Take Man Out of the Humanities

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014 by angelarovak

When considering the prospect of taking the human out of the humanities, as we have been discussing in class and which seems to be a central caveat of Wolfgang Ernst’s argument in Digital Memory and the Archive, I have minimal doubts or anxieties; this approach seems highly pragmatic and a necessary addition to the scholarly discourse. But while I can agree to eliminating the narrative as “the medium of history” (54), as Ernst refers to it, I am more hesitant to completely ignore the ideologies embedded in the creation, curation, and preservation of media objects and, in particular, the photographic images Ernst highlights in the first chapter of the text. Mainly, my resistance stems from minimal concession to photographs as purposely framed images influenced by the photographer who is in turn influenced by the embedded ideologies of his sociocultural situation. I purposely employ the masculine pronoun in this case because, to paraphrase the John Berger in his seminal text of visual studies Ways of Seeing, all images are manmade. The neutrality of the masculine gender as the creator of images, and most often of the devices and techniques used to manufacture such images, undermines a potential alternative arrangement of media archaeological studies. Where are the women? Or other marginalized groups? I argue that the theories presented by Ernst and his predecessors blatantly ignore the gender ideologies invested in the objects. I understand that the intent of the approach is to ignore all ideological, historical, political, and social traces of these material objects, but the curation of archives and the selection of research objects cannot be divorced from hierarchies of power in the past or the present.

Ernst routinely refers to photography as a “cold medium” (47) that marked the “apparent shift of emphasis in nineteenth-century historiography from describing to showing” (45), but even theoretically the mechanisms of the camera cannot be seen as completely detached from the human (male) subject. (Ernst refers to McLuhan in this distinction between “cold” and “hot” methods of preservation, so perhaps this will all become more clear after next week’s reading.) The camera itself, surely, is but a cold seeing eye, but the camera is a useless combination of mechanisms without the external interaction necessary to create the actual photograph. All images are framed, reducing the panorama of human observation to a determined space and representation. How the image is framed cannot be objective but rather is the product of internalized and neutralized ideologies privileging particular modes and methods of seeing. There appears a deep contradiction in the claim that photography “achieve[s] historical transparency” (49), a “technologically neutral code” (46), and noting offhandedly and without proper concession or analysis that “Of course, no representation is ever unmediated” (48). I can agree that the “detached scientific observer is the camera” (49), but the camera is unoperational on its own.

The photograph is given a privileged position as a preservable artifact that can be stored in the archive. Again, I am troubled by the unexamined sociocultural influences of how and why items are prioritized for inclusion in the archive. Ernst attributes this position to photography since “photographic paper registers a genuinely mediatic transfer” (42) which makes it more authentic than other methods (again, however, ignoring the necessity of a human eye to frame the scene transferred to photographic paper). While Ernst points out that the “mechanisms that regulate entry into the discourse of history or exclusion from cultural memory are therefore part of the media-archaeological investigation” (42), he appears uninterested in examining these influences. I do not see a methodological rift between acknowledging the gender and power ideologies influencing the media objects included in his studies, quite the opposite. It seems that Ernst’s proposed approach reifies ideological hierarchies, further solidifying patriarchal attitudes and value judgments. To take into consideration of how objects and images are produced, under what ideological circumstances, while also questioning your own ideological investments as a researcher, can only serve to illuminate alternative arrangements. Such considerations can help break the narrative of history that material-based media archaeologists so desperately wish to escape.

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4 comments on “Take Man Out of the Humanities

  1. sdileonardi says:

    Angie, I had many similar thoughts as I was reading, especially when Ernst poses the question: “Whether the new kind of historical imagination that emerged was an effect of new media or whether such media were invented because the epistemological setting of the age demanded them” (42). While he leans toward the former, I can’t help but think, especially in light of your post, that the answer is always both. That is, as you pointed out the cold frame of the camera is positioned by a human subject informed by his/her ideological position in space and time. But what new media theorists have made clear to me, is that in turn, that ideological place and time has been largely defined by media technologies. Thus a discursive cycle is enacted, forever on a historical loop.

    • angelarovak says:

      You are absolutely correct, Sean. I can see that the camera constructs the scopic male gaze just as readily as the male gaze presupposes the camera. But then my mind continues the inquiry to wonder how media and technology have then created patriarchal oppression and if there is a way out of this particular ideological loop.

  2. Like y’all, I’m having a difficult time buying into Ernst’s argument, and Angie deftly points out the gender politics (to mention one problematic) that surround the human subject holding and pointing the camera. I think we could put Susan Sontag in conversation with Ernst, and thus further substantiate Angie’s critique. Indeed, Sontag, in _Regarding the Pain of Others_ argues for the domineering presence of the human in framing and thus determining the content of the photograph (remnants of McLuhan perhaps?); more specifically, before analyzing the staged photographs of the American Civil War, Sontag reminds us that “[i]t is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude … it has always been possible for a photograph to misrepresent” (46). Anticipating her skeptics, Sontag goes further to say that “[e]veryone is a literalist when it comes to photographs” (47). Could we point this question at Enrst? Putting these two theorists alongside one another, we see the divergence of humanism and posthumanism, I think. For Ernst, pushing the human out of the equation by using the “cold gaze of media archaeology” seems necessarily to elide the power relations in which the photograph is always already embroiled before the human activates the shutter.

  3. willm2 says:

    Forgive me if I’ve misread the text, but I got the impression that Ernst isn’t presenting photography as a medium for a pure unbiased gaze, but one that is biased in different ways than narrative writing. The ideological weight of the image is a product of the mechanical workings of the technological apparatus. It’s hidden instead of transparent as a narrative would be. While I have no idea what kind of ideology he expects to finds in the mechanisms of the camera, perhaps some technological permutation of the male gaze would be one of them? However, this does not really answer your prime criticism that Ernst has left out the one who frames the image in his analysis.

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