Archive | February 2012

A Synthesis

I don’t believe

in Syntheses



So here’s the way this is going to work.


I’m gonna post an image, just a random one I found. It’s an ad, I’m taking a cue from Barthes. And then our various writers are going to chime in, have a little discussion about it. A ‘dialogue’.

I’m stoked.


Here’s the picture.



Anddd, let’s introduce out actors.



Walter Benjamin, German intellectual and literary critic (WB); Vilem Flusser, critic and thinker (VF); John Berger, British thinker and proponent of Benjamin (JB); Roland Barthes, a semiologist (RB); Jonathan Crary (JC); and Hill and Mitchell don’t come with first names, sorry guys. We’ll just refer to you by the first letter of your surnames.


Oh, and me. Just to keep things rolling (BA).



BA: Welcome, everyone, glad you could make it.


Everyone: Hello.


BA: You all have a pretty good idea of what you’re doing here; I just want you to apply your various philosophies and thoughts to the image above, so that we have an idea of what you’re all about. It’s going up on my blog, too, and there’s an off-chance that someone might actually read it. I figure this applies to me as much to you, as you all are undoubtedly cultured and in good taste and so on.

Umm, has anyone seen Vilem? He RSVP’d he’d make it.


WB: He text me earlier. Apparently it’s a visual age and history doesn’t exist any longer, so he figured he’d take the day off.


BA: You’re kidding.


WB: That’s what his text said. But I figure he’s probably still trying to get with de Beauvoir, and old Sartres can’t stand him. He’s out of town for February, went someplace warm. So this is Vilem’s chance.


BA: Well. Whatever, I’m glad the rest of you could make it. Shall we begin? I don’t think the order is especially important, but maybe we should start with you, Walter, since you’ve been so influential on everyone here. Do you mind if I call you Walter?


WB: Not at all.

So, by means of a general introduction…


J. Anthony Blair: Pip pip, cheerio. I say, I believe you’ve forgotten all about me.


BA: Hmm. Yeah, I kinda did. You were at the start of the semester, you know, and I had a lot going on… so maybe you should introduce us to this image, and I hope that we can overlook this slip of mine.


Blair: Yes, quite right.


BA: If I may interrupt, are you actually British? I’d hate to get the accent wrong.


Blair: Ah. Yes, I am British, but you are putting it on rather thick.


BA: Mmmm, rather. Seriously, though, I’ll knock it off.


Blair: Right. So, we know that we’ll be discussing rhetoric and visuals, and as you’ve chosen an ad, you’ve made things quite simple. The purpose of rhetoric, to borrow from one of the progenitors of western culture, is persuasion. And our ads are rather blatant.


BA: That progenitor you’re talking about is Aristotle, I presume?


Blair: Quite right. We also know that this is not simply persuasion, but an argument, because the text at the bottom, although slight in number, does provide the persuasion with a specificity, and with a proposition. “Use our paint”, it tells us, “because our paint captures the truest possible hues.”

You see, we have some belief inherent in us as humans, that nature is the model upon which all else judged. This is that internal commitment to which the argument appeals, in its way, as rhetoric often does, along the lines of the enthymeme. It doesn’t come directly out and say that we human beings get our proverbial meter-stick from nature, because it doesn’t need to. It’s understood.


RB: If I may jump in here for a moment?


Blair: Yes, please do.


RB: Bon! Well, of course you remember my little piece on the Panzani ad, and I suppose Ben took some inspiration from this article of mine. I would like to thank Mr. Blair for pointing out that this particular image contains both text and an image, and they work together to make its respective point. For without the text, we would have a billboard that looks unfinished; in fact, the author of this image deliberately draws the eye to the unfinished portion, so that the observer is at first confused. What was the author thinking? It is only when, satisfied that what has been denoted is nothing more than an unfinished billboard, we look to the text at the bottom, and there find both anchor and relay. Our eyes turn back to the illustration: the sky and paint are one, it isn’t unfinished at all. It’s the purity of paint that we are supposed to note—Blair, you were absolutely correct, it is the fidelity it maintains that is connoted by this ad.

