10 April 2020

Mumford -- Art and Technics (xv)

"As against a single person who could use a brush passably, there were thousands who could take reasonably good photographs. Here the first effect of the machine process was to deliver people from the specialist and to restore the status and function of the amateur. Thanks to the camera, the eye at least was reeducated, after having been too long committed to the verbal symbols of print. People awoke to the constant miracles of the natural world, like an invalid long secluded in a dark room, able for the first time to breath fresh air... But though the art of taking pictures is necessarily a selective one, the very spread and progress of that art, not least with the invention of the motion picture, was in the opposite direction; it multiplied the permanent image as images had never been multiplied before, and by sheer superabundance it undermined old habits of careful evaluation and selection. And that very fact, which went along with the achievement of a democratic medium of expression, has raised a whole series of problems that we must wrestle with today, if, here as elsewhere, we are not to starve in the midst of plenty." (94-95)

"What has been the result of the mass production of esthetic symbols that began in the fifteenth century? ... [The good:] By means of our various reproductive devices, a large part of our experience, which once vanished without any sort of record, has been arrested and fixed. Because of the varied processes of reproduction that are now at hand, many important experiences, difficult to transpose into words, are now visible in images; and certain aspects of art, which were once reserved for the privileged, are now an everyday experience to those who make use of the resources of printing and photography." (95-96)

In other words, reproduction is also, in many instances, record-keeping. All of the oppression and dispossession which inhered in denial of the right to have a past, a heritage, a discrete culture, and indeed the very right to collective introspection vis-a-vis these identifications, to have a hard look in the mirror on the cultural level, all of these privileges have been progressively democratized by the ever-increasing ease and ubiquity of this "mass production of esthetic symbols."

To understand the bearings of this change we must realize that it was at once a technical innovation, a social device, a means of popular education, and a way which the monopoly of art by a small group was broken down. With the invention of graphic reproduction, pictures could go into circulation like any other commodity; they could be sold at markets and fairs so cheaply that all but the poorest classes could afford to own them. (87)

From the fifteenth century onward, the picture was not merely something that you saw...[Rather,] in the cheap medium of an engraving it could be carried home; and so, in a sense, what it lost in uniqueness it gained in intimacy and variety and wide distribution. ... If they [reproductions] lacked pretentiousness, they gave to the unpretentious moments, the common occupations, the daily scene, the common pastimes, the dignity of being sufficiently memorable to be preserved. That was a victory for democracy, achieved in the arts long before its proposition, that all men are created equal, was put forward in politics. (88)

But here is a supremely pessimistic phylogenetic observation: aesthetics and memory became democratized before many more basic, essential forms of power. And so nowadays the homeless have smartphones but no homes; perhaps this is not an anomaly but in fact reflects a basic reality of Technics-driven civilizations.

[The bad:] The fact is that in every department of art and thought we are being overwhelmed by our symbol-creating capacity; and our very facility with the mechanical means of multifolding and reproduction has been responsible for a progressive failure in selectivity and therefore in the power of assimilation. We are overwhelmed by the rank fecundity of the machine, operating without any Malthusian checks except periodic financial depressions; and even they, it would now seem, cannot be wholly relied on. Between ourselves and the actual experience and the actual environment there now swells an ever-rising flood of images which come to us in every sort of medium... A picture was once a rare sort of symbol, rare enough to call for attentive concentration. Now it is the actual experience that is rare, and the picture has become ubiquitous. (96)

Indeed, and I would extend this observation of Mumford's to the aforementioned photo-will too. Universal photorepresentational agency is only democratically salutary at a much smaller social scale than the one which currently presents itself; in other words, IRL accountability is a necessary check upon antisocial uses of photorepresentation. At present, meanwhile, the prospective subject-as-object is too likely to remain a mere abstraction to the photographer even (perhaps especially) beyond the curation and transmission stages. This begets alternately anarchistic and fascistic phenomena, here defeating by brute force any conceit to order or reason, there furnishing the proprietors of so many top-down, self-dealing orders with the best tools yet for exploiting anyone less powerful than them.

