I've been thinking a lot about photography lately. Partly I'm sure, because of my love of Instagram and my almost obsessive posting of images and delight on discovering what others choose to disseminate.
I am not big on selfies, which seem to be one, if not the, biggest category that the images I see fall under, so I've been wondering what it represents. 'Selfie' was declared International Word of 2013 by the Oxford Dictionary, signalling both its ubiquity and perhaps its philosophical and cultural import.
I hear all the surface critiques, the narcissism-culture comments, blah blah blah, and I don't buy them. Much like updates on Facebook and Twitter, I think they represent more than the sum total of their parts.
A book group that I am involved in has been reading Mark C. Taylor's book, Hiding, which is both a critique and a celebration of surfaces. In a world where 'depth' has all but disappeared, surfaces become signposts to much more than superficiality. As Taylor says, "Depth is supposed to put an end to the play of surfaces by securing their foundation. Thus when depth disappears, surfaces become infinitely complex. This complex superficiality and superficial complexity is both disorienting and energizing--full of creative possibility...Surface has never been accepted and embraced as such but is always justified in terms of the heavens or the depths. When height and depth collapse, we are left with nothing more and nothing less than the proliferation of fleeting surfaces. To insist that these surfaces obscure more secure depths is to flee the creative-destructive effervescence that is our condition."
Representation by photography is nothing new. Since the dawn of the camera-age, we have been inundated with self-portraits (and self-portraits have been around since the Middle Ages, gathering steam of social acceptability during the Renaissance), but it seems to me that selfies represent something of a shift, or perhaps I should say, herald a shift in the way we use images and words in our world today.
And I think the difference between traditional self-portraits and the selfie is by considering it not simply as a form of photography but as a medium of self-identification.
When photography first emerged it not only freed visual arts from obligations to reality-hence the rise of the various forms of painting that came after--impressionism, abstract etc., no longer did we need painting to record our lives literally, photography could now do that, but it also became a means of recording 'truth'--pictures don't lie-except they do, but that's for another time perhaps.
Self-portraits have always made room for performance, you can dress-up as a cowboy and get your photo taken in a vintage-style so you look like a wild west character etc., and selfies seem to trade on this particular dynamic of photographic potential.
Technology is one of the keys to understanding the selfie I think. Firstly, there is the advent of digital cameras which made photography both cheaper and quicker, then came mobile phone technology and very soon after the mirror option, which is might be the key to selfie-mania. These dynamics met the cultural, or social need for selfies--working out when that moment occurred is a bit like trying to date the birth of post-modernism or virtually anything else, there are so many threads that came together, but suffice to say that it was a collision of technological capability mixed with social desire and opportunity.
There is one more factor that accounts for the rise of the selfie I think and that is celebrity. And a particular kind of late 20th century celebrity-the kinds of celebrity that have emerged out of 'reality tv' culture and online access-whether it be the rise of someone like Kim Kardashian on the back of a sex-tape, or Paris Hilton, or any number of other celebs who has emerged over the past couple of decades in the era of digital and social media. The celebrity selfie is not an innocent and unguarded photo of a generally inaccessible celebrity, it is PR, pure and simple, it is the canny marketing of a branded life, and that branded life is dependent upon these moments of 'reality' to connect with an increasingly global audience. So we get Kim Kardashian's famous 'booty shot' showing her hard at work on regaining her post-baby body. Also there is a focus on the body, not just the face in 'selfie-world', and we shouldn't under-estimate that dynamic.
"Photos, once slices of a moment in the past — sunsets, meetings with friends, the family vacation — are fast becoming an entirely new type of dialogue. The cutting-edge crowd is learning that communicating with a simple image, be it a picture of what’s for dinner or a street sign that slyly indicates to a friend, “Hey, I’m waiting for you,” is easier than bothering with words, even in a world of hyper-abbreviated Twitter posts and texts.
“This is a watershed time where we are moving away from photography as a way of recording and storing a past moment,” said Robin Kelsey, a professor of photography at Harvard, and we are “turning photography into a communication medium.”
