The English have an expression. ‘To Kill Two Birds With One Stone.’ As you can’t bear conflicts and often have to rationalize the many things you feel you must do in any particular week this phrase often inspires you to conflate two responsibilities into one and it can feel very satisfactory to do so. This week you have been so busy teaching that you haven’t been to any exhibitions (though you did a ‘crit’ on a wonderful curatorial experiment by a group of Masters students.) The other thing that’s been on your mind is the fact that you have to give what academics call ‘a paper’ at a conference on photography this weekend (here is the link: https://photoconference2015.wordpress.com/) , and, in truth, you haven’t completed writing it, in fact you have about 8,000 words of relatively unformed ideas when what you really should have is about 3,0000 words of a perfectly formed thesis.
Then there is the problem of your weekly Blog, what to write about? Aha! You can perhaps ‘Kill Two Birds With One Stone’ by using the space of your Blog to compose your thoughts for your photography paper. Well, here goes and you hope this is entertaining and interesting for the reader, and that, of course, if you are attending the conference that what you write here will not be identical to the paper you give tomorrow but, rather, part of the process of arriving at its final configuration. The title of the paper is ‘WOW?’: ‘Towards Immanence As Post Representation In Art & Politics By Way Of Modern Technologies.’ What could this mean? What are you trying to say?
Well, I discovered that if you try to actually say ‘WOW?‘ with a question mark instead of an exclamation mark you sound rather like a facebook cat. But seriously, primarily the paper is about photography and starts with references to Walter Benjamin’s classic essay ‘The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (c. 1939) There Benjamin produced early theories affirming photography and film as the new and most important contributors to a modern form of art that would be primarily political. Writing, as Jewish, left-wing intellectual in Nazi Germany he claimed that fascism ‘aestheticises politics’ and that the best response from anti-Nazis is to ‘politicise aesthetics.’ Your paper will take some pains to analyse these statements in detail. Benjamin’s writing always rewards close scrutiny, even of sentences you feel you know all-too well and have read a thousand times before (yes, the sign of a great mind and a great writer.)
Both art and politics are associated with the idea of representation. We are -more or less and for better or worse- ‘represented’ politically by the democratic system, while a picture or image of the world is a representation of it. We can also think of the way in which our sensual equipment, as well as language and thought all enable us to negotiate the world by means of ‘representations.’ Flipping back to politics, we can perhaps see that the Nazi dictatorship with which Benjamin contended no-longer ‘represented’ the people in a democratic way. When he said fascism ‘aestheticises politics’ he seems to mean, in part that dictatorship no longer ‘represents’ the people but involves them in a grand image while presenting them emphatically and constantly with that image (an image of power, unity, aspiration, growth etc.) Like our relationship to certain traditional forms of art we are disempowered by this encounter if only because we are in awe of it. In your paper you are going to use images of the carefully orchestrated Nuremberg Nazi rallies (clearly emulated by the closing sequence of the first Star Wars movie) as one example of what might be meant by the ‘aestheticisation of politics.’ You are also going to refer to Benjamin’s well-known examples of the ‘politicisation of aesthetics’ that Benjamin sees as made possible by photography, film and DADA. Next you want to refer to contemporary research into digital photography’s exponential proliferation of photographic images as what has come to be called ‘BIG DATA.’ Here you- somewhat paranoically- want to share and express your fear of a current, contemporary or 21st Century ‘aestheticisation of politics’ in the way that the apparently highly democraticsed image-making that is photography (in so many ways ‘the people’s art) becomes utilized as primarily quantitative material, a form of statistics, or ‘DATA.’ You want to note the ‘spectacular’ and therefore potentially disempowering effects of this phenomenon, noting that the desired and often given response tends to be a rather thoughtless and uncritical ‘WOW!’
50,000 Instagram photos from Tokyo, organized by hue mean (perimeter) and brightness mean (radius). (http://phototrails.net/exhibition/)
Lev Manovich, Professor at The Graduate Center, City University of New York and a Director of the Software Studies Initiative that works on the analysis and visualization of big visual cultural data.
