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.

Phrase Structure

Figure 1: Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, June 1943, by John Vachon
LC-USW3- 034389-E

Phrase Structure

How do we parse embedded combinations of word and image? Consider this image, taken from the collection of the FSA/OWI. The image contains linguistic content, or better, non-natural signs. They invite the interpreter to “STOP AND READ THESE DISGRACE SIGNS OF PLAQUEMINES PARISH 2966 THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS.”

It also contains imagistic, or, natural signs suggesting an overcast day and an unkempt landscape. The two sign systems interact. As language users, the signal provided by the non-natural message insists that there is a message to be decoded. Where that message originates is ambiguous: do we believe that the creator of this image has an intension to display the unkempt landscape as some sort of meaning-sign, or do we be believe that the creator is the human who placed these symbols there? The sign suggests that there are other signs, absent from our optical field, to be read and interpreted. Multiple levels of inscription complicate its syntax. John Vachon inscribed this image on film, after someone inscribed a message on the landscape. Which message is given priority? Is syntactic priority given to the words, or to the image?

Continue reading “Phrase Structure”

A Fragment

A Fragment on Blake

*I’ve been writing pretty intensely, with no time to blog so I thought I’d at least post a fragment.

The uneasy relationship of word and image on a page has been
a subject of constant negotiation. In Words and Pictures, Wilson Hicks,
former editor of Life magazine provides an excellent example of the
atomistic approach: “words are distinctly one kind of medium,
pictures another” (4). Nonetheless, the composite effect of
photojournalism is “aimed at obtaining such an efficient relationship
of picture and words as will produce an equilibrium between the visual image
and the auditory symbols, or words.” The goal of the combination is “to approach the simultaneity of actual experience” (6). The implication is that the combination thus provided is superior to either medium alone. Hicks’ point of view, and indeed, the perspective of photojournalism itself, bases its appeal on the possibility of a “truth effect” that can occur when the identification between the viewer and the page is complete. Like imaginative literature, photojournalism requires a suspension of disbelief, a negotiated forgetting of the limitations of even complex representations to structure actual experience.

However, equilibrium is not the only possible relation
between word and image that promotes a synergistic effect. One of the most
complex and considered approaches to the combination of words and images dates from the late eighteenth century. William Blake presents complex challenges to both word and picture theories. The questions evoked, in considering the original versions of his work rather than letterpress editions, evade the theory of identification presented by Hicks. For example, one of his most famous poems, “The Tyger” opens with a question: “What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” (E:42 4-5). The question repeats, with an important change, in the final stanza: “What immortal hand or eye / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry” (E:42 24-5). Viewed in its original context, both hand and eye play a part in Blake’s representation. The words are written in script, and the tiger is engraved upon the page for the reader to see. However, hardly equivalent with the lines of the poem, the tiger poses languidly on the page as menacing as a typical housecat.

Continue reading “A Fragment”


Reciprocal Vision

Since the seer is caught up in what he sees, it is still himself he sees: there is a fundamental narcissism to all vision. And thus for the same reason, the vision he exercises, he also undergoes from the things, such that, as many painters have said, I feel myself looked at by things, my activity is an equal passivity— which is the second and more profound sense of the narcissism: not to see the outside, as the others see it, the contour of the body one inhabits, but especially to be seen by the outside, to exist within it, to emigrate into it, to be seduced, captivated, alienated by the phantom, so that the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen.

Merleau-Ponty, from The Visible and the Invisible, quoted by Victor Burgin in In/ Different Spaces (49)

It amazes me how closely this matches Walter Benjamin’s last definition of the aura of a work of art— art is that which returns our gaze. Merleau-Ponty uses the term chiasm to describe this space of intersection, a crossing over of two physiological structures.

It also seems relevant to think of this as an answer to the “narcissism of blogging.”

*Weird Postscript:I was thinking about the different models of representation— there is the optical model, which is basically a pyramid with the eye at the apex (like the panopticon). There is the model provided by Merleau-Ponty, which seems like a big X (chiasm) with everything converging in a singular event. And then, there’s Lacan with his torus— representation is like a big donut with a whole in the middle (chasm). For Lacan, life can never be a jelly donut. I never did like Lacan much.



Just brief notes to self:

The relationship between word and image is usually encountered as a power relation. Hence, the vocabulary of such discussions usually includes such concepts as paragone— Leonardo’s term for the “battle” between literature and painting— or parergon Derrida’s appropriation of Kant’s concept of the frame, or remark. The problem with the latter term is the question of what constitutes the content, and what constitutes the frame.

