All the names of (photographic) history

I am currently working on a section of the ‘dissertation that never ends’ that focuses on the artistic practices the employ Google Street View in their practice. While I understand that I am seemingly ‘hardwired’ to see Deleuzian sentences that give support to the (potential) importance of the artist and their ability to provide us, the public, with a ‘view of chaos’ ; I am particularly astonished when the artists, more or less, state this on their own.

Within the panoramas, I can locate images of gritty urban life reminiscent of hard-boiled American street photography. Or, if I prefer, I can find images of rural Americana that recall photography commissioned by the Farm Securities Administration during the depression.I can seek out postcard-perfect shots that capture what Cartier-Bresson titled “the decisive moment,” as if I were a photojournalist responding instantaneously to an emerging event.At other times, I have been mesmerized by the sense of nostalgia, yearning, and loss in these images—qualities that evoke old family snapshots. I can also choose to be a landscape photographer and meditate on the multitude of visual possibilities. Or I can search for passing scenes that remind me of one of Jeff Wall’s staged tableaux. (Rafman 2009)

Jon Rafman, photographer and ‘author’ of Nine Eyes, a body of work that culls material from Street View seems to evoke the schizophrenic burst of ‘all the names of history’. His ability to cull from Street View a range of impulses appears to free him from the subjectivizing practice of ‘picture-making’ in which the artist-as-author overcodes the scene according to their habitual way of seeing and interpreting, freeing him to draw from the virtual photographic field of aesthetic utterances.

I then simply find myself saying, ‘thanks for that(!).’

Rafman, J. 2009. IMG MGMT, in ArtFCity,

ANT v. D&G

I’ve been slogging through a newer text by Martin Hand, Ubiquitous Photography, published in 2012 by Polity. Looking at the title, I can’t help but say, ‘what’s not to like about that?’, or, ‘that is obviously spot on’, among other similar sentiments. I’m 3/4 through it, and the inertia is setting in. In the introduction, Hand makes a point to say it was neither a book about images nor was it written by a photographer, rather, he is a theorist engaging STS literature in order to understand something about the pervasiveness of the camera, the shifting boundaries of the photographer, and the role of photographer and the image more generally.  This all sounds good. The first chapter feels like an extended literature review; the second and third do as well. By the fourth chapter, I’m struggling to find original contribution to keep me interested. It’s not that he doesn’t have some empirical research to include, he does. But more than that, he has a series of citations in which he constructs an argument.

Granted, I’m not finished yet. And there have been moments where some really good observations are being made. But I’m frustrated by a couple things: one, he’s not a photographer. Which is fine, but, there are many moments where his narrative would be more efficient, or perhaps more direct, if he was, or if he knew the history of analog photography better, and image making practices in general. He mentions the rise of photographs of the everyday, and I immediately think of the countless still lifes made throughout the history of photography, idle picture making that surfaced in countless ways, either from an intense pursuit of the quality of light or experimentation with new technology, camera or film. While the numbers today are greater, I can’t help but wonder if the percentage has changed that much? The mundane aspect of everyday life is a meme, not a newly acquired interest in the trivial aspects of the day-to-day. How many travel photographs from Italy have we seen to understand the draw of seeing food composed or market stands reflecting the culture?

With the seduction of the image on the screen of the digital camera, Hand argues that this influences our relationship to the image making process, not only in relation to ‘immediacy’, but also in terms of visuality and perception. I think there is real merit in the immediacy argument- and I wish that he could have elaborated on his argument. It seemed to be more of his own work, rather than a series of citations. But in thinking of that, I can’t help but think of the seduction of looking through the first 2 1/4 viewfinder and having a real visual distance of the scene in relation to my own distance of the apparatus. In that instance, it was both the size of the image in the glass as well as the new distance or separation that gave me a new perspective. Or how many photographers were enamored by the large format camera, the polaroids coming out of the camera? How many ‘professional’ photographers have used a variety of cameras to achieve the aesthetic they wanted, rather than observing the imagined clear boundaries between ‘gear’ of the professional and the amateur. I’m not sure those boundaries were as hard as Hand imagines. As a photographer, I have had a rollei, a nikon, a holga, a point and shoot; I’ve used pin-hole cameras and made photograms.

And while the sheer pervasiveness of the camera phone is clear and hard to find an argument, I can’t help but think of the ‘numbers’: how many times have we updated our phones? Is it because the camera is better or is it because we are ‘eligible’ for an upgrade? What drives the statistics of the number of phones with cameras sold is more than just more people having camera phones. It is very much related to the artificial obsolescence of the technology. Whereas professional film cameras (and even better quality consumer cameras) operated more via actual obsolescence, ie I shot with a Rolleicord twin lens from 1966, there is no real need to upgrade that technology;  I also bought it used. So I feel like there are some unsubstantiated claims that need to be considered. Ultimately, I do think that digital photography is radically altering how we interact, see, perceive, and negotiate the world, so I don’t think his argument is wrong. But I do feel dissatisfied with its thoroughness and understanding of how the analog has changed, and whether those changes are ‘narratives’, or derived from research on self-identifying ‘photographers’.  While it’s fine to focus on the amateur or ‘citizen photographer’ aspect, it becomes less solid an argument when the comparison to ‘official’ photographers, whatever that might mean, seems less founded or considered.

