Monday, June 27, 2005

Making Publics

[I've been writing almost as much about publics as I have about photography, for reasons that I hope to make clear in present and future writings.] This is a public sculpture that nicely tests and voices some key ideas about how publics work (and, no doubt, fail to work).

Thanks to Jean for the link.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Some Generalisations, Part 1

Here is the moment you've all been waiting for. Maybe. What is it? Generalisations! Isn't that what everyone _really_ wants from a sociological study?*

Possibly this will be useful to a few people, maybe most of all to (myself and) the people I've interviewed, many of whom have asked me for a list like this. Because I'm writing this primarily with you all in mind, probably I should use "you" instead of the more impersonal "they" in the list below, but that doesn't seem quite right either. Please forgive, if you can, how impersonal and social scientific it sounds.

So, here it is: a long, largely un-substantiated, highly generalised list of characteristics or behaviours that the people I've interviewed (you all) have in common. They're not all going to sound revelatory; in fact, by their very nature as commonalities, they should be familar to most people. Then again, my impression from talking to people is that they are not at all sure how "typical" they are, or where their practices converge and diverge from others' practices. I guess that's the first commonality in my list. So, I present them in all their underwhelming glory.

I've interviewed about 80 people in all, over 2.5 years, with about 95% living in the UK and far more than half living in London. Pretty nearly equal numbers of men and women. Approx. 55/80 people upload their photos primarily to blogs (although many have more than one site); approx. 25/80 people upload their photos primarily to These 80 people are the grammatical subject of all the following clauses. Important note: I really have no idea how generalisable the following are to the population outside the 80 people I've met. Others will be better judges of that than I am. Ok, here goes, in no very significant order.

Imagine that each of the following begins with: "Out of 80 people, some relatively large number..."

-migrate over time from being interested in what photography can show to being interested in photography as an activity in and of itself

-feel as though they steadily become better (more skilled) photographers through the period of taking photos and uploading them to the internet

-start to carry their camera(s) with them all the time, wherever they go

-take a lot more photos as a (direct or indirect) consequence of posting photographs to the internet

-tend to bristle or quail at the word “photographer,” at the suggestion that this is a name that might apply to them

-shy away from portrait photography and shots of strangers

-occasionally or frequently go on journeys or walks with the sole or primary purpose of taking photographs

-begin to change their photographic practices significantly when they get their first digital camera (more photos, more interest in showing those photos, more interest in photography as such)

-like to go on long walks

-are more interested in “urban grit” than pastoral landscapes; are more interested in "gritty" landscapes than bucolic ones

-prefer to shoot alone

-have most of their conversations about photography through the internet (in comment fields and discussion forums); that is, tend not to have very many offline friends (friends who they mostly see offline or who they got to know offline) with whom they talk about photography

-have done most of their learning about photography online, by looking at other people’s photos and participating in discussions—rather than learning through offline courses. This is far more of a self-taught than an institutional form of education, but it’s not really quite either one

-see most of the photographs they encounter (other people’s photos) on the internet—not in galleries or books

-say they are selective about the photos they put online (in other words, apply some standards; but this comment is about the fact of selectiveness and not the types of standards people apply; these are more variable)

-say that their blog or website or photographs are mostly done for themselves (for their own pleasure and not an audience’s pleasure)

-(nevertheless) are conscious of having an audience comprised of some known people (friends, family) and some strangers (a group which varies in size according to one’s imaginative tendencies and the amount of comments one gets from strangers)

-have comment fields enabled and actively read them

-feel obliged to respond to most of the comments they receive

-eventually become inured to the compliments they receive for their photos

-have more than one personal website

-are skeptical about making photography into a paid activity. Two reasons: 1. because most fear that being paid or trying to get paid will fundamentally change how they feel about photography if not about the photographs themselves (most like how they feel about it as an unpaid activity) and 2. because most know that the market for photographers is stingy and closed

-(nevertheless) have ideas about how to make money with their photographs

-say that taking photographs helps them to see the world differently

[this is just a start; more to come]

*The status of generalisations is something that's in question in this project. Why? Because it's generally good practice to question the process of generalising, but more importantly, because I think the topic of my research, itself, puts that process into question (i.e. in a sense, what I've been studying is the relationship of the single photographer to the mass of photographers, the single photograph to the mass of photographs--that is an issue of generalisation, or more specifically, trying to thwart the tendencies of generalisation).