I have one question remaining for Blair. Did I understand you correctly, that for an image to possible be categorized also as an argument, it must contain text?


Blair: Well, yes. I have said so, and I will stand by my statement; although, in this day and age, I perhaps have seen some images that were devoid of text, and yet specificity and proposition both appeared to obtain. But that is for another day. What I would like to point out, before I allow the others to share their own perspectives, is how all the weight of the argument in this case is carried by the image. It is clever, it makes us laugh once we ‘get it’, and the fact that it is a subtler sort of ad only makes our laughter the heartier. All the text has to tell us is that it is for paint, and everything else falls into place; and that is what makes this so particularly compelling. If the billboard merely stated, ‘By Berger’s Paint’, we should forget it immediately, and the more fastidious might find their sensibilities offended at such brazenness. But we chuckle; this ad is a discovery, of sorts, worth relating to friends at the pub. It was Cicero who first noted, that it is the indirect route that often steals into men’s will, and laughter makes the heart pliant.


BA: Thanks guys. Walter, would you like to—


H: Actually, if I could follow up on Blair right there?


BA: Huh. Started off the semester and everyone has something to add to what you have to say. Imagine that.


H: I’ll be brief. I enjoyed Blair’s closing thoughts, how it’s the visceral part of the ad the compels. The advertisers, they’re not really concentrating on selling you paint. They want two things, really: they want you to bury the name Berger in your subconscious, and they want you to have the experience of being told a very interesting story.

I, too, am distressed by scholasticism’s unwillingness to admit emotions into arguments. This is a topic that goes back to Aristotle, and even before. The Greek’s mistrusted the sway of emotions—they knew that the gut reaction, in the average man, and even sometimes the reflective man, can overpower reason. They were concerned with philosophy and ethics, and while I do not wish to urge the unethical, the concerns of rhetoric do oblige us to turn away. The rhetorician, the advertiser, the politician, priest, lawyer, and professor: all these wish to persuade men. So how is it that we rhetoricians were persuaded to forbid playing to the passions? That is the chief end of rhetoric, and self-abnegation only works when what you want is possessed by no man. Our job, as scholars of rhetoric, is to describe. Leaving the emotions at the wayside is tantamount to leaving Jesus out of the New Testament. It doesn’t make sense without it.


M: You know, we’ve spent a good deal of time talking about the potency of this ad, and ads in general. But what we haven’t touched on is the fact that this picture isn’t getting up and forcing you to buy paint. It can’t do it, it’s powerless to move; and we begin to wonder, exactly what sort of semiotic ontology the artist had in mind when he made this print. What is it that this picture, or pictures in general, want? Even though there is text in the billboard, this picture doesn’t want to be turned into text. It wants to be taken with the same gravity, to be respected as a picture, to be free to spread its message out to the world as it would like to do, in ways that perhaps even the author didn’t realize during its generation.


BA: And what would you say this picture specifically wants?


M: For you to go out and buy gallons of Berger paint, of course.


<Mitchell and Blair high-five>


BA: Ah HAH! So, without further ado, let’s see what Walter has to—


JC: Actually, I’d like to pick up on something that Barthes was saying; about how the eye doesn’t immediately perceive the purpose of the billboard, just a man painting, and only after reading the text at the bottom left do we realize the billboard blends perfectly with the sky. This might not have occurred to everyone, but do you realize that your mind drew the lines of the billboard out for you that weren’t actually there? You saw what wasn’t there in reality, but was there for you. And, I would pose to you, in a rhetorical fashion, what are we to make of this phenomenon?


Blair: Hmm. Well, I would fancy that it’s an optical illusion, and we’d have been mistaken. It’s alright, chap, happens all the time.


JC: Mistaken? How could you have been mistaken? You saw it that way, so surely it must have been that way.


Blair: Er… Well, yes, I suppose it must have been that way. And then you would realize it wasn’t that way at all. No problem, really.


