3. The Question of a Medium's Identity
Published: 30.04.2012
in the series Exceptional Position of Photography within the (Art) World
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Last week, I attempted to draw forward a peculiar thematic in photography criticism and theory and the parallel instability of the term “photography.” At its base, a technology that has such a variance of instrumental applications and contextual meanings presents some intractable problems for art historical discourse, and its preference for discrete objects over more broadly systemic social or epistemological conditions. In other words, art history still maintains echoes of the assumption of aesthetic autonomy within its adherence to medium divisions, an interpretive schema that runs into difficulties when dealing with photographic objects, and the elasticity of the term photography to describe practices which range from fine art, to the journalistic, and cover objects as varied as platinum palladium and vegetable dye on paper.

This is not a crisis for the medium as such--it continues to be widely disseminated and an efficient tool of mass communication--but a methodological problem within art history/criticism with regard to how semiotics and psychoanalysis are applied to aesthetic objects.  The frequent confusion of a crisis of practice, for one of theorization, has produced a general misunderstanding of both photography, and where this problem truly lies.  I posted my response to the SFMoMA symposium “Is Photography Over?” because it was one approach to describing this conundrum, specifically in institutional terms, that are bureaucratic issues on the micro scale, and only become methodological or theoretical when abstracted from and generalized. This situation is further complicated because photography creates confusions between the synthetic arts and material culture, and in addition, between conscious acts and natural phenomena, two distinctions that are key for the traditions of art history and criticism. These qualities make it difficult to reconcile photographic production with medium specific discourses. Something more akin to information theory, or enunciation theory seems better able to describe the conditions of photography, neither of which necessitate the organization of communication according to medium, nor seek to ontologize media. Vilém Flusser’s work is, to me, the most accomplished attempt to produce a theory of photography that is not subject to the theoretical pitfalls of essentializing categorical delimiters.

Moreover, while photography has had a nuanced and complex relationship to death, so has every other “medium.” For example monuments are the foundation of modernist sculpture, and these are exclusively about marking sites, and the “this has been,” variously addressing the notion of loss, and death. Similar arguments could be made with regard to painting.

The apocalyptic theorization of the photograph (seeing photography as the end of some relationship to the world around us) is both illusory, and actual. It is illusory in the sense that it has little to do with photography as a concrete aesthetic tool (how could an object be “about” absence), and actual, as the phenomena is historically and intellectually significant for the discourse about aesthetics in general, and photography in particular, and cannot simply be abandoned, for to do so would be to obscure the meaning of these debates a second time. It is not simply whether or not photography is perennially in crisis (the answer to this question is dull), but why this question continues to be asked.

In response to Jorg Scheller’s compelling post, I would offer that one could proffer a singular notion of photography as an umbrella term that contains the accumulation of debates which have struggled to come to terms with it as a medium (one could historicize this discourse), while simultaneously reducing the term “photography” to a provisional term, one like “washing machine”, or “telephone”, neither of which require theoretical or intellectual explication (for we look to neither category for evidence of the ontological nature of the thing which fits within it, we only seek marginal utility from the terms). Doing so would change the approach to the term “photography” from “what is the nature of the photography?” to “how do the various assertions of photographic identity over time provide us with a mirror through which to contemplate the conventions of aesthetic theory, art criticism, and art history?” In other words, while it is difficult to look directly at critical discourse as a theoretical object, one can look to its reflections, much in the manner that one would attempt to look at a solar eclipse by using an intermediary tool. Or to put it in Claude Lévi Strauss’ terms:

The real question is not whether the touch of a woodpecker’s beak does in fact cure toothache.  It is rather whether there is a point of view from which a woodpecker’s beak and a man’s tooth can be seen as ‘going together’ (the use of this congruity for therapeutic purposes being only one of its possible uses), and whether some initial order can be introduced into the universe by means of these groupings.

