Fotomuseum Winterhur’s candidly titled blog, Still Searching, does – as its title suggests – take a hopeful, open, perhaps at times perfunctory look around various theoretical and historical approaches to discussing photography and its related cultures and technologies.
A number of writers, academics, scholars and artists – since the website’s beginnings in January 2012 – have been asked to contribute a succession of written blog posts on a chosen topic. At the time I write this, the current list of contributors include: Bernd Stiegler, Aveek Sen, Walead Beshty, Hilde Van Gelder, Geoffrey Batchen, Kelley Wilder and Martin Jaeggi. In addition to this a number of other commenters were invited to respond to the central texts by one or more of the aforementioned authors. These individuals include David Campany, Charlotte Cotton and any other member of the wider photography community that wants to participate in the conversation through the open comments form.
The writing ranges in style from the concise to the discursive, and in doing so, covers plentiful ground. With this in mind, I will go over what I see to be two key theoretical positions, with the hope that I might draw out both some of the strengths, and the limitations, of what we could clearly refer to as an example of current writing on photography. In order to focus this text somewhat (at least before opening up again in its conclusion) I have selected two of, what are in my mind, the most interesting posts that have appeared on the Fotomuseum Winterhur blog – if not always in their form and approach, certainly in their content.
I will look at photographic realism in two different guises, one aesthetic and one political, by reading some of Bernd Stiegler and Walead Beshty’s contributions to the blog. I hope the reader, as I have done, will work through these texts before reading my analysis, which can be seen both as a reflection and an elaboration on some of the ideas therein. The essays focus on realism and the real as theories, but also on the reality of photography theory and education today. Although not by any means expansive, I hope that the two texts at least allude to some of the key concerns within photography theory and education one might consider relevant, if not important, today.
Imperfecting the real: Some preliminary thoughts on the use of axioms and imperfections
Bernd Stiegler begins his writing with an approach to photographic realism. His intention is to ‘Explore options beyond familiar theoretical trajectories, such as the indexical nature of photography or photography as social documentary’[i]. The notion of a theoretical option here is paramount to understanding the logic of his intentions: Stiegler successfully manages to highlight a series of nebulous “options” for a theory of photographic realism while avoiding directly citing much already-established thought on the subject. I will briefly focus on the author’s first blog post, which posits a notion of imperfection as an example of the real, in order to explain what I see as a series of theoretical problems.
In the opening paragraph of Imperfection, Stiegler states that imperfect photographs are the new ‘ideal of contemporary photography’ and that ‘imperfection serves as the contemporary modus of the real in photography’. The author’s statements are somewhat unclear. One reflection of this opacity is the metaphrasing of Jaques Ranciere’s concept (originally formulated by Plato) the “ethical regime of images”.[ii] This section of the text can be boiled down to a kind of skewered, unannounced reading of Ranciere where the author ambiguously phrases the original term, in casual gesticulation[iii]. Stiegler’s thoughts are philosophical, but lack the necessary unpacking.
The author states that ‘Imperfection transforms every object into a photographic reality, which emphasizes a different regime of images precisely by eschewing and renouncing the perfection of technology.’ There is no following definition of this regime of imperfect images – which unnecessarily expands formal imperfection to the level of some fundamental renouncement of technology’s strive for perfection – or of his notion of the perfection of technology (presumably a reference to Benjamin or indeed Heidegger, but this much is unclear). Furthermore, the text lacks a definite theoretical framework regarding realism, reality and the real – which are three quite distinguishable terms. What might their differences be?
What appears as blur, a scratch on a negative or over-saturated colour, may be the photographer ignoring technical conventions in order to make an image that is, to all intents and purposes, as natural and intuitive as possible. This way of making a photograph might see the photographer capturing the impressionistic, non-pictorial state of what he or she photographs – the way a body moves and blurs; the way light dances about the place – instead of an evenly framed, seamlessly composed image. Such technical imperfections are a type of formal embellishment: they serve to signify the difference between what is in front of the camera at the point of photographing, and how that is represented in the supervening photograph. The difference between the thing that is photographed and the resulting picture is the difference between reality and realism. Reality is what we think exists and realism is the, in this case photographic, representation of it.
