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Guest Post 9(b): Ken Schles on “Infinite Stupidity”

[Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a Guest Post by photographer and writer Ken Schles, in which Schles responds to a series of my posts describing and commenting on my disappointing December 2011 experiences in four online forums, as well as my November 2011 London lecture, “Dinosaur Bones: The End (and Ends) of Photo Criticism.” For Part 1 of Schles’s commentary, click here. — A. D. C.]

Photo of Ken Schles by Siese Veenstra

Photo of Ken Schles by Siese Veenstra

The Internet presents so many tantalizing promises. Through the Internet one can promote and sell one’s work directly, we are told; find an audience. The reality, though, is that for most consumers, the Internet generally only points them in a direction they think they might already want to go. This counter-indicates the dispersal of work to a general audience, by definition, and isolates photography further into a sub-cultural market, catering, for the most part, to other insiders.

For a photobook maker, such as myself, the loss of distribution through brick-and-mortar bookstores has curtailed the discovery of my work by a general audience in immeasurable ways. How a book feels and smells and how you live with it in your hand and possibly incorporate it into your life just becomes hearsay among so many voices: no more test-drives or stumble-upons allowed, except for virtual ones. The loss of criticism is even more deeply felt here. Fewer insights of meaning or context precede it. Internet arenas may introduce you to something new, amplify a particular noise in a noisy realm; add cumulative advantage (popularity breeding popularity) to work already deemed part of a canon, or help work find a popular voice, and/or add a spotlight (a welcome and needed spotlight, indeed, but even that falls short without a context or continuity). So our work becomes fodder for channels quick to move on to other “cool stuff.”

"The Tower of Babel," by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).

“The Tower of Babel,” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).

As creators, the mountain we are compelled to climb is a steep one; walls we must traverse unscalable, the distance we must travel, unfathomable, the realms we endeavor to enter, impenetrable. How does one spark excitement within the mind of someone else so that they are energized to seek more and contemplate something a little bit more deeply, at least for just a little while longer? Our field can sustain and deserves more: intellectually, certainly, economically, as well. But the disruptive distracting technology the Internet represents contains countervailing contradictions and makes both these things difficult.

But let’s move the conversation into a larger context to address the degraded conversation in specialized forums that A. D. Coleman jumps on: Mark Pagel, the evolutionary biologist, addresses the loss of intelligent discussion on the internet in his talk “Infinite Stupidity.” As the Internet destroys distance and the barriers between communities, we no longer need — from a biological or sociological perspective — a large diversity of ideas to get on. We already know the Internet destroys diversity in the brick-and-mortar economy, but it also collapses the need for innovation and expertise across communities. Taking tenets of biological evolution and applying them to cultural adaptation, Pagel goes on to say that larger groups need fewer innovators and can be less smart because they share information over larger areas and across communities.

Ken Schles, "A New History of Photography," 2008.

Ken Schles, “A New History of Photography,” 2008.

Furthermore, we needn’t be particularly intelligent about anything either. Evolution teaches us that diversity presents us with variations that, on the face of it, seem to serve no purpose and are directed without intelligence. Evolution has arrived at some surprisingly smart adaptations through stupid and random mutation, like the conversion of light to food, sight and hearing and flight and intelligence, to name just a fraction. When it comes to innovation and diversity, “infinite stupidity” has sufficed. After all, Pagel argues, it got us Einstein. Might the culture of Internet forums be presenting a similar face?

As I’ve mentioned in my book A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads, and amplified in Oculus, and summarized in the talk I recently gave at the SPE Joint Regional Conference at Light Work: Most of our actions, what we say or do or make (including our images and our “ways of seeing”) are merely replications and provide a normative function that primarily provides comfort and social cohesion. Few of us need innovate or add materially to any ongoing conversation. And those that do see things in a “different” light might only take minor steps away from established practice. In evolutionary terms these “steps away” serve the same function as biological variants.

Ken Schles, "Oculus," 2011.

Ken Schles, “Oculus,” 2011.

