Beyond Ways of Seeing : The Media Criticism of John BergerApr 6th, 2011 | By FEO Admin | Category: Criticism
Abstract: This article examines a selection of John Berger’s theoretical writings on the media, especially those on photography and film. Section One situates Berger’s media criticism in the context of his wider critical project, reconstructing the argument of Ways of Seeing (1972) and absolving Berger of the charge of cultural relativism. Sections Two and Three examine the theory of photography outlined in Another Way of Telling (1982) and the theory of film outlined in ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ (1990). It is argued that Berger’s writings on photography and film are implicitly bound together by an engagement with the theme of technological determinism. Rejecting the idea that media technology is entirely ‘neutral’ in respect of the texts it produces, Berger appears to believe that specific forms of technology are intrinsically biased towards the production of certain types of material. At the same time he also insists that there are certain circumstances in which technology’s biases can be circumvented or at least mitigated. More broadly, Berger’s perspective on the media is powerfully influenced by his idiosyncratic blend of Marxism, ecologism and postcolonialism.
Keywords: Cultural relativism; technological determinism, photography, film, Marxism, ecologism, phenomenology, postcolonialism, diaspora
It is not very long since the art critic John Berger was one of the most public faces of Media and Cultural Studies in Britain (Dyer, 1986; Fuller 1988). His television series Ways of Seeing , broadcast on the BBC in 1972 and accompanied by a bestselling book, did an enormous amount to popularise the distinctive outlook of a new generation of radical intellectuals. Intended as a riposte to Kenneth Clark’s highly influential series Civilisation (Clark, 1971), its main purpose was to challenge the connoisseurial approach to the visual arts which Clark had come to exemplify. Commanding the screen with his memorable blend of radical earnestness and intellectual passion, Berger scandalised what he called the ‘Cultural Establishment’ by discussing painting and sculpture alongside such despised media forms as advertisements, glossy magazines and pornography. He also made it clear that his interest in culture was primarily political, promulgating an innovative Marxist perspective on the relationship between visual images and existing power structures.
There are certain areas in which Berger’s influence remains strong. Ways of Seeing has never gone out of print and is still recommended to first-year students of the visual arts, not least because its lucid style provides newcomers to the field with a painless introduction to critical thinking. And there is no doubt that Berger is one of the few cultural critics of the age who retains a modest following among the general public, in part because he has developed his ideas not simply in critical essays but also in novels, newspaper articles, television documentaries and a range of other forms. On the other hand, his enormous contribution to the development of Media and Cultural Studies has been all but forgotten. To the best of my knowledge there are only two introductory texts which even mention Ways of Seeing (Brooker, 1998: 48f; Baldwin et al, 1997: 77f), while teachers in the field are inclined to dismiss Berger as little more than an interesting pioneer. This makes it all the more important that his true stature as a media critic should now be recognised. The aim of this article is to examine the most important elements in his media criticism with a view to establishing their contemporary relevance. The first section is largely contextual in purpose, situating Berger’s writings on the media against his broader understanding of the relationship between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture. Its argument is that Berger’s critics are wrong to accuse him of cultural relativism and that his attitude towards the media is free of any whiff of populism. Sections Two and Three provide an overview of Berger’s extremely accomplished writings on photography and film. While trying to draw out the political significance of these writings (specifically by relating them to Berger’s idiosyncratic combination of Marxism, ecologism and postcolonialism), I also argue that their great interest lies in their implicit but highly controversial approach to the issue of technological determinism – an issue which has preoccupied thinkers in Cultural and Media Studies for over fifty years.
1 An attack on civilisation? Berger on the media and the fine arts
There is perhaps a sense in which the career of John Berger illustrates the extraordinary capacity of the media to devour its critics. For if the success of Ways of Seeing briefly turned Berger into a public intellectual, it also did a great deal to distort understanding of his work. Many of the people who know him primarily through the book or television series are inclined to regard him as a sort of cultural saboteur, intent on scandalising the bourgeoisie with his lack of respect for high culture. Their overwhelming impression is that Berger knows a lot about the visual arts, objects to their prestige and wishes to take them down a peg or two. They also tend to see him as a modish relativist who believes that film, television and photography are no less important than the greatest works of painting and sculpture. The truth could scarcely be more different. As anyone who has read his art criticism can testify, Berger has a positively messianic belief in the ability of the arts to sharpen the individual sensibility and stimulate revolutionary change (Berger, 1969; 1972; 1981; 1987; 1988; 1991a; 1991b; 1992a; 1992b; 1993; 2001; 2002; 2007). He thinks of painters like Grünewald, Hals and Turner not as historical curios but as living presences in contemporary culture, possessed of an undiminished capacity to subvert capitalist society with the force of their artistic vision. And far from being naively optimistic about the electronic media, his instinct is usually to treat them with suspicion. While it is true that film, photography and television are of great interest to him (and also that he recognises their potential and writes about it with great insight), there is no real sense in which he has ever tried to challenge the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture. If we are fully to appreciate his writings on the media, we must first understand why the caricature of him as a cultural populist is so mistaken.
Why should Ways of Seeing have caused so many people to misinterpret Berger’s ideas? We can only answer this question properly if we are clear about the book’s main arguments. At the heart of Ways of Seeing is a simple proposition about the relationship between the history of high culture and the exercise of economic and political power. When a society’s elite groups seek to legitimise their rule, or so Berger implies, they often do so by portraying the past in starkly idealised terms. Anxious to create the impression that the ruling classes can always be trusted to act in the best interests of society, they pasteurise history into a bland but inspiring story of great men, victorious battles and governmental wisdom. What interests Berger is the role of the arts in alternately reinforcing and subverting this process. Surveying the various ways in which establishment critics like Kenneth Clark relate cultural artefacts to the past, he argues that although the visual arts have a powerful capacity to challenge the official version of history, they are currently prevented from doing so by the dominant aesthetic ideologies. Far from representing the past in a naïve or idealised manner, many of the greatest paintings and sculptures provide a vivid record of their creators’ deep feelings of disenchantment and dissent. One of the problems with contemporary culture is that it has succeeded in obscuring these feelings, primarily because art historians and other commentators persistently characterise works of art in inappropriately reverential and quasi-religious terms. However much a painting embodies a critical or subversive perspective on the period in which it was created, it will invariably have its political power neutralised by a hail of terms like ‘beauty, truth, genius, civilization, form, status, taste, etc’ (Berger, 1987: 11). Dishonestly portrayed as a work of transcendent sublimity, it can thus be cited as powerful evidence for the greatness of the past. Berger illustrates this process by examining recent writings on the work of the Dutch painter Frans Hals (c.1580-1666). As is well known, Hals ended his life in great poverty and his final paintings depicted the governors of the Alms House in Haarlem in which he was obliged to live. Berger regards these paintings as masterpieces of controlled plebeian anger. In seeking to ‘examine…them [i.e. the governors] through the eyes of a pauper who must nevertheless try to be objective’ (Berger, 1987: 15), Hals became the first painter to capture the spiritual poverty of the emergent capitalist class. Yet when we look at the work of modern art historians like Seymour Slive, whose book Frans Hals is quoted at some length in Ways of Seeing , it becomes clear that the political dimension of Hals’s paintings has to be elided at all costs. In the eyes of Slive and other apologists for the existing order, Hals is transformed from a tenacious class warrior into a benign exponent of ‘compositional unity’.
