(a few notes on a couple of contemporary cultural excesses)
Mitchell, William J.,
‘The Reconfigured Eye’,
London: The MIT Press.
‘Architectures of Excess’,
In this review I’m going to question two common characteristics of contemporary cultural writing. The first is the way in which so-called information technology is assumed to have radically changed the world. Of course, it has. But the problem with the ‘technologist’ view (which pops up for every new technology) is that it divorces the technology from the social situation out of which it arose: that is, it is seen as a cause of social change but not as caused by social factors. The second commonplace is a kind of forgetting, or at least a commitment to a kind of present that systematically mis-represents the past. This is a kind of demonizing of modernism by much of what does, or has gone by, the name of postmodernism. I’m just saying there is a lot of bad history about. Ironically, given the common postmodernist vitriol against modernism’s alleged fetishization of the new, these trends meet in a zealous assertion of how things have radically changed.
Both ‘The Reconfigured Eye’ and ‘Architectures of Excess’, in different ways, can be read as affected by these two normal assumptions.
The thrust of ‘The Reconfigured Eye’ (somewhat portentously subtitled ‘Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era’) is simply technologist: the story goes that the invention of digital imaging on powerful computers is going fundamentally to change visual culture; where once we all naively believed in the authority of the photographic image, from now on we will all learn a profound scepticism in interpreting manipulated images.
Such arguments place the agency of change in the sui generis power of technology: this one is a specific variation on the ‘computers will change the world’ theme. It has historical forbears from ‘television will change the world’ all the way back, no doubt, to ‘the wheel will change the world’. It is only a half-truth because the technology is considered in isolation from the historical and social institutions which both sought it out in the first place and mediate its use. No technology is innocent. We need the possibility of asking why and how the technology came about (in any other than a technical sense) and, indeed, of how its fate is tied up with powers outside of itself.
It might be fun, though rather fruitless, to ask Mitchell whether he thought the proliferating need of consumer capitalism to manipulate images could be a necessary condition for the invention and application of this technology of which he is so enamoured.
The technologist assumption is shared by Collins in ‘Architectures of Excess’, with his repeated use of the term “array of information” (his subtitle proclaims “Cultural Life in the Information Age”). It is taken pretty much as given that this stuff has intruded into all our lives, profoundly affecting the construction of our subjectivity and cultural lives. This postmodern conventional wisdom leaves the interesting questions unasked. What doesn’t get asked is whether you put social change down to the power and desire of interested parties (as they say) or the research of disinterested scientists. I don’t want to argue that technological change comes out of ‘historical necessity’ (or any other nasty modernist totalities); rather I’d like to suggest that it can not be divorced from other social change; and that persons are responsible for social change.
Mitchell, you feel, has started from his awe at the possibilities of computer imaging and leapt from there to the era-making claim of his sub-title. His account of photography, upon which the alleged paradigm shift depends, is not convincing. He supposes that photographs have a causal link to reality so that we take them as ‘visual truths’. As such he reduces all photographs to their representational qualities. Not that dealing with the nitty-gritty of representation is a bad thing, but what he does not entertain is the use of photographs: in a variety of institutions, practices, agencies and discourses photographic technologies are used in ways so that what holds in one sphere may well not hold in another. It is only in some of these that the photograph is ever read as a record of reality.
This is bad history. The status of photographs as evidence had to be established in those practices where this holds. For example, in the last decade of the last century the State’s systematic interventions into the living conditions of the working class needed to be conceived as benevolent and technical: the photographic record was used to embody this power as impartial and impeccable record. Mitchell seems oblivious to such political and historical shenanigans which construct the meaning of images in discursive fields. He does consider where representation goes wrong (or is false), through mis-labelling or manipulation but this just keeps him on his essentialistic home ground.
I get the impression that Mitchell only ever looks at images as the pictorial equivalent of philosophers’ examples. Apocryphal philosophers have the reputation of sitting isolated in their rooms interrogating their tables. They don’t seem to venture out into the complexities of the world. In the same way that philosophers never seem to talk to carpenters, I wonder whether Mitchell ever watches television?
