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Forumization and Its Malcontent (2)

A. D. Coleman, 2010. Photograph copyright by Willie Chu.

Finding One’s Inner Photo Critic

As I noted at the end of my previous post, since prospective participants in the several forums in which I participated in December underwent no actual assessment of qualifications, each forum inevitably included at least one person less familiar than the rest with common reference points who brought the discussions to a grinding halt by posting something variously naïve, dumb, garbled, or all three.

In one of those forums, the prime exemplar of that set of qualities hijacked the thread by opining that the general public doesn’t need specialist photo critics because its members are “fully equipped with or without such guidance to draw their own conclusions and make intelligent decisions [in relation to] their understanding of images.”

Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn at Rome's Mouth of Truth in William Wyler's 1953 film "Roman Holiday."

Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn at Rome's Mouth of Truth in William Wyler's 1953 film "Roman Holiday."

She refused to provide any proof to buttress that remarkable assertion — understandably, as it’s hard to come by. For some readily available contrary evidence, consider this: Substantial evidence indicates that more than 40 percent of women are unhappy with their bodies, a number virtually unchanged since 1984. (For some scholarly citations in support of this position, go to “Beauty and Body Image in the Media” at the Media Awareness Network. See also Shaun Dreisbach’s March 2009 Glamour article, “Exclusive Body-Image Survey: 16,000 Women Tell Their Body Confidence Secrets.”) Considerable data indicates they feel this way mostly as a result of comparing their real physical selves to the visual images of women promulgated by the mass media — images, mostly photographic, that are taken as normative, even if idealized unrealistically using makeup or other methods during production or altered post-production via Photoshop and other such means.

These women do indeed “draw their own conclusions” from such images, in many cases deciding that to achieve desirability they need to match the unrealistic appearance of the women in those images. The “intelligent decisions” they make in response thereto range from radical, expensive, unnecessary, and often dangerous cosmetic body-modification surgery to self-starvation and even bulimia and anorexia in their efforts to mirror the look of those images.

Oneal Ron Morris, Miami Gardens Police Dept. mug shots, 11/18/2011.

Oneal Ron Morris, Miami Gardens Police Dept. mug shots, 11/18/2011.

Sounds to me like a large cohort of women who desperately need to get in touch with their inner photo critics. And the best way to do so, I continue to argue, involves regular engagement with a real-life role model, an actual photo critic, who can exemplify  an analytical attitude toward manipulation via lens-derived imagery, thus helping them “just say no” to lunatic behavior like paying qualified surgeons to stuff them with breast implants that now have to be removed due to a risk of cancer because they contain industrial-grade rather than medical-grade silicone gel; or getting so Botoxed that you lose the ability to express anything facially except rodent surprise; or “going to pumping parties,” where women gather for low-cost, medically unsupervised silicone injections in body parts like the buttocks, breasts, or chin; or paying some demented yoyo off the street to inject a mixture of cement, ‘Fix a Flat’ tire sealant, mineral oil, and super glue into their buttocks.

Fully equipped to make intelligent decisions about images, my ass (and theirs), so to speak.

Oh, That “‘Intellectual’ Crowd”

But back to our story. The participant who hijacked the forum thread in which I participated this past December had only begun her takeover of the discussion with the following pronouncement:

“What makes the ‘intellectual’ crowd think they need to guide citizens in their understanding of images? I think people are fully equipped with or without such guidance to draw their own conclusions and make intelligent decisions. I feel like the sort of theory and criticism we are discussing here belongs now and has always belonged to the esoteric realms of the the [sic] graduate seminar classroom.”

A. D. Coleman, Hotshoe lecture poster 2011(N.B. This was one of two forums — out of four altogether — that I joined specifically because they involved group discussion of my November 2011 lecture, “Dinosaur Bones: The End (and Ends) of Photo Criticism.” You’ll find the text here. And you’ll discover that its main subject is the disappearance from the pages of mainstream, general-audience periodicals of mainstream critical writing about photography written in accessible language — in other words, precisely not the kind of writing directed toward or popular in “the esoteric realms of the the [sic] graduate seminar classroom.”)