JC: No, no. You must let go this notion that sight could be mistaken. These illusions are every bit as real as you and me.


Blair: You’re not serious? You are serious. You know, there might be something to that. I was brushing my teeth this morning in front of what I thought was a mirror—but it must have really been a portal to a parallel universe exactly the same as our own, where parallel me was also brushing his teeth. Only with the opposite hand. My God, do you suppose this parallel world is our opposite in every way? While we good, God-fearing people go about brushing our teeth and having imaginary discussions on blogs, these opposite and evil parallel people are plotting even now to take over the universe. Yes, it all makes sense now—surely this is their nefarious scheme. We must act quickly—Mitchell, make haste to the armament shop. Walter, you and John get to the Military Surplus store and purchase every tin of food you can find. We four will remain here, the last bastion of hope for humanity. Beware mirrors, lads, they’re watching us. Godspeed!


JC: You don’t have to be an ass about it. I just meant that what you see that isn’t there is just as real as what is.


BA: Well that clears it up. So now, finally, maybe we can hear what Walter has to say. Unless Berger’s planning on cutting in?


JB: Not at all. I might add a bit here and there whilst Walter speaks.


BA: Cool. Let’s do it.


WB: Our speech has taken us through all manner of perspectives, from the pressures of the psyche to the physiological processes and its dictates. Images persuade and inform, transform even. The tradition of the photograph is under discussion, and has shifted, multiplied, reformulated the direction and aspect of art. It has failed to compass all that preceded it, however. It has left undone what has already been spoken, forgotten but merely to the rim of the oblivious; the chair is left unseated.


JB: We appreciate the prior discussion, but our direction is a bit different.


WB: The capitalistic tradition has crept steadily. Though the Soviet system failed, it was a failure of human proportion, and in theory remains pristine. In China, too, communism is failing, but this is a failure of theoretical proportions that does not taint its forebear. For our own concerns, we will relegate this talk to the purview of art, and in that scope to just this photograph. Fascism, whose presence is ubiquitous in all ads, is by a matter of course extant here. Communism would shift this ad to make those features salient—but then, the entire matter would be of a different tone if the former were true.


JB: It’s an ad.


WB: The camera has permitted the invisible but lived in world to become apparent and apprehended. Slow-motion, shifts in perspective, the Kuleshov effect, mise-en-scene; all have been developed, made novel, traversed to old hat. Computing technology is now allowing the manipulation of this once-new world to rebel against the material of reality, but only in the slightest way; we see the manipulations, but it is the measure of how agreeable we find them that determines their success. This is, of course, not so great a revolution as the photograph, but it permeates in the same manner. The moving pictures have incorporated them, but contain one peculiar eccentricity, that they do not expose their manipulations, but attempt to smooth the edges between what is real what has been altered, so that it is not always apparent until years later, when technology has fashioned itself closer to nature, and so is better able to feign naturally.


JB: Photoshop is hot shit.


WB: Further, the internet has made the consumption of art irresistible in its absorption—so it naturally follows that it is entirely an object of distraction. Briefly, technology was a counter-culture, appealing only to those without social lives. Today, those roles have shifted dramatically, the poles in complete opposite of fifteen years ago. Culture is not just displayed in a virtual space—it is, the majority of the time, both created and disseminated there.


JB: That was actually pretty clear.


BA: And that’s about all the time we have. Walter didn’t really get into the problem of the have and the have-nots, but he hinted at the fact that the internet and the lowering price of technology has leveled part of the playing field at least. Youtube, Viva la Revolucion! Or however he would say it.


It’s Sunday Night,

so that means post time!

Even though I’ve had a shitty day and a couple soco and coke’s.  Everyone’s always bitching about how bad soco is, so I’ve never really tried it, but it isn’t that bad.  Goes to show you, don’t believe all the hype…

I’m starting to see the thread behind our readings, how one leads to the next.  There’s a conversation, the influence of forebears, especially of Benjamin; but I’m damned if I think that I’m able to get everything from one before we move to the next, and I really don’t have the time to go back and read the older stuff before we’re on the next.  It’s a tour of Europe in a week, and everything is very pretty, but it’s thirty minutes in the Sistine and then back on the bus.

