Words and Propositions
*Disclaimer:this is only a sketch of something ill-formed in my head.
There is a prevalent assumption among critics, particularly those of a Marxist bent, that photography is, in itself, meaningless. Accepting that a photograph is arbitrary (in that it is not a necessary condition of being) and that the number of things to be photographed far outstrips the number of photographs of those things, this makes a certain amount of sense— a photograph is a sign, and in and of themselves signs don’t have to mean. To photograph something, in some respects, is to name it by fashioning a sign (analogous to a word) which corresponds to the thing photographed.
Following an Aristotelian model, a photograph behaves like a word in the construction of meaning. Words inside photographs are liberated from syntactic function by becoming elements of the more complex hybrid word picture, or pictorial word. For Aristotle and Plato, only an articulated sentence can be true or false. A word, although it may mean, cannot be true or false. Truth or falsehood may only be applied to a proposition. This distinction seems absent in most contemporary assertions that photographs lie.
But there are deeper issues. What is at stake in the work of critics like Mary Price and John Tagg is the fundamental ability of photography (as a signifying activity) to mean. Even if photography is taken as a purely word-level signifying activity, I believe it can create meaning. Not so, according to Tagg:
What we begin to see is the emergence of a modern photographic economy in which the so-called medium of photography has no meaning outside its historical specifications. What alone unites the diversity of sites in which photography operates is the social formation itself: the specific historical spaces for representation and practice which it constitutes. Photography as such has no identity. Its status as a technology varies with the power relations which invest it. Its nature as practice depends on institutions and agents which define it and set it to work. Its function as a mode of cultural production is tied to definite conditions of existence, and its products are meaningful and legible only within the particular currencies they have. Its history has no unity. It is a flickering across a field of institutional spaces. It is this field we must study, not photography as such. (emphasis mine, The Burden of Representation 63)
This argument seems dangerously similar to saying: “the English language has no meaning.” Of course it doesn’t—it is a device used to construct meanings. Following this logic, it would be more productive to study the dissemination of French loan words after the invasion of 1066 to find the conditions of production and currency that made it acceptable to call a certain animal the pig and its meat pork, instead of studying language itself. I believe that any linguist would rail against this program of myopic insensitivity to the complexities of language, and laugh at the idea that languages are only formed by “institutional spaces.”
Any semiotic activity is by definition socially constructed and subject to cultural conditions. A semiotic activity, particularly in the case of language, certainly has an “identity.” To deny photography any sort of identity as a signifying medium seems both shortsighted and mean spirited. While I can agree that “photography” has no unity an is perhaps even incoherent, language can also be quite easily identified in the same manner. Only specific aspects of language have coherence, and their unity is still a subject of great controversy. However, linguists seldom deny the application of hermeneutics to a proposition. To say that photography’s “products are meaningful and legible only within the particular currencies they have” is to grant the individual photograph pseudo-word status.
Unlike Aristotle, Tagg disavows any “meaning” in the “word” level of signification. However, it may be that Tagg is unclear regarding his standards for “meaning.” Tagg proposes a pragmatics of photography, where meaning is constructed only through use. However, Tagg’s examination of “meaning” is centered on the attribution of “truth value” to photographs. In this sense, he is in complete agreement with Aristotle that a “word” does not bear truth —truth can only be constituted through predication. Meaning, in Tagg’s view, is created solely by use in an institutional/cultural context.
Mary Price agrees with the assertion that meaning is constructed by use. However, she wishes to reclaim the significance of photographs as evidence by a careful distinction:
Legal evidence is different from phenomenological evidence. The use of photographs must in every case be sustained by interpretation. So one may fully concur in the belief that a photograph does not have an inherent self-evident fixed meaning. But neither does it have a wholly arbitrary meaning. The limits of interpretation are determined by what can be seen in the photograph. The codes invoked, however, seem to be without limit. (The Photograph: A Small Confined Space 11)
Price challenges the assertion that a photograph is arbitrary by claiming that to make a photograph presupposes an intent. But the intent involved is no less arbitrary than the linguistic practice of naming. Anything that can be seen can be photographed—and once photographed, it can be endlessly reproduced in different contexts, with different significances. Driving across Arkansas, I can visit London, Stuttgart, Havana, and other places which are identified by names. None of these names has a “self-evident fixed meaning”—and yet they are also not wholly arbitrary. These places share names with places in other countries—and their limits of interpretation are set by the connotative powers of the originary name. They are settlements of a lesser magnitude, with only a tenuous phenomenological connection to other place that bears the name.
Modification of photographs through retouching or unusual technique places them in the same tenuous position as phenomenological evidence as a name. Basing “the limit of interpretation” on what is seen is problematic in these cases, and undermines Price’s assertion that a photograph is a “transcription” of reality. However, discarding this assertion (similar to Plato’s hypothesis that there might be natural names that are more correct for things) frees a photograph to mean in the same sense that a word means—as an arbitrary label for something—as a sign.
Unlike Tagg, Price does allow for the possibility that photographs mean. But it seems clear that she also restricts it to a pseudo-word level contending that:
Photographs without appropriate descriptive words are deprived and weakened, but that descriptions of even invented photographs may adumbrate a richness of use that can extend the possibilities of interpreting actual photographs. (2)
Price’s definition of “descriptive words” specifically excludes words contained in photograph itself. Such words “may be descriptive, but they are also possible of what is described” (2) Price places a photograph in the position of a nominal subject, which requires appropriate predicate, or adjectives, to be interpreted. This is exactly inverse from Roy Stryker’s position regarding the documentary photographs he enabled—Stryker called the photographs of the FSA/OWI “adjectives and adverbs.” The texts which accompanied the photographs were varied, and often encyclopedic. The descriptions of the text were meant to be amplified by the illustrations.
Both Price and Stryker’s assertions reduce the possibilities for signification in the photograph to the level of a word— only a particle of a proposition producing meaning. Is this really the case, or can a photograph be a complete proposition in and of itself?
If we accept for a moment the idea that a photograph represents a transcription (to use Price’s terminology) of a real or imagined scene then it qualifies as a proposition at the most basic level. A photograph is a thing that signifies that something is. To apply the verb “to be” to a photograph is ambiguous, but it opens a relatively narrow channel to interpretation. By accepting that a photograph “is” we may label it as a proposition rather than merely a pseudo-word. As such, it has truth value and the capability of asserting possibility— by internal tensions, amplifications, or transfers of signification through a variety of visual tropes. A photograph can represent a conscious attempt to convey a world without the benefit of external linguistic interference.
A photograph need not be slave to cultural or political whims or descriptive captioning. It can be a self-contained system of signification, if and only if we grant it the status of a proposition rather than a word.