Monday, April 4, 2022

Photography's Place in Media

I read McLuhan's Understanding Media so be prepared for an endless series of articles in which I attempt to become a Canadian Philosopher.

More to the point, the way I make sense of ideas is that I try to apply them to contemporary problems that are of interest to me, so as to see how the ideas might be shaped to my use. Accordingly, I will be attempting some McLuhan-esque approaches to things. Buckle up, eh?

McLuhan is famous for two things: the first is the statement that "the medium is the message" which most people seem to think means "TV sucks and so anything anyone says on TV also sucks" which is completely wrong, and also very uninteresting. The second phrase for which he is known is the "global village" which may or may not raise its head in what follows here. I read the book seeking to more fully understand the medium/message thing, and found a fair bit of borderline lunatic — but very interesting — material.

The basic conceit is that the form of media shapes the culture that consumes it. A culture that watches TV is shaped by that fact, independent of the actual content of the TV shows they watch. This is not to suggest that the content plays no role, but McLuhan does seem to think that the role of content is in meaningful ways secondary to the role of form.

A brief sketch.

McLuhan believed that the invention of the phonetic alphabet, the fragmentation of speech into individual sounds divorced from words and from meaning, and the method of visually lining these sounds back up in linear patterns to recreate speech, was an absolutely seminal idea in pretty much the next several thousand years of human history. He feels that this idea of fragmenting, and then reassembling by sequence, originates in the concept of alphabet but inspires mechanization through the printing press, and up to the factory assembly line. He seems to think the connection is causal, which strikes me as very iffy. The idea that there's some connection, though, strikes me as credible.

Indeed, while he doesn't quite state it, he seems to think that the very idea of the phonetic alphabet inspired and supports the idea of logic, the idea of an argument as a series of sentences, each one following from the previous, leading to a conclusion.

In more recent times, we developed what McLuhan lumps together as "electric" media: the telegraph, the telephone, the television, the computer. These accelerated the linearization process to the point that it reversed. He has a complicated theory which I confess I did not entirely follow, that when the elements of a medium accelerate sufficiently there naturally is a reversal of effect. The general effect strikes me, again, as iffy. Nevertheless, he makes the specific case around "electric" media pretty well.

In this case the reversal was a retreat from the linearization, the mechanization, of everything and a movement toward a holistic, impressionistic, all-at-once world. Factories became synchronized meshes of production, rather than a simple line in which each step was gated by the previous and the next.

The telegraph, by spreading news quickly and widely, resulted in the modern newspaper format, the grid or mosaic of unrelated news items. No more the book's strict front-to-back of alphabetic fragments in single file, but rather the mosaic of various fragments, to be sampled, dipped in and out of, and so on.

The TV, McLuhan seemed to think, is characterized by the fact that, essentially, it is blurry. It's a very small collection of dots of color and tone, pulsing across a small screen. Actors on TV behave, as a consequence, differently from film actors. The low resolution of the screen draws us in and makes us work harder as viewers, and as a consequence the actors need to back off, and be cooler, calmer, more neutral. Again, this seems a bit lunatic, but makes a certain sense.

What McLuhan would make of HDTV is unknown, but there are hints that he would consider it a completely different medium.

There's a lot more to the book, but that's the flavor of it, or at any rate the flavor of what I extracted from it. Let us move onwards, trying to maintain a kind of McLuhan air to our thinking.

In the 1990s, after McLuhan's death, the world wide web arises. The inventors of it promote the hyperlink, the clickable footnote. I think that they really imagined it as a kind of fancy footnote, rather than as the core mechanic of the web. I have always hated hyperlinks, because (I think) I dimly recognized the problems they would create. Fundamentally, the hyperlink prevents any thought from ever being completed.

At this point it's a joke, a trope, that spending any time on wikipedia leads you into an endless morass of clicked links, far from whatever you were looking for initially. You never actually read much of anything on wikipedia but the first paragraph or two, before you are seduced away to another page by a link, and there you read the first paragraph or two, before...

Web sites aped the newspaper, with a grid of possibilities, sometimes only a single column, sometimes more. The web, like the TV, is intensely interactive. You're clicking constantly. With the modern smart phone you're scrolling, zooming, clicking, all with your hands, in an intensely tactile experience. You are absorbing "content" as much with your fingers as with your eyes, and everything is endlessly fragmented but non-linear.

