belle infidèle (frantom) wrote in pretty_theory,
belle infidèle

my resistance to describing images

Back in the day, Jan used to accuse me of not having a real job. In those days, I was taking a full class load as well as teaching courses and she couldn't understand why picking up her dry cleaning during my "free time" when I didn't have classes wasn't super high on my list of priorities.

Now that I am neither teaching nor taking classes (nor with Jan) I guess I feel like I have no job, but really my job is to tell you people, my advisor, and eventually the world (ha!) about some images.

fanny_fatale pointed out to me yesterday (privately, but she should feel free to put such criticism out in the open) that all of this stuff about barthes was fine and good, but i should really move on and get to the meat of it. even before she noted this, i was feeling a real resistance to even describing that image for you. on one hand, i feel like it is impossible to do so without thrusting my own personal bias upon it and then again, that is my job, after all.

what follows is my encounter with my own resistance:

I would like to pretend that I just happened upon these photographs, that they are free of context and authorship. If I could do this, in a false innocence, I could describe these pictures as if I were seeing them for the first time and I was on the phone, attempting to describe what lay before me. In the first image there is a person wearing a tuxedo. That is where I have to stop, as pronouns fail me. If I, a random viewer, were seeing this photograph for the first time, would I really think that the subject is a young man? Let's pretend that I do. So, this young man is wearing a tuxedo and is in a bar. I should point out to you there on the other end of the telephone that the photo is black and white, "old-fashioned." Maybe 1920s, 30s? The young man is gazing out of frame. He is smoking a cigarette. He looks too young to be dressed like that, especially at a bar. He is in his teens, maybe, beardless with slicked back hair. His left hand is in his pocket. The more I go on like this the more I begin to believe that the subject is a man. But wait, why does this even matter? What if you, my interlocutor said hey, I know that photograph! That's a photograph of a woman in a man's suit! Snap, things would begin to fall into place. I would begin to see this photograph "for what it really was." The full lips would make sense, the fine hands, the youthfulness.

In what Victor Burgin calls "puzzle photography," an ostensibly familiar object is photographed from an unfamiliar angle and thus appears to be something else or is completely unrecognizable. Either through a textual clue or a shift of perspective, the viewer eventually solves the puzzle, and "once we have discovered what the depicted object is, however, the photograph is instantaneously transformed for us [. . .] it now shows a 'thing' which we invest with a full identity, a being. With most photographs we see, this decoding and investiture takes place instantaneously, unselfconsciously, 'naturally'; but it does take place--the wholeness, coherence, identity, which we attribute to the depicted scene is a projection, a refusal of impoverished reality in favor of imaginary plenitude" ("Looking at Photographs 146-7).

Gender interpretation and investiture doesn't just happen in photographs. You've read all of my funny gender mistake stories that I have written here. Just yesterday I was called "jeune homme" by the man who sold me my morning croissant. When I try to answer the question of why we prefer "imaginary plenitude," that is a coherent understanding of someone'e gender, I think of the time a woman approached me and called me "monsieur" and after having a whole conversation with me said "merci, monsieur." Was she genuinely mistaken as to my gender, or was it important for her to maintain her original investment?

What is the meaning of investiture? Burgin uses the term metaphorically. Investiture is the formal installation of someone or something into a role. For example, the investiture of a bishop in to the seat of bishop. It isn't far from the word investment, and in a way, each investiture is an investment. If there is a failure in filling the position, there is a loss for the person doing the investing. In-vest. In clothes. Literally it is the putting of someone into the clothes of the role he is supposed to fill. What if there is a mistake? What if I cannot fill the clothes? What if there is a failure in the investiture.

Why do we prefer "imaginary plenitude"?
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