Linda Gross is a stipendiary at the DFG research training group “Entering the Knowledge Society” at the Institute of Science and Technology Studies, Bielefeld University. In her thesis she examines structures of knowledge production in Wikipedia. Her interests are located in Sociology of Science and Media, critical media theory, qualitative research methods, and questions concerning epistemic and methodological analogies and translations between science and art. The latter motivated her to form her personal view on the project.
Methodic and Epistemic Implications of (Multiple) Personal Views?
personal views adresses photography in the private sphere. The project builds on data which originates from anonymous archives, found its way into the public sphere, and finally got taken care of by an artist, who, virtually working like a cultural anthropologist, arranges them for examination.Thus, those photographs sustain a new function: They are to represent social und subjective structures. They lose their function as objects of private communication by being transformed into epistemic objects of an artistic and aesthetic endeavour. At this point it becomes evident that it is the projects’ very specific approach to its data which bears analogies to principles of qualitative research practice in the social sciences: Following this analogy, those pictures are handled like quasi-ethnographic documents or authentic Ausdrucksgestalten [material forms of expression] of social practice. Hence they offer insight into private spaces and practices which may reveal mechanisms of identity construction. Not simply sticking to insights the project transcends a subjective and self-referential perspective on its data by raising questions of general interrelations in the form of universal structures of meaning and by experiencing aesthetically // analytically // experimentally what the photographs’ have in common and what they can tell. Being an interdisciplinary project seeking collaborative meaning production in a virtual working environment personal views unfolds multiple dimensions to achieve its objectives.
The selection procedure which indicates the first dimension of meaning production oscillates between the general and the particular. Resembling the method of hermeneutical typification the artist looks as much for specific characteristics as for common and recurring patterns regarding the pictorial representation of privacy. In opposition to social scientists, who tend to „translate“ pictures into text before paying attention to them, she gives priority to the picture over the text. Thus, her epistemic process follows primarily a pictorial – her own – language. The constitutive act of this process consists in the selection, again, visibly resulting in a picture. Analogous to the anonymous photographer the artist makes a selection within a given repertoire of pictures leading to the question in which way the finally elected picture represents the invisible, the throwouts, the other? The final picture may not be taken as an aggregation of the whole data, i.e. the photographs, summing up and representing its typical characteristics. Rather it can be conceived as an individual case which in its distinctiveness represents the general.
The artist neither explicates nor defines the relation between the particular and the general, but, in doing so she opens up a space for a second stage in meaning production inviting friends and the website’s visitors to participate. At first, two authors who dedicate themselves both to science and to art undertake the task of a textual approach. In their work, the exploration of the data parallels ethnographic principles of Perspektivübernahme [the adoption of perspectives] and Entfremdung [the adoption of a stranger's, a distanced perspective], thus oscillating between empathy and estrangement for the sake of Verstehen. As an outcome of this approach the aesthetic dimensions of the pictorial representation of privacy developed, in turn, influence the discussion and selection of the images. So, the plurality of perspectives and feedback mechanisms fostered in the project manifest in two media (visual and textual) which at the same time express specific perspectives and approaches. Additionally further theorerical and artistic approaches in different media formats are to join the discourse.
Employing a weblog as the project’s technical framework and material location, enables both the presentation and the linkage of its manifold approaches regarding content and form: Hyperlinks allow for connections to other associations and occupations with the topic from different origins and therefore create new spaces of discourse. Via hyperlinks referring to new virtual contexts of presentation and reception of private photography the project’s process of meaning production reaches a third dimension.
It is the linkage between analogous and digital pictorial worlds which may initiate a historical, comparative perspective and allow conclusions about changes due to media shifts or even potential universalisms in conceptions and pictorial representations of privacy. Therein lies the implicit invitation for the website’s visitor to become himself an ethnographer, developing a new perspective and awareness while travelling in the virtual bush, adopting a marvelling and enquiring habit while exploring his own like a foreign culture. And finally the blog’s very fundamental function, the commentary, contributes significantly to the endeavour of a processual, hypertextual „research project“ 2.0: Thus, both reception and production intertwine in a potentially infinite process which always may create new interpretations, meaning, and artifacts. Thereby the website’s visitor can interact with the website and its products and therefore participate in a collaborative effort of meaning-making.
A Private but Public View?
In the following the project’s approach will be discussed from a structural, media sociological, and media critical perspective on possible aspects of the intrinsic logic of photography which determine its production and usage. In doing so I will follow the assumption that general structures of meaning [Sinnstrukturen] are reproduced within the process of production and become manifest in the picture. From this perspective one question occurs to me concerning the term private photography: Is’nt it rather an unveillance of the mystification of privacy in photography as one of the project’s implicit outcomes? In photography the distinction between the private and the public appears to have always been diffuse.