Another approach is to look at the relationship between text and image is to view one as a translation of the other. This is problematic, because in many usages the combination is superadditive. W.J.T Mitchell’s contention that works, such as those of William Blake are composite is little better. This suggests that they may be atomistically studied in their constituent parts. With Blake in particular, this seems to be “murdering to dissect.”

Close to the concepts of translation or composite, Victor Burgin suggests another way of viewing the intersection of different signifying system— they might also be viewed as a sort of chiasmus. I’m not sure what I can do with this right now, but it seemed interesting enough to note.

Translation does suggest, indirectly, a sort of power relation. Usually, it is the linguistic constituent (explanation, remark) that takes precedence over the visual. However, it is an odd relation because this suggests that people are deficient in visual literacy. This rests uneasily next to the commonplace that pictures have greater popular appeal. In a chiasmus, there is no power relation and its sum is greater than its constituent parts. It is a trope of amplification, not of comment or translation.

It also marks an intersection, rather than the parallel course suggested by translation or remark.

Rhetoric of Skill

The Rhetoric of Skill

One major question that bothers me regarding accepted histories of photography is: Why did it take so long for photography to become the dominant force in illustration? The emergence of photography sixty years after its invention as a preferred method of illustrating facts is usually explained as a technological problem. It wasn’t until the invention of the halftone in the 1880s that photography gained respect, slowly, as an accurate depiction of the physical world. From the beginning, photography was both a proletarian and elitist phenomenon. Its low cost cemented its appeal to the masses almost immediately, while its automatism had a profound appeal to emergent capitalism. However, the rhetoric of “truth” usually associated with photography is usually overstated—an artist’s depiction of a scene was generally valued more highly than the supposedly automatic response of the camera until the twentieth century.

In “The Dialectics of Skill in Talbot’s Dream World” (History of Photography, Summer 2002), Steve Edwards compares Talbot’s story told in The Pencil of Nature of his motivation for perfecting photography. Talbot could not draw well— photography was for Talbot, a “royal road to drawing.” The key question in Edward’s article is if Talbot considered photography as a substitute for skill exclusively for amateur artists, or if it also was foreseen as a replacement for the skills of professional artists as well. It is a complex question; personally, I think that it was taken by the artistic community as a replacement for the “middle-men” of art—the engravers and lithographers, not as the death-knell of painting and other “high” arts. Photography was believed to be a more perfect mode of translation—not a mode of artistic creation in its own right.

Edward’s article highlights an extremely important parallel discourse in the realm of manufacturing. Using Andrew Ure’s The Philosophy of Manufactures from 1835 as a touchstone, Edwards suggests that technical knowledge created a space for “experts” which displaced the hegemony of craft knowledge (mechanical skill). Ure’s fantasy of capitalist production is striking: “capital enlists science in her service, the refractory hand of labour will always be taught docility.” Skill, in a profound sense, is moved from the realm of the hand (or perhaps even “touch,” as Steven C. Pinson has argued) into the realm of mind.

Ure’s declarations are overt: “The most perfect manufacture is that which dispenses entirely with manual labor. The philosophy of manufactures is therefore an exposition of the general principles on which productive industry should be conducted by self-acting machines.” Obviously, the resistance to both photography and industrialization could be recast into a persistence of the original discourse of skill—as a manual, tactile, thing contrasted with a new discourse of skill reliant purely on concepts of mind.

People resist surrendering the qualities of touch. An impersonal utopia, seems hardly a utopia at all.


Illustration by Henry Worrall from Buffalo Land (1873)


The old Indian love of commemorating events by significant names is well illustrated in Kansas. One example may be given here. Waukarusa once opposed its swollen tide to an exploring band of men. Now, from time beyond ken, the noble savage has been illustrious for the ingenuity with which he lays all disagreeable duties upon the shoulders of the patient squaw. He may ride to their death, in free wild sport, the bison multitudes; but their skins must be converted into marketable robes, and the flesh into jerked meat, by the ugly and overworked partner of his bosom. While she pins the raw hide to earth, and bends patiently over, fleshing it with a horned hatchet for weary hours, the stronger vessel, his abdominal muscles wadded with buffalo meat, toasts his moccasined feet by the fire, fills his lungs with smoke from villainous killikinick, and muses soothingly of white scalps and happy hunting grounds.

Ox-like maiden, happy “big injun!” you both belong to an age and a history well nigh past, and let us rejoice that it is so.

