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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Vilém Flusser

In this book by David Levi Strauss, I ran across some references to an essay by Flusser, an essay I had not read. At the time, I shrugged it off and took Levi Strauss' summary as correct, and moved on with my life. It happened that a few days later I realized that I do in fact possess of copy of "Towards A Philosophy of Photography" and so in due course I read it, and as one does, had a bit of a think.

Levi Strauss' summary seems to be perfectly fine, as far as it goes. He only wanted a few little things from the essay.

Flusser was definitely kind of a weird guy with some weird ideas, but there's stuff in here worth thinking about. The essay (book?) dates from 1984, so a bit later than Sontag and Barthes, but maybe a bit earlier than Stuart Hall.

A bureaucracy is a system made up of humans and processes which has one or more goals consciously held, often publicly stated. To some degree, invariably, a bureaucracy actually operates in opposition to its stated goals. Equally invariably, a bureaucracy operates to expand itself, its influence, its budget, and so on. A non-profit seeking to, say, solve the Problem of Homelessness will often operate in ways that on the one hand mitigate homelessness while at the same time perpetuating it, while simultaneously increasing its own budget to solve the ever worsening problem.

The non-profit argues that the problem is just getting worse, and their best efforts can merely slow the advance, send more money. Close examination of the actions of the non-profit are invariably ambiguous, and yet it often seems that they are perhaps not after all doing as much as they might be, except for the part where they ask for more money, a larger staff, and perhaps some more real estate which they are definitely on top of.

The underlying problems, at the same time, certainly are getting worse, so perhaps they're right after all. It's hard to tell.

This is more or less universal. Some bureaucracies do a better job of combating the natural tendency to expand at the expense of stated goals, and to operate in opposition to them; some others do a worse job. The natural tendency, though, is omnipresent.

The causes of this tendency are, as far as I know, largely unknown.

Flusser does not talk about bureaucracies as such, he's interested in what we might term a generalized form of this bureaucratic phenomenon. He's interested in systems of culture which operate according to programs which systems humans are largely unaware of, and against which humans struggle to some extent (but not always) in vain. His systems are obscure, he doesn't seem to have any notion of what form they take, or the mechanics of their operation, although he is sure that they do operate.

This is an alternative view to the Frankfurt School's Critical Theory which assumes (roughly) that all cultural systems are driven purely by power relationships. Flusser does not think it's that simple. While both schools believe in hidden systems that control everything, the Critical Theorists believe (roughly) that if you open the black box you will find a struggle for power between humans and/or human institutions. Flusser believes that inside the black box are only more black boxes.

Flusser also believes that there is a hierarchy, or perhaps a network, of these opaque cultural systems. If I become aware of the system I serve, and rebel against it, I am likely only rebelling against that system while my rebellion is in fact perfect compliance with the program of the larger surrounding system that programs and maintains the system I can see.

So, this is some serious tinfoil hat shit, right? And yet, bureaucracies are a thing, aren't they?

I don't actually have a clear sense of where I land on this. It feels kind of right, and kind of bonkers at the same time. But let us set my personal position aside.

Flusser believes that photography, broadly construed, is such a system. Photographs are produced by your free will, by accident and serendipity, by automated surveillance cameras, and so on. But just as a rolled die comes up 6 about one sixth of the time, you and your photographs considered en masse comply with the broader programmatic constraints of the system of photography. If you can somehow defy that system, if is only in conformity to larger systems you're even less aware of.

Flusser theorizes about the nature of the program driving the system of photography:

In the pre-History, ancient times, humans lived largely according to cycles of endless repetition. Day follows night follows day. Winter follows fall, summer, spring follows winter forever. The king dies; the king is crowned. Flusser terms this cyclical kind of existence "magical."

At some point linear writing and thence History are invented, and now everything that happens is new. It is not long merely that the king has died, and the king is crowned. This king has died, and now that king is crowned. The death of one causes the coronation of the other.

History led in the fullness of time to the Industrial Revolution which has in turn led us to now, a time of programmed cultural systems. The programmed goal of the system of photography is to enlarge itself, its influence, to make the picture universal, to replace text with picture, to return from text to picture, to, in the end, destroy History. The end result of photography is a return to the cyclical, magical, time, but in a new form.

In some sense, he's not wrong. News photographs do not make events distinct, they blur them together. One riot is just like any riot, it must be riot season come back around again. Successful struggles to make newsworthy events distinct, Historical, are rare. Photographs don't tell us which king is crowned, only that the king is crowned, and that the king has died. When Queen Elizabeth dies, we will see her funeral photos next to her father's funeral photos, and we will see the new king crowned next to photographs of her coronation, and they will all look the same.

Every photo on instagram is a repeat of another photo. The lattes, the sunsets, the pretty girls doing yoga, they all come around and around.

Notice here that this is the exact opposite of Barthes' position.

Barthes, recall, insists that the photograph makes Historical that which was formerly Religious, or Mythical. One might as well say Magical. Barthes places the era of Magic as ending more or less exactly at the time photography was invented, whereas Flusser places the end of Magic at the invention of linear writing; still, in broad strokes they seem to be talking about the same kinds of things. Barthes is probably thinking in terms of the French Peasant, a character that maybe somewhat fancifully is imagined to reside in a kind of utopian pre-history up through the Victorian era as far as I can tell. Flusser is thinking of humanity writ large, and probably urban, the humanity that toiled in factories and therefore confronted History rather more definitely than the shepherds.

I haven't any notion of who's right. I think both arguments have some weight to them, both feel right in some sense.

Barthes says that the photo testifies to facts, and is therefore part of the machinery of History, of linear time. Flusser says that the image, broadly construed, is inherently magical, cyclical, and therefore opposes History, linear writing, linear time.

They both kinda have a point.

Friday, June 11, 2021

An Article

The usual suspects are passing around this article, How the George Floyd Uprising Was Framed for White Eyes with the usual approving nods. It's the sort of thing I think is always worth reading, and it's not terrible. Nor is it particularly good, though.

The reason the usual suspects like it is because it is a succinct and fairly cogent summary their preferred theory of media. Every generation is certain they have the objectively true theory, and that all previous generations were basically just kidding themselves, and sort of dim. The author is a remarkably well-spoken recent graduate, so it's not really surprising that it contains no original thinking. That's fine, there's nothing wrong with applying contemporary ideas to things you see around you, but that is the character of this piece.

The conceit of the article is, essentially, that photojournalistic photos of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests are drawn from a limited palette of possible tropes, which tropes specifically lend themselves to a specific interpretation by a specific audience. You can go read the details if you like, but I confess I don't find them particularly interesting and those details are not something I want to devote much time to here.

A brief note on protests: for the most part, at least here in the West, protests are a ritual, a system of gestures and set-pieces that we collectively perform to exhibit our political opinions as a collective. The purpose is ostensibly to generate change, but this never occurs in modern times. The underlying purpose is to build community, to shore up our beliefs with the knowledge that others share them. It is essentially a rain dance, a highly ritualized social/community action which does not in fact produce rain, but which serves a number of useful social functions.

My kids attend a lot of protests with their dad, because I believe strongly in those social functions.

The gestures and set pieces tend to be camera-ready, because we have learned them from the camera. The signs, the chants, the inevitable march to somewhere from wherever. Occasionally the sheer emotion of the moment overwhelms the crowd and it becomes a riot, and that too is largely ritualized.

I am not a specialist in the area, but my understanding of the Civil Rights Movement protests in the USA is that they were consciously ritualized. The difference today is we pretend very hard that the gestures and set pieces of protest are organic, emergent, a natural outflow of the emotion of the crowd in response to the injustice they see. Which, to be fair, is perfectly true, but the crowd draws upon a small set of visual pedagogy in developing their own strategies.

