More on Categories
This week I want to pick up on the question of categories which has resonated through my last two posts on institutions, hierarchies and non-collections. The extent to which the categories of disciplinary landscapes and languages shape research was brought home to me forcibly when last year I contributed to an ‘at the print’ class for art history students. We were in Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, a major and politically savvy anthropology collection. We pulled from the collection Julia Margaret Cameron’s famous portrait of Charles Darwin. Despite having ‘done’ a Cameron class some weeks before, the students seemed unable to recognise it in any way. Cameron’s portrait of Darwin, embedded in the thought processes, language and storage regimes of anthropology was, it seems from the ensuing silence, literally ‘unrecognisable’. It was almost as if it had become what anthropologist Mary Douglas has described as the danger of impurity, matter out of place, something in the wrong category, in the wrong hierarchical place, which becomes simultaneously dangerous and inexplicable.
Categories are, as Michel Foucault has famously argued, an epistemological apparatus that constitutes political, social and moral discourses. Categories allow a thing, here a photograph, “to pass over in its entirety into the discourses that receives it.” 1Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge, 1974), 135. Such thinking has had a profound influence on the way museums have been written about, but as I noted in my first posting, despite a huge literature on museology, museum cultures and their discursive practices, photographs, especially those inhabiting spaces outside the art museum, have remained largely unremarked.
It is well known that all histories are text and shaped through the patterns and practices of their archiving. Institutions are effectively a cluster of statements which structure the way in which things are thought; like disciplines, they have their own ‘habits of mind’ that do not necessarily translate. 2Ludmilla Jordanova, “What’s in a Name: Historians and Theory”, English Historical Review cxxvi, 523 (2011), 1456–77, here 1461. Thus a collection/an object is placed within disciplinary landscapes that are constituted through a series of assumptions. These are expressed at a macro-level through institutional ecosystems and at a micro-level through the language of cataloguing and description, the ordering of information within records, the visual and textual languages of exhibition and so on.
Thus where and how photographs are encountered matters. Different institutions constitute different thought landscapes which both enable or hamper research. Indeed I would argue that this is particularly pertinent for photographs, because there is a massive confusion about what kinds of objects photographs are in museums – are they art or science, social or cultural, functional or aesthetic, how do these fields and purposes overlap? What is deemed worthy of research and what is not? Indeed photographs, as multiple originals, are perhaps more sensitive to where they are put than some other classes of museum objects, precisely because they can operate over categories. And this confusion of institutional makings makes it difficult to do the kind of joined up, interdisciplinary cross-institutional research that the new ethnographically inclined historiographies of photography demand.
All this is well-established in general debates about the museum-effect and Foucauldian discussions on the organisation of knowledge. However, much of the work considers the dynamics within institutional space rather than in an open museal space where initial placings are on the one hand normatively assumed and on the other hand, in intellectual terms, entirely serendipitous. Any cross-over is dependent on which categories are deemed disturbable – disciplinary investments, institutional landscapes and patterns of patronage ensure that some are more disturbable than others.
Thus, within this, the way that institutions project themselves and their value systems onto objects and how objects are made to perform in certain ways has a profound influence on the way that they function as research objects. Categories and placings set objects on certain trajectories that have profound implications for the kind of questions that can be based on them and the thought spaces they might generate, and how these are reproduced.
It is equally established that classifications systems have ideological origins which have become naturalised within institutional practices and agendas. Language expands or controls the ranges of experiences possible within institutions. Words of description, representation, and interpretation control the content of knowledge as well as understanding. As Derrida has famously argued, text communicates between absent authors and unknown audiences “spewing out its manifold significations, connotations and implications.” 4 Quoted in Willie Thompson, Postmodernism and History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 10.While the text is unstable between ‘author’ and ‘reader’ and it is well-recognised that researchers bring their own agendas to the practices of viewing within museums, at the same time institutions shape and manage the kinds of knowledge aligned with their thought landscapes, creating the central naturalised realities which mediate understandings through the reproduction of disciplinary landscapes in order to create a stability of meaning. This is now a cultural theory commonplace of course. But it has very real material consequences for the way photographs work in institutions. The apparatus of photographic description comes to carry an authority and credibility. They are made believable as one sort of thing as registers and catalogues “track the rituals of accession and disciplinary assimilation”. At stake in styles of communication within the apparently neutral tools of finding aids, access and storage “cover complex notions of cognition, memory and excavation” which are both material and symbolic. 5 Francis X. Blouin and William G. Rosenberg, Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives (Oxford: OUP 2011), 4. See also Geoffrey N. Swinney, “What Do We Know About What We Know? The Museum Register as Museum Object", in The Thing About Museums, ed. Sandra Dudley (London: Routledge 2012), 31–46.To what classes of knowledge is this object admitted, from which is it excluded?