The real is something altogether different. Lacan’s real resists signification altogether, while Stiegler’s real posits imperfection as the distinct signifier of a composed realism (the imperfect picture). Stiegler’s real fails because it enables a form of representation. In order to properly theorise the photographic real, Stiegler’s concept would need to avoid symbolising or signifying any single aesthetic, including the examples he gives of photographic imperfection (technical errors, deficient cameras and snapshots). The real is beyond the symbolic and is not composed of discrete signifiers.
Lyle Rexer’s book, The Edge of Vision (2009), charts a particular rise in abstract photography, many of whose visual signifiers can be compared to Stiegler’s imperfect pictures in as much as they incorporate similar visual traits, for both formal and conceptual reasons. However, as Rexer notes this is no new enterprise: one might follow an obfuscatory line between abstraction and imperfection from Fox Talbot to Penelope Umbrico and beyond. ‘Obfuscatory’ strikes me as an apt way to describe the gap between reality and photographic realism. But how can that gap be conceptualised?
In order to properly root the argument within a discussion of the difference between reality, realism and the real, it might be more useful to consider the recent re-appearance of imperfect images as an example of Roland Barthes’ reality-effect: a detail within a text that does little to develop its narrative. Like Stiegler’s attempt at a theory of photographic realism, reality-effects are a feature of literary realism, but with so many of Barthes’s concepts, the way text informs image is of paramount importance. As Barthes states: ‘For at the very moment when these details are supposed to denote reality directly, all that they do, tacitly, is signify it.’ (Barthes 1982: 16) Imperfect images provide an ‘index of atmosphere, and their function is to state ‘we are real’, and thus to signify the category of reality…’(Macey 2000: 325)
Imperfect details do this by embracing the logic of visual abstraction (blur, colour shifts, emphasis on texture) as actual components of a form of photographic reality. This form of photographic representation embraces imperfection and abstraction as an actually existing, almost quotidian component of both photographic reality and photographic realism. As Rexer states: ‘photography is simultaneously an investigation of reality and of the means of investigating that reality.’ (2009: 11)
This form of realism does not reproduce reality, but instead, its form – one of its many significations. As John Tagg asserts in his essay The Currency of the Photograph ‘realism is defined at the level of signification.’ (1982:111) Imperfect images exist within the space between reality and realism: imperfection and abstraction are axioms of photography; they are ways of visually signifying the complicated nature of this gap. Contrary to what Stiegler states, imperfect images are not an example of the real but rather, to return to Ranciere, and to conclude this line of thought, “the representative regime of art”.
Rather than reproducing reality, works within the representative regime obey a series of axioms that define the arts’ proper forms: the hierarchy of genres and subject matter, the principle of appropriateness that adapts forms of expression and action to the subjects represented and to the proper genre, the ideal of speech as act that privileges language over the visible imagery that supplements it. (2004: 91)
The author goes on to add to his developing theory of photographic realism by writing posts on reflection, order, practice, form and invisibility. The comments, especially following the post “Order,” are often more interesting than the original statements. One example includes David Campany’s highlighting of the problematic use of the term photobook in as much as it doesn’t accurately describe a form of photography, despite its widespread use as a term within the recent resurgence of interest in photographic books: ‘This is the teeming chaos that has led to the word ‘photobook’ to be taken up as a handy catch-all in this renaissance. It’s barely a category.’
A note here must be made about some of the particularities of tone and style adopted by blog writers, often and specifically within comments forms. The still often-casual nature of publishing theoretical writings in this accessible and free context allows certain authors a wonderful pliability in the pace and humour of their prose. Various contributions contain a soupçon of disagreeing humour, to intelligent effect.