Interestingly Benjamin, along with his Frankfurt School friend Seigfried Kracauer also feared and documented the rise of bureaucracies, managerial power, statistics and DATA in Nazi Germany, and spoke, in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ of a: “processing of DATA in the fascist sense.”
This leads you to wonder if there might perhaps be a ‘processing of DATA in the non-fascist sense’, even, perhaps, a ‘DADA DATA’?, and here you remind yourself of the anti-fascist contributions of Hannah Höch John Heartfield, Kurt Schwitters and, more recently- Peter Kennard. Is there perhaps a way of seeing quantitative fallout from modern mass media, be it the boom in 1930s German magazines or the boom in digital photography today, simply as various forms of ‘DATA?
Well, that is just the start and you have already hit your (often breached) 750 Word limit, so you need to go on and ask the reader’s permission, blessing and perhaps forgiveness. Given Benjamin’s countering of an ‘aestheticised politics’ with a ‘politicised aesthetics’ you now want to return to more detailed consideration of various forms of ‘representation’, and particularly those areas where ‘representation’ we associate with art overlaps with political ‘representation.’
Hopefully it can be seen that ‘BIG DATA’ is an area of conflation where the images we use to represent ourselves online -as uploads of everyday events, holidays, cat-lovers, food lovers etc.- become analysed quantitatively, dispassionately, and formed into new, spectacular images and graphs according to a process justified as a form of sociological research. It is also important to note that, modern technologises like photography, film, video, and more recently digital photography and social networks promise new forms of ‘representation’, a point that was already the seed or heart of Benjamin’s ‘The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.
They have also influenced the way in which democracy is seen to work, e.g. in the increasing popularity of both petitions and referendums, both of which seem ultra-democratic in one sense but which also seem open to misuse and distortion in their own way. Your paper is then, possibly, arguing for an extension and continuation of Benjamin’s proposal, that the new politics is to be found in new technologies, new images, new distributions. You also want to refute any proclaimed rupture between the digital and earlier forms of photography, seeing the difference not as a ‘WOW!’ but as a difference between one media boom and another, the difference itself being quantitative and not qualitative. You may even want to refuse any clear and simplistic distinction between the 20th and 21st centuries as proclaimed in the title of the conference.
Seeing DADA as a ‘processing of DATA in an anti-fascist sense’ is one way of conflating these presumed distinctions and of trying to eradicate some of these false dialectics.
Social Networks, smartphones and digital photography today conspire to provoke the production of enormous numbers of representations, both in the sense of personal, images and, particularly once processed as sociological DATA, also as ‘political’ representations. The statistics concerning the digital are certainly ‘WOW!’-inducing, and yet, photographer Robert Burley, in his melancholic, valedictory photo-essay ‘The Disappearance of Darkness’ reminded us of the -relatively- amazing figures pertaining to the exponential boom in the popularity of chemical photography between 1950 and 1980.
Robert Burley, ‘The Disappearance of Darkness’
He makes the point that, at its height, no-one could have predicted the rapid decline and near eradication of the massive, worldwide, analog, chemical photographic industry, on which whole towns, like Rochester in New York, state depended on companies like Agfa and Kodak for their identity and their economy. Thus, he risks asserting, it may be unwise not to assume that the same fate will one day befall today’s apparently invincible digital empires once an even newer technological paradigm comes to supplant the digital realm.
There have been technological revolutions and corresponding media booms before, there is one now, and will be more, none of them marks the end of history. Ultimately all ‘DATA’ is only relatively ‘BIG’ given the biggest scheme of things and the longest view of historical, geological, or cosmic time. Returning to your earlier comparison of democracy and dictatorship, you might extend Benjamin’s argument about the innately political photographic image and argue that today we have other ways -for better and for worse – of conflating politics and aesthetics; of ‘aestheticising politics’ and of ‘politicising aesthetics.’
