Commentary junkies

Fascinated with this culture of commentary that we have created, I joined Twitter today. And not just because it’s what other people do, but I actually want to be a part of the commentary. Knowing what my political, theoretical idols are thinking, as soon as they think it, is an important part of writing.

Even aside from social networking and this culture of immediacy, we live in a society that, collectively, is obsessed with commentating on our lives. A few months ago, I could barely look in any direction without seeing someone in a tee shirt obnoxiously declaring something in capital letters, like “That’s how I roll” or “Born in the nineties.” Now of course this is part of the whole postmodern ironic self-awareness thing, putting more emphasis on the outward experience of living rather than actually on life itself. But its something more than that, something that stems from an obsession with ourselves that began long ago. This is an obsession that involves documenting our lives with photography: and we live, writes Susan Sontag in On Photography, in “an image-choked world.”

I must open this argument with two points from Sontag’s writings:

A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.

Photography has become one of the principle devices for experiencing something, for giving the appearance of participation.

At tourist sites around the world, the snapping of the camera is never far away. In some places, it is hard to take a photo without having someone else, taking a photo, in the background. Such obsessive practice has always been a puzzle to me, as in the pursuit of taking photos, one risks missing out on the experience itself. (My thoughts follow a similar path in regards to music fans who spend an entire gig recording it on camera, that they miss the original event.) In our search for an eternal memento, we can deprive ourselves of experience. Trying the capture the world, we miss out on it.

Needless to say, photography is a huge part of how our society experiences the world. And it is amazing that Sontag, even in 1977, observed that “picture taking is an event in itself.” I suppose it was, what with the hedonism and showiness characterised by things such as Hair on Broadway, and adapted to the screen in 1979 by Milos Forman. But it has reached an absolute saturation point at the moment, with Facebook photos affected by the hipster factor (ipso facto) and becoming an indicator of status. Taking and uploading photos with a retro pastiche look is now popular, with digital cameras enabling a Polaroid-aesthetic and iPhone’s “Hipstamatic” app allowing new photos to be taken with simulated old-style lenses and films. It is not only professional photographers who consider photography an artistic event, it is everyone. Photography is not only about remembering, it is about creating.

With such intense emphasis on observing our own lives, and on documenting them more publicly and excessively than ever in history, we have become commentary junkies. Whether this is detrimental to us or not is another question. In historical terms, we presently pause our lives in order to commentate on them, or we change our lives in order to do so (ie. self-referential tee-shirts). But this has become blended into the way we live our lives now, and our reliance on things like Facebook has been accounted for with the development of multitasking mobile phones. We are always going somewhere in life, and our commentary helps us get there.


About cinemelo

I love to write about film and comment on culture. Hopefully providing insight and interesting thoughts for fellow cultural itinerants.
This entry was posted in photography, pop culture, theory. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Commentary junkies

  1. nathanjurgenson says:

    this is terrific! i think sontag is incredibly important for understanding social media. sorry i am 6months late to this post!

    “the whole postmodern ironic self-awareness thing, putting more emphasis on the outward experience of living rather than actually on life itself” – agreed – but, who to cite for this point? i think of Baudrillard first, the image comes to overtake the real, documenting life becomes more central than living it.

    last, using sontag’s terms, when taking a photo, we are always both a poet (creative/artistic) and scribe (dutifully capturing the truth of the world). but, given the new tools to be poets with our smartphone cameras, why do we choose vintage/retro/poloroid?

    • cinemelo says:

      I think it’s something of a resistance to moving forward. At least, that’s the way I see my use of it all and I think it’s a valuable thing to do. Technology is moving so so so fast and it’s important not to lose sight of all the greatness that people have already created.So the obsession with “vintage” is like a – perhaps not very successful? – way of paying homage to good times of yore. What do you think? Does this do enough, or will the new way of documenting the world and our increasingly digitised existence wholly wipe out the past?

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