There is a reason all protests look the same.

Back to the topic at hand. The general argument of the article I introduced above is to offer up the tropes with examples, and to say "well, there you are, see?"

It is a bit like arguing that the children are limiting themselves by building only with LEGO and Lincoln Logs, and then offering up documentation of a lot of LEGO and Lincoln Log structures built by the children. There is an essential missing step here, which is to list something else the children might be building with. You have to actually say "And look, here are Tinkertoys, which the children are not using." The Mother Jones piece notably lacks any examples of these other notional pictures that might be made, to illustrate the alternatives to the tropes. There are by my count two sentences which suggest ideas which ought to be portrayed but are not, and there are no hints offered as to how one might photograph those abstractions.

The tropes, as offered, in fact cover a lot of territory. Here is option A, which is read in such-and-such a way by our notional audience of liberal white people. Here is option B, which has precisely the opposite meaning to that same notional audience, but somehow leads to the same place. Here is option C, again quite different, but again mysteriously leading the same conclusion. Without meaning to the article offers a fairly cogent argument that, whatever the photograph, it is positioned and sold against the same backdrop of meaning and results in the same received messages. About this, more in a moment.

What the article gets right is that meanings are, by and large, imposed on photographs by the audience on the basis of, well, a lot of things including the surrounding material (text, other visuals, in this case.) Multiple readings are, the article admits, perfectly possible, and indeed occur. It is the specific tranche of White Liberals who see these pictures in these particular ways, we are told. One could argue about whether that specific tranche of White Liberals even exists, but let us stipulate that they do. Someone is reading "Mother Jones" after all.

What the article gets wrong, I think, is the idea that there are specific tropes which uniquely lend themselves to this reading by these people.

It suggests as a corollary that there are other photographs, those Tinkertoys if you will, which would uniquely lend themselves to other readings. It fails, as noted, to provide any such photos, or ideas for what they might look like, and I think the entire enterprise is bankrupt, thus:  

An alternative possibility is that virtually any photographs at all could be read that way by those people, given a suitable presentation. This is my position.

The piece leads off with the more or less sui generis photo from 1963 of Walter Gadsden being attacked by a police dog. I say it is sui generis, the only one of its type, because of the remarkable ambiguity in the action-packed, information-dense, scene. Unlike the standard protest and riot tropes, you can see a lot of faces, a lot of expressions, there's a ton of body language in play. The cop and Gadsden are interacting in a profoundly ambiguous way. Anyone who's taken a lot of pictures is likely to guess that this is one of those photos of frozen motion which in no way resembles the actual scene, like a blink.

News photos almost never have that "blink" character. They invariably at least appear to be accurately giving a sense of an unfolding situation. The Gadsden photo, while obviously a "blink," is also obviously so powerful a visual that it passed muster and got printed.

The standard tropes of riots and protests certainly avoid this kind of thing. Faces are frequently abstracted away. We want either an undifferentiated mass of people, or a single figure in a dynamic posture ideally with their face hidden. In addition to being generic in this sense they also hew to the standard photojournalism model, and present the appearance of accurately summarizing some unfolding moment, rather than being a "blink."

There absolutely are standard tropes here. Nobody lies down to photograph the crowd's feet, nobody focuses in on single faces in the crowd, nobody takes blurred photos, nobody singles out signs, etc etc. My position is not that tropes don't exist, but rather that the tropes that do exist don't support any particular political position. The standard photos are not specially open to specific political readings. The standard tropes exist and are taken specifically to standardize, to make generic, the visual representation of these events.

The Gadsden photo differs from the standard protest fare in another way: it is a moment that is outside the gestures and set-pieces of protest. It was an accident. Gadsden was just walking by, the dog went for him for some reason, and the cop is in fact trying to pull the dog off him while simultaneously manhandling Gadsden. What exactly the hell is going on in the cop's mind is unclear, but he's not setting his dog on a protestor. Similar imagery exists from within the set-pieces of the time, certainly. The dogs were set on protestors, as a part of the performance of power by the police, and the corresponding performance of protest by the protestors. This particular event, however, took place as it were outside the theater. It is as a consequence more humanistic than the typical photos, even from that time.

