Particular Points of Loss or Hope: Ecologies of the Road

American Fence, Prescott 2010 (Neil Campbell)

A whole history remains to be written of spaces – which would at the same time be the history of powers… – from the great strategies of geo-politics to the little tactics of the habitat …  It is surprising how long the problem of space took to emerge as a historico-political problem.  Space used to be either dismissed as belonging to “nature” – that is, the given, the basic conditions, “physical geography”, in other words a sort of “prehistoric” stratum; or else it was conceived as the residential site or field of expansion of peoples, of a culture, a language or a State. Continue reading

Michael Ormerod as critical regionalist

‘Drugs’ © Michael Ormerod

Some time ago I wrote a long (unpublished) essay on the work of Michael Ormerod for a number of exhibitions of his work in the UK and one in Omaha, Nebraska. I write about him in my book The Rhizomatic West (2008) alongside Nick Waplington and Andrew Cross as UK photographers whose works investigate and interrogate the American West.  Certainly in my earliest essays on Michael’s work I had no sense of critical regionalism as a method or approach to the kinds of interests his work articulates.  With hindsight it works very well to explore the local/global, rural/urban, inside/outside.  Some of this comes out in the 2008 book. But I publish here the raw original essay – full of ‘leaks’ and lines of flight.  One day I’d like to return to the artist and do something with all this.  For now I offer it as a tribute to Ormerod’s immense achievement as a photographer.  Continue reading

Minor Cinema, Critical Regionalism, and the post-Western – Neil Campbell

‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998)

“What I call Ideas are images that make one think.” -1-

According to Jacques Derrida, “cinema is the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms, it’s the art of letting ghosts come back”, a progressive art since, “ghosts are part of the future and … the modern technology of images like cinematography … enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us”. For Derrida, we must “learn to live with ghosts … To live otherwise and better … more justly. But with them … [as] a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations” (Derrida 2000: xvii-xviii). These latter words indicate the reach of this idea and the responsibility to past, present and future; towards what Gilles Deleuze called the formation of “the people to come”; a definition of community and region unscripted or fixed by the past or by systematic representations. Given the history of the American West, its expansionism and legacy of conquest, we might see post-Westerns (that is films of the modern West) as potential sites where such a “politics” might be traced, back into the past and forward to the future, functioning in between such poles and yet responsible to both, interested in, as yet unformed, peoples and communities. Continue reading

critical regionalism and photography

Photography and place are intimately connected.  The regional is crucial to so much photographic practice, particularly in relation to the American West (my concern here). Thinking about photography and place, about the regional within the image is a dimension easily overlooked:

‘Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks’ (Barthes 1993.:38)

Bakhtin shared with another key thinker, Roland Barthes, a dislike of the reductive and an interest in the plural and the multiple.  Barthes wrote of ‘a desperate resistance to any reductive system’ (Barthes  1993:8). He is troubled by photography’s contradictions and attempts to work through them in Camera Lucida (1980), which recognizes that, for example, photographs are ‘the absolute Particular’ and ‘the sovereign Contingency’, with every image  ‘ballasted by the contingency of which it is the weightless, transparent envelope’ (ibid.:5).  They purport to show the world as it is, to point the finger, as he puts it, at ‘this’ or ‘that’, and yet there is more, for ‘photographs are signs which don’t take, which turn, as milk does.  Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see’ (ibid.:6).  Every image ‘curdles’, to pursue Barthes’ image, goes off into something else, something different and ‘beyond’ the immediate reference point of the first sight, and something ‘invisible’ is implied. 

The ‘particular’ nature of the photograph can suggest ‘contingency’ too, since ‘the object speaks, it induces us, vaguely, to think … reflect, suggest [..] a meaning – a different meaning from the literal one. Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks’ (ibid.:38).  Thus, out of and through the apparently fixed (reduced) frame of the motionless photographic image that only shows what is in front of the lens, comes other voices (‘the object speaks’) that encourage reflection, suggestion and thought.

Homage to Robert Frank, 2011 (Neil Campbell)

