Agency and the arts

I’ve been reading a thread about the role of artistic intent that seems to have sprung up here and there. I’m not interested in the role of intention in the reading of art so much as I am in the link between intention and agency. Specifically, I wonder why it would trouble some people that being mindful of the image being made (implying a conscious intent to represent something in a specific manner) must be classed as either relevant or irrelevant to the final result. Joerg Colberg phrases it in this way:

Photography, of course, has become an established part of art – the implications of that have important consequences for how we understand photography. If photography is an art form (and not, say, a technical craft to produce images) then this means that we need to treat it like an art form.

But it also means that we can use practices well-established in the art world to approach photography, and we might learn something very valuable. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we have to treat photography just like minimalist art – each art form clearly deserves to be treated according to its own characteristics. But we better stop thinking about photography as if it was a technical craft to produce images.

I am confused. The Aristotelian definition of techné is an ability to make with a consciousness of what is being made. The invocation of photography as a “technical craft” reads as techné for me, which makes it no different than say, the ability of the sculptor or painter. So why then should the craft of photography (because it is “technical”?) be excluded from consideration? The only way that I can get this assertion to make any sense is if one classes “art” as an activity that requires the absence of any mindfulness of the potential result. In short, a photographer is denied any agency in his products (photographs). He is merely a conduit through which verities or falsehoods “flow” on their way to an interpretive community.

This is all quite counter-intuitive. I like making things. I like to think I have some awareness of what I am doing. I do not care whether it is classed as “art” or not, and if it means that in order to be considered as such that one should surrender any sense of photography as a craft, well, count me out on that one.

Of course, on the interpretive (reading) side, then the consideration of the artist’s agency (whether in the form of technical ability or communicative success at conveying their intent) is always optional. On the making (techné) side intent is never superfluous. Without intent, it is no longer making—it is finding.

Public Toilette

We talk, a tape recording is made, diligent secretaries listen to our words to refine, transcribe, and punctuate them, producing the first draft that we can tidy up afresh before it goes to publication, the book, eternity. Haven’t we gone through “the toilette of the dead”? We have embalmed our speech like a mummy, to preserve it forever. Because we really must last a bit longer than our voices; we must, through the comedy of writing, inscribe ourselves somewhere.

The inscription, what does it cost us? What do we lose? What do we win?
. . .
Thus, in the written word a new image-repertoire appears, that of “thought.” Wherever there is a concurrence of spoken and written words, to write means in a certain manner: I think better, more firmly; I think less for you and more for the “truth.” Doubtless, the Other is always there, in the anonymous figure of the reader; consequently, the “thought” staged through the conditions of the script (as discreet, as apparently insignificant as they may be) remains dependent upon the self-image I wish to present to the public; it is not so much an inflexible mold of givens and arguments that concerns us as it is a tactical space of propositions—that is, all things considered, of positions. In the debate of ideas, very widespread today thanks to mass communication, each subject is lead to situate, to mark, to position itself intellectually, which means: politically.

Roland Barthes, “From Speech to Writing” La Quinzaine littéraire, March 1-15, 1974 translated in The Grain of the Voice 3, 6.

About Hummels


At this point, some readers may say, huh? How can a statute of limitations for copyright infringement bar a state law claim for an accounting of profits between co-authors brought under diversity jurisdiction? The answer according to the majority is that the accounting cause of action was predicated on there being co-authorship status; if there can be no such co-authorship claim because the statute of limitations bars even a facial assertion of co-authorship status, there can be no possible accounting cause of action. The majority found the copyright limitations indeed barred the co-authorship claim, and hence affirmed dismissal of the claim.

You know you have crossed a threshold when you start finding copyright law funny. I couldn’t read Patry’s post about the I.P. issues surrounding Hummels without thinking of About Schmidt. There’s also a funny (to me at least) bit about Hummel photographer knock-offs.

Becoming Authority

When I first taught first year writing in Arkansas, I took a cue from my literature background and required the students to write a bibliographic essay in order to establish the distinction between research and opinion. I expressly forbade offering excessive opinion about their sources; I wanted them to place the sources into some relationship with one another. The results were mixed. I got a lot of opinions.

