December 20, 2008

Geertz, Ryle, and the subtleties of meaning

One of my favorite parts of Clifford Geertz's essay "Thick Description" is where he discusses the work of Gilbert Ryle. Specifically, I am referring to the "wink" example, in which Geertz describes how one action (a wink) that outwardly appears to be the same can in fact have multiple meanings depending on the intentions of the person who actually performs it (and of course the person interpreting or receivinf that message). Geertz uses Ryle's example, in which two boys are "rapidly contracting the right eyelids of their right eyes." Geertz writes:

In one this is an involuntary twitch; in the other, a conspiratorial signal to a friend. The two movements are, as movements, identical; from an I-am-camera, 'phenomenalistic' observation of them alone, one could not tell which was twitch and which was wink, or indeed whether both or either was twitch or wink. Yet the difference, however, unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows (Geertz 1973:6).

The difference between the two gestures lies in the intentions of the two boys, and the social codes that exist surrounding such bodily movements, and which separate a mere twitch from intentional communicative movement. Geertz then goes on to talk about a third boy who, for fun, parodies the wink of the first boy. This adds another layer of complexity to the social codes involved. The ultimate point of this passage is the difference between what Geertz and Ryle call "thick" vs. "thin" description. Thin description does not get much beyond outward appearance, and in this case such a description might just chalk up all three "winks" as simply the same action. Thick description, Geertz argues, is the goal of ethnography, which is "a stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures in terms of which twitches, winks, fake-winks, parodies, rehearsals of parodies are produced, perceived, and interpreted, and without which they would fact exist, no matter what anyone did or didn't do with his eyelids" (1973:7).

How can the above discussion be applied to photography? What would a thick description of visual communication entail? One of the problems, of course, is the fact that one photograph can be read in a multitude of ways--many people have pointed this issue out. Is there a "correct" or "more correct" way of reading photographs? Can the meaning of a photograph be controlled, or limited, especially once it is published and disseminated? For me, it's apparent that part of the meaning of any photograph comes from the intentions of the photographer, and the context in which it was created. But that is only the beginning, and it's not something that is always permanent or definite, by any means. There is no clear way to embed the intentions and context of a photograph to it; it just can't be done completely (especially with photographs online). They are so easily ripped out of context all the time. Also, even within controlled contexts such as books or museum displays, photographs can be interpreted in amazingly different ways. So what does that mean?

It seems that a thick visual description might be akin to getting as much from particulars as possible. Maybe each individual instance in which a photograph is published, experienced, copied, talked about, sold, or displayed should be the focus of anthropological analysis, as opposed to treating photographs as if they have a kind of static, monolithic, or predictable meaning. What might be more interesting and productive is attention to the social processes and actions through which photographs travel, as opposed to remaining fixated on what "the" images mean.

We often look at images as if they are singular instances, when they are not. Famous photographs, such as those that Matthew Brady took during the Civil War, are sometimes talked about as if there is just one way in which they can be experienced, encountered, or understood. But Brady's original images were just the beginning of a long line of narratives, reproductions, displays, articles, books, exhibitions, and even web pages that people experience and interact with. Looking at an original negative is different from looking at a print, which is different from flipping through the pages of a history book, which is entirely different from viewing an image via a search on Google.

An original photograph is just the beginning of a string of social meanings that extend out from the original production, often along many branching paths. There is the life of the individual prints that are made, the life of the negative or digital file, the life of any reproductions...and then there is the life of the interpretations and/or stories that photographers, viewers, and subjects in photographs create, share, change, embellish, and pass around. It is, seemingly, endless.

No comments: