Saturday, May 28, 2011

Susan Sontag – On Photography – "America, Seen through Photographs Darkly" – summary (on Diane Arbus)

In the essay "America, Seen through Photographs Darkly" in her "On Photography" Susan Sontag inspects visions of America through the eyes of photographers and especially Diane Arbus.

She starts off with the vision of Walt Whitman who rejected the distinction between beautiful and ugly for a cause of seeing America united in perception. In the first decades of photography photographs were expected to idealize images, and a beautiful picture was thought to be a picture of something beautiful. But as photography developed more and more artistic interest was directed to the less-glorified, banal and casual aspects of American life, the realization Whitman's vision.

Sontag holds that to take a picture is to assign importance. But this importance varies in culture and history, from the pursuit of "worthy" subjects to the Andy Warhol stance of "anybody is somebody". For Sontag Alfred Stieglitz was such an affirmator of life with his wish the redeem the banal and the vulgar as a means of expression. Stieglitz wished to transcend differences between human being and show humanity in the totality of its beauty.

The work of Diane Arbus, for Sontag, was far different from what Whitman envisioned and Stieglitz attempted to realize. Her treatment of the marginal spheres of society does not invite people the identify with the "freaks" she displays, and in that humanity is no longer "one". While the Whitman heritage strove for a universalization of the human condition, Arbus fractured this unity into isolated fragments of anxiety.
For Sontag, Arbus looked for the other world which is, obviously, situated though often invisible inside this world. Arbus photographed the "miserable consciousness" of marginal people who submitted themselves willingly to her camera. She offered, Sontag holds, the enjoyment of high-art's overcoming disgust. This is for Sontag a trend of high art in capitalist counties, the suppression of over-selectiveness in matters of morals and aesthetics. The thrill of observing Arbus's work is the success of observing them without impedance. It's about not avoiding what is considered low. As Sontag puts it, Arbus's interest in the weird and marginal was a will to "rape" her own innocence by bringing in the marginal into the center of the frame. For Sontag, Arbus's work is a reaction against manners and bourgeois good taste, and it is a rebellion against boredom.

Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph

Chapter one - In Plato's Cave
chapter two - America, Seen Through Photographs Darkly
chapter four - The Heroism of Vision
chapter five - Photographic evangels

Books by Susan Sontag and about photography you should definitely read


Friday, May 27, 2011

Susan Sontag: On Photography: In Plato's cave – summary

On Photography

Humanity, argues Susan Sontag in "In Plato's Cave" in her collection of essays "On Photography", is still in Plato's cave. Photography changes are conditions of imprisonment and create a kind of "ethics of vision" and the feeling that we can contain the whole world in our heads.

Collecting photographs, Sontag Argues, is in a sense collecting to world. Photographs are artifacts which create and condense the environment that we perceive to be modern. She argues that photographing something is gaining ownership of it and creating a kind of, knowledge-like, relation to the world. Photography creates a miniature representation of parts (always just parts) of the visible world that anyone can obtain as his own. Photographs are a kind of proof, a testimony, and for this reason they are so important for bureaucracy and are an instrument of control with the capacity to convict and equate.

But Photography for Sontag is always an interpretation of the world and this interpretation, be it on the side of the photographer or the person viewing the photograph, is always ruled by conventions, ideology and the zeitgeist. Photographers always, inevitably, impose their own preferences on their product merely by choosing where they point their camera and how they point it.  

Sontag says the man has developed dependence on photography for the sake of the mere ability to experience something that has meaning. By converting the experience into an image photography gives shape, and time, to the transient experience. In other words, we need the camera in order to realize and substantiate our experiences.

A photograph is an event which lingers to, in principle, eternity. It is a way of participating in an event without being a part of it. Sontag sees the camera and a kind of sublimated weapon, and the act of photographing as symbolic shooting, or even raping. Sontag compare photography with rape because in photography we see people in a manner unavailable to themselves and we gain knowledge of them which can never be theirs, and thus photography reifies people into objects which can be subjected to symbolic ownership.

Photography for Sontag is also a form of nostalgia, an attempt to connect with a passing reality and to gain custody of it. Photography grant meaning to the moment, and as Sontag argues, a photographed moment is a privileged moment which was chosen for cultural reasons. Photography turns a moment into an event, because an event is something that is worth photographing, but it ideology which decides what's worth the film.
But though photography capture a moment and gives it meaning, its power is not constant. Repetition of images, be it horror or pornography, takes the edge off their affective capacities and the event becomes less real.

