A few weeks ago, class discussion led to the question as to whether or not a technological artifice – in this case, camera technology from the mid 20th century onward – can be inherently racist (and, by extension, be considered in a number of other hierarchical antagonisms such as classist, sexist, ableist, and so forth). When looking at the cases provided by Syreeta McFadden sand David Smith it can be argued that, at least, the “mere tools” of photography reinforce cultural constructions of identity, and have been thus racialized after the fact.
But there’s a certain structuralist reductionism in leaving the argument there, one that implies that communicative technologies can somehow exist in a vacuum of materiality before they’re filled up with heteronormative value judgements. In this context, Hutchby offers a useful recapitulation of the debate between technological determinism versus a “user-response” anti-essentialism. Are technologies meaningful when they reiterate prevailing attitudes through their respective material constraints, or is that meaning (re)defined by the effects – and affects – of public, subjective intervention? Hutchby, while arguing for a nuanced theory of affordance, betrays a slight bias for material objectivity in asking: “does the aeroplane lend itself to the same set of possible interpretations as the bridge?” (447). Conversely, I observed in the comments section of the McFadden article an equally glib statement that invests in the notion of an original, neutral materiality: “Yeah, I’ve always known cameras were racist, and don’t get me started on refrigerators!”
Yet photography as an artistic medium has a metonymic relationship to the way these larger theorizations work: Sontag argues that the true “Surreal” effect of photography takes place at the moment of a “naive reality” that the images purports to convey, and I argue a similar effect takes place when we’re forced into an affective account or claim about a neutral device’s intrinsic racism. McFadden provides a historical, technical, and personal account of how film technology “reinforces the perception of [her] humanity,” and any dismissal of the device itself as merely the composite of the real hegemonic piecework is an implication of how that analysis is itself piecemeal, unable to account for that unreal reality. If a surreal discomfort arises when faced with the naive reality of a photo, McFadden’s affectively ethical claim of the camera as racist raises a similar effects in regards to the idea of naivety itself. Paradoxically, a theory of reality lens can foreclose its own access the unreality of the photograph itself.
Hutchby, Ian. “Technologies, Texts and Affordances.” Sociology 35.2 (2001): 441-56. Print.
McFadden, Syreeta. “Teaching The Camera To See My Skin.” Buzzfeed. 2 April. 2014. Web. 26 March. 2015.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: RosettaBooks, 2005. eBook.