Why collapse a discourse for the sake of education? Photography, use-value and capitalist realism
Walead Beshty ups the contextual ante with a series of posts not always about photography. However, his surveying of other pertinent subjects that should very much concern photography as a ubiquitous discourse is highly interesting. Although Beshty considers a wider set of problems relating to the notion of a medium, the role of the institution and art’s relationship to capital, I will try and propose some hopeful points of departure for making sense of photography’s specific role in what the author outlines here as the ‘collective understanding of a medium’ (Beshty 2012), institutional values and photography education.
In Beshty’s fourth post for the blog he begins by considering the constitution and naming of a medium. According to the author, a medium is inextricably tied to two things: its use and its position between ‘Some agents in a transaction.’ (Ibid) The author locates the inventing of a medium dialectically between applied use and technological development. In doing so, he reveals a contradiction in the way in which we name things and then go on to use them. He then defines the institution (museum, university, etc.) as the location par excellence for the creating and establishing of mediums: ‘It is the institutional act, that which makes the institution concrete, like air made solid.’ (Ibid)
This post – of little more than 1500 words – is adventurous to say the least. It gains proper traction as it concludes with three numbered points, all of which I will try to describe and respond to here. The text moves quickly, sweeping from point to point and heightening the sense that blog writing in this context can vacillate between theoretical precision and rampant esotericism, at the level of both style and structure.
1. There is no such thing as an art which is untainted by the market economy and that in no way means that art either supports or rejects the notion of a market transaction but is simply, by definition, based in market transaction. (Ibid)
In simple terms, Beshty asserts here that all art is made under the rubric of capital. Whether directly engaging with the market economy (through commercial sales) or refusing to take part in it, all art is made in response to the social conditions at the time of its creation. Under political dictatorships, art will be censored and created within the confines of state control – ‘State mechanisms are frequently able to restrict the photographer’s field of vision’ (Azoulay 2012:219) – and under capitalism, the monetisation of art practice is a long and convoluted one which represents an equally repressive set of conditions for making art to that of state control, one might argue.
It is possible to trace a history of twentieth century Western art that sees it firmly placed in market transactions (and photography, in this century, gathers pace in this regard). However, there is a potential second history; what we might call a history of ideas within photography that possesses more emancipatory potential through a particular set of educational strategies. This history might take a stance against Beshty’s capitalist realism: his assertion that ‘there is no place outside of economic transaction.’
Beshty approaches a vast but really very fascinating problem: art’s role as political emancipator through aesthetic education; a function for, in this case photography, to create a space that not only pushes up against the current restrictions of the educational institution, but also against the logic of labour and value in capitalism itself.
Tackling this huge question is to begin with a photography that possesses fundamentally civil attributes; it is to begin with a photograph that ‘is not a representation’ (Azoulay 2012:222) in order to free it from Barthes’ latent “this is X” description of objects, tied to a reality, represented in photographs. Photography would need to invent a system of political engagement that sits outside of commodification and photographic representation: a non-commodifiable, non-representational photography that embraces both aesthetics and politics.
Photography is an art of ideas: its relative closeness to reality, but failure to completely represent it, offers the medium a unique philosophical position which calls to mind François Laruelle’s “The philosopher as self-portrait of the photographer.”[iv] Although it is difficult to remain entirely persuaded by Laruelle’s intention to conceptualise photography as completely abstract (no eyes, no cameras, no techniques), his theory of photography – which seeks to read historical attempts at a theory of photographic realism as fundamentally flawed – leaves us with an interesting predicament: how to think a difference in society through an abstract form of photography, not just visually, but in terms of a political abstraction derived from the two Marxian terms exchange value and use value. This is what Azoulay might call photography’s “civil imagination” and what Laruelle might refer to as photography’s ‘insertion into a horizon of images, and from this its communicational value or its pragmatic dimension…’(Laruelle 2011:61).
