So I’m on the train to London and my book on photographic theory starts relating people’s responses to photographs with Freudian theories of the fetish. The fetish, says Freud, is a male pursuit caused by, wait for it, psychic trauma over the mother’s lack of a penis. The male viewer looks and looks away from the genital region, and this like/not-like dilemma can be related to photographs which produce the same response. Much analysis follows.
I plugged this into my Is-This-Bollocks-O-Meter, and it came out with a resounding ‘Yes, this is Bollocks’.
Now, it’s clearly wrong to jump to conclusions. Proper skeptical reasoning demands I take into account my own biases and lack of knowledge. Have I read Freud? No. Am I an expert in psychology? No. Am I particularly knowledgeable when it comes to photographic theory? No. Do I have a deep suspicion of psychoanalysis anyway? Yes. But, I’ve read modern psychology guides saying psychoanalysis was rejected a long time ago. I’ve seen this from more than one source.
I plugged this new data into my Is-This-Bollocks-O-Meter, and it came out with a resounding ‘Yes, this is still Bollocks’.
This issue was still bouncing around my brain as I arrived at uni the next morning and headed into the weekly theory lecture. It started off very well. On Surrealism and the city, the first half was fascinating and generated much discussion in the cafeteria. The second half, though, went off the deep end rather quickly. Apparently much of Surrealism was intended as an expression of the unconscious mind, and this lead to a discussion of Freud. The unconscious mind was explained, and this somehow resulted in a student interjecting with the theory that our destinies are pre-planned in our heads and we just follow a set path. The lecturer, a perfectly likeable chap, pandered to this by noting (not sure why) curious coincidences in his life – for example, he lives only fifteen minutes from where his parents first met! Could there something else going on?
I thought this was all a bit stupid, but kept my mouth shut. We then heard a brief explanation of the fetish, which mercifully didn’t mention the whole lack-of-penis thing, and then came a powerpoint slide on dream interpretation, claiming that our dreams are full of unconcious meaning. By this point I’d had enough.
In a manner most unlike me, I leapt into a conversational pause and stated that modern psychology rejected Freudian ideas decades ago. It’s not that there are no elements of truth, but we now use a different framework. Dreams aren’t full of unconscious meaning, they’re just random neurons firing in the brain1. So why is psychoanalysis so prevalent in photographic theory? Is it just because it was around in the 60s and 70s, when much of the initial theory was formulated? I finished my little speech in rather unfamiliar territory, wondering what was going to happen next.
You’ve never seen anyone back away from a theory so fast.
He agreed that the prevalence of psychoanalysis at the time might contribute, and suggested that I’d hit a sore point in regards to modern thoughts on photographic theory. This was nice to know. But his main explanation for the eminence of the theory was that Freud wrote incredibly well – he is apparently a joy to read. The lecturer wasn’t endorsing this as a valid piece of reasoning, but it was quite the astonishing thing to say, given that we’re meant to be taking the theoretical ideas seriously. He didn’t seem annoyed that I’d raised the issue, thankfully 🙂
A bit later we somehow got onto the effect of tv/games/films on young people, and the lecturer said he thought it was obvious the rise in knife crime could be attributed to media depictions of violence. I bristled, but decided I’d objected enough for one lecture; thankfully one of my classmates challenged him.
A friend later asked if I was feeling a bit uppity (in a friendly way, though). We all agreed that the lecture had taken a bizarre turn in the second half, and the role of media violence came up in conversation later.
I feel a bit odd about speaking up, as I’m deeply suspicious of anything suggesting I know better than the teachers, especially as I’m in the first few months of my course. I’m happy to be shot down in flames if I am wrong, though, so I think it’s ok. All things considered, I think it was justified.
- I think this is actually a bit more complicated, to be fair [↩]