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Forumization and Its Malcontent (3)

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

As noted in my previous post, in response to my November lecture “Dinosaur Bones: The End (and Ends) of Photo Criticism,” Natalie Arriola, a participant in an online forum, hijacked the forum thread putatively devoted to discussion of my essay by challenging the entire enterprise of professional-level mainstream photo criticism published in general-audience periodicals. (Ms. Arriola has insisted on identifying herself, so I’ll use her name henceforth. To put her comments in context, here are links to her several websites: Natalie Arriola Photography, The Hedgehog’s Dilemma, Etsy, Flickr.)

She commandeered that discussion by making the following assertions and posing the following questions, to each of which I’ve appended a link to the logical fallacy it exemplifies:

“What makes the ‘intellectual’ crowd think they need to guide citizens in their understanding of images? [Fallacies: Hasty GeneralizationLoaded Words.] I think people are fully equipped with or without such guidance to draw their own conclusions and make intelligent decisions. [Fallacies: Hasty Generalization, Amphiboly.] 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. [Fallacies: Straw ManLoaded Words.] . . . 

“I guess I just think that one of the great things about the internet is that anyone can have a voice here. [Fallacies: Appeal to Popularity, Vagueness.] You don’t have to be inducted into the somewhat cult like world of the ‘educated’ to do so. [Fallacies: Loaded Words, Ad Hominem.] What makes the opinion of a certain highly informed person more valid than that of someone who is not informed? [Fallacy: Begging the Question.] . . . I do believe that all opinions hold equal weight until someone comes along and says otherwise.  That’s kind of my point. [Fallacy: Burden of Proof.] 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?” [Fallacy: Red Herring.]

Doxa vs. Knowledge

No Logic logo

Actually, that last is a question that I, and most people I know, would dismiss out of hand, because its function is purely rhetorical: You can neither prove nor disprove your response to it, especially as it’s posed hypothetically, so the answer necessarily falls into the realm of faith rather than reason. Its implicit assumption, however, does synopsize the puer aeternus aspect of the hopes and dreams of the Web 2.0 cohort — the conviction that when their lips move they’re saying something worth hearing, that when their fingers tap on their keyboards they’re writing something worth reading, that when their opposable thumbs are hammering on a cellphone touch screen they’re communicating something worth paying attention to, that “all opinions hold equal weight” (making theirs as credible as anyone’s else’s), and that “it’s possible that there are uninformed opinions out there (namely their own) that may shed light on an image in a way that an informed opinion cannot.”

Red Herring Smokey Beer logoThe capacity for critical thinking constitutes an acquired skill; it don’t come naturally, though (as Hemingway said, in a much different context) pretty to think so. It’s become rare to encounter an ostensibly educated person who can identify logical fallacies, or who even cares about them. As the rhetoric of our politicians and the polity’s responses thereto verify continuously, few people nowadays recognize arguments from ignorance, argumentum ad populum, syllogisms, solipsisms, tautologies, “straw man” arguments, red herrings, instances of circular reasoning, argumentum ad hominem — in almost all of which my opponent in this microcosmic dialogue indulged her sweet tooth, as the above passages demonstrate.

Ms. Arriola had concluded that chapter of her divagation synopsized above by writing, “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.” I replied, “[Y]ou haven’t offended me. You’ve amused me.” Then, respecting the ‘netiquette of the forum, which its moderator had evoked when enabling my invitational access, I continued,

In re your statement that “I do believe that all opinions hold equal weight until someone comes along and says otherwise. That’s kind of my point.” — I’ve come along and said otherwise, which doesn’t seem to affect your belief in any way.

Personally, I give more credence to my opthalmologist’s opinion on the condition of my eyesight that I do to the opinions on that subject of my grocer or my neighbor. I give more credence to Stephen Hawking’s opinion on matters of physics than I do to Newt Gingrich’s. And because I take visual communication and the making of visual art no less seriously than I take opthalmology, or physics, I give more credence to the thoughts thereon of people like W. J. T. Mitchell and Eva Kuryluk, to name just two, than I do to whatever notions on those subjects Joe the Plumber may have. . . .

You ask, “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?” Given an infinite universe anything’s possible, of course, so the question doesn’t have as much resonance as you imply it does.

My suggestion: Let’s make it a real challenge, so you can actually prove your point. You gather a bunch of those “uninformed opinions out there that may shed light on an image in a way that an informed opinion cannot” — let’s say 25 or so, with their sources (so this group can ascertain the context, and verify the credentials of the opinionators as authentically uninformed).

Since part of your question involves informed opinions failing to shed light on some aspect of the images, you’ll have to pick uninformed opinions about images to which people with informed opinions have also responded; that will narrow the range of image choices considerably, making it more manageable. I’ll then undertake to look for informed opinions about those same images, vetting them for equivalent insights. We’ll then put the results up to this group for a vote (you and I abstaining, of course). What say you?