Photorepresentation was long ago made technically accessible, and some degree of curatorial agency has always been baked into the photorepresentational process; but reception, be it a matter of contemplation or gainfulness or anywhere in between, cannot (has not yet been?) Technically enhanced. The individual human being remains the basic unit of reception whether subsumed among ten thousand or ten billion others, and whether subsumed in a real or virtual community. The potential expansion of the capacities of the subject are, as the passage above hints at, wildly incommensurate with those of the subject-as-object. Vis-a-vis photorepresentation, what power we gain as desiring subjects we cede proportionally as we are threatened with photo-objectification at the hands of others. It is not merely that "progressive failure in selectivity and therefore in the power of assimilation" is an imposed failure at an impossible task, but also that the consequences of failure have changed. Overwhelmingly for the worse, I would say.

That said, I find it highly counterintuitive, actually, if I may be permitted a temporary flight of ivory tower rationalism, that conditions of scarcity would be the ones under which powers of discernment would be sharpened. Insofar as scarcity means taking what one can get, do we not thereby become eminently undiscerning and less picky? Hunger is the finest sauce. A recipe for ascetic inner peace, perhaps, but not for sharpening the powers of discernment. It doesn't make sense that "old habits of careful evaluation and selection" could be superior to new ones when there was previously far less to evaluate and select from.

In fact Mumford does later make a remark more or less to that effect:

As long as a work of art was an individual product, produced by individual workmen using their own feeble powers with such little extra help as they could get from fire or wind or water, there was a strict limit to the number of works of art that could be produced in a whole lifetime... Under such a system of production there was no problem of quantity; or rather the problem was that of too little, not too much. Natural and organic limitations took the place of rational selectivity. Only those who exercised some special political or economic monopoly were ever even temporarily in a position of being threatened by a surfeit; and so the appetites remained keen, because only rarely could they be sated. Under such conditions, there was little reason to exercise a vigilant control over quantity, for fostering a discipline of restraint and a habit of studious selection; such discrimination as was necessary was that exercised on a basis of quality alone. (106-107)

This seems to me closer to reality, though I'm still not sure that the last line follows from what precedes it. It is not so much that pre-industrial culture begot well-balanced standards of discernment as that industrial modernity leads us to pine for them. In the speculative realm such standards are thus made conspicuous by their absence in present reality; as to whether they were ever part of any bygone reality, that is a rather different question.

Perhaps the pre-industrial epoch which Mumford (and I myself along with him, I confess) is tempted to idealize is in fact worth idealizing only for the happy accident that certain Technical capacities had stabilized at a level which was somewhat in harmony with Human capacities. If it was the aristocrats, then, who were first in human history to be "threatened by a surfeit," this is to say that they were the first to illustrate how easily human beings are seduced by abundance, how easily the conceit to a discerning posture is revealed by circumstance as merely a conceit.

Expressive art, just in proportion to its value and significance, must be precious, difficult, occasional, in a word aristocratic. (108)

Not that I disagree much with the broader sentiment, but is there anything whatsoever "precious, difficult, occasional" about aristocratic consumption patterns? Or is this merely an ideal which human beings of all classes are hard-pressed to live up to unless it is immutably (i.e. materially) imposed on them? Only by a sensitivity to the finer distinctions among "precious" morsels coupled with what Mumford unabashedly calls a "puritanical" ethic of consumption might an "aristocrat" live up to their station; but we might more profitably label this achievement based on observed behavior rather than caste.

In such small rhetorical inconsistencies lies a crucial underdeveloped theme: perhaps the crediting of aristocrats with blazing the trail of refined taste is a narrative peddled by and for aristocratic interests. In fact the aristocrats' well-known lack of restraint was the first, best warning of what sins of excess would befall the rest of the human race should things like photorealistic generativity, fatty foods and sexual indulgence ever become available to them in abundance. This seems to me (I speak conditionally here as I am rather out of my depth by responsible academic standards) to comport better with the actual historical record, but also to thoroughly undermine any attempt to valorize the standards of those who have the most above those who have less (and certainly, I hasten to add, vice versa). To the extent that humans of every nation, class and epoch have consistently succumbed to such excesses as were available to them, to that same extent the evidence in favor of considering this an absolute human characteristic approaches an incontrovertible preponderance.