Barthes implies, however, that photography was often unthinking or ‘unary’ when it ‘transforms “reality” without doubling it, without making it vacillate … [with] no duality, no indirection, no disturbance’ (Barthes 1993:41).  Thus the ‘unary’ image is an image without disturbance, with ‘no punctum’ and so no shock, only able to ‘shout’ not to ‘wound’, and thus tending to the ‘banal’ with an emphasis upon ‘unity of composition’ (ibid.).  For Barthes, the ‘punctum’ was in the ‘detail’ whose ‘presence changes my reading’ by interruption, puncturing the system of representation, skewing the ‘frame’ until the image is no longer ‘docile’ (ibid.:49), but active in the mind of the viewer, shifting the ‘unary’ towards the ‘dialogical’ (or ‘doubling’, as Barthes has called it) through the ‘power of expansion’ (ibid.:45). As an anti-reductive element, the effect of the punctum is to represent the ‘second sight’ of the photographer – the actual fact of ‘being there’ to take the image and to set in train the dynamic relations between viewer and viewed (ibid.:47). As Barthes states, ‘the reading of the punctum … is at once brief and active’ and yet in the photograph ‘everything is given, without provoking the desire for or even the possibility of a rhetorical expansion’, suggesting that the image is always a closed field, contained within its frame.  Of course, in a material sense it is, since the image is single, hemmed in by the edges of the frame, capturing an event, moment, person or object in time, in space, and so the ‘rhetorical expansion’ cannot take place within the actual image itself, as with the written page that simply moves on and adds more words for the reader to follow.  But Barthes’ argument suggests that despite the photograph’s apparent ‘intense immobility’ (ibid.:49), it has the capacity nonetheless to ‘move’ the viewer in a number of ways.  Firstly, because the image, he writes, ‘worked within me’ ‘when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it’ (ibid.: 53), touching the viewer as ‘affective consciousness’ (ibid.:55), and secondly, because the punctum ‘is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there’ (ibid.).  This ‘work’, ‘affectiveness’ and ‘addition’ combine to create what Barthes terms ‘the presence (the dynamics) of this blind field’, where the ‘blind field’ is that which exists in an image once the punctum engages our senses, and ‘constantly doubles our partial vision’, shattering the apparent motionlessness of the photograph, unfreezing it by suggesting all that exists in relation to and beyond the singular, first (partial) sight.  Barthes argues that the punctum ‘takes the spectator outside its frame, and it is there that it animates me’ as a ‘subtle beyond’, a space in which the ‘dynamics’ of the image, which by its very material, physical nature is static, are created from the interaction and dialogue of the spectator and the photograph (ibid.:57-9).

Barthes’ term punctum relates very closely to an earlier essay ‘The Third Meaning’ (1970) in which he explains beyond the levels of ‘information/communication’ and ‘symbolic/signification’ there exists a ‘third meaning – evident, erratic, obstinate’ which ‘cannot be conflated’ and ‘exceeds’ the ‘referential motif’ of the image itself and ‘compels an interrogative reading’ (Barthes 1979:53).  He also calls this ‘third meaning’ ‘obtuse’, ‘the one “too many”, the supplement that my intellection cannot succeed in absorbing, at once persistent and fleeting, smooth and elusive’ (ibid.:54).  As Ann Jefferson writes, it ‘bursts out of the frame’ (in Hirschkop and Shepherd 1989:172) thereby aligning Barthes punctum with Bakhtin’s carnival:

It has something derisory about it: opening out into the infinity of language, it can come through as limited in the eyes of analytic reason; it belongs to the family of pun, buffoonery, useless expenditure.  Indifferent to moral or aesthetic categories (the trivial, the futile, the false, the pastiche), it is on the side of the carnival (Barthes 1979:55).

Suddenly, the photographic text over-flows the ‘real’ frame becoming more than its ‘obvious meaning’: ‘It sets the reader in motion, casts him loose; in short, it launches him into carnival’ (Jefferson in Hirschkop and Shepherd 1989: 173). Photographic ‘thirding’, as we might term it, to borrow a word from Edward Soja (1996), can be seen ‘as an accent, the very form of an emergence, of a fold (a crease even)’ acting as ‘a counter-narrative’ (Barthes 1979:62-3) ‘to counter the doxa and open up representations’ (Jefferson 173).

Review: Ben Highmore, Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday, London: Routledge 2011

Ben Highmore, Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday, London: Routledge, pp. 194, ISBN 9780415461870

