what is ruin porn?

Ian Ference on “Ruin Porn”

Good for him for having a spirited defense of his own photography, but Ference fails to define what he means by “porn.” He establishes several criteria that would enable the viewer to discern whether or not something is “ruin porn” or not.

His criteria are:

  1. Editorial impartiality or sensationalism
  2. Misleading or falsified historical context
  3. Portrayal of contrived or staged subjects
  4. Transparent ploys to manipulate a viewer’s sympathies

Here is my response to each of these criteria:

  1. Yes, we should all strive for impartiality, but, as Zinn once stated, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.” I will concede that there is a difference between trying to be sensational and trying to be neutral, but the element of seduction is present in both situations. In the case of sensationalism it might be already apparent, but the seduction of neutrality I think is overlooked and potentially to disastrous effect. In the pursuit of neutrality one may be tempted to alleviate one’s culpability or responsivity to the context in which one is always implicated. By that I mean, we are never without the need to make judgements and as such we are always biased. Now, that may not be such a strong critique to some, but it’s important to recognize that in trying to judge in an unbiased manner what one is actually doing is creating criteria for ignoring other elements so as to foreground other elements. This is the problem with judgements of representation rather than judgements of appropriation.
  2. Ference sees that it’s become a common practice among “urban explorer”-type photogs to give false names and attribute false histories to the subjects of the photo. I agree, in my Xunzi kind of way, that proper naming is necessary for social harmony. Here I don’t disagree with Ference, it is exploitative of the viewer and of the subjects; but I want to add that in photographing these places the photographer is subjugating (subject-making) and is potentially problematic.
  3. In this way I think that A.N. Whitehead’s assertion that, “If we desire a record of uninterpreted experience, we must ask a stone to record its autobiography,” is false. While I may not immediately have the receptive faculty to hear the stone’s autobiography, it’s certainly not the case that it’s story cannot be heard through proper perspectival training (see Graham Parkes’ translation of Francois Berthier’s Reading Zen in the Rocks: The Japanese Dry Landscape Garden). That said, Whitehead goes on to harmonize with Parkes and suggests that philosophy, unlike science, is the discipline that begins with the recognition that interpretation is the sine qua non of being human, and so philosophy is the discipline that can best enable us to become more sensitive to the exclusionary tendencies of interpretation. In both Whitehead and the perspectival literature what is reinforced is that neutrality is not the same thing as objectivity. Objectivity as neutral is just as mendacious as the idea that a staged photo is not the same as an unstaged photo. In either situation the subject-making activity of photography-as-representing-what-is-true is equally false. Staged or not, just because a machine (thought to have no bias) captured and reproduced an image does not make that image more concretely-so, more resolutely true. I’m arguing that objectivity is much bigger than the dichotomy of subjective-objective; rather, objects are just as subjective in their influence of what we claim are subjects.
  4. Transparent ploys to manipulate are the subject of Schiller’s 15th and 22nd letters as we’ve discussed with Rancière. In Letter 22 §5 Schiller states

In a truly successful work of art the contents should effect nothing, the form everything; for only through the form is the whole man affected, through the subject-matter, by contrast, only one or other of his functions. Subject-matter, then, however sublime and all-embracing it may be, always has a limiting effect upon the spirit, and it is only from form that true aesthetic freedom can be looked for. […] The psyche of the listener or spectator must remain completely free and inviolate…. No less self-contradictory is the notion of a fine art which teaches (didactic) or improves (moral); for nothing is more at variance with the concept of beauty than the notion of giving the psyche any definite bias.

Schiller wrote these letters in the wake of the French Revolution, which was fueled in part by ideas such as Rousseau’s that art should teach people about virtue (this is in fact the underlying argument in Ference as well). Schiller thought the opposite, that art should be free from any instructional or instrumental strategies and allow the viewer to experience the art object free from manipulation. More importantly, Rancière points-out, is that the art object nor artist not already construct the public that would view (see Michael Warner’s “Publics and Counterpublics”).

But still left out in Ference’s argument is what he means by “Ruin Porn.” It seems that ruin porn is just one category of the genus porn. This category, it seems Ference is suggesting, is just self-evident as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart stated in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964). It is my thesis that the act of political representation itself is fundamentally pornographic in so far as both porn and political representation attempt a sleight of hand, akin to Deleuze & Guattari’s dislike of metaphor since schizoanalysis is for production not simply expression.

Metaphor, like political representation (and representation at large) is the excuse that allows one to not answer that annoying question that humbles any good parent when their 2 year old gets all Socratic method and insists, “Why? But why?” To the child the response easily becomes that great truth about social life wrapped in the innocuous-enough sounding, “Because I said so.” What more answer does one need? My authority (my ability to threaten) says so, that’s why. It’s not an actual answer, but it’s the command that makes social life as we’ve come to accept it possible.

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