04 January 2006

Meaning and Use in Photography, II

As a follow-up to the last post here is a comment from John Dewey:
"The heart of language is not "expression" of something antecedent, much less expression of antecedent thought. It is communication; the establishment of cooperation in an actiivity in which there are partners, and in which the activity of each is modified and regulated by partnership. To fail to understand is to fail to come to an agreement in action; to misunderstand is to set up action at cross purposes. ... Meaning is not indeed a psychic existence; it is primarily a property of behavior,and secondarily a property of objects. ... Primarily meaning is intent and intent is not personal in a private and exclusive sense."- Experience & Nature (179-80)
So this would be a reminder to those who might want to follow Sontag and take a too narrow view of intention or to imagine that "use" is somehow governed entirely by convention. Dewey warns against the first tendency. And everything we know about the pragmatics of language suggests that conventions hardly determine use; any convention can be exploited in unforeseen ways. The late philosopher Donald Davidson went so far as to suggest that the ubiquitous opportunities for generating neologisms (unanticipated, unconventional usages) calls into question the very idea that language is conventional. And while sometimes such exploitation is accidental, sometimes it must be intentional and creative - hence the possibility of art.

So, a topic for discussion: what is the "meaning" of the lynching photographs collected in Without Sanctuary? Those who initially took them - or who posed for them or who purchased them from those who initially took them - had some set of uses in mind. But what of James Allen, the man who has collected these images and created the exhibition? What sort of communication is involved in those very different instances?

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