Neil Campbell University of Derby

As Highmore says at the opening of this book, it is ‘about ordinary, everyday life and it is also about aesthetics’ (x) and within this seemingly straightforward statement is the challenge of the text itself. For, to bring aesthetics and the everyday together he has to re-think how the former is traditionally seen. He wants to get back to an earlier sense of aesthetics bound in closer to the ‘messy world of sensate perception’, one not tied to reason or, indeed, only to the beautiful defined through works of art. To do this he creates a genealogy from the Enlightenment of Baumgarten, Shaftesbury and Hume, through James and Dewey, to Jacques Rancière. Though art is part of a ‘world of feelings’ it must take its place, according to Highmore, alongside ‘shoes, gardens, rivers, houses, faces, plants and so on’ (xi) – or in the examples drawn from in the book itself, chairs, popular music, curries, and housework. This is an ambitious work interested in giving presence to ‘the pulsings of affect: the risings and fallings of hope, love, hatred and irritation; the minor and major disturbances of life set against and within a world of day-to-day habits, routines and collective sentiments.’ (xii). Such poetic turns of phrase are, for me are the really exciting aspects of this book and where it offers up a fascinating shift in new cultural studies. These are moments where the academic collides with the poetic and a different type of work emerges that looks to operate in the space between the two. This is a device I think he has learned, in part, from De Certeau, Raymond Williams and more recently from the similar work of Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects which he comments on in his introduction and whose author endorses the book on its cover. Stewart’s descriptive writing makes you, claims Highmore, ‘more and more alert to your surroundings. Your skin begins to prickle with the apprehensions of the lives of others, of resonances of care and indifference, of anxiety and ease’ (8). This descriptive energy is alive too in Highmore’s autobiographical attention to the world around him, and for, me these are the most interesting sections of Ordinary Lives, for this is where he ‘attunes and reattunes the human sensorium’ (8). Whether discussing his favourite chair or recollecting the impact of Tubular Bells, Highmore makes us remember and feel the world again, feel it differently; noticing and responding to disregarded or ‘remaindered’ things that we have been conditioned to see as unimportant or unworthy of aesthetic consideration. In the intimacy he encourages with the everyday, with ‘quotidian aesthetics, a new scale of feeling emerges which can be usefully explained by the adaptation of a phrase from Rancière, the ‘redistribution of the sensible’. In rejecting and challenging the hierarchies of significance (‘the visible and the sayable’) attached socially and institutionally to certain things and not others, Rancière encourages us (as Highmore does too) to act politically to redistribute the sensible and give presence to the unrecognised and diminished. Highmore’s book performs this politics in the ‘thingly world’ (58) through the recognition and response to objects and activities many would see as insignificant, but through which and in which he uncovers untold histories and poetics. Developing from Adorno and Benjamin, in distraction, for example, he finds ‘a scattering-outward of attention’ (119) which permits a more progressive, responsive relationship to the world than one always conditioned and concentrated by established channels. Ultimately, his goal is an aesthetic politics of the ordinary that produces ‘imaginative acts for thinking the seemingly impossible’ and contributes to a ‘culture that encourages habits of generosity and world-enlarging improvisation and adaptation, while also maintaining habits of comfort and stability’ (171). Highmore acknowledges himself that his examples are local and English and this is noticeable (and might restrict the book’s readership a little), however, he admits that his intention is that his ‘close work could be extended into other geographies’ (xiv). Hopefully this will be the case. As I suggested earlier, I think the book is most impressive and at its strongest when it is poetic and less tied into the case studies employed as groundwork. Although these are probably necessary, given the project at hand, it was the ‘pulsings’ of the everyday that seemed most innovative in Highmore’s digressive or ‘distractive’ style – what Dave Hickey in Air Guitar (1997), a book this one echoes in some ways, calls ‘the ordinary stuff – the ongoing texture of the drift’ (10).


D. Hickey Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1997.

K. Stewart, Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Review of ‘Regionalism and the Humanities’

Regionalism and the Humanities, Edited and Introduced by Timothy R. Mahoney and Wendy J. Katz (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), 343 pp., $30.00, pb.

Neil Campbell

American Studies, University of Derby, U.K.

These seventeen interdisciplinary essays are the product of a conference of Regional Humanities Centers from November 2003 and this accounts both for its strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths derive from the expertise of its authors writing with authority about the role of region in the Humanities. At its heart is a desire to reclaim regionalism as a usable concept in an age of globalisation where the tendency has been to diminish the local and the ‘placed’ in favour of mobility and displacement.  Against perceived global sameness, a form of McDonaldization of culture, the authors claim that the regional offers difference and ‘particularity’ of ‘interest and identity’ (xi) which aims not necessarily ‘to produce a consensual history of a place, a period, or a people’, but is just as likely to emphasize pluralism and conflict among and between competing identities’ (xii). 

Annie Proulx’s opening essay looks at landscape in fiction as ‘the sum of accumulated changes wrought by the inhabitants and their marks on the land’ (14) and argues for regions as ‘neither pure nor static’. Other essays in the collection range from examine Great Plains environmental writing, the Southwest (through literature and architecture), to Willa Cather, and the South Atlantic through music.  This suggests the scope of the collection and its conference roots whilst highlighting its weaknesses in being too inclusive at the expense of a more rigorous theoretical examination of the topic, and in coming from 2003, already seeming dated.  It makes only one reference to ‘critical regionalism’, for example, a concept increasingly employed as a decisive tool to interrogate national and global imperatives and contest fashionable definitions of identity and place.

However, in its attention to regionalism as ‘focusing on pluralities instead of the mass’ (73) as one writer puts it, this collection constantly reminds us of the energy and diversity of such an approach, one ‘underrepresented in the ongoing reformulation of American studies’ (178).  Despite its flaws this collection contributes usefully to this particular struggle.