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WJT Mitchell, Picture Theory

Mitchell argues that we are experiencing a “pictoral turn” which is actually a return to pictures as an interplay between people, institutions, and looking. It is the realization that spectatorship is as important as reading, and that images are not subservient to text. He believes that the best way to combat growing surveillance and propaganda images is with critique, and so his book is an attempt to explore the specifics of that critique: the nuances of pictures and how they relate to words, power, and surveillance. There are no “pure” arts, and pictures and words, while there are important distinctions between them, words and images are almost never totally separate. The only issue is that we still don’t know what pictures are, and how they affect the world. His initial definition of the picture is a concrete object that contains images, but as he admits throughout the book, the category can be much more complex.

Most of the middle of this book is taken up by defending the ability of images to function as importantly as text has usually been thought to. Pictures can create their own theory, as in pictures that show images being created like Las Meninas. If pictures can theorize their own nature, they can also help us to undiscipline ourselves and stop separating words and images. The importance of images as theory (as opposed to visual language that posits the truth as imageless) can be seen in the work of William Blake, as well as in photo essays that separate word and image and in doing so make sure that one is not seen as subservient to the other.

In this chapter on essays, he troubles “the aestheticizing response to what after all is a real person in desperately impoverished conditions”, in reference to Evans’ photos of people in the Great Depression. This strikes the same note as Sontag’s thoughts on war photography. However, Mitchell thinks this problem can be subverted by the way image and text are separated in Evans’ essay, preventing the reader/viewer from completely internalizing the subject and is in fact an ethical stance that gives its subjects privacy. Another essay he looks at in this section is Camera Lucida, which he argues is a rare example of an essay on photography that is also a photo essay. This is because Barthes’ images are not illustrating the text, but are given co-equality, sometimes not receive textual commentary, and even when they do not being reduced to examples for the text. Barthes is not mastering the photos, and he can’t take them; he’s an observer.

The last part of this book brings together Mitchell’s theory of images with his perspective on modern power dynamics. He expresses image power through two terms: illusionism, which is the power of suggestion or deception towards a subject, i.e. the spectacle (an ad), and realism, which is the power of surveillance directed at an object or a subject made “objective”, and which relies on an interchangeable “normative” subject, i.e. capacity (bureaucracy).Spectacle is an ideological form of realism, and realism is spectacle’s bureaucratic and disciplinary manifestation. The telescreen of 1984, and by extension the television, brings together illusionism and realism, offering propaganda and convincing arguments while also acting as a tool of surveillance. As he says in his first chapter, “[technologies] are altering the conditions under which human vision articulates itself” (24). This eliminates the boundary between the public and private sphere and decreases the resonance of usual oppositions (mass market vs avant garde, art vs camp, etc.), foreclosing possibilities for resistance. There is also a new “transparency” to images, as seen in the Rodney King beating and footage, which is made of “accidental” or non-professional images, as opposed to the smooth scheduling of other television, which is not opposed to transparency but helps enable it. He argues that this is a sign that we are moving from interpreting visual images to changing them, establishing a similar shift to that Denson identifies from cinema to post-cinema. This new visual culture has the potential to be used in service of “soft” fascism, but it might also be used for more critical images of the public sphere (369).

One main way he sees modern art creating this critical space is through destructible art, which is made to be destroyed or to be unmarketable. Although a lot of art resists this, and even more fails at it, there is the potential for self-destroying art to bring back the lost oppositions and re-organize the public vs. private issue. As he reminds us, the public is built on its exclusions, even when it is aesthetically inclusive (i.e. the statue of liberty in a country that disenfranchises women). Public art, while it has been said to be intrinsically violent, is based in either doing or representing violence; often it obscures the violence it is doing by appearing passive or static, while television foregrounds and exaggerates it. In addition, public art aspires to cinema; it wants to be photographed. This leads into a discussion of the contrasting visuals of the Vietnam War and Operation Gulf Storm, which were on the one hand focused on the human body and on the other focused on computerized images.