From this gallimaufry of theoretical ingredients we might summarise the following things: Photography is an art of ideas; all photography is conceptual in as much as it is always both an image and a text[v]. Photographs are an abstraction of reality. ‘The logic of the abstraction is the reduction of four dimensions to a two-dimensional surface.’ (Beshty 2009:303) In light of these things, photography finds itself in a position of privilege in as much as it has the possibility to think a new reality using its already accepted ‘communicational values’, to paraphrase Laruelle. Photography is fictional and it can invent spaces and worlds, including one that might exist outside the restrictions of current institutional values (a value system which makes a commodity of education itself). In order to do this photography theory would need to develop its own principles of emancipation and institutional critique and to some extent it already has. The question is this: where do these emancipatory values currently lie, and what might one do to begin realising their value within the context of photography education?
How to sell a politically radical photograph for profit
2. This does not mean that art is incapable of progressive political change despite its dependence on the marketplace for there is no place “outside” of economic transaction. Yet, the radical proposition is art’s greater capacity for transparency (as transparency is a core artistic value). (Beshty 2012)
In 2009 Zer0 Books published Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Its central provocation is to argue that the very problem with society’s attitude to capitalism is that it lacks the ability to think outside it: that capitalism is the only possible political-economic system. The first chapter of this short book is titled It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism (which is a phrase borrowed from Fredric Jameson, as Fisher himself acknowledges). Within this phrase lies an important logic: the current atmosphere capitalist realism creates is so all-encompassing, very few people, aside a few radical theorists, want or have the ability to think outside of it. Capitalism is the natural state of play in this regard: the art world continues to rely on its ability to monetise politically left-leaning artworks, in order to ensure the maintenance of a system of commodification that benefits the growth of capital and therefore the art market itself.
Where emancipatory, anti-capitalist thinking does arise within the art world, it is done so in an ironic fashion that often reduces political critique to the exchange value of an object within a commercial gallery, or a public institution such as a museum. The artist is willing to exchange a political artwork for a living, therefore offering what might have been of some wider social benefit over to capital in return for cash. After all, what other system for earning a living is currently available to artists in the UK?
Capitalism had created a scenario – based on itself as the only possible reality – in which it rewards radical or emancipatory thinking with income that can then be used to live and produce more work to feed back into the same system. Ai Weiwei’s practice is the ultimate example of this: political dissidence turned to art world marketeering and profitability. Commercial galleries support the careers of an incredibly small number of artists in this way and public institutions, because of drastic cuts in public funding, are forced to exhibit artists that might draw corporate or private funding and therefore essentially engage the same system. Photography – in a state of perpetual crisis as to the state of its own identity – is actively band-wagoning the workings of the wider art world in this way. More and more photographers seek gallery representation and a place for their work in the holdings of major museums. The price of photography in both primary and secondary market contexts is rising, and major commercial galleries and art fairs embrace it like never before. Photographs are relatively cheap to produce, can be sold in editions and therefore create maximum profit.
What about the university? The university lies outside of the immediate art world but regularly engages and informs it. The art department within a university is a curious place: although students sometimes produce political work, they may also be obsessed with the relationship between some niche theory (perhaps Deleuzian) and its often-tangential relationship to the objects they produce. This might be combined with a conscious decision to produce an object that is adroit, attractive and potentially salable. Why is this the case?
These approaches form a discourse that speaks inwardly to the rest of the art world, as opposed to wider society. Within this meta-discourse the artist is pressured to think about the intellectual and formal cache of his or her work, and what it might be worth to the art world on the basis upon which it currently sells objects. The artist’s concern is the art world, not the ‘sphere of daily life’. (Ibid)
3. This proximity or “coming to terms with the exchange rate of objects” is in essence one of art’s most radical potentials. It contains the possibility to leverage the world of progressive philosophical, intellectual, and political thought into the sphere of daily life, and collapse the idea of “meta” discourse, or critique, to make all discourse continuous with the world it is meant to describe. It is the destruction of the fantasy of an outside. (Ibid)
Ariella Azoulay, who is currently pointing to an alternative to this inward way of thinking within photography theory, notes that photography’s own theoretical discourse fails to problematise the ‘identification of the representation with the essence of photography’. (2012: 223) This notion of representation attributes the essence of photography to that of inherent determinism (it is fully fixed by what has gone before it). Conversely, one discourse of photography, established largely by John Tagg in the 1980s as photography’s relationship to the discourses of power, is the location at which Azoulay makes the following assertion: ‘Viewing photography as a non-deterministic encounter between human beings not circumscribed by the photograph allows us to reinstitute photography as an open encounter in which others may participate’ (Ibid). This is where photography’s potential to create an emancipatory politics, beginning with a different form of education, might arise.
