Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Representing the Unrepresentable: The Mythic and the Real

This is part two in series of posts adapted from a paper titled Representing the Unrepresentable: Locating the Political in the Viewer-Image Exchange that I read at the Aesthetics of Catastrophe symposium at Northwestern University. Each post stands alone, but the series is best read as a whole starting here.

Central to the practice of making pictures of disaster, suffering, catastrophe and the large events of our time is photography’s unique relationship to the real. One of the products of the enlightenment and the industrial revolution, and the concurrent advances in science, is the idea that there is a real world, one that is measurable in distinct times and places. It is empirical and is distinguished by facts and data. This real world also exists separately from the mythic or the general. Photography plays a unique role in bridging these two worlds, trading in both and using one to exert pressure on the other. At no other time in history have we so easily and so convincingly been able to exchange the mythic for the real and back again.

Neither the mythic nor the political are more true than the other. Instead they each possess a different kind of truth—truths that are not interchangeable and do not necessarily lead in the same directions or to the same conclusions. Mythic truths exist in the general sense. For example, in the myth of Icarus, there are truths about the nature of hubris and the dangers of assuming too much of one’s own abilities. However, we would never in a post-enlightenment world imagine the story to be factually or politically true, even though we can recognize the general truths contained in it. Conversely, a Congressional budget report contains great amounts of specific and highly political information that has little mythic value at all.

Since photographs have an indexical quality, on an intrinsic level they cannot be ‘real’ but instead become markers, signposts and fragments of the real. Once a photograph is taken, and it is indeed taken, it is dislocated from its source and becomes a kind of stored data that has the potential to re-impact the real when encountered by a viewer. In the viewing a photograph is realized in its performance for the audience. While photographs are indeed relics and records of the past, they are fixed, and therefore perform perpetually in the present.

Work that serves to make the viewer more aware of this exchange is profoundly political, for it engages the viewer in a process of experiencing a media depiction of the subject matter while drawing attention to the media itself, concurrently drawing the viewer towards an understanding and/or experience of the means and the mechanisms of that viewer-image exchange.

In so far as the real world political realities, both the problems and their potential solutions, from which the images are taken and the subsequent performances of the images for the viewing public are compatible, then the work has achieved a kind of fidelity. As the images steer the viewer towards the general and the mythic, they enhance the dislocated character of the information and can create viewing experiences that are largely removed, both in content and quality, from the real events from which they came. When the subject of such work is traumatic, we have to ask ourselves in a pragmatic sense what is to be gained by depicting it. What are the moral implications and outcomes for the audience who is viewing trauma and destruction? Even more important, what are the implications for the subjects depicted? Is their trauma addressed in any specific or realized way?

Continue reading with Part Three.

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