In concluding "In Plato's Cave" Sontag notes how photography separates history into unrelated fractures, a collection of anecdotes. But we are now all addicted to approving and ratifying reality through photography.  Today, everything exists in order to be photographed (see also Guy Debord's "Society of the Spectacle")

On Photography:
Chapter one - In Plato's Cave
chapter two - America, Seen Through Photographs Darkly
chapter four - The Heroism of Vision
chapter five - Photographic evangels

Books by Susan Sontag and about photography you should definitely read


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Arjun Appadurai – Disjunction and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy – short summary

In his famous article "Disjunction and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy" Arjun Appadurai defines the central problem of modern day globalization as the tension between homogenization and heterogenization. The argument regarding homogenization caused by globalization often relates to claims about commodification or Americanization, and often the two are linked together. However in  "Disjunction and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy" Arjun Appadurai claims that what such theories do not take into account is that various cultural element which under globalization reach new societies are often indigenized to the local culture. Furthermore, Appadurai argues that fear of cultural invasion is not limited only to Americanization but rather to every situation in which elements from one culture penetrate another.
Appadurai claims that the complexity of the global market is tied with the disjunction of economy, culture and politics. He offers the theorization of these with the aid of five conceptual dimensions, "scapes", of the global culture: ethnoscape, mediascape, technoscape, finanscape and ideoscape. The use of the suffix "scape" is meant to illustrate that these are cultural vistas which depend on the position of a given spectator, and that they are constantly changing.
Appadurai claims that these scapes are the building blocks of what Anderson called "imagined communities" for they are the historical manner in which people perceive their reality. Appadurai also ads that many people now live in "imagined worlds" and not only "imagined communities".
In the term "ethnoscape" Appadurai refers to the growing movement of peoples into one another due to immigration which changes the global dynamics. In "technoscape" Appadurai addresses the growing spread of technology. Mediascapes are narrative or visual representations of parts of reality which shape the perception of the other, fantasies, ambitions etc. ideoscape relates to the ideological dimension of states and other agencies. Notions like "freedom" or "democracy" need to be translated when crossing the borders of other cultures. Iedoscapes are dependant on conventions and the paradigmatic framework of cultures in order to be given their meaning in every culture. Thus democracy in interpreted differently under the ruling ideoscape.
Appadurai claims that the global movement of these various scapes is happening under a growing disjunction between them. The movement of people, technology, funds, media and ideas exists in varying and colliding forms. One of the characteristics of this phenomenon according to Appadurai is the state of deterritorialization with cultural groups living apart from their territory (such as immigrant groups), changing the scapes which adapt themselves to the new situation and creating the tension between openness to global processes and the will to retain a cultural identity.   

A very interesting and related discussion can be found in Empire by Hardt and Negri 

More global fun:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Guy Debord / Society of the Spectacle – summary: "Unity and Division within Appearance"

vSociety of the Spectacle -chapter 1 - chapter 2 - chapter 3

In chapter three of "Society of the Spectacle" Guy Debord suggests the dialectical, seemingly paradoxical, nature of the spectacle. He asserts that " The spectacle, like modern society, is at once unified and divided" (54). This is a bit tricky to grasp but the idea here is that contradictions in society, which are present in the spectacle, are themselves being contradicted by it, a reversal of meaning, so that out of division comes unity.

Here the society of the spectacle functions in a manner similar to Gramsci's notion of hegemony. It can contain contradiction, for example, by offering "false models of revolution to… revolutionaries" (57). By assigning each with his place in the spectacle "The division of spectacular tasks preserves the entirety of the existing order and especially the dominant pole of its development" (58). The spectacle also has a capacity of banalizing things with everything being diverse but actually the same, producing what Debord calls "pseudo-enjoyment". Even rebellion is conducted within the terrain of the spectacle and thus is in fact a part of it, a part of what it allows and another example of how contradiction merges into unity within the spectacle. This, for Debord, "reflects the simple fact that dissatisfaction itself became a commodity as soon as economic abundance could extend production to the processing of such raw materials" (59).  The spectacle also serves imperialism by invading the social surface of underdeveloped countries even before economic dominance is gained.