The photos we see today are invariably taken inside the theater, and of generic situations, generic actors, generic gestures. They are not particularly humanistic, and they specifically document the predetermined ritual gestures, in predetermined ways, specifically to made the event generic. This is the function of photojournalism, broadly, so make every event generic, to thus connect it to other similar events, to create a thread of history as a sequence of similar events.

This is not to say that stories are not shaped to appeal to whatever the audience is, whether it be White Liberals or Trumpists, or whatever else. The point is that the photos are generic, and will serve any outlet's purpose. The NYT shapes the story one way, Fox News shapes it another. There is no reason on earth they can't use the same photographs, because each photograph's job is only to reify the protest as a protest.

"There was a protest this afternoon in Someplace, and here are the photos to prove it. Look, it looks exactly like a protest. Now let us tell you about the protest, and why it means whatever it is you, our audience, expect us, your media, to say it means."

This point is, I think, cogently argued by the Mother Jones piece, although it clearly doesn't intend to argue that way. The piece offers up 5 of the standard issue tropes, 5 thoroughly contradictory tropes, for reifying a protest; it shows how each one is shaped by the surrounding material to produce a specific message to a specific audience. You could write the same piece about essentially identical photos found in conservative media, and show how the message is shaped to appeal to those readers.

It's so tempting to media theorists to ascribe these kinds of powers to photos, but it's just wrong. Media shapes culture, to a degree, but this isn't the mechanic by which it does so.

Friday, June 4, 2021

On Camera Lucida Part 2

Yes, yes, we're still stamping around in this same swamp. Barthes, despite his flaws, seems to have been one of the few people who have thought seriously about how photographs actually work. So, you know, interested.

First, as is my habit, let me clear a little underbrush. Part 1 of this book is where all the studium and punctum business that nobody understands is. At the end of Part 1, Barthes wraps up with a very short chapter which says, in effect, "yeah well, not so much. this doesn't get to the essentials, so now I will make my recantation, my palinode." A palinode is a poem that retracts a previous poem.

He's not saying that studium, punctum, and blind field are all wrong, but he's definitely saying they're not the answer. So he wrote a whole second half of this damned book about other stuff, which nobody every seems to mention. The second half is where the so-called "Winter Garden" photo appears, the possibly fictional photo of his mother and uncle as children, taken in a conservatory.

As an aside, it is notable that mostly we don't even see blind field referred to, despite the fact that inducing it is literally the definition of punctum. My working theory is that almost nobody has made it to Chapter 23 of the book (which has 48 chapters) let alone all the way to Part 2.

The standard take on Part 2 is to interpret Barthes' ecstatic reaction to this photo, in which reaction he finds his mother's true essence, as one of punctum and to pretty much stop there. This is not only incomplete, it's simply wrong, as we shall see. He's talking about something else.

The more sophisticated readers will drone on a bit about Death, because Barthes does talk something about Death in this section, and while that's probably not wrong, there's rather more going on here.

So, what is going on, smartass? Glad you asked!

The essential thing a photograph does is this: it testifies that something was there, and that someone saw it. It does nothing else but that. I photograph a can of beer, you see the photograph; you have no idea where the beer is now (you can probably guess, if you know me, but you don't know). You know that there was a can of beer, and that the photographer saw it.

This is very much absolute. Yes yes photoshop, I've heard. Also trick photos, etc. The point is that those are the exceptions. The photograph's testimony of that-has-been is far more definite than anything else we have. If I tell you about the can, if I write about it, if I paint it, draw it, if you recall it, etc, none of those have the same weight or the same character as a photograph of the same can.

