The Task

The Task

I had no idea when I started writing my thesis just how complicated it would get. I’ve been glued to the sofa for around a month now, and like Cowper, I think I need to take a walk. Learning is usually task oriented. Reflecting on it, I think that the task I set for myself in blogging was simply to try and write something interesting each day. That’s all. Interesting to who? Well, interesting to me of course. No global axes to grind, no worlds to save, no journey towards self-improvement. Just say something worth saying.

I called my blog “this Public Address” after a notebook fragment from Blake regarding the state of engraving in England. Now I find that the name has taken a new twist.

At first, my thesis seemed like a good way to write about documentary photography. It’s a subject I knew quite a bit about already, being a student and practitioner for around 25 years. But it’s shifted in focus, of course, to some really deep issues in language philosophy. What is at stake is the nature of public address, or advocacy. Central to the concerns of documentary are evidentiary claims that something is wrong, or right, that deserves notice. It is an attempt to bring something to a public that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Pomo and Marxist criticism has marginalized documentary as a viable force for social change, branding it “rhetoric” in the derogatory sense, insisting that it reinforces the patriarchy and the dominant class structure. That might be, viewed through the narrow lens of cultural theory. But if that is true, then it is impossible to say or show anything to change anything. Any rhetoric of advocacy is branded as being “cultural ventriloquism” which only parrots back the problems it tries to ameliorate.

I want to believe in the possibility of social change. I want to find out why it seems so impossible to implement change. I can’t accept blindly, at face value, the demand that we not look at the “other” for fear of perpetuating subjugation. Increasingly, I think it is a problem of a narrow view of what constitutes “language.” But it’s not just a problem of words being inadequate, or images being overly full of signification to the point of being eternally relativistic. It’s a problem of how they work together, multi-modally, to construct meaning.

I want to believe that it’s possible to have effective public address, or to use Bryant’s term, rhetory, to inform and promote change rather than perpetual subjugation. But this is a matter of possibility, not certainty. While the rhetor’s intension is relatively simple to fix, and audience interpretation of the rhetoric is socially determined and cultural, the actual rhetory involved is seriously ill examined. It’s a structural question, not a cultural or psychological problem. At least the way I see it now. Of course, I could be wrong.

Rhetory, I think, depends more on metonymy in contrast to poetry, which relies on metaphor. Metonomy is poorly defined in most critical inquires, I think. Rhetoricians always want to shift its definition, and follow the poetic tradition of calling it a weak trope. Metonymy is the feminized “other” when it comes to discourse theories, granted its place, but only at the back of the bus.

It is metonymy in its broadest sense (that of a perceived contiguity) that rules the web, where every point seems contigous with every other point. I don’t think it’s the weakest trope at all.