By extension, in a globally increasingly inter-connected world of digital presence, we all seek to brand ourselves in some way and the selfie has become part of that process. We follow suit, the face, and body become currency, creating a kind of image-currency--not just for celebrity, but for us as well. These self-portraits are a means by which we transmit information (currency) about ourselves.
The selfie has also attracted the attention of the academy. Lev Manovich of Cuny, has launched a project called Selfiecity analyzing selfies taken from five cities – Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York, and Sao Paolo – with the objective of understanding how these self-taken portraits differ across age, gender, and culture. The results are pretty interesting-youth and females tend to offer up the most selfies, although the actual percentage of selfies is lower than expected in the cities they investigated.
Social media are vehicles of interpersonal communication, and they are voluntary opportunities and by virtue of both those elements they become a site where we can study human behavior, so regardless of our personal views on the worth or value of selfies it would seem that they represent some clue to the ways in which we both understand represent ourselves in the 21st century.
Anyway, I'm just thinking out loud and can see lots of holes in my thinking, but I wanted to throw it out there and begin the process of doing a bit more focused work on what it might mean-meanwhile, time for an Instagram fix.
I have to admit that a part of me just cant take the tone of this ad which aired during last week's Superbowl. I didn't watch it on TV, unfortunately American football is completely lost on me, but I did see the ad a number of times online and was aware of the broad responses that pinged around the web, positive and negative, regarding the 'diversity' of America, which was too much for some people apparently. The co-mingling of America the Beautiful with lyrics praising coke was, well, sappy as far as I am concerned, but again, the level of patriotism and nationalism surrounding major sporting events is something that I still marvel at, but I was not surprised that they took this approach with the music. The very simple payoff for the ad was that a diverse America finds unity around coca-cola, probably more likely to find it around that than around other things like religion. Consider this image which came via the Public religion Research Institute, which notes the disparity of attitudes and practices around religion between generations. It's quite a stunning image really, no matter where you might place yourself on the grid, the writing is there on the wall--things need to change, if there is much chance of connecting organized religion with younger demographics. These figures do not reflect the more subtle issues and nuances that are also part of generational theories, because there are always anomalies, but nevertheless, there are some strong signs here that should not be ignored.
The growing trend towards non-affiliation is quite a thing when viewed in comparison. I have a conversation about stuff like this on a nearly daily basis, or at least it feels that way, with people for whom these realities are something they don't choose to face with much semblance of desire to do anything at all about it, and I doubt seriously if this image or these statistics will put much of a dent in the resistance, but you never know, perhaps this time it will.
Rolling Stone have put Pope Francis on the cover of their latest edition, thereby sealing his cool factor into the pop-culture psyche. It's remarkable how quickly this man has managed to capture the imagination of people who one would not expect to be interested at all. Even someone like TV host of HBO's Real Time, Bill Maher, whose disdain for all things religious seems to run pretty deep has sounded almost bullish about the man.
I continua to have concerns about the lack of substantive shifts on major policies within the church particularly around sexuality and gender, but I am also quite taken by his swift change of gears and the amazing results it has produced in the cultural perception of the office of a Pope and perhaps even of the church itself, at least in the short term.
The RS article is pretty thorough, say what you will about Rolling Stone's demise over the past decades into little more than another gossip/promotional rag driven by a culture of gossip, it still manages to offer really thoughtful articles on wide ranges of topics, and this essay on Pope Francis is no exception.
A fair piece of the article is devoted to his personal style and how it has been the catalyst for a sea-change in both perception outside and perhaps practice inside the church. The article acknowledges that so far Francis has produced little in the way of substantive doctrinal change, but perhaps argues that this is not really the way things will change anyway, an idea I found quite fascinating. There have been accusations even from conservative insiders that francis is more about style than substance, but Thomas Reese, a catholic analyst is quoted, saying that in the Catholic church style is substance, that a church of symbols responds to symbolic gestures better than other methods. It would seem that much of the world outside the catholic church agrees, symbolic gestures would seem to be well received, especially when they are so obviously in tune with the very real issues that many in the world face. It should come as no surprise really that francis has gained resonance because he has principally addressed and critiqued runaway capitalism, greed, disparity and the growing loss of concern for those being left behind in the wake of economic shifts and changes in the economies of the world. When tweets make the rounds over and over concerning last weeks snippet that 85 billionaires have as much wealth as half the rest of the world or something ridiculous like that, it makes sense that a pope who calls this for what it is-complete madness-would find a level of popularity. After all religion is generally presumed to speak for the poor and dispossessed, of course, the fact that people seem genuinely surprised when it does, goes a long way to demonstrating what the central problem people have with religion.