So instead of considering whether or not the theorization of photography and absence, or loss, was accurate, we could instead ask what function or need these theories satisfied for writing about aesthetics.

It seems the best approach to answering how we can “keep discussing photography at all?” is two-pronged. First, we should remember that this issue regarding the collapse of a medium is a fabrication and/or inconsequential (if the term ceases to exist, a new one will replace it, and if the system the term refers to is subsumed within another, nothing is actually lost), and that the fantasy of collapse is perpetuated by methodological issues which are independent from the practice of photography, specifically how aesthetics are written about and categorized, rather than practiced. The crisis is a bugbear. But stopping here would be a denial of the significant and radical implications of the theorization of photography, and prevent a history of this impact. Just because it may be exaggerated or misplaced, doesn’t mean that this “crisis” isn’t a symptom of an actual problem. Thus I would propose an approach similar to that of Peter Bürger when he discusses the problem of autonomy, i.e. no matter how false autonomy might be, it still bears investigating because,

… [autonomy] describes something real (the detachment of art as a special sphere of human activity from the nexus of the praxis of life) but simultaneously expresses this real phenomenon in concepts that block recognition of the social determinacy of the process.

Bürger goes on to argue for a need to historicize the concept, accept it as a phenomenon, but also to keep it at arms length, to not subscribe to it but rather outline it as a historical phenomenon. I would propose something similar in relationship to photography as a discrete medium and the implications that arise from attempts to theorize it as such, and that also, the issue of photography and loss, or photography and death, or photography and non-meaning  “expresses (a) real phenomenon in concepts that block recognition of the social determinacy of the process.” In other words, that the methodological challenge photography poses to structuralist, psychoanalytic, or art historical approaches is misunderstood as being a quality of a medium in crisis rather than a crisis in the system of differential media. Thus one could accept the situation as it was most recently described by George Baker:

Critical consensus would have it that the problem today is not that just about anything image-based can now be considered photographic, but rather that photography itself has been foreclosed, cashiered, abandoned—outmoded technologically and displaced aesthetically.

Certainly there is consensus on this point, but it may be more accurate to see this “outmodedness” as being a quality of differential media analysis, rather than its chosen object. The way forward I would offer, would be to historicize the theories of this collapse, while in practice, ceasing to use terms like photography, painting, and sculpture as categorical delimiters, and use them instead to indicate certain historical understandings of aesthetics and art objects. In short, to understand the ideological implications of their use, while denaturalizing them in the process. When one discusses a particular class of objects, one could speak about them, as I said in an earlier post, from the perspective of distributive, and political effect, rather than abstract ontological identity.

For the remaining posts, I will be primarily concerned with approaching the social and political distributive systems of art, rather than analyze the use of the term “photography”.  When that term does arise, I mean it in the sense of an accumulation of discourses centered around the photograph, and not the practice of producing, or distributing photographs. When I write about the production or distribution of photographs, or things which are photographic (as in like photographs), I will do so specifically in terms of educational, journalistic, or art systems (etc.).

2 comment(s)
Jan-Erik Lundström
Posted 30.04.2012 at 19:59

Cartographers Unite!

To historicize , as usefully intervened by Beshty, means, as well, to read and view from the present, that vanishing present. Photography, as a medium, as a vast set of cultural practices, is continuously defined and redefined by those very practices. I am reminded of Foucault’s exquisite definition of discourses as practices which systematically form the objects of which they speak (or something like that). Theory is, obviously, one of these discourses that impact on the medium or genre or discipline in question. And, as such, we live with a history of thinking about photographs as part of our current conception or map of the medium. And, as such, death has come to stay.

