Mediums

I’m often surprised how much my perception of particular words is different from other people. They say things and proceed as if their meaning was clear to a “reasonable” person. Dave Weinberger’s post on medium and world is a case in point. Dave clarifies his point in a follow-up comment, and his response confirms how differently we think of the word “medium”:

Reductionists take a rich phenomenon and strip it of meaning. Viewing the Web as a medium does that. Thinking of it as a world does not...at least not as badly.

Dave thoughtfully supplies his definition of medium: “A medium is something through which a message travels from A to B. The communication succeeds if the message arrives at B unaltered.” That is the Shannon-Weaver model, but it isn’t the sort of thing that I think of as a medium. The idea of media as the bearer of “signals” hasn’t really gone very far in communication theory. When I think of a medium, the first thing I think of the stuff in Petri-dishes that grows cultures. Not to get all Kripke about it, but the second thing I think about is water. All sorts of stuff can be dissolved in it. Often, when stuff dissolves, it changes chemically as a result of what it is dissolved in. While it can be precipitated out, it is seldom unchanged after experiencing transmittal through a medium. Water, however, can be purified back to its original state. The web remains unchanged regardless of what is dissolved in it; in this sense, I think the metaphor is apt. In our “world,” water is water. In other worlds, this is not necessarily the case. A compound labeled “water” might be composed of nitrogen there.

There is a third sense of “medium” that seems closer to what Weinberger recommends: mediums are people who channel spirit energy to make long-dead spirits appear. All this talk of the web bringing something into being is reminiscent of that. In my mind, the word “medium” isn’t reductive in the slightest. To call it the web a “world” conjures visions of strange denizens swimming a great ocean of being. Is this really apt? Poetic, yes, but accurate—no.

Though it is decidedly unpopular, I really feel that the web is a technology. It is neither a medium in any conventional sense, nor a “world.” It contains media, to be sure—both the mainstream and countercultural currents can be easily found. But they are not what the web is. Messages do not travel across it unchanged; they are constrained by both technical and social limitations. Technologies have several levels of function which often occur simultaneously. To call the web a technology is not to reduce it; actually, it complicates things. Technologies are not static like the normal notion of a medium. They are not holistically constituted like the notion of “worlds.” They exist purely as an interaction with the world, an amplification of it that bridges distance and time. To call the web a technology is not to suggest that it can be reduced to the wires and circuits that form it.

The hazards of leaning too hard on technology to explain human actions is well demonstrated by the failures of art history as suggested by Friedrich von Blowhard:

Another thematic definition of Modern Art might be that of art that responded to the impacts of the reproductive and distributive technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution—photography, the cinema, the phonograph, the high-speed press, mass advertising, etc. This is perhaps the most logical thematic definition in general use, but it makes me scratch my head a bit. I’m not aware of the art of any other period being explained quite so literally by contemporary technological innovation. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall much discussion suggesting that medieval art was the obvious result of the revolutionary application of water- and wind-power during the period between 1000 and 1350. Or that Renaissance art was the obvious outcome of the period’s advances in optics, leading to the mass manufacture of eyeglasses in Florence and Venice during the mid-1400s. Generally, such technological explanations are considered, well, rather reductionist (at least when advanced by David Hockney) but appear to be accepted without much demur in the case of Modern Art.
Ultimately, I think the “world” problems Weinberger wants answers to are not so much a problem of figuring out what brave new world we’ve entered, but rather a matter a figuring out how our preexistent world is amplified or attenuated by technology. Technology does change things, but it is not an explanation—especially when social factors are involved. It would be ludicrous to speak of a new “photographic” world, for example, with the proliferation of imaging technology. Images have been around for a bit longer—at least as long as communication has been around. I don’t think that photography is a medium or a world—I think it is a technology—just like writing. Admitting that doesn’t explain much, but at least it avoids consulting any sort of seer into new worlds to divine an answer.

Mediums have a questionable heritage. However, I agree with McLuhan that the medium is the massage. Media are technologies which extend our senses as well as comforting us with conventions we are used to. They do not create worlds—mostly, imagination does that.




The forecast high temperature tomorrow is -5f (-20c). It is warm inside though and the flytrap has no frostbite.





Logo of the E.H. Anthony Company (1870)


“Even adult persons had the most absurd ideas about it,” we are told by the son of a popular photographer in 1840, “some believed that my father wanted to collect the sunlight for the purpose of making gold; others imagined that healing powers emanated from the camera which might cure certain diseases . . .One day an invalid, a paralyzed cripple, was taken to our garden gate in his bath chair . . .he said he was prepared to sit still for hours and days, hoping that the lens of the camera, which collects the light, would be able to cure him and restore him to the use of his limbs”

. . .“That particular summer being hot and dry, there were some that suggested that the confounded camera brought about the drought by attracting too many sun rays. . .”

. . .“My father used to tell us, that many children seem to have believed that he called up a spirit under his black cloth . . .and when he reappeared from under it, with his hair standing on end, they thought he had been wrestling with the mystic spirit underneath the cover. They fled with terrified screams every time he reappeared.” (Max Dauthendey on his father K. Dauthenday.)