Berger’s ambition in Ways of Seeing is to bring this sort of cultural dishonesty to an end. In drawing attention to the element of political anger in the great works of the past (anger which calls the entire establishment version of history into question), he aims to liberate the visual arts from the air of fake religiosity which currently surrounds them. It is here that his interest in the media is especially relevant. Although he resorts to a number of different strategies in his attempt to skewer art-historical orthodoxies, the most provocative is his habit of comparing highly prestigious works of art with the most degraded products of the culture industry. Especially controversial is his extraordinary claim that the tradition of the nude in European oil painting is ultimately not so different from the representation of naked women in pornography. In a pioneering example of what would later be called ‘images of women’ criticism, Berger famously argues that the nude in the art gallery and the nude in the ‘girlie magazine’ are both caught up in the oppressive logic of patriarchal society. Characteristically portrayed in a ‘passive’ or ‘supine’ pose, their function is to reinforce the power of the male ‘spectator-owner’ by spinelessly advertising their sexual availability. Even a painting like Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Time and Love , which shamelessly seeks to conceal its baser intentions behind a smokescreen of Renaissance symbolism, is best regarded as little more than an exercise in ‘sexual provocation’ (Berger 1987: 45f). More generally, Berger reinforces his attack on mainstream art history by invoking the arguments of Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (Benjamin, 1973). While not following Benjamin’s argument in all respects, Berger endorses the idea that our aesthetic attitudes have been profoundly affected by the rise of mechanical methods for reproducing works of fine art. Now that paintings, sculptures and the like have been deprived of their ‘uniqueness’, they have also been robbed of their ‘aura’ – that is, their capacity to induce a sense of distantiated reverence in the people who view them. One of the consequences is that they have acquired the potential to be used more democratically. Virtually ‘anybody’ now has the wherewithal to bend visual images to his own personal or political purposes, in the process revealing that meaning in art is as much a matter of context as of content. Although the dominant culture has fought a powerful rearguard action against the burgeoning cultural democracy, not least by claiming that the aura associated with traditional art is now possessed by ‘originals’ rather than copies, Berger is optimistic that the advent of mechanical reproduction opens up a new era of what some writers have called ‘alternative media activism’.
It is easy to see why arguments like these should have earned Berger a reputation as a cultural relativist. When he compares the Western nude to commercial pornography (or when he argues that the ‘tactile’ language of Western oil painting has now been adopted by the advertising industry), he appears to the unwary reader to be saying that we have no rational grounds for claiming that high culture is ‘better’ than popular culture. Even some of his admirers accuse him of going too far in his comparisons between the high and the low, not least because they play into the hands of philistines on the New Right who regard the visual arts as little more than metropolitan flummery (Fuller, 1988: 8/57f). This makes it all the more necessary to restate the fundamental distinction on which Ways of Seeing is based. Berger’s intention in the book is not to question the value of the arts but to destroy a particular artistic ideology – the ideology of Clark, Slive and the scores of other intellectuals who would use painting and sculpture to reinforce a false view of history. The comparisons between Bronzino and Playboy or Holbein and G-Plan advertisements are purely strategic displays of irreverence, intended to puncture connoisseurial piety and clear a space in which the political potential of the visual arts can at last be recognised. The proof that Berger is no sort of cultural relativist can be found in his writings on the media, which are entirely free of the populist enthusiasm associated with aesthetic levellers like Marshall McLuhan, Pierre Bourdieu and John Fiske. As I try to show in the rest of this article, his attitude towards photography and film is informed by a classically Marxist suspicion of the culture industry, combined with a more optimistic emphasis on the possibility of establishing a progressive culture.
2 The challenge of ambiguity: Berger on photography
Most writers on the radical wing of Media and Cultural Studies have been bitterly opposed to the idea of technological determinism. Faced with the argument that the content of a particular medium is largely shaped by its physical characteristics, they have been quick to assert that each medium is actually a ‘neutral’ means of communication which can easily be used to convey a range of different meanings. One of the more obvious reasons for their distrust of technological determinism is their desire to harness the media to their own political causes. Recognising that the historical function of the media has been to reinforce support for the existing order, radical critics have persistently held out the prospect that film, radio or television may yet be used to subvert it. They have also objected to technological determinism in what might be called its strong, or McLuhanite forms, dismissing the idea that the physical characteristics of the media determine not only the messages they convey but also the shape of society as a whole. The single most persuasive critic of technological determinism has probably been the late Raymond Williams, whose belief in the neutrality of media technology linked the New-Left pragmatism of his youth to the convoluted Marxism of his later years. As early as 1958, in the influential ‘Conclusion’ to Culture and Society 1780-1950 , Williams observed that ‘there is a general tendency to confuse the techniques [of mass communication] with the uses to which, in a given society, they have been put’ (Williams, 1979: 290). And almost twenty years later, in the early pages of Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974), he identified no fewer than seven versions of the determinist argument and took a hatchet to all of them (Williams, 1974: Chapter One. Cf. O’ Connor, 2006). The thoroughness of his remarks, combined with his willingness to pursue his case over many years, reminds us that nothing has played a more important role in radical Media Studies than the attempt to distinguish ‘techniques’ from ‘uses’.
If there is one thing which distinguishes John Berger’s writings on the media from those of his radical contemporaries, it is his refusal to treat the determinist case quite so dismissively. Although he has never raised the issue of determinism in so many words, his writings on film and photography appear to be shaped by three unspoken premises. On the one hand, while recognising that media technology has no absolute power to determine the sort of messages it conveys, Berger seems to believe that forms such as film and photography are intrinsically biased towards the production of certain types of material. The corollary of this position is that there are certain circumstances in which the bias of media forms can be circumvented, though it is probably never possible to produce a work which fully transcends its origins in a particular type of technology. Berger’s other implicit assumption is that the two types of media text play very different ideological roles. Whereas texts which reflect the biases of media technology tend to reinforce the status quo, those which brush against the grain of the available technology often express a more questioning or oppositional perspective. These are the issues which will primarily concern us in the rest of this article.
