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.