You should buy the magazine and read the article for yourself, but there were a couple of little quotes I would like to address because I think they are pertinent for anyone in the religion game these days.
Speaking of his ascent to the papacy, the author, Mark Binelli, notes that when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis has never been a very good public speaker, but once he became Pope, "his recognizable humanity comes off as positively revolutionary. Against the absurd, impossibly baroque backdrop of the Vatican, a world still run like a medieval court, Francis' election represents...a scandal of normality."
Recognizable humanity and the scandal of normality--two key factors in his ascent to 'people's pope' if you will. If you combine those two ingredients with his ability and experience of genuine human struggle and an understanding of the need for the church to represent something other than the moralizing, sex-obsessed, petty, vindictive, judgmental vehicle it has largely come to be for the most part(and I'm speaking here of the whole church, not just the catholic arm of it), you have the groundwork for, or at least the potential for serious change in the relationship between church and culture.
"we have a world of pleasure to win and nothing to lose but boredom."guy debord, situationiste internationale.
According to Dr. Thomas Goetz of the University of Konstanz in a study released in Springers Journal and book there are now five types of boredom. Building on earlier research which explored levels of boredom along a continuum of arousal--from calm to fidgety, and whether boredom was experienced positively or negatively, four distinct types of boredom could be determined: indifferent boredom (relaxed, withdrawn, indifferent), calibrating boredom(uncertain, receptive to change/distraction), searching bordeom (restless, active pursuit of change/distraction) and reactant boredom (high reactant, motivated to leave a situation for specific alternatives).
Goetz's fifth boredom is characterised as apathetic boredom an especially unpleasant form that resembles learned helplessness or depression. It is associated with low arousal levels and high levels of aversion.
Both studies reveal that people tend to experience of one these types of boredom rather than all of them, and have noted the perception of the link between boredom and depression. The goal was to consider whether boredom affected learning and achievement positively or negatively and the alarm bells rang in Goetz's study because their testing, done with school students revealed a high level of apathetic boredom. This may have something to do with the education system among other things in my mind, which I think is still operating by a system that seems quite outdated in terms of real-world needs and directions.
I only bring this up because for a long time I have been mulling over the concept of boredom--since I discovered The Situationnistes, the European movement that preceded the post-modernists, whose goal was to challenge the mind-numbing aspect of modern capitalism on us, particularly the working classes. They were the first group to examine capitalism in its modern form, and they were concerned with the way in which consumer culture was creating a society of apathy and boredom. The Situs argued that increased material wealth of workers was not enough to stop class struggle and ensure capitalism’s perpetual existence, as many on the left argued at the time, since authentic human desires would be always in conflict with alienating capitalist society. Situationist tactics included attempting to create “situations” where humans would interact together as people, not mediated by commodities. They saw in moments of true community the possibility of a future, joyful and un-alienated society.
"People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have corpses in their mouths."
To the Situs the invention of leisure (a product of the industrial age), was the reason for boredom which they regarded as a modern phenomenon. According to their view, under capitalism, the creativity had become diverted and stifled, and society had been divided into actors and spectators, producers and consumers. The Situationists therefore wanted a different kind of revolution: rather than politics they wanted the imagination, not a group of men, to seize power, and poetry and art to be made by all. They were influenced by the Dada and Surrealists in much of their practices--graffiti, subverting comics, art events and happenings were the stuff of their revolution.
Today we assume boredom as a given, as part of the human condition, and now we break it down into various categories, each with their own particular and nuanced presentings. It's an interesting thought that boredom is a product of modernity and consumerism and what it might take to undo the effects.