That was the first point. Well, it was more like 5, but I’m counting it as one. The second point seems more serious than picking at his argument. Hand relies heavily on Actor Network Theory to articulate the ways in which photograph has spread and altered, radically or in subtle ways, our daily habits and perceptions, how we envision our daily lives, what the implications are for memory, both individual and collective, as well as how the convergence of different technological advancements have created the conditions that have enabled digital photography to take hold to the degree it has.  Now, I think ANT is a very good tool to help uncover how something as seemingly ‘inert’ as technology can travel the way it does, either through ‘novel’ practices or through continued practices that continue to extend existing ones. (and for the record, if I read ‘novel’ one more time… it stops meaning anything when it is offered without example. Novel? To whom? To the photographer? the amateur? the theorist? the scientist?) So on the one hand, I think it gives an adequate amount of agency to technology that it doesn’t normally get. But what I find wholly dissatisfying with ANT as the single theory (which seems to be the case here) is that is simply lacks a politics. Granted, Latour will argue till he’s blue in the face that you just need to let the actors speak. But there is an important layer missing here, these actors don’t speak in a vacuum. In relation to Hand’s text, it lacks a critique of how capitalism helps drive some of these changes, if fails miserably to articulate how the individual is persuaded by continent factors like advertising or peer networks, it lacks a critical assessment of how the neoliberal subject might unwittingly help advance the adoption of the tool through the narrative of individualism and freedom. It fails to give meaningful attention to individual desires and how these desires drive us to make decisions or engage in practices that are knowingly potentially harmful, either out of ease, laziness, the desire to connect, etc.

What Hand’s book lacks is a level of micropolitics. It engages how technology is part of a complex assemblage that evolves in unanticipated ways, but it isn’t able to really give a satisfying account of how or why this happens at the individual level. While technology (camera, film, or otherwise) should be considered an actor in its own right, its adoption is not given, and there are more explanations than a simple, neat convergence that has enabled a radical extension of ‘novel’ practices that have shifted the overall plane. In short, Hand needs D & G to help make his argument. But. I’ll stop there, because that is actually my argument, not his. But it gives me very solid ground to stake out for myself with the dissertation. ANT and technology is easy. It makes sense and offers some valuable conceptual tools and method to sketch out complex topics/situations. But that is not enough. Technology is only neutral in a black box. As the boys say, how it is put into play, how it is actualized, is of utmost importance.

Milan, then Lisbon

There is something to be said for having to submit a paper well in advance of the conference. Namely, that I won’t be working on it the night before… As part of the summer fun, I’ll be heading to the New Urban Languages Conference in Milan in June to present on Google (paper here), then heading up to Lisbon to present on Deleuze, Spinoza, and oh, glorious wonder.

Fascist Regime

As I was writing a paper last summer that looked at artist practices, it took a dark turn at the end. I began thinking about the enormous ‘latitude’ it seems like we have with Google’s tools, nearly all ‘free’ to use; but their service also dependent upon users to contribute to their larger project, ‘free activity’, as Holland would say.  As we grow more dependent upon their tools (they are so smart! accurate!), we contribute to the structure that makes us dependent. Microfascism. Fascism, for D & G, is first evident in the molecular realm, where divisive, controlling behaviors play out on a variety of scales. It is when these microfascisms begin to really cohere into a larger formation that a fascist regime becomes possible.

Around the same time, my co-conspirator and I were contemplating organizing a panel on geophilosophy for the AAG- and we were looking for a conceptual framework that was broad enough to include both of our projects, while not so broad that it would lack any coherence. I was perusing A Thousand Plateaus to generate some ideas and thinking about planes and how they operate. We finally decided on ‘Planes of Urban Experience’ as a way to organize papers, which would allow different scales but also link them together. While Keith’s topic is a physical plane of organization, mine was virtual (not virtual in the Deleuzian sense), immaterial to some degree, but real just the same.

At the time I was thinking that Google best represented a fascist regime. I found plenty of textual support in ATP as I was browsing it, and it set me off on a path of thinking about Google’s dependence on users to help build a portion of their knowledge- either through countless hours of beta testing, the citizen cartographers that ‘unite’ to map the world, the need for them to maintain their status as the #1 search engine to continue to produce accurate results; this is solidified by enthusiastic users taking advantage of all of Google’s tools and applications that augment the internet experience- and increasingly wholly integrated across applications. One never needs to leave the Googleverse.

