Belief and its willing suspension

Reading Time: 5 minutes

[Somewhat freely adapted from a contribution of mine of February 24, 2001 on a listserv that was called the PhotoArt forum. Among the illustrious participants was my friend, Jack Fulton, whom I was introduced to on this forum, and who, purely irrelevantly and coincidentally, had the unknowing ignominious distinction of informing me of the dire events the following late summer. On a trip to San Francisco, in part to meet Jack in the flesh, he called our hotel room at the Sir Francis Drake in Union Square, at about 8am PST, to ask if I had the television on. The precise date was September 11. I refer to previous comments of Jack’s on the listserv below. He was not the only illustrious participant, as you shall see.]

The talk was of the preparedness of the participant, the observer, or viewer of an act, or its product, of art—it was specifically photographic art and cinematic art about which the matter arose, but the comments could apply more universally I think.

The original conception of such preparedness, “suspension of disbelief,” is from S.T. Coleridge of course, and importantly, is qualified by the term “willing.” Which is to say, the easiest interpretation one may put on this is that Samuel Taylor meant that the suspension of disbelief, occasioned by viewing an image clearly not reality as ordinary humans and philosophers—those who have not shed their skin as ordinary humans, as they are wont to do when they are being Philosophers—understand reality to be, is a voluntary act, passively so, if not one of active engagement of the state and disposition of one’s mind. In the simplest sense, perhaps the one most charitably applied to that laughable euphemism of the Bush Wars on Iraq and Afghanistan: “the coalition of the willing,” is that at least the suspender of disbelief is not doing so grudgingly.

This, of course, presents a problem, whether speaking of belief or its absence. In that having belief is hardly an act of will, even the will to be passively and perhaps generously submissive to any such act, and as Coleridge was speaking of drama (and hence, pace the prevailing sentiments of our colleague Damian Peter Sutton1, closer perhaps to the apprehension of cinema than of photography per se), the problem is manifold.

Drama is of course not reality, as cinema and photographs are not. (We all do know that, don’t we? Photographs—or to use Damian’s careful gloss, images—are not reality. Not, at least, Berkeley’s booming buzzing reality). What are we then suspending when trying to grapple with the “facts” of images captured in plastic form as the artifacts of some technological process and presumably intended (even if by indirection, not to mention the possibility of unconscious intent) to elicit the need on the part of the viewer to grapple in the first place?

To cope with the quidditas, the “whatness,” of an image—whether in its content (whatever the hell that is) or in its taxonomical elements which might be categorized as aesthetic (composition, palette, tonalities, textures, etc. ad nauseam)—we must perforce use some other piece of the human cerebral function than belief, though problematically (as I said) emotional engagement would somehow require some condition of mind/spirit, that is, if not belief itself, closely akin to it.

This is all heavily philosophical, if not religious, and thereby a little scary. This latter quality may explain in part, once we filter out the blue-nosed reactions of the self-righteous and sanctimonious when confronted with art that is, on the face of it, sacrilegious, why art is so problematic when it pretends to be more than merely decorative or picturesque (in which case of course it is not art at all, but merely dressing).

I suppose if one follows this thought far enough, it leads to the inevitable and ominously self-satisfying conclusion that art had better be disturbing (disturbing to the human spirit–in the sense of rousing one from complacency–at the very least) if it wants to have any claim to being art. This leads to the incomprehension of practitioners who believe that merely to be disturbing (through provocation or interruption) is to produce art. Hence a lot of disturbing, if grotesquely picturesque decorative, work that is condemned as [fill in your favorite sanctimonious adjective] art, when it hardly deserves the unqualified designation at all.

I would suggest to Jack Fulton2, that the movie “Reindeer Games,” from an inattentive viewing by me of the trailer and from your capsule review, in fact better serves one’s understanding of the Coleridgean premise than the other film, “The Bear,” which merely sounds silly, and hence an easy challenge to the task of willfully engaging the imagination. Nothing is harder than an act of the imagination forcing an equally arduous (if not a greater) act of imagination on the part of the viewer in order to give the act (the work of “art”) any credence whatsoever. This, by the way, for me eliminates the question of triviality or any measure of unimportance, as a criterion for determining the significance of a work of art as art. Art doesn’t admit of highness or lowness in terms of subject (whatever the hell that is) or treatment.