While I am sympathetic to the suggestion of provisional usages of the term photography, perhaps even nominalist, one could venture; I am more drawn to photography as an umbrella term, similarly understood as Wittgenstein’s notions of a family or a cluster of meaning. No single property unites all uses and conceptions of photography and there is no delimited category of objects in the world known as photographs. The kind of cartographic impulse, a mapping of the field of photographic practices, as suggested by George Baker in his Photography’s Expanded Field-essay (more pointedly argued by Walead in his call for narrating systems of relations and distributive networks), is, nonetheless, yet to be performed; to account for the variety of uses, applications, conceptions. It is here indeed that the numbing influence of art history/criticism is most maddeningly present and that much contemporary theory/thinking insists on addressing photography from within art world/history/criticism parameters and perspectives (Baker stumbles here, contradicting his own text, as he takes the apocalyptic position and targets photography as “abandoned…outmoded… displaced)”, and I do enjoy here the varied attempts in this blog at wrestling with the delimiting influences of the art discourses. Such a mapping, nonetheless, would need to narrate this expanded, expanding, and interwoven systems of technologies – the evolving photographic technologies as such, as well as emergent (and established) social, distributive, political… technologies.

Jan-Erik Lundström

Reply
Nicola Trezzi
Posted 01.05.2012 at 02:39

While reading Walead Beshty’s magistral analysis of the photographic medium and its related effects, whether revolutionary or catastrophic, I finally realized how the emancipation of photography from its function is certainly connected with the collapse of the “age of representation” in favor of the “era of identification” and the triumph of fiction over reality.
Without really finding a real conclusion I have been spending quite some time and energy trying to understand the passage from representation to identification and the related effect of fiction taking over reality. An epiphany within this difficult assignment was the blockbuster movie ‘The Iron Lady’ (2o12), which I recently watched while flying from Doha to Jakarta (my very low attention spam doesn’t allow me to watch movies in the theater without falling asleep, leaving the aircraft as the only place where I can appreciate the fantastic mass medium kwon as cinema.) During this biopic the protagonist, British politician Margaret Thatcher, complains about politics by saying “it used to be about trying to do something. Now it’s about trying to be someone.” In another line of the movie she says: “People don’t think anymore. They feel.” These statements were revelatory not only for Thatcher’s own success – as well as her fellows ‘performers’ Ronald Reagan and Karol Wojtyla – but also for how politics are functioning now for everyone, from Berlusconi to Obama.
What is the connection to photography then? Let’s consider again Roland Barthes’s quotation from Camera Lucida presented in Beshty’s post: “however ‘lifelike’ we strive to make it (and this frenzy to be lifelike can only be our mythic denial of the apprehension of death), Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead.”
First let’s remind us that Barthes wrote this book in 1980 when Thatcher (aka The Iron Lady) was in office since one year, Reagan (aka The Great Communicator) was going to enter the White House in one year and Wojtyla (aka the Pilgrim Pope) was elected since two years. Furthermore if we consider keywords like “Tableau Vivant,” “motionless figuration” and “made-up face” in connection to these three figures and their relationship to photography and image making through the scope of communication and the media we understand how this link is way less acrobatic than it could seem.
Following this path we understand that the 80s where the time of feelings over ideas, identification over representation and images over… well everything. At the same time we needed to wait until now to see that kind of reality fully blossoming. Though revolutionary, it is clear how post-Modernism, post-Structuralism or any kind of reaction to the system was going to become a system in itself, despite how sincere the premises were.
The situation now is telling that post-Modernism became a new Modernism and post-Structuralism became the new Structuralism. Now things are really about how to be Modern and Post-Modern at the same time, to be the leader and the elector at once, a situation Berlusconi – whose communication perfectly fits our time – perfectly mastered with his slogan “Sarò un presidente operaio” [I will be a president-worker] which came during the time smart phones made the act of photography something as natural as breathing.
In the scenario electors voted for their favorite politician not because he or she would represent them but just because they want to be like him or her. During the triumph of populism the role of photography and image making cannot be underestimated and a surgical analysis of the medium – its history, its power, its role in society as well as in the field of culture and visual art – is required. Especially since even Hollywood seems to be interested, in its own way.

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