I’m currently working on that paper, while also working on a portion of my dissertation. Recently I ran across an outline of their company history, as told by them, and decided that I should build a spreadsheet that takes their milestones and makes that information more ‘accessible’ (compared to the 41 page pdf that resulted from printing their webpage) and ‘useful’, to use their jargon…. I’m about 3/4 through the timeline. What has become incredibly clear is how accurate that initial thought that I had last summer really was. To date, they are laying their own internet infrastructure in select places, powering free wi-fi, their mapping regime covers nearly every element of navigation, modal, temporal and spatial; they continue to invest in clean energy- large scale production as well as domestic systems, they are experimenting with countless environmental ‘stewardship’ models, they have the largest electric car charging infrastructure. That’s just the surface. They have become an important public service during natural disasters, providing communication and satellite imagery. They continue to acquire countless businesses to build models that continue to garner an enormous market share in which businesses rely on Google to make them visible; their positive ‘economic impact’ impact in the US economy was $64 billion in 2010, while also ‘matching’ up to $100 million to ‘jump-start’ the economy. They provide phone service via their email software, youtube is increasingly providing ‘live’ news features, they are willing to fund research that can provide news content in today’s ‘lean’ model. I’m not sure if there is any sector in the economy that they haven’t taken on to provide an alternative model.

Meanwhile, the State (used broadly) continues to take a backseat to much of their efforts. Many governments are too slow and unwieldy to perform and innovate like Google. Recently, some of their more controversial efforts have resulted in policy documents of ‘best practices’ that circumvent not only the court system, but also public participation. The current environment of legislative efforts is ineffective, not only at the State (US) level, but also globally- as each government has its own fractured guidelines. This prevents a clear mandate from taking shape- one that benefits all involved, rather than capitalist interests. Meanwhile, it seems clear that many governments tiptoe around Google’s practices, given that Google has increasingly absorbed the burden of providing many services, and most of them free of charge; a classic neoliberal argument if there ever was one. But it also feels fascistic, to recall the repeated rejoinder “why do we desire our own repression?” Continual concessions are made in favor of allowing Google to continue to ‘innovate’, so that it might make things ‘a little bit better’….  Instead of world peace through capitalistic ventures of the neoliberal order, Google is trumpeting data peace and the democratizing of information… of which they exert enormous control over the ways and means to search the information. How democratic is that? They want to refine my search results so that it continues to reinforce my existing habits. They even want me to personalize so that it can anticipate what I want. I don’t want that. I’m a fickle consumer! But boy, the accurate results and integrated tools are seductive…

While it would be easy to a default to a hyperbolic, deterministic argument here, it also feels almost accurate and fair to simply state that it appears that Google is perfectly poised to take over the world.

Representing the ineffable; or, the photograph as haecceity

Yet again. Still. Continuing a line… I seem to be stuck in this photographic line that will inform a key argument in my dissertation topic. Going into the dissertation, I knew that photography would be important to the topic. I mean, Google Street View is a veritable photographic plane. Within the last month or so, however, I’ve come to realize how important the history of the photographic discourse will be in relation to not only an organization of user practices, but also the conceptual framework in which to locate my own critical voice. Previously, I was trying to give the uses of GSV adequate attention, and I found that my voice got in the way. But keeping it out seemed like too much ‘reportage’. And while I appreciate Latour’s work and what it has to offer, I think I was too close to ‘letting the actors speak’, part of a larger problem of Methods. I still think it’s important, but I found myself sitting in front of pages and pages of text saying, ‘so?’, and unable to write anymore.

I think it was an article by Sekula that I happened to come across, along the line of ‘invention of photographic meaning’. I don’t know why I was reading it, but it was in a collection of essays in a book that needed to go back to the library. I was already thinking about the concepts that were being challenged by using GSV, the truth claims of the photograph, conducting research based on the photograph, who was the artist in the artistic uses of GSV, etc. Since I was already familiar with the history of photography, I knew that there has been persistent discussion of the veracity of the photograph, as well as its uncertain status as a ‘fine art’. So when I ran across this essay by Sekula- suddenly everything started to fall into place and how the user practices could be organized along the documentation line and the fine art line.

But then. What really helped things fall into place was recalling one of the dominant points of What is Philosophy, and the importance of the philosophical, scientific and artistic planes. Each discipline has its own unique plane and concepts, but each inform the other planes in different ways. The result is not a hybrid, of course, but rather points of intersection in which each of the planes takes up the problem in different ways. Both the scientific and artistic plane has taken up the problem of GSV in its own unique way. My project thus takes up the problem on the philosophic plane. In true fashion, this problem has no solution. Solutions can be found of course, but what fun would that be, and what would that say about the question posed?

Of course, I started this post thinking I would talk about a quote by Strand, in which he describes Stieglitz’s photographs, and his description has remarkable resonances with Deleuze’s articulation of pure difference, or the haecceity. But the problem: the photograph is a representation of that moment, not the moment itself. So instead, I’ll bookmark this thought and elaborate in part 2.