I was reading Georgio Agamben on my long flight to New York, and I had to think about the infallibility of our banks. I am very far away from occupying Wall Street any time soon, I have no problem navigating the new religious order most of the time. But my father always said that if the state or the banks want your money, they will find a way to take it.
In order to understand what is taking place, we have to interpret Walter Benjamin’s idea that capitalism is really a religion literally, the most fierce, implacable and irrational religion that has ever existed because it recognizes neither truces nor redemption. A permanent worship is celebrated in its name, a worship whose liturgy is labor and its object, money. God did not die; he was transformed into money. The Bank—with its faceless drones, delirious traders, and its finance-structure experts—has taken the place of the church with its priests, and by its command over credit (even the granting of tax certificates, which has enabled the state to blithely abdicated its sovereignty), manipulates and manages the faith—the scarce and uncertain faith—that still remains to it in our time.
The claim that today’s capitalism is a religion is most effectively demonstrated by the headlines appearing on the front pages of major national newspapers these days: “Save the Euro Regardless of the Cost”. Well, “salvation” is a religious concept, but what does “regardless of the cost” mean? Even at the cost of sacrificing human lives? Only within a religious perspective (or, more correctly, a pseudo-religious perspective) could one make such plainly absurd and inhuman statements.
We need to save our banks because we need banks, we need to maintain our system because we are not anarchists, but we need to remember that it’s an ecosystem that serves us all.
I’ve recently read a number of books by Joseph Campbell, as well as Douglas Rushkoff. They’re very different writers, but both comment on society. Campbell explores the common symbols of Western religions, and reinterprets them in the context of world mythology. He is a historian, and focuses on comparative religions. One of the things he stresses is that modern humanity needs new myths. The old ones served as guiding stories, to give a sense of what is right, and to provide a map as men go through their rites of passage. What is missing today are these rites, the opportunity to become a man in our modern culture. The common religious rites have been watered down to become meaningless rituals that show obedience, but they do not offer a test. So the stories that were in many ways a guide have no relevance any longer. Campbell argues we need new myths, new stories in a global time. The minute we landed on the moon and could see the whole earth was the time when it became clear the old stories were no longer relevant.
On the other hand, Rushkoff points out that we live in a post-narrative society. There are almost no stories anymore, and the way we consume media is untethered from traditional story arcs. Reality TV or video games, snippets on Vimeo and endless-scrolling FB Timelines have removed stories from our regular lives. When we watch a show and the plot becomes too threatening or boring or emotionally complex viewers switch to another program or device. Our politics is made for people who won’t want to follow the whole thread, they want the soundbite and then move on.
Both writers have affected the way my newest project is unfolding. When I began the Sacred & the Profane a year ago, it was very much about exploring the literal interpretations of Judeo-Christian stories, but Campbell summarized my discontent. Rushkoff makes me realize how meaningless yet another photographic image has become in a time of Tumblr and Pinterest in terms of telling a story. The project has taken a turn to the more abstract, but also to a larger scale. It will include a lot of images, and the physical presentation of the most important images will go beyond a simple edition print.
I’m reading Camille Paglia’s “Glittering Images”, a book I recommend to anyone interested in art history and interpretation. It’s a series of short essays, covering about one hundred major pieces of art throughout history. The sub-title says it all: “A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars.” Of course her essays all have her strong dissident feminist twist to them.
In describing Titian’s “Venus with a Mirror” she writes: The hushed spectacle of a woman gazing into her mirror has exerted a powerful fascination on male artists. Is she a puppet of vanity, or a sorceress in eery dialogue with her double? Most feminists reject the mirror as Woman’s oppressor, the internalized eye of judgmental society.
Or, as John Berger wrote in “Ways of Seeing”
A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear.
One of my all-time favorite images from a session I shot a long time ago, featuring Angela.
As a fine art photographer, I constantly find myself coming up against several important theoretical voices that have contributed to our field. Susan Sonntag’s essays “On Photography” is an important piece in that body of work.
Susan Sontag’s thoughts on photography were prescient when she wrote that “today, everything exists to end in a photograph.” It’s not quite how she meant it, but it seems people in the days of social media are incapable of living the moment… thousands of phones come out at every concert and sporting event. It is a permeable border to citizen’s journalism. People are somehow trying to preserve a moment rather than experiencing it. They’ll take a picture of the celebrity although pro-shooters will capture that moment much better and have it uploaded to the internet before the rest of us get home. I have always recommended to young photographers that if they shoot anything at such events, focus on the people around them… That will be a much more interesting and creative historic document. Or, as she put it in a rather snarky way: “Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.”
Much of what Susan Sontag wrote struck me as very condescending. “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” I prefer Robert Frank’s take on it, when he said in 2008 that “there are too many images…Too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore. Maybe it never was.”
Of course, Sontag still thought of the photographer as a documentarian, not someone who stages image… which of course is ironic because she later became the life-partner of Annie Leibovitz, one of the great creators of staged and constructed images. Sontag wrote that “the painter constructs, the photographer discloses.” That’s nonsense when you back off the assertion that photography is defined by a caught moment. There is more to photography than a well-trained eye that perfectly captures the moment serendipitously stumbled upon. “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images–one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past. The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.”
Well, that isn’t true.
Some of us create our images, rather than prowl around hoping to find one… although this is the point where many parse the difference between a photographer and an artist. Photography as an art form is about creating a narrative, rather than capturing one. Sontag writes that “all photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” This sounds almost native-aborigine. The artist does not destroy, rather he brings stories to life. Especially when the goal is to engage in the retelling of myths, the images come from gifted ears and eyes that hear and see the song and dances of life. To freeze them is not to kill them, but rather to keep them alive.