1. Dr. Damian Sutton, who presently is Reader in Photography at Middlesex University in the UK.

2. Jack is, and was, at the time, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography at San Francisco Art Institute. He had written, back in 2001:

I rented two films last night to view over the weekend in
our rainy weekend. One is ‘The Bear’ and the other is “Reindeer Games’. The
latter was so dumbly constructed and acted one needed to suspend one’s mind
to sit through it and we didn’t. The Bear, on the other hand, was hard to
believe because the primary actors were real bears.
So, reality, schmeality, no matter what, photography from the still, movie
and digital cameras are all appearances such as a reflection in a pond or
mirror. It/they is/are faithful to what we perceive w/our visual sense as to
be “real” and I don’t think there are ifs ands or buts about it.
The ‘manipulation’ comes in from how the ‘taker’ interpreted this spectacle.

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Goodbye Facebook Goodbye

Reading Time: 12 minutes

I made a big move recently. Actually it was a series of moves, some large, some small, all adding up in the end to one mammoth relocation. I lived in the Boston area, more or less, for 48 years, and at one location, a condo, in Cambridge for over 26 years (the longest continuous single home of my life). As of the middle of February, officially, as it was the day that ownership changed hands on my new home, I am now a resident of Pennsylvania, just outside of the city of Philadelphia. I have not been entirely covert about this change of venue, and what I already and more and more rapidly think of as home. Rather, I have alluded to it.

It’s become my habit of late, and I can time it fairly accurately, to be far less forthcoming about the specific detailed circumstances of my life than had been my wont. One of my two blogs in particular, but both of them in general, used to be peppered with personal details in the essays I posted regularly. I fully expected that it was mainly people who knew me personally who paid the most attention to these outpourings, and so I had little to hide. I was completely discrete about certain things. For one, the short list of things that most people do not care to air in public. Domestic strife, financial status, sexual proclivities and activities. I’m not prudish or paranoid, but there was never a reason to seek “material” for my serious writing within the particulars of my private life. For six long years and then for the years thereafter, I also was fairly mum about the health of my late wife, and the progress of her ailments and their treatment. For one, despite the profound impact on my life, and experienced in that circumscribed context by no one but me, it seemed these matters were the substance of her life, and her business. Discretion is not the better part of valor. It’s the better part of dignity, usually someone else’s first, and always your own after that.

The change in accounting for those parts of my life that I made the stuff of my poor attempts at literary output came more or less with the initiation, a choice I made, into participation in Facebook. I became a subscriber (there is no other word for it; I’m not really a member of anything… there certainly is no affinity involved, though, I suspect, a lot of shared addictive tendencies; and it is a service, ostensibly free, but truly a commercial agreement: they give any subscriber access to this wonderful assortment of ways of a simulacrum of connection with other humans, known and truly unknown to oneself, and the subscriber gives up, within certain ultimately circumscribed limits, any claim to privacy about those parts of one’s life, however few in number if you are vigilant and well-versed in the “rules,” that Facebook and its corporate owners feel are necessary to pursue the business and financial objectives of the company). And after I became a subscriber, I became increasingly aware, to the point of a hypertrophied attentiveness every time I “logged in,” of the extent to which I was exposing parts of myself that I had never given much heed to protect in the past.

Previously I enjoyed, or perhaps suffered the delusion of having, control over what I said to the world at large in such a public place as an electronic communications network that is truly global and ubiquitous. With a subscription to a service like Facebook (at bottom, any of these so-called social networks are essentially the same, especially if they are described as free—take a moment and think about it: if it’s truly free in every respect, why must you sign, that is, click on a box that says “I agree,” a statement of terms and conditions that governs the relationship you enter into with the entity granting you these services, gratis?) comes the need to be conscious (and I have long been a practitioner of behavior as I make my way in the world, that it has become fashionable to engage in and to call it, specifically, “mindful”) every moment, and with every word and image transmitted and, not to mention, received, that there is a gateway into that which the “owner” might otherwise feel, in a pre-Facebook, pre-MySpace, pre-Web, pre-Internet world, is best kept to oneself, within the confines of one’s own figurative property boundaries.