[Cited in Lucia Moholy, A Hundred Years of Photography (1939), 32-33]



from my window



Update

James reminded me that my about page still said that I was in Arkansas. I looked out the window and checked, and it seems that I’m not anymore. So I fixed it. It deserves a more complete update, but I made another major change as well. I added a different research interest, which has just sort of snuck up on me.

I never thought I’d admit that I was interested in the rhetoric of science. Science just displaced composition theory, which was never really my strong suit anyway. I’m still interested in comp theory because I have to confront it each time I enter the classroom; but it isn’t an overriding interest because I can’t stand the idea of “researching” my students. They are people to me, not “subjects.” The admission that I’m a science geek comes much harder—but it has a long history.

When I was a kid, I used to read Popular Science in the bathtub. I tried to talk my father into a chemistry set, a microscope, and all that stuff. But he just kept saying “wait until you get into high school, they have all that stuff.” When I got to high school, I went through all the science stuff like a whirlwind in my first two years. Then I got bored. Music, poetry, photography and girls intervened. I haven’t really looked back until now. I suppose I can blame my high school photography teacher, Chris Burnett.

I tried to get into photography right away, but the class was always full. Photography was taught by a chemistry teacher until the year I got in. He stepped down, and a former chair of the English department, Chris Burnett, took over. This solved several problems for me at once. He was the sort of teacher who really didn’t care exactly what you learned in his class, as long as it was something. My writing scores were so low that it was hard for me to get into literature classes; Chris agreed to do independent studies in William Blake and Milton with me while I was taking his photography classes. He also turned me on to Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins. I learned a lot more than photography in his classes.

The second year in, I became a tutor in his classes. I taught photography while Chris taught several kids in the class such basic things as the alphabet. Photography, since it had a reputation as an easy class, attracted people who were neatly progressing through high school as functional illiterates. He did his best to change things, and as I think about it now, he was going through many changes while he was teaching those years. He was recently divorced, and struggling to find out what he wanted in life. He left teaching the year I graduated. He completed an M.F.A. at Cal State Bakersfield, and the last I heard he never returned to teaching. He made his living building houses instead.

I thought about him when I dropped out of Community College. He showed me just how complicated life really was—and how no matter how hard you tried it wasn’t always possible to change things. I thought about all the people he tried to reach who spent their time in the halls sniffing glue, and thought to myself there had to be something more productive than that. Teaching tore him up, but I suspect he was a little damaged before hand. I think that’s probably why I haven’t tried teaching before now. It can rip your heart out. But he helped me, probably more than he could ever know.

Learning photography from a literature person rather than a scientist forever skewed the way that I look at things, I suppose. But as I research the early history of the medium I find that most of the photographic educators were scientists rather than humanists; their peculiar brand of humanism comes filtered through a different kind of consciousness. They were looking for a different kind of truth from what I am accustomed to. And nobody talks about the scientists much. It is the humanist/art people who have dictated what has gone down in the history books of photography. The scientists only get glancing mention, if they are mentioned at all. It seems a strange omission, but it is understandable that the alchemy of photography be given precedence over the chemistry.

I will never forget what Chris used to say when students asked how photography “worked” as he slipped the paper into the developer under the safelights—“It’s magic,” he would always say.




Detail from the cover of The Romance of Photography by Charles R. Gibson (1908)





Latency

I keep thinking about something that Chris Sullivan wrote: “I know the only way ‘anything’ can be photographed is with Language.”

Language models are tremendously unpopular among critics of visual images. Part of it is the privilege afforded the “mute” image, which is seen as a sort of talisman that a conjurer can manipulate to coax a voice of a culture or significance long past. In this view, images do not speak but are rather ventriloquized in a delusional way (as the voice of their long dead creator—either the machine operator or “nature’s pencil”). The critic casts asides these illusions and in a booming narrator’s voice bellows out what the image really says. Though contemporary critics try to deny language has a part in the construction of images, they can only speak of these “things” with language.

An image isn’t a “thing” without language. At that moment it is severed from its connection with the world; it becomes language in a nascent state. But it is not a romantic language filled with an intrinsic map of the “world” or culture— it is a clue, a detection. I’ve been thinking a lot about the three currents in photography as an “invention” identified by Patrick Maynard—photography was designed to detect, to depict, and to be reproducible. The emphasis, post Benjamin, has been on reproduction. Criticism also tends to focus on the function of depiction by conflating it with representation. Photography’s function as a detector is largely ignored.

Chris wrote about Winogrand, whose most famous quote is “I photograph to see what things look like when photographed.” Those thousands of rolls of film were like miles of scribbles from a seismometer. Who knows what “data” Winogrand was looking for in them, or if he was able to detect the phenomena he was looking for. Destroying their latency as traces was a bold move; trying to read their language is even more risky.

I keep thinking of images in terms of analogous loan words which get shaped to match the tongue of the interpreter. They become depictions, if successful. Otherwise, they are just guttural grunts of a savage that puzzle us.








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