It seems clear that a photography of emancipatory value must start with the question of photography education – and what better time to consider this than now, when the entire notion of education in the UK is undergoing a serious onslaught of intimidation by the current government. The artworld and its exchange rate of objects is a place seemingly untouchable to radical politics, but university education has a duty to remain open to new forms of political discourse within the arts.
On what terms do we measure education?
Every couple of years for the last two decades, I confront the task of explaining to a new group of graduate students that, although the difference between use and exchange seems immediately available to intuition, use-value and exchange-value are in the same form: the value form. To put something in the value form means to abstract it, so that it can be measured. (Spivak 2012:191)
This brings us back to Beshty’s use of the term “exchange rate”. As mentioned previously, the collapse of a fixed exchange rate system in the 1980s led to a more ‘volatile currency exchange system,’ (Harvey 2011:24) which in turn led to the emergence of hedging and its contribution to the financial crash of 2007-8. The problem with Beshty using this term within the context of art objects and their discourse (a discourse I take to be one of education), is that it alludes to the, as he puts it, ‘daily life,’ not of educational accessibility, but of exchange value in capital: the daily life or normative value of capitalism itself.
On this basis, we might consider the following two scenarios:
- A student pays a great amount for education and it is offered at a fixed exchange rate – let’s say £27,000 for an undergraduate degree. The emphasis by the university is on what the student will receive through a process of exchanging money for education (a lecturer’s labour): what she will get for her money; what her education is worth as a commodity. In this sense the student is forced to play the role of the capitalist and ‘capital consumes by measure’ (Ibid) so her education must be measured in terms of what it is worth. In this case education is made, ‘not to be consumed, but to be sold on the market’ (Callinicos 2010:137). Clearly this is the wrong way to consider education. Education, like air and water, must be consumed so an individual can learn. ‘Exchange values reflect what commodities have in common, rather than their specific qualities.’ (Ibid:138) Education, exchanged as a commodity on a university market, reflects what it is worth, not what value it possesses.
By this insight, use-value, generally a fiction, is not a fiction for capital. Capital consumes by measure. This is labor-power, not labor. It is the use of the use-value of labor, not the use of labor…
And then comes the other lesson, better known but commonly left unconnected with the first one: that the capitalist pays back less value (in the money-form) than s/he borrowed (in the labor-power form). This is because when labor-power is used, it produces more value than its concrete pre-measurable personal base requires to reproduce itself potentially as measurable into use-value for capital: labor-power. (Spivak 2012:191)
Money for old rope: politics in photography education
It is simply not sufficient to rely on this somewhat classic Marxian position on labour and value (the cornerstone of his work Capital), for there are one thousand other subtleties, nuances and variations that contradict and displace the simplicity of combining Marxian analysis with photography (and cultural) theory. Spivak acknowledges this herself in An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. However, at the risk of forming yet another meta-discourse by elaborating so much on two simple distinctions between an education system that values profit and a system that values knowledge (because this is essentially all we need to bear in mind), I will try to keep things as uncomplicated as possible here.
We might divide the system of photography education as we see it presently, into two concerns, which are taught in university classrooms: practice and theory. Practice is taught by locating current photography within a trajectory of historical practice, with attention to changing visual forms and the way in which photographs are made (technical processes) and made to look (visual tropes) today. Most students are awarded a degree on their ability to understand and mimic an already existing form of photographic practice. Very few produce original work and less still produce work that is politicised or socially concerned. There are of course a few exceptions.
