Saturday, November 4, 2017

Squid-Eye Thinking

I read these things so you don't have to!

Daniel C. Blight, one of the apparently endless bunch of young turks of photography that Jörg Colberg mentions online from time to time, has published a thing. Link to it will appear shortly. It would not be of any note, except that it was apparently a talk given at a symposium at some academic institution, so it it what passes for scholarship in these degenerate times. It's actually fairly readable, there's not a lot of technical terms you need to look up to make sense of it. The big thing you need to have your arms around is this cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman's whack-a-doodle theories. Well, they're not whack-a-doodle, they're probably pretty solid, but they're clearly designed to be misunderstood which is important because they're not very interesting if you have a proper hold of them.

Hoffman has this idea of a Conscious Agent, which has a precise mathematical definition, which you can find if you poke around. Probability spaces, markov kernels, etc. He names the things in it to make it sound more like a "consciousness" as we understand such things, and of course he calls this thing a Conscious Agent. While these things may in fact model a consciousness as we understand the word, they also model pretty much anything else. This mathematical object he's invented is essentially "A Thing that interacts with Other Things" in a probabilistic but organized way.

Hoffman is deliberately abusing terminology to give the impression that he's got hold of something about consciousness, but as far as I can tell, he does not.

He then makes the bold claim that there is no Objective Reality, all there is in Conscious Agents interacting with one another (mediated by what?) which sounds simply amazeballs if you haven't figured out that Conscious Agent means Thing. There is no objective reality, there's just Things. Well, that's a lot less sexy sounding. It almost sounds fucking stupid, actually.

Ok, so what Hoffman wants us to do is to imagine that he has mathematical proof, sort of almost, that the universe is a construction of our own consciousness. He's nowhere near this, of course. He's got a model that might or might not explain the universe as Things Interacting, and is quietly hoping that because he's sprinkled the word "conscious" around a lot, we'll make the jump to "whoa, those Things must be us!" without him explicitly saying it.

Blight, of course, walks right into it, and imagines that Cognitive Science has collectively agreed, more or less, that reality does not exist, it's just a construct of human consciousnesses chugging away being conscious.

Here is Blight's piece. I will summarize it in my usual fashion but, I think, basically honestly, now:

Cite Baudrillard on theory. Po-mo BS, theory is a pushing out, an encompassing, and in the end a destruction.

Think about this in context of theory of representation, that is, that photographs are merely representations of the real world. But the world isn't real anyways, isn't simply "documentable" it's more complex.

People are creatures of signs and metaphors, a photo has many meanings. Namedrop all over the fucking place. Watch me cite "Wayne's World" and then Derrida. Good lord.

This next bit is somewhat muddy, but I think I have it combed out. Rejection of theory is incorrectly confused with dislike for technical writing. Blight seems to be saying that people who reject theory are actually just pissy about language. The implication is, I suppose, that they would love theory if they knew it?

Quotes 3 people, dismisses them as stupid, also lots of virtue signalling -- a lot of hand wringing over being a white male and so on. This is, sort of, relevant later though.

"Theory forces me to accept that I don't understand everything and never will" which strikes me mostly as humblebrag, doesn't seem to connect to anything. Bunch of whining about his name, and something more or less incomprehensible about writing (it's only for myself, yet not me, it's dissent against me, what?)

A little more about writing, it's not "for" anything, but rather "for" everything, anything and, happily, writing need not be clear or even comprehensible. Case in point, the embittered might suggest.

Bunch of stuff about Hoffman's "interface theory" which is fine. Our perceptions did not evolve to see the truth, but to conceal it (which is overwrought, of course, but in a sense correct).

Then the wheels fall off entirely. Blight gets sucked right in to Hoffman's BS and starts going on about how there is no reality, that it's all just a construct of consciousness (our consciousness), and that therefore the camera (itself a construct) records, if anything, only a representation of the construct of our consciousness, producing photographs which are themselves more constructs etc. Essentially, Blight has a "My God, it's full of stars" moment. It's constructs all the way down.

