Personal Moral Histories and the Narrative of Photography
The moral history of my education is that I only learned moral history at school, and that I did not fit into popular groups or traditional systems. I learned that I am not part of the group that is catered for by one-size-fits-all solutions, and as a consequence I eventually learned that it was not I who was the problem, but the system itself.
I learned to dislike convention, tradition and the status quo, and I learned to have disdain for cookie-cutter solutions, robotic responses and the failure to be able to think and act reasonably, due to norms, rules or laws.
Listening to comedians talk about their lives I realised that they are a special type of moral history that is remembered and re-told in order to have a comedic effect. The overall result though is that often tragic and horrible events are not experienced as such, because the comedic history has an abstracting power over its contents. In standard moral histories as in cinema, the tragic event is presented and designed to be experienced as such, but in a comedy the tragic event is really just the setting and set-up for the jokes. The main lesson of the moral comedy is that no matter how violent, painful, sad or distressing the event, comedy can make it not just bearable, but shareable and re-liveable. The purpose of such tales then becomes, not a standard re-telling of events and affirmations, but a source of amusement, entertainment, and perhaps therapy for their creator.
In this way, comedy acts as a distancing device in order to render life or history more bearable, in the same way that a camera and the act of photographing an event ensures that we do not (fully) participate in it. The role of the comedian and the photographer is to transform events and experiences in such a way that demands that neither of them be fully present.
My own experience of painful, difficult and tragic, and even ordinary events is that they are much more vivid and moving in the context of the stories in which we place them, compared to the reality that gave birth to them. This is most obvious to me when I hear other people recount stories in which I was directly involved and present, and in these moments I hear the moral story come alive as clearly as if it were a separate entity with a will of its own. In this way, a moral history resembles a meme, that doesn’t necessarily convey any information beyond its own structure: as Roland Barthes would say of language “it is language which speaks, not the author”, or borrowing from Marshall McLuhan, the moral history is the medium, and therefore the message. Another, perhaps more intuitively comprehensible comparison, and one which has significant consequences is that the moral history is simply a bias; an automatic script that gets run every time the circumstances call for it.
Although we might not experience potentially harmful or detrimental events as such, it seems possible that having exaggerated and condensed versions in the form of moral histories, functions in such a way as to help prevent similar events from happening again. Just as fear helps us to be cautious and survive longer on average, so too do moral histories by perpetuating fundamental ideas that are contained within the collective subconscious. So in the long run, telling a factual truth about the past might be a bad idea, unless it is also buffered by an emotional one.
It is important to remember that in all moral histories the objective, factual, statistical and detailed reality of events is not what is most pertinent, but it is the way we feel about and react to the story that counts. I have come to understand that my own moral histories are just motivational stories that either push me to do one thing or to avoid another, and that in themselves they are not real, although they are based on real events. Not only are our memories unreliable, but even when intact they only paint a partial picture, so as far as facts are concerned, those seemingly-real collections of recollections in our heads are mostly useless. Where memory excels is in taking part in moral histories that form coherently felt truths. If truth is relative to understanding (Lakoff & Johnson) then moral histories form the basis of how we act and experience the world. As moral histories tend to be repeated rather than scrutinised when told, moral histories tend to be repeated rather than contradicted in future. To question the moral history is like going to the cinema and pointing out that the drama you are watching on screen is not real, and that the characters are just played by actors.
After watching a scene from a movie and then immediately replaying it, we realise that there are always elements that we miss, whether they be events, scenery, details or dialogue, and after many repeated viewings we can still identify things that we did not before. This fact however, doesn’t usually stop us from understanding the story or its characters, and in a way all of these elements merely serve as packaging for the delivery of the core messages, which is exactly how moral history works.
Just like the gorilla in the selective attention test, the details of a movie or history get ignored in favour of the bigger picture. We come to instinctively know how to spend our resources while watching films, which is how we are able to understand the plot without getting fixated on things like what other people happen to be doing in the background for example.
Detail is essentially the product of a technologically advanced society and a collective input, without which stories remain local, general, and one-sided. Without the ability to have multiple perspectives, and without the technology for recording and quantifying, history cannot be put up to scrutiny or challenged in any way, meaning that it must remain basic; a moral history.
With the understanding that current technology is out of sync with most of human history, I believe that the form of the moral history is what we have adapted to communicating in, and understanding implicitly. Since fact-generation and documenting processes are part of that new technology, objective truths have yet to be naturally (well) assimilated into our storytelling methods, if at all.
A factual history that is not a predictive model or an instructive one occupies a poor position on the spectrum of ideasthesia balance theory.
Modern history thus loses the benefits of its artistic presentation (moral) by becoming overbalanced with an increasing load of extraneous facts that fail to be incorporated into a coherent whole. This failure to take into account the importance of the audience removes the story aspect from history, leaving us with a strange and foreign incarnation. With this in mind, maybe we should treat old texts, not as historical records, but as moral tales based on symbolism rather than fact.
We don’t want to remember others, or be remembered ourselves as factual, but moral histories. We desire to preserve the good memories and image of ourselves; our best selves and those of our friends, family and heroes.
