I Bought a Book

Big deal? My space is packed with books. But in fact I rarely buy them, prefering to pull from the library and its well-connected LINK+ system. Usually the only books I purchase these days are books I can't find there, usually because they're esoteric, rare, or too-new to be found (or stolen, as has been the case with title's like Mona Kuhn's Photographs or most anything that's highly-collectable or controversial, like first edition Steichens or most of Jock Sturges's works).

An exception is this book, by linguist and cognitive psychologist George Lakoff — the book is in the library, it's not new (this edition, 1990), and it was readily available at the local Borders: Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things — What Categories Reveal About the Mind. It was recommended to me by Roman Ormandy over at Caligari, whose software embodies some of the principles described in Lakoff's book. After picking at the library's copy, I was off to the bookstore for one of my own.

Lakoff describes a number or linguistic principles, all of them related to the phsyical nature of our cognition and how we relate ideas to physical structure. One of these structures being radial definitions — the idea that a category may radiate multiple categories around a (potentially uncertain) center. He uses the example of "mother," which radiates such subcategories as "birth mother" or "step mother" or "foster mother" — all of which can variously make claims as the "core" definition of "mother" — a concept that we all think we know but that's difficult to accurately circumscribe, even for the language experts (and sure enough, as Lakoff finds, some dictionaries give precedence to biology, while others emphasize nurturing). And that's just for English — how do we describe the relationships in old Japan, for example, where children were often rasied by a maternal aunt?

Just as the children who benefit from these many criss-crossing categories of relationships are real children regardless of the words use to describe the adults around them, diffusely-radiating categories may be applied to other items and families of items in the world. The words we use have descriptive power, but they shouldn't, alone, be seen as a replacement for the real thing.

Visual arts, which by their very existence posit the idea that some thoughts are better expressed via non-verbal means, are often the victim of such mistakes. I've really come to the belief that anyone who starts using a dictionary to define anything in the arts should be promptly removed from the room until they can come back with a compelling interpretive dance or a personal essay on, say, Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblances — something that could help relieve them of their narrow-minded and anti-visual, excessively-literal notions.

Recent experiences on flickr are readily at hand as examples, based on some rather simplistic and wrong-headed notions about the usefulness of categories in art.

In the first, it was declared in one group that photographs without a clear facial representation are not portraits, and would not be allowed to be shared as such in the "portrait" group. Predictably, this was based on someone looking up "portrait" in the dictionary and seeing that the defintion they found included the words "especially of the face." Not even "exclsuively," just "especially" — but this was enough for them to declare all non-face candidates as forbidden (earlier, some of the same players had declared too that photos containing more than one person were not portraits!). Astounding, appalling. Pick your favorite.

Not surprisingly, the martinets who started such a crusade weren't remotely trained in art or art history or linguistics or philosophy — indeed they seemed rather averse to any of those elitist book-lernin' notions. They were, however, group admins, which was plenty good 'nuff to decide for everyone else just what's allowed to use the word "portrait."

Even more bizarre was the declaration by another admin that the dictionary wasn't black and white enough, and that only images made purely of black and white pixels would be allowed to be seen in the "black and white" group — though what he meant was gray pixels — no toned images, no warm paper, not even, amazingly, images scanned from imperfect prints that contained ever-so-slight color stains. The common definition of "black and white," which had served photographers and heliographers and daguerreotypists and woodburytype and platinum printers for over 150 years, and had served generations of pencil-toting sketchers long before photography existed, was handily tossed-out over a weekend by one individual, the many JPEGs that didn't fit his individually-narrow categorization (my own among them) handily chucked without warning or possibilitiy of discussion or revision.

I point out the gray pixel issue not so much to say "ha, you screwed up!" but because it's interesting to me how the declaration of strictness was so easily violated as part of its own definition, because the admin in question assumed that everyone naturally knew what he was babbling about. On my own pictures he added comments telling me they'd been removed "for obvious reasons" and didn't even bother to state them.

(At this moment it's a few minutes before NASA's Deep Impact strikes its cometary target — the "black and white" images they're showing are toned a shocking blue. I wonder if they do it just to be difficult?)

I know, I know. I really don't need to worry about what petty tyrants are up to in some obscure corner of the gravity-free internet. Don't like the group, start your own. Don't expect miracles from anything free and open on the web. And don't take it personally.

But if such trivial categorizations as "portrait" and "black and white" can be so handily and obscenely subverted, what about larger and more far-reaching ones, like, say, "freedom" or "healthy," "liberal" or "conservative," "art or "love," not to mention such meaning-resistant marketspeak as "family-friendly" or "new"?

As Lakoff has pointed out in his later books and articles, the words we use, and the idealized concepts behind them, are painfully prone to hijacking for random purposes — whether it be for the infantile ego of a web admin, or to convince the populace that handing over power and tax breaks to oil barons somehow protects them from the socially-progressive programs of an unseen "liberal elite" (whose identity I've still never been able to discover).

Theorist Jean Baudrillard has posited that we live in a media age, where our realities are defined more by media than our own experiences. Perhaps given our willing dependence on the slippery and manipulative meaning of words, we should consider ourselves a little more evolved: homo sapiens has given way to homo credulus.

Speaking of Black and White, LensCulture is running two features on fine, new, black and white works.

Aline Smithson's "People I Don't Know" is nostalgic, but it works new and old images together in a way that color would have failed.

Tamara Lischka's "Important Things" is beautiful and terrifying and I doubt that color could have handled either characteristic with such depth.

Posted July 03, 2005 | Comments (4)


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