What I have found, in the five years since becoming a Facebook subscriber, is I have become increasingly uneasy about this sharing of what are to me intimate parts of my life. They do concern me, after all, and often only me, but quite frequently other people also, and I don’t have blanket permission from anyone to reveal that which any other individual might not want shared with anyone else. There is no law, not even a natural law as far as that goes, in terms of how I believe these things to be in life as we know it, that compels me to reveal anything (except I suppose under pain of torture or the insidious ways of being treated with truth-baring drug treatments) to another living soul. Too often on Facebook it is ignorance (specifically not only of the terms & conditions I mentioned, but of the rules and protocols—intentionally labyrinthine and complex, and virtually impenetrable in terms of clear sense, and highly capricious—that govern what appears where on Facebook and beyond that concerns you, or anyone you mention, personally, whether you willed its appearance or someone else did) or inadvertency that is the occasion for having items of fact appear for virtually anyone to see. True or not is of no consequence whatsoever, because on the Web, everything is true and it is the kind of truth that never dies, even if it is, in substance and meaning, wholly and utterly false. Worse, because it is in the way of these things on the Internet, that there is always the potential that any single datum, any fact, any image will be seen, eventually, by everyone.

What I knew to be true already, having maintained two blogs for years, well before “joining” Facebook, was that it was best to invent what every writer worth his or her salt learns (sometimes knows instinctively, and hence has the easiest learning curve of all). That is, it’s best to cultivate not only a voice, in the rhetorical, stylistic, and narrative senses of the word, but at least one persona, not oneself, however tantalizingly close it appears to be oneself (even appears to be to oneself) when one has one’s words appear in public. Hence the practice persisted into my use of the Facebook, and the trouble began almost immediately.

As we all know, whether we care to admit it, there are friends and there are “friends.” And, pace Professor Robin Dunbar, there is a significant difference. Those whom I count among true friends, who I knew before Facebook and I will continue to know for the rest of my life, inclusive of certain of those relationships formed since whatever exact date it was I subscribed to Facebook (I am sure they could tell me that date; I refuse to look it up… some things are just not important even to someone as neurotically punctilious about so-called facts as I) also, of course, know me. And I don’t mean merely in terms of my end of some reciprocal relationship of emotional engagement. I mean, they know when I am kidding (usually), or certainly that I do “kid.” They know me to be, by turns, ironic, sarcastic, sardonic, deflationary (in the sense of busting other people’s balloons), challenging (especially to the denial mechanisms of others), and they learned—or knew instinctively—when and how to take me seriously. No one is perfect, least of all me, and so, even with my nearest and dearest friends, it’s necessary still, sometimes after decades, to stop and apologize (always that first, if I can) and explain that “it’s only me.” There’s a price to be paid for attempts at maintaining a certain kind of dead pan. Sometimes, it’s just dead, at least to anyone else besides myself.

However on Facebook, inevitably, hardly anyone can really know me or anyone else, except celebrities, that is, people who professionally must present themselves to the world with only a public persona—sometimes a quite outrageous one, or outrageous were it an “ordinary” person who comported themselves so in public. As President Nixon would have said about my earliest efforts on Facebook and well into some “middle period” out of the past five years, “mistakes were made.” I still make them occasionally. I just don’t care to be that vigilant. I just don’t care to assume anything—given all the effort I have made to keep my profile and privacy settings to the bare minimum to exclude virtually anyone but the “Dunbar number” of friends I maintain on Facebook from seeing what I have to say—that is, assume anything, save that there is a better than statistical chance that people who do know me will realize that whatever I say is not to be taken personally.

There have been two results. One is what I have already alluded to in this essay. I have become more circumspect, more private, in a way that has spilled over into my personal life, dealing with people generally, so that in one-on-one encounters with old friends there has been increasingly larger and larger ground to cover in terms of filling them in on what has occurred in my life since my last encounter. Two is that I have had to forge a zig-zag path through the intricacies of Facebook postings and status updates. I mainly say things that are, taxonomically speaking, of the nature of publicly declared opinion, that is, mainly political, and usually preaching to the choir, as I make virtually none of these expostulations public beyond the circle of my “friends” who tend to be, mainly, like-minded. And of course, I have become, uncharacteristically, wary of saying what I know is deeply contrary or provocative to the like-minded.

I always write or post something with the hope, but no expectation whatsoever, of a response. The whole reason for being on a gated social network like Facebook, for me anyway, is to communicate, interactively (to use a word I hate—exchanges are always interactive, it seems to me; it means that there is some other category or several of them of social exchange and engagement that is not truly interactive, but something else, probably something like having two properly programmed computers “communicating” with each other, using words in some known language, as well as icons, images, and other signs and symbols [click on the upturned thumb icon if you “like” this idea]). It rarely happens, that is, the live communication between humans, one of whom is me.