Throughout, Barthes is comparing History with Religion, although you have to pay attention to notice the Religion. Much of the material about Death is actually Religion in disguise. Religion, as I see it, is a stand-in for a greater/older culture that is built on myth, story, song, tradition, and so on.

500 years ago, we understood ourselves as people by way of these latter things. We had songs and epic poems and traditions. We had religion. We had stories. These things mutated and evolved. They lived. Some of the material was frankly squishy, some of it was pretty darn firm, but even the firm stuff you might dress up the stories with some local color. We're goat people around here, so let's make the Sermon on the Mount have some goat people in the crowd. The guys in the next valley raise sheep, so their priest chucks in shepherds from time to time. The stories live even if we're very particular about, for example, the exact words Jesus spoke.

At some point History comes along, and now we're dotting tees and crossing eyes that previously needed no such decorations. While History is framed this way or that depending on fashion and necessity, once framed the details are filled in statically, in a way that does not live in the same way.

Folk singers are less likely to extemporize, and more likely to give us a period-correct rendering of the version from 1798, and possibly get involved in fistfights about the ordering of verses.

History pins our understanding of ourselves as a people, as a culture, a little like butterflies in a display case. The whole point is to nail it down and render it as certain and immobile as possible, to render it lifeless. History replaces culture, and religion. Or rather it subsumes them. There's a fair bit of religion around, but we're rather oddly consumed with it as history considering that it is by its very nature mystical.

In the same way, the photograph consumes our personal understanding of ourself, ourselves, our family.

Once, our families were built on traditions about grandmother's grandmother and the story of the badger. Was it really grandmother's grandmother, or has a generation been inserted or deleted somewhere? Was there really a badger, or is it really a mashup of two stories, one involving a cat and the other a skunk? Who cares? The point is, our family histories lived, and stretched back, back, back in a living braid of story.

Now we have a photograph of great-grandma, and her name is pencilled on the back, and that is the end of it. When the photo gets lost, great-grand is also lost.

Both History and The Photograph behave the same way, and for the same reason: they are definite, they are certain. They cut off all possibility of change, or evolution, and thus render lifeless and exact what was once inexact and living.

Ok, so that's Barthes' point, and he's not wrong. It might be a bit dramatic, but there it is.

So what's the deal with this Winter Garden Photo?

There is a thing, Barthes suggests, that can happen in a portrait. It is analogous to punctum but he doesn't call it that so we can reasonably assume that whatever it is, it's not punctum.

The effect of this thing is an inversion of punctum's effect. The punctum spontaneously generates a kind of ecstatic direct access to a belief in the larger world that surrounds the photo; the punctum causes our visceral understanding of the photo to abruptly, ecstatically, expand outwards past the edges of the frame, through time and space. This other property causes the inverse effect, although with the same ecstatic, visceral, violence: we believe in, we perceive the essential character of the subject of the portrait. It is an expansion inwards, rather than outwards, an inversion.

Barthes sees his mother's essential nature in the Winter Garden Photo. He exclaims "there she is!" is what I think simply has to be a sly reference to "Ecce Homo!"

He insists that the photograph is not resurrection, even metaphorically, it is purely reference to what was. A portrait, indeed, does the opposite of resurrect, it directly implies the Death of the subject. They were, that is all.

This new property Barthes has invented he called air which seems to mean exactly the same in French as in English. It's "air" in the sense of "manner" more or less, but with a more mystical nature (of course.)

It is the air of his mother in the photo that transmutes a basic that-has-been (and now she's dead) into there-she-is! (Ecce Homo!)

For those of you in the know, or who have googled it, "Ecce Homo!" (See, the man!) is what Pilate says when he presents Jesus to the mob, and we all know what happens to Jesus.

The Winter Garden Photo bridges the worlds of History and Religion. It is a dead, static, incontrovertible testimonial to the effect that once a little girl stood with her brother on a little bridge in a conservatory, and that someone saw her, and that she is probably dead by now. It is simultaneously a metaphorical resurrection of that same little girl, Barthes' mother, a myth of his mother, a legend, a song, a poem of his mother. It is a memory of her, that visceral living thing we keep inside and which is, all too often, killed by the literal, intractable, unarguable, testimony of the photograph.