2.1 Photography and the status quo
Berger’s most stimulating engagement with the theme of technological determinism occurs in his writings on photography. Although he had been writing occasional essays on photography since the 1960s, his mature understanding of the medium only took shape after the publication of Susan Sontag’s seminal On Photography in 1978. In his essay ‘Uses of Photography’, first published in New Society in 1978 and later included in About Looking (1980), Berger adumbrated his own theory about the role of photographs in mainstream culture by extending some of Sontag’s most suggestive ideas (Berger, 1991a: 52-67). His theory was then presented in a fuller and more refined form in Another Way of Telling (1982), the fourth of his books to contain photographs by his friend Jean Mohr. There are three aspects of these works which deserve close examination. The first is Berger’s attempt to explore the role of photographs in mainstream culture, especially in reinforcing support for capitalist relations of production. The second is his account of alternative forms of photography (an account which is sufficiently wide-ranging to encompass the activities of professional and amateur photographers alike), while the third is his ambitious attempt to propose a new form of narrative photography. As we shall see, Berger’s approach to the last of these topics was heavily influenced by his collaborations with Jean Mohr over the course of the previous 15 years.
At the heart of Another Way of Telling is the assumption that the aesthetics of photography are powerfully shaped by the technological characteristics of the camera. More precisely, Berger argues that photography is distinguished from other means of expression by the fact that its ‘primary raw materials are light and time.’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 85). His initial point is a very simple one about our tendency to ascribe a high degree of realism to the photographic image. Because cameras work by capturing rays of light emanating from real objects, the images they generate are naturally seen as more authentic (and hence more truthful) than those produced by other media. The idea that photographs provide ‘irrefutable evidence’ of events which actually occurred is one of modern culture’s most tenacious dogmas. Berger’s more subtle point is about the camera’s relationship to time. Unlike other means of communication, which ( pace Lessing’s Laocoon ) represent events or things across an appreciable stretch of time, the camera records a single instant in complete isolation from the temporal continuum to which it belongs. Even if a photographer strives to give some impression of the context from which an image has been abstracted, he can only use a photograph to capture a ‘now’ and never a ‘before’ or ‘after’: ‘A photograph arrests the flow of time in which the event photographed once existed. All photographs are of the past, yet in them an instant of the past is arrested so that, unlike a lived past, it can never lead to the present’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 86). The crucial insight which Berger derives from this observation is that photographs invariably convey an impression of ambiguity . Denied any information about the events which led up to and followed the capturing of an image, the viewer of a photograph naturally struggles to make sense of what he sees. The only real exception to this rule occurs when a photograph depicts people or things which are already familiar to the viewer, though even here the image is likely to lose its meaning as the events it captures recede into history.
It is precisely the ambiguity of photographs, combined with our insistence on seeing them as inherently truthful, which prompts Berger to argue that they play a formidably powerful role in propping up the existing social system. Modern culture is swamped by photographic images of the social world, most of which have meanings that are difficult to decipher. The inevitable result is that we unconsciously project their ambiguity onto the society they purport to represent, equating the lack of visual meaning in our newspapers and magazines with the structure of the dominant institutions. The camera can thus be added to the host of other factors, ranging from ‘commodity fetishism’ on the one hand to rationalisation in industry on the other, which Marxists have blamed for retarding social change by spreading deep confusion about the nature of capitalist society. Moreover, in what only appears to be a paradox, Berger also argues that the ambiguity of photographs gives them a frightening ability to transmit meanings persuasively. Confronted by a multitude of images which are difficult to understand, there is a natural tendency for the viewer to latch on gratefully and unquestioningly to any explanations which happen to be offered for them. It is here that the relationship between text and image is of such vital importance. However ambiguous the images in newspapers, magazines or advertisements might be, they are usually accompanied by a piece of text which purports to clarify their meaning. A mere headline or caption can go a long way towards ‘explaining’ a photograph, even if it is taken in with a fleeting glance. Since it is easier for the viewer to satiate his hunger for meaning by accepting what he is told (and since the people who control the words are usually apologists for the existing order), it follows that photographs have a rare and disturbing power to convey the dominant ideology.
‘…as soon as photographs are used with words, they produce together an effect of certainty, even of dogmatic assertion…In the relation between a photograph and words, the photograph begs for an interpretation, and the words usually supply it. The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words. And the words, which by themselves remain at the level of generalisation, are given specific authenticity by the irrefutability of the photograph. Together the two then become very powerful; an open question appears to have been fully answered’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 91-92).
These remarks tie in with Berger’s wider analysis of the relationship between photography and the ‘truth’, which exposes our most entrenched beliefs about the ‘objectivity’ of the camera to a rudimentary but necessary critique. Berger’s argument is that photographs enjoy an unwarranted reputation for pure objectivity because of what Charles Peirce might have called their ‘iconic’ use of signs (Peirce 1998: 13). By appearing to reflect the surface of the world with unerring accuracy, the camera is widely perceived as a purely mechanical device which is wholly untainted by the subjective intentions of the photographer. The reality is very different. While the camera is undoubtedly in the business of ‘quoting’ rather than ‘translating’ from the world of appearances (that is, it directly reflects the look of things and does not attempt to recreate it in a ‘language’ of its own), it is nevertheless the case that every photograph in some way expresses the outlook of the person who took it. Simply by choosing what to include in the frame and deciding how it should be portrayed, the photographer conveys a view of the world which links his work to a ‘specific social situation’ (Berger and Mohr 1989a: 93). The great problem with photography is that we tend to confuse the iconicity of its images with the reliability of its message – in the process assuming that its ideological agenda is every bit as objective as the forms it represents. As an example of the camera’s ability to construct a ‘global system of misinformation’ (Berger and Mohr 1989a: 96), Berger refers briefly to the images of the colonial world which proliferated in Europe during the age of high imperialism. To the modern eye these images seem like a scandalous expression of Western chauvinism, emphasising aspects of the ‘native’ culture which could readily be passed off as symptoms of backwardness or quaint exoticism – poverty, tribal headdresses, women’s bare breasts. However, since the subject matter of the photographs was indisputably ‘real’, they were uncritically accepted at the time as ‘proof of the justice of the imperial division of the world’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a : 97). If the political power of photography is to be resisted, we must begin to recognise that ‘the photograph cannot lie, but, by the same token, it cannot tell the truth’ (Berger and Mohr 1989a : 97).