Let’s look at a category, so obvious and so naturalised: The photographer. In almost all museum practices around photography, the primary way in to the collections is by creator. It is the privileged field – it often cites first – it meets the eye of the enquirer immediately, whether on card catalogue or database. It takes its form from the library catalogue card which privileges authorship. But more significantly, as a repeated pattern of information arrangement, it imbeds within the structure of the museum the privileging of individual creativity and all that this implies. Gillian Rose has written at length about how the practices of description and cataloguing of Lady Hawarden’s photographs construct her as ‘an artist’. 6 Gillian Rose, “Practising Photography: An Archive, a Study, Some Photographs and a Researcher”, Journal of Historical Geography 26, 4 (2000), 555–71.
It is interesting that in recent years the Getty, possibly responding to the new interdisciplinary historiography of photography, has shifted from referring to anonymous jobbing daguerreotypists as makers, instead of artists. Similarly, one thinks here of the differing emphasis in positioning and keywording in the online catalogues of architectural photographs at the V&A, that emphasise making and authorship, while at Historic England (responsible for the preservation of national monuments) unmediated content is privileged. This may be a very obvious point, but multiplied across the body of objects we call ‘photographs’ such differential focus performs epistemological frames that constitute those photographs as certain kinds of things.
Of course photographs change categories, and indeed function across categories in different social worlds, 7 Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences (Cambridge/MA: MIT Press 1999), 286.carrying the validation that reshapes their corner of the ecosystem. This is amply demonstrated by the category trajectory of photographs of Australian aboriginal peoples from the Clarence River region made in the early 1870s in the studio of J.W. Lindt as they move from records of culture, to scientific specimens, to masterpieces of early Australian photography to, most recently, being reclaimed as aboriginal cultural heritage through the Dreaming the Past project at Grafton Regional Museum in New South Wales.
Categories can shift, even within the institution, and I noted the absorption of early ‘non-collections’ photographs into ‘collections’ at the V&A. In another and very different example, photographs made to produce the category ‘African Art’ by Charles Sheeler for instance, have now become art objects in their own right. 8Virginia Lee Webb, Perfect Documents: Walker Evans and African Art, 1935 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000).
None of what I have said here is particularly original. But I think we need to revisit these ideas robustly because, despite all the changes and progress of recent years, we perhaps face an apparently escalating fragility of photograph collections and the categories in which they are presumed to function. There is, in the face of digital environments, a sense that location is no longer an issue. This, for me, is both worrying and exciting. Worrying because it both changes landscapes or ecosystems that are themselves historical and revealing about the historiography of photographs, and secondly because of the way that digital environments tend to reinforce dominant naturalised categories. Conversely it is exciting because it has the potential to disturb those very categories which have made themselves felt so forcefully in the writing of photographic history. It changes the questions that are and can be asked, it changes photographic objects, from one kind of thing to another, shaping the kinds of histories that can be written at a given historical moment. I shall consider the category free-for-all that is the digital environment, what Weinberger has called the “disorder of the miscellaneous”, 9David Weinberger, Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (New York: Time Books, 2007). in a couple of weeks time because it deserves attention especially in relation to assemblages of photographs in museums and the new worlds which they inhabit.
Nonetheless, as I’ve suggested, the normalised and naturalised categories that have shaped photographic history and its institutions continue their work, even within the digital. Anthropologist Danny Miller has argued of material culture, that “the less we are aware of them [here institutional thought landscapes], the more powerfully they can determine our expectations by setting the scene and ensuring normative behaviours, without being open to challenge. They determine what takes places to the extent that we are unconscious of their capacity to do so.” 10Daniel Miller, "Why Some Things Matter", in Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter, ed. Daniel Miller (London: UCL Press, 1998), 3–23, here 5. In other words, arguably things, systems, and categories are at their most powerful when they are not noticed. At the same time categories can adapt to local needs while being “robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites.” 11Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences (Cambridge/MA: MIT Press 1999), 297. This enables us to talk about ‘photography’ in the first place.