In response to that peculiar assertion, for which she offered no supporting evidence, I wrote,

While I think of myself as a “public intellectual,” in cultural historian Morris Dickstein’s terms, I’ve never thought of myself as part of “the ‘intellectual’ crowd.” Nor, I think, does such a unitary cohort exist, except as a fantasy. (As it happens, the form of Marxism to which I adhere is what’s known as Groucho deviationism: I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member — including any “‘intellectual’ crowd.”)

And while I’ve taught post-secondary since 1970 I’ve done so only part-time, almost entirely in undergraduate or continuing-education contexts, so I don’t consider myself an academic. I should add that the types of outlets for critical writing whose unavailability I mourn in my talk — newspapers like the [New York] Times and the [New York] Observer — are disdained by the academic world, where publication of a single footnoted essay in an obscure, small-circulation but “peer-reviewed” journal still trumps my 120 essays in the New York Times.

I don’t see my role as critic as leading people by the nose, or telling them what to think, but simply — in a citizenly way — visibly and publicly modeling critical thinking about my particular area of knowledge, by providing clearly articulated opinions and substantiated arguments off which to bounce their own ideas. With that said, I consider the notion that the general public is “fully equipped with or without such guidance to draw their own conclusions and make intelligent decisions [in relation to] their understanding of images” overly optimistic, though I certainly wish it were so.

We’ve Only Just Begun

I thought this might deflect her, and enable the already ongoing discussion of serious issues in that thread to continue. But, as I said, she’d only just begun. Disregarding those gentle correctives, she launched her next salvo:

“I guess I just think that one of the great things about the internet is that anyone can have a voice here. You don’t have to be inducted into the somewhat cult like world of the “educated” to do so. What makes the opinion of a certain highly informed person more valid than that of someone who is not informed? . . . I think giving the general public the reigns [sic] creates freedom in the exchange of ideas that is not present in a world where only certain people decide what is valid.”

I wrote back,

"A Walk on the Wild Side," Nelson Algren, Ace edition 1960.Goodness me! I didn’t realize that by going to school I’d been “inducted into the somewhat cult like world of the ‘educated.'” (Now where did I put that decoder ring, and the handbook with the secret handshake?) I do agree with the Nelson Algren character who says “Smart from books ain’t so smart,” but I’ve never taken “educated” as synonymous with merely “smart from books” — also true of most of the intelligent people I’ve known. I believe, as they do, that you don’t really “own” knowledge until you’ve tested it in the real world.

And I frankly don’t know how to respond to the question “What makes the opinion of a certain highly informed person more valid than that of someone who is not informed?” To paraphrase, what makes the opinion of someone who knows something about a subject more valid than that of someone who knows nothing about it? This query seems to conflate the belief that everyone’s entitled to an opinion (with which I agree) with the notion that all opinions carry equal weight (with which I certainly disagree).

Undeterred, she retorted thus:

“I don’t think I’m conflating anything. I do believe that all opinions hold equal weight until someone comes along and says otherwise. That’s kind of my point. Here’s a question I don’t think you can dismiss so readily: Do you think it’s possible that there are uninformed opinions out there that may shed light on an image in a way that an informed opinion cannot? I can see that I’ve offended you and for that I apologize, but I do think that someone should challenge some of the ideas in your essay.”

(To be continued.)

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19 comments to Forumization and Its Malcontent (2)

  • Diane Bush

    Oy Vey!

    Now that stupidity is OK, they think that makes it right?

  • Manisha Staal

    In your interview A.D. Coleman: A Conversation with the Critic on the Photo Wings website, you stated “… I’ve learned to take criticism fairly well. And again, unless I feel it is genuinely malicious in its purpose, which it sometimes has been, I welcome it, partly because of my critical role. The purpose of critical activity is to stir up discussion, and that includes dispute, and contention and contradiction and so on”. You claim in the same interview that “you have to separate your feelings about the maker from your feelings about the work. What you should be addressing, I think, as a critic, is the work, and not the person”.