At a slightly more rarefied level, Berger also speculates about the relationship between photography and alienation. Drawing implicitly on the work of the early Marx, especially the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, he argues that modern societies have banished all forms of ‘subjectivity’ from the public sphere. With its tendency to intrude market relationships into all areas of economic activity, advanced capitalism has robbed the labour process of every last vestige of aesthetic or intellectual significance. This hollowing out of productive activity has inevitably been reflected in most other aspects of society, not least in the way that ‘meaningful democracy’ has been replaced by ‘opinion polls and market-research techniques’, ‘social conscience’ has been edged out by ‘self-interest’ and ‘hope’ has been subordinated to ‘the sacralisation of Progress as Comfort’ (Berger and Mohr 1989a : 100). The twist in Berger’s argument is that photography has made its own contribution to the spiritual poverty of the modern age, primarily through forging a close association in the public mind between ‘truth’ and ‘facts’. As we have seen, one of Berger’s biggest anxieties about photography is that its expressive dimension is not as widely recognised as its ‘objective’ dimension. If people are inclined to regard the camera as a peerless device for capturing reality, it is precisely because it appears to eschew all reference to subjective attitudes in its attempt to reproduce the surface of the world. What Berger seems to be arguing is that the problem with this ‘positivist’ interpretation of photography is that it implicitly downgrades the aesthetic, spiritual and intellectual sides of life. In thoughtlessly equating the pursuit of truth with the ability to record visual appearances, our attitude towards photography reinforces the assumption that our inner lives are not a proper subject of human investigation. This makes it complicit with an economic order which ruthlessly subordinates our spiritual aspirations to the pursuit of profit.
2.2 Alternative photography
It should now be clear why Berger’s account of photography in mainstream culture gives off a definite whiff of technological determinism. While ranging widely in his account of photography’s ambiguity and perceived objectivity, he strongly implies that these and other characteristics have their roots in the structure of the camera and its use of ‘light and time’ as ‘raw materials’. However, when he turns his attention to more marginal or alternative forms of photography, he shows that the technological limits of the camera are by no means absolute. There are two alternatives to the established photographic culture which especially grab his attention – one relating to the use of photographs in everyday life, the other relating to the attempts by various photographers to reinforce the meaning of images at a ‘synchronic’ rather than a ‘diachronic’ level. As far as the first of these is concerned, Berger points to the existence of a deeply entrenched ‘popular’ use of photography which seeks to protect ‘timeless’ moments of high personal significance against the ravages of time. At the core of his argument is the same preoccupation with modern conceptions of time which underscores much of his art criticism. As he has made clear in a number of his writings on art, Berger believes that men and women have suffered intolerable levels of existential anxiety over the last two centuries by adhering to a ‘linear’ understanding of time (See, for instance, Berger and Mohr, 1989b: 176f; Berger, 1988: 205-211; Berger, 1991b: 25f; Berger, 1992b: 25-35). Confronted by an economic, political and cultural environment in which rapid change is the only thing that can be taken for granted, most of us have come to believe that time consists of discrete chains of events whose significance ends with their passing. At any particular moment, or so Berger argues, we tend to suppose that we are only affected by the network of occurrences in which we happen to be caught up, not by a past which now seems remote and irrecoverable. Each set of circumstances is eventually cancelled out by the events which succeed them, leaving no traces in the sands of time. The difficulty with this assumption is that it robs us of any sense of permanence: ‘Only during the last hundred years – since the acceptance of the Darwinian theory of evolution – have people lived in a time that contains everything and sweeps everything away, and for which there is no realm of timelessness’ (Berger, 1988: 208). Far from liberating us into a culture of endless creativity in which the past can be thrillingly discarded, linearity oppresses us with the sense that our most cherished beliefs, values and characteristics are destined to last only for the briefest of moments. It also alienates us from those largely ineluctable events and characteristics (‘birth, sexual attraction, social cooperation, death’) to which human awareness has historically been ‘pegged’ (Berger, 1988: 208-209).
The argument of Another Way of Telling is that photography is one of the means by which ordinary people seek to resist the tyranny of linear assumptions. Berger’s point is that every life contains a few highly charged moments of emotional, aesthetic or ethical significance which seem to exist outside the flow of time. When a person falls in love, achieves something important, experiences aesthetic passion or finds himself plunged in mourning (to cite just a few of Berger’s examples), he feels that he has somehow transcended his everyday life and entered a realm in which time is suspended: ‘Moments’ of this type are like ‘glimpses through a window’ which ‘look across history…towards the timeless’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 106). The significance of photography is that it reinforces these feelings of ‘timelessness’ by providing a permanent record of the events which engendered them. If people are deeply attached to their wedding photos, graduation portraits or holiday snaps, it is precisely because they underscore our sense that significant moments are inherently indestructible by allowing us to experience them afresh. The political implications of this argument are clear enough. Insofar as people naturally seek to insulate their most precious memories against the assumption that nothing lasts for long, they go some way towards corroborating the venerable Marxist belief that human beings possess a range of transhistorical aesthetic drives which (1) resist social pressures, (2) subvert capitalism’s denial of subjectivity, and (3) point the way towards the fully humane culture of the socialist future. This implicit but unembarrassed reference to the idea of ‘human essence’ puts Another Way of Telling at odds with the work of Berger’s Althusserian contemporaries, most of whom regarded Marx’s early writings as a sort of immature preparation for the fully ‘scientific’ project which he pursued once his youthful Hegelianism had been sloughed off.
The other form of alternative photography which Berger examines in Another Way of Telling is at the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum from the wedding portrait or the holiday snap. In a stimulating section on the idea of ‘photography as an art’, Berger ascribes special significance to photographers who seek to compensate for the temporal limitations of their form by compressing as much meaning as possible into a single frame. The basic ambition of men like André Kertesz (the great Hungarian photographer whose work Berger uses to illustrate his argument) is to transform the camera into a medium of thought. Resigned to the knowledge that the ‘synchronic’ image is always marred by ambiguity, they go out of their way to induce a conceptual reading of their work by assembling thematically linked images in the same photograph. One of Berger’s examples is Kertesz’s portrait Friends , taken in Esztergan in Hungary on September 3 1917. The photo depicts a young boy who is lying in a field and smiling at the camera while stroking a grazing lamb which stands next to him. Inasmuch as the portrait transcends mere prettiness and prompts its viewers into a contemplative response, it is precisely because of the contrast or ‘correspondence’ it sets up between the texture of the field and the texture of the lamb’s wool. By ‘insist[ing]‘ that we view the lamb’s smooth coat against the backdrop of the rough stubble in which the boy is lying, Kertesz manages to convey a serious point about the sensibility of young children: ‘The idea within the event…concerns the sense of touch. And how in childhood, everywhere, this sense of touch is especially acute. The photograph is lucid because it speaks, through an idea, to our fingertips, or to our memory of what our fingertips felt’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 126). In a characteristic attempt to ground his interpretation of a particular work of art in a generalisation about human nature, Berger argues that the great virtue of ‘expressive’ photography of this sort is that it satisfies our instinctive desire to find meaning in our environment. Echoing the work of phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (a point I will return to in a moment), he insists that human beings have never viewed the world around them in a purely objective or dispassionate fashion but have always sought to interpret it. Even in an age of science our instinct is to survey the world of appearances with a view to discovering ‘messages’. When a photograph impels us to think by arranging its elements into a thematically significant whole, it ‘proposes a unity not unlike that of a language’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 114). The result is that our hunger for ‘revelation’ is temporarily satisfied.