I changed my approach just a bit this time. One of my grad instructors in Minnesota last year required an annotated bibliography and I was confused—I wrote a bibliographic essay instead, and was forced to revise it to fit the alternate form. It dawned on me that an annotated bibliography is a completely different animal that is noticeably easier to write than a bibliographic essay. No relationships are required; an annotated bibliography is simply a string of summaries. When we organize things, opinions seem to be the requisite glue to hold things together. I could more easily eliminate the opinions by eliminating the creative possibilities inherent in structure.

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Storytelling (1)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problem of storytelling, particularly about the way that technology impacts the way that we tell stories. There’s a lot to say about it, but it seems like some throat-clearing is in order.

Over the last few days, a couple of rhetoricians have weighed in on Doris Lessing’s Nobel prize acceptance speech—seemingly without bothering to read it first. This tactic reminds me of the sort of snap judgments that first-year composition students make—they accept the consensus of their peers without question. I suppose it’s one of the hazards of the rapid-fire atmosphere of electronic discourse—it’s easier to twit than to perform any sort of analytic work.

Lessing’s speech is also a wonderful example of the classic solitary originary proprietary model of writing, which might provide an interesting contrast to the newly emergent models of distributed collaborative authorship if more close reading were applied. But there isn’t space or time for that at this moment; I’ll press on with the reactive component, hoping I can return at a later date to the analytic problem.

Dennis Jerz and Clay Spinnuzi are not stupid people. I wouldn’t normally expect this sort of knee-jerk. I remember months ago, rr linked to a video of Lessing being ambushed by journalists when she won the prize. She couldn’t think of anything to say, apparently, and ended up asking the reporters to tell her what to say so that she could repeat it back to them—a tactic first suggested by Andy Warhol in one of his books as I recall. Jerz and Spinuzi didn’t misread the speech as far as I know, they simply parroted back the critique of Techcrunch and Ars Techica—which read Lessing as claiming that the internet makes you dumb or that it was the cause of our fragmented culture. Really? That’s not what I read. Here is the pertinent section, as printed by the Guardian:

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Scholarly meeting in the closet

D.T. Max quotes Steven James Joyce:

“We have proven that we are willing to take any necessary action to back and enforce what we legitimately believe in.” Or, as he put it to me during two phone calls that he recently made to me from La Flotte, “What other literary estate stands up the way I do? It’s a whole way of looking at things and looking at life.”

. . . Stephen said that Joyce’s genius could be found in his several books. (His own library of Joyceana, he once told Le Monde, “is less than a metre wide.”) He did not see what the two hundred and sixty-one works of criticism in the catalogue of the Library of Congress, say, could add to this legacy. Academics, he said at one point, are “people who want to brand this great work with their mark. I don’t accept that.”

. . . Academics, he declared, were like “rats and lice—they should be exterminated!”

Though the much trumpeted “settlement” by the Joyce estate seems like a victory for fair use, ultimately it seems that scholars are the proud owners of a newly refurbished semi-public closet:

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Winterset, IA
Winterset, IA, birthplace of John Wayne

There is no whole self. He who defines personal identity as the private possession of some depository of memories is mistaken. Whoever affirms such a thing is disabusing the symbol that solidifies memory in the form of an enduring and tangible granary or warehouse, when memory is no more than the noun by which we imply that among the innumerable possible states of consciousness, many occur again in an imprecise way. Moreover, if I root personality in remembrance, what claim of ownership can be made on the elapsed instants that, because they were quotidian or stale, did not stamp us with a lasting mark? Heaped up over the years, they lie buried, inaccessible to our avid longing. And that much-vaunted memory to whose ruling you made appeal, does it ever manifest all its past plentitude? Does it truly live? The sensualists and their ilk, who conceive of your personality as the sum of your successive states of mind are similarly deceiving themselves. On closer scrutiny, their formula is nothing more than an ignominious circumlocution that undermines the very foundation it constructs, an acid that eats away at itself, a prattling fraud and a belabored contradiction.

