Ethics & Aesthetics (Margaret Olin, Touching Photographs)

A lot of you out there are going to like this one. I just finished Margaret Olin’s Touching Photographs.  Handsomely put together, it’s a generous book that covers lots of ground (Roland Barthes, Sebald, James VanDerZee, 9/11 memorial photos, Abu Ghraib). My own attention focused more narrowly on the way in which Olin explores a “tactile” model of looking. By this is meant the bringing together of tactile values of contact to acts of photographic production and consumption. Olin puts behind the critique of the gaze and of disembodied forms of enlightenment occularcentrism. As understood here, the tactility of photography and photographs is the way they create “bonds” between persons, both at the individual level, and at the communal level, when a “grouping of photographs create a community, or the illusion of a community” (129).

In this, the understanding of photography here is “religious,” in a very technical way. The link between religion and photography, religion and art, religion and technology has to do with the way in which religion is a kind of art or techne, bound up etymologically with the Latin word “ligare,” meaning to “bind” or “connect.” Photographs offer solace and empathy, and generate social solidarity, and act as ethical witness (225).

The organizing framework is insistently, even urgently contemporary, which explains in part the running skirmish in Olin’s book with modernist aesthetics. I understand the provenance of that battle in the war waged against the formalist aesthetics of Clement Greenberg and high modernism. But the battle strikes me as having been won a long time ago. An isolating modernist aesthetic might indeed bog down the photos by Walker Evans and the text by James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Indeed, the argument against Evans and Agee (the problem of exploitation, the way in which beauty blunts social conscience) is well placed but overstated. It’s as if Olin herself “forgets” that these iconic artifacts of New Deal progressivism and liberalism are touched by and created social and political concerns and effects that I think would be hard to match in more recent photographic work. Liberal that I am, I wonder when this war with modernism might come to an end.

Olin’s new book is an important contribution to discussing the tension between politics-ethics versus aesthetics-pleasure. This is a good thing, being sensitive to this tension. But I think there’s a lot of misplaced worry here. At one point in the book, Olin expresses concern as to how aesthetic pleasure might cause one to forget” the world of social suffering (21-2).  This is something I don’t worry about, mainly because I don’t think a person with a social conscience ever “forgets” the social world when she or he goes into a museum or gallery. For Adorno, the distance from the world created by so-called autonomous art has a critical function when brought back, dialectically, to bear upon the world. I think I’d put it this way. The world goes in with you, into the museum or gallery, even as the new ways of looking, in this case, tactile looking learned from photography goes with you out back into the world. This thought sums up Olin’s book, whose penultimate sentence reads, “Touching really begins when the photograph has been put away, the newspaper recycled, and the book closed” (234).

(I know, by the way, that the image I’ve posted above is in complete opposition to the social theory (and “relational aesthetic”?) advanced by Olin. But I thought I’d go with this one, instead of, for instance, a photo by Evans, because, well, it’s lends a more personal touch to the discussion.)

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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