The private sphere signifies the particular. As an autonomous, protected domain it is in opposition to the general. In eluding societally standardised expectations the private sphere functions as a space in which subjective experience, meaning, and, with it, identity can be constructed and constituted in a unique manner. At first glance, the democratisation of photography due to its ubiquity appears to bear new potentials for an authentic constitution of identity:
„As a private technology photography produces private pictures of private life. With the photographic picture the industrial technology provides new opportunities to the most unprivileged owning potraits which no longer are the portraits of the world’s great personalities or the saints in heaven.“ (Pierre Bourdieu et al. (1965/2006): Eine illegitime Kunst: 42. Transl. LG)
In the first instance, Bourdieu ascribes a democratising and emancipating potential to amateur photography. The private appropriation of a former elite technology enables the family to resist the imperative of its stereotyped presentation and representation. Now, able to differentiate between intimate and public pictures, between those serving the purpose of self-assurance and reminiscence and those serving the purpose of representation, the family itself may determine how to be portrayed. However, what seems to be a gain in emancipatory potentials appears from another perspective as the flip side of the coin.
The empowerment in self-determining the pictorial constitution of identity also opens the door for Selbstinszenierung [self-dramatisation]. The act of production, i.e. the selection and recording of the picture, not only refers to one’s own family but also to an imagined audience. Therefore, the act of taking a picture not only implies the position within the family but also within society. Accordingly, the Medium allows the imperative of representation and dramatisation to enter into the privacy of one’s home causing the brothel’s walls to collapse. Following McLuhan’s metaphor of a „brothel-without-walls“ the photograph implies the need for getting hold of the captured object, at the risk of losing its „aura“ (Walter Benjamin) which refers to the unique aesthetic experience and perception of a unique appearance of distance and volatility. Once captured on film the indefinite and imperceptable dissolves and social dynamics are rendered to products which due to their fixation facilitate assessment, judgment and comparison.
The medium of photography thus opens up the private sphere und allows the logic of culture industry to enter. Firstly, it is the act of taking the picture in which the object is selected, brought into focus and staged. Besides being merely self-referential the production process refers to and is therefore regulated by general normative structures, semantics and symbols which are not solely limited to the private sphere.
So, mummy posing in front of the Matterhorn may also evoke associations of Sissy and Franz, maybe even of A. and E., picture postcards and the Trenker, the legend and the ascent of – all these symbols may also be inside her dear husband’s head pushing the button, shouting “a little bit to the right!” He may feel like someone who got miss von und zu in front of his lense displaying professional enthusiasm to make the most of the situation. Or does he contribute to the reproduction of a national symbolism of the good german mountain by appropriating and capturing the motive which he, finally, brings in their living room?
The producer seems to be empowered by the apparatus but sticks to clichés and stereotypes which he, in turn, reproduces. The pictorial patterns identitfied by the project’s initiators denoting relevant, frequently occurring topics in private photography also refer to these stereotypes. We perceive representative social and object relations – the family as a middle-class refuge, conventional trajectoires, father-mother-child, home and garden, wall units and other devotional objects of distinct taste. These patterns reflect standardised, normative conceptions of privacy which in their nivelling potential are also to be found as a frame of reference in TV and Cinema.
Secondly, the boundaries between private-public become also blurred in the act of reception. Literally promising a unique, idiosyncratic experience within the family and offering a resource for the constitution of its identity the private reception of private photography becomes a mimicry of mass media’s and culture industry’s conditions of reception.
So, family X is sitting in their living room looking at pictures of the past days in the family album, while family Y is doing the same. Both gazing at daughter Y or X who poses cutely in front of the family’s wall unit. Maybe as both, producers and audience of the same stereotype, they secretely know that this unique “event” does not gain its significance from its inimitableness, singularity, “individuality” but rather from its reproducibility, mass occurrence and standardised repetition. Everyone likes to own such a picture of him- or herself! The absence of such a picture would feel like it never happened. One would not have been young and innocent. One did not experience those important moments in life. One doesn’t get rid of the impression that there might be no right live amidst wrongs because this is the right one!
Thus, does culture industry casts its nets in the private sphere dictating structures of meaning production in photography by means of standardisation? In the light of this perspective and to further the discussion one needs to ask: What are the potentials of resistance in the private domain? And, is resistance in this terms only possible through dissolving the product’s ability of reproduction and consumption? Linda Gross