    And yet, in your ongoing fulmination on your blog—in response to a contrary viewpoint to your own,—you resort to histrionics and give way (metaphorically) to your own carnal desire to “… to kill them, naturally, yeah … wipe them off the face of the earth…” [quoted from same interview when asked how you respond to negative criticism].

    The unnamed person who sparked this disputation, would be better addressed by an intelligent and informed response. Instead, you demonstrate misogny that has no place in any kind of serious and informed cultural criticism. This is evidenced by the bewildering reference to women and body image, which you present in a patronizing attempt to demean the contradictor of your views—based purely on gender.

    The meta language of your entire rant and rave points to a Kritic (sic) that appears to have lost the plot; certainly in this instance. To the extent that you dedicate two blog posts, thus far (I’m sure there’s more to come) to a short-lived experience on an online forum in which you did not receive the recognition you clearly believe should be bestowed and hanker after, but you also hijacked the discussion as much as the person you condemn, not only via extremely LONG diatribes but through a use of language that was clearly about closing down others’ opinions.

    To be fair, the other person wrote with a level of naiveté and did not present the references that would assist their point of view. However, your text, here, demonstrates an equal lack of substance. You should know better (by your own account). You words of pontification are hot air and by that definition have no substance. If you were more learned, you might have delved into the ‘knowledge’ and ‘expertise’ that you say you have, and present a translation of what the other person was pointing to; which did have a good level of validity, even though it was poorly stated and not demonstrated.

    • It was not my intent to suggest that only women need to get in touch with their “inner photo critics,” but I can see how it could seem that way. And for that unclarity in my writing I apologize. Coincidentally, the stories cited in that passage all showed up recently, headlined in the several news sources I browse, and suggested a pertinent pattern. Had a similar cluster of reports arrived relevant to extreme body modification consequent to negative body images on the part of men instead, I assure you I’d have made the same comments about the male subjects of such reports. My disagreement is with the proposition that the citizenry at large needs no guidance in analyzing photographs critically; I used the handiest example.

      In the passage you cite from the PhotoWings interview, I’m talking about any creator’s need to control one’s own emotional reaction to negative and even hostile treatment of one’s work. I was being facetious in telling Suzie Katz that my parental instinct was to kill anyone who insulted my babies, as a way of indicating that I understand what others experience when a harsh critique comes their way. Nothing particularly “carnal” about it. I think that comes through more clearly in the audio — which you can listen to at the site — than in the transcription.

      I didn’t engage with the forum in question because I “hanker” for “recognition.” I did so as a courtesy to the photographer and writer who posted the original link to my lecture text in the forum (he’s someone I respect as a colleague), and as a courtesy to the forum’s moderator, who asked me to join in.

      The comments I posted at the forum were of course longer than some, but not longer than others, according to the browsing I did before chiming in. Having been invited by the moderator to take part in the discussion, and having authored the piece under discussion, I thought substantial answers from the source were called for and welcome. My bad, obviously.

      Undoubtedly we differ in our estimation of the substance of the threadjacker’s interruptive comments. In any case, I would never presume myself entitled to “present a translation of what the other person was pointing to” in what I understood as a conversation among adults capable of speaking for themselves.

  • As much as you disliked your experience at the [large-group forum], at least you got material for a couple of columns 🙂

    • As a writer, I’ve never lacked for material. As an adult professional, I learned long ago that when they hand you lemons, you make lemonade.

      I’ve no desire to put any particular forums in bad repute, or to identify and embarrass publicly any participants in any of those in which I took part briefly. So I’ve taken the liberty of removing the name of the forum to which you referred in this comment.

  • The dependably thoughtful London-based photographer and writer Peter Marshall has published a substantial response to both my “Dinosaur Bones” lecture and my account of my recent forum experiences at his always readable blog, Re: Photo.