Magic & Hypnosis
Magic is an interesting metaphor, because in order for the magician’s effect to work, there must be a believable story or complete context in place in order to capture or redirect the attention of the audience. The magician is a performer who tells us a story that is contradictory to fact, because details and facts undo the work of the story-telling magician, destroying the illusion. Rabbits aren’t really pulled from hats, but for as long as we don’t know how they are actually produced, our experience is one of magic, or at the very least, mystery.
This is another example of suspension of disbelief. In as sense, we have to be open to the power of suggestion, and distracted from seeing the facts, or able to dismiss, downplay, and rationalise them. We have to want to enter into the simulation.
The context of the cinema is designed to make transition into, and experience of the simulation as smooth and vivid as possible. The natural extensions: 3D and virtual reality etc. are simply there to allow easier immersion in the story.
If fiction (art) is a simulation, as in a dry run or test, then what things might be more beneficial to simulate than others? Furthermore, what effects if any, might repeated simulations of a particular theme have? For example: war movies, games and books, or romance novels etc. At what point does empathy devolve into desensitisation?
Spoken word stories also had/have their particular contexts that enable us to enter their worlds (“are you sitting comfortably?”). Sitting in a group means that we become more susceptible to group effects which at times has its obvious downsides, but which is also perfect for making it easier to play along in the context of storytelling.
All devices and techniques that increase the emotional impact of a work of art or fiction can be seen as simulation catalysts. Music can greatly influence the effects of imagery, and vice versa, so if used well, they are highly complementary.
The role of (supplementary) information about an artwork is therefore to maximise the effect of the simulation without becoming unbalanced, and unintentionally waking us from our lucid dream.
Bathos causes abrupt waking, like someone deliberately or accidentally kicking you while you sleep, thus the moral history could simply be defined by pathos, or described as being pathetic.
If Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy refers to the way in which strong emotions might alter our perceptions and thus our descriptions of the world to make the landscape appear “uncaring” for example, then the mechanism for stirring emotion in a literary work may be the opposite. I.e. by creating through various fictions (simulations) uncaring landscapes or tales of weeping trees, we can awaken the emotions that each particular individual has attached to that particular imagery.
The Narrative of Photography
Knowing that I am not a susceptible type of person it now makes sense to me why I cannot, or would find it very difficult to benefit from things such as religious ceremony, spiritual practices, traditional yoga, and martial arts to some degree. All of these practices are enveloped in story that when taken literally are often absurd and counter to what we know to be fact. But in order to receive their intended offerings we must fully immerse ourselves, which takes time and effort and acceptance.
This brings me to a point I have previously made about my relationship to photography, that I am like an atheist in admiration of religious buildings, that I willingly enter them, while refusing to fall under their spell and to drop my head in prayer. In the case of photography, I have refused to identify as a photographer, instead, wishing to acknowledge its power and effects while remaining at a safe distance, whatever that might mean.
So if the idea of photography itself is a simulation; a story about something which if accepted will result in a kind of emotional disturbance, then what is its story, and how might those emotions arise? In other words, what am I protecting myself from (real or imagined), and what do I stand to lose or gain by entering the simulation?
The Implicit Story of Photography
- Photographs are an objective truth (facts), and as such can be effectively used to inspire positive change in the world [If this were the case, and photographs were facts then the narrative power of photographs is limited and they are bare]
- A photograph has an innate specialness that is independent from the process that produced it and the knowledge we have about it (studium) – a belief that the medium isn’t the message. As a consequence of this idea we have the rise of the great, photographic author.
- The camera is secondary to how the photo looks (see above)
- The work of the photographer is important and meaningful in a universal sense, hence the importance of the author.
- Recording images is universally important, so the process and experience of photography is seen as unimportant because we cannot necessarily see them in a photograph.
- Photographers create or capture the magic themselves, rather than it resulting from the strangeness of the photographic image and the process that produced it.
- Photographers make fine art – that art is the result of using a particular material, subject or technique.
- Photography has a coherent language that competent photographers use to express various ideas – the author speaks this photographic language.
- Photographs can be clear, and have a clear, discoverable meaning that remains over time; they are not ambiguous – the meaning is in the image.
On an instinctive level, to accept these axioms is to concede a narrative that doesn’t stand up to logical and rational scrutiny; it is to be wilfully blind. I ultimately believe that in order to master photography we must actually understand it first and not to fall victim to its illusions. Only by acknowledging the difficulties that are inherent in the medium can we begin to tame it within the imposed limits. I think that a difference between this blind acceptance and a sceptical and analytical approach is what separates traditional photography and photographers from their contemporary counterparts.
By imagining the photographer as a reporter like any other, and more importantly, by considering the photograph to be no different than a written language, the act of just making photographs takes on a greater importance than it would have if we saw it as a mere exercise in creating facsimiles.
In a broad sense, the myth of the photographer is a call to self-importance, and a defence of the role of the photographer in the artistic process. This story seems like a direct consequence of the disruption to the world that the invention of photography first created, and the difficulties it faced, and continues to face in being accepted as a legitimate art form. In photography’s collective subconscious lies an unacknowledged trauma, and serious cognitive dissonance surrounding the simultaneous allures of photographic technology and the realisation that this technology implies a certain human redundancy.
The irony in all this is that we need to break free from moral history and its traditions, in order to personally elevate photography to the level of art. So, although the narrative of the photographer may place me in top position as the hero of the story, it does so at the expense of leaving me precariously balanced atop a house of cards.