Wednesday, April 30, 2008

the weary anti-intellectual

I'm preparing to teach my second photography course at a local university, and I've decided to make my students read "In Plato's Cave," the lead essay in Susan Sontag's On Photography. Not that I read it when I was learning how to take pictures: I learned by going to the public library in Austin, texas, and poring over monographs by everyone from Danny Lyon, Harry Callahan and Diane Arbus to Eugene Atget and Edward Sheriff Curtis. I learned by looking at great photographs. And by taking lots of pictures myself.

But after teaching my first photo course, I understand that college students who don't have photography in their blood may not learn much by simply looking at photos and listening to me talk about them. So, the Sontag. (I'm also considering making them suffer through John Berger's interpolation of Walter Benjamin, chapters from Beaumont Newhall's History of Photography, and something called Digital Photography: The Missing Manual.) But as I go back to read her for the first time in a while, I get excited then annoyed. Excited to read someone who can examine something as everyday as photography and then overturn some of our everyday assumptions about it. And annoyed because after awhile--in fact, just after she refers to August Sander's amazing early 20th century portraits of German people as nihilistic and abstract--I lose Sontag completely. I just don't understand this sort of critical language. (Which was one of the fundamental ironies of my life as a pop music critic.) And I start to suspect that it's all smoke and mirrors. Actually, I'm sure that some of it is just art theory fancy-walking, and some of it is actually good thinking. But I can't discern the line between the two.

Is everyone always at least partly mystified by theory like On Photography? I don't think so. Some humans seem to understand it. (Like my wife.) I think my excitement and irritation betrays a certain crankiness in me, as well as a deep-seated ambivalence towards the academy, and perhaps even a burning suspicion or two about the nature of intelligence itself, people!

Here's what I'm talking about:

Sontag: "To collect photographs is to collect the world. Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker and go out; but with still photographs, the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store."

This makes sense. This is true of me. I have taken pictures of Nepal, punk rockers, Mexico City, clouds out the airplane window, and my wife and my daughters to collect my experience. Whatever happens to me next, I know that in those phases and places, "I got it." I captured something of the ever-disappearing stuff of life. Not The Truth, but one of them.

But here's Sontag again: "Ultimately having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form. That most logical of nineteenth century aesthetes, Mallarme, said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph."

Is this true, or is it showboating? Is it live or is it Memorex?

One of my first lessons was that you can't photograph everything. You can't document your every profound or throwaway moment. This is true of blogging as well--some things get away from you. If I tried to commemorate all of my life, I wouldn't have time to live it.

I know, I know, Susan Sontag didn't mean this literally. She was writing rhetorically. But that's my problem with some criticism--it plays with ideas until they become half-baked notions. Cleverisms. Love and bitterness do not exist to end in a photograph.

Of course, some folks will tell you love is just a construct, invented in the nineteenth century.

Yeah, right.


Anna said...


pat said...


Ed Ward said...

"Of course, some folks will tell you love is just a construct, invented in the nineteenth century."

Right. That explains the troubadors and trouveres, then...

Elizabeth said...

I used to copy edit for a high-theory academic journal. At first I was intimidated because I wasn't getting half of what I read. But as I worked there longer, I figured out that if I didn't understand it, it was pretty much b.s. and verbal obfuscation of same.

I think a lot of the time these people fall in love with their theorizing - at the expense of good sense.

pat said...

Sometimes I (obviously) suspect the same. But I'm going to keep trying because even if half the reading is BS, sometimes the other half is enlightening. Often better than the New York Times Style section.