In Oculus I note: “We are creatures of habit and memory much more than we are creatures of contemplation and thought. As primates do, we mimic and master socially dictated patterns of behavior.“ Pagel confirms my point: “[S]ocial evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers, because this extremely efficient process that social learning allows us to do, of sifting among a range of alternatives, means that most of us can get by drawing on the inventions of others.” The Internet is the ultimate echo chamber for “sifting through those ranges of alternatives,” no? Innovative thinking, on the other hand, takes time and work and resources. And let’s be honest, few original thoughts are out there. So the Internet presents a self-contradictory system that allows for a duality of both smart and infinitely stupid superimpositions that may, in the long run, defeat the innovations and diversity of critical inquiry it claims to promote within the confines of its globe-spanning and ever morphing sub-cultures.

Our repetitions and replications (Internet echo, photographs and otherwise) are crucial to pass on cultural practice and serve an important social function—even if on the face of it our actions appear, not only infinitely stupid, but repetitive, a bit outrageous, counterintuitive to logic, may serve no obvious purpose or may even hijack what A. D. Coleman and I both thought might be a productive thread. Our dumbness may kill us, or it may save us. The jury is still out.

Sure, I’d go to a brain surgeon if I needed brain surgery, not the local plumber; and I give more weight to a bevy of environmental scientist’s opinions on global warming than to politicians who claim to believe in supernatural beings. I’ll listen to a critic with 40 years of expertise or a master photographer who has proven themself in the field: But never uncritically. Mark Pagel has something here. And I’ll use it to defend the woman in the Internet forum that A. D. Coleman has been excoriating for suggesting that the opinions of non-experts may have something to offer (ok, she said “all opinions hold equal weight,” which I don’t believe for a second, but hang in here with me). Because as I noted above: Evolution presents us with variations that, on the face of it, seem to serve no purpose and are directed without intelligence.

"I'm with Stupid" logoOur stupidity, even our infinite cultural stupidity, does have something to offer. So we should be careful even in our denunciations: Because even ritual scarification and body modification sometimes has its beneficial unintended consequences. Our infinite stupidity presents a moment for humility and compassion or an entry point for learning and exchange. But, as Coleman also points out, our current social-network forums aren’t structured for that and aren’t intended for that purpose. So yes, we need endeavor to keep them on topic. Inability to do just that is part of the tyranny of the moment. I conjecture that our infinite stupidity just might ultimately save us from the surety of utopian doctrine, of groupthink and the lockstep of dogma, or provide a respite from the deleterious effects of unintended consequences, or alternately, exactly condemn us to those fates. Remember that, at first, we thought the Industrial Revolution was all that.

Perhaps there is a third leg to Pagel’s discussion not fully expressed: First we had infinitely stupid evolution that, after a few billion years, brought us culture — social practice that existed outside of any one of us. We are now at a crossroads and we must bring our rational minds to challenge blind adherence to cultural forces and tendencies. Otherwise we will be crushed by the collapsed weight of our own ignorance, made obsolete by the unintended consequences of our innovations and our infinite stupidity. Perhaps it is exactly the Internet that can help us with this project because it destroys certain hierarchies and boundaries. Let’s run Guy Debord’s epigram the other way ‘round (its reflexivity is part of its beauty) to read, “What nourishes the irrationality of hierarchic exploitation and repression requires a more profound rationality.” We are in this fight together: and it requires each and everyone to deliver diligence. We are all on a learning curve — and we should try to recognize this as such.

Ken Schles, "The Geometry of Innocence," 2001.

Ken Schles, “The Geometry of Innocence,” 2001.

I believe that there is a need (and hunger) for intelligent conversation within our community, not only in regards to the work generated within the field, but also a need to tie our analyses to trends happening outside photography in the general social environment (something A. D. Coleman has been doing on an ongoing basis for some time through his writing, and something photographic practice has attained to do since its inception—in no little degree, we must remember, because photography is about how we see the world). Without a larger discussion photography will be increasingly marginalized and deemed irrelevant or simply become a place for fashionable blips and commodity glorification—or a tool of pure use: enabling notational, scientific, and relatively inert documentary work—but not one enjoining a larger needed critical conversation. A. D. Coleman’s talk struck a chord, and that is why I posted the link where I did. The conversation didn’t move too far. Which compelled me to express thoughts here.

