Monday, December 05, 2005

Previous post went through a few additions/subtractions over the last few days; now stabilized. I'm pretty sick of the "avowal"/"denial" mode I've gotten myself into w/r/t that topic. If you ever have occasion to read Guenter Lewy's Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism, don't bother, unless you've forgotten what neo-con prose, too transparent to be rightly called ideological, reads like.


Peli commented on my rather compressed post on photography from a week or so back. I don't think I will be able to go on at the tedious length needed to clarify the argument here, but maybe I can say one or two things.

First, in the passage he quotes, specifically the phrase "twin cases [unintentionally achieved but otherwise qualitatively and causally identical photos," I might better have said "occurring" than "achieved." If that's any clearer, here are the terms of the debate I'm intruding into. Roger Scruton argues from the premise that photographs aren't representations to the conclusion that photography isn't a representational art form. (That article, for good or ill, sets the stage for a bunch of philosophical writing about photography -- along with Kendall Walton's essays on photographic "transparency.") I think that, for a suitable understanding of "representation," that premise can be made tenable. One way of arguing this is by pointing to the fact that, had the same photographic processes occurred w/o intentional intervention, the photograph would still be "of" the same thing, in a certain important respect. ("Causal" or "mechanical" if one needs a term for it; others use "genetic," and it's related, in a more art-historical ambit, to Rosalind Krauss' sorta-Piercean notion of "indexicality.") If one thinks that the "of" that signifies some paradigmatic representational relations ("painting/drawing of," "description of") is necessarily implicitly intentional, then photographs will not be representations in that sense. (Fine with me, and with Scruton, if there's some other use of "representation" on which photographs -- like thermometers and tree-rings -- count. The capacity of photographs to carry information isn't at issue.) But, even accepting the premise, Scruton's argument fails, I think I could convince you, because he equivocates badly on "representation" between premise and conclusion; we needn't go into the details here.

But -- the way that philosophers have argued that Scruton's conclusion about the artistic status of photography is actually false has generally involved taking on board one of his further assumptions: that the question of whether photography is a "representational art" (or an "expressive" one, for that matter) hangs on whether the photographer has a certain kind of control over the representational and/or expressive character of the photographs which s/he intentionally initiates. So, for example, it's argued that all sorts of "technical" decisions bear on these properties in something like the manner that painterly techniques do in the relevant medium. And this is supposed to show that photography "is an art" in a pretty well-worn sense. But, to the extent that these techniques are "properly photographic" (that is, ultimately dependent on the processes that make photography possible in the first place), what I suggest is that the "causal/mechanical" character of photography can be used to produce counterexamples (the twin cases mentioned in the orig. post) which have all the representational and expressive properties of the intentionally initiated photo, but not the intentional background. I think that just about the same back-and-forth applies to the selection and framing/composition of subject matter. So, the "art" status of photography is not saved, against the non-representationalist, by pointing to these sorts of decisions.

My thought is just that those on both sides of the debate confuse photographic processes and photographic practices. There are a variety of photographic practices, of course: the one relevant to art involves selecting and displaying the results of photographic processes as objects of aesthetic interest. (It would cover more cases to speak of broadly "artistic" interest; but the debate has tended to center on photographs that are of interest for something like traditionally aesthetic reasons.) The artist's "side" of this practice doesn't give the photographs their representational and expressive character, but draws attention to it. Obviously, there are many other art practices involving photography than the one described; in the argument at hand, to repeat myself, I'm mainly concerned with "art photography" as most conventionally conceived. All this has obvious links w/ the Institutional Theory of art; and possibly is prey to the objection that some conventional notions of authorship are disrupted. Which consequence, actually, doesn't much bother me. Also, with respect to techniques that combine photography with other forms of image manipulation (from plain old retouching to digital techniques), the original problematic doesn't really even get off the ground, so don't start screaming about some naturalist fallacy.

So: I actually do think something in the neighborhood of the claim that Peli assumes I couldn't possibly: that "the fact that the same photographic product can occur unintentionally as well as intentionally proves the insignifcance of authorship to the artifact." Or: something like this fact marks a significant distinction between photographic "representation" and some other paradigmatic forms of image-making. (To jump traditions: Note that if nothing like this is the case, some aspects of Benjamin's interest in photography go out the window as well.) And, per the above, mislocating certain kinds intentionality "in the image" leads to problems.

I hadn't thought about these issues in relation to the notion of an "implied author," as it's invoked in the debate over the intentional fallacy. I'd like to think about it more, but my first thought is that, where photography is concerned, the notion of an "implied perceiver" of what the photograph captures might be more relevant to capturing some of the usual modes of interpretation. But, as I say, that's off the top of my head. I think there are also some terminological differences between the way Peli's set things up and what I've said above. Sorry I can't treat these more carefully, but trust me, it would make the above look downright pithy.


Why art can't kill machanime.

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