Another day in paradise

Posted by Jeff at November 10, 2009 9:36 AM

Syracuse Symposium- W.J.T. Mitchell

W.J.T. Mitchell

Went to a talk last night by W.J.T. Mitchell. In many ways, it just seemed to be a restatement of the same old problem: how do we reconcile the universal and the particular? I came away completely unsatisfied that this tangent really cast any light on the issue at all.

Mitchell built his talk around John Rawls original position, that of judgment through the “veil of ignorance.” Simply stated, in the liberal approach to morality we must base all moral judgments on abstractions rather than specific concerns. Law should reside outside the traditional communitarian patriarch/matriarch and rely on an imagined ignorance of the particular facts of real people living in the real world. We can only project our symbolic abstractions on a veil of ignorance. Mitchell noted that this approach seems to work within the boundary conditions of specific nations, but not as a global strategy. This, I would assume, fuels his reasoned designation of “beyond the veil of ignorance” as subtitle.

The set-up was pretty basic. One of the preconditions of Judeo-Christian law has been the prohibition of images (second commandment). Restrictions on images have been generally unsuccessful; restriction on the movement of peoples has been more successful—borders with checkpoints and immigration laws resulting in the “de-legalization” of people in specific territories. The ties between image politics and border politics was tenuous throughout the talk. The talk was probative and to my ears inconclusive. In the discussion afterward, Mitchell seemed to imply that the abstract and the specific can be held in suspension and that the veil can be upheld as a path to justice.

I was reminded of William Blake’s usage of “veil” in most of his writings. It seems odd that Mitchell, who began as a Blake scholar, was completely comfortable with Rawls’s use of the term. For Blake, the “veil” was generally held to be metaphorically equivalent to the hymen. Once rent, once you see behind the veil, it is impossible for “innocence” or virginity to grow back.

Posted by Jeff at October 9, 2009 9:42 AM

Plurality and Chaos

It is commonly assumed that the first human picture of the world was a mess: fragmentary sensations, unstructured but simply registered by unreflecting experience, severally endowed with spirits or demons by the just-evolving human imagination, only reprocessed later into coherent schemes by prehistoric bricoleurs who constructed the first categories. The earliest world-pictures we know about, however, are not of this kind. Human intellects make sense of things and, if anything, err on the side of coherence. Geniuses of my acquaintance, who almost seem clever enough to make sense of the world if they so wished, are more likely to accept it as a muddle than the common man who invests it with a transcendent character of its own or recognizes it as filled with divine purpose in which nothing is out of place. Pluralism and chaos are harder to grasp - harder, perhaps, to understand and certainly to accept - than monism and order. For a whole society to accept an agreed world-picture as senseless, random and intractable, people seem to need a lot of collective disillusionment, accumulated and transmitted over many generations.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

via Waggish

I found this snippet fascinating, and was oddly intrigued by the story of this man's run-in with the Atlanta police. "Human intellects make sense of things and, if anything, err on the side of coherence" — I think this is perhaps the wellspring of photography, trying to relate and implied coherence hidden from the casual glance.

Posted by Jeff at May 25, 2009 12:03 PM


A truly inspiring exercise in hermeneutics, following on the heels of my ruminating on the power of the plural yesterday.

Posted by Jeff at May 24, 2009 12:04 PM

Holding on

Henri Cartier-Bresson Pour l’amour et contra la travail industriel (For Love and Against Industrial Work). 1931. Paper collage

This blog has stayed in a holding pattern for the last few years. It’s overdue for a change, and that will happen in the next few months. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I started blogging right before I started teaching—in 2001. I will continue to blog as I quit teaching, as of now. Perhaps “quit” is too strong of a word. It’s more like refuse to participate in a degrading system that values teachers at about the same level as Walmart greeters. My wife has secured a good job as a teacher, one that pays a worthwhile salary—most don’t. File me with the most. I was offered an adjunct post, but I feel as if the time has come for a career shift.