Although Berger makes no attempt to assess the political significance of expressive photography, his views can perhaps be deduced from a couple of his broader comments. At one point, invoking the language of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right , he argues that one of the most important features of expressive photography is that it effects a dialectical reconciliation between the particular and the general. While a portrait like Kertesz’s Friends can only depict a particular boy lying in a particular field, it can nevertheless imbue its subject matter with a semblance of universal significance by using it to express a concept: ‘A photograph which achieves expressiveness…preserves the particularity of the event recorded, and it chooses an instant when the correspondences of those particular appearances articulate a general idea’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 122). This sort of language tends to remind the reader of certain passages in the work of the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács, whose influence Berger has often acknowledged – not least in the great essay on Ernst Neizvestny from 1968. In his pathbreaking work History and Class Consciousness (1920), Lukács frequently invoked the distinction between the particular and the general when discussing the limitations of working-class culture under advanced capitalism. Seeking to understand why labour movements throughout Europe seemed reconciled to the rule of the market, he insisted that one of the reasons was that modern workplaces have ‘rationalised’ production by introducing an extreme form of the division of labour. Because productive activity has been fragmented into a series of repetitive micro-tasks or ‘peculiar trades’ (to use the phrase which Adam Smith famously employed in The Wealth of Nations ), the individual worker has been infected by a sense of acute isolation which obscures his perspective on the system as a whole. Weighed down by the insistent particularity of life at the factory bench, condemned to squander all his time in the performance of the same dreary tasks, he feels that he has been denied any meaningful association with broader social realities or even his own workmates. The inevitable result is that he regards his own society as all but meaningless. The purpose of the revolutionary party is to provide him with a space from which he can survey the entire social ‘totality’, in the process equipping him with the general ideas which allow him to take successful political action (Lukács, 1971. Cf. Johnson 1984). When Berger speaks about expressive photography absorbing concrete particularities into general conceptual frameworks, it is surely this ideal of progressive reintegration which he has in mind. Just as the Marxist party reconnects the atomised worker to the social structures which helped to produce him, so photographers like Kertesz reveal the general significance of even the most isolated images.
Berger hints at another aspect of expressive photography’s political significance in his discussion of human perception. Defending the thesis that human beings have always searched for meanings in their environment and never simply registered sense-impressions in a passive or ‘objective’ fashion, he quotes the following passage from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Primacy of Perception (1945):
‘We must take literally what vision teaches us, namely that through it we come in contact with the sun and the stars, that we are everywhere all at once, and that even our power to imagine ourselves elsewhere…borrows from vision and employs means we owe to it. Vision alone makes us learn that beings that are different, “exterior”, foreign to one another, are yet absolutely together, are “simultaneity”; this is a mystery psychologists handle the way a child handles explosives’ (Quoted in Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 116).
Berger’s decision to quote these words surely implies a basic sympathy with the school of phenomenology to which Merleau-Ponty belongs. Perhaps the thing which most obviously binds Berger and the phenomenologists together is a shared concern with the status of science in modern culture. When Edmund Husserl launched phenomenology in its modern form in his writings of the 1890s, his loftiest objective was to rescue Western civilisation from the ‘crisis’ precipitated by its skewed conception of epistemology. According to Husserl, the advance of the natural sciences has given rise to a profound misconception about the nature of the relationship between subject and object. In furnishing the knowledge which has allowed human beings to reshape the environment in their own image, scientific research has promoted the dangerous illusion that consciousness is somehow ‘independent’ of the external world and capable of approaching it dispassionately and objectively. The result is the sort of epistemological arrogance which has plunged modern societies into an authoritarian impasse. Husserl’s solution to the problem is for philosophers to direct their attention to our ‘pre-theoretical’ experiences. By examining the primordial, non-theoretical and everyday habits of perception which form the basis of our engagement with the world, or so he argues, we will come to realise that the relationship between subject and object is one of mutual dependence . While consciousness is necessarily founded on sense impressions which emanate from the world around us, it is also the case that our perception of external realities is always shaped by subjective considerations – though not by the a priori mental structures which Kant and others have postulated. Fated to have our minds ‘filled’ by external reality at all times, our responses are invariably shaped by the question ‘what does it all mean for me?’ Consciousness is ‘intentional’ or it is nothing (Kearney, 1999).
It is easy to see why Berger should be attracted to ideas such as these. As a writer of the left who has consistently explored ecological concerns (concerns which eventually led him to settle in a peasant community in alpine France), he has long sought to challenge the Promethean vision of science which Western culture shares in common with a certain type of Marxism. Although he has never been sympathetic to the anti-scientific strain in green politics, he clearly regards scientific activity as one of the means by which human beings negotiate their relationship with the natural world. By contrast, he abominates the idea that the purpose of human beings is to impose their will on nature. His hostility to the idea of an omniscient and omnipotent subject makes him clearly susceptible to the appeal of phenomenological ideas, though he probably ascribes less importance to epistemological issues than the likes of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. As for visual culture, it seems likely that he regards expressive photography as an example of Husserlian principles in action. When a photographer creates arrestingly vivid images which give the impression of being saturated in thought, he reminds us that perception is simultaneously dependent on sense impressions and driven by the desire to interpret them. Insofar as this realisation serves to undermine the myth of man’s domination of nature, or so Berger implies, it follows that photography has an important role to play in inculcating a new form of environmental responsibility.
