Saturday, June 6, 2020

The Apparatus of Photographic Criticism is Trash

The first pillar of contemporary theory of photography is that the truth claim is ridiculous. Any mention of something like it is brushed off with a fruity laugh and a condescending "all photographs are constructs, of course." While this may be true in some theoretical/academic world, down here on earth people treat photographs rather differently than they do paintings.

The condescending reply is an expression of something real, of the basically squishy nature of the truth of photos, but the person with the fruity laugh doesn't understand that because he's an idiot and doesn't care.

He doesn't even notice how radically his idiotic idea conflicts with the other pillar of contemporary theory of photography, which is that photographs have immense power to harm. Curiously they seem to have almost no power to generate change for good, but they have almost infinite power to harm.

The mechanic I have in mind here is usually described as something like "perpetuating stereotypes."

Now, I do not deny even slightly that photographs can depict stereotypes, even very negative ones, and that such things are odious. My objection is to the claim that by making an odious depiction, a photograph becomes a deadly instrument capable of wreaking harm.

When we can date these things, and we often can, we find that photographs follow culture or, at best, are abreast of culture. They do not appear to generate culture. They follow, rather than lead. The claim, though, isn't quite that photos generate (negative) culture, but rather that that sustain it, which is a somewhat weaker claim.

The idea that imagery can generate cultural or social change was trotted out a while back in studies purporting to illustrate that watching pornography turned men evil. These studies, um, have not held up. Given that we're watching astronomically more porn now as a society than we were in 1990, you'd expect a 24/7 rape party in the streets, but rates have gone down instead. But, perhaps it's just sustain anyways.

It is clear, from the timelines if nothing else, that photographs reflect culture. They are, at least, a kind of mirror which reveals culture. When we consistently see, say, women, depicted in a certain way in photographs, we know something of how the culture perceives women. Timelines teach against the idea that photographs generate new understandings of women, but perhaps photographs do actively sustain an idea of women.

The conceit, thus, is that if we could eliminate those stereotyping pictures we could break some cycle of feedback which sustains the cultural idea. On the face of it, this sounds like a pretty sound idea. It does, however, begin to smack of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis for language, that our vocabulary dictates the limits of our thoughts. This sort of idea has not stood up well in the courts of actual studies.

I will concede that photographs of stereotypes are part of a cultural morass, a system of inextricably entangled cause and effect, in which everything is causal and everything is also an effect. What is not clear is what changing some part of that system actually does. There's no particular reason to suppose that the system won't roll along just fine without the photos.

At the very least, photos of negative stereotypes can be condemned as a kind of proxy for the underlying idea they illustrate. Rather than "this photo ought not exist" you would say "the stereotype this photo illustrates ought not exist." This isn't a big distinction, but the latter phrasing has the advantage of being much easier to support, and also rather more on-point. In the end, who even gives a shit about some photos, it is after all the stereotype that's the problem.

Speaking against the photos rather than the stereotype itself begins to feel a bit like sympathetic magic, when you examine the notion closely.

It's not really that the idea photos of negative stereotypes are bad is a terrible idea, it's that it's so shoddily presented. It's invariably stated as an obvious truth when, if you take a few moments to think about it, it's not at all obvious. As with everything else in photographic theory, this is stated without a shred of evidence.

All the theory of photography appears to simply be convincing blather. Sontag, Barthes, and me, we all just say stuff that sounds good to us without a shred of evidence. The academy accepts ideas, as far as I can tell, based largely on how well they support the easy writing of stupid derivative think pieces complaining about anything and everything.

Nobody seems to notice or care if the entire edifice is a maze of contradictions and stupidity, it's entirely about how easy it is to grind out another 1200 words on how much you dislike some artist who's making more money than you are.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, welcome to the humanities, maths guy! Put that slide-rule away, man, you won't be needing it in here, although it is kind of science-y to look at...