Today I went to a viewing of Allan Sekula’s 2006 film Lottery of the Sea followed by a symposium to layout and discuss the main themes of the film. The event was entitled Critical Realism and was hosted by CentreCATH at Leeds – A Transdisciplinary Initiative in Cultural Analysis, Theory and History. The film was 3 hours long and after a late lunch break I was only able to stay for the first three talks, all very interesting. Given the title of the session was critical realism it was not surprising that the content of the film was discussed in terms of a critique of global capitalism. This in any case was Sekula’s own purpose. Much of the discussion was, to my ears at any rate, a stimulating but unfamiliar mixture of the language of Marxist analysis of capitalism with that of aesthetics and photography and film as art.
A key topic of debate was how to interpret photographic images from a critical realist perspective. We no longer assume that a photograph is an objective and neutral record of what simply ‘is’. We are aware of how the photographer’s point of view and selection of subject constructs a photo before the process of cropping and post production manipulation. And, in any case, as one of our speakers said, “pictures know more than their authors”. The content of a picture is not bent entirely to the photographer’s will or subconscious framing. It is a representation of a reality that is initially autonomous with respect to the representation’s author. In documentary photography the reality pre-exists the photographer’s interest and intent and was already there to be found. Critical realism is based upon the idea that the reality available to the camera’s lens and our direct perception is the surface of underlying processes and mechanisms that are not immediately apparent in the visible aspect of the images projected onto our retinas or the photographic medium behind the lens. From a critical realist perspective the underlying processes and mechanisms are fundamentally those of the workings and logic of the globalising capitalist economy. It is this that prompts the (re)turn to Marx.
Marxist ideas also talk about hidden processes that need to be excavated so that what is apparent and visible can be understood as the product of the underlying processes. This structure of argument is explicit in Marx’s notions of reification, ideology, abstract labour and so on. The implication is that the photographic image can be unpacked in terms of the labour relations under the conditions of global capitalism that constructed the surface reality depicted in the image. The underlying process is what Marx tries to get at with his concepts of the labour process, use value, exchange value, surplus value, commodification, the ‘dead’ labour embedded in commodities, commodities as ‘abstract reality’ – abstract ‘reality’ because it is the product of social relations.