For me, 2017 promises much; a range of new opportunities, new ideas and new students to work with. With the changes that lie ahead, including working at a new university, there are some questions connected to photography that I wish to think about in more detail. Over the coming weeks I hope to post these thoughts and develop a series of provocations.
“You are the products of the University. The surplus value is you . . . you leave here, equal to more or less to credits. You have all made yourself into credits. You leave here stamped with credits.”
The Seminar of Jacques Lacan XVII
Where Lacan’s words suggest his students were the manifestation of the ‘knowledge economy’ in which capitalism ultimately creates a market for knowledge, they signal a shift from the discourse of the Master to the discourse of the University. Here, expertise takes centre stage and configures the world in a neutrally, post-ideological and empirically verifiable sense. In this domain, all our activities are regulated by forms of knowledge and information. It is in this very sense that it has become almost impossible to function without, first, fully examining how we are to get fit, look better, relax, work or socialise. Through these continually measured activities, we behave according to criteria which is ordained – and I use this word deliberately since this structure is pseudo religious in its formation – by experts who can provide advice in health, lifestyle, confidence, career, etc.
I begin by considering a counterfactual statement: ‘If I do not teach photography, then someone else will.’ This presupposes the necessity for photography to be taught. It suggests that if, for some reason, I was unable to teach photography then some other person will, obligingly, fulfil the commitment. The action is historically determined although not in its precise qualities. In this sense, photography teaching will happen and the necessity of teaching photography is expressed retroactively, such that once it happens, nothing could ever have been otherwise. Historical events appear to take on a similar structure – the rise of Fascism in Germany or Stalinism in the Soviet Union. But what of more recent events like Brexit or the election of Trump? Can these be thought of as retroactive necessities? It is difficult to make such a claim. However, there is a version of both of these outcomes in which we can claim, counterfactually, that they were already determined. In terms of Brexit, there are arguments it was a response from a largely disenfranchised population or a protest against the establishment. But if we take this analysis as a retroactive assessment are we not able to reach other conclusions?
If our actions and decisions are regulated through the discourse of the University then how come we appear unable to always achieve the right outcome? Is it not possible that when world events have unexpected outcomes that we are experiencing a particular effect of the University discourse? Which suggests not all regulated knowledge and information brings about the same outcome. Therefore, the need for scepticism, when we are told how to behave, is in negatively correspondence to how assuring the form of the information is. The more confidence we have that we are hearing the truth, the more we should question its veracity.
In the visual world, photography contributes greatly to the truthfulness of the information we receive. Yet there can be few people who do not, at some level, question photography’s ability to be a neutral and unmediated window onto reality. There is within photography a kind of Brexit position – an unbearable truth of an outcome that is fundamentally not a reflection of the reality we thought we were experiencing. Thus, photography reveals how the world is profoundly un-photographic in its structure. Where photography adopts Lacan’s discourse of the University is in its regulation of the visual: we see only what can be seen to be photographed. In this way photography counterfactually imposes itself on the past – this pose, this event, this scene, all becoming the verifiable document of what happened. The surplus value comes from how, as our past is photographed, we emerge with their imprints upon us. In this way photography supports the knowledge economy. It underpins the wisdom of the experts and the experience of the authorities. It does this with a tacit compliance, allowing us the opportunity for only limited scepticism, which can then be discarded because as we recall photography never claimed truth. And when we only really wanted truth from it, we were usually and invariably disappointed. To appropriate a phrase widely ridiculed at the current time: photography means photography. But what we understand by this is its ability to expose the fault lines in what we know while distracting us from the crumbling ground of truth.