A great introduction to their thinking is via a book on the punk movement by Greil Marcus, not only is it one of the best books about rock music in my opinion, it devotes a serious chunk of its pages to the role of the Situationnistes in the dawn of punk music, something seldom discussed as far as I know. Given my belief that punk was a moral cleansing movement, it makes sense that it had a politically motivated, artistic theory behind it.
I came across an interesting article about a comic-pornstar who is challenging centuries of conventional wisdom regarding women and sexuality in India. It might be hard to imagine a comic-porn character as a positive role model, and perhaps positive role model is way too generous, but nonetheless Savita Bhahbi, created by Deshmukh, is presenting a virtually unheard of aspect of female sexuality in Indian culture. How? By offering a female character who is the initiator and instigator of all that happens to her sexually. Flying in the face of a strong patriarchal approach to women and sex, Savita, the comic, trades in typical and very generic porn star activity, but on her own terms. Now, you might say, this is not progress, she has simply taken on male sexual characteristics and defiled herself in turn--well, I think it is a little more complex than that. I am not advocating porn, or encouraging any particular lifestyle of sexual activity, just noting that the balance of power is shifting in the realm of the sexes and it seems to be something of a global phenomenon. It is also worth remembering that classic Indian culture advocates the patrivratra--the worship of a husband as one would worship a god, which surely brings a whole set of issues around sexuality, fulfilment and submission into play, and definitely puts things firmly in the realm of male power, which I do not think is a very good thing.
As I said, creating a comic-porn character who engages in flagrant and not necessarily healthy sexual activity has major issues that need to be addressed but as the creator said in the article,
"he set out to show that sex is a two-way street, as well as to push society toward greater openness about female sexuality. “One of the reasons for creating Savita Bhabhi was to portray that Indian women have sexual desires too,” he said. “India is a country which is still sexually repressed, and to break the shackles, it is the women of India who are going to have to come out first.”
This could be a naive way of engaging the topic, but as the article notes, India has a large viewership for Internet porn so one could see the way a person might consider this as a viable path to explore important issues. I think that my interest in the article was heightened a couple of things. Firstly, by conversations that we have been having on sex and sexuality, based on a talk given by Alain de Botton at the School of Life. The horizons of how we think about sexuality are changing and old approaches may not have the exclusivity they once did--whether that is a good or bad thing is going to be a hotly debated issue for quite some time--sex, like religion and money, is a topic that garners all kinds of responses.
The second reason I noted it here was because I think I have resisted addressing issues around human sexuality--not sure why, probably haven't wanted to wade into ridiculous and usually tired arguments about the Bible and sex, but I'm over that, I'm interested in what it means to be human and that means grappling to some extent with the implications of how we think about and practice and communicate around issues of human sexuality. Yet another book topic
I have been thinking a bit about silence lately, it's come up a lot for some reason in conversations around various kinds of religious practice. It is often posited in many circles as the sort of ultimate spiritual practice, and is offered as a pathway to the contemplation or accommodation of mystery into ones life. I can understand the interest, particularly in a world like ours where noise fatigue is a regular aspect of our lived experience, and I appreciate the aesthetic value of silence. But I don't really like the lifting of silence as some sort of ultimate practice in life, I must also admit that conversations about spiritual practices' leave me immediately cold whether they are about silence or anything else. I think silence can be a good thing, but like everything, it has a counter-intuitive element and that is what bothers me in discussions about it, the downsides of silence are seldom addressed, and they exist.
Of course, there are many different types of, and purposes for silence, and I have been thinking about it much less in terms of spiritual practice and more with regard to the silence of things unsaid, and the powerful influence it has on situations. Pierre Bourdieu, the French philospher, sociologist, anthropologist, wrote about the 'world of the undiscussed,' the issues in a conversation or debate that are never discussed, assumed I guess by all parties, and consequently the conversation is rail-roaded by what is not spoken of, by the silence. It seems to me that this is what keeps things in check and perhaps prevents or limits the possibility of change.
