Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The New Liberal Arts: Photography

New Liberal Arts, a Snarkmarket/Revelator collaboration, is available for sale today. It's 80pp and costs $8.95. Robin reports that after five hours, half of the initial print run of 200 copies has already been sold.

I have three short pieces in the book. I co-wrote what I hope is a cogent Introduction with Robin Sloan and what I know is an absolutely whiz-bang take on Journalism with Matt Thompson. I also wrote a solo essay on Photography, which I really do think is the new liberal art par excellence, the technology that changes the whole meaning of both science and the humanities.

We're going to be doing a lot to promote this book, which I'm sure is going to sell out soon. When it does, it'll be available for everyone has a freely downloadable PDF. (There are plans for Kindle and MobiPocket versions, too.) So when you buy one, you're helping to unlock it for everyone else. Since the logic of freeriding doesn't seem to deter digital humanists, I hope this is seen as a boon and not a rip.

But now I just want to give you an idea of the sort of things we're thinking about. This is what I had to say about "Photography."


Apart from the exact sciences, nothing has transformed the idea of the liberal arts as profoundly as PHOTOGRAPHY -- which enables not only the recording of still and moving images, but their reproduction, transmission, and projection onto a page or screen.

The classical liberal arts are arts of the word, products of the book, the letter, the lecture. The Renaissance added the plastic arts of painting and sculpture, and modernity those of the laboratory. The new liberal arts are overwhelmingly arts of the DOCUMENT, and the photograph is the document par excellence.

Like the exact sciences, photographic arts are industrial, blurring the line between knowledge and technology. (The earliest photographers were chemists.) Like painting and sculpture, they are visual, aesthetic, based in both intuition and craft. Like writing, photography is both an action and an object: writing makes writing and photography makes photography. And like writing, photographic images have their own version of the trivium -- a logic, grammar, and rhetoric.

We don't only SEE pictures; we LEARN how they're structured and how they become meaningful. Some of our learning is intuitive, gathered from the ways our eyes and brains make sense of the visual world. We have an habitual sense of how photographic meaning is created, taken from our experience watching movies or taking our own photographs. But we also have a critical sense of it, taken from our aesthetic responses to photographs and cinema, and our awareness of how both are edited, enhanced, and manipulated. Photography is the art and science of the real, but also of the fake; of the depth and the surface, and the authentic as well as the inauthentic or nonauthentic appearances of the world.

Rather than "pictures," "film," or even images, PHOTOGRAPHY, the recording of light, is the term to bet on: It's the only category that can describe pictures on metal, glass, paper, celluloid, or flash memory -- whether still or moving, analog or digital, recorded or broadcast, in color or black and white, representative or abstract. It is essential to examine equally the transmission and consumption of photography as well as its production: still images, cinema, television, digital video, and animation all belong to you, as well as photoreproduction, photomontage, image databases, and any possible combination where the still or moving image appears. Even the optical cables that have transmitted this data to you several times over communicate through pulses of light. Photography is the science of the interrelation and specificity of all of these forms, as well as their reproduction, recontextualization, and redefinition. Photography is a comprehensive science; photography is a comparative literature.

It took universities CENTURIES to answer the demand posed by the exact sciences to liberal education -- it is your task to pose -- and to answer -- the demand photography makes of us now.

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