I’ll skip to the end for Mitchell; he starts out by asking, “What do pictures want?”, and ends with, “simply to be asked what they want.”  I don’t know how to unpack this, because to me it sounds like he’s saying that pictures were made for a purpose, and so we look to that purpose when viewing them.  But Mitchell tells us that what pictures want doesn’t have anything to do with what the taker or painter (the artist?) made them for.  They’re an entity unto themselves. I don’t know, I’m totally stumped after that (although the suggestion of ventriloquism is kind of hilarious).

One thing I really did enjoy about this piece is his highlighting the desire/power thing.  A picture can’t do a thing, on its own (duh), but by its very helplessness it motivates.  This leads to a better question, what do pictures want without a viewer?  Which would be, not a thing.  It takes two to make a thing go right, my terrible intro to our other piece, the Crary.

Mitchell hints at some of the main idea of the Crary, the parts about the subject’s involvement in making sense the external world.

man, this is going to have to wait for tomorrow to finish.

Or tomorrow and a week.

The second post on Crary.
I waited a little while to get it up, and it’s going to be fairly brief.  Why can’t these guys say what they mean?

Virginia did a pretty good post of Crary, I think, summing up his main ideas.  There are two ways of thinking about vision, linked by the transmission of light (roughly speaking).  Light carries the images of the external world to us, and for some thinkers, e.g. Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Diderot, Reid, and Condillac, that’s about it.  We are inactive participants, what we see is what our eyes give us.
The opposite of this that Crary sides with is that our perceptions are in fact dependent a great deal on psychological processes, and psychological processes dependent on physiological processes.

I wish Crary would explain how Kant and Locke fit in his theories as he criticizes them, e.g. pg. 11– “If Kant gave a positive account of the mind’s capacity for synthesizing and ordering experience, Herbart (Kant’s successor at Konigsberg) detailed how the subject wards off and prevents internal incoherence and disorganization.”  What is this positive account?  Crary summarizes a bit of the French philosophers and Hegel, but he doesn’t say a thing about Kant or Locke.  Both had something to say about the SUBJECIVITY of observations, so I’d like to know exactly how Maine de Biran and Goethe distinguish themselves.

Look, I’m going to criticize Crary just a little.  First, let me say that I probably missed a lot in the article; but it seems like he was making one point throughout, that we should give a great deal more credence to the subjectivity of our vision, and this point did not need 34 pages to be made.  I kept waiting for him to get on to the next subject.  Second, if his conclusion is that our vision is subjective, hence, all our perceptions just ARE reality, then I would like to pose a quick question.  We are all pretty familiar with the phenomena of phantom limbs: I lost my arm from the elbow down, but my fingers ache every day.  Do we really think that this is reality?  I’m not going to follow this up, there are arguments on both sides, but this is the upshot of Crary’s piece, and I think he should have spent some time continuing on this thread and making a case for it (pg 9).  Otherwise, what on earth is the significance of this piece?
There’s one thing that could be said, now that I think about it.  Crary could be making a case that whatever you see is really what you see; but that’s tautological nonsense, now isn’t it?  Because we only really care about our visions as they depict accurate information about reality.

Hey, this is a good song btw

I know syntagm, what’s that other word that ends in -gm?…

Man, the commercials sucked this year.

Definitions first, that’ll help with my summary. Actually, I’m going to post a question first, and then I’ll do my definitions.

What did Barthes mean in the last line of the reading, “… withdrawn into a few discontinuous symbols which men ‘decline’ in the shelter of their living speech.”? Specifically, what does he mean by decline?  Inflection?


1 Denotation/Connotation. This was a big one for John Locke, and it was through my prior reading of him that I understood already what Barthes was talking about.