But to return to the band long since gathered into aboriginal dust whom we left pausing on the banks of the Waukarusa. “Deep water, bad bottom!” grunted the braves, and, nothing doubting it, one loving warrior pushed his wife and her pony over the bank to test the matter. From the middle of the tide the squaw called back, “Waukarusa” (thigh deep), and soon had gained the opposite bank in safety. Then and there the creek received its name, “Waukarusa.”

We procured a remarkable sketch, in the well known Indian style of high art, commemorative of this event. It has always struck us that the savage order of drawing resembles very much that of the ancient Egyptian—except in the matter of drawing at sight, with bow or rifle, on the white man.

from Buffalo Land by W.E. Webb, 1873



The word document has its root in the Latin docere, the verb “to teach.” Its shifts in usage marked in the Oxford English Dictionary also mark changes in the attitudes in Western culture.

In twelfth and thirteenth century French, it had four nuances: lesson, proof, instance, or specimen. In Medieval Latin, it also held the meaning of a written instrument or charter. In English, from the fifteenth through the early nineteenth century, document carried both general and specific meanings of “teaching, instruction, warning.” From 1527-1879, document conveyed an overtone of proof: “Something written, inscribed, etc., which furnishes evidence or information upon any subject, as a manuscript, title-deed, tomb-stone, coin, picture, etc.” At the onset of the twentieth century, documentary took on different connotations. In turn of the century France, documentaire became the name of a genre of films associated with travel, whereas in England and America, documentary became more closely connected with the discourse of fact, both in film and in print.

However, there is another usage, perhaps implicit in the lost nuance of “warning” associated with document. A document can also be an index devoid of substantive content. A document might also merely point at an instance, a specimen, rather than be that specimen. However, to be an effective pointer, it must have an implicit point of view. It must originate somewhere in order to be directed at something. A document may be, effectively a promise that an instance or specimen exists. If a document is to be taken as proof, there are two alternatives: either it originates with a reliable witness who has inscribed it as truth (as a promise) or it may construct truth (as a performance) by its very existence. In the latter case, it is generally associated with institutional point of view rather than individual creation.

A document, as demonstrated by its myriad of uses in the OED, may be a written manuscript, a picture, or more pointedly, a tombstone, coin, or currency. Ultimately, I think my fundamental disagreement with the materialist analysis of documentary is the emphasis on these aspects alone. Modern criticism ignores the analysis of documents as indices, as warnings, preferring instead to assault their status as proof.

Perhaps the early French usage of documentaire as a genre of travel narrative should be resurrected. Documentary, in the specific case of photographs and/or non-fiction writing describing a something outside the witness, marks the boundary between a traveler visiting a foreign circumstance, and the thing itself. It can only reveal perspectives, not facts.

Slight History

Slight History

Collated, for no particular reason other than an interest in William M. Ivins Jr.—a slight history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

  • Founded in 1870 from three private collections of Old Masters paintings and a Roman sarcophagus

  • Moved to Central Park location in 1880, and gifted with a collection of Old Masters drawings by Vanderbilt

  • Prints division organized in 1916, under the direction of William M. Ivins Jr.

  • Photographs first entered the collection in 1928, through a gift from Alfred Steiglitz

  • Drawings division organized in 1960

  • Prints division renamed “Prints and Photographs” in 1970

  • Drawings division combined with the prints division in 1993

In actual life, people who exemplify Arnoldian culture are no more important than other people, and they have very rarely been among the great creators, the discoverers of new ideas, or the leaders towards social enlightenment. Most of what we think of as culture is little more than the unquestioning acceptance of standardized values.

William M. Ivins Jr., Prints and Visual Communication (1953).

American West

“Fred W. Loring, in his campaign costume, with his mule `Evil Merodach.’ Taken about 48 hours before he was brutally murdered by Apache–Mohaves, while en route from Prescott, A. T. [Ariz. Terr.] to San Bernadino, Cal., by stage —Timothy H. O’Sullivan, 1871.

American West

I didn’t realize that before the land survey photographs of 1861-1912, illustrators were commissioned to sketch the newly acquired territory. The use of drawings (reproduced as multicolored lithographs) began in 1850. This little bit of rhetorical evidence is conveniently left out when discussing the supposedly profound impact of photography on conservation. Perhaps it would be better cast as the impact of illustration on conservation.

Just a momentary brainwave . . .

On a completely unrelated note, I notice that the IMDB entry for Bad Santa lists that it has an R rating for pervasive language. Bad proofreading!