I am not really bitter about the situation—but as a profoundly middle class guy, I was actually looking forward to making that good “professor money.” Oddly, along the way I figured out how to make substantially more with far less effort; surrendering teaching comes easy when it only involves nearly trivial wages. In this environment, perhaps even because of it, intelligent investing pays quite well.

I won’t be deprived of anything, and my wife’s job will allow me to maintain access to research databases, good libraries, etc. without missing a beat. I plan on being one of those weird people labeled as an “independent scholar.” But I wear that label with no illusion that it is better or worse as being affiliated with an institution—each approach has its perks. This is just the situation that life has dealt me; I’m quite comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life. I plan to continue following and creating rhetorical scholarship, just not as a poorly paid “professional writing instructor.”

I’ve got seven years of being a writing instructor in, so I feel like I’ve made some contribution, but shifts in the field make me feel increasingly estranged from the educational “industry.” You see, educational institutions are at their core focused on institutional environments and practices. I have no hardcore interest in “technical writing” though I have a degree and years of coursework in it. Yes, I’m interested in technical subjects but not technical communication practices. I’m interested in communication practices, and increasingly I’ve found myself more aligned with scholars in communication studies rather than the emergent field of writing studies. But my degree path has not pointed me there, and crossover is difficult on the professional level.

At the core, what I have practiced/taught is Rhetoric (with the capital R) which is a discipline that seems to lack any specificity or exclusivity within academic departments. It wanders, passing in and out of fashion without ever really disappearing or finding a home—labeled as techné, not epistemé. Thus the containers are filled with it, e.g. communication uses rhetoric, but is not necessarily rhetoric; most if not all writing deploys rhetorical methods, but is not strictly speaking rhetoric. It is confusing to anyone outside the problem—why not call it communication, or writing? Well, because it’s different—but what is it? The modern trend is simply to pluralize the practices as rhetorics as if that resolved the definition.

Surrendering the element of teaching writing (or composition, if you prefer), what remains is my research agenda—which I have tried to place inside the container of “visual rhetorics” with little success. The fundamental problem with this, simply swept under the rug for the last several years, is the stature of visual images as propositions. The propositional nature of images, hotly contested for a time, is simply assumed without proof and endless interpretations are being spun from those propositions. But the assumption bothers me. Although I’ve made the claim myself for photographs—each photograph includes an implied verb “to be” making it implicitly a proposition that the subject “is”—I am no longer so sure that this is a sufficient explanation.

The problem of photographs as rhetoric lies in the domination of rhetorics that lie completely outside the object itself; thus the rhetorics are not at their core “visual” at all. The label itself is a red herring, an argument based simply in indirection. As W.J.T Mitchell has argued, “visual studies” may not necessarily need to exist as a self-contained discipline because cannot be mapped into a stable configuration. Just as “writing” is unstable, moving from English departments to business schools to writing studies departments, etc., visuals also migrate to where they are welcomed most. Photography first found a home in chemistry and physics departments, then art departments and journalism schools (coexistent with writing!) and now it seems to be taking up shop in communications departments (as visual rhetorics) at least to a minimal degree. My two obsessions, it seems, have no constant home.

Ultimately, I think that rhetoric and photography are intellectual twins. Both are wedded to industry, but at the risk of sounding maudlin, both can be attached to the humanities in an urgent sense. As Jim Corder once described it, “Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities.” Classical documentary photography began from the same premise. I started revisiting Corder today because my mentors at the University of Arkansas, when I first started this public writing project had placed him high on the reading lists for teaching composition. Perhaps it is just nostalgia, revisiting where I began as a teacher, or perhaps Corder has been lost through consistently shallow readings.

The Rogerian approach has long fallen out of fashion (both as documentary photography classically conceived from the "family of man," and expressivist composition centered on actualizing the self) but it had an influence deeper than I sometimes admit. I prefer love to industrial work.

What next? I suspect that my sidebar for this Public Address 5.0 will change from “rhetorician/photographer” to “photographer/rhetorician”—because photography is always what I have loved the most. I’ve just been away from it for a long time. It’s a large move, physically, from Minnesota to New York. But it’s a small move linguistically. As I suggested back in 2002, “It’s easy to move, hard to change.”