Except, of course, it is not. Hoffman has demonstrated no such thing, and his theory supports no such idea. It is a trap that Hoffman has set, to attract the Wired editors and so on, but it's not real. Objective reality may or may not exist, but Hoffman certainly has no idea either way.

At some point in here we'd like to imagine he's going to get around to why on earth photography needs theory, and here he finally starts to nudge up against it with ths nugget:

Theory mediates the space between reality as a perceptual construction according to cognitive neuroscience, and photography as the cultural production of visual representations bound to fictionality.

In this case as near as I can tell the "fictionality" he's referring to at the end is the construct of our imagination, which we imagine to be reality. It is the thing the camera takes a picture of, more or less. Once you take it all apart, the "fictionality" seems to be precisely "reality as a perceptual construction according to cognitive neuroscience" which is the first of the two things theory mediates the space between. We can call this "reality" if we keep in our pocket the notion that, per Hoffman, it might not be a thing at all, but a construct of, um, whatever. This sentence boils down to:

Theory mediates between reality, and photography as the cultural production of visual representations of reality.

Which seems to be saying, essentially, that "theory of photography" is the "theory of representation" since this is a more or less exact description of the latter. This strikes me as a somewhat limiting view since what he is saying, after you scrape away all the Hoffman, is that photography theory is just a well-mined-out subset of what we currently understand as photography theory.

Anyways. Then he wanders off into some ideas that seem to be in essence, if the world is all made up by our consciousness(es) we should be able to topple the white patriarchy with the power of our mind. I'd be happy if I could imagine myself up a candybar from time to time, but apparently it doesn't work that way. We actually have to do the work, even if it is all imaginary.

I cannot, in any case, discern anywhere in here a justification, or even an attempt to address the question of, Does photography need theory? which is allegedly the question he set out to address. He seems to be getting close when he defines photography's theory, but then it all slips away when you start actually looking up the words (as he petulantly demands you do, early on in the piece). Perhaps he should have asked us to not look up so many words.

This is scholarship? This isn't even clear thinking. It's a careless pastiche of half-understood and largely bogus ideas, with a large helping of name dropping and virtue signalling. No wonder we're still stuck with Sontag, if this is the sort of thing that's been going on since Sontag, that self-indulgent woman is far and away the best we've got.


  1. Andrew, I really and seriously appreciate your tackling these things and discussing them in a [to me almost] understandable manner.
    I gave up on that sort of thing over two decades ago when I was getting my MFA. Our Art History Prof was using us as guinea pigs to practice a lecture she was going to give at a very important Art History conference. To my surprise, I discovered that I did not understand a single one of her sentences. She gave us a written copy of her presentation and after repeatedly reading it, I still was not getting anywhere. Now, I had an MA in History and was well-passed middle age. I was also a long way from thinking that I had a brilliant mind, but I never did think I would sink that low

  2. oops, my comment should actually be here, not on the female nudes article - I went all smashing-keys in my rage...
    OK, people who argue there is no reality need to be punished immediately. I once forbade someone to ride in the same train car, or indeed on the same train, as me when he trotted that out as an argument. So. There. Up to that point it had been a nice conversation, but as soon as "no reality" happens to me, you are no longer on my train, just sayin'. Now I will scroll back up and read the rest of the article.

  3. "After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- 'I refute it thus.'"
    Boswell's Life of Johnson



    1. Johnson seems to have been an asshole, but he's our kind of asshole!

    2. There's no arguing with a rock. As someone said, at 40,000 feet you'd better hope aero-engineering is *not* just some social construct...


  4. Thank you for reading this tripe so I don't have to! I got a headache about halfway through your explanation.

  5. From the linked article:

    "This person thinks that he should be able to understand everything I say. And that if he doesn’t understand some words I’ve used, it must be my fault for using them, rather than his problem for not being bothered to look them up in a dictionary, or have a read of the sources I’ve cited."

    Wow, that's arrogance in overdrive.

    Best, Thomas
    (older white male)

    1. Yeah, he actually seems like an OK guy, but like most of us he can be kind of a putz.