The art of technology

“As ever more sensitive emulsions come into use, pictures could be taken in a flash of light, and there was no need for a sitter to pose for long periods of time with glazed, unnatural expressions.”
What of an alternative view that there was, on the contrary, something more honest about a process with such undeniable artifice -sitting in a studio, remaining completely still, trusting in the expertise of the practitioner. That is a form of respect paid to the total difference manifested in this radical departure of a medium. It is not simply a ‘democratization of the image’ whereby anyone can now have a portrait, where previously such was only within the economic means of the higher ups. This was not an extension of the visual franchise, though it now suits all of us to call it such, and also suits the various companies who sell the equipment necessary to produce ever more snapshots.

There is a mendacity to the pervasive notion that the photograph gives us the natural, spontaneous “moment”. On this, consider whether you would ever greet a friend by saying, “my, how natural and spontaneous you look today!” (If you would, then I don’t know what can be done for you…) The snapshot pushes the natural and the real ever further away from us, and the technology makes it ever more difficult to see with our own eyes, instead of with the entire history of photography acting as a set of templates of acceptability. But this is a trite, cliched criticism. I have said nothing new. What I want to consider is the techniques of seeing that we can compare. Painters and photographers see the world differently. The photographer waits for that instant that is telling, unusual, striking. The painter, according to conditions of the medium, considers that which is to be depicted on a much longer time-scale.

For me, the above photograph by Diane Arbus does everything that photography can do. It erases what is potentially human in a portrait to the mechanism of the technology of depiction. It reduces the interplay of facial muscles to a time-scale that serves only the camera. It captures, with all its terrifying capacity for precision and focus, a particular series of electrical impulses firing throughout the hundreds of muscles in the face, reducing the becoming of a facial expression – in all its delicacy and complexity – to the lie of a static, solid gurn. It is a commonplace of discussing technology (via Lewis Mumford) that each new invention would be set in the terms of that which it replaces; thus the motor-car was in its early days referred to a horseless carriage. Time was needed for the new device or complex of techniques to come into its own. It saves us the effort of wasting time completely rethinking each new technology only to see it rot into redundancy. If it succeeds, then it can do so on its own terms. I do not think this is what I am doing in my comparison of photography and painting however.

For one thing, the photograph is not cutting-edge technology. I don’t think I would be extreme in considering it established. What I would question, however, is if we ever properly considered it in dispassionate terms. It is a tool, and accordingly it is a response to a human need via a human capability. It offers a semi-permanent method of storage of visual processing that takes place via sight. It brings sight into ever smaller divisions and ever greater extension of time via super-fast cameras and long exposures. It allows us to see in lower light. It expands sight into the infra-red and the ultra-violet. All these it can do, but what is it for? On the human, social level, in terms of objectification (in whatever regard one wishes to consider), it serves the machine and not the human. The most successful photographers for my euro, are those who bring the two closer together (Nan Goldin springs immediately to mind), rather than reveling in the technical difference that this machine can manifest (as with Arbus, though pass over this dichotomy in silence as a blogger’s prerogative).

Goldin revels (as with The Devil’s Playground – read the review which this links to) in the act of seeing itself, and the long relationships over many years allow us to see with her, rather than to simply see what she saw. The “absence” which the above review refers to is actually us. We see friends and relatives in the long view of many years, and in some cases of different generations. Time is made to conform to a human scale, one that gives us a beautiful intimacy. The charges of voyeurism made against Goldin might stick against some in the snap-shot generation, but in considering her own work they reveal a blindness. In her work, Goldin has thought through the act of seeing, and the technique of seeing that the photograph gives us. The effect of her work is cumulative, so that while of course she is subject to the same contraints as all other photographers, it is how she structures her own context that sets her apart. Her snapshots (as above) are something more than that. It is one view among many, as in a fleeting memory. They are not the instant being held up as the entirety of that person. She makes her own canon.

Der Untergang des Magnum Opus

Quite aside from the basic and dull point that is made ad vomitum regarding “master-narratives”, one alternative way to regard the decline of “great works” is the fact that writers are coming to be regarded, and to regard themselves, as accidents. It is a fact of our social structures, in a two-fold manner.

Firstly, in the narrative perspective whereby our overview of history needs actors for reasons of identification, the great writer or their text can serve this function, as a cognitive anchor. It is a way to make history less autistic, less concerned with facts. That is the “history of literature” view, but it holds true in any field, whereby an -ism is deployed like a sheep dog to round up those pesky individuals with fancy notions of freedom and independence.

Speculative Realism

Evidently, a text can serve just this function, but with each repeated deployment it has become increasingly attenuated. It got to the point where Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory can, in its blurb, be referred to as his magnum opus. The fact that he did not complete it during his lifetime is related to the sapping of the ideal that such a book has, as much a result of an atmosphere where the fragment is fetishized (need one give examples?), as well as one in which we can witness its reactionary rejection (but this reaction is usually political in tone, thus Badiou’s elevation of the Event, which is a tellingly Maoist movement, but good god I digress…) . The point, again, is that not all great texts surpass everything by their contemporaries, and so some are chosen by default, simply as others will never be considered once this process has taken place.

The second manner is that whereby fame accrues more fame. Like any standing reserve in a structure (money, information, etc.), there is a network effect in evidence. Fame can cycle endlessly, as in Bataille’s “general economy” (which is in contrast to the “restricted economy” that we are led to understand is economics proper), and once the surplus standing reserve being left to pass down along the same well-worn channels of a text having a place in the canon, or of a thinker being a part of an -ism, until it this channel is blocked. The point is that now there are so many various opportunities, that it becomes a question as to whether there is sufficient force behind the flow to create more than a trickle of renown. We see this in the notion that there are “too many journals“, but as noted in this link, often these journals are no more than tags attached to articles.

This is not a jeremiad against change, and I find the point made by Jan Velterop in that link more helpful, as it allows us to view the old problem in a new light. People have complained about there being too many books since there were two books. What changes is the structure that governs and facilitates our access to and interactions with these works. Accordingly, we get fields (can I please call this the “sheepdog effect”?) of influence, counter-influence, rejection, interest, and all these interact with myriad others. Returning to Adorno for a moment, we can see an analogy of this where the punning title of his work gives us a Minima Moralia rather than the Magna Moralia of Aristotle, a collection of observations which can be fashioned into a constellation by our own effort to read him, as well as what we bring from our reading others. The age of the magnum opus had its dark counter-image in the dilettante, but our age needs to develop its alternative to this.