03 June 2011

Photographic Effects

"Reflection on the ethical climate is not the private preserve of a few academic theorists in universities. After all, the satirist and cartoonist, as well as the artist and the novelist, comment upon and criticize the prevailing climate just as effectively as those who get know as philosophers. The impact of a campaigning novelist such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dickens, Zola or Solzhenitsyn may be much greater than that of the academic theorist. A single photograph may have done more to halt the Vietnam War than all the writings of moral philosophers of the time put together." ~ Simon Blackburn*

Phan Thi Kim Phuc, near the village of Trang Bang,
Vietnam - June 8, 1972. Photograph © Nick Ut.

Blackburn's overall claim (made in reference to Nick Ut's famous image) is hardly astonishing given that, even during the late sixties, the writings of philosophers had scant impact on matters of practical politics. I read his comments less as stressing the futility of philosophers than as a useful reminder of the influence that literature and the arts can, in particular instances, have on the politics. In a sense, Blackburn is re-cycling a claim that Richard Rorty regularly made, namely that morality and ethics presuppose some process of defining the "we" to whom we apply our ethical categories. Rorty insists that that process of categorization often trades upon the kind of ‘sad, sentimental story’ conveyed by writers of the sort Blackburn mentions just insofar as such stories revolve around ‘detailed descriptions’ of human hardship and suffering.

But that, in turn, raises the question of how photographs might have such profound impact and why they so rarely do so. Those are large, important questions. I think Blackburn (and by extension, Rorty) is correct about the possible impact of photography. But neither provides an especially compelling account of how that impact comes about or how it too commonly is thwarted.
* Simon Blackburn. 2001. Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics. Oxford UP,
page 5.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

Back in the sixties when photographs weren't quite so pervasive and ubiquitous, they still had the power to shock, enlighten, take us to and show us places both foreign and within ourselves that we weren't quite familiar with. Back then, all we heard were the competing ideologies, all we saw were opposing fighters- it took the innocence of dead and suffering children to awaken us. Now we "know" that children are used and abused in every way imaginable- that power to shock has been negated. In fact, the power to shock outright may well have been removed from photography's bag of tricks in the intervening decades. Photography is no longer about its capability to present fact, it's about expanding it's own inherent plasticity to better suit our own fictions. We no longer ooh and ahh about what we've captured, we do so to the after effects of how we've manipulated the original image. "Real life" has a much harder time competing with our virtual realities...

04 June, 2011 14:14  

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