  • As the previous commentator Manisha Staal has already stated, this may be one of the most disgustingly misogynistic things I’ve ever read. I don’t even think it warrants response. You have proven to myself and everyone else just what a pathetic little man you really are and how desperately you need to be thought of as someone who has the answers. I am the person Mr. Coleman is referring to here and I am not embarrassed or discouraged by his attempts at making me look bad, because he has failed miserably at doing so. I am an intelligent person and I am not naive. I am also not uneducated. I was commenting on a discussion forum attempting to address an issue and see if others had similar concerns, not lay down an argument as to why my point of view is the correct one. I was thrown off by Coleman’s totally defensive response and I am completely vindicated by the fact that he was so distraught over the issues I brought up that he felt it necessary to attack me personally in his blog. If you haven’t figured it out already this man is a fraud and only a fool would take anything he says seriously.

    • Clearly we have very different definitions of the word misogyny.

      I consider a culture misogynistic when, by the deliberately manipulative use of images (mostly photographic) disseminated through the mass media, it persuades women whose healthy bodies in their natural state fall within the normal range of biological variations that they need to modify their bodies via drastic means, such as radical invasive surgery, in order to conform their bodies to the stereotypes promulgated by those images.

      I consider women willingly complicit partners in that misogynistic culture when, instead of responding critically to those distorted and often falsified photographic images, they buy into the misogyny of that media campaign, reifying its malevolent fantasies with health-jeopardizing behaviors ranging from self-starvation to the injection of foreign substances and the implanting of foreign objects into their bodies.

      I do not consider it misogynistic to criticize either that misogynistic culture or those women’s active, enthusiastic collaboration with it, which, by legitimating grotesque marketing campaigns that sell them dissatisfaction with their physical selves, has turned unnecessary and risky cosmetic surgery into an epidemic. I consider such a critique an act of citizenship, and an action in support of the physical and mental health of women, and see no reason why my gender should prohibit it.

      In fact, my critique echoes the classic feminist critique of the propagandizing effect of mass-media images of women — a critique with which, as an educated person, you’re surely familiar. It surprises me (perhaps it shouldn’t) to find you and Manisha Staal on the anti-feminist side of that debate.

      By dragging the red herring of misogyny across the trail, you neatly avoid confronting tangible and extensive evidence that clearly contradicts your professed opinion that no one “need[s] to guide citizens in their understanding of images [because] I think people are fully equipped with or without such guidance to draw their own conclusions and make intelligent decisions.” Certainly the Media Awareness Network, the Canadian Women’s Health Network, UNESCO, the Media Education Foundation, and countless other knowledgeable sources disagree with you. But hey, the opinions of people who know nothing about that subject carry equal weight, right?

      Killing Me Softly, DVD cover

      I also made a point of not identifying you in any way in my posts, and of not identifying the specific forum in which these exchanges took place, to maintain your anonymity and the privacy of that forum.

  • S. Morgan

    The messages sent by images of beauty in mass media and popular culture indeed do encourage women to take dieting or body modification extremes. You assert that women receive this message because they are uninformed, uneducated viewers who do not know any better. In other words, women cannot understand and respond to images without guidance. When your gender-discriminate comment was pointed out you make further misogynistic comments by stating that misogyny exists and is perpetuated through images because women are not smart enough to reject the ideas presented by such images. You claim that had information on men been available you would have used that instead. Either way, you claim that your guidance is meant to help the uneducated (of any gender) see past the misogynistic message. Is that not putting a blindfold over one’s eyes to convince them that the blaring message is not as important as the hidden messages of such images? While being educated certainly does allow for more extensive discourse, the uneducated still contribute to the web of significance woven by connecting, comparing and contrasting different perspectives. I agree with Arriola that to dismiss one’s thoughts about an image because they are not educated in the matter is what is ignorant.

    • I’ve suggested nothing more than that I consider the availability to the citizenry at large — men, women, and children of all ages, races, genders, and gender persuasions — of mainstream models of a critical relationship to photographic images of all kinds a good thing. And that I consider the diminishing support for such models in the mainstream media a bad thing. Those were among the main points I made in my lecture, and in the follow-up forum to which I added some comments.

