Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Intimate Public Sphere

This is a description of the paper I'm writing for Lauren Berlant's "Intimate Public Sphere" class, and which (not coincidentally) presses on with the work of my photography project. It begins...

There is something that today's ordinary photography—all of our clamorous photos of cats and parties and weddings and babies and torture, so visible of late—wants to say about itself, about its busy public life. Susan Sontag came closest to divining it, but ends up being haunted by it; haunted by the specter of a photography-become-omnipresent. For Sontag, omnipresence was the contemporary condition of photographs (that is, a new condition), and an ominous one. On Photography sets out to articulate "some of the problems, aesthetic and moral, posed by the omnipresence of photographed images." The book swerves from this theme to provide an ontology of photographs and an ethics of photography, two thematic interests whose collective effect is to exile omnipresence to a position external to photographs, something which gets imposed by a process of history. As if to say: omnipresent is what photographs have become, not what they should be. And in that becoming lies the problem of contemporary life that most vexed Sontag (the becoming-distant of culture, the becoming-omnipresent of apathy). In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag's last book, omnipresence—although the term there, and in her essays on the Abu Ghraib photographs, has become "ubiquity"—is still discussed as a condition of photography, but the ethics here soften. Maybe there is hope yet for a radical photography, for a photography which is not merely parasitic upon life. Sontag's hesitant re-valuation of omnipresence is the fulcrum for her re-valuation of the ethics of photography.

Is it clear what has become omnipresent here, in Sontag's work or in any of the recent work on photography which flies all around the subject of omnipresence but never quite lands (Manovich, Slater, Sekula, WJ Mitchell)? Is it clear what an omnipresent photography makes knowable and what it forces into secrecy? Whether that omnipresence is a becoming or a being? In any case, two contemporary phenomena, one as grotesque as the other is banal, seem to literalize some part of Sontag's concern: on the side of the remarkably unremarkable are photoblogs,, and commercial photography sites like and, witnesses to an eruption of intimate photography, out of photo albums and into visibility; on the side of the grotesquely banal are the Abu Ghraib photographs, through which banality erupts as a traumatic event. Considering these two phenomena of contemporary photography together, the work of this essay is to begin ramifying the notion of an omnipresent photography. What does it mean to say that photography is omnipresent, ubiquitous, or—the concept I would add to Sontag's terms, borrowing from Michael Warner and his theory of publics—circulatory? What potentials are opened up, for analysis, for action, if we consider omnipresence not as the lamentable state of contemporary photography, but as some part of its code, its ontology? My broadest interest is to understand how ordinary photography, considered in its omnipresence, potentializes new forms of public life and public knowing.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Ubiquity Again

I keep coming back and back to this as the pivot point of Sontag's work on photography:

If there is something comparable to what these pictures [Abu Ghraib] show it would be some of the photographs - collected in a book entitled Without Sanctuary - of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880s and 1930s, which show smalltown Americans, no doubt most of them church-going, respectable citizens, grinning, beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging behind them from a tree. The lynching photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the pictures from Abu Ghraib.

If there is a difference, it is a difference created by the increasing ubiquity of photographic actions. The lynching pictures were in the nature of photographs as trophies - taken by a photographer, in order to be collected, stored in albums; displayed. The pictures taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib reflect a shift in the use made of pictures - less objects to be saved than evanescent messages to be disseminated, circulated. A digital camera is a common possession of most soldiers. Where once photographing war was the province of photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all photographers - recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities - and swapping images among themselves, and emailing them around the globe.

[This essay is reproduced all over; I got it here]

The idea of ubiquity feels so highly charged in Sontag's work because it's the very quality (although I think a "quality" is what ubiquity has become; Sontag originally analyzed it as more of a phenomena) that most exercised her about photography in her first book on the subject. And clearly, in this later work, she is still worried about it. But in Regarding the Pain of Others, she starts to acknowledge that photographs can do positive political work, transformative work (they can also be made to do reactionary work; often, as Sontag describes, the same photographs get mobilized towards diametrically opposed political goals). I think her reassessment around this point is related to a reassessment of her feelings about ubiquity, the fact that images are everywhere, that they now seem to retain everywhereness as a kind of quality (like indexicality and tonality are qualities).

[This is the point I want to elaborate in a paper I've started this quarter]

Monday, November 07, 2005

Media, Culture & Society v. 26(6) 2005

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Photoblogs = Art

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Something for you Cult Studs

[hey, that last post wasn't about photographs! what gives. And, hey, this one isn't either. But the next one will be.]

Anyone catch Habermas' little parenthetical definition of "culture" wedged into the final section ("25. A Sociological Attempt at Clarification") of Structural Transformation?

"...culture (which as a kind of historical sediment can be considered a type of primordial 'opinion' or 'prejudice' that probably has scarely undergone any change in its social-psychological structure)..." (p. 245).

