Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Provenance of Meaning

I should start out by noting that I am using the word provenance loosely at best, incorrectly at worst, here. I confess that I first came across the word watching Lovejoy, where the word means "evidence of the chain of ownership, usually forged."

Colin Pantall, one of a small crew of British photo-academics I attend to now and then, has written a review of a book about Belgian photobooks, by Tamara Berghmans. Most of the review is of no particular concern to me, it appears to be a workmanlike job of reviewing, but survey books about photobooks are not something that interest me.

He does spend a little time dissecting one section of the book, regarding photobooks covering the Belgian Congo colonial era. In this section it is not clear to me where Colin begins, and where the book being reviewed leaves off, but they generally seem to be in accord, so I trust you will allow me to lump them together.

Let me first set the stage a little.

The contemporary narrative of colonialism is of vicious white exploiters looting faraway lands for no reason except to line their own pockets. While not wrong as such, and I certainly do not intend to put up a spirited defense of colonialsm here, it ignores the reality on the ground. The vast majority of the colonizers were simply bureacrats, whether state or church does not matter. Most of these people were not getting rich, and many of them at least in some sense chose to go to the colonies. They lived there, they died there.


This was an era in which, given any two cultures, it was felt that one could and should judge them. One of them was better, the other worse. The better one was, naturally, the one that most closely resembled White Euro Culture. The members of the White Euro Culture had a moral duty to go out and improve the worse culture. Was this a direct result of Enlightenment thinking, a sort of pre-Modernist philosophy? Sure. Was this a scam invented by Capital to motivate the bureaucrats? Sure, also true. This does not invalidate the motivations of the bureaucrats out there on the ground blundering around making horrendous messes, murdering people in droves, and occasionally making things better. Many of the bureaucrats on the ground were earnestly working, sacrificing, in order to raise up a culture they genuinely believed to be in need up raising up.

This idea that cultures that do not look like ours are inherently worse, and ought to be changed, is of course now seen as an awful idea. I agree that it's not a very good idea.

This idea isn't dead, of course. White Euros run around other countries telling them how they ought to be more White and more Euro (or more American, which is pretty much the same thing at this remove). They just do it through NGOs. Indigenous cultures are wonderful and should be respected, unless they're Saudis of course, and so on. There is a pretty large list of cultural practices that we in the west continue to find odious and work very hard to change, while making a good bit of pocket-change on the side. One finds, depressingly commonly, people working both sides: on the one hand decrying colonialism and on the other practicing it.

Looking back in to Colin's piece, we find what appears to be a quotation from the book concerning the bared breasts of the Congolese women. I assume these are Berghmans' words, but the reference is not crystal clear. Let me reproduce the quotation here.

"…pledges to the ‘veracity’ of these photographs, but also spoke to the tangible availability of these ‘lascivious’ bodies…"

Let us assume for the sake of argument that the bare breasts in that place at that time were perfectly normal, that those women in those contexts did not think it remotely unusual that their breasts would be uncovered, that they intended no meaning of lascivious availability.

So, somewhere in the chain of provenance between the women with their arms up, and the author of this book, someone has brought in lascivious availability. Let us think about this chain a little.

The women themselves. The photographer. The publisher (of the original photobook.) The intended audience for the photographs. Berghmans. Colin Pantall.

The lascivious availability is not present at the beginning, and by the time it reaches Colin it has been inserted.

Certainly the reading proposed is possible, it's reasonable, even likely, that the intended audience for the book read these pictures as a sort of soft-core smut, like a boy with a copy of National Geographic. Did the photographer or the publisher intend that meaning? Perhaps. One can imagine that they knew their audience, and if we stipulate that the audience would react that way, perhaps they were engaged in a little light porn-peddling to shift the books.

Did the photographer feel that way? I rather doubt it. To suppose that anyone in-country eyed these women with anything more than the usual feelings men have toward women is probably wrong-headed. The bouncer in the strip joint is pretty much over the naked bodies after a couple of days, it's just business as usual. I fail to see why a colonial bureaucrat serving in the Congo, with (one imagines) easy, daily, access to brown breasts to ogle would be much different. After a few days it's just background. At least, it's not insane to imagine that the breasts are just background.

The photographer, it is reasonable to imagine, is more or less the same sort of chap as the bureaucrats he's bunking with. He might be there to make a bunch of money, but it's equally likely that he's out there to try to do a spot of good while making a bit of money on the side. Rather like the contemporary NGO bureaucrats, and the photographers and filmmakers that work with them. Did he think golly, the people back home are gonna love these boobies! or was it merely something more to document, more of the background?

Did the publisher, then, get excited by the prospect of selling pictures of boobies to lustful Belgians? Indeed, one can ask if the lustful Belgians themselves cared? How much, really, can we equate the Belgian photobook buyer of the first half of the 20th century with 13 year old boys from the 1970s who have just discovered National Geographic?

I don't pretend to have the answers here. I do not know where the lascivious availability worked its way in. But work its way in it did.

Academic analysis of historical photographs is all too often performed as follows:

Begin with a caricature of the people of the time. Next, examine the photographs through your modern eyes, through your contemporary veil of prejudices and opinions. Finally, paste your modern understanding of the photographs onto the caricatures, with suitable rearrangements of pronouns and viewpoints to make the grammar work out ok.

This is the method of Edward Said's book, Orientalism, which builds its arguments largely as a sequence of quotations from colonialists, followed by Said "interpreting" the quotation, often with a remarkably free hand. He begins with a caricature of the colonialist (and like all good caricatures it contains elements of truth) and then fits quotations to these puppets he has made, and finally condemns the puppets with what he imagines to be their own words.

Said's opinions and prejudices somewhat resemble my own, and his caricature does contain elements of truth, and so his conclusions are in general shape the kinds of things I agree with. His method, though, leaves much to be desired.

This method is lazy and ahistorical, but it has the singular benefit of propping up ones own opinions and prejudices, since it is constructed entirely out of them.

The counter to this method, which is equally cheap and lazy, is to exclaim that the times were different then, and that everyone ought to be judged by the standards of their own time, not by ours. This gets to the essential flaw, but does not offer any meaningful solution. Every man, judged by his own standards, is innocent and pure as fresh fallen snow.

We should distinguish, at any rate, the difference between what a picture means to us and what we imagine it meant to them, the two are almost certainly different. Perhaps radically so. Further, we cannot really, credibly, grasp at what it meant to them without understanding them in some meaningful way. Dispense with the caricature.

Pictures of colonialism offend and appall us, rightly. We are who we are, and we find these things appalling.

One can also, but separately, imagine what these pictures meant to the colonialists, and we might choose to judge them based on that, though beyond our judgement they surely lie. But to so judge, we should make an effort to first understand the colonialists themselves. To cheaply paint them as caricatures and them to blindly paste our own reactions onto them is to do a grave disservice to everyone, perhaps most especially to ourselves.

Rather than simply transplanting our own understanding back in time, we should follow the thread of provenance backwards, unpicking each knot in the context of its time without losing sight of our own time, until finally we can make some sort of full sense of the thing.

1 comment:

  1. Since you mention the Saudis... they aren't really "indigenous" in the sense you mean, they were invented out of whole cloth by the Brits, to serve as their 'compradors'