17 September 2007

Giving "Theory" A Bad Name

I came across this book ~ James Elkins, ed. Photography Theory (Routledge, 2007) ~ and bought it mostly as a truly revealing example of how completely useless what passes for "theory" in the humanities really has become - lots of name-dropping of (mostly) dead European theorists, an interminable discussion of "indexicality," and what seems to be an unshakable ability on the part of nearly every participant to talk past everyone else. According to the blurb on the publisher's web page:

"Photography Theory presents forty of the world's most active art historians and theorists, including [... names withheld to spare the guilty the embarrassment that is their due (JJ) ...] in animated debate on the nature of photography."

The book springs from a session of "The Art Seminar" which Elkins convenes. If this installment is any indication, the seminar is a conclave of windbags.

PS: (Added 9/18/07) Since some readers think I am being uncharitable, here is Elkins himself summarizing the extended seminar discussion of “indexicality” and then hoping to make a silk purse from the proverbial sow’s ear: “... I sense that there have been as many dead ends as arguments in our conversation. I don’t mean that’s a sign of failure: I take it as symptomatic ...” (155).

How is a dead end not a failure in a conversation? It is not that the participants do not reach consensus that is not a plausible or desirable aim. Their interaction does not rise to the level of an argument where, by definition participants engage one another's views in a critical, direct, open-minded way.

Of what are the dead ends symptomatic? Elkins never says. I’ve offered my assessment above.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

C'mon. I say you didn't really buy the book--who would buy a book he knew he wouldn't like? I think you just came across the book online and wanted to rant about dead white men specifically or the paucity of criticism generally, and, like many who come to a text or image with a conclusion already in place, you ignored any content that might not support that conclusion...in this case, the essays in the book (yes, some are by dead people...don't be scared ) that address, say, photography and colonialism. If you did buy the book, perhaps you would respond by typing the first few words at the top of page 21, unless, since you really have no use for the book, you have already donated it to your nearby public library or college or community photo center.
In solidarity,

18 September, 2007 11:00  
Blogger rachel.hawthorn said...

I actually own this book (and the previous one in the series Art History vs Aesthetics.

It's an impossible series to sit and read through, but I do pick it up for a tidbit every now and then, and as a graduate student in an art program, I find that the 'windbags' are frequently referenced in critique and class settings, so it's helpful to know all this information.

I believe it was Derrida who said (and this is a gross over simplification) that you can't critique something unless you know it extremely well. For my own purposes, getting to know these theorists is part of that education.

18 September, 2007 12:20  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've forwarded this blog to several of the distinguished theorists featured in the book. I'm curious to see what they'll think about your calling them "windbags." I don't think Alan would take kindly to that.

18 September, 2007 13:22  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Comrade Brian! In all due respect I own many books by authors with whom I disagree; and I've actually read them too, even those by dead authors. One learns from disagreement, hence what I will show you now:

First sentence of Page 21: "While punctum and studium are certainly significant aspects of the essay and perhaps the most exportable ones, the book is an intricate investigation of and riff on the experiencce of photography." (referring to Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida.) I am happy to give you the first sentence from page 421 too if you'd like.

Anon, Thanks for spreading the word. Am I supposed to be cringing and fretting? Since everything I write here is in my own name I take responsibility for it. Perhaps you could learn that lesson instead of lurking and taking potshots without taking responsibility. Your efforts in spreading the word will simply increase readership here. And, by the way, if you google the book title and editor's name you arrive at a link to this post pretty quickly.

PS: I don'y know who Alan is. Sorry.

18 September, 2007 18:44  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


First, I visted your web page and like your work. DO you know David Levi Strauss's essay on Francesca Woodman? It is in Between the Eyes.

Second, Thanks for leaving your name.

Third, you are right about being in a position where you have to try to figure out what the rich and famous have to say. Often it is difficult to do so because the rich and famous are windbags. That makes the jobs of students difficult. One important lesson is that you shouldn't confuse opacity or obscurity with profundity. There is too much of that going around in my estimation.

18 September, 2007 18:46  
Anonymous trane said...

"One important lesson is that you shouldn't confuse opacity or obscurity with profundity. There is too much of that going around in my estimation."

In my humble estimation also. Your dismissal of the book would seem more convincing if you could pick out one exception to the general pattern that you see. Are they all bad? Are tbey all equally bad?

Best regards,

18 September, 2007 19:02  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Fair enough. The book is 450+ pages with lots of (at least 40) contributors. I have not read the whole thing carefully. In fact, I am unsure that I havethe patience to do so.

There are two contributions among those I have read that seem to me to be more than reasonably clear. One is by Patrick Maynard (a philosopher) the other by Alan Trachtenberg (American Studies) ~ neither buys the theory speak very much. each insists that we'd be better off paying attention to actual work of actual photographers.

I suspect it is no coincidence that neither Maynard nor Trachtenberg is an art historian or literature professor.

18 September, 2007 19:58  
Anonymous trane said...

Thanks for your response. I realize that my comment may have seemed pedantic, but I did have a particular interest in the book. I had noticed the book in my local library and though photography is not my first tinterest I had considered reading one or two essays in it to see what theory of photography might be about.

Btw. I do think your general point stands stronger the more citations you provide from the book, as in the p.s. added to the original post.

20 September, 2007 06:45  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing wrong with calling a windbag a windbag, if thats what they are.

I get the feeling though, Jim's objection derives from the fact that the writers aren't ranting on about Solidarity. Almost everything he writes is predicated on that summarised point.

And that is the problem with this blog. Theres more to life, the world, and photography, than this tired formualic politics.

05 October, 2007 05:47  

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