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Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Action vs. Emotion

It is pretty common to see assertions that go along these lines. Probably I've even made them:

Blah blah blah photograph (usually a dead or dying child) provoked a great outpouring of emotion, but at the end of the day nobody actually cares because nothing changed. There was a spasm of emotion, and then nothing.

It's the "nobody cares" part that got me thinking. Sometimes, in recent years, there's something about capitalism because everyone's an amateur socialist now. Even more recently the overly educated like to add "neoliberal" in there someplace.

My remarks here, it will surprise nobody, are triggered by, or perhaps a response to, some remarks by our old friend Dr. Colberg, who's expressing some positions unlikely to win him friends among his social set in his latest newsletter, here.

I would love to weigh 20 pounds less. I care about that, pretty strongly. To claim that I "don't care" would be nonsense. Yet, somehow, I manage to remain at around my current weight. You might argue that I don't care enough and depending on what we mean by that, it might in some sense be true.

Modern thinking, though, tries to separate things a bit more. It's not just a matter of caring more or less, changing habits is difficult, and the psychology of same is pretty complicated. There are strategies you can deploy, and factors in play, that make it meaningfully more than simply a matter of "caring enough."

In the same way, I suspect strongly that as a society, as a culture, "caring" is not meaningfully correlated with actual change. Change comes from somewhere else, somewhere a lot murkier, a lot more complex, a place where there are many factors some how which are difficult to see.

This is the essential problem that Gramsci was wrestling with when he formulated his ideas of cultural hegemony, although I don't think that he meaningfully moved much past identifying the thing.

All this is, of course, compounded by the fact that the course of action is often not clear. How shall we deal with this refugee crisis, or that? I know how to lose weight, the course of action there is straightforward, and I care, and even so I am largely helpless to actually put desire into action. How much more difficult for an entire society to solve a problem which lacks even a clear solution?

So, the photograph induces the emotion, the caring. We care about the refugees, about the victims of war, or famine. This is a real effect, easily measurable, often measured. It usually manifests concretely in the form of a spike in donations to specific charities, and often that spike is substantial, a clear signal. People care, and to a degree they act; just as I take a walk after the scale reveals to me a number I dislike, but I do not change my life.

Sometimes a photo, or an interval of photos, produces a larger spasm of action. People take to the streets in protest! This is not unlike joining a gym for the purpose of weight loss. It may or may not be an indicator of the larger structural changes which produce real social change (or real weight loss.)

In all cases, there is a gulf between the emotion, the spasmodic response; and the larger changes in structure necessary to produce actual social change. The larger structural changes may as well be described as an alteration of the hegemony of culture, in this case. The switch is from loudly proclaiming that such-and-such cannot stand, cannot continue, cannot happen again, to the construction of a society in which such-and-such actually does not stand, does not continue, does not happen again.

I have no answers here, I only know in broad strokes how a structural change in the hegemony of culture is brought about. It's called marketing, or propaganda, depending on whether you're for it or against it.

To claim, though, that photographs don't induce a genuine response, a genuine reaction, is untrue. To claim, on this flip side, that they alone constitute or maintain or shape a cultural hegemony is equally false. Europe does care about refugees, and that is largely independent of the fact that Europe is simultaneously failing to "solve" the refugee crisis it seems permanently mired in.

If I step on the scale in the morning, I don't like the number that I see. It is too large.

There is, I think, fairly rigorous research which suggests that people who weight themselves daily tend to be better able to manage their weight. The question is this: is is the act of daily weighing that leads to weight loss? Or is it that a person who already possesses the necessary psychological machinery to lose weight is also a person likely to weigh themselves daily? Probably some from column A, and some from column B.

In the same way, the genuine emotional outburst against, say, a war may be a useful or even necessary precondition to the conversion of war into peace. It is, obviously, not sufficient.

I don't think it wildly mischaracterizes Colberg's remarks as bemoaning the apparent fact that photographs cannot produce anything beyond a meaningless, false, emotional outburst. While in some sense he's got hold of something important here, I think it's wrong to characterize the emotional outburst as meaningless or false. Further, I think, I suspect, that these emotional outbursts and also appear as part of a shift in cultural structure.

