Jun 22, 2010

The gap in media studies

Susan Sontag's book On Photography is often shelved with the books on photography. This isn't wrong, but it looks wrong and feels strange, since it's the only book in that section that has no photographs. It's not an oversized book, not printed in color, and has no pictures except for the one on the cover. It doesn't seem like it fits.

The book doesn't mention Sontag's long-term relationship with the famous professional photographer Annie Leibovitz, which I think only started later, but Sontag does, if I remember right, say that she herself doesn't take pictures. On Photography, here, takes photography as an object, an artifact of culture, even though that might more naturally be thought of as On Photos, instead of On Photography, since the latter requires some kind of engagement with a camera, which is exactly what Sontag doesn't do. Analysis, for her, has this kind of distance.

Roland Barthes, I know, specifically says he doesn't know anything about actually taking pictures in his book about photography. He says it with the sort of old man grumpiness that's a kind of pride at not having adopted this new-fangled technology. He waves his hands a little in the middle of Camera Lucina, says he doesn't understand these things, and then, from there, there's this sliding-by argument that because he doesn't understand these things he can talk about them freely.

Which also isn't wrong, and isn't bad. Both books are good and have been helpful to me in thinking about photography, but both of them also get certain things wrong. Not huge, rattling things, but details. Technicalities, the kind which are not only technicalities but also important to anyone who cares about the subject. The kind you can only focus on if you know (and maybe the question of focus would be an example of a detail) and otherwise avoid with vague gestures.

On the other hand, I often find myself flipping through the other photography books, the ones with all the pictures, looking for the words. For the theory. And there are brief artists' statements, perhaps, but they're usually more feint than philosophy, more pose and coffee-cup quote and a little self-fashioning, all of which has it's place even if it frustrates me, but there's little thinking. Little working out or thinking through. There are many many books, too, on technical details, camera settings and exposures and how to shoot in low light, but almost never anything about why or what it means or any sort of serious analysis of photography.

This is a gap I keep coming to in media studies. Those who have experience often have no theory at all (or, worse, a weak grasp of very old theory, which they naively think isn't theory at all) and those who can think theoretically are unfamiliar with the actual details of what they want to talk about.

Sometimes this is amazing for me, finding this wide space, and I find, for instance, that Niklas Luhman is wrong about something about media, but that if that's corrected his point is even more interesting, or that the thing about memory that the political reporters were bothered by in the campaign coverage of the '70s is actually explained and thought out clearly in lit. theory, or the theorists are groping for an explanation of something that's explained in beginning journalism classes, and journalists are struggling with a question covered in philosophy 400 years ago.

Other times, though, I just look at the gap and wonder why it's there. I guess maybe too there's a fear, sometimes, that maybe it's not as easy to get back and forth between media theory and practice as I think and I might just fall into that gaping space, and be stuck.