A Challenge Declined

This seemed to me a reasonable proposal, one that would require an equal amount of labor from both of us in Ms. Arriola proving her point and me trying to disprove it, placing our resulting efforts in front of an impartial jury (including a number of professionals in the field) for evaluation. How better to engage with the question of what makes the opinion of a person who’s knowledgeable about a given subject more valid than that of someone who doesn’t know shit from Shinola about it than by putting it to the test?

Ms. Arriola would have none of it, however:

“I . . . think it’s sad that the only way you can really defend yourself against me is to try to make me appear foolish or ‘amusing.’ . . . I’m afraid I won’t take you up on your challenge because I don’t feel the need to prove myself to you. I think what you have proven to me is that what I suspected as I was reading statements in your essay such as: ‘I realize that this is what passes for thoughtful opinionation, nuanced argument, and scathing rebuttal amongst the cohort I think of as Generation Tweetie’ is true. You are an aging elitist who is trying to proclaim that the reason what you have spent your life doing is no longer relevant has nothing to do with the fact that maybe the world really doesn’t need you anymore, but is obviously due to the decline of contemporary culture.”

So much for Ms. Arriola’s ostensible interest in serious inquiry and thought experiment. Another missed opportunity to add to the storehouse of human knowledge. Alas.

(To be continued.)

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10 comments to Forumization and Its Malcontent (3)

  • Wow. Your experience on the [large-group forum] has provided you with the raw material for three blog columns — and perhaps more to follow. It seems that it was very stimulating for you. I’m sorry that you’ve decided you will no longer take part in the [large-group forum].

    • The forum provided me with real-time, up-to-date evidence supporting the gloomiest analyses I’d presented in my November lecture on the state of the online discourse about photography, “Dinosaur Bones.”

      That hardly qualifies the proceedings as “stimulating” — they were, at best, tedious and disheartening — though, as you participated therein, I understand your compulsion to put the best face on what transpired. The fact that a divorcee talks a lot about her bad marriage doesn’t somehow make it a good marriage, or even a “stimulating” one.

      Per my response to your previous comment, I’ve no desire to put that or any other forum in bad repute, or to identify and embarrass publicly any participants in any of those in which I took part briefly, unless they insist on naming themselves. So, once again, I’ve taken the liberty of removing the name of the forum to which you referred in this comment.

  • “What makes the ‘intellectual’ crowd think they need to guide citizens in their understanding of images? It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Happy New Year to all!

    Now in reference to the post, contrary to popular opinion, experience does matter. Why does it take a certain portrait photographer less time to create an image than others,experience. The same may be said for writers and painters and the second fact is you don’t have to read this post, which I sometimes skip because of content, I am not guided, I am imformed. I can say that A.D. knows the history of photography better than I, I am grateful for that, and honestly I soak it up. Does he guide me, no I’m too hard headed for that, he throws ideas out there-you take what you want.
    Happy New Year.

  • Start redesigning that awful site of yours. People could actually start reading your monologues if you presented it properly.

    • Thanks for the feedback. When weighing advice, especially unsolicited advice, I always consider the source. I suspect my blog has more readers than yours, so apparently my content trumps my design. The minimalist purity of your design is above reproach.

      You do a fine rant, I should add. Why not identify the targets of your rage? (Though I do like “Mr. Bobo Curator” . . . I know more than a few of them.)

      • Considering you’ve been in the business for 124 years, I could not possibly measure with my 2 months old site. But beware Coleboy, I learn fast from the master of scorn that you are. Identifying the targets? There are none! I am a paranoid schizophrenic. The art world is full of lovely well intentioned human beings. Please take no offense, you are a true intellectual and a great deal of people do not like you which is always reassuring.

  • I am delighted at your thoughtful and erudite response this idiot, especially because I would not have it in me to create such a nuanced reply.

    Your stamina and style are admirable!



  • Arriola got her 15 seconds of fame … which was probably the point.

    Alas, curiosity got the best of me and I checked out her web site. Shame on me for getting suckered in and shame on her for such visual litter.

    If we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us it behooves us to look where we put our feet, sez I.

    “Ignorance is a condition; dumbness is a commitment.” Dick Kirstel’s statement seems more appropriate than ever.

  • Bill Deveney

    You don’t sound amused….instead, you sound like someone desperate to “win” the argument…..your “displays” of “what I know and you don’t” (amphiboly…now there’s a useful word), and your obvious glee at “piling on” make it painfully obvious that you are a narcissist, not a critic…..

    Sincerely, Bill Deveney

    PS: did I miss a comma somewhere? If so, don’t hesitate to point it out….

    • I’ve yet to see anything at that forum, or resulting from my writing about it, that qualifies as an “argument.” Mostly it’s a mix, like yours, of amateur psychoanalysis and vituperative. Anything to avoid grappling with the real issues I’ve defined. So it goes . . .

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