Our democracy supposedly (and often unsatisfactorily) ‘represents’ us by means of universal suffrage, while dictatorship imposes an image upon us to which we are forced to comply and within which we thoughtlessly serve as mere pixels of a picture that is not ours but the vision of an unreachable, untouchable leader. To help understand the contribution of social networks, as analysed by ‘BIG DATA’ statisticians, you now want to bring into play another term: ‘immanence.’ One way to begin to define this difficult term is to oppose it to transcendence.
There is something divine and desirable about immanence, but it is very much of this world and not of any higher, ‘transcendent’ order. It appeals to the materialist and the democrat, and perhaps to the anti-fascist in you, because immanence seems to be a great leveller. It seems to refuse our human, representative tendency to believe that our fortune, our favour our redemption, our aspiration lies elsewhere, within the control of an other, in another time, place or realm, and seems to insist instead upon the immediate, the already, the given, the innate.
It may be complex, risky or tentative to prove and to define what follows, but you want to argue here that all forms of representation – be they descriptive images, political representation, or the operations of your cognitive faculties, the senses, the understanding etc. – are all, in some way transcendent, if only because they assume a higher, or secondary order to immanence as both non-transcendent and non-representational. Consider the Deleuzian terms ‘Body Without Organs’, ‘Intensities’, ‘Deterritorialsiation’, ‘The Logic of Sense’, ‘Radical Empiricism’, they all elude and refuse representation, requiring us to involve our experience not as distinguished from the world but as a force, a flow, a becoming, a line of fight and as such immanent, within everything else, no-longer a subjective spectator observing and using the world. In a small book of Deleuze last writings, published just after his death and title ‘Pure Immanence, A Life’ he suggested that we should not use the word ‘life’ in an abstract, and therefore unworldly, representative or transcendent sense, but always refer to “a life” – an unrepresentable, multiplicitous singularity, a condition with and within which we are immanent.
Today social networks tend towards representing (and uncritically ‘Liking’) every minute of everybody’s every day. Taken to its logical conclusion -you want to argue that – this becomes a ‘live feed’ of a world in which life becomes ‘A Life Lived Live.’ You also want to argue that, by means of this prolific, excessive and disorganized representation we might pass through the mirror of representation into the condition of immanence. If so, neither the present model of representational democracy or dictatorship as the ‘aestheticisation of politics’ will suffice as an appropriate model for our politics.
As we go through the mirror of representation we find ourselves in a different world where everything is the same (the immanent aspects of Zen comes to mind, along with traces of immanence in Asian philosophy. But once again, you want to argue that this is not new, not novel, not something to which we should respond with a thoughtless ‘WOW!’ One of your favourite quotes from Benjamin is a echoed in a description made by Kracauer of a secretary working in a 1930s management office and whose mind is filled with popular songs.
Benjamin says “What form do you suppose a life would take that was determined at a decisive moment precisely by the street song last on everyone’s lips?” The implication here is – like Benjamin’s serous appraisal of photography’s role in modern life – that today ‘a life’ may be determined, not by philosophy, psychology, even politics or economy but on an affective response to popular media, on ‘the last street song on everyone’s slips’, and which is on “everyone’s lips” because of some affinity between our sense and our new technologies – the gramophone, the wireless, the newspaper or magazine in which the song and singer are promoted etc.
Now, to end your paper you want to build a little more of a historical bridge between Benjamin’s 1930s interest in the proliferation of photography and film, today’s ‘BIG DATA’ analysis, and certain contemporary artists like Jon Rafman, John Gerrard, Hito Steyerl, Erica Scourti and Ryan Trecartin. These contemporary artists all revel in the current proliferation of digital images in different ways, turning the current exponential quantification to various -and variously successful- artistic and political ends. You could say they are comparable with and perhaps appropriate to Benjamin’s ‘aestheticisation of politics’ and contrary ‘politicisation of aesthetics.’
Like the DADAist godfather of collage Kurt Schwitters most of these artists do not tend to use transcendent materials and esoteric processes, of a lofty or exceptional kind but dive right into the immanent mass of what Steyerl has championed as ‘poor images’ and use contemporary processes that are commonly available to all and everyday activities that might not be immediately considered as art. Breaking down such divisions between art and life, intense experience and representation may be seen as a way of approaching immanence.
