Friday, September 14, 2012

'Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought' by Martin Jay

For me it is not a detachment to take a picture. It’s a way of touching somebody—it’s a caress.
Nan Goldin

Reciprocity Failure not only features numerous photographs. It is about their creation, which is an integral part of the narrative (this distinguishes it from, e.g., the work of W. G. Sebald, in which the text is never really conscious of the presence of photographs in its midst). It is therefore about the relationship between art and life, but also about art-making as a mode of consciousness. How do we 'think' photographically: that is, how do we think with a camera

One influential answer to this question is: we think like a voyeur. This critique of photography as intrinsically voyeuristic is tied up with a wider critique of vision, as described in Martin Jay's Downcast Eyes: The Denigration ofVision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. A characteristic statement of this position is by Luce Irigaray (quoted on p. 493): More than any other sense, the eye objectifies and it masters. It sets at a distance, and maintains a distance. In our culture the predominance of the look over smell, taste, touch and hearing has brought about an impoverishment of bodily relations

As applied to photography, this analysis echoes Susan Sontag’s On Photography 

What is being urged is an aggressive relation to all subjects. Armed with their machines, photographers are to make an assault on reality – which is perceived as recalcitrant, as only deceptively available, as unreal (p. 121, also quoted in a previous discussion of a character whose photographic activities parody Sontag's argument).

Sartre's suspicion of the ‘gaze’ as intrinsically objectifying is also influential here, and even more so the gendered variant of his analysis suggested by Simone de Beauvoir. Most commentators therefore treat the camera’s lens as the exemplary instance of the exploitative, male gaze.  

Reciprocity Failure draws instead on the philosophical tradition of phenomenology, which is concerned specifically with appearances (i.e. phenomena), and which therefore offers a different way to think about how photography intersects with gender relations and sexuality. In drawing on this alternative tradition, I describe photography in terms of touching (intimacy) rather than looking (distance). Or rather, photography does not isolate vision from the other senses, but rather unites looking and touching.

There is a problem with this argument though. By promoting photography as a kind of touching, I am in effect underwriting the 'denigration of vision' described by Martin Jay, rather than arguing against it: because I am implicitly admitting that photography can't be redeemed except by translating it into something other than looking.

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