Posted by Jeff at May 23, 2009 10:53 PM


cheesey.jpg(The photo above is not of the victim.)

Consumerist reports an assault at a Chuck E. Cheese using a "generic" photo as illustration, although with an attached disclaimer. Common sense would tend to resist this as appropriate, especially given the quote in the article from the linked original source: "Her stepfather captured in incident in a photo but didn't know it until after they reviewed the pictures, the lawyer said." At the least, this is an exercise in bad taste. On the other hand, it is a perfect illustration of the specificity of photographs and our preference to read them as metynomic rather than metaphoric or ironic. This video, however, has no explanation:

Posted by Jeff at May 3, 2009 11:02 AM



Following on an in-depth discussion of a section from Camera Lucida last week, I find myself using Barthes’s framework to deal with a photograph I was looking at today by Carl De Souza. The fragment displayed above represents what for me became the “studium” of the image. Just what was “Artisan Fine Art” selling in downtown London? The naming of the shop was a bit curious to me, and I wasn’t aware of any gallery by that name—in this country “artisan” is connected with craftsmanship, not with fine art. The name seemed to be oxymoronic. The mass of cameras in the image seemed incidental and commonplace, a scene that is easily repeated a thousand times an hour around the globe. The detail on a building drew me in more than the spectacle. It provides a good excuse to differentiate other details below the fold.


Posted by Jeff at April 5, 2009 11:46 PM

Philosophy: Pay Attention

Downtown Minneapolis
An unauthorized photograph

I was wandering through the furthest end of the public skyway system downtown when a voice came on from an unseen speaker questioning me, and later chastising me for taking pictures. This was after being chased away from an enclosed mall for taking pictures of shop fronts. You can’t take pictures here!

I’m very interested in the issues surrounding photography in public places, and this latest instance of photographic prohibition is not a civic/governmental intrusion, but rather a power-play by a small time security company. I have no compelling need to photograph in the skyway system, but it bothers me that this avenue of examining things might be closed off. Unlike the subject of the linked article, I was chased down by three guards and interrogated— for taking pictures nowhere near the new stadium. To his credit, the senior guard sent the other two away and seemed to sense the ridiculousness of the prohibition. He told me precisely where to go to obtain a "permit" to photograph.

I think that one of the most powerful things that photography can do is allow us to examine things that flow past all too quickly as we go about our daily lives. I wasn’t going to say anything about this relatively inconsequential prohibition, but I was reminded of it when watching a series of videos from Aperture featuring Richard Ross:


Posted by Jeff at July 31, 2008 2:10 PM

Strange and Wonderful


Krista found this card while we were in California, I think, and gave it to me in celebration of a comment in Art’s seminar on ethics (years ago) from Zoe regarding the particulars of my thought processes (paraphrased): “Your mind is a strange and wonderful place, but for the rest of us can you unpack that a bit?”

It’s difficult to do that, because I most often operate on feelings that tend to make leaps that are impossible to explain or retrace. My friend Kenny gave Krista a copy of his dissertation a couple of days ago, but was really hesitant to let me read it—but it was a huge gift to me. In the first chapter, there was a distillation of his thoughts that brought years of office conversations we had into sharp focus.

We’re both “visual rhetoric” guys that are not interested in interpreting visual artifacts. What we find interesting is the process that allows us to use vision as an epistemic tool for socialization. I have struggled for a long time to come up with a defensible rationale for that path, and Kenny has made a lot of progress not only in exploring it, but also in being able to discuss it. I’m really going to miss him, and will have to get over to visit him at his new home at Case Western.

Posted by Jeff at July 13, 2008 11:15 AM

You can't seem to get rid of it

Nice to find the complete set of "visual thinking" clips. I've been using the later version of this (visual thinking #2) in class for the last couple of semesters. I find it useful, especially when cautioning people not to use Microsoft wizards as a shortcut in document design. Bad things happen.

Posted by Jeff at March 9, 2008 1:36 PM

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