Mitchell describes his stance in the conclusion as a “de-disciplinary effort”: if literary studies wants to deal with media and mass culture, it can’t simply add it on to the existing framework. Instead, we have to find a new way of looking at images. He ends with the statement, “though we probably cannot change the world, we can continue to describe it critically and interpret it accurately. In a time of global misrepresentation, disinformation, and systemic mendacity, this may be the moral equivalent of intervention” (425). This is a pretty good summary of his stance towards contemporary media. Like Sontag, he is concerned about the potential for new media to disseminate misinformation and propaganda, and (to a limited extent) commercialization. However, he is much more interested in the importance of critique: if we can critique images, we can learn from them. He does not believe that we gain power over pictures by understanding what they are doing, but does believe in the investment in a “negative critical space” that reveals how little we still know about pictures and how they are ultimately, for most people, uncontrollable– which is why determining how they are used as an expression of power is vital.

Barthes, Camera Lucida

I finished reading Camera Lucida this morning later than I meant to, because I got distracted by reading this article in Esquire by Jeff Sharlet titled “All That We’ve Lost”. Sharlet has spent this year tweeting about people who have died from COVID-19, mini-obituaries. One of them struck me in particular; a daughter speaking about her mom, who died of coronavirus last year. “It’s kind of stupid how much I look like my mother”, she says.

If you have read Barthes before, you know about the punctum essay– what I didn’t know about it is that it was only part of what is not a collection of essays, but one essay divided into two parts. Camera Lucida is Barthes’ musing on what a photograph is, and indeed whether photography exists. There is an inherent tension in trying to decode a photograph, as he explains. If photography is unclassifiable, finding out what it is is a hopeless project.

The first half of this essay outlines Barthes’ theoretical exploration of what a photograph is, and why photographs compel. Like Sontag, he determines that what makes a photograph interesting is not its formal composition or skill– an amateur photographer can take an arresting photo. While Sontag is more interested in the role of the photographer as one capturing random chance (you are lucky enough to see the random event that’s meaningful), Barthes determines that photos are interesting when they contain two elements that are at odds with one another.

Sometimes, these elements are the studium and the puntum. The studium is the historical or social context of the photo and the questions you ask about it– where and when it was taken, what the place was like, etc– the social-cultural field that is waiting to be pierced. The punctum is the point of interest that comes out of the photograph to arrest you, eclipsing all social knowledge and indeed all context. The photo of the nuns crossing the street behind construction workers is arresting because it is 1) taken by chance, and 2) the nuns provide a punctum that strikes the viewer. If the photograph kills its subject, turning them into an object, then the punctum brings it back to life.

Barthes ends this section by musing that although he has discovered more about his own desire, he has no better idea than when he started about what a photograph is. The second half of Camera Lucida represents his attempts to learn more about photography through his own personal experience as a spectator– by looking at photos of his mother.

This essay, and this part of the essay, is famous because it does what it describes. If the punctum makes you think about scenes in your life that are similar to what’s in the photograph, this essay makes you think about parts of your life that are similar to it. Of course this section made me think of my mom. On the one hand– photos of her, of which there are not that many. Barthes describes an alienation on looking at his mother as a child, except in one photograph where she stands in a winter garden for a posed photograph. There are a few black-and-white photos of my mom as a kid, mostly school photos, and one or two color ones of her running around with her best friend DeeDee with her hair in braids. There is one I can remember the existence but not the composition of, where she is a counselor at what she describes as “diabetic camp”, where she went for several summers. The punctum there I guess is the situation, which is something I’d think was made up if I hadn’t heard it from her. These photos don’t alienate me, like Barthes– they make me sad, because they make me think I would have liked to be friends with my mom when she was a kid.

Of course, the other thing this section of the essay makes me think about is this past year. My mom just got her second vaccine shot. Up until a few weeks ago, every day I woke up and worried about her. I worried about my dad too, of course, because he’s in his fifties, but my mom is multiply immunocompromised and lives in a rural area where things like food delivery that lessen contact with other people are unaffordable and therefore impossible. Having her get the vaccine is a huge weight lifted, although not completely, because vaccinated people can still get sick less severely and that would still be very serious for her. For that reason her life is still restricted, and will be for who knows how long. I don’t know what I’ll do next time I go to visit her; I might isolate again, even though we’re both vaccinated. We are in this unbearable time at the moment where we don’t know how effective vaccines are at reducing transmission, and until we do, I’ll be nervous about going home.

