Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Rue Obscure

Peter writes...

Here, I am meditating on the construction of identity and the ways in which media both reveals and fails to reveal meaning. And that where it fails, it masquerades.

I find myself unable to locate a boundary between media and mind.

1. A Photograph. I have, somewhere, a picture of my mother. In it she is a young blonde, though I place no specific age upon her. She is sat on a green hillside, my Dad's white Volkswagen is behind her and there is a sitting, inquisitive baby in front. I think that the baby is my younger brother, and though I could not have been more than four-years old, I believe that I witnessed the scene myself. I feel that I am stood beside the photographer as the picture is taken. As I cast my memory over the image, my mother is happy and though casually dressed in a cardigan and skirt, effortlessly glamorous. She is celluloid. She is a filmstar.

I don't reveal the photograph here, I leave it obscure, for though you may detect much from these few words, you cannot possibly know the depth of what it means to me. You cannot know how I feel to have stood beside the photographer, the breezes of that hillside about me, my mother's young hands organising the picnic under a great, new, rotating sky: all this is felt and seen by me, even though I don't truly know if I was there at all.

Neither could I penetrate an image, a memory, and their mutual construction, from your personal collection.

2. Camera Lucida. When Henriette Barthes died in 1977 her son, the philosopher Roland Barthes began writing Camera Lucida. This was an attempt to explain the unique significance a picture of her as a child carried for him. Reflecting on the relationship between the obvious symbolic meaning of a photograph (which he called the studium) and that which is purely personal and dependent on the individual, that which ‘pierces the viewer’ (which he called the punctum), Barthes was troubled by the fact that such distinctions collapse when personal significance is communicated to others and can have its symbolic logic rationalized. Barthes found the solution to this fine line of personal meaning in the form of his mother’s picture. Barthes explained that a picture is not so much a solid representation of ‘what is’ as ‘what was’ and therefore ‘what has ceased to be’. It does not make reality solid but serves as a reminder of the world’s inconstant and ever changing state. Because of this there is something uniquely personal contained in the photograph of Barthes’ mother that cannot be removed from his subjective perspective: the recurrent feeling of loss experienced whenever he looks at it. As one of his final works before his death, Camera Lucida was both an ongoing reflection on the complicated relations between subjectivity, meaning and cultural society, as well as a touching dedication to his mother and description of the depth of his grief. (These words are extracted more or less intact from the Wikipedia artcle referenced above).

3. The Friend in the Family. "The television set has become a key member of the family, the one who tells most of the stories most of the time." So spoke George Gerbner, author of Cultivation Theory which suggests that the greater the exposure to television, the greater that the viewer's perception of reality is shaped by it. Hence "mean world syndrome", wherein viewers perceive the world to be a nastier place than it is, and "the double dose effect" wherein events portrayed on television reinforce the experiences of viewers. So, where might social media take us ... "even meaner world syndrome", "banal world syndrome", "sexualized world syndrome", "quadrophenia"???

4. Rationality and Retrieval. Perhaps evolution never had need to equip us with the skills of sieving and critiquing media content. Indeed, arguably, from the point of view of the survival of the species, it is as well for us if we become increasingly anxiety-prone and cautious. Going further, though we may rationalise media content in our short-term memory, in other modes of thinking, long-term memories are retrieved without their source ever being declared. Deep down, inside, in the casualness of our daily lives, we don't know where our ideas come from.

5. The Hillside. Was I ever on that hillside? And if I was, did I actually witness the photograph? Or does it merely serve to conjure feelings that reside in me but in no sense 'belong' to that image.

Many years later my mother, the young blonde, died tragically as a result of an NHS accident. This was at an important time in her life, not very long after all her six children had grown. It was also not very long after my Dad, the invisible photographer, died in unsettlingly similar circumstances.

6. Rue Obscure. Here is information about Rue Obscure, the street under where the town seems to be, in Villefrance-sur-Mer.




Bob said...

you should write a book!

alain said...

Your thoughts are superior, your writing refined, but this is not blog. Blog cannot be the tool of the essayist.