Formalism assumes that the features being picked out are part of a “best possible” construction of what was done when the work was created. In this way formalism can work equally well for those who see intention as equivalent to meaning and those who see intention as a naïve and unworkable construct. In the latter case it is able at once to attribute significance through the quasi-intentionalist mode of writing described here, and to pass in everyday description as “anti-intentionalist,” as writers from Wölfflin and Shklovsky to Clement Greenberg have combined this general way of operating with explicit denials of the admissibility of artists’ actual, consciously made, statements about their own work.
The Anscombian response to this worry is that it’s a mistake to break the act down into component parts, a mistake to think of the intention as something that’s outside of the physical act, either as its cause or as a mental state existing either prior to or alongside it. That’s why she says your hug isn’t given its meaning by the words “you silly little twit” “occur[ring]” to you while you embrace your old acquaintance, they have to be “seriously meant.” And you could mean the hug to be ironic even if you were thinking only affectionate thoughts at the time you administered it, or thinking nothing at all. The correct answer to the question, “why did you hug him?” would still be, to show my contempt.
Combine a deflationary theory of photographic agency with a richly intentionalist approach to understanding what photographers mean by making photographs. We are now equipped to make sense of Winogrand’s practice of discovery. The photographer takes a picture of a beggar on the street, not intending that the scene look precisely so. Its looking precisely so is his discovery—it goes to his credit, not the camera’s. At the same time, by making the photograph, he means to tell us something about the beggar and how we should see him. Maybe he also means to tell us something about being a photographer, who means by making, even as what he makes is not just what he means.
This is to say that the strictly documentary character of Adams’s work, which by and large claimed viewers’ attention at the time of New Topographics, has somewhat receded in importance. And it is also to suggest that the theoretical issue of the non-representational nature of the photograph as well as of the problematic status of the photographer’s intentions owing to the photograph’s indexicality…turns out to be not quite relevant to the present case. Or rather, more precisely, it is as if the “weak intentionality” of the photograph…turns out to throw into relief the extraordinary strength and efficacy of Adams’s esthetic perfectionism…with respect to the appearance of the final print, the esthetic artifact as such.
Indeed, over the course of the nineteenth-century, two temporalities became increasingly recognizable in modernizing societies. The “lived time” of premodern and natural cycles oriented to the sun, the tides, the moon became the “measured time” of the clock and the workday, of shipping times and railroads connecting major cities. Although the conventional view would have it that speed and instantaneousness decisively came to dominate with the advent of the railroad and the telegraph, a deeper analysis indicates that only a small percentage in the nineteenth century felt the rigors of measured time decisively undoing an older, natural time.
In my imagined temporary community on the stage, in that ring and in those lights, we would have started with a single set of questions, a single set of definitions, and disagreed from there until we came to new sets of questions, and so that is what I will do here, sitting literally alone, around my hearth, and without tribe. The artist always fights herself, in the end. I relax, so I can strike myself harder. I establish my balance, so I can stay on my feet.
So there is a sense in which Winogrand’s personal crisis expresses a theoretical position, just as there’s an equally important sense in which that theoretical position and the alternatives to it (what it might mean to intend something, and especially what it might mean not to or what it might mean for your reasons to be treated as causes) were becoming at the time of that crisis central to literary theory and aesthetic production. Indeed, in what is now an aesthetic and a political as much as a philosophical sense, the structure of intentional action has recently emerged as a crucial issue.
I do not mean here to refer to the issue familiar in philosophy since Plato, the way the psyche can be shaped in very different ways by the education it receives and by the context of some particular regime. Democratic souls for democracies; oligarchic souls for oligarchies. Plato and many others keep the soul’s structure constant in such accounts, concentrating on the effects of the formation process on that structure. I think something much more radical is implicitly suggested by these films—that what counts as such a structure is at issue and open to real variation. This is particularly true of the psychological structure assumed in “explaining actions” or “assigning or accepting responsibility.” How we have come to think of that issue, the range of possible answers, may, if the brothers are right, have more to do with the imperatives of a particular social organization of power than it would be comfortable to admit.
If I understand Emerson correctly, his allegory of photography contends that, while photography may look like shopping at a flea market, it’s really more like standing a round at the bar.
From the beginning of Picasso’s career to the end, he depicted life-size figures. An essential aspect of this way of working is made curiously prominent in Boy Leading a Horse—because an effortful, first moment of learning reinstalls itself in an uninvited fashion. Recall that the palmar grasp affords a longer range but simultaneously deprives the artist of his ability to maintain the hand in a flowing continuous movement across the surface (as evident in the photograph of the École).