Plato complained that democracies ultimately fail because unenlightened amateurs, those that have no expertise in governance, will govern to the detriment of all. Just because we desire to do or say something doesn’t mean we can do it well or should do it at all. Photography, the democratic medium, raises interesting issues in regard to this. As do Internet forums. Because the Internet removes the intermediaries between the creator and the consumer, a large burden is placed on all of us to do more digging and weeding and to take more responsibility and care in our denunciations and our assertions.

Ken Schles, "Invisible City," 1988.

Ken Schles, “Invisible City,” 1988.

Intelligent and critical intermediaries have a very necessary role to play in our current environment (virtual and otherwise). The museums have really fallen in the critical role they could play, as they pander to vested boards and economic mandates. Unless we find a way to channel the diversity of voices, from the purposeful and articulate to the irrelevant and irreverent, I fear less and less will be heard or processed within the photographic community in a meaningful way. This will have dire consequences not only for photography and the institutions that support it, but also for our political processes and for the fate of humanity. I don’t think we need a social evolutionary biologist or a Situationist theorist to point out that critical commentary and critical thinking is required now, more than ever.

Oh, and an aside: fora is not the preferred usage.

(Part 1 I 2.)

Photo of Ken Schles by Siese Veenstra

Photo of Ken Schles by Siese Veenstra

Some things about Ken Schles can be read here. Here is link to his website and his books. Ken Schles photographs. He may talk and write about that experience as well. His books are considered “intellectual milestones in photography” (Süddeutsche Zeitung). His most recent book, Oculus, just selected as a “best” photobook of 2011 by Photo-eye: “Oculus is an unusual and uniquely important book… Equal parts philosophical treatise and artist book, Oculus asks profound questions about how we find meaning in the world and how images give shape to memory and our lives. Viewers willing to spend time with this powerful work will be greatly rewarded.” (Adam Bell) His previous book, A New History of Photography, was a finalist for the 2009 Rencontres d’Arles Photographie Contemporary Book Award. Vince Aletti in the New Yorker called Invisible City, “hellishly brilliant.” Invisible City was also included in the Museum of Modern Art’s “More Than One Photography” exhibition and listed in M+M Auer’s survey of photographic books.

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3 comments to Guest Post 9(b): Ken Schles on “Infinite Stupidity”

  • Thank you for your thoughtful article. Your (and A. D. Coleman’s) ideas amplify the need for constructive and critical thinking online. Question becomes how to use the tools to move to the next level of meaning and convergences (and this is not exclusive to photo community).

  • Andy Adams of Flak Photo emailed me a link to an article that appeared in the “New Review” section of the Observer (UK) almost exactly a year ago — on January 29, 2011: “Is the age of the critic over?” Subtitled “Critics reflect on how social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and myDigg, fit into the perennial debate on cultural elitism,” it consists of five concise commentaries by three critics, one novelist, and one technology commentator, all very much to the point of these posts. Obviously the relevant questions are on the minds of others as well.

  • Imitative behavior — what we sometimes call “monkey see, monkey do” — is of course survival-positive in its way. That’s how animals, including human animals, profit from the experience of those around them and those who preceded them, a form of crowd-sourcing.

    The progress of knowledge, on the other hand, results from the opposite of imitation: innovation. Some version of “think different” thus also has a survival-positive function, especially in shifting conditions where the methodology accumulated via imitation may no longer apply or suffice.

    As I read you, you’re suggesting that forums serve as a virtual social space in which some version of “the conventional wisdom” gets perpetuated. But you haven’t actually identified any benefits to the medium of photography that result from such online social spaces. Aside from whatever gratification they provide to those who do participate, do you see them contributing to anything except the creation of a running record of what you propose is “infinite stupidity”?

    BTW, I do know that fora isn’t the preferred usage; I used it only once, parenthetically. I didn’t drop that in to show off; anyone can look it up online. But English is a rich language, as I’m reminded every time I check a word’s origins (as I did with forum when drafting that series), and our decisions as to which option to elect in current usage are often quite arbitrary — e.g., forum/fora vs. datum/data. The word fora is not so obscure, might even be making a comeback; check out the site, “the Web’s largest collection of conference and event videos.”

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