Goldsmiths: The … uh, Eighth Week?

Nov 27 2009

Rapidly losing grip on reality. Reading week disrupted normal time and space, propelling me into a whole world of messed-up circadian rythmns and academic guilt. I’ve was told the week after (the week before the one that’s just gone – confused yet?) was the Eighth Week (16/11 – 20/11), but I’m not so sure …

This week, one of my friends from undergrad was down in London. She’s studying for a PhD on the mating behaviour of massive scary ants, and was learning how to radio-tag insects as a guest of ZSL. Having been woken by the fire alarm test an hour after the start of my Wednesday morning American Lit seminar, I needed exciting animals and zoological facts to cheer me up – so legged it across town to meet her at London Zoo. Hence the photo, which is sufficiently odd to stand as an illustration of Week 8:

Rebranding FAIL.
Creative Commons License photo credit: jfpickard

Course notes follow, below the cut.

Digital Media – Critical Perspectives

Photography, digital and otherwise. Working from the introductory essay in Lister’s The Photographic Image in Digital Culture (1995), we zoomed in on the celebratory discourses of digital photography … in which the change from analogue to digital is posited as ‘startling’, ‘powerful’ and ‘epochal’ … a paradigm shift.

Here, it’s all too easy to read the digital image as an unprecedented fusion of the imagined and the real, but really there’s nothing particularly new about all this. Yes, we’ve shifted our attention from the camera-as-prosthetic eye to ‘the small grey, plastic box of the personal computer’ (p. 3) and we might be living under Sontag’s image-based economy. But this is all linguistic/discursive!

Digital photography is still photography; part of an 150-year old photographic culture. Lister comments on the way in which digital photography has become entangled with ‘a heady mixture of millenarian futurology, the visionary excesses of postmodern thought, and of utopian premise and cultural pessimism.’ (p. 5) Supposedly ‘traditional’ (analogue) photographic images are cast as indexical; slavish (subordinate) mirrors/copies of the Real. With analogue edits, there’ll always be a trace or stain – some evidence of tampering with the indexicality of the image.

Semiotics: links between signifier and signified are arbitrary … culturally constructed! Notions of indexicality serve to naturalise the cultural connotations (meaning) of the photo; the illusion of immediacy can be used to conceal the tacit assumptions and ideology of the image. Historically, photography has held a powerful position as an evidential practice. Think of photographs in the legal, medical, and photojournalistic realms. John Tagg’s Burden of Representation (1993).

Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980) talks about photography as an affective (emotional-physiological) medium. What does my body know of photography? Punctum (detail) – the emotive immediacy of a photographical detail. The power of something that resonates, or ‘leaps out at you’. Think of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List (1993).

Digital photography parcelled with postmodernism – a collapsed sense of temporality; an emergent schizophrenia. The spatio-temporal manipulations of the digital, of images that no longer function in relation to science … abstracted from light, film, chemistry – are we looking at the death of optics? Remediation! It’s not as if analogue photography has disappeared. Plus, digital photography is still informed by the legacies of the analogue – there continues to be a language, a grammar of (effective/good) photography.

Mechanical/optical media were a historical phase in visual media. Perhaps the analogue photograph was an anomaly; a ‘raw’ indexicality sandwiched between the oil painting and the photo-manipulation? Yet the metadata of digital photography stands as an extended (and more powerful) form of indexicality. From a Flickr photo, you can deduce the camera make, date taken, and (sometimes) even the geographical location: it’s all embedded in the image-as-data.

Peripheral to, but illustrative of, the shift from analogue –> digital, we have Foucauldian interpretations of  Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the panopticon. Photography & the lens, the gaze … as an instrument of power, of science, in criminology, medicine, psychiatry … a way of making truth claims (Gunning). Relationships between the observer and the object of scrutiny?

((ASIDE: In one of the Anth & Representation seminars, Graeber raised an interesting and … surprisingly local line of enquiry – springing from the fact that the earliest manifestation (inspiration?) of the panopticon concept was in the schemes of the philosopher’s brother, Sir Samuel Bentham, who’d commissioned the construction of a prototypical ‘Inspection House’ on Prince Potemkin’s estate in Russia. Later, Sir Samuel was also in charge of improvements made to the docks at Deptford in 1799 – a short walk from the current location of Goldsmiths College. There’s probably some kind of alternate history here, where a better-funded Bentham turns Deptford & Greenwich into a pre-steampunk, pseudo-totalitarian naval/mercantile super-panopticon … Say, that’d be pretty good fun to write about. Hold that thought!