Take, for example, Turrell’s description of one of his recent ganzfeld chambers at the Henry Moore institute in Halifax, England: “It could induce an epileptic fit. You could really render someone useless if you choose to. The Henry Moore Institute had to have a neurologist from London…. It is serious business from that point of view. But there have been art pieces, by Christo and Serra, that actually killed people. I don’t in any way intend that…. It is invasive, closing your eyes will not stop this…”
It is of course a complete accident that the same year that marks the tenth anniversary of the failure of federally maintained levees, incompetent disaster relief, and rampant profiteering in the face of a relatively pedestrian hurricane known as Katrina should also mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication by an obscure Assistant Secretary of Labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan of The Negro Family: The Case for National Action…The chance of history that brought the anniversaries of the Moynihan Report and Hurricane Katrina together helps elucidate both the long-term implications of Moynihan’s dominance over a large portion of American discourse regarding inequality—a discourse that bears a great deal of responsibility for the effects of that fairly mundane storm—and the long historical temporalities that produced Katrina as a storm of unthinkable tragedy. Indeed, Katrina did not form to the southeast of the Bahamas on August 22, 2005. It formed when Moynihan helped consolidate the culture of poverty thesis in 1965. It formed when a conception of freedom grounded in contract, work-discipline, and various versions of moral economy defeated its multiple historical alternatives. It formed when American politics ceased to effectively challenge these defeats. In fact, if we further widen our lens, we can see its beginnings in the monumental transition from slavery to freedom that is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
Even a cursory read of the Moynihan Report makes clear that Moynihan is not guilty of crass victim blaming. Indeed, as William Julius Wilson eloquently stated, Moynihan’s “presentation certainly lacked elegance, but it was an attempt to synthesize structural and cultural analyses to understand the dynamics of poor black families and the plight of low-skilled black males.” But while Wilson proffered that statement as a defense of Moynihan, his formulation functions equally well as a critique of the Moynihan Report. Specifically, Moynihan’s efforts to synthesize a cultural and structural analysis of poverty revealed a conception of structure rooted not in political economy but in ethnic pluralism. Simply put, what Moynihan meant by structural sources of inequality was racism (which established barriers to black social and economic progress) and the damage it inflicted on the institutions that regulated cultural norms among African Americans. To be sure, Moynihan’s conception of “structural inequality” offers some insulation against the facile charge of “victim blaming;” nevertheless, Wilson’s formulation ultimately highlights a more significant problem with the Moynihan Report. Moynihan was not particularly concerned about the impact of structural changes in the nation’s economy on black unemployment and poverty. As I will discuss below, the Moynihan Report’s indifference to the consequences of automation and mechanization on black life was consistent with the perspectives of Democratic policymakers who opposed a more robust War on Poverty. Indeed, the Moynihan Report’s emphasis on racism and black culture complemented the conservative antipoverty agenda of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), which—believing African American poverty to be exceptional— identified tax cuts, anti-discrimination legislation, and targeted programs, rather than redistributive policies, as the appropriate remedy for black poverty.
Depicting federal aid as the only means by which to pursue an antipoverty agenda, the mayor [Moon Landrieu] also argued that diminishing program funds required the city to grow in ways that reflected the vested interests of those fleeing the city center in order to facilitate their return. Already in the process of shepherding tourism and real estate development interests to the city, this narrative willfully erased material inequalities produced by codified segregation and unequal access to housing, employment, and education as well as hardened conceptualizations that blamed poverty on individual choices. Thus, this logic rationalized the market relations of a gentrification economy by implying it was imperative to defray costs for serving the poor. Ultimately, local governing officials deployed these assumptions to sanction their own participation in the making of middle-class neighborhoods.
The protestors, through chants, speeches and pamphlets, highlighted the glaring contradiction of a gathering dedicated to “equitable development and social justice” that was simultaneously honoring Richard Baron because of his role in overseeing the destruction of public housing in New Orleans and across the country. Policylink managed this contradiction by redefining social justice as the creation of “communities of opportunity,” rather than ones that guaranteed a right to housing and other basic needs, including the “right to stay put.” Thus, through this lens, “deconcentrating poverty” by refashioning public housing as “mixed income” developments that would include only a fraction of the previous public housing apartments, represented progress. How could they arrive at such an assessment? How did destroying poor people’s homes, and dispersing the former residents, become part of “best practices” for progressive social policy?
Most political discussions of New Orleans since the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster have relied heavily on notions of the city’s exceptionalism. Right-wing pundits pointed to the city’s reputation for corruption and its citizens’ alleged complacency and poor planning decisions (e.g., “Why would they build below sea-level?”) as central causes for the disaster, rather than the austerity or hubris of the Bush White House. This image of New Orleans as a political backwater or banana republic was used by some Congressional Republicans to discourage further federal investment in rebuilding the city. Liberal activists and city boosters, in turn, reached for notions of cultural particularity to stake their claims for the city’s reconstruction, arguing that the Crescent City’s unique colonial heritage, architecture, and sundry contributions to American music and foodways were all precious national resources. The trope of native cultural authenticity ultimately served to unite right of return advocates who insisted that New Orleans would not be the same without its black working class neighborhoods, and the various commercial interests that comprise the tourism-entertainment complex, around a recovery agenda that has still reproduced inequality and segregation. This essay explores and rejects another prevalent notion of exceptionalism, the underclass myth that has been central to the defeat of welfare statism in the United States, and especially influential in shaping the market-oriented reconstruction of New Orleans.