2.3 Photography and narrative
Having examined two of the ways in which photographs can be used to challenge the dominant culture, Berger concludes Another Way of Telling with an ambitious attempt to outline his own conception of alternative photography. This unusually prescriptive enterprise takes its lead from the lengthy sequences of photographs which he and Jean Mohr included in A Seventh Man (1975) and Another Way of Telling itself. What Berger and Mohr tried to achieve in these books was to circumvent the intrinsic limitations of the form by developing a new type of visual narrative. If individual photographs are condemned to obscurity by ripping isolated moments out of the flow of time, or so they appear to believe, it follows that the only way to deal with the problem is to arrange multiple images in coherent sequences. The basic goal of the alternative photographer is to deploy a stream of images with a view to relating an intelligible story about the subject of his work. While Berger is obviously aware that certain forms of narrative photography already exist, he seems to regard most of them as unsatisfactory. Indeed, his tactic in Another Way of Telling is to define the principles of his and Mohr’s narrative practice against those of what he calls the ‘reportage photo-story’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 279). Whereas the photo-story approaches events from the outside, providing a record of what the photographer witnessed in a certain place and at a certain time, Berger expresses his preference for a narrative form which can tell us something about the inner lives of the people it represents. This emphasis on the evocation of personal experience has two important corollaries. The first is that the photographer must be willing to supplement images of his immediate subject matter with images of ‘other events and other places’, on the grounds that ‘subjective experience always connects’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 279). The second is that the narrative will be overwhelmingly oriented towards the past, not merely because photographs are inherently ‘retrospective’ (an observation which echoes Berger’s earlier point about ‘popular’ uses of photography) but also because subjectivity is decisively shaped by memory: ‘Memory itself is not made up of flashbacks, each one forever moving inexorably forward. Memory is a field where different times coexist’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 280).
As anyone who has studied them will be able to testify, the photographic narratives in A Seventh Man and Another Way of Telling can often seem dauntingly cryptic and discontinuous. Easily recognisable images of contemporary events rub up against puzzling symbols of the past and what Berger calls ‘metaphors’ of the inner life, forcing the reader to flick uncertainly backwards and forwards in an anxious search for meaning. I will try to illustrate Berger and Mohr’s modus operandi by examining a sequence of four photographs from the section entitled ‘If Each Time…’ in Another Way of Telling (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 242-245). The purpose of ‘If Each Time…’ is to convey an impression of the nature of peasant life in the modern age. It is focused on (though not dominated by) an old woman who is shown reflecting on a life spent primarily in a village in the Alps, though she also spent a few years working in Paris. The first image I have chosen is a portrait of a gnarled and probably octogenarian peasant farmer, standing behind a makeshift fence in what appears to be a fairly unkempt patch of straw beside a farm outhouse. His ancient clothes are caked with mud but somehow seem curiously formal, not least because they include an unbuttoned waistcoat, a neckerchief and a trilby hat. Standing in front of him on its hind legs is a devoted sheepdog which is resting its front paws on his chest. Juxtaposed against this image is a startling photograph of a stuffed fox wearing a pair of circular spectacles and carrying two miniature baskets on its paws. Let us call it the taxidermist’s revenge. Immediately over the page is a slightly blurred image of another elderly farmer, heavily lined but radiating a certain subdued contentment, whose watery brown eyes seem lost in reverie. The fourth image in the sequence is situated directly in his line of vision and hints at what he is thinking about. It depicts a group of young people participating in an open-air dance, some of whom are turning elegantly in a circle. Most of the women wear print dresses and most of the men wear open-necked shirts. Everyone conveys an air of youthful vigour and health.
What do these images mean? Berger is the first to admit that the ‘reader’ of a photographic narrative has greater interpretative freedom than the reader of a traditional story. Indeed, when he claims that ‘The reader is free to make his way own way through these images’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 284), he sounds perilously close to a sort of poor man’s Roland Barthes who believes that the ‘writerliness’ of photographs makes them infinitely more democratic than the ‘readerliness’ of words. Nevertheless, it is surely possible to agree that my four chosen photographs raise important ideas about the relationship between men, nature and tradition in rural cultures. The first image clearly evokes the odd combination of affection and indifference which characterises the treatment of animals in rural communities. Although the sheepdog is engaging in an unambiguous display of devotion, its master is simultaneously welcoming and dispassionate. Indulgent enough to let the dog rest its paws on his chest, he prefers not to meet its gaze but instead stares joylessly into the camera. The resulting sense of distance is powerfully reinforced by the portrait of the stuffed fox, whose lifeless stare tells us a great deal about the countryside’s notoriously unsentimental attitude towards animals regarded as vermin. Having evoked the brutal underbelly of rural life in this grimly humorous way, Berger and Mohr turn their attention in photographs three and four to its consequences for human beings. By showing a close-up of a deeply meditative old man alongside a portrait of a lively rural dance, they imply that the only way to cope with growing old in so unforgiving an environment is to retreat into memories of youthful strength. Nor is it an accident that the young people in the final image are performing a circular dance. As has often been pointed out, not least by the British Marxists who influenced Berger in his early days, the circular dance is one of the oldest forms of cultural expression and possibly the first form to alert human beings to the existence of geometrical regularities – an event which had incalculable consequences for science, art and production (See, for instance, Lindsay 1939). What Berger and Mohr seem to be implying is that rural communities can only survive by deriving spiritual sustenance from their immemorial rituals.
While making it clear that the main virtue of photographic narratives is that they go some way towards solving the problem of the isolated image, Berger also argues that they are capable of yielding a range of other important effects. He is especially interested in their ability to transform the relationship between the three types of people who are brought together in any narrative: the narrator or narrators, the listener or listeners, and the character or characters. His basic premise is that storytelling is an intrinsically communitarian practice. Because stories have to leave out a great deal of detail in order to hasten the advance of the plot, there is a sense in which the narrator, the listener and the characters are bound together by their unspoken acceptance of what is being omitted. For example, when Homer tells us that Telemachus and his crew set out to find Odysseus on the ‘wine-dark sea’, he does not need to mention that someone hoisted the sail or that the wind was blowing – these are details which we take for granted by virtue of belonging to a common human culture. And it is precisely this acknowledgement of our common humanity which Berger holds responsible for storytelling’s remarkable capacity to unify. It is not that the listener merely empathises with the narrator or the characters; more that the consciousness of the narrator, the listener and the characters seems to merge into one:
‘The discontinuities of the story and the tacit agreement underlying them fuse teller, listener and protagonists into an amalgam. An amalgam which I would call the story’s reflecting subject. The story narrates on behalf of this subject, appeals to it and speaks in its voice’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 285).