Oh, and for another alternate history of panopticism, check out Tony Jones’ exemplary exercise in world-building; Cliveless World))

Following the shift to digital, Cascio’s notion of the participatory panopticon. When photos can be faked, the best measure of veracity is through plurality – if an Event (with-a-capital-E) occurs, there will be multiple photos, from the camera phones of participants and observers (participant observation?). Think Eyeborg

that photo from the London bombings, and – perhaps most strikingly – the human wall of camera screens at Obama’s inaugural Youth Ball …

cameraobama image provenance hard to find, due to the crazy Sontagian circulation & reproduction of images – but I’m inclined to credit Reuters staff photographer Kevin Lamarque

21st Century American Fiction

Security, by Stephen Amidon. Not great literature, nor particularly original – but interesting, likeable and skillfuly written. From the Washington Post review -

“What a freak show,” a character in Stephen Amidon’s Security remarks of another’s unstable father after a humiliating scene. Although the speaker herself is detestable, an irredeemable villain, her comment lays bare the deepest fears of Amidon’s people: that their messy private lives will burst into public view. But because the author is a nimble satirist, we can count on such disruptions, as readers of his fine Human Capital already know.

On the surface, these characters aren’t remarkable or odd, and neither is the setting, the quiet Berkshire town of Stoneleigh, but the major players are in crisis: Edward Inman, proprietor of a home security firm, hasn’t slept in weeks and roams the night rather than share a bed with his wife, Meg. Kathryn, his old flame, is trying to reconnect with her college dropout son, Conor. And Walt Steckl, formerly a master electrician, takes painkillers and drinks to quiet his nerves, which were fried in a workplace accident.

(…)

Despite the improbable endgame and an over-reliance on types among his supporting cast — the preoccupied wife, the creepy snob, the sullen teen — the novel succeeds as an entertainment. It’s well-paced and always engaging, if occasionally broad. Thematically, like any good satire, it presents a cautionary tale and dares us to find ourselves in it, and because Amidon is such a fine writer, we do. As in Human Capital, he once again displays his unerring facility for sniffing out the shaky foundations of our lives, showing us what we will selfishly renounce — trust, intimacy, integrity, reality — to achieve what we believe is an impregnable security.

Taken alongside Ellis’ Lunar Park (see previous week), Amidon’s novel sheds light on a very specific current within 21st century American fiction – something related to the spatialities of suburbia, focusing in on the unstable and arbitrary foundations of our domesticity, and containing some (limited?) form of social critique. It’s probably too early to see quite how this’ll develop, but I think we can also see something similar in American TV dramas like Desperate Housewives, Weeds, and architectural competitions such as Reburbia. There’s an anxiety here; a precariousness which seems worthy of further investigation.

Anthropology & Representation

As far as I can make out, something to do with the phenomenology of giant puppets? Violence, myth, and narrative in the (alter-)globalisation movement. We’re talking Battle of Seattle, protests against the Iraq War, and – slightly more jovially – the Burning Man Festival and the Paperhand Puppet Intervention. The puppets really annoy the police, but why?

We need to think about the relationship between puppets and monuments. Questions of memory, identity and permanence/transience. Perhaps they stand as a pastiche or parody of the monumental; something to do with totems, fetishes and the carnivalesque; boundaries between the sacred and the profane; or the uncanny valley? How about conspiracy theories – puppets mirror the relations of power; it’s an appropriate deployment because we (they?) are the puppets? The processes of puppet-construction as an act of community-formation. A literal embodiment of the man-made-of-many-men of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan … the body politic.

Urban protests as a manifestation of symbolic (asymmetric) warfare. The media as a platform for a conflict of symbolic systems. Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967). The violence of representation? Denigration of enemies (of the state?) as ‘trust fund kids’. A Black Bloc ethics, rooted in concepts of value – where it’s verboten to attack family-owned stores, but the symbols of transnational capitalism (McDonalds, Starbucks) are fair game. Rules of engagement, different for the cops (do anything necessary to contain the chaos, but don’t kill people) and the protesters (violence against capital, against property … harm everything but people). Carl Schmitt & post-Westphalian, urban warfare.

Narrative frames lifted from Hollywood, mass media, fiction – protest as an orgy of destruction. Replicated in music festivals, public holidays, Guy Fawkes’ Night … as a sublimation of the carnivalesque into popular culture(s) of destruction.

Paperhand Puppet Intervention
Creative Commons License photo credit: BellaBim

One response so far

  1. When photos can be faked, the best measure of veracity is through plurality – if an Event (with-a-capital-E) occurs, there will be multiple photos, from the camera phones of participants and observers (participant observation?).

    Best early technological example of this is CNN’s The Moment stitching together observer POVs into a single coniguous, explorable image.

    In the future everything will be famous for Photosynth.

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