Wednesday, November 18, 2020

There is no Algebra of Photographic Meaning

In the Victorian era, and later into the early 20th century, we pretty much thought we had the world nailed. Everything was a system, you could break it all down into comprehensible parts, and everything would be understood in short order. Science was king, the modernist impulse was the way forward. Freud broke the human consciousness into simple layers: id, ego, superego; a child could understand it! Marx worked out that human history ran on rails that led inevitably to a communist paradise, and so on.

This actually works for a lot of stuff. Building bridges, working out planetary motion, all that sort of thing. You imagine systems that describe reality, nice, coherent systems governed by some equations. Perhaps you have to refine the systems, tweak them, but ultimately you've got a nice set of notions that go from simple/abstract to more complex/concrete, and you're off to the races. Copernicus's revelation of the structure of the solar system was a triumph. Our universe, it seemed, was just a sort of large watch, and everyone knows how gears work. There's just a lot of gears, right?

There are places this fails spectacularly. The weather, for instance, really punishes you if you try to treat it as a simple system. The weather system wrapped around our planet is governed by laws, sure, but its implementation is such a complex mass of interacting bits and pieces that it defies comprehension. We can model it, with immense effort, and get useful results out, certainly. Knowing what temperature it will likely be tomorrow, and whether it will rain, is very very useful. It would also be useful to know these things about a month from now, but you cannot have that information.

Freud imposed a simplistic design on the human mind, and while it kind of works a little bit, it mostly doesn't work at all. The human mind is not designed. There are no layers of abstraction here, it's a non-hierarchical mass of billions of interacting thingies all of which affect one another. It defies being modeled as a system that is simpler than itself. The operation of cellular chemistry, ditto. It's a chaotic dynamical system (or close enough to one), a vast collection of interacting feedback loops that is best understood simply as itself.

As the 20th century unfolded, Marx's followers (who bleed, eventually, into Photographic Theorists) slowly began to notice this.

Gramsci, observing that Marx's railroad system for human culture doesn't seem to be working out, invented an add-on system: hegemony. The idea is that The Powers That Be set the intellectual agenda, they literally define the parameters of what is thinkable and what is not. This system interferes with Marx's railway, and that's why we haven't yet entered a communist paradise. Hegemony in this sense turns up as Newspeak and the associated apparatus in Orwell's 1984.

Gramsci thought that maybe if we added a few more gears to the system, it'd all start making sense. Spoiler warning: he was wrong.

After Gramsci we got Stuart Hall who warmed it all up again and made it a little less improbable sounding than Orwell did. Media, collectively, is the System by which the Powers That Be influence culture and, blah blah damn it still no communist future!!

We see a sort of proliferation and refinement of systems, of systematization, in an ongoing effort to reduce human culture to simple, digestible, bits that work together in comprehensible ways. They're trying to save Ptolemian astronomy by adding epicycles, and it's not going to work.

With such a system in hand, we could then see where the levers are, where to do what to produce the cultural result we want whether that is a brave communist future or whatever. Unfortunately, there is no Copernicus coming to re-orient the reference frame and save us all. Humanity is not, after all, a watch.

It's all bullshit. The effort is bankrupt. Human culture is not subject to systematization. It's a chaotic dynamical system. Just as there is no breakdown, no analysis, of weather that will allow us to do much more than make sketchy short-term predictions (and certainly control is right out), there is no breakdown, no model, of human culture that allows us to understand it or, really, control it in the large.

We can sell cars and ideologies on short timescale schedules, and with wildly variable success, and that's about it. We're getting (a little) better at these things as time goes on, but this might well be the limit of what is possible. There is, at any rate, no particular reason to suppose that much more is possible.

The latest efforts to systematize photography revolve around "representation" and "gaze" which attempt to fix certain aspects of the photograph's meaning based on who took it, in what way, and of whom or what.

Once we correctly understand these terms as attempts to fix meaning, we see immediately that the whole effort is bankrupt. The meaning of photographs is too fluid, too dependent on context and viewer to allow any such fixing of meaning to succeed. The meaning of a photograph is too human, too adrift in culture, to be fixed in place.

The attentive will note also that it's not just these terms, these attempts. It is all such attempts to fix meaning that will inevitably fail.

There is no algebra of photographic meaning. You cannot develop a fixed method into which you drop a photo and out of which pops the meaning of it, any more than you can predict whether the sun will be shining outside your door 30 days hence.

And yet, in 30 days, the sun either will or will not be shining, and photographs do have meaning. The global state of the weather in 30 days is lost intractably in computational infeasibility, and yet the weather here and now is perfectly lucid. You merely look out the window, and there it is. And so we can trivially extract the meaning of this photo, here and now, and for ourself merely by looking at it and thinking about it for a moment.

So far this brings us to, roughly, Barthes and Camera Lucida wherein he merely examined his own feelings and reported on them. This is phenomenology, and Barthes was surely a phenomenologist. The only small issue here is that Barthes was also remarkably weird, and so his personal examination of photographic meaning does not particularly translate. And herein we see, finally, the escape hatch from all of this intractability.

There is no algebra of photographic meaning. We do, however, have access to a useful test subject in ourselves. We also have the capacity of empathy, and can so a degree imagine ourselves in another's shoes and thence guess at what they might make of a photo's meaning. We have even a capacity for imagination, and can place the photograph into various notional contexts, and guess at the meanings that arise therein. We can combine the two, and theorize about the whole universe of possible meaning.

There is no algebra of the weather. But you can make a little model of the planet and her atmosphere, and see what it does, and make thereby guesses at whether the sun might shine a few days hence. We can use ourselves as little models of humanity, and make thereby guesses at what this photograph might mean here, or there, or to her, or to him.

There is no algebra of photographic meaning, we have to do the work and find the meaning ourselves. To understand broadly the meaning of a picture, or a group of them, or of any media, we ourselves have trudge the ridges and valleys of empathy and imagination and make a note of what we discover there.


  1. I know your blog is focused on photography but what you are describing is rampant across all areas of human life. Rather than inquire into what our senses are actually reporting in the moment people start with an assumed framework that "explains it all" and then mash their thoughts and experiences into the shape of that framework.

    Paying attention, experiencing, reflecting, and trying to understand is hard work. Projecting your conclusions on the raw mass of experience and ignoring or ruthlessly attacking the contradictions is relatively easy. And, you get to feel like you know everything that's worth knowing! And you get to be a righteous defender of the truth! And there's a constant supply of infidels because even people who subscribe to the same ideology will have small differences in how they think about it!

    Who could ask for anything more?

  2. Well here's a treat: "A short interview with Nicholas Mirzoeff that explains why the critical study of visual culture is a matter of life-or-death."