Thursday, January 5, 2012

Answers to Questions No One Asked

People ask me exactly what it is I do. At least, they used to. There's a lesson for you: if you reply to any question with a sufficiently detailed answer, you tend to decrease the number of future questions. At any rate, when they used to ask me, I gave a rather vague description, at best. So I thought I'd settle this past question once and for all with a visual demonstration. I did two big things today: I prepared my lecture for the class I'm teaching tomorrow ("Introduction to Rhetorical Theory," super exciting.), and I read and took notes on a section of Mitchell's book, "Picture Theory." In general, my note method is to go from ridiculously detailed, to summary, to response to summary. I'll spare you the first step, and show just the results. Here's my summary and response to Mitchell's essay on the use of image and text in photo-essays:
Mitchell uses the photoessay to approach the image-text problem, delving into the issues of gender, collaboration, and race through the examination of four photoessays. He frames the chapter with a series of questions and answers, which essentially say that the photograpic essay is a dramatization, a materialization, of the power struggle and value negotiation between photo and text. / There are essentially two views of photography—first, that it is a message without a code, separate from langauge, and second, that it can be put into a language of signs. (Barthes represents the first.) The second has tended to win out, but it doesn't explain the persistence of the first. Barthes, he notes, examines this disparity, and hew wants to as well. / In the photoessay, the text appears to dominate, even suppress the images. But in the photoessay, the two forms share much in common, as well—the notion that both are somehow “serious,” that both are real and nonfiction; both often involve something very personal about their creator; both have a sense of incompleteness, that they have failed to grasp everything of significance about their subject. That brings us to his four case studies.

/ First up, Agee and Evans. They introduce the basic three traits of the photoessay, that the photos and text be equal, independent, and collaborative, despite the apparent contradictions these qualifications. In their case, it ccame from the complete separation of photo from text, a separation Mitchell understands as an aesthetic, ethical choice, but one that depends on each part standing in witness and vigilance against the veracity of the other. / The second one to examine is Barthes' Camera Lucida, which mixes photography with text, but in such a way that the photos tend to speak more to punctum than studium, creating a visual set that seems to belie the theory at work. And then there's the issue of Barthes' mother, who seems to be at the emotional core of the text. Mitchell argues that the motif for the essay is the labyrinth, with the photos as a labyrinth, and the text Barthes' personal attempt to push through.

/ Next is Malek Alloula's essay on the French colonialist postcards sexualizing Algerian women. Here, Mitchell's figure is voyeurism and exorcism; that is, the goal of the essay is that the text appears to liberate the women from their image-based debasement, to exorcise the images of the colonial presence and attack. It's a gender issue, and a colonial issue, and Mitchell concludes with his own personal reaction to the pictures, one of guilt. / Finally, he looks at Said and Mohr's photoessay on the Palestinians. Here, the figure is one of exile and return. The photos attempt to create a people, one that requires acknowledgment from the global community, but also from the subjects themselves. It's an ambiguous essay, as its photos and text promote return from exile, but also the accept that there is no full return, that the utopic return is a fantasy. He concludes with a statement that far from being formless or having no exact genre of form, it's the form of the photoessay that grants it is collaborative force between author and reader, and its contextual significance.

I certainly wrote a lot there, didn't I? I didn't think I was that interested in this essay, but there you go. I wish I had read it five years ago when I was trying to get students to write photo-essays. I wonder how much of it could be applied to powerpoint presentations—they're certainly the most common form of academic combination of image and text these days. At that point, it's not about the permanence of the text, so I'd think that the image would tend to take center-stage, as it's better at grabbing attention quickly. But then there's also the issue of how the verbal competes with writing and image. Complicated, yes? I also wish I'd read this essay while reading Agee and Evans; I don't think it would have made me like Agee any more, but the context would make me better appreciate what they were doing. It even makes me appreciate Barthes' book more, and I appreciated the hell out of that as it was. Beyond that, there's some connection to the videogame stuff. Obviously, a videogame that uses the camera is very, very little like a photoessay. But it is combining media forms. The difference is that in the game's case, the form is all about subordinating the photograph in favor of the gameplay. There's very little on the third essay—why is that? Is it just of less interest? And while Mitchell is big on focusing on gender issues in these essays, I note that he didn't select any with female authors, though he does mention one at length in the Agee and Evans section. Given the female = image tendency he seems to be drawing out, an attempt to see things differently might have been nice. The punctum/studium issue reminds me of the mind/body split—the idea that there's something about the body and the mind so that neither can be entirely placed in the other. That's only to be expected I guess; if it wasn't the case, then one would be encompassed by the other entirely. The last section really got me thinking about exile. I've played a few games where exile has played a role, but I guess where it really comes out in videogames is in a metagame fashion—the real exile is the one left out of the discussion, because he or she doesn't have the relevant hardware or hasn't played the game—or hasn't played it properly. Can exile be used in gaming? The player is almost always the outsider, so to feel the exile, they'd have to be made the insider first. Maybe FFX-2; the way the characters had moved on without me, the way the blitzball minigame had been altered to make it feel more like you were observing than acting. Is there more to exile than a sense of separation to something you were once close to? Does there have to be?
In case it wasn't clear, the last paragraph is my response. You'll note it's very rambling, even more so than my average blog piece. The ideas tend to jump around a lot, here ranging from powerpoint rhetoric to videogame exile. That's in part because when I'm writing notes for myself, I tend not to explain the references, or even the reasons for switching topics suddenly. But moreover, it's because that's my method; I jot down running ideas in the response, and I either build connections when I try to mesh everything together in my own essays, or I forgot it forever. (Alternatively, I read it years later, and revel in my own forgotten genius/idiocy.) At any rate, that's what I do. Today, at least. I'll leave it to you to decide whether such doings has any value or not.

Later Days.

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