McLuhan would likely remind us that the tactile sense is holistic, we grasp things partially but all at once, as a singular thing, when we run our hands over it. This in contrast to the scanning eye, which is bound to the passage of time, to motion. We pet our dog and she simply is, she's there. When we watch the dog, we're conscious of her motion through space, her motion through time.

The web, I think we could argue, we treat more as a whole, a tactile and impressionistic medium, rather than a linear, temporal, medium.

Social media amplifies all this again (but not, alas, to the point of McLuhan's reversal of effect, as far as I can tell.) We now consider anything more than 100 words or so to be "long form", we're incentivized to interact, to like, to subscribe, to share. We click and click and click for the rewards, for the new content. We're constantly touching the phone, massaging dopamine out of its slick surface, a direct pipeline from fingertips to brain.

Alarmingly, social media incentivizes lying. I am increasingly convinced that almost everything we see on social media is a lie, or at least a stretched truth. You can probably describe a half dozen story formats that a person can put on social media to produce engagement, and at some point you begin to suspect that at least some of them are fabrications. Parts of reddit are notoriously almost all fiction. Whenever I see a tweet of the form "you'll never believe what happened to me... " followed by some canned story about how awful whatever is, I assume it's made up, even though some of the stories are probably true because whatever is actually sometimes awful.

Online, our dominant form of media, therefore, is fractured, impressionistic, anti-rational, and filled with lies. In short, structurally, it resembles propaganda in every detail. It's propaganda we're generating by ourselves, for ourselves. The social media companies have algorithms that teach us how to do it better, by rewarding us when we propagandize effectively. The algorithms reward anything that produces engagement and lies are always peppier than truth, impressions are more appealing than logic, glib aphorisms are more consumable than essays.

The content doesn't matter. I don't care if you're plugging Ivermectin, anti-Semitism, or Biden for President, it all works exactly the same. The idea that any of this is rational, logical, is simply ludicrous. That horse left the barn, quite a while ago, and is somewhere up in the hills far beyond the ken of man. We're living in an age of impressions, of propaganda.

We see this in academic and pseudo-academic writing. This is, fundamentally, where people like Jörg Colberg are coming from. Where I expect a linear argument, where categories are well defined and things are shown to be either in, or not in, a category, what I get is instead an impressionist collection of ideas and facts that all point in a particular direction.

To show that a Jew is human, I define what characteristics define humanity, and then show that any Jew has each of those characteristics. The category of Jews is contained within the category of Humans. This Jew, being a Jew, must also be contained in the category of Humans.

To show that a Jew is part of a secret cabal that controls the world, I use a series of impressionistic fragments. A picture of a guy with a hooked nose, a picture of a pile of gold, a quote from someone, a made-up fact about people with names that end with -stein, and so on. It just makes sense that this Jew is part of the cabal! Right? RIGHT?!!

The first structure is linear, Enlightenment, thinking. Popularly, it is described as incurably "white" or "colonial" or "privileged." The latter follows the form of modern media, of the social web, of the telegraph and the telephone. It's a mosaic of fragments. It is, by the standards of the widely derided Enlightenment thinking, objectively wrong, but whatever. By the standards of modern media its rightness depends entirely on where we land on the political spectrum.

You could just as well make an impressionistic argument about the evils of neoliberal capitalism, and lord we sure see a lot of 'em. They are structurally just as idiotic as the Jewish Cabal "argument" and therefore, by Enlightenment standards, just as wrong. They are nevertheless just as persuasive, albeit to a different demographic.

Like it or not, the latter mode is where we are. Our media is, structurally, propaganda, and that has infected a great deal our of communication. This is, essentially, the global village McLuhan refers to. It's not a touchy-feely happy village of Smurfs. It's a nasty little cesspit that runs on gossip, tradition, and lies. It's a grubby hamlet where witch doctors run the show, and sensible people are run out of town for arguing too much. McLuhan seems to have been kind of neutral about it, but I'm not sure he'd be real happy with where we've ended up.

My title promised a connection to photography, and so let's do that now.