Berger contends that the narrative experiments in A Seventh Man and Another Way of Telling bring a new dimension to storytelling’s communitarian ethos. For one thing they place a massive responsibility on the reader to cultivate a fusional relationship between him/herself and the other actors in the story. This is largely because the perceived discontinuities between photographs are so much greater than those between words: ‘The spectator (listener) becomes more active because the assumptions behind the discontinuities (the unspoken which bridges them) are more far-reaching’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 287). Moreover, Berger also argues that photographic narratives will probably effect massive and beneficial changes to the way that stories portray human identity. Whereas ‘epic’ narratives depict the individual in a struggle with fate (and whereas the traditional novel shows him negotiating the relationship between public and private), stories told through the medium of photographs will tend to emphasise the ‘task of memory: the task of continually resuming a life being lived in the world’ (Berger and Mohr, 1989a: 287). By virtue of their defining commitment to the representation of the past, or so Berger seems to imply, photographic narratives emphasise the sheer importance of coming to terms with history. It is at this point that his writings on photography link up most obviously with his wider critical project. As we have already seen in Section One, Berger believes that capitalist societies often seek to legitimise themselves by misrepresenting the past. In portraying history as a story of seamless progress and governmental wisdom, they encourage us to stick with the existing order on the grounds that the ruling class has always had the best interests of the people at heart. One of the hopes which Berger implicitly holds out for photographic narratives is that they will help to free us from our historical blindness. If mainstream photography reinforces the status quo by refusing to challenge the camera’s intrinsic bias towards ambiguity, Berger and Mohr set out to subvert the culture of capitalism by turning the camera against itself.
3 An experience of travelling: Berger on film
There is a similar emphasis on technological determinism and the ability of artists to resist it in Berger’s writings on the cinema. The most important document in this context is the late essay ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ (1990), which provides an astonishingly compressed account of a lifetime’s reflection on the experience of watching films. The essay’s main argument is that there is something intrinsic to the cinematic apparatus which tends to ensure that films replicate the experience of travelling. Whereas painting seems to domesticate aspects of the wider world by bringing them into the confined space of the gallery, or so Berger argues, films effectively invite their viewers to venture outwards into the world beyond the cinema walls: ‘Painting brings home. The cinema transports elsewhere’ (Berger, 1992b: 14). This impression of travelling through space is a consequence both of film’s emphasis on movement and of the distinctive characteristics of the cinema screen. Berger’s rather startling point is that the viewer unconsciously perceives the screen as a sort of cinematic equivalent of the sky. When moving images are projected on to a shining surface which towers many feet above the viewer’s head, the invariable result is a feeling of being propelled through space into an unknown and mysterious world: ‘Cinema seats are like those in a jet plane’ (Berger, 1992b: 15). The viewer’s sense of himself as a species of aesthetic nomad is powerfully reinforced by the use of montage, which Berger concurs with Eisenstein in seeing as the cinema’s most fundamental technique. In seeking to create a sense of drama by rapidly juxtaposing one stretch of space against another, Berger implies, the director unwittingly echoes the feelings of continuous displacement which occur in a moving vehicle.
If films go a long way towards recreating the sensations of travelling, they also evoke the curiously estranged relationship between the traveller and the world around him. In contrast to a literary or theatrical narrative, which usually allows the reader or spectator to identify with one or more of the characters, cinematic narratives evoke a world in which every encounter is fleeting, experience is short-lived and nothing can finally be known. Most directors are in the habit of casting a minutely discriminating eye across the various takes at their disposal, seeking only to use material which conveys ‘the most convincing look and sound of a First Time’ (Berger, 1992b: 15). Berger is careful to distinguish the psychology of cinema from that of television, whose appeal to the viewer he portrays as an altogether more homely one:
‘Film stories, as we have seen, inevitably place us in an Elsewhere, where we cannot be at home. Once again the contrast with television is revealing. TV focuses on its audience being at home. Its serials and soap operas are all based on the idea of a home from home. In the cinema, by contrast, we are travellers. The protagonists are strangers to us. It may be hard to believe this, since we often see these strangers at their most intimate moments, and since we may be profoundly moved by their story. Yet no individual character in a film do we know – as we know, say, Julian Sorel, or Macbeth, Natasha Rostova, or Tristram Shandy. We cannot get to know them, for the cinema’s narrative method means that we can only encounter them, not live with them. We meet in a sky where nobody can stay’ (Berger 1992b: 19-20).
By implying that the cinema’s estranged relationship with reality is closely linked to the physical characteristics of its technology, Berger is advancing the sort of semi-deterministic perspective which we have already encountered in Another Way of Telling . Yet ultimately his understanding of film is no less sceptical of rigid determinism than his understanding of photography. His argument in the closing pages of ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ is that a number of directors have successfully resisted their own medium’s intrinsic bias towards alienated ways of seeing. Taking the likes of Welles, Visconti and Da Sica as his examples, Berger claims that these and other directors have tried to compensate for cinema’s distantiated gaze by creating films which emphasise the commonalities in human nature. Their main technique for doing so has been a style of characterisation which deliberately flouts the conventions of aesthetic individualism. As many of the greatest films get into their stride, or so Berger argues, the characteristics which seem to distinguish their leading characters from other human beings are remorselessly stripped away. Citizen Kane might come across as an ‘arch individualist’ at the beginning of Welles’s movie; but before the end we come to realise that he (Kane) was probably a ‘man like any other.’ Something similar goes for Aschenbach in Visconti’s dramatisation of Death in Venice , since his highly ‘public’ and ‘theatrical’ death reminds us that even the most cultivated aesthete is reduced to everyone else’s level at the moment of his demise. Berger summarises his case with some of his most brilliantly aphoristic writing: ‘When reading a novel, we often identify ourselves with a given character. In poetry we identify ourselves with the language itself. Cinema works in yet another way. Its alchemy is such that the characters come to identify themselves with us!’ (Berger, 1992b: 20). This tendency to highlight the general at the expense of the particular is often reinforced by what Berger calls the ‘star system’, which he analyses in a brief passage whose argument perhaps owes a debt to Richard Dyer’s Heavenly Bodies (Dyer, 1987). Berger’s point is that the leading film stars are perceived by the public as ‘archetypes’. They are valued less for their personal qualities than for their ability to embody shared human characteristics in a highly concentrated form. When a star takes on a particular role, it follows that his character’s individuality will tend to be shaded out by his more general or ‘mythical’ qualities: ‘the star pulls the role, pulls the character in the film story, towards her or his archetype’ (Berger, 1992b: 21). This effect is especially pronounced when a star’s body of work is seen in toto , since it rapidly becomes clear that he has reduced a whole range of different characters to the same archetypal dimensions. The star system is ultimately an affirmation of our common humanity, not a celebration of the exceptional individual.