There was an article that addressed this issue that I came across via Peter Spear's always interesting site. It originated from Gillian Tett at the Financial Times. Tett applies Bourdieu's theory to her work as journalist, I have been thinking about similar issues with regard to church and theology and decision making processes, and I think the theory holds true there as well, it is what is outside the conversations, that is never discussed, that is really driving how things get done--and it's driving me nuts, because it makes me feel as though nothing ever can or will be different, that the staus quo will win out--whether it should or not, and it pushes me into the silence of frustration, another negative kind of silence.
We watched a chunk of Century of the Self, Adam Curtis' 2002 documentary about the birth of the modern world, last night in the History of Advertising class. I showed it because it begins with a lengthy exploration of the work and influence of edward bernays, probably one of the most overlooked figures of the 20th century. Nephew of Sigmund Freud and developer of public relations and believer in the power of propaganda to influence the decisions of human beings.
Curtis' film does a great job of setting up the tensions that have, and continue to shape our world with regard to the relationship between democracy and capitalism. Bernays applied lessons learned from propaganda used in wartime and applied them to peacetime living, essentially giving rise to consumer society as we know and experience it today,
"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the
organized habits and opinions of the masses is an
important element in democratic society. Those who
manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling
power of our country.
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society."
The film is filled with intense material and doesn't paint a great picture of Freud's theories of psychoanalysis, but it sets up this dichotomy about us--are we to be 'active citizens' or 'passive consumers'? The answer to that seems to be the tension that we all live in everyday. Another theme is the tension between big business and government over the how and in what way industry should be managed, represented and offered to citizens--another theme that is still playing out today.
The success for which Bernays is perhaps most widely known is his campaign on behalf of the tobacco industry to get women to smoke. smoking was essentially taboo for women, something only prostitutes might do, as with many 'pleasures' it was the domain of men. But Bernays, applying his uncle's principles and building on the theory from another psychologist that women view cigarettes as phallic, he managed to change an entire culture's view of smoking almost overnight, and with virtually a single act of carefully managed public action--heady stuff.
The issues raised by the film, about Bernays, psychoanalysis, relationship between business and government, between democracy and capitalism, the emergence of the consumer society etc., are central to understanding the nature of self-understanding that was developed in the early 20th century and continues to plays out today and, I would argue, key to any public dialog about issues related to humanity--anyone preaching or teaching should be aware of all this, because it is key to understanding the way we see ourselves today and it is a unique and challenging perspective.
This is what Noam Chompsky had to say about Bernays' 1928 book, History Is A Weapon,
[The] American business community was also very impressed with the
propaganda effort. They had a problem at that time. The country was
becoming formally more democratic. A lot more people were able to vote
and that sort of thing. The country was becoming wealthier and more
people could participate and a lot of new immigrants were coming in, and
So what do you do? It's going to be harder to run things as a private club. Therefore, obviously, you have to control what people think. There had been public relation specialists but there was never a public relations industry. There was a guy hired to make Rockefeller's image look prettier and that sort of thing. But this huge public relations industry, which is a U.S. invention and a monstrous industry, came out of the first World War. The leading figures were people in the Creel Commission. In fact, the main one, Edward Bernays, comes right out of the Creel Commission. He has a book that came out right afterwards called Propaganda. The term "propaganda," incidentally, did not have negative connotations in those days. It was during the second World War that the term became taboo because it was connected with Germany, and all those bad things. But in this period, the term propaganda just meant information or something like that. So he wrote a book called Propaganda around 1925, and it starts off by saying he is applying the lessons of the first World War. The propaganda system of the first World War and this commission that he was part of showed, he says, it is possible to "regiment the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments their bodies." These new techniques of regimentation of minds, he said, had to be used by the intelligent minorities in order to make sure that the slobs stay on the right course. We can do it now because we have these new techniques.
This is the main manual of the public relations industry. Bernays is kind of the guru. He was an authentic Roosevelt/Kennedy liberal. He also engineered the public relations effort behind the U.S.-backed coup which overthrew the democratic government of Guatemala.
His major coup, the one that really propelled him into fame in the late 1920s, was getting women to smoke. Women didn't smoke in those days and he ran huge campaigns for Chesterfield. You know all the techniques—models and movie stars with cigarettes coming out of their mouths and that kind of thing. He got enormous praise for that. So he became a leading figure of the industry, and his book was the real manual.