Top: View of The Gateway of India (left), the 100-year-young architectural marvel—which seemed to me suggestive, stylistically, of the Alpha and Omega indignantly spreading His storm-spitting mouth—marking both British victory and subsequent vanquishment, from a street-dweller’s bedside. Maharashtra, India. Bottom: View of The Parts of a Manganiyari Woman from a dining table. Jaisalmer, India.
Every photographic reproduction of my time so far sits like an unrefined glob of dust particulate on the eye: scorning, with an irritating constancy, any self-respecting intellectual scrutiny of it. Still: Of matters I know not, I’d better speak not. I’d better steer clear, that is, from the oxymoronic sense of discursive dignity and forge ahead with the infantilizing gust of godly arrogance—if not to diverge from the conceptual tiptoeing with which I typically travel, then to simply get this distressing programmatic demand out of the way.
As I have taken it up in Udaipur, and more or less during the group’s adventures throughout India, photography, the “imago mundi, imago nulla,” seemed at first an innocuous inclination: a viable antidote—if I may stretch the limits of intellectual modesty—to this very sense of superficial adventurousness that so inescapably, perhaps even necessarily, ensnares the traveler. My logic, such as it once stood, was straightforwardly that the camera—if not for the cruel, almost-poetic irony of evolutionary stochasticism—symbolized the structuro-functionally ideal eye as a device free from distortive occipital ties: what it sees it instantaneously liberates; what I see, despite many a vigorous attempts on the other hand, is, by the vituperative chains of interpretation, instantaneously whipped into social submission.
If you had the humor to heed my first update, you might have gathered that while I am a fan of things, their functions . . . repulse me. My ability to tell you this and your ability—if I’m unlucky enough, your mechanical desire—to hear me out similarly rouses repulsion (albeit of a lower order). The latter sentiment, despite morphing out of a mutually constructive masochism, occupies a relatively unflattering position in the precinct of public permissibility, unlike the former example of, lightly put, socially sanctioned slavery.
(To adapt The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether) When such a society “appears thoroughly sane, indeed it’s high time to put [it] in a straightjacket.”
Like other manifestations of slavery, the photographic attitude appears under the guise of practical purpose, if not universal utility: information transmission, spatiotemporal targeting, friendship formalization, Android acculturation, aesthetic awe, awful aesthetics &c. I can but cowardly claim personal familiarity with the overarching purpose and utility of negation—the special category which constitutes the nature of our present scandal—i.e., the necessity of destruction (of the thing or image) spurred by the imaginative insufficiency of creation (of the thing or image). Contrary to other forms of enslavement, however, where social ramifications are at least graced with half-assed absurdisms, the consequences of cathartically releasing the shutter to ultimately refine (shall I say reduce?) the beastiality of our Bridge Year experiences into a “shr[unken]…neat four by six inches” are not just unexplored—they are utterly unformulated.
In general criticism of ethnography, Strauss put it best (mostly because he put it succinctly): “[At what period would] the [Manganiyari herself have] been at [her] peak?” Was it just last January, when, in layered clothing and colliding layers of anklets and the graceful twisting of the torso and the towering terracotta pots . . . she was all beauty, frolic, pleasure? “[And] [a]t what period would the study of the [Manganiyari] have yielded the purest satisfaction [?]” As her dance intensified, didn’t my drunkenness? Didn’t my absorption in a logic—a spiritualism—which rendered her shadow the external substance that made her body sensible? Didn’t the imaginative insufficiency of my creation? Didn’t my repulsion? I stumbled upon the dancer after dinner (her routine had not only ignited my imagination but also my appetite) to find her in ordinary clothes, reduced to clamorous, all-too-human conversation; her tower to the beggarly level of my knees—kneeling, as it were. Never before has the urgency of knowledge and action been so violently usurped by uncertainty and indolence. Was she free now that neither her head lifted a crown of clay pots, nor her breath imitated the panting of drums, nor her anklets abided to a strict rhythmicity, nor her ice-bitten body convulsed, nor the night preserved the excited shadows of both our anonymity?
The engine roared. People cleared out. A worker scooped up trampled strands of schezwan noodles. Bitterness cascaded down my throat as I timidly cast one last mournful gaze at her (retrospectively, this was likely an instance of confusing instinctive physical distress for psychological: I had once had a severe nihilism-of-the-gut after a memorable case of bad schezwan noodles). I then eased into an exaggeratedly professional pose and began concentratedly forcing my camera into focus against its usual will-to-blurriness. . . . But the urgency of knowledge and action seemed so violently usurped by uncertainty and indolence! That night I merely recollected my own parts into a relative repose and, with the reluctance of a child, defeatedly saw her off, weakly tracing the erraticism of her feet, until, lacking even the courage of a pillar of salt, I forged ahead toward the roaring Jeep, and, my steps subconsciously increasing in speed, overtook her completely without once looking back.