Tasteless? Empathy and the pathos of mindlessness.


So, two photographs.  

One there is seemingly no problem with.  A professional photographer, using high quality lenses, from a distance zooms in on the intimacy of a person potentially about to jump.  We assume that the photographer has captured the drama of someone else’s distress.  But we also assume that he has captured something of humanity’s distress too.  The suicide is not just this persons: in a world in which, as Benjamin suggests, everyone can be a star on film; the image-worlds he creates are not his.  This is potentially what James Allen feels when he suggest that ‘even the dead were without sanctuary’.  His body will hit the water, and agency will swallow him up and swirl him around a world that was steadily shifting gear around him.  By not including himself the photographer is supposed to have gifted back sovereignty to the social world, to sympathy; he has captured not the subject – who is profane; but the suicide itself, which delicately adheres to the film.  

The second re-exercises the profanity.  On a world fed by neoliberal exercises in pointing out the guilty, exorcising the social canvas of its scrofula and scars, and making-up its veneer a new; this photograph certainly tickles the taste buds of indignation.  Jonathon Jones, The Guardian‘s art critic, and well-known moralist (not a fan of Hockney, for instance: who’s petrified boxes exercise a similar liminality to the ‘selfies’ valent boundaries of taste and chance), positions himself delicately within a social reality that is either soaring-off into hypermediated space, or troll-like clonic space; but only so as not to get his own coat tails wet.  For he doesn’t like this photograph either.  The subject in it at best comes off as misguided: but mostly she is not a sovereign at all.  “She was only doing what her culture told her to do.”  And Jones isn’t.  She has no subject… this is why her photograph is profane.  Because it was thought that we took pictures to comment and record our action upon the camera, and its subservience to our will.  We are worried that ‘we’ are no longer going to be able to possess and re-form ourselves; to re-produced our norms in the whirlmart of the future: bought and refashioned to models accessible to dreams of dreams, in which – somewhere – America swirls as a sticky glue to hold it all together.  

The subject (see Michel Foucault) was always a myth; humanity a category as old as it was brutal: and refashioned as many times as Grandpa’s dirty handkerchief.  And becomes more and more potent by the day.  Whether we are becoming savvier or not with regard this prehistorical loss of the subject is hard to tell.  This was at the heart of Walter Benjamin’s essay on technology and reproduction.  Not, as many have assumed, a melancholic mourning for the loss of sentiment and meaning; but only a loss of the classical formation of aura as property.  Benjamin saw the Angel of History caught up in the refuse of humanity’s ending, in order to rethink the beginning and origin of a movement already in motion: the angel resided as much in the radical consumation of object/subject in the nervous system of the dynamic social (and revolution), as it was in the sky looking down.  The question should be whether the techniques attendant to this dream world of the teletechnological subject – of iPads etc… – produces different possibilities, different modalities.

Jones forgets this.  He creates a subject already in league with new techniques of reproduction within traditional phenomenological frameworks of judgement: ‘[w]rapped up against the cold and in sunglasses, she wields the phone with a certain practised lightness that suggests an affectless, unengaged and deeply ephemeral exercise’.  He kills softly: gets, like Paul Martinka, his intimacy from afar.  But lightness affectsengages, and reinstigates the power of ephemera.  Doubtless if she were smiling, naked and with pinned eyelids, her photograph would have been a powerful, postmodern deconstruction of this very subject; which might itself artfully avoid the disjunctive madness of the postmodern itself.  And if we were to read the signs then she would surely fit: a young woman, blonde, with bright red nailpolish against the snowy backdrop; she is ripe for colonising for the moral good.  

How should we read the photograph then?  We should start by removing the binary of slow-fast thought: slow does not make you pensive; a felt slowness about the temporal passing of this moment within its becoming might give food for thought though.  Being deep does not make you more knowing; and it also does not get into embodied norms: which are as fleeting and flighty as the quickest sparks, jumping from one node to another quicker than any staid moral system might slow them down.  If the photograph did not condense the signifying chains of masculine stereotypes, for instance (imagine this were Cartier-Bresson), then we might recover a subject pondering her own stable footing within the passing of liveliness, by profaning the frame with her own presence.  It is just as plausible a reading.  Can one not smile at a funeral, while shedding tears?  Perhaps a shadow written version of L’etranger (Albert Camus) might appear in which she is tried by the social for not theatricising her sympathetic cause with a person in the zone of death.

But the tribunal is quicker than it was in Camus’ day.  The moral order is stored up in a warehouse ready to wheeled out with stock phrases, and comfortable exchange values.  There is more to be said on this.  But perhaps being tasteless is far from mindless; and certainly far from meaningless.  And it is also away from the pathology of ridicule, righteousness and morality.    


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