June 29, 2014

Long Conversation: Vanity

I'm taking part in a cross-country writing group called Long Conversation. Each month we get a question and have to come up with an answer. This month the question was: How do you think about your physical appearance? Here's what I wrote.

Even at a young age, I spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the bathroom mirror, inspecting my image and experimenting with it. I’d play at different hair styles and contort my face into something more preferable or more terrifying. Eventually, I learned that, besides simple curiosity, one of the names for this fascination with my own appearance was “vanity.” Although the word first assumed its real (shame-inducing) significance for me by way “Vanity Fair,” one of many dangerous distractions for Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I was still somewhat surprised when, years later, I later discovered that the English word vanity comes from the Latin vanus, which means empty or without substance. I had equated it with excess, drawing out the obvious connection between Bunyan’s morality tale and the name of what I thought was a risqué magazine whose sole purpose was to celebrate indulgence. Strange as it is, I think this misunderstanding gets at something central to the way I think about my apparent identity.

There’s a sense in which every attempt I make to think about my personal appearance is filtered through the experience of conscious self-reflection. It goes without saying that to be preoccupied, as I am, with my own self-image is a form of indulgence: a luxury, a privilege, an experience that I could probably do without. At the same time, however, the very thought of my appearance requires me to acknowledge a subjective lack. At a very basic level, the way I think I look is a reflection of what others see. Or, to put it another way, to imagine my appearance, I have to think in the abstract or, at the very least, deal with my image as an object, pulling together those barely-remembered photographs and mirror moments and arranging them into an intelligible collage or sequence: a cipher for a social subject who finds it more expedient, perhaps even more natural, to see himself as an individual. I know myself as a living reflection, a reflection of something I can only approach though technology and representation. All the way back to Plato’s cave, we’ve been dismissing images as distractions and dead-ends. This what Bunyan, an iconoclastic Protestant, was getting at when he gave the name Vanity to that prideful city in Pilgrim’s Progress. Vanity, like pride, positions the self as an idol, an object of worship. In the narrative of Christian salvation it is antithetical to the progress of the soul towards God. In other words, vanity turns one backwards. Bunyan’s allegory can ring hollow as an instance of antiquated piety, and by most interpretations it usually is. But apart from the mirror, how is it possible to access one’s appearance without indulging in some kind of retrospection, especially considering the flux and symbiosis of our bodies? When I try to imagine my appearance I defer to traces of photographs, the profile that I’ve managed to construct on Facebook. I get nostalgic.

A photograph can seem so false, so artificial; but it’s often closer to what others see. That toothy smile that seems to align in front of my bathroom mirror appears crooked and ghoulish if the camera captures me at the wrong angle. Of course, it works both ways. When I was much younger, I caught sight of my dad’s reflection through an open bathroom door and thought there was a stranger in our house. Encountering someone else’s reflection in the mirror can feel deeply estranging, but in reality we’re seeing that person as they most often see themselves.

My ongoing attempts to appraise my body and the way it appears are, often simultaneously, attempts to adhere to something else, whether it’s a socialized ideal or a nostalgic impression of a younger, better self. Being limited by my own subjectivity means that I have to isolate my body as an image in order to think about my appearance and the very fact that I can do this (and will do it all too easily) is an effect of my lived experience as a white male, seemingly healthy and well-proportioned, though increasingly vulnerable to accidents of clumsiness. What makes this empty, idealized image—this instance of vanity—so necessary? Why does it govern what I do to my body? And why does my body, in particular, appear so complacently in this privileged form of abstraction? By most North American standards of representation, there are things about my appearance that I simply don’t have to question. This means that I’m free to inspect my chin for blackheads and spend five minutes trying to pluck a stray nose hair; that I can buy four different types of anti-dandruff shampoo before any one of them runs out; and that I can preen and polish the dry patches of skin around my eyes and nose. My daily struggle in front of the mirror is microscopically insignificant, but this fact does not stop me from hunting down that last, visible flake of skin from my hairline, which, incidentally, is only visible under the blazing lights above our bathroom sink. Or perhaps I should call it our vanity.

June 23, 2014

Susan Sontag on Photography

One of the few critical texts that was recommended during my first year of design studies, Susan Sontag's On Photography, features essays that were originally published in The New York Review of Books in the 1970s. Most discussions of technology from the period feel dated and irrelevant, but Sontag follows a critical tradition that blends cultural analysis, history and philosophy in a way that still feels fresh and readable, if not compelling. From the beginning of her first essay, “In Plato’s Cave,” Sontag makes numerous attempts to define the cultural moment of her writing through the growing phenomenon of photography as a practice, on the one hand, and the increasing ubiquity of the photographic image. She sees herself surrounded by “aesthetic consumers” and “image-junkies,” for whom experience itself has become a way of seeing. “Today,” she writes in the essay’s final paragraph, “everything exists to end in a photograph.” Sontag will make a similar kind of statement at the end of her penultimate essay, “Photographic Evangels.” This time, instead of revising the French nineteenth-century poet Mallarmé, she alters a famous statement by the late Victorian critic Walter Pater: “A modernist would have to rewrite Pater’s dictum that all art aspires to the condition of music. Now all art aspires to the condition of photography.”