In the same way that I might weigh myself and shake my head regularly, whether or not I have actually made the changes necessary to live life as a 175 pound man, it's probably true that if I have made those changes, I will weigh myself. It's probably also true that weighing myself will be a part of the changes that I might make, in a successful weight loss/lifestyle change program.

We cannot entirely lose hope for photography. The medium is in play, it has a role to play, but that role is subtle, and perhaps minor. But it's there.


  1. For once I read the linked newsletter, and I thought it was a good piece: surely his point is that the impact of such photos is real but can now be quickly out-manoeuvred by the deployment of fake but "truthy" social media? Or something like that. I don't know how effective that really is, but then I have never believed that photographs are in themselves a means of bringing about change; does anyone?

    BTW, if you really want to lose some weight, I recommend the "5:2" diet: works like a charm. Harder to do with kids around, though, I know.


    1. The newsletter taken as a whole does seem perfectly sensible to me. It's possible that he doesn't even hit the "nobody cares" note in it (although he says it quite a lot other places.) I think there's a little bit of "weighing yourself daily doesn't work! BURN ALL SCALES" going on, but, eh.

      Colberg's remarks were just a trigger for me to write mine, which are only tangentially related.

      I am in reality rather gratified to see Colberg moving on from the "Photographs are toxic and deadly, and only my friends should be allowed to take them, because, so powerful!" school of thought so many of his former colleagues seem to subscribe to.

      The 5:2 diet sounds like an lifestyle of horrible weekends!

    2. Well this is the $64K question, isn't it: will Herr Professor now walk back some of the photography-so-harmful positions he's staked out over the years, often with a twitter mob in tow? You know, just to be conscientious!

    3. Well, if you ever feel the need for a new hobby, you can become a calorie bore like me.. (*Thinks*... But do American products carry nutritional info, by law? It would seem unlikely). However: 5:2 merely means that twice a week you eat 25% of your recommended daily intake of calories. That's it. Your RDA would be around 2000 kilocalories, so 500 or so. Easy!

      Mind you, 175 pounds doesn't strike me as excessive, anyway, unless American pounds are as absurdly generous as your portions (I recall sitting in front of a cubic foot of ice cream in San Francisco, straight after a mixed grill that would have fed a family of four, and thinking: I'm going to die...).


  2. You've probably heard the discussions about being willing to ruin your shoes/suit to save a drowning child that you can see with your own eyes. But that's it's somehow more difficult to do anything about thousands of suffering children elsewhere in the world that are out of sight, even though collectively doing something about that might cost less than ruining your shoes/suit. I've mostly heard about these ideas via the Sam Harris Making Sense podcast and the effective altruism remedies that he advocates. Tweaking emotions for a few minutes with a photograph is kind of easy, it seems. This must be a variation on the slow/fast thinking dichotomy.
    Must be endemic in humans. How many people think that they don't earn enough but that others earn too much. It might be sometimes true but it's a bit too self-serving to accept without verifiable proof.

  3. Certainly the photographs of the napalm girl by Nick Ut and the Kent State protest shooting by John Filo had some influence on the ending of the Vietnam War. How much influence is hard to quantify. However, in today's world because of the ease of digital manipulation and the influence of social media, it would be easier for people to discount such pictures.

    Your weight loss analogy is somewhat flawed in that for many people there is no concrete effect (besides bariatric surgery) of their intent/actions to lose weight and actual weight loss. Science has been trying to find a non-surgical solution for weight loss for decades with little success.

  4. It's called organizing, and it's not easy, so not many people do it. But it's happening all around us, and needs to happen much more. The ruling classes organize every day, or their lawyers do. The working class sometimes organizes, like the new Amazon union, or the new 100 Starbucks unions, and various local issue campaigns around the country that usually fail to make national news, from new minimum wage laws to rent control.

    1. On the one hand, yes? I guess?

      On the other hand, the social consensus that underpins successful organizing seems to be a separate thing. Gramsci's notebooks might be summarized glibly as "why the fuck is organizing not working? Arrrrg."