In the early and mid twentieth century, we understood photography in a specific way. We carefully shot the scene, and then culled carefully down to the Best Images, and then we Printed those on paper and so on. The photograph was a carefully made singular object, to be revered and inspected closely. It was fitted into that Enlightenment, linear, mechanized, system of being. The idea was that it showed us Truth, and that we should accordingly inspect the picture carefully (or at least pretend to) and give it the respect it is due. Etc etc, there's a lot here.

The world in which this conception of the photograph arose is long gone. Yet, we still see photographers and photographic thinkers continuing to advocate for this kind of approach to photographs. Mike, over on ToP, got a thing in the New Yorker recently, which proposes a profoundly 1950s approach to the pictures you've got on your phone. He wants to show you how to redact the mass of photos to locate the Good Ones so that you can do that 1950s thing with those. In the language of my people: lol.

I am of roughly the same generation, and I am immensely sympathetic to this point of view. I like photographs in exactly the same way. I'm a little down on Fine Prints, but that's as much because of the finiteness of wall space as anything else. I adore the close inspection of the photo, more than almost anyone else on earth. Nevertheless, Mike and I are both wrong. We're completely out to lunch, in fact. This approach to photography is, for all practical purposes, dead. No, not dead, but a niche, a cul-de-sac. I'm happy to bang around in this cul-de-sac with all the other old folks, but it's not the modern world.

We might equally visualize it as a train. We can hop off anywhere, you may find that the 1950s photography suits you and hop off the train. Enjoy! The train, however, moves on. We are not going to reverse the train and park it in 1950, or 1890, or anywhere. The train will always move forward, probably quite fast.

The modern world of media, and therefore of photography, is one of impressions, of fragments, of lies, of propaganda. The photograph's role in the world today is literally to be glanced at. This is not changing, except to evolve forward to whatever it is that comes next. The train does not stop.

Look at the cat.Swipe.
Look at the big nose on that Jew.Swipe.
Look at the tulip.Swipe.

The idea of carefully redacting the photographs on your phone to find the Good Ones is ludicrous. Anyone with the desire and the will to do that is already doing so, everyone else is mildly uncomfortable with all the photos they're piling up, but whatever. Apple or Google will dredge a few up from a this date last year, or ten years ago, and we can glance at them again, and that's pretty much that.

The news photograph led the way here. After the novelty wore off, the news photo quickly fell into its modern role as reifying the textual part of the news story. There is a war in Ukraine, here is a photo of some blown up shit to prove it. The details of the news photo have not mattered for decades, perhaps almost a century. We've been glancing at them for my entire lifetime.

This now extends, via social media, to almost all photos everywhere. Everything on instagram, or flickr, or twitter, is a momentary impression. It reifies its caption, its description, and that's it.

It's a depressing point of view, if you're me, or if you're Mike Johnston, or if you're AD Coleman, since it utterly inverts everything we know and love about photographs and photography. Nevertheless this is where we are. Crying about it, railing at people to photograph more mindfully, writing think pieces about how you can kinda-sorta use your iPhone just like it was 1950 again, is to miss the point.

The train only goes forward; the horse has left the barn and is up in the hills beyond the ken of man. Photographs are impressionistic ephemera, often lies, that take their place in the mosaic of propagandist media that we use to support our preconceptions of the world.

Well, ok. I guess that might change how you take pictures? Or not?


  1. There's a masterpiece on your iPhone! Waiting to be discovered! Search all the pictures on your iPhone! You won't even recognize it! You will lose interest and give up! Know it's there! Because I said so! I'm an old geezer and I know stuff!

  2. McLuhan... Curious how he never achieved the academic longevity (not to say respectability) that other equally free-form bloviators like Barthes did. I suspect academics distrust anyone who comes up with snappy, memorable expressions. Maybe he should have written in French.

    Yes, MJ's New Yorker piece is a strange business: apart from anything else, it reads like it's had all his usual character strained out of it by a series of editors and fact-checkers. I don't like to rain on anybody's parade, and I owe Mike my 15 minutes of fame, so I hope it works out for him. He is a curiously self-sabotaging enigma, though.


    1. For my money McLuhan is about 10x as radical as any of the Europeans, and 1/10 as obscure.

      His obsession with the idea that, somehow, the low resolution of the television has some vast and coherent social effect is astonishing and, I think, completely nutty. But it's an idea, and he explains it and even kind of argues for it! So, yay!