Thursday, May 22, 2008

"The Most Curious Thing"

Before I forget (again), I want to make sure you know about Errol Morris's collaborative meditation with his readers (not sure what else to call it) on the meaning of a photograph taken at Abu Ghraib--a photograph which, he says, "aided and abetted a terrible miscarriage of justice." After reading the piece, I frankly don't know what to make either of that claim or, for that matter, of what the photograph does show--which is, surely, at least part of Morris' larger point. There is the photograph, which contains its particular information; and there is the photograph's context, which also supplies information, helping us "read" it--indeed, in many cases with photographs, it's that outside context that allows us to say anything about it other than the merely descriptive. But Morris has also supplied another context: the thoughts of the very subject smiling at the viewer, who has lots to say not only about her image but also her motive for having the picture taken.

For me, Morris' piece is about as fine an example of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in action as one is likely to find, something I'd ordinarily find intellectually cool and remain emotionally cool to; given the photograph's context, though, it's both emotionally and intellectually unsettling, for all sorts of reasons.

What, after all, is involved in the act of making meaning out of what we see? What is/are the effect(s) of "considering all sides" on the making of meaning?

To be read slowly, over a cup of coffee, and pondered long after.

(Via 3 Quarks Daily)


Pam said...

Wow. I did read through his post (and thanks for bringing it to my attention). Quite a piece. I'm not sure what to think about it - and perhaps need to read it again - but it makes one reflect quite a bit on perception...just as a matter of course.

John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
Yes--exactly. I'm considering using it in some way in my Comp II classes as a way of demonstrating how learning more information shapes our initial perceptions of something, how something as seemingly straightforward as a photograph can gradually become more and more inscrutable as we acquire more information about the people in it, its context, and mix all that up with what we know or assume to be true about human nature. As to what I think, I'll just say that I have some big questions that the article raises but doesn't answer.