Monday, November 22, 2021

Sticky Ideas

I keep finding new examples of a thing. People have some idea, and they completely believe it. But it's an idea that 10 minutes of honest research and/or thinking would invert. Let's take "photographs are violent" as an example, but there are lots of others.

This is an idea which is, basically, stupid on the face of it. If you examine the idea head-on your first impression has to be something like "what now? That makes no sense." A photograph is, after all, just a piece of paper with smudges on it. Ok, so people who "believe" this have somewhat broader and more nuanced definitions of both "photograph" and "violence" but it still doesn't work.

If you go on a lengthy road-trip trying to find out what the basis for this belief is, you will find some not particularly robust theorizing about media as a complete system, and then a sort of abrupt step to invidual photos, and then the idea is simply repeated over and over and accepted as Obviously True.

What's interesting to me in this moment is not that this specific thing is happening, but that the same thing happens constantly. It follows that you and I live, ourselves, in a sea of similarly wrong ideas; ideas which if we examined them carefully we would discover that they are basically wrong. Maybe they're not well supported, maybe they are in fact exactly the opposite of true, whatever. Odds are, we have a lot of this shit that we believe because our father believed it (or believed the opposite) or because our friends do. There isn't enough time to examine all our beliefs, we're pretty much stuck just getting on with life because the dishes are not going to do themselves.

Furthermore, beliefs that are consistent with other things we believe, whatever the nature of those beliefs, are harder to shift. The "photography is violence" crew have a fairly complete world view of which this is one item. To my eye, the whole thing is junk, but there we have it. Libertarians are also a thing, and their world-view is equally complete and equally, to my eye, nonsensical.

This matters, at least to me, because I want to understand the breadth of possibility in what people bring to photographs. Obviously it matters in the larger world as well (the question of "what's up with all those <name a political stance> people anyways?" looms rather large in this era.) But for the purposes of this blog, we need to understand that people approaching a photograph differently from us are not lying, or disingenuous. Not necessarily. They may simply be hewing to a system of belief that appears to us nonsensical. At the same time, we are hewing to a system of belief that they view as nonsensical.

Naturally, I am sure that my ideas are all carefully checked out, and probably correct. Or at any rate I would be if I wasn't pretty aware that this is just another of those nonsensical world views.

Something you can usefully do, especially as a critic, is to take seriously the possibility that you're wrong and the other fellow is right. It might not actually change your stance, but any attempt to grasp the other fellow's position will help you make sense of where they're coming from, and in turn why they see the photo (or whatever) this way rather than that way. A certain breadth of open-mindedness is, I think, necessary if you wish to see how media, art, what-have-you, fits into culture.

To a large extent, this breadth is lacking from the critical discourse around photography. The complete and distinct world-view pointed out above is seen as objective truth, and there's no need to examine alternatives. These are not open-minded people.

So, while I happen to think that the "photographs are violence" notion is silly, I have struggled with it, and continue to do so. It does indeed reveal much about how other critics are seeing photographs. It reveals why and how their analyses diverge from my own.

Am I right? Well, obviously I think so, otherwise I'd have different beliefs, wouldn't I? But I can't know for sure. It's up to you to work out who's making more sense which, in the end, boils down uselessly to working out who's telling a story that lines up better with your collection of beliefs, your own deeply flawed world view.

It's enough to make a boy into a nihilist!


  1. According to this documentary, dishes might well do themselves.

  2. Odd to see these blinkered academic rants sandwiched between product promos on PP.

  3. Stinky idea: "machine of degradation"

  4. "Once their cultural wrongs are righted, it stands to reason that their political wrongs should also be adressed." -- Masters of Misdirection

    1. I can't work out what that even means, even in context. It's status games and signaling. All Shaun is saying is that he is in agreement with a specific consensus.