Perhaps I’m taking this too seriously. The book breezes right through its brief arguments rallying everyone from Goodman and Wittgenstein to Duchamp and Rembrandt to its cause, with little care for the battered trail of historical mis-representation that it leaves behind. Mitchell seems all too eager to get to the sections which are a kind of ‘photoshop for beginners’. The ability to elucidate upon the one’s chosen technology does not make grander claims as to its social efficacy more convincing.
Collins certainly has been watching television (and film and art and so on; he is clearly immersed in existing culture not philosophical examples). ‘Architectures of Excess’ moves easily between various forms of cultural production. This is not another book extolling the virtues of postmodernism; it is a book extolling the virtues of another postmodernism.
It is taken as axiomatic that at first postmodernism was characterized by ‘semiotic overload’ but that the issue now is one of the ‘technologies of absorption and domestication’. This is an argument that, far from its alleged death, postmodernism has infiltrated domestic and popular culture. But this is not in the sense that last year’s modernist avant-garde used to become trivially adopted by this year’s popular taste-makers and as such was passé. Rather, the argument is that popular culture has become characteristically postmodern; thus cultural divisions between popular, folk and high cultures (and any other you might name) are untenable.
It is difficult to get a critical hold of a book like this because one assumption flows so easily from the next. Postmodernists generally do not want for enthusiasm. This is a book that can sum up “the most distinctive stylistic features of postmodernism” in an aside: “radically eclectic forms of textuality that demonstrate a hyperawareness of the transnational, transhistorical nature of media-sophisticated cultures which define themselves increasingly in terms of heterogeneity and difference”! This confidence is typical. It makes any criticism which wishes to halt the flow to ask pernickety historical questions seem a bit boring and pedantic, as though wanting to spoil the fun. But here goes.
Collins does have a sensitivity and respect for the diversity of contemporary cultural production. He takes no nonsense from those critics who are desperate to have an object of study they can handle and define (and protect from infection), seeing this as a wish of many (of all persuasions) to protect their own authority and cultural capital. Instead he embraces the unmanageable complexity and diversity of different cultural realms: that trans-this-and-that heterogeneity and difference.
What I find odd, is that he treats these different cultural domains as cultural equals without considering their political inequalities. For example, he can hold up black ghetto culture as being legitimate as white suburban culture without considering these circumstance from which they come and the relationship between them, which help form what they are. Factors such as social hegemony; financial backing; institutionalization; and so forth don’t seem to count for him. Collins ticks off Bourdieu for wanting to prioritize a dominant culture: Collins accuses him of wanting to protect his own symbolic capital by being a privileged critic of privilege. I think that Collins has missed the point (and that this is typical – and not just of him): the dominance of one set of cultural tastes is not about the relation of one cultural form to others; it is about the cultural dominance of a class, whose power, precisely, rests elsewhere. At least the point should be argued.
What is at stake is not just a question of what postmodernism is or is not, essentially. Rather, without accounts of how this ‘semiotic excess’ came about and in what kind of practices it functions it doesn’t seem very enlightening. Collins quotes, approvingly, the producer of ‘Wayne’s World’ as saying “all cultural references are, to a ten-year-old, perfectly familiar”. He obviously can’t mean this literally, but what might be interesting is to find out what cultural references are available to which ten-year-olds, where. But Collins prefers interpretation to research.
So, for Collins, the technologist argument is subservient to bolstering a claim for postmodernism’s veracity. The villain of the piece is obviously big bad modernism. But if his theories of rampant appropriation, irony, self-awareness, media sophistication, fragmentation and so on (all familiar postmodern stuff) are to mean anything, then we could do with an adequately aware and sophisticated account of modernism. This we don’t get. For example, Adorno and Benjamin are mentioned briefly. But they are characterized, crudely, as defenders of cultural elitism and the revolutionary primacy of mass production respectively: a view which could only result from the most prejudice of mis-readings (or second hand rumours). But most of the time modernism is not given form, just remaining a phantom with which to scare small children.
These two books, in their own ways, have their uses. They also have their absences, which are telling of their assumptions about the kind of world in which we live. Sometimes what is not said speaks more about present day thought than what is said.
Bad history and forgetfulness are nothing new. Amongst other things, they go to serve the institutions of political power which must deny that their power was won out of injustice. We may get new technologies and new vocabularies but the argument remains the same.