Leaving the issue of characterisation to one side, Berger goes on to claim that the cinema has one other characteristic which enables it to achieve a sense of ‘universality’. This is its insistence on ‘communicat[ing] only by way of what is real’ (the phrase is André Bazin’s) (Berger, 1992b: 17). In spite of inducing a sense of disorientation in their viewers, the most important movies also inspire a mood of rapt fascination with the appearance of things. The feeling of communion between viewer and image is occasionally so intense that it threatens to undermine the fundamental distinction between the subjective and objective worlds, creating the impression that the minds of men are somehow at one with the things they perceive. Berger seems to ascribe this effect to the delicate balance between reflection and expression which film technology makes possible. On the one hand, cinematic images are more arrestingly realistic than those of any other medium – there is a self-evident similarity between the things which float in front of us on the screen and the things which surround us in our everyday lives. On the other hand, these self-same images acquire a fascinating aura of strangeness through their association with the film’s artistic purpose. By using images of the ‘real world’ to explore a particular point of view, films imbue them with a significance which they would not otherwise possess: ‘What we are being shown has, at one and the same time, something of the focus, the intentionality, of art, and the unpredictability of reality’ (Berger, 1992b: 18). It is precisely this sense of reality made strange which inspires us to examine the world with fresh interest. If the director strives too hard to express his particular vision, subordinating the appearance of things to a predetermined artistic schema, the result is invariably a movie which is ‘null and void’. Berger’s emphasis on the need to combine realism with self-expression distinguished his argument from that of the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer, to which it otherwise bears a clear resemblance. While famously claiming in his Theory of Film (1949) that the overarching purpose of the cinema is to promote the ‘redemption of physical reality’ (a decidedly Bergeresque phrase), Kracacauer also insisted that no film which aspires to realism can ever be a work of art (Kracauer, 1960). Berger’s subtly dialectical mind is famously resistant to this sort of either/or logic.
Berger makes it clear in ‘Ev’ry time We Say Goodbye’ that there are very few films which achieve a genuinely ‘universal’ vision. So why does he ascribe such importance to those which do? Although he does not address this question directly, he throws out a tantalising hint when he equates the cinematic age with the emergence of mass migration. In the first paragraph of his essay he claims that ‘ours is the century of enforced travel’ (Berger, 1992b: 12), implying that the cinema is the natural medium for exploring what postcolonial theorists would now call the experience of ‘diaspora’ (see, for instance, Gilroy, 1993). Indeed, if we read ‘Ev’ry time We say Goodbye’ alongside his masterful evocation of the life of an immigrant labourer in A Seventh Man , it becomes clear that he probably regards the cinema as a peerless medium for dramatising the outlook of the millions of men and women who have had to travel across national boundaries in search of employment or asylum. Even when it makes no explicit reference to travel (which is most of the time), a universal film will uncannily evoke the feeling of swapping life in a rural village for a menial job in the heart of a big city. Berger implies that there are three ways in particular in which the experience of the cinema-goer parallels that of the immigrant. Where the viewer of a film feels estranged from the things he sees on the screen, the immigrant is alienated from the entire foreign culture in which he now has to make a living. Where universal cinema affords us deep insights into human nature, the immigrant forges deep ties with people from his own country whom he happens to meet abroad. And where the greatest directors fascinate us with their rendering of ‘reality’, the immigrant conscientiously seeks out knowledge in order to give himself an advantage in his new environment (Berger and Mohr, 1989b).
It may also be the case that Berger’s writings on the cinema were fundamentally affected by his own experiences as a film-maker. In the 1970s Berger wrote the scripts for three films by the Swiss director Alain Tanner. As he made clear in a fascinating interview with the journal Cineaste , each of these films sought to evoke the fragility of a relationship, belief or state of mind. La Salamandre (1971) depicted two friends whose fundamental seriousness was often punctuated by a descent into tomfoolery. The Middle of the Road (1974) portrayed a faltering sexual relationship between an Italian waitress and a Swiss politician, the first of whom was able to experience passion while the second was not. (Defining passion as the capacity to ‘surrender…the self to the unknown’, Berger described the politician’s impoverished emotions as the symptom of a ‘positivistic’ and ‘empirical’ civilisation which holds the very idea of ‘mystery’ in contempt (Berger, 1985: 305).) By contrast, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976) was a meditation on the psychology of dashed radical hopes, evoking the way that the student revolutionaries of 1968 found it increasingly difficult to sustain their faith in radical social change. At the heart of the film was a clever visual metaphor for the problem of political commitment, consisting of a large piece of brightly coloured silk which billowed upwards in the wind and then returned to the earth. It should be clear even from these brief descriptions that all three films displayed precisely the fascination with estrangement and attachment which Berger had identified as the sine qua non of ‘universal’ cinema. At the time in the 1970s when they were being written and produced, several other British critics (most of them associated with the journal Screen ) were calling for the establishment of what they tended to call a ‘counter cinema’, insisting that such dubious avant-garde achievements as Brecht’s Kuhle Wampe (1932) and Godard’s Vent d’est (1970) pointed the way towards a truly revolutionary film aesthetic (See, for instance, Mulvey, 1993; Wollen, 1982). By implying that film is actually the perfect medium for dealing with the collapse of the left’s hopes, Berger’s work with Tanner provided a melancholy counterpoint to the militant enthusiasms of Colin McCabe, Laura Mulvey or Peter Wollen. More broadly, Berger’s admiration for the ability of the greatest directors to ‘cling to the surface of things’ might well have been another implied dig at the Screen writers, most of whom dismissed the ‘realism’ of mainstream films as a sinister vehicle of what their guru Louis Althusser had called ‘interpellation’ (see, for instance, McCabe, 1993).
This article has been organised around two general propositions about John Berger’s attitude towards the media. The first is that Berger has never been a cultural relativist and that he retains a strong sense of the differences between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture. The second is that his writings on film and photography are bound together by an implicit engagement with the theme of technological determinism. Both these aspects of his work set him apart from some of the more entrenched orthodoxies in Media and Cultural Studies. At a time when too many cultural critics are afraid to make aesthetic judgements for fear of seeming elitist, Berger harks back to an earlier phase in the history of Cultural Studies (exemplified by the work of Richard Hoggart and the early Raymond Williams) when radical intellectuals emphasised the progressive dimension of high culture and had faith in the capacity of ‘ordinary people’ to benefit from it. Moreover, in seeking to qualify the assumption that technological determinism has no place in radical criticism, he goes a long way towards discrediting the idea that communications technology is somehow entirely ‘neutral’. While never losing sight of the ability of cultural workers to circumvent (or at least mitigate) the aesthetic consequences of technology, he reminds us that the existing means of cultural production have certain intrinsic biases which often favour the status quo and need to be resisted. The ultimate messages of Berger’s media criticism are that cultural populism is not enough and that technology matters. These are lessons worth learning.
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