Cultural theory is taught via its relationship to photography theory (and the way in which key thinkers within photography theory have taken it up). It is clear that, although interested in photography theory and its cultural implications, most photographers coming out of universities are not politically engaged, nor are they taught politics other than in the way it relates to the same, long-established historical and critical studies reading lists. My simple question is this: what if economic and political theories were taught to photographers? What if the model became, instead of “practice and theory” the more expansive “practice and politics”?
The changing nature of the way universities are funded – less pubic money and more emphasis on private investment and profiteering – endangers the future of theory, including the way in which it might activate a student politically. Current changes in political tactics in the UK – what we might call the development of neo-liberalism – directly effects our university education system, right down to the level of what the students want in exchange for the fees they pay. Capital, in this way, effects the attitude students have to education. It is my view that now more than ever, students must be taught the value of education per se, alongside the usual content of a photography degree programme. The value of education is a fundamentally political issue and therefore politics should be actively taught to students in the arts.
In Victor Burgin’s introduction to Thinking Photography (1982), the author communicates his position on photography theory by offering two distinctions between vocational training and a second form of training in which the student is asked to ‘consider photography in its totality as a general cultural phenomenon, and to develop his or her ideas as to what direction to pursue.’(1982:3) The conversion of former polytechnics into universities in the UK changed the face of photography education in this country, and in quite a clear sense has led to the disappearance of the old models of vocational training for photographers.
Recent government initiatives have turned once again to the idea of vocation. Within the arts we see a more rigorous and constant focus on a student’s professional practice, so that the student can have the “best chance” of being employed after university. Of course we know this doesn’t function the way it should within the context of photography, because there are very few jobs available in the field after completing a degree relative to the amount of students graduating, but nontheless the rhetoric continues. Perhaps, for today’s photography education, the word cultural should be replaced with the word political in Burgin’s above lines. This might collapse the meta-discourse of theory and return thinking to the ‘sphere of the everyday’: that of politics. To cite Burgin once again and to conclude: ‘We cannot go around these debates, we must go through them.’ (1982:9)
Azoulay, A. (2012), Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography, London: Verso.
Barthes, R. (1982), The Reality Effect in French Literary Theory: A Reader, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Beshty, W. (2012), Aesthetics and Distribution Case (1): Preliminary Notes on Art’s Ability to Radicalize Academia, http://blog.fotomuseum.ch/2012/05/4-aesthetics-and-distribution-case-1-preliminary-notes-on-arts-ability-to-radicalize-academia/
Beshty, W. (2009), Abstracting Photography in Words Without Pictures, New York: Aperture.
Campany, D. (2012), in the comments feed at: http://blog.fotomuseum.ch/2012/01/3-order/
Laruelle, F. (2011), The Concept of Non-Photography, London, New York: Urbanomic/Sequence Press.
Macey, David. (2000), Dictionary of Critical Theory, London: Penguin Books.
Ranciere, J. (2004), The Politics of Aesthetics, London: Continuum.
Rexer, L. (2009), The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography, New York: Aperture.
Spivak, GC. (2012), An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Stiegler, B. (2012), Imperfection, http://blog.fotomuseum.ch/2012/01/1-imperfection/
[i] Unless otherwise stated, I cite Stiegler from the blog post Imperfection.
[ii] This term can be found outlined in the much-cited text The Politics of Aesthetics (2004).
[iii] Metaphrasing is the theoretical term equivalent of name-dropping: an author, instead of paraphrasing – which is to properly restate the meaning of a text in other words – will metaphrase a theoretical term by making a passing, unexplained reference to it in such a way that sees the original term’s formal equivalent being used without any of the original meaning.
[iv] This is the title of the opening chapter of Laruelle’s The Concept of Non-Photography, Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2011.
[v] Victor Burgin asserts this clearly, using the analogy of indistinct, but nonetheless audible, blood flow in the opening paragraph of Seeing Sense in The End of Art Theory (1980).
Top image: Walead Beshty, Three Color Curl (CMY/Four Magnet: Irvine, California, January 1st 2010), © the artist.