Arbus – second half. What is this really about? Helplessness. This is a more
extreme version – is it? – of voiding oneself of agency and control. The self never
able to completely close the gap between intention and effect. She’s not interested
in closing this gap. Merely observing it. From the most outlandish forms of
intention to the most intense forms of its absence.
Some possible ways to wrap up the second half –
From the first half – some notes and thoughts. What am I setting up.
1. method – using the revelations catalogue to clarify what she’s saying.
2. Method – begin with the quotes from the high school papers
3. What does empathy have to do with gaps and intentions and reality and non-
reality. Is accommodating to failure, one’s own and others empathic –
certainly not in any obvious way or we would not be having this debate
about her work. There reason, possibly, that we can’t decide what we think
about her empathic motives might be that we are not accustomed to dealing
with people in their reality. If failure means someone should be doing
something – we as viewers helping them, they as subjects doing better at
hiding their flaw/gap – then what kind of empathy is that. The failure to
achieve intention. The impossibility of achieving intention. That is – I’m
setting up the first introductory part as about the debate over Arbus’s
empathy. Then I move on to the gap/flaw. Then the social and technical
problems of capturing that particular reality (embedded in a quest for reality
more generally). What if you could really inhabit that failure without getting
uncomfortable and looking away. Our discomfort shouldn’t really matter.
Why not see and not do something. But still see? If these were social
tragedies – floods, wars, etc. – that is a different question but she’s not asking
that question – as much as others felt this to be wholly inadequate to the task
(like berger and sontag). But it is the feeling of helplessness that is
paralyzing what would it mean not to be paralyzed by helplessness? To see
ourselves as limited?
4. I think the main idea here might be that visibility has to be detached from
empathy for her. That you can’t really see empathically.
5. One of the conditions for this seeing is helplessness. It gets you out of the
way and makes them visible – that would be you too. In your condition of
nature and project. That this feels like shame only because there is a basic
problem in our sense of ourselves. That the nature part is detested.
6. Maybe what I’m saying is that Sontag identified something correctly, she just
interpreted it more conventionally than Arbus does. That arbus sees the
projects we make of ourselves in a different way. In fact, Arbus seems to hold
the opposite position to Sontag (and perhaps many other theorists of
photography) that it is not real enough – not that it, like Barthes or Bazin,
captures the thing itself in some moment of time, the bit or fragment of
reality; that it might be ontologically real but that it is not real in its
presentation. The photographs suffer from a dearth of reality, not a surplus.
7. This is a question of limit, perhaps not helplessness. Or limit is the point at
which we are helpless to do more. As subjects in the photograph, as viewers
of the photograph.
8. Why are freaks aristocrats in the terms I’m layingout – because they are
more nature than the rest of us, or less plastic. Their anomalies – not the
self-imposed ones (though sometimes perhaps) – are not going to go away,
no matter how much self-transformation is intended. Why aristocrat? I’m
making the link somewhere with sovereignty – the surviving of a trauma. I’m
not sure this would play out here
9. On page 16 – hen I get to Sontag and dwarfs - - I don’t want to suggest she
thought them majestic or even possibly so. I want to suggest that the camera
was for her not doing its job – someone wasn’t doing their job – More like it
could be - -that she believes the camera can approach the reality of the world
but that its guarantee is no greater than other human projects.
a. What would be the point about beauty. Might be more like Sontag’s in
Illness as metaphor. What is beauty anyway. The world did not lack
beauty. The world was not in our photographs. And why should that
matter? This would go the point of not being able to see stuff she
deson’t photograph. Not only that it is not readily within our
experience. But that her way of photographing it does something
different than what other people do. Its twofold – what is out there
and what she is able to bring back. Uniquely she is qualified or given
to do that.
b. Shorten the thing about arbus’s therapeutic seeking of reality and get
faster to the nature of photography part.
10. The part that begins on 19 – about accommodating to the recalcitrance of the
camera – this point needs to be a little stronger. Maybe go quickly to the
relationship of other art movements of spontenaity and improvisation in the
period. Yes, this is like that. But it is more ordinary than that. There is less
of the mystical – though there is some to be sure – but a set of practices to
overcome one’s need for mastery. For her the motivation was simple. She
didn’t like the photographs she took when she was trying to master the
camera and the content of the photograph, which would be the subject.
Which doesn’t mean that she didn’t have an idea of what she wanted. We can
see this in the contact sheet with the boy.
11. Hierarchy of pain stuff – the distributive stuff – what is this for? I don’t think
I need this at all. Sontag complains that there is a leveling that equates
suburban couples with freaks and that that’s terrible. I was redeeming that
but I don’t think that’s taking me where I want it to.
a. What I think I wanted to do was make an argument about
ordinariness but there are other ways to do that.
b. Not trauma because not rupture. Instead, ordinary. That could work
but then there is all this other stupid stuff. I don’t think I want this
chapter to be that long or that complicated.
c. Could keep in that failure is not identity producing. Visible but not
traumatic or especially meaningful or distinctive since they all do it
and they are stylistically made to look more similar.
12. Then what about this whole section about consciousness and
unconsciousness – I do think I want to do something with the failure of
intention. And then with the absence of intention. This is an interesting
development but exactly how. They cannot fail because they in some sense
cannot intend in the same way. They are more purely just being themselves
in some way that lack self-consciousness.
13. A key segment to put into the first half is the stuff on news photojournalism
that comes around page 40. This is another impediment to getting the
individual person in the photograph. Keeping them separate. Where she
gets political ta the end. Begins wanting the ritual; ends wanting to avoid it.
To not turn people into categories of something. But it is the genre that
creates the problem.
14. Maybe I just don’t do a lot of the sections – on leveling and on consciousness
– but make them developmental points of something else. Think of the first
half as the paper and that the other stuff gets folded in to it.
15. ***but I have to keep in mind – what does this say about empathy. If she is
interested in pain and trauma, how do we then inhabit the helpless place
here? Not just in the failure, which seems more benign and less disruptive or
upsetting. She has to scale down, or level, our sense of the pain of failure.
She has to accommodate us and her to the inability to do something – the
irrelevance of our need to do something other than see. To pay attention.
a. That attention is a political act. Nothing more, nothing less.