 Debord looks to the cultural phenomenon of "the celebrity", which he understands as " the spectacular representation of a living human being" (60). The celebrity is a form of production, a shallow spectacle of a role and life style. As agents of the spectacle they appear on stage as the opposite of the individual, the opposition ("enemy") of the individual in themselves as well as in others. " Passing into the spectacle as a model for identification, the agent renounces all autonomous qualities in order to identify himself with the general law of obedience to the course of things" (61). The diversity of celebrity characters is in truth a unity of their adherence to presuppositions of their culture about a successful way of living. This is of course the opposite of the notion of the celebrity is one which fulfils himself to the highest degree. " The admirable people in whom the system personifies itself are well known for not being what they are; they became great men by stooping below the reality of the smallest individual life, and everyone knows it" (ibid).

When treating the value and function of commodities in the society of the spectacle Debord hold true to the notion about the deterioration from being into having (commodities) and form having into merely appearing, thus "The satisfaction which no longer comes from the use of abundant commodities is now sought in the recognition of their value as commodities: the use of commodities becomes sufficient unto itself" (67). Commodities no longer have any intrinsic value, not use value in any material functional sense, but rather only "spectacular" value, which might me found in what is now widely know and criticized as a "brand".  Bebord further claims that "The pseudo-need imposed by modern consumption clearly cannot be opposed by any genuine need or desire which is not itself shaped by society and its history" (68) and the result is for him the "falsification of social life" (ibid).

Debord describes this process of falsification in the society of the spectacle by showing how a new product (think of the iPhone or iPad) hold promise of being the ultimate thing for you, but by the time you realize it is not, there is something new to hand on to. This "fraud of satisfaction"(70) is easily recognizable with the change in products ("That which asserted its definitive excellence with perfect impudence nevertheless changes") and therefore "Every new lie of advertising is also an avowal of the previous lie" (70). The rapid replacement of consumer products reveals to illusionary nature of the society of the spectacle. The paradox of the spectacle for Guy Debord is the contradiction between natural condition of constant change and its inclination of appearing as essential   

The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord | Summary & Study Guide

Society of the Spectacle -chapter 1 - chapter 2 - chapter 3

More by Debord:


Guy Debord / Society of the Spectacle – summary: Chapter two: "commodity as spectacle"

Society of the Spectacle -chapter 1 - chapter 2 - chapter 3
Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (Third Edition) (Radical Thinkers)
According to Guy Debord in "Society of the Spectacle", the notion of commodity, in its Marxist sense, has transcended in advanced capitalism to the form of the spectacle. "The world of the commodity is thus shown for what it is, because its movement is identical to the estrangement of men among themselves and in relation to their global product" (37). Commodity is essentially tied with the quantitative, which negates any unique intrinsic value and equals everything in our life through the medium of currency.  

Debord describes an historical Marxist development of commodity by which societies free themselves from the task of surviving only to be enslaved to what granted them this freedom ("Economic growth frees societies from the natural pressure which required their direct struggle for survival, but at that point it is from their liberator that they are not liberated" (40)).

"The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life" (42) commodities for Debord are superimposed like geological layers, with the spectacle on top. If the first industrial revolution subjected humans to physical commodities and alientated them from the product of their own labor, the subsequent development of capitalism as alienated them from a more advanced product of again their own labor, the representation of their lives. At first capitalism cared only about the worker's work and not his leisure time, but with abundance obtained, it now seeks his cooperation not as a mere producer, but as a consumer as well, and here is where the spectacle comes into play. The economy can never once and for all defeat privation, it can only move further away from it by paradoxically nurturing it. The new privation is no longer (materially) related to survival, but to something more elevated, something of a "false privation" (like "false consciousness), and in Debord's phrasing: " The real consumer becomes a consumer of illusions. The commodity is this factually real illusion, and the spectacle is its general manifestation" (47).

" The spectacle is the other side of money: it is the general abstract equivalent of all commodities" (49). The spectacle is for Debord "a pseudo-use of life" in being, like money, the abstract representation of value which created equivalence between things that are not comparable. " At the moment of economic abundance, the concentrated result of social labor becomes visible and subjugates all reality to appearance, which is now its product" (50). When providing for a society is being replaced by the need to provide for the economy's growth " the satisfaction of primary human needs is replaced by an uninterrupted fabrication of pseudo-needs" (51). In other words, the society of the spectacle is for Debord a society which no longer needs a developing economy for its survival, but rather one which has to provide for the survival of the ever developing economy.