Ochlocracy in action

Friday, June 10, 2005

"Remixing the blogosphere"

Remixing the Blogosphere, The Guardian, 09.06.05

All in all, a surprisingly wide-ranging and copyleft-friendly article. But I'm still going to quibble.

The article's narrative backbone is that "online independent media hubs" represent an advance over blogs. Specifically, the writer (Danny Bradbury), influenced by Clemencia Rodriguez (associate professor in the Department of Communications at Oklahoma University), thinks that hubs are more communal, more collective, more collaborative and therefore create a better kind of public. Rodriguez says that: "Blogs suffer from their individualistic nature...'Ninety per cent of them will never find their audience, because information and communication has to do with being part of a collective.'"

It's hard to believe that notions of community, collabortion, and collectivity still need to be subtended by an enabling notion of centrality. Aren't people watching how blogs work? How Flickr works?

I don't have a problem with the hubs they discuss, many of which seem pretty interesting (and some of which are less centralised and centralising than others), but I think if we use the emergence of media hubs as evidence that blogs and flickr sites and all manner of "individualistic" media are a primitive and already-superannuated form of public action, we are going to lose an opportunity to see how these sites of individualistic activity foster (although not causally or cumulatively) pluralistic activity. To me, this is one of the most significant and exciting aspects of blogs and their various individualistic media siblings; the article obscures this aspect in its praise for centralised hubs as the natural evolution of blogs and all independent media.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

No Longer Greek to Me

Friday, June 03, 2005

Anti-Determinist* before it was cool to be anti-determinist

"The discussion of the whole problem of technology, that is, of the transformation of life and world through the introduction of the machine, has been strangely led astray through an all-too-exclusive concentration upon the service or disservice the machines render to men. The assumption here is that every tool and implement is primarily designed to make human life easier and human labor less painful. Their instrumentality is understood exclusively in this anthropocentric sense. But the instrumentality of tools and implements is much more closely related to the object it is designed to produce, and their sheer 'human value' is restricted to the use the animal laborans** makes of them. In other words, homo faber***, the toolmaker, invented tools and implements in order to erect a world, not—at least, not primarily—to help the human life process. The question therefore is not so much whether we are the masters or the slaves of our machines, but whether machines still serve the world and its things, or if, on the contrary, they and the automatic motion of their processes have begun to rule and even destroy world and things." —Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 151.

I like Arendt's re-direction here. To evaluate technologies on the basis of their ability to make human life better obscures the question of "better for whom." Her focus on "world-making" (in addition to being close to Warner's definition of publics as "world-making") admits of a broader, better set of conversations. We could say, then, that Arendt's concept of technology is more public (in Habermas' sense of a public discussion which opens to debate the very bases of discussion, the presuppositions, the biases, etc.—in contrast, for instance, to PR (or a techno-determinist account of technology) which stages a semblance of debate while obscuring the assumptions upon which that debate rests). Although I think her distinction between animal laborans and homo faber now seems at best a bit arbitary and at worst completely misleading.

*Determinist, or, Techno-determinist: a techno-centric view of the world, as embodied, for instance, in the U.S.'s infamous Star Wars initiative, a missle defense system designed to keep America safe from nuclear attack. The techno-determinist aspect of this initiative is to think that all one has to do is build this massively expensive machine and as a simple result, all Americans will be safe. But, of course, there are a set of very political and very complex reasons why America might think it needs a missle defense system in the first place (which are completely unaddressed, even elided, by the idea of the saviour machine) as well as a set of very political and very complex consequenes of building such a machine, the least of which would be that Americans are safe.

**animal laborans: the animal who labors; this is Arendt's way of talking about the part of us which has to labor to serve our most basic needs (i.e. eating and reproduction). This is an important term for her because, in the history of discussions about publics, it has often been argued that in order to be properly public (political, communal, engaged, etc.) one has to have distance from one's baser needs and the labor required to serve them. But Arendt is, at best, ambivalent about the concept because she recognises, at the most fundamental level, that we cannot ignore the body, and that (therefore) one cannot simply remove the need to labor (Marx, for instance, famously argued that the Revolution would bring about the end of the need to labor).

***homo faber: Arendt's term of that part of humans which works (as opposed to labors) to build tools which create the world, i.e. the things, the cities, the culture that is the world.
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