I’ve come to speak less on the phone to people I was used to communicating with regularly in real time, each of us hearing the sound of the other’s voice. I have virtually ceased having what had been an incredibly rich, active, and dense correspondence with a variety of correspondents, mainly on email, but also, mirabile dictu, using pen and ink on real paper, made from rag or wood pulp.

I was reminded of all this, this former life, for life it was, a soubriquet I cannot assign to Facebook relations. They are something, but they are not life for me. They may be for every one of the other 147 individuals of which my Facebook Friends list now consists. But they are not for me. I was reminded of all this mainly because I am unpacking the literally tons of belongings that had to be hauled from New England to very near the city line of Philadelphia. Among the artifacts and objects thereby revealed—sometimes, it truly seems like a dig and I have unearthed some treasure, an archaeological find from the ancient history of the civilization I know as myself—was an ancient laptop, a Power Book G3, last used a decade ago, and first put into active service in 1998.

I looked at the email client I used then and perused some of the individual messages. As it was me writing, those I sent were of unusual length, in words, even for the circle of people with whom I corresponded back then. I was a member of at least two listservs, those hoary precursors to the phenomenon that has evolved into the present form of Facebook, except then the list usually consisted of about 100 people on the forums I attended. Most of them never wrote a word, preferring to “lurk,” that is, to read and be entertained by the more effusive of us. I formed friendships, real ones, thereby, some of which I retain and cherish to this day, and, as had always been my propensity throughout my life, thereby enlarged the circle of people I could count on to be engaging in a meaningful and substantive way, even if our relations never evolved beyond intellectual kinship. As for close friends, even those who, back in those days, lived nearby (the closest of them moved away long before it ever would have occurred to me to re-locate myself, and perhaps that is another causal factor in the chain of reasons or the nexus of conditions that have left me where you find me here, trying to account for what you have found), we wrote regularly, sometimes daily, exchanging links and quips and jokes and personal anecdotes, plans for meetings, assignations, mutual attendance of cultural or social events. Even as we wended our daily way through our obligations, writing and staying in touch even from our work desks.

I miss all that, not because Facebook has become the über-forum for such activity and for such a life, but despite Facebook. Facebook only reminds me, more and more poignantly, nay, painfully, of what I miss. I know friendship. Friendship is a friend of mine. And Facebook, you are not friendship.

Facebook is no substitute for me for what I describe for a broad matrix of reasons, none of them noteworthy enough to single out and not all of them important enough to analyze. I leave that to the sociologists and behavioral economists who at least can make a living, even if they eventually never make sense, of it. Chief among the reasons however is, in my mindfulness, I can never forget that whatever I say or post (if it’s an image or a link or a video file) it’s not to just this person, or that short list of friends or forum-mates, but it’s also and always to all of Facebook. I mean the corporate entity, which is always there, lurking, in the true sense of the word, listening without hearing, and archiving every syllable and every pixel, no longer mine alone, but the property of some giant entity. Call it a swarm or hive or call it the Borg, it’s not me.

Therefore, I am leaving. It’s a nominal and provisional leave-taking. Among the mistakes I have made in my life, from the tiny to the shattering, perhaps this is another one, and I will regret it, and so, for now, though the temptation is strong to cancel my account utterly and allegedly have all the bits and facts obliterated (Facebook has long since admitted that somehow—they can work any kind of programming wonder, but some things just can’t be explained, darn it!—certain images and other code objects have persisted in their system), I will deactivate the account. This means you will no longer find me on Facebook should you be looking or should somehow take notice, if only as a passing thought.

My real friends, whatever the number, know how to find me, both by phone and by email, and they can find me where I live, if they don’t already have the address and need only care to ask.

As for me, I will make what attempt I can, mustering the energy I can to do so, an expense of effort that came so effortlessly and unconsciously in the past I so recently just re-discovered in short form, to get back in touch with people using what I guess are now considered antique means. That is, I will be writing blog entries again. I will be re-designing one, if not both, of my Websites, and posting more regularly to that or those. And I will try, at least to be more regularly in contact, by phone and email and, dare I say it?, the U.S. Post with people whose contact I miss more than I have cared to say, perhaps because I had been reduced to saying such things, or anything, on Facebook. And I didn’t care to say anything so personal or intimate in such a place. So goodbye Facebook, for now and perhaps for good.

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