      Ms. Arriola doesn’t view the diminution of such mainstream criticism as a bad thing at all, because she’s convinced the citizenry is already “fully equipped . . . to draw their own conclusions and make intelligent decisions [in relation to] their understanding of images.” In her opinion, professional critics of photography, art, the mass media have therefore become redundant (if, in fact, they were ever necessary). Apparently you agree with her on this, so we’ll have to agree to disagree.

      She refuses, as always, to supply any evidence supporting her position, and you join her in that practice. Since I see from your email address that you have a post-secondary connection, I have to ask if that’s standard procedure for scholars at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

      Most of the things you say I’ve “asserted” or “stated” aren’t actually things I’ve asserted or stated, which is why you can’t put quotation marks around them. They’re things you’ve asserted or stated — stuff you’ve made up, words you’re putting into my mouth in order to attack them. Once again the red herring of “misogny” gets dragged across the trail . . .

      • A. D. Coleman

        A pertinent quote from the Mumbai-based actress Leeza Mangaldas: “Misogyny is no longer misogyny when expressed by a woman. It’s self-loathing. And while it is easy — and justified — for women to point fingers at men for the chauvinism in our society, don’t we owe it to ourselves to look within?”

  • I agree with Manisha Staal’s comment above. A very concise rebuttal eloquently stated.

    • Like she said, eh?

      I find it fascinating that Manisha Staal has absolutely no online presence that I can discover. Makes me suspect that “she” is a pseudonym.

      Be that as it may, instead of just me-too’ing, you could have assisted both Ms. Staal and Ms. Arriola by providing specific supporting evidence for the positions they take. Ms. Staal acknowledges that Arriola “wrote with a level of naiveté and did not present the references that would assist their [sic] point of view” and that “what [Arriola] was pointing to . . . was poorly stated and not demonstrated.” (With friends like that, Arriola doesn’t need enemies.) Despite that scathing critique, Staal concludes that Arriola’s comments “did have a good level of validity.” Apparently you feel the same way. Exactly which of Arriola’s assertions do you believe “have a good level of validity,” and why?

  • These Forum postings are now practically antique – I hope there’s some way people get notified about comment thread updates. There’s such a wealth of information on your blog and links that one could go nuts even trying to remember where something was seen.

    “the citizenry is already “fully equipped . . . to draw their own conclusions and make intelligent decisions [in relation to] their understanding of images.”

    The single example of the falsity of this statement which will remain relevant perhaps forever is the Iraqi War, not only for itself but for the subsequent wars engendered, for the “documentation” and false pointers that led to it, for the gullibility that accepted someone in authority pointing to some blurry blob in a crappy quality photo insisting that “your own lying eyes” had to be disregarded because “we know better.”

    • If posts from a month ago, about online events from two months ago, qualify as “antique,” I hesitate to ask how you’d classify me.

      Regarding access to the content of this blog: Forum-management software enables complex threading. And with most forumware the participant can choose whether or not to receive updates, notices of new comments, etc. Blogware generally doesn’t make that possible. A blog resembles more a newspaper’s op-ed page, with a “Letters to the Editor” component for the comments. You can subscribe to the blog, and get it in your email inbox whenever I publish a new post, but there’s no notification to subscribers when a new comment gets made.

      I’m pleased that you consider the content here “a wealth of information . . . and links.” I don’t close off the Comments on any posts, so visitors like yourself often browse and add their own thoughts to the existing exchanges.

      In regard to finding material here: There’s a very effective Search function; just use the Search field in the upper right-hand column. I’ve added keywords to every post, to make searches more accurate. I also categorize each post, so you can use the drop-down “Select Category” menu in the right-hand column. Finally, when I cover any story at length (more than three posts), I create a page at the blog listing all the relevant posts, in reverse chronological order, with synopses of their content and links to them, like this one devoted to the Pepper-Spray Cop. You can access these via the “Major Stories” heading in the blog’s menubar.

      That’s about all that blogware allows. If you need retrieval options beyond that, best to bookmark any post to which you want to return.

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