. . . The sensation of cold, of spacious and pleasurable suppleness, that is in me as I open the front door and go out along the half-darkness of the street is neither a supplement to a pre-existing self nor an event that comes coupled to the other event of a continuing or rigorous self. (Borges, “The Nothingness of Personality” Selected Non-Fictions p. 4)


I haven’t bought a print magazine in a long time, but I made the trip to get February’s Harper’s because of the article about Joywar. I’m interested in the ongoing debates about appropriation/plagarism, particularly as they relate to photography. If the 2005 Sweetland conference proceeding ever passes the UMI press editors, my first published paper will be on that topic.

Following the Joy Garnett/ Susan Meiselas piece, there is a long and somewhat tedious collage/article on plagarism (now available online, thanks Tom). Reading through the commentary at the end, it was great to find out about Graham Rawle’s Diary of an Amateur Photographer, I don’t really see collage/mash-up as the future of creativity (as some people people do). But it certainly is fun.

On a related note, the recent article on visual plagarism from Slate is pretty good.

French Postcards

A contemporary Stanhope rosary from Michioacan, Mexico.
Looking through the lens embedded in the cross presents a view of the Virgin of Guadalupe levitating strangely within a hazy space.

A seizure in 1863 involved a type of photograph that was particularly adaptable to pornography—microphotography. These tiny images, sold as transparencies, were impossible to read with the naked eye and were packaged with special magnifying viewers (called Stanhopes). Numerous patents for microphotographic techniques were filed in 1861 (by Martinache for “microphotographs of jewelry”; Regad, “Prints for microscopes”1862 (Brin fréres; Nachet et fils) during the peak of interest in this novelty. Caught this time with “micro nudes” were Guth and Laufer, who were middlemen rather than photographers. Other firms that tried to register microphotographs with the Ministry of the Interior had similar problems getting their images approved. The list of “planches sans ou avec texts non autorisées” in 1862 included macroviews by Dagron et Compagnie entitled Surprised Bathers, La Joyeuse orgie, L’ Indiscret, Léda; Voland’s micro Enlévement de Psyche and Venus et Adonis; and Villeneuve’s Le Balancoire and Le Hamac (all photos of artworks, which represented another type of illegal image). Some of these works were marked “á la condiction expresse de ne pas mettre á l’étalage” or “pour l’export,” which suggests that they were conditionally approved.

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Captains of Industry

The industrialization of the pornographic photo market is suggested by the huge volume of images seized during raids in the late 1850s and 60s. Philippe Dubourjal, a thirty-year-old wine merchant and photographer at the time of his first arrest in 1859, had 1,748 obscene prints in his possession when he was arrested for a second time in 1980. In his home in Belleville, 36 daguerreotypes, 69 paper prints, and 97 negatives were found. Joseph Auguste Belloc, who had run photography studios since 1849, had been noticed as early as 1856 for dealing in pornography. When his hand-colorist was raided in October 1861, police found two strongboxes, a desk, and a darkroom containing 1,200 obscene photographs, boxes of stereoscopic views disguised as books bearing the title Oeuvres complétes de Buffon (samples are now in the collection of the Bibliotéque nationale), 3,000 prints on paper, 307 negatives, three trays with photographs being processed, four albums of nude women, 102 large-format prints of women in “licentious positions,” and two cartes de viste sold by the popular boulevard photographer Ken.

By hiring middlemen to copy negatives to print, hand-color, and mount the images, enterprising pornographers could reap maximum profits from a limited number of sittings with the nude model while hiding their production from the police. The difficulties of reading photographic style, the division of labor, and the use of the same models by a variety of photographers made it next to impossible to identify the criminal responsible for the production of pornographic photographs unless he or she was seized flagrante delicto.

The very anonymity of photographic production, unlike the telling artist’s touch in traditional visual imagery, contributed to the success of pornographic photography.

Elizabeth Anne McCauley, Industrial Madness: Commercial Photography in Paris 1848-1871 p. 160.