Erica Scourti seeds her Blogging with selfies and the kind og ‘Adwords’ that will encourage Google’s algorithms to respond with suggested products, which she then further introduces into subsequent Blogs, investigating what ‘a life’ or identity is becoming today, as subsumed by online activities. John Gerrard could perhaps be accused of inducing, and intending to induce the most ‘WOW!s’ from his spectacular digital game sequences constructed from tens of thousands of digital photographs.
Jon Rafman’s misuse of Google street View and other forms of DATA roaming seems almost seedy, like someone rummaging through the bins of the internet, and so Schwitters, who famously deployed short buttons and bus tickets, would surely approve. Ryan Trecartin amplifies and parodies the inevitable neurptic narcissistic arising from the technologised opportunity to make every passing thought and act a part of the plot of an online psychodrama.
Now, to end, you just want to build that ‘historical bridge’, as you promised, by citing two more art historical practices which have long interested and influenced you and which seem to support some of the argument above. Robert Smithson, in 1967, famously took a Kodak Instamatic to Passaic, a rather impoverished and uninspiring part of New Jersey where much construction was taking place. What is important about reading today the published article that resulted is the way in which he uses photography, a newspaper and a cheap paperback novel, perhaps as what you have called ‘DADA DATA’, i.e. as apparently representational media which nevertheless help him to experience his environment as immanent.
He repeatedly alludes to the way in which reading the novel, the newspaper or taking photographs, rather than distancing him from his surroundings draw him deeper into it and enable him to see himself and his experience and the media itself as not materially distinct or transcendent in relation to one another. It is also significant that, like DADAists and DATA-analysts, and like social networks Smithson makes no hierarchical distinction between the quotidian and the profound, the everyday and the eternal, the important and the unimportant.
This demonsration of immanence can be seen as a quasi-political gesture also running through the examples above, and beginning with Benjamin’s affirmation of photography and other modern, popular media as political technologies that promise neither the ‘aestheticisation of politics’ that is dictatorship, nor the often dubious or highly compromised achievements of representative democracy.
And the final example that you want to provide is the story of the way in which artist Bruce Nauman first utilized video technology as an artist in the early 1970s. Having a video camera and monitor in an artist’s studio creates a new sense of ‘Live’ness which prompted Nauman to see all of his actions as potentially art. Here again we can see how representation, once pushed to a certain limit (wherein every act is represented without delay, in fact with instantaneity) propagates immanence and suggests what you have called above ‘A Life Lived Live.’
Nauman’s early encounter with Video is not dissimilar to our examples of the way that a constant stream of Blogs, Vlogs, digital photographs, social network posts etc. approximate a live feed, A Life Lived Live. When one’s every act is represented this leads to a collapsing of any transcendent distance or mediation between reality and representation, resulting in an immanent, unrepresentable condition.
What you have tried to articulate and argue for – but also surely to warn against – above is a form of immanent politics, relevant to today’s technologies, but following on from Benjamin’s 1930s affirmation of photography and other new media, -such as Radio, Cinema, illustrated magazines etc. Proliferation and quantities may inevitably come to be seen as DATA, but that DAT can be utilised in different political ways. In one way ot continues to induce ‘WOW!s, as an ‘aestheticisation of politics, in another way it become what you have called ‘DADA DATA, i.e. the continuing need to ‘politicise aesthetics.’
There, you still have a way to go, and you hope that wasn’t too cerebral, too academic or too half-baked for you, the Blog reader, but you have ‘Killed Two Birds With One Stone’, and that, honestly, is right where you are today and what you are thinking about.
4 thoughts on “28. IN THE REALM OF PHOTOGRAPHY”
Thoughtful as usual. A question: Would you share your paper? Thank you
Reblogged this on aliciaheimat.
Re sharing my paper, I will give a version of it tomorrow, then probably work it up into a 5,000 or 10,000 word article. So I’d rather share it when it is fully worked out and presentable.