguely related paragraphs.

And then a shiver ran down my spine. What if I am the guy who can't tell the difference between a random jumble of shitty photographs and a properly structured photo essay?

Of course, in a panic, I immediately set about proving to myself that I could, and do, and am also handsome and charming to boot.

But I'm still a little panicked. But anyways let's think about this a little.

I feel confident about my writing. Not everything I actually write is particularly coherent, but in the first place I do ok, and in the second place I can at any rate tell the difference between random jumbles of noise, and coherent blocks of writing. Why? Whence this confidence?

The first place it comes from is simply that I differentiate. I judge this block of 2000 words to be gibberish, and that one to be a sound argument. Obviously I am perceiving something or other, although we might suspect that maybe I'm not seeing what I think I am seeing.

The second wellspring of my confidence is that, from time to time, people tell me that something I have written is coherent and well written. That's always nice. But then again, so few people actually read anything, maybe they're just skimming it and signaling agreement with my politics.

The third source is maybe my education. I do have a couple of degrees in, basically, constructing sound arguments. From, I admit, rather a long time ago, and anyways isn't that just an appeal to authority?

But there it is, anyways. There is my perhaps tenuous justification -- to myself -- for believing that I can fairly reliably distinguish written gibberish from a well written essay.

Does this translate to photographs? God knows my tastes are catholic, I am willing to judge some pretty random assemblages of shit to be Good Work. There's also the problem that I really have trouble declaring any individual picture Bad, it's always "well, maybe in the right context?" All that is consistent with Molitor just can't tell the difference between scribbles and letters, the idiot.

Tentatively, I have concluded that I do know what the hell I am about, though (surprised? of course I would arrive at this conclusion, no?).

I do judge, though I am pretty open minded. There is shit out there, and I can at any rate dredge up some words to tell you what is shitty about it. There is also excellence, and ditto. I do judge individual photos, as well. I can tell the difference between a "good image [sic]" and a "poor image [sic]" -- I just don't care, and I don't think the differences are that important.

There's my moment of doubt for the week!

Thank goodness I was mostly able to talk myself out of it.