The essays that make up On Photography are at times polemical and immoderately aphoristic. (The final 25 page section is a collection of quotations featuring the likes of Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Lewis Heine, Victor Schlovsky, and Charles Baudelaire.) Definitions for photography abound. Photography appropriates, documents, democratizes, idealizes, distills, amuses, distracts, memorializes, certifies and justifies. As William H. Gass writes in his 1977 review of Sontag’s collection for The New York Review of Books, “No simple summary of the views contained in Susan Sontag's brief but brilliant work on photography is possible, first because there are too many, and second because the book is a thoughtful meditation, not a treatise, and its ideas are grouped more nearly like a gang of keys upon a ring than a run of onions on a sting.” The collection is at times unhelpfully general and scattered, but certain themes do become apparent, if only because of Sontag’s very deliberate attempt to ground her reflections in her present surroundings. What really interests Sontag throughout these six essays is the relationship between photography and reality: the way that photography gives shape to experience and informs our judgements about what counts as “real.”

But this concern for the “real” happens to be one of least interesting things about On Photography. Photography, as an artistic discipline, was at first naively situated within the genre of realism, comprising of what Fox Talbot first described as “natural images,” once believed to provide the viewer with pure access to its subject. Similarly, the great modernist László Moholy-Nagy saw the genius of photography in its ability to render “an objective portrait: the individual to be photographed so that the photographic result shall not be encumbered with subjective intention.” Early defenders of photography as an art form tended champion photography either as an assault on reality or a submission to it. A result of this tension, observes Sontag, is a deep ambivalence towards photography’s means, often manifested in one’s reluctance to use the newest high-powered equipment. But this tension wasn’t really an issue for the new class of photographers that emerged along with cheaper, easier technology.

For Sontag, writing in the 1970s, photography had recently become “a social rite, a defence against anxiety, and a tool of power” for middle class Americans (8). Finally an affordable past-time, photography became a way of constructing personal and family narratives, documenting notable events (that is, turning situations into events) and doing something with one’s leisure time. For Sontag, the modern photographer cannot be considered without recourse to the figure of the tourist. The camera not only helps to “make real what one is experiencing,” but allows its user to occupy as space outside of what he or she is documenting. “Photographing,” she writes, “is essentially an act of non-intervention.” But it is also “an elegiac art, a twilight art.” To capture a moment in time is to step outside of it: to bear witness to an alternate reality, or, at least, a morbid one.

As a mode of knowing and experiencing the world, photography leaves Sontag feeling jaded and cynical. Although they can help raise our collective consciousness to various injustices throughout the world, photographs are perhaps even more potent in the way that they desensitize us and contribute toward false-consciousness. She writes:
The limit of photographic knowledge of the world is that, while it can goad conscience, it can, finally, never be ethical or political knowledge. The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. . . . By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is. 
More compelling, and less speculative, is Sontag’s interest in the relationship between photography and art. This relationship hinges on the way that the majority of art is circulated and experienced; that is, through photographs. As Sontag puts it, “photographs have become so much the leading visual experience that we now have works of art which are produced in order to be photographed.” It’s not difficult to see how this thread continues to inform the world of digital aesthetics thirty years later. There was a time when the screen was simply a vehicle for the consumption of images. Now, much of the art that is made for the screen is produced on a screen. Categories like viewers, users and producers seem inadequate for capturing the range of activities enabled by the digital platform.

The controversies of photography’s history are all forms of the debate about its relation to art: “how close it can get while still retaining its claim to unlimited visual acquisition.” For Sontag, the 1970s were a time when the public appetite for photography had less to do with experiencing a neglected art form than with making a break with the abstract art that had become synonymous with modernism. Classical modernist painting, writes Sontag, “presupposes highly developed skills of looking, and a familiarity with other art and with certain notions about the history of art.” Photography, instead, seems to simply make form disappear, delivering its content to viewers without asking much of them. In this way, photography aligns itself with modernism’s populist impulse, its eschewal of high culture and traditionalism. Yet, as Sontag notes, this is precisely the dilemma for modernists: for all their promotion of naive art, they continue to espouse a hidden attachment to their own sophistication.