My mom isn’t an angry person, but in the past few months she has gotten angry. At the beginning of the year it was about the inequity of the rollout and how neither she nor her friend, another disabled person, would be eligible until June. Then, it was about how the revised guidelines left out both of her conditions, despite both of them raising her risk exponentially. (She was lucky enough to qualify, eventually, but this is still an enormous inequity.) More recently, it’s about her neighbors who refuse to get vaccinated and yet keep coming over to say hello, and expect to be met with friendly conversation. I get angry at them on the phone, and normally she would defend them to me, but now she just agrees. Since last year, she has been angry on behalf of most of the country and at some points the world, which is an exhausting process. I only have the energy to be angry on behalf of her.

The emotional experience of reading Barthes right now, alongside those twitter obituaries, is chiefly one of sorrow. Thinking about how many people have experienced just this one kind of loss is crushing; even how many people I know who have, my students especially, but also friends.The experience of loss that is present in Barthes’ transmitting how he feels has always been there and has clearly always been affecting. But right now there is also the sense that his loss, like our collective loss, is in media res, as in “I shudder… over a catastrophe which has already occurred… every photograph is this catastrophe” (117). Or when he exclaims that in front of the winter garden photograph “I am a bad dreamer who vainly holds out his arms toward the possession of the image; I am Golaud exclaiming ‘Misery of my life!'” (122). As with Sontag’s critique of capitalism, he sees too many images, but they form a labyrinth at the center of which is the winter garden photograph, the only one that can possibly, through its connection to him, reveal the essence of photography.

And yet, Camera Lucida never settles on one definition of what a photograph is. It can be made into art, in an attempt to tame it, because “no art is mad”; it can separate perception from attention, in order to encourage us to glance at something in particular. It is the “that has been” (noeme), a representation of what was (even when it still is), which is why photography, if it is not boring, is always melancholy. The two forms of photography in modernity are the real and the fake, or the unadulterated vs the staged or generalized. The first has the punctum, and the second has destroyed it. Barthes believes this destruction is inevitable in contemporary American society: images are lively, and yet they are unaffecting because they have been tamed by either other interests or norms. Pictures taken by indifferent mediators, existing by chance, are the last refuge of the photograph.

Susan Sontag, On Photography

Sontag’s essays on photography revolve around the question of what photography is, and what it does. While photographs seems like reality, they are actually more like paintings: they don’t reflect reality, they reflect the “real”, or the interpretation of reality that their photographer has shaped and captured. Unlike other forms of art, photos are only enhanced by the passage of time; their effects (like bloom, shadow, etc.) are less important to their overall effect than distance and time, which are what make a photo truly “surreal”. However, surrealist photos that rely on their content for effect are not actually surreal; or rather, every photograph is surreal, because every photo is creating an artificial world.

Photography as a way of making the world more available to us, going along with making others’ suffering and lives in general more available, feeds into the function of photos as consumable objects. Photos can be aesthetic or they can be informative; either one can be used to serve capitalism by making peoples’ image consumption make them believe 1) that images and reality are the same, and 2) that their choice between images is actually freedom. While Sontag does not think photography is art, she does think that it makes what it photographs into art, which is its unique quality. However, even as a legitimate aesthetic technology, it carries with it the problem that photos subvert reality, a process she thinks is getting worse over time. If we consume too many images, the implication is, we will no longer be able to distinguish reality from images, and will live entirely in the image-world.

I found her essay titled “Melancholy Objects” most interesting. Building on her discussion of Surrealism, which relies on assemblages of objects that produce meaning (or alternately, dispassionate photography that gives everything equal meaning), she argues that photography in America makes everything into a relic. Giving examples including the photographing of native tribes’ dances which were staged for the camera, she notes that the act of photographing something is often artificial. She argues that inventories of America are suffused with loss, because they are anti-scientific efforts to take specimens that stand in for the whole, but in taking specimens they (their authenticity, and therefore their power) is destroyed. In turning the past into a “consumable object” (68), it’s made into a fantasy. The Surrealist taste for fragmentation makes photographers into collectors interested in the past, photographing what will be (and already is) gone and can’t be preserved. I am very interested in her idea of an inventory of objects as making up a collection of loss, which I see as connected to the “too-muchness” of Burton’s writings on melancholy and to a certain extent other approaches to writing about melancholy like Avicenna. The sourcing of multiple different explanations that contradict, cross over or bleed into each other gives the illusion of a reality, while in Burton’s case it just makes the reader go through a reenactment of melancholy, and in Avicenna’s it does… something else.

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