Society of the Spectacle -chapter 1 - chapter 2 - chapter 3

More by Debord:


Guy Debord/ Society of the Spectacle - summary: chapter 1:" Seperation Perfected"

Society of the Spectacle -chapter 1 - chapter 2 - chapter 3

Chapter one of Guy Debord's "Society of the Spectacle" deals with the changing relation between direct experience and mediated representation in modern times, and it opens with the assertion that"Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation" (thesis 1). Debord has a very negative and critical stance towards these developments which for him serve for the individualization and separation of human beings and the reinforcement of exploitative class society under advanced capitalism.

For Debord the spectacle is not a collection of images, "but a social relation among people, mediated by images" (4) and he assigns the spectacle with reifying capacities, justifying society as it is. However, for Debord there is no separation between material "real life" and the false represented one, the spectacle. They are intertwined to such a degree that "the true is a moment of the false" (9), by displaying life, the spectacle negates them by reducing them to mere appearance. The spectacle's capacity for domination is its self-containment and "The basically tautological character of the spectacle flows from the simple fact that its means are simultaneously its ends."(13). The spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.

One of the key and most famous notions in Debord's "Society of the Spectacle" is "the obvious degradation of being into having… and from having into appearing" (17). And as articulated is the second chapter of "Society of the Spectacle", late capitalism has turned appearance into a commodity, which is the root of all evil in Debord Marxist eyes.

The spectacle has power because It demands obedience, seeing things they way they are represented, but its one-sidedness rules out any possibility of a dialogue.The spectacle, according to Debord, has also a neo-religious aspect to it in being "the technical realization of the exile of human powers into a beyond"(20), meaning that we assign the meaning of our existence to something which is beyond our immediate life which are enslaved to their representation (just think about your Facebook profile).

The spectacle is a vehicle for separation and the creation of the "lonely crowd" and it originates from the loss of unity in the world. It is an exploitative mechanism for in the spectacle, one part of the world represents itself to the world and is superior to it (29). Debord also has a Foucauldian panopticon notion of "What binds the spectators together is no more than an irreversible relation at the very center which maintains their isolation. The spectacle reunites the separate, but reunites it as separate" (29) With people trying to understand themselves through a representation, they in fact lose all hope of coherently and unitarily live their own life. "(the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires"(30)) "This is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere" (ibid). with representation ruling over "the society of the spectacle", the unified direct human relations are replaced with the fragmented adherence to the spectacle which isolates us.

Society of the Spectacle -chapter 1 - chapter 2 - chapter 3

More by Debord:

Saturday, May 21, 2011

John Berger – "Ways of Seeing" – Summary (3): nakedness and nudity

John Berger - "Ways of Seeing" - summary and review
part 1 - 2 - 3

Following Kenneth Clark John Berger, in "Ways of Seeing", distinguishes "naked" or "nakedness" from "nudity" in the European tradition, with nakedness simply being the state of having no cloths on and nudity being a form of artistic representation. The nature of this artistic mode is related, according to Berger, to what he terms "lived sexuality". Being naked is just being yourself, but being nude in the artistic sense of the word is being without cloths for the purpose of being looked at. A naked body has to become an object of a gaze in order to become a nude representation. Being naked means being without any costume that you put on, but being nude means that you become your own costume. Painting and photographs which portray nudity appeal to the viewer's sexuality, the male viewer, and have nothing to do with the portrayed woman's sexuality – women are there for men to look at, not for themselves, for man's sexuality, not their own. When there is a man figure in nude painting the woman seldom addressed him, for she is aiming at her "true lover" – the viewer, which is the central figure of the painting without even being present in it.

In "Ways of Seeing" Berger also discusses the meaning of being naked outside of the artistic context. He argues that in nakedness there is the relief of finding out that someone is indeed a man or a woman, and that at the moment of being naked an element of banality comes into play and that we require this banality because it dissolves the mystery which was present up until cloths were taken off and reality became simpler. Therefore nakedness in reality, unlike representation, is for Berger a process, not a state.

In concluding "Ways of Seeing" John Berger holds that the humanist tradition of European painting holds a contradiction: on the one hand the painter's, owner's and viewer's individualism and on the other the object, the woman, which is treated is abstraction. These unequal relations between men and women are, in Berger's view, deeply assimilated in our culture and in the consciousness of women who do to themselves what men do to them –objectify themselves.    
Selected Essays of John Berger
John Berger - "Ways of Seeing" - summary and review
part 1 - 2 - 3

Might also broad your horizons: 


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