To complete the strictly rationalistic line of thought, abundance should be the condition which imposes this "aristocratic" posture by brute force; the condition by which we should be driven by threats to sanity and survival, no less serious than that proverbial marauding lion was to the bodily integrity of the caveman, to evolve on the fly our powers of discernment. If instead of a heightened sensitivity we find a mere numbing effect, if instead of a seasoned palate we find a mere retreat from the stimulus, if all it takes to bring about "a progressive failure in selectivity" is for us "being overwhelmed by our symbol-creating capacity," then perhaps "selectivity" per se is a secondary rather than a primary psychological phenomenon. We don't live to discern, we discern to live. And that is to say that we are eminently un-discerning.

We are rapidly dividing the world into two classes: a minority who act, increasingly, for the benefit of the reproductive process, and a majority whose entire life is spent serving as the passive appreciators or willing victims of this reproductive process. ...an endless succession of images passes before the eye, offered by people who wish to exercise power, either by making us buy something for their benefit or making us agree to something that would promote their economic or political interests... (97)

As a result of this whole mechanical process, we cease to live in the multidimensional world of reality, the world that brings into play every aspect of the human personality... We have substituted for this, largely through the mass production of graphic symbols...a secondhand world, a ghost-world, in which everyone lives a second-hand and derivative life. (97-98)

Indeed, the "wish to exercise power" and the acting "for the benefit of the reproductive process" have only grown closer together since these passages were written. The class angle is crucial, reflecting as it must barriers both economic and social. Unlike those more basic concerns, however, photorepresentational class boundaries are increasingly permeable; or, if that is going too far, it is at least increasingly possible even for agents who have very little overall power to nonetheless wield the technics of photorepresentation against those even less powerful than they are; similarly for the utterly powerless to wrest a modicum of power via the increasing accessibility of photorepresentational record-keeping. All of which is to say that photorepresentation is a form of power, one of the few which occasionally begets drastic (if temporary) inversions of seemingly insurmountable power gradients: think undercover cameras in a corporate slaughterhouse, or in an extra-marital dalliance with the chairman.

The Deep Fake phenomenon is the dialectical fissure here: in one respect it threatens to facilitate an ultimately powerful merger of surface photorealism with willful/gainful wholecloth creation; in another respect, as the technics of Deep Fakes gradually become more accessible, we will have no choice but to cease to trust photorealistic documents merely because they are photorealistic, and undoubtedly this would upend most of what we (think we) know about the place of photorepresentation in society and culture. It could, theoretically, mostly undo the aforementioned "democratization" via a total "devaluation" of the image-as-epistemic-claim. At that point, only "the actual experience" will count. A wonderful situation, it may seem, for artists with shows on the books, but a terrible one for epistemic and intellectual life, so terrible in fact as to threaten dignified existence and art along with it.

That these possibilities were latent in the medium of photography from the beginning is no reason to tar the entire field with the brush of disenfranchisement. But I do think that the difference between Mumford's classical-functional conception of photography and photography in a world of fully-subverted Deep Fakery is one of degree rather than kind. The degree in question is that to which morality leads or follows the id; that to which gainfulness leads or follows aesthetics; that to which the subject chooses to represent the object based on unmet psychological/individual needs rather than social/collective ones. In this respect, the fact that you can no longer trust even a timestamped, photorealistic document could ultimately mean the subversion of entrenched power, or it could mean the ultimate triumph of it. Again, responsibility is a human burden no matter the machines we may invent.

08 April 2020

Freud — The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (ii) — Superstition and Suspicion

[244]I would distinguish myself from a superstitious man, therefore, as follows: I do not believe that an event not caused in any way by my own mental life can tell me any hidden facts about the future structure of reality, but I do believe that an unintentional expression of my own mental processes can reveal some hidden factor which itself belongs to my mental life alone. I may believe in outer (real) chance, but not in fortuitous inner (psychic) actions. A superstitious man will see it the other way around: he knows nothing of the motivation of his fortuitous actions and slips, he believes fortuitous psychic factors exist, and he is inclined to ascribe a significance to outside fortuitous events that will make itself felt in reality, and to see chance as a means of expression for something hidden that is outside him. There are two differences between me and the superstitious man: first, he projects a motivation on to something outside him, while I look for it within myself; and second, he interprets chance as some incident that has happened, while I derive it from an idea. However, what seems to him concealed corresponds to the unconscious in me, and we share an urge not to see chance as solely accidental but to place some kind of interpretation on it.