This, says Barthes, is madness.

At this point, I must say, he seems to open himself to the possibility that this kind of bridging is possible with more photos, or perhaps even with all photos. We don't allow it, because we reject madness, and so we neuter photographs and retreat to the banal, to the mere that-has-been testimony of the things as Art, or as bland and endless Media Fodder.

There is an analogy here with Part 1, and I suppose you could describe Part 2 as an expansion on Part 1, but I think it is in fact different material.

The that-has-been testimony is the normal operation of a photo, it's what it does. You could say that this is kind of like studium, that also being the normal operation. They are both normal operations but on, as it were, different planes of operation. The testimony is what the photo is in its essence, but the studium is really what you, the viewer, do in response.

You could argue that air is a kind of punctum except that the effects of each are inverses of one another.

Finally, blind field is kind of like that direct perception of a person's essence, induced by air.

There is a fair analogy here, but these are not the same things in any meaningful way.

What do I think of all this?

Well, for starters I think it's important to keep in mind the extremely limited frame he's set himself within. He's investigating this whole thing purely, willfully, and explicitly, in terms of his own reactions, his own sensation, his own perceptions of things. He is not, for example, trying to make sense of these things in neurological terms, or in terms of Art History, or some sort of generalized theory of perception.

In some sense, we kind of have to grant him whatever he sees, then. If this is what he experiences, well, that that's what he experiences, no?

On the other hand, his experiences do not seem to generalize. These ecstatic, visceral, responses seem to be an exclusively Barthesian thing.

My take is that he has both punctum and air upside down. He views them as disturbances to, as additions to, the normal operation of the photograph in one sense or another.

My position is that the normal operation of the photograph as a social, cultural, visual actor is almost exactly the effect he ascribes to punctum and to air, minus the ecstasy and violence.

It is certainly true that the photograph, in its nature, only testifies to that-has-been and it is true that we read photos in terms of cultural codes, we make sense of them in terms of the ways things we see mean in our social context, and our own ideas of culture, etc, (studium.) So, he's right about those, but these are not particularly relevant.

What is relevant, to both me and, I maintain, to Barthes, is that we believe the photo first. Our first response is that visceral one, where we believe in the blind field, where we believe we see the character and essence of the subject of the portrait. Both the outward and inward expansions of the photograph are normal, baseline. They are acts of imagination which we perform without thinking.

These somatic reactions, these nearly biological reactions are the basis, and it is the reading of cultural codes, the recognition of the static, fixed, testimony of the picture, and all that other machinery which disturbs that. The studium, if you will overrides, obliterates, the effect of the punctum which was already there.

So in some sense I agree with Barthes. I agree, in general, that there are these opposing effects going on, and the general shapes of them. Where we differ is in the relationship between them, which ones are on top as it were. I also think we have more control than Barthes seems to imagine. He seems to lean toward spasmodic responses beyond our ken, beyond our ability to control, spontaneous and violent.

I, on the other hand, think that the somatic responses are not merely basic, underlying, but can be recovered by the attentive reader. Yes, it's tempting to wander off into the cultural meaning of the policeman's uniform, or the expensive shoes, or the tumbled-down house and the un-mowed lawn. One does that kind of thing. It's tempting to fade away from the reality of the scene, and to consume a photo as merely banal media. Another celebrity, another riot, another dog, ho hum.

We can choose to recover the visceral reality of the thing, the sense of knowing the scene, of knowing the person, if only we consciously reach for it. We can set aside the banal, the static, the cultural, and find that living, breathing, beating heart of what is in the picture, simply (I think) by taking a moment to look for it.

We know it's there, or we ought to, all we have to do is open our eyes for a moment.

The photograph is nothing more than testimony to that-has-been but that's all it needs to be. We do the rest.