Monday, October 24, 2011

The Philosophical Photo


Over at Ecology without Nature Tim Morton references Graham Harman's suggestion that we need philosophy installations. In an interview with Tom Beckett at ASK/TELL Harman observes:
For me, art in general is a special way of breaking the bond between an object and its own qualities, and I believe it is now the central mission of philosophy to theorize the deformations and breakdowns in this bond. As I see it, they come in either four or ten forms, depending on how you count them. In this sense, aesthetics is first philosophy; aesthetics is not lipstick and jewelry worn by sober truths that can otherwise be stated as discursive propositions. ... But in fact, not even science or philosophy are doing their jobs properly if they dish out nothing but straight literal propositions. The world is not made of propositions, but of animals, chemicals, sports teams, and bombs.

None of these things can be translated into words or perceptions without significant energy loss.
 And here comes Harman's call for philosophy installations:
Different personality types dominate philosophy in different eras, as new needs come to the fore. The dominant personality type of recent decades has been the precise and assertive arguer who speaks clearly and likes to call people out on “nonsense.” It’s a personality that holds itself not to believe in very much, but to undercut the gullibility of other people’s beliefs.

My view is that the era of this personality has now run its course, and has become a pestilence of sorts. What we need now is something more like the artist type, given to new ways of staging problems. We need to find the equivalent of “philosophy installations,” whatever that might be.
Now, the thing is, in some ways, though not a philosopher, I am very much a thinker of the "precise" and "clear" type. That's one aspect of my early break from thinking about literature through continental thought and my flight to cognitive science. But I am also a musician and, back then, a painter and drawer.

These days I take photographs. It started when, in the summer of 2004, I was going to Chicago to give a paper at the LACUS meeting (Linguistic Association of Canadu and the United States, I believe, is how you unpack it). I was looking through the NYTimes and noticed the Millennium Park had just all but opened. "Freakin' awesome," says I to myself, "I gotta' see it."

A week or two before the conference I bought a point-and-shoot camera so, not only could I see it, but I could, in a sense, bring it home with me. Which is what I did. And then I put bunch of photos together into a photo essay, which Bruce Jackson put on the web for me at Buffalo Report.

That photo at the head of this post, I used that as the frontispiece for the essay. If you looked closely and noticed that the man at the lower left is a photographer, you might have thought "whoa, cool beans, a meta photo." I can't blame you. But I'd have been happier if he'd been doing something else, drinking a soda, chatting up a lady, or yawning. Because 'meta' isn't what the photo is 'about'. What the photo is about is something you can't even see directly, a triangle bounded by that man (that's why he's in the photo), Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate at the right edge, and the Chicago Cultural Center at center-left. That is, the photo's 'about' relationships in space.

Here you can see a glass box on which photos of faces are projected one after another as water cascades down the sides of the box:

establish fountain.JPG

Here's what's happening on the ground in front of that box, or perhaps its twin across the square:


I figure that, in that environment, one can't help but doing philosophy simply by being there.

Anyhow, getting back to Morton's post, I responded with a comment in which I listed some of the philosophical photography that I've been putting up on the web. And that IS how I think about it, explicitly so. Here's that comment:
Well, you know Tim, I really do like the idea of groups of photographs, and I have made some with more or less philosophical intent. Here's Platonic Philosophical Ascent for Dummies, which contains some unnamed ironies, though one can enjoy it without them. Here's Recent Trends in Continental Thought. Those are both at The Valve. And my recent nuclear fireball piece at New Savanna, that's got philosophical angle in it. And there's my whole urban pastoral series at New Savanna. And what of eyes? Two versions of the sky? Women's hands? And then After the Apocalyse, Life Continues, perhaps it's a companion piece to nuclear fireball; they were shot within a quarter of a mile of one another. What of Golden Showers and a Bird, with it's punning title? Simple Gifts, with commentary? Palm of Icarus? & Liberty Obscured is on the edge of flat-out propaganda? But for what?

It's as though though I can't take a photo without doing philosophy, at least a little.

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