Nerdy, I know, to have noticed it. But, interesting. A primordial opinion.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


I love the logic at work behind Jennifer and Kevin McCoy's How I Learned (1-4); I love the work it does.

Of course, the piece works best in its own fields of engagement (art, galleries, television, popular culture, how-to manuals, &c.). But reading it opportunistically (tactically), I think this is a logic that might be borrowed to good effect in academic work. A lot of academic work uses a similar logic of dis-integration (deconstruction is probably the best known of these, but much theory, I'd say, is dis-integrative). But I can't think of any that employs, subsequent to the dis-integrative act, such an orthongonal and productive strategy of re-integration, rendered as mis-integration.

Doesn't it seem to you that the various How To compilations that Jennifer and Kevin McCoy assemble (HOW TO FEEL ANGUISH, HOW TO SPEAK IN APHORISMS, HOW TO APPRECIATE PEACEFUL MUSIC, HOW TO BE DISSAPPOINTED, HOW TO BE EVIL, HOW TO BE OBSERVANT) were there in the original Kung Fu series all along? Isn't playful mis-integration a form of criticism? I also like it as an alternative to what Eve Sedgwick calls paranoid reading, which she identifies as the most common critical tactic of academic work, which basically turns on an act of revelation ( think it works like this, it actually works like this...). If How I Learned (1-4) is an act of revelation, it's an extremely perverse one.

[As I have so many times, I lean here on the exquisite eye of Thomson and Craighead and the exquisite curatorship of Sarah Cook.]

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Chicago Touchdown

So far it feels like a continuation of my recent work (classes start next week):

1. "The Intimate Public Sphere"
Instructor: Berlant, Lauren
Public sphere and feminist/queer theory have opened up critical strategies for thinking about the cultural politics of adaptation and transgression in the development of collective identifications. The first half of the course will track these two trajectories using US "women's culture" as its main historical scene: here, the course provides an arena for studying the aesthetic production and imagination of subjects in everyday life, the "ordinary," the capitalist and political spheres. The second half will focus on the articulation of sex and politics in everyday and mass institutions of intimacy. We will begin by reading Uncle Tom's Cabin and will move through suffrage and into modern and contemporary elaborations of this structure, focusing on melodrama and comedy. Seminar paper and presentation required.

2. "Public and Private in Modern Europe 1"
Instructor: Goldstein, Jan
This course will begin with a consideration of the very different theoretical perspectives of Habermas (Structural Transformation of the Bourgeois Public Sphere) and Foucault (Discipline and Punish, History of Sexuality, vol. 1) on the reciprocal construction of the public and private spheres, or of regimes of power and modes of selfhood, in the modern West. It will then look at a body of recent historiography, some of it directly inspired by Habermas or Foucault, that treats aspects of these same general topics in Europe in the period, roughly, 1750-1914. Topic to be considereed include the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility, the creation of a public for painting, and legislation on the family during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire. While the course will emphasize France, it will also include material on other European countries, especially Germany and Britain. Students taking the course as a two-quarter seminar are required to have a reading knowledge of the language of the country on which they will write their research paper; there is no foreign language requirement for students taking the course a one-quarter colloquium.

3. "History of International Cinema I: Silent Era"
Instructor: Tsivian, Yuri
This is the first part of a two-quarter course. The two parts may be taken individually, but taking them in sequence is helpful. The aim of this course is to introduce students to what was singular about the art and craft of silent film. Its general outline is chronological; we will also discuss main national schools and international trends of filmmaking.

And I'll be auditing these:

"Methods and Issues in Cinema Studies"
Instructor: Hansen, Miriam
This course offers an introduction to ways of reading, writing on, and teaching film. The focus of discussion will range from methods of close analysis and basic concepts of film form, technique and style; through industrial/critical categories of genre and authorship (studios, stars, directors); through aspects of the cinema as a social institution, psycho-sexual apparatus and cultural practice; to the relationship between filmic texts and the historical horizon of production and reception. Films discussed will include works by Griffith, Lang, Hitchcock, Deren.

"Reason and Its Histories"
Instructor: Daston, Lorraine
Description:Historicism allegedly corrodes all it touches: moral values are relativized to this time or that place; truth shrinks to a time-bound set of beliefs. Yet science, the strongest modern candidate for rationality, is dizzyingly historical. New theories and empirical finds replace old ones at breakneck speed. This course explores the implications of the history of science for ideas of reason, history, and their interaction, from the seventeenth through twentieth centuries. Readings include works by Bacon, Descartes, Condorcet, Kant, Comte, Nietzsche, Poincare, and Husserl. Undergraduates admitted with permission of instructor.

[btw (big news in a small place): I've moved (back) to Chicago. I've started the PhD program in Art History at the University of Chicago. My paid time on my ESRC grant is almost up, but I'll be working on the papers for the rest of the year. At least.]
web statistics