Friday, July 15, 2016

The Plastic Zeitgeist

I mean here, "plastic" in the sense of easily shaped or molded, malleable.

Zeitgeist is, of course, plastic. It's baked right in to what it is. The point is that it changes, really. Still, the internet has granted us some new avenues, some new, speedier, ways that it can be changed. XKCD had a comic that's related. Anyways.

Whatever the actual position of Marc Riboud's picture in the zeitgeist of the western world was prior to about July 10th of this year, it now occupies a different one, as does Bernie Boston's picture. At least one commentator has definitely mistaken one for the other, I suspect others of the same mistake, and I certainly don't monitor the entire internet. Statistically, this is an error that is happening a substantial number of times. Boston's picture, despite its substantially greater historical impact (I've spent some time poking in to this), is being replaced in the zeitgeist by Riboud's.

Let me spin out an imaginary scenario. Some 20-something wannabee critic needs to cite "that one picture of the Japanese girl in her bath after some industrial accident" and does a google search. Due to some accident of his search some hypothetical minor picture by Eisie turns up. Perhaps our wannabee happens to be physically located close to the location Eisie shot his photo. Google moves in mysterious ways. The photographer is, in the wannabee's mind, close enough to Smith to fit, the picture is perhaps of some little boy injured in some accident with industrial machinery. It too is a bit dark. Wannabee has his citation, cites it, and maybe even appends a "heh heh, I originally misremembered this as a Japanese girl!"

Now the circle is complete. Subsequent vaguely phrased searches for Tomoko will turn up this other picture. Gradually, or perhaps quickly, Smith's photo will be eclipsed in the zeitgeist, a new zeitgeist emerges in which a formerly minor photo of Eisie's replaces the significant photo by Smith.

Since this isn't History with a capital aitch, there's nothing really concrete here to be fact-checked, it's not correctable. All these guys citing Riboud don't actually care which photo they cite, they just want something, anything, kind of appropriate in order to give a gloss of scholarship to their piece. Riboud's picture serves as well as any. It may or may not be the one they meant.

So what? What's lost? Well, in my imaginary scenario the photograph that actually was the tip of the spear, the photograph that did indeed change the world and save lives, gets pushed into the history books and out of the zeitgeist. The common perception is, perhaps, the vague notion that the minor picture was the one that changed the world. A little bit of truth is lost from the common knowledge. Not that the common knowledge is exactly rife with strictly accurate facts now, of course.

Add a lot of these things together, and perhaps we replace truth with error at a faster pace. Perhaps the zeitgeist becomes more and more a pastiche of made up facts, mis-remembered facts, and simple nonsense. Maybe not. Maybe it doesn't matter either way.

Mostly it just irritates me to see people botching stuff like this up, being sloppy and then enthusiastically copying one another's sloppy work.

zeitgeist, zeitgeist, zeitgeist. I love this word.


  1. I believe your penultimate paragraph sums things up nicely.

    Unfortunately, it seems "close enough" is quickly becoming "good enough" for an increasing number of people.

    And for an increasing number of photographers, too.

  2. This is an interesting read, in this context:

    I wonder if Banville is right, about ignorance of the origins of Memorial Day in the USA?