Saturday, January 15, 2005

Regarding the Pain of Others

Yesterday, at the aforementioned workshop, Jackie Orr spoke about panic. This is a great and heteroclite topic for research. It connects so much: the ways in which panic is incited and governed (e.g. the recent simulations of bio-warfare attacks); the ways in which panic is experienced and governed (e.g. prescription drugs for controlling panic attacks); the ways panic is represented and otherwise enacted. It's the kind of topic that is suddenly everywhere, in everything, once one is given the right optic for it.

Orr describes how panic is, at once, the responsibility of individuals (panic attacks) and the outgrowth of collectives (mass panic). I think about how, in representations of panic, the movements of the camera teach us how we might conceptualise panic: it cuts from the source of mass panic (the invading ships) to the faces, close in, of individuals suddenly out of control. Panic happens, we learn, when individuals go crazy--a definition which opens the door for someone to then claim that the source of panic was imagined, and that the individual is therefore merely insane, themselves to blame for their *own* panic. (Orr is careful to admit of how panic might be experienced by individuals, not merely represented. I'm the one obsessed by representation, not Orr so much.)

This busy movement between the individual and the collective. We see it in studies of photography as well. An individual's photograph is given as irreducible. The artist's valuable print. The stranger's holiday snap, impassive outside the family. In both cases, meaning devolves onto the individual, if it does not emanate from the individual. I like how Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others gives us the collective life of photographs, how they act together (if not in concert), alongside a sensitivity to how images work individually, iconographically (in contrast to, say, P. Bourdieu or D. Slater). The dangers of generalisation notwithstanding, I think photographs have a collective life. In that collective life, there is busy movement between the individual image and the collective image-body. What effects this movement? When? To what ends? Can we say there is a collective life of personal photographs? Has there always been (though the photos have been locked away in albums)? Does this life (or the collectivity) change in the context of the internet?

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