Issue #19: Photography and Philosophy II
In the spring of 2015 nonsite.org in collaboration with the Los Angeles Museum of Art (LACMA) hosted a two-day conference on Photography and Philosophy. For our 19th issue nonsite.org presents essays related to that event. These essays engage with what we take to be central issues in the history and practice of photography today including the autonomy of the photographic image, automatism, time and meaning.
Inside the issue
Everyone involved in this discussion appears to live by the difference between art and life. To my knowledge, no one has suggested that Gone with the Wind is something other than a novel or that Tweeting Gone with the Wind is something other than a work of art. (No reader misrecognized it as a different kind of Twitter account – for example, a moment by moment record of the passing thoughts of Vanessa Place). Nor has anyone started a liberation movement to protect the rights or advance the interests of fictional persons.
What We Worry About When We Worry About Commodification: Reflections on Dave Beech, Julian Stallabrass, and Jeff Wall
In an advertisement, the only intention that matters is to sell a product. All manner of decisions can and do saturate an advertising image, but these are subordinate to the purpose (Zweck) of selling the product. In a successful work of art, all kinds of decisions are subordinate to a larger intention as well; but that intention is analytically identical with the meaning (Zweckmäßigkeit) of the work, so it makes sense to speak of the work as a whole as saturated with intention. As we saw, art-commodities may well bear the marks of industrial processes. A work of art may, on the other hand, choose to exhibit them, which is a different matter altogether. We can tell the difference between bearing marks and exhibiting marks because works of art tell us how to tell the difference, each time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.