I assume that this conscious ignorance and unconscious understanding of the motivation of psychic fortuitous events is one of the roots of superstition. Because a superstitious person is ignorant of the motivation of his own fortuitous actions, and because that motivation is clamouring to be recognized, he has to accommodate it in the world outside himself by displacement. If there is a connection of this kind it will scarcely be confined to this one case. In fact I believe that a large part of any mythological view of the world, extending a long way even into the most modern forms of religion, is nothing but psychology projected into the outside world. The vague recognition (it might be called endopsychic perception) of [245]psychic factors and circumstances in the unconscious is reflected--it is difficult to put it any other way, so here I must call on the analogy with paranoia--is reflected in the construction of a supernatural reality, which science will transform back into the psychology of the unconscious. The myths of Paradise and the Fall, of God, good and evil, immortality, and so on, could be understood in this way, turning metaphysics into metapsychology. There is less of a gulf between paranoiac and superstitious displacement than may at first glance appear. When human beings first began thinking, as we know, they felt compelled to resolve the outer world, anthropomorphically, into a diversity of personalities in their own image; the chance events that they interpreted in superstitious terms were therefore the actions and expressions of persons. They were just like those paranoiacs who draw conclusions from the trivial signs they observe in other people, and like all those healthy people who, correctly, judge character by the fortuitous and unintentional actions of their fellow men. Superstition seems misplaced only in our modern, scientific but by no means complete view of the world; as the world appeared to pre-scientific ages and peoples, superstition was legitimate and logical.

Relatively speaking, therefore, the Roman who abandoned some important enterprise if he saw birds flying in the wrong formation was right; he was acting logically in line with his assumptions. But if he abstained from the enterprise because he had stumbled on the threshold of his door (un Romain retournerait [a Roman would turn back], as they say), he was definitely superior to us unbelievers, and a better psychologist than we are, despite our current efforts. His stumbling showed him that some doubt existed, something in him was working against his enterprise, and its power could impair his own ability to carry out his intention just as he was on the point of performing it. One can be sure of success only if all mental forces are united in making for the desired aim. ...

[246]Anyone who has had the opportunity of studying the hidden emotions of the human mind by psychoanalytic methods can also contribute some new ideas about the quality of the unconscious motives expressed in superstition. It is particularly easy to see how superstition arises from suppressed hostile and cruel feelings in neurotics, who are often very intelligent but afflicted with compulsive ideas and obsessions. Superstition is to a high degree an expectation of bad luck, and anyone who frequently ill-wishes other people, but has repressed such ideas because he has been brought up to wish them well instead, will be particularly likely to expect bad luck to descend upon him from outside as a punishment for his unconscious ill-will.

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, trans. Anthea Bell, pp. 244-246

The crucial distinction here is inner- as opposed to outer-directed psychology. Freud here quietly levels a devastating critique of those who project their otherwise healthy skepticism exclusively onto the outside world and not at all back upon themselves. In today's colloquial terms this amounts to worrying about things you can't control, a sure recipe for frustration if not for madness itself, as well as for the peculiar condition, raised earlier in the work, of social actors who know (or seem to) others better than they know themselves.

I don't know that I myself can make any exceptional claims to self-knowledge, but as an introvert mired in lifelong estrangement from the tyranny of extroversion which seems to run the world I was foist into at birth, I certainly am apt to posit a privileged position here for my comrades in inner-directedness, and I can certainly conjure my fair share of anecdotes in which excess gregariousness is accompanied by obvious deficits of self-scrutiny. And since introversion and gregariousness are, of course, not mutually exclusive, I would head the list with my own more gregarious moments, which seem not merely to suggest but in fact require a temporary relaxation of filters. As pertains specifically to public social interaction I indeed identify unapologetically with that ever-trendy neologism, the "ambivert," and as I have slowly learned to negotiate the social world and become more familiar (if not truly more comfortable) with its demands, the compulsive talker has made ever more frequent appearances and the wallflower ever fewer. This has indeed been profitable for both my self-knowledge and my relationship to this external social world; but it has also confirmed for me beyond a reasonable doubt that I am almost sure to regret the things that pop out of my inner extrovert's mouth, and often times profoundly so. I definitely like myself less as the filter has become leakier with age, and I'm afraid that is probably a meaningful observation.