Handsome Dude, Mr. John Locke

Here’s an analogy that works pretty well provided by Barthes, however.

denotation : connotation  ::  identification : interpretation

Barthes makes a lot of noise about the denotation being ‘innocent’ and free from any particular ‘ideologies’, i.e. the english plate and the spanish plato; save the change of spelling, the denotation is quite the same. Now, in Spain it might happen to be that calling someone a plato refers to their depth of character or lack thereof (it doesn’t, I completely just made that up), while in America calling someone a plate would mean absolutely nada, and these would be the different connotations.

2 Syntagm.

1. A sequence of linguistic units in a syntagmatic relationship to one another.

2. A sequence of words in a particular syntactic relationship to one another; a construction.

A relationship. I don’t know why, but I was under the impression that a syntagm was a smaller unit than it actually is, e.g. a sentence. They’re the entire text, so long as that text supports one maind idea–the thesis of the paper, so to speak, if it is a paper. Google produced a bit more, which I’ll sum up. There are three types of Syntagm: narrative, spatial, and conceptual. The narrative relies on sequence of events or causal relationships, and tells a story. The spatial is a montage; you read the message purely through an image. And the final, conceptual, is expository, including arguments. I thought that was pretty strange, as most arguments contain some cause and effect, but then again maybe you shouldn’t trust everything you get off google.   *EDIT* I went back to the site, and here’s a quote “Many texts contain more than one type of syntagmatic structure, though one may be dominant. ”  So there you go.

3 Anchorage and Relay.

Anchorage results from denotation, and directs the viewer’s interpretation of the picture in one particular way. I might be wrong, but I get the idea that most of the anchoring comes from the caption of whatever advertisement you’re observing. Barthes claims that it’s repressive, that it sloughs away the other possible meanings so that you know what specifically you’re supposed to take away from the ad.

I would call that a negative definition, in the sense that a positive definition would simply explain what ‘it’ is, but the positive definition mostly comes from the image, hence the ad is a syntagm with a sort of relationship arising from the text and image. I would say it’s a dialectic, and that’s sort of right… it doesn’t quite satisfy me, though.

The relay works the opposite way, so that the relationship is made stronger through the respective partners. Movies and cartoon strips are given as examples, so that a great deal of information is conveyed in a short period of space by using the images and text to complement one another, downplaying their weaknesses and accentuating their strengths. If it’s done right, at any rate.

Now, I’ve done some thinking and I’ve decided I’m not smart enough to fully comprehend a philosophical text in a week. It was the same in my undergraduate studies, so I’m going to summarize what little bit I understand from the text now and post a follow-up next week, when we’re on something else. Better late and understood, right?

Barthes is investigating the nature of images. He chooses advertising for some pretty good reasons: because the images are picked deliberately, and the messages those images are sending are also deliberate and fairly near the surface, he’s able to keep it simple when possible and concentrate on other aspects of images that do require some perspicuity.

And this is Ludwig Wittgenstein. With a name like that, your choices of profession are composer or philosopher.

Ads are subject to analysis like most (all?) other forms of communication. They have a denotation and a connotation. The denotation is pretty simple (until you get to the Vienna Circle and the logical positivists and Wittgenstein), but the connotation issue irritated Locke back in the day. The further we proceed down the path of metaphor, the harder it is to figure out what a word means, and incidentally, words are how we express our inner mental lives to other humans. So it’s kind of important, and Locke was all for keeping things more to the denotative side. Barthes isn’t motivated by the same concerns as these other guys; connotations are much bigger fish to fry than denotations, obviously, but he makes a go of a general definition by claiming that they’re ideological and culturally based, and that sounds pretty good even if it isn’t a complete answer. I do think that perhaps his statement on 282, that “This common domain of the signifieds of connotation is that of ideology, which cannot but be single for a given society and history, no matter what signifiers of connotation it may use,” might be a little off. Where to draw the line for a society and ideology is tough, especially since most people these days would consider themselves to belong to different ideologies at the same time.

That’s it for now, more to come next Sunday.

Go Giants.