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Thursday, August 16, 2018

Another Essay from Mr. Blight

When I was a mathematician, the primary tool I used was a thing called duality theory. In pure mathematics we are generally thinking about some class of objects, "groups" or "topological spaces" or what have you, and trying to figure things about about them. Surprisingly often, there is a duality in play, which means simply that if you have one of these things, any one, you can turn it into quite a different kind of object (and back again) in an extremely precise way. Now you have two things that you can think about. Properties in one class of objects translate precisely into other properties in the other class, and back again.

In a way it's a hyper precise version of an analogy. "A lemon is like a malamute" one says, meaning something or other, and then perhaps by thinking about malamutes we can gain some insight into lemons. A truth about malamutes might be much easier to perceive and to prove than the corresponding, equally true, truth about lemons. Ta da! It's a bit of a magic trick, and can be astoundingly productive in mathematics.

Daniel C. Blight, who has graced these pages before when I disassembled a blindingly stupid essay of his, will now re-appear. I regret that I will not be turning him in to a smarter and more interesting object in order to reason about him. Instead, he has attempted to deploy the power of analogy himself, with poor but entertaining results.

He starts out fairly strong. This first bit from Daniel:

Photographs view the world sideways, at an angle, elliptically, but never straight on, as much as one might hope.

suggests that he's seen Emily Dickinson's poem, or at any rate the first line of it:

Tell all the truth, but tell it slant -

but has forgotten the referent. Daniel is certainly not the first to bring up this notion in regards to photography, I am nearly certain that Sally Mann did so in Hold Still but Mann and Dickinson are practically the only names Daniel does not drop in this piece.

He proceeds onward to the notion that a photograph is like an essay, which is a good analogy to make. It's not clear that Daniel figured this one out on his own or not. Despite citing an astonishing 47 names (several of them multiple times) in a 3700 word essay for a name dropped about every 70-80 words, it is quite difficult to sort out which ideas are Daniel's and which one's he's simply quoting from other writers.

Anyways. It's a good idea. An essay and a photograph are both essentially rooted in some notion of reality, of truth, and proceed from that to somewhere else. Both are fragments, both are filtered through a lot of stuff. One is visual, and an index, the other is not, so the analogy is not precise. Still, let us see what Daniel can make of this, and what we can learn by examining this relationship.

Well, obviously, Daniel learns nothing and tells us nothing. He leaves the analogy there, and talks around it a bit, and that's pretty much that, because like all the other dolts in his little circle he has literally no idea how to discover new ideas. All he can do is rehash other people's ideas and stir them together in a pot trying fruitlessly to synthesize something new.

No, Daniel is going somewhere else. He wants to talk about essays about photography. He tries manfully to make the leap from the analogy of Photograph::Essay to the subject he's actually interested in, but does not manage it. He does this weird thing, though:

The relationship between the ways in which the photographic might describe literature, and the literary might describe the photograph is a regular occurrence in the history of photography, as we shall see. [...] Virginia Woolf writes of Julia Margaret Cameron that her photographs ‘reflect her literary friendships and tastes’

In this section it is notable that none of the three examples he provides can reasonably be considered to be photographs describing literature or vice versa, as he promises us. Photographing an author, which Cameron did from time to time, is not making a photograph that describes literature. No. Neither is referring to Proust's writing as "photographic." Daniel is unable to distinguish between two different things being more or less near one another in a paragraph or sentence, and two things behaving in the dual way mathematicians are fond of.

Apropos of nothing in particular, we have this gem:

Various historic conceptions of the photographic image have seen it described as the act of “writing with light”. One interpretation of the etymology of the word photography in Greek translates into “light writing”. In considering photography (Greek: fotografía) is the production of images made with light (Greek: phōtós) and finds a relation to the word writing (Greek: grafí), it is no wonder that various photographers have had literature in mind when making images.

Which is frankly bizarre. He makes it seem as if the etymology of the word photograph is subject to interpretation, that there are perhaps multiple conceptions of what this word means and the manner in which it arose. That is wrong. The word was coined by Herschel and introduced in a paper read to the Royal Society on March 14, 1839. There's no conceptualizing, there's no interpretation. There are verifiable bare facts on the table here.

Daniel seems to be unaware of the fact that the modern Greek word is a borrowing from English of a word constructed from Greek roots, none of which matters because regardless of borrowing back and forth the fragments mean, and always meant, and were mashed together because they meant, writing with light.

Daniel blunders on, listing more accidental coincidences of literature with photographs. Stieglitz (photographer) and William Carlos Williams (writer) knew one another, and so on. He tries to make some hay out of the grafia part of photograph to suggest a further link between writing and photography, but it doesn't come out to more than simply stating grafia means writing, see? writing and writing. But with light not ink. Wow.

If we found that Stieglitz also knew a plumber, could we then assert that there is some wonderful and meaningful connection between plumbing and photography, without actually exploring it even slightly? Well, yes, we could, I suppose. But it would be obviously stupid.

A brief and pointless side trip through the layers of meaning that a photograph might have follows. It's an index, a representation! It's 1s and 0s! But it's also a reflection of social constructs and interpreted/seen through the filter of social constructs! Zowie! This is yet another opportunity for some sort of dualistic analysis which Daniel completely missed, preferring instead sprinkle names wildly about.

Finally, agonizingly, Daniel drags himself around to what he seems to really want to talk about. Essays about photography are and always have been written almost exclusively by white men. Daniel C. Blight is, as nearly as I can determine, a white man, so he's carrying on the tradition, but apparently unhappy with it. In the midst of his lengthy complaint, we find, more or less as a representative example, this sentence:

This position is not to be confused with an anti-intellectual polemic against the stylistics of “literary sophistication”, but instead to make a socialist point with regard to the inclusion of various idiolects in coming to an understanding of what writing on photography has been, and might become.

Which says, roughly, look I'm not complaining about how white all these essays are, but I do think we need some essays about photography that aren't just a white man banging on in pseudo-academic cant in what might possibly be the pinnacle of the style "white men banging on in pseudo-academic cant" in an essay about photography. At this point one begins to wonder if this is just some sort of complicated joke, or if Daniel is actually so staggeringly unaware of himself and of the words that his flailing fists are mashing onto the screen of his computer.

Now, to be fair, Daniel's not wrong. Writing about photography is almost exclusively done by people like him, and like me, and like Colberg and so on. There's a few black guys like John Edwin Mason running aroound, but they write in exactly the same cant.

On that point, though, I think I can make one of those dualistic analogy deals here. Writing about photography is a bit like competitive adult hopscotch. Now, I don't know if the latter is actually a thing, but I bet it is, and I bet it's played entirely by ironical white men with tattoos and ridiculous beards. The fact that adult people of color and women don't play competitive hopscotch, while definitely skewed, is arguably not a problem. Hopscotch, like writing about photography, is not a discipline which leads to wealth, opportunity, or really anything interesting.

Arguably, women and people of color don't write about photography and don't play competitive hopscotch because they don't give a shit about essays on photography or hopscotch. And more power to them.

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